Disclaimer

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!

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

A third world

As I said in my last post, Luther straddled two worlds all his life -- first, the world of the lower-class Germans who worked hard and lived in a mix of superstition and Roman Catholic religion that, at the time, was little better, dominated by saints and sacraments and little biblical spirituality. Second, Luther was clawing his way into the world of the university, the world of the educated middle class, the world of the thinkers and the shapers. All his life Luther lived in these two worlds.

But uniquely, Martin Luther shaped a third world. It started like this: Luther was sent to teach Bible at the University of Wittenberg in Saxony, what is now eastern Germany. Teaching Bible in those days was not a prestigious post. Philosophy and many other disciplines were much more desirable, professionally speaking. Luther's mentor, Johann von Staupitz, ordered Luther to take up the post because Luther struggled mightily with his conscience, and Staupitz wanted him to know the love of God, the grace of God, in Jesus.

It worked. Shortly after Luther came to Wittenberg, around 1515 or so, he was preparing to lecture through the New Testament book of Romans. As he prepared for these lectures, Martin struggled and struggled with the phrase, "the righteousness of God." He read this phrase throughout the book of Romans and he could not make sense of why Paul seemed so thrilled about God's righteousness. To Martin, the righteousness of God meant that God was holy and righteous, and therefore had every right to smite sinners. Luther knew he was a sinner and so he lived in fear of the righteousness of God rather than love or gratitude.

Then one day as Luther was working through Romans chapter 1, he read verses 16 & 17, where Paul says, "I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation for everyone who believes, for the Jew first and then for the Greek. For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith for faith, as it is written, 'The righteous shall live by faith.'" Luther pondered these words.

Later he said it was like the windows opened up and the sun came out and a fresh breeze blew into the room of the tower where he sat studying. In a flash he realized that it was not simply God's own righteousness that was being described here, but that the good news of the gospel is that God gives righteousness to those who believe, those who have faith, those who trust in him. It is this free gift of righteousness, given to the believer because of what Jesus did at the cross, that makes up the very heart of the gospel.

This moment is the heart of the Protestant Reformation. I know we generally mark the anniversary of the Reformation on October 31, 1517, when Luther nailed the 95 Theses on the door of the University Church. However, Luther would never have written these 95 Theses -- could never have imagined them -- without this critical realization of what the gospel itself means. It is fascinating to read Luther's commentary on Romans, written while he prepared these lectures. In it you can see the implications of this realization beginning to work their way through his mind. In 1515 Luther's thinking was still very much in sync with the Roman Catholic Church, and he is only just beginning to start to think through how radical this new thought might be.

As he moves forward from this realization about the "righteousness of God," Luther becomes more and more radicalized. He moves more and more away from the self-reinforcing bureaucracy that had come to dominate the church of Rome at that time and begins to reimagine what a church based on the gospel might look like. To start with, you see him just starting to question some of the practices around him, especially in the Church to begin with. That was not unusual in those days; many people were calling for reform in various areas.

The reason Luther stands out from the crowd is that he became utterly committed to the truth that God saves us, not through a bureaucracy, but through his own work declaring us righteous. The church is not the agent of salvation but rather the result of it. So the church itself needs to be subject to scripture.

When Luther posted the 95 Theses on the church door, he was simply calling for a discussion about reform. But when the bureaucrats started to push back, Luther wouldn't back down like most people did. As his thinking and his writings grew, he called more and more clearly for a truly gospel-centered church, a church that lived out the plain words of the Bible in a simple, Jesus-centered way.

This is the third world that Luther helped create -- a word where the common person could read and interpret the Bible and hold the Church and her hierarchy accountable.   In the next post I'll show you a glimpse of yet a fourth world that Luther did not try to create, but certainly pointed toward.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

The heart of the matter

What happened to Martin Luther, more than anything, was that he met Jesus.

To unpack that in our culture is more than a little difficult. We live under layer after layer of what we think it means to meet Jesus, and that changes how we hear such a statement. We live with the leftovers of Billy Graham crusades and evangelists walking us down the Romans Road or reciting the Four Spiritual Laws. We live under the unbelievable assumption that Christianity, at its heart, is about whether a person gets to heaven or not. We live with the belief that Jesus is primarily a religious figure and that religion is different from everyday life.

