welcome. why "weak on sanctification"?

this accusation is often made about lutheran christians. because we focus so strongly on god's justifying grace in christ, and our continual need, as "sinner-saints," to receive god's gifts of grace through word and sacrament, people say we are "weak on sanctification." i prefer to say we are strong on jesus, whose sanctifying work in our lives is the fruit of the gospel all along our lifelong journey. i would much rather focus on what he has done than on anything i might do.

the weekly discussion

each week I set forth a topic to promote discourse about some aspect of Christianity, the church, or the spiritual life. i would love to hear your perspective and thoughts on each week's subject. these discussions are usually posted on mondays, so if you missed this week's post and would like to catch up on the conversation, just scroll down and join us.

December 25, 2009

merry christmas!

Of the Father’s love begotten,
Ere the worlds began to be,
He is Alpha and Omega,
He the source, the ending He,
Of the things that are, that have been,
And that future years shall see,
Evermore and evermore!

i am thankful for all of you, family and friends and readers i have not yet had the pleasure of meeting. may god bless you with his very best gift—himself—during this Christmas season.

merry christmas.

today's church year art

giotto di bondone, nativity, 1310s, san francesco, assisi

December 20, 2009

advent IV—dec 20, 2009

fourth sunday in advent (year c)
resources for this day

today's readings
Micah 5:2-5a
Luke 1:46b-55
Hebrews 10:5-10
Luke 1:39-45

today's bach cantatas
bwv 132, "prepare the course, prepare the way"
bwv 147a, "heart and mind and deed and life"
bach's magnificat

collect for the day (bcp)
we beseech thee, almighty god, to purify our consciences by thy daily visitation,
that when thy son jesus christ cometh he may find in us a mansion prepared for himself;
through the same jesus christ our lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee,
in the unity of the holy spirit, one god, now and for ever. amen.

December 12, 2009

advent III—dec 13, 2009

third sunday in advent (year c)
resources for this day

today's readings
zephaniah 3:14-20
Isaiah 12:2-6
philippians 4:4-7
luke 3:7-18

today's bach cantatas
bwv 186a, "fret not, o soul"
bwv 141, "this is now the gospel truth"

collect for the day (
stir up thy power, o lord, and with great might come among us;
and, because we are sorely hindered by our sins,

let thy bountiful grace and mercy speedily help and deliver
through jesus christ our lord, to whom,
with thee and
the holy ghost, be honor and glory,
world without end. amen.

journey to the cradle, III
question: why is the third candle on the advent wreath pink or rose-colored?

answer: in the liturgical tradition, today is known as "gaudete sunday". gaudete is a latin word that means rejoice, and the third candle on the advent wreath is rose to mark this sunday as a special day of rejoicing.

like lent, the 40 days of fasting and preparation for holy week and easter, advent is primarily a penitential season of readying the heart through repentance and self-denial. midway through lent is a day known as "laetare sunday" (o be joyful) or "refreshment sunday". worship on this day provides a respite from the somber, penitential character of lenten discipline, giving a sense of hope to god's people that the day of celebration is coming. likewise, midway through advent gaudete sunday encourages us that god's coming is near, and calls us to shout for joy in glad anticipation.

the three texts from zephaniah, isaiah, and philippians proclaim this theme exuberantly.

the gospel passage (luke 3:7-18), describing john the baptizer's preaching, is not so transparently about joy. it begins by describing john's preaching and giving an example of what some might call a "fire and brimstone" sermon of judgment and repentance. however, even this strong message seems to awaken a desire for god in the hearts of his hearers, and they eagerly ask john how they can conform their lives to what he is calling them to do.

then, this word: "...the people were filled with expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the messiah..." (luke 3.15). john points them to jesus, and luke's narrative ends with the baptizer faithfully continuing his proclamation of the good news.

gaudete sunday is designed to heighten our sense of expectation, and thus increase our joy. like children who find it hard to sleep on christmas eve, we yearn with exquisite longing for the coming of our savior, the revealing of his eternal gifts, and the satisfaction of an endless holy day with god's forever family.

today's church year art
birth and naming of john the baptist

giotto di bondone, Peruzzi Chapel, Church of Santa Croce. 1313/14

December 10, 2009

advent prayers for our families

during the holiday season "family" is especially on our mind. since advent is the season of lamenting our darkness and asking god to shine his light on us, we pray that he will cast out the shadows of sin that hinder our dearest relationships and fill our hearts and homes with the light of his holy love.

we pray three things for our children and grandchildren regularly—
#1: that they will get established in life with good healthy family relationships and meaningful vocations that provide for their needs and make the world a better place.

#2: that they will become established in their faith so that trust in God will be the true foundation for their perspectives and choices.

#3: that they will love what is good and find joy and pleasure in things that will not only bring genuine satisfaction in this life, but also eternal rewards.

how are you praying for your family these days?

today's van gogh
cluster of old houses with the new church in the hague, 1882

December 6, 2009

for awhile...visit internet monk

i'm trying to help my friend, michael spencer, aka the internet monk, as he goes through some health problems and consequent adjustments in his work.

so, i won't be posting as much here on "weak on sanctification" for awhile.

i will continue the sunday posts so that we can all keep up with the church year together, but will not add much more until it becomes clear that michael is back for good.

thanks for your interest in the blog. you can still read what i write...you'll just have to go to the internet monk site to find it.

see you there!

