Category Archives: Articles

Article: Relevant

I attended a meeting a couple of weeks ago. That in itself is not odd, I have meetings every day. However, this meeting consisted of Lutheran pastors. We spent time talking about what is happening in our congregations. As this discussion progressed I discovered that two churches are close to closing and two other churches are a few years away from that same reality if things continue the way they have been.

Don’t ask me who or which churches, I won’t tell you. That is not for me to share without gossiping. This gave me pause because this is close to “home.” This is more than a national trend, this is local.  Then I had a second thought, “There, but for the grace of God, go I.” Some believe it is a proverb and others connect that phrase to 1Corinthians 15:10. Either way, it is a recognition that others’ misfortune could be one’s own.

In other words, no church is immune to closing and the smaller churches that have struggled are the “canary in the coal mine.” An allusion to caged canaries that miners would carry down into the mine tunnels with them. If dangerous gases such as carbon monoxide collected in the mine, the gases would kill the canary before killing the miners, thus providing a warning to exit the tunnels immediately.

What I am about to say has nothing to do with the churches vaguely mentioned above. This is a reflection on the state of the church in general… Are we relevant? Are we engaging people in a meaningful way? I am sure if you are reading this, your answer would be “yes.” After all, you belong to the church and are reading this pastor’s musings. I can’t help but wonder at times, are we a dying breed?

Ultimately, I know the answer to this question. We are not a dying breed because Jesus promised that “the gates of Hades will not overcome” the Church. In other words, the Church will endure but some churches will not. This goes back to relevance and how do we be relevant to the community and not to just to us insiders?

Briefly, I think there are two things we should be thinking about: The Holy Spirit and those around you.

People are drawn to churches where they experience or encounter God. When people encounter God in worship you may not be able to explain it, but you know that God showed up. It is the Holy Spirit of God that touches our heart when we are open to and seeking a connection with God in our worship.

On a Sunday morning, I don’t want to entertain you, I want you to experience the presence of God through the things we do at our time of worship. I don’t want you to be wowed so much as I want you to be in awe that we spent time with God when we worshipped. This has more to do with the conditions of our hearts than it does with the things we do at worship.

However, when people experience God in worship, they know it and they want others to experience that… which leads me to my second point, those around you.

Any more the people in our church is our own personal neighborhood. We might know our actual neighbors or we might not—but we do know the people we worship with. The church is the 21st century version of a neighborhood. We may never connect with our physical neighbors but we do connect with each other at church and there is always room for one more.

When I think the first two core values of Bethel (Hospitality and Christ Centered Community) it just occurred to me that that not only should we invite and welcome people from all walks of life to Bethel, but we also should invite and welcome the Holy Spirit every week into our hearts and into our worship of God. We value Christ Centered Community! Let us intentionally invite God into our worship every week the same way we welcome guests.

God bless you,
Pr. Ben

 

 

 

 

Article: How Does Lent Feel?

How does Lent feel so far? Some of you know, it is my favorite season. One of the reasons I like Lent so much is the reflective nature of these forty days. But I also really enjoy the gatherings on Wednesday evenings. Being a life-long Lutheran, I can’t remember a time that my Wednesday evenings during Lent were not spent at church. That’s been my life and I love it.

I also should also say that soup is the only meal I’ve had at a Lenten supper in my entire life. No Lenten BBQ rib nights for me. Soup is simple and it is filling, just like Lent. The journey of Lent is simple and filling.

No, I don’t give up anything for Lent, but I do add something. Time with whoever wants to gather on Wednesday night to be filled physically and spiritually.

It is the embodiment of Jesus’ teaching when he told us to love God and love people. That happens whenever gather as a church, but there is an intimacy when we gather around dinner tables and share our lives before we worship in a simple yet profound way.

When I am in the presence of Christians (and Jesus too), I am the best version of myself. Brothers and sisters in Christ bring out the best in me. The Spirit of God is always strongest when it is surrounded by others with the same Spirit.

