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with Indispensable Churches and Tending the Light

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The Church is a Love Story

I’m always gritting my teeth when I’m reading and hearing people talking about the Church as “an organization” or suggesting that we need to “run it like a business.”  I have a hard time seeing that model in Scripture.  We’re so fascinated by the “success” models of American business that we think we have to see them in the Church, too – everything from “the pursuit of excellence” to “best practices” and beyond.

But the model of the Church that I see time and again in Scripture is the Church as the Bride of Christ.  I’ve written on this before, and probably will do so again.  But here it is from a different source.  Bearing in mind that of course the Pope is going to understand / equate the Church with the Roman Catholic Church, he is still right on target in reminding us that there is more to the Church than spreadsheets and bottom lines.

Pope Francis: The Church is a Love Story.

 

Retirement? Really?

I’m a member of a group of Lutheran pastors that meets regularly to discuss all kinds of ministry-related issues.  This morning as we were discussing “bullying in the church” we were on a side note along the question of when manipulation becomes bullying.  The subject of pastors’ behavior in retirement came up  (three of us are retired, three of us are active).

 

(Note to my non-Lutheran readers:  in our denomination, pastors are not “assigned” to congregations after their first assignment out of the seminary.  We have a “call” system and for the most part it is the decision of the pastor and – presumably – the Holy Spirit as to when and under what circumstances he leaves that call and that congregation.)

 

So one of the scenarios that we have observed in our system is that it is possible for a pastor of long tenure in a congregation to retire from the office of the pastor of that congregation yet not leave the geographic area.  Often the congregation grants him the title of “Pastor Emeritus” to honor his tenure and ministry among them.  But what is his role there after he retires?

 

Some pastors make it a practice to disappear from the congregation for as much as a year – worshiping elsewhere, taking no funerals or weddings, being out of communication almost entirely with the congregation for such a long time.  This is hard to contemplate perhaps, but it has the effect of saying to everyone “This era is at an end.  Everyone (congregation and retired pastor and incoming pastor) now needs to deal with it and move on well.”

 

Some other pastors stay in the area and participate in congregational life, but as a layman.  This is harder to do – to turn down requests for wedding or funerals for people you’ve served in love for years, but it has a similar effect as above.  It’s also hard because the people you’ve served and loved for years keep calling you “pastor” and coming up to you for advice or complaints.  Sometimes it’s just easier to take up membership in a nearby congregation (we have one man who has done this in my church, where he serves as a trusted and gentle Elder) where everyone knows he is a retired pastor but he has never been our pastor.

 

The problems arise when the retiring pastor tries to manipulate congregational life after his ministry ends.  Some pastors do that by staying around and listening to the complaints and concerns of people rather than setting boundaries and directing them to the interim/vacancy or succeeding pastor.  Some pastors try to manipulate the future with elaborate plans and schedules involving the date of their retirement relative to the date of the installation of the new pastor.  We even heard a story of a pastor who talked his congregation into calling a man to be his associate for a few years; then they switched roles and the older man became the associate and the newer one became the senior pastor; finally the older man retired but hung around acting like the Senior Pastor until the newer man left years later and continued that way several years into the ministry of the next man!

 

Having heard all these stories, here are several observations we made:

 

As with many retiring people who form their identity based on their job, the pastor whose identity is based on his role as pastor will often be depressed or discouraged and have a hard time letting go in retirement.  The best recommendation here is, as I have heard Dr. Terry Wardle of Ashland Thelogical Seminary say numerous times, “don’t base your identity on something that can be taken away.”

 

We’re often afraid to confront manipulative / bullying people in the church (including pastors) because (a) we’re afraid they may get angry and leave or (b) we think that we must suffer because Jesus suffered -and “the servant is not above the master.”  Yet although Jesus was not afraid of His own suffering, neither was He afraid to set boundaries against some folks so that they would not cause others to suffer (e.g., the little children parents brought for His blessing, the prostitute being criticized for pouring perfume on His feet).

 

Toward the end of Moses’ ministry God took him up to the mountaintop and handed the reins over to Joshua, then removed Moses from the picture by taking his life (He did the same to Elijah).  For both Joshua and Elisha, for the people of Israel as well, the ministries of the great predecessors had definite ending points that all had to deal with together – with neither Moses nor Elisha in sight to oversee the transition.

 

Samuel, on the other hand, was “voted out of office” when the people decided they wanted a king.  While God told him that they were acting against God and not Samuel, I guess Samuel had to live with that.  But since they had rejected his leadership he couldn’t very well pretend to keep leading them, could he?  So perhaps he lived the rest of his life as a sort of pundit / prophet, commenting but not leading.  Yet I’m pretty sure that this is not the most healthy role for a retired pastor, either, as there can be a mighty fine line between “prophet” and “grump.”

