Friday, December 27, 2019

The Wonder of Christmas

As with every Christmas season, the word “wonder” is used a lot. Kathie Lee Gifford sings, “It’s the most wonderful time of the year,” and countless cards use the word to describe everything from sleigh bells to scenes of little churches set in the middle of snowy villages. All these “wonders” can cause us to overlook the real wonder of Christmas. Think about this – we Christians actually claim (and hopefully believe) that the God of all creation (infinite space, innumerable galaxies, protons, electrons, quarks, and on and on beyond all comprehension) became an individual human and lived as one of us. The ultimate Being took the form of a dependent infant! When we really think about this, that is truly a wonder.
I believe this incredible reality is what the Apostle John was emphasizing when he wrote in 1 John 1:1, “...what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have looked at and touched with our hands, concerning the Word of life....” Only the Christian faith dares to make such an astounding claim, yet we who name ourselves as believers in this faith sometimes take it for granted, and we exchange the amazing mystery of Christmas for a ho-hum attitude or a saccharine sweet idea of a quiet, clean baby in a sanitized manger filled with fragrant well-behaved animals. No, the pure holy God of all becomes totally involved in the messiness of living a real human life – completely and totally!
This truth should overwhelm our hearts and minds as we consider God’s amazing love for us, that the God who is totally beyond anything we can possibly imagine becomes a person who we can relate to, who gives himself for us in his death on a cross, and who is risen from the grave. As we turn the page to a new year in 2020, this is what we celebrate, this is what gives us strength, and this is what gives us hope. Indeed, this is the wonder of Christmas!

Wednesday, July 31, 2019

Sabbath Keeping

Last week I decided that I would take two weeks in August for “vacation” time.  I hadn’t really planned on doing this, and as a “temporary pastor,” I tend to avoid taking a lot of time away since I will have plenty of “time off” after the congregation calls a new pastor. However, it is looking like it will be at least several more months before that happens, and this means I need to be ready to serve well in the remaining time. So, it seemed good to take a little “vacation” to recharge my pastoral batteries.
This led me to think about the practice the Bible calls “keeping the Sabbath” (Exodus 20:8). I think most of us view it as a break from our weekly routine and a time of rest so we can regain some energy.  We may feel a little tired and in need of a break before we get back to regular life again.  This is certainly part of what keeping the Sabbath is about.  We humans do not have unlimited reservoirs of energy and patience, so a weekly break enables us to rest and ready ourselves for the week ahead.
However, was God tired and energy depleted after creation was finished? As Genesis 2:3 reports, “Then God blessed the seventh day and sanctified it, because in it He rested from all His work which God had created and made.”  It is hard to imagine that God would be saying, “Thank God it’s Friday!” like we do. (Of course, God would have to say, “Thank Myself it’s Friday!”)  No, God wasn’t exhausted from a tough week of creating everything.  So perhaps there is more to “keeping the Sabbath” than just recharging ourselves for the coming week.
As we read the account of creation in the first chapter of Genesis, there is a recurring statement: “And God saw that it was good!”  These all lead up to the end of the sixth day of creation when it says, “Then God saw everything that He had made, and indeed it was very good!”  When God “rests” on the seventh day, God isn’t tired or needing to sleep in on Saturday.  God is celebrating what has been done.  God is enjoying what God has accomplished.  God delights in the work of creation and takes a moment to admire it all.
We need to enter our vacations, days of rest, and breaks for our routines not simply as flights from toil and trouble, but as times to reflect on what we have accomplished.  We can look back on the good and worthwhile things of our lives, and “rest” in a sense of accomplishment.  Of course, for us frail humans there is always some regret and disappointment to deal with as well, but even these less than positive experiences can help us appreciate the good things in our lives even more.
Someone recently questioned my judgement and sanity because I said how much I enjoy serving as pastor at Our Savior Church.  They pointed out the absurdity of preaching, which they view as a foolish waste of time (didn’t the Apostle Paul say something about “the foolishness of preaching?), the difficulties of dealing with people’s personal problems, and, in my case, the long 90 minute drives from my home to the church.  But I don’t see it this way at all!  I love preaching the Good News of God’s grace in Jesus.  I love having gotten to know many of the wonderful people in this fellowship.  I love being able to be of some help in the challenges that people are facing.  And I even have come to enjoy (sort of) the drive to the Quad Cities three or so times a week. 
Sure, since I’m not God (and we can all be very thankful for that), a couple of weeks away will help renew my energy for the months ahead.  But I also enter this time with a sense of how good the last two years has been with this little congregation near the Mississippi River.  I urge all of you reading this to include looking at the good things in your life when you take a time of “rest,” whether that be a Sunday, a day off from work, a vacation, or just a break from your routine.  A sense of what has been accomplished can be the best refreshment for facing your tasks in the days ahead.

