On October 31, Lutherans around the world will commemorate the 500th Anniversary of the Lutheran Reformation, an occasion that will mark Martin Luther nailing his 95 theses on the door of the Wittenberg Church on October 31, 1517, inviting debate among theologians over various theological issues. Little did Luther know that his academic ritual would catapult into the reformation of the Western Church. Indeed once the figurative Pandora's box was opened, there was no controlling where the reformation would go. Once they are spawned, revolutions take on a life of their own. Andreas Carlstadt, for instance, took the reformation in a radical direction where Luther refused to go.
Andreas Carlstsdt was a colleague of Luther on the faculty at Wittenberg University. He was bookish and learned. He lacked, however, Luther's charisma, creative genius and certainly his pastoral gifts. Like Luther and the rest of the faculty at the Wittenberg University, Carlstsdt was committed to the reformation of the Church. After Luther's courageous confession at Worms in 1521, where before Emperor Charles the Fifth he refused to recant his teachings, he was surreptitiously carted away. He remained in hiding for over a year at the Wartburg Castle. It was during Luther's absence away from Wittenberg that Carlstadt's radicalism revealed it had no boundaries. He removed his priestly and professorial clothing and donned the raiment of peasants. He performed the first "reformed" mass. He tossed out of the church the candles, the sacred statuary, the altar and paraments; he removed all vestiges of Catholicism. Carlstadt wanted a pure church. In promoting that pure church, he started from scratch, as if 1500 years of history had not happened. He wanted to sever people's emotional connection to that history and start afresh. In his pursuit of a purified, utopian church, Carlstadt was not led by wisdom. Indeed in his enthusiasm, he trampled on many toes, not caring whose feelings he hurt. Utopian revolutions are whimsical children.
Luther heard at Wartburg what Carlstadt had done at Wittenberg. He was troubled. He made plans to return to Wittenberg to restore order and establish a semblance of balance. Luther refused to engage a war on history. He had no problem with the church universal over its 1500 years of history, for throughout that history Christ came into sharper focus. The Holy Spirit was active in that history bearing witness to Christ. Being the incarnational and sacramental theologian that he was, Luther valued history, especially those times and places where God met humans. The whole 1500 years of the Church's history bore witness to God's epiphanies in history in Word and Sacrament, even amid the ugly episodes of history. History, then, is not merely a boundary where we stop. It is a boundary that invites us to go beyond it to meet Christ, as we learn wisdom from history in its divers manifestations.
In the American public square, we see the spirit of Carlstadt is very much alive. In America today, we see a war on history, displayed in the removal of the monuments dedicated to that history. From whence comes this war on history? I believe that we live in a Godless society. In a Godless society, everything gets politicized, even history. In a Godless society, this life gets absolutized to utopian dimensions, as this life takes the place of God. As the thinking goes, it is important to get this life right through various human techniques, for it is the only life that we have. After death, there is nothing: no forgiveness, no redemption, no eternal life. Hence, there is an impatience fueled by anxiety that this life is all there is; so, the West is hellbent on getting it right. There is no room for the mistakes of history. There is no room for disagreement, no patience for the slow process of political debate in the context of free speech.
Moreover, in a hyper-politicized world spawned by the absence of God, everything becomes debatable, especially history; nothing is left to the chance that it might contradict the utopian narrative, for that narrative, as flimsy as the fig leaves with which Adam and Eve tried to cover themselves, is what unifies the Godless society. Not buying into the utopian narrative, the politically incorrect is surrendered to the grand inquisitor of political correctness. In a Godless society, then, perfection is sought in the political process to fill the void of an eternal God. Perfectionism, unfortunately, is tyranny's child. The spirit of Carlstadt is indeed ever with us.
The only way to deal with the Carlstadts of the world is to prick a hole in their utopian bubbles, their utopian narratives. We must insist that life is a mixed bag: life is beautiful; life is flawed. We agree with the wisdom of Paul: all people are sinners in need of the redemption of Christ Jesus. This life cannot be perfected either by religion or by politics. We must insist that there is wisdom in history and it must be ever before us, not as a boundary at which to stop, as though they were all evil back then and we are now the enlightened ones. Such thinking neglects that enlightenment is built up over many lifetimes of people who refused to see society's history or their own personal histories as boundaries at which to give pause. Instead, we must see history as a boundary at which something new can begin as we learn from both its exhilarating and painful lessons. We are never free of history and the past that it represents, for the possibilities for the present evolve from that past. Standing at the beginning and end of history is Christ; he is the light amid the darkness. He is the resurrection and the life. He is the culmination of our corporate and private histories.
Pastor’s Page - April 2016
The apocryphal story is told of Jesus’ appearance to a certain fisherman.
“I am Jesus. I died and now I am alive, raised by my Father.”
“No, you’re not Jesus. Please leave – you’re scaring the fish,” said the old crotchety fisherman.
“I see that you’re full of doubts like my disciple Thomas. What would you have me do to prove to you that I’m Jesus?”
“Walk across this river,” said the angler.
So Jesus starts walking across the river. After a few steps, he begins to sink and soon disappears under water. Later, he swims back to shore. “Ha, there you are,” said the fisherman. You’re not Jesus, the savior of the world. Jesus can walk on water.”
Jesus responds, “Well, I used to be able to walk on water until I got these holes in my feet.”
A little Easter humor to remind us of a few truths about Easter. First, Jesus was raised by the Father. It was his body that he showed to his disciples and especially to Thomas, whom he invites to place his hand in his pierced side. His resurrected body became the source of peace for Thomas and the other disciples and to the many others, including Paul, to whom Jesus appeared.
Some speak of the resurrection in spiritual terms, as though Jesus’ appearance to his disciples was an inward, psychological experience, not in any way objective. The evidence of the empty tomb and his appearances to hundreds of people whose lives were radically changed prove that his resurrection was indeed objective and real. He showed them his body: his hands and feet injured by the nails that the Roman soldiers drove through them. Nothing other than this Easter miracle can explain the miraculous change in the apostles, enabling them to emerge from their hiding places of fear to preach the gospel that has changed the world.
Also, Christ’s injuries assure us that in connection with Jesus through Baptism, we shall live. Death is not our final word. Christ’s resurrection is our promise that no bodily injury, no mortal wound will separate us from the love of Christ. As he was raised, we shall be raised. According to St. Paul in 1 Corinthians 15, because of Christ’s resurrection we shall be given a spiritual body. If ever there was an oxymoron, then spiritual body is certainly one. That makes no sense. What it means is this: as we have a body in this life to relate to the people and conditions of this live, so we shall be given a spiritual body to relate to the conditions of the next life. Paul cannot conceive of existence without a body, because a body is a sign of dependency on God and interdependency with others. The resurrection of Jesus – the actual raising of his body – assures us of this promise. God is moving history in such a way in Christ Jesus that his resurrection continues to influence human history and the whole universe, so that God will be all in all.
Pastor’s Page - March 2016
There is a Peanuts cartoon in which Lucy and Linus are walking along to school, having a conversation. Linus confides to Lucy that he wants to be a doctor when he grows up.
Lucy: “You, a doctor! Ha! That’s a big laugh! You could never be a doctor and you know why! You don’t love mankind!”
Linus: “Oh, but I do love mankind. It’s people that I can’t stand.”
Indeed there are many who like the idea of doing something more than the reality of doing it. A wise pundit once counseled Americans not to elect as president the candidate who had a childhood dream of being president. Such a person may have a romanticized view of the office, enamored more so with the idea of being president than the reality of performing the office.
Like anything else in life, the presidency has its many moments where the reality of the job does not square with one’s ideal conceptions of it. So much of church work is especially susceptible to that. We can wax brilliant about our vision and mission. We can articulate Jesus’ passion for humanity and how we as a church continue to share in that passion. But, when it comes to putting that passion into practical garb, the reality always seems to fall short of the ideal. Disappointment is par for the course in the life of the church.
Disappointment is what the first disciples of Jesus experienced on that first Good Friday. The crucified Jesus shattered whatever hopes they might have garnered in their three years with Jesus. Each had his own hope, which he began to articulate more boldly the closer that Jesus approached Jerusalem to meet his fate. James and John had the temerity to allow their mother to ask Jesus to seat them at his left and right when he came into his kingdom.
All the disciples harbored hopes like that. Jesus taught that the one who was to be great among them had to be the others’ servant as he was a servant. His teachings, however, often went over their heads.
Yet, never did they want to see their Lord on a cross, which was a cursed thing for Jewish people. The Jews and the Romans crucified upstart political leaders to give a clear statement to the populace that their movements landed in abject failure. Jesus on the cross was a great failure, a great disappointment.
Nevertheless, it was here in the disappointment of the cross that our faith would have its beginning, for it was here that God negated the negative and thereby produced a positive that launched Peter, James and John beyond their Good Friday tears. Good Friday proved to be an inadequate horizon for hope. Good Friday was a horizon of despair. If Good Friday were the final chapter, then we would be a people most to be pitied.
There is, however, a lovelier horizon in which Good Friday makes sense. Before we get to that lovelier horizon, we have to traverse the 40 days of Lent.
What to do when reality does not square with the ideal? What to do with disappointment? Does the Lenten Season have any answers to those questions?
Lent returns us to the cross, the biggest disappointment in history. For the people who taunted Jesus on the cross, he was a disappointment, for he never came down from the cross. However, for the Father of Jesus, God was in Christ Jesus reconciling the world to himself. God worked a good for all of humanity from the cross of Christ.
Lent disciplines you to traverse your journey with hope that in the horizon of any cross in your life there is an empty tomb. Lent does this by inviting you to die to yourself and open you up to God’s infinite possibilities. With such a God living with us, how could we not feel hopeful in all circumstances of life?
Pastor's Page - February 2016
The month of February is the month of love. Romantic love is celebrated on Valentine’s Day. Patriotism, or love of country, is celebrated on Lincoln and Washington’s birthdays. And, on Ash Wednesday, the beginning of Lent, we experience divine love in the cross of Jesus. Throughout the month of February, we bask in love. “Love makes the world go round.” “What the world needs is love.”
Ironically, the month with the fewest days is the month that occasions us to celebrate and practice the value that goes the longest in bettering our lives. Love is at the center of our mission statement, of which, we should remind ourselves: “The Mission of St. Luke Lutheran Church is to Make Loving Disciples.” That is our corporate mission. Each of us, how-ever, has to embrace that as an individual mission as well. It is futile to make loving disciples at church and not do so at home with our spouses and children. First and foremost, we must strive to make our relationships more loving. Every so often, I listen to Dr. Laura and Dr. Phil; and, over the years, I have culled information from them that might be of benefit to us in creating loving relationships at home. The following list offers some tangible, self-evident ways to be more loving to your significant other. In the parentheses, I illustrate how Jesus practiced that principle in his relationships.
1) Great relationships require time investments. (Jesus spent three years with his disciples.)
2) Practice surrender. Find out what your partner wants and needs and offer it. (Jesus asked some whom he healed what they wanted. He gave it to them. He offers his life for us.)
3) Own your thoughts and behavior—the importance of the will and choosing to do the right thing based on values (Jesus said of himself, “I lay down my life of my own will.”)
4) Talk is important. (Jesus had a private conversation with Nicodemus.)
5) Sometimes a loving intimate touch is more important than talk. (Jesus touched those whom he healed.)
