Back when I was still a teenager it was common to find Christians involved in the memorization of Bible passages or tracts in part to increase their knowledge of Holy Scripture and also to have said passages at the ready should they be involved in a discussion involving religious matters. We do not see that being done so much anymore. This is in part because the practice of rote memorization has fallen out of favor in education in general (so young people do not learn how to memorize). Also, with the prevalence of “smart phones” and other such technology, searching for a Bible passage can be done using the various Bible apps that are available or by using your preferred Internet search engine on your mobile device.
As convenient as this might be, I believe there is something lost in not committing portions of Holy Scripture to memory. As ubiquitous as they tend to be, there are times when pulling out your favorite mobile device to do an Internet search just isn’t appropriate. Like, for instance, when you’re driving. Let us say that you have been called to the hospital because your loved one has been taken there and is in dire straits. Under such a circumstance having the words of Psalm 121 at the ready might be helpful:
My help comes from the Lord the maker of heaven and earth
He will not let your foot be moved.
And He who watches over you will not fall asleep
Or perhaps the 23rd Psalm would be comforting:
The Lord is my shepherd I shall not be in want.
It makes me to lie down in green pastures
and leads me beside still waters
He revives my soul
and guides me along right pathways for his name’s site.
Perhaps you’re in a place of great anxiety and cannot figure out what’s going on in your life. Maybe the words of Isaiah, the 55th chapter, would provide solace:
For my thoughts are not your thoughts,
neither are your ways my ways, declares the Lord
For as the heavens are higher than the earth,
so are my ways higher than your ways
And my thoughts than your thoughts…
And then there’s psalm 91 which you may know as the hymn “On Eagle’s Wings”
“I will say that the Lord, ‘my refuge and my fortress, my God in in whom I Trust’”
There are countless passages like these scattered throughout the Bible that can provide calm and a sense of well-being. Passages that can provide insight to the various situations you might face. But once again, it works better if at least some of these verses are committed to memory so that not only do you have quick and easy access, but their meaning can dwell in the deepest parts of your soul and so grow in richness over time.
If you find a bible passage that is meaningful to you, memorize it. It’s not as hard as you might think. Once you do you will have it at the ready whenever you need it.
Blessings, Pr Ralph
“You know, the problem is that whenever I settle myself down to pray I no sooner set myself to the task but that my mind takes off one way and then another. Before I know it my mind is out working in the garden or preparing dinner or working on the car or whatever. I find that I have to bring myself back to my prayers again and again and that is, quite frankly, frustrating. What am I doing wrong?”
If I had a nickel for every time I’ve heard someone say these words I’d have a whole lot of nickels. And if I had a nickel for every time I’ve experienced the exact same thing I’d be financially well off. The complaint is a common one. It is a normal part of most people’s experience with prayer not just today but down through history.
Now, all of that is well and good. It helps to know that I’m not alone in this experience. But the thing is that as Christians one of the things that we do is to pray. Prayer is a part of our Jewish-Christian heritage. The gospels record that Jesus prayed throughout his ministry, he taught his disciples [and by extension us] to pray and as those who follow him we pray as well.
But how does one deal with this “crazed monkey” mind that wants to take over whenever I settle down to pray?
The first thing is to remember is that prayer is a discipline. While one can say the Lord’s Prayer or a table prayer without much preparation, solemn prayer or meditative prayer or any kind of prayer that gets deep into the inner recesses of my soul will take time, energy and practice.
There are various practices that can be an aid to one’s prayer life. There are ways to deal with that “crazed monkey” mind and move oneself into a better experience of prayer. Centering Prayer, the practice of repeating a short one sentence prayer or bible verse, is helpful to many people. The simple relaxation exercises of controlled deep breathing through nose and mouth coupled with a “Centering Prayer” can be of great benefit. Another practice known as “Lectio Divina and Examen” where one spends time in Bible reading and reflection on both the reading and one’s personal life situation prior to prayer has proved helpful to many people. Fasting is also helpful.
There are various resources on prayer that are helpful and available. The thing to know is that, with all the variations in personality type that we know about, no one thing is going to work for everyone. Each of us needs to seek out and find what works best. What helps you focus? What brings you to a place of calm? What helps you to know that peace which passes all understanding? What helps you to discern the will of God.
One thing we know; this seeking after prayer is a holy enterprise. This is a venture that will bear good fruit for all who undertake to receive the blessings it provides. For more on this topic join us on Wednesday evenings during Lent.
I have on several occasions in recent months heard people remarking that they will be glad when the year 2020 is over. I imagine that you have heard and perhaps even said the same. No doubt this past year has been trying, difficult and hard for just about everyone, not just in our nation but throughout the world. Even if you did not come down with Covid-19 it has been a rough year.
Now that 2020 is behind us, and a vaccine to protect people from this virus is in front of us, what is your take away from the experience of this past year? Can you say that you learned something about yourself, about our community, our state, nation and world? Have you thought about the experience of these past months in this way? Winston Churchill’s statement that “Those who don’t learn from history you are condemned to repeat it” bears remembering here.
For those who are Christians there is another perspective that needs to be mentioned. As people of faith in God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, we are taught in Romans 8:28 that “all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose” (NRSV). If we will hold this to be true, if all things do work together for good, then the question, “What lesson is there in this experience for me?”needs to be considered. Or as my wife put it “What are you trying to teach me Lord?”
According to the Pew Research Center 86% of American adults say that there is some kind of lesson or set of lessons to learn from the pandemic. But while their wide ranging responses tended to focus on socital issues, I am thinking in terms of personal matters. To borrow from Jordan Peterson, to use this experience as a reason to “clean up your room”. So here are some thoughts in no particular order.
