Thursday, August 25, 2016

Lutheran Love Week 3: Confession, Absolution, and Communion

It was 3 a.m. when I got up to do my typical check of the kids. Sometimes Audrey needs a bottle, Abby needs help, or I just need to go to the restroom. Mindy woke up enough to ask me to turn on the ceiling fan, which I thought was funny since I thought I had turned it on last night. I went to the switch and realized it was supposed to be on, so then I checked the pull chain. At that point I realized the house was awfully dark, and it dawned on me that the power must be out. I knew then that this was going to be a long morning. First I worried about Audrey’s swing, which gets plugged in. When Jacob was a baby I changed a million batteries in his swing, so this one being electric was awesome, except now.  Now I wished it had batteries. I tried to get few more minutes of sleep before I would have to get up. Jacob wakes up entirely to early, and with no TV or lights, there would be a million questions. And so there were. The kids tried to figure out when the power would come back on and what Mindy and I were going to do about it. They were instructed to keep the fridge closed and to not get any milk like they usually do. They watched the traffic back up by our house and people turn around in our driveway looking for another exit. They would scream for Mindy and I to come look at what was happening, and then the very next breath they would complain about not having milk to drink or not being able to watch TV. I promised them we would go to breakfast somewhere. And thus began our day without electricity.

Electricity helps our houses run, and without it, they just don’t function right. When the electricity goes out you begin to realize everything that needs electricity. It becomes a question of how long can you survive without it. My phone only had 3% charge as I left the house, so I grabbed the rechargeable charger to make sure people could get ahold of me if they needed to.

Week 3 of Lutheran Love is all about confession and communion. This is the electricity of our Lutheran church service. If we don’t have it, we are in a house that isn’t functioning the way it was built to function. In confession and absolution, we come back to the beginning of scripture – how God made people and they sinned. We come back to His restoration and forgiveness. We are reminded again, no matter what the world told us during the week, that we sin every day.  We even have sins we don’t know about. Yet, we receive God’s amazing forgiveness and we move forward in what He has called His people to be. We begin our service knowing the electricity of forgiveness that brings us into that powerful relationship with Him. This continues throughout the service and onto communion. Communion is that jolt of God’s amazing grace that goes beyond our human understanding. Somehow in this meal, we are tasting God’s body and blood and receiving forgiveness, all at the same time, even though it looks like just bread and wine.

Other churches may dispute the importance of having confession in the service, or argue that the Lord’s Supper is just a representation, but these elements are the energy of the Lutheran Church. We say that our service is Word and sacrament. When we talk about the liturgy, and law and gospel, they all culminate in the confession, absolution and communion. This week we take time to talk about why this is the electricity, or energy, of the Lutheran Church. We will talk about how apart from it we can fall into thinking we are doing it on our own. We will talk about why this is something to celebrate in our worship and look forward to.

I have vivid memories of times I have confessed sins that I committed. One especially stands out. I had taken some quarters from my dad’s dresser. I waited a couple weeks before I told him. One night I came downstairs crying and shared how I had stolen from him. My dad’s words of forgiveness were the most powerful words I could have heard. There are so many times when we have stolen, or abused, the gifts our Father God has given us, and yet in that moment of absolution, He forgives us. But not just that, He invites us to come eat with Him at His table.

Lutheran Love Week 2: Law and Gospel

Ever remember something that was standard at your house that was not so standard at someone else’s? We have been on vacation a couple times this summer with different families. When you live with another family, you get to learn the way they are used to doing things. It shows the uniqueness of every family. It is a great exercise everyone should experience.

There are also times when you find similarities between families. One of those instances happened when one of the families cooked dinner for us. The husband was playing music and cooking, and the wife was sensitive to make sure she wasn’t overstepping her bounds trying to help. What they didn’t know is that I always listen to music while making dinner, and even while eating. My kids are very familiar with this so it was no big deal.

Another practice I talked about with many couples this summer is whether or not the couple goes to bed at the same time. The wives found unique ways to sneak this topic into conversation. This is actually a big deal. A husband and wife living in a busy world need that pillow time to reconnect. I advise this in my marriage counseling sessions. I’ve had a number of times in my own marriage when this has not been on track, and then when it gets back on track, I remember why it is so important. The problem is, when I don’t remember why it is important, I can get caught up in a Netflix series or a baseball game, making those more important than connecting with my wife.

This week we hit on a subject that is very important in the Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod (LCMS), but not every denomination sees it that way – Law and Gospel. This teaching is very important in helping us understand our sin against God’s will (law) and why we need Jesus (gospel). It changes our language and the way we communicate so that we are not just speaking from the law as an obligation, but the understanding of the gospel as God’s free gift. This speaking can be as simple as, “I get to go to church” (gospel) instead of, “I have to go to church” (law). Law and gospel keeps us focused on the purpose of life. God gave us this life to live according to His will, but we continue to sin and mess it up, and so God comes in to forgive us and restores us to a life of freedom. Unfortunately, we mess up that freedom as well, and the process starts all over again.

