Wednesday, March 9, 2016
Kansas City has been very good to Amy and me in many ways. Here, we’ve made many friends and acquaintances. She’s been here for twenty-five years; I’ve been here almost nine. Familiar grocery stores—Dollar General, Hy-Vee, Price Chopper—have welcomed us with familiar smells. Customer service folks have greeted us with cheerful “hellos” and smiles. Libraries have given us books and movies. They’ve taken our occasional overdue fine payments. And, I am thankful for 24 Hour Fitness and Great Clips. I know most of the stylists, trainers and front desk helpers by name. Counselors and doctors, too, have given us a lot of help here in town. We love Dr. Mowry’s bedside/office manner, always cordial, straightforward and up front about how our health is. I’ve never had a more welcoming church family than at Holy Cross Lutheran. From day one of my visiting here for house hunting, they’ve reached out to me. I found in Pastor Stirdivant an awareness of his shortcomings—in speech and comfortability around lots of people—even as he carried out His preaching, teaching and doling out Christ’s body and blood in Holy Communion. He was the first in town to notice my book collection, remarking how a copy of Craig Parton’s THE DEFENSE NEVER RESTS lay on my coffee table the first day he visited me. And, when I said I hadn’t given up the desire to serve the Church as a pastor, he simply said, “Good.” Along with Pastor Bolland, Pastor Stirdivant’s voice rang throughout the nave at Holy Cross like a brass trumpet, putting God’s Law and Gospel right into my ears. Both men sought to shepherd the congregation in hardcore, unwavering faithfulness to what’s written in the Scriptures and exposited in the Lutheran Confessions.No wonder, the undying message of life from conception to natural death permeated every sermon. And, under their relentless care for everyone, we at Holy Cross donated to any number of charities in the area. When the outreach for blind and visually impaired switched host congregations, I began attending Calvary. There, Pastor Bereuter welcomed me with no strings attached. He’d welcomed Amy in the same way. And, he saw us through our very short engagement. He’s passionate about getting the good news of Jesus into folks’ ears. And his arms always open for hugging people as we process through the outside door. All this and, perhaps, more Amy and I will leave when going to Fort Wayne. Why? The Lord calls us to Fort Wayne. He gives me the opportunity to show myself approved—teaching me how best to handle His Word. He opens new doors ahead. Friendships? Godwilling, we’ll maintain the friendships we’ve made here even as we leave our immediate closeness behind. Impromptu dinners out with Joel or Penny and Sussie, seeing so many familiar faces before and after church, calling up Curt when the car needs a tweek…and babysitting little Clark? Amy and I will certainly miss these opportunities and many more. How different this is than my more rambunctious days transitioning between college and Concordia-St. Louis! Then, I always had Mom and Dad in my back pocket, or at least their voices and admonitions no matter what situation I encountered. I had their wants and concerns and needs in mind when running up against some forms of opposition. I also carried a huge suitcase of my own vendettas and fears cloaked in a kitty-cat’s vesture. When I reflect on Peter’s statement to Jesus about leaving everything behind to follow Him, I think on how every pastor or pastor-to-be looks to the cross of Christ our Savior. For as we leave behind many things to be formed into servants who teach the faithful, reach the lost and care for all, we are lavished with Jesus sustenance, righteousness and daily forgiveness. That's worth much more than its weight in gold, silver or countless dollar bills.
