Archive for December, 2011

Paul Sounds Like John

Today’s lectionary reading comes from Romans 13:11-14. In this short passage, Paul speaks about changing our behavior, and he discusses timing…mainly utilizing the visual of night and day.  On a personal note, I’ve been spending a lot of time in John’s gospel the past week or so in preparation for a possible theme for Lent (which is only a couple months away if you can believe that). One of the strongest themes of John is light in the darkness…namely that Jesus is the light in the darkness. This short little passage in Romans definitely reminds me of the same thing…but then Paul does that. I recall preaching a sermon last spring in one of my classes that came out of one of Paul’s letters (can’t recall which one off the top of my head though) and in this letter, he sounded exactly like John…I think I even made that statement in the sermon. But enough of these side notes, onto the real stuff.

Interestingly enough, this passage talks about day/night more in terms of sleeping. Paul will talk about this from time to time, and in many ways it reminds me of some of the things that Jesus himself would say from time to time. Here, Paul talks about the night passing and day approaching. We need to wake up and act in a way that is proper for the day. With the passage of the night, our deeds are visible. We can be seen and so we should act in a way that reveals the truth of what we believe. Based on this notion, it would seem that Paul is discussing the example that we set, or the witness that our actions provide.  That certainly seems to be the case in verses 13 and 14.

I find it interesting to think about the process of sanctification. While this passage doesn’t necessary talk about sanctification, it certainly places me in that mind set. When Christ begins to rule our lives, we are changed and as we continue to live our lives with Christ our lives begin to reflect that change. We become more like Christ. I appreciate Paul’s words in verse 14 when he says to put on the Lord Jesus Christ, as if Christ was a set o clothes. That being said, I reference back to verse 12 when Paul says to put on the armor of light. Well here’s an example of Paul sounding like John. Think of John 1, Jesus is the light in the darkness. What else could be the “armor of light” than Christ himself.

I also appreciate the words that Paul uses when he says “let us lay aside the works of darkness. Now, as I’ve said before, we do nothing to obtain our salvation. But we are called to change in response to it. I believe that’s what Paul is telling us here. One faith comes upon you…once you have received the free gift of grace in Christ, start to clean things up. Perhaps it is the Spirit within us that helps us recognize when these so-called works of darkness are present. In short, we might not recognize them right away…but when we do, we are called to respond. Again, it’s not a case of earning our way into salvation or even maintaining it by our works…Our works/actions are a response of gratefulness to the gift we receive.

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Salvation is for All…But What Does That Mean

Today’s lectionary reading comes from Romans 10:5-10. This is a portion of what has been called the “Romans Road” in some circles. This title is based on the notion that Romans presents Paul’s strongest argument or message of the Gospel of Christ. While I question whether or not this is actually the case, I do agree that Romans is a great book. This portion is not exception. That being said, it does add fuel to the fire that rages in my own mind as I struggle with the idea of the universality of Christ’s sacrifice. More on that in a bit.

Within this portion of Romans, Paul is making a comparison between the law and faith in Christ. Moses comes into the argument, though briefly. In short, it is very apparent in these 5 verses (and particularly in about 2 of them) that Paul places all his eggs in the Jesus basket. As I go back and reread this section of scripture again, I notice that Paul seems to strike down the act of questioning within the realm of final judgement.Interestingly enough that relates to my question of universality, so maybe this is a beneficial road for me to go down as well. Let’s see where it takes us.

First Paul lays out the questions that all too often come to mind for us…”Who will go to heaven” and “who will go to hell” (verses 6-7). Speaking as a confirmation teacher to junior high students, I know that this is a common question. I think many people face this same question at many different times in their lives. Obviously I’m still dealing with it as well. In a nutshell, I think this question of “which direction will that person go?” falls into the category of judgement. The danger of asking ourselves this question (and worse yet trying to answer it) places us in the judgement seat…and that is a seat that none of us have any business sitting in. Christ himself will sit there at the proper time…for reference, remember the Apostles Creed, second article…He will come again to judge the living and the dead.

