The Illusion and Disillusion of the Christian Life

A sad fact of life today in many Christian churches is that the message proclaimed is confused, the pastors set the agenda and expect many people to follow—without question. But is that the Church that Jesus established? Is that the Church that Paul describes? Not at all. But the problem is not new with this latest generation of pastors, leaders, and churches.

Paul wrote to his protege, Timothy, in his second letter, these sobering, realistic, necessary words:

12 Indeed, all who desire to live godly in Christ Jesus will be persecuted. 13 But evil men and impostors will proceed from bad to worse, deceiving and being deceived. 14 You, however, continue in the things you have learned and become convinced of, knowing from whom you have learned them, 15 and that from childhood you have known the sacred writings which are able to give you the wisdom that leads to salvation through faith which is in Christ Jesus. 16 All Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness; 17 so that the man of God may be adequate, equipped for every good work. (2 Timothy 3:12–17 NAS)

The real Christian life for the one who believes in Jesus Christ and desires to lead a godly life is the expectation that you will be persecuted—even (or especially) in the church! And the church will not lack for “evil men and imposters” (v. 13). They will not be content with how God describes and desires the church to be, rather as evil men and imposters, they are not only open to deception but they will deceive so that the deterioration of the church will continue. The deceivers will mock, ridicule, and manipulate Christians who hold to the truth.

Paul lays out the path for us as Christians to follow. Notice that Paul does not give “Five easy steps to have a better marriage” nor ‘How to be successful in life” nor “Love everyone and be open to learn how to explore greater dimensions of spirituality.” Rather, Paul points them back to the basics of the Christian faith centered on Jesus Christ. That means seeing what the Bible says about sin, law, confession, forgiveness, Gospel (what Jesus Christ has done for us and still does for us), and everything that flows from it, namely 2 Tim. 3:14-15.

Tragically it is popular among many pastors to preach and teach new ways of the law “in order to be more spiritual.” “The good old way,” “fire and brimstone,” “shape up or get out” “get on the bus so you don’t miss”— That path might look inviting initially, but each leads to even greater tragedy, greater despair of failing to live according to man-made rules. And worse, they will begin to apply the Law to those already broken by sin under the law. And worse they will proclaim the Gospel to those who are secure in their sin, who have not been broken by the Law.

Paul is not encouraging or promoting “new ways,” rather what has been given in Scripture is sufficient for all time: it is “profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness” (2 Tim. 3:16). Rather than blazing new trails ahead, Paul is calling Christians back to that which was given by God centuries ago, even before the era of the New Testament.

For pastors and teachers, popularity, the latest trends, or fashion are not the solutions and never were. Nor is rewinding the calendar to a “golden age” the answer. Going back to what Scripture taught, what faithful pastors and teachers have proclaimed from Scripture, that will be revolutionary for the church today. And that will be life-saving for people and churches as they grow in faith in Jesus Christ. If pastors do not teach the Scriptures, then they need to be confronted: “reprove, correct, and train in righteousness” for the benefit of the church.

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For more on the Church: Matthew 16:13–20; 18:15–20; Acts 2, Ephesiasn 2; 4; Romans 3–8; 12; 1 Corinthians 11–12; 1 Peter; 2 Peter; 1 John

27 Years ago: Life—Death—Life

The weekend of January 31, 1993 looked to be an interesting football weekend. The Buffalo Bills would face the Dallas Cowboys. Having been an “anti-Cowboys” fan since the early 1960s, there would be no doubt who I would cheer for. That was my expectation.

But before the game ever started there was another battle that would dominate that weekend and month. I was not prepared for this battle, I felt totally overwhelmed by it. And yet…

Our older son would turn 23 just a couple months after the Super Bowl. He had been involved in drugs since 1984, spent more than a year in a psychiatric hospital before his 18th birthday, in jail/prison two different times before he turned 22. He was married at age 21, married an attorney who was an addict. Not a good mix.

The Accident: 9:30 AM

On Friday, Jan. 29, about 9:30 AM my wife received a call from an ER nurse at the closest hospital to where our son lived, about a 6-hour drive from where we lived. The nurse asked my wife a couple questions, readily acknowledging that she had reached the right people. She said “there was a serious car accident, your son and his wife were involved. We are just starting to treat them in the ER.” Then she stopped, shouted into the phone, “Oh, no! He’s gone critical, don’t leave!!” Click

Now what? We couldn’t drive 6 hours on that information. What if the concern wasn’t that bad? Or what if we would be too late to see them, even if we left now?

