Friday, December 10, 2010


On November 28, 2010, we began a new church year. It began with Advent. This is the middle of the Advent season. We are preparing for the coming of Christ.

As Lutherans, we are liturgical. We acknowledge the season of the year. We remember what the season represents and we attempt to follow that which the symbols suggest. The basic focal point is the color that we use. The color is blue. It represents hope that comes from waiting. We are waiting for the Messiah, the anointed one. We are waiting for our Lord. We are waiting for the Son of God. Our hope is that God, through Christ, will bring peace to the world through love. We hope for social justice, political freedom, and economic equality which are all considered in scripture.

What we are waiting for and what we are hoping for is shaped by the reality of life. We read from the prophets and hear about the beauty of life that is promised. However, we recognize that such life comes from waiting, knowing that God’s time is not our time. We look for social justice, but realize that what we hope for is ideal. We continue to work for it and look to God for direction. We dream of political freedom, but know that those in power are as weak as we are. We continue to strive for such freedom. We wish for all people to live securely in safety, but know that evil is present in this world.

So, what are we truly waiting and hoping for? We begin by focusing on the arrival of Jesus. We look for his coming in the manger. We realize that the manger, the feeding trough, in which he was laid was not the kind that we place on our mantles or tables. Jesus was born in squalor. He was born, without a doctor, nurse, or mid-wife, in a shelter for animals. Manure was on the floor mixed with straw. There had to be vermin, such as rats and mice. Mosquitoes and flies would be ever present. The odor of the place would be a mixture of animals sheltered there. He was born, not set apart from us, but born to be one of us and to live with us and among us.

It doesn’t stop there. When we begin to “take in” all that it means for Jesus to be born in a manger, we realize that it is possible for Jesus to come to us every day. He comes to us in the manger of our hearts. He comes to us as we are. He lives among the “smells” of our lives and the squalor of our living. He resides with us as we open ourselves to prayer, join with one another in worship, and seek Jesus in scripture as we open the book of faith.

We also know that although he comes to us each day as the Holy Spirit opens our hearts, he will come again on that last day when he takes us all to be with him in his kingdom and we no longer have to hope for peace, security, and safety. We will be alive in the presence of God’s love beyond all time.

It won’t be long until we will be singing, “Joy to the world, the Lord has come.” Advent is the season of preparation when we can recognize that we are able to sing it each day of our life.

Monday, November 22, 2010


On November 28, 2010, we begin a new church year. It begins with Advent. We prepare for the coming of Christ.

As Lutherans, we are liturgical. We follow a calendar in a myriad of ways. However, some denominations don’t. (I don’t think God gives extra credit one way or the other.) We all worship in different ways. Personally, I think the church calendar is a blessing to the church. It can help us to focus on how and why we worship the way we do.

The church calendar can keep us in focus preparing for Christ’s coming and following him along the way. We can focus our attention on various aspects of our relationship with Jesus, the Christ.

One part of the church year is the seasons of the year. The church year begins with Advent. The next season is the Twelve Days of Christmas. This is followed by the season of Epiphany. Then, we have the season of Lent. The highlight of the year is the Easter season which begins with the Day of Resurrection and then continues through the Fifty Days of Easter. The Easter season ends with the Day of Pentecost. The following Sunday is Holy Trinity Sunday. For the rest of the church year we follow what is called Ordinary Time, or the Sundays after Pentecost.

The calendar is predicated on two festivals: Christmas, the birth of Jesus; and the Day of Resurrection. Christmas is always December 25th. The Day of Resurrection is the first Sunday after the first full moon after the Vernal Equinox. The Epiphany is always January 6. Lent begins on Ash Wednesday, which is forty days before the Day of Resurrection, excluding Sundays.

Here is how the different seasons of the church year can enhance our relationship with God, through Jesus Christ. Advent is a time for preparing for the coming of Jesus. We consider his coming into the manger, his coming into our hearts, and his coming again. During the Twelve Days of Christmas we celebrate the incarnation of Jesus. We celebrate the reality that God loved us so much that his son became one of us, not in a supernatural or exclusive way, but in the simplicity of life. Epiphany season is the time to consider that the light of the world has come, and God has made himself manifest in Jesus. By remembering that the Magi from the East came to worship Jesus, we recognize that God’s son is here for the entire world. Lent is a time for penitence, reflecting on our sinfulness. We acknowledge who we are and whose we are. Easter is a time of celebration. In the risen Christ, we recognize that we have been raised to a new life in Jesus Christ. Pentecost gives us an opportunity to consider the power of the Holy Spirit. It is through this power that we are empowered to proclaim the love of God through Jesus. Holy Trinity Sunday helps us to consider the mystery of the God-Head. There is one God, three Persons; it is all beyond our human grasp. Ordinary Time is when we ponder who we are as the body of Christ and our responsibility as Jesus’ Disciples. We are the church and are called to proclaim the saving grace of God to the world.

