Thoughts and Prayers

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The meme that I share with you here is taken from the Lord of the Rings movie The Return of the King. In the movie when Gondor calls for aid, the nation of Rohan gathers together all their fighting men and rides to battle to aid Gondor. The meme takes that moment and replaces it with the common, modern reaction to disaster and people in need which is to send out “thoughts and prayers.”  It is meant to point out the uselessness of merely saying a trite phrase in the face of people that need real help.

Obviously, as a Christian, I believe prayer is powerful and effective.  The Bible says so over and over again.  (James 5:16, Matt 21:22, etc.)   However, the meme is correct to point out the frivolousness of having that be our ONLY response to disaster, tragedy, or violence. In fact, it is clearly and for many people, a cop-out. It is for many a way to make themselves feel better about a bad situation without actually doing anything to help people in real need.

15 Suppose a brother or a sister is without clothes and daily food. 16 If one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,” but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it? (James 2:15-16)

In the book of James we are reminded that to bless and pray for someone that is hungry without feeding them is not the way we are supposed to respond as Christians. When someone comes to our door and is hungry we don’t respond with hollow words to try to make ourselves feel better. We are to feed them.

As we face a tragedy in the world, we should indeed be offering up our prayers for the well-being of affected people. But we should also be offering real, concrete help to people that have had their lives destroyed. We should be offering financial aid to disaster relief organizations that know what they’re doing and how best to help. We should be volunteering our physical labor and help when it is appropriate and given in a way that actually helps. This is always how we should respond as Christians.

When someone calls for aid, will we merely talk, or will we gather together our people and ride?

Looking Too Closely

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I have a confession to make. It’s a little embarrassing but I can’t be the only one that does it, so here goes…

Sometimes I check myself out in the mirror.

It’s true.  I like to lift weights, so sometimes I hit a quick flex or pose to see if I can notice any difference or improvement. Sometimes I do the old turn-sideways-and-suck-in-the-gut pose to check out my profile. Sometimes I’ll actually start to think to myself that for a 45-year-old guy I still kind of have it going on! It’s about then that I will realize that I haven’t put my contacts in yet. So what I’m actually seeing is a blurry, washed out version of myself that hides all the flaws. When I put them in and can see clearly, suddenly I notice every bad thing.  I see every flaw.  I see every bit of ugliness.

There’s a certain sense in which seeing clearly, seeing the truth, is something good. But I wonder sometimes, if in today’s day and age we see a bit too clearly.  With a “24 hour news cycle” where we are constantly barraged with information, as well as social media where people are constantly putting themselves out there and revealing every detail of their life and every opinion that floats through their head, I wonder if we end up focusing on the minute details that reveal every flaw instead of stepping back and taking a look at the big picture.

Above all, love each other deeply, because love covers over a multitude of sins.  (1 Peter 4:8)

 

I wonder if that’s what the Bible means in regards to love covering up sins. Without a doubt, it’s a reference to the atoning sacrifice of Jesus Christ done out of love. But in regards to how we live out that passage, I think it means that when we look at people through a veneer of love it hides the flaws. It blurs them out a bit. So that instead of seeing every detail of what someone has done wrong or how they may have failed us, we see the outline of the person softened into, perhaps, what they were more meant to be as one of God’s children.  It enables us to look more kindly upon the person and indeed upon the world.

If you examine anyone in super detailed 4K high definition eye sight, you should turn that gaze upon yourself. Acknowledge your flaws, repent and receive forgiveness.  But when it comes to others, take out those contacts and look at them through the lens of love.  You might be surprised at what you see, or more importantly, what you don’t see.

Won’t Someone Please Think of the Children!

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I recently discovered that the old Dungeons and Dragons cartoon from my childhood is on YouTube. I’ve watched a few of the episodes, and it’s got me feeling rather nostalgic for those days. I have always loved that kind of stuff ever since I first read J.R.R. Tolkien’s the Hobbit. It wasn’t long until I first started playing Dungeons & Dragons when I was in middle school. I continued to play D&D, as well as other role playing games, throughout high school and college. And in recent years I have even begun to return to it as a part of family game night.

The interesting thing for me is that, when I first started playing during the 80’s, many people believed that Dungeons and Dragons was satanic and a form of spiritual warfare against children. Even my own mother (whom I will still mercilessly tease about this!), at one point, forbade me to play the game based on this hysteria that was sweeping the country. While some hold outs still believe this, for the vast majority of people time has proven the accusation to be false.

