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Do They Hear Me Now? A Thought about How those in Ministry have changed (or should change)

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The Good Shepherd, carrying His own.

Devotional Thought of the Day:
1  “Let me set this before you as plainly as I can. If a person climbs over or through the fence of a sheep pen instead of going through the gate, you know he’s up to no good—a sheep rustler! 2  The shepherd walks right up to the gate. 3  The gatekeeper opens the gate to him and the sheep recognize his voice. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. 4  When he gets them all out, he leads them and they follow because they are familiar with his voice. John 10:1-4 (MSG)

404         The good shepherd does not need to fill the sheep with fear. Such behaviour befits bad rulers, and no one is very much surprised if they end up hated and alone.

I grew up in a time where, if we weren’t afraid of our priests and pastors, we were certainly intimidated by them.  They were often quite stoic, we thought they were incredible holy and pious.  In some ways, they were our role models, but we always understood we would never, ever be like them.  Their lives were a target, and maybe if we were 50-60% of who they were, we would be okay.

Sometimes though, if we didn’t behave perfectly if we missed something during the service, they were terrifying, for we believed that they could speak God’s wrath upon us, and disappointing them, (or more likely ticking them off) was no different than doing the same to God Almighty.

Now that I am a pastor, and I know many pastors and priests, I know the difference.  The best are the ones who clearly aren’t perfect, who are broken and therefore know how to minister to the broken.  They have had the dark nights of the soul ( and such texts prove this is not new to GenX/Millenials) and easily empathize with those who walk with depression and grief, who struggle with sin and with resentment.  Who is well aware that this life is hard, and know that hope and joy aren’t something we manufacture, it isn’t something we create, but it is found at the cross.  Oddly enough, it is found not only as we laugh with the people we care for, but that hope and joy, and even peace can be found as we love them enough to cry with them and as we cry for them.

As I hear people lament the death of the church in America (or Europe) I wonder if this isn’t what St. Josemaria was talking about, what both Pope Benedict and Francis talk about when they talk about pastoral care, and the work of priests and the religious.  Have we, in trying to lead our people in, in preaching about their need for God in their life, scared them off?  Have we tried to rule their lives, rather than guiding them?  Have we forced them into our boxes, whether we are read for it or not?  If we have it is no wonder that we are alone, that our voices echo in empty sanctuaries, that our words fall on deaf ears.

Jesus addresses this as well, as He teaches about shepherds. If we are shepherds rather than “ranchers”, if we guide the sheep rather than pen them in, if we walk with them, they learn our voice, and that voice is one they will respond to, knowing that we care for them. I am not saying they won’t be stubborn at times or get themselves stuck in the mud, but that they will respond.

They will recognize that we are broken people who have found their healing in Jesus, while helping them heal.  They will know God’s love, because they see it in us.  They will respond to our teaching both law and gospel, because they see how we value it.

God is with us… we need that… and they need to see it.

and they will hear Jesus, and be drawn to them.

AMEN!

(1)  Escriva, Josemaria. Furrow (Kindle Locations 1821-1823). Scepter Publishers. Kindle Edition.

Your Church Doesn’t Need to Be New to Grow.

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The Pantheon, a place once dedicated to worship of idols but reborn to host the worship of God. May our lives tell a similar story as we realize what God does to us in baptism!

Discussion Thought of the Day:
35 Jesus traveled through all the towns and villages, teaching in their synagogues, preaching the Good News about the kingdom, and healing all kinds of diseases and sicknesses. 36 When he saw the crowds, he felt sorry for them because they were hurting and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd. 37 Jesus said to his followers, “There are many people to harvest but only a few workers to help harvest them. 38 Pray to the Lord, who owns the harvest, that he will send more workers to gather his harvest.”  Matt 9:35-48  NCV.

Finally, I use these biblical, ancient roots together with insights and practices from Christian history to constitute the foundation for addressing the third issue faced by today’s church: how do you deliver the authentic faith and great wisdom of the past into the new cultural situation of the twenty-first century? The way into the future, I argue, is not an innovative new start for the church; rather, the road to the future runs through the past.
These three matters—roots, connection, and authenticity in a changing world—will help us to maintain continuity with historic Christianity as the church moves forward. I hope what I cull from the past and then translate and adapt into the present will be beneficial to your ministry in the new cultural situation of our time.

858      The first step towards bringing others to the ways of Christ is for them to see you happy and serene, sure in your advance towards God.

