Conference-itis Really?

Conference-itis — What is it?

This post has been brewing for several years. All critiques and questions in the post have arisen from my own struggles, questions, concerns. In other words, if these comments feel a little uncomfortable, I understand, I have been there, too.

What is conference-itis? There are many conferences, from the church body conferences to the wild and woolly conferences (many times bizarre, but catching international attention).

But the focus of this post is not on those kinds of conferences. Rather, I use the term in reference to independent groups springing up within the more conservative churches, that has also been attracting some Lutherans. The conferences have become the next great thing in the church. And to attend or speak at a conference is the badge certifying that “I have made it.” Conference-itis affects the person who thinks this is the “real deal” in church.

A little background on me. I write as one who has served, and is currently serving as a pastor, and in the last 8 years also serving as a seminary president. I attended more than my share of these kinds of conferences from the mid 1980s to the present, several times speaking at such conferences—I was suffering from conference-itis. In the mid 1990s I began to ask myself questions about the conferences, the speakers, and my own role. I now attend far fewer conferences.

Why am I going to the conference?

Several conferences I attended were very helpful for me. They opened my eyes in terms of pastoral care, teaching, and preaching. They served to assess my own ministry. Yet after a few I learned that other conferences were not helping, but in fact, distracting me. Then my question changed to: “Why am I going to this?”

Yes, fellowship with others was good. But at a two day conference where I met 100-200 or more people I soon realized that almost none of them would be ongoing friends. Not because I didn’t want to, but I was serving a congregation of 250+ with Preschool (75) and Parents’ Day Out (125), etc. In other words, any time I dedicated to conference attendees beyond the initial conference was time away from caring for those I was called to serve as pastor.

Yes, learning goes on at conferences. I have gained significant insights over the past 29 years. But I had to ask myself: How is this helping me improve as a pastor serving people? The insights showed that many conferences were not helpful, and so I attended fewer—the conferences were being filtered through that questioning lens.

It was an eye-opener when after attending one conference that all 70 pastors were so enthusiastic about the ideas presented. Some rushed home to begin the “new ministry approach” the first month. I remember one pastor was so excited about small group ministry that he started eleven groups within three months of returning from the conference. Yet at the conference everyone was strongly urged to start small—with one group. Within five years that pastor had no groups in the church. And worse, he provided no support to group leaders at any stage.

Others of us took time and assessed whether it would work in the congregations we were serving. We also took time to plan further out than six months—more like 10 years. It has been 23 years since I went to that conference. The congregation I served at the time started with one group, eventually growing to seven groups when I left. But even more—long after I left the congregation the groups have continued to grow in number and size to this day.

What is the purpose of the conference?

Over the last 25 years I have begun asking this question repeatedly (to myself). Will the purpose of this conference help me serve as pastor? If a member of my congregation attends, how will this conference help that person grow in the faith and serve in the community into which he or she is living/serving?

In the mid 1980s I assumed that every conference would benefit me and every member. But the reality is that many conferences are not so much designed to build up and support the existing congregations and members. They may serve other needs and purposes, which is fine. But I needed to clearly think about this and the implications for the congregation. So, my question became “What is the purpose of this conference?”

It breaks my heart to even write this: In some conferences I have seen where the local ministry is portrayed as “not sufficient.” In other words, the conference itself becomes more important than the congregation. As a Lutheran, I understand that the congregation is a group of believers in Christ gathered around Word and Sacrament. And when a conference moves away from that focus, then I have even more serious concerns.

Even at Lutheran conferences, I have heard comments about Word and Sacrament being essential, but then the speaker(s) totally ignoring those tools, rather intimating that the local congregation might be lacking in some way—which only this conference can fix. The conference becomes an “encouraging community” to get the “real deal” at the conference, not the real deal in Word and Sacrament with brothers and sisters who are my community.

So, I ask myself as a pastor, is this conference helping me serve God’s people? Or is that only a hook to get me there, to be “encouraged” by others wanting “something more”?

Those are tough questions, perhaps making some of us very uneasy. If so, I am glad that is happening, because we need to be brutally honest about all this. If not, then we are slipping into the mindset that “something out there” is needed beyond what God gives and provides in the congregation.

What about those who lead the conference?

One of my filters now includes this question: “What is going on in the congregation of this speaker?” This is not just a congregation-size issue. A pastor may serve a mega-church, but have little hands on experience with ministry in this specific area. The name is well known, but what exactly is he providing in real world experience that will benefit other pastors? If the speaker serves as pastor of a small congregation that has not grown beyond more than a large small group (not an oxymoron), then what does he offer at the conference?

If he is an author, is that the reason he is speaking? That he might generate more sales from his insights? Are those insights, true insights or just a repackaging of something else?

How is his presentation? I don’t care to be entertained. I don’t need speakers who publicly push the boundaries of language. Is he sarcastic, snide, rude? That doesn’t edify anyone—Ephesians 4:29. Will that language help me care for the cancer patient, the new widower, the parents of a runaway in the congregation. If the speaker critiques someone, does he critique the false teaching or does he ridicule the person?

Is the speaker showing by his knowledge of the Bible that he knows ministry inside and out, from failure and success? Or is he offering his own mix of what works with a little from the Bible, a little from the business world, and a little “common sense?” Is he willing to admit the limits of his knowledge and experience? Or is he presenting as if this “new thing,” better than the Bible, is the only way to go?

These are very difficult, challenging questions. But as I have learned over the decades, if I don’t ask the questions, then I am letting someone else dictate what I should be doing in ministry, with me becoming a shallow imitation of someone who may or may not be working for the good of the kingdom.

What are alternatives?

At that point, we need to see whether the time and money to attend any conference really is worth it to the pastor and congregation. Maybe that two day conference (that eats up four days when travel is included; effectively amounting to 60 working hours) might yield to an alternative that will help the congregation. Perhaps it might benefit the congregation more if the pastor took those 60 hours over the next two weeks to study Greek and Hebrew texts, gaining insights into the Scriptures. Then he can deepen the Bible studies that he teaches locally and faithfully preach each week. Each pastor has to ask himself that question.

I have been mentoring pastors for 25 years, and in the last eight years visiting pastors and seminary students. I ask them all the same question: “What are you reading?” Sometimes I will get responses about the latest best seller by Rev. Dr. ______, or just throwing out a last name, intimating that I should know who he/she is and be pleased they are up to date. Now, I have no problem with people reading books, I’ve been known to read 5,000+.

But when I ask the question about “what are you reading?” I am specifically asking: “What are you reading in the Bible?” As pastors the best preparation for service is to be in God’s Word. By this I also do not include commentaries, although commentaries are good they cannot replace reading the Scriptures.

 The reading of the Bible:

1. Read the Bible: (i.e., a consistent reading through the Bible). Many resources are available for anyone to begin and continue reading the Bible. In hermeneutical terms, we are expanding the matrix of understanding the Bible, always with Christ as the key to the matrix. (John 5:39; Luke 24:44-46; etc.). As a pastor, we can easily make it a goal to read the entire Bible in one year.

2. Mediative reading: To complement #1, this approach takes more time, a slower pace. It is often best to read aloud the text. As the mouth articulates the text, the text forms in the mind, in the heart, and begins a process of drawing one closer to God. Psalm 1:1-2 illustrates this process.

3. Detailed Study: For the pastor, this means taking out the Hebrew and Greek texts and working through a section of a text. Often people hear this encouragement and want to start but tackle too much at one time. If you are rusty, then I suggest working through a book (like John’s Gospel) and translate one verse a day. You may have to frequently look up words in a lexicon when you start. But you are doing one verse. Soon you will discover that you don’t have to look up some words, because they have become familiar to you, and you can do 2-3 verses each day.