“I believe that I cannot by my own reason or strength believe in Jesus Christ, my Lord, or come to Him; but the Holy Spirit has called me by the Gospel, enlightened me with His gifts, sanctified and kept me in the true faith. In the same way, He calls, gathers, enlightens and sanctifies the whole Christian Church on earth, and keeps it with Jesus Christ in the one true faith." (SMALL CATECHISM, explanation of the third article of the Apostles' Creed) That’s why our Lord Jesus calls and sends out pastors—to teach the faithful, reach the lost and care for all. People need Jesus’ salvation, life, love and forgiveness. So, He preaches it to them. He washes them in it and marks His cross on them. He fills their ears, heads and hearts full of absolution, forgiveness for their daily sin. He places His body and blood into their mouths to further sustain their faith and fill them with two hundred proof pardon. Jesus does this through the real hands of men He's called and ordained as servants of His Word just as He Himself took on our human nature when born of Mary. Being accepted into pastoral formation at Concordia Theological Seminary yesterday was very humbling for me. I’d received that call before, when applying for Concordia Seminary-St. Louis’s Master of Divinity program in the 1990s. I squandered that time of preparation by being too immature, verbose and impatient to the point of losing my temper often. Yet, our Lord Jesus is slow to anger, full of forgiveness and abounding in steadfast love. He’s nurtured me in that patience and love my whole life long and has worked in me to curb such spats. Thanks be to Him for putting family—especially my wife—and friends and pastors who have counseled and prayed for me over the years since my half-vicarage in Connecticut came to a blustery end. So, this fall I will begin taking classes at Concordia Theological Seminary-Fort Wayne, classes taught by men who will help form me for Word and Sacrament ministry. Through these men, He’ll teach me anew how to apply His commands and promises to people’s real lives. After all, we live in a shattered and corrupted world tossed between cultural licentiousness and man-made legalism. Yes, people need Jesus—the Jesus who was conceived and born, died and rose, ascended and is returning for us. We endeavoring to preach Christ and Him crucified, will learn not to proclaim ourselves but Jesus Christ as Lord and ourselves as His servants. After all, He has shined the light of the knowledge of His glory in the face of Jesus Christ for us and all the world to see and trust. In Him is that life that enlightens man, who can only hear the Gospel by someone preaching it to them. Now, as my wife, Amy, and I look ahead to seminary, many plans and questions greet us. How will we sustain ourselves financially and emotionally during this formation? How will we find housing? What friends will we meet who will support us over the next few years? How might we best adapt to make our transition to Fort Wayne a smooth and God-pleasing experience? And, along the way, how will our Lord continue using us to touch lives with His Gospel of salvation? I certainly desire a noble task. Jesus has given me this opportunity to train for service—rightly handling His Word. To Him who is able to accomplish all these things and uphold me in His grace be all glory and honor now and forever.
Thursday, February 18, 2016
Upsets happen…sometimes more than we devout sports fans and political poll armchair pundits like to admit. What’s an upset, really? It’s when one team heavily favored by another gets beat. The Giants stopped the Patriots dreams for an undefeated season in 2008. Some of us loved it; many of us grumbled. Our certainty was shattered by that last second catch. Or, turn it in reverse. When New England stopped the Seattle Seahawks on the one yard-line in 2014, everyone in the stadium or watching on TV were certain that Lynch would get the ball and plow his way to a touchdown….just like he’d done dozens of times before. Now, sports is one thing. What happens when our confidence really gets shaken, when our certainty really takes a nose dive? We think we’re sitting pretty, planning a vacation for the family when bank reports reveal we’re a hundred thousand dollars in debt. We’ve shopped for over two hundred dollars in groceries, hoping they’ll last two or three weeks…and because the freezer conks out suddenly, we lose over half of what we bought. So, it’s understandable that you and I grow hesitant when Holy Scripture says “Nothing in all creation can separate us from the love of God in Christ.” Nothing?