Luther predates all of those assumptions. He had his own assumptions, of course, but they were not the same as ours.

Luther was raised in a lower-becoming-middle-class household. The lower German classes lived in all kinds of spiritual fear in those days. Life was hard, and they externalized some of that difficulty through what may seem to us an odd mix of superstition and religion.  Kobolds and saints, demons and daily mass created a framework for the average German. Over all this mixture was The Church that made pronouncements and set expectations about what a person had to do to be right with God.

Being right with God was not primarily about getting to heaven, though of course it impacted that as well. Rather, being right with God meant being right with the Church, and if you were right with the Church then you could receive God's grace in day to day life. Culturally today we believe in sort of a deistic God who is distant from the everyday workings of things. We believe we can get out of bed, make breakfast, get to work, and take a break for lunch pretty much on our own strength. People in Luther's day believed that if you didn't have some kind of spiritual favor, none of that was going to happen. There were terrible demonic and natural forces set up to make your life difficult, dangerous, and deadly.

The way the Church preached it, though, God was vaguely displeased and distant. So you needed advocates. You needed a whole array of saints. You needed a collection of sacraments to funnel God's favor (grace) down to you so that you could survive daily life. In the context of outbreaks of plague, frequent wars and uprisings, famines, and a workload that killed manual laborers young, it was easy to believe you needed these resources, easy to believe that God was frowning from heaven.

On top of that layer of everyday superstition, Luther's family was clawing its way into the middle class. His father was a taciturn man given to angry outbursts and harsh discipline. Luther was sent to school because his father hoped he'd become a lawyer to advance the family's business interests, which involved a mining company. The schoolmasters were incredibly harsh by today's standards. Students who made mistakes were routinely mocked, beaten, and (occasionally) made to sit in the corner with an "assinus" -- a dunce cap made from a donkey's head -- over their own heads. Luther excelled in the schools and eventually worked his way up to the university.

Luther straddled the world of lower class superstition and the world of the university all his life. Many Germans in the 16th century were moving from lower to middle class, and Martin was among the brightest of a great crop of young men who were taking full advantage of their educational opportunities.

I'm going to interrupt this train of thought there for the moment; my next post will examine how Luther straddled those two worlds all his life, but then shaped a third world -- a world that quickly took Europe by storm and reshaped our present day realities more than we understand!




Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Getting ready for a party?

In 2017, the world will mark the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation. Like all anniversaries, this one is a little artificial. To date the Reformation from October 31, 1517, the date Luther nailed the 95 Theses to the door of the University Church in Wittenberg, Germany, is sort of like saying that my wife and I have been married 25 years next Tuesday. It's true, on the face of it, but the marriage starts long before the wedding day and you don't really figure out what it means to live in a covenant relationship until long after you say "I do." In similar fashion, the Reformation was building long before 1517 and didn't really take shape until long after Luther put his hammer away.

But anniversaries are important anyway as a way to mark the passage of time and influence.

Speaking of influence, in the year 2000 Life magazine featured the 100 most influential people of the last thousand years. A little presumptuous, maybe, but a good way to gain some perspective. First was Thomas Edison, and if you think for a few minutes you'll see why from our perspective that has to be the case. Second was Martin Luther.

Most people think of Luther as influential in the world of religion, and that's certainly true. However, Luther's thought, writing, and celebrity (yes, they had celebrities in the 16th century, and a cantankerous university professor was a likely candidate in those days) reached far into economics, family life, education, politics, vocation, and much more. I think Life got this one right, putting Luther just behind artificial light and recorded sound and just ahead of Chris Columbus in his impact on the world of the year 2000.

So what will the world do to mark the 500th anniversary of the Reformation? Like most things, I suspect it will take us a little bit by surprise. We'll wake up one day and it will be October of 2017 and we'll say, Huh. We should have some kind of a party.

That's tragic.

