Why I am Lutheran

Why Should I Be a Lutheran?

I know that some of you know my heritage in the Lutheran church. My father, grandfather, and great-grandfather were all pastors.

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Great-grandpa Henry Gaertner

You may think that my blood flows with little lutheran seals imprinted on my red blood cells. I have every reason to claim my identity in the Lutheran church through my family ties. But no parent can guarantee the faith of their children. No single generation of the church has been able to ensure the faith of the next generation by bloodlines. I am follower of Jesus because of the extravagant love of Jesus Christ. I hope that my children continue to hold onto Jesus. If one of them becomes a pastor that would be pretty cool, but most importantly I pray that they remain full of faith in the promises of God.

I want to share with you some of the reasons why I am a pastor in the Lutheran church, and I think you will notice that none of these reasons include my family tree.

I believe Jesus Christ is my Lord and my savior. Amazingly God is willing to claim me as a member of his family. Why should I be numbered among the saints? I have not done any miracles. I struggle to wake up with my alarm in the morning. I am certain my many snoozes on the alarm torture my home in the morning. Why should God know me?I know that God does not know me through my works. I believe God knows me because of the amazing love of Jesus. Jesus has claimed me.

I am Lutheran, because in this church I hear the promise of God and I hold onto this promise through faith. This faith I have is not possible through my reason. God’s love is beyond my reason. This faith I have is not possible through my strength. I do not have enough muscle in me to lift myself up towards God. This faith is possible because the Holy Spirit has called me to believe through the good news of Jesus that has been shared with me. I am Lutheran because in this church body I am honest about my weaknesses and rejoice in the strength of God’s steadfast love and mercy

I am Lutheran, because the concrete promises of God are delivered to me in the waters of baptism, the body and blood in the Lord’s Supper, and in the inspired Word of God. I know that many of my goals remain elusive from me and my targets change so that I never know if I have done enough. I am just a lost boy when I try to find hope all by myself. Yet God stands strong and present for me in a way I can always find him. In the lavish washing of the forgiveness of sins found in my baptism I rejoice that I am a child of God. In the simple seed of wheat and the clusters of grapes that are combined with God’s Word I rejoice in the resurrection of Jesus. In the Bible I discover that God’s story from the very beginning has included me. I am Lutheran because in this church body I can stand on the concrete promises of God even while the rest of the world of quick sand swirls around me.

I am Lutheran, because I know that I am a part of something bigger than just me, myself, and I. I am not an isolated individual living on an island searching for God. I am a part of the communion of saints. The communion of saints is all those who believe in Jesus. We are no longer bound to sin, death, or the devil. In every place and time we are bound together by more than nation, tribe, or language. In Christ we are a community. In Christ we go into the community. When I join with other brothers and sisters in this family of faith I know that we are all sinners struggling on our own and rescued by Jesus Christ. I am not under any illusions that we are a perfect family through our own efforts. I trust Jesus saves me through His work, and so I also trust He saves our community of faith through His mercy. I am Lutheran because in this church body we are honest about sin and we celebrate God’s steadfast love and mercy. We rejoice in the unity of the church through Jesus Christ. We trust that in every place and time in this world before and after us we are big family.

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Yes there are other church bodies that share in this good news. I rejoice that where God’s Word is shared the Holy Spirit will bring people to saving faith in Jesus. Everything I have written is intended as positive encouragement. I have not intended to create negative impressions about any other church. I do not think that only Lutherans are true Christians, but I do think that we got something pretty good going on in the Lutheran church. We have a rich history and tradition that is bound to continue insofar we keep reveling in the power of God’s Word to deliver us to salvation.

If you are looking for someone who is better with words than me describe why he is Lutheran, I encourage you to read Trevor Sutton’s book, Being LutheranTrevor is one of the pastors at St. Luke Lutheran in Haslett, Michigan. This guy rocks with words.


I know there are some funny idiosyncrasies about being Lutheran. I enjoy the jokes, but most of all I enjoy following Jesus.

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Remembering 9/11 – Lost and Found

The fifteen year anniversary of 9/11 causes me to remember how I was a young pastor that struggled to find words to place this attack into any sort of narrative that made sense to me. I was in the third month of being the new pastor at Grace Lutheran Church in Niagara Falls, New York. On that day and the days afterwards, I found that Western New York felt both very far away and very near to New York City, Washington DC, and Shanksville, Pennsylvania.

