Serial vs Self-Encapsulated Story

I enjoy binge watching shows through Amazon or Netflix. I bounce between liking shows that have a long story arc that the screenwriters spread across  several episodes and shows that self-encaspsulate a story into each episode. Recently I started watching a show that started as a spy show with each episode being self-contained. Slowly this show introduced a story line that ended up taking them four seasons of episodes to complete. I did not want to pay attention that long to figure out what sinister conspiracy was behind everything. I gave up watching the show. I read the episode recaps on wikipedia to find my desire for resolution satisfied.

I want television shows to find a way to wrap up their storylines after a couple of episodes or one season. Stretching across several seasons to solve the purpose for the show wears me down. I think the television show “Lost” is a great example of a show that started off with a good balance between long story arcs and individual storylines that could be finished up each episode. Unfortunately the show “Lost” became lost in its own story after a while and ended up being a self-indulgent mess.

So I have been thinking about my disappointment in shows that can’t figure out how to tell a story with conclusions and then reflecting on what this means for my preaching. I know as a person in the pew listening to another preacher that I am not very patient with the preacher that has several false endings. I watched a person preach online, and behind the preacher I saw the band shuffling towards their instruments. The band thought the sermon was wrapping up. They knew the cadence of the preacher, or at least they thought they did. The preacher went on for several more minutes. I wonder if that preacher went on with his sermon as punishment to the band that assumed they knew where the sermon was headed.

Humbly, I notice that when I preach I have had this problem. I look at the people shuffling and moving in the pew. I want to tell them, “Oh no, you think my sermon is almost over but I have two more pages of notes. Buckle up and get ready.”

In my own life, I wish each day had a neat conclusion. Days blend into months. Years slide into decades. I still have not found too many neat conclusions in my life. Some stories just seem to disappear because sadly friendships slide away. I wish I was better at nurturing friendships. Other stories in my life keep showing up, even though I want to move on. Satan is amazingly adept at repeatedly turning up in my life.

Some days do develop as self-encapsulated plots. I am glad my marriage has been a long arc in my life that has no end in view. I think my marriage will not become like a show that has gotten lost in its own story because we have made a commitment to each other to remain faithful to the covenant of love. Each story in our marriage has its roots in our promises of love. The stages in our love to each other remain fresh and exciting because we are also connected to the great story that is developing between us.

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I trust that the long story arc of my relationship with God will remain fresh and exciting. I know the end. God is my eternal salvation. I know some days I don’t see the plot, and I get worried that my life is going nowhere special. But during these aimless wandering moments, I have found tremendous strength in rooting myself to God’s promises. The Spirit of God strengthens my soul in dark moments by keeping in my view the light of God’s love. I live in the light of the resurrection, but some days the shadows of betrayal on Holy Thursday seem to hang heavy.

My story with God is different than the television shows I binge. I don’t know how the shows will end, and when I do anticipate the ending the show loses my interest. I know how my story with God will end, but amazingly my interest in God does not get exhausted. I love God revealing the adventure of every day. I think God has figured out how to balance revealing the long story arc and the self-encapsulated story.

Do you see the story that God writes in your days? I hope you see that God fills the story of your days with His love.

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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.

Going forward with trust

ConnectAs Christians we go into the world connecting people to Jesus through a ministry that springs from God’s Word and His blessed Sacraments. When we connect people to Jesus, we find ourselves connected to one another and to opportunities to serve our neighbors. I trust that the Holy Spirit is at work in congregations preventing us from coasting in neutral. We go forward with the confidence that our Lord God is equipping us to share His good news so that the disconnected become connected to Jesus Christ.

God blesses every person from the infant to the homebound with His good gifts so that we all are a part of how He is building His kingdom in our community. The diversity of gifts in a congregation is a part of the mystery of God’s love. I do not want a single person to consider his or her gifts as less valuable to God or our community. The offerings we bring to God are powerful and effective in building His kingdom by the grace of God.

Take a moment to consider how God has uniquely gifted you to be a part of His kingdom. Stand firm on the Word of God and trust that God will share His life-giving promises through you when you share the good news of Jesus Christ.

  • Thank God for the blessings He has given to you.
  • Seek His wisdom to guide your giving so that you may be give to support your local congregation with planned, purposeful, and proportionate first-fruit gifts.

Bridge Building to Eternal Life in Christ Jesus

114402291_2c547d3a07I desire that the baptized children of God take on the role of bridge-builders in America. We are the Holy Spirit’s agents bringing the dying into new life in Christ. We cannot pull up the draw bridge into the kingdom of God and hide from the assaults of the devil. We must trust that our Lord Jesus Christ is the King of Kings. In the midst of the evil that surrounds us we are called to be a people of refuge and shelter. Jesus said, “You are the light of the world. A city on a hill cannot be hidden. Nor do people light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven” (Matthew 5:14 -16).

If we pull away from the conflicts of our time and hide behind our walls, we are denying the power of the Spirit of God to be at work through us as we share the good news of Jesus. The sharing of the Gospel is not served when we are quiet in the public square. When Jesus told the disciples to go to all the nations and baptize people in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, He promised to be with us to the very end of the age. I trust the power of the Holy Spirit to call me to faith through the words of the good news of Jesus. In the same way I trust the Holy Spirit to call the church together to be a holy people of God. So therefore I trust the Holy Spirit will be at work in this world calling people from all the nations to faith in Jesus. I trust the Spirit to be at work when I speak the Words of the Lord.

I know that American culture is becoming increasingly secular and stridently anti-Christian in the public square of debate. In reaction to this change, Christians and churches should not become silent. If we become silent we deny the important role we have to bear witness to King Jesus. I do not speak to be right or to dominate someone else into submission. Jesus has sent His people forward to pronounce judgment on those who defy God, and He has sent us on a mission to pronounce forgiveness and freedom upon those who realize their gods and lives are broken. Indeed there is a divide between people in America on many issues, but the most important divide the church must always be concerned about exists between the Word of the Lord and those who are deaf to its message.