Another way we observe the calendar is by using the lectionary, a set list of scripture readings for each specific Sunday. The texts are determined with the season of the year in mind. There is a reading from the Hebrew Testament, a Psalm, a letter from one of the writers of the New Testament, and a Gospel reading. There are three different sets of readings. The set is determined by the gospel to be read. The first year of a cycle is the Gospel of Matthew. The second year is the Gospel of Mark, and the third year is the Gospel of Luke. Interspersed through each year of a cycle are readings from the Gospel of John, especially during the Easter season. One benefit of this tradition is to ensure that much of the scripture is being presented to the community of faithful. It is interesting how much the readings seem to fit the circumstances of a particular community of faith.

There is much to consider and much to think about each day of each year. The liturgical calendar assists us with our thinking.

Friday, November 5, 2010

“How Lutherans Interpret Scripture – Part III”

For the previous two editions of the “God Talk” blog, we have discussed various concepts of how Lutherans interpret scripture. However, no one comes to scripture with a totally neutral or open mind. Let me give an example from Mark Allen Powell that might help us to understand this reality.

Powell was doing research on a paper or his doctoral thesis. As part of the process, he surveyed three different cultures with the story that is commonly known as the Prodigal Son. Most of us know the story. The younger son asked for his inheritance. The father gave it to him. He squandered it on loose living. A famine developed where he had gone. No one would give him anything to eat. He ended up eating the food that is given to pigs. Powell’s question was, “Why did the younger son end up in a pig sty eating the food that pigs were given?”

Initially he asked that question to seminary students in the United States. The resounding answer was that he squandered the money. Powell noted that our culture is capitalistic. This would be an understandable answer.

Then he went to Tanzania and asked seminary students of that culture. The answer was quite different. The high percentage of responses was that no one would give the younger son something to eat. Powell said that in Tanzania, hospitality is considered very important for their way of life.

Powell also went to Russia. There he asked the same question. This time the greater majority of answers were that there was a famine. In the Russian culture, it has been deeply embedded in their thinking of the two year siege of Moscow during World War II where millions died of starvation.

All of the answers are truthful. All of the answers provide an insight into the relevant components of the culture.

Besides cultural influences of interpreting scripture, there could be circumstances in the culture or society that are different than when Jesus was on earth for his human ministry, along with the western culture and society that developed the norm for understanding scripture. Here is an example of this dynamic.

Lutherans were prevalent in Tanzania. At the time that missionaries were having some success with conversion to Christianity, they came face-to-face with a challenge. The Tanzania culture embraced polygamy. This was clearly against the understanding of how we were to live our lives as revealed in the Christian Testament. How should the missionaries respond? They could require that polygamy cease immediately, if they wished to sincerely proclaim their belief in Christ. However, what would happen to the wives that would be removed from the family? Their entire economic situation was dependent upon the husband. Also, they would also display sexual desires. Would they be cut off from all of that? Would that be the “Christian way” to deal with the situation? And who would be the wives that would be removed? Would it be the latter ones? Why? And if it was concluded that polygamy would cease immediately, how would that set with our understanding of divorce, as stipulated by Jesus? And what about the children of all the wives; how would their lives be affected?

The Lutheran Church of Tanzania responded by embracing polygamy, as it was practiced when people converted to Christianity. However, the practice of continued polygamy was stopped. No more wives could be added and those who married for the first time were asked to remain monogomistic.

All of what we have discussed, as far as interpreting scripture, requires prayer and understanding, along with justice and mercy. As Jesus said, God requires mercy, not sacrifice.

In all situations we must remember some basic instructions from Jesus:
  • Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your strength, and with all your mind, and love your neighbor as yourself.
  • Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.
  • Love one another as I have loved you.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

“How Lutherans Interpret Scripture – Part II”

Let me begin this second part of this discussion by repeating my introduction from last week. “If we want to be honest, Lutherans interpret scripture almost any way that they want to . . . . . there really is no clear cut definition of how Lutherans interpret scripture.” Continuing from last week, there are the following additional considerations:

· Context There are two fundamental considerations to think about. The first is the literary form. Is it a historical story, poetry, or some other literary form? Second, what is the historical context of the situation?

· Analogy When we consider the historical context, we ask ourselves if there are situations similar in our own context of the modern world.

· “Scripture in light of Scripture” This means that we try to reconcile what is said in one part of scripture with what is said in other parts of scripture, sometimes recognizing tensions between texts that seem to say different things. We try to be faithful to the entire Bible rather than just picking some parts and leaving others alone.

· Priority There are some books of the Bible and some texts that are more important than others. For example, Paul says in his first letter to the Corinthians, “For I handed on to you as of first importance what I in turn had received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures.” Jesus made the comment that we are to do unto others as we wish them to do unto us for this is all of the law and the prophets.” (When Jesus said “the law and the prophets,” he meant all of the Hebrew scripture at the time of his ministry.)

· Responsibility for Interpretation We believe the Church has the responsibility for interpretation. For example, although the Bible says otherwise, we believe slavery is a sin. On the other side of the coin, the Church believes it is appropriate to save for retirement, although scripture says otherwise.

· Binding and Loosing Jesus has given the Church the responsibility for “binding or loosing” the law. For example, Jesus bound the law when he said that to be angry with someone is the same thing as murder. Yet, Jesus loosed the law when he said that one could do work on the Sabbath to heal or satisfy one’s hunger.