I was driving north on the 190 towards Niagara Falls. I was about to go over the north bridge off of Grand Island when I heard on the radio that a plane had struck a building in NYC. I was just a few minutes away from my office at Grace. When I entered the church building, I immediately went towards the garage sale donation pile. I remembered that Carl had donated a television for the upcoming garage sale. I plugged the television into the wall. Lisa and I tried to get the antenna positioned to receive the signal from one of the news channels. Lisa returned tried to get some work down, what could we change by staring at the fuzz on the television. I went to my computer to see if I could find out more information. Every page was loading painfully slow. I knew we had slow internet, but every moment I pressed refresh on the browser I waited and waited for any news that this was just an accident. 9/11 was not an accident.

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Randy called and asked me to find a way to join the community in prayer. He wanted his kids to place their trust in God. He understood that trust would be easier to find if we were together. We quickly made calls and arranged for a prayer service. I don’t remember much about the prayer service. I do remember that none of us tried to fill the moments of prayer with cliches, people were honest in silence. Words cold not fill this moment unless there was trust. The trust we had in God did not require that answers would be found. Our trust required that we were not alone.

That same week I was scheduled to host the monthly gathering of local Lutheran pastors. The circuit meeting begins with a worship service. After the service, there is a Bible study and chance to share about our unique contexts. At the service I was expected to preach a sermon. This was the first circuit meeting I had either attended or hosted as a pastor. Remember, I was only three months into the ministry. I expected that pastors who host the circuit meeting would plan to use the sermon from the previous week or test out on the brothers the sermon that would preached on the upcoming Sunday. I knew that last week’s sermon seemed odd to use and I still did not have a bead on the upcoming sermon. Before I left the house, I looked one more time at the upcoming gospel lesson from Luke 15:1-10. Jesus shared with his followers the parable of the lost sheep and the lost coin. I did not think I could preach about the celebration after the sheep is found or the coin is discovered. I didn’t see anything in the text besides the celebration. I looked one more time and then I prayed for the Holy Spirit to bring wisdom to my heart and words to my lips. I left the house for the meeting at Grace.

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When the circuit meeting worship service began the words of the liturgy carried us into God’s promises. We confessed our sins, and we received the promise that we are forgiven children of God through the mercy of our savior Jesus. I spoke the the words of Ezekiel 34:11 and following, “For thus says the Lord God: ‘Behold, I, I myself will search for my sheep and will seek them out.”

I shared the words of St. Paul to Timothy, “The saying is trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinner, of whom I am the foremost” (1 Timothy 15).

It was time for the gospel reading from Luke. I spoke the words of the shepherd searching for the lost sheep, and the woman that searching for the coin. I knew we were not yet in a moment of celebration because the rescuers were still frantically searching the rubble where the planes brought destruction. I knew that there were people around the world feeling lost and disconnected from any narrative of hope. This disconnection did not just come from 9/11. Too many people are living disconnected from hope and are just ghost walking to the next day. How can we bring people back towards seeing tomorrow and the next day as moments kept safe by God?

It was in the words of God I found my story that day, and it remains my story whenever I am feeling disconnected. God is looking for you. I know that this sounds simple. Knowing that God desires to be with me takes away so much anxiousness. We are not alone. The first responders that walked into danger on 9/11 were not alone. The people descending staircases to nowhere where not alone. The people on the plane flying over Pennsylvania were not alone when it was time to act bravely to save lives on the ground. Jesus Christ has come in the flesh, taken upon himself the very loneliness of our suffering, so that we never have to stand alone against Satan and his evil minions.

God is searching. Now you may imagine your story is too small compared to the big stories that others are living. Even if you imagine your story too insignificant, remember the woman searching for the coin. I wonder what her friends thought when she called them all together to have a party after she found the one missing coin. To those friends the coin may have sounded silly. To that woman searching for the coin, the lost coin was worthy of a party. God wants to find you, and you are not insignificant to him. No one has a story too small to be include in the story of God. God is searching for you, and he want to hold a party for you.

