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The Reverend Paul T. McCain is a Lutheran Pastor in the Missouri Synod and is Publisher and Executive Director of the Editorial Department at Concordia Publishing House, working on the soon-to-be-released The Lutheran Study Bible.  Unfortunately, the hard work of the Concordia editors is being eclipsed a bit by the release of the Augsburg Lutheran Study Bible earlier this year.

The Augsburg “Bible” was passed out to pastors at every Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) synodical meeting this spring, partially in anticipation of the recent vote by the ELCA to ignore the Word of God and ordain homosexuals as Pastors.

The Concordia Bible, on the other hand, is the latest update in a long tradition – reaching back almost 500 years to Luther’s translation of the Scriptures.

The Augsburg Press’ tome has rampant misstatements and revisions of Christian history that are representative of the church’s unfortunate sad turn in leadership (a turn that strangely reflects a similar history that placed many of the Catholic church bishops in power that Martin Luther railed against in his day).

While I don’t always agree with all of the strongly held beliefs of the Missouri Synod, I present Rev. McCain’s blog post, explaining key differences between the two versions of a Lutheran study Bible:

In light of the release of The Lutheran Study Bible, I thought it would be a good time to re-run a blog post from several months ago, explaining the important differences between the ELCA’s new Bible, which their publishing company titled Lutheran Study Bible, and The Lutheran Study Bible. By the way, they titled it that knowing The Lutheran Study Bible was on its way. Go figure.

I encourage you to advise everyone you know that the ELCA Bible is not The Lutheran Study Bible by CPH. The two Bibles are quite different in content, style and purpose. Most significantly, the ELCA Bible takes a different approach on key doctrinal points than does The Lutheran Study Bible. So, please be aware, and spread the word, that The Lutheran Study Bible the ELCA Bible are something quite different from each. Be sure to point people to The Lutheran Study Bible web site, or its Facebook Group, or Twitter feed.

This post examines two issues in both Bibles as a way of illustrating the stark and dramatic contrast between these two Bibles. To distinguish between these two Bibles, they shall be referred to as The Lutheran Study Bible and the ELCA Bible. The two topics used to illustrate the stark difference between the two Bibles are: the Great Commission and the topic of homosexuality.

The Great Commission

The Lutheran Study Bible on the Great Commission

28:18–20 Though all God’s people are to bear witness to the Lord (cf Ps 145; Is 43:10), the focus here is on the apostles and their calling as leading witnesses and representatives of Jesus. (Compare to the authorization in Mt 10:1–7.)

28:18 “All authority.” Christ’s human nature, which had refrained from exercising the divine authority belonging to the person of Christ, now is fully exalted and given free use of divine authority (cf v 19). “He can also powerfully effect and do everything that He says and promises” (FC SD VII 43). “The Church’s authority and the State’s authority must not be confused. The Church’s authority has its own commission to teach the Gospel and to administer the Sacraments [Matthew 28:19–20]. Let it not break into the office of another. Let it not transfer the kingdoms of this world to itself. Let it not abolish the laws of civil rulers. Let it not abolish lawful obedience” (AC XXVIII 12–13).

28:19 “make disciples.” See note, 5:1. Jesus gives us the tools to make disciples: Baptism and His teaching. all nations. Not just the Jews, but Gentiles too (cf 10:5–6). baptizing them in the name. “Name” is singular, followed by the threefold naming of the divine persons. This illustrates the doctrine of the Holy Trinity. See p 0000. Those baptized in the name of the Father have God as their Father; baptized in the name of the Son, they receive all the benefits of the Son’s redeeming act; baptized in the name of the Spirit, they receive the life-giving, life-sustaining power and presence of the Spirit. Christian Baptism is founded on this institution. See note, Nu 6:22–27. baptizing. Washing with the water of new birth. “Baptism is no human plaything, but it is instituted by God Himself” (LC IV 6). “It is necessary to baptize little children, that the promise of salvation may be applied to them, according to Christ’s command to baptize all nations (Matthew 28:19). Just as in this passage salvation is offered to all, so Baptism is offered to all, to men, women, children, infants. It clearly follows, therefore, that infants are to be baptized, because salvation is offered with Baptism” (Ap IX 52).

28:20 “teaching.” Disciples are made not only through Baptism, but through the ongoing catechetical work of the Church. observe all. Christians are called to do more than “obey”; they are called to treasure God’s Word in their hearts. commanded. Not only Christ’s moral injunctions (the Law) but also His invitation to trust in Him (the Gospel). I am with you always. Not only in Spirit but also according to His human nature. See “be with,” p 0000. “He is present especially in His Church and congregation on earth as Mediator, Head, King, and High Priest. This presence is not a part, or only one half of Him. Christ’s entire person is present, to which both natures belong, the divine and the human—not only according to His divinity, but also according to, and with, His received human nature” (FC SD VIII 78). end of the age. When He returns visibly.

28:16–20 Christ commissions His disciples to go and make disciples of all nations through Baptism and teaching. Christ promises to be with us, and He is the one who makes disciples through our baptizing and teaching. Today, remember your Baptism and confirmation in the faith, which are precious blessings for the Lord’s disciples. His love and care are new for you every morning. • Send us, Lord, to make disciples in Your name in accordance with our callings in life. Amen.

The ELCA Bible on the Great Commission
28:16-20 the eleven disciples went to Galilee: The eleven meet Jesus on a mountain in Galilee. Even when the eleven see him, some doubt. Jesus’ resurrection returns to the question of his authority in 7:28-9:34; 21:23-32. Through the resurrection, God has given Jesus all authority in heaven and on earth. This does not mean that only now does Jesus have authority. It establishes his authority exercised throughout his life and ministry (28:20). The end of the Gospel sends the reader back to the beginning (4:12-9:34), and it gives God’s answer to the Pharisees’ charge (9:34). In contrast to 10:5-6, 23, Jesus now send the disciples to make disciples of all nations. That does not mean make everyone disciples. Most people who are helped by Jesus and believe in him never become disciples. Jesus includes in salvation people who do not believe in him or ever know about him (5:30; 25:31-45). Disciples are students, called for the sake of the world to learn from Jesus and to bear witness to the kingdom. They are salt and light (5:13-16). Jesus promises to be with them always as they carry out this mission. Previously, Jesus promised to be present in the exercise of forgiveness (18:18-20) and in the “least of these” who suffer (25:31-45). (p. 1658)

Homosexuality

Genesis 19:5 The account of Sodom

The Lutheran Study Bible
Genesis 19:5 know them. Have sex with them. Homosexual lust burned among many of the men of Sodom. Cf Lv 18:22; Rm 1:27.

The ELCA Bible
Genesis 19:1-11 This scene is an illustration of Sodom’s wickedness. The verb know refers to sexual activity. With every man involved, the result would have been gang rape (19:4-5). Sexual abuse of strangers demonstrated who was in charge (as in prisons). The sins of Sodom are most explicit in Ezekiel 16:49: pride, gluttony, prosperous ease and not aiding the poor and needy (compare with Matt. 10:14-15). That Lot would substitute his betrothed (engaged) daughters is another sign of Sodom’s immorality. In 19:30-38, Lot himself is sexually abused.