We need to have principles in using the approach of binding and loosing. To begin with, Jesus gave us the Golden Rule, which is cited above. Jesus also said, “Go and learn what this means, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’ For I have come to call not the righteous, but sinners.”

We need to apply another principle, one that has been said throughout scripture, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, all your mind, and all your strength, and love your neighbor as yourself.”

And, finally, in all our deliberations we need to consider, justice, mercy and faith.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

“How Lutherans Interpret Scripture”

Well, if we want to be honest, Lutherans interpret scripture almost any way that they want to. Of course, I’m being a little tongue in cheek when I say that, but there really is no clear cut definition of how Lutherans interpret scripture.

There are many Lutherans who believe that the Bible should be interpreted literally. For example, this world was created in eight days, Noah truly took all of the animals on an ark, and Jonah was swallowed by a large fish. They believe that God guided every word that was spoken.

In response to the above, many more Lutherans don’t concern themselves with how the world was created. They believe the initial story in Genesis is a message of God’s love for humanity iby creating the world for us and of our responsibility to take care of it. In addition, we know that most civilizations have a story of the flood. It could be connected to when the earth shifted on its axis or some other cataclysmic event that separated the continents. Furthermore, Lutherans see the story of Jonah as just that, a major “parable” with messages for us to ponder.

Then there are those who are more extreme. They do not believe that Jesus was born of a virgin woman. They believe many of the stories in the Hebrew Testament are what we today would call “fictional. Furthermore, the Bible interpretation needs to be “adjusted” for current understanding of science, culture, and the dynamics in which we live.

There is one basic understanding of scripture from all Lutherans: we are justified by faith through grace. We have been made one through Jesus Christ who sacrificed himself on the cross so that our sinfulness would be “taken away” and we would be justified in the eyes of God.

There are other basic understandings: 1) Jesus Christ was both fully human and divine, 2) Jesus was on this earth for a period of time and had a ministry that lasted somewhere between one to three years, 3) Jesus was arrested, beaten, hung on a cross, and died, 4) Christ rose from death, not by being resuscitated, but in a new a “human” form, 5) He will come again to judge the living and the dead. All other understandings and interpretations are acceptable as long as these are not denied.

With this in mind, I would like to summarize what a contemporary theologian has suggested for Lutherans in their understanding of scripture.

Initially we look at the constitution of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) to see what it says about the Bible. The ELCA Constitution has two statements regarding the Bible. First, there is a general statement about the Word of God, which is understood in a threefold sense: 1) Jesus Christ (the incarnate Word); 2) the message of law and gospel (the proclaimed Word); and 3) the Bible (the written word). Second, there is a specific statement about the Bible as authoritative for the church’s proclamation, faith, and life. The ELCA accepts the canonical Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments as the inspired Word of God and the authoritative source and norm of its proclamation, faith, and life.

Mark Allen Powell identifies four phrases that Lutherans often use when talking about the Bible.

Law and Gospel: Lutherans say that the Word of God speaks both law and gospel and that both must be held together for God’s Word to be fulfilled: the law is that which accuses us and judges us, and the Gospel is that which comforts us and saves us. This message of law and gospel is at the heart of scripture: faithful interpretation discerns this message; faithful proclamation declares this message.

Sola Scriptura (scripture alone): Lutherans say that scripture is the “only rule and norm” according to which doctrines are to be established and evaluated. This does not mean that Lutherans do not respect the validity of sound reason or the legitimacy of human experience. Scripture has unique authority as the only record of revealed truth, and it, therefore, provides a perspective from which human reason and experience are best understood.

The Plain Sense: Lutherans say that scripture is to be interpreted in line with its “plain sense.” This means that passages are to be understood in the sense that would have seemed obvious to their original readers (e.g., “metaphorical” or “literal”). Secret systems of “coded meaning” are not to be imposed on scripture to produce interpretations unavailable to the original audience.

Public Interpretation: Lutherans say that the interpretation of scripture is a public act rather than a private one. Individuals should not view the Bible as a conduit for receiving private messages from God but should recognize that the Bible presents God's word to the Church as a whole. The meaning of scripture for individuals is to be found by seeking application of its universal message to personal situations.

There is more to be said about this. I will continue this discussion in the next addition of “God Talk.”

Saturday, September 18, 2010


So, what’s it all about? Who is this person, Martin Luther? Why did he create a denomination named “Lutheran?”

Of course, it all began with Martin Luther, because of fear, arising from a thunderstorm in which a tree nearby was struck by lightning. He vowed to enter the monastery rather than continue his legal studies.

After several years of study and travel, he still considered himself a sinner unworthy of repentance. He attempted to do all that the church at that time suggested and required. However, it never assuaged his guilt of being a sinner. Eventually, the studies of scripture eventually warmed his heart, especially when he absorbed, both intellectually and spiritually, that we are justified in God’s eyes by faith through grace.

The doctrine of “justified by faith through grace” became the foundation for Luther’s, and for Lutherans,, understanding of our relationship with God through Jesus Christ. All of our understanding of God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit is seen through that perspective.

