Friday, April 30, 2021

Guard the windows to your soul

The adage ‘the eye is the gateway to the soul’ does not come from the Bible, but it cannot be overstated that God urges a Christian to guard what goes into his eyes.  Jesus Himself took pains to teach that “The eye is the lamp of the body.  So, if your eye is healthy, your whole body will be full of light,  but if your eye is bad, your whole body will be full of darkness. If then the light in you is darkness, how great is the darkness!’ (Mat. 6.22-23).

In the same Sermon on the Mount, Jesus had just warned that  ‘I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart.  If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body be thrown into hell’ (Mat. 5.28-29).

We joke that there are things that one cannot ‘unsee’, but the ongoing effect of what Christians let into their minds through their eyes is no joke.  Many a despairing ‘sex addict’ would not be in such peril or ruin without first allowing into their eyes, what they should not have looked at in the first place.

Neurobiologists talk about addictive dependency upon the neurotransmitters in the brain associated with the ‘pleasures of sin’, but what is at stake is more than a mere biological hazard.  Diabolical forces, bent on damaging or destroying the ministry and witness of Christian pastors are extremely interested in the possibilities afforded by technology to make sinful images available to every man, woman, and child with nothing more sophisticated in their grasp than a ‘smartphone’.

Many a Christian ‘living in Sodom’ today think they can consume the same sort of ‘entertainment’ as ‘everyone else’, and not be affected.  But ‘remember Lots’ wife’ (Luke 17.32).  Lot and his family were among the few ‘righteous persons’ that could be found in the doomed city, yet even among them were ideas such as excessive drunkenness and incest, that likely came from being exposed to the sights of Sodom  (Gen. 19.32-35).

The New Testament warns, ‘Brothers, if anyone is caught in any transgression, you who are spiritual should restore him in a spirit of gentleness. Keep watch on yourself, lest you too be tempted’ (Gal 6.1).  Yet, today, rather than keeping watch on ourselves, Christians watch media in which ‘transgression’ is the stock-in-trade of almost every online drama.  To paraphrase St. James, ‘My brothers, these things ought not to be so’.

And it is not just HD images that endanger Christian souls.  Salaciousness in print is everywhere.  What the spiritually dead intend to be ‘added spice’ to favour their material, is actually poison to the Christian.  A pornographic turn of phrase can be as hard to flush out of the mind as any image.

‘How can a young man keep his way pure?’ has become the most haunting question of our time.  And that question is not just for the young.  The answer - that is to be the believer’s prayer to God - is ‘by guarding it (our way of life) according to your word’ (Psalm 119.9). 

As we have seen God’s word provides abundant warning about the very thing that dissipates, degrades, and even destroys the faith and ministry of many a pastor.  The reality of life in this fallen world – and in our fallen flesh – is that there is no escape from temptation.  No amount of internet filters, content blockers, and Benedictine options can prevent all causes of sin.  Islam has tried veiling women from head to foot and that has not worked. 

As Cole Porter observed, ‘In olden days a glimpse of stocking, was looked on as something shocking, But Heaven knows:  Anything Goes’.  The ancient counsel of God’s word makes it clear.  The decision is not up to the Hollywood censors (if they even still exist), or to your ‘accountability partner’ (who had better not be your ecclesiastical supervisor).  The decision is up to you, the Christian pastor.  Are you going to guard your own eyes?  Otherwise, as God asks rhetorically, ‘Can a man carry fire next to his chest and his clothes not be burned? Or can one walk on hot coals and his feet not be scorched? (Prov. 6.27-28). 

Nobody is going to do it for you.  All the hosts of Hell are pitted against you.  You can only protect yourself – calling upon all the heavenly support God will give you.  And when you fall, turn Satan’s victory sour by using your experience as a theology lesson.  The lessons taught by humility (and humiliation) before God’s holy Law may be the justification for the persistence of an ‘old self’ even after regeneration creates a ‘new self’ (Eph. 4.24). 