—you and I ask ourselves. We can’t predict the future. With the rise of antichristian persecutions worldwide, we cringe when thinking of our reaction if a gun gets put to our head. As the economy keeps shifting…the job market waxes and wanes, we wonder how a prolonged stint of unemployment would effect us spiritually. We couldn’t tithe like we want. Shame might grip us if the gas dripped from the car and we couldn’t drive to church for a while. Or, what if a fellow Christian relative or friend suddenly drops dead with no prior warning? No one is immune from being shaken to the spiritual core. Hag. 2 and Heb. 12 remind us that “everything that can be shaken will be shaken.” I’ve suffered losses just as you have. It’s not just that I lost grandparents on both sides of my family to death by stroke, heart disease and diabetes. It’s the circumstances that surrounded their deaths that drove me into a prolonged depression. So, suffering is an all-too-familiar circumstance that pommels us all. No one is immune. No amount of self-esteem or positive thinking pick-me-ups can wipe away suffering. No amount of avoidance mechanisms or graceful exits will help us escape. And, our certainty will buckle when adverse circumstances strangle our ebbing breath. That’s why Holy Scripture never gives a cure-all for suffering or affliction in this life. Instead, its words everywhere remind us, “Nothing in all creation can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus.” Elsewhere, our Lord through the Psalmist, “ Be still (that means, hunker down, take cover) and know I am God.” And, Jesus also says, “I have overcome the world.” Jesus went through suffering, too, on His way to the cross. He faced the ridicule and rejection by the Pharisees. He endured Satan’s temptations and, for us, resisted them all. The Lamb of God, He was led to the slaughter of a criminal’s cross to be numbered with the transgressors and take away our sin. On the third day, He rose, triumphant over death, suffering, hell and Satan. Nothing can upset His victory. His victory is complete. Nothing can take Him off His eternal throne as He lives and rules to all eternity. He who is love incarnate goes with us through our agony, our times of hunger, our sicknesses, shame, fear and uncertainty. “God so loved the world…” that He sent Love into the midst of our lives. Though Jesus has ascended visibly from our sight, He engages us everyday. Every time, He draws us to read or hear His Word, He’s there. Every time, we receive public absolution in the Divine Service, He speaks anew the forgiveness that He purchased for us on Calvary. Every tine, He brings us to confess to our pastor or a friend privately something we’ve said, thought or done, that forgiveness is as valid as if Christ Himself stood visibly in front of us. He’s cleansed us of our sins and placed His cross on us. He gathers us to hear our pastor preach and then distributes His crucified and risen body and blood to us. All this confirms and upholds Jesus’ promises. Come what may in our lives, He’s with us always till He returns. What then of upsets? Nothing can upset or overthrow His love for us. What a joy and privilege it is for us to pray that our Lord will hold our confidence firm. That’s His will and He does it every day.
Monday, February 15, 2016
Luke 4:1: “And Jesus, fullof the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness….” Jesus had just been baptized. He’d heard the Father say: “You are my beloved Son.” Then, the Spirit tossed Him into the wilderness. No wonder Satan chided, “If you are the Son of God.” Hungry, thirsty, famished Jesus faced the devil’s temptations. Jesus could’ve snapped His fingers and silenced Satan. He didn’t. Jesus showed His Sonship by suffering our bodily needs while declaring victory over our old evil foe. Stones to bread would’ve cured His hunger pains. Jesus chose starvation while refuting Satan’s scowls. Gaining all the kingdoms of the world? No way! Jesus didn’t shortcut His trek to the cross. He longed to shed His own blood for us. Stage diving off the temple’s top? No. He didn’t conform topopular expectations. Jesus permitted Satan’s temptation so as to resist all those lures, traps, zaps and lies that often trip us up. Though Satan twisted Holy Scripture, Jesus replied, “It is written….” He corrected the devil with the Word in context just as He teaches us to read, mark, learn and take it to heart. You and I shudder. Family supports totter. emotional stability ebbs and flows. Jesus keeps speaking His Word through Bible studies, in sermons and in devotions. Our bodies and social supports wear out; Jesus’ reign endures. He’s cleansed us of our guilt. He stands us in His forgiveness. Doubts make us wonder if our sins are wiped away; Jesus returns us to Hispromise, “It is finished….” Jesus declared victory over Satan, suffered, died rose and ascended. Yes, our defeated foes—Satan, the world and our sinful flesh—pommel us with all their deception. Jesus calls us to place all our needs into His nail-pierced hands. He feeds us Himself, the bread of life, even as He guides our faith and life in His peace.