So that being said, I begin to see what Paul is saying when he tells us “righteousness that comes from faith says ‘Do not say in your heard who will ascend into heaven…or who will descend into the abyss…” Namely, he’s saying that if our faith is sincere, we don’t even need to consider these questions. We realize that our own salvation is found in faith and we are in no place to pass judgement on others. Now at this point, Paul goes on to explain faith a little closer. “If you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved” (verse 9). He goes on as well…hitting the point a little harder in verse 10. “For one believes with the heart and so is justified, and one confesses with the mouth and so is saved.”

Now, hiding here in these two verses, and specifically in verse 9 lies the key to why we cannot be the judge. First he says that we must confess Jesus as Lord…well yes, I agree, this is crucial…but anyone can say the words. In my opinion the “confession” is not the key because we have the ability to say anything….simply saying it doesn’t make it true.  But now the next part is a little harder…believe in your heart. Here’s the real key. Do you actually believe it? Only you know for sure…well you and the one that can actually look into your heart…God himself. Only God has the ability to judge what is truly in our hearts. We, as humans, do not have the ability to make that call for someone else…period…end of story.

Now Paul does go on with further explanation of this concept in the following verses, and so I invite you to read on for further clarification if this is still unclear.

I on the other hand am going to circle back around to the notion of universality. Now, you should note that I do this carefully. The idea earned Rob Bell a lot of criticism when he released his book Love Wins a year or so ago. But it is a question that I struggle with. If Christ came to save the world (John 1), but Romans tells us that we must believe in our heart and confess it, then is there a condition? I’ll clarify…by condition I don’t mean to indicate that we have anything to do with our salvation…I’m way too Lutheran in my thinking to go there. Rather, I go back to the idea that faith comes from the Holy Spirit. Specifically that it is the word of God within us that allows us to understand and thus have faith in Christ.

There’s the tricky part for me…or more so the question…If faith comes from God, then why do some have it and some don’t? If God wants all to be saved (John 1 again)…then why does the Spirit only “place” faith in certain people? Do we have the ability to resist? The whole notion of free will certainly plays into this personal mental argument that I find myself in.

In short, I don’t have the answer and that’s why I’m still wrestling with this topic.  Today, as I read Romans 10, I take a little bit of solace in the notion that I know the truth that’s in my own heart and is confessed on my lips. Jesus is Lord and he died for the salvation of my sins.  I can rest in that…and I can pray that when I confess it, the Holy Spirit will use it to stir the heart of someone else. I can’t make it happen, but I can hope for it. Today that’s enough.

Pa Rum Pum Pum Pum

One of the real perks of being a pastor is the opportunity to support congregational members in the ministry that God calls them to do outside (as well as inside) the church walls. I see this as a way to enhance the kingdom of Heaven but offering this support and encouragement once the person has identified their specific calling. Now, if you know me well, you’ve probably heard me talk about the notion of the priesthood of all believers. Specifically, that we each do have a unique calling within the kingdom.

Paul talks about this topic in Romans 12:4-5 when he says “For just as each of us has one body with many members, and these members do not all have the same function,  so in Christ we, though many, form one body, and each member belongs to all the others.” I love these verses and find them extremely applicable both to my own ministry as well as times when I’m helping/supporting another in their ministry.

Now, that background being said, this past week I had the opportunity to listen to a message by a member of my congregation. Sarah Beckman of Eden Prairie, MN runs a ministry called Salt and Clay Ministries (check it out on Facebook here, then like it). Within her ministry, Sarah is a speaker and from what I hear, she has many engagements. One of them is a monthly gig at Dunn Brothers in Eden Prairie, where she presents Seasonings with Sarah. I’ve been taking in these events for the past few months since starting my internship at Prairie Lutheran Church, and while they’ve all been great, the latest one really struck me.