1. What really matters in life: So often we get caught up in things that are no where near as important as we thought. Difficult times such as these force us to evaluate and adjust.
2. The depth of your strength: From Romans 5:3-4 “we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope.” The secular world sees any kind of suffering as something to be avoided. As Christians who understand God’s providence we can lean into suffering, not fearing it but using it as an opportunity to glorify God.
3. How to be grateful: Going through times like these helps us to know who and what really matters in my life and to have a greater appreciation for them. Seeing this as a daily practice of examining those things, people, events and more for which we have reason to be grateful gives us a pathway to seeing the hand of God at work
4. The importance of prayer: Every Christian needs to spend a significant amount of time each day in prayer, especially in times such as these. For prayer helps us to stay grounded amid the crazyness fear and uncertainty, knowing that God is ultimately in control.
Blessings – Pr Ralph
One of the ways that we judge of the character of another person is by their ability to keep their promises. A man or woman who is known to keep his or her word regardless of the situation, whether or not there is something to be gained or lost is generally one whom we hold in high regard. We tend to see this person as one we can trust. On the other hand the person who’s continually making promises but rarely or even never keeping them is not held in high regard and not seen as one who is worthy of trust.
This principle is one that extends to all of our relationships. From family and personal friends to business associates to employers and employees to governing officials at every level and ultimately to God, we base our judgment of that other individual on their history of keeping their word, keeping their promises.
Our God, as revealed in the Holy Scriptures, is one who makes promises. According to one source there are over 7000 promises made by God to humankind and recorded in the Bible. For instance, in Isaiah 41:10 we read, “Fear not, for I am with you; be not dismayed, for I am your God; I will strengthen you, I will help you, I will uphold you with my righteous right hand.” In Psalm 32:8 we read “I will instruct you and teach you in the way you should go; I will counsel you with my eye upon you.” My personal favorite is found in Romans 8:28 “And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who called according to his purpose.”
Of all the promises made by God, the ones most prominent in the Old Testament deal with the coming of a messiah. These promises are peppered throughout the Old Testament and give us an understanding of the nature and place of the messiah’s birth, the messiah’s heritage, the many trials the messiah will face and much more. From these we know that the messiah will come through the line of David; he will be born in Bethlehem of a virgin; he will be called Immanuel.
In the New Testament the promises of God often look toward the return of Christ. For instance: Luke 21:25-28 ESV “And there will be signs in sun and moon and stars, and on the earth distress of nations in perplexity because of the roaring of the sea and the waves, people fainting with fear and with foreboding of what is coming on the world. For the powers of the heavens will be shaken. And then they will see the Son of Man coming in a cloud with power and great glory. Now when these things begin to take place, straighten up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.”
In the Christian Church’s season of Advent these promises of God are before us. We begin with the promise of Christ’s return. And as we move through the season we look to the fulfilled promise of Christ’s coming which we will celebrate once more on Christmas. Because we have seen God’s promise of a Messiah fulfilled we know that Christ’s promise to return will also be fulfilled.
Much of the world and our nation is currently focused on holiday plans and pleasures. As we prepare to celebrate the Birth of our Lord, we are called to bear in mind that our joy is most truly found in the promises or God which have been fulfilled and will be fulfilled in the time to come.
Blessings Pr Ralph
The year 2020 has become “the year everything got canceled”. Celebrations, reunions, conventions, in-person meetings, rodeos, summer camp, retreats and July 4th festivities just to name some that come to mind. The reasons for these cancellations are good reasons, nonetheless it is disappointing and even depressing for many people. To look forward to connecting with colleagues, friends and loved ones only to have that opportunity denied due to something far beyond our control can only be a disheartening letdown. Especially when one is relegated to staying home and socially inactive for an extended period of time.
Reports of the negative effects of COVID on families, marriages, children appear on a regular basis. So how does one stay physically, mentally, emotionally and spiritually healthy in days like these?
One way is to stay busy. I have spoken to or heard of folks from all over the state and country who are into gardening who report that their lawns, gardens and flower beds look better this year than ever before. I know or know of people (myself included) who report that they have finally gotten to that project at their home that they have been putting off for years. And there are others who decided to take on projects at home just because something needed changing. The busiest places in these last months have been hardware, home improvement and auto parts stores. This is not surprising. There is something to be said about the emotional and spiritual benefit to be found in looking at a project completed, a garden or bed growing or in discovering a skill that you didn’t know that you had and seeing it bear fruit.
Your emotional and spiritual health, especially in times such as these, is something that needs tending. Unfortunately, many people attempt to address these issues through ways that do more harm than good.
Now you know where I am headed because for years I have been advocating for people of faith to spend time in bible meditation and prayer. I preach this because I know that to spend time in the Bible and in prayer adds to the emotional/mental and spiritual health of all who under take to make this part of their life. The problem that many people face is in having the will to take this on, knowing where to begin and when. Many people use “Portals of Prayer” as a resource, which is a good one and one we offer at St James. If you want something that offers more please feel free to speak with me directly.
The other question is when. I advocate for first thing in the morning and have personally stuck to this for years, even when I worked at O’Reilly’s. Evenings are harder to sustain, but some people can make it work. The best thing you can do if you want to make this work is to partner with others in either a formal or informal way. If this is something that interests you let me know. We will see what we can put together.
While this year will likely go down as a challenging year because of everything that got canceled and more, there is the possibility that it can be the year where good things got planted and grew in your life. It can be the year that you got to know God better.