Because of his new understanding, he found himself in conflict with the church authority of his time. At that time there were indulgences. These were actions or purchases that the church authorities said took away your sinfulness and your life in purgatory after death. Because of this conflict, he principally addressed this issue when he nailed his 95 belief positions on the front door of the Wittenberg Cathedral. He did this on October 31, 1517, the evening before All Saints Day. He knew the cathedral would be filled with people the next day because of this festival commemoration, so it would get wide attention.

It got wider attention than that. The Gutenberg Press was just invented. Of course, documents could be prepared much faster once the press was set. Within several months, all of Europe became aware of this document and Luther’s challenge of church authority.

Out of the basic doctrine of “justification by faith through grace” came a different understanding of how we relate to God, through Jesus Christ. It affected the sacraments, which Luther reduced from seven to two. It changed the way people worshipped. Luther translated a Bible into a common German language so that all people could read scripture. (Before this, it was only translated into Latin.) Hymns with secular music became part of the worship service. A new understanding of personal confession was presented. A different understanding of the presence of Christ in The Lord’s Supper was offered. Baptism was not just an event, but a way of life. Marriage was believed to be a rite of the secular world. In the church, the holy relationship was to be blessed. Ordained priests were permitted to marry. Convents and monasteries, while not shunned, were not identified as a means to a better way of life.

In Luther’s understanding of this divine relationship, there was no separation between our worldly/secular life and our Christian/spiritual life. Yet, we are in the world, not of the world. There were two reasons for the law. First was so that we might lead an orderly secular life. The second was to help us recognize our sinfulness which would drive us to the cross. Luther stated that we cannot recognize God’s grace unless we recognize our true sinfulness. Furthermore, we cannot recognize our true sinfulness unless we can recognize God’s grace. They go hand-in-hand.

Luther’s theology helped to form a basic understanding of what is called, “Being a theologian of the cross.” Simply stated, God’s love for humanity, while evidenced in all of creation, becomes a reality at the cross. God’s love and grace are seen in our experience of human suffering. What is known to be good in the world is evil in the eyes of God. What is evil in the eyes of the world is known to be good with God. Luther was saying that “what is, is what it is.” In other words, we accept life on life’s terms.

What is interesting about Luther is that he never wanted to break from the institutional church of his time. What he wanted was reform. That is why we call what happened as “The Reformation.” Luther was defrocked by the institutional church of his time and labeled a heretic.

Luther would like nothing better than to see us all become “one Lord, one faith, one baptism.” We celebrate and reflect upon that possibility each year on the Sunday before October 31. This year Reformation Sunday and the Day of Reformation are the same.

Friday, September 3, 2010


There are many ways we can approach scripture. If you are of the Jewish heritage, you would approach scripture reading only the Hebrew Testament. Then, you might fall into one of several categories, Orthodox, Conservative, or Liberal. Each of those would approach scripture a different way.

It is no different with Christianity. There are numerous denominations. Each one has its own “spin” on how we live out our lives as believers and/or disciples of Jesus Christ. The article on this blog would be extensive if I attempted to categorize them all. That is not my purpose.

What I want for us to consider is a Lutheran approach. The approach I’m talking about takes scripture as a whole and looks upon the writings as the story of God interacting with humanity from its beginning, represented by Adam and Eve and moving forward in history – namely, space and time – to the life and ministry of Jesus Christ. When we look through that lens, we might find ourselves discovering the intense love of God toward humanity throughout all of scripture, with the intensity reaching a crescendo at Golgatha where Jesus hung from a cross. It is there where we meet God and God’s love. It is there we come to witness the power of God as God uses death to overcome death. It is there where we see humanity, represented by Jesus, humble itself and open itself totally to the power of God and God’s power of love that gives new life.

All of Biblical history comes to an apex at that cross and then carries us through to the empty tomb.

If we believe that approach, then it is at the cross we must go. It is there we realize that we are powerless over the world. It is there where we meet the face of sin. It is there where we get a of glimpse of Jesus’ love for us and what it means to be his disciple.

No one wants suffering. No one looks for suffering. Yet, it seems that through suffering, we find God. Through suffering, we find Jesus. Through suffering, we begin to understand Jesus’ call to us and the way of the cross.

When we approach scripture as described above, we hear several significant comments of Jesus that all connect to one another: 1) Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your strength, and with all your mind; and love your neighbor as yourself. 2) Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. 3) Lose your life for my sake and you will find it. 4) Pick up your cross and follow me. 5) Die to self so that you might live. 6) Love one another as I have loved you.

It is only in suffering that we are able to follow Jesus’ instructions. The initial basis for suffering has to do with “picking up our own cross and following Jesus.” It seems to me a basic component of experiencing this is to be open to the Spirit and to be willing to lose one’s ego for Christ’s sake. To do so is not painless. To begin to do so begins a process of experiencing one’s own sin as character defects and personal shortcomings. To do so is to begin to see the world through the eyes of Jesus and see the world’s approach to life that is counter to Jesus’ call to discipleship. To do so is to identify and acknowledge “the other.” We recognize the marginalized, the outcast, the scapegoat, and sinners like us, those who have no one to speak for them.