The overarching theme of this message was game-changers. Sarah spoke about 3 different “minor characters” within Jesus’ birth narrative that present “game-changing” moments. Now, she’s actually presenting the same message again tomorrow so I won’t ruin the whole deal for any that might be going. However, I do want to highlight one thing. Sarah book-ended the message with Scrabble and as a reminder had Scrabble tiles that people could take with them.

When it came time to pick a tile, most of the people in attendance on Friday dug around to pick a specific letter. I went a different direction. I wanted to see what God would give me. After digging around blindly I pulled out an O. Then the question (both in my head as well as from a few other people) was “So what does O mean?”

I didn’t know. It only hit me today as I spent a moment staring at the tile which is directly under the monitor of my computer.

Offering. O stands for Offering.

But then the next question hit me…Why does God want me to think about Offering today?

As we approach Christmas in just a few more days, there are tons of Christmas songs playing everywhere. One very popular song started playing in my mind as I thought about this whole situation…offering, Sarah’s ministry, my personal call to help others to embrace their own role in ministry. The song is Little Drummer Boy.

In my mind, the song really speaks to the question which we all ask of “What do I have to give?”  That is the song that the boy is asking himself when faced with the chance to come before the new born king. What gift could he offer? What role could he fill? Keep that in mind as you read the lyrics to the song itself.

Come they told me Pa rum pum pum pum
A new born King to see, Pa rum pum pum pum
Our finest gifts we bring Pa rum pum pum pum
To lay before the King Pa rum pum pum pum
Rum pum pum pum Rum pum pum pum
So to honor Him Pa rum pum pum pum,
When we come.

Little Baby Pa rum pum pum pum
I am a poor boy too, Pa rum pum pum pum
I have no gift to bring Pa rum pum pum pum
That’s fit to give our King Pa rum pum pum pum
Rum pum pum pum Rum pum pum pum
Shall I play for you! Pa rum pum pum
On my drum.

Mary nodded Pa rum pum pum pum
The ox and lamb kept time Pa rum pum pum pum
I played my drum for Him Pa rum pum pum
I played my best for Him Pa rum pum pum pum
Rum pum pum pum Rum pum pum pum
Then He smiled at me Pa rum pum pum pum
Me and my drum

Very simply, the boy offers something of himself to the new born Jesus. Isn’t that what we are all called to do? God wants us, just as we are. Yes we are flawed people…no doubt there. But God loved us enough to humble himself and take on flesh. He experienced life just as each of us to. All he asks is that we come to him…just as we are. That is what we can offer. That is what we can do. There is no other reason for God to accept it other than the fact that His love for each of us is so unfathomably huge. He asks only that we present ourselves to him. That is our offering. That is why I pulled an O out of the bin.

So, as we come up on Christmas this weekend, and celebrate the birth of the King of Kings. Remember that he came into the world because he loves you. And that my friends is a game-changer.

Hebrews 1…A Go To For Confirmation Kids

Today’s lectionary reflection is taken from Hebrews 1:1-4. On a personal note, in order to explain what I’m talking about in the title, I’ve come back to this particular passage several times since beginning this current program year at my internship site at Prairie Lutheran Church in Eden Prairie, MN. 2 or 3 times ‘ve had students ask me why God doesn’t seem to speak to us directly like in the Old Testament. This is the passage that I bring up for them to explain it.  Also, in a mostly unrelated note, the very first time I preached, way back in college (so we’re talking sometime in early 2001 here), I utilized this passage. I don’t recall if this was the focal scripture or not but I definitely referenced it.

The heading given to this portion of scripture is “God has spoken by His Son.” Verses 1 and 2 open with a direct answer to the question presented by the confirmation kids. “Long ago God spoke to our ancestors in many and various ways by the prophets, but in these last days has has spoke to us by a Son…” Interesting…so right here in Hebrews we see that Jesus ushered in a change. Now granted we know that…new covenant in his blood and all that…not to mention all the other teachings that we hear about. But specifically, here in Hebrews we hear about a change in the way that God communicates with humanity. No longer are their prophets out there on mountainsides hollering out “Thus sayith the Lord!” (well, actually there still might be but we tend to question their validity these days).