 

Finally, David had in mind to build a temple for the Lord but was told “not you, but your son will build the temple.”  David was satisfied with this, though, and spent considerable effort gathering resources and materials so that Solomon wouldn’t have to waste time doing that himself.  Perhaps it is wise to make appropriate preparations for retirement, to prepare the congregation and the people for the need to face the event and the issues; but like David to understand that though you can assemble the materials, it really is the successor to whom it falls to build them into the next ministry.

 

Jesus was There; Jesus is Here, too

Over at Public Catholic a terrific sister in Christ, Rebecca Hamilton, posted this wonderful reflection about the Christmas Eve Mass she attended:  Jesus was There.

It’s a beautiful piece, one worth reading (if you haven’t done so yet).  And here’s what I noticed about that piece, and about the comments that followed it (mine included, I must say) –

The author tries to look through the fog and haze of criticism, legalism, pickiness, and the general pettiness of “good Christian people” to see the ones who came that Christmas Eve night to find the Savior, the Healer, the Companion, the Comforter, the Burden-Bearer, the Child in whom the hopes and fears of all the years are met on Christmas Eve.  And she succeeds wonderfully as she looks around in the sanctuary of her congregation, and her eyes and heart drink in a crowd of folks that would doubtless have warmed Jesus’ heart and caused Him to cry out with compassion for them.  But in that crowd, as in the crowds around Jesus, there were also the Pharisaic types, the ones who just can’t seem to see beyond their own insecurities and need for control.

And so what happens?  As in the Gospels, so in this piece and the comments that followed we have paid more attention to the Pharisees than to the man with HIV, the prostitute, the homeless family, the dirty ones, the children, the elderly.  Certainly it’s more tempting for those of us who work mostly with words to turn those words against the Pharisees, the “liturgical cops” and the “church Nazis” and engage them in long debates.  And indeed the history of the church is replete with such debates, and those have often been necessary to sort things out for the rest of the believers.

But as Jesus pointed out to the Pharisees of His day, even in King David’s day the question of whether it was “right” for his soldiers to eat the showbread from the tabernacle took the backseat to whether it was compassionate for the priests to feed the people of God in their hunger.

So in this new year 2013 perhaps a good resolution is to try to engage less often in these kinds of “who is right” discussions and instead engage in “how can I be compassionate” actions.  Will this draw the ire of modern-day Pharisees?  Doubtless.  But let us not allow them to distract us from the life of love that Jesus has called us to live.

God bless us everyone!

 

 

Formational Prayer and Jesus

As you are heading to Ashland for the Formational Prayer seminar this week, I want you to know something about you and Jesus:  everything He did, He did to forgive your sins and give you life with His Father forever.  That means that as you come to Ashland you can be assured that

  • you don’t owe God anything for any of your sins
  • Jesus has completely wiped clean any accusation at all against you, whether from Satan or from anyone else
  • anything that any person may hold against you means nothing to Jesus, who loves you with an unimaginable love
  • in His resurrection He has trampled on the gates of hell and broken them forever – there is no way you can become imprisoned there again
  • He can and does call on legions of angels to surround you with His protection while you are away from home this week
  • wherever you may be hurting or wounded, He knows those wounds intimately; and it is by His wounds that you are healed – that’s another promise of His
  • He will strengthen your faith in every aspect of your participation this week
  • He will surround you with a community of believers so that, like the 99 in the wilderness, Satan will hesitate longer to attack any one of us because of the mass of us gathered together
  • if you don’t have the opportunity to hear it tomorrow in worship, hear it from me now:  as a called and ordained servant of our Lord Jesus Christ, and by His authority, I tell you that all your sins have been forgiven you, in the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit
  • He has given you and me the Holy Spirit as His pledge and guarantee that all these promises are true.

I’m looking forward to seeing everything that our generous Lord Jesus will be doing for you this week!

God bless us everyone!

Formational Prayer and the Father

This Sunday coming up is the Sunday of the Holy Trinity in the church year.  It’s also the day in which a number of folks leave home and family to spend a week at Ashland Theological Seminary in Ashland, Ohio for seminars in Formational Prayer.  If you’re one of these folks, this post is for you:

As Christians, we believe, teach and confess our God as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  The Apostles’ Creed says “I believe in God the Father almighty, maker of heaven and earth.”  Martin Luther said that this means that God not only has created everything in the world, but every part of what makes you and me human beings – eyes, ears, and every part of you.  He’s given you everything you need to support your body as well as your life.  And He doesn’t just hand over these things to you, then sit back and watch.  No, He keeps giving you everything you need, “daily and richly,” for no other reason than that He loves you.

