Many of you may have seen the Facebook post, "Pray for Your Pastor." The picture is a list of sad statistics:
These numbers may be surprising to you, but for the many of us who have served for many years (and those in the LCMS who have served as a Circuit Counselor/Visitor), these numbers are too real and too frequently experienced. This blog, however, is not about throwing a pity-party for the pastors of Bethel. No, I just want to share with you something that is often behind those numbers.
The first thing we need to be aware of is the presence of spiritual warfare in the life of Christians and the Church. The greatest threat to our hearts and spirits is the devil, the world, and our own sinful nature. The devil works on us, often from within; he gets us to listen and begin to believe a series of "lies" and "half-truths," tempting us to turn from God's will and way or reinforcing the feelings of guilt and anxiety that our sin brings to the forefront of our relationship with God. Either we are convinced that God doesn't exist, or that He doesn't care, or that we don't deserve anything from Him because of our sin. If the devil can get us to believe any one of these thoughts, he will consider himself successful. The world is full of temptations to our senses and our relationships, presenting numerous opportunities to turn away from God for the "better/bitter" things of life such as fame and fortune, fun and irresponsibility, escapism and simple narcissism. And our sinful nature? It is the open door to all of the above. We are at war with this evil trinity - we didn't start it, we don't want it, but it exists nonetheless.
The second thing I would like God's people to understand is that while the pastors are human and have their foibles, they are still God's called and sent servants. We don't have a problem with disagreements; we have problems with people insisting on being disagreeable. We don't have a problem with suggestions; we have problems with people who believe in their suggestions as being the only way to act. We don't have problems with people who have something to say to us; our problems are from the nameless, shadowy people who go around our backs saying things about us. We don't have problems with knowing our shortcomings because we have so many self-designated critics to inform us (and the community) about all of them. Get the idea?
Back to spiritual warfare. The devil does his best work inside the church. In fact, if you were to study church history, you would discover that the church grows great in the face of persecutions from without, but often declines in the face of in-fighting when there is no persecution.
Pray for Your Pastor? Sure...great...we love it...we need it. But also focus on what Jesus teaches us all to pray, "And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil." After all it is your soul and your eternal destinty that your pastors really care about!
We are a people that some have come to call the "trans-generation."
The highlight of the past month has been the courage of "Caitlyn" (aka "Bruce") Jenner's transition to a "transgendered" woman. The ABC Network has done numerous interviews and specials (and continues to) on his/her story and, most recently, he/she was awarded the "Arthur Ashe Profile in Courage." Add to that the "transracial" episode of the NAACP official who was born a white woman but claimed to be Negroe on her application forms, and one has to ask, "Isn't anyone happy with whom God created them to be?"
Beyond all the other hype and religious diatribe that has already been raised, the discussion has begged the question about what such "trans..." desires says about God's gift of creation. The Psalmist says that God knew us and knitted us in our mothers' wombs; did He mess up in these cases? What if the psalmist/songwriter David had decided to become "Miss Divine"? What is Samson had gotten more in touch with his feminine side and let Delilah braid his hair rather than cut it? What is Jesus had really been white skinned and blonde with blue eyes? Now comes the real question: What if Abraham had not left his home when God called him to go to Canaan? What if Moses blew God off when the Lord called him to go back to Egypt. What if David had trusted the sword given to him instead of his sling and faith in God? What if Solomon had not asked for wisdom? What if...?
This matter of being a "trans-generation" becomes important when it is considered over/against the will of our God: IF God does not make mistakes in His creative work, then who are we to change (i.e., transform) His creation into something that we prefer? And, if God does make mistakes and people have to "trans..." whatever - then where is there to be certainty in terms of grace...of salvation...of eternal hope?
It may sound simplistic, but I do believe it is simple when it comes to the Bible and God's Word: "God said it; I believe it; that settles it." Rather than argue the counterpoint, read what God really has to say.
I remember the old American Express Card's motto, "Membership has its privileges." These advertisements constantly spoke to the redeeming qualities of holding an American Express Card over other credit cards - "privileges" that came through membership - with a nominal, annual fee. While not as much or as wholesale as in the past, the "privileges of membership" are still extended through one's connections to groups and gatherings to which we belong: the "privilege" of playing golf as a "member" rather than as a guest; the "privilege" of being a member of Weight Watchers and their assistance in losing weight; etc. "Membership [still] has its privileges."
Subsequently the "privileges of membership" have worked their way into the life and practice of the Church. We speak of the number of "members" we have - both "baptized members" and "communicant members." We invite people to become "members" of our men's and women's ministries; "members" of our Sunday school classes; "members" of board and committees; "members" of the congregation. We keep "membership" rosters and periodically produce pictoral member directories. And while we leave the matter of membership dues up to one's conscience, we like to remind people that "membership has its privileges."
