Saturday, August 9, 2014

Christian Heads at the Feet of ISIS' King

Once upon a time there was a king who had a treasury filled with precious gemstones. And in order to glorify himself, the king promised his subjects that, if they worked hard enough, he might one day give them something from his vault as a reward for their obedience.

There was a man in this kingdom who desperately wanted to hold one of those gemstones in his hand and know that he had earned the king's favor. So for years, he tried his hardest to impress the king. He broke his back tilling the earth and hunting game to put delicious food on the king's table. He wore out his fingers sewing fine clothing for him. He bowed in the king's direction several times a day and sang his praises until his voice went hoarse. He fought the king's wars, expanded the king's borders, and hoisted the king's flag on mountaintops so that the other nations of the world would cower at his name. But despite all his hard work, the king never called the man into his presence and never gave him any of his treasure.

Then, one night, the man was walking home from a hard day of labor and saw a young thief sneaking out of the king's palace, his hands filled with countless rubies and diamonds and emeralds. The man approached the child to ask what he was doing.

"I'm going to give these gemstones to everyone I can find," the little thief said. "I'm going to make sure that everyone in the kingdom has a share of the royal wealth."

So the man took out his sword, cut off the thief's head, carried it into the king's chambers, and dropped it at his feet. When the king asked what this was all about, the man told the king, "this thief broke into your vault and was trying to give away for free what you've insisted we work hard to earn. But don't worry. I stopped him. The treasury is safe and your glory is preserved."

The king looked at the man, smiled, and placed an enormous gemstone in his hands. "Well done, good and faithful servant," he said. "Here's a little something for your trouble."

As incomprehensible as their actions seem, this is why ISIS is beheading Christian children in Iraq. Muslims teach that we must earn the love of Allah through our obedience and submission to him. Christians teach that Jesus has already earned the love of God and freely given us every piece of that heavenly treasure. To the radical Muslim, Christians are the little thief raiding the king's vault. And surely there can be no greater way to attain the love of the king than to offer him the heads of those who tried to give away for free the love we all must earn.

"They will put you out of the synagogues. Indeed, the hour is coming when whoever kills you will think he is offering service to God.  And they will do these things because they have not known the Father, nor me." 
~John 16:2

May God turn the hearts of all who are abusing, raping, terrorizing, and killing our brothers and sisters throughout the world. May God bring them to faith in Christ, who has put away their murderous sins and
won every gemstone of His Father's love for them. May God fill our enemies with the Holy Spirit, that they may put down their swords and share the treasure of Christ's kingdom with those whom they once sought to destroy.

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Marriage Isn't for You...I think I've heard this before

I recently read a blog post about marriage that's gone quite viral.  The author beautifully addresses the notion that a husband's vocation is to serve his wife, and that a wife's vocation is to serve her husband, rather than the self-serving model where we get married because the other person makes us happy and stay married only as long as that happiness is preserved.  He says, in part:

"No, a true marriage (and true love) is never about you. It's about the person you love--their wants, their needs, their hopes, and their dreams. Selfishness demands, 'What's in it for me?' while Love asks, 'What can I give?'"

I'm glad to see people considering this wisdom, but also find it sad that so many never heard it before, in particular from the pen of Saint Paul in Ephesians 5

"Wives, submit to your own husbands, as to the Lord.  For the husband is the head of the wife even as Christ is the head of the church, his body, and is himself its Savior.  Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit in everything to their husbands.  Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her,  that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word,  so that he might present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish."
~Ephesians 5:22-27

Strange as it may seem to some, the Bible actually has some really great stuff to teach us about being husbands and wives, fathers and mothers, presented to us in the greatest love story of all, that of Christ's crucified love for his bride the Church, that of a Father's love given to his children through their mother, the Jerusalem above.

Friday, November 1, 2013

The Forgotten Saints

I had two grandfathers.

One was named Robert Preus.  Robert Preus was a dual-doctorate sporting Lutheran pastor, professor, and seminary president who was instrumental in preserving the theological integrity of the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod during our "Battle for the Bible" in the 1970's.  His books are still devoured by young seminarians who never met him.  He's still regarded as the English language's leading scholar on seventeenth century Lutheranism.  And while he's certainly not as well known a theologian as St. Augustine or Martin Luther, Robert Preus is greatly revered and fondly remembered by many today, both inside and outside the LCMS.

My other grandfather was named William Fiene.  William Fiene didn't write books, didn't translate theological treatises.  There are no collections of his sermons because he never preached any.  He wasn't a pastor.  He was a mortician from small town in Minnesota.  So, outside of his family and friends, nobody in the LCMS remembers his name.

But I am a pastor today because of him.  My seemingly less-theologically-significant grandfather is equally as responsible for the clerical collar around my neck as my grandfather with a wikipedia page.  I say this not because I had countless theological conversations with Grandpa Fiene.  He died a few months before my twelfth birthday, and in the years before, Parkinson's disease had already torn his central nervous system apart so much that I don't recall ever hearing him say my name or making eye contact with me.  But the theological influence of my paternal grandfather is still in my bones, and it's come to me through what he taught his son, my father, in both word and deed.

