Tuesday, December 4, 2012

A Parable for Abused Pastors

And the Lord sent Nathan to the District President.  He came to him and said, "A rich man had a daughter with tuberculosis.  He married her to a man, but the man fell sick with her disease and died.  So the rich man married her to another man, who also contracted her infection and he died.  Five times this happened until the rich man could find no other suitors willing to marry his daughter.  So the rich man went to one of his servants and said to him, 'Marry my daughter or you will starve."  The servant protested, saying, "But master, surely if I do this, I will be like those men before me, falling ill and dying in my youth.  The rich man responded, “Surely not!  I give my word that, if you love her enough and be patient with her, my daughter’s disease will not take your life as it did those men before you.”

The District President’s anger was greatly kindled against the rich man, and he said to Nathan, “As the Lord lives, this man will never arrange another marriage because he showed no mercy or wisdom.”

Nathan said to the District President, “You are the man.”

These words are not aimed at all men who wear the title "LCMS District President."  I thank the Lord for those men who have defended the shepherds under their care when they were attacked.  And I pray that He may grant us many more men to join the ranks of the faithful.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Tebow Update

After reading some more at the request of a commenter, it appears that Tim Tebow has not sought a trademark on the Tebow pose itself, but merely on the phrase "Tebowing."  

So, just to clarify, I still stand by the following words:

Tebow's legal action is annoying for three reasons.  First, because Matthew 6 commands Christians not to pray to be seen by others.  And even if you weren't originally praying in your signature style to be seen in a pharisaical manner, the fact that the masses have named your prayer posture after you should make it fairly clear that it's time to take it out of the public eye and into the privacy of your room.  

I also stand by these words:

Second, when the world mocks you for your faith, the Bible tells us to rejoice that we've been counted worthy, not to threaten legal action against anyone who imitates the way you display your faith without authorized written consent.

If altered to say:

Second, when the world mocks you for your faith, the Bible tells us to rejoice that we've been counted worthy, not to threaten legal action against anyone who attaches your name to the mocking imitation of the way you display your faith.

However, in light of this clarification, I retract and apologize for my claim that Tim Tebow's attempt to trademark genuflection is a great example of the ignorance and arrogance often found in Ahistorical Christianity.  Seeing that this was not what happened, the Tebow example simply doesn't fit and I was wrong to make it based off of the rather misleading article I linked in the original post.

I do not, however, retract my statements concerning this widespread problem of ignorance and arrogance in Evangelicalism and Ahistorical Christianity.  Certainly a better example could have been used, but the problem is very real, as the examples of dispensationalism, pentecostalism, and anabaptism certainly illustrate.

So, again, to Mr. Tebow, I apologize.

Evangelicals, this is why you annoy us.

People like to divide things in half.  Two categories.  Black and white.  Republicans and Democrats.  Team Edward and Team Jacob (although both of these teams are dweebs).

When it comes to Christianity, people try to do likewise.  But when they do so, they usually do it wrong.  The categories of Catholics and Protestants don't work because that leaves out all of those in the Orthodox tradition.  (Also, Lutherans don't really like being called protestants.)  And Bible Believing Christians vs Non-Bible Believers, the preferred designations of your more fundamentalisty crowd, aren't terribly accurate.  Because while Episcopalians may not believe what God says in Genesis 1, Baptists don't believe what God says in Romans 6.

Rather, I would suggest (and have, in fact, already suggested in a comedic form) that, if one is inclined to cleave Christendom in twain, the best way to do it is to make Church history the dividing line.

So despite our manifold differences, Roman Catholicism, Eastern Orthodoxy, Anglicanism, Lutheranism, and a handful of other traditions (FYI: I hate that term) are united in the sense that church history shapes the way we think and teach and worship and have fellowship.  Historical Christians tend to ask themselves questions like, "how have Christians in previous generations done these things?  What have Christians from the past written on these subjects?  What can we learn from those who were taught by the Church Fathers and the Apostles?  What valuable traditions of theirs should we continue?"  Even if we don't get the answers right, these questions are still swimming around in our minds, generally speaking.  And by asking them, we show respect to those Christians before us by assuming that we can learn something from them.