More than just an inner drive

On October 9 I plan to complete Ironman Louisville. I have been preparing for this triathlon race for several months. The training has been relentless. The improvements in my fitness have been gradual but I trust I will be prepared to complete this race. I will cross the finish line after 2.4 miles of swimming, 112 miles of biking,and 26.2 miles of running. When I cross that finish line, I may collapse. I suspect that during the race there will be many moments when I will want to quit. I will strive to finish because of the internal motivation to complete this goal, but I think I will be more motivated by the external pressure of having so many people pushing me forward. I am certain I would quit a big race like this Ironman if I only could rely on my internal strength. I have a high tolerance of pain and I can stay motivated on most tasks, but this race will be hard.

I am thankful for the tremendous support and encouragement that I have received in my preparations to complete Ironman Louisville. I am a part of team of pastors preparing to complete the triathlon. Pastors Mark Milatz and Ben Vogel are at Shepherd of the Lakes Lutheran Church and School in Brighton, Michigan. Pastor Drew Gruenhagen is at St. Michael Lutheran Church and School in Wayne, Michigan. Our team is called Tri1406. The “tri” part of the team name comes from the word triathlon. The “1406” part of the title come from the total distance of the Ironman distance, which is 140.6 miles. We are using this race as a vehicle to raise money for church worker student scholarships. You can read more about our team, follow along with our training, and also make a donation of any amount for these scholarships by visiting www.tri1406.com

no-quittingI have been challenged to find the time to train and improve my speed in the water, on the bike, and on the road. I thought I could do some sermon prep in my mind during the swim workouts, but instead I spend most of my time moving one arm in front of the other arm. While I am on the bike and on the running paths, I do find more opportunity to think. I have outlined a few books in my mind, but then I have forgotten them all when I get back to the car. Thinking while I am biking and running seems to be similar to my dreams. Awesome in the moment and then when I wake up nothing makes sense to me. The minds games I have experienced during the training have convinced me that the internal motivation for this race will be a jumbled mess. Fortunately I will not rely on only my personal fortitude to finish this race. I am supported by my kind and generous family. All the pastors on the Tri1406 team have found their congregations supportive and understanding of the training time necessary to prepare for this race. We have received donations that have let me know that people care about supporting church worker scholarships.Thank you for the support and the prayers. I will find external motivation to finish this race in the knowledge that so many people care about our success in Louisville.candidate-1276436-2014-07-02-22-27-19

I will also stay motivated to finish this race knowing that God has given me this opportunity to shine a light on the need for us to support students who are preparing to serve the church as pastors, teachers, and directors of Christian education. Please consider making a donation to support church worker scholarships by visiting tri1406.com or write a check to St. Paul Lutheran Church and place the words “tri1406” in the memo line.

My Report of 66th LCMS Convention

Here is a quick report of what happened at the 66th The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod in Milwaukee.

The convention took place July 9-14, 2016. I attended this convention because I was elected last summer to be the Ann Arbor pastoral delegate. Every circuit of congregations sends one lay delegate and one pastoral delegate. There were about 1,125 voting delegates sitting in the often frigid conditions of the Wisconsin Center in Milwaukee. The theme for the convention was “Upon this Rock: Repent, Confess, Rejoice.”

The primary business of the convention is the “opportunity for worship, nurture, inspiration, fellowship and the communication of vital information” (Bylaw 3.1.1). The worship services were filled with the most spectacular music from the organ, brass, and soloists. The theme focused on the rock solid confession of faith that Jesus Christ is our savior. As much as the world may change around us, we can remain confident that Jesus is our hope and salvation. The most important business at the convention for me was the opportunity for relationship renewal and building. The communication of vital information was found in printed reports, speeches from the stage, and some attractive videos that were shown to introduce new programs.

The second item of business is elections. The president was elected before the convention by electronic vote. So delegates arrived at the convention knowing that Rev. Matthew C. Harrison was reelected for his third term as president. We spent several hours at the convention electing people to various offices. There were not many surprises in the elections. Before the convention an anonymous group mailed to the voting delegates the “United List.” This produced and distributed list influenced the outcome of the elections. I think only a handful of the nearly 100 elections went against the list. I did not utilize the list and so therefore I found my votes in the elections were often on the wrong side of victory.

The third item of business at the convention is for the assembly to consider reports, overtures, and resolutions for action. Overtures were submitted to the convention by congregations, circuits, districts, and officers and committees of the synod. Floor committees met over Memorial Day weekend to craft these overtures into resolutions. The convention assembly debated and voted on the resolutions. Some of the controversial resolutions presented to the assembly concerned the dispute resolution process, the role of lay deacons functioning in support of the office of the public ministry, and the governance of the universities.