For those who are not trained in the languages, detailed study can still be done. Compare translations (different approaches is good: so NAS and NLT or NKJV and GW make good combinations). Where they differ, there is probably something going on in the text that needs more attention. As you study, notice structural words (connectors like “therefore” [Romans 12:1] or repetiton of patterns [Ps. 42:5, 11; 43:5]). Can these patterns help us understand the thought progression of the author, etc.?

Attend Bible studies that the pastor leads. Ask your pastor questions (Acts 17:11). If he doesn’t know, then ask him if he could help you research the text.

Are all conferences to be avoided?

Not at all. I think pastor conferences within a church body can be very beneficial. In The AALC we have an annual Fall Pastors’ Conference that has become a refreshing, enjoyable, and helpful environment for my service in the congregation.

My plea (for myself, first) is that I examine the purpose of any conference. Will this help me in my service in the congregation? Or will it direct my attention elsewhere? Sadly some conferences do that. So I have declined to attend.

Finally I ask: Am I called by God to serve as conference speaker? Is this more important than my call as a pastor to a congregation? Then look at where am I in serving a congregation. Will speaking at this conference also assist me,a s well as others in serving God’s people?

Finally, the really personal questions: Do I crave the applause of the “audience”? Am I in a popularity contest? Who has the largest audience? Who is receiving attention? Is my ego being stroked by the accolades?

Again, the questions are mine—and they have revealed much about my own heart. This has been a long process and rethinking issues, and stopping to consider what I found so “fashionable” at the time that I wanted to pursue it. In repentance I seek God’s mercy. Not for others, but for myself.

I have directed this series of questions at myself since the mid 1990s. In discussions with other pastors, I have found they too have had concerns but didn’t quite know how to address the topic. Thus, my post is for my benefit, my friends’ benefit, and anyone else struggling with the pressure to “be at this conference!”

I am slowly recovering from conference-itis. It is freeing to do so.

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Lectionary, Liturgy, Preaching

Over the past three years several pastors and congregations have expressed interest in my use of the Narrative Lectionary. This post gives some background on reasons for using, and the challenges and delights of using it.

Introduction

My life has been lived with the liturgy and the lectionaries (systems of Bible readings selected for each Sunday in the year). Growing up in the 1950s and 1960s I worshiped in a church that used The Lutheran Hymnal (TLH, 1941) and the one year lectionary.

One Year Lectionary sample from CPH
One Year Lectionary sample from CPH

The 1970s were a time of transition (I was in the Navy). By 1982 when I began seminary and began preaching every third weekend, I was introduced to Lutheran Worship (LW, 1982) and the three year lectionary. That has been my worship life—until 2012. It was in January of that year that my lectionary life changed.

Exploring Options

I began serving my current congregation (in southern California) in August 2011. It didn’t take long to discover that this area was not the typical Midwest, church-life saturated community. The unchurched rate of the area is about 98%, and many who were coming into the church had little to no background in the Bible and Bible history.

In late 2011 I was preparing the Epiphany season (2012) readings and sermons. It dawned on me that the sequence of the readings would not necessarily connect to people. Here are the OT readings for that time period with the Sunday, and then the general time period of each reading:

Epiphany 1 Is 42:1–7 (7th century BC)
Epiphany 2 1 Sam 3:1–10 (12th century BC)
Epiphany 3 Jonah 3:1–5, 10 (8th century)
Epiphany 4 Deut 18:15–20 (15th century BC)
Epiphany 5 Is 40:21–31 (7th century BC)
Epiphany 6 2 Ki 5:1–14 10th century BC)
Epiphany 7 2 Ki 2:1–12 (10th century BC)

Granted, the Gospel readings are in sequence for Mark’s Gospel during that time frame. But if preaching on the Old Testament during that season, then the out-of-order sequence becomes not only noticeable but confusing. And throughout the year, the Gospel readings are not consistent in terms of sequence.

I considered alternative lectionaries such as: the Eisenach Selections, the Thomasius Selections, the Synodical Conference Selections (1912), and the Soll Selections. (Sermon Texts. Ernst Wendland, Editor. (Milwaukee: Northwestern Publishing House, 1984) The Soll Selections is unique in that it offers two Gospel readings for each Sunday. Each of these offer variations of the standard lectionaries, and each might be worth examining for lectionary use. But they still have the same problem with out-of-sequence readings particularly in the Old Testament.

It was at that point that I wondered whether there was something more helpful for our congregation. In my exploration I came across something called the Narrative Lectionary (NL). On the web site, the NL was introduced this way: “The narrative lectionary is a four-year cycle of readings. On the Sundays from September through May each year the texts follow the sweep of the biblical story, from Creation through the early Christian church.”

Why the Narrative Lectionary?

The NL seemed to be a possible answer to the dilemma I noted in the other lectionaries. So why the Narrative Lectionary? The short answer is simply: Because knowledge of the biblical story is crucial to a maturing Christian faith. But most Christian preaching assumes that worshipers already know the basic biblical story—and thus most Christian preaching does not seek to equip people to know the biblical story. The NL seeks to be one part of an approach that seeks to equip people to know God’s story—to discover God’s story and to find in that story the love of God in Christ for all, especially the reader/hearer.

Premise of Narrative Lectionary

A lectionary is a set of readings from the Bible for each Sunday of the church year. Lectionaries have been used since the time of the early church. Most, if not all, Lutheran congregations have been using either the one year lectionary or a three year lectionary. These lectionaries cover quite a bit of the Bible. However, most, if not all lectionaries used over the past 1600 years assumed a church and Bible knowledge. What happens if most people coming into the church have no such background? The NL is an experiment to help congregations with that very question.

The NL is a four year series of Scripture readings for Christian worship, which moves through the overarching biblical story in a nine-month period. The series starts in September and ends in May. The summer allows a variety of topical preaching, or even sections of the readings not covered during the year. At the same time, the narrative lectionary respects the traditional Christian church year, with its principal festivals and seasons — Advent, Christmas, Lent, Easter, and Pentecost.

Fall: NL moves chronologically through the Old Testament story—beginning in Genesis around the start of September and culminating with the promise of the Messiah during December (Advent).

Winter: NL moves in order through one Gospel—tracing the story of Jesus in canonical order from birth, through ministry, passion, and culminating with the story of the resurrection at Easter. There are four years to the cycle, so NL covers all four Gospels. Thus, year 4 focuses on the Gospel According to John. In other lectionaries, John is relegated to a few readings to fill in gaps in Mark.

Spring: NL engages part of the story of the early church, as told in Acts and other New Testament writings.

Summer: This is not provided by the developers of the Narrative Lectionary. So pastors have some options. One summer I preached on additional texts in the Gospel for that year. Another summer I preached on two short New Testament books.

What makes the Narrative Lectionary different?

This lectionary is not simply a series of stories; rather, it is a series of stories that provide an understanding of and appreciation for the broader biblical story. The NL differs from other lectionaries in several ways.