Friday, December 7, 2018

Prayers of Adoration for Advent

First Sunday in Advent
Gracious Redeemer, with grateful hearts we come before you this day. You lift us up and in your Spirit we are sustained by your grace. We love you, Lord, with a love that fills us with life. We thank you, O God, with gratefulness that give us strength to serve you. And we praise you, O Holy One, with hope that brings glory to your name this day and forevermore. Amen.

Second Sunday in Advent
Lord of Love and Giver of Peace, we come before you today with joy unspeakable and full of glory. You are most wonderful and amazingly gracious, for you give all things to those who call upon your name. Today we lift our hearts in thanks for sending your Son Jesus Christ to live among us so we may see in person the amazing depths of your love and the incredible heights of your grace. What else can we do but sing praises to you and enjoy your presence with us this day and forevermore. Amen

Third Sunday in Advent
O merciful God, Ruler of the universe, we give you thanks this day for your great mercy toward us. In the face of life’s problems, you walk with us to give us your strength for overcoming all things. You lift us up with joy, and with grateful hearts we celebrate you sure and eternal love for us. In the name of the One who became one of us, Christ our Lord, who reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, forever and ever. Amen

Fourth Sunday in Advent
Lord of Life, in your Son Jesus Christ you have poured yourself out as an offering on our behalf. You have come to us, calling out to us. You became one of us, died for us, and took upon yourself all our sin. In rising from the dead you make us fully alive and as the Ruler over all creation you give us hearts that are aflame with love for you. May our desire for you know no bounds, and our praise for you reach beyond the the boundaries of this world, dispersing the clouds of darkness to reveal your face of love. We seek this through Jesus, the Anointed One, who walks with us this day and forevermore. Amen.

Saturday, April 14, 2018

Death By Credentials

As a professional pastor, I receive a lot of emails for various programs that are supposed to show me how to pastor a church - of course, always for a fee.  Recently, I had an email extolling the virtues of a "coaching" organization, which if I want to avail myself of their services, involved some individual who had become "certified" as a trained, competent professional who would come along side me as a mentor and guide as I serve as a minister.  Now, I'm am sure this is a fine, worthwhile organization that is of great help to many pastors.  However, it struck (in a figurative sense only) me that this "coaching" service is one of many trends in our churches to "professionalize" things that used to occur naturally and informally in the church's many forms of ministry.

When I was ordained 37 years ago, there were always older experienced ministers who became informal mentors to those just embarking on their pastoral careers.  This happened naturally through relationships that formed as newer ministers made friendships among their pastoral colleagues.  In turn, I have in my years of service become a virtual mentor to younger and newer pastors.  As I have experienced this, this is a good and beneficial cycle of mentoring that has always existed in the church, from what we read about the church in the New Testament to this very day.

But now, one can in some fashion leave doing pastoral ministry and become a "certified professional coach" for those who actually are engaged in pastoral ministry.  In some cases, the "coach" has never been a practicing pastor.  My mentors and my serving as a mentor to others is no longer as "trained" as it should be, nor is it as "intentional" as it should be.  Apparently, if this is not part of some course with a certificate of expertise to show for it, then the quality and effectiveness of the mentoring is deficient and less worthy than the informal "coaching" relationships that have always been a part of the life of the church throughout the ages.

This is a path that is destructive to the natural development of the gifts and ministries of people in the church.  It takes away the recognition and evoking of ministry that happens within the life of congregations, and places it in the judgment of groups that are outside and who are not as familiar with the people or the contexts in which they are seeking to serve.  This is the trend in many areas of ministry, such as spiritual direction, evangelism, prayer, or even the process of identifying any spiritual gift.  I'm not saying these programs cannot serve a good and helpful purpose in helping people develop in a particular area of ministry, but I am saying that when these programs claim that a certificate is needed to validate anyone as truly proficient, that hurts the natural organic practice of ministry both within and beyond the church.  This is death by credentials.