“Losing one’s self” and/or “dying to self” is not meant for us to be door mat, used, or manipulated. Losing and dying help us to reach a higher level of self-differentiation that brings to us an understanding of who we are and Whose we are. Through the power of the Holy Spirit we develop, sometimes quickly, sometimes slowly, a more personal relationship with God through Jesus Christ.

It is in this dying and losing, and it is in the cross-carrying, that we are able to begin to experience loving others as Christ has loved us.

Thursday, August 19, 2010


Karl Barth was a predominant theologian of the early and mid-twentieth century. He opened wide the doors for new thinking as we consider the concept of God and our relationship with him. One of his notions was that in order to respond to God’s word in this world of ours, we must hold the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other. The application of our faith comes within the context of where, how, and what our living situation is all about.

When we read scripture, we can understand why Karl Barth said that. Just follow Jesus. His faith in God was unquestioned. However, Jesus’ faith was not demonstrated by high theological concepts, but how he lived his life during his ministry on this earth. He lived among the people. He taught among the people. His parable and responses to comments by those with whom he conversed were filled with the experiences such people faced during the time Jesus was there.

So, I grabbed today’s paper and I am listing below some of the topics, locally and nationally, that are addressed today. The question is, as followers of Jesus, how would we respond to these issues using our relationship with God, through Jesus Christ, as a catalyst for response?

Public Building Authority – Johnson City has a Public Building Authority (PBA) that has come under scrutiny lately because of potential land swap deals. The PBA controls the use of Millennium Centre. The Centre has experienced deficits in the past. It has land within its acreage that could be sold to offset the deficit. According to the article, the PBA faces a murky future. So, where is God in all this? Is this something we need to consider as followers of Christ? Is there a stewardship issue here that Christians need to take into consideration? Is the PBA a functioning organization that brings responsible leadership to the community that brings with it appropriate accountability?

A Muslim Center - The Johnson City Press’ front page story’s headline is “Good Neighbors.” The article presents the issue of a mosque built in 2008 for Muslim worshippers. While it talks about the success of open-minded people here in Johnson City, it is a referral to the difficulties in Murfreesboro as Muslims attempt to build a center there. Of course, the heated issue nationally is the Muslin center that is proposed to be built near Ground Zero where the World Trade Towers were destroyed. What would Jesus’ position be? First of all, scripture says that he came to minister to the lost people of Israel. He did realize that his ministry was also to the Gentiles, as suggested by his encounter with the Syro-Phoenician woman. In scripture we see that Jesus is compassionate to all people, except for those who are self-righteous. Two of Jesus’ basic tenets were that we are to love our neighbors as ourselves and to do unto others as we would have them do unto us. Jesus also said that we are to love our enemies and do good to those who hate us. However, are we demonstrating these principles to those who have been affected by the destruction of the towers by permitting the Muslim center to be built? Furthermore, what is our understanding of freedom of religion under the constitution? Where is God in all this, and are our thoughts and feelings in sync with Jesus call to discipleship?

BP Corporate Image – In the business section of the Johnson City Press, an article reports that the BP image is recovering from the oil spill, but it is still low. Again, where is God in all this? What do we think about it and where do we “land” with our thoughts and feelings. Is there a need for forgiveness and reconciliation to a corporate entity? Has there been a demonstration of repentance by the corporation, if such is required? We all realize that a major issue of the oil spill is the damage to the ecology and creation, which God has given to us to protect and of which we are called to be stewards. Is the corporation, along with the issue of the environment, so big that we cannot wrap ourselves around it and so all we can do is ignore it? Or, do we show continued disapproval by boycotting those places where we know BP products are sold?

These are just three issues that were presented in the Johnson City Press on August 19, 2010. What is our responsibility as Christians? What does God call us to think about, feel, and to do? This is what Karl Barth was talking about. This is what we are about as Christians. While in many situations, we are either helpless or it is beyond our capability to be responsive, we can discuss, consider, and pray about the issues of everyday life that affect us and our neighbor.

Thursday, August 5, 2010


Who likes change? Change is dreaded by many people. There’s the familiar comment, “How many Lutherans does it take to change a light bulb?” The answer is: three. There is one to change the light bulb and two with shotguns to make sure there are no other changes.

However, we all experience change. It’s part of life. The seasons change. We’re all used to that. If we have children, they change. If we have spouses, they change. We can make a long list of the changes that occur all the time.

Yet, many of us don’t like change. So what does that have to do with our faith? What does change have to do with our relationship with God, through Jesus Christ?

There are two realities that we acknowledge. They are opposed to one another. We recognize that Jesus accepts us just the way we are. Yet, Jesus, out of love, desires to transform us. Spiritually this begins at baptism when, through the waters of baptism, we die a death like Christ and are raised to a new life in Christ. We are transformed because, through baptism, it is no longer we who live, but it is Christ who lives within us. Now, that is change at the highest level. It is a spiritual change. However, we are still human. When we are baptized we still have what is called the ego. We still have our human frailties and human imperfections. Although, spiritually we may desire to be transformed with the power of Christ within us, our humanness wants to remain the way we are. Our humanness knows what we can expect when we are in control of our lives. We don’t know what to expect otherwise.