Among Ahistorical Christians, however, such respect is not shown.  It doesn't bother Dispensationalists that nobody believed in the Rapture until the mid 1800's because they don't think their faith mattered.  Baptists seem perfectly unperturbed that no Christians denied infant baptism until the 1500's because they were obviously too foolish to cast off the shackles of Catholic Paganism.  And if you want an example of how Evangelicals also show their disdain for those Christians who have struggled and learned and taught and worshiped before us, you'll find a great one in New York Jets' backup quarterback, Tim Tebow, who has now trademarked his prayer posture, often referred to as "Tebowing".

Tebow's legal action is annoying for three reasons.  First, because Matthew 6 commands Christians not to pray to be seen by others.  And even if you weren't originally praying in your signature style to be seen in a pharisaical manner, the fact that the masses have named your prayer posture after you should make it fairly clear that it's time to take it out of the public eye and into the privacy of your room.  Second, when the world mocks you for your faith, the Bible tells us to rejoice that we've been counted worthy, not to threaten legal action against anyone who imitates the way you display your faith without authorized written consent.

But most of all, Tebow's legal action is annoying for this reason.  He's not "Tebowing."  He's genuflecting, something that many Historical Christians have been doing as an act of worship for a really, really long time.  Check it out:

Here are some genuflecting Orthodox folks.

Here's are some genuflecting Anglicans.

Here's a sweet little genuflecting Catholic girl.

Even Lutherans genuflect.  Not me personally, but a guy I know.

Oh, and lest you think that all these Christians were just jumping on the Timmy Time bandwagon, here's the Angel Gabriel tebowing before the Virgin Mary in a painting from 1490:

Clearly Tim Tebow wasn't the first person to pray or worship on one knee with arm(s) extended forward.  In fact, bagillions of Christians have been doing his schtick for centuries.  And Tebow not knowing that is a pretty excellent example of the ignorance of Evangelicalism that drives other Christians nuts.  Furthermore, Tebow presuming, via this trademark, that genuflecting is his intellectual property is an excellent example of the equally irritating arrogance that comes when you don't think you'd have anything to learn by asking, "How have other Christians done stuff prior to last Tuesday?"

So to my Evangelical friends, I highly recommend asking yourselves that question.  I highly recommend diving into Church history, into the traditions and practices and teachings of Christians who lived a long time ago, long before Mark Driscoll or even Billy Graham.  Do that and you will find a faith that is far richer and stronger than anything you've ever tasted before, a faith that isn't subject to the whims of fads or societal mindsets, a faith that will still be standing when American culture has crumbled to dust.

And to my friends who have already discovered the joys of Historical Christianity, I highly recommend holding the Scriptures in even higher regard than tradition.  Do that and you might just find Lutheranism:-)

Monday, October 15, 2012

Contemporary Worship Apologetics: A Quick Observation

When advocates of historic Lutheran worship argue against the widespread use of contemporary worship, in particular the use of Contemporary Christian Music (CCM) in the Divine Service, they often do so using a syllogism that looks something like this:

Major Premise: Music that focuses on the objective work of Christ is beneficial for use in worship, whereas music that focuses on the subjective feelings of Christians is not.
Minor Premise: Most historic Lutheran hymns focus on the objective work of Christ, whereas most CCM songs focus on the subjective feelings of Christians.
Conclusion: Therefore historic Lutheran hymns are beneficial for use in worship, whereas CCM songs are not.

In my experience, most Lutheran advocates of contemporary worship do not argue against the major premise.  So we all seem to agree that it's better for a hymn to tell me about Jesus than to tell me how great the hymn writer feels about Jesus.  And that's good.  Rather, the response I have seen most often from contemporary worship advocates is an argument against the minor premise, the assertion that "historic Lutheran" equals good and "CCM" equals bad.  Quite simply, they counter this syllogism by arguing that there are plenty of bad Lutheran hymns and plenty of good CCM songs.

But, interestingly enough, when it comes to defending their counter-argument through the use of examples, things get very one-sided.  Are these Lutheran advocates of contemporary worship ready to hand us a big fat list of our most cherished compositions that fail to meet the rigorous standards we require of CCM songs (standards such as this)?  Yes, they are.  Do they have countless examples of rather bad "good, Lutheran hymns?"  Absolutely.

But do they also have any examples of really good CCM songs?  In fact, forget "any."  I'll settle for one.  Do they have even one example of a CCM song that is as deeply and doctrinally and poetically focused on the Cross as the best of what we have in our hymnal?  Can they give us just one example?