I was just thinking about the story of the “Woman at the Well” in John 4. After her brief conversation with Jesus, she goes back into town and tells the people to come with her to meet him because, “He told me everything I have ever done.” John 4:39

I find great comfort in that sentence. Jesus knows me better than I know myself—the good, bad and ugly. Yet, he loves me more than I can possibly imagine. The woman who uttered those words realized that too, even though Jesus revealed her checkered past and present. I can imagine this woman thinking to herself, “This man knows everything about me and he doesn’t judge me.” That is good news!

Maybe that is why I resonate with Lent. As we journey toward the cross, I know that Jesus doesn’t judge me and I get to be reminded of that when I gather with my friends on Wednesdays and on Sundays.

If you haven’t come yet to a Wednesday night soup supper and worship yet, please come. You will be blessed.

God bless,
Pr. Ben

 

 

 

Article: Jesus is Extremely Clear

“And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’”- Jesus (Matthew 22:39)

“So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets.” –Jesus (Matthew 7:12)

I know that you know these verses. I also know that some of you are tired of me talking about one them. If you are one of those people, I promise you I will stop talking and writing about these verses as soon as I figure out how to do them. This may be more of a reminder to me than to you.

The first verse comes from “The Great Commandment” in Matthew 22. A teacher of the Law asked Jesus the most important teachings of the Hebrew Bible. Jesus said, “Love God and love your neighbor.”

The second verse comes from the greatest sermon ever preached, “The Sermon on the Mount.” Most Christians refer to this verse as “The Golden Rule.” I was curious as to why it is called “The Golden Rule” and I discovered that the phrase was coined by an Anglican pastor from the 1600s. The name stuck.

One might think that Jesus was originator of the verse but he was not. Variations of this phrase predate Jesus. For example, a parchment from Ancient Egypt states, “That which you hate to be done to you, do not do to another.” That parchment dates to around 600BC.

Do not let that upset you. Just because Jesus didn’t say it first doesn’t mean Jesus was plagiarizing. He affirms that these words hold spiritual truth. Clearly, God sprinkled this eternal teaching among the nations of the world at different times. Jesus affirms that this teaching reflects the heart of God.

What surprises me is that Jesus tells us (in both verses quoted above) that the entirety of the Old Testament (Hebrew Bible) can be summed up in these two verses. Jesus does not say that about any of his other teachings. Jesus gives us an early version of “Cliffs Notes!” (I may or may not have used “Cliffs Notes” once in college but never in seminary!)

Jesus tells us to treat people the way we want to be treated. That’s straightforward enough. Yet the prevailing mindset is “do unto others before they do it unto you.” That’s not what he said! Everything that the Law of Moses teaches and the prophets preached point to this reality: be good to each other- but do not let that action be dependent upon the other person. No “quid pro quo” allowed!

Just in case we didn’t understand Jesus’ intention in “The Golden Rule” he comes back to this again when he tells us we should love our neighbor as ourselves. Once again, Jesus says that this is a summary of the Law and the prophets (the Old Testament). When Jesus tells us to “love” we need to ask ourselves, “What kind of love are you talking about Jesus?” (Ask this question out loud right now.) I am glad you asked!

We only have one word for love. The ancient Greek (the New Testament was written in Greek) had four different words for love depending upon the relationship. The love mentioned here is unconditional love. The kind of love that sees beyond the outer surface and overlooks faults, blemishes and shortcomings. This kind of love is all about sacrifice as well as giving and expecting nothing in return.

That doesn’t mean we allow people to use us as a doormat or that we can’t set healthy relational boundaries. It does mean that we should be loving when we need to do such things.

Yes, unconditional love is a hard thing especially when we do not agree with a person or when their attitude and actions are less than admirable. Let us not forget that Jesus does this every day. His unconditional love is what allow us to be the children of God.

God bless,
Pr. Ben

 

 

 

 

Article: Our Lenten Journey

Yesterday we began the intentional journey toward the most important event on the Christian calendar: Easter. It is so important that we take these 40 days (minus Sundays) to prepare for Jesus’ resurrection. Every excursion has a starting point. For us, our starting point is Ash Wednesday.