6) Sexuality lives in your inner child—play and laugh. (This does not apply, though you can imagine Jesus being playful in the appropriate context and with the appropriate people.)
7) Instead of arguing, reflect your partner’s feelings back to him or her. (Jesus did not argue with the Jewish leaders who caught the woman in adultery.)
Pastor's Page - January 2016
Psalm 90:1-12, attributed to Moses, is a sober way to begin the New Year. It puts life into perspective. The great liberator prays:
Lord, you have been our dwelling place throughout all generations. Before the mountains were born or you brought forth the earth and the world, from everlasting to everlasting you are God. You turn men back to dust, saying, “Return to dust, O sons of men.” For a thousand years in your sight are like a day that has just gone by, or like a watch in the night. You sweep men in the sleep of death; they are like the new grass of the morning—though in the morning it springs up new, by evening it is dry and withered. We are consumed by your anger and terrified by your indignation. You have set our iniquities before you, our secret sins in the light of your presence. All our days pass away under your wrath; we finish our years with a moan. The length of our days is seventy years - or eighty, if we have the strength; yet their span is but trouble and sorrow, for they quickly pass away. Who knows the power of your anger? For your wrath is as great as the fear that is due you. Teach us to number our days aright, that we may gain a heart of wisdom. (New International Version)
Pastor Robert Wolff, former pastor of Immanuel Lutheran Church, Chino has apparently taken verse 12 of Psalm 90 literally. At a pastors’ circuit meeting several years ago, he said to me, “Happy 5th Anniversary, Tim. Today is your 5th Anniversary as pastor of St. Luke.”
“How did you know that, Bob?” I said.
“Right here in my book. I write down all the significant dates that I experience. When I attend a pastor’s installation or any special day in the life of the church, I write it down in my little book.”
Pastor Wolff’s “little book” is rather strange. Indeed he has a record of all the significant worship services that he has attended over his professional career. More than that, he has marked the number of days that he has lived. He can give you the exact number of days that he has been on God’s planet. “How many days have you lived?” On that day back in July, it was over 23,000. Every morning when he arises, he marks that day as another that the Lord has given him as a gift. He numbers it. And, at the end of the day, he writes down the highlights and lowlights of that day.
“How long have you been numbering the days of your life?”
“Ever since confirmation,” Pastor Bob said.
“Why have you done this?” I asked.
“The Bible tells me so.”
Would to God that we all would get to that place where our actions are informed by the word of God. When Pastor Bob told me, “The Bible tells me so,” I thought of that song that we all sang as children: “Jesus loves me; this I know, for the Bible tells me so.” The heart that is open to the wisdom of God is the heart that is open to hear the word and to obey it in simple, childlike trust.
None of us has any idea what 2016 will bring us. All that we can do is number our days and reflect on what that day has brought us in God’s grace and love. To properly number our days in 2016 is to begin each day with thanksgiving and to end it therewith. Such an approach to numbering our days opens us to receive the wisdom that we need for the days ahead. God bless your 2016 .
Pastor's Page - December 2015
Paul Coelho, noted author of religious and spiritual books, tells the story of a seagull that was flying over a beach. She saw a mouse. She swooped down from the skies and asked the rodent, "Where are your wings?"
Each of them spoke a different language. Hence, the mouse did not understand what the seagull said. But, the mouse noticed that the animal standing before it had two big strange things protruding from its body. "It must suffer from some disease," thought the mouse.
The seagull noticed that the mouse was staring at her wings and said quietly, "Poor thing! He was attacked by a monster, which left him deaf and without wings." Filled with pity, the seagull took the mouse on her beak and swept him away for a ride in the skies. "At least this will provide my poor friend with a cherished memory," the seagull thought to herself as she flew higher and higher. Then the seagull deposited the mouse on the ground.
Soon after his experience, the mouse was a very unhappy creature. He had flown up in the sky and seen a vast and beautiful world. As time passed, however, the mouse grew used to being a mouse again. He began to think that the miracle that taken place in his life was but a dream.
Christmas is "the most wonderful time of the year." We need all the wonderful and miraculous moments that the season affords. At this time of the year, we thereby step out of our normalcy, as every sense of our bodies feasts on the beauty of the season. Yet, too soon the season is over and we return to our mundane worlds of schedules and routines. We soon forget the joys experienced during this wonderful time of the year. Like the mouse in the story, we grow morose, having to return the monotony of our quotidian lives.
But, must there be such a dichotomy between the celebration of Christmas and every other day of the year? I suspect that if one were a merchant, then one would welcome a stark contrast between Christmas and the rest of the year. What better way to motivate people to spend than to show them the deep chasm between the holiday season and the rest of the year. What better way to manipulate our emotions.
Christmas as the celebration of the birth of our savior defies such cynicism, however. We believe that God became a man in Christ Jesus, which means that our every moment in our bodies has profound meaning. The key is to be fully present during the most wonderful time of the year and all the days subsequent to Christmas. Experience! Don't think. Get out of your head during Christmas and all the other days of the year and meet God in the present, your breathing present. Breathe in the season and experience the joy erupting in your body. Actually, intentionally breathe in any moment and feel the joy of being birthed in God. Rest in the completed work of Christ and experience Christmas every day of the year, every moment of life.
When you are standing in the long lines, breathe. When at the Christmas dinner you feel a rush of melancholy, breathe. Take three deep breaths (one for each person of the Trinity: Father - Son - Holy Spirt) and be in the moment. Rest fully in the reality: "For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord."
Pastor’s Page - November 2015
The story is told of two men walking through a field, when, all of a sudden, an enraged bull spotted them. They darted to the nearest fence. The angry bull chased them in hot pursuit. It was soon apparent that they would not make it. Terrified, one said to the other, “Pray, Man! We’re in for it!”
The other answered, “I can’t! I’ve never prayed in public!”
“But you must! The bull is gaining on us!”
“All right,” said the other huffing and puffing. “I’ll say the only prayer that I know, the one that my father used to pray at the dinner table. ‘O Lord, for what we are about to receive, make us thankful.’”
There are many things for which to be thankful. Being chased by an enraged bull is certainly not one of them. The epistle reading on Thanksgiving Day is Philippians 4:4-7. Paul says in that classic text, “Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: rejoice! Let your gentleness be evident to all. The Lord is near. Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and petition with thanksgiving, present your requests to God.”
As Christians, we are a people of thanksgiving. Thanksgiving informs our prayers. To pray with thanksgiving is to pray with confidence as we are empowered by the Holy Spirit, whose fundamental ministry is to infuse us with joy. Our core ritual — Holy Communion — is also informed by thanksgiving.
In fact, another name for Holy Communion is Eucharist. Eucharist is a Greek word meaning thanksgiving. As we remember all that Christ has done for us, we do so in a spirit of thanksgiving, ever confident that Jesus carried his cross to Calvary for us. Greater love has no than to lay his life for his friends. The only response to such a selfless act is thanksgiving. Indeed we are a people of thanksgiving.
Inasmuch as we are such a people, does that make the observance of a national day of thanksgiving superfluous, which is what some quasi Christians? Of course not! There is indeed a place for thanking God for our country, for it is the place wherein we are free to actualize our gifts for the good of ourselves and others. Our country makes it possible for us to be fruitful; and, for that, we are most thankful. There are many things for which to be thankful and our nation is certainly one of those.
Another question: do we thank God for everything? First of all, Paul is not telling us what to pray for, but how to pray. How you pray demonstrates the focus of your mind.
Jesus teaches, “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.” Who are the pure in heart? They are the ones who have the right focus; they focus on God. Because they do, they see God in everything. Let me amplify further. Latter in Matthew, Jesus says that the eye is the lamp of the body. If is darkened and ineffective, then the whole body is made vulnerable. If the eye, the lamp, is fully functional, then there will be a source of light for the whole body.
The spiritual eye has light if it suffused with the light of Christ. The light of Christ comes to you in Word and Sacrament. To seek first the kingdom is to seek Christ in Word and Sacrament. You know that your seeking has yielded great fruit when there is an abundance of love, peace and joy in your life. Prayerful words spawned by love, peace and joy is how we should pray. Love, peace and joy in the kingdom are ever present in all the circumstances of life.
Indeed we are not thankful for the tragedies that occur in life. I heard a counselor say that for a woman to be healed of the trauma of rape she has to get to the place where she is thankful to God even for the rape. Of course, that is pure foolishness. That is masochistic.
So much falsehood gets passed off in the cloak of pious language. We must be critical of platitudes masquerading as truth. Amid life’s tragedies, nevertheless, Christ is present to bless and empower you and that is a process between you and God in Christ Jesus. Over time as you engage the mourning process, God will speak the perfect word to you in your affliction. Amid a tragedy, it is futile to ask why. The question why never yields satisfactory answers. It leads to bitterness and anger.
In the face of tragedy, we should ask how God will get us through the tragedy. God, ever faithful, will be present, right next to you as friend, to aid, comfort, heal and over time to give enlightenment. “Yea though I walk through valley of the shadow of death, I shall fear no evil, for Thou art with me.” Wherever God is, there is always peace love and joy.
Pastor's Page - October 2015
The story is told of a Christian, a Jew and an atheist who stood in line to be executed during the French Revolution. The Christian laid down first on the guillotine. Before the executioner pulled the lever, he shouted, “My God will save me!” The blade swooshed down, stopping just short of his neck. The executioner, believing that God had performed a miracle, let him go free.
The Jew laid down on the guillotine. Like the Christian, he shouted, “My God will save me!” After the lever was pulled, the blade fell just short of his neck. The executioner again let him go free, believing that God had done a miracle.
Finally, the atheist laid down on the guillotine. He examined the guillotine. He found a rock in the gears and said to the executioner, “Well now, here’s your problem. . .”
The moral of the story: There is a time and place to be skeptical.
Pundits have noted the emergence of what they call The New Atheism. Unlike the old atheism of the 19th and 20th centuries, new atheism is less interested in being tolerate and accommodating to religion. New atheism is less an intellectual movement and more a political one espousing a secular, humanist agenda. The new atheists are critical, skeptical and intolerant of all religion, viewing religion in general a scab on society. They fault religion for the world’s problems. The key proponents of the new atheism are: Roland Dawkins, author of The God Delusion; Sam Harris, The End of Faith; and Christopher Hitchens, God is not Great. The following motifs are found in the writings of the aforementioned new atheists: 1) faith is a matter of false propositional belief; 2) the cure for faith is science; 3) science is the opposite of faith; 4) religion is doomed; and 5) faith is the most wicked force on earth. Madame O’Hare and other old school atheists never spoke of religion in such absolutist and strident terms. Their battle was over the separation of church and state. The new atheists want to toss religion out of the public square.
Old atheism or new atheism, new atheist Roland Aronson, professor at Wayne State University, in some candid remarks reveals the weakness of atheism. “Religion is not really the issue, but rather the incompleteness, the tentativeness, the thinness and the emptiness of today’s atheism.” He goes on to say, “Giving thanks has been central to religion and secular culture needs to be enriched with the equivalent.”
Indeed giving thanks is central to our faith as Christians. We believe that everything that exists is an outflow of love from God for which our only response is gratitude. God has given us so much in creation, redemption and sanctification. We are thankful not just during the Thanksgiving Holiday, but throughout the year. In fact, the chief ritual of our worship is Holy Communion. Another name for communion is Eucharist, which is the Greek word for thanksgiving. Gratitude demonstrates that we humans are not the center of the universe, which is a lesson that secular atheism is incapable of learning. This is why it is so empty, tapping around blindly for something material to give ultimate meaning. That is a vain pursuit.