In the past few months, as we have all been dealing in one way of another with the Covid-19 pandemic, I have said, on a number of occasions how grateful I am to be living in Llano, TX. And serving as pastor of St James Lutheran Church. The primary reason for my gratitude is the congregation / people that I have been given to serve and the city that Ruth and I get to live in, know and love. I do consider it divine providence that I was called to serve here
The secondary reason for my gratitude, though still very important, is the distance from what has been happening in our nation and the world. While Covid-19 is a highly infectious and dangerous virus that has caused pain and suffering around the world, to date it has not had a great impact in our community in terms of infections and deaths. This is something for which to be grateful to God! This is not to say that there has not been an impact. Many people have known great fear and have taken the prescribed precautions such that our day to day lives have been significantly altered. These life alterations may only be for a short term, though some may remain with us for years to come.
I am also grateful that we were able to continue gathering for worship and the celebration of the Lord’s Supper throughout. Only one other of my fellow Pastors was able to do this and his situation and experience, while in an urban environment, is similar to ours. As of this time there are congregations that I know of that have not yet returned to gathering for worship because they cannot handle the number of people and keep to the guidance given for social distancing. In one congregation that I am aware of, while they have returned to gathering for Sunday worship, they are requesting that those wishing to attend make reservations beforehand.
At the same time, I am grateful that we were able to implement live-streaming of Worship on Facebook and to implement a system of drive-thru communion for those who were participating in Worship thru that means. Let me add to this that we were able to make changes in receiving the offering and distributing Holy Communion that were in keeping with Social Distancing guidelines. These were outlined in the May edition of this Newsletter. I continue to be grateful for all who helped to make this possible, including those who have continued their financial support of St James during these times. All of this has been a blessing.
My point in all of this is that in the midst of what has proved to be challenging times there is much for which to be thankful. While such events as those that we have seen in recent months are part of the long term experience of life in this broken and sin-filled world (this is not the first time such events have taken place and will not be the last), by the grace of God, as St Paul reminds us in 1 Corinthians 10:13, we are given a way out, a way to endure what hardships we face. And for this we have every reason to be grateful.
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The earth is the Lord’s, and everything in it. Psalm 24:1 NLT
It seems that the corona virus / Covid-19 pandemic is the topic on everyone’s minds. It fills the media, the internet, and much of the realities of our lives. In as much as I would like to focus on something else, even I find that I succumb. I think this is in part due to the fact that everything I do is in some way impacted by this crisis. And I know that the same is true for many, if not all of you.
Who is responsible? Who brought this upon us? Who allowed this to happen?
The finger-pointing, the harsh words, the innuendo fly around like cannon shot on the battlefield. The attempt is to fix blame on government or governments or communities and the practices therein or leaders or individuals with the belief that such blame fixing and attempts to extract some measure of recompense will somehow make all things right. It never really works because pathology creates data (I’m using the word pathology in the social, not medical sense of the word). The more that you dig into a situation or crisis the more data you accumulate. The only thing you can do is to make a choice , presumably your best guess, and more forward.
In my association with the military over the years I discovered a fact that has bearing here. It is commonly held that the Captain of a ship is responsible for everything that happens on that ship. It doesn’t matter if a member of the crew did something awful and will pay the price for that action, the captain is responsible and will also pay the price, period.
That said, who is the captain of our ship? God is! Who is ultimately responsible for creation? God is! God fashioned and formed us, made us and gave us understanding (Psalm 119:73). God gave us free will. He gave us the ability think and create both beautiful and horrible things. God also calls us by his love to love God and one another. At the same time he gave us the ability to reject his love.
So if you want blame someone, to assign responsibility for some of the lousy things that happen in this world, look to God. But also know that God took responsibility and paid the price. That is what this Holy Week that we celebrate each year is all about. Jesus came into this world to pay the price for the Sin (all sin) that came into this world because God gave us free will and from the beginning human beings have used that free will in ways that are contrary to the very good design of our Lord.
But God paid the price, and continues to make the benefit of his sacrificial act available to us, because regardless of our sinful nature, he loves us.
Imagine that you were having a conversation with a person you that you just recent met. And in that conversation your partner in conversation discovered that you attend a Lutheran church and asked you, “What do Lutherans believe?; What do Lutherans teach?” How would you respond?
Your first thought might be to beg off, concerned that you wouldn’t have the knowledge or experience to speak well of such things. But as a Baptized Christian who is called to discipleship it would be good to engage in this opportunity to both share your faith and to speak about your church with one who may well be honestly seeking to learn. You may well have an opportunity to bring this person to faith in Christ. And as many a Christian will testify, in such situations the Holy Spirit will provide you with the words. Stop for a moment of silent prayer and then share honestly.
|What do Lutherans Believe?|
Now, realizing that God does provide, there is a place for adding to your knowledge and understanding so that you feel better equipped in such cases. Toward that end a few questions:
When you speak of God how would you describe God? Would you speak of Jesus, and if so how would you describe him? What about the Holy Spirit? Would the nature of human beings be something that you would mention? What about sin and its cause? What about the Church? What would you say about Baptism and Holy Communion and the many other things that make up the Lutheran Church?
The situation I describe is not that far distant from a “Conversation” that happened early on in the history of the Lutheran Church. In 1530 the Emperor Charles V called a meeting (called a diet) to meet in April in Augsburg, Germany for the purpose of discussing and hopefully overcoming the religious differences that had arisen as a result of the Reformation. In preparation for this meeting a document was prepared under the hands of Philip Melanchthon (a close associate of Martin Luther who was not able to attend, but who was consulted through correspondence). Signed by seven princes and the representatives of two free cities this document (which came to be known as the Augsburg Confession) achieved peculiar importance as a public declaration of faith. The 28 articles that make up the Augsburg Confession have long stood as a the basic teachings of the Lutheran Church that give guidance for instruction and practice within this Church.
