Monday, February 27, 2012

Following God in Our Lives

The Old Testament reading for yesterday, the 1st Sunday in Lent, was the story of Abraham and the sacrifice of Isaac found in Genesis 22. If you are not familiar with that story, you might take a few minutes to read it before you go on with what I am going to say. I preached on the OT lesson yesterday, focusing on "The Lamb," Christ Jesus who is the atoning sacrifice, the substitute for us and our sins, even as the ram was the substitute for Isaac. Powerful message from the Word of God.

But there was a question that often comes out from that reading, one which we didn't deal with in the sermon. (Nor could we deal with it since it is one that suits better for a study or a discussion.) How can God make such a demand upon Abraham? How could He ask for the sacrifice of Isaac? After all, human sacrifice is a detestable thing, even as we see from later history of the people of Israel.

The answer is not found in the outcome, for Abraham did not know the outcome before it happened. The answer is found in God Himself. As much as we do not like it, God does not have to answer our question.(What! What do you mean He doesn't have to answer our question! He HAS to!) As a parent does not need to give a reason to the child, more than "because I told you to do it," neither does God have to answer our question. Like the sinful child who huffs at the parent, we huff at God and pout because we have no way to force Him to answer us.

This leads us to one of two outcomes:
1) Faith - I trust God to know and do what is right even when i don't understand what He is doing or why it is happening. I accept His direction for my life - and for all the questions that I have no answer for.
2) Despise faith - I don't trust God to know and do what is right. I refuse to follow Him until I get my questions answered to my satisfaction.

What would we say of a child who becomes angry at the parent who doesn't give an answer? Trust the parent to know what is best for you. And when they don't trust the parent, we shrug our shoulders and say, "The problem is not the parent but the child."

So it is for us. The problem in this situation is not God but us - who wish to control all that God does - so we demand to have answers which God does not need to give us. He asks us to hear, trust and believe (faith in action) and to follow and do His will.

Abraham shows us that focus - it would have been easy for him to complain, to bring forward the "I don't understand how..." argument, to focus on his thoughts and desires to the detriment of God's desires. But instead he acts in faith. Was it easy? No way! It is not easy to act in faith - for faith is being certain of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see.
For Abraham: 1) God promised a Messiah. 2) God said ti would be through Isaac. 3) God said to sacrifice Isaac. 4) Trust God or don't trust God. 5) This is where it gets really tough. We have 3 choices: a) to believe and follow; b) to believe but not to follow which means in the end that I don't really believe; c) to not believe and to not follow.

Faith is complicated and can get really messy. Yet faith is just that - faith. Trust God or don't trust God. Follow God or don't follow God. (Understand? No you won't. You can't. So it comes down to those choices.) Messy? Yes. Simple? Yes. Easy? No!

Abraham trust God, follows with his life and actions. We trust God - do we follow with our lives and our actions? Does your faith say one thing and your actions another? This is the challenge of faith for us. And it is not so easy.

But it wasn't easy for Abraham either - probably harder than you and I have ever had in our lives. Though there are some who have faced critical moments in their lives. The death of a child or a spouse - trust God or walk away? The loss of financial solvency - trust God or walk away? The unanswered prayer - trust God or walk away?

Faith in action. It is absolutely overwhelming to trust and follow God when we have no easy answer and we don't understand. How could Abraham do this thing? Only but faith, deep faith that God is God and it calls for total, complete trust and faith in Him.

Total and complete trust and faith in God - that is what it comes down to.

Saturday, February 25, 2012

Continued thoughts on worship

I love the liturgy. After my last blog you might wonder about that, but I do love the liturgy. I was looking at a free book I received today called, "Engaged" which is about how to make worship much more meaningful for the worshipers. As I looked through the book (and I doubt seriously if I read it) all I could do was shake my head. One thing it recommended (are you ready for this?) is to plan the worship ahead of time and make the music, the message, the readings 9if you use them, duh!) and all those other things of worship come together in a focused theme. WOW! That is amazing insight. But wait a minute, that is what the LC-MS has been doing for years. that is what I was taught back in the 80's when I attended Concordia Seminary, St. Louis. That is what I have been practicing for the last 25 years. It isn't a surprise to me that planning worship in advance makes for worship to be more meaningful for those who come to the service.

