A Metaphor Might Help

Standard

I have just returned from my first Oregon Pastors Conference in Cannon Beach, Oregon. After 11 years of such retreats in Alaska, where the number of pastors was far fewer, I really didn’t know what to expect. It was good to catch up with friends, some from Seminary, some from ministry. I also met a number of people who were new to me and that was wonderful. The guest speaker offered some good insight into the text of St. John and the early work of the Church Fathers. In these things, the conference was beneficial but not challenging.

What was challenging to me was the state of so many of our churches in the Oregon conference. To say they are on the decline in numbers and effectiveness would be an understatement. If I had to venture a guess, in the next 10 years, a significant percentage of these churches will be extinct. I realize this isn’t news to anyone who has been following Jesus for any length of time. But to have it visibly displayed and openly discussed and admitted was eye-opening.

We are in that boat here in the Eugene/Springfield area of Oregon. There are six churches within 20 minutes of one another and five of those six are either vacant or being served only part time by men who ought to be enjoying true retirement. Only one of those churches is able to sustain a full-time pastor and only by the grace of God, that’s where I am. In the next 10 years, my estimate is that at least three of those six churches will be gone.

The question on everyone’s minds is “What can be done to stop that from happening?” The only real and honest answer is “God only knows.” For certain, there are things that churches around the country have been trying to do with varying degrees of success. Appealing to and bringing in younger families is one such answer. Another would be to change the worship style to better fit a “contemporary” mindset. Perhaps diversifying into the digital realm and using all of the social media platforms to promote the mission of the church would be helpful. Yes. No. Maybe. I don’t know.

I’ve had a couple of interesting conversations since moving here from the Far North. In one such encounter, a woman was walking her dog around our property which I always find fun. I try to introduce myself to the people as often as possible. In this particular exchange, the woman asked what sort of building this was. I asked her what she meant by that. She said responded by asking what is this place and what do we do here. I said that it was a church and we worship God and teach about the Bible. Her comment was, “I don’t know what that is, but it’s a nice building.” I invited her to come and find out more and to stop in next time she was walking her dog around. I haven’t seen her yet.

I found myself in a very strange place. I’m sure she isn’t the only one who walks or drives by our building and has no idea what it is. There are now generations of people in this area who are not hostile to church, but who simply have no idea what it is. I’ll be honest. It’s kind of exciting. But I’m not sure how to proceed with this knowledge. Maybe a word picture would help. Let’s use a sea-going metaphor seeing as how I just returned from the beautiful coast.

Picture a fishing boat out at sea. It’s a nice boat, fresh paint, friendly people fishing on the deep blue sea. As they are fishing, a person on a pool float drifts into view. They are a long way from any pool and the captain of the boat isn’t sure how this person got there. The pool floater looks up at the boat and says, “What are you all standing on? I’ve never seen such a thing.” Confused, the fishers look at one another and shout out to the person on the float, “This is a boat. It’s a vehicle used to bring us out to the fishing grounds. It has a motor and steering. Have you never heard of a boat before?” The pool person responds, “Nope. But yours is real nice.” With that, the person on the pool float drifts away as the current and tides move.

I realize metaphors are limited and sometimes absurd. But consider this one. Let it generate questions. Let it generate discussion. Let it move or not move you. It’s a metaphor.

 

Advertisements

Questions in the Garden

Standard

Genesis 3:7 Then the eyes of both were opened, and they knew that they were naked. And they sewed fig leaves together and made themselves loincloths.

The invasion of sin into the perfection of paradise is such a controversial topic. The timing of the events, the purpose and consequences, the why’s and how’s all serve to blast apart the serene vision of the beginning of all things. I can’t begin to answer all the questions, nor would I try, but there is some healthy discussion to be had here.

Why did God put the tree there in the first place? Because He’s God and that’s how he created things. I know that’s a snappy answer, but it’s true. He wanted to have the trees there and so he put them there. That’s really the only answer that we can give.

Shouldn’t He have known that when He told them not to eat it, they would want to eat it? When we’re told not to do something, a lot of the time we want to do exactly what we’re told not to do. You know what that’s called? Sin. You know what wasn’t in the Garden when God told them not to eat the fruit? Sin. So there was no reason for Him to worry about that.