During the season of Lent this year, which begins with Ash Wednesday on February 26, we will be studying this important part of our Lutheran Heritage. While it is doubtful that we will be able to cover all 28 articles, never the less we will go as far into the Augsburg Confession as time permits. The topics definitely up for consideration include: God, Original Sin, the Son of God, Justification, The Office of the Ministry, the Church, Baptism, The Lord’s Supper, Confession and Repentance.
Worship on Ash Wednesday with Holy Communion and disposition of Ashes will begin at 6:30 pm. Wednesday Evening Vespers (evening prayer) will follow each week at 6:30 and will be preceded bu a light supper.
It seems to me that every year as we come near to our celebration of the birth of our Lord Jesus there will be someone who puts forward the idea that Jesus wasn’t born on December 25th and that Christians appropriated a pagan holiday (most often Saturnalia) for their purposes. Indeed you will find this notion perpetuated in Wikipedia and Google. I suspect that the reason for putting forward such a notion is to attempt to diminish Christian belief and practice.
Furthermore, a number of scholars have opined that it was more likely that Jesus was actually born in the spring as it would be more likely that shepherds would have their flocks near Bethlehem and Jerusalem as Passover drew near. But in my opinion they are just guessing.
Since we do not know the actual date on which Jesus was born, what reasoning can we give for celebrating the birth of our Lord on December 25? You may be surprised to know that there is good reason that is worth knowing about.
2000 years ago remembering the date of one’s birth didn’t hold the same significance as it does now, especially since the majority of people were not literate and calendars were not what they are now. However, the date of the death of a person who had had a significant impact in the world was noted (For instance Julius Caesar died on March 14, 44 BC). It was also supposed that the date of that person’s conception could be tied to the day and month of their death thereby providing a plausible date for their birth.
From St John’s gospel a date for the death of Jesus death can be discerned. This is because John tells us that Jesus has being led to his crucifixion at the same time that the lambs were being led to the temple for slaughter in preparation for the beginning of Passover and that the beginning of this celebration of Passover coincided with the Sabbath (A Great Sabbath).
According to my study on the subject, taking into account the changes in calendars over the centuries and investigating the possible dates for such a great sabbath to occur in and around the time in years when Jesus is understood to have been active in hie earthly ministry, two dates rise to the surface – March 25 ( the feast of the Annunciation – when the angel Gabriel visited Mary ) and April 6. Add 9 months and you find yourself at December 25 and January 6 – Christmas and Epiphany. (I should be noted that some Christian churches – ie: Orthodox and Coptic – in the world celebrate Christmas on January 6)
And so, as the late Paul Harvey used to say, “Now you know the rest of the story”, and I hope you are better equipped when you hear some people’s less than flattering notions about the birth of our Lord
Blessings – Pr Ralph
At the most recent General Retreat of the Society of the Holy Trinity I had the opportunity to listen to Dr. Maxwell Johnson. Dr. Johnson is a professor of liturgical studies at the University of Notre Dame and a Lutheran pastor. This month I thought it appropriate to share with you some of the things that he is shared with us
At the General Retreat he spoke on “Ecclesia Semper Reformanda” (the church must always be reformed) as it relates to Baptism and Holy Communion (the Eucharist). A significant part of what he had to say was in relation to the case against a recent movement within the church (Lutheran and other protestant denominations) to include those who had not as yet been baptized in the Lord’s Supper (known as radical hospitality). His remarks on this point included: “The exclusion of the unbaptized from the eucharist is not to protect the eucharist, but out of pastoral care and concern for the unbaptized.” They might not be ready to make a confession of faith in Christ and to commit to the costly discipleship of the life of following Christ that includes penitence, repentance and renewal. That is a daily dying and rising in Christ.
Baptism is foundational to Christians. Further quoting Dr. Johnson, “In baptism the eucharist begins; in the eucharist baptism is sustained.” “The purpose of the eucharist is to sustain, nourish, and strengthened the baptized; the eucharist is the birthright of the baptized.”
A few other quotes from my notes:
“The purpose of liturgy is not to permeate our lives with ritual, but to permeate our lives with Christ.”
“The church must provide what people lack.”
“What we do on Sunday morning will shape what we believe.”
This past month I also attended the Texas Region NALC pastors retreat. Our speaker at that retreat was Rev. Dr. Scott Ness. Since I’m sharing quotes, I thought I might include a couple from him:
“Our sacramental theology makes us more charismatic in worship than those who call themselves charismatic because we believe in the real presence of Christ with us.”
“In our church we have an altar call every time we celebrate the Eucharist – the difference is that while others come to proclaim something about themselves, we come to receive what God has given to us.”
Suffice to say that I had a fair amount of classroom time this fall and that is a good thing. I never want to stop learning and growing in my relationship with my Lord and God
For we did not follow cleverly devised myths when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we were eyewitnesses of his majesty. 17 For when he received honor and glory from God the Father, and the voice was borne to him by the Majestic Glory, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased,” 18 we ourselves heard this very voice borne from heaven, for we were with him on the holy mountain. (2 Peter 1:16-18)
Why be a Christian? Why should one subscribe to, cling to or be faithful to the Christian faith? It is a question worthy of consideration for every woman or man who calls him or her self a Christian. Not only as it relates to his or her personal faith, but also in regard to the witness to the faith that they are given the opportunity, by the leading of the Holy Spirit, to share.
To begin to answer that question let us consider the practical implications: For decades social scientists have observed that religious folks are much happier. Regular church attendees commit fewer crimes, are in better health, live longer, make more money, drop out of High School less frequently and finish college more frequently than those who don’t attend church at all. MIT economist Jonathan Gruber even found the relationship causal: It’s not just that people who happen to live successful lives go to church, it’s that church seems to promote successful habits.