The church is to be the "laboratory of faith" (Gordon Cosby's words) where people can discover and explore their place and calls to ministry in the context of relationships with people who accept them, know them, forgive them, and challenge them.  Organizations and programs which claim to develop people in any form of ministry can provide help and assistance to churches in developing people in their ministries, but this should never take the place of the people of the church as the ones who recognize and validate the ministries themselves.  Expertise in ministry happens in the life together of the body of Christ, not in the credentials bequeathed by a commercial course of instruction.

(And yes, I am very aware of the irony of making this point as a "professional pastor.")

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

A Humble And Respectful Response To Neil deGrasse Tyson

Science is not an absolute truth, it is a paradigmatic process of discovery. Plus the scientific method is not meant to lead to dogmatic assertions by which all other claims must be subjugated or even eliminated, although that is often how people perceive it.
Believe it or not, evolution is still a theory, not a proven fact. Many issues in the field of molecular biology must be solved before anything more on the mechanisms of evolution can be understood (or as of yet even identified). Anthropological observations and paleontological discoveries are used to develop speculative hypotheses that cannot possibly be reproduced in controlled environments. Evolutionary theories (there are actually several) are attempts to contruct explanations of the evidence, a kind of best educated guess. The real frontier for research into evolution lies in the field of genetics, not digging up more bones of prehistoric creatures.
Simple views on evolution happen to be the en vogue understandings in our culture in North America and Europe, and it is indeed a disservice to evolutionary theory and to Darwin's own intentions when people try to squelch other attempts to explain the same evidence. A good theory is meant to challenge others to develop better support for its central tenets or find alternative theories that provide better explanations, not just make an inquisitional decree that all must bow down to it or be declared unclean and reprobate.
So, it is important to be aware of the innate tendency of people (even scientist themselves, and even the most brilliant ones) to misuse science for imposing their own philosophical biases on others. This is scientism, not science. Of course, the discoveries of science are fair game for use in supporting one's own philosophical beliefs, but this means being open to discussion and debate, and relying on means other than science (such as logic, phenomena, metaphysics, etc) to advocate for a particular truth assertion.

Saturday, April 15, 2017

And A Trumpet Shall Sound

These are just a few comments on where I am at in my present thoughts regarding our new president. It seems that lately I have had some people (who are members of pastor search teams) look over my blog posts, and apparently the piece I did on the Donald is drawing some comments (made directly to me, since I hardly ever get a comment on this blog).  One person even called to tell me that, no only did he not like what I said, but that there was "no way we are going to allow something like that here."  While this is definitely an aberration from most reactions, it does point out that I need to provide some kind of update to the post.  After all, it was written very early in the primary campaign, and, as we all know, a whole lot has changed since then.

While I am not yet sure where President Trump is going and what he will actually accomplish, I have joined the wary majority that did elect him to office.  This does not make me a fan, but I have come to be a supporter.  He is the president, duly elected by the will of the people (despite desperate claims to the contrary), and just as I prayed for and sought to support Barack Obama (with whom I disagreed quite regularly and drastically), I do the same for Donald Trump.  Like many during the campaign who found themselves caught in the proverbial place that is "between the devil and the deep blue sea," I had the same choice everyone else had: Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton.  While I had many  aforeposted misgivings about Mr. Trump, I had ten times more regarding Mrs. Clinton.  One claimed to be pro-life (most likely for public consumption), the other was blatantly and boastfully proud of not only supporting abortion, but made it clear she would do everything in her power to expand its devastation. One would appoint activist judges who want to dictate a judicial tyranny on any who disagree with their progressive or liberal views, and the other promised to appoint constructionist judges who would give allegiance to the constitution as the Founders intended.  Both had personal lives that were far from exemplary, and both were marked by glaring moral failures. So, given my personal views on abortion and the courts, I had very little alternative than to vote for Mr. Trump, hope for the best, and pray a lot.