Leviticus 18:6-23: Prohibitions Against Homosexuality

The Lutheran Study Bible
Leviticus 18:6–23: Pointedly, God provides provisions for holiness in sexuality by addressing key issues of incest (vv 6–16), adultery (vv 17–18, 20), sacrificial idolatry (v 21), homosexuality (v 22), and bestiality (v 23). The Bible records Abraham’s intercourse with a servant (Gn 16:1–4), Lot’s incest (Gn 19:36), and Jacob’s marriage to his first cousins, who were also sisters (Gn 29), but it never promotes such relationships. God restates here that His original intent at creation was the ordered intimacy between one man and one woman. He makes plain that close intermarriage is now forbidden. See note, Gn 4:19.

Leviticus 18:22: Sexual intercourse was ordained by God for procreation (cf Gn 1:28) and must involve husband and wife, the “male and female” in Gn 1:27. abomination. See note, Pr 6:16.

The ELCA Bible
Leviticus 18:22-23: “you shall not lie with:” Prohibitions against sexual activity between men and between person and animal.

1 Samuel 18:1

The Lutheran Study Bible
18:1 knit. Same Hbr verb used in Gn 44:30 to express Jacob’s love for his son Benjamin. Jonathan initiates a friendship with David that blesses and hallows life. loved. Used of a covenant relationship; possesses political overtones. Never used of homosexual desire or activity. (OT uses the verb “to know” for sexual activity; see note, Gn 19:5. Latter verb is never used of David’s relationship with Jonathan.) The fact that Saul, too, loved David (16:21) prepares us for the later political use of the verb “love.”

The ELCA Bible
18:1 These two became inseparable and are so devoted that their very well-being is tied together. This same kind of devotion describes Jacob’s relationship with his youngest son, Benjamin. 18:3 These two are kindred spirits. Their friendship is about a covenant or promise of steadfast love and loyalty to each other. First, this is about personal affection.

Ezekiel 16:49-50

The Lutheran Study Bible
16:49–50: Sodom’s pride, gluttony, and neglect of the poor describes a decadent society in which gross immorality might easily thrive. an abomination. Probably refers to sodomy (Gn 19:1–22). At times, “abomination” is applied specifically to homosexual behavior (Lv 18:22; 20:13).

The ELCA Bible
16:44-58: Samaria and Sodom, two cities destroyed for their wickedness, are portrayed as sisters of Jerusalem and sinners like their mother, the Hittite. Samaria was the capital of the Northern Kingdom of Israel, which Assyria defeated in 721 B.C.E. Neither Samaria nor Sodom was as sinful as Jerusalem.

Romans 1:26

The Lutheran Study Bible
Romans 1:26 God gave them up. See note, v 24. dishonorable passions. Paul is not condemning all passion or sexual desire. Only the misuse of God’s gift of sexuality brings dishonor. exchanged. See note, v 23. Sin substitutes inferior things for God’s good gifts. contrary to nature. As God’s existence and character are seen in nature (vv 19–21), so His Law is also evident. Homosexual activity, referred to here, is a departure from the natural order.

The ELCA Bible
Romans 1:24, 26, 28 God gave them up: “In response to human sin, God handed over humanity to destructive behavior that alienated people from God, themselves, and others”

Romans 1:27

The Lutheran Study Bible
On Romans 1:27 As in v 26, homosexual activity exchanges a natural desire for the opposite sex for an unnatural lust for one’s own sex. shameless acts. Homosexual behavior. due penalty for their error. Participation in degrading, unnatural acts is, in itself, part of the judgment for sin. Paul’s candid discussion of homosexuality may surprise or offend some readers. The Greco-Roman world was generally open to homosexuality, though there were critics, including Jews, Christians, and some philosophers. Homosexuality is an example of how something that seems obvious from nature (the relation of two sexes; the body was not designed for homosexual activities) is exchanged for something unnatural. This is a further effect of exchanging the worship of God for the worship of idols. Luther: “Holy Scripture declares that sin came from the devil, whom, contrary to God’s Word, our parents obeyed. They became disobedient to God and thereby brought a terrible punishment upon themselves. For through this sin (of the Fall) not only our bodies have become so weakened that they have changed from immortal into mortal bodies, but the intellect, heart, mind, and will are entirely corrupted and turned evil (verboset). For man has lost the right and true knowledge of God. Moreover, his will is so entirely corrupted that he desires and wants nothing but that which is evil” (WLS § 4131).

The ELCA Bible
No comment.

1 Corinthians 6:9-11

The Lutheran Study Bible
1 Corinthians 6:9–10 unrighteous. Those perishing (1:18). inherit the kingdom. See note, 4:20. Paul lists habitual sins, which imply a life choice incompatible with the holiness of God’s kingdom. 6:11 such were some of you. God, in mercy, called the unrighteous into His kingdom. washed . . . sanctified . . . justified. Terms of salvation, used interchangeably. Baptism makes us new creatures, holy with Christ’s righteousness. “Whenever God’s Word is taught, preached, heard, read, or meditated upon, then the person, day, and work are sanctified. This is not because of the outward work, but because of the Word, which makes saints of us all. Therefore, I constantly say that all our life and work must be guided by God’s Word, if it is to be God-pleasing or holy” (LC I 92). in the name of the Lord Jesus . . . Spirit . . . God. Trinitarian, as is fitting with reference to Baptism.

From the textual note on verse 9, placed after the word “homosexuality” in the ESV text: The two Greek terms translated by this phrase refer to the passive and active partners in consensual homosexual acts.

The ELCA Bible
1 Corinthians 6:9-11: Ancient Christian writers listed specific vices to illustrate a more general evil. Two terms in the vice list have been mistranslated from the Greek in all modern versions, and this has caused needless pain in the church: malos (“soft,” that is, lacking self-control) and arsenokoites (literally, “one who beds a male”). Both terms are specific examples of injustice, the topic of the vice list in 6:9-11. The “soft” person (here translated: “male prostitute”) takes more than his or her due. The arsenokoites (translated as “sodomite”) rapes and shames other males to increase his reputation for power. The issue here is violence. Neither term pertains to homosexuality or to the lives of gay and lesbian people.

1 Timothy 1:9-10

The Lutheran Study Bible
1 Timothy 1:9–10 The list of sins shows how God’s Law is properly used, namely, to bring sinners to contrition and repentance. Each of the sins listed by Paul closely corresponds to God’s Law as found in the Ten Commandments (Ex 20:1–17). On Paul’s use of “law,” see p 0000. 1:9 law . . . for the lawless. “Yet this is not to be understood in a simplistic way, as though the justified are to live without Law. God’s Law has been written in their heart (Romans 2:15). Also a law was given to the first man immediately after his creation (Genesis 2:15–17): He was to conduct himself according to this law. What St. Paul means is that the curse of the Law cannot burden those who have been reconciled to God through Christ. Nor must the Law confuse the regenerate with its coercion, for they have pleasure in God’s Law in the inner man (Romans 7:22)” (FC SD VI 5). Bern: “The law promulgated in fear by a spirit of slavery is one thing, and that given sweetly and gently by the spirit of liberty is another” (SLSB, p 200). 1:10 enslavers. Kidnappers, involved in illegal slave trade.

