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Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Pastoral Theology: Naming Names From the Pulpit

Before we get started let me make something clear:

  • This is not written with anyone in mind, rather my purpose in most of these posts are to share pastoral theology insights I have had for the benefit of other pastors, lay leaders, seminarians and other members of the body of Christ. 

In seminary one common theme professors told us was, "Don't preach against people in the pulpit." Or, "Don't name names from the pulpit." Or, "Don't write sermons with individuals in mind." You get the point I'm sure. Since becoming a pastor this has been a theme of advice that I continue to receive.

I agree. And I disagree.

A sermon should not be written with one or several individuals in mind. One should not "preach against" people from the pulpit. That is pretty much the extent of what I agree.

I disagree however that names should not be named from the pulpit. If the situation warrants a sermon, then why not name names? I prayerfully plan out the entire year's worth of sermons at the start of the year. I know the Spirit is at work in my planning because so often as the text/date approach something in the church or community or world at large arises that fits into the text so well I couldn't have planned it if I tried.  If a situation arises, good or bad and the text addresses it--why not make the point clear?

These conclusions I have reached through reading the Scripture so let's look at a few passages to consider the point I am trying to make:

Point #1: Paul's letters were intended to be read out loud

In 1st Thessalonians 5.27 Paul writes, "I put you under oath before the Lord to have this letter read to all the brothers." Paul's intention in writing the letter was to have it read before the entire body of believers. This was not a private letter intended for the leadership of the church, or for Paul's good friend, but for all.  

1st Thessalonians is not the only place this instruction shows up. Paul also gives similar instructions to the church in Colossae. Colossians 4.16: "And when this letter has been read among you, have it also read in the church of the Laodiceans; and see that you also read the letter from Laodicea." This passage sheds even more light on the concept of the letters being read out loud because Paul is not only encouraging the letter to be read to the Colossian church but to then have it shared with the church of Laodicea as well. 

A former professor of mine writes, "But Paul’s charge that they “read it to all the brothers and sisters” suggests that he expected it to be read to the whole church together as part of a gathering. Letters were not so much read as they were heard. Paul’s letter would have served as a sermon, read out loud, allowing him to “be there with them” even though he was absent."  

So Paul's letters were intended to be read out loud to a gathering of the church and acted in much the same way as sermons do today in the church. 

Points #2 Paul was not afraid to name names

In one of the most famous of Paul's letters, the letter to the Philippians, Paul names names. The letter is much beloved because of his numerous references to joy and of course, the famous Christological hymn of 2.6-11. The circumstance for Paul writing the letter is generally believed to be two-fold: he is responding to the Philippians for their timely gift they gave him. But he takes advantage of the opportunity to address an issue of division within the Philippian church. Suddenly, he calls out Euodia and Syntyche in 4.2 to get along! Imagine how they must have felt, as they suddenly hear their names read out loud, as they hear their names being called out. 

So a letter (sermon) read out loud to the gathered body, calls out certain individuals and names their problem: disagreement; then proceeds to urge them to work it out. 

Points #3 Paul's letters were considered Scripture

Another argument against the practice of addressing individuals in a sermon is, "That is not how the Word of God should be used or proclaimed." 

Peter, perhaps revealing his more common roots makes an observation about Paul's letters in his second letter being "hard to understand." But Peter also makes a telling comment about the authority of Paul's letters in 2nd Peter 3.15-16: "And count the patience of our Lord as salvation, just as our beloved brother Paul also wrote to you according to the wisdom given him,  as he does in all his letters when he speaks in them of these matters. There are some things in them that are hard to understand, which the ignorant and unstable twist to their own destruction, as they do the other Scriptures." The ignorant are twisting the words of Paul's letters, as they do the other Scriptures. Other is the key word there: Paul's letters and the other Scriptures. Paul's letters were considered Scripture by his peers.

And of course we consider his writings to be Scripture now. So the argument, "that is not how the Word of God  should be used or proclaimed" really makes no sense.  

Objections to this train of thought naturally arise: isn't this arrogant? Who are you to name names from the pulpit? 

Paul gives us another valuable lesson about the way he handled speaking the truth in love (Eph 4.15). Paul was always honest. He held nothing back because he was on fire for the Lord and the proclamation of the gospel. Indeed, he opposed Cephas (Peter) to his face (Galatians 2.11). When the Galatians were acting like fools, he let them know they were acting like fools (3.1). Yet, he was never boastful but always recognized the grace of God in all he did (1st Corinthians 15.10). And he was honest about his own flaws (Romans 7.7-11, 2nd Corinthians 12.7-10). Paul was concerned enough about his own weaknesses, and humble enough to be honest, that he continually practiced self-discipline (1st Corinthians 9.26-27). 

So we as preachers must be humble. We must be honest about ourselves and our lies. Paul names one sin (Romans 7.7) but I'm sure, was guilty of others. We don't need to open the doors of our lives and say to everyone, "here's my brokenness" yet we ought not to hide it as if we were ashamed. The Lord already knows and his opinion matters far more greatly than anyone else in this world (1st Corinthians 4.3-4). So we must be humble, honest and on fire for the gospel.

I have always been amazed by a prayer request Paul makes in his Ephesian epistle. Paul asks for the words to proclaim the mystery of the gospel boldly, as he ought to do (Eph 6.19-20). This request is made while he is a prisoner for the sake of the gospel!  We must be on fire for the gospel of God's grace and always seeking to have the courage to proclaim it, no matter the circumstances (Acts 16.25-34), no matter our past mistakes (Galatians 1.13). And if someone is living out of line with the gospel (Galatians 2.14), then we must have the courage to say so, even if it happens to be from the pulpit. 

Monday, October 8, 2012

Pastoral Theology: Catechism

The introduction to the Large Catechism by Martin Luther is dedicated to " All Christians, but Especially to All Pastors and Preachers, that They Should Daily Exercise Themselves in the Catechism, which is a Short Summary and Epitome of the Entire Holy Scriptures, and that They May Always Teach the Same."

Many Protestant denominations have as founding documents, often worked into their very constitution, catechisms and confessions. These are there for a reason: the original reformers felt these documents accurately represented the Scriptures. They were written and structured to preached from and taught, diligently, to the congregation year after year after year.

Yet this has by and large, fallen by the way side. And in the mean time, Protestant churches are full of Christians who do not know the fundamentals of their faith. They doubt the Virgin Birth, they don't think Jesus led a sinless life, faith in Christ alone as the means to salvation is doubted or unrealized, differences between Protestants and Catholics are minimized, good works are celebrated, human nature is over emphasized and the American Dream has perverted the gospel.