Pastor’s Page - September 2015
The story is told of a man who did not return home after work on Friday afternoon. He stayed out the entire weekend hanging out with his friends, spending his entire paycheck on wine, women and song. When he returned home, his angry wife greeted him as he walked through the front door. She yelled at him for over an hour. Finally, his wife stopped her tirade and simply asked her husband, “How would you like it if you didn’t see me for three days?” Her husband replied, “That would be fine with me.” Monday went by and he didn’t see his wife. Tuesday and Wednesday came and went with the same result. Finally, on Thursday, the swelling in his eye went down just enough, so that he could see his wife out of the corner of his left eye.
In the case of the poor fellow who stayed out all weekend, seeing was certainly believing. In our world, seeing is believing. The state slogan for the state of Missouri is The Show Me State. That slogan derived from tough-minded Americans on the edge of the frontier for whom seeing was believing. They refused to chase after pipe dreams in the west without evidence of gold and riches to be had west of the Mississippi.
We demand hard evidence before we believe; and, rightfully so, because there are many in the world who are out to rob, maim and pillage. Though seeing is believing is the proper attitude to have in the world, it is not so relative to God. Jesus tells Thomas blessed are those who do not see his resurrected body and they nevertheless believe. This demonstrates the miracle that faith is. It is truly a work of God. We marvel at people who believe after having gone through tragedies that by all worldly accounts should have caused them to lose faith in God; yet, they hang on because of the greater power in them that keeps and preserves them in the faith. If you are to approach God, then you must do so through faith. Paul says, “Without faith it is impossible to please God.”
Among other things, the church is a school of faith. We learn: relative to God not seeing is believing. The prophet Habakkuk teaches that the righteous shall live by faith. Faith is not seeing. Faith is not having any evidence. Faith is trusting what God says, despite what the evidence of the five senses may say. Speaking of the prophet Habakkuk, he lived what he preached. His life and the life of his people were a struggle. There was much evidence that demonstrated to them that God did not care a whit about them. He says desperately, “How long shall I cry for help and you will not hear?”
At this moment of his life, things were not coming up roses and he spoke honestly about it. He laments.
The Old Testament is attractive to us because of this honest openness to God. The Old Testament saints are cast in a light that we understand only too well inasmuch as we struggle like them when things seem so contrary to faith. We can relate to insecure Abraham. We understand a Jacob who tries to get ahead by any means necessary. We can indeed commiserate with Moses’ physical disability.
Nevertheless, in the midst of their struggles, God never gives up on them. They are a work in progress and God moves along with them in their stages of growth in faith, in trusting God despite the evidence to the contrary in their own lives. When they struggle, they keep two truths before them:
1) God is God. God is in control. God has ways of the working that we cannot understand or comprehend; and
2) They belong to God. No matter what happens in life, they and God are always one.
That is also our comfort as we face the challenges of the coming year. When we attend our yearly congregational meeting, we must realize that our ministry belongs to God. We belong to God. Therefore, God is in control. Knowing that, we have faith that everything will work out well. Indeed, we have come this far by faith.
Pastor's Page - July 2015
"A Moment of Reflection and Prayer on Charleston"
(Presented on Sunday, June 21, the Sunday after the shooting in Charleston, South Caro-lina at Emmanuel African Episcopal Methodist Church.)
God's hidden ways trouble us; they baffle us; they make us marvel; God's hidden ways make us angry; they make us doubt; they make us fear. Indeed God's thoughts are not our thoughts. God's ways are not our ways. The conundrum that we each face is squaring an all-powerful and loving God with the presence of evil. The shootings in Charleston, South Carolina have once again left us feeling ambivalent about God and God's ways in the world. Upon hearing the news, you no doubt felt a welter of feelings and you still do. What happened there cannot get any more evil than that. The deranged gunman sat in the Bible study for an hour before gunning down nine people. In fact, he sat next to the pas-tor. It is all so troubling that a sacred space was violated by evil. This morning you cannot help but feel ambivalent about God's ways in the world.
Yet, you know and believe that God is in the process of destroying evil. It began at Calvary and continues now and will culminate when the chaos monsters are defeated once and for all in a new heaven and new earth where there will be no sea. The resurrection of Jesus from the dead is our strong hope that evil will be destroyed.
In the meantime, until that new heaven and new earth come to fruition, we have the cup as the place to meet God. In the cup of the Eucharist, the redeeming God heals us, comforts us, and enlightens us. We experience the power of God in the cup, so that we are not overcome by evil. Instead, we overcome evil with the good. Take your pain to the cup; take your fears to the cup; take your doubts to the cup. There you will meet out redeem-ing Lord who works the good out of evil. Through the cup, God empowers us to overcome evil with good. This work is never done in vain.
Let us pray: Father, Christians throughout the world are being attacked. Our hearts are saddened by the latest assault on your body in the city of Charleston where Rev. Clementa Pinckney, Rev. Daniel Simmons, Rev. De-Payne Middleton-Doctor, Cynthia Hurd, Sharonda Singleton, Myra Thompson, Tywanza Sanders, Sussie Jackson, and Ethel Lance, were martyred for the faith. Only you can reach into the depths of our feelings and comfort and empower us in ways that enable us to keep hoping, and reversing evil with the good. Empower your whole body throughout the world to speak against hatred in its deadly avatars that dehu-manize and terrorize. Lead us once again to your cup where you, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, together with your angels and saints, will form around us the cloud of witnesses to accompany us during our earthly sojourn. You have crushed the head of satan, and you are working to bring all things under yourself, so that you may be all in all. Bless, em-power, and comfort the families of those who were martyred. Bless, empower and comfort their spiritual brothers and sisters at their local congregation and throughout the world, who are undergoing their own battles against evil. In Jesus name, we pray. Amen.
Pastor's Page - June 2015
The story is told of a man who liked to take naps during the sermon. Every time his pastor stepped into the pulpit to begin his sermon with a prayer, the man would close his eyes during the prayer and never open them again until he heard his pastor finished talking. Of course, his pastor could see that he slept during his sermons; so, the pastor asked the congregation while the man was sleeping, “All who want to go to heaven, please rise.” Every one, of course, stood up except the sleeping man. Then at the top of his voice, the pastor shouted, “All who wish to go to hell, stand up now!” Awaken from his slumber, only the sleeping man stood up. He looked around and noticed that he was the only one standing. He, then, said: “I don’t know what we’re voting on, pastor, but it looks like you and me are the only ones for it.”
Indeed there are some places most conducive to nodding off to sleepy bliss. For some, worship is such a place. In my first parish, a woman told me, “Pastor, you have a soothing voice. It has a calming influence on me. When I hear it, it makes me sleep.” Of course, that is not the kind of thing a pastor wants to hear, especially a fledgling one just out of seminary. Though sleeping during worship is never appropriate, resting certainly is. We attend worship to rest up, to get served by God through word and sacrament and find therein our Sabbath rest for the challenges that we face during the week. The proclamation of forgiveness, hearing God’s word, singing it, and having that word applied to each of us in the way that the Holy Spirit deems necessary is free therapy. Sabbath rest is in inverse proportion to the psychiatrist’s couch: the more rest you experience in God the less time and money you expend on psychiatrists. So that you can really rest up and get free therapy, there are three ways to rest up.
First, confession is a way to rest up. Hebrews 4:6-7 says, “Since therefore it remains for some to enter it (God’s rest), and those who formerly received the good news failed to enter because of disobedience, again he appoints a certain day, ‘Today,’ saying through David so long afterward, in words already quoted, ‘Today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts.’” Today is the day of salvation. Today is the day to experience what God deigns to give you. The creator of the universe is kneeling down to serve you, to speak to you. If you heed his voice, you shall be forgiven. Forgiveness is fundamental to true rest because sin is what causes disquiet of soul and disease in your being. Paul says that all have sinned and fallen short of God’s glory. We live in a diseased, sick and depraved world as a result of the unrest caused by sin. God’s solution is to forgive sin through Christ Jesus. Jesus is the beginning of true Sabbath rest. The way to enter his forgiveness is merely for the asking. If you ask in all sincerity informed by faith, which God knows, then you shall be forgiven. God wants to give so much just for the asking. God does not place any conditions on that asking. You can, therefore, cease the self-condemnation. You can lay aside the guilt that racks the mind and keeps it in unrest.
A second way to rest up is to sit in the finished work of God. Hebrews 4:3 says, “For we who have believed enter that rest, as he has said, ‘As I swore in my wrath, they shall not enter my rest,’ although his works were finished from the foundation of the world.” All God’s works were finished from the foundation of the world, for it was there that they were conceived and planned. Whatever God conceives and plans it is accomplished. The old theologians used to say that God is actus purus. What they meant by that was that there is no potentiality in God that is not actualized. God actualizes everything that God has in his mind. We humans have a lot of thoughts and plans that remain unactualized. We have dreams and ideas that often go unactualized. We are not God. God will accomplish what God purposes. God is God. God is spirit and God is love. God will express love in an unlimited and lavish way. God’s seminal act of salvation in Christ Jesus was before the foundation of the world. Hebrews encourages us to rest in Christ Jesus, to rest in his lavish love displayed in his life, death and resurrection. Paul tells us in Ephesians chapter one that we have been seated in the heavenlies with Christ Jesus. We are to rest in the completed work of Christ, whose work at a specific time and place has eternal significance and value. It is of eternal value; therefore, you can trust it most implicitly. Now you rest up by sitting in the finished work of Christ Jesus. This is a call to a contemplative approach of life where you sit and rest in Christ.
The final way to rest up in worship is to engage the word. Hebrews 4:12, “For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart.” You engage the word, so that you can distinguish what are your thoughts and what are God’s.
There is nothing more burdensome than to play God. I like the Twilight Zone episode wherein a man got the chance to play God, to listen in on what God hears. Of course, he could not bear the burden. He nearly cracked under such a weight. We think that our thoughts are God’s thoughts. We commit religious evil when we try to foist things on people by saying, “Thus saith the Lord,” when it was really, “Thus saith I.”
I learned that lesson right here at St. Luke when we had the debate about purchasing an organ several years ago. I gave the impression that not to purchase a pipe organ was to go against God’s will. Rightfully, a couple of people corrected me on that.
Throughout history, many have committed that sin not without devastating consequences. Many were persecuted, maimed and tortured in the name of God. There are many who cannot get around this dark side of our religion. The word is a two-edged sword. It is meant to separate and distinguish God’s thoughts from ours. That sounds painful. But, it is actually quite relieving not to play God for ourselves or others.
There was an old rap song that said, “Man is in conflict with nature; that is why there is so much sin.” Indeed, often, we are in conflict with our own nature, trying to play God, deifying our takes on life and making God play our apologist. If we truly engaged the word, then we could really rest up by not having to play God. We play God when we judge people. We talk as if we know all the pertinent facts about a person to lock them into our assessments. Relieve yourself of the burden of judging. Rest up!