Ash Wednesday has a long history within Christianity. The original name, ‘ The Day of Ashes’ comes from “Dies Cinerum” in the Roman Missal (liturgy book) and is found in the earliest existing copies of the Gregorian Sacramentary (a book used by priests for leading worship). The concept originated by the Roman Catholics somewhere in the 6th century. Though the exact origin of the day is not clear, the custom of marking the head with ashes on this day is said to have originated during the papacy of Gregory the Great (590-604).

So, it is safe to say the Christian church has been celebrating Ash Wednesday for 1400 years and Lent even longer. Although the earliest church did not celebrate Ash Wednesday, the themes of this holiday are biblical. Lent is the time to prepare for Easter through: prayer, contemplation, acts of service, fasting, repentance (change), confession and the list goes on.

Why would we do such a thing as trying to be more humble and dependent upon God? The answer comes at the end of Lent. The gift of God given at the cross and empty tomb is for sinners. The message of Good Friday and Easter morning is this: there is forgiveness, love, reconciliation and eternal life for those who are not perfect. Therefore, Lent is the time for us to come to the realization that we are sinners and have a great need for a God who would die and then come back to life.

That is why we prepare for Easter and we begin this time of introspection on Ash Wednesday. We remember that we are mortal and that we will die someday. This is most evident when the ashes are placed on our foreheads in the sign of the cross and these words are spoken, “Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return.”  We are created beings and we will die. Not very up-lifting. But these are important words if we are to realize that we have a great need for a Savior who will save us from ourselves. We don’t “kind of” need Jesus, we totally need Him.

Lent is all about being intentional about our broken nature. We are less than what God intended us to be. Now is the time to be honest about that. Rather than saying, “Hey, no one is perfect” or “I’m not that bad” instead we will spend the next 40 days examining our own brokenness so that when we arrive at the cross and then the empty tomb we will know beyond the shadow of doubt that God sees us more than dust. We are highly valued real estate in God’s eyes and not just dust in the wind.

Take this journey with me and with others because at the end you will experience the               re-LENT-less love of Jesus.

God bless,
Pr. Ben
 

Article: Actions Matter

15 “Watch out for false prophets. They come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ferocious wolves. 16 By their fruit you will recognize them. Do people pick grapes from thornbushes, or figs from thistles? 17 Likewise every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit. 18 A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, and a bad tree cannot bear good fruit. 19 Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. 20 Thus, by their fruit you will recognize them. 

21 “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. 22 Many will say to me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and in your name drive out demons and perform many miracles?’ 23 Then I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!’” (From the Sermon on the Mount- Matthew 7:15-23)

Actions matter. As much as we might want to reduce Christianity to “I have Jesus in my heart” or “I invited Jesus into heart” or just simply, “I believe in Jesus”—Jesus himself dismisses such notions. Since the protestant reformation (think Martin Luther) we have latched on to the idea of “faith alone” and we do not “earn our salvation.” Both statements are true but Jesus makes it clear that our actions must reflect what we believe.

No, I am not arguing for “works righteousness” (earning your salvation) and neither is Jesus. What Jesus is saying is this: Your faith informs your actions. If you have Jesus in your heart, that also means that Jesus is in your hands!

Jesus half-brother James affirms this in his letter when he wrote, 15 Suppose a brother or sister is without clothes and daily food. 16 If one of you says to him, “Go, I wish you well; keep warm and well fed,” but does nothing about his physical needs, what good is it? 17 In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead.” James 2:15-17

James was not advocating that our actions somehow help in our salvation at all. He was pointing out that if we have faith (in Jesus), that same faith will direct our activities in the world. In other words, our actions should be consistent with our beliefs. James is blunt in his assessment: if our actions are antithetical to our faith or just plain lacking, James questions whether or not a person like that actually has faith.

Sure, we all mess things up once in a while. James and Jesus are talking about people who claim they believe in Jesus but their lives tell a different story.