When William Fiene was 27 years old, he contracted polio and never walked again.  But he didn't despair, didn't curse the Lord who lets his legs be taken from him.  Instead, he kept believing, kept trusting Christ's promises, kept praying with his children, kept teaching them Bible stories, and kept taking them to church every week.  Often, during the harsh Minnesota winters, my grandfather's crutches would slip on the icy pavement while packing his family in the car on Sunday mornings.  For many, that would have provided a very easy justification for staying home, sleeping in, and slowly falling away.  But my grandfather kept braving the cold, kept slipping, kept falling, and kept picking himself back up and taking his family to St. Paul's Lutheran Church.  

From my father's youngest days, he saw, in his father, a man who would endure pain and humiliation in order to bring his children the Word of God.  William Fiene taught his son John that the pure Gospel found in the Lutheran Church was more important than anything else in this world.  That's what my father taught me.  And that's what I pray I will teach my sons, John, August, and Anders.

Today is All Saints' Day, a day when we commemorate all Christians, all those who have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.  And while we certainly thank God for the famous saints known the world round, we should also thank God for the forgotten saints, for the congregation of faceless believers whose names will never be written in history books, even as those names are written in the Book of Life.

So I thank God for both of my grandfathers today.  Like many other pastors, today I thank God for Robert Preus, for his faithfulness, his wisdom, his writings, his lectures, and his life devoted to the Word.  But even if my father and I are the only pastors in the world to remember the life of William Fiene today, I do so with equal parts thanksgiving.  I thank God that, as a child, my father didn't have to look at icons of Peter and Paul to see the image of a saint.  He saw one in the face of the man dusting the Minnesota snow off of his bloody knees and picking himself back up in order to bring his children to Jesus.

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Dumb Girls and Prideful Pastors

When I was in college, I met a couple of girls who had boyfriends that were mean to them.

These boyfriends would say unkind things to their respective girlfriends.  They would belittle them in mixed company.  They would break plans at the last minute to hang out with their sideburn sporting bros.  At parties, they would shout across the room to their girlfriends, "hey babe, get me a beer."  And when these young ladies returned with a foaming cup of watery brew, they often found their boyfriends flirting with other girls.

Sometimes these girls would complain to me about their mean boyfriends.  I would ask why they were dating them, and each girl would respond, "Deep down, I know he's a really great person.  He just needs someone to bring that out in him."

At the risk of sounding judgmental, I don't think these girls had a genuine Christian desire to lift another person out of the pit of his sinful and self-destructive ways.  If that were the case, they would have visited prisoners or volunteered with at-risk youth.  Rather, I think they were filled with pride.  I think they just wanted to believe that they were more amazing and special and spectacular than every other girl in the world because they could accomplish something that no other girl could-making a mean boy nice through the power of their love.

When I became a pastor, I met a couple of pastors who were convinced that they could convert people who, quite vocally, didn't want anything to do with Christianity.

These people would say unkind things about Jesus.  They would belittle their believing aunts and uncles at family reunions.  They would refuse to attend baptisms of friends' children.  And on the rare occasion that they attended a service, they would roll their eyes during the liturgy and play on their smart phones during the sermon.

Sometimes, these pastors would lament the hatred that such people expressed for the Church.  But whenever I suggested that this was simply because the Gospel is foolishness to those who are perishing, these pastors would respond, "No, deep down, these people really want to be Christians.  They just need someone to get rid of all the negativity and stuffiness that turns them off to the Church."

At the risk of sounding judgmental, I don't think these these pastors had a genuine desire to see people converted.  If that were the case, instead of making their own personalities the center of worship and preaching, they would have made Christ crucified the center, as it is only through the proclamation of that bloody Word that Christians are made.  Rather, I think these pastors were filled with pride.  I think they wanted to believe that they were more amazing and gifted communicators than every other pastor in the world because they could accomplish something that no other pastor could-making hardened hearts believe through the power of their love.

Whatever happened to those college girls with mean boyfriends?  I'm sure that some probably have mean husbands now.  But I hope that all of them saw the folly of their pride and grew up.  I hope the same thing for every pastor convinced that "God can do all things through me who strengthens Him."

Thursday, June 6, 2013

Five for Five

Five years ago today I was ordained into the Office of the Holy Ministry. 

That number is, of course, paltry in comparison to the time many shepherds have spent tending Christ's flock.  And my wisdom, if it can even be labeled as such, is nothing compared to that of those men.  But, in honor of this anniversary, I thought I would share five observations I've made during the last half-decade, especially for those seminary graduates who will be entering the pastoral office this summer.

1. "Change then teach" works much better than "teach then change."  If you want people to embrace the right practice, institute the right practice, then praise them for doing the right practice when you teach about said practice.  If you try to teach them to abandon the bad practice while they're still practicing the bad practice, they won't think the bad practice is bad enough to stop practicing because you're still letting them practice it.

2. When people get angry at you, 80% of the time it has nothing to do with you.  They're just mad at God.  But that still leaves 20%.

3. Sin makes pastors angry, which tempts us to structure our sermons like this: Proclaim the Law, then figure out how to make the Gospel fit.  Unless the text commands this, do the inverse.