Lutheran churches at the very least (as well as many others) ought to be thinking ahead about this one, talking about it, anticipating it. We ought to be asking the question, What does Luther mean for us today? How do we translate his thought into post-modern, post-Christendom reality?  (By the way, this is the biggest danger for Lutherans and other hidebound traditionalists. We are so tempted just to import Luther into the present day without translating his thought and his context into our own time. Caution!)

Let me offer some suggestions as to how we might proceed.

First, it's worth getting to know Martin. If you haven't already, spend some time reading a good biography of Martin Luther. Roland Bainton's Here I Stand is one good place to start, though it's a little idealistic and a little scanty on details about the difficult later portion of Luther's life. Also, as long as you're at it, read some of Luther's own writing. The Large Catechism or the Smalcald Articles are good places to start. Also, find some of Luther's sermons. Read his sermons on the gospel of John. To spice things up, get a copy of Table Talk, which is a debatable collection of Luther's offhand comments around the table as his students were listening in after meals.

Second, churches (especially those that consider themselves to be part of Martin's tradition) ought to spend some time digging into his stuff. Do a series on the history of Luther and his impact on the present. Dig into the Small Catechism. At Calvary, we're considering preaching through Paul's letter to the Romans during 2015-2016 -- exactly 500 years after Luther lectured his way through it. By the way, it was in preparation for these lectures that Luther experienced what you probably have to call a "conversion" in his understanding of the grace of God. Everything he did later proceeded out of this conversion, this new understanding, and so you might say this is one of the deepest roots of the Reformation.

Third, Lutherans and other Protestants need to start now to think about what impact Luther's thought has on Christianity today. It's not enough to fire up the pipe organ and sing another chorus of "A Mighty Fortress." God created an amazing movement in the church and the world through the Reformation, and we need to be able to do the hard historical and philosophical work to think it through in the present. We will have a window -- probably a narrow, fleeting one -- to say something to the world in 2017. If we haven't thought through this stuff ahead of time, we'll miss our chance.

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Pardon me, I was reminiscing

I have not taken much time lately for reminiscing.

That's a problem. I'm in the midst of massive transitions, relationally speaking. I've taken lots of time to look forward -- to plan, to pray, to vision. But I have not taken much time for looking back, giving thanks, remembering.

This morning I find myself in that odd place where I would gladly linger over coffee now that I've had some time in scripture and prayer, and remember. I think it's important sometimes to allow your heart to go soft, to think back.

Transitions. My older daughter gets married in a couple weeks. Yikes. That's a big one. But there are others as well, not so obvious. My younger daughter is living at home this summer, and I am thoroughly enjoying her delightful presence. Both of these have become such amazing young ladies that I am a bit in awe of them. It's fun to look back, fun to measure all the angst of bygone years and see now just how -- in spite of all my mistakes -- they are doing just fine. Much to be thankful for.

And all of that means that their parents are also in transition. This quasi-empty nest phase opens new possibilities, as well as new challenges. It's easy to get so focused on the new challenges and not look back much at the road that led us here.

So maybe a quiet, cloudy July morning is a good time to reflect. To give thanks. To remember. To have one more cup of coffee and live in the past for a few moments, in order to hopefully expand my ability to embrace the present.

Saturday, June 28, 2014

Pithy

As any long-term reader of this blog knows, I am a devotee of N.T. Wright. For Father's Day I received a copy of his book Surprised by Scripture. I am only a chapter and a page into it -- it's a collection of essays on the value and methodology of using Scripture in debates current to the modern (or post-modern) world.

All that said, long-term readers of this blog also know that I am fascinated by our context -- by the way in which the debates of (NOTE: All dates are stupidly approximate) the Protestant Reformation (16th Century), the Renaissance (17th Century) the Enlightenment (18th Century) and  Industrialism (19th Century) inform the attitudes of Modernism (20th Century) and our petulant reaction against Modernism, Post-Modernism, which I won't dignify with a date because I don't think it's a real movement yet.

Keeping up?