The ELCA Bible
Note at 1 Timothy 1:10 “What is ‘the law’? Here ‘law’ refers to the Jewish Torah (the first five books of the Old Testament) or to additional Jewish laws based on the Torah. Paul called the law “holy and just and good” (Rom. 7:12, 16), but also taught that Christians ‘have died to the law’ (Rom. 7:4, 6) and are ‘free from the law of sin and death’ (Rom. 8:2). As God’s child, Martin Luther understood himself to be free from the law. As Lutherans, we understand ourselves to be free as well.

2 Peter 2:10

The Lutheran Study Bible
2 Peter 2:10 lust of defiling passion. Possible reference to homosexuality, the sin of the Sodomites (cf Gn 19:5). Luther: “ ‘To indulge in the lust of defiling passion’ is to live like an irrational beast according to one’s own notion and all lust” (AE 30:180). despise authority. Rejecting people God charged with faithfully attending to His Word and His work, be it His Son, His angels, His prophets, His pastors, or His teachers. Cf Jude 8–10; see note, Heb 13:17. they blaspheme the glorious ones. To speak against God’s angels or anything of God is to speak against God.

The ELCA Bible
No comment.

Additional materials on homosexuality in the two Bibles

From an article in The Lutheran Study Bible titled, “Divine Warfare,” an excerpt from the Concordia Commentary series on the Book of Joshua:

“The Christian Gospel in Word and Sacrament rescues the perishing from eternal destruction and fortifies them to do battle against the forces of evil within (the sinful flesh) and without (the devil and the world) that assail them. It is necessary for Christians to oppose detestable practices such as idolatry, sexual immorality, homosexuality, abortion, euthanasia, and occult practices, which correspond to the ancient abominations of the Canaanites. The church rightly prohibits God’s people from engaging in such practices. The church also rightly endeavors to persuade society at large to prohibit such evils, and to do so Christians work peacefully through lawful means, not by violence. . . .”

From an article in The Lutheran Study Bible titled, “Israel’s Identity Crisis”:

“We may find no appeal in the ancient gods of Canaan. There is no allure, no enticement. Yet, it was the Canaanite gods who caused many Israelites to be tempted away from the true God. Perhaps the Israelites wanted a god they could manipulate with rites and ceremonies, regardless of how inhumane their practice. We often seek gods we can manipulate as well. Even some Christians are enticed to worship such things as possessions, money, lust, greed, and power. Pornography causes some Christians to fall. Drug abuse, child abuse, homosexuality, and sexual, physical, and mental abuse cause others to fall. Sin causes us to forget that we are God’s temple (1Co 3:16). For the ancient Israelites, sin began innocently enough (it usually does in our lives too). Sadly, doubting God’s Word has eternal ramifications. As we fall into sin, we lose sight of the consequences—that “those who practice such things deserve to die” (Rm 1:32). Here are three personal questions to ask ourselves: (1) What idols have I set up in God’s place? (2) Is the god of self-indulgence, the god of promiscuous sex, or the god of child sacrifice (abortion) a part of my life? (3) Is the god of money and material possessions seeking to topple me into sin?”

From an article in The Lutheran Study Bible inserted at Roman 1, titled, “Homosexuality and Biblical Teaching”

“Marriage with God’s Blessing God created sex for the procreation of children and to strengthen the marital bond that supports those children (see note, Gn 1:28). Within the confines of marriage, sex is a wonderful blessing. Outside that relationship, it is idolatry—people rejecting God’s order, worshiping what is created rather than the Creator. Christians should abhor the sin of homosexual behavior as they abhor all sins. But at the same time, Christians should see homosexuals as people for whom Christ shed His precious blood. God wants us to recognize that “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by His grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus” (3:23–24). A homosexual, like any other sinner, needs to hear God’s word of Law and Gospel applied to his or her life with the goal of repentance and faith.”

From the prefatory materials in The Lutheran Study Bible on the Book of Galatians:

“Genderless Christianity. Feminist interpreters and those influenced by feminism have radically altered the historic interpretation and application of Gal 3:28. They argue that gender and social order should have no influence on roles of service in Christianity. This interpretation has been forcefully used to encourage women’s ordination in liberal Protestant church bodies and has even been used to support the ordination of homosexuals.”

The ELCA Bible
No further comments or materials.

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I was reading the other day and I came across this statement from some genetic researchers: “Our story-telling brains are what makes humans unique.”  So let’s start with a story.

There’s this movie that I really like.  It’s called Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.  It was a very well-written film, but it didn’t do well in the theatres, probably because Jim Carrey wasn’t funny, Kate Winslet wasn’t sexy and Elijah Wood wasn’t a Hobbit.

It’s not written or produced by a Christian, but it has an interesting premise.  Jim Carrey’s character, Joel, receives a card in the mail, explaining that his girlfriend, Clementine, has undergone a process whereby she has had Joel erased from her memory.  Joel struggles with this for a little while and then decides that his life would be easier if he underwent this process as well to have her “unwritten” from his memory.  Of course, it wouldn’t be good drama without a conflict and that arises as, during the process, Joel realizes that he really doesn’t want to forget Clementine, because, even though the memories are shaded now by sorrow, they have helped form who he is today.

The title comes from a line in the poem by Alexander Pope, “Eloisa to Abelard:”

“How happy is the blameless vestal’s lot!

The world forgetting, by the world forgot.

Eternal sunshine of the spotless mind!

Each pray’r accepted, and each wish resign’d.”

The thought of this stanza of the poem, as well as the film, is that by simply forgetting and/or being forgotten, we are healed and all is right with the world – all is sunshine and bright.

The text you will be reading for our Bible study over the next week is Romans 12 & 13 and it has a slightly different take on things.  If you would take out your Bibles – and turn with me to the 12th chapter of Romans.

If you’re unfamiliar with the Bible, Romans is in the New Testament, about 3/4ths of the way into the Bible, following the Gospels, Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, and Acts, Luke’s continuing saga of Christ’s followers.  Romans is teh sixth book, right after Acts.

Paul is writing to the Christians in Rome before he arrives and he spent the last chapters explaining to them that the Jewish people were not to be scorned, but rather prayed for, because they are the original benefactors of God’s mercy and favor.  In fact, he goes as far as to say that God has closed the door to sacrifice, imprisoning all men in sin, Jew and non-Jew alike, so that all may come to grace through Jesus Christ and be blessed by His mercy.

Continuing in Romans 12, starting with verse 1:

1Therefore, I urge you, brothers, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God—this is your spiritual act of worship. 2Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will.

Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind…

Theologian Wesley Kort tells us that there are two ways we should embrace our study of the Bible.  First, we read it Centripetally.  Centripetal force is moving or directed toward a center or axis.  That is, we immerse ourselves in the reading and becoming transformed.  But, we also must read it, Centrifugally.  Centrifugal motion is directed outwards – in Kort’s writing, we return to our world after being immersed in the Bible. But when we return, we return as different people, and our world appears to us in a new way—“somehow invisibly infused with the kingdom of God.”

