Saturday, January 31, 2009

What We Know and Do Not Know

Through most of November late last fall the theme texts for each Sunday centered around Christ's Second Coming. Asked to preach on November 16, I chose the epistle text from First Thessalonians 5:1-11. A week or so before, massive fires that started in Santa Barbara, California where Don Johnson now ministers, were sweeping through southern California. But Don, Salem's former pastor, was in Virginia participating in a family funeral, which he found understandably hard. Tough times seem to abound all around us these days, don't they?

The sermon took as its title "What We Know and Do Not Know," referencing questions that have always occupied the minds of believers concerning the end times. Twenty some minutes can hardly be expected to penetrate the mystery that remains, except to affirm what can--and in my view--needs to be faced. My brother once addressed the crucial issue, I believe, by asking in one of his lectures for a simple "yes" or "no" answer to the critical question: "Are your bags packed?'

No single solution will ever be found to the mystery of Christ's coming again. No one knows the day or the hour. Not even Jesus knew. When it will be remains where biblically it is said to be, in the heart and mind of God alone. What matters in the long run has little to do with the details anyway. Our concern as human beings ought rather be focused on whether we and all others around us in God's world are ready.

Friday, January 30, 2009

'Count Your Blessings, Name Them One by One'

Day by day, I realize how blessed I am as a family man--husband, father, grandfather, and great-grandfather. Alyce and I have two daughters, three sons, their wonderful spouses, 15 grandchildren, and 6 great-grandchildren. The three above belong to Paul and Kristin--Annika, Colin, and Kajsa--our miracle girl, born with only half a heart, now over six and thriving. They are shown above frolicking last summer in the hammock down by Lake Kawaguesaga in Minocqua, Wuisconsin. Annika is her father's princess, and Colin her mother's little prince. Lady Kajsa rules the whole roost, as she richly deserves after all she has been through. Increasingly themselves as they grow and develop--caught up in their own worlds of school, play, and imagination--they remain nonetheless one in blessing each other, their doting parents, and our whole family relation.

Now enjoying their presence on my desktop screen every day for awhile, I find myself praying that as they mature they will understand fully how blest they are just to be who they are in a family that so lovingly and patiently supports them. I am also interceding for them, that they in turn may become a blessing to others, helping to create in this divided world the sense of family and security they have known since birth, the blessing God intends for all his children everywhere.

Bless you, Princes Annika! Bless you, too, Prince Colin! And bless you also, Lady Kajsa!

Then Bless the Lord, O my soul, and all that is within me bless his holy name. Yes! Bless the Lord, O my soul, and do not forget all his benefits ..." (Psalm 103:1,2).

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

God Bless America!

It has been an memorable day--an inspiring day, uniting many in our nation who have been sealed earlier in their own little worlds and separated from one another. Regardless of all that divides Americans--and there is much--today's gathering of so many from all over this country and world in our nation's capital was truly remarkable.

The smiles and tears everywhere evident conveyed a sense of hope, not least on the faces of African Americans who have so long borne the burden of the physical and emotional indignities that first brought them to our shores. One day, of course, cannot eliminate the economic inequalities and social disdain that they and so many others still suffer in a land founded on the premise that all people are created equal. Nor can one day be expected to cure the enormous world-wide problems our nation now faces. There clearly are difficult days ahead.

Yet something was in the air today, all over our country and world, that just as clearly offered joy and hope no matter where people found themselves participating. And maybe, just maybe, hope is what we need now the most. Fervent debates will follow--as they should--for sometime into the future. No one has all the answers, as President Obama made clear. But if those debates--however dissonant and passionate--are fueled not by self-interest but with the common good in mind, America could well be on its way to a whole new birth both of freedom and prosperity.

As a Christian I reserve ultimate loyalty to the Kingdom of God, but today I was proud to be an American. I was moved by the communal sense of hope that flowed from its people, and inspired by them to dedicate myself again to my responsibilities as a Christian for all God's people, whether in the church or beyond.

There is no shame in being an patriot so long as that patriotism is morally and socially responsible. As a matter of fact our coming together as a nation of nationalities--seeking with common purpose across every divide to deal redemptively with all the issues that confronts us--may well be the surest way to offer people of other nations, cultures, and religions the hope they clearly long for and so much need.

A Covenant Logo Mosaic

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

'Let Our Gardener, God, Landscape You....'

Whle preparing as part of a small group Bible study last week to be focused on the Book of James, I chose to read it in The Message, Eugene Peterson's wonderful paraphrase of Scripture, so rich and best of all surprising in its use of language and imagery.

The NRSV translates 1:19 as follows: You must understand this, my beloved: let everyone be quick to listen, slow to sepak, slow to anger.... Peterson's paraphrase is stunning: Lead with your ears, follow up with your tongue, and let anger struggle along in the rear. Likewise in the second half of verse 21, where the NRSV says welcome with meekness the implanted word that has the power to save your souls, Peterson writes: In simple humility, let our gardener, God, landscape you with the Word, making a salvation-garden of your life.

What a wonderful invitation is issued us in those verses. No matter the version the message is clear. It is God's implanted Word in us that matters most in our spiritual formation. One is reminded of the invitation we receive every month at the Lord's Supper: "Come, not because you must but because you may.... Come, not to express an opinion but to seek his presence and pray for his Spirit."

I love the way Peterson frames the counsel of James, calling each of us to humility--to allowing God to landscape us with the Word and, over time, make a salvation-garden of your life and mine.

