Month: July 2017

Meditation on Sermon Writing

God’s Word is amazing. Have you ever just sat back and absorbed it? Just opened it up and read? Just a sentence. Just two. And just… just reveled?

Has the weight of the Law ever just pressed down on you? It’s so simple. It seems so easy. And then you look at that Law, and that single statement begins a pushing down on your chest, because you see how very, very heavy it is. You see how far you have fallen from what God demands. You see how good, how very good his command is, and how good this world would be if we just did it, but I can’t do it, no I can’t, I have failed, and so it is my fault, so much my fault.

And the Law, oh, it is so good, and I am not. And as that sentence grows in my heart, I see it in so many ways. It blossoms there, this flower of such beauty that I weep that I cannot even touch its petals, I cannot even pretend to care for a bloom of such excellence, that my black thumb slays not the Law but myself. (more…)

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Review: Comeback Churches

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Comeback Churches: How 300 Churches Turned Around and Yours Can Too by Ed Stetzer and Mike Dodson

Churches don’t always grow. Sometimes the decline; often they plateau, reaching a certain level and stagnating. This book interviewed 324 “comeback churches” that either stagnated or declined for at least five years, and then experienced significant growth for at least five years. What did they have in common? What didn’t seem to be a factor overall? Surprising insights and principles for growth make up the bulk of the book, along with tips on how to implement change.

One of the things I appreciated about the book was about how up-front the authors were with their goals. They did not want to set out a cookie-cutter approach, because that wouldn’t work. They pointed out repeatedly that they got a wide range of answers from their surveys, so that a church shouldn’t say, “This process worked for church X, so we should do it here!” Instead, they showed what the churches had in common in terms of attitude and approach, not necessarily in “Steps taken,” if that makes any sense.

I was also grateful for the spiritual aspect of the book; it underlined that unless a church rejoices that Jesus saved them from their sins, they would have no good reason to reach out to the surrounding community. The surprise of “Jesus forgives me?!” leads to a desire to reach out to others that Jesus died for. While this book is not… Gospel-based in the way I’d strongly prefer, it was clear that the authors wanted to give more than lip service to Jesus. “The greatest motivation for evangelism is our own relationship with God, compelling us to love those he loves” (100). (more…)

The Lutheran Art of Change

This week I became a man.

Two of my members enjoy a membership at a local gun range and invited me to go shooting with them. This is an activity I’ve never done before! The husband of this team walked me through some safety concerns – always act as if the gun is loaded, know what’s beyond your target, trigger safety, that kind of thing – and forced me to read a gun safety book.

OK. So far so good.

And then they took me to a range. They paid my fee and provided all the equipment. We went to those little booths that face the range. I jumped every time someone else fired. I was given a small semi-automatic pistol. They slid the target out to seven yards. And then I was given the magazine.

They trusted me with a deadly weapon. (more…)

Review: The Wisdom of Tenderness

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The Wisdom of Tenderness by Brennan Manning

A few weeks ago I wrote a review for Keeping the Faith and I panned it. I did need to find a book for a congregation member that’s been struggling with past abuses, though, so I reached out to some of my brother ministers for recommendations. One of the recommendations was this short book.

As I started reading it, I thought that it was emotional pap encouraging you to see yourself as good. I was ready to throw it in the garbage.

I’m glad I kept reading.

It starts out having the feel of sentimental drivel. But within a few pages of that, you see that while it may be using some of the same language, it is driven by a cross-centered Christianity that longs to connect the reader to Jesus and to show the ramifications of Christ’s love in the reader’s life.

The book speaks of the necessity of tenderness – but it begins with the tenderness Christ has for us. “There can never be another healer in the mess and madness of our postmodern world, because no one else has been there. Only Jesus Christ, ‘a man of sorrows and familiar with suffering,’ has carried our pain into the peace of grace. He has made peace through the blood of his cross” (52). The comfort I didn’t find in Keeping the Faith is front and center here. Manning continually points to the love Christ showed for us on the cross. He does not shy away from pointing to our sin and the need of Christ’s sacrifice. And then he shows the results of that love, that tenderness, in our own lives.

In fact, he pushes us to see ourselves in the harsh mirror of the Law. He reminds us that so often, we cover up our sins. He shows us that we don’t like dealing with ourselves as we really are, and even to God we present fake uses, asking forgiveness for sins that generally don’t really bother us. “When I present this false self in prayer, God doesn’t bless what doesn’t exist” (74).

He speaks well of the necessity of the Law to reveal how shallow we can be:

The omnipresent temptation of the superficial soul is to pretend that we’re sinners and to pretend we’re forgiven – it’s all pretense because the sins we acknowledge are not those that decimate us, and the forgiveness we claim is a sham because of our flagrant dishonesty with God and each other. … However, when the scourge of sin rips our life apart and the rawness of our spirit longs for the sweet salve of relief, we may stagnate between choosing to endure the shame or choosing to trust mercy and to internalize Julian’s words, ‘Our courteous Lord does not want his servants to despair because they fall often and grievously; for our falling does not hinder him in loving us.’ The grace for the latter choice is not denied to anyone ‘who cries out to him day and night, even when he delays to help them’ (Luke 18:7). (146-7)

He goes on to show the results of our sin isn’t “just” a matter of our relationship with God; it is terribly practical in how sin destroys us.