President Harrison had a majority of delegates supporting his positions in these controversial areas. He had a consistent 60% voting block, but he demonstrated at this convention a commitment to the unity of the church. He did not utilize his support among the voting delegates to pass anything by slim margins of majority. He sought consensus. For instance, the modifications to the dispute resolution he proposed had very little support from the district presidents. His proposal would have increased the power of the president to overrule decisions by the district presidents. When the opposition to this change became publicly evident, the resolution was revised so that both sides could find agreement. Providing a route towards ordination for those deacons that have been doing the duties of the pastor was approved by over 70% of the assembly. This route towards ordination was approved without considerable discussion because the leadership of the synod has spent a great deal of time over the last few years nurturing this idea.

Our synod voted with considerable unity on issues that appear to divide the rest of our country. We affirmed that marriage is between one man and one woman. We affirmed that God created the heavens and the earth. We affirmed that Lutheran universities, seminaries, and schools should be Lutheran. We affirmed that we should regularly read the Bible (yep we voted on that tough topic).

I can report that Jesus is at work in this world bringing His saving message of redemption, and graciously God is using our own church body to be a part of delivering this saving message. God also uses, throughout the world, tremendously brave people in our partner churches to share this good news.

You can learn a great deal about what happened at the convention by visiting LCMS.org/convention. If you are looking for a less varnished reporting of the events of the convention, then you could visit the online forum of the American Lutheran Publicity Bureau. The ALPB sent Rev. Dr. Paul Sauer to report the events of the convention. HIs comments and the musings of others that watched the convention can be found at alpb.org/forum.

When I came home, I received wonderful hugs from my kids and wife. It was good to see our church body at work, but I think it is even more powerful for me to witness the daily ways God is using the people of our congregation. Thank you for sharing the Word of God with your friends, family members, neighbors, and co-workers. When I witness Jesus being shared with the children of our community during Vacation Bible School, I rejoice God is at work.

Doing more than running in place

I have had people ask me what my congregation is doing to make sure we are not just running in place. I think this is a good question. I do like running on a treadmill in the winter, but it does get boring. As I stare at the wall in front of me I realize that I am not moving forward. Now we are in the season when I my running moves from the treadmill towards the outside. Running outside is more fun than the treadmill, but I have nearly gotten lost a few times in Island Lake State Recreation Area. I did not pay attention to where I was going. I was moving forward, but I am not sure I knew where I was headed. So I had to turn around and retrace my steps back to a spot that I recognized.

As a congregation, we are not doing ministry just inside the walls of our building. We are seeking ways to share the good news of Jesus with our community. When we move beyond the inside of our building, we might get a little lost. We will try new things. We will meet new people. Sometimes we will find that we have headed down a trail that ends up going nowhere. In ministry, if I ever find myself confused about what I am doing, I turn back towards a spot I recognize. I recognize the cross and the love of Jesus. When I turn back to the cross, then I find it easier to go back on the trail and explore where God takes us in His love.

We have moved towards a new model of governance at St. Paul Lutheran Church. We have a church council made up of five caring people that desire our ministry does more than feet-on-treadmillsjust run on a treadmill. If you are wondering what the council is accomplishing, then I ask you to look at what people in this congregation are accomplishing. The council does not do the ministry at St. Paul. The council works with the leadership at St. Paul Lutheran Church to equip and encourage us to connect people to Jesus, to each other, and to opportunities to serve their neighbors in need. We equip people with the resources they need to do what God has called them to do. We encourage people to use their gifts so that we connect people to Jesus.

Our congregation does not have a lot of hoops to jump through to get something started. If you have an idea for ministry that fits into our vision of connecting people to Jesus, then we want to make sure you have the resources you need. We encourage people to move forward and so we do not have a bunch of committees that meet forever without doing anything.

We support the model of ministry action teams. None of our ministry teams should be lonely efforts, because trying to be the superstar servant will result in burnout. The key to understanding the ministry action team model is found in the word “action.” Teams develop so that something might be accomplished. When a group of people have a shared vision and common values powerful forces are at work. At St. Paul Lutheran Church we believe that every person should understand that we are connecting people to Jesus. And every person should understand the reason for this common goal is that eternal life and salvation are found only in Jesus. Connecting people to Jesus will not be achieved without unity in this purpose. We work together because we believe that each person has a part to play in this good news sharing ministry.