Can they?  Maybe.  But have they? No, at least not that I've ever seen.  And that's not good.  Because when Christ calls us to be one body, and when you're using music that has been and still is causing division in that body, I think your fellow believers deserve to have their criticisms met with a better response than, "well, you use stuff that's just as bad."

Sunday, August 26, 2012

A Latter Day Re-Gift Quotes

Since I couldn't fit them into the YouTube video description box, here are the quotes captioned into my latest video, A Latter Day Re-Gift, where I note the striking similarities between Islam and Mormonism.

Islam and Mormonism Citation Captions:

1.      Names
a.       Muhammad
b.      Joseph Smith

2.      Alone place
a.       Cave
b.      Woods

3.      Name of angel
a.       Gabriel
b.      Moroni

4.      Reestablishing the one true religion
a.       "Abraham was not a Jew, nor yet a Christian; but he was an upright man who had surrendered (to Allah), and he was not of the idolaters."   -Surah 3.67

"There is no reproach for the Prophet in that which Allah maketh his due. That was Allah's way with those who passed away of old - and the commandment of Allah is certain destiny - Who delivered the messages of Allah and feared Him, and feared none save Allah. Allah keepeth good account. Muhammad is not the father of any man among you, but he is the messenger of Allah and the Seal of the Prophets; and Allah is ever aware of all things.  -Surah 33.38-40"

b.      "My object in going to inquire of the Lord was to know which of all the sects was right, that I might know which to join. No sooner, therefore, did I get possession of myself, so as to be able to speak, than I asked the Personages who stood above me in the light, which of all the sects was right (for at this time it had never entered into my heart that all were wrong)—and which I should join. I was answered that I must join none of them, for they were all wrong; and the Personage who addressed me said that all their creeds were an abomination in his sight; that those professors were all corrupt; that: 'they draw near to me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me, they teach for doctrines the commandments of men, having a form of godliness, but they deny the power thereof.'”  -Pearl of Great Price, Joseph Smith-History, pars. 18-19.

5.      Unverifiable
a.       Revelation from an angel that no one else gets to see/hear
b.      Revelation from golden plates that nobody else gets to see

6.      Christians changed the Bible
a.       "And because of their saying: We slew the Messiah, Jesus, son of Mary, Allah's messenger - they slew him not norcrucified him, but it appeared so unto them; and lo! those who disagree concerning it are in doubt thereof; they have no knowledge thereof save pursuit of a conjecture; they slew him not for certain."  -Surah 4:157
b.      John 1:1 (ESV, KJV) In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.  (Meaning: Jesus is God)
John 1:1 (Joseph Smith Translation)  In the beginning was the gospel preached through the Son. And the gospel was the word, and the word was with the Son, and the Son was with God, and the Son was of God.  (Meaning: Jesus is not God)

7.      The Trinity
a.       "And when Allah saith: O Jesus, son of Mary! Didst thou say unto mankind: Take me and my mother for two gods beside Allah? He saith: Be glorified! It was not mine to utter that to which I had no right."  -Surah 5.116
b.      "We declare it is self-evident from the scriptures that the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost are separate persons." -The Only True God and Jesus Christ Whom He Hath Sent Jeffery R. Holland Of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles

8.      Justification by grace through faith
a.       "They surely disbelieve who say: Lo! Allah is the Messiah, son of Mary.  The Messiah (himself) said: O Children of Israel, worship Allah, my Lord and your Lord. Lo! whoso ascribeth partners unto Allah, for him Allah hath forbidden paradise. His abode is the Fire."  -Surah 5:72
b.      "The sectarian dogma of justification by faith alone has exercised an influence for evil."  -Articles of Faith, JamesTalmage, (LDS apostle, 1911-33), pg. 432

9.      Good works
a.       "To those who believe and do deeds of righteousness hath Allah promised forgiveness and a great reward."  -Surah 5.9
b.      "We believe that through the Atonement of Christ, all mankind may be saved, by obedience to the laws and  ordinances of the Gospel."  -Joseph Smith's 13 Articles of Faith, Art. 3

10.  Levels of Heaven
a.       Firdaus, 'Adn, Na'iim, Na'wa, Darussalaam, Daarul Muaqaamah, Al-Muqqamul, Amin, Khuldi
b.      Celestial, Terrestrial, Telestial

