Disclaimer: I am embarking on a new course as Senior Pastor at Calvary Lutheran Church in Golden Valley, MN. However, these blog posts are not endorsed by Calvary, and they reflect my own opinions. Feel free to post comments or responses to these posts!

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Danger: God At Work

I have been so impressed today with stories about how God is at work, and more important, with experiences of God at work.

This morning a man was in my office who recently returned from Uganda, where he met a pastor who is leading people to Jesus left and right. This pastor is extremely poor and works among extremely poor people, but in the power of God's Spirit he is creating a community of health and vitality centered in Jesus Christ. I nearly came to tears when this man said the Ugandan pastor reminded him of me.

Later in the day I met with a church planter who recently came to Minnesota because he feels called by God to start a church in the Twin Cities. He has a gentle, patient spirit and genuinely cares about people. God has opened doors for him to start building relationships in a local YMCA where he is about to launch an Alpha course. We sat for an hour this afternoon, swapping stories of the goodness of God in opening doors, aligning people's gifts, creating relationships, and more.

Those are just two of the most obvious examples. There's the musician who happens to have a ton of expertise to be able to advise me in the search process for a new modern worship leader.  The tech guy who is able to create exactly the tool we need on our web site. The administrator who knows exactly how to assemble the list of prayer warriors for a particular challenge. The church leader who came alongside me for a difficult meeting, arriving early to pray over me before the meeting began.

I feel a little bit like I'm at the middle of a web of relationships, of circumstances, of divine interventions, and I get to see event after event, conversation after conversation, tiny miracle after tiny miracle. God is definitely at work. It's a privileged position.

The thing is, it's not an easy position. Don't we often believe that if we're at the center of God's will, things should be easy? For me, today, they are not. This has been one of the more challenging days in the last few months. But it's also been soooo good!

The moral, if there is one, I suppose, is that we should not desire that things would be easy for us. We should desire to be at the center of the web of God's work, and to have the courage to embrace what God is doing. Maybe especially in difficult circumstances.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

R.C. Sproul on Martin Luther's Insanity

This is an excellent video by R.C. Sproul dealing with Martin Luther's personality and the comment that some have made that Luther was mentally unbalanced. Good stuff, and well worth a half hour (or a little more) of your day!

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Religion vs. Jesus

These are not fully formed thoughts. I might well be in danger of falling into a rant. The last several days I've been collecting religion. Radio shows of people spinning their complex religious systems. Churches full of legalistic claptrap. Well meaning religious people who live their lives according to intricate rules dictated by their strange interpretation of biblical texts.

And all of it seems to zoom right by Jesus. I picture him standing on the side of the freeway watching the cars of religion scream past. In my mental image I don't even see him shaking his head at them. He just watches for a gap so he can cross the road without getting run down by the madmen of religion. He's got work to do, and they're all missing out on it. And him.

This is probably the consequence of reading Romans for the last few weeks. I have no patience for the flesh or the things of the law, and religion is all that.

For the record I'm impatient with myself as well, but I so clearly see my self diagnosed by the words of Romans -- I am dead in sin, but raised to new life in Jesus. I am living by the law of the Spirit of life, crying out "Abba, Father!" At the same time I do not understand the things I do, for the very thing I want to do I cannot do and the things I don't want to do are what I find myself doing.

Religion is most of what pulls me away from the life God wants for me. It's the particular bane of my existence and my profession. Who will deliver me from this body of death?

Thanks be to God through our Lord Jesus Christ!

Friday, August 15, 2014

Scripture in community

One of the thoughts that has been percolating around in my head for a few years is this: I believe that in the next few generations, the church will discover (is already discovering in some circles) that the key to following Jesus faithfully in our day is interpreting and applying the Bible in community.

Simple, right? 

But it's hard work when you actually get down to it. Building and maintaining community is a life-grinding process. When done well, it is incredibly life-giving as well. So in order to interpret and apply the Bible in community, one first has to be willing to do the hard work to live in community. 

For this to work, it also has to be a Christ-centered community. You can't just say that the local trap shooter's association is going to interpret and apply the Bible unless there's some common understanding that the Bible has some measure of authority over the group.

Second, it's critical that both "interpret" and "apply" are brought to bear. We've had groups interpreting the Bible for many generations. To the extent that those groups have failed to apply the Bible as well, they have been less than useless. Both study and action under the Bible's authority are critical.

