Saturday, May 30, 2015

What the Trinity Teaches Us
“I baptize you in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.”
These are some of my favorite words to speak as a pastor. The Holy Triune name of God is at once foundational to the faith and one of its most beautiful mysteries.  I think all too often we mere mortals assume that mysteries are problems or riddles to be solved.  As Christians I think we would be better served to see God’s mysteries as beautiful reminders of God’s wonder and Holiness. This is very true in the case of the Holy Trinity. Many of the heresies that the early church actively resisted and taught against were the result of trying to explain and understand the Holy Trinity in human terms; they all fall short and create falsehoods.

However when we set aside our need to fully understand this glorious mystery, we can begin to see what it does reveal about who God is. And what a blessing we find!! Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are all terms that speak to a relationship. With the name of the Trinity we find a transcendent all-powerful God who desires to be in relationship with men and women, and I am not talking about any kind of relationship but that of a loving father—the kind of Father who you would share secrets with and go to for advice, the kind of Father whose lap would be welcoming after a spat with your best friend, the kind of Father that you could call Daddy your whole life long. The best part is that not only does the holy Triune name show us the kind of relationship God wants with us; it also reminds us how God makes those possible. We are claimed as sons and daughters through the incarnation of God’s Son, that is to say through the birth, life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ our Lord, God claims us as His own. We are empowered to trust this promise through the work of the Holy Spirit. The God, whose self-revealed name in the first covenant was perceived as too holy to say, gives us a new name in the new covenant that shows how much He desires us. How radical is that?  So the Holy Trinity might make your head hurt as you do theological somersaults trying to understand it, but more so it should make your heart glad as you are reminded how much God desires YOU. 

Saturday, May 23, 2015

The Everyday Work of the Spirit
A critique often leveled against Lutherans and other mainline Protestants is that we have ignored the Holy Spirit or shoved It to the sidelines. And although I think the mainline in large part needs to be more able to recognize the work of the Holy Spirit and willing to talk about it, I also think that the critique often comes from an incomplete understanding of the work of the Holy Spirit.   And I think all too often this incomplete understanding is shared by people on both sides of the complaint.
You see usually when mention of the Holy Spirit’s work is made what is being talked about is the more wondrous and spectacular things that the Spirit has done—things like speaking in tongues, being slain in the spirit, faith healing, and epic conversion experiences akin to St. Paul’s and St. Francis—things that some have called “the sign gifts” because they show God’s power in supernatural ways. (I even heard one theologian call these things the “extras”.) And although I believe that the Spirit can and will manifest itself in these miraculous and supernatural ways, I also believe that if the Holy Spirit’s work is limited to the things that we see infrequently and we see the Spirit’s role in the Holy Trinity as that of Performer, not only do we incorrectly speak of the Trinity but we also fail to see the primary  and more regular work of the Holy Spirit.
            You see the first and foremost work of the Holy Spirit is creating faith in Jesus Christ. As Paul says in his first letter to the Corinthians:
Therefore I want you to know that no one who is speaking by the Spirit of God says, “Jesus be cursed,” and no one can say, “Jesus is Lord,” except by the Holy Spirit.
And again this was also paraphrased by Martin Luther in his explanation of the third article in the small catechism:
I believe that I cannot by my own reason or strength believe in Jesus Christ, my Lord, or come to Him; but the Holy Ghost has called me by the Gospel, enlightened me with His gifts, sanctified and kept me in the true faith; even as He calls, gathers, enlightens, and sanctifies the whole Christian Church on earth, and keeps it with Jesus Christ in the one true faith; in which Christian Church He forgives daily and richly all sins to me and all believers, and at the last day will raise up me and all the dead, and will give to me and to all believers in Christ everlasting life. This is most certainly true.