Now, this raises a question. Just how does Jesus speak to us since he has gone on to Heaven? Great question, and its usually the follow up that comes from the kids when I present them with this passage. Well, Jesus continues to speak to us through scripture for one. We hear his story through the 4 Gospels. We hear some of his teachings here. We also hear them throughout the rest of the New Testament as well. So, in short, Jesus’ words are recorded within the Bible itself. Also, Jesus tells us that he will send the “advocate” (or Holy Spirit) several times in John (14:26, 15:26, and 16:7). He also says that the advocate will remind us of his (Jesus) words and teach us all things.

All that being said, this passage does raise some questions. In verse 2, we read that the Son was appointed heir of all things. Also in verse 3 we hear that he is “the reflection of God’s glory and the exact imprint of Go’s very being…” Certainly this can raise the question of whether or not Jesus is separate from God…a debate which has raged within the doctrine of the church for centuries (and has produced several heretics along the way as well).  In my head, this portion of the passage simply indicates the separate nature of the members of the Trinity. 1 God, 3 natures…or 3 persons if you will…Father, Son, Holy Spirit. Each is fully God, but is a separate aspect of God.  So in short, what I’m suggesting here is that Hebrews 1:2-3 is telling us that Jesus is the “portion of God” that was put in charge of creation (verse 2) and is the physical image of the glory of God (verse 3). Gray area perhaps, but that’s my take on it.

Now verse 3 also raises another interesting point…that in which Jesus participates in creation. Yes, he had not taken physical form at the creation of the world in the beginning, but yet he was there to participate in it. But here in verse 3 we also hear that “he had made purification of sins.” This happened at his death on the cross. At this point, purification was made or created. It had not truly happened until this moment. Jesus himself…created true purification from sinfulness. Personally I think this is a very big deal. It was his purpose on Earth, at least in the first go round and when that had occurred, he was able to head off to Heaven for the time being. We see that in the wording of this phrase. “WHEN he had made purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high…”

So we see here that not only was Jesus involved in the original creation, but that he also continues to participate in God’s ongoing active creation. Pretty big news if you ask me.  There is certainly a lot going on here in these 4 short verses.

5 Myths Followup

I’ve taken some time to revisit the posted article Five Myths about Young Adult Church Dropouts presented by the Barna Group that I referenced briefly yesterday. While I’d be interested to see the results of their research in greater detail, I do have some comments to throw out in conjunction with what they presented in the article.  Keep in mind that what I’m presenting here today is simply my opinion based on my own observations, limited though they might be. I don’t have any research to back this up. Again, it’s only my opinion based on my experience.

Myth 1: Most people lose their faith when they leave high school.
I appreciate the terms listed in the article describing the different routes that young people might travel in terms of how their personal faith effects their lives outside of the church. Breaking it up into categories is a good reminder that not every story is the same. While they might not be the terms that I myself would choose, they still indicate the reality of difference within this group of people.

I find it helpful to remember the comment in the article which states [the real issue] “is about the various ways that young people become disconnected in their spiritual journey.” In short, it’s not so much about young people losing the faith that they have as opposed to becoming distanced from the church organization itself.  The article also implies that it is a lack of spiritual guidance in the younger formative years that gives this result.

Personally, I think there’s something to this. I grew up in a smaller church, very traditional Lutheran. It was my experience that the majority of young people associated with the church left after confirmation. At that time, this occurred in 8th grade, so the trend happened a little earlier than the myth presents, but seemed to be similar in scope. That being said, my personal experience was not so much losing faith that I had, but rather not yet having faith. I was absent throughout high school and only came back to the church in my college days.