1. The NL seeks to tell the biblical story in historical sequence that is also in basic canonical order, in a nine-month cycle. It moves rapidly through the biblical narrative, in canonical order. The Old Testament segment covers the sweep of history in 16 weeks. Thus, with four years, the theme for the 16 weeks remains the same, but readings vary within that theme. Let’s look at Week 1, with the Creation theme:

Year 1 (Matthew) Gen 6:16-22; 9:8-15
Year 2 (Mark) Gen 2:4b-25
Year 3 (Luke) Gen 2:4b-7, 15-17; 3:1-8
Year 4 (John) Gen 1:1-2:4a

Thus, the Creation theme is explored in four ways. Week 2 focuses on Abraham, Week 3 on Jacob and Joseph, etc.

2. By the very nature of NL, the primary focus is on narrative passages. The exceptions would be prophetic writings toward the end of the Old Testament segment.

3. The NL focuses on one reading each week. While only one reading is provided, we have three readings plus a Psalm (see below, Filling the Gaps), but the main reading and sermon will focus on that pivotal text provided in the basic structure NL.

4. Because the NL is shaped this way, one concern had been the church calendar. Thankfully the basic church calendar is not abandoned — the birth of Christ Jesus is still celebrated at Christmas, the resurrection of Christ is still celebrated at Easter. The time of Advent is kept by focusing on the promise of the Messiah. Appropriate readings have been chosen for church commemorations, such as Reformation, All Saints, Ash Wednesday, and Holy Week.

Filling Gaps in NL

As I began seriously exploring the Narrative Lectionary, I noticed some gaps in what was provided on the web site. Is one reading sufficient for a liturgical, lectionary program? I didn’t think so. Likewise, there was no support work that would complement the liturgical text. Thus, about six months prior to beginning the NL, I spent time filling those gaps.

One reading per Sunday provided

Filling the first gap, the use of only one reading per Sunday, required considerable time to go through each week and supplement the one main reading with the “missing readings.” The year we began in the congregation was actually year 3 in the NL cycle. So for the first Sunday in September the Old Testament reading (theme: Creation) was Genesis 2:4b-7, 15-17; 3:1-8. I added the Psalm, Epistle, and Gospel readings (Psalm 130, Romans 5:12–19, Luke 11:1–4) that fit with that theme. (Sample is not complete, but for illustration purposes)Screen Shot 2016-01-18 at 10.45.42

I have done that for every Sunday since September 9, 2012. I usually plan these at least six months ahead. For instance, I completed the post-Easter readings through the end of August about February 1. So I have years 3 and 4 completed. As we begin year 1 in the fall of 2014, I have already prepared several of those additional readings.

Is it a lot of work? Yes. But there is an added benefit to me as pastor. I find that it helps me in long term planning, as well as preparation for each Sunday. Even more, I knew the full set of texts so well, because I had read every reading several times to make sure they fit together for each Sunday. On occasion as part of my sermon preparation I have added or changed a reading in the week or two prior to the actual reading.

Prayer of the Day

I should note that the Narrative Lectionary website now offers Prayers of the Day to match the NL. However, when I began I did not find any of the prayers. Therefore, because the Sunday themes in NL did not match the one year or three year series, I began writing a Prayer of the Day for each Sunday to match that specific theme. That was a challenge for me, but I plunged ahead. Early in the process of preparing for introduction of the LN, Pastor Hank Simon (LCMS) contacted me about using the NL. In the conversation, we agreed that I would supply him with the additional readings, and we would share writing the Prayer of the Day for each. What a blessing he has been in this specific phase of NL implementation. My prayer writing (and prayer life) has been enriched because of his thoughtful, clear, appropriate prayers. Our congregation has been blessed by his work as well.Screen Shot 2016-01-18 at 10.46.33

In our congregation we have one person who has been a prayer partner. This last fall I asked the person to consider helping me write some of the prayers. The person agreed and has written one quarter’s worth of prayers. I proof-read each prayer, making suggestions, but leaving the general thrust of the prayer in place. This has been of great benefit to me, the congregation, and this person. As we finish the full four year cycle in in the spring of 2016 (we started with year 3), we may revise some of the early prayers. In that case, we now have three other individuals in the congregation who have demonstrated a deep prayer life and who love to write. My goal would be to incorporate them into the reviews and rewritings of the prayers.

Introducing NL

Serving as a pastor over the years I have been aware of the importance of preparing a congregation for any change in worship. Depending on the changes, it might take a few weeks or a few months to prepare. In the case of the NL, I looked at six months as the time necessary to implement the transition to using NL.

The first step of preparation was to go to the Elders and then the Church Council and explain the use of lectionaries, and the most common lectionaries in use (three year and one year). In these two meetings I helped the leaders realize the gaps in our peoples’ knowledge of the overall Biblical history, and then the difficulties of the reading sequences in the three year and one year lectionaries filling that gap. The entire leadership, Elders and Council, were 100% committed to moving toward using the Narrative Lectionary. It was at this same time I began preparing the additional texts to be included each week.

In the three months prior to beginning the NL I would include a bulletin insert that explained the purpose of the NL and its application in our congregation. At regular intervals during the summer I announced the NL that would begin the Sunday after Labor Day. During the last month we included a bulletin insert with the Fall themes for each Sunday.

Introductory Powerpoint for NL
Introductory Powerpoint for NL

The first Sunday I introduced the topics by means of a timeline (on Powerpoint). Each week I added a new theme. That way the worshipers had a reference to previous weeks’ themes. Again the purpose was to give that unfolding salvation history according to a basic timeline. This visual orientation was more critical in the Old Testament segment, given the vast time periods covered and the multiple Old Testaments books used. In the Gospel segment (Christmas to Easter), each week’s reading came from the Gospel, strictly in canonical order, although not every passage of every Gospel was covered. If the Epistles were used as the primary teaching, then a simple New Testament timeline could be used.

Complementary Resources

As I considered using the Narrative Lectionary, I realized that it could only be part of the solution to providing a Biblical framework for understanding the texts. Back in 1989 I was one of the 70 pastors who introduced LifeLight into the LCMS. About the same time I was developing similar Bible studies for my own congregations. By 1991 I had completed development of an 11 week Old Testament Survey class and an 11 week New Testament Survey class. I have taught these in several congregations over the years. So I decided to use these study guides to complement the NL.Screen Shot 2016-01-18 at 10.50.32

The same week we began using the NL, we began the Old Testament Survey class. I taught it on Wednesday and Thursday evenings and Saturday morning. Although I had not checked how the Survey course would match the NL readings, as it turned out, the sequence fit very well together. Although the Survey course finished the week before Thanksgiving, it was a blessing for all who participated. The combination of the Survey and NL gave the needed historical and canonical framework for better understanding.

Screen Shot 2016-01-18 at 10.50.54

After Christmas I began two sessions of the New Testament Survey. The correlation with NL wasn’t as tight as the Old Testament because the Survey covered all the New Testament, whereas the NL covered only the Gospel According to Luke. Nevertheless, the Survey was useful for all participants.
I plan to offer the two survey classes about every third or fourth year. This will catch up new people in the congregation and provide a useful review for those who have taken the courses in prior years.

Reflections on Narrative Lectionary

After 3 ½ years of using the NL, my overall assessment is that it is well worth exploring for any pastor or congregation. For congregations, I definitely think it offers people new to the Christian faith a good framework for following the Biblical story; this is particularly important in the fall season with 16 weeks with the Old Testament themes. And for those who have been Christian for years, this is either a good review for them, or even the first time they have been able to follow the Biblical narrative.

For preaching purposes, I especially liked the opportunity to preach through John’s Gospel. The one year and three year series offer relatively few pericopes from John. Because most of John’s Gospel is “new” for preaching, it allowed me to explore the Gospel in a refreshing way. In the Synoptic Gospels the introductions tied together the historical sequences leading up to the current text. But for John’s Gospel my introductions each week focused more on relating the thematic structure of the Gospel to the current pericope.

