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