Pastor's Page - May 2015
The story is told of a wise man who was standing by a river. Just down the way there was a group of family members shouting at each other in anger. The wise man turned to his disciples and smiled. He asked them, “Why do people who are angry at each other shout?” After thinking for a few minutes, one of his disciples piped up and said, “We shout because we lose our calm.” The wise man responded, “But why shout when the other person is right next to you? You can say what you have to say in a soft manner.” His disciples thought further. They gave other answers to his query that were not satisfactory.
Profoundly, the wise man continued, “When two people are angry at each other, their hearts are at a great distance from each other. To cover that distance they must shout to really hear each other. The angrier they are, the louder they have to shout to make up the great distance between them. What happens when two people fall in love? They certainly do not shout at each; on the contrary, they speak softly to each other because their hearts are very close. The distance between them is nonexistent. As they continue in love, they get to the point where they do not speak; they whisper. Finally, they do not even need to whisper. They can just look at each other and communicate their love across any physical distance because their hearts are so close.”
We can apply that story to our relationship with our divine Beloved. Recall the story of Elijah who won a great victory over the false prophets of Baal. On Mount Carmel, the prophets of Baal and Elijah stood around an altar for a contest to determine whose God was real, whose God really heard prayer. Elijah challenged them to pray to their God to do a miracle, to cause fire to come from the sky and consume the sacrifice on the altar. The prophets of Baal prayed and nothing happened. Elijah prayed to God and the God of Israel did a great miracle, proving that God alone was living and hears prayers. For his great victory, Ahab’s wife, Jezebel, threatened to kill Elijah. He had embarrassed her prophets of Baal. So, Elijah fled. He was angry at God. He was so angry at God that he demanded that God to take his life.
God does respond to Elijah’s anger. He provides the prophet with comfort food. After eating and still angry with God, Elijah tells God that he had been faithful all his life. Why should his victory bring him great sorrow and isolation? The prophet no doubt shouted at God in anger. He ex-pressed a full range of emotions. God tells the angry prophet to exit his cave and stand on the mountain. God wanted Elijah to experience God’s glory. God passed by. First, there was a terrifying wind that broke rocks into pieces. God was not in the wind. After the wind, there was an earthquake; God, however, was not in the earthquake. Then there was a fire, but God was not in the fire. Then there came a whisper. The prophet wrapped his face with his arm, for God was in the whisper. God spoke in the whisper, telling the prophet what to do next. Empowered, Elijah went on his way.
God speaks to us in a whisper in Christ Jesus. This whispering is indicative of the close connection that we have with God. Our hearts are joined to God’s heart in the power of the Holy Spirit. For many of us, the Old Testament is a closed book because God comes off as angry, vindictive and punishing. Yet, in that same book there are indications that God is more than a vindictive and punishing God as the story of Elijah demonstrates. The whispering God is the loving God, the God who cares. This God is preeminently revealed to us in Christ Jesus. It is God who bridges the distance caused by sin and makes a way to us in Christ. Daily God makes a way to us in the power of the Holy Spirit through word and sacrament. On Pentecost Sunday, we commemorate the coming of the Holy Spirit 50 days after the resurrection of our Lord. On this Sunday, let us celebrate with great rejoicing our loving God who is heart-to-heart with us in the Holy Spirit.
Pastor's Page - April 2015
On April 14, Abraham Lincoln awoke in a good mood. Several days before at Appomattox, General Robert E. Lee, commander of the South, surrendered to General Ulysses Grant, commander of the North.
For the first time in five years, Lincoln had some breathing room, breathing room in which to think and plan. But, before any serious thinking on the future course of the nation and its reconstruction, Lincoln wanted to laugh. He wanted to try to put behind him the tragedy of a war whose outcome was always in doubt.
He thought a night out at Ford’s Theatre would provide the appropriate venue for some needed diversion. Lincoln, however, received strong indications that he should not go out that night together with his wife, Mary. The Grants were supposed to accompany them to the theatre, but they cancelled. Just after a meeting earlier in the day, Lincoln’s secretary of war, Edwin Stanton, begged him not to attend the play. He was afraid of rebel retaliation.
Later that afternoon, as Lincoln and his wife took a carriage ride through Washington, Mary told him that she was not feeling well and thought that they should not attend the play in the evening. Lincoln responded that he, too, was tired and queried whether they should go out. William Crook, Lincoln’s private bodyguard, pleaded with the president not to go to Ford’s Theatre.
As fate would have it, the president and his wife attended the play, “Our American Cousin.” During the third act, Lincoln held Mary’s hand. They drew close to each other, which they rarely did during those tragic five years of civil war and the death of their beloved son, Willie, who was most like Lincoln in wit and intelligence. They relaxed. They laughed.
“Sic semper tyrannis!” shouted John Wilkes, the lead actor, as he stood behind Lincoln and shot the fatal bullet behind the president’s right ear. The next morning, President Abraham Lincoln died.
I have often wondered why in magazine advertisements for wristwatches invariably the hands are pointed at 10:10. The reason for that could be as simple as 10:10 am/pm is the least stressful part of the day. I would like to think that watches in magazine advertisements are pointed at 10:10 out of deference to Abraham Lincoln. It was at 10:10pm that Lincoln was shot on April 14. Perhaps that is a way to commemorate America’s favorite president.
Also, I have often pondered whose idea it was to make the dreaded tax day April 15, the day on which Lincoln died. How cynical! In any case, on April 2015 America will commemorate the 150th Anniversary of the death of Lincoln. Just after Lincoln died, Edwin Stanton, the same man who warned him not to go out on that fateful April 14, said in earshot of friends and colleagues standing at Lincoln’s death bed, “He now belongs to the ages.”
As a martyred president, Lincoln became influential in death, as his martyred status became currency in political debates. Lincoln’s martyred image was evoked for everything from civic responsibility to paying taxes. And, for those who study his life, he is a most fascinating person that still intrigues us.
If Lincoln belongs to the ages, then Jesus belongs to the eternal ages. Like Lincoln, he was martyred in April; in fact, Jesus died on April 3, 33 according to some scholars. Unlike Lincoln, he got up from death. After three days Jesus arose from the dead. As the living and reigning Lord, seated at the right hand of the Father, he continues to influence the universe. As Paul says, he must subject all enemies under his feet. Then he will hand the kingdom over the Father, so that God may be all in all.
Every Sunday we commemorate Christ’s death and resurrection. His memory and his virtue as a force field continues among God’s people gathered around Word and Sacrament. Every Sunday is Easter Sunday. Nevertheless, it is most apropos to set aside a day to fully celebrate what God has accomplished for us in Christ Jesus. On Easter Sunday, we greet each other: “Christ is Risen!” The response: “He is risen indeed!”
Pastor’s Page - March 2015
The story is told of a farmer who wanted to dig a well to water his farm. After digging for some time in a place recommended to him by water diviners, he found no water. He was frustrated. He had dug only 15 feet.
Along came another man who laughed at the farmer for digging there. He pointed to another place and said, “Over there is where you ought to be digging.” The farmer went to that spot and dug and dug. In fact, he dug for 30 feet. Still, he found no water. Very tired, he took the advice of an old neighbor who assured him that there was water at yet another location.
After being frustrated by his neighbor’s advice, finding no water, the farmer sat forlorn on the porch. His wife came out of the house. Seeing his crestfallen face, she said, “Where are your brains?! Does anyone sink a well that way? Stay in one place and go deeper and deeper there.” The next day, refreshed and renewed, the farmer spent all day on one hole. He found abundant water.
We live in a world of religious seekers. Seekers hear of a phenomenal outpouring of the Spirit up in Canada. They swarm up there and learn to howl like animals. They hear an Orange County preacher pronounce, “Live a purpose-driven life.” They flock to his church, giving him 15 minutes of fame. After a month of purposeful living, they return to their helter/skelter ways of living. They hear the pecuniary-minded televangelist taunt a 100% return on the money (10% tithe) that they give to his ministry. Lured by such returns, they “sow seeds” into the televangelist’s ministry expecting a financial windfall. Soon, it dawns on them that the only one realizing such a wind-fall is the televangelist exploiting his/her vast audience. As the Bell Curve suggests and every televangelist knows, there is always 10% of an audience that still believes that Elvis is alive.
Indeed we live in a nation of seekers. Church growth experts encourage congregations to make their worship “seeker friendly.” “Tone down the theological talk,” they say. “Get rid of the vestments and candles. You may even consider jettisoning all religious symbols, especially the cross at the front of the church.”
Many, however, in our Christian community need to hear the frank talk of the farmer’s wife, “Stay in one place and go deeper and deeper.” We need to hear that as well.
That is what we hope to accomplish during Lent. We intentionally slow the pace and dig deeper and deeper into God’s word where we are. I commend a tool to you that can help you with going deeper and deeper. It is a spiritual practice called Lectio Divina, “Divine Reading.” It is an ancient way of praying from the 4th century A.D. Martin Luther knew of it and may have used it in his prayer practice. Add it to your Lenten journey.
Before you sit down to pray, choose a verse from the Bible on which you may want to pray. Set the Bible next to you within arm’s reach. Lectio Divina has five phases. You can do it for as long as you want:
Phase One (Relaxation): Sit with both feet on the floor and your hands in your lap. Inhale and exhale measured breaths. That’s it, breathe slowly and deeply without hyperventilating. What you inhale, you exhale. Mentally tell your body to relax. Where you sense stress in your body, tell that part of your body to relax.
Phase Two (Reading): Staying in one place, pick up the Bible and read aloud and slowly the verse that you chose. Read it 7 times. Pause between each reading to let the words sink into your heart.
Phase Three (Meditation): During the reading you were drawn to a word, a phrase or maybe an image. As you resume taking measured breaths with your feet on the floor and your hands in your lap, try not to move. Mentally say that word to yourself. As you inhale, mentally say the word to yourself. In the case of an image that you might have seen during the reading, concentrate on that as you breathe.
Phase Four (Prayer): Now mentally ask God why you were drawn to that word, phrase or image. What’s going on in your life that may have prompted a focus on on word? Ask questions of God, and wait for answers. God will answer in your voice. Have a dialogue with God.
Phase Five (Contemplation): After you have sufficiently prayed, now rest in God’s grace and love. Enjoy being in the moment: take in the sounds about you. Be fully present in the moment.
Pastor's page - February 2015
The story is told of a young woman who went to her grandmother and told her about her life. She explained to her how things were so hard and that she did not know how she was going to make it. She wanted to give up. She was tired of fighting and struggling. It seemed to her that as soon as one problem was solved a new one would pop up.
Her grandmother took her to the kitchen. She filled three pots with water and placed each under a high fire. Soon, the pots came to a boil. Into the first pot she placed carrots. Into the second pot she placed an egg. And, into the third pot she placed some ground coffee beans. She let the pots continue to boil. She never said a word. Twenty minutes later, she turned off all the burners. She took the carrots out of the pot and placed them in a bowl. She took the egg out of the pot and placed it also in a bowl. Finally, she ladled the coffee beans out of the pot and placed them in a bowl.
Turning to her granddaughter, she said, “Tell me what you see.”
“Carrots, an egg and coffee,” she replied. Her grandmother brought her closer and asked her to feel the carrots. She did. She noticed that they were soft. Her grandmother asked her to take the egg and break it. After pulling off the shell, she observed the hard-boiled egg. Finally, the grandmother asked her granddaughter to sip the coffee. She smiled as she tasted its rich aroma. She asked, “What does it all mean?”