To me, the use of four readings (OT, Psalm, Epistle, and Gospel) in a liturgical service is strongly recommended. I was disappointed that NL did not really offer anything for that aside from one or two verses in the Gospels to correspond to the Old Testament readings. My initial thought was I can choose additional readings as I go forward. That sounded nice at the beginning, but once I got into the use of NL, at times I was a little overwhelmed (timewise, as I have another position besides pastor) with choosing additional readings. I should note, too, that because of the length of a few readings, I have on occasion omitted either the Old Testament (non-fall period) or the Epistle reading. This happens only about once or twice in a quarter’s worth of pericopes.

Over the past 25 years I have always worked out a grid for planning sermons at least three months ahead. This is even more crucial for the NL. So, it is now April and I am beginning to add readings for the Fall season, Year 1. At the same time, I have benefited from this detail work of finding readings. Once I finish Years 1 and 2 I will have four readings for all four years of the NL. That will make the next cycle easier for planning and preparation. So also with the Prayers of the Day.

One thing that I will pursue in the coming years is to perhaps reach out to other pastors who use NL. I would like to connect with them, perhaps meeting once a month for an exegetical and homiletical exchange and discussion. Since I teach seminary classes using live video, that might be an appropriate venue. The closest Lutheran church is about 50 miles away, so face-to-face meetings would not be practical. But I do think this would benefit me as well as the other pastors.

In summary I find the switch to and the use of Narrative Lectionary to be a very positive benefit to me and to the congregation. At the same time, I have gained an even greater appreciation for the historic one-year lectionary and for the three-year lectionary.

As for the future, I am looking at what to do this summer. Do we continue the Narrative Lectionary? Or do we use the one year lectionary or the three year lectionary? I will decide by Easter 2016.

Seminary Update

Longer PerspectiveALTSlogo

The start of a new year is a good time to step back and look at American Lutheran Theological Seminary (ALTS). More importantly we look forward to further strengthening and expanding of our seminary.

We are blessed to have two routes for pastoral service in our church body. One is the the on-campus route and the other is online. Each route offers excellent opportunities for preparing men to serve as pastors; these routes are not contradictory but complementary, each with its own strengths.

On Campus

Through our arrangements with the LCMS, our students have the privilege of studying on campus at Concordia Theological Seminary, Fort Wayne, IN (and Concordia Seminary, St Louis, MO). The students gain the benefit of top notch professors, they also study in an environment with daily worship and daily dialog with other students.

The first two years are on campus with some participation in a local congregation. The third year the student, now called a vicar, serves full time in one of our congregations. The fourth year the student returns to campus to complete the Master of Divinity degree.

Online

Over the past five years we have developed an online curriculum for the Master of Theological Studies. At the 2014 Convention the program was approved as an accepted route for appropriate pastoral training leading to service as pastors in The AALC. The students also have the opportunity for continuing service to congregations as part of their pastoral formation.

While there are differences between the programs, there is significant overlap of study. Each approach has distinct advantages for training pastors.

Current Status

On Campus Status: We currently do not have any students on campus; but we have two candidates for probable enrollment in Fall 2016. If you know of men who might be interested in seminary, please have them contact me.

Online Status: For Winter Quarter we have 22 men enrolled in the pastoral track, three women desiring theological education for service apart from the pastoral office, and two lay leaders. We currently have six professors teaching theology and another teaching Greek. With this approach, we hope to offer every online class at least every other year, and possibly more often.

Book Review: On Edge

Kansiewicz, Kristen, On Edge: Mental Illness in the Christian Context. 2014

[Note: This is the longest book review I have written, but the topics are critical and the discussion is important for the church.]

If someone is looking for the definitive guide and be-all-end-all book on this important topic, this book is not it (I don’t think such a book exists). But if you are exploring this topic, then this book serves as an excellent starting point in the discussion.

I have a personal interest in the topic. I have battled depression for a long time, and I have an immediate family member who has been diagnosed bipolar since 1987; little to no help for us, on the spiritual side of things. When I experienced the worst years of depression, the church had really nothing to address it for pastors or congregations. In the past 15 years that situation is beginning to change for the better. And I have a professional interest as a pastor of a congregation and as seminary professor teaching future pastors. Thus, I am looking for ways to equip them to be aware of developments in mental health issues.

My approach is to go through the book, chapter-by-chapter, and offer thoughts.

Part 1: Foundational Concepts: Understanding Mental Illness in the Church

Chapter 1: The Church and the Mental Health Revolution

Having grown up in the 1950s through mid 1960s, “mental health” was never discussed. In our family, to admit a problem such as that was an admission of weakness and failure. I remember how some WWI and WWII veterans struggled because they suffered PTSD (before it was recognized as such). They were ostracized, told to “get over it,” etc. As for mental illness in the broadest terms, the colloquial phrase was “they are nuts” and they needed to be confined. Yeah, there wasn’t any recognition of the problems, and if they were recognized, it was to be swept under the carpet to avoid facing it (in someone else).

When I served in the Navy (intelligence office) I came under the influence of a chaplain who was wholeheartedly supportive of Jay Adams and his approach to such issues (p. 10 ff.), namely that anything that could not be detected by medical tests was only the result of sin. I went through Seminary 1982-86, and that seemed to be somewhat the accepted stance (I’m sure that I missed some nuances in seminary training on this). During that decade my battle with depression began to surface. But I had no framework to deal with it.

As I began to serve in a congregation, it became apparent that such a simplistic division of problems was not matching what I saw. I ministered to people whose loved ones had committed suicide. They were looking for answers, and while I ministered and cared for them, I also realized I was not prepared for the more complex reality.

Kansiewicz describes the history (and my own journey) when she writes:

Average church attendees, who are likely unaware of this historical debate with the church about how to respond to mental illness and emotional problems, may find themselves caught in the crosshairs. In his book Grace for the Afflicted, Matthew Stanford shares his surprise and dismay in encountering Christians who did not believe mental illness—in this case depression—could happen to “true” Christians… In the American church culture, many have been taught that emotional problems are only a spiritual issue. (pp. 11-12)

The typical pastor seems to have followed my own path, giving some help, but not really understanding some of the inter connectedness of mental health and Christian care.

Kansiewicz offers the Church Therapy model, “a professionally trained, licensed Christian counselor works on a church staff alongside and in conjunction with the pastors” (p. 13). While I see the advantages of such an approach, it is not realistic in most parts of the US (let alone other cultures). I serve a congregation in an area in which the nearest hospital is 50 miles away. We have one doctor at a clinic, so only basic medical care is available, let alone a Christian counselor. So while I agree with the concept, I think a broader approach needs to be taken if the majority of congregations and pastors can be helped.

Chapter 2: Is Mental Illness Real?

The author notes that great strides have been made in science, and it is beginning to influence how to treat some mental illness. A simple blood test or brain scan cannot be used to accurately deal with mental illness, leaving only observation as a starting point medically. “However, because we have not yet developed objective measures, doctors and counselors are currently forced to rely on their observations of mood and behavior.” (p. 18)

Kansiewicz offers an accurate assessment of where we are as Christians: “Because of that in-between place of embracing the kingdom of God while we wait for it to be fully realized with Christ’s return, we fall victim to disease like the rest of humanity.” (p. 18) Accordingly, she notes “The church must be a place where hope resides, where love endures, and where emotional safety flourishes, for it is Christ alone who offers a way out of our present suffering. Christ alone will walk alongside us as One who has also suffered.” (p. 19)

Although this chapter is short, it is perhaps the most important for the current state of Christians and mental illnesses.