As you’re getting ready to head for seminars at Ashland this next week (or, whenever you’re getting ready to go away for a while), it’s easy to get caught up in the worries of what needs to be done before you leave, what will happen while you’re gone, and what you’ll need to do when you get back.  Maybe these exercises will help:

Do a mental survey of your body, as many parts, pieces, senses and functions as you can think of.  Thank God the Father for making these all for you and for preserving them even when you are unaware of Him.

Do a mental survey of all the “stuff” you have (food, clothing, house, home, pets, family, material possessions).  Thank God the Father for His generosity in giving you all these, and for renewing those gifts to you every day, even when you aren’t home to enjoy them.

Why does the Father do this for you, daily and richly and generously?  Because He owes it to you?  Because He feels guilty about Eden?  Because you’re worth it?  or just because He loves you with an incredible love that passes your every imagination and understanding?  Yes, that’s it!  Spend some time praising Him for that love!  And let Him take care of all these things for you while you are in Ashland next week!

1 John 3:1-3

 1 How great is the love the Father has lavished on us, that we should be called children of God! And that is what we are! The reason the world does not know us is that it did not know him. 2 Dear friends, now we are children of God, and what we will be has not yet been made known. But we know that when he appears, we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is. 3 Everyone who has this hope in him purifies himself, just as he is pure. (NIV)

The Father of our Lord Jesus Christ has lavished His love on you and me so greatly that He is delighted to call us His children!  So Jesus’ birth and life and death and resurrection are not just historical facts to be recited dryly and lifelessly; they are the means by which God lavishes His love on us!

I once heard someone say that “just because we confess that God is sovereign does not obligate Him to demonstrate His sovereignty to our satisfaction on a daily basis,” and the same is true of His love.  There are days in which I don’t know if I feel loved by God, because I don’t feel loved by much else.  Physical pains, emotional suffering, the temptations of the devil and the annoyances of the world all gang up on me sometimes.  I want God’s love to come shining through like a ray of sunshine, and it doesn’t (I don’t know if you’ve ever felt that way or not).  But wait – even on those dreary days I get to eat; I have a bed to climb out of or crawl into; sometimes I even get a phone call from a friend.  Such simple things, yet still signs of God’s great love.

So I have this thought / suggestion:  maybe there’s another pastor, a friend of yours you’ve been thinking about for a while.  Maybe that pastor has been going through some difficulties, or maybe you just haven’t talked in a while.  Why not pick up the phone some time yet today or this week and talk to him or her, just to say “I want you to know God loves you, and I’m here for you, too.”  Don’t be shy just because it’s been so long.

Oh, and if you’re the one who needs to here someone say those words, go ahead and call a friend and say “I need you to tell me that God loves me.”

1 John 2:1-11

1 My dear children, I write this to you so that you will not sin. But if anybody does sin, we have an advocate with the Father—Jesus Christ, the Righteous One. 2 He is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only for ours but also for the sins of the whole world.

 3 We know that we have come to know him if we keep his commands. 4 Whoever says, “I know him,” but does not do what he commands is a liar, and the truth is not in that person. 5 But if anyone obeys his word, love for God is truly made complete in them. This is how we know we are in him: 6Whoever claims to live in him must live as Jesus did. . . .

  9 Anyone who claims to be in the light but hates a brother or sister is still in the darkness. 10 Anyone who loves their brother and sister lives in the light, and there is nothing in them to make them stumble. 11 But anyone who hates a brother or sister is in the darkness and walks around in the darkness. They do not know where they are going, because the darkness has blinded them.  (NIV)

If the greatest commandment is to “love the Lord your God with all your heart and soul and strength and mind” and the second, “love your neighbor as yourself” is its partner, then the greatest sin is to hate and turn away from the Lord who is God and its partner is to hate your neighbor / brother / sister.  It’s not the unforgivable sin – Jesus pleads for us in the presence of the Father as our Advocate, and the Father is faithful and just and will forgive even this sin – but for us who are the children of God and walking in His light it is the sin that colors and darkens everything we do.

But I confess, my brother, that it is entirely my fault, my sin, that I do not love you as Jesus would love you.  I am not willing to give you the time of day sometimes, my sister, much less my entire life, and that is entirely my sin.  There is no sin in you that Jesus has not forgiven and no failure of yours that He does not take to the Father’s throne for overflowing mercy and grace, but there are times when I feel uncomfortable around you.  That is my darkness, not yours.  If I am to walk and live in the true light of Jesus, I must recognize my own darkness so that I can turn from it and reach out my arms of compassion to you.

And will you take me up on the offer of the compassionate embrace?  That’s your decision, one which I dare not influence in any way except to extend the invitation.  The only loving thing I can do for you is to put away my darkness and extend the hand of love, hoping that someday you will take it in yours.

God bless us everyone!