We immediately began calling our prayer chain at church: prayers for his life, for the surgery, for his wife, for peace in the midst of the storm.

The nurse called back about 5:30 PM and explained a little. Our son showed signs of deteriorating quickly. He had broken three ribs, punctured his lungs, had a broken clavicle, had broken his pelvis in three places. Most urgent, however, his brain began to swell. They rushed him into surgery by the neurosurgeon, who removed ½ of his skull.

At the hospital: 11:00 PM

Later that night, when we drove there, we discovered that the neurosurgeon had injured his hand and had been out for several months. This was his first day back, and his first surgery. Not the weekend we expected!

We arrived about 11 PM and began to receive the reports about his injuries before they would even let us see him. The surgeon said: “To be honest, we don’t know how this will go. But, it will be 4-6 weeks before we know whether he will live. It will be at least a year before we know how much of his motor skills he will retain. This is best case scenario.”

A slam to the gut! But he was alive, step one. And then they let us go into the critical care unit to see him. Yep, as you would expect, tubes everywhere, monitors for every part of his body, his body and head wrapped. No visible response from him at all. 

We learned from police reports that he had pulled out to cross a highway, right into the path of a car going 55 mph. The impact was right at the post where the driver’s door would open. We saw the car a couple days later. We still can’t explain how he survived. The door and frame were shoved half way across the front seat where his seat had been. I still couldn’t visualize how his body wasn’t torn apart. It was a miracle that he was even breathing.

His wife had been injured but in a different way. Her brain was suffering from “shaken brain syndrome.” Outwardly there were no broken bones, no lacerations, but the brain injury was harder for them to treat. Measurements were not in noticeable terms for us. But she was recovering slowly.

Recovery Begins

By Saturday he recognized us, and he could hold a pen and write on a note pad: “I love you” and “God loves me.” At that point that response was sufficient for us. By Sunday the doctor was able to remove the breathing tube long enough to say a couple words. Not much, but far more than we expected. In fact, that afternoon, he was able to watch a little TV and could follow the Super Bowl. Even the neurosurgeon was surprised at his progress.

He had another surgery on Tuesday, We had to leave on Wednesday, but kept in contact with the hospital and the doctor. He had another surgery on Friday to replace his skull that had been taken out initially, and another surgery the following Monday.

You have got to be kidding me!

10 days after the accident, our son was released from the hospital. The surgeon couldn’t believe the progress. We told him it was a miracle; he said he couldn’t argue with that.

But all was not well with our son. He tried walking with crutches (broken pelvis, broken ribs do not make good companions for recovering from surgery). By that next Friday he had fallen in his home and couldn’t get up. His wife was still in the hospital. So he managed to pull the telephone to himself (the days before cell phones) and called me. I immediately left, drove all the way up, got there about 11 PM, cleaned/showered him, cleaned their house, got breakfast for him, and immediately I turned around to bring him home with us.

It took him about a month living with us before he was able to do most things for himself. I took him back to his home, and he wife was released and they settled into their recovery together.

Not exactly the Super Bowl weekend I had anticipated. But we were thankful for him being alive. The road gets dark over the next 25 years, including him going missing for 18 years.

But I will always look back to this Super Bowl weekend and marvel at God’s surprising (to us!) goodness to our son and his wife. No, not what we expected. But isn’t that life in this world, even with God?

“Can’t even walk…”

The wear and tear of life can be a big burden. For many of us this relates to the challenges of quarantine and attendant problems. But for some the weariness and burden is much bigger, preceding the pandemic. It encompasses more than the threat of the disease, more than being saturated with headlines that dominate the media, especially social media.

As I have faced some challenges of getting older, I have also experienced multiple physical injuries that are invisible to most people. This goes back at least to 2013. The physical pain may pass but the effects linger, unseen, and many times unfelt. The major problem is the accumulative effect of multiple problems. And that can be mentally and emotionally overwhelming.

