Living As Witnesses

“‘You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.’ And when he had said these things, as they were looking on, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight” (Acts 1:8-10).

And with that, it was already different. Gone were those forty days with the resurrected Lord, who had walked in the midst of His people, revealing the defeat of death and the promise of the New Covenant. Jesus’s ascension into Heaven is a moment in the history of our faith that does not receive enough reflection. Yet, it is a pivotal moment because He continues to fulfill His promises, going to prepare a place for His people; to be the way, the truth, and the life, just as He once made clear to His disciples. Still, in that moment, Jesus spoke an important word, as important as any other that He has spoken, for He reminded those who followed Him that they were now to be His witnesses – living testimonies of the Gospel to their own city, to their surrounding neighbors, and eventually throughout the world.

Unusual Day, Beautiful Grace

Today was a day that, in many ways, started out like a great many do. I got up fairly early and got ready for work. As usual, I spent some time talking with my wife about the anticipated challenges and blessings of the day. We prayed together and off I went to my Monday through Friday job as a software engineer; a profession that I’ve worked for a quarter of a century, and the job that pays the bills and costs of living in New York, where I serve as a vicar.

Rest With Jesus

As we approach Memorial Day weekend the summer vacation season begins and many of our congregations’ families will be headed to the beach or some other destination. Yet what about your pastor? The summer gets busy with VBS, conventions, confirmations, and a whole host of other events that happen in the church. Is your pastor getting a break? Many pastors feel guilty taking time off or going on vacation. For a profession that has become increasingly more focused on pastoral care and support that doesn’t seem to be all that surprising. Most in the ministry feel so tightly connected to their ministries, and especially the people they serve, that they don’t want to miss a moment where they could have been helpful. This can all slide into a very dangerous and unhealthy pattern. 

Ministry to the Marginalized: The Gospel and Bonhoeffer's Ethics, part 1

It feels like Bonhoeffer’s Ethics, the unfinished magnum opus of the man martyred by the Nazis, is a working out of Luther’s dictum in On Christian Liberty. Namely that, “A Christian is a perfectly free lord of all, subject to none. A Christian is a perfectly dutiful servant of all, subject to all.” What I mean by this is that Bonhoeffer seems to have understood what Luther meant better than many other Lutherans of the twentieth century (and perhaps, better than most Lutherans in the twenty-first century). Part of the capitulation to the Third Reich by German Lutherans had to do with a weak theology of the life of a Christian. To be sure, the primal instinct to protect one’s self over and above all else was a motivating factor, but the established German Lutherans had no theological answer for Nazism. 

Why I Hate Most Christian Movies, but Love the Bible

For most of my adult life I’ve struggled with Christian movies. When the latest movie with Kirk Cameron comes out and people begin to ask me if I’ve seen it I start to squirm. Perhaps because I’m a pastor people think that I should like that sort of thing. When people ask me if I’ve seen the latest movie the Christian film industry is promoting I typically say “No,” and leave it at that. But in my head I’m thinking, “No, I haven’t seen that movie and Lord willing I never will.” I don’t like most Christian movies. (And while I’m getting things off my chest I might as well say that I don’t like most Christian music either). 

Book Review: Sculptor Spirit by Leopoldo A. Sánchez

For a long time, I sensed a limitation in the way that I spoke of the Holy Spirit and his role in the life of the church. I found myself going back to the same word formulations, the same images, which all seemed very static, inadequate, and ineffective. Whereas the doctrine of justification was central, sanctification was minimized if not completely overlooked. Though I wouldn’t have admitted it at the time, I had reduced the Holy Spirit to nothing more than a mere concept—a logical necessity. Several years ago, that all changed. I began to pay more attention to the Spirit—the way that I understood and regarded his work in the life of Christ and the life of the church—in a way that I never had before. For the very first time in my life, I saw the doctrine of the Holy Spirit come alive. It was the Spring of 2013, and I was sitting in the classroom of Dr. Leopoldo Sánchez. 

A Time To Heal

The past week has seen the passing of two giants of a bygone era of the Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod. The first is Herman Otten of New Haven, Missouri. Otten is infamous for his weekly newspaper Christian News that took many liberties regarding journalism and sourced material. The second death is Delbert Rossin, who founded the charismatic organization Renewal In Missouri (RIM). His impact is still felt to this day as the SET evaluation tool for seminarians and pastors includes questions regarding the charismatic movement. 

Cup of Judgment, Cup of Mercy: A Homiletical Reflection for Holy Thursday

We all know this story well, it is the story of the Last Supper. It is the story of, “On the night in which he was betrayed.” It is the story of Jesus instituting his supper, the one which we remember as often as we gather in his name. We also know that in the context of Luke’s gospel the institution of this supper was during the Passover meal. The Passover was and is not just about the Jewish people recalling what had happened to them as a people; it also was and is not just a mere sharing of folklore. The Passover was and is about bringing the past into the present. The Passover meal was and is about bringing the story to life in the midst of the people telling the story.

God Is Not Your Imaginary Friend

Though I don’t remember ever having one as a child, I do know that it’s not uncommon for young children to have imaginary friends. In fact, my daughter sometimes carries around her stuffed animals—each one has a name—and they take part in whatever activity she is doing at the time. If she wants a snack or a cup of water her stuffed animal wants the same. It seems to me that sometimes an imaginary friend can function as a companion of sorts—even one who shares the same likes and interests. Of course, this is all dictated by the child, and it is based on her own personal preferences.