You see, too many Christians, I think, read the Bible and follow Christ Centripetally, spiraling deeper and deeper into the Scripture and isolate themselves more and more from the outside world.  We must, at some point, move back out, spinning away from the axis, into the world, in service, in mission, in relationships.

Our bodies are meant to be living sacrifices – but not on an altar in a church where no one can see us, but in the world, acting as servants, becoming Christ to a dying world.  True Christianity contains three elements: it is Missional, it is Relational, and it is Incarnational.  You see, we cannot just accept God’s mercy and keep it for ourselves.  We must take that mercy and extend it to our brothers and sisters.  Paul even hints earlier in Romans that one of the reasons the Jews were separated from God’s covenant – by their own act, not God’s – is because they hoarded His mercy.  Yet – yet, Paul writes in Romans 11, if their flaws led to the salvation of the entire world, how much more will the whole world benefit from Israel’s return to the mercy of God in Christ?

Leonard Sweet writes,

“I heard the story of a member of the church approaching their pastor and telling him that they had been called into full-time ministry. The pastor did not respond in the manner they were expecting when he said, ‘Oh, I thought you were a Christian.’

“This set the member back a bit. He answered that of course he was a Christian. Then the pastor said, ‘Then, too late…’ by which he meant that when we became disciples of Jesus, we accepted the call into full-time ministry.

“So much of the time we write a check and think we have done our part. Or, if we are really trying to be spiritual, we may go on a mission project for a few days a year. In reality Christ turns us into ‘Mission 365,’ as my friend Tom Ingram calls it. We are in mission in the car, in mission at the grocery store, in mission at Starbucks, in mission on Twitter.”

Being a Christian means we are living sacrifices – or in the words of the Blues Brothers – “We’re on a Mission from God”

Returning to Romans 12, verses 9-13:

9Love must be sincere. Hate what is evil; cling to what is good. 10Be devoted to one another in brotherly love. Honor one another above yourselves. 11Never be lacking in zeal, but keep your spiritual fervor, serving the Lord. 12Be joyful in hope, patient in affliction, faithful in prayer. 13Share with God’s people who are in need. Practice hospitality. 14Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse. 15Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn. 16Live in harmony with one another. Do not be proud, but be willing to associate with people of low position. Do not be conceited.

Live in harmony with one another, bless those who persecute you, rejoice with those who rejoice and mourn with those who mourn.  It’s not an accident that this passage follows Paul’s exhortation to be transformed by the renewing of your mind.  This is what happens when your mind is renewed.  This is the proof in the pudding, as it were.

Did you know that every day, more text messages are sent than the entire population of the world?  We have FaceBook, MySpace, Twitter, YouTube, Bebo – all sites dedicated to “social networking,” yet we’re more distant, father apart than we ever have been before.  Tell me, when was the last time you spoke to your neighbor – or even waved at him from your front yard?  We have e-mail, voice-mail, cell phones, Instant Messages, text messages, Voice-Over-Internet, but how often do we consciously choose to use technology over actual face-to-face interaction?  How often do we choose e-mail over even having a telephone conversation?

There is an African concept called ubuntu. The philosophy of ubuntu says: “I am related, therefore, we are.”

How often are you relating to people?  Christians shouldn’t be people who follow Christianity.  Christians have to be people who follow and fall in love with Christ.  But how much time do we waste trying to get people to follow our particular rules, regulations and traditions, rather then trying to help them fall in love with Jesus?

Rejoice with those who rejoice and mourn with those who mourn.  Christianity is meant to be lived in relationship.

There is an old Jewish proverb that the story is the highest form of truth.  Being an incarnational Christian is all about context.

Let me ask you a question.  Are you a mirror or a prism?

In Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, there’s a scene where Clementine is trying to explain her philosophy of life to Joel:

“There’s all these emotions and ideas and they come quick and they change and they leave and they come back in a different form and I think we’re all taught to be consistent.  Y’know?  …You choose to do something with your life  — that’s it, that’s what you do… And my feeling is, that’s how you die, because you stop listening to what’s true and what is true is constantly changing.  You know?”  (written by Charlie Kaufman)

And if you think about it, Clementine is right.  Not that truth is not constantly changing, but that our perception of that truth is constantly being changed, developed, better understood.

There is a Jewish learning exercise called Hevruta is the practice of studying sacred texts with a partner.  Jewish scholarly life is built around people sitting around a text, reading it aloud, and then engaging in conversations and stories about that text.

The traditional study of Hebrew scriptures is with a partner, with whom head-to-head, nose-to-nose debate, dialogue, even shouting-at-the-top-of-your-lungs, is part of the learning process. They don’t ask, “What are you studying?” But, “What are you learning?”

Studying infers a solitary, sedentary ingestion of information. Learning is a social, active, exercise—a dialogue that must necessarily engage two or more persons in order for true learning to be accomplished. In the Jewish tradition, “learning” is a verb, a never-finished action.

Leonard Sweet writes, “Truth is best discovered in conversation; and truth needs multiple perspectives for it to be trusted.”

Sweet also writes,

“There are three alternatives for living a unique Christian way of life.  One is to imitate Jesus; two is to follow Jesus’ principles, whether found in His teachings or His stories; three is to be in such a relationship with Christ that you begin to share his life, his spirit and his presence.”

We are not called to be imitators of Christ, but rather implanters and interpreters of Jesus for the world we live in.  Jesus didn’t come to teach us how to be “like God,” he came to teach us how to be true humans, living in communion with the Father.  And just like Jesus used parables that took an agricultural approach – the sower, the vine and the branches, etc., because that related to his audience, so I can use an R rated film to make a point to an audience who relates to it.

We have gotten so caught up in being the church that we remember and like, the traditions and customs that sometimes we separate ourselves from the very people we are supposed to be trying to reach.  Now, don’t get me wrong, I like many of the traditions of the church, but that doesn’t make them Biblical doctrine.

A little while back, I interviewed Phil Cooke, a Christian TV producer and media guru, and I asked him if he had an opinion on why it seemed that most of the time, atheists create more realistic and believable Christian characters than Christian film and TV writers often do.  His response was at first surprising, but the more I considered it, the more sense it made.

He quoted a California Pastor named Erwin McManus.  McManus, speaking to an audience of Christian media creator-hopefuls, pointed out that he was more moved by the death of Mufasa in The Lion King on Broadway than by the death of Aslan in the film version of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.

The point he was making was that Christians often become lazy.  They forget that they are speaking to a world that is outside their circle – a world that doesn’t know the conventions and concepts of the church.  They create a Pastor and because they know how he is supposed to react, they assume everyone else will too.  I myself used to wonder, when reading the Left Behind novels, how these people who’d never darkened the door of a church prior to the Rapture, somehow learned how to speak like Southern Baptists.

Meanwhile, the atheists – at least the ones I counted off to him – were committed to excellence, so they took the time to research and develop three-dimensional characters, rather than take any shortcuts or make assumptions about the viewers knowledge.

Being incarnational as Christians is often the hardest thing to achieve, because it means going completely outside your comfort zone, meeting and learning where people are, whether they’re in the jungles of Africa or the concrete jungle of Los Angeles.  But we are called to be transformed, to renew our minds and become a living sacrifice – which involves being willing to live for your faith more often than being willing to die for it.