            One of the reasons that Lutherans may be perceived as downplaying the Holy Spirit is that we have always been “2nd article Christians,” that is, Christians who emphasize the life and work of Jesus Christ. I think that the work of Christ is how God brings salvation. So let us keep emphasizing the incarnation of God’s son in the birth, life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, and let’s keep proclaiming the salvation won for us on the cross. And let’s use our next breath to acknowledge that our life-giving faith is a product not of our own reason and deduction. But is indeed made possible by the gift of the Holy Spirit, God’s very presence living and working in and through us.
            Because you see, brothers and sisters, the truth is that Christians witness the work of the Holy Spirit all the time. When a church welcomes another family member through the sacrament of Holy Baptism, infant or adult, we witness the work of the Holy Spirit making connections among us.  When we as the church discern what and who God is calling the church to be, we can thank the Holy Spirit. When we see Christians find a place where they can serve God’s church with their gifts and their passions, we can thank the Holy Spirit. When we are driven to our knees in prayer in the wonderful and terrible times in our lives, the Holy Spirit has led us there. When we hear of Christian brothers and sisters around the world standing on the truth in the face of persecution and death, we can thank for the Holy Spirit for such bold faith. Similarly this Memorial Day weekend as we thank God for people who were convicted and moved to lay down their lives for their fellow citizens, we are acknowledging the work of the Holy Spirit.
            Brothers and sisters, the Holy Spirit is doing great work in you. Let us not celebrate once a year but every day. Let us not talk about it briefly among each other, but let us proclaim from the rooftops to those who need to be convinced of God’s work. You are a spirit-filled Christian;   do not let the world…. Or the church tell you otherwise.

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

What Prayers and Purrs Have in Common
We have a cat; Oliver is his name. We rescued him from our church’s community garden when he was a kitten. With Heather and Oliver it was love at first sight.  From day 1 we noticed our furry family member’s temperament. He was playful, social, and cuddly. Thankfully he has never lost this; Oliver is a lover. I love nothing more after a difficult day to lie down and get a face-ful of feline love. His love is always accompanied by a steady full bodied purr.  Purring is a sign of joy and satisfaction.
In Psalm 1:2 we read “but his delight is in the law[b] of the Lord, and on his law he meditates day and night.” The word “meditate” may invoke the image of someone sitting Indian style in silence with their eyes closed. And for many that maybe what it is. But the word in Hebrew, “hagah,” is very different. It is also used in scripture to describe the growls of a lion before its prey. Not the warning kind of growl that you may hear from your neighbor’s dog as if to say “don’t come any closer; you belong on the other side of the street” But a growl of elation after the thrill of the chase and in anticipation of the fresh meal. In Eat This Book Eugene Peterson likens it to the purr of a cat and the playful yelps of his dog as he gnaws on a fresh bone.
What if our prayers were like Oliver’s full-bodied purrs as he climbs into my lap and finds his rest in my bosom? What if as Christian disciples our prayer was less about our desire to ace the math test or for our Aunt Sally to not be sick anymore but more about a deep yearning to be with God?  What if instead of praying for the things we need to live, we realize we need prayer to live? What if instead of being a means to an end, our prayer was an end in itself?
Prayer is so much more than conversation with God—it is communion with God. What is the difference? Communion can include conversation but not always. It can also include an embrace, a knowing glance, and shared tears. I have been in ministry situations when I have sat in silence holding a hand simply because in some situations there is absolutely nothing to say. This can also be the case in our time with God. Sometimes silence is golden, and less is more.
 I think sometimes prayer has become just one more thing to put on our checklist in our busy world. In a world of takers, God has become just another service provider—a place to go to fulfill our desires and get our latest fix. When we do this, not only do we sell God short; we sell ourselves short. You see we were created to yearn for God—or as many theologians and writers have reflected on, we are all born with a God-shaped hole. And in the incarnation of Jesus Christ God reveals himself to us, He shows us that he too wants to be in relationship with us, He in fact makes this relationship possible.
I would like to challenge you all to me more prayerful in all things, beginning with worship. As you recite the liturgy, linger on the words that God’s people have spoken for millennia; savor them like you are speaking them for the first time. As you hear God’s word read from scripture and proclaimed as the Gospel, remember those words are for YOU, a gift from the Creator of the universe. As your pastor places the bread or wafer in your hand, feel it and taste it, let it sink in that in that moment you are at the Lord’s table receiving His life-giving body and blood.
And between Sundays we remain in His presence. Look for sacred reminders of that and don’t try to dull your desire for God by filling your life with idols. Instead give the PERFECT God thanks that He has filled your life with GOOD things. Open your mind and heart to the ways that God is speaking to you through others and through experiences. Open scripture and let the Holy Spirit reveal to you anew the grace and mercy of God.

Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Songs in The Night
Prayer begins with God’s Presence
10 But none says, ‘Where is God my Maker,
    who gives songs in the night,
11 who teaches us more than the beasts of the earth

    and makes us wiser than the birds of the heavens?’ Job 35:10-11

            Over the last year or so God has really called me to be more vigilant in my prayer life. In this time prayer has become something of a passion for me. I have sought to gather some local pastors for weekly prayer together and I have strived to hold up prayer for both my family and my congregation. As a result of this direction of my personal piety it seems like my radar has become more sensitive to Bible verses that speak on the subject of prayer. So as I prepared my Job Bible study last week these verses from the books 35th chapter jumped off the page. With these words the young Elihu develops an understanding of prayer, even a theology of prayer that I would like to break down, saving songs in the night for last for reasons that will become clear.  

Where is God my Maker”- Prayer begins with God, not our wants or needs, but God and His presence. This can seen in the Lord’s Prayer as well. Jesus’ prayer did not begin with our daily bread, not even with God’s will, but with God, his presence and his nature, “Our Father who art in Heaven, hallowed be thy Name”  Our prayers don’t make God present, He is already present, our prayers seek, honor, and intentionally place ourselves in that presence. Much like the young child who reaches out and cries for a nearby parent whose presence pre-existed the cries for comfort.

who teaches us more than the beasts of the earth and makes us wiser than the birds of the heavens?’- More than any other conversation prayer changes us and challenges us to grow. As we spend time with God we learn more about Him and also about ourselves. It is in this context we find our petitions and intercessions always come with the greater petition “Thy will be done.” We find that the more we let God teach us the more we find ourselves seeking to align our will with His.

Who gives us songs in the night” This image hit me so hard I have chosen it as the title of my midweek Devotions, of which this is the first. The Night is a metaphor for suffering and struggle. To be given “songs in the night” means to be able to experience suffering and struggle with hope and even joy. As I pondered this I was reminded of Paul’s letter to the Philippians being written from a cold prison cell, or Bonhoeffer and Walter Ciszek whose faithfulness to their calls led them to imprisonment and persecution. And also my mother who was able to face cancer and death with an amazing amount of faith and integrity. Who has sung for you songs in the night? Music in the face of pain that can only come from God. I have chosen this as the title of my midweek devotions because this desire to write more has come out of a deepening prayer life. So my prayer is that these words that find their way into your inbox hopefully weekly are not just my words, but they are words given me by God, like Elihu’s song in the night. Also although I don’t claim to suffer like many others, I know the all too common tendency to divorce God from the daily grind of vocational and family life. I write these words in the midst of that grind and I offer them to you as a sacred pause in the midst of that daily grind, to remind us that God is present giving us “songs in the night.” Let us pray.
            Ever-present God,
            Your faithfulness and unconditional love are amazing. Help us remember how amazing when we may want to forget. Teach us more about who you are and who you call us to be so we may sing your praises even when we may not want to. We pray all this in Christ’s holy name. Amen

Monday, October 21, 2013

From Where Does our Help Come Genesis 32:22-31, Psalm 121, 2 Timothy 3:14-4:5, Luke 18:1-8