Thursday, February 11, 2016
Check out this reflection on Ash Wednesday's observation by Sandra Ostapowich on her blog, http://baptizatussum.wordpress.com. Repentance, after all, is not our work; it's our Lord's gift for the forgiveness of our sins to us who stray from His will. Jesus repents us back to our Baptism by which He emblazoned His cross with all its blessings on us.
Reflection--First Thursday in Lent Last night’s ashes are gone. We’ve washed them down the sink. Maybe, the hymns or preaching still ring in our ears. Yet, the visible symbol of sorrow are gone. A heightened anticipation accompanies our somberness in Lent. We know the endgame—celebrating Christ Jesus’ death on Good Friday and His resurrection on Easter morning. For this season, you and I have silenced our alleluias as we continue crying out, “Lord, have mercy.” Though the ashes are wiped off our foreheads, sin and the temptation to live in sinstill remains a clear and present reality. We put off facing our vocations of parenting, serving at our job, feeding our bodies—for some extra moments of slumber…forgetting that God goes with us into our daily lives and circumstances. Part of our nature wants to revel in the sounds and smells of last night’s worship….Yes, “here would we stay and sing…” Yet, our Lord called us bed-ward to give our bodies needed rest. Solomon is right, “There is a time for everything.”..for every purpose under heaven. (Eccl. 3:1) You and I daily stray from our callings in life. You and I daily disfigure our faces and our thoughts so as to convince ourselves that we can serve our neighbor or take care of our bodies when the feeling is right. (Matt. 6:3-4ff) The trumpet sounds from the prophets: Repent! “Rend your hearts and not your garments. Return to the Lord your God, for He is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.” (Joel 2:12-13) To us, when smug disregard, in our straying, the Word of promise fills our ears. The ashes are gone, wiped away. Good Friday and Easter lie weeks ahead of us. Yet, our Lord goes with us these forty days of heightened penitence because He has taken our smug neglect, our disregard, our words spoken in anger and our deeds in the name of convenience on Himself. And He calls us to fix our eyes on His suffering and death. He took our negligence, disregard, our craving for convenience away in His mercy. And, He bestows daily forgiveness on us whom He called, gathered, enlightened and sanctified. (2 Cor. 5:21) “Fix your eyes on Jesus,” the writer to the Hebrews reminds us. “He is the pioneer and perfector of our faith. For the joy set before Him, He endured the cross, scorning its shame and sat down that the right hand of God.” (Heb. 12:1-2) He has washed us clean in His blood when bathing us in His Word and water. And, though that water mark on our foreheads and on our breasts is gone, too. His cross still towers over the wrecks of time, even over the events and circumstances of our lives. Not for His convenience but tfor the joy set before Him, Jesus secured for us everlasting life. So, when we close our eyes that final time on this side of death, He promises to open them to view His redemption, His salvation of our bodies and souls forever. He who knows our goings in and comings out, our rising and our lying down guards us in His peace and saving love.
Friday, June 5, 2015
Anyone can read the Bible. Can anyone receive and understand it’s content? At first, even the skeptic will frown, shake his head, and rant about how many contradictions he sees—between salvation as God’s work (Eph. 2:8-9) and our need to work out our own salvation (Phil. 2:13). She’ll quote endless amount of scholars in support that Genesis 1 tells a different creation narrative than Genesis 2. Even some Christians are baffled by the wrathful display of God as angry in the Old Testament and God’s kindness in the New. Many Christians offer friends this advice: Just give it time. Read the Bible cover to cover. Start with the Gospel of John. Give the Holy Spirit a chance to work on your heart. The Holy Spirit certainly works through the Word He inspired certain apostles, evangelists and prophets to write. (2 Peter 1:21) Even so, He never works apart from that Word—its grammar, syntax, its various historical settings. So, even after some time alone reading the Bible, the skeptic may still see contradictions, historical inaccuracies and consolation that seems too old-fashioned or too simple to be true. How can this book be any more special than the Qur’an or the Vedas or the Book Of Mormon? How can it give me a true picture of Jesus Christ, let alone the true way of eternal life? Before delving into lots of technicalities about God or the Trinity or salvation, let’s remind ourselves