Back to our question – are you a mirror or a prism?  A mirror simply reflects the light – a single instance of the light – and only back to the person or image standing in front of it.  A prism takes the light in and refracts it into a rainbow of colors that spread much larger and much farther than a mirror image ever could.

As we learn to be more missional, relational, and transformational, we become better Christians – we become more loving, more giving, more Christ-like and more effective.

You see, in the movie, as Joel goes through the process of erasing Clementine from his life, he realizes that he can’t live in a world without her – even if he can’t be with her.  In many ways, it reflects the true human condition – as the mathematician Blaise Pascal stated, “There is a God-shaped vacuum in the heart of every person, and it can never be filled by any created thing.  It can only be filled by God, made known through Jesus Christ.”

We know inherently that we need Jesus, just as Joel realizes, in his sleep that he needs Clementine, even the broken, sorrow-filled remembrances of her.

Think for a moment about your memories. What you remember is not personal, but social. Your “memory bank” is full of relational moments, not isolated, individual personal recollections. We find out who we are only in connection with others.…

So I encourage you, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God—this is your spiritual act of worship.

Take what you have learned and take it to the world who so desperately needs it.

Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind.

Love all and serve all, be a friend to the friendless, love your enemies, bless them that persecute you.

And in loving Jesus, rather than imitating him, invite him to live in your heart and transform you from the inside out.

Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will.

Amen.

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Once again, I had the opportunity to offer the sermon for the Sunday after Christmas, since our regular pastor is visiting his family in West Virginia.  So what follows is the essential make-up of what I spoke on, Sunday, December 28th.

There’s an old church joke you may have heard before, I’d like to share with you:

There was an economist who was reading 2 Peter 3:8-9 and was quite amazed by it and decided to ask God about it.

He prayed, “Lord, is it true that a thousand years are just like one minute to you?”

The Lord replied, “Yes.”

The economist said, “Well then a million dollars to us must be like one penny to you.”

The Lord replied again, “Well, yes.”

Thinking he had the perfect plan, the economist then asked, “Lord, can I have a penny?”

To which the Lord replied, “Absolutely.  Just give Me a minute.”

How often do we find ourselves in this economist’s position, praying for what we think we need and struggling when God’s response appears to be, “Wait”

The Gospel passage for this week that churches across the country are teaching from is Luke 2:21-40, often known as Simeon’s Song.  If you could turn in your Bibles to that passage, and if you don’t have a Bible with you, there are some under most of the chairs.  Luke is the third Gospel, in the New Testament.  Just a few days ago, we covered most of the first two chapters during Christmas Eve services…

Luke writes, “On the eighth day, when it was time to circumcise him, he was named Jesus, the name the angel had given him before he had been conceived.   When the time of their purification according to the Law of Moses had been completed, Joseph and Mary took him to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord 23(as it is written in the Law of the Lord, “Every firstborn male is to be consecrated to the Lord”), 24and to offer a sacrifice in keeping with what is said in the Law of the Lord: “a pair of doves or two young pigeons.”

25Now there was a man in Jerusalem called Simeon, who was righteous and devout. He was waiting for the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit was upon him. 26It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not die before he had seen the Lord’s Christ. 27Moved by the Spirit, he went into the temple courts. When the parents brought in the child Jesus to do for him what the custom of the Law required, 28Simeon took him in his arms and praised God, saying:

29″Sovereign Lord, as you have promised,
you now dismiss your servant in peace.
30For my eyes have seen your salvation,
31which you have prepared in the sight of all people,
32a light for revelation to the Gentiles
and for glory to your people Israel.”

33The child’s father and mother marveled at what was said about him. 34Then Simeon blessed them and said to Mary, his mother: “This child is destined to cause the falling and rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be spoken against, 35so that the thoughts of many hearts will be revealed. And a sword will pierce your own soul too.”

36There was also a prophetess, Anna, the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Asher. She was very old; she had lived with her husband seven years after her marriage, 37and then was a widow until she was eighty-four. She never left the temple but worshiped night and day, fasting and praying. 38Coming up to them at that very moment, she gave thanks to God and spoke about the child to all who were looking forward to the redemption of Jerusalem.

39When Joseph and Mary had done everything required by the Law of the Lord, they returned to Galilee to their own town of Nazareth. 40And the child grew and became strong; he was filled with wisdom, and the grace of God was upon him.”

This entire reading is about waiting.  Jesus waits a week to be circumcised, Mary waits 33 days from the circumcision to be purified and reenter the temple, according to the Levitical law.  Anna had been worshipping at the Temple for probably more than 60 years, waiting for something.  Simeon had been waiting for many years, for he had been told by the Holy Spirit that he would not die until he had seen the Christ.  Now, we don’t know how old he was at the time, although there is a traditional Eastern Orthodox story that would place his age at somewhere around 200+ years at the time he met the Holy Family at the Temple in Jerusalem.  Imagine waiting for almost two centuries for a promise to be fulfilled.  But not only that, it says that Simeon was waiting for the consolation of Israel.

It’s probably not news to you that we as Americans, hate to wait.  We buy microwave dinners, TiVo our favorite shows to watch them commercial-free and logon to the Internet to get our news, rather than waiting for the paper or even the 6 o’clock news.  Yet, we just finished a time of waiting – the season of Advent, a time of waiting and anticipation of the birth of Jesus.  It may surprise you to learn this, but Advent isn’t just a time that commemorates the waiting for Jesus’s birth – it is also the time for anticipating and the celebration of waiting for His eventual return.

So even here in Florida, we’ve been looking forward to Christmas for at least 4 weeks.  Of course, the stores, in a desperate quest for more of our dollars, have been waiting for Christmas since Halloween.  Which just proves that they don’t watch their own sales figures – which show that the last two weekends prior to Christmas are the busiest shopping days of the year.  In fact, Black Friday traditionally ranks as the 8th busiest shopping day of the year, despite all the ads in the Thanksgiving papers.

The season of Christmas, which for the church started on Wednesday night and continues through the next couple of weeks, is about celebrating that the Lord has fulfilled his promise.  It’s reminding us that the waiting is worth it – the promise will be fulfilled in His time, and we will be even better for having waited for it.  I have often thought that when Jesus said in John 14 that he was going to prepare a place for us, he also meant that he was going to prepare us for that place.

Waiting is hard, but it is essential to the Christian walk, which is why some find it so hard to follow Christ, and others preach shortcuts to God’s blessings and peace.  In his book, Waiting: Finding Hope When God Seems Silent, Ben Peterson writes, “What God does in us while we wait is as important as what it is we are waiting for.”

So if we find ourselves waiting, we have to ask, what is God trying to teach me in this place, at the same time realizing that we may not divine the answer or even realize it in hindsight when the waiting we are doing has past.

The second thing this passage teaches is about Reconciliation.  The act of Mary’s being cleansed by the sacrifice is the act of reconciling her body to once again be able to worship God in the Temple.  The consecration of Jesus as the first born is part of God’s reconciliation for the sins of Cain and Adam, both “first” born.