December 5, 2009

advent II—dec 6, 2009

second sunday in advent (year c)
resources for this day

today's readings
Malachi 3:1-4
Luke 1:68-79
Philippians 1:3-11
Luke 3:1-6

today's bach cantatas
bwv 70a, "watch! pray! pray! watch!"

collect for the day (
merciful god, who sent thy messengers the prophets to
preach repentance and prepare the way for our salvation:
give us grace to heed their warnings and forsake our sins,
that we may greet with joy the coming of jesus christ our
redeemer; who liveth and reigneth with thee and the holy
spirit, one god, now and for ever. amen.

journey to the cradle, II
zechariah's benedictus is one of the great songs of scripture. its themes are captured by two lines, one at its beginning and the other at the end. both speak of god "visiting his people" to provide redemption and peace for them (luke 1:68, 78). (unfortunately, the nrsv translation misses this key word, substituting other terms.)

god visits us. he does not wait for us to come to him. he does not require that we meet him on his ground, rather, he knocks on our door and comes personally to see us. he enters our world—the word becomes flesh and dwells among us" (john 1:18). jesus does not remain far off in heaven but humbles himself, and takes the form of a servant in human flesh (philippians 2:5-11).

the first appropriate response to the initiative he has taken in coming to us is to offer him hospitality, to welcome him, to embrace him and invite him into our lives. "o come to us, abide with us, our lord emmanuel." receive the good news! god has come to visit us!

the second appropriate response is to go with him as he visits others. this is an especially apt word on this day, which marks the feast of st. nicholas. nicholas, the bishop of myra in the fourth century, was noted for his generosity to the poor and needy, and especially to children. like st. nicholas, god calls all of his people in christ to visit our neighbors and bless them with humble, loving acts of service. share the good news! join jesus in his mission to visit the world!

In his seventeenth century manual on pastoral ministry, george herbert said that the true minister of christ does not "disdain to enter into the poorest cottage, though he even creep into it, and though it smell ever so loathsomely. For both God is there, and also those for whom God died."

during this holy season, may we both receive the divine visitation and, in turn, visit those in need to share the love he has given us.

today's church year art
annunciation to zacharias

giotto di bondone, Peruzzi Chapel, Church of Santa Croce. 1313/14

December 3, 2009

an airline you might want to check out...

you betcha...

saw this on scot mcknight's jesus creed blog today and just had to share it.

December 2, 2009

praying for friends who are sick...

for those of you who might be interested...

i am guest-blogging at internetmonk while my friend michael spencer deals with some personal health concerns.

i know he and his loved ones would appreciate it if you would mention his name in prayer to our lord for help in his time of need.

here is a wonderful petition from the book of common prayer that we can pray for those who are suffering sickness:
O God of heavenly powers, by the might of your command you drive away from our bodies all sickness and all infirmity: Be present in your goodness with your servant ______ , that his weakness may be banished and his strength restored; and that, his health being renewed, he may bless your holy Name; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
(Book of Common Prayer)
today's van gogh
the garden of saint-paul hospital, 1889

have a culture-war christmas!

ponder anew has a post worth reading, called, "a season of wonder, a season of silliness". here's an excerpt:
The whole Advent season leading to Christmas is all gospel, tinged with wonder.

For the past few years, the beginning of the Advent season has also marked the beginning of the battle cry from Christian culture warriors.

You know the drill. Somebody gets all in a lather over store clerks wishing people “happy holidays” or as in Kentucky, calling a Christmas tree a “holiday tree.” Buttons are worn and bumper stickers are placed and “sign this and pass it on if you believe in Christmas” petitions are circulated on the internet.

And now, Focus on the Family has actually developed a web site called Stand for Christmas. The basic idea is that costumers can log on and rank various businesses as “Christmas-friendly”, Christmas-negligent” or “Christmas-offensive”. There’s a constantly updated percentage for each category listed for dozens of businesses, and as soon as someone sends their comments, an e-mail is automatically generated to the business itself.

...OK. But…really? Is this the primary thing that those of us who have received the gospel gift want to broadcast during this season?

count me out. how about you?

today's van gogh
half figure of an angel (after rembrandt), 1889

November 30, 2009

the weekly discussion--november 30, 2009

in my 35 years as a christian, i have watched (and participated) as more and more evangelicals and non-liturgical communities have discovered how marking special days on the church calendar can be helpful in celebrating and forming our faith. since the christian year tells the story of jesus, it is a great way to become more "jesus-shaped" in our approach to life, worship, and mission in the world.

as eugene peterson said,
when we submit our lives to what we read in scripture, we find that we are not being led to see god in our stories, but our stories in god's. god is the larger context and plot in which our stories find themselves.
most are introduced to the christian year via advent, the period of preparation before christmas.

today's discussion question is simple:
how have you, your family, and your church practiced advent?
it is hoped that we can be of encouragement to one another as we seek to inhabit the story of god and let it form our lives in jesus.

today's van gogh
shepherd with a flock of sheep, 1884

November 27, 2009

advent I—nov 29, 2009

first sunday in advent (year c)

collect for the day (bcp)

almighty god, give us grace that we may cast away the
works of darkness, and put upon us the armor of light, now
in the time of this mortal life in which thy son jesus christ
came to visit us in great humility; that in the last day, when
he shall come again in his glorious majesty to judge both the
quick and the dead, we may rise to the life immortal; through
him who liveth and reigneth with thee and the holy ghost,
one god, now and for ever. Amen.

journey to the cradle, I
happy new year! some of you may think this premature. however, there is more than one calendar by which to mark the years of our lives. on the church calendar, today marks the beginning of liturgical time for the year to come. today, we begin again to hear the story of jesus.

the texts chosen for this first sunday set our course for the journey...
  • the story of jesus begins with god's promises, spoken to a world that needs saving. "the days are coming," says the lord, "when i will fulfill the promise i made to the house of israel and the house of judah" (jeremiah 33:14). the promise involves a kingly person who will put the world to rights again, who will save those who trust in him and cause them to live in his safety forever. his name will be called, "the lord is our righteousness," and he will spring up like a branch from the tree that is king david's line.
  • the story of jesus encourages us to look for god's promises with expectation. in the words of david himself, we pray, "lead me in your truth, and teach me, for you are the god of my salvation; for you i wait all day long" (psalm 25:5).
  • the story of jesus instructs us to use the time of waiting as a time to share his holy love. the time of waiting is not meant to be a time of inactivity or selfish preoccupation. paul prayed for his friends in thessalonica, "and may the lord make you increase and abound in love for one another and for all, just as we abound in love for you. and may he so strengthen your hearts in holiness that you may be blameless before our god and father at the coming of our lord jesus with all his saints" (1thessalonians 3:12-13).
  • the story of jesus reminds us that the days of his coming will be tumultuous, and we must stay alert and ready. life in this broken world involves constant upheaval. some days, it seems the very stars may fall from the skies. "be alert at all times," jesus says to us, "praying that you may have the strength to escape all these things that will take place, and to stand before the son of man" (luke 21:36).
this is god's advent agenda. this is what the journey to the cradle involves—hope, expectation, love, endurance. day by day throughout this first season of the church year, we learn to walk and wait like this for the coming of our king.

today's church year art
the visitation

giotto di bondone, scrovegni chapel, 1302-05

November 21, 2009

mark galli on "transformation"

a wonderful interview with mark galli, senior managing editor of christianity today, has been posted over at the ever-interesting mockingbird blog.

a couple of paragraphs caught my attention as appropriate to share here, because they deal directly with the subject of being "weak on sanctification."

preach it, mark!

