Thursday, September 29, 2016

Discipleship Go: Worship 1

  I just don’t think that a shirt like that was doing anything to get across the concept of loving our neighbor, but rather separating us further. And by separating ourselves, we might never get a shot at witnessing to certain people. I get that people were expressing their faith by wearing these t-shirts, but I wonder if it really had the desired effect.
I have never been a fan of cheezy Christian T-shirts that are a spin off of some current trend. One from the past I most despised was, “A bread crumb and fish,” which was ripping off “Abercrombie and Fitch.” Yes, I worked there and had some of their clothes, but that wasn’t the reason I disliked it.

I say all this because I am cautious about ripping off current cultural ideas for a sermon series. If I do barrow the trend, I want to make sure we are not making fun of the idea, but seeing the positive in it. If we can connect what is positive and see how it fits with our desire to share the faith, it can be a great idea.

So, this month’s theme is Discipleship GO taken from the Pokémon GO trend right now. Forgive my explanation if you are familiar with it, but for those who aren’t, Pokémon GO is an app for your phone or tablet that has you going all around the city looking for different Pokémon characters. It has led many Pokémon GO players to church parking lots because they are open spaces, which are good for finding characters and holding virtual battles. The main thing this app did was reignite the passion of the Pokémon community. Pokémon came back on the radar after many years of silence. This type of product revival is not a new concept. I learned about it in marketing class, and it happens all the time. Sometimes products have a good season, but then you have to dream up a new concept or way to use the product to help them come back on the radar.

We know the church and the Word of God will always be alive and relevant. At the same time, we know culture will continue to go in a direction that may take it off peoples’ radar. As we fight to make sure people are aware of God and know who Jesus is, we really want them to see their need for Jesus. This is very fitting with the concept of the Pokémon GO trend. We want people to be passionate about seeking out Jesus! We want them to come alive again and reignite their desire for a closer relationship with their Savior! This is why this series is called Discipleship GO!

Personally, what are the areas you continue to work on everyday to grow as a disciple of Christ? As a church, we have been talking about four specific areas to grow in for several years now: Worship 1, Love 1, Read 1, and Pray 1. We begin with Worship 1 and ask ourselves, “In this current world, how do we make Worship 1 a priority again & reignite that passion?” This week our Romans passage emphasizes that it is a blessing to worship Jesus. It is easy to lose the importance of worship in our crazy world, but worship provides a place to receive forgiveness, grow with others as the body of Christ, and to receive rest as we hear the Word and receive His sacraments. This week we take time to see how worship begins our Discipleship GO journey.

Electing Values Elected: Service

In all of my time in ministry, my absolute favorite place to serve Jesus has been in Belize. There are many aspects I loved about my trip to Belize. First, I was able to experience it with my friends during my final year of seminary. We fell in love with the country together as we shared many special moments. Secondly, it was a place where people were excited to hear about Jesus. And finally, it seemed like a dream to be in this beautiful place in the world serving Jesus. I had a college seminary professor who once said we should all move to the beach, read Greek, and serve Jesus.

The first time I was in Belize I met a man and his wife who left their lives in America to move to Belize for retirement. It sounded like the perfect plan—after you have lived your life, go someplace beautiful to spend the rest of your days. Not to mention all the people you could share Jesus with in that new place.  It sounded like a plan I wanted to live out as well.

Now years later, I haven’t given up on that dream, but I’m more realistic. God has allowed me to be a city kid, one who has grown up in the suburbs of the cities in America. Along the way, He has shown me how small to medium-sized churches work. While I may have my own ideas of where I want to serve, in the quiet moments of life I take time to ask Jesus to lead me to my next place to serve according to His plan. Maybe one day He will fulfill my dream of serving in Belize, but if not, I know He knows best.  I have lived enough to know that sometimes my dreams are not the best for me, and end up in disaster.

My whole ministry, I have tried to help people develop a desire to serve, while looking for the opportunities to serve within the context of the situation. Blending these two focuses together can be quite challenging. Yet, in our current culture, service is one of the key ways people connect with the church. People have a passion for service, perhaps more than in years past. This will only continue to get stronger with our younger generations. So, how do we find areas to serve that fulfill us and yet serves our community? How do we invite new people into our acts of service so they can hear the words of Jesus too?

In our final week of this series, we lift up the value of service. We say it every week—Ordinary People…Extraordinary Servants…Now Go B1. The B1 model was built to help discipleship happen in our lives. (Next month we will talk about those elements again.) One area of discipleship that pairs up with our values is service—Love 1. Yet we wrestle with what kind of service to do, what our community needs, and connecting our passion with that service. This week in our reading, John talks about encouraging the people who are walking in truth, and then encouraging them to love one another. He wants them (and us) to serve and love others in real ways, ways they can see the love of Jesus. By fitting the service with our passions, we can speak love in our context and to our community.