In verse 25, it mentions that Simeon was waiting for the consolation of Israel.  Seven hundred years prior to this instant, Isaiah had prophesied that one would come to reconcile not only the nation of Israel, but also the Gentiles – a portion of the prophecy many in the Temple at the time of Simeon discounted or disbelieved.  Yet Simeon proves he knows his Isaiah – part of his song directly references two passages in Isaiah,

“I, the LORD, have called you in righteousness; I will take hold of your hand. I will keep you and will make you to be a covenant for the people and a light for the Gentiles, (Isaiah 42:6)

“It is too small a thing for you to be my servant to restore the tribes of Jacob and bring back those of Israel I have kept. I will also make you a light for the Gentiles, that you may bring my salvation to the ends of the earth.” (Isaiah 49:6)

And now Simeon knows he can die in peace, dismissed from his service to God.  Even his death, when it comes, will be a sign of hope.

What’s more, the prophetess Anna also proclaims to all that were looking forward to the redemption of Jerusalem, that the child was to fulfill that prophecy.  Unfortunately, I’m sure many of them misunderstood what form the redemption of Israel would take, just as they would 33 years later.

In just a few days, we’ll be celebrating a new year.  2008, for good or bad, will be over and 2009 will begin.  The new year is often a time of change, a time when people have their hopes raised and the future seems somehow brighter, regardless of what may actually happen.  And this year, for many seems like an even bigger and brighter new beginning.

Just three weeks from now, we will be inaugurating a brand new president.  President-elect Barack Obama campaigned on a platform of change, that, whether you agree with him or not, resonated with a large portion of the American population.  A population tired of housing slumps, foreclosures, bankruptcies, economic bail-outs and rising unemployment rates.

Obama promises to eliminate all of those worries in a sweeping, expensive ‘New Deal’ style package that could be the most dramatic start to a presidency since Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s first hundred days in office.  Barack Obama is promising a redemption of the United States, a return to its greatness.  Will Obama truly bring about a change like many hope?  I don’t know, although if history is any reflection, then the answer is probably no.

But regardless of the success of our new president, we have to ask ourselves, where does our hope lie?  Does it lie in politicians and presidents?  Does it lie in money or possessions?  Does it lie in relationships – families, friendships?

Humans have a tendency to look in the wrong places to find their answers – or to forget what sustained them when they had no answers.

When God led the people of Israel out of Egypt under Moses’ leadership, he set them free from a life of slavery, building temples to other people’s gods.  He brought them, eventually, to the Promised Land – or at least their descendants.  Yet, just a few generations later, in an eerie reflection of their slavery in Egypt, Solomon, the son of David, is using slave labor to build the Temple of the Lord, among other things.  After the dedication of the Temple, God comes again to Solomon to warn him what will happen if the Israelites forget their deliverer and turn to serve other gods.  Solomon promises to obey, but halfway through his reign, he has gotten comfortable, disobedient and forgets who gave him the power he wields, prompting God to punish his descendants and once again tear the Israelites from their home, this time culminating with the destruction of the temple, losing the Ark of the Covenant, and more.

In his latest book, Jesus Wants to Save Christians, Rob Bell points out,

“That’s always the danger, isn’t it?  That we’ll be broken, our empires will collapse, we’ll cry out for help, and when that help comes, when we get back on our feet, when there’s money in our account again, and things are back to how they were, the danger is, once we get it back – whatever ‘it’ is – we’ll forget what just happened.”

We’ll forget that Jesus is the one who saves us, who gives us hope, even in the darkest times, even in the deepest recessions.  I don’t have any figures to back this up, but it looks like church attendance is up across the nation over the past few months.  Not just Christmas Eve, but every Sunday, as people search for answers to the problems in their lives.  The question is, once they have some answers, once they are back on their feet, once their investments start performing again, will they continue to serve God, or will they forget where their hope came from in light of their new-found blessings?  And are we any better?

Our church body, small as it may seem, sponsored two families for Thanksgiving and two more families for Christmas.  In this time of struggling economy, we looked at our blessings, even the small ones, and chose to give, in some cases sacrificially, some of that back to members of our community that were struggling even more than we were.

The challenge is, when things turn around – when we do see better days – and we will see better days – history has taught us that – the United States still holds 90% of the world’s wealth, not to mention other benefits that the rest of the world can’t even imagine – when the waiting is over and the promise comes true, will we still be focused on the One who gives us hope?  Will we remember who He is and what He has called us to do?  Or will we be more like the Israelites, turning our back on the One who saved us and sustained us.

My prayer for you is that you patiently and prayerfully endure the waiting, while seeking to learn and grow, so that when the promise is fulfilled, you remember He who gave you all things, even the very ability to work and earn money.  Reconciliation that leads to hope.  Amen.

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This past Sunday, I had the opportunity to present the message/sermon/homily for my church, Family of God in Cape Coral.  While the message isn’t strictly related to finances or stewardship, I thought I’d share it with my readers here anyways.  I hope you may draw some insight from it…

Good morning.  As you have probably already figured out, Pastor Rus isn’t here this morning.  He had the pleasure of doing a wedding for some old friends of his back in West Virginia and asked me if I would mind doing the message for this week.

We’ve been talking a lot over the past few weeks about the early church – the Christian community that formed following the resurrection and then Pentecost, the blessing of the Holy Spirit on these young believers.

Just a quick aside – do you realize that the term Pentecost is not strictly a Christian term?  Pentecost, translated from the Greek literally means ‘the Fiftieth Day,’ and is actually taken from the Jewish term Shavuot, which was the Feast of Weeks, taking place 50 days after the Passover and memorializing the time when Moses and the Israelites were given the Ten Commandments on Mount Sinai.  It speaks volumes that this was also the day that God again gave his chosen people a gift – the greatest gift – his very spirit living inside them.  I could go a lot more into this, but I want to go a little bit further forward in time with you today, and take a look at another early Christian community that I think we can hopefully learn from.

But first, if you don’t mind, I’d like to have you take part in my brand new game show (drum roll)…

Is That in the Bible?

I hope you brought your Bibles.  I’m going to have a series of phrases up on the screen and I want you to vote with me whether they are from the Bible or not.

“Leopards don’t change their spots” Bible or non-Bible? (highlight hidden text for the answer)

Jeremiah 13:23 (New International Version)

Can the Ethiopian change his skin
or the leopard its spots?
Neither can you do good
who are accustomed to doing evil.

“God works in mysterious ways”

William Cowper,

“On The Loss of the Royal George”

“Money is the root of all evil”

1 Timothy 6:10 (New International Version)

For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil.

Some people, eager for money, have wandered from

the faith and pierced themselves with many griefs.

“Cleanliness is next to godliness”

Charles Wesley

Sermons, no 93,

‘On Dress’

“God helps those who help themselves”

Aesop

“The gods help them

that help themselves”

“Spare the rod and spoil the child”

Samuel Butler (Hudibras, 1664),

paraphrasing Proverbs 23:13 (New International Version)

Do not withhold discipline from a child;
if you punish him with the rod, he will not die.