I attended a conference this past week emphasizing the Heidelberg Catechism. In my denomination, the Reformed Church in America, this catechism is part of our very constitution. Ministers of the Word and Sacrament must promise to teach the contents of it to their church on a regular schedule. Yet it too, has fallen by the way side. Discussion was held related to the Standards and something stood out that Luther picked up on nearly 500 years ago: many of us are ashamed of the teaching in the Catechism and so we hide it.

Speculation on my part follows: perhaps the shame is that we disagree with something so irrational as election, or maybe we are embarrassed to try to use some "dry" old document when clearly it is modern, contemporary, praise music that people enjoy. Whatever the case Luther said this: "To this there is added the shameful vice and secret infection of security and satiety, that is, that many regard the Catechism as a poor, mean teaching, which they can read through at one time, and then immediately know it, throw the book into a corner, and be ashamed, as it were, to read in it again." We must not neglect the contents of our catechisms.

If you are a minister in a denomination that has as its foundation catechism documents: where are yours and when was the last time you used them? When was the last time you faithfully taught the contents to your congregation?

Luther continues to urge pastors and preachers to not go the route of the academic too quickly. Again, advice I see many of my brethren ignoring. One thing that astounded me in seminary was how many people there were already contemplating going on to get their doctor in ministry--when they hadn't even been a minister yet! I have been out of seminary a little less than a year and people I graduated with are already pursuing this degree. Luther wrote, "Therefore I again implore all Christians, especially pastors and preachers, not to be doctors too soon, and imagine that they know everything..."

Are you a new pastor already contemplating another degree? Perhaps a D.Min? Is this degree your ship to Tarshish? 

Being a pastor is hard. I have learned much in my first year. One lesson stands out above all: there is even more that I do not know. Every day (or so it seems) a new challenge arises that I have to again turn to the Lord and ask for wisdom.

Therein lies the value of a catechism. The wisdom of the Lord shines forth through its pages. We are reminded that we are too puffed up and in need of a savior. We are taught who the savior is, why he came and how we have been saved. Then we are reminded of how to respond to such a great gift. And we are given the perfect outline to present the best news ever to our flock, year after year--for they too need to be reminded of this truth year after year. While the gospel may not give me the answers to every problem, it puts problems in perspective and reminds me that ultimate "dilemma of existence" has been solved through the costly gift of God's Son.

Luther goes on to say, "And I must still read and study daily, and yet I cannot master it as I wish, but must remain a child and pupil of the Catechism, and am glad so to remain." Remarkably similar to what Jesus said in Mark 10.13-16: "whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child shall not enter into it." Like a child, I have much to learn. And like a child, I trust that my fathers in the faith have honestly represented the truth of Scripture through the catechisms they have written.  What about you?

Sunday, October 7, 2012

What do you believe? What do you teach your children?

Phil Vischer was the creator of Veggie Tales. Veggie Tales didn't work out the way he envisioned, or he envisioned it wrong. I'm not sure which--I haven't read his memoir. But I keep seeing excerpts from it popping up on the blogosphere and I must say, it sounds remarkable. Consider this:

I looked back at the previous ten years and realized I had spent ten years trying to convince kids to behave “Christianly” without actually teaching them Christianity. And that was a pretty serious conviction. You can say, "Hey kids, be more forgiving because the Bible says so," or, "Hey kids, be more kind because the Bible says so!" But that isn’t Christianity, it’s morality.

American Christian[s]… are drinking a cocktail that’s a mix of the Protestant work ethic, the American dream, and the gospel. And we’ve intertwined them so completely that we can’t tell them apart anymore. Our gospel has become a gospel of following your dreams and being good so God will make all your dreams come true. It’s the Oprah god… We’ve completely taken this Disney notion of "when you wish upon a star, your dreams come true" and melded that with faith and come up with something completely different. There’s something wrong in a culture that preaches nothing is more sacred than your dream. I mean, we walk away from marriages to follow our dreams. We abandon children to follow our dreams. We hurt people in the name of our dreams, which as a Christian is just preposterous.

Remarkable. Absolutely remarkable. Do you believe the gospel or some perverted version of the American dream and the gospel? What are you teaching your children? The gospel or the "power" of their dreams? 

Saturday, October 6, 2012

Civil Religion and Election Year

If you have a few minutes do yourself a favor and head over to this blog:

The author is a high school chum of mine, a good seminary friend and a brother in Christ. His insights are very timely. Here is a little excerpt:  I question the narrative that one political party (either one, or even a new one) has its finger on the pulse of this nation, wants selflessly to meet the needs of the people, and can summon the resources to do this, if only elected through your allegiance.

One thing I think is helpful to do as a Christian is to tell it like it is. If it looks like a duck, swims like a duck, and quacks like a duck, then it probably is a duck. For many Americans and regretably, many so-called evangelical Christians, their true hope is found in politics and political parties and that of course, is idolatry. I've said is much on this blog, particularly on the 4th of July and I preached it just this past Sunday in church as we concluded our series on 1st John 5.13-21. I'm amazed how often people come to me and lament the language and negative energy so many devote to politics, especially this time of year. My response is always, "Well, it is their religion--what do you expect?"

Little children, keep yourselves from idols.

Saturday, September 29, 2012

What's Your Number?

I believe firmly that as you read Scripture more and more, a certain passage will speak powerfully to you personally. That it will mean something to you in a way that none of the other passages do.

As time goes by, that verse (or verses) may change. And that of course is okay because it speaks to you where you are at, or about where you have been and where you are going. What I'm wondering is what is your favorite Scripture? Or what verse of Scripture speaks to you more strongly than any other?

My favorite verse of Scripture comes from Galatians 2.20: "I have been crucified with Christ and it is no longer I who live by Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God who loved me and gave himself for me."

Such a profound truth: Christ lives in me.

What is your favorite verse of Scripture?  

Thursday, September 27, 2012

I could have been a Luddite*

Warning: Hypocrisy alert!

Let's get the obvious charge of hypocrisy aside. Yes, I'm using a modern technology and the medium of a blog to pooh-pooh the evils of technology.

That being said...

It is no secret that I view smart phones quite critically. It has been my experience that smart phones, despite their name, usually cause the user to act like an idiot. I once had to slam the brakes of my car to avoid a teenage boy who stepped directly in front of me while texting (or playing a game, or watching a video, who knows and who really cares?). He never flinched--I don't think he knows I almost hit him. Then he tripped on the curb and then he...wait for it...walked into a tree.

Good thing his phone was smart.