Why did God allow the serpent to talk to Adam and Eve? Because He’s God and that’s what He allowed to happen. Look, anytime we ask a “why” question of God, our only real answer is “because He’s God.” We can’t venture into the mind of the Almighty and hope to come up with palatable answers for us puny humans. I know we don’t like it that way, but that’s the way it is.

When did sin get in? Martin Luther would say that the sin of Eve wasn’t disobedience in eating the fruit. The sin was the seed of disbelief and distrust of God that entered in as soon as the serpent spoke. The fruit wasn’t a magic apple like every Disney movie or fairy tale. The eating of the fruit was a consequence of the sin of disbelief and distrust and the opening of the eyes was a result of the eating. Sin, then, came in before the disobedience. The word of the serpent became, in Eve’s ears and Adam’s heart, more trustworthy than the Word of God.

God gave Adam and Eve free will. Didn’t He know they would choose to eat the fruit? I can’t find any where in the Genesis account where it says that God gave Adam and Eve free will. He created them, one from another, and placed them in the Garden to work it and tend it. He gave them the mandate to be fruitful and multiply. They had no need of free will because everything they needed was given to them. If free will enters into the world at all, it’s after sin, so then free will is connected to sin. Doesn’t sound like a good thing at all to me.

There’s much more to be said about all of this and I’m sure there are myriad questions that follow. But we’ll save that for another time and installment. For now, let’s chew on these for a bit and always keep in mind that hindsight is 20/20 and we can’t place our modern/post modern understandings of human behavior and God’s intentions against the Scriptures and people’s interactions back then.

It’s No Wonder

Standard

I recently attended a church fair at a local Christian college. It was a typical fair set up with tables and each church presenting themselves as opportunities for the students to connect. As was expected, most of the students didn’t pay much attention to the tables as they were getting their lunch and getting ready for class. Each table had swag and stuff to entice the students to check them out. There were give-aways for coffee and stickers and the usual stuff. There was even a table with a cotton candy machine.

Several of the tables were occupied by places that didn’t have “churchy” sounding names. I’m sure, like many of the non-denominational attempts to lure in the pre-churched, they were avoiding anything that might sound like church. In this town, it would be easy to confuse those places with the marijuana distributers because they all try to avoid saying what they really are. And it’s no wonder that students, even at a Christian college, are confused about church. If you are named “Salt” or “the Rock” you could be selling drugs or praising God. We don’t know.

Now, I’m not saying that every church should have a heavy handed name. Not every place can be the Orthodox Lutheran Church of the Good Shepherd in the Valley of the Shadow of Death and Resurrection. Imagine the size of the sign you would need. But at least that name tells you something. A name like “Summit” doesn’t say much.

I found the same confusion in chapel at the college as well. The worship was right out of the textbook of non-denominational, mega-church worship in 2002. Three songs sung with lilting loveliness and closed eyes followed by a prayer to “Father God, we just…” The pastor was a 50 something guy with a goatee and a tropical print polo, using words like “dude” and “whack” and other words that no one uses anymore. I thought to myself, if this is what we’re passing off as church or as Christianity to these students, it’s no wonder that the faith community is shrinking here in the Northwest.

It’s trite. It’s cute. There’s no need to invest. There’s nothing expected. It’s emotionally pandering and cotton candy.

I don’t have the answer to all the questions about student and campus ministry. I haven’t done much in that arena. Maybe I’m an armchair critic then and you can disregard what I’m saying as someone who doesn’t know what he’s talking about. I’m fine with that.

What I’m not fine with is selling our students short. Following Jesus comes with a lot of expectations. Being the church has a hard-fought legacy, a violent history, and incredible power. Cotton candy doesn’t cut it. If we want them to be part of what makes the church the church, we have to show them what that means.

Ok, I’ll step down off my soapbox now. Thanks.

What Can Be Said?

Standard

What can be said when you run out of things to say? When an illness once beaten returns with a vengeance and days on this earth grow short, what can you say? When unspeakable tragedy occurs in a split second changing the course of someone’s life forever, what can you say? When devastating disaster wreaks havoc in the lives of innocent people, what can you say?

I’m sure you could find a lot of words to say, but would any of them be right? The right words are elusive but wrong or patronizing words are easy to find. There are things that we could say that wouldn’t help anyone. They might make those who are saying them feel a little better for having at least said something, anything. They would be of no use to the one sitting in the midst of their pain.