It Doesn't Make Sense

“Truly, I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it.” To prepare for the reception of The Sacrament of the Altar, children in our congregation must take a class that allows them to gain a basic understanding of God, His promises, and the tangible signs of His grace known as the Sacraments, namely Baptism and the Holy Eucharist. Recently, we offered another set of classes and two young people are preparing to receive Holy Communion for the first time, which we will celebrate in the midst of our congregation during the liturgy of our Lord’s Resurrection on Easter Sunday. In this particular class, we have bright students who often ask insightful questions, seeking to deeply understand just what God has done for us and why it matters. As I’ve taught, I’ve found myself amazed at the depth of their questions, though they do not seem to perceive this. Rather, they are simply asking out of a desire to learn, a curious desire to inquire about the value of God’s promises, especially as we receive them through the gracious work of Jesus.

I'm Just Not Into The Culture Wars

In 2017, the abstract artist Makoto Fujimura wrote a book called, Culture Care. The idea behind the book for Makoto is that artists are called to be “border-stalkers” who hope “to speak into the hearts of all those who desire to seek the truth and fill the world again with beauty.” Makoto wrote this book in response to the never-ending culture wars that inflict the American scene. He believes that culture is part of what will be renewed in the new creation and so it should not be abandoned. The problem is so many who agree with the sentiment of non-abandonment spend all of their energy participating in conflict with the culture. Makoto believes artists (interestingly he includes pastors, among other Christians, in this category) are called to be generative within culture, instead of participating in degenerative activity. 

The Promise of Liturgy

Recently a Facebook ad came across my feed that was promoting Easter at a nearby church. It opened with the pastor saying that he didn’t want the viewer to be shocked that he would invite them to spend Easter at, of all places, a church. While that was strange enough he went on to say that the visitors would encounter only people who “want to love them” while then proclaiming they would not be fed politics—or any promises! While I am sure that was meant as a way to bridge across a barrier, to say on Easter “no promises” is troublesome. St. Paul says, “And if you are Christ's, then you are Abraham's offspring, heirs according to promise” (Gal 3:29). And, “This mystery is that the Gentiles are fellow heirs, members of the same body, and partakers of the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel” (Eph 3:6). To be honest I just typed in “promise” in the ESV online Bible and found over 140 references, many of which are in Paul related to faith in the resurrected Jesus and those two are just a couple examples. To say a church makes no promises makes a liar out of Paul and to put the best construction on it, perhaps a misstep in terms. 

Participation Trophies and the Righteousness of Every Generation

In 1989, Billy Joel released an album titled “Storm Front,” and with it came the track, “We Didn’t Start the Fire.” He begins in the year of his own birth, 1949, and runs through explosive headline after explosive headline, year by year, covering forty years worth of the stuff that happened in his lifetime. As a Billy Joel fan, I’ve heard him in interviews say that the song is kind of a defense of his own generation—the baby-boomers—who, from his perspective, were being blamed for all of the moral downfall of American society in the late 1980’s. As a millennial I can empathize with this. In fact, “We Didn’t Start the Fire” is my go to song for karaoke—and I don’t need to look at the lyrics. Of course, the chorus goes like this: “We didn't start the fire; it was always burning since the world's been turning; We didn't start the fire; no, we didn't light it, but we tried to fight it.” I like the song because I think it’s a remarkable expression of what I have begun to call collective intergenerational dysphoria

Unbroken Chain: The Faithful Forebearers

When I was younger, I remember making a radical discovery. I discovered that the Bible was not just a whole bunch of little, fascinating yet unconnected stories. Instead I learned that it was one giant story. I remember realizing that Adam, Abraham, Moses, David, Elijah, Peter, and Paul were all connected. The whole Bible was a great adventure about God saving his lost people, eventually by coming to save those people himself. From Genesis to Revelation, the Bible is all tied together as that great story, with Jesus at the center. This was a mind-blowing discovery. Hopefully it’s one that you have experienced yourself. But much later in life I had another mind blowing discovery. And that discovery was this: your story and my story are also not just little, fascinating but unconnected stories. Instead they are part of the same story.

The Long Walk Home

John’s gospel includes a gem of an account that speaks directly to our experiences of God’s delayed promises in the midst of present suffering. This gem is found in the fourth chapter and it is the second sign of Jesus that John records. Remember at the very end of his gospel John writes, “Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book; but these are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name” (John 20:30-31).

....And I Feel Fine

In September of 1987 (a year before I was born), the band R.E.M. released an album titled, “Document.” Side 1, track 6, of that album is a song called, “It’s the End of the World as We Know it (And I Feel Fine).”  It begins: “That's great, it starts with an earthquake; birds and snakes, and aeroplanes; and Lenny Bruce is not afraid.” The chorus eventually follows: “It's the end of the world as we know it; it's the end of the world as we know it; it's the end of the world as we know it …and I feel fine.” 

The Sacramental Church

In the preface to the late Robert Capon’s The Romance of the Word, he makes a few comments on the nature of a sacrament in the Christian church: “For Christians, a sacrament is not a transaction—not an operation that produces an effect that wasn’t there before.” [1] I take this too mean that the only thing required in order to make a sacrament effective is the giver of the sacrament. In this sense, the sacrament is a gift. It is a gift given and received, but its effectiveness is predicated on the giver.

The Confession of Ashes

The use of ashes on Ash Wednesday has become so common that even some non-liturgical congregations are known to creep into the local Catholic supply store and purchase them. Anymore the strangeness and old fashioned symbol of repentance and contrition is far from strange or obscure, that is unless you live in Appalachia. In this part of the country wearing ashes on Ash Wednesday is strange, it is different.

If You See Something, Say Something

“We need to be people of God who love our neighbors, care about our communities, and recognize that we are reminded to be imitators of Jesus in our earthly lives…[so] we might better prevent future tragedies within the church, especially ones rooted in sin that communicate our being the opposite of that which we are called to be by God.”