If only such idiocy was limited to the youthful, we could chalk it up to youthful enthusiasm. Alas, I see people of all ages, grown adults and card carrying AARP members, mimic such idiotic actions of that young, teenage boy.

Aside from the general rise of stupidity that seems to be directly related to the use of smart phones, I do not care for them because of the disintegration of social interaction that I witness in the world around me. Sometimes I just want to scream, "Is the text or Facebook status update or e-mail you just received really more important than the conversation we were having face to face?"

I realize I'm in the minority, but sometimes I enjoy talking to someone without having them immediately go to wikipedia to look up the topic we are discussing and start reading it, thus effectively killing the conversation.

But I've never considered the ways in which smart phones can cause a disintegration of our relationship with God. Carl Trueman has just posted an excellent essay on just that topic. When I purchased my last phone I told the salesman, "I only want a phone that makes and receives phone calls." He kept trying to offer me complex little fake tricorders until finally my wife spoke up and said, "He isn't kidding. He doesn't want any of that stuff." I have since operated under the false belief that I was, apparently, the only person on the planet who felt that way. But I'm not, and that is refreshing.

Even more refreshing is his perspective on solitude.  Consider what he has to say on the sound and fury--signifying NOTHING--of our age of smart phones:

"I suspect Christians can be among the worst offenders. I hope that no Christians were lining up for the latest Apple iPhone many hours before it was released. It is, after all, just a phone - just a phone! - and not a cure for cancer, AIDS, poverty or the lack of clean drinking water in many parts of the world. But I am confident that my hope on that score is a vain one. Many Christians are as deeply embedded in the sad culture of consumerism as anyone. And even those of us who are not, who have phones that look as if they predate VHS recorders, can still con ourselves that all of our activity, all of that sound and fury in our lives, signifies something worthwhile. Yet how often does it signify nothing but the fact that we strut about on the stages we have made for fear not simply of loneliness but even of solitude; for solitude is the place where we have no alternative but to reflect upon the most serious realities of our existence."

You can read the rest of his essay here

*I realize I'm misappropriating the term Luddite.

Friday, September 21, 2012

Tending My Garden

It has turned out to be a much more beautiful day than I anticipated so I took advantage of the weather and took my garden apart. Notice, I didn't say harvest my garden, but took it apart.

In early Spring I decided I wanted to try to garden. So I moved bricks and built a raised bed garden behind the manse. It was a very small garden, which was my intent, just a small garden where we could get some delicious fresh vegetables.

It didn't really work the way I anticipated.

I had great soil brought in from a local farmer's barn. He warned me, "Anything will grow in this stuff." I smiled, envisioning giant tomatoes. I planted my seeds. I watered...occasionally. I watched green shoots sprout up. I marveled at how many little bursts of life were breaking through the soil. I looked closely. They all looked remarkably like grass!

A week went by. I had been right: I had a nice raised, bricked-in patch of grass.

I set about tending it. I pulled the grass. I spent hours pulling grass. And weeds. Weeds had also started to grow. I know so little about gardening that I let the weeds grow to see what fruit they would bear, since those wise words well, are so wise, that we can know something by its fruit. As I weeded I reflected on many such spiritual truths that were evident. Jesus after all practiced his ministry in a predominantly agricultural society. Matthew 13 is a great example of this: there is a parable of the sower, a parable about weeds, even a parable about the Kingdom of Heaven being like a mustard seed

What is truth, Pilate wondered, while Jesus stood silently before him. Jesus is the truth. When we come to know Jesus as Lord, we move our lives into him. And he simultaneously lives within us. Our new existence could be likened to a distorted Venn Diagram. Distorted, because there should be no realm of our life (circle) outside of Christ. When we start to live a life of truly abiding in Jesus then we can realize that God communicates his truth continually to us through creation.

In planting a garden we can learn about being rooted in Christ.

In tending the garden we can learn about the dangers those weeds in life pose to us.

And in taking apart a failed garden (repenting?) we can learn something too.

To disassemble my garden, I removed the bricks stacked 3 high and re-stacked them by the house. I was doing this so that the groundskeeper could mow over the garden. Utterly destroy it. There was nothing there to be harvested. As I re-stacked the bricks I realized that in my entire gardening endeavor I had spent more time building up the brick walls then actually tending to the garden. When I had built the walls, before I had planted a single seed, I stood back and admired my work. I thought it looked pretty good. I was focused entirely on outward appearance and neglected to do the real work of tending to what was planted underneath the soil.

I wonder how often in my walk with Christ I spend too much time cultivating an outward image without tending to the real work of those roots of faith buried in my heart? I wonder how many other believers spend too much time building up walls that look pretty without concentrating on creating ideal situations for the Spirit to produce fruit?

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Where have all the blog posts gone?

I want to apologize for the lack of posts lately. There are primarily two reasons why I haven't posted much on here. The first is my new daughter. Little babies take up a lot of free time. I realize this is nothing new for many readers, and something I was warned of but the reality is always unexpected, even when you are warned. I'm not complaining, I love it, but she takes up a lot of my free time. I say "free time" because I try to restrict writing blog posts to outside my "working hours." I don't think part of my calling is to write a blog and it seems there are better things I can do during my working hours than write an entry. The result is that when I do have some free time, I rarely feel like sitting down and typing up the sundry topics that bounces about inside my skull.

The other reason escapes me at the moment. But it was secondary anyways, and in our culture only the winner counts.

I do have a list of blog topics I'm keeping so there will be posts forthcoming. And soon!  Until then...

Tuesday, September 4, 2012


Every Lord's Day I happen to administer the non-sacrament of preaching. (Calvinists will understand what I mean by that statement). If the content of my sermons happen to interest you--you can find them here:

Coincidentally, you can also find out other information about the life of the church where I currently serve God.

Saturday, August 18, 2012

Pastoral Theology: Practical Advice I Disregarded

Well it has been a year since I received the official call to the church I currently serve. More than a year. Hard to believe how fast time flies. The older I get, the more inclined I am to agree with C.S. Lewis' conclusions in The Weight of Glory about our relationship with time, our nostalgia for the past and our future glory.

Over at the blog Practical Shepharding, a first time pastor asked "What should my first year look like and how much change should come?"

His question was answered thusly: "Preach the Word. Love the people. Don't change anything."

Very similar to the advice I received repeatedly in seminary.

Class after class of seminary the professors provided this advice, "change nothing your first year." I heard it from outside sources as well, such as from colleagues in ministry. One professor said, "If you want to move the piano to the other side of the sanctuary move it one inch a month." "When change comes, make sure it is slow"was another common adage.

