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Monthly Archives: February 2011

I am Jesus’ little lamb (personal testimony)

For one of the classes I am teaching now, we are required to begin the class by “describ[ing] your experience with religion and/or Christianity (in three or four paragraphs)”.  Here is what I wrote:

Knowing that “I am Jesus’ little lamb” (as a favorite hymn of mine says) has always been central to my identity.  My parents passed on the faith they had received from their parents on to me and my brothers (two of them) through devotions, prayers, and songs.   Their corresponding love and commitment to one another, their children, their families, their friends, and their churches never gave me any reason to question the truth about what they told me about the God-man Jesus, who they informed me lived the life I could not, and died the death I deserved, so that I could know Him now and forever.  From my parents I actually learned that I was a sinner and unrighteous – but also that Jesus was the friend of sinners, and did not come for the righteous.  I think my parents modeled this for me, as their unquestionable love covered over a multitude of my sins.  I know that some people say that their personal experiences with family, for example, are one reason why believing in God is so difficult for them.  I feel blessed to say that for me, the opposite is the case (although my parents, like all of us, certainly have their share of faults).

My faith in this man Jesus Christ was always important to me growing up, as I always felt myself drawn to His power, His strength of character, His kindness, and His radical claims.  As I got older, I was quick to identify when people said things that contradicted what I believed to be true about Jesus and what He said (and what the Old Testament He trusted said).  I probably had more questions  than your average kid, and although I sometimes got partial answers I always wanted to learn more.  In junior high and high school I read parts of the Bible here and there, and I think this undoubtedly had a big impact on me as well.  I admit that I didn’t get into trouble much growing up, as I was always seen as a “good kid” (nice to all, good student, responsible, etc.), but from time to time, I would experience the conviction that my thoughts and actions were not pleasing to God (and would repent, fall again, repent, etc.)  Nevertheless, despite the conviction that God had worked in and through my family (and by extension, myself), by the time I finished high school, I had started to have even more questions, even beginning to doubt my faith (especially how it, with its exclusive claims, related to other world religions).   My high school youth group, although it had provided a wonderful regular place to meet up with some like-minded friends, rarely took up the kinds of questions (scientific, moral, and philosophical) that I had at that time.   It was more about forming good relationships, fun, and games.

In college, my doubts about faith continued to build until I met up with a group of Christians who actually seemed to have good answers to my questions – and I realized that I was not committing intellectual suicide by clinging to that which had been so precious to me ever since I could remember.  These folks were also pretty vigorous about sharing their faith in Jesus Christ, or their “personal relationship with Jesus” as they liked to put it.  It was at this point that I started reading my Bible quite a bit again, and at this time in my life, the words took on a new relevance and meaning for me – probably because I felt like I had begin to more fully experience some of the things the Bible talked about, particularly in the letters of St. Paul.  By the time I finished college, my faith in Christ – and the corresponding purpose I felt as His disciple – had taken on new meaning for me.  Also at this time, I had a bit of a struggle figuring out what kind of Christian I was – I’d been baptized as a baby, but since my faith had been taken to another level (I never denied that I had not had a true faith before), should I get re-baptized?  My father, a Lutheran pastor, convinced me to remain Lutheran even though I attended an evangelical church all through college.