11.  Higher levels of heaven based on perfect obedience
a.       "Those who spend (benevolently) in ease as well as in straightness, and those who restrain (their) anger and pardon men; and Allah loves the doers of good (to others).  And those who when they commit an indecency or do injustice to their souls remember Allah and ask forgiveness for their faults-- and who forgives the faults but Allah, and (who) do not knowingly persist in what they have done.  (As for) these-- their reward is forgiveness from their Lord, and gardens beneath which rivers flow, to abide in them, and excellent is the reward of the laborers."  -Surah 3.134-136
b.      "They are they who received the testimony of Jesus, and believed on his name and were baptized after the manner of his burial, being buried in the water in his name, and this according to the commandment which he has given—That by keeping the commandments they might be washed and cleansed from all their sins, and receive the Holy Spirit by the laying on of the hands of him who is ordained and sealed unto this power; And who overcome by faith, and are sealed by the Holy Spirit of promise, which the Father sheds forth upon all those who are just and true. They are they who are the church of the Firstborn...These are they whose bodies arecelestial, whose glory is that of the sun, even the glory of God, the highest of all, whose glory the sun of the firmament is written of as being typical." -Doctrines and Covenants 76:51-54, 70
c.       Pro-polygamy
                                                              i.      "And if ye fear that ye will not deal fairly by the orphans, marry of the women, who seem good to you, two or three or four."  -Surah 4:3
                                                            ii.      "And again, as pertaining to the law of the priesthoodif any man espouse a virgin, and desire to espouse another,  and the first give her consent, and if he espouse the second, and they are virgins, and have vowed to no other man, then is he justified; he cannot commit adultery for they are given unto him; for he cannot commit adultery with that that belongeth unto him and to no one else."  -Doctrines and Covenants, Section 132.61

12.  Division in followers after prophet's death
a.       Sunnis/Shiites
b.      Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints/Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints

13.  Change in theology based on political environment
a.       Politically weak in Mecca: Let's be friends, Christians and Jews! ("And do not argue with the People of the Scripture except in a way that is best, except for those who commit injustice among them, and say, We believe in that which has been revealed to us and revealed to you. And our God and your God is one; and we are Muslims [in submission] to Him.'"  -Surah 29.46)
Politically strong in Medina: Die, Christians and Jews, die! ("And kill them wherever you overtake them and expel them from wherever they have expelled you, and fitnah is worse than killing. And do not fight them at al-Masjid al- Haram until they fight you there. But if they fight you, then kill them. Such is the recompense of the disbelievers."  -Surah 2.191)

b.      Before wanting statehood for Utah: God says we must practice polygamy! (1843 revelation to Joseph Smith)
After wanting statehood for Utah: God says we can't practice polygamy! (1890 Manifesto of LDS president Wilford Woodruff)

14.  Pre-eternity of souls
a.       "And when your Lord brought forth from the children of Adam, from their backs, their descendants, and made them bear witness against their own souls: Am I not your Lord? They said: Yes! we bear witness. Lest you should say on the day of resurrection: Surely we were heedless of this."-Surah 7.172
b.      "And God saw these souls that they were good, and he stood in the midst of them, and he said: These I will make my rulers; for he stood among those that were spirits, and he saw that they were good; and he said unto me: Abraham, thou art one of them; thou wast chosen before thou wast born.  And there stood one among them that was like unto God, and he said unto those who were with him: We will go down, for there is space there, and we will take of these materials, and we will make an earth whereon these may dwell; And we will prove them herewith, to see if they will do all things whatsoever the Lord their God shall command them; And they who keep their first estate shall be added upon; and they who keep not their first estate shall not have glory in the same kingdom with those who keep their first estate; and they who keep their second estate shall have glory added upon their heads forever and ever." -The Book of Abraham 4:23-26

15.  Mormonism's explanation for why some people are black:
"There is a reason why one man is born black and with other disadvantages, while another is born white with great advantages. The reason is that we once had an estate before we came here, and were obedient; more or less, to the laws that were given us there. Those who were faithful in all things there [pre-existence] received greater blessings here, and those who were not faithful received less. . . . There were no neutrals in the war in Heaven. All took sides either with Christ or with Satan. Every man had his agency there, and men receive rewards here based upon their actions there, just as they will receive rewards hereafter for deeds done in the body. The Negro, evidently, is receiving the reward he merits." -Joseph Fielding Smith, 10th LDS President, Doctrines of Salvation, 1:61, 65-66

Friday, August 24, 2012

The Pro-Life Mask

Todd Akin recently accomplished something that I had always considered impossible.  With his odd attempt to explain that abortion is not morally acceptable even if a woman has been raped, Rep. Akin convinced me that abortion rights advocates may have been right all along.