Jesus says that you will be able to recognize a person’s faith in Him by a person’s actions. The fruit of our faith is our deeds. If we see a person who claims to be a Christian and is hateful, mean, racist, and causes people harm with their words or actions most likely they are not a Christian even if they say that they are. Or as Jesus puts it they are “a wolf in sheep’s clothing” or a “thorn bush that claims to be a grapevine.” Seems kind of obvious right?

Yet we see people all the time who claim to be Christian and they say and do all sorts of things that aren’t remotely loving, compassionate or reflective of how Jesus treated people. We hesitate to say anything because these people say they are Christians and we can’t judge a person’s heart but Jesus tells us we can evaluate a person’s actions and those behaviors reflect what is in their hearts (and minds).

This is the passage of scripture that comes right before the end of the Sermon on the Mount that I preached on last Sunday. Jesus tells us that if we want to be a person of impact we should not only listen to His words but put them into practice. Faith is not an intellectual exercise. Real faith is lived out.

God bless,
Pr. Ben

 

 

Article: Spiritual Refugees

…remember that at that time you were separate from Christ, excluded from citizenship in Israel and foreigners to the covenants of the promise, without hope and without God in the world. But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far away have been brought near through the blood of Christ. 

For he himself is our peace, who has made the two one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility, by abolishing in his flesh the law with its commandments and regulations. His purpose was to create in himself one new person out of the two, thus making peace, and in this one body to reconcile both of them to God through the cross, by which he put to death their hostility. He came and preached peace to you who were far away and peace to those who were near. For through him we both have access to the Father by one Spirit. 

Consequently, you are no longer foreigners and aliens, but fellow citizens with God’s people and members of God’s household, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the chief cornerstone. In him the whole building is joined together and rises to become a holy temple in the Lord. And in him you too are being built together to become a dwelling in which God lives by his Spirit. Ephesians 4:12-22

What a beautiful thought conveyed by St. Paul in his letter to the church he started in Ephesus so many years ago. Recently my wife, Mrs. Pr. Ben (aka Rachel) read this passage to me after church one Sunday.  We were struck by the language that Paul used to describe our human condition and God’s solution to our isolation. I am sure it is not lost on you that some of these same words are being used today as our nation continues to struggle with the issues surrounding immigration.

Paul reminded the non-Jewish believers of the church he started in Ephesus were once foreigners and they did not possess citizenship within the Kingdom of God. Only the people of Israel were a part of God’s family and kingdom. Up until the time of Jesus there was an “immigration ban” on entering the Kingdom of God. There was a spiritual “barrier” even a “wall of hostility” that prevented anyone outside of Israel from drawing close to God.

Everyone who is not Jewish is a gentile. All gentiles (in Hebrew the word is “goyim”) were on the outside looking in. Even if they wanted to be Jewish, they could not. There was a spiritual barrier between God ‘s chosen people and everyone else. This caused conflict and hostility to the point that it felt like there was wall that could not be scaled.

In God’s story of humanity there were only 2 nations: Israel (the people of God) and everyone else. Essentially, the borders were closed and there was a ban on immigration. Only those born in that spiritual nation could be residents.

The problem is that God doesn’t like walls or barriers even if the people of God do. Instead of reinforcing the walls or building them higher, God did something amazing.  God tore down the wall and built a bridge. The bridge’s name was Jesus.

Instead of having a group of insiders and a group of outsiders God decided that there would only be insiders. Instead of having citizens and aliens/foreigners there would only be residents of the Kingdom of God. There was no screening to see if someone was well-intentioned because God knows that no one is worthy. Everyone was and still is welcome.

On that spring day two-thousand years ago, Jesus died on the cross so that the borders to His Kingdom may be opened to all who wish to enter.

Let us welcome those who enter His embassy (the church) seeking sanctuary and refuge. I know that when I come to church on Sunday morning, I sometimes feel like a refugee fleeing the terror of this world so that I may find a safe place to rest.

God bless,

Pr. Ben

Article: Looking Ahead

Last Sunday we had one of our two congregational meetings of the year. I talked about several things but I reflected that as a leader and as your pastor I need to be thinking about Bethel in multiple levels of time all at once.