About a year after graduation, I ended up teaching English as a Second Language, Biology, and Religion (even though I did not have a degree in this at the time) at a Lutheran High School in Slovakia (in the heart of Europe) that had been closed for 60 years during the reign of communism.  It was a wonderful experience, and here, I not only met my wife (who is from Minnesota, not Slovakia : ) ), but learned much more about my faith and the Christian faith in general.  It was here that the person in charge of the missionary activities of the Lutheran Church (Missouri-Synod) in Europe asked me if I’d like to study theology for a year in Cambridge, England (after he talked with me and probably figured out that, with all my questions, I needed some real help!).  I decided to do that and got on the road to becoming a pastor, but, uncertain about my sense of calling, dropped out of seminary before being ordained (but not before getting a theology degree).  Ever since that intensive time of studying  the Christian faith, my desire to learn more about my faith has increased, and I do quite a bit of reading.  I really enjoy reading the Scriptures, Church history, Christian apologetics (that is the defense of the faith), as well as other works in history, science and philosophy by both Christian and non-Christian authors.  But – more than anything, I like to come back to the simple things: being like a little child, as Jesus says.  I am awed that I really am Jesus’ little lamb… that He is actually the friend of sinners like me, a Christian who fails and falls time and again.  So now, as I tuck my kids into bed, I sing the faith to them as well, hoping that when they are older, they too, will never be ashamed to proclaim, that they too, are Jesus’ little lamb.

 
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Posted by on February 18, 2011 in Uncategorized

 

Millstones, Judas Iscariot, and the little ones

Thanks be to God that the Church is called to administer the His Word and Sacraments – and not millstones.  With relief, we leave that job to God, in the mystery of His Providence.  The Church does things like judge (like your dentist judges) – and sometimes even “hands members over to Satan” (!) – only so that they may be saved – to turn from their sin to Christ and His forgiveness, life, and salvation.  In fact, we are told that God desires all people to be saved (I Tim 2:4, II Peter 3:9, Romans 11:32).

But when it comes to this salvation, what about Judas, one of the 12 disciples – chosen by Christ Himself (see John 6:70,71)?

That this is such a common question should not surprise, given his very tragic and sad story…

Lutherans believe that God’s Word is “efficacious“, meaning He creates faith in the hearts of people when and where He pleases.  But, one may ask, if He really desires *all* people to be saved, why did God allow Judas, whom He chose, to damn himself?  Why did He not turn him again (presuming Judas at some point believed), as He did, for example, King David?  After all, one may argue, if I have no intention of acting to prevent a murderer from utterly deceiving, maiming and destroying the one I say I love – or if I have no intention of acting to save the one I say I love after they have destroyed themselves – when I am the only one who has the power to do so – what kind of lover would I be? (see I Cor. 13 here)

Really now, if Judas really was truly sorrowful and broken by his sins (“I have betrayed an innocent man!”) – as he certainly appeared to be – why did God allow those to whom he confessed to say “that’s your problem” (i.e. “its not our burden” – see Gal. 6:2)?  And if none of those who sat in “Moses’ seat” (Mathew 23) were willing to lift a finger to offer Judas any words of comfort, why did the Lord not save Judas like he did Paul – by perhaps at least sending an angel?

Ah, the mysteries of God, who yes, really does desire all men – even the one Jesus called “a devil” – to be saved.  In one sense, such questions: “Why are some saved and not others?”, cannot be answered.  We can say that God gets all the glory when someone is saved, and that a man gets all the blame when he is not – but that is about all we can say with certainty.  This is commonly called the “crux theologorum“, or the cross of the theologian.

But still, as ones who follow the One who said “Father forgive them….” must we not wonder about – and mourn for – this man, who God created in His image?  Why… why then did God not just turn Judas to Himself – creating faith in him where and when He pleased?  (like He restored Peter or converted Paul, the persecutor?)

I tread lightly here, but I suspect it is because God means for us to see Judas as a sign against spiritual apathy.  When we sin, it is God’s Spirit who turns us again, convicting us, breaking us, and leading us to Christ (see John 16).  We would not do this apart from Him.  And yet – we dare not presume on such kindness and grace… God may not renew.  While God’s redeeming grace is always free and unearned, there is indeed a “cutoff” point… we must all face our final judgment or the Final Judgment…  Therefore, we disciples must be wise about how we walk, so a loss of faith does not result – we walk in danger all the way.  Don’t say of sin “its something I want… yeah, I know its wrong, but…”.   Instead, always huddle close by the Shepherd!  Could Judas be a sign that God may indeed, at some point, give us over to the un-Life we, in our flesh, are prone to seek?