Not that they have been right that abortion should be legal.  The Word of God teaches us that, from the very moment of conception, we are fully human, fully human sinners in need of Christ's forgiveness and fully clothed in the dignity that God commands must be given to all the descendants of Adam and Eve.  And this Biblical teaching that life begins at conception is scientifically echoed in the fact that, at the moment of conception, you find unique human DNA that is alive, cells that are growing, dividing, developing into tissue and organs and systems.  If this "glob of cells" were just a part of the mother's body, she would certainly be as free to dispose of it as if it were her appendix.  But it is not her body.  It is the body of another human being.  It is a life which cannot justifiably be taken.  And to take that life is a murderous act.

So they have not been right in defending abortion.  Rather, abortion rights advocates have been right in their contention that pro-life advocates simply want to control women.  Todd Akin, or rather the response from many pro-life politicians and personalities to his comments, convinced me of this.

Mitt Romney's campaign, for example, made sure to reassert that the GOP nominee does not oppose abortion in the cases of rape or incest.  The media also was quick to point out how out of touch with mainstream America Akin's opposition to abortion in cases of rape is, citing that only 17% of Americans believe that abortion should be outlawed in all circumstances, a much lower figure than the fifty-ish percent of people who identify themselves as somewhere on the pro-life spectrum.

Obviously rape is a deplorable act, a dehumanizing crime that continues striking with psychological violence long after the physical violence has concluded.  And, at the risk of disagreeing with Jacob the Patriarch, I believe that the Shechemites got what they deserved when Simeon and Levi put them to the sword in defense of their sister. But, in spite of all that, what are Gov. Romney and other pro-life voices trying to say when they reaffirm that they don't oppose abortion in cases of rape?

Surely they're not saying life begins at conception except when a woman is raped, in which case life only begins if a raped woman wants that life to have begun.  Such a position would be as scientifically indefensible as Rep. Akin's belief that a woman's ovaries have a built in Star Wars Missile Defense Shield in the event of rape.  Rather, what pro-life voices are saying when they affirm the rape exception is this woman should get a pass on having to carry this child to term because getting pregnant wasn't her fault.

And, in saying that, what are they also saying?  But all those other women chose to sleep with their husbands, their boyfriends, their drunken hookup partners, and they should have to take responsibility for their actions.  They agreed to participate in marital relations or fornication or adultery, so they should have to face the consequences of the decisions they made willingly.

So these voices don't oppose abortion out of a genuine respect for unborn life.  They don't believe that this living, growing, developing thing within a mother's womb deserves the same dignity and protection that you and I deserve, regardless of how conception occurred.  No, instead, these voices simply want women to act like grownups, to be responsible enough to pay the piper when their actions come back to bite them in the uterus.

And I'm afraid this mindset is exactly what abortion rights voices have been condemning.  You don't have the right to tell a woman what to do with her body, before sex or after.  This has been the pro-choice mantra for quite some time.  And the more that pro-life voices make exceptions for rape and incest, the more they reveal that their pro-life convictions are not governed by a desire to protect unborn children, but by a desire to judge sexually active parents.  The more that pro-life voices give their consent to the murder of unborn children conceived in rape, the more they reveal that the only thing distinguishing them from a president who doesn't want his daughters punished with a baby is that they're fine with that form of punishment, as long as the girl deserves it.

But we don't oppose abortion because women should have to lie in the beds they've fornicated in.  We don't oppose abortion out of judgment.  We oppose it out of mercy, out of the desire to defend the weakest among us, to protect those who have no strength or power or influence.  We oppose abortion because a human's life begins at conception, and because, from that very moment, he deserves the same rights that you and I have, both the right to live in safety as a citizen of this nation, and the right to hear the saving Word of God that gives peace to those who were at war with God from the moment egg and sperm first combined.

So please pray.  Pray that Democrats and Republicans, conservatives and liberals may see that we have no greater treasure than the lives of those who haven't even made a bump in their mother's bellies yet and that we have no greater duty than to defend their existence.  Pray that God may soon provide doctors a way of taking children out of the wombs of mothers who would otherwise have them aborted and into the wombs of mothers who will cherish and love them and weep tears of joy on the days they are born.  And pray that those who have picketed outside of abortion clinics and those who have utilized the services inside may both turn from their sins and trust in the saving blood of Jesus Christ that never runs dry.