that the Bible is a book. It’s a book full of words, sentences, and paragraphs. The rules of grammar, syntax and logic apply. The Lutheran Reformers pointed this out when challenged to prove their teaching on God’s forgiveness/justification came from the Bible. In some places, the Apology to the Augsburg Confession explains, the reader finds the commands of the Law and in others the promises of the Gospel. http:bocl.org?AP+IV+102 Context counts. We can’t usually take in a Bible verse’s meaning just by hearing or reading it by itself. Even John 3:16, the Gospel in a nutshell, sits in the middle of a discussion between Jesus and Nicodemus. Whether one interprets John 3:16 as the evangelist’s commentary on Jesus’ words or as the continuation of Jesus conversation, he sees previous verses saying that this same God who sent Jesus for us is He who raised up a bronze serpent in the wilderness to which the people might look if they were bitten by the poisonous snakes sent against them. (John 3:13-15, Num. 21:4-9) In the same way, clearer passages help us understand those which appear obscure to us. Prov. 8 personifies wisdom using feminine pronouns. Yet, wisdom is not a separate deity from the Lord our only, true God. Earlier, the king reminds his son to follow the way of wisdom (4:11), promising that by it he’ll gain understanding. (1:7, 3:5ff) 1 Cor. 1 Cor. 1:18-31 make wisdom clear to us. Even Gentiles seek wisdom—hoping by it to have their own grasp on God. Yet, true wisdom is Jesus Christ. He reveals this not only in His teachings but even more so in His death for us on the cross for our salvation. Likewise, the Old and New Testametn don’t divide God’s disposition or dispensation of His will. Rather, the Old Testament points to Christ who was to come and the New reveals Christ who has come for us. C.F.W. Walther—the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod’s first president, wrote ““Do not think that the Old Testament reveals a wrathful and the New Testament a gracious God, or that the Old Testament teaches salvation by a person's own works and the New Testament salvation by faith. No. We find both teachings in the Old as well as in the New Testament. But the moment we understand how to distinguish between Law and Gospel, it is as if the sun were rising upon the Scriptures, and we behold all the contents of the Scriptures in the most beautiful harmony. We see that the Law was not revealed to us to put a notion into our heads that we could become righteous by it, but to teach us that we are completely unable to fulfill the Law. Then we will know what a sweet message—what a glorious doctrine—the Gospel is and will receive it with exuberant joy.”” (Walther, LAW AND GOSPEL, p70) Somewhere I’ve heard it said that the Bible is simple enough for a child to get its teaching—Jesus Christ saves us from our sins, death and the devil to everlasting life—yet, it’s depth confounds the most trained theologian. Hence, at the end of his second epistle, Peter encourages us to “grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ.” (2 Peter 3:18) While the message of the Bible focuses on Christ Jesus as our Savior, its insight helps us apply this Gospel to many situations in life. That can be tough for ourselves, for our families and anyone else who speaks with us. Walther writes: “Indeed, Luther says that sometimes he had blasphemous thoughts. Suddenly a new light shone upon [Luther], showing him the kind of righteousness of which the Gospel is speaking. He relates that from that moment on, he began to run through all of Scripture to get a clear understanding as to which portions of Scripture are Law and which are Gospel. He says that he pried into every book in the Bible, and now all of it became clear to him. Once he understood this distinction, he became the reformer. This is also the reason he was so incredibly successful when he went public with these ideas. With his new insight, Luther freed the poor people from the misery into which the Law-preaching of their priests had driven them (LAW AND GOSPEL, p71).” Of course, we often view our lives in hindsight. Getting up in the morning, sending kids to school, throwing ourselves together for work and pressing on to phone calls, meetings and other business leaves us little time to consider every decision we make ahead of time. That’s why Scripture emphasizes our repentance of sins because we commit so many of them in thought, words and actions every day. (1 John 1:8, Ps. 130:3, Joel 2:13) For the same God who calls us to account also offers His daily forgiveness, His pardon and reprieve. (1 John 1:9, Ps. 130:4, Joel 2:13) God’s Law never stands as an end in and of itself. Instead, it always returns us to the promises and