This research relates to religion in general, not specifically Christianity. So why should I choose to be a Christian? In this country, as opposed to some others, there is no stated or unstated policy forcing you to be a Christian. Nor are their sanctions placed on those who choose to choose to be Christian. Nor do Christians face persecutions in the physical life and death way currently happening in many nations around the globe. That stated, being a Christian is no easy thing. It isn’t just proclaiming that “I like Jesus” or that I am a Lutheran (or whatever other Christian group). Truly being a Christian is hard work, and part of that hard work involves believing that the words of the Bible bear witness to God and God’s will for humankind.
Many Christians respond to questions about their belief in the biblical witness with something like, “I believe in the Bible because I was raised like that”, or “I choose to believe the Bible because I tried it and it worked for me.” A better response was offered by Dr. Voddie Baucham Jr. where he says: “I choose to believe the Bible because it’s a reliable collection of historical documents written down by eyewitnesses during the lifetime of other eyewitnesses. They report to us supernatural events that took place in fulfillment of specific prophesies and claim that their writings are divine rather than human in origin,”
Being a Christian is a choice; believing the Bible is a choice too. God does not force anyone to believe. But God does invite all people and He provides a multitude of reasons why following in the way of Christ Jesus is truth and life.
J.D. Vance, “Hillbilly Elegy” (New York: Harper Collins Books, 2016) p 93
As I write this month Ruth and I are preparing to visit family members living in the area in and around Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. As a part of our preparations I will be packing a GPS unit for use as we drive in the area. I have made this provision a part of such travel plans ever since such devices became available. The reason is that after living in Texas for so many years driving in Western Pennsylvania is a less than wonderful experience. While I did grow up in the area and begin driving there I have found the experience of returning there and driving frustrating and infuriating to say the least (my children tell me that they would make bets on how long it would take dad to go ballistic while driving there). GPS units, for the most part, put an end to all of that by providing a reliable and easy way to get from one place to another without getting lost (or to have to listen to six people attempting to give me directions).
Of course, such systems, as wonderful as they are, are not infallible. Highway construction, for instance, will regularly throw such systems into the need to recalculate the intended course. And then there are those occasions when I have had the experience of wondering where our electronic guide was taking us. From time to time, I have even wondered whether this bit of electronic wizardry had become confused. Usually this happens when I believe that I know where I need to go and have an idea how to better get to my destination. I have even said, “No, we need to go that way!” And have taken off in the way I believed that we needed to go – to the sounds of protest from the GPS unit. In most cases, however and to my chagrin, I later found that the navigation system had the better idea.
The same thing is true with following the guidance of the Holy Spirit. The guidance of the Lord is present and available for us in the words of Holy Scripture. Through the commandments, the teaching and the examples that we find in the pages of the Bible, there is guidance for our course to help us in navigating the trials and troubles of this life. As we become familiar with the wisdom therein, the course becomes easier to discern and we learn that our Lord does have the better path.
We can, of course, choose to follow our own course, thinking that we know the better way. Indeed, we can go in the way we choose to go for as long as we wish. Our Lord, ever faithful, will continue to direct us in the way that leads us to growth in faith, hope and love and our ultimate destination in Jesus Christ. But, He leaves it to us whether or not to follow in the way that He leads.
Now the guidance of the Lord for the journey of life does not come in simple instructions like “right turn in 1 mile,” or “keep to the left.” It comes through familiarity with the word of God. This means that in order to make use of God’s leading one must be in that word and in prayer. Those who are familiar with this way know that in God’s word and in prayer are the guidance needed for this life and the abundance that God provides. And, unlike those systems created by human hands, His leading is ever true.
During the season of Easter during the third year of our Lectionary (Cycle C) the New Testament (second) readings all come from the Apocalypse of John, aka, the book Revelation. The only other time during the that we have a reading from this book is on Reformation and All Saints Sundays. This means that we have a window of opportunity to take an extended look at this New Testament book as a part of Sunday Morning worship. Also, since with our becoming a part of the North American Lutheran Church there have been some changes to our Lectionary, we will hear more from Revelation than we had in prior years. This affords us an opportunity of which I intend to take advantage. A series of sermons in which we can open up this book and spend some time gleaning whatsoever benefit for our lives of faith that we can.
Generally speaking Lutheran pastors have tended to shy away from sermonic treatments of the book of Revelation. I believe that this is in part because of Martin Luther’s thoughts about the book. Luther wrote: “My spirit cannot accommodate itself to this book. For me this is reason enough not to think highly of it: Christ is neither taught nor known in it. But to teach Christ, this is the thing which an apostle is bound above all else to do; as Christ says in Acts 1[:8], “You shall be my witnesses.” Therefore I stick to the books which present Christ to me clearly and purely”1. Luther also pointed out that many of the Church Fathers2, St Jerome being the notable exception , rejected this book. That said, Luther started his comments with “ I leave everyone free to hold his own opinions. I would not have anyone bound to my opinion or judgment”.
Luther’s comments notwithstanding, there has been many the Pastor outside of the Lutheran fold who have made free and frequent use of Revelation. And many the Christian layperson who has attempted a personal or group study over the years, but not always to the best possible result. This is not to criticize, but rather to point out what all who have read Revelation already know: The Jewish, Roman and early Christian symbolism metaphor and imagery found in Revelation requires considerable research to understand. A casual reading of this book of the Bible will not produce a good result.
Then there is the question of what one is expecting to find in these pages. Many people come to this book looking for some manner of forecasting of future events. What I believe is the most important message at this time, when Christians find their beliefs and at times themselves under assault, is the message of Christian hope. This is the message that was the blessing given those who first heard this word. It is a message that is important for Christians today.