We support teams because we are united in our purpose to share Jesus. We also support teams because ministry is best accomplished by working together. God’s Word is spread and the number of disciples are multiplied when we trust in each person being gifted by God for the work we have been called to do. No doubt, more can be accomplished together. The book of Ecclesiastes reminds us, “Two are better than one, because they have a good reward for their labor” (Ecclesiastes 4:9). Any ministry action teams that form at St. Paul are expected to be more than one person. Working together expands the power of information, builds community, improves decision-making, and expands the possibilities for unexpected spiritual gifts to be utilized.

We have decentralized leadership through this move to ministry action teams that are equipped and encouraged by the church council. The council is no longer in the driver’s seat of what will get done at St. Paul. We all share in the common vision to connect people to Jesus. We all value the importance of connecting people to Jesus because we know in Jesus alone will we find eternal life and salvation. We recognize our interdependence and common goals when we work in teams. Each of us should feel a sense of ownership. No one in this congregation is just a volunteer recruited, we all can be involved in planning and implementing our vision.

Every person in this congregation can be involved in developing a ministry action team because we are not waiting for permission to share Jesus. We do not need permission to connect people to Jesus. No matter how great our council may be, no matter how engaging their personalities may be, we will not advance far in our vision of connecting people to Jesus if we rely only on them. I trust that God will be the instigator of teams developing at St. Paul. God will be the one that will sustain us in healthy and functional teams. We are not waiting for the council to do something. We are not going to keep running in place. We are all gifted children of God called to participate in the kingdom building work being done through the Word of God.

Trusting in the Armor of God

“For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the LORD, “plans for welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope. Then you will call upon Me and come and pray to Me, and I will hear you. You will seek Me and find Me, when you seek Me with all your heart.” — Jeremiah 29:11-13

The needs are so great in this world it is remarkably easy for us to get frightened and leap directly into danger. A newspaper in Columbia, Missouri had an article in 2013 about why the armadillo can’t cross the road. The nine-banded armadillo over the last 30 years has marched its habitat north into Missouri. I learned that the armadillo often dies on the road for a reason I did not expect. I thought armadillos perish because they bundle into their shells and wait for the trouble to come. In fact, when danger approaches the armadillo will leap 3 to 4 feet into the air. In a nature habitat this leap startles other animals, and it gives the armadillo time to flee. This leap into the air does not frighten the approaching car, so that this defense makes the car even more deadly. The leap puts the animal at the right height to get hit by the bumper or underside of a car. The behavior of the armadillo to leap at danger gives this animal a decided disadvantage in an encounter with a car.

800px-armadillo_at_kennedy_space_center_ksc-07pd-2276The armadillo is a little creature equipped with a number of armored plates that interlock but move independent so that the animal can move about. Unfortunately the armadillo does not always use this armor effectively and instead leaps into danger. God provides armor for us. St. Paul wrote to the Ephesians, “Put on the whole armor of God, that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil” (Ephesians 6:11). God equips us to move about and stand strong by providing to us truth, righteousness, the gospel of peace, faith, salvation, the Word of God, and prayer. You have been clothed by God to live everyday day in His promises and to share the truth of God’s love with others. Putting on the armor of God means having a deep, ongoing, life-changing relationship with Jesus.

Do you use the armor that God has provided to you to move about and stand against the wiles of the devil, or do you arrogantly act apart from God’s gifts and foolishly leap into danger?

c7f1a8703d59db7fe9ce280a5e28f122I encourage you to consider what God says about the power of His truth, righteousness, peace, faith, salvation, and Spirit to protect you from the spiritual darkness of Satan. Satan is a dangerous enemy. I do not want you to leap into the approaching danger of Satan. Gather with other Christians and find the strength of the interlocking pieces of Christian community. It is in the church that you can hear God’s Word and receive the gifts of God. Inside this community we find a safe place to pause and consider some of life’s big questions: Who am I? What is the role of faith and church in my life? How does my faith impact what I say or do every day? These questions are answered together as we hear God’s Word and find nurturing in the promises of Jesus. Together we receive from God His gifts of grace. These gifts of grace are received in Baptism, Confession and Absolution, Holy Communion, and through the Word of God. We participate in this community to not only experience a conversion from death to life but also for life each and every day.