If God removed our sinful nature at baptism, some of us might never sin afterward.  Some of us – baptized as infants – would never in our whole lives remember what it felt like to be forgiven.  If we lived our whole earthly lives (like angels) without sinning, the value of Christ’s atoning sacrifice for the forgiveness of sin would be reduced to a theological locus that provided no conscious benefit to us.  But that would not be the kind of theology that glorifies God as when the penitent pray, ‘naked, come to thee for dress; helpless, look to thee for grace; foul, I to the fountain fly; wash me, Saviour, or I die!’ (Hymn by Augustus Toplady, (1776) ‘Rock of Ages, Cleft for Me!’

As it is, ‘scorned and covered with scars’, every Christian soul cherishes nothing more than the Gospel of the Saviour, the precious sound of Holy Absolution, and lives for the taste of Holy Communion.  For through faith in Jesus Christ, fellowship with God is restored, we ‘lay aside each earthly load, here taste afresh the calm of sin forgiv'n’ (Hymn by Horatius Bonar, (1855) ‘Here, O my Lord, I see Thee face to face’).

And forgiven of our many sins, we resolve to ‘go and sin no more’ (John 8.11).  As Charles Wesley expressed it so well, ‘My chains fell off, my heart was free, I rose, went forth, and followed Thee’ (Hymn by Charles Wesley, (1738) ‘And Can it Be, That I Should Gain’).

Wednesday, April 28, 2021

'Is that how I look?'


‘Is that how I look?’ –

the Importance of enhancing a preacher’s facial expressions.

One of the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic has been many preachers seeing themselves on screen and able to assess how they look to their congregations as they preach.  Perhaps for the first time pastors are asking themselves, ‘is that how I look?’, and – more importantly - ‘am I watchable’?

As in several other European cultures, North American piety takes a negative view of aspects of the theatre and entertainment being part of church services (with ‘children’s’ sermons’ being the exception).

An unnecessary association is made between some important features of dramatic arts, such as facial expression, and disingenuousness.  Intentional facial expressions are thought to detract from the honesty and sincerity of someone whose task it is to preach the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the Truth.  This leaves dramatic facial expression to the realm of ‘foreign’ cultures, such as the Latino or Mediterranean types – among others.

The word  ‘hypocrite’ comes from the ancient Greek theatre, referring to the mask worn to project the emotion of the actor to members of the audience, even those occupying the most distant seats.  Yet, today’s negative connotation to that word need not reduce facial expression in the pulpit to some form of insincerity or hypocrisy.  Yes, facial expression is an important tool in the toolbox of both the actor and the liar, but that does not mean that facial expression cannot be an important tool in the toolbox of the pastor.  A preacher is not lying or merely acting when he adorns his message with intentional facial expression!

The fact is, people in our culture devour entertainment as often as they can get it – not aware of what it is about the conduct of the actors that holds their interest.  They take the facial expression - which is stock and trade of the acting profession - for granted, and find themselves unable to explain why they find their pastor’s sermon delivery boring, but can’t wait to binge through the next installment of their favourite media.   Here the Gospel is the most important message in the world, and yet, it is often proclaimed without the benefit of the kind of effort put into selling breakfast cereal!

The fact is that generations of pastors were not taught the importance of intentional facial expression for gathering and keeping their congregation’s attention.  Again, apart from small children, it is assumed that grownups don’t appreciate a preacher enhancing his facial expressions and gestures when he preaches.  However, this is far from the case.

In fact, subconsciously, what makes all the difference between a great sermon delivery and a mediocre one is facial expression.  Think of the ‘great preachers’ you have known, and then consider the part that facial expression played in making them so watchable.

Let all the video footage that has come to characterize the lockdowns be a lesson to all preachers.  Facial expression matters.  It always has.  They may not have taught this in homiletics class, but it is essential to preachers today.  Make a face.  Act as though you are engaging your audience.  Project on to your face the importance of what you are saying.  Is there a difference between the spoken word and the sung word?  There is often a world of difference between a deadpan delivery and one that takes a leaf out of the actor’s handbook. 