In my “different” (some would say twisted) experience in the church, more than once I have come across those who are focused on Church Growth.  Originally, church growth theory came from those who saw abundant numbers of conversions on the mission field, and sought to replicate it now that they were “back home”.  Now church growth is more affected by statisticians and pollsters, men who observe and make judgments based on what they see, trying to replicate what worked in Texas in Missouri, or what worked in Atlanta in San Diego and Boston.

And the cry today is not to grow the church because that doesn’t work!  The idea today is that new starts, new missions, new ideas make the greatest difference, and therefore deserve the greatest talent and the greatest money.

Churches that are forty years old or older and are in decline?  Give up on them, let them die the experts say. We’ve consulted with them, we’ve given them surveys and tests, we’ve tried to transform them, and they continue to dwindle.  Just give up on them, merge them into bigger churches, sell their properties and use it to start new churches. 

There is a greek technical term that describes such advice, taurus skubala!  Translated into English, it is easily seen as bullcrap.  ( I would type bullshit, but some people might be offended!)  

The reason the experts, the consultants fail to transform churches is simple.  They aren’t part of the community. They come in on a wing and a prayer, they don’t understand the dynamic of why God put a congregation in that place, ( see the dedication of the Solomon’s Temple for the reason) they try to create a vision where there already was a vision, where there has always been a vision.

And the community struggles to adopt its new identity. It isn’t them, it isn’t authentic, it’s an act.  And sooner or later they give it up, and give up the hope that was given to it!  They wander around like sheep without a shepherd, simply following what is in front of them, and the shepherds, tired and weary, plod on after them. 

But what if the church went back to what it treasured, and from their roots, used what they treasured in Christ and allowed Him to transform them and the world.  That was Webber’s plea, with his Ancient-Future Church series.  That is what Escriva considered the Opus Dei – the very work of God.  

We can shepherd people toward the God we know, that is our call in a new church plant or in a church that is 1700 years old.   It is the work of the 80-year-old retired pastor caring for the inner city church that can’t afford a full-time guy; it’s the work of the 26-year-old, fresh from seminary.  It is the work of the lay people, who are shepherded by their pastors and priests.  For as we do our job, the people know the happiness and serenity that is found in the presence of God.  There, in His glorious presence, they find all they need, and it is contagious. 

Bring people to Jesus, show them His way, reveal to them His love through word and sacrament.   That is how you apply the Bible to their lives.  That is how you give them hope, bring them healing, teach them to love as they are loved. 

This is what we’ve always done, though somehow we lost that in doing that.  It is the reason for the liturgy, for the praises we sing, for our homilies and sermons, for the sacraments we invite people too, knowing that they can and do experience God as they are washed and absolved and fed.  As they have always been.  Whether they realised it or not, whether we realized it or not.

As we gather tomorrow, may we shepherd the people to Jesus… may they respond as they find healing, peace and joy, and may others come to see Him as well.  AMEN!

Webber, Robert E. The Divine Embrace: Recovering the Passionate Spiritual Life. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2006. Print. Ancient-Future Series.

Escriva, Josemaria. The Forge (Kindle Locations 3040-3041). Scepter Publishers. Kindle Edition.

Backseat Conversations on the Way to Heaven.

Backseat Conversations on the Way to Heaven

Who’s Driving?
Rev. 7:9-17\

May you be blessed, as your realize the depth of God’s work in your life, evidence of His great love and affection for you!

Our Way to Heaven is like…

In my congregation, we have been working on a sermon series, a long parable of sorts.

The idea is that like our life long journey in Christ, which ends before the throne of God, is like a long family car journey.  We aren’t the drivers, rather, we are the 3 oe 4 siblings in the back seat.  That as the Holy Spirit guides us toward eternity, we sometimes act like little kids in the backseat.

The sermons have been based off of scripture, but using the idea of the conversations heard in the back seat to describe how we live together.  We journey together toward the day when we are in that vast crowd, people from every nation and family and culture.  But getting to that day can be a challenge.   Just like surviving a long drive in the back seat of my parents 1971 Dodge was a challenge.

We’ve had titles like, “get along back there” and “that’s not fair!” and of course the ever popular phrase, “are we there yet?!?”  Interestingly, they have all tied into the scripture passages on our three year cycle of readings.

Today, as we look at this incredible message from the Book of Revelation, chapter 7, the question is simple….

Who’s driving?

And the more we can realize that God is in charge of our journey, the more we see it as a blessing.  That results in a life of holiness and peace.

So let’s look at this more clearly.