Jesus did not teach us about "membership." No, Jesus used another word - a stronger word - a tougher word to live up to: He spoke about "discipleship." When He addressed the nature of a faithful Christian's practice of resurrection, He spoke of the intimate connection between believer and Lord that exists...in one's "discipleship." When He addressed His followers just before He ascended into heaven, Jesus did not give them the charge to add "members" to the books; no, He commissioned them to "make disciples." When He addressed them as His disciples, He no longer called them servants, but friends - because they were not members of a religious institution, they were sold-out, totally committed "disciples." And where "membership has its privileges," discipleship has its calling to follow Jesus in life, in death, and in the resurrection.
In Joshua 4, the Exodus generation of Israel stood at the banks of the Jordan River, preparing to enter the Promised Lan their parents and grandparents had hoped to see. Their children their flocks crossed over dry land as the priests were instructed to walk into the waters of the river with The Ark of the Covenant in their hands. When the last of the people had crossed over, God instructed Joshua to have each of the twelve tribal leaders go back to where the priests stood and pick up a rock and bring it back to the shore. After the priests carried the Ark out of the middle of the riverbed, the waters of the river came back together. The rocks were used by Joshua to build a memorial of their crossing as a reminder for the people whenever they traveled along the Jordan, how God had helped them cross the waters there just as He had helped their parents cross the Red Sea under Moses' leadership. As they made their way into the new land and their new life, they moved "forward in remembrance," trusting in the Lord who had been (and was still) faithful to all of His promises!
The Bethel congregation has a long and storied history - celebrating 145 years of Gospel ministry this coming October. Their are some very unique stories to be shared - such as the original 1883 wooden church being put on stilts while a basement was built underneath, then being set down and wrapped in brick in order to be re-dedicated as what we call "the original church" on October 15, 1950. It continued to serve as our worship space until the current Sanctuary was built and dedicated in 1963 (some 80 years worth of use). For some of us, it seems only a sentimental gesture to maintain such an old space, but for some it is also a memorial to the tenacity of the congregation and not just the building - sort of like a pile of rocks next to a river, maybe?
Our history is what has brought us thus far in faith, but now we also need to face the new challenges and opportunities that God places in our midst! There are new people to be introduced to Jesus. There are new families...new needs...new ministries to be embraced with the same "tenacity" of our historic building. With one foot in our heritage, we step toward our new history to be written...we go "forward in remembrance" of God's faithfulness!
Many of the members of Bethel must have thought to themselves, "What kind of pastor is this?" I began my first meetings and initial worship services with a simple statement, "If you have your Bibles with you, please open them to..." That's right! I expect the people I serve to carry a Bible with them, especially when we are turning to God for direction and encouragement (which, the real question is "When wouldn't God's people seek God's guidance?").
Initially, the response was a little negative: You're asking too much of people to hold a hymnal and a Bible in their hands. Then there was the objection, "You aren't giving us enough time to find the readings - by the time we get there, you're finishing the reading and moving on!" Eventually the comments began to change to, "It's about time we get down into God's Word."
The practice of carrying and using one's own personal Bible is a habit-developer. The simple truth is that if, as pastor, I cannot get you to open and read a Bible in church on Sunday, chances are overwhelming good that I will never be able to encourage you to open a Bible during the six other days of the week. God's Word is God speaking to us. God's Word is the vehicle through which the Holy Spirit brings, encourages and strengthens saving faith in us. God's Word is one of His means of grace, along with Baptism and the Lord's Supper, through which He touches us with His grace in Jesus Christ.
One of the old, once-called-contemporary songs that I love is the song, "I Want to Be Where You Are." It is a beautiful cry of a believer's desire to be where God is - in His presence - embraced by His love. Where God's Word is, God is; and I am where God is when I am in the presence of His Word in the Bible. There, God speaks to me. There, Christ is truly real to me (along with His presence in Communion). There, the Spirit comes to me, gathers me in God's grace, calls me to faithfulness, and enlightens me as the Jesus-follower God wants me to be.
The Bethel congregation uses the New International Version of the Bible in their pews. Thousands of dollars went into purchasing and distributing Bibles all over the campus. If a person doesn't have their own, personal Bible with them, they are free to pick up and use one of these church-provided Bibles. This is not an endorsement of one version of the Scriptures over/against other translations; it is the simple reason for why we use the NIV. The pastors will normally use the NIV in their readings and sermons although we prepare our studies using the original Hebrew and Greek languages in which the Old and New Testaments were written.
As we prepare for our Holy Week observances, we encourage you to bring your Bibles with you! Bring a highlighter; bring a pen or pencil; even bring a small pad or notebook and write down the teaching points that are being shared for the sake of your continuing growth in the faith.