Monday, April 24, 2017

The worldview I share

Eight Answers to Basic Questions that convey my worldview

1. What is prime reality – the really real?  God, and what He chooses to allow to exist.
2. What is the nature of external reality, that is, the world around us? Around us we have the created material universe that we inhabit and explore and, also around us we have an immaterial creation, founded prior to us, populated by evil spirits who hate us, and seek our destruction, and good spirits who are fascinated by the salvation that our Creator has provided for us, and love us with a love that reflects God’s mercy, rejoicing at His love for every repentant sinner (Luke 15.10).
3. What is a human being?  A creature made to demonstrate to ‘all things visible and invisible’ God’s love and mercy toward sinners..
4. What happens at death?  Humans were created capable of two kinds of death, physical and spiritual.  At physical death, the person’s spirit goes to face their eternal destiny (everlasting life or everlasting torment), as their body decomposes to await the resurrection of the body on the last Day.  All human beings have been redeemed from spiritual death by the atonement made by God’s Son, but spiritual death still awaits those who do not have a living connection to God’s Son, through trust in Him.
5. How is it possible to know anything at all?  God has given us minds to process reality, and He has made knowledge possible through both natural revelation, and special revelation.
6. How do we know what is right and wrong?  Natural revelation gives some guidance, but ultimate morality is revealed to human beings by God, through His word in special revelation (Holy Scripture).
7. What is the meaning of human history?  The Redemption of humanity, by the death and resurrection of God’s Son, Jesus Christ, is the central event of all human history.  From the foundation of the world, God has created human reproduction (‘marrying and giving in marriage’  Matthew 22.30), and permits generation after generation of sinners to be born, as long as the worship of His Son for being our Redeemer continues to grow among every ‘nation, all tribes and peoples and languages’ (Revelation 7.9).
8. What personal, life-orienting core commitments are consistent with this worldview?  Only a commitment to ‘hear the word of God, and keep it’ (Luke 11.28) is consistent with the worldview described in the first seven questions.  And the most crucial word of God to keep is the ‘Word…made flesh’ Jesus Christ, for only in communion with Him – including His Church – is there salvation.  (Extra ecclesiam nulla salus est)  At the same time, those who keep God’s word for themselves will also want to share the Gospel with others, so that the worship of God’s Son may grow all over the world.

Thursday, February 16, 2017

True Freedom - Part Two - Free to Fight

'whatever is born of God overcomes the world; and  this is the victory that has overcome the world—our  faith. Who is the one who overcomes the world, but he who believes that Jesus is the Son of God?' (John 5:4–5).

Many examples exist, on both sides of the European conflict in WWII, of downed airmen, who - having escaped from prison camps - went on to re-join the fight in the air. In this I see a picture of the way the Gospel works in the life of a Christian.

Sin and guilt have a way of ending our 'flight' as Christians. We find ourselves, not only grounded, but out of 'the fight' as well. Do you feel that your failures and past sins have down-graded you to the position of being useless as a Christian witness? If so, this is a known tactic of the devil to cripple people who would otherwise serve to advance the kingdom of Christ.

Christians so held in the bondage of guilt are like 'prisoners of war', grounded and unable to challenge the evil that threatens the progress of the Kingdom of Heaven. Forgiveness of sins is not only intended to restore us once more to be aloft with the angels, so to speak, but forgiveness of sins, through trust in Christ, our Redeemer, sets us free from the power of guilt to hinder our Christian life.

This means we can be more than forgiven. We can be 'conquerors' and 'overcome' the forces that would keep us down and out as Christians.  Look at all that God's word has to say about 'overcoming', and how often Christ encourages us to remain steadfast through trials (Revelation 2:26; 3:21; 21:7). This is because the Christian lives in a world that is not a playground, but a battleground. Look at the theology of 'spiritual warfare' in 'the Church Militant'.