Let’s look at another concept. One of Jesus’ imperatives is to “repent.” It comes from the Greek word, “metanoia.” That Greek word is a combination of “after” and “think.” Combining the two words into the word “metanoia,” means that we think differently.

Another way to look at it is that Jesus calls us to change our way of thinking about ninety degrees. Three of Jesus’ imperatives are very powerful for this way of changing. He says that we need to die in order to live. We need to pick up our cross and follow him. We need to lose our life for the sake of the gospel and for his sake. Those are transformational challenges that are virtually impossible to do without the power of the Holy Spirit to guide and lead us.

What Jesus is asking us to do is to think and focus on him, not on us. Jesus is asking us to realize that life is about God, not about us. Jesus is asking us to think outward rather than inward on ourselves. That’s what is involved in living the Christian life. That is what is involved when we commit ourselves to discipleship.

Now that’s change.

Thursday, July 22, 2010


Speaking of “buzz words,” one of the most well known among Lutherans is the term “Law and Gospel.” Our interpretation of scripture always includes this foundational concept. When Lutherans read scripture, we are reminded to look for both the law and the gospel in the text we are reading.

One of the basic understandings of this concept is that the law convicts us of our mortality and our brokenness. It is with that understanding that we are driven to the cross. The gospel reveals the love of God for us and our redemption through Jesus Christ, because of the cross and the resurrection.

When we think about the term “law,” we usually connect it with the Old, or Hebrew, Testament. When we think about the term “gospel,” we usually connect it with the New, or Christian, Testament. However, the law can be found throughout the entire Bible. The gospel can also be found throughout all of scripture.

In the beginning, Adam and Eve disobeyed God. When God removed from the Garden of Eden, we appropriately recognize law for the consequences of their actions. However, we don’t often “hear” the gospel when God clothed them. The same goes for their son, Cain, when God placed a mark on him so that no one would kill him. David lost the son born of Bathsheba because of his adultery. Furthermore, civil war erupted in the years following. Yet, from that relationship, Solomon was born and became the most powerful king in the history of Israel.

All of the gospels spent much of their time telling the story of Jesus’ passion and resurrection. It is the story of the gospel, or good news of the victory of Jesus. Yet, read the Sermon on the Mount and find the new laws that Jesus was prescribing as he redefined them, making some more flexible and others more strict. Remember the story of the rich man? Remember how he could not sell all that he had and follow Jesus? This is another example of the law within the gospel.

We need both law and gospel. We always need to be reminded of who we are and whose we are. We need to be reminded that we are broken, sinful, and imperfect with shortcomings and character defects.

It is through the law and the gospel that we have a deeper understanding of our relationship with God through Jesus Christ.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010


Somewhere I have read or heard that, “Confession is good for the soul.” While it probably isn’t scriptural, it certainly is good theology. I have included in my “book” of sayings, “We are as sick as our secrets.” I don’t know about anyone else, but it is certainly true for me. It has also been obvious when I have listened to other people’s stories.

I believe confession is necessary to clean the soul of spiritually toxic material that can impair the abundant life that Christ wishes us to live. In Lutheran worship, we have a general confession that assists us as we prepare for worship. It is a reminder that we are sinful, we are in bondage to sin, and that we humbly come before our God, through Jesus Christ, to seek forgiveness and reconciliation. It may also remind us that we are saint and sinner at the same time. This confession is also part of other denominations’ liturgies. However, in some denominations, it is believed that once we are saved we are always saved and there is no need for additional confession.

Martin Luther had this to say about confession. He asked, What is confession? His response was, Confession embraces two parts: the one is, that we confess our sins; the other, that we receive absolution, or forgiveness, from the confessor, as from God Himself, and in no wise doubt, but firmly believe, that our sins are thereby forgiven before God in heaven. And, he also asked, What sins should we confess? Again, he responded, Before God we should plead guilty of all sins, even of those which we do not know, as we do in the Lord's Prayer. But before the confessor we should confess those sins alone which we know and feel in our hearts.” Luther believed that there was a need for us to use a individual confessor to cleanse our souls of those character defects and shortcomings that affected our relationship with God. In the 12-Step programs, there is also a belief in this need to confess. Steps 4 and 5 reflect this belief and need for action: STEP 4 - Made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves. STEP 5 - Admitted to God, to ourselves and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs.
Dietrich Bonhoffer talked about this subject in his book, Life Together, where he discussed life in the community of faith. Sin that has been spoken and confessed has lost all of its power. It has been revealed and judged as sin. It can no longer tear apart the community. Now the community bears the sin of the individual believer, who is no longer alone with this evil but has “cast off” this sin by confessing it and handing it over to God. The sinner has been relieved of sin’s burden. Now the sinner stands in the community of sinners who live by grace of God in the cross of Jesus Christ. Now one is allowed to be a sinner and still enjoy the grace of God. We can admit our sins and in this very act find community for the first time. The hidden sins separated the sinner from the community and made the sinner’s apparent community all a sham. The sins that were acknowledged helped the sinner to find true community with other believers in Jesus Christ. Bonhoffer goes on to say, A confession of sin in the presence of all the members of the congregation is not required to restore one to community with the entire congregation. In the one other Christian to whom I confess my sins and by whom my sins are declared forgiven, I meet the whole congregation.