There is something else, however, that reminds me of those days in my life. That is when I find myself looking at something my daughter enjoys now, as a parent, and wondering if it’s actually good for her. There are certainly some things that I have forbidden her to watch, listen to or be a part of, and she is no happier about it than I was when it happened to me. When I do that, I sometimes find myself wondering if I am simply doing the same thing as people freaking out over a game that, as it turned out, was not only fairly innocent, but also tended to be good for you. How can we as parents know the difference between legalistic and prudish hysteria, and a genuine concern for the things our children may be putting inside their heads?

Certainly, there are some no-brainers. Those are things like pornography, extreme and non-contextual violence, and things of that nature.  But for many things it is not that clear. And it is there that we struggle to do what’s right, while at the same time giving our children the freedom to grow and learn and experience things as we did when we were children.

In our faith, we are often encouraged to judge by the fruit something produces (see Matthew 7:15). I think that is an excellent way to proceed here as well. Are the things that we are doing, the things that we are watching, the things that we are listening to, bearing good fruit in our lives, or are they bearing bad fruit?  Are they helping us to grow and become better people, or are they slowing our growth or worse yet pushing us in a bad direction? Now of course, anything can be abused and used for evil, including God’s Word itself. You have to look at the outcomes, the fruit, in a totality when you make your decision.

For example, one of the people that I played role playing games with the most (including the game Call of Cthulhu which was a horror role playing game based on the writings of HP Lovecraft, and that would certainly have given Pat Robertson conniption fits) was one of the people that was instrumental in leading me back to Christ when I fell away during high school.  The connections and friendships that I made through role-playing games were definitely evidence of good fruit born in my life.

In the end, I think my mom has it right. Her response now, when I tease her about it, is simply this, “I didn’t really know what it was, but I heard it might be dangerous. So I took precautions. But once I realized that it was actually fine, I let you play.”  That was good parenting.  And I hope my own daughter will one day come to realize the same thing about the decisions I make for her.

Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things. (Philippians 4:8)

The Problem of Evil

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A few weeks ago, before hurricane Irma, I wrote a blog entitled Thoughts and Prayers. In it I challenged the rather cliché response people have to disasters and tragedies and encouraged people to take action. I didn’t get a chance to post it the week before the hurricane because I was too busy getting ready for it. Then I didn’t want to post it after hurricane Irma, because I did not want it to seem like an indictment of people’s response to that disaster. In fact, I was amazed and blessed by how everyone pulled together to help after Irma! Then I scheduled it to post this week, and we had that tragic shooting in Las Vegas.

Now, lots of people are saying that thoughts and prayers are not enough and that we need action. Unfortunately, they don’t mean it the way that I did. I do not want people to connect my words with theirs, so I still feel like it is not an appropriate time to post that blog. Perhaps one day I still will, but not this week.

You see, when I wrote that blog I was pointing us to the actions that Jesus calls us to; feeding the hungry, clothing the poor, taking care of one another in times of need. But now, in the wake of Las Vegas, people are calling us to take action to prevent something like that from ever happening again. And while I am generally a hopeful person, and not pessimistic, I have to tell you that there is nothing we can do to prevent something like that from ever happening again.

There is evil in the world. And there will be evil in the world until Jesus comes again. In fact, the evil that is in the world is so powerful that the only way Jesus Himself could overcome it was by sacrificing his own life in a cruel and bloody execution. Make no mistake, because of that we do have hope. Evil will be brought to an end, but not by us, and not by political action, passing new laws, or creating new social programs.

11 I saw heaven standing open and there before me was a white horse, whose rider is called Faithful and True. With justice he judges and wages war. 12 His eyes are like blazing fire, and on his head are many crowns. He has a name written on him that no one knows but he himself. 13 He is dressed in a robe dipped in blood, and his name is the Word of God. 14 The armies of heaven were following him, riding on white horses and dressed in fine linen, white and clean. 15 Coming out of his mouth is a sharp sword with which to strike down the nations. “He will rule them with an iron scepter.” He treads the winepress of the fury of the wrath of God Almighty. 16 On his robe and on his thigh he has this name written:  king of kings and lord of lords.  (Revelation 19:11-16)



This is the hope we have. This is the only way that evil will finally be undone so that nothing like what happened in Las Vegas will ever happen again.

I’m not telling you to sit on your hands and do nothing. Do what you feel is right and best to make the world a better place. We are free as Christians to pursue political action and social justice.  Just be sure you are placing your hope in Jesus Christ and in His love and mercy, and not in the plans of men.

Someone’s Calling, but Who Is It?