But do you say “Why?” again?  Consider this: when we seek un-Life, we become the odor of death, devoid of the Gospel and its power.  We rob God, rejecting His will for us and our neighbor.  “God is blasphemed among the Gentiles because of you”, Paul asserts, echoing the Old Testament.  Understandably, God desires that His people to point to Him.  He desires that we be hot or cold, not lukewarm.  “Why” again?  Perhaps for the sake of our neighbor?  He desires that they to be saved, for they, like us, are among “the whole world” for whom He died for, and is, in fact, already reconciled to.  As those who are either “hot” or “cold”, we can be seen as “clearly with Him” or “clearly against Him” – for the sake of the world.

Judas was not damned because God didn’t deeply care for him.  The Son of God wept over Jerusalem, and I believe He weeps for Judas – for He never desires the death – especially the eternal death – of the wicked.  God takes no pleasure in the millstones administered for the sake of the children, but perhaps, He simply does what He needs to do.

So perhaps, for the sake of the children, God administers not only millstones, but Judas’ fate as well.

In which case, better to have never been born indeed.  May this not be the case with us.  Lord have mercy.

 
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Posted by on February 16, 2011 in Uncategorized

 

Why babies love liturgy (part II)

Read part I here.

Continuing from yesterday*:

…Saying that Paul’s words here should have relevance to this debate is a tough sell though.  People bring up the fact that Paul spoke of “becoming all things for all men – that I might save some…”.  But one should be careful not to read too much into this passage (and this popular, evangelistic preacher is a Baptist!).  Likewise, one pastor/district president has suggested that in I Corinthians 14, we see  “the display[ing of] the concepts of cultural sensitivity, relevancy, and love, especially for unbe­lievers and new Christians”, but while I am naturally inclined to sympathize with this approach, I can’t see it in the text here….**

Please hear me: to say this is not necessarily to downplay evangelism!  I will admit that I think it is likely that some Bible passages – like those in Matthew 28:19-20, II Corinthians 5, and Romans 10 (regarding “the feet which bring good news”) – were written primarily with pastors in mind, or those who would continue in the stead of the apostolic ministry.  Even if this is the case however, John 4:39 and 14:12, Philemon 6, I Peter 3:15,16, Philippians 2:13-16, and even Acts 4:20 make it abundantly clear that lay Christians, while not being “sent” in the exact same way as is a pastor, are still to be an essential and active part of the Church’s missionary enterprises.

But this does not necessarily mean that worship should be designed to reach out to the unbeliever (of course, we can still try to make it as understandable as possible by providing visitor guides, etc.).  At the same time, this does not mean the unbeliever will not be affected by what they see in worship (see I Cor. 14 again!)!  For example, Lutherans like to say that God doesn’t need our good works, but our neighbor does.  When it comes to worship, I think we should also consider that while God doesn’t need our response (to His Divine Service) our neighbor does.  For instance, when we gather together for worship we certainly benefit from seeing faithful people who desire to fall at Christ’s feet, to be taught at Christ’s feet, and to receive that gift of redemptive blood which flowed from His side, hands and feet – like little children who are better at passive reception than anyone…

Not only this, it seems to me that much can be learned from the highly corporate and liturgical acts – given by God for His people to enact – that soak the pages not only of Leviticus, but the book of Revelation.  Truly, heaven will be everlasting, joyful, liturgical (i.e. formal ritual) celebration!   Here on earth, we may begin to experience this (as pastors like Arthur Just and Will Weedon marvelously communicate), but note the evident origins of this joy:

You have not come to a mountain that can be touched and that is burning with fire; to darkness, gloom and storm; to a trumpet blast or to such a voice speaking words that those who heard it begged that no further word be spoken to them, because they could not bear what was commanded: “If even an animal touches the mountain, it must be stoned to death.”  The sight was so terrifying that Moses said, “I am trembling with fear.”