We speak of 'the Theology of the Cross', because the cross is not just something Christ carried to atone for the our sin, it is also a burden we take up, as His forgiven people. As one of our hymns puts it, 'Then let us follow Christ our Lord, and take the cross appointed; And, firmly clinging to His word, in suff'ring be undaunted. For those who bear the battle strain, that crown of heavenly life obtain'  ('Come, Follow Me', by Johann Scheffler, 1624-77).

God is challenging you and me, to get back into the game! He has forgiven our sins. We should consider ourselves re-furbished, re-habilitated, and ready for action. He expects us to suit up with the body-armor He provides, escape from the clutches of diabolical doubts, and fight on! Ephesians 6:11–17 describes 'the armour' available to all believers, to put on 'with prayer and supplication to God'. 

Because He offers such heavenly support, God is able to issue the order to 'stand firm'. Sometimes all it takes to overcome temptation is to 'stand your ground'.  We have God’s promise, 'Resist the devil and he will flee from you' (James 4.7)

And, when we are weary from the fight, and have taken a few hits along the way, He offers healing and wholeness again, by His Gospel word and sacraments.  At every Divine Service we are re-armed as well as renewed.  Then, in the days to come  '… when the fight is fierce, the warfare long,  Steals on the ear the distant triumph song.  And hearts are brave again, and arms are strong.  Alleluia! Alleluia!

Friday, July 17, 2015

True Freedom - Part One - Enchained by Liberation

'for freedom, Christ has set us free; stand firm therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery' (Galatians 5.1)
Remember the old question, 'Do you live to eat, or do you eat to live'? As a metaphor for other aspects of life, beyond food, this is a very profound question. Food is but one of a range of basic, primal needs humans beings have, none of which should be regarded as ends in themselves. Everyone agrees that a person who lives to eat would have a warped sense of what it means to live. Those who eat to live are free to focus on other things, beyond food.
Yet, today, as our society becomes more decadent, focusing on the most primal, lower brain appetites, more and more people cut themselves of from the enriched experience of life and service that they could have, were they to follow the higher impulses previous generations pursued. A symptom of this loss of awareness is the trend to define people by their sexual preference, or even sexuality preference.
Ironically, what is celebrated as 'liberation' brings a greater bondage with it, than before the 'sexual revolution', dragging many a Christian back into a 'yoke of slavery', often ending in a loss, not only of their faith, but even of their spiritual awareness, or ability to process anything requiring higher brain thinking. Consider the question, 'Do you “live to love” or ”love to live”?' This are not a false antithesis. People who 'live to love' may claim the romantic high ground, but they are thinking more like the most base animals, than human beings. Lovers who love, in order to live, have the correct perspective on both love and life.
Like those who 'live (in order to) eat', those who 'live (in order to) love' have lost both 'love' and 'life'. The need for intimacy is a basic primal need, but is should never be an end in itself. Intimacy between people should serve to fuel them for a higher purpose – living for Christ. 'For me to live is Christ', St. Paul famously wrote (Philippians 1.21).
'for freedom, Christ has set us free; stand firm therefore', writes St. Paul. (Galatians 5.1) According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (2009), '...thousands of fatal drownings each year are deaths associated with natural hazards known as rip currents'. Rip currents carry people out to sea because they are unable to resist the pull of the surf. Decadence is like a riptide. This is why the Christian must find his/her feet on the solid foundation of faith in Christ and proactively maintain their spirituality, lest they be carried away by the currents of our decadent culture. Only with God, helping us to get our lives 'under control', can we say that we are truly free.

Jesus said, 'Truly, truly, I say to you, everyone who practices sin is a slave to sin. The slave does not remain in the house forever; the son remains forever. So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed' (John 8.34-36). Our Redeemer, Jesus Christ, set us free from eternal condemnation when He bore the burden of our sin, guilt, and death in His own body, out of love for us; 'canceling the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands. This he set aside, nailing it to the cross' (Col 2.14). Trusting in Christ means being free, not only from the consequences of sin, but from 'belonging to sin and death'. Sin is the dead spouse – drowned in Baptism - from whom we are set free to 'marry' another – the source of eternal life, our Lord Jesus Christ.