It is impossible for me to imagine life lived without a community of faith. I know that in this world there is pressure to have enough beauty, power, wealth, and stuff. There is pressure to do everything and to do it all perfectly. This quest to be significant and special fails when it depends on our own efforts. As Christians we venture into our callings with humility. We acknowledge that we are not perfect and that we daily need God’s forgiveness for ourselves. We also recognize that the people around us will not be perfect. No doubt the sins, troubles, and despairs of this age could flood us with doubt, but we trust that the Holy Spirit empowers us to refocus our vision and energy to meet the needs of those we encounter each day.

We do face battles here on earth. There is approaching danger on the paths you are walking. You do not need to leap in fright into these dangers. Trust in the armor of God. You are interlocked together with other Christians. You are a part of the body of Christ. You have the ability to drive back darkness and boldly reach out in service to the sick, abused, imprisoned, and others in need. You can do all things through Christ who strengthens you.

Blessings Shared with Others

One of the moments that captures my joy as a pastor is when I have the opportunity to speak the words of the benediction. I speak words of benediction at the end of the worship service. I also speak these words during hospital visits and whenever I want to leave a person with confidence in the graciousness of the Lord God.

I recall visiting a woman in the hospital and speaking the words of the benediction. With my lips I said the words and with my hand I made the sign of the cross upon her forehead. As I spoke the words I found her lips moving along with mine, “The Lord bless you and keep you. The Lord make His face shine on you and be gracious to you. The Lord look upon you with favor and give you peace.” The woman answered my words of benediction, by saying, “Thank you.” I know that her gratitude was not only directed towards my visit, but more importantly she was thankful to God that she could trust in His blessing of peace and grace.

These words of blessing that I enjoy sharing are from Numbers 6:24-26. This benediction is known as the Aaronic Benediction because the Lord God spoke to Moses these words of blessing with the command that Moses should teach these words to Aaron and his sons. God desired the priests of Israel to share with the people that their Lord God desired them to blessed with peace.

The people in the Old Testament, in the New Testament, and still now trust in the graciousness, favor, and peace bestowed by God. The Lord our God who created all that is seen and unseen seeks to bless His people. The words of this benediction express our faith that the Lord is the giver of blessing. When we share the blessings of God with people, we declare to them the good news of Jesus Christ and affirm that we are claimed and loved by God.

When I speak the words of the benediction, I make the sign of the cross. I remember that God delivers to us His peace through the work of the cross when I make the sign of the cross. The sign of the cross for me is a wonderful devotional aid because I find it an expression of unity between my heart, my lips, and my body. I desire all of me to trust in God through the mercy of Jesus. The sign of the cross is a gesture to recall the salvation that God has made available to us through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

You do not need to be a pastor to speak words of blessing to someone. All Christians who know the hope and promise of Jesus will find themselves in moments when God use them to share words of blessing. When you see that people are in need of the peace and joy of God’s presence, assure them that the Lord does desires peace for them. Please do not assume that a person has enough peace that you can walk past him or her or count on someone else to share the joy of Jesus Christ. Take the time to share with a person your confidence that the Lord does look upon him or her with favor. When you do deliver words of blessing to someone, discover the profound way that touch can communicate peace and joy. Make sure you use touch that is non-threatening, respectful, and communicates the love of Christ. You could place one hand on the person’s shoulder and with the other hand trace a cross on the person’s forehead. Then hold both of the person’s hands in yours while making eye contact and speaking the benediction. Depending on the level of relationship with a person head-touching will be considered rude or confusing so always ask permission before making a blessing in this way. With good eye contact, speak the words of blessing. Deliver the blessing with the conviction that God’s peace and favor is a free gift you are offering to the person.

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Truth Telling in Community

Telling the truth in a community involves a vulnerability that not everyone is comfortable exposing. I enjoy telling the truth when I have good news to share. When I have bad news, I am fearful of how the bad news will be received. I believe we will be a stronger community when we can share the wholeness of our lives. When I can trust you with both the good news and the bad news of my life, I know that we have a bond that will not be easily broken. Communities of people who love the truth, live faithfully, and respond gratefully are wonderfully safe places to grow and unfortunately remarkably rare. The church is called to be exactly such a community.

David wrote in Psalm 86, “Teach me your way, O LORD, that I may walk in your truth; give me an undivided heart to revere your name. I give thanks to you, O LORD my God, with my whole heart, and I will glorify your name forever. For great is your steadfast love towards me.”