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I recently had a conversation with another Pastor.  He was telling me a story about how he was encouraging someone to serve.  Despite it being a great opportunity, the person declined because “the Lord was telling them not to do it.”  While I cannot rule out the possibility of this being true, it seemed somewhat suspect due to both the fact that God clearly calls us to service in His Word, and this word from the Lord seemed to coincide quite nicely with how they already wanted to spend their weekend.

Part of the issue comes from our overuse and misunderstanding of the concept of “hearing from the Lord.”  Many times the person we are actually hearing from is merely our own thoughts and desires.  When this happens we are on dangerous ground.  While I would never deny that the Holy Spirit can speak to us and help guide us, God has encouraged us to turn to the Holy Scriptures as our primary source of hearing from Him.  This is the entire premise behind the Protestant ideology of Sola Scriptura (Scripture Alone).  By it we believe and confess that Scripture alone is the sole rule and norm by which we govern and understand our faith.  This is one of the main reasons I have an issue with the popular series of devotionals by Sarah Young titled Jesus Calling.

When I first encountered Jesus Calling I thought it was a unique take on an otherwise bland devotional.  Some of the devotions I found to be good, and a few others I had some disagreement with on theological grounds.  The unique approach was coming from how each devotion was written in the first person, as if Jesus was actually speaking.  While that didn’t thrill me, I figured it was just a gimmick.  I assumed that Sarah was writing her devotional the way most do, by studying Scripture and then giving some thoughts on its application. 

Well, turns out I was wrong.  Very wrong.

Jesus Calling actually follows in the footsteps of an older work titled God Calling.  God Calling was, allegedly, written by two anonymous women who referred to themselves as “The Two Listeners.”  They wrote their devotional by sitting still and “listening” and then writing the first things that came into their head.  They did not study Scripture to base their thoughts on.  They claimed no other education, training or qualifications.  They simply listened and wrote and claimed that what they wrote was a direct revelation from God.  That process just so happens to be the exact same process that Sarah Young uses to write her Jesus Calling devotionals.  She writes in the first person because she believes they are the actual words of Jesus!

Some of you may recognize this as a process called automatic writing.  Automatic writing is used properly in psychology to help people uncover thoughts and feelings they may be having.  It is also used by so-called psychics and spiritists to attempt to commune with various spirits and the dead.  If this doesn’t give you a hinky feeling about the practice, it should.  Consider that its two main uses are either to reveal our own thoughts and feelings, or as an occult tool.  And now consider how popular a devotional is among Christians that uses the exact same concept.

16 All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, 17 so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.  (2 Timothy 3:16-17)

While the Bible does, at times, encourage us to be still and listen for the Lord, nowhere does it encourage us to use the process of automatic writing to hear from Him.  Nor is that how the inspiration of Holy Scripture itself worked, where people like the Prophets and Apostles were well aware of what they were writing and why.  It is a process that is more likely to reveal your own thoughts and feelings than God’s, and it is certainly not something we should put our trust in.

The Bible encourages us to be shrewd and discerning, and to test the spirits.  Let’s make sure that we are placing our trust in the true Word of God as we find it in Scripture.  In His Word is the one place we always know Jesus is calling.

Is Sacramentalism the Answer?

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The so-called decline of the Christian church in America is a big topic of discussion among Christians nowadays. Many churches, and indeed even entire denominations, are facing marked declines in attendance. Even in my own church, simply maintaining, let alone growing attendance is a constant battle. And so you will find article after article attempting to explain the reasons why this is happening. Indeed, much of it has to do with a lack of faith and belief in our current culture. But in many cases, even people that do believe are failing to attend weekly worship. Why is that?

As a pastor, I have read many such articles, and while they may have some good things to say, and some good reasons for why it is so difficult to get people to come to church, they all miss one important factor. The majority of churches in the United States are non-sacramental. From Baptist to Reformed, they believe that things like Baptism and the Lord’s Supper are purely symbolic, and therefore somewhat meaningless and unnecessary. I will tell you why I think this has such a huge effect on getting believing people into church.

If people see no value in church, if they see nothing at church that they cannot get either on their own or from somewhere else, they will not come.  I can’t tell you how many times I have heard a believing person say, “I can worship God on my own.  I don’t need to do it in a church.”  It is as simple as that. And there are more ways available to us to get the same things we used to get from church today than at any other time in history.  Do you want to hear a good message? You can hear one online, or watch it on TV, or read about it on the Internet.  You want to hear worship music? You can download it off of iTunes. You want a sense of community and belonging? You can join CrossFit!