Her grandmother explained that each of these objects had faced the same adversity: boiling water. Each reacted differently. The carrots went into the water strong, hard and unrelenting. However, after being subjected to the boiling water, they softened and became weak. The egg had been fragile before going into the boiling water. Its thin, outer shell had protected its liquid interior; but, after sitting through the boiling water, its inside became hardened. The ground coffee beans were unique, however. After they were placed in the boiling water, they changed the water. The granddaughter’s eyes brightened.
“Which are you?” the wise grandmother asked her granddaughter.
Indeed before hitting the boiling water of adversity, some are like the carrots. They are hardened in their world-view, which sometimes has no room for God. They are firmly ensconced in their intellectual and emotional systems, thinking that such systems will give them security and wellbeing. Along the way, life happens. Adversity, ever inherent in life, softens them and makes them flimsy.
Others are like the egg. The adversity of life has the opposite effect on them: they get hardened. They may have at one time faced life with optimism and broadmindedness. They got hardened, however. I believe that God must have a special mercy for the jaded, frustrated idealist, people who really wanted the best for the world but got shut down.
Who are people like the coffee beans? Who are the people whom the adversity of life does not embitter, but better?
You do not have to go very far to find them. They are right in our midst at St. Luke Lutheran Church. In my mind’s eye, I can see several people who are like ground coffee beans. There is no whining in them. At one time, there may have been appropriate lament about their circumstances, but they did not stay there. They got back up. A sweet, powerful aroma follows them. They have become signs of hope for us who have fallen on hard times, heralding to us that difficult situations and circumstances need not harden us against life’s beauty or soften our moral fiber in acting forthrightly on behalf of Christ’s kingdom of peace, love and joy.
It is love that gives the ground coffee beans among us their sweet aroma. They are wounded healers having been ground down by the circumstances of life. Yet, whenever adversity touches them, they explode with the most pleasant aroma, blessing instead of cursing; loving instead of hating; listening deeply and compassionately instead of standing on a soapbox of absolutism and dualism.
Both Jesus and Paul teach us not to be overcome by evil; instead, we are to overcome evil with the good. The ultimate good is love. That is a clarion call not to let life’s circumstances change our core.
The cross of Jesus overcame evil with the good. During this month of love, let us reflect on the power of God’s love in Christ Jesus as we continue our commitment of making loving disciples who are not overcome by their circumstances, but who overcome all such circumstances with a good and loving disposition. Life really is in how you see it: how you see it informed by this loving disposition.
Pastor’s Page- January 2015
The Greek philosopher Socrates said that the unexamined life is not worth living. For Socrates, thinking is what makes humans unique. To not think and thereby examine oneself is to fall into the animalistic state of nature wherein one is driven by mere instincts.
The so-called Socratic method of questioning derives from Socrates’ preoccupation with thinking and reflection. It is a method of questioning oneself and other authorities until one gets at the core of why one does what one does or believes what one believes.
Anyone who takes their faith seriously will spend some time in thought and reflection. Living out your baptismal life invites such thought and reflection because you must become aware how daily you fail to fulfill the first table of the Ten Commandments. You may not have killed anyone, but there have been times when you made someone or something other than God the ultimate concern of your life. You may not have stolen, but you have failed to call on God’s name in the welter of worries that beset you. You may not have coveted other folks’ things, but you have failed to worship God from the heart, making of worship something other than the place to meet God to allow God to serve you in Word and Sacrament.
Serious reflection at the beginning of 2015 will reveal that we are flawed. Serious reflection on God’s word, however, will reveal how much God loves us in Christ Jesus. It is indeed appropriate, moreover, to begin 2015 with examination that invites us to question ourselves, to pull ourselves out of the hovels of self-rationalization, self-justification and self-deceit. Perhaps this examination will culminate in a personal mission statement to guide your life in 2015.
Jonathan Edwards, the 18th century American pastor, preacher and philosopher, had such a personal mission statement hundreds of years before they came into vogue. He looked at it regularly as a way to examine his conscience: daily, weekly, and the beginning of the New Year. His personal mission statement was a set of resolutions:
Resolved never to lose one moment of time, but to improve in the most profitable way I possibly can.
Resolved to live with all my might while I do live.
Resolved never to do anything, which I should be afraid to do if were the last hour of my life.
Resolved never to do anything out of revenge.
Resolved never to speak evil of anyone.
Resolved to study scriptures.
Resolved to ask myself at the end of the day, week, month and year wherein I could possibly have done better.
Looking at how Edwards examined his life, it is little wonder that his preaching inspired The Great Awakening in America in the 18th century. Might the spiritual energy of The Great Awakening given the American Colonists the edge in their revolutionary war with the mother country, England.
When we open ourselves up to God in humility and emptiness, God fills us, enabling us to do even greater works in 2015. Happy New Year!
Pastor's Page December 2014
“Darkness was cheap and Scrooge liked it.”
That is a line from Charles Dickens’s classic work, A Christmas Carol. Ebenezer Scrooge, the protagonist in the story, was a miserly man who refused to open his heart to the joy of the Christmas season. In his pursuit of profits, he made life difficult for himself and others associated with him.
He refused to provide for the proper work environment, so that his sole employee could be productive.
He shuns a Christmas dinner invitation.
He shouts at charity workers in the street outside his place of business.
Scrooge only values business and profits. One night, Scrooge has a ghostly visitation. His former partner, Jacob Marley, dead for seven years, visits him. Since his death, Marley’s spirit has been roaming the earth as a punishment for his parsimonious ways when alive.
Like Scrooge, he put business before people, thereby missing out on life. He has come to warn Scrooge and maybe save him from his ways. He tells his colleague that three spirits will visit him over the course of three nights: the ghost of Christmas past, the ghost Christmas present, and the ghost of Christmas future.
Each encounter has special significance for Scrooge as he sees himself from a different perspective. The encounter with the three spirits actually hap-pens in one night. Nevertheless, Scrooge awakens a new man. He opens his heart to life. He comes to understand that darkness is not cheap; it has a cost: one’s soul. In the Victorian Age, the 19th century English-speaking world, ghost stories abounded at Christmas time, of which A Christmas Carol is the epitome. “O tell us a tale of ghosts! Now do! It’s a capital time, for the fire burns blue.”
Historians have long busied themselves with theories as to why ghost stories proliferated in Queen Victoria’s world. Some have noted that the popularity of ghost stories came on the heels of economic changes afoot. The Industrial Revolution drove people out of rural areas into cities, where they competed for jobs and taxed the resources of cities. A byproduct of the Industrial Revolution was urban blight and the sense of anomie that people felt in cities, being disconnected from familiar surroundings. They were in a state of real mourning over the loss of a world they had known. They were on edge: every creak in the floors and walls spooked them in their new, unfamiliar environs. Victorian cities, moreover, were lit by gas lamps. The carbon monoxide emitted from them could provoke hallucinations of shadowy figures lurking about in crowded apartments, castles and churches.
Ironically, technological advances caused ghost stories to abound. The telegraph allowed people to communicate at great distances. The tapping of the telegraph receiver became the warrant of ghosts communicating through tapping noises. The Fox sisters in New York alleged to communicate with ghosts through tapping noises. They were later proven to be a hoax, however.
Spirit photography grew out of technological advances in photography. William Mumler’s picture of Mary Todd Lincoln with the ghostly hands of Abraham Lincoln on her shoulders was all the rage. Technological advances in the Victorian Age did not diminish ghost stories. They aided and abetted them. The proliferation of ghost stories in the Victorian Age demonstrates what humans in all ages have long struggled with: that is how do we grieve, how do we cope with loss, with change? How do we especially deal with the loss of loved ones during the most joyous time of the year?
Christmas and Christmastide are nostalgic times. The music, the food, and the atmosphere cause you to think of Christmases past. There is real pain at this time of the year. Recognizing this, during the fourth Sunday in Advent , usually around December 21, the longest night of the year, the Winter Solstice, some churches have a Blue Christmas. They perform some ritual that acknowledges the pain and grieving that some people may be going through at Christmas.
On December 21, we at St. Luke shall have a Blue Christmas ritual for those in a season of grief. If you are still grieving a loved one this Christmas, make an ornament that represents your loved one. Bring it to church on December 21. You may not be grieving but you still want to commemorate a loved one at Christmas, then you also can make an ornament and bring it to church on December 21.
Pastor's Page for November 2014
One day a tiger was hunting in a forest. An unlucky fox was met and caught by the tiger. For the fox, his inescapable fate was clear—death. Despite the danger, the fox thought hard to find a way out.
Promptly, the fox declared to the tiger, “How dare you kill me!” On hearing those words, the tiger was taken aback and asked for the reason. The fox raised his voice a bit higher and declared arrogantly, “To tell you the truth, it’s I who was accredited by God to be king of the forest, potentate over all the animals! If you kill me, then you will be going against God’s will.”
Seeing that the tiger became suspicious, the fox added, “Let’s have a test. Let’s go through the forest together. Follow me and you will see that the animals are frightened of me.” The tiger agreed.
So, the fox walked ahead of the tiger. He walked proudly through the forest. The animals, seeing the tiger behind the fox, were terribly frightened and ran away. Then the fox said proudly, “There is no doubt that what I said is true.” The tiger had nothing to say but acknowledge the result. So the tiger nodded and said, “You are right. You are the king.” Thomas Hobbes, the 17th century English philosopher, said that in the state of nature life is brutish, violent and short. The strongest survives.
Like the fox in the story, humans are without great physical gifts; yet, we possess great mental gifts, which afford us play in the life or death duel of the survival of the fittest. We use our intellectual gifts to subdue the earth and outwit the other animals.
For humans, to extend and preserve life, it is in our best interest to enter a social contract for the protection of our lives and rights. The social contract, however, is a thin veneer that is easily compromised. Any natural crisis, visible and invisible, can rip it apart, thus exposing our essential vulnerability.
In the face of the Ebola virus, our minds split in many directions of medieval proportions, as the media and self-serving politicians exploit our fears. Medieval plagues decimated European and Asian populations. The Ebola virus would never reach such medieval proportions. Human intelligence is getting a handle on this virus and inoculation against it is shortcoming. Nevertheless, the state of nature is an ever-constant threat.
On Christ the King Sunday, we celebrate that Christ is preeminent over the state of nature, both visible and invisible forces. Social contracts come and go, but God’s word of promise is forever.
God’s word, given just after the fall, promises that victory over the chaos monsters of life will be realized in the seed of the woman. Jesus, the son of Mary, is that promised seed. He is Christus Victor. We share in his victory over sin, death and the devil.
The prophet Isaiah visualized the ultimate victory of the promised messiah (Christ) with the picture of the lion lying with the lamb, and a little child leading them. The state of nature will experience peace through a work that God alone will perform in Christ.
Pet Blessing Planned for Sunday, November 23
On Sunday, November 23, Christ the King Sunday, we shall worship outdoors in creation with the animals. We invite you to bring your pets with you to worship with you. We shall have a pet blessing. After the service, food trucks will be available after worship for the purchase of food. Our church will get a percentage of what you purchase.
So, bring your pets and have them blessed. We shall invite the Clare-mont community. It shall be a joyous day on Christ the King Sunday, when we celebrate Jesus as Christus Victor.
Pastor's Page for October 2014 You may be a Lutheran if. . .
during worship you hold your hymnal open but never look at it.
you don’t make eye contact with someone in the hallway because you think it’s impolite.
you can say your meal prayer in one breath.