Psalm 37:4 has always been a favorite verse for me on this topic.  It says, “Delight yourself in the Lord, and he will give you the desires of your heart.” God will give me the desires of my heart, but I have learned that sometimes He changes my heart to match His desires. Which one is it for you today?  

Electing Values Elected: Intentional Relationships

College taught me a lot about intentional relationships. It was the first time I was truly able to have control in my relationships. Sure, kindergarten through high school I had friends and was not forced to be friends with certain people, but I certainly had a limited number of places I could pull from. I had friends I went camping with, and ones I would hang out with on Friday night, and yet we don’t talk anymore. Our only contact is that we can see each other’s updates on Facebook. Sad, right? Well, I never really chose those friends; they were just there.

Starting off in college I was put into a dorm, therefore those guys became my “friends.” Most of them had different interests than me, but that was where I was placed. As a freshman, I was also learning to navigate through this odd experience of being in control of my choices. I decided what to do on a Friday night and who to hang out with. As time passed I was drawn to other people with whom I shared more in common. By my sophomore year I was more settled, confidant in who I was, and establishing friendships that would stick with me for life.

As I was writing this blog, my best friend from college called. We met sophomore year and had common interests in music, faith, and sports. Music still bonds us as we talk about new albums coming out. It was once easy for us to be friends. We could just walk across campus and hang out.  In our final year of school we even lived together. Our friendship has lasted a long time, but it hasn’t been easy.  We had our seasons we had to work at, like when I was in Seminary and he was in the Marines, or when I was married and he was still single. During those times we had to talk about how our friendship would survive. For a long time we called each other at least weekly. On vicarage, he came to see me. As life got busy, we intentionally had to focus on the relationship to stay friends. We had to be intentional about how to connect.

In college this wasn’t hard for me.  I didn’t consider it work. I connected with people that had similar interests and we hung out. If the relationship didn’t fit common criteria I had chosen, then it just naturally drifted away. But as an adult, I’m not surrounded by hundreds of people going through a similar experience, so I must make intentional decisions. What was once easy now became hard.  And to make matters worse, I got married. (Oh come on. I bragged on her last week; a quick shot is ok.) The only reason it is worse is because my wife brought her way of making friendships into our relationship, and we are much different in this aspect. This brought me to a shocking conclusion – I cannot have intentional relationships with everyone I want to. Maybe I should have realized this was the natural progression of things, since I’ve been through enough broken hearts in my life. I juggled my friends like spinning plates. I wanted to evenly keep up with all of them. As marriage and ministry came, I realized this was just not feasible. Then I threw kids into the mix.

One of the most powerful moments of realization came at the end of my vicarage. There was a husband/wife couple I became good friends with. We hung out every single week. This is very typical of my extroverted nature, to find friends and grow close fast. When I left, the husband asked me what our friendship would look like now, and I said, “When we see each other it will be like I never left, but in the meantime, it may feel distant.” His wife and I had a much different conversation. I was sharing with them how I was going to play basketball for the Seminary team, and she was almost arguing with me that I would not have enough time to do that. What she was implying is how I was not going to have time for them now. This may seem odd at first, but it has everything to do with intentional relationships. I was the one who left, and their world changed. She was hurting, and wondered if it would ever be the same.

John knew he had groups of people God had allowed him to connect with. He had groups of people he could build intentional relationships with. Sometimes we bite off more than we can chew, and have so many relationships that it is too much to handle. Sometimes it is the reverse, and we lack patience in seeing if a relationship will develop. Either way, it is absolutely for certain that God knows relationships are important in our lives. He built us to seek them out. The word “intentional” can even mean praying for friendships and relationships. I know that may sound like something only someone who is “weak” would do. The truth is, Jesus is in my relationships, and as we walk through life with other people, we see Jesus work in them and us. John was also intentional about asking God about the details of those relationships. We take time to ask ourselves questions about who God is putting in our lives to build an intentional relationship with. It may not be the people we think, and therefore at times it can be scary. But just like anything in this life, when we see Jesus guide and direct an area, we see Him show up, and it is much better than we could have humanly ever imagined.

