Sunday, August 30, 2015

Evangelism, done right, is grace for the hearer

In the Lutheran church, we try to keep our eyes focused on God's grace. We often talk about the "means of grace" -- the ways in which God makes it clear to us that he loves us and forgives us and establishes a bond with us through Christ. A "means of grace" contains within itself an act of love, the message of God's forgiveness, and builds that bond (which is grace) that God establishes with us through Christ. When we look at baptism, we see the washing and cleansing, and hear the promise that we repent and are baptized for the forgiveness of our sins, that we become children of God. We consider that baptism is a "means of grace" because in baptism we see God acting in love to forgive us and make us his own. In communion (the Lord's Supper), we see the food and drink given to nourish us, we hear the promise of the covenant of our forgiveness through Christ, we are accepted at the Lord's own table. So we consider that to be another act of God which both announces and establishes God's grace towards us through Christ.

We consider our ministers to be "ministers of word and sacrament" -- that, besides these great acts of God in the sacraments, God's love is also known to us in words. Evangelism, done right, is about God's love. Through it, the listeners hear of God's love, God's mercy, about how God receives them through cleansing in baptism and makes them his own children. The listeners hear that repentance is met with forgiveness, that the Supper we have now -- a covenant for our forgiveness -- is a foretaste of the feast to come. It is the king's son's wedding, and we have been sent to invite people.

Should street evangelists, instead of handing out tracts, hand out wedding invitations?

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Origins: The "shoulder angel" and the "shoulder devil"?

Have you ever seen the cartoons where someone has an angel on one shoulder, and a devil on the other? Apparently it's not a Hollywood invention. The idea can be traced back at least as far as the Talmud, an ancient Jewish writing.
It was taught, R. Jose son of R. Judah said: Two ministering angels accompany man on the eve of the Sabbath from the synagogue to his home, one good and one an evil. And when he arrives home and finds the lamp burning, the table laid and the couch covered with a spread*, the good angel exclaims, ‘May it be even thus on another Sabbath,’ and the evil angel unwillingly responds ‘amen’. But if not, the evil angel exclaims, ‘May it be even thus on another Sabbath’ and the good angel unwillingly responds, ‘amen’. (Sabbath 119b)
* These are comforts that involve work. If not done before the Sabbath, it's forbidden to attend to them on the Sabbath.

Sunday, August 23, 2015

Worship: Saturday or Sunday? (Gnats and Camels)

I still have plans to continue my series on divisions and controversies in the church. Today during worship services, the old controversy about the Seventh Day was mentioned. I found myself picturing a debate about it. Here is what I would have wanted a chance to say.

We are here to debate what day to praise God. Are we really here to argue about what day to praise God? I will keep my point very simple: There is no such thing as a wrong day to praise God. We all remember what the Bible says about the Sabbath: it’s a day of rest. There is no command in the Bible that the day of worship is the Sabbath; it’s the day of rest. Search the Bible, you will not find a command saying that the day to worship is the Sabbath. And yet, there is no such thing as a wrong day to praise God.

There is also no command in the Bible that the day of worship is Sunday. Now most of us, we praise God on Sunday because it’s the day of Jesus’ resurrection. When we worship on Sunday, it’s about the resurrection of Jesus, and for that we praise God. And still, there is no such thing as a wrong day to praise God.

Jesus taught us a lot of things. One thing that he taught us was about how we get focused on the wrong things. He says we strain at gnats and swallow camels. Most debates, my friends, are about gnats. The day of worship is a gnat. Whether we love each other, whether we are brothers and sisters and the end of that day, that is the camel. Whether we are Jesus’ people, known for our love, is the camel. Whether we speak the truth with love is the camel. Whether we permit ourselves to stoop to judgment and discord over what should glorify God, that is the camel. If we turn worship into an argument, and if even our worship itself no longer glorifies God, then our zeal over that gnat has done great harm. Let our worship – and our words here – glorify God.