David prayed these words with gratitude to walk in God’s truth. In these words from the psalms, we are also invited to walk in God’s truth and revere His name with an undivided heart. You do not need to hide a part of your life from God. Trust God with your whole life and discover how He cares for all of you. God is not only interested in your piety and wholesome works. God is interested in your sins, struggles, shames, and sorrows.

PrintBecause we want to be good, or at least appear to be good enough, we will compare ourselves to others. When we compare ourselves to others, we will sometimes come up short. In those moments when we do not measure up, we are prone towards hypocrisy and deception so that we do not fall too far behind. In the close connections of a community it can be difficult to keep up appearances and cover our failures. If we struggle with truthfulness, we will then either deceive in order to look better or we will find ourselves feeling more and more like an outcast. If everyone else around us is living life easily, is there room for us and our failures? Truth stumbles and honesty caves in when we feel like we need to pretend to have everything sorted out. I think that the bundles of lies, secrets, and silences that are necessary to appear okay can be very exhausting.

I believe that if our community was dependent on our own righteousness and holiness we would become a bunch of liars and deceivers so that we could still justify belonging to the community. Jeremiah wrote that the human heart is “deceitful above all things” (Jeremiah 17:9). Our world is filled with deceit and lies in order to prop up our vanity. But our redeemed community of believers is called to be different. We can put away the lies and hypocrisy and speak the truth. Followers of Jesus are called to a
common life of grace and truth built on the promise that we are loved by God according to His grace and His truth.

Truth-filled communities are connected to Jesus because Jesus is “the way, and the truth, and the life” (John 14:6). When we trust Jesus to be the framework for our life and relationships, we are in a better position to address our sins and failures. We can confidently face our need to repent because we truthfully respect the gap between our goodness and God’s righteousness. Paul told the Colossians, “Do not lie to one another, seeing that you have stripped off the old self with its practices and have clothed yourselves with the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge according to the image of its creator” (Colossians 3:9-10). We do not need to lie to hide the threadbareness of our own deeds. We can confidently tell the truth that we have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God because we trust that we are clothed in the love of Jesus Christ.

When we confess our sins, we are being honest with God that we have sinned. We can be clear with God, because in Jesus, we have received the clear promise of God’s love. Not only can you be clear with God, you should be clear with one another in our community. Our community should be held together with something more substantial than a facade of goodness. Our community should be held together by truth and love.

This is article is a part of a series of articles written with inspiration from the book Living into Community, by Christine D. Pohl.

Promise Making and Keeping are the Stud Walls of Community

This month we continue our look at practices that cultivate and sustain community. Last month I wrote about the importance of enacting the practice of gratitude. This month I encourage us to live into our community with the practice of making and keeping promises.

I know I have become more cynical in my expectations for fidelity. My own parents divorced when I was seven years old. As a child I did not understand all the adult things that they were working out. All I knew was that my parents were no longer together. For a while I thought it normal that promises made would become promises that would become broken. As I grew up, I found that they both worked hard to make and keep promises to my brothers and myself. My parents divorced from each other. They did not divorce themselves from their responsibility to be parents. I am thankful for their fidelity to parenthood.

God is faithful even when we are unfaithful. Promise-making and promise-keeping are central to how God relates to us and how we relate to Him. Promises are the internal framework for the relationship we have with God. When we hit rough patches, we turn to God. We turn to God because the commitments He has made to us have been tested and proven. I trust in God. I trust I can put myself fully into His hands and He will do what He has said He will do.

handshakeI understand that we make promises in different ways. Some promises are formally made. When I was a kid, I would spit in my hand and shake my friend’s hand to secure our bond. When our oaths involve rituals, we raise our expectations for faithfulness. Now not all promises are formal, we also bind ourselves to one another in unspoken ways. Expectations can be set up by what we have previously said or done. The unspoken expectations in a community can be confusing because they are not shared on both sides. What unspoken expectations do you have of the people at this congregation? What unspoken expectations do you have of me as the pastor of this congregation? If I break the bonds we have together, please let me know. I understand how important faithfulness is to our relationship together.