consolation Jesus gives us. He’s the Law’s end, after all (Rom. 10:4). He’s fulfilled the whole thing in His life, suffering, death, and risen as our forever high priest. Every command in Scripture has as its basis God’s gifts—that we either desist from misusing them or that we may be warned against their misuse. That’s why truly keeping God’s commandments involves a fear of God’s wrath along with a love for Him and trust in His Word. Fear of His wrath leads us to daily seek how His wrath is satisfied—in Jesus’ fulfillment of each and every one of the ten commandments and more. (Ex. 20:1-17, Matt. 5:17-20) Jesus shepherds us back to the water and Word of Holy Baptism. For there He marked His with His cross personally. He dressed us in Himself and called us Abraham’s offspring by faith. (Gal. 3:26-29) Maybe, you’ve heard the same objection I have—that Scripture is God’s Word, no matter how you slice it and we need to learn its principles for real life. Yes, advice can be good for us. Fellowship groups can certainly help us find some Biblical statements on money or marriage or raising children. Yet, again, all depends on context. If we mine the Scriptures only seeking such statements, we can number them 1-10 or even more…without fully keeping a single one of them. Our consciences, like the Law we seek, will always accuse us of coming up short of any expectation. Even a well-meaning urge to repentance without the consolation of Jesus’ forgiveness leaves us high, dry and afraid to glimpse our reflection in the mirror. http:bocl.org?EP+V+11 Again, C.F.W. Walther cautions us to regard the distinction between Law/command and Gospel/promise in Holy Scripture as key for our daily comfort and assurance day in and day out .”…so that these two doctrines may not be mingled with each other, or Law be made out of the Gospel. This mingling hides the merit of Christ and robs troubled consciences of their comfort, which they otherwise have in the Holy Gospel when it is preached genuinely and in its purity. The Gospel supports them in their most severe trials against the terrors of the Law.” “If these two doctrines are not kept separate, the merit of Christ is hidden. For if I am afraid of the threats of the Law, I have forgotten Christ, who says to me: "Though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow. Come to Me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.”” (Walther, LAW AND GOSPEL, p73) Because none of us ever will get this distinction right until our Lord takes us through death’s portal to our eternal rest, our Lord Himself never stops bringing us His Word of peace, of absolution. He meets us in daily devotions through the written Word read at home or work or school. He helps us husbands and wives give voice to forgiveness as a flurry of emotions or some miscommunication simmers. Pastors get the joy of preaching sermons with the proper distinction between God’s commands and promises underlying every word they speak from the pulpit. Yes, pastors expect that we’ll come to church each week burdened with some frustration or trouble, a blown relationship, a snit at school, guilt due to lack of effort at work. They face the very same things in their families, in the run-around between parishioner visits and, yes…even at the church. The are called and ordained to be forgiveness men. They get to talk with us in their office privately as if Christ stands before us face to face giving us private absolution. They put His body and blood in our mouths at the altar during the Divine Service or when visiting a shut-in or someone at home. They baptize newborn infants and adults—being the first to welcome the newest members of the kingdom of God. Yet, “the preacher will not rightly proclaim these facts unless the distinction between Law and Gospel is burned into his brain. Only then can the listener lie down and die in peace on his deathbed.” (ibid.) What a blessing for them to proclaim and an equally great joy for us to hear. After all, each sermon a pastor preaches may be the last someone hears before their death. We rejoice in hearing, reading and studying God’s written Word everyday. The Bible remains God’s gift and treasure chest into which we, His saints, get to look. There is the message of salvation by grace through trust in Christ alone. Commands and promises guide us through every literary context, through every book of the Bible that we may be thoroughly equipped in faith toward God and growing love for each other. We pray, then, as Walther encourages us. ““May God, then, who has kindled this light for us, preserve it for us!—through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with the Holy Spirit in the glory of God our heavenly Father. (Walther, LAW AND GOSPEL, p75)