The other thing is the whole business of “transformation.” I notice how often that word comes up—our lives can be transformed, our churches can be transformed, our culture can be transformed. We imagine if we do everything right according to what the New Testament teaches us, that things will be completely changed. And if they aren’t completely changed, I’ve either bet my life on something that’s not true, or the Gospel itself is not true.

I just keep on coming back to Luther’s truth that we are simultaneously justified and sinners. I keep on looking at my own life, and at church history, and I realize that when the Gospel talks about transformation, it can’t possibly mean an actual, literal change in this life of a dramatic nature, except in a few instances. It must be primarily eschatological; it must be referring to the fact that we will in fact be changed. The essential thing to make change possible has occurred—Christ died and rose again. (And in this life we will see flashes of that, just like in Jesus’ ministry there were moments when the Kingdom broke in and we see a miracle. And these moments tell us there is something better awaiting for us and God is gracious enough at times to allow a person or a church or a community to experience transformation at some level.) But we can’t get into the habit of thinking that this dramatic change is normal, this side of the Kingdom. What’s normal this side of the Kingdom is falling into sin (in big or small ways), and then appropriating the grace of God and looking forward to the transformation to come.

click on the following link to read galli's article, "the scandal of the public evangelical," in which he expounds further on "the long-standing evangelical myth that there should be something different about the christian."

today's van gogh
field with poppies, 1889

group seeks genesis ban

a christian group, concerned about the moral breakdown in american society, is pushing for a ban on the book of genesis.

a spokesperson for people involved in saving, securing, and defending the old-fashioned family (p.i.s.s.d.o.f.f.), says that decent citizens have come together to protest that enough is enough, that our culture cannot go on promoting materials like genesis to our children.

jonathan fussminder, a parent and activist for the group said, "this book [genesis] is a classic case of the devil's bait and switch. it opens with an outstanding scientific depiction of how god created the universe, but then you turn the page and you have two people running around naked in a garden. that's satan's way. he draws you in with something that sounds good, and pretty soon, he has you looking at pornography. "they were naked and not ashamed" is the way the author puts it, and that's all you need to know about this book. i wouldn't want my boys reading that for anything."

when asked if that passage was the only one to which he and the other members of p.i.s.s.d.o.f.f. objected, fussminder rolled his eyes and said, "oh my, no. genesis is filled with r-rated material at best. you've got violent killings, parents having sex with their own children, men giving their wives away to harems to save their own skin, lies, deceit, polygamy, child-slavery, seduction, and so many explicit sexual scenes and references that i'm embarrassed to even talk about them."

when this reporter asked about the fact that some people consider genesis to be "god's word," fussminder became animated. "god's word? god's word? that just shows how far into decadence we've fallen. can you imagine a good and holy god inspiring a book like this? can you imagine god asking parents to tell these stories to their children? they'd be warped for life!

"no, this most certainly is NOT god's word. how it got into the bible we don't know, but the fact that it is in there may point to one of the most insidious acts in history. we are pushing hard for publishers to delete genesis from future bibles, and we also say that if genesis got snuck in there, who knows what might be in some of the other books? as we speak, p.i.s.s.d.o.f.f. has teams of investigators reading the other books in the bible so that we can root out this kind of immoral and corrupting material. just recently, i heard rumors that the very next book, exodus, may contain scenes of infanticide, murder, nightmarish and gory plagues straight from the latest horror movies, idol-worship, immoral partying, and more sexual perversion."

so it's possible that your work will not end with genesis? fussminder was asked.

"no way," he replied. "we're p.i.s.s.d.o.f.f., and we are here to protect the children of america from harmful influences. we won't stop until we've cleaned it all up, from genesis to revelation."

today's van gogh
the schoolboy (camille roulin), 1888

the lord's day—nov 22, 2009

25th sunday after pentecost
christ the king

today's lectionary readings
Daniel 7:9-10, 13-14
Psalm 93
Revelation 1:4b-8
John 18:33-37

today's bach cantatas
bwv 60, "o eternity, you word of thunder"
bwv 26, "ah how fleeting, ah how long"

today's van gogh
the church at auvers, 1890

today's good news
today is "christ the king sunday," the final sunday in the church year.

this feast of worship is not some relic from medieval times, when kings ruled the earth. no, "christ the king sunday" is one of most recent additions to the church calendar. it was introduced in 1925 by pope pius XI as an antidote to the rising secularism that he saw in the world. europe was reeling from world war I, facing economic uncertainty, and witnessing the rise of dictators who were promising to make everything right. the pope saw people of faith being taken in by the earthly philosophies and false promises of such leaders. respect for jesus as lord and ruler of life was waning, and so pope pius instituted this feast with three hopes:
  1. that nations would see that the church is ruled by christ, and thus has freedom and is immune from the state;
  2. that leaders and nations would see that they are bound to give respect to christ;
  3. that the faithful would gain strength and courage as we allow christ to reign fully in our hearts, minds, wills, and bodies.
today's gospel reading from john 18 underscores this tension between christ, king and ruler of all, and the political and military rulers of this world. we may make the following observations from the conversation between jesus and the roman governor pilate—
  • pilate represents many who have power in this world. he shows little interest in religion; his life is taken up with practical matters of ruling. jesus doesn't fit into pilate's paradigm of what is important in the world. pilate wants as little bother as possible when it comes to religious matters, he seems only interested in solving problems and moving on.
  • jesus represents a realm quite different from earthly kingdoms. his kingdom is "not from this world." it is not protected by military might. it is characterized by devotion to "truth," by adherence to the realities of the true and living god who made this world, who rules over it, and who will bring the history that he is guiding by an unseen hand to its consummation when jesus returns to judge and reign over a new creation.
though jesus opens the door for pilate to respond by saying, "everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice..." pilate misses his opportunity and ends the conversation with a classic question common to skeptics—"what is truth?" in pilate's mind, the subject jesus has brought up is just part of a religious mind game; it has nothing to do with the practical realities of taking care of business the world.