The human experience called life is profound in its complexity just as the language of man is complex in its attempt to give words to the experience. Metaphor and analogy take the place of direct description when the human language simply cannot capture the experience. Simile tries to re-frame the ethereal into palatable or tangible bits, easier to digest. But words and language have limitations. What happens when the limits of language have been reached?

Perhaps this becomes a time when the adage “actions speak louder than words” comes into focus. The actions, the deeds, the works display what words cannot convey. These don’t have to be deeds of grand achievement or profound meaning. In fact, simple works speak volumes. A kind gesture of support and presence is a powerful thing. Sitting with someone and holding their hand can have an effect that a thousand words wouldn’t. Paying attention and listening to someone tell their story is infinitely more helpful than spouting platitudes of pithy sayings, even from the most well-meaning of hearts.

What can be said when you run out of things to say? Nothing can be said. It’s then when something needs to be done.

How to Listen to a Sermon

Standard

Every Sunday, the pastor stands in front of the congregation proclaiming the Word of the Lord. There is a lot that goes into the preparation of the sermon. Study in the Word, sometimes in the Greek, Hebrew, or Latin languages. Thoughtful prayer and meditation on the texts for the week are a part of the process. The crafting of a sermon takes time, prayer, and wrestling with the right words to share the Word. If the pastor is paying attention, then an awesome fear and reverence accompanies him into the task of proclaiming the Law and Gospel of Jesus to a group of sinner saints at a Sunday service.

But what does the listener bring to the table during the sermon? How can the pastor and people work together, along with the Holy Spirit to bring ears to hear what the Lord has to say?

  • Approach the sermon with an open heart and mind to what God has to say through the called servant delivering the message. There is a prayer in the front of our Lutheran Service Book entitled “For blessing on the Word.” Pray that prayer before the beginning of service or even as the pastor is preparing to preach.
  • Read the Scriptures ahead of time, even a week before if you know what they will be. Familiarize yourself with the Word being proclaimed. Being in the Word regularly is not only good preparation for hearing a sermon, it’s also good for the building up of your faith every day.
  • Be aware of your posture and mood as the sermon begins. Are you sitting with arms crossed and face frowning or are you soft and open ready to receive the gift that God has for you?
  • Take notes or jot down passing thoughts as the sermon progresses. What are you hearing differently or perhaps for the first time? What is the new thing that God is doing?
  • Expect to see and hear Jesus in the sermon. This isn’t necessarily a content thing, though a Lutheran preacher ought to have Jesus at the center of the sermon. But simply expect, in a positive way, to see and hear Jesus in the sermon. He’s there with you in the midst of the congregation. Look for him.
  • Finally, pray for your pastor. It is no small task to deliver the message of God to His people. God has raised up and called preachers throughout time to share the Gospel. Your pastor joins the ranks of the prophets and patriarchs in proclaiming the powerful Word of Christ.

Hopefully some of these things will help you as you listen to another sermon on Sunday. Keep in mind that Jesus is there for you in the Word of his preachers. He or she who has ears, let them hear.

Beginning and End

Standard

A fresh start

A bitter end

The tiniest of all

New

A cry so pitiful and yet precious

A head without hair

A head without hair

Tears from a lifetime of pain

Diminished in body but not in spirit

A bitter end

A fresh start

Enjoy the Blessings of God

Standard

This is the day that the Lord has made. We will rejoice and be glad in it.

Do you remember that Sunday School ditty? That’s what I want to do today. Rejoice and be glad in the day that God has made. It’s easy to do when it’s 70 degrees, blue sky, sun shining, green grass and trees. It’s not as easy to do when there is another winter storm warning or more snow on the way.

There’s a saying about whistling in the dark. The idea is that you find yourself in a bad situation and so you attempt to endure by singing or whistling or some other distraction. I believe that parts of God’s word are designed to do that. They are the whistlings in the dark.

Your word is a lamp to my feet and light to my path.

The Lord is my shepherd. I shall not want.

Oh give thanks to the Lord for He is good and His steadfast love endures forever.

Whether the day is bright and warm or dark and cold, the word of God can be whistled or sung if you prefer. You have a hymn in your heart somewhere. Dig deep and find it. Then whistle in the dark or in the day or while you work.

Great is the Lord and greatly to be praised!