The bigger issue is the rancor that has happened between some Christians who chose to support Trump and some who chose to support Clinton.  I've read numerous articles on both sides accusing the other of not truly being Christian, and saying that supporting one or the other is tantamount to rejecting the Word and betraying what it means to follow Christ.  One good friend of mine, who does wonderful work (ironically in a ministry reconciling cultural and political enemies), has taken to publishing in Facebook that people like Franklin Graham and others who are willing to identify with Trump's agenda are in fact not really Christians at all.  That is, as our new President would say, "very bad - very, very bad."  I will go one farther, and say it is yielding to the influence of Satan who seeks to divide the church and fracture the ministry of Christ in this world.  While who is a political leader and what they do is, of course, important, and has definite long lasting effects on our lives, our nation, the world, and history, it is far more important to affirm and celebrate the unity we have in Christ, who is, as St. Paul says, "far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the one to come."  (Ephesians 1:21)

So, that is where my political predilections are at this time, for what that is worth (not much).  I don't know yet if President Trump is going to be a good thing or a bad thing.  I pray for him, and I pray that he will seek God's direction every day.  My own sense is that there will be great difficulties, but none so large and devastating to a free and hope-filled America as a Clinton administration would have been.  We are all in the same boat right now, Democrat and Republican, socialist and libertarian, liberal and conservative, and if we don't all pull on the oars together in rhythm, we may very well sink.  Thankfully (and I am talking about gratefulness to God), there is One who walks on the turbulent waves and who can calm the storm, and it isn't Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders, Ted Cruz, or even Donald Trump.

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

The Heart Aflame (Calvin's Emblem Redux)

Related imageRecently I was helping with a renewal event at a church here in the thriving metropolis of Cedar Rapids, and one of the speakers, knowing I was a Presbyterian pastor, asked me to talk to the gathering about the crest, or emblem, of John Calvin.  Providentially (as we say in the Reformed tradition), the Lord had prepared me to be able to speak to the dedication and passion that is expressed in this intriguing statement about John Calvin’s personal faith.
“Cor meum quasi immolatum tibi offero, Domine, prompte et sincere” were the words emblazoned over the pulpit from which Calvin preached and taught at St. Peter’s Cathedral in Geneva.  In English, “My heart as sacrifice I give you, Lord, eagerly and honestly.”  It is a statement indicative of the passion Calvin has for God and for serving God.  His heart has been ignited by faith in Christ, which is why in many images the heart is aflame as it is being offered to God.  In this we see Calvin’s view of faith as more than some kind of contractual consent between the believer and God.  Rather, Calvin understands faith to be a tangible “touch” that we experience as a fire in our inner most being!  It enlivens, indeed, it illuminates us with an experience of faith that begins and supports an ongoing growth in the fruits of the Holy Spirit, in other words, a growing healthy spiritual life.  Thus, to have faith in Christ is to enter into a most real, aware, and sensory experience of being a living, breathing human person.
One of the interesting things about Calvin’s motto is that later quotes tend to leave out the phrase, “quasi immolatum” or “as sacrifice” and the image of fire.  Almost everyone still refers to the flaming heart pictured in the emblem, but rarely is it retained in the image.  While this is probably just an innocent development in the passing down of the motto, it does raise the idea of a “cooler,” or less emotive sense of faith.  For many, their experience of Christ, church, and faith are much less than  sacrificial and “fiery.”  For many of us, we’ve never felt that “fire in our bones,” as the prophets describe it.  When Pascal experienced the reality of God in his life, he just repeated the word, “fire, fire, fire.”  Is it possible that those words for sacrifice and the image of the flame have been discarded to fit the “cooled religious feelings” of Calvin’s theological descendants?  How many Reformed, Presbyterian, and congregational ministries can be called “passionate” in today’s churches?  How many Presbyterians, especially in the United States, have any sense of “fire” in their faith? 
Let me submit to you that this is the key to both our personal walk with Christ as well as our experience of being part of a church; that is, is your heart “aflame” with faith?  Is your faith in Christ something that grabs you deep within, something that makes you feel your heart beat, making you aware of the power of life coursing through your arteries and veins?  We can talk about what we should believe, and we can discuss the things we should do.  We can have a basic understanding of who Jesus is, and even have a finely honed orthodox knowledge of Christian beliefs, but it means nothing if we haven’t at some point experienced faith as a “majestic meekness” and a “sweet burning in my heart,” as Jonathan Edwards phrases it.  The writer to the Hebrews is even more descriptive of the experience of grace and faith when he says, “…let us be thankful and so worship God acceptably with reverence and awe, for our God is a consuming fire.”
So, is your faith in God like cooled off lava, having hardened into the religious impressive equivalent of polished basalt or sculpted obsidian – beautiful, but hard and cold?  Or does your faith bear with it the gift of the living God, who breathes life into your soul, causing your heart to stir with the fires of love, joy, and peace; things that lead to life – life overflowing?!