1The 1522 “Preface to the Revelation of St. John” in Luther’s translation of the New Testament. Pages 398-399 in Luther’s Works Volume 35: Word and Sacrament I (ed. E. Theodore Bachmann; Philadelphia: Fortress, 1960)
2The “Church Fathers” were ancient and influential Christian theologians and writers such as: Clement of Rome (d. A.D. 97), Ignatius (d. 110), Polycarp (d. 155), Justin Martyr (the Church’s first major lay apologist; d. 165), Irenaeus (d. 202), Cyprian (d. 258), Athanasius (d. 373), to name a few.
On Wednesday evenings during the Lenten season, as a part of our evening prayer service we have been engaged in a study of the seven Christian virtues. These seven are comprised of the Three Theological virtues, faith hope and love, and the Four Cardinal virtues, prudence, justice, fortitude and temperance. As we come toward the end of the season of Lent, it would be good to restate these, with some brief comment, in written form.
Of these the theological virtues are fairly well known. As these three come directly from the writings of the Apostle Paul, preaching and teaching on the faith and hope and love either individually or as a group is relatively common. We have all been called to greater faith in God and in Christ. We’re all heard the call to walk in hope. And as regards love, there is perhaps no greater proclamation and the words of Jesus to “love one another as I have loved you”. We understand these three as infused in us by God, without our effort
The Four Cardinal virtues (from Latin cardo, “hinge”) because on them all lesser attitudes hinge, are another matter. They are rarely if ever mentioned. This list is said to go back to Socrates and is certainly to be found in Plato and Aristotle. Late Roman and medieval Christian moralists—such as Ambrose, Augustine, and Thomas Aquinas—took over the list as a convenient summary of the teaching of the ancient philosophers and of the highest excellence at which they aimed.1
To say more about these four, prudence is the virtue that allows us to judge correctly what is right and what is wrong in any given situation. Prudence also directs us to seek the counsel of others, who we know to be sound judges of morality, when in a situation of uncertainty.
The virtue of justice is the constant and perpetual will to render to everyone his rightful due. Justice respects the rights of others, whether those rights are natural rights or legal rights.
The third cardinal virtue, fortitude, sometimes called courage allows us overcome fear and to remain steady in the face of obstacles, whether they be physical or spiritual. Fortitude is not foolhardiness or rashness. It is, however, the virtue of the martyrs. In other words, fortitude is the virtue that helps us stand up for what is right regardless of what others say.
The fourth cardinal virtue, temperance, is the virtue that helps us control our physical desire for pleasure. It is the virtue that helps us to moderate our appetite for tactile and bodily delights, specifically food, drink, and sexual activity. It not only controls our pursuit of pleasurable goods, it also helps to curb our distress when we lack them.
Unlike the three theological virtues, the four cardinal virtues are an outgrowth of habit, can be practiced by anyone, and represent the foundation of natural morality.
I pray that you found these instructions are helpful for your life, in your walk in faith.
March 7, 2019
In the name of the Father and of the † Son and of the Holy Spirit, Amen
“…The Lord look upon you with favor and † give you peace”
In case you were not aware of it, that † symbol (sometimes simply +) placed in the midst of the text is a signal that it is appropriate, at that moment, to make the sign of the cross over one’s body from forehead to breast then from shoulder to shoulder or to trace a small cross over one’s forehead. It appears throughout the various liturgies in Evangelical Lutheran Worship and in the Lutheran Book of Worship before that. The inclusion of this symbol and practice is a return to an ancient practice that Christians for centuries have found beneficial.
This † symbol was not, however, included in the Service Book and Hymnal or various other earlier hymnals that you might have grown up with. Neither was it a part of the common practice of Lutherans in previous generations. The omission of this ancient practice from the things that we as Lutherans do was one of the ways that we said what we were not. And yet, in more recent years an increasing number of Lutherans have taken up this practice as an outward expression of their faith. In this Lenten season I thought it worthwhile to take this opportunity to provide some explanation about this practice.
When we make the sign of the cross, what we are doing is a) remembering our Baptism; b) remembering Jesus’ death for our sins – the center of our faith; c) Confessing to the world that I am not ashamed to be known as a disciple of Jesus and ergo a Christian; and d) Holding up the cross of Christ as the central core of my identity.
The sign of the cross is ecumenical, in that is used by the Orthodox, Roman Catholics, Lutherans, and Episcopalians, and is slowly increasing in use among mainline Protestants.
The sign of the cross is a treasured part of our liturgical heritage as Lutherans, because the practice was encouraged and used by Martin Luther himself. Luther instructed his followers to make the sign of the cross at both the beginning and the end of the day as a beginning to daily prayers. In the Small Catechism, in the section on morning and evening prayers Luther says: “When you get out of bed, bless yourself with the holy cross and say ‘In the name of God, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.” This same instruction is given for bedtime. Luther also made provision for the sign of the cross to be made at Baptism and the ordination of ministers of the church.
Some folks will read this and think that making the sign of the cross is something that Lutherans must now do. Absolutely not! This is a matter of personal freedom and piety! If that is not helpful to you, don’t do it and don’t feel bad about it if you do not. Whether or not you choose to do this or if you do not it is and needs to remain a matter of evangelical freedom. On the other hand, as we begin the season of Lent we are wise to remember that Lent is a time when we have the opportunity to engage in new disciplines that are intended to be helpful to us in our walk of faith.
February 7, 2019
From time to time I have shared that a particular reading on a Sunday morning is one that has not been read during worship in prior years. I have also shared that this shift is the result of our adopting a different Lectionary (Sequence of Sunday morning readings) as a part of our becoming a part of the North American Lutheran Church. Previously we had been following the “Revised Common Lectionary” (RCL). The RCL is a three year series of Sunday morning readings shared by many of the Christian denominations. The three year Lectionary was initially developed as a result of the Second Vatican Council and initially appeared in 1969. Within a few years, a number of Protestant denominations in North America adopted this Lectionary with a variety of revisions. The three-year Lectionary was introduced to Lutherans in North America in 1973. It was revised (hence RCL) in 1992..