Where Does Our Help Come From I have a habit that really annoys Heather, actually probably a couple… But the one that I am thinking about this morning is probably less of a habit and more of a mannerism, I have a tendency to ask a question but before anybody else answers it, I answer it myself. I do this enough that every time it happens it is pointed out to me. I can’t think of an example off the top of my head but often includes locating something. Much like the psalmist who wrote today’s psalm. I’m not sure that he is afflicted with what Heather has affectionately called refrigerator blindness but he is in a desperate need to locate something. And often times asking the question is part of finding the answer as we see in the first two verses of today’s psalm. I lift up my eyes to the hills— from where will my help come? 2 My help comes from the LORD, who made heaven and earth. You see often times people look inward for help and never find it. Sometimes we look to other just as flawed people for help and walk away let down and betrayed. Sometimes we look to imperfect and finite things for help and end up as empty as before, the latest fix just leaves as craving the next fix. But today’s psalmist found the help he needed by looking to the Lord. After asking the question the psalmist goes on to describe the nature of this help. There seems to three key words in his description of God’s help, keeping, watching, and preserving. These things all speak to me about God’s unfailing and everlasting presence in our lives. Those other places we go for help will run dry and run out. But God’s help, his protection, his comfort, and his blessings begin at conception and are eternal. Jacob also realized that ultimately he needed to depend on God. His whole life he schemed and worked for what he wanted, even if it belonged to others. He planned on how to steal his brother Esau’s birthright out from under him, he went 7 years working to earn the right to marry the love of his life. And in so doing he became a well-off influential man. But he knew something was missing. Today we meet him as he prepares to attempt reconciliation with his brother, his past misdeeds weighed on him and this was a difficult task. He needed strength and assurance from the well that doesn’t run dry. That is what leads us to today’s encounter with this holy angelic stranger. The encounter is what he needed but it wasn’t too pleasant. It is often described as a wrestling match and Jacob walked away with a limp. Asking for help isn’t always easy, and sometimes receiving help is downright hard. Sometimes help is good and necessary but not comfortable, it may call for a drastic change of perspective or lifestyle. Sometimes improvement of our circumstances or conditions call for pain and struggle, sometimes looking to the hills for help after looking elsewhere for so long comes with a brightness that can hurt our eyes. I am reminded of the quote from the Lion, Witch and the Wardrobe. “Safe?” said Mr. Beaver; “don’t you hear what Mrs. Beaver tells you? Who said anything about safe? ‘Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good. He’s the King, I tell you.” You see the help that today’s psalmist talks about isn’t about being comfortable or even happy, we can find other things to make us happy or comfortable. God’s help however is about drawing us closer to Him, seeing the world in the way He wants us too, choosing right over wrong and good over evil more often than not, and it is about not letting guilt cripple us when we don’t. Those of you who are parents may understand this kind of help better than others. Sometimes the most helpful thing we can do for our children is say no and make them do homework or errands, those things we would never choose to do on our own yet will work to make us better people. Creating boundaries is a necessary job of any parent, especially our Father in heaven. Yes, this morning Jacob walked away with a limp. But what a blessed limp it was. For with that limp Jacob walked right into the open arms of his estranged brother. With that limp he walked right into a new identity, Jacob receives a new name, Israel, one who has wrestled with God, an identity that will be claimed by a whole nation of God’s people. People who know as our psalmist reminds us the undying and unsleeping hand and care of their Lord and God. That is another thing I really liked in the psalm. The author makes the connection between God being the keeper of Israel and your keeper. Your relationship with God isn’t some private matter exists because of some decision you made in a vacuum. We can look to the hills for our help because God has made us part of His family through the nurture of the church. We have spent some time over the last couple weeks in 2nd Timothy. And we learned that he became a disciple of Christ through the raising of his mother and grandmother, this is how faith happens from being part of a family. This morning we get to welcome Tyler into that family. Like Jacob he will receive a new name, beloved son of God. His parents and Godparents will make a promise to raise him up as best they can to know his help is in the Lord. This entire community will make a promise to prayerfully support this family as they answer that call. For have great news to share, as stewards of the Gospel we are called to constantly remind those people around us that we are sons and daughters of a God who doesn’t sleep or slumber, a God whose caring watch and empowering hands are never far off, no matter how far we may think we stray from Him. This is the God we turn to for help day and night as the parable reminds us. This God does not weary of our prayers and His blessings don’t run out.