I need to be thinking about:

  • The day-to-day operations of Bethel
  • What is happening in the coming year
  • What we should be planning for in the next 5 to 10 years

That doesn’t necessarily mean a strategic plan but it might. However, I do know that I need to be aware of long-term trends both in the church and in our society.

The importance of this hit home last night when I had the opportunity to hear John Maxwell speak. (If you don’t know John Maxwell, you are missing out. He is a pastor, author and leadership expert.) This is what John Maxwell said about any leader: “A leader must be able to see more than anyone else in the room and they must be able to see it before anyone in the room.” He also said, “If you aren’t seeing more than everyone else and before everyone else in the room, then you better get in line because you aren’t the leader but a follower.”

John Maxwell was being blunt in his assessment of leaders and leadership. This isn’t just true for pastors but for any leader in any capacity. As he continued speaking he told those listening that we should strive to be “more-more” and be “more before” (see more and see it before others). This isn’t about being the best or being in charge. This is about making sure we are prepared for the current moment and being prepared for the future.

There are many things we need to be thinking about as it pertains to the future of the church, however I want to talk about the only one I mentioned on Sunday: Invitation.

What is preventing us from having an active worshipping community of 400, 600 or even 800? Invitation. If each family in our church invited another family on the same Sunday, guess what would happen? We would double in size.

If we don’t invite, Bethel will most likely stay the same size and then slowly shrink. This is not about institutional survival. Jesus has already told us, “…on this rock (the truth of Christ) I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it.” Matthew 16:18 The Church will continue on because Jesus promised it will, but individual congregations come and go.

I believe we should invite others because we have something the world doesn’t. We have Jesus. We have joy and love. We have community and we have reconciliation. The people you know need what we have. This world is starving for these very things. Even if you feel uncomfortable talking about such things, invite them to Bethel. I promise you that I will talk about these things to anyone who will listen.

Let us be light for this dark world! Not just in this time but 100 years from now!

God bless,

Pr. Ben

 

Article: Bishop Eaton’s Press Release

Occasionally our presiding bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America releases a timely statement that addresses specific current events. This past week Presiding Bishop Eaton released a statement regarding the president’s executive order regarding the temporary ban of refugees from specific countries.

Please take the time to read this thoughtful and balanced statement. Our bishop takes the scripture seriously and I appreciate that.

Bishop Eaton’s Statement: 

January 30, 2017

Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy. Yesterday, we heard these words in the Gospel reading from Matthew 5:1-12, the beginning of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. In the Beatitudes, Jesus lays out a vision for life in God’s realm, characterized by seeing those who are often most disregarded, including the meek, the mourning and the peacemaker, as bearers of God’s blessing. Over the coming weeks, we will continue to hear this Gospel, including Jesus’ call for his disciples to be carriers of God’s light and hope and reconciliation to a world deeply in need of them.

In this spirit, earlier last week I communicated with the Trump administration asking that it not stop the U.S. refugee admissions program or stop resettlement from any country for any period of time. The Bible calls us to welcome the stranger and treat the sojourner as we would our own citizens. I agree with the importance of keeping our country secure as the administration stated in its executive order last Friday, but I am convinced that temporarily banning vulnerable refugees will not enhance our safety nor does it reflect our values as Christians. Instead, it will cause immediate harm by separating families, disrupting lives, and denying safety and hope to brothers and sisters who are already suffering.

Refugees being resettled in the United States have fled persecution because of their race, religion, nationality, political views and/or associations. They wait for years for the chance to go home. But sometimes, there is no home for them to go back to. We know from our partners at Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service (LIRS) that only 1 percent of all refugees are chosen for resettlement. 

People of faith helped start and still sustain the refugee resettlement program in the United States following World War II. As Lutherans, many of our ancestors faced the pain of having to flee their homes and the joy of being welcomed in new communities across the United States. As we have done throughout history, millions of Lutherans across the country honor our shared biblical values as well as the best of our nation’s traditions by offering refuge to those most in need. We are committed to continuing ministries of welcome that support and build communities around the country and stand firmly against any policies that result in scaling back the refugee resettlement program.