There is value in a shared liturgical calendar among Christian Churches. As a pastor this shared reading sequence has the advantage of providing a large number of resources for the preacher’s work of crafting a sermon for Sunday mornings. There is, as you might expect, a downside.
I have found that the RCL regularly avoids biblical passages that are controversial or in any way harsh, strict, theologically challenging or politically incorrect. Regularly major sections of a reading are passed over to avoid having something that violates these notions as a part of Sunday Worship. This means that as a Pastor I don’t get the opportunity to address these passages and the reactions that some people have to them. Texts that are included in the Lectionary that we use that are omitted in RCL include (but are not limited to) Ephesians 5:22–33; Romans 13:1–7; 1 Corinthians 10:16–17; 11:27–32; Galatians 2:11–14; 6:1–6; Philippians 4:10–20; Hebrews 12:4–13; 1 John 4:1–6; and Luke 13:22–30.
Since entering the NALC the suggested Lectionary (aka Liturgical Calendar) that we use comes from Sola Publishing. It is based on the Lutheran Service Book version of the Revised Common Lectionary as published by Concordia Publishing House. This means that the readings that we use are often the same as in other churches but also at times they are different. For me this means that when I look to the readings for a Sunday Morning I may well see a text that I have not worked with in the past. And at times I will find that this previously avoided text requires that I work with it and address the issues that it presents. I believe that for the most part this is a good thing. Issues that are kept hidden and not addressed are not good for either the individual or the Church community. And while some ideas are better addressed in Bible Study if only because of the possibility of interpersonal dialogue, there is great value in the preached word, even if the topic is controversial.
The reality is that there are topics that are presented in Holy Scripture that are not easy to hear or understand. There are passages that make us uncomfortable because they hit close to home. Very often these are our growing edges; the places where God in the Holy Spirit can do a good work in us helping us to grow in faith, hope and love. We are wise, I believe, to accept these challenges when they come our way and the Lectionary we use gives us this opportunity.
January 4, 2019
As many of you know I am a strong proponent for regular reading of the Bible by individual Christians. As important as it is to be a part of the gathered community in worship, simply hearing the Holy Scriptures read on Sunday mornings is not enough. I fervently believe that every Christian needs to have a thorough understanding of the Holy Scriptures. This biblical knowledge is needed not only to fully live this life of faith that has been gifted to us by God, but also to be able to discern that which is not biblical or in line with Christian teaching (though supposed as such) or that which is biblical but is taken out of context. The Holy Bible offers us great knowledge and wisdom for living, but to gain that wisdom we need to read it regularly and continually. And in reading it regularly, to discover afresh or anew the wisdom that is there to enrich your life.
As we begin a new year, I thought that I would offer a few pieces of scriptural wisdom fitting for this time starting with a passage from St Paul in his letter to the Philippians.
No, dear brothers and sisters, I am still not all I should be, but I am focusing all my energies on this one thing: Forgetting the past and looking forward to what lies ahead, I strain to reach the end of the race and receive the prize for which God, through Christ Jesus, is calling us up to heaven. (NLT)
This side of eternal life none of us has arrived at a completed faith. None of us are “all we should be.” But by the grace of God through the Holy Spirit we have hope and possibility. The writings of the prophet Jeremiah (29:11) speak to just this hope.
“For I know the plans I have for you,” says the LORD. “They are plans for good and not for disaster, to give you a future and a hope. (NLT)
The Bible repeatedly speaks of the steadfast love of God for us and for all of creation. It is so very easy for us to forget this, especially when we encounter hard times, grief and mourning, and the trial and trouble this is so often prevalent in this life. In Lamentations (3:22-24) we find words of solace and comfort, hope and love.
The unfailing love of the LORD never ends! By his mercies we have been kept from complete destruction. Great is his faithfulness; his mercies begin afresh each day. I say to myself, “The LORD is my inheritance; therefore, I will hope in him!” (NASB)
Finally, as we look ahead to the coming year as a people of faith we can all find reason for thanksgiving in St. Paul’s words to the people of Corinth (2 Corinthians 5:17)
Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; old things have passed away; behold, all things have become new. (NKJV)
As you begin this New Year set aside the time to be in the Holy Scriptures on a daily basis and get to know the God who knows you and loves you.
December 6, 2018
It never fails. Every year for the past 30 years, during or as we approach the season of Advent, someone has approached me and asked why it is that the candles in our advent wreath are blue instead of purple. Oh,and what about the pink candle? I don’t mind. It makes me feel good to know that people feel that they can bring questions to me, whatever they might be. Besides, it gives me an opportunity to teach.
That said: the Advent wreath with three purple candles and one pink or rose colored candle had been around for quite a long time. The sense of the Advent season that was promoted was repentance and as such was similar to the season of Lent. The rose colored candle was tied to the third Sunday of the season and in the Roman Church was called “Gaudete Sunday,” so named for the first word of the entrance psalm prescribed for that day. “Rejoice in the Lord always, and again I say rejoice” (Gaudete = Rejoice in Latin). This was seen as a mid season break from the more somber seasonal sense of penitence.
In more recent times the season of Advent has undergone a shift in emphasis from penitence to anticipation, longing and hope. This change is reflected by a change in the colors used to mark the season. Instead of the purple that was shared with the season of Lent there has been a shift to a deep blue or royal blue in the candles of the Advent wreath and the various textiles that decorate the altar, pulpit and lectern. We start out the season with a focus on the promised return of our Lord and, as the celebration of the Nativity comes near, move to a recollection of the events leading up to the birth of our Lord Jesus.