Monday, October 14, 2013

Thanksgiving as a Spiritual Discipline

Thanksgiving as a Spiritual Discipline 2nd Kings 5:1-15, Psalm 111, 2nd timothy 2:8-15, Lk 17:11-19 One of the things I have thought about as a father that I rarely if ever thought about before Toby came into the world is how there are things that need to be taught that we wished would come natural. One of the obvious ones being gratefulness, beginning with the simple act of saying thank you. Being thankful for gifts we are given and the good that is done for us is something we would all like to think just happened in our upbringing, but like the young people in our midst we needed it to be taught and modeled to us. And unfortunately some adults may never get it, it can be hard to say thank you. Today’s readings make this human tendency to struggle with thanksgiving clear. In our Old Testament lesson, Naming has an opportunity to rid his body of Leprosy. Although he comes around by the end of the narrative and confesses how wonderful our God is. His initial response is one of angst, “what I need to wash in that river to receive a miraculous healing? Who does God think he is” It takes the words of a lowly servant to remind God how small of a price it was to pay for such a life-changing miracle. How many times do we fail to recognize God’s blessings because they don’t happen the way we expect or wish. You may recall these lyrics penned by Garth Brooks. Sometimes I thank God for unanswered prayers Remember when you're talkin' to the man upstairs That just because he doesn't answer doesn't mean he don't care Some of God's greatest gifts are unanswered prayers Just over 3 years ago I was packing my bags for a new call in PA. It was a thriving congregation with a solidly biblical and confessional foundation. I was excited, I prayed to God that he would allow this to be the place I minister for a long time and that Heather and I raise Toby. Obviously that was a prayer that God didn’t answer, and I’m glad he didn’t. About 2 years into the call at GR I was approached by a pastor nearing retirement. He had received permission from both his congregation and his bishop to talk to me about being his successor when he retired. There were inklings that finances at CHULC would not allow them to continue to support two ordained pastors and I had also began to realize that I craved more leadership than an associate pastor position allowed. Discernment started and my prayer changed, I was going to Maryland. And then it happened, it was obvious that my timeline and this congregation’s timeline weren’t going to line up and God was calling me to another place, an unknown place, this was not my plan. I told God that I wasn’t happy with him. Instead of being thankful that he set me down a path to prepare me for what was going on at Christ Hamilton, for I can’t imagine how the financial conversation would have gone if I hadn’t already opened myself up for call, instead I was indignant that I wasn’t going to Maryland. I know how Namaan felt, and like Namaan I was called to a river and my life has been blessed ever since. I am Glad that God knows what He is doing but there will be times in our lives that we forget that He knows what he is doing. In those times thankfulness is hard. Brothers and sisters God knows so much better than you or me what God’s business is… and that in itself is a blessing. In today’s gospel lesson we meet 10 more lepers, they leave there encounter with Jesus transformed in a radical miraculous way, yet only one comes back to say thank you to the messiah who gave him his life back. We don’t know anything about the other 9 so any guess on why they failed to say thanks for this amazing gift is just that, a guess. I think that perhaps they knew that in their life as lepers they missed out on so much that they were in a hurry to catch up. In their rush they forgot to stop to give God thanks. I know that has happened to me, in such a hurry to the next big thing I fail to stop and even offer a small thank you to God. That is where Psalm 111 comes in. This kind of thankful prayer needs to be a part of our repertoire. Not for God’s sake, God won’t stop being God because of our faithlessness and failed disciple moments. Brothers and sisters God doesn’t need us we need God. And God continuously offers what we need, forgiveness eternal life, a community that loves and supports us. The list goes on and on. As is always the case the psalms offers us a prayer that we can pray because we often won’t pray thanksgiving without it. Sometimes God and his deeds are taking for granted by those who have grown up hearing these stories and singing these same hymns. Both Namaan and the one thankful leper from the gospel lesson were outsiders and foreigners. New recipients of God’s grace. Perhaps in our prayer lives we need to lift up God’s activity so it is constantly in front of us and doesn’t become just the backdrop of our lives which we no longer notice. St. Ignatius, writing less than a century before Martin Luther, in his spiritual exercises had a special kind of prayer for the people under his charge. It was called the examen, it consisted of two questions that were to be reflected upon. I have seen various translations or revisions to make the questions more modern but the main questions are “In what ways has God been especially present for you today?” and “How has the Devil attacked you today?” Both those questions in different ways lead to thankfulness. The first question leads to thankfulness because as we list the ways that God has blessed us we can’t help but be thankful. The second question makes us thankful because it reminds us we are His and the enemy cannot touch us no matter how hard he tries. You see the psalmist and Ignatius both knew that this kind of prayer needs to be rehearsed. We force ourselves to be thankful until thanksgiving become second nature. Before we know it we will be able to see God working on even the toughest days and those blessings and miracles in our lives will point us and others to the God who has given his very life for us. My challenge to you this week is to spend even more time in prayer than usual. And be even more specific about the things you are thankful for than you are about your wants and needs. Please pray with me.