As a church body, we know that if we don’t have this distinction of law and gospel, we can easily fall into repeating past mistakes, thinking we can work our way to heaven by what we do rather than by what Jesus has done for us, which is why we clearly distinguish law and gospel in our preaching and teaching. Sometimes we might lift this teaching up so strongly that it can be very intense. This is something that we do in our house (LCMS) and we have a good reason for it.

This weekend we take time to recognize the beauty of law and gospel and why it is so important to Lutherans. Like the couple who goes to bed at the same time, we take time to value the key factors that we see as we distinguish law and gospel. 

Lutheran Love Week 1: Liturgy

After nine years of being in ministry, I have seen a lot in the three churches where I have served, especially the battles our churches have had when comparing us to other churches bodies. No matter how much you learn about your own denomination in Seminary, there is a brutal reality you face when you watch other denominations grow, and then have to ask yourself what are you doing wrong. Like anything, we sometimes have a knee jerk reaction to seeing other churches thrive. This can easily get us into trouble, not to mention leave behind some of our rich history in a quick decision to try and keep up with current trends. By now you know I am all about using current ways to reach people, such as the Internet, blogs, and screens, but those are elements that don’t compromise our rich traditional history. There are other areas I feel like people have compromised in haste, instead of asking themselves the bigger question of why our rich history is not reaching our current culture. I’m writing this series with two purposes in mind: one, to help us talk about our history and explain how it fits into our current culture; and two, to help those who lack the knowledge of our history to understand, and perhaps grow to love, parts of our service that might have been confusing before.

We begin week 1 with the liturgy. This is an area that is easily compromised in a desire to reach our current culture. I think often the debate is really about music. Unfortunately, liturgy often gets thrown out when people go with newer music. However, when we take the time to step back and ask ourselves questions about the parts of the service, we can see that the liturgy serves a purpose, makes us unique, and helps our worshipers hear the Gospel message throughout the service, not just during the sermon or in the hymns.

Liturgy is the language of the Word of God. We hear it spoken to us, and then we respond with the same language. The liturgy is another part of worship that speaks God’s grace. This weekend we take time to see the traditions of that language being used in the Old Testament, how they translated it into the New Testament, and how that connects to our use of liturgy today.

Making Sense of Greed, Retirement, and being an extraordinary servant

Recently I spent time watching the O.J. Simpson story on ESPN. It is fascinating to me to see the truth, or supposed truth, behind that story. I remember in high school watching it unfold and wanting to believe O.J. was innocent. I wanted to believe that these football players in the public eye were people who were good, caring and so much more. Yet, as often happens with these types of stories, we find out the guys are greedy and selfish instead. The saddest part is that they run out of money toward the end of their life. How in the world could these rich football players run out of money? How could they struggle financially after having these enormous contracts?

Unfortunately, our world and the commercials we see and hear give us a faulty picture of what wealth is like. It is no wonder kids grow up with dreams of being rich. Thankfully, in this day and age, we are more privy to the backstory of the lives of people with wealth. Many times they are exposed for various sins or struggles they find themselves in, and in several cases, we see them go broke due to poor money management and a focus on all the stuff that makes for a good outward appearance. How does this happen? Some of it has to do with athletes and celebrities being so young when they begin making all this money, that they don’t know how to manage it. Other times it is the addiction of getting new stuff to fill their houses or their driveways.

In the real world, we may not find ourselves in the same places as these people, besides sharing a few wishes or dreams here and there. But we do find ourselves trying to figure out what we should save, and when & how to be generous.

Recently, I have had many conversations about retirement.  If you think about it, there are a lot of commercials about it. Culturally, there seems to be a drive to focus on retirement, from the fun we want to have in retirement to the money we should have saved in the bank. I am not sure what the balance is, but I am certainly fearful of missing out on the life we are blessed with right now because of our focus on retirement. And what about those that die tragically and completely miss retirement, or those that suffer with disease and illness? Sometimes when people do get to retirement, they are disappointed that it doesn’t live up to their expectations.

Jesus was hitting on all of this as He talked about greed in our lesson for today in Luke 12. Greed can come at us from many different directions; it is not just the famous athlete or celebrity that is going to struggle. The reality check for us comes when we read about the guy in the parable that looks for the time where he can just sit back and take it easy. Sound familiar?

God has called us to be His extraordinary servants in our unique ways, and that never quits, no matter what stage of life we are in. It may be readjusted or altered, but there certainly is not a point when all our grain bins are full and we just sit back and let life pass us by. Plus, why would we want that if God has gifted us to serve Him? Jesus was teaching about a dangerous sin and helping us to see how we can fall into it as well. But thanks to His grace, we are forgiven, and through His teachings and the work of the Holy Spirit, we can get molded and shaped to serve Him our whole lives.

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Why we do the things we do!

In August we will begin a series highlighting specific aspects of our Lutheran denomination. We will talk about some unique ways the LCMS has used traditions to teach us and keep us in the practice of forgiveness and grace. As we move toward that series, it is fitting that we find a text like this one to help us prepare.

Infant baptism is always a challenge for people. It might be because we are a country of choices. We don’t like choices taken away from us. This is evident by the many who proclaim to be pro-choice. I have heard it said that those who baptize their children as babies are basically dragging them into worship and forcing them into a decision they don’t want. This is the challenge we face as we tackle this issue.