Myth 2: Dropping out of church is just a natural part of young adults’ maturation.
Here the article presents some interesting data indicating that this has not always been the case. Having discussed faith with many people in the generation preceding the Boomers, I would agree. But did the trend start with the Boomers? Well, I don’t know, I’ll have to take their word for it in this case. I do agree that there is a natural curiosity within young people about other religious beliefs. Having taught several years of confirmation classes aimed at gaining a bird’s eye view of different religions, I can attest to this curiosity. Granted, my experience also comes from the perspective of predominantly Christian upbringing (mixed between practicing believers and those that simply identify with Christianity in general…a throw back to the days of Christendom to be sure). However, in a society that becomes increasingly diverse both culturally and religiously, this tendency diminishes all the time.

I have heard people discuss their own stories in a way that might support this myth. A sort of “absence makes the heart grow fonder” type sentiment towards their faith. While this wasn’t exactly my own situation, I can see how it might be true for some. That being said, I disagree with the notion that it is a natural part of the process of maturation. Rather, I believe that it is more of a result of pluralism, both religious and social. As young people grow and develop, they try different things…they rebel…or they simply walk away from what had been normal in their younger years. Some come back, some don’t.

Myth 3: College experiences are the key factor that cause people to drop out.
Here I would say yes…to a point. While I don’t think that college itself is the “Christian enemy,” I do see a strong tendency for college age people to step away from active church involvement. Perhaps it comes from being out from under the direct influence of parents. Perhaps it is the experience of being in a new place and not knowing what church resources are available. Maybe its both, maybe it’s neither. My experience was a little different. As I mentioned, I came back to the church in college, though admittedly I experimented with different churches (or church-shopped if that’s what you want to call it). I left the church that I had grown up in (and I mean both the individual congregation as well as the denomination). Part of this was location, I was at college half way across the state and couldn’t make it to worship at my old church. Part of this was also experiential. I enjoyed contemporary worship, which was not the experience at my old congregation.  Following college, I returned to the Lutheran denomination and settled in a congregation that harbored contemporary worship (something which is becoming more and more normal within the ELCA).

I agree with the statement in the article that many young people lack relationships with older Christians that can help them navigate these waters. It’s been my observation that youth group tends to end at graduation and many congregations neglect this specific age group. Unfortunately they are left to their own devices. Perhaps the trend of college church drop outs isn’t surprising when we think about it.

Myth 4: This generation of young Christians is increasingly “biblically illiterate.”
I have to agree with the article in terms of this myth. Perhaps this is a throw back to the same issue discussed in myth #2, but Bible illiteracy stretches way beyond our youth. As a seminary student that has many classes that force me into the Bible narrative, I’ve grown much more accustomed and familiar with Bible literacy than I was four or five years ago. Even as a believer, there was much in the Bible that was unfamiliar. Even now there are still portions that I need to further explore. As I find myself in a situation within a congregation of exploring the entire Biblical narrative together (not to mention an almost identical situation in the congregation where my wife serves), I’m amazed to here how unfamiliar many adults are with the stories as well. Honestly, I’m shocked at times and need to remind myself that not everyone is in Bible classes in seminary.

Now, all that being said, I’m constantly amazed when I have the privilege of visiting with older congregational members to hear their amazing knowledge of the Bible. I can only assume that it comes from years of reading it. It seems that each one of those people tend to have a very old, well worn copy of the Bible sitting on their end tables when I stop by. It seems very likely that the two are connected.

Myth 5: Young people will come back to church like they always do.
I know the story. “I didn’t do much with church in my younger years. But when I started having kids I just thought I should get them to church. You know, raise them the right way.”

I’ve heard that many times. For some, it works. There are, admittedly, examples of people who came back to the church when they had children and stayed due to a new found faith. Those are successes faith-wise. But as the article conveys, it’s not the rule. More and more people leave the church (at whatever age) and stay gone. The article goes back to the notion of lacking Christian mentors, and I think there is really something to this. I have had the opportunity to be mentored both directly and indirectly in my own time of personal formation through my 20’s, and this continues now in my 30’s. How better to learn to deal with situations (spiritually or otherwise) than from those that have been through similar situations themselves. It’s a blessing to be on the receiving end and then to be able to pass it along as well.
Conclusion
Do I have one? Well, I don’t know. I guess as a whole, I would say that I appreciate this article and I think they make some excellent points. I don’t think that the church has turned a blind eye to this problem either. More and more often I see churches that are investing in our youth both through programing and staff, but this is also more common in larger congregations. Perhaps that is evidence of the change from small rural style congregations into larger ones. Available resources certainly play into the ability of a congregation to have these programs/people.

