Monday, March 15, 2010

Enjoying the Miserable Stuff

If you are a surgeon, people are bound to die on your operating table.  And when that happens, you're gonna hafta tell their families that those people are dead.  It's a part of your job.  And it needs to be done.  But if this is the part of your job that you really enjoy, you should probably not be a surgeon.  If you burst out of the operating room, excited to tell Harriet about how you watched Merle's heart stop beating with your own two eyes, you don't really understand what it means to be in the business of saving lives.  If you went to medical school because your heart was warmed by the thought of telling people that their loved ones have kicked the bucket, you are messed up in the head.

And the same thing goes for being a pastor.  When it comes to being a pastor, people are bound to sin.  And when that happens, you're bound by God to preach the Law.  You are required to preach His word of condemnation, His word of wrath.  When people turn away from the One who bled for our salvation, you must tell them that they will not taste an ounce of that same salvation if they do not repent.  This is part of your job.  It needs to be done.  But if this is the part of your job that you really enjoy, you should probably not be a pastor.  If you ascend into the pulpit and just can't wait to tell people what rotten piles of excrement they are, you really don't understand what it means to be in the business of forgiving sins.  If you went to seminary because your heart was warmed by the thought of looking a guy in the eye and telling him that he's no longer a Christian, you are also a bit messed up in the head.

As pastors, we really shouldn't take delight in the alien work of God.  If you haven't heard this term we theologians use before,  the alien work of God essentially refers to God's wrathful reaction to sin, His proclaiming judgment upon those who won't turn from it, His punishment of those engaged in it.  God performs this alien work when He sends the fiery serpents among the grumbling Israelites in the wilderness, when He crushes unbelieving Judah through the means of Babylon, when He takes the breath out of Ananias and Sapphira. 

We call this God's alien work because it is, in fact, alien or foreign to His nature.  God did not create us to smash us into pieces.  He created us to love us.  God did not send His Son into the world to condemn the world but to save the world.  God is love.  He's all about love.  And whenever He deals in judgment and condemnation, He does this only to pave the way for the proclamation of mercy and salvation and not because He enjoys those rather nasty things.  To put it quite simply, God only does the miserable stuff (preaching the Law) in order to get to the good stuff (preaching the Gospel).

And if God didn't enjoy banishing Adam and Eve from the Garden or destroying Sodom, neither should we.   Just as a surgeon shouldn't enjoy telling people that their relatives are now dead, so we shouldn't enjoy condemning people for their sins.  Just as a teacher shouldn't enjoy telling a student she's failing, so we shouldn't enjoy telling people that they are sinners.  Doing so is absolutely necessary.  And we should always view it as such.  But we should also view it as uncomfortable, awkward and joyless.

But I don't know that we always feel this way about preaching the Law.  I know that I  often haven't.  There have been many times, far more than are excusable, that I have enjoyed proclaiming the word of condemnation, that I have relished speaking of the wrath of God.  On numerous occasions, as the words have poured out of my lips from the pulpit, and as as I have watched people squirm a bit in their pews, I have thoroughly enjoyed myself.

But I shouldn't have enjoyed myself.  And the reason I shouldn't have enjoyed myself is because God didn't enjoy it.  Even though He has called me to break the legs of the sheep who wander in order to heal them and bring them home, He hasn't called me to get a thrill at the sound of the bones snapping.  It's the Pharisees who smile when this happens.  It's the Lord of life who weeps.  

And whenever we're preaching the Law like the Pharisees, we'll inevitably preach the Gospel like the Pharisees.  Which, of course, means that we won't really preach the Gospel at all.  Because whenever we feel like we've nobly finished our work for the day after we've condemned sinners, the Gospel will always be an after thought, even if words about the atonement make up 75% of the sermon.  Whenever we get our thrill by ripping people to pieces, we'll never feel compelled to find peace by piecing them back together with the blood of Christ.  Whenever the surgeon wants nothing more than to tell the next of kin that the guy on his table is dead, he'll never be terribly motivated to save the dude's life.

My name is Pastor Hans Fiene.  Thanks for reading.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Of Websurfers and Creeds

Despite the gaggle of issues that causes disagreement in the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, I think it's probably perhaps somewhat relatively maybe safe to delicately assert that most of us agree that a congregation's website is an evangelistic tool. I don't know if anyone has done research on this, but I would be very surprised if the majority of IP addresses that look up a church's domain name could be traced to computers owned by members. For the most part, I would presume that your average viewer is either someone interested in attending your church or someone who recently has attended. But, in either case, he or she is someone looking for a bit more information about all y'alls.

So if this is the case...if, in fact, a congregation's website is an evangelistic tool, then it really ought to be used as one, in particular with regard to the evangel part of the word. If a congregation's website exists for the purpose of bringing people into the actual, physical congregation where the Word is preached and the Sacraments are administered, then the website ought to do the one thing that has actually accomplished that goal long before websites were even invented-that one thing being proclaiming the Gospel.

Now, to be fair, almost every church website that I've ever come across does, in fact, have a section dedicated to proclaiming the Gospel, or at least to proclaiming what whoever wrote the content of the website thinks the Gospel is. It's often found in the What We Believe section.  But, as I've come to notice while doing much ecclesiastical web surfing lately, the What We Believe section of many websites is often better hidden than the Easter Eggs on a DVD.

Creedal statements declaring who God is, what He has done for us and how He works among us in His Church are generally there. Links informing people of what we confess concerning God's reconciling of the world to Himself in Jesus Christ are often present.  But they are frequently buried underneath the mountain of shell-casings that were shed when the writers of the website blasted off a thousand rounds of ammo telling people how they can get involved in their congregation.  And once you finally discover them after clicking Spiritual Journeys then Faith Walk then Holy Experiences then Moments of Reflection then Other then Miscellaneous Information, you come to discover that the What We Believe section often feels like a last minute tag on.  It reads as though we wrote it with no energy or pride.  It's brief and lifeless, effectively giving people the impression that we're just fulfilling a requirement here and that we fully expect them to be far more interested in knowing how to get their kids involved in the 'Lil Praizers Youth Group than knowing how salvation works.

And, from the young to the old, from the unbeliever to the retired pastor who spent 168 faithful years in the ministry, all those looking for a congregation to call their own deserves better than this.  When the devil breathes on their throats every day of their lives, seeking to devour them in the jaws of unbelief and despair, they deserve to know exactly what we teach that can seal shut the mouth of the beast forever.  When the world is daily telling them that eternal life must be achieved through the works of their hands, they shouldn't have to work their hands to the bone by navigating our web content for an hour before we finally tell them what it means to be justified by grace through faith.  When their sinful flesh is pulling them a thousand steps backward every time they try to take a single step forward on their faith walk, they deserve to have us proclaim to them that the Church isn't just the Rec Center with pictures of Jesus on the walls, that Christ didn't die on the cross and rise from the grave to gather His people around casseroles and puppet shows, but that Christ will always breath faith into them through the Word and Sacraments given within our walls, that He will forever pick them up and place them right where they should be, right beside Him, through the forgiveness that He gives at our precise geographical location every single time we meet.  Those searching for a church to call their own deserve to know, and deserve to know immediately, that if they want to find Heaven on Earth, they can find it by sticking our address in Mapquest and hitting enter.

Or, to summarize the entire contents of this post a bit more precisely:

Look at our websites.  Is it easier for people to find our mission statement than our creed?  If the answer is yes, fail.  Let's try again.

My name is Pastor Hans Fiene.  Thanks for reading.