The task to build the bridge that connects the Word of the Lord with people that are deaf to its message requires listening to voices from every direction. We must listen to the Word and hear how God’s voice speaks to the troubles and vanities of our age. We must listen to people so that our Christian witness speaks properly to people.

A person who does not know the hope of Jesus may be comfortable in his or her own source of identity, security, and meaning. We can be honest with people about the dead-end paths that lead away from God. On the other hand when people have come to realize their false gods were not gods at all, we must speak a message of mercy and forgiveness. It is unhelpful to continue to speak judgment to a person who has already been broken by the Word of God and the world.

Law-Gospel2The bridges we seek to build in our society will be empty if our message is only wrath and judgment or only mercy and forgiveness. I trust that when we share the both the Law and the Gospel we will find the Holy Spirit bringing people to faith in Jesus.

The central task of the church in the world is to share the good news of Jesus. The Holy Spirit of God will use you to share this good news. Please listen to the false confidences and brokenness of those you care about and properly apply both the Law and the Gospel.

The Blessed Space of Prayer

When Solomon took the throne to lead God’s people, he found himself in a dream hearing the voice of God. God told Solomon, “Ask what I shall give you.”

Solomon responded to this invitation by recalling that God had been generous with him in the past. This dream for Solomon became an opportunity for Solomon to remember the gracious God that was blessing him and the people of Israel. He knew of the steadfast love of the Lord because of the witness of his father David. From hearing the psalms and prayers of David, Solomon learned that the God that created the heavens and the earth is our Lord. Our Lord leads us with steadfast love and care.

When we pray to God, we are responding to the invitation of God to call upon him. In Psalm 50 we read that the Lord invites us to call upon Him in our day of trouble and trust  that He will deliver us. Indeed the name of the Lord is glorified when we call upon Him in our joys and sorrows. Our Lord is alone the one true God to whom our prayers ascend.

Solomon did not pray for long life or riches. Solomon had a long perspective on his relationship with God. Solomon may live a long or short life. He may be rich or poor. No matter the circumstances of his own life, Solomon wanted God to equip him to lead the people. Solomon prayed, “Give your servant therefore an understanding mind to govern your people, that I may discern between good and evil, for who is able to govern this your great people?”

Solomon prayed that the Lord would equip him to do his job. Solomon did not perceive his throne as an opportunity for people to serve him. Solomon trusted that the Lord was placing him upon the throne to serve people. Solomon trusted that his life was blessed by God so that he could be a blessing to other people.

I believe that in our prayers we can be confident that God has invited us to seek from him wisdom, an understanding mind, so that we may be equipped to serve the people that God has placed into our lives.

The ability to seek the blessings of God in our prayers comes from the confidence that we have a gracious God whose steadfast love will embrace us daily. If you find the blessed space of prayer difficult for you to step into, I invite you to step into that space with trust in the steadfast love of the Lord. Do not step into prayer with confidence in your own works or merit. You and I do not earn the ability to approach God. Our prayers are not withdrawals from a treasure of our own good works. Prayer, conversation with God, builds on the merits of Jesus Christ. The blessed space of prayer is built on the foundation that our Lord God is gracious and merciful. If I live a long or short life, I can trust the Lord will equip me this day for what the Lord has placed into my hands.

Come and See–The Invitation of the Gospel

We started a journey through the gospel of Mark, with the Baptism of our Lord. But this Sunday we make a slight diversion over to the Gospel of John.

It is helpful to see our “next day” text from John in the context of what has happened in the other days with Jesus. Because you see John 1:43-51 is the third “next day” story in the first chapter of the Gospel of John.

The Gospel of John opens with the introduction of the Word of God made flesh and dwelling among us. In those days John is asked, “Who are you?” He confesses and does not deny, “I am not the Christ.”

They ask, “What then…”

He answers them, “I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness…”

Then the first “next day” is John pointing to Jesus and confessing, “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!”

The second “next day” John again points to Jesus and says about him, “Behold, the Lamb of God!” Two of John’s disciples heard him, and they followed Jesus. I always find the first words that Jesus speaks in a story important. Besides the first words in a particular event, we also hear his first words in the whole Gospel of John. Jesus asks them, “What are you seeking?” I want to think about what I am looking for when I follow Jesus. Am I looking for a teacher, a miracle worker, a mentor, savior, or something else?

These two answered, “Rabbi, where are you staying?” Jesus said, “Come and you will see.” These words from Jesus are words of invitation and promise. The invitation is to come and follow him. The promise is that they will see where he dwells. One of those two was Andrew, the brother of Peter. Andrews goes to find his brother and brings him to Jesus.

Now we arrive at our “next day.” Jesus found Philip and said to him, “Follow me.” Philip is going to follow Jesus, and he goes to share this good news with his friend, Nathanael. He shares with Nathanael the good news that they have found the one that Moses in the Law and the prophets wrote about.

But Nathanael is skeptical. Philip may have known what kind of response to expect from his friend. I wonder how any of us would have reacted to Nathanael’s scathing criticism. Remarkably, Philip responds with an invitation that is filled with trust.

“Come and See.”

The answer to Nathanael’s outlook that nothing good has been found, because nothing good is ever going to come out of Nazareth, is to respond with invitation and trust.

Philip shows to me that trust in the good news shall be my guide through even the most challenging of conversations. The answer to doubt and anger is to respond with invitation and trust that Jesus will reveal the truth.

I am not the one that will convert. I am not the one that will change the hearts of the hard-hearted. I must trust in Jesus to be the one that turns doubt towards trust.