you and i, however, know that is not true. though the world may scoff at groups of people coming together on a day like today, to hear a word from god about jesus our king and to partake in his royal sacrament, we know it is here in worship that we taste of another kingdom. we proclaim our loyalty to christ our king, and remember that he alone has the power to deliver us from our sins and make our world right. we also remember that the nature of his kingdom is not to rule over others from above but to serve them from beneath, and so we go out into the world and represent his kingdom as we share the good news of his love with our neighbors.

November 20, 2009

weekly discussion—nov 20

what do you think of this tactic?

November 17, 2009

imonk interview

our friend, michael spencer, aka the "internet monk," was kind enough to ask to do an interview about my work as well as my perspectives on evangelical pastoral care for the dying.

of course, since he asked me to speak on a subject about which i am passionate, i couldn't stop talking. you can read the interview in all its verbose glory at the imonk website.

thanks, michael, for the opportunity to share.

my prayer is that many will be encouraged and helped as they think through how to minister to those who are in the final season of life. and may we be ever mindful of those who are mourning in our midst.

today's van gogh

November 16, 2009

let them eat cake...

reporter: hello, today i'm with william sola, great, great, great grandson of jack sola, founder of the sola bakery company. thanks for joining us today, mr. sola.

sola: my pleasure.

reporter: you are the latest in a long line of solas to have inherited the sola bakery business. if i understand correctly, your company is now being run in quite a different way than it was in the past. can you tell us about that?

sola: that's right. we operate strictly on a kind of franchise basis now. you tell us you want to run a sola bakery, we verify that you're a true believer in the sola name, and boom! there you go, you can run your own sola bakery.

reporter: how do you go about helping these franchise owners get started in business?

sola: we give them the book.

reporter: the book?

sola: that's right, the sola bakery book.

reporter: i assume that this book contains all the directions one would need to get a bakery going—specific steps for setting up a business, company policies, the unique sola recipes, all of that?

sola: no, not really. the book is more of a history of jack sola. it lays out the background of why he started the bakery, and then tells about his life, his sayings, and the sacrifices he made to start the first sola bakery. it also contains stories about the early growth of the business, and several letters that early company managers wrote to bakeries around the area to help them with their specific problems. oh, you can find bits and pieces of various recipes in there, and fragments of policies and procedures. but mostly, it's the story of jack sola.

reporter: it doesn't contain specific company policies and the actual recipes for baking sola products? how then do you maintain quality control? how do you make sure one sola cake is like another sola cake?

sola: we don't care too much about quality control. we pretty much just give a new guy the book and let him go. he's on his own then. we think the book contains enough principles to keep him straight and faithful to the spirit of our founder, but he's free to develop his own recipes and run the business any way he wants. this has led to a whole new, exciting era in sola bakery history, and we are celebrating it with our new slogan.

reporter: and what is that?

sola: "sola bakeries: a surprise in every box."

reporter: but, doesn't that confuse people? doesn't it bother you that people don't really know what to expect when they buy a product from a sola bakery? and what if they get something really bad, or even harmful?

sola: actually, we like it that people don't know what to expect. it adds an air of spontanaeity and excitement that we think is great! here at headquarters, we just say, "let them eat cake!" and then wait to hear all the thrilling reports from the field. if a customer isn't satisfied with her local sola bakery, we figure that there are enough other franchises in the area that she can try them all until she's satisfied.

reporter: so, the sola name really doesn't indicate what kind of a product you're going to get.

sola: yes, that's right. what we can guarantee is that it will be a "sola" cake, no more, no less. beyond that, it's up for grabs.

reporter: and there you have it—william sola, president of sola bakeries, telling us that, when it comes to sola cakes, it's a surprise in every box. good night, and GOOD LUCK.

today's van gogh

November 14, 2009

the lord's day—nov 15, 2009

24th sunday after pentecost

today's lectionary readings
Daniel 12:1-3
Psalm 16
Hebrews 10:11-14 [15-18] 19-25
Mark 13:1-8

today's bach cantatas
bwv 163, "only to each his due!"
bwv 139, "happy is the man, who to his god"
bwv 52, "false world, i do not trust you!"

today's van gogh
the church at auvers, 1890

today's good news

it has been announced that best selling author tim lahaye, who gave us the fictional "left behind" series of books, has agreed to write another series called, "edge of the apocalypse". the press release called the new effort, "an apocalyptic epic infused with political intrigue ripped from today's headlines." on lahaye's "left behind" website, you can join the "prophecy club" which gives you access to more articles, and the link to join it asks this: "can you connect headlines with end times?"

people have always been fascinated by the future. we love to speculate about the days to come and imagine what they will be like. popular movies have often been made about various doomsday scenarios, including one that just opened, called, "2012." it is purportedly based on predictions from the mayan calendar about a coming apocalypse that will occur during that year.

in addition to popular culture, the christian subculture is filled with prophecy teachers who claim to have special insight into things to come. some folks get caught up in the enthusiasm about these kinds of predictions and fall prey to those who make a career out of drawing connections between today's headlines and tomorrow's end times. i know one thing, some people out there are making a lot of money on all of this!

let's take a little run through some history together, shall we?

historically, christian groups who have focused on an apocalyptic "end of the world" outlook have been known as "millennialist" movements, since they look for christ to return at a time of great turmoil to set up a kingdom here on earth before the actual end of history. many of these movements have been marked by charismatic leaders who attracted enthusiastic followers, taught them that their dreams and visions along with prophetic passages in the bible were about their own times, and that they would soon be fulfilled literally. And they did so in ways that were often separatist, extremist, and alarmist.