Tuesday, April 07, 2015

Join a 'Non-denominational church' - What's at stake?

Why not join a 'non-denominational' church! Besides, the 'mainline denominations' are in decline and aren't denominations kind of wrong, anyway? Are the 'non-denominational' groups like the first Christians – sort of 'pre-denominational' and therefore closer to what Jesus had in mind for His Church? And so it goes – some of the thoughts that move people to join the most impressive 'mega-church' they can find, leaving behind thousands of years of historic Christian doctrine and practice.

Yet, the question, 'What do we have to lose?' is more than a flippant rhetorical one in this case. For what Christians stand to lose in joining Non-denominational congregations is considerable.

YOU LOSE THOUSANDS OF YEARS OF YOUR HERITAGE as a follower of Jesus Christ. We all know we are not the first people to worship Jesus, but in non-denominational meetings, one feels cut-off from all the worship of Christ that has gone before today's 'hit parade'. The impression is given by them that today's church leaders, make it all up as they go along based on 'what works for you'. How different is that mentality from that of the apostles, men moved directly by the Holy Spirit, who taught, 'what I received, I handed on to you...' (1 Corinthians 11.23, 15.1-4).

YOU LOSE THE SENSATIONS associated with being a Christian at worship since ancient times. Gone is the 'sign of the cross', gone is the kneeling for prayer, gone is the sound of historic chanting and choral music, gone are the sights of liturgical colour, vestments, ceremonial reverence and solemnity, gone, gone, gone. And replaced by what? Sitting as though at a concert or cinema and being merely a spectator? Or, perhaps, jumping about, clapping and trying to sing like a pop-soloist? With hands in the air, only closing one's eyes provides escape from the banal atmosphere generated from the stage, cluttered with praise band paraphernalia, devoid of the sensations that Christians have cherished in past generations.

YOU LOSE THE SACRAMENTS. Period. NONE of the non-denominational groups offer the sacred mysteries, giving by Christ to be the comfort of His Church until the end of time. 'Baptism' among them is reduced to a human display of commitment, and the biblical teaching that 'baptism now saves...' or that through it God 'washes away sin' is explicitly denied. LOST is the teaching from God's word that, through baptism 'he saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to his own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit' (Titus 3.5). LOST is the comfort of Holy Absolution, spoken into the ears of the penitent as Jesus directed His apostles to do when He said, 'If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you withhold forgiveness from any, it is withheld'. ( John 20.23). Nothing replaces such forgiveness, not an appeal to 'get right with God', nor a vague general platitude that God loves you, just as you are. Finally, LOST is the profound mystery of Holy Communion through the Body and Blood of Christ as real nourishment for the soul. The Real Presence of Christ, believed by the overwhelming consensus of Christians until recent years, is denied by the non-denominational groups. Mere bread and wine are consumed as a sterile 'memorial' of Christ, rather than the Holy Supper that Jesus Himself envisioned when He taught that 'Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you' (John 6.53).

YOU LOSE THE SCHOLARSHIP AND PROFOUND TEACHING. Suspicious of (or simply ignorant of) deeper Christian doctrine, often poorly educated non-denominational church leaders dumb-down the Christian message or deliver a superficial teaching based on trending books or blogs rather than the profounder mysteries of the Faith that Christians have studied over the centuries, with the Holy Scriptures as their source. As the apostles lamented '... by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you again the basic principles of the oracles of God. You need milk, not solid food (!)' (Hebrews 5.12). Rather than moving people beyond their self-centeredness, non-denominational groups emphasize how it's all about you, just like today's advertisement industry.