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Burying a Church

An anonymous friend wrote this article and asked me to publish it here.

This brother is not alone in his struggles.  And while I believe it's meet, right, and salutary for a pastor to feel a sorrowful sting every time he looks down from the pulpit and sees that no nursing children or newlywed couples have taken the seats of the saints he's been burying, he ought not feel like a failure.

When we look at a congregation of senior citizens who cling too tightly to the past with one hand and perhaps not tightly enough to the Word with the other, we see something to disdain.  

But this is not what Christ sees.  Rather, Christ sees a flock of wrinkled sheep that He will never cease to feed and love and defend, a collection of saints that He is still preserving with His life, even when all five of our senses tell us that death has already consumed them.

So no matter many times you've received no response when you've commanded Lazarus to arise, and no matter how hoarse you've grown from calling out his name, keep shouting.  You do not speak this word in vain.  And Christ will continue to bring life and resurrection through your lips that preach and your hands that baptize and commune.

Burying a Church
by an anonymous Lutheran pastor

Once, my wife told me that she thought that my strength as a pastor was comforting the bereaved, preaching at funerals, burying the dead. 

I was angry with her for saying that.  But she said that she meant it as a compliment.  “That’s probably the hardest thing for a pastor to do,” was something like what she said.

Burying people is probably near the top of the list of things I have done consistently and successfully as a pastor. 

On a given year I usually confirm around one, two, or three adolescents.  I may confirm or receive by affirmation of faith about as many adults.  I baptize around 8 babies, most of which are the grandchildren of members who don’t live nearby or the children of members who don’t attend Divine Service more than a few times a year. 

But I bury between 20 and 25 people every year.  About two people a month.  My work among the living is like a civil war officer trying to keep his command from routing, trying to get them to advance, to keep advancing.  But ground is lost every day. 

My work among the dead and the mourners is a constant labor during which I am largely isolated from the congregation, preaching to family members who are alienated from the church or who have forsaken the Lutheran church for communions that still seem to win victories.

Burying the dead often seems to be my real work, that and caring for those for whom death is now a houseguest. Preaching and teaching to those who are still healthy feels like preaching to the deaf, or like saying, “Lazarus, come forth!”  and he doesn’t.  Or like a ghost preaching to a congregation of ghosts.  Trying to work with the congregation’s leaders to administrate feels often like the restless movements of the bedridden—not only on their part but mine.  So much not only of what the congregation wants, but also of what I want—perhaps it is vain.  We think we are living and we can make things happen.  We feel like it is our responsibility.

One of the reasons why it is possible to comfort the bereaved and to comfort the dying is because I do not feel as though I am responsible to stop it.  With a congregation it is different. 

When I first arrived at the congregation I was confident that I could get people fired up and working together.  That’s poor theology, but theology is easily diverted or diluted by what we want and what we need—what I would be more quick to call “idolatry” in the face of congregational criticism.

Six years in, I feel utterly powerless and mostly exhausted.  You try to rally the troops and lead some charges, not realizing that many of the troops have been on many charges and are too tired to do it anymore.  But a few go with you, maybe against their better judgment.  Probably as many more want you to fail.  And the mass don’t pay any attention.

After awhile, you can’t do it anymore.  The politics within the congregation continues.  The numbers decline in church and school.  There’s no time to go after the sheep who are never join the rest of the flock by the pulpit and the altar.  There are no volunteers to help give rides to church or check on why others aren’t attending.  They’re overwhelmed with the inroads the enemy makes into their areas of responsibility—their children, grandchildren, sick parents and spouses.

And yet—the death of a congregation can be averted—can’t it?  Should we always chalk it up to God’s hidden will?  Or does God sometimes allow the congregation to decline because He wants His congregation to seek Him?  He hides Himself, desiring to be sought?  He wants the congregation to examine herself, to fast and pray for the lost sheep, to listen attentively again to His Word?  “In their distress they shall earnestly seek me…” Where is that verse?

Even with dying people we counsel them to accept God’s will as coming from the hand of a gracious Father.  “He who did not spare His own Son, but gave Him up for us all, how will He not also with Him freely give us all things?”  Yet we also do not stop praying for the recovery of the dying—if it is God’s will. 