But you have come to Mount Zion, to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem. You have come to thousands upon thousands of angels in joyful assembly, to the church of the firstborn, whose names are written in heaven. You have come to God, the Judge of all, to the spirits of the righteous made perfect, to Jesus the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel.

See to it that you do not refuse him who speaks. If they did not escape when they refused him who warned them on earth, how much less will we, if we turn away from him who warns us from heaven?  At that time his voice shook the earth, but now he has promised, “Once more I will shake not only the earth but also the heavens.” The words “once more” indicate the removing of what can be shaken—that is, created things—so that what cannot be shaken may remain.

Therefore, since we are receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, let us be thankful, and so worship God acceptably with reverence and awe,  for our “God is a consuming fire.” (Hebrews 12:18-29)

If you attend a contemporary worship service, does this description of worship fit with what you see there?

I think we desperately need words like these, for we are not in heaven yet.  How then, should we worship?  (for more challenging thoughts, see this, from a Lutheran convert to Catholicism talking about Protestant worship)  “Let us be thankful” indeed!  Shall we not, like children eager to follow their parents, follow in this historic train – a train which I think is about grace, not law ; freedom, not bondage ; joy, not legalism (even as it is also about reverence and awe!)?  If not, why not?  Why?!

I only ask persons to deeply consider these words.  Again, I am not saying anyone’s salvation depends on their seeing eye to eye with me.  Certainly, a lack of love can destroy faith.  And yet, while sometimes not loving in a certain way is sin (think Good Samaritan), other times, I must admit, there may be a variety of ways we can show love.  Let us be wise and prayerful in our answer.

___________________________________________

For more discussion:

Do not be carried away by all kinds of strange teachings. It is good for our hearts to be strengthened by grace, not by eating ceremonial foods, which is of no benefit to those who do so.  We have an altar from which those who minister at the tabernacle have no right to eat. (Hebrews 13:9)

In light of the words in Hebrews 12 quoted above, it is interesting to think about what it means to have an altar… what are the churches that don’t have altars saying?

 

* Incidently, many of the bullet points from yesterday’s post were things I have picked up from many different pastors on Issues Etc, and elsewhere – and from Pastor Sonntag’s helpful book

** It seems to me that they “…will fall down and worship God, exclaiming, “God is really among you!” as they hear the one who not only prophesies such that he “strengthen[s], encourag[es] and comforts”, but also such that unbelievers are “convicted of sin and are brought under judgment by all, as the secrets of their hearts are laid bare.”  I see nothing in this passage implying that the worship service ought to be designed for unbelievers.

 

 
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Posted by on February 4, 2011 in Uncategorized

 

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Why babies love liturgy (part I)

In Hebrews 10 23-25 we read:

Let us hold unswervingly to the hope we profess, for he who promised is faithful.  And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds.  Let us not give up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but let us encourage one another—and all the more as you see the Day approaching.

First of all, I note that just because we might fail to spur our brothers and sisters on toward love and good deeds does not mean that we, or they, can not be saved (If this were the case, I think none of us would be saved!) – or even that either one is necessarily sinning!

In addition, as you read this, depending on your attitude about what the church and worship is, you may question whether or not I really am trying to spur you on toward love and good deeds (perhaps more like “dead works” some might think…)!

But let me try out my reasoning on you: because babies trust and love their fathers and mothers, they treasure what their parents treasure.

Therefore, as Christians who are called to be child-like, we to should trust and love our fathers and mothers in the faith: treasuring what they have treasured, namely, the Church’s liturgy (“bunny trail” comment: so keep the young ones in the service!), which has its root in the Word of God.

After all, the Lutheran Reformation was the “Conservative Reformation“.  As much as was possible, liturgical ceremonies were preserved.  Even those that did not endorse the Gospel, but were “neutral” (i.e. they simply did not contradict the Gospel), were retained.