So, what is sin? Of course we have the Ten Commandments. They outline the basic relationship we have with God and with one another. If any of those are damaged, then we sin. However, those enumerated commandments may be too specific. Martin Luther also said that the basic sin is that of self-centeredness. In other words, we never get past the first commandment. Scholars who have studied the Gospel of John have indicated that the author of John might have been indicating that sin, according to that gospel, is not to have faith and trust in Jesus. Other theologians have suggested that sin is anything that keeps us from having a healthy relationship with another.

One reason we do not attempt to bring another person into our life through confession is because of the deep confidentiality of our comments. We just don’t share our private thoughts and past actions with just anyone. This lack of trust also includes pastors/ministers/priests. This is understandable. A real blessing is to identify someone within the community of faith who can be trusted, with whom you can share personal concerns, and you know will keep such conversations fully confidential.

The words of Luther, Bonhoffer, and others give us much to think about. However we treat sin, however we deal with it, we need to consider that sin can be toxic in nature and destroy relationships. However, as Jesus reminded us, to indentify sin, we begin with ourselves.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010


Do you feel helpless at times with everything that is happening in the world and in this country? Do you sometimes think that all “is going to the dogs?” Do you wonder what’s going to happen to your life, the lives of your children, and/or the lives of your grandchildren? I do. These are not happy, joyous and free times.

Personally, I get angry when I think about the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. I don’t think anyone knows exactly how much oil has spilled into the waters. It has to be millions of gallons. I see the wild life – birds, turtles, dolphins, fish, and other creatures of God whose lives are being threatened, whose species is being potentially exterminated, by this man-made disaster. I hear of entire industries that are being disastrously affected, so much so that such industries may never come back. And then I think that those leading the fight to correct the situation represent one of the largest, wealthiest world corporations and the most powerful government this world has ever known, and neither one can bring the situation under control until the damage is even more severe. What’s happening? The ultimate results are fearful.

Personally, our retirement funds are extremely dependent on the vagaries of the stock market. Although our retirement fund is not large, its potential erosion could decimate our simple style of living. Yes, much of the value has returned. Yet, the roller coaster ride of the stock markets certainly makes us nervous. It sometimes makes me fearful.

Then there is the economy. We are not affected greatly by it, but there are many I know who are. They are happy just to have employment. They are even happier if their employment includes health benefits. Anyone looking for employment knows that there are a multitude of people, along with them, who have applied for a position. If it wasn’t necessary before, it is necessary now that both parents work. Homes are being foreclosed. Automobiles are being repossessed. In Southern Washington County, around the Jonesborough area, 20% of the children live below the sustainable living line. Many of these children are hungry during the summer because school is not in session. We are fearful for the next generation of children.

In the middle of all this, where is the church? Some denominations are facing severe issues that affect relationships with parishioners. Others have theological issues that drive a wedge into unity. Then there are well known leaders who have betrayed those who follow them. Many of the populace challenge church authority. Many have become disenchanted with religious organizations and the worship services they provide. Where does one go at times of helplessness and fear?

I am sure there are many more examples I could list. I haven’t even mentioned that this country is fighting two wars. I haven’t discussed the everyday vagaries, or powers, of this world: disease, illness, and relational difficulties. Fear can rule our hearts, and there are those who would take advantage of this in many ways.

Where is God in all this?

It’s a good question. I don’t have a complete answer. I know this, I just can’t face people and say, “Just believe in God and everything will be okay.” That’s not an adequate answer.

Reading scripture, whether it is the gospels or the letters of Paul, Peter, and John, I find no easy answer, either. I could quote various passages, but they are difficult to hear when one is struggling. I do know from scripture that “faith drives out fear.” Our faith in the Triune God, Father Son, and Holy Spirit, gives us something to hang on to. After all, if life is about God and not about me, then I begin to realize that God is in charge, not me.

I have also asked myself under difficult circumstances, “What is the worst thing that could happen?” If the answer has to do with what I want versus what I need, I begin to see the problem. Whether God “knows better” or whether God will see me through whatever predicament I am experiencing, I need to have faith that this is God’s world and that he loves me. With this as my anchor, fear can be driven out, through the power of the Holy Spirit. Furthermore, it is an issue of trust in God. My responsibility is to live the day that God has given me, seeking knowledge of his will for me and the power to carry it out.

As we face life on life’s terms, I believe the blessings of Christ creating the church, the body of Christ, can be experienced. When we are physically alone, it is not difficult to imagine or believe that we are also spiritually alone. Through fellowship and sharing, we find that God’s love comes to us through other people. We don’t even need to share our specific concerns. The love of God demonstrated by others can strengthen us on our human journey.

We are also called to share our love with others. We are called to be in fellowship with others, not for our benefit, but to sacrificially serve others in need. When we do this, being reminded that Christ lives within us; we have an opportunity to see what God sees. We have the opportunity to use our “hands” for God’s work.

Living life on life’s terms is simple, but it is not easy.

Friday, May 28, 2010


Have you read the book, The Shack? I have, several times. It’s a great story. It is highly theological. In my personal opinion, it has provided an understanding of The Holy Trinity. The book gives us an insight into what God is all about.