I pretty much threw all of that out the window in my first year. Not because I am bold but rather forgetful. I simply forgot that piece of advice. There is a reason when I was little my mother would lovingly call me "Forgetful Jones."

But hindsight is twenty-twenty and I have come to the conclusion that the advice "to change nothing" is stupid.

First of all, preaching the Word is doing something. And as Brian Croft notes in his post when the Word is preached change will take place. Secondly, loving is doing something as well. When you love them you'll build relationships. Finally, giving the instruction that pastors should wait at least a year before instituting change works on an assumption of time that is outside of the biblical witness.

"You fool!" Jesus said. "This very night your life is demanded of you!" No one knows the length of their life, all we know is that God is our source of life and length of days. To assume that God has called us to a church for a least a year is arrogant. To further then assume that for the first year the most important thing we can do is nothing is to castrate the calling that God has put on our hearts.

Perhaps we have forgotten that Christ will return and that it will be unexpected, like a thief in the night. The Apostles expected Christ to return within their lifetime, and they are sometimes ridiculed for getting this wrong. But that sense of urgency fueled their ministry. They traveled incessantly, preached boldly, established churches, fed congregations and defied civil authorities. The result? A church spread throughout the most powerful empire in the world uniting slaves with rich merchants, royal officials with uneducated fishermen, Jewish scholars with Greek philosophers. A church that claimed absolutes in defiance of the established pluralistic philosophy of the day.

They turned the world upside down.

Today our seminaries and established pastors encourage first call ministers to change nothing.

"Change nothing" is another way of saying "be a maintenance man." What are we maintaining? A sinking ship with four churches closing for every one church that opens its doors.

The solution? Change nothing during your first year because apparently, we have all the time in the world.

Friday, August 17, 2012

Salt, Light and Honey Part II

Following the last post a natural question arises: who is to blame?

I would say the primary blame lies with pastors.

The pastor can't be everything in the church, but when it comes to denominational structures those who are ordained (so in some situations elders as well) serve as the gatekeepers. They interview and examine candidates to see if they truly are called and to see if they are theologically sound. Through General Assembly or General Synod (or whatever such gatherings are called in Episcopal governments) doctrine is upheld or altered, policies are set, and the future is planned.

All of these important decisions start at the local church and work their way up. Or they should. They should begin with the pastor and the pastor should begin with the Word of God and prayer. Their relationship with how they approach Scripture, how they understand it, and most importantly, how they preach it naturally follow. Is the gospel still proclaimed throughout American churches today?

In Helmut's criticism of Christians mistakenly thinking they are the honey of the world, and not the salt, he carries that criticism over into the pulpit. "So where there is no bitter reaction to the message, the true salt is lacking. It is a dubious sign if the world lives too peacefully with the church. It is not a good sign when people are all too admiring of their preacher, for then as a rule he has not been scattering salt from the pulpit...Enthusiasm and excessively unanimous agreement with a sermon usually indicates that it is suffering from a serious deficiency disease" (p. 29).

This has led me to reflect on my role as a pastor. Do my sermons bite, at least occasionally, the way salt bites at a wound? Or do I seek praise and affirmation that I am "doing a good job"? I once heard that a pastor should comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. Yet how many pastors truly seek to do just that: afflict those who have become too comfortable with the world by confronting them with the Word of God or comfort those aware of their depravity with the hope of the gospel?

A sermon should light a fire in the hearts of those who hear it. We should, like Jesus, explain to others what the Scriptures say concerning him so that they can, like Cleopas and his friend, feel their hearts burning within them as the Scriptures are opened before them (Luke 24.13-35).

If the word of God is not being proclaimed on Sunday from the pulpit, it is only naturally that we will end up with (or have already) a collection of Christians who believe they are the honey of the world. 

Monday, July 23, 2012

Pastoral Theology: Preaching

Brian Croft has written an excellent, short, blog on preaching through entire books of the Bible.

I try to do a mixture. I have preached through all of Philippians and we are currently working through the all of 1st John. I have also preached topically using the psalms and other passages and I have done a few narrative sermons.

Check out his blog post to see what he has to say:

Saturday, July 21, 2012

Pastoral Theology: Ordination

For the last several months I have been seeking greater intensity in my relationship with God. I have been trying to "up the ante" if you will and be "all in." It is a call that I have been feeling for some time, a desire to go even deeper into the love of God.  Whatever the Apostle James may say, it has felt as though the more I pursue God the stronger the devil, instead of fleeing, tries to get in the way. But all in all it has been a good journey and yesterday I have a wonderful experience. I won't go into the details but God really spoke to my heart, and for that I'm grateful. It was significant enough that I thought, "I should remember this day" so I looked at the date.


I stared at that date for a minute, lost in thought. I knew that date was already significant in my life, but why? Then it hit me: 07/20/2011 is the date I was ordained by the Classis of Lake Erie into the Reformed Church in America. It appears this date might be repeatedly significant for me.

Thus the topic I want to talk about today: ordination. When a minister is ordained, it is the final confirmation by a body of believers regarding the call God has placed on that persons life to proclaim the gospel and administer the sacraments. There are songs; there are hymns, there is Scripture, there are prayers offered and there are liturgical formulas read and followed. It is awe-inspiring; it is uplifting; it is a moment saturated with God's grace. It is of the utmost importance for religious bodies to continue this tradition.

Two things I have learned since being ordained. Being ordained does not change your human nature.  We know what we are called to do; we know what God desires of all who call on his name and by the grace of God we will usually succeed in doing those things. But as Paul put it so well in Romans, though we inwardly delight in God's law, we are simultaneously aware of our rebellious nature. Nevertheless, we go forward and proclaim the good news that the wretched man can be saved through God in his great mercy. Thanks be to Jesus Christ!

Another thing I have learned, is ordination is two fold. The first is in the liturgy, the holy convocation, the prayers and the Scripture that takes place during the official ceremony. The second takes place when we start to do the work of God in the place where we are called. In addition to the great moment I had with God yesterday, I also started reading John Buchan's Witch Wood. The book thus far revolves around the work of a Presbyterian minister in Scotland named David.  It is his first ordained call to a small, rural kirk. The first winter a terrible storm hits. Buchan wrote, "Yet it was the storm which was David's true ordination to his duties, for it brought him close to his people, not in high sacramental things like death, but in their daily wrestling for life. He might visit their houses and catechize their families, but these were formal occasions, with all on their best behaviour, whereas in the intimate business of charity he saw them as they were" (p54).