Chapter 3: Should Christians Take Psychiatric Medicines?

This chapter hit close to home because the example offered deals with depression. When I hit bottom, a breakdown, medicine was really necessary for me. I would never have considered it, except I had no choice. My treatment also involved sessions with a psychologist (3x week for a while).

The encouragement Kansiewicz offers is that the integration of all: psychiatrist, psychologist, and medical doctor are critical. And of course, the church/pastor. “Medication is simply a tool. It is one piece of the treatment puzzle that actually works best when combined with counseling, as numerous studies have shown.” (p. 29) That balance is critical. It is good that the church is finally entering team approach to mental illness.

From now on each chapter includes a case study and then the Counselor’s Response. Very effective and helpful approach in presenting the concepts.

Chapter 4: Is Faith a Feeling?

This is an interesting chapter, examining Dave as a case study. Feelings/emotions are an important part of who we are as people. But “sometimes our feelings can not be trusted…We must cling to truth to provide stability through all of our emotional states.” (p. 37) Obviously mental illnesses can exaggerate the disparity between healthy feelings and those that do not respond to the reality of what is happening.

Perhaps the most powerful statements in the book:

Equally important to note si that feelings cannot define truth. God alone can define reality, and His word creates truth. All humans must humbly acknowledge their inability to feel and perceive truth accurately. (p. 38)

Emotions are a tool for us that can enable us to experience life and God. Beauty, interconnection, and a sense of need for a Savior are all understood through emotional senses. But this tool does not provide a definition of reality—God alone can set reality in motion. Feelings must always remain in proper alignment to the One who sets truth in order. When we find that any of our senses lead us astray, we must cling to the truth of the God who is greater than all things. (p. 39)

Part 2: Specific Mental Health Disorders

Chapter 5: The Bipolar Experience

Again, this chapter hits close to home because our son is Bipolar. Kansiewicz offers the insight that the highs and lows can be deluding, and so systems need to be in place to help with each.

The hardest part is forcing yourself to keep these systems in place at your highest high and or lowest low. When you are on a high, you will be convinced you do not need grounding. When you are in a low valley, you will wonder why you should even bother to try. (p. 47)

And that is exactly the problem our son faced, and still does 30 years later. The systems she offers are: feedback, focus on truth, and “routines of obedience to God.” In my experience with Christian members in the congregation, someone who is bipolar presents perhaps the most challenging aspect of ministry in the congregation. Certainly extra grace is needed in such ministry.

Chapter 6: Can Real Christians Be Depressed?

I have already mentioned much on this topic. One helpful observation from the author highlights this chapter:

When true clinical depression has taken over the brain, removal of one’s life stress does not remove the depression symptoms. Even those things that led to the onset of depression do not need to remain for the depression to continue. (p. 55)

For me, I discovered that there are triggers that instantly bring about memories (even unconscious) that feed depression. It took many years to recognize this problem. This chapter is well worth reading many times.

Chapter 7: How Can I Trust God When I Worry All the Time?

Until 15 years ago I had not really encountered anxiety as a problem (or at least was not aware of it). Anxiety was generally considered just another emotion, but nothing to do with mental illness. But I have ministered to people who deal with this daily.  GAD (Generalized Anxiety Disorder) is defined as “when a person worries excessively about a variety of everyday problems for at least 6 months.” Reading through the case study was helpful for me.

Often the extreme form of fear and worry leads to avoidance of activities and encounters with others. Responding to GAD requires medicine as well as psychology, and spiritual care. As the author states: “Counseling, medication, books on anxiety, prayer, and mental repetition of important biblical truths all play important roles for those with anxiety each and every day.” (p. 67)

Chapter 8: Schizophrenia: Didn’t Jesus Just Call It Demon Possession?

I am thankful the author included this chapter. Especially helpful was the six guidelines to help distinguish between schizophrenia and demon possession by Steven Waterhouse. One quote from Waterhouse: “Authors who have clinical experience both with demon possession and mental illness believe those who claim to be possessed are very likely not possessed.” (p. 78)

In 1989 I had the privilege of interviewing a world recognized authority on demon possession. He advised taking a slow approach in consultation with medical specialists before claiming a person was demon possessed. In other words the tendency among some Christian movements is to automatically assumed demon possession. Unfortunately other Christian movements deny any possibility of demon possession of a Christian. This chapter provides the pastor and congregation a good starting point for assessing someone’s condition.

Chapters 9-10 ADD and Addiction

I only note that each chapter is important, and need attention. I think addictions within the Christian church are bigger problems than we want to admit. The key in addictions is that there is often a change in the brain that makes stopping the addiction more difficult. Note that such a statement is not an excuse for sin, but that sin combined with other changes complicate the interaction of physical and spiritual connections.

Kansiewicz offers wise words:

Addictive behaviors are sinful, but they can be different than other types of sin in that they require different and more complex steps to stop. (p. 96)

Most of the time, Christians struggling with addictions were at one point in their lives facing a lot of emotional pain that they did not know how to process. (p. 97)

Professional treatment is required through either medication or therapy. Understanding the root of the addiction is also critical to treatment and relapse prevention. A professional Christian counselor can help you explore the reasons that you became addicted in the first place, and can help you create strategies for quitting. (p.99)

It is in this area that I have appreciated a Christian counselor who can provide much more than I as pastor can provide. I have referred several people to Christian counselors for addictions. But I have also continued to meet with them for spiritual elements related to addiction. That combination is essential.

Kansiewicz makes a critical observation about addictions (but also true for other mental illnesses):

Some believe, “Once an addict, always an addict.” While it may be true that relapse prevention and recovery strategies need to be a permanent part of your life, it is important not to define yourself as something you once were. God certainly did not create you to be an addict, and your sense of identity should reflect what His designs are for your life. (p. 100)

Part 3: Other Challenges: When the Christian Life Isn’t Rosy

Chapter 11: Why Do I Still Hate Myself When God Loves Me So Much?

I can readily identify with this problem as well. Kansiewicz identifies causes, which can be verbal, physical, emotional abuse, as well as many other things. However, this is the one chapter in which I think the “Counselor’s Reponse” is wrong-headed. When someone says, “I hate myself,” she offers these words:

I have never heard someone who grew up in an emotionally stable, nurturing environment with a healthy family make that bold statement.(p. 106)

Now why is it that people in that happy circumstance does (sic) not come to the conclusion one day that they just aren’t worth it? My answer: they truly know themselves. They have been told about the beauty and wonder of just being themselves. (p. 107)

You entered this world with beauty. You entered this world with potential. …Maybe if you had been encouraged rather than told to conform you could have discovered that truly unique and beautiful self. (pp. 107-8)

If you were to ask the first century Pharisees they would have had a well adjusted view of themselves, but were sinners. So, what is wrong with this approach? I think it fails on two points: 1) It contradicts several Scripture passages that state that we were born as sinners, not neutral people with potential, and 2) it takes away from the true freedom, comfort, love, joy of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

Ephesians 2:1-3 And you were dead in your trespasses and sins, in which you formerly walked according to the course of this world, according to the prince of the power of the air, of the spirit that is now working in the sons of disobedience. Among them we too all formerly lived in the lusts of our flesh, indulging the desires of the flesh and of the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, even as the rest. (NAS)

Psalm 51:5 Indeed, I was guilty when I was born; I was sinful when my mother conceived me. (HSCB)

There are many other passages that support this idea. I think part of the problem might be that in the book, sin is presented as only sinful actions and thoughts. But sin is deeper. Committing sinful actions does not make a person a sinner, rather sin causes the person to commit sinful acts and thoughts.