Third, this is an ongoing pursuit, not a transitory one. Relationship -- with God and with humans -- takes time.

In light of all of these reflections, I was thrilled a couple weeks ago to be preparing for a Boundary Waters trip and to rediscover an amazing gift I was given this spring. The gift came from a group of guys with whom I was privileged to share an adventurous trip to Montana a few years ago. These guys bought me a Duluth pack -- a big canvas bag with shoulder straps, the traditional way to carry your gear in the Boundary Waters -- and inscribed the interior of the pack with their names and significant scripture verses. The Bible in community.

For your edification, here are the verses they shared with me:

Psalm 42:1
As a deer pants for flowing streams,
    so pants my soul for you, O God.

Luke 15:3-7
So he told them this parable: “What man of you, having a hundred sheep, if he has lost one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the open country, and go after the one that is lost, until he finds it? And when he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders, rejoicing. And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and his neighbors, saying to them, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost.’ Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance."

1 John 4:21
And this commandment we have from him: whoever loves God must also love his brother.

Matthew 21:22
And whatever you ask in prayer, you will receive, if you have faith.

Romans 5:8
God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. 

Saturday, August 9, 2014


Julie and I had some great conversations this last week with good friends on the topic of control. It's a hard thing to talk about, and most of us have some issues -- more or less -- with control.

Mostly, we want to be in control. We want to determine how things turn out. We'd like to have the power to determine outcomes, to decide that someone we love should be healed when they're hurting, to persuade -- not to say force -- people we love to make good decisions.

I totally get the desire to be in control.

But here's another question that's been romping around the edges of my thought all week: Does God want to be in control?

Now, hear me out. I know we think God is in control, but let that go for a second. Does God want to be in control? When you face a hard decision, does God want to be in control of your decision making?  When you are thinking about straying from the path of moral integrity, does God want to be in control?

I would submit that no, he does not. In fact, I think one of the reasons we get so frustrated with our existence is that God doesn't take control when we think he should. We think God ought to step up and make certain things happen. God should make the cancer cells die off, God should prevent the teenage daughter from getting pregnant, God should undo the weather systems that cause super typhoons. God should be in control.

I suspect -- and here I'm getting out into the blank edges of the map, where cartographers have written "Here there be Tygers" -- that God steps back from being in control precisely in order to allow us some measure of freedom, in order to allow us to grow and develop and realize our dependence and mature and get better at taking ownership of our own decisions.

It's just a hunch, you understand, but if this is true it explains a lot in our lives.

I don't think God is interested in having control.  What do you do with that?

Sunday, August 3, 2014

The biggest change

One of the hazards that confronts fans of Martin Luther is translating his thought from the 1500's to the 21st century. Obviously Luther knew nothing of electric lights, computers, automobiles, airplanes, toasters, bicycles, steam engines, or iPhones. But technological advances are not the biggest problem.

Luther knew about the discovery of the Americas, just barely. But geography isn't the biggest challenge.

No, the biggest hurdle when we start to read Luther in 2014 is that he lived in the midst of "Christendom" -- that system in which the teachings and structures of the Christian church have huge power and influence over all areas of society. Luther assumes so many things because the Church in his day simply had power over the daily lives of people. So much of his thought is structured around Christendom, especially when it comes to solving practical problems.

So we always have to be cautious when we start taking his words and importing them wholesale into our own context, where the church's influence has waned, where we live within a multiplicity of world views, where the Bible is an important book, but not automatically considered authoritative.

Yet some of the time, Martin recognized that the power structures in his culture were not in fact living  under the authority of the Church or acting out the teachings of the Bible. At those times he began to speak to our current situation a little more clearly. It is certainly possible to translate Luther's thought for a post-Christendom world, and I think it's hugely valuable to do so.

The other way of coming at Luther's teachings in this way is to find people who have been followers of Luther's version of Christianity who have themselves lived in post-Christendom contexts. That is one of the strongest arguments, in my mind, for paying close attention to a man like Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who followed Jesus in a Lutheran kind of way in the context of Nazi Germany, which maintained the facade of Christendom while denying its authority.