Living in the era of the quaratine and all that such entails means that we have new normal for life. It is complicated when some “prescriptions” to solve problems may actually interfer with other problems. Many Christians want to offer the solution, but it ends up often just pushing what you can do to overcome. Long term this can lead to exhaustion: physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually.

Jamie Lynn Wilsom recorded a song (written by Colbert and Joyce Croft in 1975) seven years ago that expresses this exhaustion:

Even to walk is a challenge at times like this. But as she expresses it in song, it doesn’t end with “I can’t even walk…” But “I can’t even walk without God leading, holding my hand.”

So while the overwhelming nature of our times might be too much, the answer is not to “push through,” as if we have the strength to conquer everything. Rather “I can’t even walk without You holding my hand.”

This brings to mind Psalm 91, which I wrote about in 1985 while in seminary. The last three verses articulate the faith that clings, not to our strength, but to God’s promises, even in the worst of times.

So as we move forward this year and coming years, let us find strength, hope, and encouragement in God’s Word in the promises of Psalm 91.

Reflections on Changes

This month marks many changes and new avenues of life. I am retiring effective September 1, 2020, and I have submitted my resignation to the congregation. In many ways, this is a difficult change, especially emotionally. But that has more to do with many other things happening in my life, not in the church. 

From a physical perspective, this is necessary. I have endured several injuries over the past five years, each causing both pain and more limited activity. Because a couple of these accidents have involved hits to my head, I have noticed gaps in my thinking. So it is time for my body to not be under the stress.

Overall, I have been tired for several years, and it shows. Spiritually much has been happening (much of it good), but the tiredness has affected me in this realm as well. I have been working non stop since I was five years old, beginning with hand planting field corn on 5 acres. Cutting wood for furnace in MN winters, baling hay and selling excess, snow plowing for years. Yeah, I’m tired.

So what is next? We will be moving out of California soon (no specifics yet). I have many books I plan to read. And I will be writing reviews on them as that happens. I will still teach in our seminary as requested. I will still serve on the Clergy Commission, and occasionally provide pulpit supply as requested.

Truth be told, I am looking forward to the change. I am ready for it, spiritually, emotionally, physically.

I am thankful for all the wonderful people I have served over the past 35 years. Grateful for the fellowship, help, and listening ear. 

Appropriate retirement quotes

 Retirement isn’t the end of the road, but just a turn in the road.

Retire from your job, but never retire your mind

The best part about being retired is never having to request time off.

Thanks everyone. We are now preparing our 29th move (for real).

From a certain point of view

1 LORD, my heart is not haughty,
Nor my eyes lofty.
Neither do I concern myself with great matters,
Nor with things too profound for me.

Surely I have calmed and quieted my soul,
Like a weaned child with his mother;
Like a weaned child is my soul within me.

O Israel, hope in the LORD
From this time forth and forever.
(Psalm 131 NKJV)

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Such a critical Psalm for times like these. But here is the problem, at least for me. I tend to reverse vs. 1 and 2… like this:

LORD, my heart is indeed haughty (proud)
My eyes look for everything in lofty places
I concern myself with great matters
and with things too profound for me.

Surely I have agitated and disturbed my soul,
Like an angry brat with his mother,
Like a self-absorbed child is my soul within me

And then I have the audacity to demand that God fix everything for me. Left unchecked I want my way to continue forever.

But God loves us too much. God draws us back to reality. We need someone like Eliphaz to get things right with God.

“Behold, happy is the man whom God corrects;
Therefore do not despise the chastening of the Almighty.
For He bruises, but He binds up;
He wounds, but His hands make whole. (Job 5:17–18 NKJV)

God challenges my arrogance, my self-centeredness, my myopic perspective. In other words, He speaks Law to my sin. As much as I want to run away or hide I cannot do so with God. And that is a good thing. Because when His Law has done it’s work, God speaks Gospel. Gospel not focused on my works, my words, my thoughts, my intentions. Gospel is entirely God’s words, actions, work (extra nos = “outside of us”).

God says: “You sins are forgiven.” “You are now righteous.”

And in those words is where my hope lies. May that be true for you as well. Now we can speak and believe Psalm 131 with a heart that has been renewed, refreshed, recreated God. O Israel, hope in the LORD from this time forth and forever.