Romans 5:12 Therefore, just as sin entered the world through one man, and death through sin, in this way death spread to all men, because all sinned. (HCSB)

This is critical when considering how the New Testament presents the change that God works in the Gospel, namely through what Christ has done for us.

Romans 5:6-10 For while we were still helpless, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. For one will hardly die for a righteous man; though perhaps for the good man someone would dare even to die.  But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us. Much more then, having now been justified by His blood, we shall be saved from the wrath of God through Him. For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God through the death of His Son, much more, having been reconciled, we shall be savedby His life. (NAS)

Galatians 2:20 I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me; and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself up for me. (NAS)

Notice in that Romans passage, it is not the “truly well adjusted person who has a healthy esteem” that Christ died for, but for those who fall short of God’s demands, hence everyone. That is the good news, that no matter where anyone started as a sinner, Christ died for him or her, in other words, he only died for sinners, and that includes every person. And that is the worth and value of a person.

Chapter 12: How Does Christian Deal with Grief?

Chapter 14: Life or Death? When Mental Illness is Fatal

As a pastor I work with people in all stages of grief. I have found that everyone expects to recover quicker than they actually are. A doctor once told me that for every day you are down with sickness or surgery, it takes seven days to recover. So if someone is in the hospital for 7 days, it takes at least 49 days to recover. Many people laugh at that. But after surgery they discover how true that is.

So with grief, it takes time. No matter how many steps people identify, the time is non-negotiable. And here again triggers can present setback (each event in life after the loss: 1st birthday, 1st anniversary, 1st Christmas, etc.

I like how Kansiewicz adjusted the Kübler-Ross stages, especially the last one: “Acceptance with Prolonged Depression.” This is a very good chapter and offers help to the person, but also the church and pastor in continuing ministry to those who grieve.

Chapter 13: Submission or Abuse? Facing Domestic Violence

This is a topic very near to my heart. The abuse is bad enough, but the church’s often silent acceptance, or worse, indifference to those who are abused. I preached about this topic (The Silent Epidemic) about three years ago. You could hear a pin drop during the sermon.

Why do pastors and leaders as well as churches ignore this topic? Kansiewicz offered this assessment from John Shore,

Shore suggests that part of the problem may be that if you are not living in an abusive situation, it is hard to truly understand the systemic ways in which abuse festers. He also points out that abusers are very good at manipulating others, and may easily convince pastors to minimize the reality or severity of the wife’s report. (p. 129)

Do we need any more indictment of us as pastors or churches? Thankfully Kansiewicz offers several steps to move ahead in dealing with abuse. Here are a couple essential guidelines for pastors:

Pastors must also connect both abusers and victims with separate Christian counselors, and pastors should remain involved in this treatment by maintaining frequent contact with the counselors.…Pastors may be too personally involved to judge when it is or is not appropriate for a couple to reunite after an abusive situations. Christians counselors can offer a trained, objective insight into the appropriateness of reconciliation in a given situation. (p. 131)

I would modify that last sentence to “can offer a trained, more objective insight” since no one can be truly objective. But the advice? Every pastor ought to heed her words here.

Chapter 15: How Do I Talk to My Pastor About My Mental Health?

Another good chapter for advice on the one seeking help regarding mental illness. Also, a reminder for pastors to not avoid such conversations. If you don’t know the resources, then find out. Ask other pastors, visit Christian counselors to see what they recommend. Find out about psychiatrists who accept Christian pastor’s involvement.

The goal is not for the pastor to be all, serve all, but to work within a larger framework than just the local congregation. Some of these issues are far beyond out abilities, training. It is okay for us to seek out additional help and resources, for you as pastors and you as members of the congregation.

Conclusion

Excellent book that raises the right issues. I would add that Word and Sacraments as part of the liturgy become an essential environment for continued ministry to people, especially “on edge.” I found it challenging and had to read the book twice to make sure I was understanding it correctly. I recommend pastors especially, other leaders, and members in the congregation read this book. Even with my objections to the foundation of Chapter 11, this is a worthwhile resource.

Pastoral Formation 2

Last week I had the privilege of updating the convention attendees at TAALC East Region about our seminary, American Lutheran Theological Seminary (ALTS). My report included an updated status of the seminary, and especially the online program, Master of Theological Studies (MTS), as well as an update on the new database system that will support our continued growth. The other half of my report included some thoughts on Pastoral Formation, specifically related to online seminary. This is just a sketch of the topic; I am writing a more complete version for our theological journal.

When someone raises the issue of pastoral formation and seminary education, the focus always leans to the theological education. And rightly so, because a solid theological education is important for pastoral formation. In traditional terms we speak about four areas of theological education: exegetical, systematics, historical, and practical. Each area assists in providing the necessary tools, experience, and knowledge to effectively carry out pastoral duties in the congregation.

But other aspects influence Pastoral Formation. Here are four critical components in that formation: spiritual formation, character formation, catechetical formation, and Churchmanship formation.

1. Spiritual Formation

Spiritual formation involves three realms: worship, Bible reading/study, and prayer. Luther wrote about spiritual formation for all Christians as: Oratio (prayer), Meditatio (read/study), and Tentatio (affliction). This is vital for spiritual formation and growth. I leave tentatio out of this discussion at this point, only because it affects all areas of pastoral formation.

Worship: What kind of worship experiences has a seminary student had? Does he live in a congregation that has only one form of Divine Service? Where and how does the student learn about the great traditions of divine service? What can be done to help him learn not only history but also to practice that? As part of our seminary training, we examine how to best form the pastor regarding worship and leading worship. For online seminary this is a particularly challenging area.

Bible Reading/Study: In Peter’s second letter he writes about end times and the Christian in the midst of waiting for Christ’s return. His last words express this point of spiritual formation:

…but grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. (2 Peter 3:18 NAS)

It might be a surprise to some, but pastors struggle with daily Bible reading and study. They study for preparing to preach a sermon or teach a Bible study. For some that is the extent of reading/studying. But the issue of spiritual formation is “How can someone grow spiritually without regular, consistent Bible reading and study?”

When I visit with seminarians and pastors I will ask what they are reading. Some respond with the latest theological books (which can be good). My concern, however, is what are they reading in the Bible. I then say, “If I ask you what you are reading in the Bible, you should ask me what I am reading.” So, for the record, my wife and I are reading through 1 Samuel, last night it was chapter 24. In my private reading I am reading through Genesis; last night I read chapters 28-30.

Bible reading and study are the means to grow in this knowledge. Yes, many theological books can help. But they can never replace Bible reading. To do so is to stunt the seminarian’s spiritual growth. When a student learns Greek and/or Hebrew then the desire is to also read the Bible in those languages. If we are not reading God’s Word daily, regularly, then we are short circuiting God’s desire for spiritual growth. Ultimately the seminarian/pastor will have little to nothing to offer his people in sermons and teachings.

Prayer: Prayer is speaking to God. It is the human response to God speaking to us in His Word. Prayer is individual and corporate. It is often easy to get used to leading prayer in the corporate worship setting. But it can also become mechanical. The right entry phrases, the right endings, the appropriate statements of petitions.