Of course, those things are actually no substitute for the spiritual life we find when we gather together as Christian people to worship. And the Bible does say “do not give up on meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing” (Hebrews 10:25). But I think we actually have an even better reason for why we should gather together in worship. It is not just that it is a better way to get the things we can get elsewhere, nor is it simply that we are commanded to do it. The truth is there is something that we can ONLY FIND IN WORSHIP TOGETHER with other Christians gathered around someone in the Office of the Pastoral Ministry:  the Sacraments.  When you understand that things like Baptism and the Lord’s Supper (and while not technically a sacrament, we can include Confession and Absolution) are things in and through which God acts and which should be properly exercised together as the body of Christ, you understand there is something in corporate worship you cannot get by yourself or from some other place.  It is something unique to the Christian church and Christian corporate worship.

I understand that there are biblical and theological arguments behind certain denominations’ rejection of the sacraments.  And I would not expect them to suddenly change just to get people into church.  But in rejecting them, they have deprived themselves of one of the prime motivating factors for people to come and worship together at church. Ultimately, this is not the reason why I am Lutheran or Sacramental.  I would believe as I do based on Scripture even if it did not provide us with another reason to worship together.  However, it does give us something to offer that other churches do not have. It does give us a reason why people should still come to church even when they can get so many other aspects of worship from somewhere else. I think we should remind people of that and celebrate it!

 

One Thing You Should Stop Doing Right Now

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Guys, look. Come over here for a second. Pull up a chair, have a seat. Scoot a bit closer. That’s good. Now, listen. You know I care about you, right?  Well, I’ve got something to say to you.

Stop “decreeing and declaring” in your prayers.

There. I said it.

Look, I get it. I get why it’s becoming a thing with Christians. You feel like it actually shows great faith. You feel like it rests on the authority we have to pray in Jesus’ name. You may even feel like you have more of a chance of having your prayer answered if you pray with such confidence. I know where it comes from. It started out in charismatic churches, and churches that teach prosperity gospel. But it’s becoming more and more popular now even with Christians outside of those traditions. And it’s simply wrong.  It’s not biblical.  We do not have the authority to decree and declare that things be a certain way. Only God has that authority.

Jesus actually gave us a very clear teaching on how to pray. Today we call that teaching the Lord’s prayer. Here it is:

“This, then, is how you should pray:

“‘Our Father in heaven,
hallowed be your name,
10 your kingdom come,
your will be done,
on earth as it is in heaven.
11 Give us today our daily bread.
12 And forgive us our debts,
as we also have forgiven our debtors.
13 And lead us not into temptation,
but deliver us from the evil one.  (Matthew 6:9-13)

And here’s what it would sound like if prayed by someone today. (Credit to bibleissues.org)

Our Father, I decree and declare that thou art in heaven;
for had we not done so, Thou mightest have fallen from heaven like lightning
We speak forth your kingdom on earth and decree that thy will be done
We confess that our daily bread is provided
We declare that we are forgiven and we release forgiveness to our debtors
We are loosed from temptations, we bind the evil one IN JESUS NAME
For we declare that thine is the kingdom, the power and the glory, forever amen.

Please note the actual Lord’s Prayer sounds nothing like the prayers we pray when we “decree and declare.”  In fact it sounds decidedly unlike that.  It sounds humble. It petitions. It recognizes God’s power and authority, and minimizes our own. This is the exact opposite of what we do when we “decree and declare.”

Decreeing and declaring puts the focus on us. It puts the focus on our authority (even when we might give token mention to the fact that our authority comes from God). It uses language that sounds like the answer to our prayer is under our control. And in so doing, it also has the unfortunate side effect of giving people false hope.  “Name it and claim it!”  “Decree it and it will be so!”  …Except when it isn’t, of course.

Jesus, the one person who actually does have the authority to decree and declare, sets the example for us in the garden of Gethsemane. Going a little farther, he fell with his face to the ground and prayed, “My Father, if it is possible, may this cup be taken from me. Yet not as I will, but as you will.”  (Matthew 26:39)  He does not pray according to his own will. He does not demand. He does not declare. He does not decree. He petitions, humbly. And he finishes his prayer with the beautiful statement, “not my will, but your will be done.”

This is how we should pray.