Okay, hopefully you’ve learned a little bit today… A lot of what is attributed to the Bible, that is more traditional, in fact, has little or nothing to do with the Bible and Christian beliefs.  But believe me, we’re not the first ones to make this mistake.  I titled this message, “What Would Luther Say,” for an interesting reason.  If you look at Luther’s life, historically, you see that at the time he lived, very few people actually read the Bible.  Now, some of that could be attributed to the fact that it was in either Hebrew, Greek or Latin, and few could speak those languages.

In fact, if you know your Lutheran history, you know that was one of Luther’s major quests, was to translate the Bible into the German language so common folk could read and understand it.  But if you look even closer at the people of the time, you realize that even the priests themselves, who spoke Latin, Hebrew and Greek, did not read the Bible either.  It’s not too far different from what we know today, unfortunately.  As we just pointed out, there are a lot of misconceptions about what the Bible actually teaches, in the heart of many American churches, and I am sure that the European churches can’t boast much better.

I think, after all of his work, Luther would be appalled at the attitude in many churches today that people just don’t read the Bible.  Imagine from his perspective, as a priest, he didn’t read the New Testament until halfway through his career as a priest.  We know from history that he use to flagellate, or whip himself, forced himself to climb stairs on his knees and was constantly sure that he was not worthy of Christ’s favor.  Then he was encouraged to read the New Testament, and he discovered the letters of Paul, which opened his mind to the concept of salvation through grace by faith alone, a revolutionary idea to the people of his day.  In fact, Luther felt his rediscovery of that principle was so important, so revolutionary that the Devil himself would not be able to bear it and would rise up, bringing about the end of the world.

What’s interesting to note is that Luther was in the Augustinian order of the Catholic Church.  The Augustinian order followed the model of fraternity lived by the Apostles and found in the early Christian community. Augustine of Hippo himself wrote, “Before all else, live together in harmony, being of one soul and one heart seeking God.”  It also carried out the mandate of the Church to proclaim the good news of the Gospel – more on that in a moment.  From the beginning, the Augustinians tended toward a universal service to the needs of the Church.  Gregor Mendel, the monk considered the father of modern genetics, was an Augustinian, as was Myles Coverdale, who translated the first English Bible, under Henry the 8th.  Augustinian monasteries pattern themselves after the life of the early church, in Jerusalem, and also held strongly to the teachings of the Apostle Paul.

So traditionally, Augustinian monks held to the teachings of Paul.  Which makes you wonder why Luther was not familiar with them and found them so revolutionary.  To go one step further, there is another somewhat famous German Augustinian, a man by the name of Thomas á Kempis.  Just a generation before Luther, he wrote a treatise titled, The Imitation of Christ.  Within this book, he says that there are two things essential for human life – food and light – which in the spiritual realm is Communion and the Scriptures.

“Without these two I cannot live well, for the Word of God is the light of my soul, and this Sacrament is the bread of life.

“These two can be likened to two tables, set here and there in the spiritual treasure of the holy Church.  The one is the table of the holy altar, having the living Bread that is the precious Body of Christ; the other is the table of the laws of God, containing the holy doctrine which instructs man in the right faith and in the true belief and leads him into the sancta sanctorum, where the inward secrets of Scripture are hidden and contained.  I give you thanks, my Lord Jesus, the Brightness of eternal light, for this table of holy doctrine You have ministered to us by Your servants, the doctors, prophets, and Apostles.” – Thomas á Kempis, The Imitation of Christ

Just a generation before Luther, another German monk in his own order of the church wrote that men must know the scripture for the continuance of life.  And yet, 90 years later, Luther is nailing the 95 Theses on the church door in Wittenburg, having just rediscovered the scriptures.  I am thinking that this is NOT one of the grand Lutheran traditions to repeat over and over again throughout history.

And there is another reason to know the Scriptures, to read your Bible, to memorize passages and understand what they say.  In I Peter 3, the Apostle writes, “In your hearts set apart Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect, keeping a clear conscience, so that those who speak maliciously against your good behavior in Christ may be ashamed of their slander.”

Always be prepared to give an answer – a reason for the hope that you have.

When I was in high school, my best friend, Dave Rickards, was a PK – a pastor’s kid.  He was the son of a Baptist minister out on Pine Island, Pastor Tommy.  And as we spent our days going to classes at Cape High, we encountered a number of people of other beliefs and non-beliefs.  But the one most troubling was a girl that we were both good friends with, who we learned was a Jehovah’s Witness.  Now, I don’t really have time to go into everything that separates Jehovah’s Witnesses from mainline Christianity, so please take it at my word for the moment, that JW’s do not believe in the same Jesus as we do.  But, and it’s a big but… But they know their Scripture well – better than most folks who do believe in the same Jesus we do.  Imagine the frustration of being in an argument about religion – and we had a few here and there – two against one, and me and the pastor’s kid losing to this person who knew more about what we supposedly believed than we did.

What would Luther say?

In the church today, we have, in my opinion, abdicated too much of our responsibility of doing the work of God to those who are in leadership in the church.  Usually, it’s the pastor or priest that is most on the hook, followed by the lay leaders and church staff.  But all too often, once we leave the walls of the church, we don’t speak of our faith, we don’t live our faith and we don’t represent Christ to those around us.  It’s not uncommon to hear, “Well, that’s the pastor’s job.”

One of the things we’ve been talking about over the last 3 weeks is our mission to talk to the people around us – to invite them, not necessarily to church, although, that is definitely one of our pressing concerns around here lately, but to invite them to know Christ – to become a follower of His love and His truth.  To shine as believers in our respective workplaces and social lives.

You see, the thing is, it’s NOT the pastor’s job.  Is he called to do it?  Yes, but not alone.  Will we have a commune of believers like the early Jerusalem church?  No, probably not, but we are expected to do our part.

What would Luther say?

In 1520, in a paper written to the German Christians in government, in his day, of course, being the nobility, Luther proclaimed, “There is no true, basic difference between laymen and priests, princes and bishops, between religious and secular, except for the sake of office and work, but not for the sake of status. They are all of the spiritual estate, all are truly priests, bishops, and popes. But they do not all have the same work to do.”

A layman is you and me – normal folks with no particular religious training or scholarship.

Years later, during World War II, an English Bishop by the name of William Temple told his fellow church people that, “We are convinced that England will never be converted until the laity use the opportunities daily afforded by their various professions, crafts and occupations.”

When I worked full-time for the Sheriff’s Office, I got subpoenaed quite a bit to testify in court.  Here in Florida, prosecutors don’t do a lot of witness preparation, so while I didn’t always end up in court, I was told to take advantage of classes on being a witness.  The first rule of giving testimony is that you tell the truth and you only talk about what you know.  You give testimony on what you know for a fact and, in some cases, as an expert witness, what you are permitted to surmise from your work experience and training.  You’re told to address the jury, not the lawyers and are reminded time and time again to answer only the questions asked of you by either lawyer, especially when the defense attorney is questioning you.

I think what happens a lot in the church is people forget how to be a good witness.  A witness talks about what they know – they offer testimony about things that have happened in their lives, they tell the truth and they answer questions posed to them.  I couldn’t just walk into court and start spouting off my theories on who committed the crime.  But I think a lot of Christians are afraid that that is exactly what they are supposed to do when witnessing to people.  They think that witnessing and missions is telling people “You need to get saved” or “You need Jesus” or “Turn or burn!”  The fact is, none of that is true.  You’re only expected to answer the questions presented to you as you live your life to glorify God.