Thursday, September 8, 2016

Electing Values Elected: Caring

I often tell people that there are two jobs in life we all think we know how to do: marriage and parenting. This leads to funny conversations with friends because most of the time we try and figure out how the other person handles their marriage and how they raise their kids. If we see really good kids, we ask them what they do. This happened to me a few weeks ago when a friend of mine told me his wife still wants more kids but he doesn’t know how to live life and parent more kids. He said to me, “Will, how do you do it?” (We are going to meet later this month to discuss things I have learned.)

I must give credit where credit is due. Mindy is fabulous at helping my kids behave in church, respect others, and be considerate. One of her specialties is helping the kids say thank you, especially to me. You heard me right.  If we take the kids to the park, or out for ice cream or some other activity, they are taught to thank even me. Now, why in the world would they thank me? The answer is simple: it is a gift that they receive out of care and love.  They are being taught not to assume that I should do this for them. We rarely think about it, but the attitude of assuming things will be done for us is where entitlement begins. It starts simply by thinking that parents should do things for their kids, i.e. you are supposed to get me new clothes because you are my parent. If we are honest with ourselves, we see that sin leads parents to want to be selfish. Just look at the examples you have seen in the news of parents who have abandoned their families or have fallen into an addiction that makes them absent. Sin leads us down the path of pulling away from the gifts God has given parents (their children) and the responsibilities that come with those gifts. But as parents grow in Jesus, they can see how parenthood is really a gift.

Sometimes we forget to remind our kids that it is also a gift that our most basic needs are provided for us. Martin Luther reminds us of this in the explanation to the Lord’s Prayer in the Small Catechism as he tells us to be thankful for our “daily bread,” which includes “food, drink, clothing, shoes, house, home, land, animals, money goods, a devout husband/wife, devout children, etc.” This is a lesson even the children of Israel had to relearn, as they complained to God about so many things in the desert, even going so far as to say they wished they were back in slavery. Mindy’s practice to help my kids be thankful for every tiny thing in life is brilliant. It is teaching that all good gifts come from God, and that if you have a parent thinking of you, that is a blessing. My kids’ eyes are open to the tiniest gifts in life, and I get to watch that translate into their dialogue with others.

Does this same problem of entitlement permeate other areas of life? I believe so.  I believe caregivers are a highly abused group of people. Want proof?  Think about how churches are abused by social ministry. A church, a group of people who love Jesus and want to help, can be abused by a needy person taking advantage of the system. How do we know which story is true and which is false? There is an assumption, just like with children and parents, that this is what churches are supposed to do. I’ve even had people say that to me, that we are supposed to help them because we are a church. Sin has caused us to feel entitled and selfish, and therefore we abuse those who care for us.

This week we talk about caring. Unlike the other weeks, I start this with more of a cautionary word as opposed to a push to think how we could care more. That cautionary word brings us to care in very powerful ways. This is one area that, if we had the eyes of Jesus, it would be much easier to know who needs care and who doesn’t. Yet, we have to be careful not to fall on the other side and get so disenchanted we don’t want to care about anyone. This week the little Johns (2 John) talk about care, but also acknowledges the deceivers. This helps as we use the gifts God has given us to care for others, but also to take time to learn who needs that care and where our gifts can be best served.

Electing Values Elected: Welcoming

A few days ago I went to a pastors event at Concordia Seminary. Those can be interesting, especially the initial entrance and greeting. I know enough people from the area that it can be difficult to decide who I greet first? Other times I wonder who will greet me & just how will all this play out? At this particular event, a pastor that I knew from my time at the Seminary came up and started talking to me. We were not overly close back then, but we talked a lot that day about our churches. It was a nice conversation. I had heard about a Call he received recently so I was able to ask him about that too. It was nice to be greeted so kindly by someone, especially since I was feeling a little out of my skin that day for some reason.

Did you know that on our website you can send us a prayer request or note? Just recently, Janis Wendt Risch sent us a note talking about her family and her memories here at Mt. Calvary where she grew up. She even mentioned that her mother helped make some of the church’s vestments. It was such a kind note. It was like the culture of this church had impacted her, and the welcoming community was something she wanted to reconnect with and just send us a note to touch base.

This week we begin a new series called Electing Values Elected. I know all these tenses seem mixed up. In this case, I felt it was important to acknowledge both the past tense (elected) and the present participle (electing). We already elected the values we will discuss this month (past), but we also actively elect to display these values every day (present). As a church, we have said these values are important, but if we don’t keep acting on them, we lose the focus and benefit of them. In our Scripture readings this month, we will spend time in the little books of John (1, 2 & 3 John). Our verse today from 3rd John acknowledges both the special way being welcomed can impact others, but also the impact that not being welcoming can have on a community. We’ll take time to unpack all of this.