Entirely too much of our time in church life today is spent trying to be spiritual, even from such good motives as wanting to please God. We musy work to tend the garden with him, of course. He expects us to work out our salvation with fear and trembling, as the Apostle Paul says (Philippians 2:12), but reminds us in the working that it is God at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure.

The greatest hindrance to true spirituality among us may lie right there. Let the Lord do the plowing and planting. Allow him to design all the the areas surrounding your garden-life, wherever he is planting. And from that garden, tended by him and his Spirit, will blossom the best flowers and the best fruit than can be imagined.

Thursday, January 8, 2009

On Being the Mosaic We Are in Christ

I am on a mission—a communal mission, meant to address leaders, members, friends, and all standers-by in the Covenant Church that is my home—part of the body of Christ I love and serve.

Working recently through a six-week series on “Covenant Affirmations,” I was moved to re-discover that from earliest days our Covenant forebears thought of what was being formed in and through them as a movement. No doubt knowing themselves, as immigrants, to be pilgrims in this world was part of that. The reading of Scripture made abundantly clear to them that there was no lasting city for them on this earth, in Sweden or America. As believers in Christ they were, with the writer to the Hebrews, looking for another city wherever they lived, “a city that has foundations, whose builder and maker is God” (Hebrews 11:10).

“Mission Friends” was what they first called themselves, believers in God by grace through faith, whose minds had been captured by Christ’s Great Commandment (Matthew 22:37-40) and motivated by his Great Commission (Matthew 28:18-20).

There is a certain pulse in that sense of being a movement that needs recovering among us. Glorying in traditional things now accrued to the movement in earlier times can easily cause a deadness of soul—the losing of one’s focus on the grace that alone begets life, not to mention the dynamic of faith that should be propelling us forward. Programs and church as usual can and often have become threats to movement rather than expressions of it.

We dare not forget, however, that authentic Christian movement is profoundly rooted theologically and communally. Our forebears, though far less educated than we, were deeply rooted in the Lutheran faith of the State Church in which they had grown up and been catechized. And they were concerned about not only bringing others to Christ but training them to live thoughtfully and earnestly as Christians. David Nyvall, founder and first president of North Park College and Seminary (now University) once said that any movement worth its salt will be able to point to institutions it creates along the way that embody its faith and life, thus furthering the movement. We are, by our own confession, companions together in a sacred union created by God—a movement within the whole body of Christ—bound beyond ourselves and our local churches with the whole body of Christ to serve his will and mission.

Many who confess to being bored by such bonds, judging their church dead and irrelevant--are now assigning themselves uncritically to movements of someone else's making, assuming that mimicking our culture in the interest of reaching people--as many leaders are doing--is the only way to do church. Some, in fact, are not wanting to do church at all, throwing out any vestige of Christian tradition, assuming that cultural relevance today is what really matters. Our Lord himself cautioned against building on such shifting sands. That we build and where is important, but so is why we build and how.

The mission I believe we must serve if we are to remain a truly Christian movement lies in the communal understanding with which the Covenant began—free to be ourselves but not independent, bound in Christ to one another and not separated by conformities of our own making.

What really matters in sustaining a movement are not standards we personally set to initiate and measure progress, but our passion in jointly lauding—in worship, fellowship, institutional life, church building, mission, and benevolence--what C.J. Nyvall once called “that mutual filial condition to which we have been born from above.” We have always been at our best when we affirm what God intends his church to be—a living, vibrant, communal mosaic of believers joined in body and spirit to worship him and build up his body.

Jaroslav Pelikan had it right: traditionalisms of every kind are “the dead faith of the living.” But tradition, rightly understood and embodied, is “the living faith of the dead.” Lasting movements are neither created nor sustained by separated individuals and churches. They are brought forth and maintained by God in the hearts of believers in Christ who bind themselves to him and one another in Word, Scarament, devoted fellowship, and service by the power of his Spirit.

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

In the Making and Breaking of Bread

It was our daughter Judy's well-planned idea to present her sons Nathan and Lars, with their spouses Kara and Katie, a post-Christmas surprise. And what was that? A day in our home teaching her children how to bake Alyce's famous rye bread, not to mention spend some quality time with their grandparents.

The bread, a family tradition going back to Alyce's folks and who knows how much further, is to die for--that good! One more family tie that binds not only our children but their spouses and children as well. It's part of home for all of us, feeling and being at home wherever one is. And New Year's Eve seemed the right time to pass on one of our family's treasured traditions to a new generation and all those coming after.

More was involved, of course, than the mixing, kneading, and baking of the bread--entering into and learning the process, hands on. Kara, Katie, Nathan, Alyce, and Lars were also deepening the bonds between them, one could say breaking bread together with us as well as baking it.

Judy and Bob Stromberg, grandparents to their kids, were dutiful baby-sitters at their home all through the morning, but by noon they joined us, six more, for a bowl or two of Oma's chili, one more bearer of family tradition over the years. I say one or two bowls, but it must in some cases have been more brecause that receipe had been tripled in preparing for lunch, and there wasn't much left.

Note the aprons, too--no less a tradition in Oma's kitchen. She never cooks without an apron, a memory she has carried over from her mother and mine, now being passed on whenever children or grandchildren come to share with her in kitchen preparations.

Hmmmm!! The bread was, as usual, delicious, even if somewhat heavier for too many hands in the kneading process. No matter. The fellowship and bonding, and passing of memory from generation to generation was what really mattered. Bread is for life, and throughout that day the living between us was all the richer for all we were doing together.