However, this book, nor any other book, nor any treatise, essay, or analytical book can possibly explain the Trinity. It is impossible to do so. As I have heard and said many times, “If you can explain God, it isn’t God.”

There are many thoughts about the Holy Trinity, just as those shared in the book, The Shack. Let me share mine, which are in line with many Lutheran theologians, and might help us understand where the author of The Shack is coming from.

First of all there is the understanding that The Holy Trinity is one God, three persons. We usually say that God is three in one and one in three. Yet that does not really convey an overall concept of The Trinity. First, the “persons” are not persons as we understand them. The word “person” is used, albeit weakly, to denote a sense of being. (However, The Shack does identify three people who appear to be human persons – Papa, Jesus, and Sarayu.

There is a diagram above that is used quite often to “explain” The Holy Trinity. On the outer points of the triangle, there is the Son, the Holy Spirit, and the Father. In the center is God. The diagram acknowledges that the Father is God. The Son is God. The Holy Spirit is God. Yet, the outer circle recognizes that the Father is not the Son, nor the Son the Father. It recognizes that the Son is not the Spirit, nor the Spirit the Son. Finally, it says that the Father is not the Spirit, nor the Spirit the Father. This diagram is helpful in one way. It shows us that there is no way to explain The Holy Trinity. God is God. God is who God wants to be.

Let’s look at God through another perspective. Scripture says that God is love. This statement is true. So, let’s think about it. Love requires relationship. Love cannot exist all by itself with one person. We know that the Father loves the Son and the Son loves the Father. The power of that love, the existence of that love that flows from both the Father and the Son, is the Holy Spirit. In fact, the Spirit has been called the power of love.

If we embrace this understanding – which is not an explanation – of the dynamics of The Holy Trinity, then there is another concept we might embrace. The Holy Trinity is community. It is the community of love. Knowing that God is love, this is the community of love.

Jesus said the Father is in him and he is in the Father. Jesus also said that he is in us and we are in him. Through the power of the Holy Spirit, we are invited into this community of love.

Just think what this means for us as we travel our human journey as spiritual beings. Just think what it means to live in this world but also live in a community of love at the same time. Just think what it means to live with love and to live in love.

The Shack is a wonderful book from which to get an inkling of The Holy Trinity, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. But that is all that the book can do. God is mystery. We embrace that mystery in faith.

We are invited to live in the mystery of God.

Thursday, May 13, 2010


While the question is not raised very often, one can hear in between the lines of any comment, be it written or spoken. “What do I/we need to do to b saved?” The answer is, “Nothing.” God has done everything through Jesus Christ. That’s why we celebrate Easter. God sent his only Son into the world because God loved the world. Jesus, his son, lived among us so that we could know, at least slightly who God is, what God is all about, and what are relationship is with him. Then, as a living sacrifice, Jesus died on the cross so that we might be made one with God, so that we might be reconciled to God, even in our personal sinfulness. God has done it all through Jesus Christ. Jesus rose from death. God defeated death. Death could no longer control our thoughts or actions. We are free in Christ.

Do you believe this? Many of us do, intellectually. However, at the gut level, we wonder. We doubt. After all, shouldn’t we have something to do with our own salvation? Shouldn’t we have some control over what happens to us? We always struggle with that answer. Lutherans, understanding that we are justified by faith through works, say “no.” No, we have no control over this. God has done it all. If we believe in Jesus Christ, who he is, what he has done, his relationship with God, and our relationship with Jesus, the rest is “history.” We are in.

As Paul said, just because it has all been done for us, does not mean that we are at liberty to do whatever suits our fancy. In baptism, we no longer belong to ourselves. In baptism we become children of God. In baptism, we commit ourselves to lead the baptismal life, acknowledging that Christ lives within us. What Christ wishes us to do is to lead a relational life with the Father and with him, powered by the love of the Holy Spirit. Christ wishes for us to lead a life of love for one another. Our life on this side of death is to be in appropriate relationship with God and one another. God will take care of the other side of death.

In the letter of James, the author writes that “faith without works is dead.” The author is absolutely correct. If we have faith, powered by the Holy Spirit, we will demonstrate our life of love. We will perform “works.” They will happen out of love, love for God and love for one another. Good works, initiated for our purpose, are not the same. In fact, Martin Luther said that if we do good works in order to get to heaven, there’s a good chance we’re going to hell. Why? Our motives are self-centered. Martin Luther also believed that self-centeredness was the basic sin of humanity.

For Lutherans, the primary purpose of scripture is not that it is a handbook, or manual, on how to live. The Bible is where we find Jesus. The Bible is how we learn and understand the deep love that God has for humanity which manifested itself in Jesus Christ. We can find Jesus from Genesis through Revelation. The Bible is a story of God’s relationship with humanity.

The season of Easter changes our entire concept of how we are to live out our lives. The season of Easter is a revelation of the love of God, the love of Jesus Christ, and the power of love. The season of Easter gives us an opportunity to walk through the rest of the Church year – the year after Pentecost, the year of the church – committing ourselves to live this life of love through the church and through the church proclaiming this incredible love of God to the world.

Salvation belongs to our God.