during the tumultuous days of the reformation, many radical groups began espousing apocalyptic doomsday scenarios. the lutheran augsburg confession of 1530 took a clear stand against such teachings, saying, "Our churches also condemn those who are spreading certain jewish opinions, that before the resurrection of the dead the godly shall take possession of the kingdom of the world, the ungodly being everywhere suppressed" (article xvii).

in american history the most famous prognosticator of end-time events was william miller, a baptist farmer in new york and amateur bible student who became convinced by his calculations that he knew the approximate date of jesus' return. miller said it would happen in or around 1843-44. as word spread about miller's views, a publisher in boston got hold of this, and soon "millerism" became a national phenomena. at one time there were 48 periodicals devoted to advancing this teaching and over 5 million tracts published with his second advent predictions. believers in great britain, australia, and other places around the world also became adherents of miller's prophetic speculations.

eventually, william miller and his followers pinpointed the date for christ's return as october 12, 1844. it is said that 100,000 followers of miller's teaching gathered on hillsides and in fields that day looking to the skies, watching for jesus to descend from heaven. do you know what that day is known as now?—"the great disappointment."

however, failures of fulfillment like this did not stem the tide of end times movements. in fact, shortly after "the great disappointment," a young woman named ellen g. white, who had been a millerite, began to have visions of her own, and adherents of the adventist movement were soon following her teachings, claiming that she was a true prophetess.

the 20th century saw an explosion of this kind of teaching, popularized through the scofield reference bible and the rise of a fundamentalist form of bible interpretation known as "dispensationalism". the subject of prophecy gained momentum after israel became a state in 1948, because many of the doctrines end-times teachers promote have to do with the restoration of israel and the establishment of a messianic kingdom here on earth. an evangelist named hal lindsey popularized this teaching in his book, the late great planet earth, and writers like lahaye are the carriers of this approach to readers today.

what are we to make of all this? the simple teaching of jesus in today's gospel lesson should be enough to dispel most of the nonsense that has been taught about the end of the world, but it seems we haven't heard it. when jesus' disciples asked him about the end of the age and the consummation of history, his answer was clear. he told them that the events people normally look for as "signs" of the end—wars, famines, earthquakes, false messiahs, and so on—are absolutely NOT signals that the end is near. these kinds of troubles are normal characteristics of every age in this fallen world. as bearers of the cross, we are not looking for an escape from these realities of life, but for endurance to persevere in faith no matter what happens, through christ who strengthens us.

the christian's calling is not to sync today's headlines with the bible's teachings on the end times. nowhere does god tell us to do that. leave forecasting to the meteorologists. the good news is that you can save your money and forget about buying half the books in the christian bookstore. you can avoid the great disappointment, unlike so many over the centuries.

sorry, tim lahaye, we won't be needing your latest fictional contribution to the cacophany of alarmists out there.

the good news is that you can go on living your life and trusting in the presence and providence of god for every day, whether or not it is the last or just another along the way. the good news is that jesus is ruling right now, and bringing to pass his final chapter to the story. and it ends well, because it all culminates in him.

November 10, 2009

the weekly discussion—november 8

theology class time, friends. time to do your best "how many angels on the head of a pin" thinking. today's subject: the man christ jesus.

an interesting discussion is taking place on a site where i am a member. it involves christ's two natures, and particularly his humanity. in the athanasian creed christians confess:
For this is the true faith that we believe and confess: That our Lord Jesus Christ, God's Son, is both God and man.

He is God, begotten before all worlds from the being of the Father, and he is man, born in the world from the being of his mother -- existing fully as God, and fully as man with a rational soul and a human body; equal to the Father in divinity, subordinate to the Father in humanity.

Although he is God and man, he is not divided, but is one Christ.
in summary, jesus is both truly divine and truly human. one of the earliest heresies about jesus was the denial of his humanity (docetism). we still struggle today with grasping how god could "empty himself" (philippians 2.5-11), take on human flesh, and live among us as a full human being while at the same time remaining fully divine.

here are a few questions that michael spencer asked the group today to consider. how would you answer them? how do you conceive of jesus' human nature?
  1. How did Jesus’ brain develop? Did the development of his brain impact his understanding of himself and his world?
  2. Jesus lived in the social thought-world of the ancient near east. Did he transcend that thought world or did his incarnation place him completely in the boundaries of that thought world?
  3. Did Jesus miss any questions on the test? Did he have to study?
  4. Did Jesus use tools to measure in his carpentry work? Or did he just know what to do?
  5. Did Jesus, in his incarnation, know things about biology, astronomy and cosmology that were completely ahead of his time? For instance, did Jesus know that the sun did not orbit the earth?
  6. Did Jesus understand diseases and conditions from within the understanding of a first century man or did he know the actual medical/biological nature of diseases and conditions that were commonly blamed on demons or God’s punishment?
  7. Did Jesus know about viruses and contagious disease? Did he know the nature of mental illnesses like schizophrenia? Did he understand brain tumors, etc? If so, did he explain these things or did he respond to them within a first century understanding?
  8. Were Jesus questions real questions? Or were they all rhetorical?
  9. If Jesus did not have exhaustive divine knowledge as a human being, does this impact our view of him as God incarnate?
  10. If the Father reveals to Jesus some things that other men did not know, does this mean that Jesus had, available at any time, exhaustive knowledge of the future, science, geography, etc?
makes you think, doesn't it?

i'd love to hear your contribution. you don't have to be a theologian to participate. just talk to us how you think about jesus as the god-man, fully human and fully divine, and what that meant for how he thought, grew, and lived while among us.

today's van gogh
ward in the hospital in arles, 1889

November 9, 2009

what a weekend...

it was a weekend of...
  • tracing memories that elicit smiles,
  • enjoying much good and edifying family togetherness and interaction,
  • gorging ourselves on loads of great food,
  • relishing the most perfect november weather one could wish for,
  • living and dying with all the ups and downs of an amazing football game,
  • wiping away the tears of realizing that this is the last time we'll attend a sporting event on a home field for one of our children,
  • swelling up with pride for all that our son is becoming, and continuing to pray that he and our other children will find themselves, through christ, established in life, established in faith, and filled with love for what is good,
  • being grateful for family and friends that have supported and encouraged us throughout the years,
  • worshiping with gratitude on sunday and praising the true and living god, who created all things good and gave them to us to enjoy with thanksgiving.