In the end, I guess I would say that the biggest hurdle we need to get over in terms of keeping young people in the church is to continue to focus and invest in them. Young people will go where they feel valued, recognized, and appreciated. If we continue to consider them (and I’m talking all the way down to our newborns) the “church of tomorrow” there won’t be one. Faith can and should start from day one. The church is the people and Jesus doesn’t discriminate by age. If we treat them as second class members, they won’t stay. They’ll go somewhere where they feel important. All too often, that’s not in a church…period.

Fascinating Read About Youth Leaving the Church

Real quick, I just wanted to give some props to this blog posting. I need to take a closer look and then will comment further, but at first glance I think this is really some important stuff to take into account.

 

5 Myths about Yong Adult Church Dropouts

The organization that presented this posting is the Barna Group…Anyone know anything about them?

More to come soon.

Jesus On a Colt

Today’s lectionary reading comes from Mark 11:1-11. This is Mark’s account of Jesus’ triumphant entry into Jerusalem.

On a personal note, I’ve always found this particular story a little bit odd. The scholar in me knows that it is included as a way to bridge between the early prophetic writings (ie Zechariah in this case) and Jesus (more on that momentarily). But beyond that, it just seems a little strange considering what happens in the following days.

One thing is clear as we come into this story. Jesus is approaching Jerusalem for what he knows will be his final days before the passion (note, for explanation of “the passion” see here…God bless you wikipedia). Things are wrapping up, but due to the tone of this particular passage, it would seem that they are going to end on a high note. However we know the ending don’t we? Despite the positive note that we see here, things end rather badly.

In his commentary on biblegateway.com Matthew Henry discusses the importance of Jesus loud public entry into the city. He’s not coming in quietly. Rather he comes in full view of everyone, in a very public spectacle. Jesus knows what’s going to happen, but he shows no fear of the city itself nor the powers present within it.

It would seem that the people really respond to him as well. We hear them crying out Hosanna and shouting blessings. They recognize that Jesus represents the throne of David promised by God 1000 years prior (verses 9-10). Ironically, the crowds are quickly dispersed as the days go on. I’ve heard it said that some of the very same people were present in the mob crying out for Jesus to be killed just a few days later. So what happened? When I reflect on this idea, and think about how quickly the crowds turned against him, I find myself convicted. Specifically, this reminds me at just how easy it is to turn from Jesus when the going gets tough. Sure it’s easy to be on the “Jesus team” when things are looking good, but do we support him when the tides turn? Or do we change our tune from Hosanna to Crucify him! Keep in mind that even the disciples failed this test. They may not have been crying out against him, but they weren’t standing with him either.

Now, that being said, I’ll return the small point I made in the beginning…the whole colt thing. Why is this significant? Why is this detail of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem important enough to be included in all 4 gospels? (Note, that there are few things that are mentioned all 4 times, so this is a pretty big deal). Well, as I mentioned before, Zechariah talks about this very situation in ch 9:9. “Rejoice greatly, o daughter Zion! Shout aloud, o daughter Jerusalem! Lo your king comes to you; triumphant and victorious is he, humble and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey.” This entire chapter of Zechariah talks about the coming king and  and salvation for the people of God. We know that the words of the prophets are a big deal to the people of Israel, and we see a pretty direct prediction. I’m reminded of portions of the Nicene Creed which talk about Jesus life being in accordance to the Scriptures and that God speaks through the prophets. It’s really a way of seeing that God’s been working this direction for a long time…for reference, Zechariah was active approximately 500BC.

So in retrospect, it seems hat there is a lot going on in this passage, and on a final personal note, maybe I shouldn’t underestimate these passages that, at first glance, seem insignificant.