The wonder of the liturgy is that it keeps us focused, directed and moving towards the life that God would have us live rather than just a good feeling that lasts until you make it to Cracker Barrel for Sunday brunch. The liturgy that I follow is that which comes from the Lutheran Service Book (or from the Lutheran Hymnal in years past and Hymnal Supplement 98 at Ferrin and Altamont). Why do I use the hymnbooks? Because they give me guidance and are worthwhile when it comes to planning and leading worship.

Am I stuck in the hymnbooks? Nope. I find that I can move outside of the hymnbooks and write an order of service that is very meaningful and very confessional and also very doctrinally sound. I do not believe that I stray from that which I agreed when I was ordained into the ministry. I do not leave behind my confessional status nor my desire to be faithful to the Word of God and the doctrine of the LC-MS. I have written services for both traditional worship and blended worship. I have never written a true contemporary service as I am too Lutheran to give up that which I know is faithful to the doctrine and practice of the Lutheran Church. Is that because you can't do contemporary worship as a Lutheran? Nope again. There are some really faithful Lutheran Churches doing contemporary worship. (To be honest, there are some Lutheran Churches doing a terrible job with contemporary worship. At the same time, there are some Lutheran Churches doing a terrible job with traditional worship.)

I do believe that the Lutheran Church - Missouri Synod is facing some challenging times when it comes to worship. Not because the contemporary, "liberal" people are pushing hard to do away with things but because the traditional, "confessional" people are pushing hard to bring out the Roman style of worship. Perhaps that isn't a fair statement, but that is my read on it. We are having the high church shoved down our throats at every turn, and I do believe that if it doesn't back off a little, allowing the local congregation and the pastor to worship as best fits their situation, there will be serious backlash. Much like I do believe that this current direction is a backlash against those who pushing to do away with traditional, liturgical worship.

More thoughts to come.

Thursday, February 23, 2012


Yesterday was Ash Wednesday. It is the beginning of the Lenten season, a penitental season where we focus our attention on what we deserve because of our sinfulness and what Christ Jesus did for us through His Passion. The focus is to be upon our Lord, not upon us. That is important to remember - the focus is upon Him and His Passion. It seems that the focus of Lent has been changing to be upon us and upon our actions. How pious can you be? Can you out repent the next guy? Are you "really" more penitent than me? I need to work at being more sorry, more sinful and more active in showing that I am both sinful and sorry.

All right, maybe that is an overstatement. And perhaps I am judging others when I need to take the log out of my own eye. If you think you are sinful, let me tell you about how sinful I am...wait a minute, I have just slipped into that very thing that gets my goat. It is so easy to do. We make our penitental activity something for others to see, to take part in, and to be amazed at.

I read the Gospel reading for Ash Wednesday. And I understood where the Lutheran Church was coming from for so many years. It also made me wonder where the Lutheran Church is going in these recent years. "Beware of practicing your righteousness before other people in order to be seen by them, for then you will have no reward from your Father who is in heaven...And, when you fast, do not look gloomey like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces that their fasting may be seen by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, that your fasting may not be seen by others but by your Father who is in secret. And your Father who see in secret will reward you." (Matthew 6:1, 16-18 ESV) The Lutheran Church - Missouri Synod I grew up in, that I was confirmed in, that I studied in, that I spent time at Concordia Seminary, St Louis and that I have ministered in, has not been one given to the outward signs that were a part of other churches.

I guess what has gotten me is the whole imposition of ashes. It is a fine outward action - but when did it become the Lutheran action? I know that there will be those who point to Luther and say, "He did it." But those will be the same ones that are moving our church backward into more of a Roman point of view in practice rather than remaining Lutheran in practice. I can hear the firestorm that will hit because of that statement. But I am not Roman or Orthodox. I am Lutheran. I do not enjoy the high church, mega-liturgy, ultra chanting type of worship. Neither do I get any spiritual uplifting from the imposition of ashes. I can remember be taught by Rev. Kaeding that such outward signs are nothing more than pious actions meant to point the person to themselves and their actions rather than to the Lord Jesus Christ and His actions. And as I listened to all the talk about ashes yesterday, I kept wondering, what is happening to the Lutheran Church? Is the pendulum swinging so far the opposite direction (away from the "free-wheeling, throw out the liturgy, fire up the Praise Team and let's be like the non-denominational mega-churches because that is how we will get people in the door" type of worship) that we are looking more Roman than Lutheran?