I experienced this in my first call. Several weeks after I started the church does its biggest outreach and fundraiser as it runs the cafeteria at the Hookstown Fair. Each morning I would go into the office and then head over to the fairgrounds. I prepped food, I served food, I mashed potatoes but more than anything, I washed dishes. I washed and I washed and I washed. And I got to know lots of members of the church I now serve. I got to know them in a more familiar way, brushing shoulders with them side by side as we did every day work together. I struggled that week with the work and yet in the process I felt like I forged an identity and understood a completely different, but just as important, realm for the pastor to be a pastor.

So one year into being an ordained minster I would offer two points of advice to my brethren considering a call. When you mess up, don't be surprised--it is just your human nature. The ordination doesn't wash that away. And when you get to your call, jump into the every day life of your parishioners in anyway you can and experience the other side of ordination.

Monday, July 16, 2012

Salt, Light and Honey Part I

In yesterday's New York Time's journalist Ross Douthat wrote an insightful critique of the future of liberal Christianity. He points out that as liberal denominations like the Episcopal Church become more and more like the world their church shrinks more and more. In the last decade the Episcopal Church has shrunk nearly 25% with not a single diocese showing any growth. He writes: "Today, by contrast, the leaders of the Episcopal Church and similar bodies often don’t seem to be offering anything you can’t already get from a purely secular liberalism." Douthat's point is that as the church becomes more and more like the world, the world sees no reason to become involved with the church.

In St. Mark's Church in Stuttgart during the post-war years of 1946-1948 German theologian and pastor Helmut Thielicke delivered a series of sermons on the Sermon on the Mount. Those sermons have been collected into a book, Life Can Begin Again. Preaching on Matthew 5.13-16 Thielicke writes, "To look at many Christians who are soft and effeminate and sweet one would think that their ambition is to be the honeypot of the world. They sweeten and sugar the bitterness of life with an all too easy conception of a loving God...They have retouched hell out of existence and only heaven is on the horizon. When it comes to the devil and temptation they stick their heads in the sand and they go about with a constant, set smile on their faces, pretending that they have overcome the world. For them the kingdom of God...has become an innocuous garden of flowers and their faith a sweet honey they gather from its blossoms. And this is also the reason why the world turns away, sickened and disgusted, from these Christians." 

The world doesn't buy it, Thielicke argues, because they know life is harder than these Christians are making it out to be and a watered down God of happiness and sugary pleasure isn't a God at all. Thielicke goes on to say, "But Jesus, of course, did not say, 'You are the honey of the world.' He said, 'You are the salt of the earth.' Salt bites, and the unadulterated message of the judgment and grace of God has always been a biting thing..." (p. 28)

I am struck by the similarity in the observations. Germany, as is the rest of Europe, is post-Christian. Of all the options for religious affiliation in Germany, "No religion" leads the charge with 34%. Among German youths (12-24) 23% are agnostic and 28% are atheists. In Hamburg, where Thielicke spent most of his career post-WWII, no religion is the dominant affiliation. Thielicke realized the popular religion being preached and the changes that were advocated for within the church were attractive to the world and so useless for the kingdom. Now, denominations in America are drifting the same way. All we have to do is gaze across the pond to see the future of the American church if these trends continue. In line with that Douthat concludes that as American denominations change and lose their distinct Christian heritage and adopt more of the world's culture "..their fate is nearly certain: they will change, and change, and die."

Friday, July 13, 2012

The thorn in our flesh

Kevin DeYoung, author and pastor, has written a challenging blog post for The Gospel Coalition. You can read the entry in its entirety here:

His basic point is that denominations cannot maintain the course they are on when it comes to the issue of homosexuality in the church and that they need to take a stand: either for or against and move on from there and dispense with the debates, study groups and compromises.

What are your thoughts on his point?

Monday, July 9, 2012

A Query for Biblical Scholars

In the preface to DA Carson's Jesus Confrontation with the World Carson tells of how he was going to spend an academic year in Cambridge on sabbatical and ended up spending the first six weeks filling the pulpit of a local church. He writes, "...I am deeply persuaded that those whose privilege and responsibility it is to study the Scriptures owe the church whatever help we can give at the popular level, quite apart from the responsibility of producing work that attempts to influence teachers and scholars. If the purpose of my sabbatical was to complete a syntactical concordance to the Greek New Testament, there needed to be space as well for something that served the church more immediately."

Do you feel the same way?

What is your view of the church?

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Freedom Isn't Free

Happy Independence Day to all of my fellow Americans! This is the great day of celebration and appreciation for the many freedoms we enjoy in this prosperous and peaceful nation. Thank a soldier! Eat a hot dog! Watch some fireworks! And for God's sake, practice critical thinking!

I am very grateful to be an American. It would be a lie to say that I have in-depth experience of other cultures. But I have seen enough, and read enough, to know just how good we have it.

A common statement to remind us of how good we have it is, 'Freedom isn't free." Such statements refer, of course, to the ultimate sacrifice paid by soldiers in wars defending the freedoms and liberties that we have today. That I am able to freely access the internet and write this blog is a testament to the sacrifices that have taken place.  Such creeds also provide us with a simplified statement that sums up the American civil religion of patriotism.

Independence Day, while giving us a red letter day and an opportunity to celebrate, also helps cement the unity of a nation that shares no common ethnic heritage. Germany has a German ethnic heritage, France has a French ethnic heritage, Italy has an Italian ethnic heritage and so on. But what ethnic heritage does the melting pot, I'm sorry--the salad bowl--of these fair shores have? None! We have no ethnic heritage.

But we have a shared history and story. We have the declaration of independence! We have the stories and legends of our Founding Fathers. We have the underdog story of a colony defeating a world power and then rising to be THE world power. We have an American dream and an American ideal. We have a flag to pledge allegiance to, we have amber fields of gold, we have fireworks, history, glorious freedom and the constant reminder that the sacrifice paid by soldiers is the glue holding all of this together. We have an American mythology that gives our nation a civil religion and provides a point of common interest to a vast array of different cultures. All told, the American civil religion is brilliant, captivating and alluring.

Therein is found my concern.

Sometimes I worry that within the church, the language of sacrifice about veterans and the hopes of the American dream are usurping the gospel. The American dream promises us that if we work hard enough, are determined long enough and focused clearly enough, we can accomplish anything we want. The gospel promises us that we cannot save ourselves no matter how hard we may try.  Contradictory messages. One is beautiful and one is frustrating. Both true, but how to make sure our belief in the American dream doesn't distort our understanding of the gospel? So often I hear people hope, that when all is said and done, that they have done enough good--as if that even mattered. When I hear this I can't help but wonder if the Protestant Work Ethic married the American Dream and birthed some sort of theological monstrosity.