4. People who don't think they need a pastor will never care about you, even if they like you.  But when people have desperately needed you to be a pastor to them, and you have been, they will never stop loving you.

5. Remember to pack a lunch.

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

No Moving On From the Cross

Americans weren't always this good at learning lessons from acts of violence and murder.  The terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 put a long term paralyzant in our blood. It was weeks before we were able to look away from the images of smoke and sorrow long enough to ask ourselves, "what can we learn from this?  How can we better ourselves and the world in response to this tragedy?"

But now we're seasoned lesson-learning veterans.  The day after the shootings in Aurora, CO and Newtown, CT, we asked what we could do to reduce gun violence and to treat mental illness.  As ambulances were still rushing people to Boston hospitals, we could already see silver linings in the smoke clouds as we praised the helpers, the brave ones who rushed into the carnage to aid their neighbors.  Even before we knew how many people died in this evil act, we had focused our eyes on the good acts of humanity, desiring to make more of that goodness manifest in our lives.

We've been well trained since September 11, 2001.  Now, when tragedy strikes, we only look at the violence and murder for a moment.  Then we move on to the more important thing-making the world a better place in response.

I think this is how American Pop-Christianity views the cross.  The Crucifixion of Jesus Christ was a tragic event.  It's just so utterly sad and shameful that Jesus had to die for our sins.  But now that we've spent a moment looking at all that violence and murder, now it's time to move on to the more important thing.  So how do we make our lives better in response to that tragedy?

As evidence, I submit the mission statement of one of the country's largest congregations:

"As a community, we’re devoted to building an engaged, passionate, spiritually healthy community of people that makes up [our congregation]. We’re also devoted to engaging and impacting one another and others, believing that Jesus himself set an example of service and that we’ve been given the responsibility to follow it."

And if you'd like the point illustrated in picture form, here's the same thing from another mega-church:

These aren't egregious examples.  Hop on the webbernet, check out the mission statement of the congregation down the road from you, and you will probably find something exactly like this, something that basically states your journey starts with Jesus.  First look at his cross.  Then move on to figuring out how you should live in response to that cross.  Our congregation is here to help you do that.

So do these congregations deny that Jesus died for their sins?  No. But that death, that bloodshed, it's not the epicenter of the faith.  It's not the substance of their preaching and teaching.  Rather, the cross was that tragic event that should set you on the path of self-discovery.  The cross was that brutal act of violence meant to inspire you to better yourself and the world.  Stare at the carnage for a day, maybe two, but then move on.  Because, just like the children of Sandy Hook, Jesus will have died in vain if we don't learn the right lessons.

But the cross is its own lesson  And we don't move on from it.  Jesus didn't die so that we could better the world.  Jesus died to save the world.  Jesus died to give us life, to give us the love of God.

And that's what the Church is for-to give us the things that Jesus won for us in his death.  The Church makes disciples by giving us the cross found in baptism and teaching.  The Church nourishes us with the same body and blood that were broken and shed on Calvary.  The Church's mission is not to engage and impact.  Her mission is to put the cross of Jesus on your flesh, in your eyes, your ears, your mouth.

"Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us,  looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God."  Hebrews 12:1-2  

"And I, when I came to you, brothers, did not come proclaiming to you the testimony of God with lofty speech or wisdom.  For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified."  1 Corinthians 2:1-2  

The cross is not 9/11.  It's not the Sandy Hook shooting or the Boston Marathon bombing. There is no moving on from the cross.  Because, unlike the death of everyone else, the death of Jesus Christ is life.

Monday, April 29, 2013

The Parable of the Seamstress

Once upon a time, Hazel sewed her family's clothes.  She lived in an era when there were no department stores or major clothing labels.  And Hazel's family couldn't afford the services of the nearest tailor, so Hazel sewed because that's what was necessary to survive.  And because it was necessary to survive, Hazel taught this skill to her daughter Sarah.  

When Sarah grew up and had her own family, she found that this skill was no longer a necessity.  For a reasonable cost, and with the aid of a department store or a catalog, she could contract someone else to do the hard work of measuring and cutting and stitching.  But even though she didn't need to sew anymore, Sarah still pulled out the Singer from time to time.  She'd sit down with her daughter Kimberly in her lap and make a garment or two around Christmas.  Sarah did this because the feel of the thread on her fingertips and the vibrations of the sewing machine on her palms reminded her of her mother, and she wanted to give some of those memories to her child.

But Kimberly couldn't even tell you how to thread a needle anymore.  Her grandmother sewed out of necessity.  Her mother sewed out of nostalgia.  But Kimberly doesn't sew at all because, without necessity, nostalgia rarely makes it to the second generation.

The Christian faith is necessary.  You are dead without it and nothing in this world can replace the salvation that Jesus gives to those who hear and believe His Word.  But when your pastor doesn't see you for months at a time, when you let every conflict bump the Divine Service off your Sunday schedule, when you never talk theology with your children, you teach them that the Word of God is nothing more than a trinket we pull out of the closet whenever we want to taste the sweetness of our familial heritage.  And when you teach that to your children, your children will not grow up to be Christians.  They will not believe anymore than Kimberly sews.