When prayer is individual and privately with one or two other people, then the words may not come so easily. Instead prayer is the outpouring of a heart devastated by sin. Prayer reflects the struggle that we face in a sinful world. Prayer reveals our broken hearts, our desire for answers, our pleas for mercy. And many times it is joyful, but quiet contentment to praise God with hymns, songs, and spiritual songs. Prayer isn’t necessarily learned by a book, but by imitating a praying person. I have grown much in this area in the past four years because of a group of people who pray, pray, and pray. Philippians 4:6-7; Ephesians 5:18-20; 6:18-20; 1 Timothy 2:1-2; and many other Scripture texts can be used to encourage and grow in prayer.

2. Character Formation

Most people are surprised to learn that there is only one talent/gift for a pastor: “he is apt to teach.” Everything else about the formation of a pastor has to do with character. And so little is written/spoken about this. We have a seminary class, Pastoral Theology and Life, in which we explore this whole concept of character formation.

It is a trustworthy statement: if any man aspires to the office of overseer, it is a fine work he desires to do. An overseer, then, must be above reproach, the husband of one wife, temperate, prudent, respectable, hospitable, able to teach, not addicted to wine or pugnacious, but gentle, peaceable, free from the love of money. He must be one who manages his own household well, keeping his children under control with all dignity (but if a man does not know how to manage his own household, how will he take care of the church of God?), and not a new convert, so that he will not become conceited and fall into the condemnation incurred by the devil. And he must have a good reputation with those outside the church, so that he will not fall into reproach and cthe snare of the devil. (1 Timothy 3:1-7 NAS)

This is a challenge, but also an encouragement to those whose who serve as pastors. It does not mean that pastors are perfect in all of these areas. But unless he wrestles through each of these, he is only examining his life to satisfy “what can I get by with?”

Character formation affects all relationships: with God, with spouse, with children, with members, with neighbors, with outsiders. Notice how especially negatives in vv. 3-5 highlights the need for self-examination. For me, the one about “keeping his children under control with all dignity” became a four decade battle and challenge. I almost left the pastoral office three times because of that. I have known some who struggle with drugs or alcohol. In reality, every pastor fails in these areas whether in deeds or in the thoughts. As always, when we fail, we confess and seek forgiveness (1 John 1:8-9), but we also recognize that there may be further consequences.

One particular issue that affects the current state of the church is that the pastor is not to be “pugnacious, but gentle” or as one translation has it, “not a bully but gentle.” Unfortunately the internet provides a platform for bullies in the church. But even worse is a pastor who is a bully, whether on the internet or especially in his congregation in his dealings with people.

Paul provides the proper perspective on character formation, for everyone.

But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; (Galatians 5:22-23 NAS)

3. Catechetical Formation

Catechetical formation is not “how to teach the catechism.” It is much more comprehensive than that. Catechetical formation refers to the entire approach of the congregation in “growing in the grace and knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ.” Thus, it includes catechism instruction, family devotions, family and church gatherings that reflect the life of grace and mercy, shaped by proper distinction and application of Law and Gospel.

How easy it is for the pastor to be distracted from this essential task. Meetings are important, but they do not direct the congregational life. Activities are important, but they can divert energy and interest away from learning the essential truths of the Christian faith.

Catechetical formation also involves a consistency throughout congregational life. Hymns, prayers, and readings done in worship form the basis for shut-in visits, hospital visits, family crises ministry. That is the faith confessed, and expressed, in worship is not about a la-la land, but of real life, lived in the trenches as well as on the mountains. Thus, catechetical formation provides the threads that unite and emphasizes the Christian life and growth. In our seminarian curriculum we have a course, Catechesis, in which we explore the dimensions of catechetical formation.

4. Churchmanship Formation

Of all the areas mentioned, Churchmanship formation is the least mentioned or even acknowledged as important. Yet, when Churchmanship is missing, everyone suffers. So what is Churchmanship?

In church life, life can be messy for the church and for pastors. Churchmanship calls pastors and lay leaders to stand up to do what is right, whether it is popular or not. Paul gives some guidelines here:

The elders who rule well are to be considered worthy of double honor, especially those who work hard at preaching and teaching. For the Scripture says, “You shall not muzzle the ox while he is threshing,” and “The laborer is worthy of his wages.” Do not receive an accusation against an elder except on the basis of two or three witnesses. Those who continue in sin, rebuke in the presence of all, so that the rest also will be fearful of sinning. I solemnly charge you in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus and of His chosen angels, to maintain these principles without bias, doing nothing in a spirit of partiality. Do not lay hands upon anyone too hastily and thereby share responsibility for the sins of others; keep yourself free from sin. (1 Timothy 5:17-22 NAS)

Note, then, that Churchmanship is not taking charge as if you are the only one who knows what to do. It means that sometimes when the system is broken, the pastor identifies areas that need fixing, but not going on a vendetta against someone. In cases of difficult discipline, the pastor is a churchman who takes the avenue that is appropriate and consistent with the sin involved.

Churchmanship may also involve leading the congregation, the area group, or the entire church body in a way that will be difficult, challenging, frustrating but ultimately good for the body. This means that a churchman will listen to advice, seek consensus if possible, and move with deliberate yet responsible steps to achieve the goal.

Sadly, over the past four decades in church service, I have seen many examples of poor Churchmanship. When I quoted Peter above, it was a continuation of a previous thought. Now look at it in context:

You therefore, beloved, knowing this beforehand, be on your guard so that you are not carried away by the error of unprincipled men and fall from your own steadfastness, but grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. (2 Peter 3:17-18 NAS)

But sometimes, silently I have observed Churchmanship demonstrated that was outstanding, but was seldom, if ever, recognized as Churchmanship. I have had the pleasure of knowing churchmen who upheld the highest integrity and concern for the church at large. One of my professors (now deceased) in seminary was not the flashiest, but I refer to him with the accolade: “a gentleman scholar.” My hope is that in the seminary, the other professors and I can follow that path.

Dr. Curtis Leins,  Presiding Pastor of TAALC. Churchman
Dr. Curtis Leins, Presiding Pastor of TAALC. Churchman

Forgiveness for the fallen

Christ Calls to Calvary…the Fallen

This is our theme for tomorrow night’s midweek Lenten series: Christ Calls to Calvary. Tonight, Christ calls the fallen.

Now he who was betraying Him gave them a sign, saying, “Whomever I kiss, He is the one; seize Him.” Immediately Judas went to Jesus and said, “Hail, Rabbi!” and kissed Him. And Jesus said to him, “Friend, do what you have come for.” Then they came and laid hands on Jesus and seized Him. (Matthew 26:48-50)

This may be the hardest call to understand and accept. In the end it will be the most important call of all. Judas’ name has been attached to all kinds of images, stories, explanations, excuses, protests, and empathy. Judas is the one who betrays Jesus to the Jewish leaders and their guards.

Judas—was one of the twelve that Jesus called to follow him.

 Jesus summoned His twelve disciples and gave them authority over unclean spirits, to cast them out, and to heal every kind of disease and every kind of sickness. Now the names of the twelve apostles are these: The first, Simon, who is called Peter, and Andrew his brother; and James the son of Zebedee, and John his brother; Philip and Bartholomew; Thomas and Matthew the tax collector; James the son of Alphaeus, and Thaddaeus; Simon the Zealot, and Judas Iscariot, the one who betrayed Him. (Matthew 10:1-4 NAS)

Judas—sold his friend and master for some money.