"Freedom isn't free" is a civil religious creed that populates bumper stickers, t-shirts and Facebook. And it is entirely true. Nothing is free except, as Mattie Ross reminds us in True Grit, the grace of God. The grace of God is free to us but it came at a price, the death of the Son of God on the cross. As Paul told the Galatians, "It is for freedom that Christ has set us free." The Galatian believers were in danger of letting some subvert their belief. "Stand firm" Paul exhorts them, "And do not submit again to the yoke of slavery." We too, must stand firm to the onslaught of our culture. There is much to be admired and enjoyed about America, but it must not be worshiped. We must not forget that while freedom isn't free, there is only one who paid the ultimate price. 

As I said, I'm proud to be an American. I try to not take the freedom or the prosperity I experience for granted. I try to always thank a veteran when I meet one. I enjoy America, but I try my very hardest to not idolize Lady Liberty. For Artemis, I'm sorry, Lady Liberty of America may be great, but God is greater still. Our shores may be a welcome sight for the downtrodden, but no one provides a greater promise of rest for the burdened than Jesus does.

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

First world, but not first rate, Christians

While I am currently living in Western PA, I am from central Ohio. Particularly the Columbus suburb of Hilliard. I draw attention to this because this past week, in case you weren't aware, serious storms went through the area. Trees were blown down, roofs damaged and power was knocked out. Some of the lines that went down caused significant outage for many days, in some instances as many as nine days! That is a long time to be without power and it is made even worse when temperatures are in the 90s every day.

To my brothers and sisters in Christ I feel the need to remind you that these are first world problems. (1)

In 2006  I spent an extended period living in Belgrade, Serbia. I was amazed at the number of businesses that advertised that they had air conditioning on their front windows. I felt like I was transported back in time when I would see that stenciled on the windows of a shop. I shared a room with a great guy and instead of beds we were supplied couches to sleep on. When I complained about this to a Serbian they laughed with me. Later I learned that same individual also slept on a couch. And Serbia is not (and was not at that time) a third world country!

We forget how good we have it here in America. We also forget how challenging this “goodness” can be for our faith. Being a Christian in America is hard. Not because of persecution but because of comfort. We live in a country that is so rich and our lives are so comfortable that we have come to expect the very best at all times.  God forbid we lose internet service on an airplane. Or worse, our cell phone drops a call. We have lost all perspective on how good we have it here and instead we cry foul when we encounter the mildest of discomfort!

In the great documentary, A Life Apart, the story is told of how the rebbes in Eastern Europe urged their flocks to remain in Eastern Europe despite the rise and influence of Nazism. The reason for such odd advice? The dangers of comfortable America. Shortly before WWII started, a Rebbe wrote a book and dedicated it to the Jews in America. He said in essence, “We Jews in Europe are about to lose our lives, but you Jews in America are about to lose your souls.”

For many American Christians, losing their lives is the worst thing that could possibly happen because the chief end of man is no longer about God, but about ourselves and pleasing ourselves. Instead of seeing suffering as a way of being conformed more to the image of Christ, it is seen as an unfair burden. The language of self-denial, so potent and powerful in the gospels, is ignored. I cannot recall the last time I heard a prominent Christian speak about the importance of self-denial.

There are a tremendous number of differences between the first world and the third world. But those differences, for the most part, can be summed up in one word: economics. I am aware of another difference, however, between the first and third world regarding theology. The third world church is, by and large, conservative; while the first world church is growing increasingly more liberal. Could this theological divide be related to our level of living as well? If air conditioning is out in your church and the temperatures are in the 90s, does the American believer still go? If they go do they complain incessantly? If air conditioning has never been present in the church and you have to walk for more than an hour one way to get there, does the African believer still go? Do they praise God along the way? Tremendous differences, indeed.

Perhaps this is why so many denominations are determined to whitewash what Scripture names as sin. Could it be they are aware on some level of how far their lives are lived out from what Scripture describes and so they have taken up false causes in an attempt to justify their false worldviews? Perhaps the Christian who throws a fit when they are overcharged on their cable TV bill or when their air conditioning is out is the same type of Christian who feels determined to push for non-biblical definitions of marriage. When all is said and done these sins are all rooted in self-satisfaction.

As I mentioned in April, I am currently reading the Sermon on the Mount every week.  To expand my knowledge of that block of teaching, I have started reading some works on it as well. One that I have really been enjoying is D.A. Carson’s,  Jesus' Sermon on the Mount and His Confrontation with the World. Commenting on Matthew 6.31 Carson writes, "Our worries must not sound like the worries of the world. When the Christian faces the pressure of examinations, does he sound like the pagan in the next room? When he is short of money, even for the essentials, does he complain with the same tone, the same words, the same attitude, as those around him? Away with secular thinking, The follower of Jesus will be concerned to have a distinctive lifestyle, one that is characterized by values and perspectives so un-pagan that his life and conduct are, as it were, stamped all over with the words, 'Made in the kingdom of God'"  (p98-99).

If I were permitted to make an addition to this work I would add, "Our complaining must not sound like the worries of the world but demonstrate a gratitude for what we have received and a trust in the God who still reigns."

(1) I recognize the arguments in favor of Minority World/Majority World instead of 3rd world and 1st world distinctions, but as Newbigin states words have history and if I were to use those words without supplying the history my point might be lost. 

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Pastoral Theology: The Poetry of Life

For Ordinary Time I have been reading At the Still Point by Sarah Arthur. It is a wonderful look at the quiet movements of God through literature. I found this to be an interesting angle but nonetheless an appropriate approach for devotionals during Ordinary Time. Last Friday morning, while waiting on my daughter Lydia to be born, I was reading through her work and had the pleasure of enjoying Robert Siegel's Poem, "A Song of Praises."