We must offer safety to people fleeing religious persecution regardless of their faith tradition. Christians and other religious minorities suffer persecution and rightly deserve protection, but including additional criteria based on religion could have discriminatory effects that would go against our nation’s fundamental values related to freedom of religion.  

I invite ELCA congregations into learning, prayer and action on behalf of those who seek refuge on our shores. The ELCA “Social Message on Immigration,” AMMPARO strategy and LIRS resources are good places to start. You can also make a donation to Lutheran Disaster Response. Those who have been part of resettling refugees or have their own immigration experience have important stories to share with their communities and testimony to make. I also encourage you to consider adding your voice by calling your members of Congress to share your support for refugees and using online advocacy opportunities through current alerts at ELCA Advocacy and LIRS.

In Matthew 25:35, Jesus said, “I was a stranger and you welcomed me.” Our Lord not only commanded us to welcome the stranger, Jesus made it clear that when we welcome the stranger into our homes and our hearts – we welcome him. 

God’s peace, 

The Rev. Elizabeth A. Eaton 
Presiding Bishop

Article: What I Learned Today

On Wednesday, I attended a seminar entitled, “The State of Pastors: Leading in Complexity.” It was the unveiling of a massive study undertaken by the Barna Group with generous funding from Pepperdine University. The Barna Group specifically studies and researches all things church related. If you have never heard of this organization before, they do good work and great research.

I am still going through the data (because it is extensive) but I wanted to share a couple of interesting findings with you.

11,000 pastors were asked how they rate themselves on ministry tasks. Below is the percentage of how they ranked themselves as “excellent” in each task.

  • Preaching and teaching             57%
  • Knowledge of Scripture             48%
  • Applied or practical theology 42%
  • Leading the organization 29%
  • Connecting with the community 29%
  • Managing church finances 28%
  • Counseling or pastoral care 24%
  • Personal spiritual growth 22%
  • Using technology for ministry 18%
  • Managing staff 16%
  • Evangelizing people 10%
  • Mobilizing volunteers 6%

Notice the quick drop off after “applied or practical theology.” Even the highest rated category of “preaching and teaching”- only 57% of pastors rated themselves as excellent. It is clear to me that many pastors do not feel well equipped for the calling they have undertaken.

It was mentioned that pastors today are much more like CEOs than pastors because they are expected to lead an organization and not just preach, teach and visit the sick. As you can see above, not many feel equipped to do that very thing.

One other statistic that caught my eye today: Pastors’ reliability on specific issues, by faith practice. This is what other people believe about the role of pastor.

Topic All US Adults Christians Non-practicing Christian No Faith
How the church can help people live according to God’s will 36% 69% 32% 6%
God’s will for human beings and the world 35% 70% 30% 4%
How relationships work and how to make them better 26% 59% 19% 4%
How people can live out their convictions privately and publicly 23% 54% 15% 3%
How Christianity should inform our political and justice system 17% 40% 11% 3%

 

People outside of the category “practicing Christians” do not believe pastors have the authority or “reliability” to speak on the issues found in the table. What does that mean? Overall, pastors have less authority/influence outside the church than they used to. That may seem obvious, but that was not the case in our recent past. We are definitely living in a “post-Christian society” much like the earliest disciples of Jesus who were living in a “pre-Christian society.”

This seminar’s title included this tag line, “leading in complexity.”  There is no doubt of that. These are complex times and the role of pastor requires many skills that are not taught in most seminaries. Often there is a lot of on the job training. I am reminded of that when I am asked by newer pastors, “what do I do when…” Yes, I still do a fair share of mentoring.

As I said earlier, I need to process this data before coming to any conclusions but I wanted to share a little of what I experienced today. If you are interested, I will share the published data with anyone (after I have finished going through it).

I am not surprised by anything I heard today, however it is good to see the research.

Even with the challenges, I love what I do and can’t see myself doing anything other than being a pastor.

God bless,
Pr. Ben