Now I know there is nothing wrong with such things. Vestments are great. The Luthean Church is not part of the radical reformation that sought to get rid of vestments, liturgy, chanting, etc. But for years the Lutheran Church was not one that tended to the high-church, Roman vestment type of worship. The Gospel procession, the incense and all the other actions that just reek of Romanism sets my teeth on edge.

What happened to the Lutheran Church I grew up in? What happened to the Lutheran Church I was trained to be a pastor in? Is that so bad? I know that some will point to the fact that there are people who greatly appreciate the Roman style of worship (as long as it is made Lutheran in theology). But isn't that the same argument that was used for the left-leaning non-liturgical worship of the 80's and 90's that lead us into this ultra-liturgical time of the 21st century? It is Lutheran in substance while it is something else in style. Why was it wrong for the "liberal" set and right for the "conservative" set?

In the end, I guess I feel that I am having the ashes and all the other stuff rammed down my throat and I am supposed to like it. For if I don't accept it and like it then I am seen as being less than true, confessional, liturgical Lutheran. But that isn't true. The joy of being a Lutheran is that even if I don't use ashes, even if I don't chant and bow at just the right times, even if I don't wear the chausible and all the other stuff, I am still Lutheran, devoutly, confessionally Lutheran.

Enough said. Or perhaps I will ramble on this again. Who knows?

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Fat Tuesday or What are you giving up for Lent?

So today is Fat Tuesday, Mardi Gras, Shrove Tuesday or just plain the Tuesday before Ash Wednesday. That brings up the question, "What are you giving up for Lent?" Now for some of you, this is a shocking question. You might think, "I am not Catholic. I don't have to give something up for Lent." And you would be correct. You don't have to give something up for Lent. You and I could go through Lent without ever giving up a single thing. In fact, I grew up in the Lutheran Church, in a family that never gave up anything for Lent. And we were just as blessed during the season of Lent as those who gave up something.

Why give up something for Lent? It is a spiritual discipline. It is an opportunity to discipline the body, mind and spirit. It is as though you are saying, "I am not going to allow this thing (whatever it is) rule my life. Instead, I will let Christ rule my life." And then each time you desire that thing (whatever it is), you meditate on your sinfulness, you desire for it, and then focus on Christ, what He has done for you, how He has died for you, how He has overcome that desire for you. Then standing in Christ, in His power and Word, you go about your day trusting in and living for Christ.

What does that mean for me? It means that when you think about giving up something for Lent, it really should be a vice, a sinful desire or something that is ruling you life at the moment. For me to give up smoking is a non-issue because I don't smoke. I also don't need to give up drinking for that is a non-issue as well. But overeating? Or the desire for chocolate. Man, that is more of a challenge because I love to eat and I really love chocolate. But wait a moment, I haven't been eating much chocolate because of the way I have changed eating due to health issues. So that wouldn't even be an issue. Maybe overeating, but even that changed after the gall bladder and heart issues.

So what could I give up for Lent? I am not going to tell you. Why? Because that is another aspect of this spiritual discipline. It isn't for bragging about to another person. It isn't meant for you to hold it out in front of others and show how "spiritual" and "pious" you are by what you are doing. Instead it should be a personal, private issue between you and the Lord. I take to heart the message of the Gospel reading for Ash Wednesday, "And when you fast, do not look gloomy like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces that their fasting may be seen by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face that your fasting may not be seen by others but by your Father who is in secret." (Matthew 6:16-18a ESV) Fasting (or giving something up for Lent) is a personal spiritual discipline that is between you and your heavenly Father.

Do I give up something for Lent? Yes I do. Not out of obligation but out of training the body. I will not be ruled by my body or my some sinful desire. Is it required of us as Christian? As Lutherans? No it isn't. You are no less a Christian or a Lutheran if you give up nothing for Lent. You are no greater a Christian or a Lutheran if you do give up something for Lent.

I might talk about this more in another blog. For now, let me ask you, "Are you giving up something for Lent?" Focus your attention on the action of your Lord for you and let your discipline take you to Christ alone.