This poem, is a wonderful illustration of discovering the beauty of God in the every day things of this world. In captivating language he describes the morning routine so many of us go through at the start of every day. Here is the poem in its entirety as found online at The High Calling:

for the gray nudge of dawn at the window
for the chill that hangs around the bed and slips
     its cold tongue under the covers
for the cat that walks over my face purring murderously
for the warmth of the hip next to mine and sweet lethargy
for the cranking up of the will until it turns me out of bed
for the robe's caress along arm and neck
for the welcome of hot water, the dissolving of
     the night's stiff mask in the warm washcloth
for the light along the while porcelain sink
for the toothbrush's savory invasion of the tomb of the mouth
     and resurrection of the breath
for the warm lather and the clean scrape of the razor
     and the skin smooth and pink that emerges
for the steam of the shower, the apprehensive shiver and then
     its warm enfolding of the shoulders
     its falling on the head like grace
     its anointing of the whole body
     and the soap's smooth absolution
for the rough nap of the towel and its message to each skin cell
for the hairbrush's pulling and pulling,
     waking the root of each hair
for the reassuring snap of elastic
for the hug of the belt that pulls all together
for the smell of coffee rising up the stairs announcing paradise
for the glass of golden juice in which light is condensed
     and the grapefruit's sweet flesh
for the eggs like two peaks over which the sun rises
     and the jam for which the strawberries of summer have
     saved themselves
for the light whose long shaft lifts the kitchen
     into the realms of day
for Mozart elegantly measuring out the gazebos
     of heaven on the radio
and for her face, for whom the kettle sings, the coffee percs,
     and all the yellow birds in the wallpaper spread their wings.

I have read this poem now maybe a dozen times. Each time a different aspect of the morning routine jumps off the page and grabs my attention, holding it for a prolonged moment before leading me back into the next line. Several thoughts have emerged out of this poem that I think are useful for believers and non-believers alike.

The first is the joy of the present moment.  Last night, around 2.30am in an attempt to stay awake while I rocked my newborn daughter back to sleep I began to wonder how Robert Siegel would describe the darkened nursery? As my bleary eyes scanned the walls and furniture, as my hands sought to absorb the texture of the comfortable rocking chair and her soft newborn skin, and as my senses strained to truly draw in the warmth from the tiny ball nestled on my chest and my eyes worked hard to transform the small sliver of light coming in through the slightly opened door into something more useful I realized that I am quite terrible at being in the present moment. I am willing to hazard a guess that is true for so many of us. We focus on the past, either for the better or the worse, or we cast our thoughts forward to the future. While the present moment fails to gain our focused attention.

If we are to truly look at the birds of the air or consider the lillies of the field then we need to let go of what is needlessly occupying our mind and attention. Jesus urges us in the Sermon on the Mount to not worry about tomorrow but instead turn our attention to the present moment. In doing so, we recognize the magnificent provision of God and are able to face the future without anxiety about what may come and our priorities become properly focused on the Kingdom. But first, we must look at the birds of the air; the "Pentecost of finches" as Siegel describes in another poem.

Siegel's poem also reminded me of the power of the mundane. Many would be willing to testify that the morning routine is odious. Rare is the person who joyfully proclaims that they are a morning person, even rarer is the person who enjoys waking up in the morning. Yet if our senses had a tune-up and we were able to see the morning the way Siegel sees it, wouldn't we agree that it is a cause for praise? I can't remember the last time as I brushed my teeth that I was reminded of how every time I take part in such an action I am experiencing a "resurrection of the breath." Or how in the act of shaving, my skin takes on a newborn appearance. A hot shower in the morning has never caused me to consider the grace of God, my only source of complete absolution. I am incredibly skinny; belts are a reality of my every day existence. Just as my belt holds everything together, so too do God's hands hold the universe together. And on and on. God is present in the mundane events of our lives. As Jacob exclaimed after awaking from a strong dream one night, "Truly God is in this place and I did not know it! (Genesis 28.16)" And just like that, a nameless place takes on a name full of significance: the mundane becomes the house of God.

Ordinary Time is just that: ordinary time. It is the time on the church calendar in between the big events of Pentecost and Advent. It is the time when the Creasters are not found in church at all. It is the time when the rest of us, most likely, are thinking about summer vacations, days at the pool, fireworks, ice cream, corn on the cob and night excursions filled with the intent to capture lightning bugs alive. It is the time when the magnificence of creation is on display and so we are without excuse in recognizing the Artist behind the painting. Yet, we overlook the presence of God.

In his Reflection on the Psalms C.S. Lewis wrote, "Poetry too is a little incarnation, giving body to what had been before invisible and inaudible." That is where the power of a poem like Siegels can be found: it gives body and form to what had been invisible. It can remind us to keep our eyes open and to not take anything for granted. Everything is a gift, even that gray nudge of dawn first thing in the morning. Therein lies our role as followers of Christ--to look for the poems present in our life and in the lives of those around us. To give form to the randomness of their day; to point out the pattern of the Spirit whether it as easily discernible as a Petrarchan Sonnet, or as hard to pin down as free verse. And in doing so, to realize that for everyone God is present in ordinary. That the ordinary is extraordinary when seen in the right light.

Sunday, June 3, 2012

The New Roman Roads

In the June issue of Christianity Today, there is an article on the new innovative strategies being taken to share the gospel by current leaders in the church. The article, The Social Network Gospel, makes some interesting points but this point especially struck me as being right on target. The author wrote, "The ancient Roman roads spanned more than 250,000 miles. The Romans started building these continent-connecting arteries in 500 B.C., enabling both their empire to grow and the gospel to advance rapidly.
Today's Roman roads are the Internet, the smartphone, the tablet, and social media, ready and waiting for innumerable journeys of faith and witness. While the ancient roads connected hundreds of towns and cities, the new ones connect millions of homes and individuals."

This passage stood out to me because last fall we had one of our missionaries come and speak at the church. He told us how the internet was the new roman road and the way to spread the gospel throughout the world. We have a duty to spread the gospel, indeed are commanded to do so in John 20.19-23. Of course we must do so in person, but we must also utilize these new Roman roads. So it is with great pleasure I announce that the church now has an active website. Two people worked very hard behind the scenes to make this possible, they know who they are, and I thank them.
Please share it with others in the hopes that many will be saved.

Friday, May 18, 2012

For my boast is this...

                Being busy and accomplishing much have always been some of my idols. To be sure, I have many more, but those are two idols I wrestle with on a continual basis.  I used to think that being busy made me “special” some how, better than the other people around me. As I grew older I matured and realized that nearly everyone I met was busy in their own way and I was no different from the rest. Since moving to Pennsylvania, I have come to see that indeed, being busy is very much part of the culture out here. So in that respect, I fit in well. 

            As I have grown in my faith I have begun to see how being busy can be a hindrance to our walk with God. Our time for devotion and prayer, our time to see the Lord and enjoy the light of his countenance, can become marginalized as we seek to accomplish everything on our “To-Do” list first.  Into the midst of these revelations two passages from Scripture have stood out lately, urging me to slow down and appreciate a simpler life. 