Always be prepared to give an answer – a reason for the hope you have

The Word of God is a light to my soul.

Always be prepared to give an answer – a reason for the hope you have

There is no difference between laymen and priests – they are all priests, bishops, popes.

Always be prepared to give an answer – a reason for the hope you have

Until the laity use the opportunities daily afforded by their various professions, crafts and occupations… this land will never be converted

Always be prepared to give an answer – a reason for the hope you have… Amen.

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This past weekend I attended a Stewardship training conference for the Lutheran churches in the Florida-Bahamas Synod.  I am the worship leader and stewardship chair for my church, Family of God in Cape Coral, FL, and I went with my pastor and another member of the church to this 1 day conference, hoping to learn something.  Sadly, all I really learned was how far out of step many in the church are.

The day began with prayer – always a good thing – then Pastor Rita, the pastor that serves as the Bishop’s right hand, er, person, did a demonstration of how stewardship works.  If you’ve been around business a while, you’ve probably seen this particular object lesson before – I believe Stephen Covey was the first to use it many years ago.

Pastor Rita pulled out a glass food storage jar and asked folks what kind of minor bills they had to pay – electric, cable, entertainment, food, etc… Then she filled a good portion of the jar with unpopped popcorn.  Turning to larger expenses, she placed pieces of fruit in the jar to indicate our mortgage, car payments, insurances, and finally, with a large grapefruit, our offerings to God.  Of course, the grapefruit stuck out considerably and the point was made – put first things first.  Which was good, and I agree – I always remind people that your tithe is specifically mentioned as coming from your First Fruits.  In fact, back when I was struggling with money, but still wanted to make Christ a priority, I forced myself into a physical discipline to reflect the spiritual discipline.  At the time, I was using a modified version of the envelope system and I forced myself, when I cashed my paycheck, to immediately take out the 10% I wanted to give back to God, so that I was reinforcing, in my mind if no where else, the First Fruits concept.

But I noticed something odd when Pastor Rita reversed the process.  She first added the grapefruit (tithes), then the mortgage fruit, the car payments fruit (a lime), then the insurances, then poured the popcorn over, leaving, about 1-1/2 inches of empty space at the top.  “And that,” she declared, “is the best example I’ve ever seen of how steawardship works.”  Well, this immediately bothered me and I got distracted trying to figure out why.  Then it hit me – here we were, at a church function, surrounded by a few dozen pastors, and NO ONE had mentioned Kingdom Finances.

You see, Pastor Rita’s example was fine – in fact it was a great explanation for the Pareto Principle, espoused by John Maxwell.  However, other than the admonition to put our commitment to God first, it really didn’t illustrate at all the Kingdom Economic principles.  After much thought, I determined what I think is the best way she could have continued the existing example, but bring God into it more:

Place the jar inside a 2″ deep baking pan.  Then take a pitcher of water and pour it over the entire container, filling up the remaining space within the jar and spilling out over into the pan.  You see, when you place God first in your finances, He responds to that – because He wants to, because He loves us – by filing us up to overflowing – providing not only for our needs, but blessing us with an abundance so that we may bless others.  Later in the seminar, during a question and answer session, I brought that up.  I asked, “I know we’re struggling in many churches just to get people to tithe (the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America is ahead of the ballgame – 2.5% of their members tithe as opposed to the national average in all churches, 1.9%), but why are we not even discussing offerings – those gifts that go above the tithe?”

His response was sadly typical.  While he agreed with me that the tithe should be a floor, not a ceiling, he kind of danced around the fact that there was more of a fear mentality in the Lutheran church than one of looking to bless others – despite Martin Luther‘s personal stance on this issue.

Just to finish off, at the conclusion of the seminar, wherein they handed out materials to all of the attendees that they told us to use in our churches, I noticed that absolutely nothing had been said about teaching the children stewardship.  Maybe it’s just because we are in Florida, often joked about as “God’s waiting room,” but I thought it odd that we were not encouraged to teach our children stewardship, tithing and giving.  When I inquired, I was told that I could request materials via e-mail from the speaker and he would be happy to send them to me, yet no mention was made of this to the larger group.  Which wouldn’t be as big a deal if they hadn’t interrupted our discussion just a few minutes before to explain how to handle snowbirds & part-time residents.  Apparently, they are more important to this church than raising up their children (as few as they are) in the proper Christian beliefs and faith.

On a somewhat related, but different note, an interesting thing has been happening in my area of Southwest Florida recently.  A few short weeks ago, one of our officers at the Fort Myers Police Department was shot in the line of duty.  While I had only met Andy once, I have known his wife and her family for the better part of 25 years.  As part of the community coming together, a number of officers from all of our local police agencies volunteered to stand outside of various shopping centers and Wal-Marts, collecting donations for the family, who has three very young children.  The donations collected (and still being collected in some instances) amounted to well over $100,000.

Recently, some folks have expressed some confusion over why this family was singled out and received such a huge outpouring of community support.  Now, as a friend of the family and former law enforcement officer, I have my own strongly held personal opinions about why the Widman family should be blessed in this way (not to mention Andy took the job to raise money so he and Susanna could go overseas as missionaries), but the detractors raise an interesting point – one they seem willing to back up.  And in that I support them.  They rightly ask, “Where is all of the money for other widows, where is the community support,”  and they are making a lot of noise about starting a fund for those other widows, to which I respond, ABSOLUTELY.  And while you’re at it, let’s take care of the orphans as well.  I’m pretty sure that’s in the Bible…

Dueteronomy 10:17-18 “For the LORD your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great God, mighty and awesome, who shows no partiality and accepts no bribes. He defends the cause of the fatherless and the widow, and loves the alien, giving him food and clothing.”

In fact, the book of Deuteronomy is replete with admonitions to leave behind a portion of your crops, for the fatherless and the widowed.  Twice in that book alone, the writer mentions that you should, “bring all the tithes of that year’s produce and store it in your towns, so that the Levites (who have no allotment or inheritance of their own) and the aliens, the fatherless and the widows who live in your towns may come and eat and be satisfied, and so that the LORD your God may bless you in all the work of your hands.”

You may recall my article last year, “Why Social Security, Welfare & Medicare Don’t Work – And Never Will,” where I talked about how the church and its people have abdicated their responsibility to care for the least of these to various government programs.  While the almost universal response I got from the people who read the article can be summed up in, “Well, that’s a nice thought, but it’ll never work,” its nice to see that some others – even those without a faith foundation to fall back on – are embracing the same principles.  Now why can’t we get the church involved?

Maybe that’s just too much Jesus for them.  Maybe we should review the words of the great reformer, Martin Luther:

“There is no true, basic difference between laymen and priests, princes and bishops, between religious and secular, except for the sake of office and work, but not for the sake of status. They are all of the spiritual estate, all are truly priests, bishops, and popes. But they do not all have the same work to do.” – Martin Luther, To the Christian Nobility of the German Nation (1520)

Now get out there and change the world.

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