"For what God gives I thank indeed;
What He withholds I do not need."
(Martin Luther)

November 6, 2009

why you should be very scared...

some folks think i'm too hard on the evangelical church at times, but i was referred to something recently that sent me into a funk of untold depths.

i will not mention the name of the author or where i found what he wrote. suffice it to say that these are the words of a "pastor," who from all appearances is a fairly typical contemporary evangelical church-planting leader. for reasons i don't know, he is no longer on his church staff or involved in vocational ministry. i'm not interested in besmirching his name or criticizing his church or anything like that. but i have to confess that when i read his list, my mouth dropped open in unbelieving amazement.

the title of his article refers to the move from being in church leadership to having to function in the "real world". in his piece he lists some of the lessons he has learned in this transition. i paraphrase some of his reflections...
  • he testifies that, until he left the pastorate, he had absolutely no idea about the financial, job, and family pressures most of the people in the church were facing in their lives.
  • he realized after leaving the ministry that getting up and preaching what people should do is easy, but living it out is not.
  • he realized after no longer being in the pulpit that he will never preach a lot of his sermons because he sees now that it is not possible to actually live any of it out in real life.
  • he apparently had no idea that he was asking too much of people to do all the volunteering he was asking for after they had worked long hours at work. by comparison, he realized how little he himself had been working while on a church staff.
  • he testifies that, when he was a pastor, he truly had no idea how many hurting people there are in the world.
  • as a pastor, he really didn't know that a lot of people actually hate the church.
  • now he realizes that as a pastor, he completely shielded himself from criticism, something he cannot do now that he's in the real world.
  • he confesses how much he really looked down on women and was sexually inappropriate in his thoughts, words, and perspectives.
  • he has now learned the value of the apology. as a pastor, he would never have said, "i'm sorry," because he thought he always had to be right.
  • he had a lot of fake friendships when he was a pastor.
  • now he's thinking that it will take a different kind of church to reach a community. when he finds out what it is, he will get back into trying to start one.
i'm practically speechless. this guy called himself a "pastor"? for heaven's sake, i think i would have known more than this as a new christian fresh out of paganism 35 years ago!

where did this guy get his training? who affirmed his calling and authorized him to stand in front of people and open the bible? did anyone ever check his theology? his ideas about what it means to minister to people?

it's obvious he never visited a parishioner at home—never even considered people who attended his church parishioners in the first place! probably never darkened the door of a hospital room. surely he never prayed at the bedside of the dying. did he ever pray with anyone? about any real life issue? did he ever stop planning cool church events long enough to listen to any real person? it's obvious to me that this guy was doing his own thing from the start and was as clueless as homer simpson about what it means to be a church leader, especially a pastor.

if this is the state of the "pastorate" today, may god have mercy on us all.

today's van gogh
two thistles, 1888

November 4, 2009

the cruelest month...

t. s. eliot was wrong—it is not april, but november.

it is november that sucks the color out of the world.

it is november that brutally strips the brilliant textured sweater off the tree and leaves it naked, shivering against the gray, cold wind.

it is november, when sky becomes steel, earth becomes stone, grass a wire brush, breath fog, each day a more rapidly drawn shade.

it is november, when time changes, and daytime suddenly drops into darkness before our supper is prepared.

it is november, when baseball ends, gloves are oiled, grass is covered, and stadiums sit silent and empty, too bleak even for ghosts to want to have a catch.

it is november, when the porch is stripped of furniture, the hose and bird bath put up lest they crack, the gutters emptied of fallen sky, a stretch of street with yards forsaken like the dormitory hall at lights out.

it is november, all gray and brown.

it is november, hangover after the harvest party, period of mourning after autumn's exquisite expiration.

it is november, the time between—between the joy of ingathering and the wonder of incarnation—when darkness gathers, unwilling yet to be dispelled.

the month, of course, has its joys but they are humble—smell of wood smoke rising, tears for the young gone off to war, college football's rivalry games and the beginning of basketball, a homely and heartwarming feast of thanksgiving, the quiet inauguration of advent and a new year to live within god's story.

three of the most wonderful women in my life have birthdays in november—my mother, my wife, and my oldest daughter. this november will mark the final season of watching my children play on sporting fields, as my oldest son completes his college football career. life will move more and more inside closed walls. we'll begin rehearsing our annual worries about how to keep the heating bill down and what we're going to do for the holidays. the shivering begins.

november is the cruelest month. between time, gray and brown, it sucks the color out of the world.

Yea, I have looked, and seen November there;
The changeless seal of change it seemed to be,
Fair death of things that, living once, were fair;
Bright sign of loneliness too great for me,
Strange image of the dread eternity,
In whose void patience how can these have part,
These outstretched feverish hands, this restless heart?