And now we can finish Psalm 131

God remembered…

23 Then the children of Israel groaned because of the bondage, and they cried out; and their cry came up to God because of the bondage. 24 So God heard their groaning, and God remembered His covenant with Abraham, with Isaac, and with Jacob. (Exodus 2:23–24 NKJV)

In daily reading today, these two verses stand out. In the midst of the Israelites groaning because of the bondage, “God heard and remembered.”

Not as if God forgot where they were living and what they experienced. Rather, He remembered the covenant He had made, and was about to act to bring about a change for the Israelites, namely deliverance.
Sometimes we, too, groan because of our circumstances, almost thinking God has forgotten about us. Not so. God is still here, with us, hearing and knowing our plight. And God remembers and will act on that. May we re-learn to trust that God remembers His commitment to us.

My great-grandparents

My great-grandparents on my mother’s side were married Sept. 29, 1901. Jennie Smith and Joseph Brown, and this is their weeding photo.

Joseph Brown and Jenny Smith wedding, June 29, 1900.

Frank Smith (brother of Jennie) was best man, and Julia Brown (sister of Joseph) was maid of honor.

They had 11 children, then Jennie and the 12th baby died. Joseph then married his second wife (Emma Marie Racine Cook Franks). Emma had one son from her first husband and two sons from the second husband. Then Jospeh and Emma had two sons of their own. My mother was close to both of these sons because she was born between them. I had met both sons.

Sadly as much as my grandmother loved Emma, Emma died in 1930 giving birth to another child (child also died). Measles hit the family in 1931 and so my grandmother, my mother (age 4), and uncle(age 6) moved into the Smith home. My grandmother (who had just turned 21) cared for her two children, plus all the others who were sick in the household, with as many as six people sick at the same time. Only two of the entire household never got sick: my grandmother and my uncle.

Joseph and Jenny Brown with 8 oldest children.

In the photo above is Joe and Jennie with eight of their children. My grandmother is the girl standing on the left. She died in 1984. Sadly both my great-grandparents died before I was born. But my mother wrote about some of the episodes of their lives. I met all of the great-aunts and great-uncles. Pictured above are the eight oldest, and three youngest pictured below. All of them died decades ago.

 

 

“A Liturgical kind of guy”

Still relevant today

“believe, teach, and confess”

On another blog, I was asked what liturgy means. I posted a short response there, and repeat it here (slightly edited) because I think it is crucial for us as Lutherans to state where we stand on this issue.

Liturgy = informally described as what is done in a worship service. Even non-denominational churches that claim to be non-liturgical have liturgy. It is just what you do repeatedly service after service. I taught 10 years ago at a Bible college run by charismatics, held at a cutting edge charismatic church. For the worship class, I asked the class members to notice carefully what happened during each service. They were astounded to discover that they were much more rigid in what happened during their service than what is often caricatured as a conservative Lutheran service.

As Lutherans, we specifically state that the proper term for what happens is Gottes Dienst (“divine…

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Memory from US Navy

While deployed on USS Oriskany in 1975-6, we had several crashes. This video shows two. The first is an RF-8G (VFP-63 Det 4), my detachment. He had lost one of the main struts on first pass. He was given option to fly around dumping fuel and then ejecting for at-sea rescue, or have the barricade rigged and fly into it. He chose the latter. Uninjured. I was in my office right under the #4 wire. Instead of the usual crush of a landing, all I heard was “tinkle, tinkle, tinkle” from the landing gear sliding down the deck. Immediately ran to ready room to watch the camera.

The second plane was an A-7 on same cruise. Commander of one of the A-7 squadrons was flying. He was coming in too low hit the ramp and exploded. The plane was a fireball, slide down the deck. As it began to tip, he ejected, with one swing of the chute. Uninjured.

In the squadron (F-8 training and 5 detachments) we had 11 pilots who were killed in crashes during the 3+ year period.

48 years ago today

48 years ago today, this happened in northern MN. Hi temp 10°, low temp -40° overnight. To the love of my life.

*And yes, color photography was invented by then.

Wedding: February 20, 1971.

The rest of the story….We had originally planned to marry on March 20, 1971 during quarter break from college. But the pastor refused to marry anyone during Lent. So we were married the Saturday before Ash Wednesday.