Bach is your favorite composer because he also was a Lutheran.
your house is a mess because you’re saved by grace, not works.
you think an ELCA bride and a LCMS groom make for a mixed marriage.
you feel guilty about not feeling guilty.
you celebrate Halloween.
The celebration of Halloween seems to have become a litmus test to determine whether one is a worldly Christian. “Halloween is the devil’s holiday,” you may hear some say around this time of the year. Indeed the demonic can exploit anything for their malevolent purposes.
God, however, has a way of turning the tables on the devil and working the good out of the bad. That is the transformative power of the Gospel that each of us shall indeed experience personally when we die. We shall experience that indeed there is no sting in death. Instead, death will be a gracious entrée to eternal life with Christ and all the saints.
As to whether we should celebrate Halloween, we should follow the precedent of the early church. They fully understood the transformative power of the Gospel, as they usurped pagan holidays and made them serve Christ. They reconfigured the prominent features of pagan culture and made them Christian.
The freedom to do so was Christ, who was not only Lord over the demonic because of his victory at Calvary, but also Lord of history. He was at the helm of history driving it in such a way that his Father will indeed be all in all. According to them, Jesus not only determines the destiny of the universe, but also the destiny of every human soul.
The pagan holiday that Halloween replaced was spawned from fear. Fear of death—the great unknown—haunts every soul. Death is the mystery that shrouds our lives in darkness. We associate death with demons, monsters and goblins.
Humans in most cultures have made this association since time immemorial. This fear has produced universal symbols of the dark side, places we dare not darken with our presence. Halloween gives permission to people to go where they would not otherwise go 364 days out of the year.
Humans need this. Halloween serves as a safe place where people in our death-denying culture can face their biggest fears and play with them, taunt them, thereby showing that they have power over them. Halloween represents our culture’s walk on the dark side. Every culture has a way to reckon with the dark side.
Jesus, however, gives the assurance that no psychologically-derived holiday can give. Jesus is the light of the world. In his presence, the darkness recedes. Indeed life haunts us. Halloween uncovers our deepest fears; Christ reveals our deepest comfort in his life, death and resurrection—his victory over the disintegrating powers of darkness. Jesus is: Christus Victor.
There are still dark corners of the soul where science in all its enlightenment cannot reach. Christ, however, can go there. His cross means that he is willing to enter any darkness, to fall to great depths with us to lift us to the heights of new life in him.
Pastor’s Page for September 2014
In preparation for a blog article that I am writing, I have been doing some reading in the area of neurology and religion. The question in the back of my mind is whether the regular practice of religion and spirituality has a positive impact on one’s mental health. Andrew Newberg, M.D., a leading researcher in the area of neurology and religion at the University of Pennsylvania, gives a straightforward answer to that question: a resounding yes. According to Newberg, “The data on religious involvement consistently shows that those who regularly attend religious services live longer and have fewer problems with their health. Even those who attend once a month have a 30 to 35 percent reduced risk of death.” (How God Changes Your Brain, 174) Newberg delineates eight ways to ensure a healthy brain. These are from his above-referenced book.
The 8th best way to a healthy brain: Smile. According to Newberg, the mere act of smiling helps to interrupt mood disorders and strengthens the brain’s neural ability to maintain a positive outlook on life. Cynicism shortens your life. According to a 30-year study by the Mayo Clinic, pessimism was associated with a shorter life span and poorer mental health. So, smile!
The 7th best way to a healthy brain: Stay Intellectually Active. Intellectual and cognitive stimulation strengthens the neural connections throughout the frontal lobe and improves your ability to communicate, solve problems and make rational decisions concerning your behavior. Nearly every age-related, cognitive disability is related to the functioning of the frontal lobe. Exercise the cortex through memory and mnemonic exercises, strategy-based games (chess and checkers), and imagination; read books (fiction or non-fiction) or listen to recorded books, and watch education and sci-ence channels. As long as learning is fun and meaningful, it will improve your brain.
The 6th best way to a healthy brain: Consciously Relax. At some point in your day, mentally scan your body while taking a few deep breaths. Where in your body you feel tension, mentally tell those places to relax. As you do this, use music. Music (especially classical) sharpens your cognitive skills.
The 5th best way to a healthy brain: Yawn. According Newberg, several recent brain-scan studies have shown that yawning evokes a unique neural activity in the area of the brain that is directly involved in generating social awareness and creating feelings of empathy. Yawning also brings you into a heightened state of cognitive awareness. That gives me a whole new take on you who yawn during my sermons.
The 4th best way to a healthy brain: Meditate. 20 minutes of meditation or contemplation affect your nervous system in ways that enhance physical and emotional health. Antistress hormones and neurochemicals are released during meditation, as well as pleasure-enhancing and depression-decreasing neurotransmitters like dopamine and serotonin.
The 3rd best way to a healthy brain: Aerobic Exercise. Walking, yoga and Zumba strengthen every part of the brain.
The 2nd best way to a healthy brain: Dialogue With Others. Dialogue requires social interaction. The more social ties you have, the less your cognitive abilities will decline. The proper content of brain-enhancing dialogue is abstract things like God, religion, spirituality, theology, physics, or art. Bible study fits this bill.
The best way to a healthy brain: Faith. An optimistic attitude, which faith helps to produce, reduces stress-eliciting cortisol levels in your body. Viktor Frankl, a survivor of a Nazi concentration camp during World War II, notes that those who were not defeated and lost their humanity during Nazi atrocities were those who maintained faith and hope. Faith is a powerful force that we too often take for granted when things are going well.
Our community of faith provides you with the media through which to maintain a healthy brain, even a good yawn now and then. This year, we shall provide opportunities to grow in meditation, contemplation and other spiritual practices.
Pastor’s Page for August 2014
On Sunday, July 27, I commemorated my 11th Anniversary as pastor of St. Luke Lutheran Church. Some wise person once said that we remember moments, not days. Indeed I have many days at St. Luke. In fact, my pastorate is now the longest. I have now served longer than my beloved friend and mentor, Pastor Ott, who, before me, served our congregation the longest at 10 years and 4 months. Indeed the days have gone by in a blur; yet, the moments remain distinct in my mind and I shall take them with me to my grave. Among many factors, moments are made up of people. When I think of your faces, the moments with you roll out like a cavalcade of horses.
I am richer in experience and wisdom for having come to St. Luke. As I look back over my 30 years of ministry, each of the churches that I served contributed to my professional and spiritual growth in profound ways. My first congregation is where I learned to pray. Before being placed in that difficult ministry, I did not pray. I prayed like most Christians in a perfunctory way. It took the stress of my first congregation to get me on my knees. Indeed my spiritual journey commenced with my first congregation and has continued unabated.
At UCLA, I learned to preach. I did not seek out that position. Rev. Loren Kramer, our district president at the time, recommended me for that ministry; he put my name on UCLA’s call list when it was seeking a pastor. After 10 years, things were going well in my first congregation. I had no compelling reason to leave.
When I met with the students who interviewed me, I wondered what I could say to those bright and engaging young people. I called President Kramer and asked him why he thought that I would be a good fit at UCLA.
He said in all candor, “You have two assets that that ministry needs: you are intelligent and you are African American. The campus needs to see that there are other Lutherans beside white ones. That would be appealing to the students. That would heighten our visibility on campus.” He was right.
At St. Luke, I learned my calling. That sounds funny. One would think that after 20 years I would have known my calling when I began at St. Luke in 2003. By calling I mean the calling on one’s soul. Calling is what you want said about you in a eulogy, what’s emblematic about your life.
The calling on my soul has become clearer to me during my years at St. Luke. It is my calling to contemplation. It is the thing for which I have been preparing myself for a lifetime. There were times when my calling could be characterized by fits and starts. But, the thing for which I shall ever be grateful to you at St. Luke is that you have given me a beautiful church and kindly-disposed people to pastor. These things have given me a constant stability that I never had in my other churches. Every time I walk from the parking lot through the breezeway, my heart erupts with joy and gratitude for the many positive people here who love God, who love their church. Your reverence and love for your church impel me to love it and reverence it as holy ground. I shall be eternally grateful to you for giving me 11 years in which to grow in the place that I count as my spiritual home. I thank you, dear brothers and sisters of St. Luke.
Pastor's Page for July 2014
Humorist Garrison Keillor, our present-day Mark Twain, says the following about the summer doldrums: “When it comes to the summer doldrums, a person’s brain shrinks to pea-size and one forgets about the lofty, moral values and takes the short view; so, I turn on the air conditioning and burn up precious non-renewable resources for my own comfort and pleasure even if it means that glaciers shrink and the Artic tern is threatened; I just want cool air to blow on me as I sip a cool drink.”
Indeed summer is most conducive to doing nothing; where a tall glass of lemonade and daydreams are in order. There are certain places in the country where you may not want to be during the summer doldrums. Standing in a long line at Disney World is certainly one of those places. If ever there were a foretaste of hell, it would be Florida’s heat and humidity.
Summer, though hot and unbearable at times, is supposed to be the time of the year when we focus on very little, so that we can enjoy the fruit of a good year. It is the time when, unapologetically, we go at a slower pace. Indeed the brain seems to shrink, as we cannot focus too deeply for too long on anything that the media deem important.
Living in a climate like ours in Southern California, Jesus would have understood our summer doldrums and the need for rest during such times. After his disciples returned from doing kingdom work, Jesus encouraged them to step aside from the crowd and rest.
We can imagine Jesus having prepared food for them to aid their rest. In the Old Testament, there is precedent for God serving people: God fed the Israelites as they crossed the desert; God also fed some of the prophets when they found themselves in desperate straits.
It is God who commands us to rest, making it the third most important commandment. We dare not spiritualize this commandment. Under Martin Luther’s influence, we have limited rest to spiritual rest. God, however, is concerned that your total being rest: mind, body and soul. We have to rest our bodies. God, then, has given us the summer doldrums, the time of year when we slow down the frenetic pace of the rest of the year and rest.
In Ephesians, Paul lauds the breath, the height, the length and the depth of God’s love. Indeed in God we live, move and have our being, for in all the seasons of our lives we experience the love of God in Christ Jesus — even when we are doing nothing but throwing back a few glasses of lemonade during the summer doldrums.
Pastor's Page for June 2014
Juneteenth is a celebration that commemorates the end of slavery in the United States. It originated in Texas and is, for the most part, observed by African-American Texans on or near the 19th of June.
It was June 19, 1865 that Union soldiers, led by Major General Gordon Granger, landed at Galveston, Texas with the news that the war had ended and that the enslaved were now free. This was two and a half years after President Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863. The Emancipation Proclamation had little impact on slaves in Texas and the deep South because of the paucity of union soldiers to enforce the executive order. It is one thing to promulgate laws; it quite another to enforce them. So, in theory the slaves were free; in reality, however, they were not. With the surrender of General Robert E. Lee at Appomattox, Virginia in April 1865, and the arrival of Granger’s regiment, national forces were finally strong enough to enforce the Emancipation Proclamation throughout the South.