William Morris, "November"

today's van gogh
lane in autumn, 1884

November 2, 2009

the weekly discussion—november 1

feeling "left behind"? yesterday we had a stimulating discussion in our adult class about eschatology, the teaching of the end times. it was all saints day, and the subject fitting. i have had a long and winding journey through the eschatological landscape.
  • my early christian training through bible college was of the dispensational, "left behind" variety; you know—first the pretrib rapture, then the tribulation, rule of the antichrist, the second coming, 1000-year reign of christ (millennium), loosing of satan, white throne judgment, lake of fire, new heavens and new earth.
  • in seminary i moved more toward a "classic premillennial" position. christians go through the tribulation. some of the other stuff perhaps not so clear.
  • now i embrace amillennialism. christ is reigning now, in the heavens and in his people, inaugurating the Kingdom in this world here and now. when he returns at the end of the age, he will judge the living and the dead and put all things to rights in a new heavens and new earth.
what has your journey been as you have considered what the bible says about the future? and where are you now? how have the churches of which you've been a part handled this area of doctrine?

today's van gogh
starry night over the rhone, 1888

November 1, 2009

the lord's day—november 1

22nd sunday after pentecost
all saints

today's lectionary readings
(readings for all saints)
Isaiah 25:6-9
Psalm 24
Revelation 21:1-6a
John 11:32-44

today's bach cantatas
bwv 109, "i believe, lord, help my unbelief!"
bwv 38, "out of the depths i cry to thee"
bwv 98, "what god does, that is done well"
bwv 188, "i have put my trust"

today's van gogh
the church at auvers, 1890

today's good news

i wait all year for this sunday, so that i can join in singing one of my favorite hymns:

For all the saints, who from their labors rest,
Who Thee by faith before the world confessed,
Thy Name, O Jesus, be forever blessed.
Alleluia, Alleluia!

Thou wast their Rock, their Fortress and their Might;
Thou, Lord, their Captain in the well fought fight;
Thou, in the darkness drear, their one true Light.
Alleluia, Alleluia!

For the Apostles’ glorious company,
Who bearing forth the Cross o’er land and sea,
Shook all the mighty world, we sing to Thee:
Alleluia, Alleluia!

For the Evangelists, by whose blest word,
Like fourfold streams, the garden of the Lord,
Is fair and fruitful, be Thy Name adored.
Alleluia, Alleluia!

For Martyrs, who with rapture kindled eye,
Saw the bright crown descending from the sky,
And seeing, grasped it, Thee we glorify.
Alleluia, Alleluia!

O blest communion, fellowship divine!
We feebly struggle, they in glory shine;
All are one in Thee, for all are Thine.
Alleluia, Alleluia!

O may Thy soldiers, faithful, true and bold,
Fight as the saints who nobly fought of old,
And win with them the victor’s crown of gold.
Alleluia, Alleluia!

And when the strife is fierce, the warfare long,
Steals on the ear the distant triumph song,
And hearts are brave, again, and arms are strong.
Alleluia, Alleluia!

The golden evening brightens in the west;
Soon, soon to faithful warriors comes their rest;
Sweet is the calm of paradise the blessed.
Alleluia, Alleluia!

But lo! there breaks a yet more glorious day;
The saints triumphant rise in bright array;
The King of glory passes on His way.
Alleluia, Alleluia!

From earth’s wide bounds, from ocean’s farthest coast,
Through gates of pearl streams in the countless host,
And singing to Father, Son and Holy Ghost:
Alleluia, Alleluia!

Words by William W. How, 1864; Music by Ralph Vaughn-Williams, 1906

these words remind me that i walk with christ in living communion, and not only with him, but also with his immense family of "faithful witnesses"—those who have gone before in time (hebrews 12.1), as well as those who dwell in all places around the world (1corinthians 1.2).

October 30, 2009

October 22, 2009

my "suburbs" rant

death by suburb: how to keep the suburbs from killing your soul, by dave goetz. harperone, 2007.

i'll start this by cutting to the chase—this book ticks me off. not because i strongly disagree with it, but because i find it to be so devastatingly accurate and ugly. furthermore, it describes a great deal of my own life and character, and that just plain stinks.

dave goetz's death by suburb vividly portrays the world we have fashioned with our american prosperity. to use his term, it is a "thin" world—superficial, insipid, and unsubstantial.

as goetz sees it, the suburbs are...
  • a world where i must be in control
in a world that i will into being, there's not much room for mystery, for the sacred, for that which is outside my control. everything happens for a reason, right? if i want a better marriage, i attend the church's small group on marriage. if i want more knowledge of church history, i take a class at the local christian college. if i want to protect my kids from bad music, i play in the minivan the christian radio station that brands itself, "safe for the whole family." if halloween scares me, my kids and i can attend a fall festival, an alternative halloween event at a large church in our area...i live in a neighborhood so safe that the only way christians "stand up for christ" is by not serving alcohol at the block party. (it's a family neighborhood, after all!) even the construction workers working on the $1 million home next door listen only to nice Christian radio. how nice for our kids!

immersed in a context that values things done right or not at all, i inevitably conclude, most subconsciously, that i can control my life. (25f)
  • a world of "competitive parenting"
i absorbed quickly that my children's education needed to be approached like an nba championship. no detail was too small and no standardized test too insignificant. education was not really about learning but about winning. (p.8)
  • a world that's all about collecting "immortality symbols"
the meaning of children and their accomplishments is only one suburban immortality symbol. there is the sprawling five-thousand square foot house with the gorgeous sun porch. there is the "ken and barbie" appearance that some couples exude—eternal youth packaged in fresh cleavage and low body fat. for clergy, it's the three-thousand-member mega-church....

there is, frankly, no one more uninteresting than a person with no immortality symbols: the suburban family with no smart or athletic kids that lives in a relatively small house; the poor; the single mom left to raise three kids under twelve after the divorce; the elderly with no winter condo in florida; the midlife pastor with a small congregation. none of these folks is asked to speak at the college alumni banquet. (42f)
  • a world that feeds the deadly sins of envy, coveting, and gluttony
the 'burbs are all about striving to be unique, but we all end up competing for the same symbols—the four-bedroom home with the pottery barn colors, the l.l. bean underwear and outerwear, the fuel-guzzling truck, the purebred dog, the family pilgrimage to disney world, and the athletic and scholarship-bedecked college-bound freshman. my wife says she doesn't really covet her neighbor's husband but only the figure of his size 6 wife.... (p.65)
  • a world in which "church" is about my consumer preferences
within my protestant family, many churchgoing folk change churches as if they were changing drycleaners. if they come across a coupon for a dime less per laundered shirt, they're off to another store. actually, i think it may be less like shopping and more like casual sex.

it's certainly not about ongoing relationships. it's about the immediate experience, the brief sensation of feeling like i have found a home, a place where i deeply resonate with the worship and theology (at least for a time).