The Myth of the Non-Denominational Church

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I had a conversation with one of our members the other day. He had been attending some classes and even some worship at another church in our community. I was familiar with that church and the things that they teach, and have some significant theological disagreements with them. So, as tactfully as I could, I cautioned him to be careful and be aware of what they were teaching. His response was that I should not worry because they were “non-denominational” and “open to everyone.”  He seemed to feel that this meant they would not be teaching anything with which I could possible disagree, or that would contradict the teachings of the denomination to which our church belongs.

The idea that non-denominational  churches are some kind of theological neutral ground where they do not get involved in the theological disputes of mainline denominations is a prevalent one. It is also completely false. All “non-denominational” really means is that a church is not officially a part of a mainline denomination.  And in some cases, it can mean as little as simply not using the name of the denomination of which they are really a part. In any case, all so-called non-denominational churches have a set of beliefs, doctrines, and practices just like any other church that has a denominational affiliation. And many times, those things fall right in line with an existing denomination or theological tradition (Reformed, Baptist, Charismatic, etc.).

The reasons that churches will choose to be non-denominational vary from church to church. For some, they may wish to avoid the baggage that comes with being associated with a well-known denomination, such as past scandals or controversial positions on the issues. For others, it may be a matter of outreach. They may feel like having a denominational affiliation would exclude some of the people they are trying to reach. For yet others it may be because they differ on a key issue that keeps them from being in full fellowship with the denomination. Whatever the reason is, one thing is clear. They are not theologically neutral.

So how can you tell what denomination or theological tradition of which a so-called non-denominational church is a part?  There are two easy ways. The first is simply to look at where the pastor received his or her theological education. If they attended a Baptist seminary then you will most likely be receiving Baptist teachings.  If they attended a Reformed seminary, you will most likely be receiving reformed teachings, and so on. The second is to take note of the theological language they use when preaching and teaching. For example, if they use the term “full Gospel” a lot, you will most likely be dealing with a charismatic type of church.

In the end, there can be absolutely nothing wrong with attending a non-denominational  church. However, we need to realize there is nothing inherently more neutral (or more Biblical) about their theology simply because they deny a denominational affiliation.  And it is always important that we remain aware of what any church that we attend believes, teaches, and confesses.  That way we can always make sure we are growing in faith and knowledge of the Truth.

I’ll Never Force Religion on My Child

I belong to a progressive rock Facebook group. Progressive rock, if you are unfamiliar with it, is a style of hard rock or heavy metal that relies on an almost symphonic approach to writing music. In that group someone posted the above meme, which is a parody of something I’ve been hearing from my peers since I first started getting serious about my faith in high school back in the 80’s. And for what it’s worth, the correct answer is Dream Theater!

The original sentiment is about faith, and reflects the attitude of people who “don’t want to force their religion on their children.” This may sound like a good idea, and I suspect that even some people reading this right now would agree with this approach to parenting. It seems very open-minded, and places trust in our children to make good decisions. Unfortunately, this approach to religious instruction is highly flawed.

During the time when the sentiment became popular, and still to this day, “forcing” your religion on someone was considered a rather heinous crime. Most would agree that actually forcing your religion on someone is indeed a bad thing.  Unfortunately our current culture tends to define “forcing” as any type of attempt to share your faith, proselytize, or evangelize.  That is, of course, the first flaw in this approach to parenting. Teaching your children to believe what you believe is not “forcing” your religion on them.  Your children will still have plenty of opportunity to be exposed to other beliefs and ideologies, and will indeed, at some point, come to their own understanding of their faith and belief.

Second, if one truly believes that Jesus Christ is the way of salvation for all people to find forgiveness of sins and experience new life (John 14:6), why would you not want that for your children? Why would you not want to do everything you could to make sure they experience that same gift?  Indeed, as Christians, we are called to “make disciples” (Matt 28:19). That command certainly applies to our own children, with whom we have the closest relationship of anyone, and for whom we are morally and legally responsible.

The third flaw is perhaps the biggest of all. This parenting ideology assumes that if you do not teach your children what to believe, that they will experience every other competing ideology and belief system on an equal footing and then be able to make a completely neutral and informed decision. But that is simply not true! If you do not teach your children what to believe, rest assured, SOMEONE ELSE WILL, even if that someone is simply the barrage of images they get from the media. By refusing to teach your children, you are abrogating your responsibility as a parent and turning that responsibility over to the rest of the world. And what the rest of the world teaches is, for the most part, contrary to Christ (1 John 5:19).

So, teach your children what you believe, why you believe it, and that they should believe it too. Do that especially, when it comes to the truth about Jesus Christ.

Proverbs 22:6  Start children off on the way they should go, and even when they are old they will not turn from it.