One of my online students, referring to the incarnation said, “Not only did [God] come for us, he came in the most humble manner imaginable”.  The Son of God, though perfect, submitted himself to be born into a sinful race.  Would that we be as eager to humble ourselves to before our spiritual ancestors!

Christians in the past were more eager than we to do this.  And because of this, those who still use the historic liturgies today, passed on from Christians from generation to generation (developing only very gradually), have the following benefits:

  • We preserve that which not only teaches the faith, but preserves our faith, since the words in the liturgy are saturated with Gospel comfort (and there is a seriousness there that is sometimes desperately needed)
  • The liturgy protects us from poor preaching – it delivers the comfort of the Gospel even when the preacher does not
  • It protects pastors – and therefore, laypersons – from the wrong kinds of innovation and creativity: even Aaron truly believed that he was giving appropriate worship to Yahweh when he fashioned the golden calf for the people, adopting the practices of the culture around him – it is better to stick with ceremonies that seem to have developed naturally from, and complement, the divinely instituted (and “spiritual”!) ceremonies God has ordained (calling of pastors, absolution, baptism, Lord’s Supper)
  • It enables the Church to do all things in good order and to maintain peace and harmony (like keeping the main worship day on Sunday!) – hence, when people think and explicitly say that ceremonies should serve this function (as opposed to being necessary for salvation), in what sense can it really be said that they are trying to “impose” something on others?
  • Although many of its ceremonies are not divinely ordained, in following the reformers in retaining these we learn to use our Christian freedom in moderation, thereby showing love and respect for our fathers and mothers in the faith – and showing concern for the weak in faith who may be overcome by great changes
  • “It is a proper way of practiced love that serves the neighbor in that it powerfully expresses doctrinal unity and avoids schisms[splits due to non-essentials] and heresies [disagreements in what is essential which schisms can easily lead to]”  (Sonntag, 79, 67)
  • Re: the “weak”: while they need to be taught that they cannot believe that others must do this or that thing to be saved (as they are disputable and indifferent matters), they are also told “whoever has doubts is condemned if they eat [of something they don’t think they should do…], because their eating is not from faith; and everything that does not come from faith is sin.”
  • It is a valuable connection with other historically liturgical Churches, like the Roman Catholics and the Eastern Orthodox, who may not hear clear Gospel words in preaching, but only in the historic liturgies (with words like “Lord, I am not worthy to receive you, but only say the word and I shall be healed”)
  • Uniformity!  In this way, confusion is avoided.  The recent Eight Theses on worship said uniformity is desirable as well.  A man in our I.T. department here talked to me about how, for their department, it was practical for them to say and mean the same thing – to give directions in a consistent fashion, in written docs or otherwise.  This way, people don’t get confused, and the department knows among themselves what they mean when they use the same form of words…

But what of evangelism?  No doubt – each Christian, like Jesus, desires to “seek and save the lost”, and this should be a huge focus for us.   At the same time, let us note  what Paul says: “Therefore, as we have opportunity, let us do good to all people, especially to those who belong to the family of believers.”  (Galatians 6:10)

First things first.  Why should we not think that what Paul says here in one context has at least some relevance for this discussion as well?

More tomorrow…

 
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Posted by on February 3, 2011 in Uncategorized

 

The philosophical baby vs. the philosophical adult

Some months ago, I mentioned this book.

Here is an absolutely wonderful podcast starring the author of that book.  It is incredible stuff.

A description of the podcast (and picture) from the site:

“Given that we all begin our lives as children, it is perhaps surprising that philosophy has paid such little attention, relatively speaking, to childhood. This week, we meet the American philosopher and psychologist Alison Gopnik, who argues that in some ways young children are actually smarter, more imaginative, more caring and even more conscious than adults are.”

The war on babies has gone on for a very long time and has not abated in some quarters.  But God has a sense of humor.  You must become like a little child, o philosopher.

Learn from them.

 
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Posted by on February 2, 2011 in Uncategorized

 
 
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