it's one year here and two years there, back to the first church to patch things up, and then on to the cool church with the AUTHENTIC charismatic liturgy where you can find inner healing. few, except for frustrated clergy, admit that local church loyalty is this thin; the reasons offered by church migrants (when someone bothers to ask) always seem reasonable. often the reason goes back to the kids: "there's no youth program for our kids, and we know that over at first church, they have a large youth program. and we really want our kids to make good friends."

parents will lay down their lives if their kids' spirituality and social needs appear to be at stake. it would be better to slap the cub of a she-grizzly than to suggest to any suburban parent that perhaps there are considerations other than the immediate welfare of kids for making decisions.... (127f)
  • a world where serving others is primarily about my own significance
i often find myself serving mostly in safe or comfortable programs, where no relationship with someone in deep need forms. there doesn't appear to be any conspiracy to preclude relationships with the poor and broken. it just sort of happens, or, rather, doesn't happen. it's easier not to befriend a single mom who at forty-two with a newborn and only $6-an-hour job skills fears telling the father that he has a son because he might sue for custody because she's in such poverty. why get involved in THAT? there's no upside. (p. 109)

this stuff really hurts. the "american dream" life, the life of prosperity, comfort, safety, efficiency and productivity may be one of the most inhospitable soils in which to grow true disciples of christ that the world has ever known.

moses, who had seen it all, who'd been through slavery and exile and persecution and the wilderness, warned the second generation of israelites who were soon to enter the promised land that they were about to face one of the most severe trials of their lives—the trial of prosperity:
Take care that you do not forget the Lord your God, by failing to keep his commandments, his ordinances, and his statutes, which I am commanding you today. When you have eaten your fill and have built fine houses and live in them, and when your herds and flocks have multiplied, and your silver and gold is multiplied, and all that you have is multiplied, then do not exalt yourself, forgetting the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery, who led you through the great and terrible wilderness, an arid waste-land with poisonous snakes and scorpions. He made water flow for you from flint rock, and fed you in the wilderness with manna that your ancestors did not know, to humble you and to test you, and in the end to do you good. Do not say to yourself, ‘My power and the might of my own hand have gained me this wealth.’ But remember the Lord your God, for it is he who gives you power to get wealth, so that he may confirm his covenant that he swore to your ancestors, as he is doing today. If you do forget the Lord your God and follow other gods to serve and worship them, I solemnly warn you today that you shall surely perish. Like the nations that the Lord is destroying before you, so shall you perish, because you would not obey the voice of the Lord your God. (Deut 8.11-20)
dave goetz puts it this way:
i think my suburb, as safe and religiously coated as it is, keeps me from jesus. or at least, my suburb (and the religion of the suburbs) obscures the real jesus. the living patterns of the good life affect me more than i know.
i guess what bothers me most is that so few see this. we accept our cultural surroundings like a fish takes water for granted. we don't see anything spiritually harmful in "the patterns of the good life." we don't recognize how they play to the flesh and anesthetize the spirit.

to aid us in battling "the world" as it surrounds us in affluent society, goetz recommends several spiritual practices gleaned from the history of the church and monastery. frankly, i'm not sure they are enough.
  • individual transformation through such practices is a key, but only a start.
  • at some point we are going to need to talk about what church is all about;
  • and living among and walking with the poor;
  • and perhaps participating in a movement out of the affluent suburbs and into the cities and needy neighborhoods;
  • and forsaking the mindset of "whites only" privilege that continues to predominate in the suburbs so that we can relate and learn with our brothers and sisters from other cultures.
thus ends the rant. thus begins deep heart searching on the part of this so-called "disciple."

thank you for the wake-up call, dave goetz.

today's van gogh

October 20, 2009

"wild things" i cannot control

david brooks writes an insightful column in today's New York Times about the new film, "where the wild things are." from my perspective, brooks sheds some very helpful light on what it means to be "weak on sanctification."

when describing some insights that the film sheds on the subject of character, brooks contrasts the "philosopher's view" of character with the "psychologist's view."
  • the first perspective asserts that individuals have certain ingrained character traits that shape who we are and how we act. i am basically a dishonest person or an honest one. i am either compassionate or unsympathetic. one of the life's great tasks is to develop a deep-rooted character of virtue. then, i can be the "hero" who will always do the right thing and win the day.

  • in contrast, the psychologist's view suggests that our actual behavior is not driven by specific permanent character traits that consistently apply across contexts. i may be honest in one situation while dishonest in another. i have many different tendencies that may be activated by various circumstances and moods. i am made up of what Paul Bloom calls, "a community of competing selves."
the film "where the wild things are" portrays that, even in childhood, we are torn by warring impulses that are difficult to understand and control. the main character, max, is a boy who adores his mother, yet rages against her; who looks up to his older sister, yet trashes her room when he cannot enjoy her in his life as he would like.

in the midst of this turmoil, max makes a fantastical journey to an island where wild things live. each of the monsters he meets represents a member of his own "community of selves." brooks comments on what the lad discovers on the island:

in the movie, max wants to control the wild things. the wild things in turn
want to be controlled. they want him to build a utopia for them where they won't
feel pain. but in the movie max fails as king. he lacks the power to control his
wild things. the wild things come to recognize that he isn't really a king, and
maybe there are no such things as kings.

the philosophers teach that once we achieve virtue, we do virtuous things. However, the view represented here shows that...

...people have only vague intuitions about the instincts and impulses that
have been implanted in them by evolution, culture and upbringing
[and, I would
specify, our sinful nature]. there is no easy way to command all the wild things jostling inside.

that may be one of the clearest statements of the christian's spiritual struggle that i've read"there is no easy way to command all the wild things jostling inside." i want to think that if i can only be king and rule over them, all will be at peace and there will be no more sadness. but i am not really a king, indeed, there really are no such thing as kings among ordinary humans. the answer is not within us.

however, there is a king outside of us who has overcome the wild beasts (mark 1.12-13), whom god rescued from the mouths of the menacing monsters and raised up in victory over them (psalm 22.6-24).

each and every moment, i look to this one, king jesus, to tame the wild beasts within.

today's van gogh
self-portrait with bandaged ear and pipe