Sin is the starting point of all social estrangement. Every sin, even every sin of thought, leaves its mark on the psychic structure of the human soul. Every unrepented sin has a sinisterly obscuring effect on true openness. … Sin is antisocial; it locks us up in the prison of our own egoism. And that imprisonment bears grave consequences; insofar as we’re closed and incommunicative with others, our own personality is impoverished; when we can’t reach out to others in a meaningful gesture of love, our own humanity is diminished. Callousness seduces tenderness, and insensitivity becomes a lifestyle. (118)

Thankfully Manning doesn’t just diagnose the problem and then offer a quack solution. He shows us instead how Christ has been tender with us, even with his eyes wide open to our sin. He shows how while we were still sinners, Christ Jesus died for us. And Jesus’s tenderness for us produces tenderness in us. That grace allows us to confess. It allows us to be broken. And it then allows us to be broken for others as well.

Throughout the book, Manning provides many great examples of sharing tenderness with one another. Manning, an alcoholic, relates how grace allowed him to escape the bottle, and how then he was enabled to show that grace with others. Manning is also incredibly wide-read, it seems, quoting so many sources and giving a number of relatively deep Biblical allusions, such as calling John “the eagle of Patmos.”

But always, always he returns to the Gospel. He writes in a way I have endeavored at times to write here. He tells of how he fears falling into sin again, and he writes that Jesus says, “You belong to me, and no one will ever snatch you from my hand. I have changed your name. No longer shall you be called ashamed, guilt-ridden, lonely, and much-afraid. Your new name is ‘child of mine, broken and beloved, playful one and joy of my heart’” (145).

Manning shows immense tenderness in his tone as he writes his book. He writes to allow people to be broken, so that they know that even in that brokenness, their God loves them. He writes to sinners who long to feel again, showing that their God rejoices over them. He points us to Jesus again and again.

If you hunger for a moment of depth and a time of silence, I highly recommend this book. It’s one that I think I’ll be using with my congregation member, and one that you yourself may benefit from.

Just a Little Bottle of Water

I’m not a creep. I’m not a creep. I’m not a creep.

I knock on the car’s window. The person inside jumps, raises her hands to her mouth in shock, sees me, jumps again, and after a moment of hesitation lowers her window. My sweaty reflection disappears as the glass drops into the door. I look like a creep.

Hi!” I say. “I’m the pastor from the church right there.” I gesture to the building behind me. “I noticed the accident and everyone’s been waiting here for a while I thought you might like some water.” I proffer a plastic bag filled with sealed water bottles.

The woman looks at me, glances at the bag, and says, “Thanks. Yeah. I think I’ll take one.”

We chat for a few minutes. She’s a librarian on her way to work. She’s already half an hour late because of the accident. She asks about the people in the crushed cars.

When I talked to the officers, they said there was no one seriously hurt. So that’s good! They told me the road should be cleared in ten minutes, but that was, um, fifteen minutes ago now.” I offer a rueful smile. “And it’s so hot. How long have you been waiting?”

She looks at the clock. “Almost forty minutes.”

I’m sorry.” I gesture to the line of cars. After some more niceties, I say, “Good to meet you! I’m going to make my way up the line, though. Make sure no one gets overheated.”

And I make my way up the street that has become a parking lot, reminding myself that I’m not a creep. I offer more water, eventually running out – and actually at just the right place, at the guy driving the dump truck that was at the head of the line. Only about half the people I talked to accepted water; many already had drinks with them of some kind. Good thing; it was in the 90’s and plenty humid without waiting inside a car on the pavement. As I went, I chatted with a man on a motorcycle, one of the church’s neighbors who had come out to see what was going on, a Baptist deacon (“Good to meet you!” he says and offers to come cantor at my congregation), a few construction workers, a young woman who really didn’t know what to do with me, and a lot more.

I really debated what to do when cars started lining up. Do I go make sure people are ok? Offer them our bathroom? Offer them our AC? If I bring water, do I hand over a business card, too?

I opted to simply… serve. I identified myself and offered bottles of water. That’s it. If someone wanted to talk more, of course I’d be willing! But here I didn’t want to “hold anyone hostage” or anything. Just… serve. And so I delivered water until I ran out of water. The timing worked out, too. The line finally got moving about five minutes after handing out my last bottle.

And once the line started moving, I counted: 145 cars backed up in one direction on the little two-lane highway in front of the church. On the hottest day of the year thus far.

Should I have slipped in a business card? Yeah, it probably wouldn’t have hurt. Could I have invited to church? Yeah. But… I chose to simply serve. To simply give cold water to those who desired it. Best thing I could have done? I’m willing to admit that I probably could have done more.