            In his letter to the Jews in Diaspora, James writes, “For the sun rises with scorching heat and withers the plant; its blossom falls and its beauty is destroyed. In the same way, the rich will fade away even while they go about their business” (James 1.1, NIV). Some flowers were recently planted along the backside of the Manse. I tried my very best to water them but for whatever reason, they succumbed to the heat, withered and died. Now their lifeless stems and crinkled leaves lay folded over the earth, a visual witness to the truth of these words. If we put our very lives into what we can accomplish in this world, if we over elevate the accomplishments of our job or tasks around the house—or even in the church—over God, we should not be surprised when we find ourselves suddenly unable to stand on our own and withering away.

            Against a busy life and the rigors of a dog-eat-dog world Paul told the believers in Corinth that, “For our boast is this, the testimony of our conscience, that we behaved in the world with simplicity and godly sincerity, not by earthly wisdom but by the grace of God, and supremely so toward you” (2nd Corinthians 1.12, ESV).  An interesting boast: behaving with simplicity. Today we boast in that which makes our lives even more complicated: our degrees, our accomplishments, even our latest technological gadget, things that prevent us from slowing down and appreciating God’s creation. Yet Paul boasted in simplicity. 

            We are currently living in the pleasant transition of Spring to Summer. The earth seems to have come alive over night: I’ve been overwhelmed this week by the abundance of green and hints of purple, white, yellow and red, everywhere I go. How can we be aware of the provision God has for us if we never slow down to consider the lilies? Take some time and intentionally slow down over the coming weeks. Eliminate some unnecessary things from your agenda. Have a genuine conversation with someone face to face without glancing at your cell phone. Enjoy the beauty of God’s creation that you might not wither in the busyness of this world but rather be governed by the grace of God.

Saturday, April 21, 2012

Author Matthew Cook

As an amateur writer working on a non-fiction book and harboring hopes of one day writing a novel I always appreciate the dedication and skill it takes to finish a story.

Getting it published is something else altogether.

A friend from grad school's husband (say that three times fast) is an aspiring author. I've read one short story by him and he just got another one published in a magazine. The excerpt is excellent and makes me want to purchase the magazine so I can see how the story is resolved.

Of course, here at Chasidic Calvinist, I especially appreciate the author's understanding that religion does matter because it shapes  how we see and interact with the world. And a neo-Anabaptist in space? Priceless.

Click the link, read the interview, read the excerpt, buy the magazine and enjoy.

Friday, April 20, 2012

Pastoral Theology IV: On the Mount

As a New Years resolution I decided to read the Sermon on the Mount every week for a year. I was captivated by an image of what my life might look like if my way of thinking and living was shaped by this body of teaching.

The fruition of that image still eludes me.

But today while reading through Friday's portion of the sermon, a passage stuck out that is very germane to a question I have been wrestling with for a few weeks. Namely, "how can I discern what ministry God is calling me to do here at this church as opposed to doing what is good and sounds good but really isn't God's will?"

A hefty question.

The passage is Matthew 7.21-23. This is the second to last thing Jesus has to say when he is delivering his sermon on the mount. After all of the new standards, after the Law has been reinterpreted and the bar raised; after the disciples are encouraged to be authentic in their faith and do so many different things in this world Jesus adds, "Oh yeah, don't count on this being what gets you into heaven."

The passage jumped out at me this morning because I have really been wrestling with that question as of late. There are many things that churches and ministers can get caught up doing that sound like a good idea and may even have a positive impact on the community but are they actually in line with the will of God?

I easily imagine that the those who were delivered from the bondage of demons felt that what the disciples did was a good thing; so too, I imagine that those who received healing (i.e. mighty works) praised God. All good things. To which Christ responds, "I never knew you."

I'm not overly worried by his declaration, at least not at this juncture in my life, but I am worried about their statement. "We did these things in your name" they claim. They actually claim the refuge of his name three times. The church, ostensibly, does its work in his name. But are we doing his work? The more I wrestle with this question...the more I feel like I'm just going in a circle. It is a bit of a sick-cycle carousel only not as enjoyable.

Specifically for pastors--how do we handle this work of discernment? I'm really looking for feedback on this one. How can we tell if what we are about is the will of God or really our will sugar coated in "good work"?

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Pastoral Theology III: House Cleaning

I apologize for the absence of posting but I don't want to post for the sake of posting.

I attended a funeral today. I arrived shortly before it was about to start and took my seat quietly in the back. The funeral director introduced the pastor to officiate and an wizened man with white hair stepped forward. He read off a plethora of Scripture and then took his seat. A family member stood and read a eulogy and then the pastor stood back up. Then he preached a sermon that I want to never forget.

In my very short time as pastor I have done quite a few funerals. Too many. The unfortunate part about being a pastor is I am learning on the go and I am learning through the triumphs and failures that take place in the lives of others from the decisions I make. It is a heavy burden at times. But this pastor stood there and told all of us it was a heavy burden all of the time because the pastor has a very important job: he has to make sure our houses are in order before we die.

He preached on Isaiah 38.1-2. Then he launched into his sermon by stating quite boldly, that we were all going to die and it was his duty to warn us to put our houses in order before we died. He told us to all imagine that we owned an 8 room house, 4 rooms upstairs and 4 rooms downstairs. The upstairs rooms each related to an aspect of our relationship with God and the 4 rooms downstairs each related to an aspect of our relationship with one another here on earth. What condition were these rooms? He repeatedly asked if we died after leaving this funeral would we go to heaven? At one point he even said that our blood was on his hands, a clear allusion to Ezekiel 3.18.

Afterwards, I went up to him and said, "That was a powerful sermon." Then I told him how I was just starting out in ministry and I appreciated the wisdom that he brought into the topic. He shrugged and then said, "You know, that isn't how I normally do funerals. I'm doing one later today that will be completely different. But I felt a strong pull today..." He shook his head. "You know, there are people who come to funerals who will never hear that message again."

Pastoral Theology Insight #3: Unless Christ returns soon (which he might!) everyone is going to die. Every day, with every passing minute, people move closer to death. They may die of old age, of disease, or from a tragic accident but everyone will die. How are we preparing our flock for death? Do our funeral sermons reflect our theology? Do we offer sentimental platitudes from the pulpit during a funeral and preach something different on Sunday or is the message consistent?

Our job is the same as it was for Isaiah. We must not mince our words when it comes to living and dying. We need to make sure people understand their house must be in order at all times because he is coming like a thief in the night! We have a duty, a responsibility, to remind people that they should live like they are dying because they are. But we also have a duty to remind people that to "live without regrets" is a recipe for disaster when all is said and done. We must point them to Christ. To encourage them to spend some time thinking about the one thing that matters and not all of the other stuff that fills our mind that we can't even take with us. We must point them to the only one who can truly clean their house of all the filth they have done, the only one who satisfies in life and in death.