YOU LOSE SIGHT OF THE GOSPEL. Many non-denominational groups tend to replace the preaching of the biblical 'Good News' (Gospel - that the reconciliation of Heaven and Earth has been achieved by Jesus Christ) - with the message of self-improvement. Reducing the atonement Jesus has made by His death on the cross and His resurrection to a mere 'back-story', the ongoing theme in non-denominational churches is our burden to please God by every day and in every way becoming better and better. It is not that they deny we are 'justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus' (Romans 3.24). They simply don't preach about that, choosing to preach human works to please God, almost as though by our works we earn God's favour.

PRAYER: We thank you God for leading us sinners and beggars to find the treasure and pearl of great price that is your Holy Church through which we have the Gospel that is able to save those who believe it by the power of your Holy Spirit. By that same spirit give us thankful hearts to gratefully acknowledge Your grace and mercy to the glory of Your Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, our strength and Redeemer, Who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.Why not join a 'non-denom' church? What do we have to lose?'

Thursday, March 12, 2015

'Lift High the... Crucifix'!

When I preach about Moses lifting up the bronze serpent for the healing of God's rebellious and sinful people (Numbers 21.4-9), I recall how, when Cheryl and I first visited Redeemer Lutheran Church in Oakmont, Pennsylvania, we were both struck by the dramatic sight of a nearly life-sized crucifix hanging high over the altar. It was then that we joined the ranks of the many who have likewise found the crucifix at this church to be surely one of its most striking features.
Some, who visit the church, unfamiliar with such a sight, ask us why we don’t have a simple “empty” cross up there. “Why a crucifix?” they ask. And there is a very good answer to that question.  What answer do you think was given to visitors to the Temple in Jerusalem, thousands of years ago, who witnessed the gory animal sacrifices that took place there, as in the Tabernacle before it? They would be told that God commanded such sacrificial spectacles so that people could see a sight that symbolized the penalty for sin and the cost in blood required to atone for sin and guilt. “Indeed, under the law almost everything is purified with blood, and without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins” as the Bible says (Hebrews 9:22).  
Our Redeemer, Jesus Christ Himself teaches us, that, "As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in Him may have eternal life" (John 3:14-15).  Although, with those words, Jesus is not commanding the use of crucifixes in His Church, we do have the same God today who commanded those Old Testament spectacles to be seen in His temple long ago, even though such sacrifices, could not provide the ultimate atonement for sin. In the New Testament, the sacrifice of God’s Son, Jesus Christ, DOES pay for our sins. 
Should believers not now gaze upon the image of the crucified Christ? I would suggest that since, long ago, the eyes of the faithful were to look upon sacrifices that only symbolized the coming atonement of Christ, much more, now that the death of God's Son, on a cross, actually achieved the redemption of the human race once and for all, should we have before our eyes this image of Jesus! To his churches in Galatia who were in danger of losing the true Gospel, St. Paul wrote, 'O foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you? It was before your eyes that Jesus Christ was publicly portrayed as crucified' (3.1).  Publicly displaying a crucifix is a way of pointing to the true Gospel!
I like to draw people’s attention to the fact that many sports trophies include a statue, at the top of the trophy, of a player winning their victory. The gleaming figure on a softball trophy will be carrying a bat. A golfing trophy may feature a man swinging a driver. On a crucifix we see the figure of a man winning a victory over sin, death and the devil that He graciously shares with all of us. “Go spread your trophies at His feet and crown Him Lord of all”!
An empty cross makes a great logo, in so far as it goes. Yet, “We preach Christ crucified” (I Cor. 1:22).  In his liturgical notes, Concordia Lutheran Theological Seminary Professor Tom Winger writes, “… the cross itself is a powerful symbol of the faith, but its real meaning lies in the One who was crucified upon it. It is Christ’s suffering and death upon that gruesome instrument of torture, which paid for the sins of the whole world. Even more, by showing the body of Christ, we confess that Christ continues to be present with us bodily to bring to us the forgiveness He has won, especially as He gives us His Body to eat in His Supper”.

This is why we, in the Lutheran Church are pleased to “lift high the cross, the Son of God proclaim…” as we do, with a crucifix.