But I know what I did was good. Best? Probably not. But here, again, cold water for those who needed it.

And here I take great comfort. Every day I fail. Every action I take is tainted by my sinful nature. I have never done a purely good work. And yet… Jesus has given me his robes of righteousness. While I’m concerned about being a creep, he looks and smiles – not because I’m awesome, but because he is, and he loves me. And on the Last Day, he’ll look at me and declare, “Well done!” And that declaration has nothing to do with my actions. It has everything to do with the fact that he has given me what he earned, and he has declared me what he is. And now I am his child. My sinful nature is buried; I need not fear.

Do I want to learn how to serve better? Yeah. But only because my Savior has already told me that I am his, and he has proven it on the cross, and he has given it to me in my Baptism.

Which means… I rejoice that he gave me an opportunity to serve. To simply give a bottle of cold water to those who are thirsty. This was a gift from him.

And for the next time? I’ll pray wisdom to use the opportunities better.

Review: The Bloodstained Path to God

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The Bloodstained Path to God: Experiencing Worship with Old Testament Believers by Daniel and Sarah Habben

Leviticus is a… difficult book to read: a lot of laws that seem to say nothing to the New Testament Christian. This slim book outlines how Old Testament believers were to worship, and how that worship pointed them to the Messiah who was to come. The Habbens lay down the original texts in Leviticus and Numbers, and then follow up with a story illustrating those laws in action. They conclude each chapter with a section showing how these shadows show Jesus, and how Jesus himself obeyed those laws. Each chapter takes a look at a different festival or sacrifice, guiding all the threads together to help the reader appreciate Leviticus and his Savior more.

I really, really enjoyed this book. I’ve known for a long time the generalities of the Old Testament worship cycle and how it pointed to Jesus, but in these short chapters, the Habbens enriched my understanding and appreciation of certain books of the Bible I often scan through instead of reading intently. (more…)

Loving What I Loath

Baseball is the worst.

When I think of the worst thing in the world, I don’t think about the epidemic of drug abuse that surrounds both my old and my new community. I don’t consider starving families in Africa, nor do I even let a thought flit over political corruption. Oh, no. The worst thing is baseball.

When I ponder the length of eternity, I imagine sitting at a baseball game. When I consider what the loss of every blessing could be, I imagine sitting in a stadium while smelling concessions but having no money. When I concentrate on what it is to experience hell, well, baseball is nowhere near, but it’s in the right direction.

OK, yeah, I’m being a little dramatic. But I think I’m making my feelings clear: I just don’t get along with baseball. When I was in grade school, I was forced to be in numerous softball tournaments. And… I think they just created this permanent revulsion in me. I can’t stand playing, and to be forced to do something you already don’t like… well, it created character, I suppose. A character that can’t stand the sport.

And this week I sat through three baseball games.

The horrors! The misery! The absolute loss of all hope!

Actually… it was kinda fun. (more…)

Review: The Jewish Trinity

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The Jewish Trinity: When Rabbis Believed in the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit by Yoel Natan

The New Testament teaches the Trinity fairly clearly: God is three Persons, each equal and separate, and yet there are not three gods, but one God. But what about the Old Testament? Many are taught that the Trinity is murky at best there. The Jewish Trinity claims that the Old Testament presents a clear case for the Trinity, and that the Jews at one time worshiped one God in three Persons.

It’s been a while since I’ve been challenged by a book I read in this way; the last time I encountered a book like this was Gioacchino Michael Cascione’s excellent Repetition in the Bible. Natan has clear respect for not just God’s Word, but specifically for the Gospel. In fact, at one point Natan goes on a tangent to talk about Communion, and accurately teaches the doctrine of the Real Presence, a doctrine I don’t find accurately conveyed very often!  Natan also appears to write for a learned Jewish readership, calling Jesus by his Hebrew name Yeshua.

Natan’s work here presents so much amazing information. I had a number of “ah-ha!” moments as I read his book. Some relatively simple observations like: “The NT shows that Yeshua, the apostles and early Christians considered the OT to be thoroughly Trinitarian. Since the NT was not yet written, they surely did not derive their Trinitarian beliefs from the NT” (24). (more…)

Connecting through Sadness

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Is it ok for Christians to be sad?”

The teens looked at each other and me, not sure how to answer the question. I sat somewhat in front of them, though we were really in a circle. We’d just finished watching Inside Out, and it was time to show them that it wasn’t just movie night.

And I took them to Psalm 13:

1 How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever?

How long will you hide your face from me?

2 How long must I wrestle with my thoughts

and every day have sorrow in my heart?

How long will my enemy triumph over me?

3 Look on me and answer, O Lord my God.

Give light to my eyes, or I will sleep in death;

4 my enemy will say, “I have overcome him,”

and my foes will rejoice when I fall.

5 But I trust in your unfailing love;

my heart rejoices in your salvation.

6 I will sing to the Lord,

for he has been good to me.

(more…)