At the end of slavery, black Texans posited several theories to explain the two-and-half-year delay. It was said that the messenger with the news of their freedom was murdered on his way down to Texas. Others proffered the theory that the news was deliberately withheld by enslavers to maintain their labor force. And, the federal troops actually waited for the slave owners to reap the benefits of one, last, cotton harvest before going onto to Texas to enforce the Emancipation Proclamation. Of course, the best explanation was that President Lincoln’s authority over the rebellious states was always in question. It took, in fact, the death of over 600,000 men to change the political climate that would ensure the efficacy of his Emancipation Proclamation throughout the whole country.
As you can imagine, the reaction of the enslaved to the news of their freedom ranged from shock to outright jubilation. The newly freed traveled north to rejoin family members in Oklahoma, Arkansas and points further north. Some traveled west to forge a new life as cowboys. Wherever the newly freed went, they rehearsed the story of how freedom came to them, how God moved with a mighty hand to intervene in the affairs of humanity to right a horrible wrong.
Juneteenth occasions a range of activities for African-Americans who celebrate it: rodeos, fishing, barbecuing and baseball. It continues to be highly revered in Texas. The day, moreover, invites focus on prayer, self-improvement, and family, as many family reunions occur on or near Juneteenth.
Some Christians are like the slaves in Texas. For one reason or another, they have not got-ten the news that in Christ Jesus they are free, free from sin, death and the devil. In theory they are free; in the reality of their lives, however, they are still enslaved: enslaved to guilt, to anxiety and worry, caught up in bad habits that surrender their self-control and freedom.
Enter the Holy Spirit. It is the Holy Spirit’s role to convict us of sin, to challenge us to live as free people in Christ Jesus, to empower us through Word and Sacrament to bear tangible fruit of love in all that we do. The Holy Spirit is like Major Gordon Granger who proclaimed to the people of Texas: “In accordance with the Emancipation Proclamation, all slaves are free!” The Holy Spirit: “In accordance with the cross of Christ Jesus, all slaves to sin, death and the devil are free!”
The long season of Pentecost commences on Pentecost Sunday. It is indeed a necessarily long season wherein the Holy Spirit wins back the territory of your soul and frees it up for Christ. The Holy Spirit ensures that you get the message to live free in Christ.
Pastor's Page for May 2014
The story is told of a man on a long flight home. The first sign of imminent danger occurred when the seat belt light lit and pinged. Soon thereafter, a voice came over the intercom, “We shall not be serving beverages now, as there are strong turbulences up ahead. Please remain in your seats.” The anticipated turbulences hit the plane with fury, whipping it from side to side.
The man looked about the cabin, seeing that his fellow passengers were visibly agitated. A little later, the voice came over the intercom again, “We shall not be serving the meal at this time, as there are still strong turbulences up ahead.” The man dared to look out the window. In the dark night, lightening flashed. It looked ominous. The plane jolted about as though it were a bottle riding on the powerful waves of an ocean. Powerful wind currents lifted the plane up and then dropped it. It felt like the plane was crashing. Some passengers were visibly sick; some screamed; others prayed. The future looked bleak.
Then the man spied a little girl who sat with her feet beneath her in her seat. She was calmly reading a book. She was oblivious to what was happening in the cabin. She would close her eyes, savoring what she had just read. Then she would smile and hum with delight. Then she would open her eyes again and read. The man could hardly believe his eyes. When the plane got out of the turbulences and landed, understandably all the passengers hurried to disembark the plane. The man, however, lingered, hoping to get a chance to speak with the little girl. He approached her and commented on the rough flight. He asked how it was that she seemed so calm and collected during the violent turbulences. The sweet, little girl said, “Sir, my dad is the pilot and he is taking me home.”
Would to God that we could handle life’s storms like that little girl, namely with a sense of equanimity and confidence! Would to God that we could sit calm and trust that God will do right by us! The little girl knew what the others in the plane did not know. She knew and trusted the pilot. That knowledge gave her security. Can we live with such security? How do we move from fear to faith?
Knowledge is indeed power. Knowledge is especially powerful over fears and anxieties. As we live out our calling as an Easter people, what is it that we know? Of course, we know that we shall die. It is appointed to us all once to die. We are brilliant flowers that bloom in the daylight; yet, we only have a moment in the sun. Then we wither and die. Of course, God never intended death to be determinative. Death came into the world through sin. Sin, death and the devil are chaos monsters over which we have no power. God alone has to wage battle against these enemies of humanity, which God does in Christ Jesus. He who knew no sin became sin for us to save us from the law’s condemnation. Indeed, we know that we shall die. But, we also know that we shall live. Being baptized and having received Christ Jesus as our savior, we share in his victory over sin, death and the devil. He is the first fruit of many who shall rise from the dead victorious like him. We know those two facts unequivocally.
If we know the above, then from whence comes fear? It comes packaged with this life. Mark Twain said it best, “All say, ‘How hard it is that we have to die’—a strange complaint coming from the mouths of people who have had to live.” This life inspires fear and it shrouds us all. We can never be free of its tentacles. Not only is fear part and parcel of this life, so is the resurrected Christ. The perfect love of Christ casts out all fear. Mary Magdalene and another Mary went to Jesus’ tomb because of love and devotion to him. When they got there, they saw that the tomb was empty. An angel descended from heaven and sat at the entrance of the tomb. He tells them not to be afraid. Instead, they are to go and tell Jesus’ disciples that he is risen from the dead and that he will see them in Galilee. The Marys make haste to do just that. Along the way, however, Jesus meets them in a most serendipitous way.
That story is a metaphor for the journey from fear to faith. We are on our way to Galilee, where we shall see Jesus and all the saints. We do not have an abiding place here on earth. Along the way to Galilee, Jesus has a way of surreptitiously meeting us in Word and Sacrament. We are to be ready to meet him, as he promised where two or more are gathered in his name he is there. Wherever Jesus is, his perfect love casts out all fear. The way to deal with life’s endemic fear is the perfect love of the resurrected Christ. In that love we must learn to rest and be so empowered by such resting that we become like that little girl who trusted the pilot of the plane, her father. God is the pilot of your life. He will pilot you through the turbulences of life and land you beyond your doubts and fears to life eternal.
Christ is risen! He is risen indeed! This we know.
Pastor's Page for April 2014
In the children’s book, The Caterpillar That Wouldn’t Change, Nancy Mure tells the story of Nelle and Franny, two caterpillars.
It was a beautiful day in the field as two caterpillars inched along. Franny said to Nelle, “Someday we’ll turn into butterflies.”
“What do you mean?” Nelle asked.
“We grow until it’s time to change,” Franny told her as she started to munch on a leaf.
“Do I really have to change?” Nelle asked.
“You must. That’s what caterpillars do,” said Franny.
“Why?” asked Nelle
“Because you can. Wouldn’t you like to be a beautiful butterfly someday?”
“I want to stay the way that I am,” Nelle insisted with the bounce of her antennae.
As the days passed, Nelle and the other caterpillars developed into big caterpillars. One afternoon she watched as Franny formed herself into a J shape on a branch. Franny then wound a thin gray string from within herself around her J shape several times. While she gradually draped herself below her J shape, she continued to weave the string. Suddenly, Nelle noticed that Franny was hanging from the branch. The gray string, curling thicker around Franny, kept her from falling.
“What are you doing, Franny?” Nelle yelled.
Franny was too busy to answer.
“You’re changing,” Nelle moaned. “But I don’t want to change into some strange creature, especially a flittty, little butterfly.”
“I’ll find you again,” Franny said to Nelle. She waved a little leg before she was totally wound up inside the cocoon.
Nancy Mure wrote that story to teach children to accept change. It is most daunting for a child to move from kindergarten to first grade, from elementary to middle school. We parents sometimes take for granted the emotional turmoil through which a child may go when facing life’s changes, like facing a bully at school. We parents must be wary of how our children handle their lives, for each copes differently.
There is a change that awaits us all. We wish that we did not have to face it: death. Like the caterpillar Nelle, we want to stay the way we are. It is safe. It is what we are used to. In the above story, Franny is confident. She faces her imminent cocooning knowing that she will emerge transformed into something beautiful. After her transformation, she will not be limited to a leaf, inching along in the monochromic world of a green body on a green leaf. She will fly and see the world from a higher and fuller perspective.
How did Franny get such confidence? Let us anthropomorphize a bit: she has seen the evidence. She trusts more in the evidence than her fears of being cocooned.
Easter is the evidence that death is not our final word. Because of Christ’s glorious resurrection from the dead, Jesus gives us the ultimate evidence that we, too, shall live. The challenge before us is to trust more in the evidence of his empty tomb than our fear of dying. Can we get to the place where, like Martin Luther, we see death as Eine Suesse Schlaft, “a sweet sleep,” from which our beloved will wake us. “I know that my Redeemer lives! What comfort this sweet sentence gives.”
Pastor's Page for March 2014
Some time ago, there was a humorous column in Ann Landers titled, The Ten Top Reasons Why God Never Received Tenure as a Professor:
God never got a Ph.D.
God had only one major publication.
The publication was written in Hebrew and Greek.
Some doubt that God wrote it.
Sure, God created the world, but what has God done since?
The scientific community cannot replicate God’s results.
God rarely came to class or to lecture. Students were told, “Just read the book.”
God’s office hours were irregular and sometimes held on mountain tops.
God does not present papers of original research at conferences.
God spends too much time teaching and not enough time doing research.
This is humor that is bound to strike a cord with us Lutherans who value educational excellence. The Lutheran Church Missouri Synod has just under three million members; yet, we have eight colleges and two seminaries and a few hospitals. The people whom the Holy Spirit chose to write the Bible were not ignoramuses. One such person that God used was our name sake, St. Luke. St. Luke, a second-generation disciple, struggled with how to be a disciple of Christ after the apostles. He produced a gospel that speaks especially to disciples of Christ who struggle to follow Christ in a world that does not value them. Luke was an educated man, an intellectual; in fact, he was physician.
As we begin the Lenten season, we ask God to sharpen our discipleship skills, so that we can be, like St. Luke, better learners of Christ.
An area of our lives where we can stand to get better is in dealing with temptation. The real battle that each of us has to wage with temptation is in the heart. Spiritual warfare has its locus in your heart. Just as the Spirit drove Jesus out into the desert to face Satan and his hordes, so we must face him and overcome him with the spiritual weapons of Word and Sacrament. In a comedic way we visualize temptation as having a good angel on one shoulder and a devil on the other. The devil tempts us to indulge the flesh; the angel tries to stop us. We think of temptation as something in the moral realm, a force that impels and compels us to do the morally reprehensible thing. That’s too easy. Temptation is more complex than that. Temptation that issues from the demonic turns our gaze from Christ. It is not just the blatantly, morally, reprehensible things that the demonic uses to get our minds off Christ. Even the seemingly benign values that everyone would affirm as necessary for the effective functioning of a society are fair game in spiritual warfare. All’s fair in love and war. What is more benign than a mother’s love, for example? Yet, some elevate a mother’s love above Christ. Indeed a mother’s love is important, but the soul was made for God. Nothing, no matter how benign and socially redeemable it may seem, can give the soul what it needs in spiritual joy. God alone can do that. Paul says that Satan appears as an angel of light. He comes in the benign things that we have absolutized and said that these are the essential things without which humans cannot live.