All that said, I was so tickled with Wright's ability (page 26) to hit the contextual nail exactly on the head with the following quote. As usual, he takes very few words to exactly diagnose a serious problem in the church and suggest a serious solution:

"We must stop giving nineteenth-century answers to sixteenth century questions and try to give twenty-first-century answers to first-century questions."

Love it.

Monday, June 16, 2014

Go Big!

One of the things I've done during this time of visioning and long range planning is to read the book Go Big by Bill Easum and Bil Cornelius. If you are a pastor or otherwise involved in church leadership, I highly recommend this book. It's an easy read, almost stupid easy, but I believe it's exactly what is needed for so many churches today.

I vividly remember hearing Pat Kiefert in the early 1990's talking about church leadership. He made a couple very memorable points that I have carried with me ever since:


  1. It's not complicated to create a growing church. It's not rocket science. We know exactly how to do it.
  2. The tricky part of creating a growing church is finding a leader who will have the moral courage to make the hard decisions required.
Like I said, I've never forgotten that little talk Pat gave. (In fact I still remember a great deal more of it, but that's for another time.) This book by Bill and Bil takes those two points and expounds on them at great length and with great practicality.  Wondering about church government? Here it is. Wondering about finances? All there in black and white. Wondering about how to deal with difficult people? There as well.  Wondering about the role of church staff, or how to manage a church staff, or what the relationships between staff and lead pastor and staff and congregation should look like? Bingo.

But by far the biggest points in this book are a clear and unflinching look at the critical role played by the lead pastor. You just can't get away from that one.

And the most important thing the lead pastor has to have is a clear, massive, God-sized vision for the church to be doing what the church is absolutely supposed to do: reach people who are far from God with the good news of Jesus, and help them become followers of Jesus. If the lead pastor doesn't have that kind of vision tailored specifically for the local church, what's the point?

So I recommend this book.  BTW, many thanks to Pastor Paul Johansson, who has been a great role model for me for the last decade plus. He turned me on to this book at exactly the right time.

Saturday, June 14, 2014

Vision quest

As of this coming Monday, I'll have been at Calvary for three months. I feel like I'm getting to know the congregation, and they're getting to know me. We're starting to see a little movement toward discerning the Spirit's leading toward a specific vision for Calvary.  
So it seemed timely to take some time to go pray, read scripture, discern, and plan. I am currently out of the office doing exactly that. It's been good time thus far, with lots of good prayer and Bible time, lots of reviewing my notes from the last three months, and lots of getting specific details planned for upcoming things. Through the miracle of modern technology I've also had numerous phone and email conversations with coworkers and other Calvary leaders.
One of my goals for this time was to begin to come to clarity for myself as Senior Pastor at Calvary.  I want to have a clear answer for those who ask me what my own personal vision is for this congregation.  In prayer this week, I finalized this statement, then went back and listed some of the biblical basis for each portion of it: 
My prayer is that (Romans 8:26-27, Acts 1:14)
Calvary will become a (Ephesians 4:15-16, 1 Corinthians 14:12)
Jesus-pursuing (John 20:21, Philippians 2:5-11)
scripture-breathing (John 15:7-8, Colossians 3:16)
outward-focused (Luke 9:23-24, 2 Corinthians 5:14-20)
kingdom-seeking (Mark 1:14-15, Matthew 6:33)
community (Acts 2:42-47, Romans 12:1-13)
driven (Mark 1:12, Acts 20:22)
by the Holy Spirit (Acts 1:8, Galatians 5:25)
to make disciples (Matthew 28:18-20, Ephesians 4:12)
who make disciples (2 Timothy 2:2, Matthew 4:19)
and so storm the gates of hell (Matthew 16:18, Ephesians 6:12-13)

in the Name of Jesus. (John 17:11, Luke 10:17-20)

This vision time is designed to be a good balance of "big picture" things like this statement, along with specific details like assigning scripture texts for the September / October sermon series, for example. So far it's been good in both ways. 

I want to thank so many people who are praying for and with me during this time! One of the most awesome pieces to this time away is just the massive number of people who have committed to praying for the Spirit to be working in this time of discernment.  Thank you!