Destination Heaven!

A vast crowd, too great a number to compute, from everywhere,  every time, every language, all before the throne of God, all in His clear view.  Called by Him, gathered together by Him.

What a glorious day that will be.  All the people of God.  Together.

How did they get there?  That is one of the questions asked the elder to the apostle John, in verse 13.

The answer is not a list of directions, generated by a gps device, or from google maps.  But it is how they got there…

“These are the ones who died in the great tribulation. They have washed their robes in the blood of the Lamb and made them white. 15  “That is why they stand in front of God’s throne and serve him day and night in his Temple. And he who sits on the throne will give them shelter. 16  They will never again be hungry or thirsty; they will never be scorched by the heat of the sun. 17  For the Lamb on the throne will be their Shepherd. He will lead them to springs of life-giving water. And God will wipe every tear from their eyes.”  (Verse 14b-17)

This gathering of all believers made their way there, because God led them, because God cared for them.  It is why we will find our lives in eternity as those who minister and serve God.  They are transformed, and what they have been clothed with is dazzling white.

This is what is promised in the Old Testament, in Isaiah 1:18

 “Come now, let’s settle this,” says the LORD. “Though your sins are like scarlet, I will make them as white as snow. Though they are red like crimson, I will make them as white as wool. Isa 1:18,

and in the story of the high priest representing Israel, in Zecariah,

1  Then the angel showed me Jeshua the high priest standing before the angel of the LORD. The Accuser, Satan, was there at the angel’s right hand, making accusations against Jeshua. 2  And the LORD said to Satan, “I, the LORD, reject your accusations, Satan. Yes, the LORD, who has chosen Jerusalem, rebukes you. This man is like a burning stick that has been snatched from the fire.” 3  Jeshua’s clothing was filthy as he stood there before the angel. 4  So the angel said to the others standing there, “Take off his filthy clothes.” And turning to Jeshua he said, “See, I have taken away your sins, and now I am giving you these fine new clothes.” Zechariah 3:1-4 (NLT)

We get there, to the point where we are clothed in Christ Jesus because of God’s work,  This is how the Apostle Paul says it,

26  For you are all children of God through faith in Christ Jesus. 27  And all who have been united with Christ in baptism have put on the character of Christ, like putting on new clothes. 28  There is no longer Jew or Gentile, slave or free, male and female. For you are all one in Christ Jesus. Galatians 3:26-28 (NLT)

The one people, made up of all peoples.  We are one in Christ.

So I have a question

Backseat Driving

Why do we try to be spiritual backseat gps devices?  Or as we used to say, backseat drivers.

Let me explain.  When William was little, he loved to imitate the GPS, and on occasion, try to beat it to the punch.  Trying to sound like a computer generated voice, he would give me directions.

at the next light, turn right.  Go four miles, turn left. You have arrived at your destination.  That last one was usually said when we got near a McDonalds!

He really didn’t know how to get where we were going.  For that matter, he often didn’t know where we were going.  But he wanted to give me the directions.

Sometimes we act that way with God.  Rather than trusting our Lord who came from heaven to bring us there, we tell Him the directions we want to take.

Lord, do this for me.
Lord, I think this is how it should work out.
Lord, if you don’t follow my ideas, we will get lost!
Yet like a four year old giving directions, we don’t know the way to heaven, apart from Him.

And sometimes, we might even think we are there, when it is our hungers that really speak.  You see this in the world today, it often throws aside how God has designed us to live, and people want to follow their passions.  In this world people even go so far as telling God what is good, and contradicting Him when He says what is desired is sin.

Humanity, even those in the church, often want to take over and navigate this journey of life.  They want to do this, rather than letting God guide us, letting God take care of us, letting God teach and protect us along the way.

It’s in those times, like children realizing their moms and dads probably know their way around better; that we have to remember who is taking us through life, and bringing us home.

It is then we need to come to our senses, to repent, to know we are forgiven, and listen to God’s ways.

Look at Who our Chauffer/Guide is….

In every passage of scripture where heaven is described, I love the awe that is described.  We will be shouting in heaven

“Salvation comes from our God who sits on the throne and from the Lamb!”

and not only us, all of heaven, the angels, the elders, the four living beings are in awe as well, as they sing,

 “Amen! Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and strength belong to our God forever and ever!

This is who will bring us to heaven, this is the God who has promised to bring us to a feast that is like no feast we have ever seen.

This is the God who will guide our steps, all of our steps, even as He guided each one of us to this place, even as He will guide both Passion and Concordia’s ministries in the days and years to come.