The secular, humanist world in which we live is the product of the absolutization of what is perceived as essential good for the society. A better life for individuals based on reason was certainly the dream of Thomas Jefferson and his like-minded, Enlightenment thinkers. They certainly must look at America and the West and be proud of what their ideas have produced. Ironically, what they have produced is the tyranny of the good. The values of the secular, humanist world look benign and salutary, but they discount what humans need to be happy and secure in their hearts. Those values have created a Godless society. We have spent trillions trying to implement the one good that would alleviate poverty and create a just society. However, we have created a Frankenstein. It is a monster without a soul. To the delight of satan and his minions, we have absolutized the values of humanism.
Throughout this Lenten journey, ask yourself, “What good have I absolutized and thereby crowded out God?” For example, how about judgments you may have made about people? The judgments may have had their place; yet, you continue to limit yourself and others by them because you have absolutized them; you have made them bigger than a forgiving God. Have you absolutized righteous anger? Righteous anger may have served a good. But, does it still inform how you approach certain people?
Nothing is so good in life that it should crowd out the joy in the Lord. As people desirous of becoming loving disciples of Christ, our Lenten journey begins at this examination of ourselves.
Pastor's Page for February 2014
Commenting on heroes, Winston Churchill said, “Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few.” Presidents’ Day is the day that we set aside to celebrate the few who have made our nation great. When I was a child, we used to celebrate George Washington’s birthday; however, Washington’s birthday has given way to Presidents’ Day.
I detest Presidents’ Day. Why? Because not all our presidents are heroes. Frankly, some are not worthy of our admiration and emulation. I should say, however, that after reading the biographies of all the presidents in the 19th century, from Thomas Jefferson to William McKinley, I have softened a bit. Before entering the presidency, every aspirant to that office was outstanding in his personal life. I have to concede that even the vile racist Andrew Johnson was a self-made man who did so through self study, teaching himself the finer points of rhetoric and garnering a vast knowledge of classical literature. Having to succeed Lincoln, his presidency was doomed from the start. In the shadow of the martyred Lincoln, nobody would have been taken seriously; therefore, I have to cut Johnson some slack. Nevertheless, I wish that we would return to celebrating the birthdays of our two greatest presidents: George Washington and Abraham Lincoln.
George Washington is the most famous founding father, the legendary general who led the revolution that would eventually change the world. But, before he would garner the qualities for which we admire him, he had to be changed, transformed. Before he was George Washington, the hero, he was George Washington, the grasping, land-hungry swindler. He was a self-conscious, insecure military officer who blamed others for his blunders. In the backdrop of his heroic façade were struggles and failings—all the emotional stuff that make us all flawed humans. However, Washington grew. He was transformed and became the man that he was destined to be. Indeed that is the real stuff of heroes: people who overcome personal obstacles to actualize the callings on their souls. Each of us must confess that the biggest obstacle to our growth is ourselves. Washington humbly admitted this fact and was thereby transformed. If we could shed George Washington of the patriotic mythology and see him for what he struggled to become, then maybe Americans will demand that his birthday be restored to its rightful place as a national holiday, for then he will have become more relatable. Until then, he will remain a distant Father of the Nation, respected largely for the lore that he could never tell a lie.
Like Washington, each of us has to struggle with aspects of ourselves that we would rather not reveal to others. God is working with us in those vulnerable places. It is for this reason that Jesus demands that his followers not judge others. We do not know the full context of another person’s life to judge him or her. It is for this reason that Jesus taught his disciples that the church is not a holy club of perfect people. There are the good, the bad, the ugly and the beautiful in churches—the weeds among the wheat. In an attempt to the tear out the weeds, in an attempt to create a perfect church, people get hurt.
In 16th century Reformation history, Carlstadt, Martin Luther’s contemporary and colleague, tried to purify the Wittenberg community of its Catholic traditions when Luther was away from the city. He threw out the candles, vestments, and the altar. He tossed out everything associated with Catholicism. In the process, his fanaticism for a perfect church hurt people and trounced on their cherished traditions. He did not give people room to experience their own epiphany. He made his own epiphany the all defining one.
All that we are supposed to do as a church is to offer the Word and Sacraments to people and let God do the rest. Souls belong to God, not the church. God will do with those souls whatever God wants. Jesus teaches that God will separate the wheat from the tares at the end of time. This is solely God’s business. In the meantime, the church offers the healing balm of the Word and Sacraments as the media through which people get renewed and enlightened. We dare not get in the way of Epiphany, namely the ongoing process of enlightenment, where people are transformed from sinners to saints. That enlightenment looks complex and diverse. Judgment is not the proper stance before such complexity and diversity; rather, it is praise and admiration. We praise and admire how God enlightens both the brilliant C.S. Lewis and the shoe salesman in the garment district of Los Angeles. How God does this remains a mystery that prompts a doxological response.
George Washington had an epiphany that altered his life. The product of his epiphany: he lost his fear of man. Because of his experience of the love of God, he lost all fear. He thereby became the hero that we admire. But, he had to experience a life-altering epiphany. Epiphany—enlightenment—is always a possibility for us as well. Let us not get in the way of it for ourselves and others. There is no template for epiphany. Yet, all epiphanies seem to have in common more peace, love and joy grounded in an ability to let go and let God.
The ability to let go and let God is the contemplative move that garners space wherein life-changing epiphanies happen.
Pastor's Page for January 2014
Massud Farzan relates the story of a fox who long ago lived in the deep forest. The fox had lost both its front legs. No one knew how it happened. Perhaps a trap? A man who lived on the edge of the forest, seeing the fox from time to time, wondered how the fox got its food and managed to survive. One day when the fox was not far from him, he hid himself quickly because a tiger was approaching. The tiger had fresh game in its mouth. Lying down on the ground, it ate its fill. The tiger left the rest for the fox.
Again the next day, food providentially came to the fox by that same tiger. The man began to think: “If this fox is taken care of in such a mysterious way, its food seeming to come from God, why don’t I just rest in a corner and have my daily meal provided for me?”
Because the man had a lot of faith, he let the days pass, waiting for food. Nothing happened. He lost weight and strength over a period of months until he was a skeleton. Close to losing consciousness, he heard a Voice saying to him, “O you who have mistaken the way. See the truth! You should have followed the example of the that tiger instead of imitating the disabled fox.”
When do you follow the example of the tiger instead of the disabled fox? I had a friend who was convinced that God would provide him with a job for which he had prepared himself and desperately needed. Like the man in the story, he had great faith. My friend prayed; he fasted; he read his Bible; he retained positive thoughts; he tithed; he did all the things that would have been pleasing to God. He was convinced that God would provide him with his dream, teaching job. When it had not happened after three years, he reassured his friends and family, “God’s timing is not ours.” After five years of not getting that coveted teaching job, my friend said in deep resignation: “We believe things about God that God never said about himself.” Profound thought.
What is it exactly that we should believe about God? Relative to God, what is the proper object of our faith? There is a highly offensive commercial on the radio that is so misleading. The author of the commercial purports to be a former pastor who has made millions in the stock market. He says that there is a “money code” in the Bible that, if followed, will land one financial success. Another wolf in sheep’s clothing who claims to have found a magical formula in the Bible that will give you your heart’s desire. If such a money code existed, why didn’t Jesus and his followers use it instead of relying on contributions from women?
Let us be clear about the object of faith. It is not a financially comfortable life. You can achieve that yourself through a modicum of discipline. There are people who do not care a whit about God who are very well off. They never resorted to a magical “money code.” The object of faith is not a happy, contended life. Pleasant circumstances can give you that. Faith gives you what no human can give you. The object of faith is God. It is to be unified with God, made one with God through the waters of Baptism and sustained by the Eucharist. Faith looks to those sacraments as the place where God is continuously met. If being one with God so fills you that you find the wherewithal to spend money better and thereby prosper, good for you. Being one with God does change you. But, not in some formulaic way that one can bottle and sell to the naïve, separating them from their money.
In 2014, let us seek nothing from God, but God. Let us appreciate the beauty of God in Christ Jesus, a God who lives in us and lives for us. When we worship God, we make God an end, thereby appreciating God’s gracious beauty in which we are empowered by the Holy Spirit to share. This God is a fountain of peace, love and joy.
A wise man once said, “The happiest people are they who realize when enough is enough.” Such people are able to stop all the fuss and just rest in the moment, rest in God in your every moment. It is when you are at rest that you have eyes to see and ears to hear. Then you will know how to imitate the powerful tiger, to use your power to bless yourself and others in 2014.
Pastor's Page for December 2013
A wise person once said, “If our greatest need had been information, then God would have sent us a teacher. If our greatest need had been technology, then God would have sent us a scientist. If our greatest need had been money, then God would have sent us an economist. If our greatest need had been pleasure, then God would have sent us an entertainer.
But, our greatest need was forgiveness; so, God sent us a savior.”
The words of the angel Gabriel to Joseph concerning the Christ Child come to mind, “His name will be Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” That is the message of Christmas. And, that is a message for all people.
I have a friend who has gotten on a kick of referring to Jesus as Yeshua. He no longer refers to our Lord by his Greek name (Jesus), but his Hebrew name (Yeshua). He is convinced that everybody in Jesus’ day referred to him as Yeshua. He thinks that the name Jesus is the product of Greek imperialism and hatred toward Jewish people. The reality is that Jesus lived in a bilingual world, actually a multilingual one. In Jesus’ Palestine, Hebrew would have been used as a liturgical language in the context of worship. Aramaic would have been the everyday language and most folks would have had some facility in Greek and Latin. Jesus would have been comfortable with both his Greek name as well as his Hebrew one. Indeed one can refer to Jesus as Yeshua or “Joshua,” which is what both the Greek Jesus and the Hebrew Yeshua mean. The point is that Jesus is a savior for all people, for the Jew and the Greek, the Roman and the German, the African and the Persian. Indeed wherever the Gospel has gone into the world, people have transliterated Jesus’ name into their languages, tweaking it for their linguistic comfort. All this expresses the universality of the Gospel: Jesus is the Father’s gift of forgiveness of sins for all humanity. “He will save his people from their sins.”
Forgiveness is our greatest need. We tend to make other things our greatest need: finances, love, communication or professional enrichment. Those things are important in the pantheon of being human; there is, however, a hierarchy of needs, and forgiveness is at the top. And, if anything other than forgiveness becomes our greatest need that God addresses, then that changes the nature of theology, the church, and the nature of worship. More importantly, the need for forgiveness is a need that all humans share despite their varied circumstances, and that need has eternal ramifications, for through forgiveness we are brought into a loving relationship with God.
Today, we hear sermons about time management or some other modern and postmodern quandary perceived to be our most felt need. God the Father, however, knows best. God knows what trips us up in life, namely sin. It would be the height of absurdity for God to deal with anything other than sin, death and the devil, spiritual realities over which we have no power. Being incompetent in your career will not damn you. The mismanagement of time and money will not damn you. That being the case, the ultimate purpose of worship, then, is the context wherein to meet your savior from sin, death and the devil in Word and Sacrament. Worship is not free therapy. It is not a session on life enhancement. It is place where Jesus meets you to heal, forgive and empower you through the Holy Spirit in God’s chosen media of Word and Sacrament.
We are entering the season of worship with Advent and Christmas. Once again, we shall sing with the angels, Gloria Deo in Excelsis, “Glory to God in the highest.” Indeed glory to God in the highest, for God has done the unfathomable: God has become one of us. In the Christ Child we have a savior who has accomplished wonderful things for us. “For unto us is born this day in the city of David a savior, who is Christ the king.”