Often with the elderly it isn’t easy to know what to pray for, particularly if they’ve been suffering a long time.  And yet, I’ve seen families who—with good intentions, out of love—keep telling a dying family member, “It’s okay, grandma…it’s okay to go see Jesus now.”  But they don’t realize that sometimes it is not okay; it’s not because grandma doesn’t want to go.  She’s wanted to go for days or weeks; she is tired of the pain. 

But God is not ready yet.  He says, “No”.   But we keep telling grandma it is alright to go now, as though grandma decides when she lives and dies.

Because death is inevitable, we don’t want our loved ones to have to keep fighting it forever.  But burying a church?  It’s different.  There are young people and old people in a church.  There are those who are tired and those in the midst of their years; and there are children and infants from whose lips God has ordained praise, to silence the foe and the avenger.

One member of the congregation, I’ve heard, seems to want the congregation to die. “Why don’t you just let it die in peace!”  he’s supposedly said.

This often angers me.  But we’re in different places.  I’m 35 and this is the first congregation I’ve served.  This person is 80 something.  This person has had enough and no longer has the energy to keep leading charges.  Even though I’m worn out, if I was convinced it would accomplish something and I could get anyone to come with, I could probably lead scores more charges.  Let’s paint this!  Let’s convert that!  Let’s show mercy here!  Let’s study this!

But if I get this tired at 35, I can only imagine how I’ll feel at 85.  I would not give an 85 year old a guilt trip for not wanting to endure radiation treatments or chemotherapy. 

But a congregation doesn’t exist only for 80 year olds, even if they are the majority.  What about the 35 year olds?  What about the 20 year old mothers in the projects up the streets, and the 7 year olds with no father who don’t know the gospel of Jesus Christ?  What about the children who are the age of my son?  They are the ones who are going to have to come of age in a country in which the wealth and power we enjoyed have become ruins.  They are going to see the collapse of the great tower of Babel built by our great grandfathers, where the church and the Greeks and the Romans were built together in a great city that housed  Bach’s music and Luther’s theology as well as Thomas Jefferson and Robespierre and Nietzsche and Freud.  All of that is going to be a ruin by the time my son is older.  It is already becoming a ruin.  But then the barbarians will be scavenging marble from the aqueducts to build fortifications and vandalizing the statues of Apollo.

It’s easy to preach the pure Gospel at a funeral and say, “Your mother doesn’t have to lead anymore charges.  She rests with Jesus.”

What about for a congregation that wants to die, that wants to be able to die and say, “It was inevitable.  It couldn’t be helped.  The neighborhood was bad.  The old people were bad.  The school was bad.  The pastor was bad.”?

How can a congregation want to die?  “Why will you die, O house of Israel?”  “Whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.”  Much of the congregation wants to die.  Or doesn’t want to avert it’s death.  

Because death is upon it.  Sennacherib is surrounding the city.  But no one humbles himself before the Lord.  The church does not pray and fast or weep in dust and ashes.  The congregation does not rouse itself and seek the word of God.  It wants the good days to come back, and if they won’t come back, then nothing is worth working for or saving.  Let our children live in the ruins like owls in the wilderness.

But I think there’s a problem with my preaching and theology, too.  I scold the congregation, as though the dead could raise themselves.  Or as though the lame could strengthen their own wobbly knees. 

There may still be time left, but the congregation is no more able to contribute something to its own healing than the mourners are able to comfort themselves.  Mourners try to do that a lot.  They invent false comforts.  “He’s in a better place,” is the one we hear most frequently.  The funeral homes print stupid poems up on cards: “When you stand at my grave, do not weep.  I am not there.  I do not sleep.”

The first task is to take those away without giving the impression that you’re sadistic and you hate them (if possible.)  But it can be done, if there is compassion.  Because no one really believes the stupid poems.

Probably this has been one of my gravest sins in the ministry—that I foolishly preached and acted as though the congregation had any resources to effect its own repentance.  Or as if I had them.

No, neither the minister nor the congregation has the resources to prevent its death. Repentance and renewal in faith and the continued existence of the congregation are in God’s power alone.  All of the three depend on His will alone. 

Perhaps I should pray, “Lord, grant the congregation repentance and spiritual renewal.  And grant me to preach Your Word rightly, so that I don’t act as if our salvation is in our own hands.  And if it pleases You, let the congregation continue to proclaim Your Word and Your mercy to the next generation.”

It would probably be a good thing if my pastoral work among the congregation took lessons from my work among the dead.