1 John 4:5-7

5 This is the message we have heard from him and declare to you: God is light; in him there is no darkness at all. 6 If we claim to have fellowship with him and yet walk in the darkness, we lie and do not live out the truth. 7 But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus, his Son, purifies us from all sin.  (NIV)

The astonishing thing about God is this:  He holds nothing back from us.  If there are things we don’t understand about Him, the darkness is in our own minds.  But He reaches out completely to us in untarnished love, yearning for full fellowship with us.

It’s hard for me to have full fellowship with God if I hold back from Him.  If I keep a secret from Him, there’s still a place where I’m afraid of Him.  If I hide a shame, there’s still a place where I don’t trust Him.  If I disguise a motive, there’s still a place where I don’t value Him.  He holds nothing back from me; He offers Himself fully and freely to me, to walk in loving fellowship with me all the time.  What keeps that from happening are the veils and walls that I put up between us, that mean that much of the time I can’t see where my own feet are landing as I try to walk with Him.  And the veils and walls are so heavy and I’ve put them up so securely that (as He knows only too well) only the blood of His Son Jesus is strong enough to dissolve the fabric and the mortar, to bring down the veils and walls and let me walk in the fellowship of true light with Him.

And the same is true for you and me, brother and sister in Christ, when we walk together with one another.  As long as I hold up a veil between us, we can’t have the fellowship of the true light of God’s love between us.  As long as I hide behind a wall between us, we can’t really walk together, side by side and heart to heart.  We can talk over the fence, I suppose, but each of us in our own separate yards and in our own separate lives going our own separate ways – that isn’t fellowship – that isn’t love – that isn’t the light that the Gospel of Jesus Christ brings us.

The blood of Jesus is powerful enough to dissolve the fabric, knock down the walls, tear up the fences, and let us reach across our dividing lines to embrace one another in love, the way He has embraced us.  The blood of Jesus is merciful enough to do all that without harming us in any way.  The blood of Jesus is grace-filled enough to do all that without leaving any speck of the residue of darkness behind.  And the blood of Jesus is wondrous enough to fill you and me with the courage to lay aside the darknesses in our lives and walk in the light of His resurrection glory.

Please, do that with me.  I reach out my hand to you in His love; will you walk with me in His light?

God bless us everyone!

1 John 1:1-4

1 That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked at and our hands have touched—this we proclaim concerning the Word of life. 2 The life appeared; we have seen it and testify to it, and we proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and has appeared to us. 3 We proclaim to you what we have seen and heard, so that you also may have fellowship with us. And our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son, Jesus Christ. 4 We write this to make our joy complete. (NIV)

If we try to define the Trinity from a structural point of view, we end up describing a skeleton without any of the vitality, breath, or even life.  That’s why the Athanasian Creed is so hard, sometimes, for us to grasp – it seems to present us with a structural God rather than a living God.  Not that structure is bad – as vertebrates we like that internal skeleton – but the structure does not tell the whole story.  The better term to describe the relationship between Father and Son and Holy Spirit is fellowship.  That’s going beyond structure to relationship, to friendship, to heart and hand and eye and ear and even love; to dancing together and working together and laughing and crying together; to enjoying one another’s company around a table long after the meal has ended.

And that’s what Jesus invites us into when He calls us to faith as people in His church – to fellowship, not just to membership.  “Membership” places us in a ledger; fellowship places us at the Table.  “Membership” proposes obligations; fellowship proposes offerings.  “Membership” defines roles; fellowship describes relationships.  Whether it’s “membership” in a Synod, a congregation, or a Circuit Pastors’ Conference, the purpose is administrative.  But “fellowship” is completely different – whether in a congregation, a Conference, or a Synod.  The fellowship that we have with one another is an icon of the fellowship within the Trinity.  Do you want to know what the interior life of the Trinity looks like?  Look at the fellowship to which Christ calls His believers.

The Church is not the structure, and we are not members of the Church.  The Church, the body of Christ and His Bride, is the icon of the Trinity and both are described best by the word “fellowship.”  And the way we relate to one another is best described by the word “fellowship.”  And even though that fellowship sometimes looks thin and sometimes looks strained and sometimes looks weakened, it is still what holds us together; it is still worth hanging on to; it is still worth fighting for.

I go an extra mile for someone who compels me because that’s what Christ commanded me to do; but for the one with whom I am in fellowship I don’t bother to measure the mile.  I lend my coat and my cloak to someone in need because that is the compassionate thing to do; but for the one with whom I am in fellowship there is no IOU, no due date, and no limit to what I will give him.

Brothers and sisters in Christ, let the fellowship we have with one another (not in general only, but you, the reader, in the fellowship you have with me personally) clearly and brightly reflect for each of us and for those around us the fellowship of the Trinity, so that both of us and everyone else may see the love of Jesus for us and for them.

God bless us everyone!

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