Sunday, August 16, 2015

Define "wisdom"

I've been trying to figure out a few things, what they are in their essence. Here's a try at wisdom, and what it really means.

Wisdom: Knowledge directed by love
While knowledge can be directed by any motive towards any end, wisdom is directed by love. Knowledge can be idle; wisdom is active. If it chooses stillness, it is because that stillness is constructive. 

Sunday, August 09, 2015

Why wisdom is so different from knowedge

If knowledge is an understanding of the facts, wisdom is an understanding of how to turn those to a good end. Knowledge is not particular about what happens with facts, with how information is used; wisdom interests itself about the benefits and good that can follow.

In theory, knowledge pursues facts per se, for their own sake. Though knowledge is not quite that simple in the real world. When we gain new knowledge, it is because we are looking, and there is always a reason why we are looking. It may be that we truly wish to understand something for its own sake, or for the sake of understanding. But it's more likely that the knowledge is a means to another end. Someone may study baseball for the love of baseball -- or to become a better pitcher, or to coach a more winning team, or to place better bets. Usually learning comes with an agenda: what we hope to gain, and a reason why we are studying (or being directed to study) one thing rather another. At the university level, a syllabus has an agenda, a curriculum has an agenda, at times the university itself exists to promote certain goals. Leaving aside the questions that can raise, the good and the bad, it's enough to say: knowledge is rarely gained for its own sake. It is often a tool. So: Whose tool, and for what use?

Wisdom has a view to what is good. It is not necessarily grand or self important. Wisdom can be as simple as making friends. Or it can be as far-reaching as building a beautiful culture, in which each person feels their lives enriched by participating and belonging, and in turn enriches the culture by their lives. (The best cultures are naturally formed from peoples' shared lives and self-expressions, where the peoples' lives have meaning and purpose, beauty and dignity, that intrinsically belong to a healthy and thriving culture.) Because wisdom looks for what is possible, wisdom cultivates the imagination, which is sometimes dismissed with impatience when we focus on facts alone. And wisdom has an aspect of morality or virtue.  When we seek the good, we need an idea what is good. In order to turn knowledge into good, we have to know what it is.

Sunday, August 02, 2015

A little friendly competition - and 5 ideas for sister congregations

In 2 Corinthians, Paul started something of a friendly competition between two congregations, one in Corinth and one in Macedonia. He tells the church in Corinth,
I know your eagerness to help, and I have been boasting about it to the Macedonians ... your enthusiasm has stirred most of them to action. (2 Corinthians 9:2)
So he used the enthusiasm he had seen previously in Corinth to spur the Macedonians. Once the Macedonians' enthusiasm was stirred, he used that in turn to encourage Corinth further:
If any of the Macedonians come with me and find you unprepared, we -- not to say anything about you -- would be embarrassed to find you unprepared. (2 Corinthians 9:4)
And this is not the only place where we see the New Testament considering not just acts of kindness and generosity, but how to encourage each other towards more of them:
Let us consider how we may spur one another on to love and good actions. (Hebrews 10:24)
Paul set up something of a "sister congregation" situation between Macedonia and Corinth when he compared them to each other, and set up a friendly rivalry between them. To keep Paul's idea alive, what kinds of competitions could a congregation have with a sister congregation? Here are a few ideas for competitions we could have amongst ourselves here and now:

  1. Who can collect the most jackets and coats for the winter coat drive for the poor? 
  2. Which youth group can put in the most volunteer hours at Habitat for Humanity over Spring Break? 
  3. Which congregation can collect the most toys for poor children for the Christmas toy drive? 
  4. Who can put the most -- or most appetizing -- food into their food bank? 
  5. Who can raise the most for the poor with a garage sale (Luke 12:33)?

It says "let us consider how we may spur one another on to love and good actions" ... It does take some considering. I'd be glad to hear other peoples' suggestions for how we can spur each other on.