Monday, September 30, 2013

St. Michael and all Angels

St. Michael and all Angels Daniel 10:10-14, 12:1-3, Psalm 103, Revelation 12:7-12, Luke 10:17-20 In my life as a churchgoer and now an ordained pastor in Christ’s church I could probably count on one hand the number of times I have heard angels discussed in a sermon. If I were to discount the few times I was at General Retreat for a weekday service commemorating St. Michael on this date and the Christmas sermons where angels are given their usual place at Christ’s birth the number quite possibly reaches zero. Why do you think that is? Why have these messengers and warriors of God that get extensive airtime throughout both the Old and New Testaments become so silent if not downright non-existent in our proclamation and faith practice? Perhaps it is because the deeper the church sinks and modernity, or even post modernity the more hesitant it is to linger on those parts of its legacy which carry a sense of the supernatural; you know those things that might put us at odds with a world that likes only what it can see and measure empirically. As things like miracles and angels are discarded by the modern Christian church we have ended up forfeiting a lot of what we have to offer the world. For what sets us apart from social service agencies, community groups, and political action groups is our worship of the God who created the world and our claims that this God loves the world so much that he came to it in the incarnation of Jesus the Christ His Son, that in His, birth, life, death, and resurrection he has defeated death and earned for all who trust in Him eternal life, and that this same God continues to care an make his will and his presence known on earth in the lives of all who call on his name, even through supernatural means. You see brothers and sisters, the efficacy of our faith and proclamation hinges on the truth that there is more to this life then what we can see or feel; that there is an unseeable and unknowable world. And that is a good thing because we see a lot of pain and suffering and often what we think we know is proven wrong. Brothers and sisters, Miracles and angels remain a part of how God interacts with this world. And I think this world is so hungry for that message. The irony that as the academy and the church become less likely to talk about the unseeable and unknowable pop culture has become a place where things like angels and demons thrive. And not just angels and demons but things like faeries, vampires, and werewolves. It seems like the seat that the church has vacated has been filled by movie producers and novelists and that is dangerous for the stories they tell are rarely about a compassionate God who loves unconditionally and they are never ever true. But the story that the church has to share is very true; angels still walk in our midst, defending us from Satan’s wiles, and ministering to us as God’s heavenly host. Throughout scripture we see angels ministering to God’s faithful in a variety of ways. They are healers, heralds of good news, protectors, and even warriors. Today we remember by name the mightiest of all warrior angels. Michael, in Daniel he is called a great prince. He is one of the might archangels who continues to fight by God’s side for our very souls. Paul reminds us in his letter to the Ephesians that our true enemies are never flesh and blood, but are what he calls principalities and powers, that unseen world we don’t talk enough about. And in ministry I have seen the effects of this battle in the lives of people I have ministered to, Heather and I have felt this battle being waged in our own lives as we face the trials of ministry, being so far from friends and family, and the struggles that come with trying to be faithful servants of God. And the hard part is the closer we get to God the harder His enemies fight. I have told people that seminary is the devil’s playground. I have never seen so many people in such close proximity struggle with things like divorce, depression, and doubt just to name a few. All these people trying profoundly to become the servants that God is calling them to be. I often wished that we were encouraged to talk about in terms of spiritual warfare. Perhaps we would have been more equipped, more willing to claim the victory that has been promised us. Because brothers and sisters, spiritual warfare is real. And the outcome has been decided and eternity has been won. Yes the closer you get to God the harder God’s enemies fight. But also the closer you get to God the more confident you become that being in God’s hands is the best place to be. And being the recipients of Angelic protection is truly a gift and a blessing. Today we rejoice that as Christians we can know the unknowable and catch glimpses of the unseeable. That we don’t have to turn to Hollywood to feed our hunger for things bigger and greater than ourselves. And we thank God for his everlasting and supernatural involvements in our lives. Please pray with me Gracious God continue to send your angels, that they may protect us in our comings and in our goings, that they may defend us from what threatens our faith in you, and as we breath our last that they may escort us to our eternal home. In Jesus’ name.