In a culture so connected by technology, a human welcome is a pleasant & necessary part of interacting. People notice how a human welcome can touch their lives in so many ways. At Mt. Calvary, acknowledging it and making it a priority it is something God has gifted us with. Now we seek His direction and ask how we can continue to nurture it.

Lutheran Love: Music

I have to admit that I hated pop Christian music. (Notice how I avoided the word “contemporary” because I’m not talking about the music used for worship.) Yes, I said I hated it. I felt like there was a Christian minor league in music that had made it to the majors without someone checking and working out the basics. It was like someone felt bad for these musicians so they were not critiqued with the same expectations of the world. Christian music felt like the kid my parents forced me to play with. Everyone was on a mission to end my enjoyment of a wide variety of music. My confirmation teachers, youth directors, and my dad spent so much time worrying about the CDs in my disc man (a small portable CD player - sorry to the young people that “skipped” this stage). ;) Did they really think that a song or two was going to destroy my thoughts, and therefore make me switch over to the dark side? Maybe if they spent more time teaching techniques to read God’s Word on a daily basis it would have counteracted the evils music was doing to my brain. I was so afraid to become like my mom and uncles who had succumb to the mediocrity of music, and only kept pop Christian music in their cars (sorry mom). I wondered when I would become old, boring, and uncultured like them, and replace all my CD’s with Christian CDs (sorry again mom). My dad got his way though, and broke all my CDs he deemed damaging for my faith life. Trust me, that legalism did nothing to increase my faith.

They did get through to me though. I was convinced that rock and roll was from the devil. I refused to listen to bands with a lot of guitars, and decided that R&B was a safe alternative so I didn’t have to listen only to Christian music. I know, great choice.  It was oh so much better listening to music full of sexual content versus a wider life perspective that was probably sung about in rock and roll.

Before you think I have gone off the deep end, that I’m not choosing my words carefully, or that I need counseling (ok, I do need counseling, and maybe my counselor and I should spend more time on music now that I think about it), let me just say that I am passionate about music. Did you guess that? Music has shaped me into who I am today.  There is a place in life I go to in music unlike any other. In fact, I am listening to music as I write this…and even a few Christian songs came on. ;)

I want to assure you, whether you are reading this and attend Mt. Calvary or another church, your pastor and leadership teams have wrestled with this. No matter their age, and whether the Beatles were from the devil, or Marilyn Manson, or Katy Perry (whose dad is a preacher, I believe, so imagine her personal struggle), they have had to process music. They have had to ask tough questions like what is good for me to listen to, and then an even harder question, what music is best for my congregation? Trust me, it is hard enough to figure out what we want music to look like in our own life without trying to figure out what would be best for a group of people. If you are thinking that the answer is to just use hymns, it is not that simple. I bet I can give you a service full of hymns that would be painful to sing because people don’t know them. Wait, I’ve done that before, just ask the people of Mt. Calvary what happened when I had to pick hymns by myself.

Music is all over scripture, but undefined. It’s funny how God does that. There isn’t a Greek or Hebrew translation of the Bible that gives us a perfect vision of what music we need to be listening to or playing in our churches. I can’t leave a series where we have lifted up the great things about the LCMS without talking about our careful attention to law and gospel to help shape the words in the music we want our people to hear. I remember one song we used to sing during a worship time in college where we consciously changed the words from, “what you have required,” to “what you have desired.” A simple change, but exactly what we are talking about with language. There is danger in a song that includes legalistic action being required for heaven. We don’t want our people to hear and learn that. Music is an important part of our worship service, and it’s beneficial that we wrestle with it and ask what is best for our congregation and the culture surrounding us, alongside of what historically has been the benefit of the music we have used.

A few weeks ago on my drive home from the lake, I set my Apple music station on my iPhone to an old R&B song I used to listen to. This caused me to dive into some of my old favorites, even some I used to listen to on repeat. As an adult, I can admit that maybe some of that music shaped me to have an unhealthy focus on getting married. After years of listening to the sexual content, knowing that it was not right to act on it outside of marriage, my focus became hurry up and get married. This is why teaching and discussion can help us see the pros and the cons of the activities we chose in life, and how it can help or hurt our discipleship walk.

In 2016, pop Christian music has changed dramatically. It has gotten a lot better. There are bands I love. Some of my favorite music is from singer/song writers who are Christian but don’t sign with a Christian label, and therefore they sing about many of life’s topics. My passion for music is something I know God built in me to help our Lutheran and Christian culture wrestle with this topic. I have no clue what music will be in heaven, but I know one thing, it will be there and it is going to rock!