Then one of the twelve, named Judas Iscariot, went to the chief priests, and said, “What are you willing to give me to betray Him to you?” And they weighed out thirty pieces of silver to him. (Matthew 26:14–15 NAS)

Judas—sat with Jesus when Jesus instituted the Supper. The Supper which continues to offer the body and blood of Jesus even today.

While they were eating, Jesus took some bread, and after a blessing, He broke it and gave it to the disciples, and said, “Take, eat; this is My body.” And when He had taken a cup and given thanks, He gave it to them, saying, “Drink from it, all of you; for this is My blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for forgiveness of sins. (Matthew 26:26–28 NAS)

Judas—tried to deny his own plot. At the supper, Jesus says that someone will betray him. Judas joins the other disciples and asks the fateful question, a question that reveals his own plotting even before the meal began:

And Judas, who was betraying Him, said, “Surely it is not I, Rabbi?” Jesus said to him, “You have said it yourself.” (Matthew 26:25 NAS)

Judas—led the group to Jesus to fulfill his “contract” with the chief priests.

Then one of the twelve, named Judas Iscariot, went to the chief priests and said, “What are you willing to give me to betray Him to you?”  (Matthew 26:14 NAS)

While He was still speaking, behold, Judas, one of the twelve, came up accompanied by a large crowd with swords and clubs, who came from the chief priests and elders of the people. (Matthew 26:47 NAS)

Judas—realized his sin, and he regretted what he had done. Instead of repenting, though, he was led to despair and ultimately his death.

Then when Judas, who had betrayed Him, saw that He had been condemned, he felt remorse and returned the thirty pieces of silver to the chief priests and elders. (Matthew 27:3)

But…

Jesus—endured the betrayal of Judas, the denials of Peter, the abandonment by the other disciples, for our betrayal, our denials, our abandonment of Jesus.

He was delivered up for our trespasses and raised for our justification. (Romans 4:25 HCSB)

Jesus—came to fulfill His heavenly Father’s perfect will.

This is good, and it pleases God our Savior, who wants everyone to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth. (1 Timothy 2:3-4 HCSB)

Jesus—came to be betrayed, by every one, including Judas—and me. He knew what waited for him, betrayal and death, death on a cross.

[Jesus said:] “Behold, the hour is at hand and the Son of Man is being betrayed into the hands of sinners.” (Matthew 26:45 NAS)

Jesus—died on the cross for the sins of every one, Judas—and me.

“For God loved the world in this way: He gave His One and Only Son, so that everyone who believes in Him will not perish but have eternal life. (John 3:16 HCSB)

Jesus—is God’s perfect amen to every promise he made—for the fallen.

For every one of God’s promises is “Yes” in Him. Therefore, the “Amen” is also spoken through Him by us for God’s glory. (2 Corinthians 1:20 HCSB)

Jesus—came for the fallen, for every person—including me. There is hope.

And this is the testimony: God has given us eternal life, and this life is in His Son. The one who has the Son has life. The one who doesn’t have the Son of God does not have life. I have written these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God, so that you may know that you have eternal life. (1 John 5:11-13 HCSB)

Jesus—has the last word, forgiveness for fallen.

PinosMtn2011

Forgiveness in the Church

How does the Church live together day in and day out? It isn’t programs, musicians, leadership, spiritual giftedness. Rather the Church lives and breathes in the environment of forgiveness. There is no short-cut, not a handy bypass to avoid dealing with sin. Ignoring sin will foster an atmosphere of approval of sin. Refusing to forgive leads to arrogance, on the one hand, and the desire to cover sins, on the other. No, dealing with sin can be done in no other way than through forgiveness. It means dealing with sin, not to “win” but to “win the brother” — that is, to restore the brother or sister to the fellowship. Thus, this process is for the purpose of restoring relationships. It means forgiving, even in the midst of a crises. It means letting God have the first word and the last word.

Forgiveness is not the same as saying, “Oh that’s okay.” No, the reality of sin is that it is destructive of people, relationships, and especially relationship with God. When we as Christians face sin, it can be unpleasant. But, forgiving sin is restorative, it is the mending of broken relationships, and it is foremost the bringing together the forgiven sinner and the God who forgives.

 

Who are you to forgive?

You will often hear something to this effect: “Only God can forgive sins.” Or “Who do you think you are to forgive sins?” But Jesus says the opposite. Tomorrow our Gospel reading is Matthew 18:15-35 (also basis for the sermon)—see below. The theme is forgiveness; namely, Jesus tells us how to deal with sin: in love confronting the person about the sin (not attacking the person). When the person repents, we forgive the person, freely, even as God has forgiven us (Ephesians 4:32).

We do not forgive on our own authority but on the authority of Jesus himself. Note in 18:18

Truly I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall have been bound in heaven; and whatever you loose on earth shall have been loosed in heaven.

In other words, the forgiving we do is done on the basis that it has already been forgiven in heaven. We are not in control, but rather declaring what God has already done.

Also he says in 18:20

“For where two or three have gathered together in My name, I am there in their midst.”

Note that 18:20 is often taken out of context and used to apply to any and every gathering of Christians—except forgiveness. However, in this context, Jesus’ promise to be there with us is in the forgiving of sins. Let’s not ignore the central aspect of the Christian life: forgiveness of sins. Let’s not downplay the role in the gathering of Christians. Let’s not pretend we are super pious by claiming “I would never dare take the authority to forgive sins.” Indeed, Jesus says the very opposite. We fail to live in Christian community when we do not confront sin (with the Law) and forgive (sin (the Gospel). And it isn’t self-appointed, it is Jesus’ description and commission of Christian living.

The text is Matthew 18:15-35 (NAS)

[Jesus said:] 15 “If your brother sins, go and show him his fault in private; if he listens to you, you have won your brother. 16 But if he does not listen to you, take one or two more with you, so that ‘by the mouth of two or three witnesses every fact may be confirmed.’ 17 If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector. 18 Truly I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall have been bound in heaven; and whatever you loose on earth shall have been loosed in heaven.

19 “Again I say to you, that if two of you agree on earth about anything that they may ask, it shall be done for them by My Father who is in heaven. 20 For where two or three have gathered together in My name, I am there in their midst.”

21 Then Peter came and said to Him, “Lord, how often shall my brother sin against me and I forgive him? Up to seven times?”

22 Jesus said to him, “I do not say to you, up to seven times, but up to seventy times seven.

23 “For this reason the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his slaves. 24 When he had begun to settle them, one who owed him ten thousand talents was brought to him. 25 But since he did not have the means to repay, his lord commanded him to be sold, along with his wife and children and all that he had, and repayment to be made.

26 “So the slave fell to the ground and prostrated himself before him, saying, ‘Have patience with me and I will repay you everything.’ 27 And the lord of that slave felt compassion and released him and forgave him the debt.

28 “But that slave went out and found one of his fellow slaves who owed him a hundred denarii; and he seized him and began to choke him, saying, ‘Pay back what you owe.’ 29 So his fellow slave fell to the ground and began to plead with him, saying, ‘Have patience with me and I will repay you.’ 30 But he was unwilling and went and threw him in prison until he should pay back what was owed. 31 So when his fellow slaves saw what had happened, they were deeply grieved and came and reported to their lord all that had happened. 32 Then summoning him, his lord said to him, ‘You wicked slave, I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me.
33 Should you not also have had mercy on your fellow slave, in the same way that I had mercy on you?’

34 “And his lord, moved with anger, handed him over to the torturers until he should repay all that was owed him. 35 My heavenly Father will also do the same to you, if each of you does not forgive his brother from your heart.”

May we live together in community based on the forgiveness of sins!