Now, I expect that, given the realities of the secular celebration of the Christmas Season, themes of anticipation and longing focused on the promise of our Lord can get confused with other anticipations. Still, for those who would seek something other than the secular, the holy longing and hopefulness of the Advent season touches a deep chord in the midst of our souls. It speaks to our restlessness with the promise of a Savior in whom we can know peace for our hearts, peace for our souls.
That is the one gift that I expect every person wants. In the face of our restlessness, our anxiety, our confusion to know that peace within, that rest that resides in the depths of our being. It is this gift for which we long above all others. And it is the gift that this season of Advent, whether the candles are purple or blue, prepares us to receive
October 17, 2018
“If you could have one super-power what would it be?” Given our ongoing national infatuation with superhero’s (Superman, Wonder Woman, Iron Man and the like) it seemed like a fun question to play with in a gathering of friends over adult beverages. Responses like super strength or incredible speed, the ability to make oneself invisible or to read minds came quickly to the floor. And with these came the expected noises of endorsement and approval or criticism and rejection.
Then came the suggestion that no one expected – “the power to make others feel loved.” No one had even thought of love as a super-power. Most folk had only thought of super-powers that would benefit themselves. This one, on the other hand, because it is focused outward and toward the benefit of others, set them back. Indeed it probably scared most of those involved because it is the one super-power that they all could have, if they really wanted it. The question is, for all of us, is this the power we want most?
For us as Christians this opens up a contrast between the way of the world versus the way of Christ. The way of the world begins with “me” as the starting point and seeking to define my identity through the status markers of the world such as money, power, popularity, position and pleasure. The way of Christ begins with God as the starting point and seeking to define my identity in response to the love and gifts God has lavishly given me.
Under which “way” would desiring the super power of “making others feel loved” fall? Obviously, it is the way of Christ.
Spiritual teacher, author and lecturer Marianne Williamson wrote, “Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure.” You have the power to make every person you encounter feel loved. Will you use it?”
Blessings, Pr Ralph
June 20, 2018
“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” Matthew 5:3
I’ve been poor in my life; it wasn’t fun. But that sort of went with there being nine children in the family. That said, as a child my family’s lack of financial resources wasn’t something that often weighed on my mind.
Today, I am, by the standards of the majority of the people on this earth, wealthy. There is nothing that I need that I have to do without. True riches, after all, come in being content with what we have.
I’ve also been spiritually rich in my life. I’ve had times when I felt like I was walking two feet off the ground – I was so happy to know God and to be known by God. And I’ve also felt spiritually empty, cut off from God and not quite knowing how to get back in touch.
Earthly riches are easy to measure. Spiritual riches are different – spiritual riches are qualitative, not quantitative. You will always have what you need, and you will never have enough. You can’t walk far enough to find it because you are already there. This is what it is to be “poor in Spirit.”
Jesus says that in his kingdom, the poor in spirit are blessed. That might be hard to appreciate unless you understand that those who are poor in spirit know their poverty and this poverty leads them back to God. The translation in the New English Bible helps us here when it interprets “Blessed are the Poor in Spirit” as “Blessed are those who know their need of God.” That is to say that through this poverty I know that I am not sufficient in and of myself and that I need the help of the Lord my God. God constantly holds us in the palm of his hand, and the assurance of that gift is a blessing.
Johannes Metz, in this book “Poverty of Spirit” writes, “This poverty… is a necessary ingredient in any authentic Christian attitude toward life…” For in our poverty we come to know God’s grace that is revealed in God’s work of salvation in Christ Jesus. Metz continues, “Only through poverty of Spirit do we draw near to God; only through it does God draw near to us… It is the meeting point of heaven and earth, the mysterious place where God and humanity encounter each other.”
Blessings, Pr Ralph
We are in the season of the Church year when we explicitly celebrate the resurrection of our Lord Jesus and therein his triumph over sin, death and the devil. What we say in our celebration of the resurrection, along with St John’s gospel is that Jesus Christ is true; in fact, He is the way, the truth, and the life.
Though we have repeated the story and the fact of the resurrection over and over again (so much so that it has become familiar and ordinary), as Christians it remains of great importance to us. If Jesus isn’t the way, the truth, and the life, the only thing which we have to cling to, then we are indeed to be pitied, for we have nothing. If one does not believe this, then what wisdom is there in gathering for worship every weekend? Where is the comfort and hope of the gospel that Luther and others standing amongst the cloud of witnesses so desperately sought? Where is the hope that we, in our own lives today, so desperately seek? What have we to proclaim if not Christ crucified and resurrected?
Jesus is the way, the truth and the life. This simple creedal statement is the foundation of much of what we as Christians believe. But, of course it doesn’t end there. A number of years ago the late Verna Dozier, an Episcopal lay woman and theologian, wrote that the important question to ask is not: “What do you believe?” but, “What difference does it make in your life that you believe?”1 If it is true that Jesus is the way, the truth, and the life, how is that truth affecting your life? How does it change the way you perceive and experience the world? How does it change the way you relate to other people — and even your view of your self?
Our faith is not something that we “get”. It is never a once and done thing. Rather it is lifetime operation; an ongoing process of discovery, becoming and implementing that runs through every day. Our life in faith, for it to deepen and grow, requires regular prayer, study, reflection and meditation. In other words, it requires time and energy. The payoff, however, is a life walking with the Lord that knows his love and providence; and that is an amazing thing.
1 Dozier, V. J. (1991). The dream of God: A call to return. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Cowley Publications. p.105