For He is God.

So let us bow before Him, recognize Him as Lord, and with confidence in His completion of what He has began in us, walk with Him, letting Him lead our way.

For there, walking with Christ, cleansed by His blood, knowing His love, we are assured of getting where He is taking us.  To see the Father, high and lifted up on the throne, surrounded by angels and elders, living creatures, and us, the people of God, from every nation and tribe and language….

Until then, we are assured by His presence, that we can dwell in His unexplainable peace. For Christ guards our hearts and minds in that peace.  AMEN?

The Task of Ministering to Others ( For pastors, priests, deacons, elders, and all who serve in the church)

Devotional Thought of the Day:The church, is always in the midst of a storm... but safe in Him

1  I, who am an elder myself, appeal to the church elders among you. I am a witness of Christ’s sufferings, and I will share in the glory that will be revealed. I appeal to you 2  to be shepherds of the flock that God gave you and to take care of it willingly, as God wants you to, and not unwillingly. Do your work, not for mere pay, but from a real desire to serve. 3  Do not try to rule over those who have been put in your care, but be examples to the flock. 4  And when the Chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the glorious crown which will never lose its brightness. 1 Peter 5:1-4 (TEV)

1  So then, my friends, because of God’s great mercy to us I appeal to you: Offer yourselves as a living sacrifice to God, dedicated to his service and pleasing to him. This is the true worship that you should offer. 2  Do not conform yourselves to the standards of this world, but let God transform you inwardly by a complete change of your mind. Then you will be able to know the will of God—what is good and is pleasing to him and is perfect. Romans 12:1-2 (TEV)

The Good Shepherd does not demand that shepherds lay down their lives for a real flock of sheep. But every spiritual shepherd must endure the loss of his bodily life for the salvation of the flock, since the spiritual good of the flock is more important that the bodily life of the shepherd, when danger threatens the salvation of the flock. This is why the Lord says: The good shepherd lays down his life, that is, his physical life, for his sheep; this he does because of his authority and love. Both, in fact, are required: that they should be ruled by him, and that he should love them. The first without the second is not enough.
Christ stands out for us as the example of this teaching: If Christ laid down his life for us, so we also ought to lay down our lives for our brothers.
From an exposition on John by Saint Thomas Aquinas, pastor   (Cap. 10, lect 3)

I received the quote from Thomas Aquinas from a friend who I have never met, yet we feel towards each other like brothers.  He is an older priest in Sicily, just about to turn 80, who still serves a parish.  With the help of google translate, we communicate as we can.

Maybe he sent this to me because of my sermon yesterday, on the passage from Romans above.  Maybe it was his reading this morning at Mass, or in his private prayer and devotional time.  I don’t know.  But on Monday, it is a good, no a very good reading for all of us who serve parishes, whether we are volunteers or paid, ordained ministers or lay ministers.  As we call our group of pastors, deacons, elders at our parish  – the diakonos, simply meaning the servants.

We are called to live sacrificially, yet, eventually we find it is not so sacrificial.  We give of our time, our talents, and our treasure (or give up the opportunity to obtain these things for our own use) to those whom we serve, those who become our children in the faith.  My friend, Fr. Giuseppe, has spent his life as a celibate priest, and yet the pictures of his parish show him with his children and grandchildren and great grandchildren in the faith.  Those pictures show a love and care for my friend that is incredible.

But still we are called to sacrifice, our all, our lives, our hearts, Paul would even have sacrificed his own soul ( if he could have) , in order that these people know Christ. In order that this is not just book knowledge, but deep intimate knowledge of His love.  The kind of knowledge that in awe leads to worship, that leads to adoration.

It’s a challenge and blessing because in sacrificing these things, we have to also give up our pride, our vanity.  We have to remember that they and we are broken people, needing Christ’s healing.   We have to be slow to anger, quick to forgive.  Quick to apologize and make things right, long-suffering and patient to guide them toward the repentance they so need.   This is the laying down our lives that Aquinas talks about – perhaps not being physically nailed to the cross, but spiritually, and emotionally, and often figuratively, as we work until we are exhausted and more.

It is an impossible task, this being examples to our flocks. Impossible save one thing.  We have a God who answers our cry for mercy, who is our example, who doesn’t lord it over us, but serves us in love.  That is why the task is all gospel, not law, because we encounter and need Christ in every moment, in every sacrifice.

May we follow the examples of those who have served before, who followed the examples of Christ.

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