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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.