In our reading for today (Colossians 2) we see a direct connection of baptism to circumcision. Circumcision is the Old Testament connection to the covenant. When God made His covenant with Abram, He told him the people of Israel must circumcise all males, and that this would be a sign of the promise God made with them. At that point, Abram’s name was changed to Abraham, for he would be the father of many generations. This was a big moment for Abraham.  God had given him a great promise to bless his offspring! If you remember in the OT, passing on your legacy was a big deal, so this generational promise was hugely important. There are multiple times where we see the passing of a legacy in Scripture. I think when Jacob is wresting with God, he is fighting for the same thing, a passing on of generations.

Now back to the point. God called the male children of Israel to be circumcised after 8 days. This was the sign of the covenant given to the family for generations. But after Jesus came, there was a new covenant, which began with two of the sacraments He instituted. In the Lutheran church, for something to be called a sacrament, it has to have been instituted by Jesus, be a means of grace (provide forgiveness), and have a physical element (something we can touch and see). Baptism has all these parts, which is why we consider it a sacrament. Baptism, therefore, in its connection here with circumcision, is just as important as a last name. It is a part of the legacy passed down, and in our case, an important legacy of eternal life.

Why would we not want to give this to our kids? Why would we hold back such an awesome gift until they choose it? Infant baptism brings them one of the best gifts we could ever give our kids- forgiveness and a relationship with Jesus. Paul is making that connection for us, and helping us see why baptism is important. With the original covenant calling for circumcision 8 days after the birth, it points to the fact we should give this to the kids as soon as we can. I know people disagree with me. But if I make this connection, how in the world could I not give my kids the greatest gift I have for them as soon as possible.

Good Samaritan Moments

My English teacher in 7th grade did something awesome. Once a month she would take us to the special needs area in our school to help the kids. She was obviously passionate about teaching us more than just grammar. Little did she know how much help I needed. Anyway, her life lessons were powerful as she pushed us to help others.

I was scared though. There were some severely special needs kids, and I was afraid to help them. I can’t tell you why. My mom was special needs certified, and I would watch movies with her about special needs kids. I remember even praying that I wouldn’t have a special needs kid when I got older. So when it came time to pick a special needs kid to help, I chose a girl with Down Syndrome. I was better at this (and more comfortable) because I had some cousins with Down Syndrome. I loved this little girl and enjoyed being in her pre-school class helping her. But one day she was sick, and I had to read books to the severely special needs kids. I remember being so scared and uncomfortable that day.

This week we talk about the Good Samaritan. This is one of those parables that is pretty obvious. Just love the person who is your enemy. We can all understand how that is hard for us. We also can see how selfish we are and how we pass by people who need our help. How about just communicating to people that intimidate us, or to a group of people we are scared to help? How are we at that?

God has a funny way of teaching us Good Samaritan lessons. Over a year ago I asked the youth at Mt. Calvary how they wanted to serve. Having no clue about my history, they said they wanted to help the special needs kids down the road at the Children’s Home. I was thrilled with their passion. So what did we do? We read books to the special needs kids. It was a good experience.  We did it for about a year, and my fears were mostly gone. Yet you should have heard me fumble over my words as I was being interviewed about it for an article they wanted to write. I was trying to say everything just right and hide my battles with fear from years ago.

There are Good Samaritan moments all over the place, and most of them, like my story, are uncomfortable to talk about. There are paths all over our lives that lead to people who need help. Sometimes it is the tug of youth that get me to notice someone lying in the road that I’m trying to avoid. This weekend, we take time to hear this parable again and look at our road and who God might be leading us to help.

Choosing Chores

Recently, Jacob said to me, “Dad you don’t have as much time for us because of Audrey right? I wish you had more time, but that will come right?” Second grade wisdom can be like a knife. Mindy and I grew up in big families, so if God allowed, we knew our family was going to be big. But as we grow and make decisions about how many kids to have, much of the deliberation for me has been about time. I want to make sure no kid gets left in the dust. I want to have time with each of them and take special time to care for them.

Adult life is funny. We grow up and just get to start making decisions. We decide where and what to eat, or what we are going to do on a Friday night. We are governed by our resources, and of course, the influence of how others say we should live. This can often translate into chores. There is a certain level of cleanliness in our homes taught to us by our family. We have expectations of what our house should look like when people come over. We have chores that are more important than others and must be done. We are making these decisions based upon need, systems we set up, or time we have available. Of course, our personal hobbies and activities play in there too, and sometimes people and relationships outweigh the dishes being done tonight vs. tomorrow.

Mary and Martha help us talk about something every family must deal with. There are people gifted in cleaning and cooking, and others gifted in caring for bills and the social calendar. We can get upset with one another when we don’t feel like that other person is pulling their weight. Jesus helps Martha see the value of what Mary is doing, and at the same time, He knows the work Martha is doing is important also. This brings us to a tension we have to manage. There are tensions we all manage where chores are equally as important as something else. This weekend we take time to break down the story of Mary and Martha and talk about the balance of life and chores.