Saturday, July 26, 2014

Pointing to a fourth

So Martin Luther straddled two worlds and helped shape a third (see my previous posts on this).  The third world he helped shape was produced at the intersection of the existing powers and structures within northern Europe, especially Germany, and the gospel Luther discovered in the Bible. As Luther teased out the implications of "salvation by grace alone through faith alone," he reevaluated the churches, government structures, and societal structures around him. He commented freely -- very freely -- about how things needed to change in order to be true to the biblical word. But he also recognized the need for order in society and he was not revolutionary enough to throw everything around him into chaos. Unlike so many revolutionaries, Luther realized that change takes time.

So, for example, when the Roman Catholic bishops would no longer ordain evangelical (meaning "gospel centered") pastors, Luther figured out a compromise: for the moment, while we figure out how to move forward in a better way, the princes in each area can serve as bishops, exercising a ministry of oversight and order on behalf of the churches.

That solution is a great example of how Luther's third world was shaped by the Bible but was also bound by the realities of his present situation. And, to complicate things, Luther's compromises often led to unintended consequences. That example for instance led more or less directly to the state churches of Europe, where each nation had an official church that was in league with -- and usually subordinate to -- the power of the state. Luther didn't really foresee this and would certainly have objected to it in some ways, but at the time he was making the decision, it seemed like the best possible compromise to give the power of bishops into the hands of the princes.

So the Reformation produced a sort of compromise situation where the truth of the gospel struggled with the new structures that had to be put in place to keep good order in the churches.  People often talk about the great reforms Martin Luther initiated, but they rarely recognize that so many of the changes that swept across Europe in the 1500's were compromises between Luther's idealism, borne of a close reading of the Bible's message, and his practicality, borne of his clear understanding of the needs of the turbulent society in which he lived.

A solid reading of Luther, then, should also look at this idealism. We should be careful to see not just what changes Luther initiated, but the goals behind the changes. What values did he embrace and then compromise? If we begin to understand this fourth world, the world of Luther's biblical idealism, we may also begin to see how we need reform in our own time, and what compromises we may have to allow in order to reform our own churches and our own society.

Let's take a look at one example: church life. The primary expression of the church's life is worship, of course, and Luther had plenty to say about it. He talked about the Latin Mass, and about the German Mass, and explained why we needed both of those. (One could argue that the Latin Mass might correspond loosely to a liturgical order of worship, and the German Mass could correspond roughly to contemporary forms of worship. I realize there are huge holes in those correlations, but let it go for now.) But then Luther also pointed ahead to a different form of worship. He was daydreaming about it, and he knew it, but he still pointed the way ahead.  Here's what Luther wrote next:

“The third kind of service should be a truly evangelical order and should not be held in a public place for all sorts of people. But those who want to be Christians in earnest and who profess the gospel with hand and mouth should sign their names and meet alone in a house somewhere to pray, to read, to baptize, to receive the sacrament, and to do other Christian work.  According to this order, those who do not lead Christian lives could be known, reproved, corrected, cast out, or excommunicated, according to the rule of Christ in Matthew 18.  Here one could also solicit benevolent gifts to be willingly given and distributed to the poor, according to St. Paul’s example in 2 Corinthians 9.  Here would be no need of much and elaborate singing.  Here one could set up a brief and neat order for baptism and the sacrament and center everything on the Word, prayer, and love.  Here one would need a good short catechism on the Creed, the Ten Commandments, and the Our Father.  In short, if one had the kind of people and persons who wanted to be Christians in earnest, the rules and regulations would soon be ready.  But as yet, I neither can, nor desire to begin such a congregation...for I have not yet the people for it, nor do I see many who want it. But if I should be requested to do it and could not refuse with a good conscience, I should gladly do my part and help as best I can.  In the meanwhile the two above-mentioned orders of service must suffice … until Christians who earnestly love the Word find each other and join together.” 

Luther clearly understands here that he's looking ahead beyond society's current needs to a time when greater change will be possible.  This quote and others like it help us to begin to piece together Luther's desire for a "fourth world" -- a world that reflects the gospel more clearly, more purely, than the reforms he was instituting.

Perhaps our greatest task as we approach the 500th anniversary of Luther's Reformation should be to examine the biblical principles that drove him, to think along with him about what life might look like if the gospel shaped the church. Then, like Martin himself did, we must deal with the realities of our own time and begin to figure out where God might be calling us boldly forward and where he might be calling us to a temporary compromise.

A few more thoughts about that in my next post.