We are not always faithful. When we break promises, we betray our relationships and weaken our community. When we are down in the pits of betrayal, the love of Jesus is the scaffolding upon which we will climb up to fresh air. The love of Jesus in the face of our betrayal and desertion is a part of our redemption. In this congregation we make and keep promises. In this congregation we will also experience betrayal and desertion.

9780802849854Christine Pohl, in her book Living into Community, wrote about how a troubled congregation that was trying to rely on its own strength found rebirth when they relied on the promise keeping of God. The pastor at this congregation was experiencing the meltdown of the church after the misconduct of a previous pastor. The congregation was suffering greatly from diminished prayer, attendance, gifts, and service. The mission of the church was largely abandoned. The remaining members felt burdened and hurt. They were wounded by those who left the congregation during the times of difficulty. In order to move forward, the congregation needed a way to forgive friends who left. They found redemption as a congregation from their time of crisis when they sought to rebuild their congregation on the strength of the forgiveness of Jesus.

We will be a stronger congregation when we practice making and keeping promises. Though it seems ordinary, consistency in showing up for worship and supporting the Gospel proclaiming ministry at this congregation is a part of the internal framework that supports us. During times of crisis and confusion, it can be helpful to be faithful to the tasks we know that need to be done. When the storms subside and the crisis is over, you will find that the damage is limited by your consistency in daily tasks. Keep centered on Jesus, and the swirling confusion around you will not appear as dangerous.

Grateful Hearts

Christine Pohl, in her book Living into Community: Cultivating Practices that Sustain Us, identified four practices that should be noticed and celebrated by congregations as they seek to live around the love of Jesus. I think it will be good for our community to get in the habit of noticing and celebrating the practices of gratitude, making and keeping promises, living truthfully, and hospitality. This month I am going to focus on the practice of gratitude. In future articles I will discuss the other three practices.

Remembering to say “please” and “thank you” is an important lesson of childhood but it is also an important practice for community life. Gratitude is vital to a community because this practice demonstrates that the grace of God is foundational to our community’s life. Our lives are redeemed from the debts of our sin by the grace of God. When our Christian lives are lived in gratitude, we recognize the starting point for our lives is the undeserved love from God. I am grateful for every dawn I see because I know that everyday is a gift from the Lord. I love the idea that our gratitude follows God’s grace like thunder follows lightning. Paul told the Ephesians to have gratitude at the center of their life together, “giving thanks to God the Father at all times and for everything in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ” (Ephesians 5:20).

Gratitude and ingratitude are connected to what we notice. When we focus on the flaws in our community we will develop contagious ingratitude. Beneath our critique and complaint about people in the congregation will be doubts about God’s faithfulness. General grumbling and dissatisfaction exhausts a community. We will have more strength to move forward in our mission as a congregation when we acknowledge that God is faithful to His promises.

Gratitude can be undone when we covet. The ninth and tenth commandments talk about the danger of coveting. Coveting is the unhealthy desire for what God has provided to someone else. I know that it is unhealthy to always want more possessions or money. I am also discovering that it is dangerous to always want more success in ministry, greater spiritual growth in myself, greater spiritual growth in others, or some dramatic experience. Success in ministry and spiritual growth are good things. It is dangerous when my desire for success and growth makes me blind to the small blessings.

Christine Pohl comments in her chapter on gratitude, “When our lives are shaped by gratitude, we’re more likely to notice the goodness and beauty in everyday things. We are content; we feel blessed and are eager to confer blessing.” I believe that our congregation community can find participation in the divine graces of God when we reach to one another from a place of gratitude. I celebrate what God is doing daily to develop us into a community gathered by grace.

As we marvel at God’s love and faithfulness to His promises, we can pump oxygen into our community by noticing and celebrating the good. Communities and families flourish in environments of positive affirmation. We are strengthened when we express appreciation to one another on a regular basis. We will face difficult moments. We will find ourselves discouraged when people we serve are unresponsive or ungrateful. Communities that make it through difficult moments continue to embody gratitude and celebration.

Our Lord God rested on the seventh day of creation. He took time to notice what is good. This moment of resting and celebrating the good is baked into our creation. We may see celebrations and moments of thankfulness as extras to life in community. Yet we are called in the very orders of creation to pause and give thanks for all that has been made. This month take a pause and celebrate the extraordinary and the ordinary good that God has done in our community. We are blessed and redeemed by our Lord God Jesus Christ. We are living in the days the Lord has made for us.

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Photo: Woodley Wonder Works