Category Archives: Articles

Article: Being Right

It seems that everyone in the world is consumed with idea of “being right.” If you doubt me, just go look at Facebook, Twitter or your favorite flavor of cable news. Everyone is right and talking over each other.

Sure, there is still a difference between right and wrong, but we even argue about that.

The problem with “being right” and seeing yourself as the only enlightened person in the room, social media or dinner table is this: we feel justified to treat those who are “wrong” with contempt.

It fascinates me (and saddens me) to see people treat others so badly just because they are “wrong.” There is something lodged down deep in our hearts that tell us that “being right” is the highest ideal above anything else including love. It stands to reason if we are right, the other person is wrong. If the other person is wrong, we are within our rights to treat them terribly because they are bad people too. Most likely, that person feels the same about you and will engage in the same behavior. It is a lose/lose situation.

Now if a person is not a Christian, they can do whatever they want as long as it is lawful. There is a lack of civil discourse right now but I do not believe that I have the right to impose my values on someone who does not believe in the Prince of Peace and the Lord of Love. In other words, I am addressing the Christian community, not society at large. Besides, I would be pretty arrogant to think that I have sway over that many people including those who do not believe that Jesus Christ is Lord.

Within the Christian community (the Church) we too have succumbed to the theology of “being right” and the associated bad behavior that comes out of this mindset.

Let me be as clear as I can. We still need to be vocal about behaviors and actions that hurt others: sexism, racism, ageism and discrimination of any kind. We also should be vocal when “the system” oppresses “the least of these.” When it is within our power to do so, we should work to educate and change the things that are repressive. A firm “no” is appropriate when dealing with these types of issues.

However, just because we might be right occasionally (don’t fool yourself thinking you have cornered the market on truth 100% of the time) that does not give the Christian license to treat other people with contempt and scorn. Demonizing other people does not solve problems. That does not mean you must agree with the other person either.

When St. Paul talked about the 3 most important characteristics of being a Christian, guess what did not make the list? That’s correct, “being right” doesn’t crack the top 3.

And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love. 1Corinthians 13:13

 Love is the highest ideal. That is a huge declaration for Paul who is an intellectual. Even he sees that love is more important than intellect or even faith. Wow.

No one is advocating for conflict avoidance and sugar coating everything. We can disagree and be agreeable. When that is not possible, we do not need to lash out with name calling and angry rhetoric. Giving ourselves space from someone we disagree with is preferable to “burning relational bridges.”

Gracious God, help us to follow you and you alone. We are reminded in scripture that having divided loyalties is unhealthy. Come to our aid once again and hold us closely. Let love drive our interactions with others and let our thirst for justice keep us moving forward. Your Kingdom come, Your will be done. In Jesus’ name, we pray. Amen.

God bless you,
Pr. Ben

 

 

 

 

Article: Am I My Brother’s Keeper

Then the Lord said to Cain, “Where is your brother Abel?” 

“I don’t know,” he replied. “Am I my brother’s keeper?”  Genesis 4:9

 This comes from one of the oldest stories in the Bible. The story of Cain and Abel. If you haven’t read this story, take the time to read it. You can find it in the first book of the Bible in the fourth chapter.

I am not going to look at the whole story, just the verses above because I believe it is a question worth exploring.

Most of you know that Cain kills his brother Abel because he is both jealous and angry that God accepted Abel’s offering.

Before Cain can hurt his brother in any way God comes to Abel and tries to help him think through his emotions before he does something rash. In other words, God cares and gives Cain the opportunity to reflect on what is going on inside of himself before he takes it out on his brother.

Needless to say, Cain doesn’t reflect.

Knowing what happened to Abel, God casually asks Cain, “Where’s your brother?”

Cain gets all snarky on God (who already tried to help him once responds)—“I don’t know. Am I my brother’s keeper?” I think you probably could a “Geesh God” at the end of that statement.

That is the question, isn’t it? Even for us. Are we responsible for others?

The answer is both “yes” and “no”.

First the no. We are not responsible for the words and actions of others. We can’t control others and it is an unhealthy endeavor to think we can. Whether it be through manipulation or intimidation. Every individual is responsible for their own words and actions. Even God did not try to control Cain.

Yet, in this world we see all sorts of unhealthy behavior where people try to get other people to do what they want. Whether it is bullying, codependent or passive aggressive behavior, all of it is an attempt to manipulate others.

However you want to look at it, we are not responsible (nor should we be) for the words and actions of others no matter how close you are them relationally speaking.

BUT…

We are called by God to be responsible for the care of our brother. In this story, the word used is “brother.” (Because they were brothers.) This call for care is not limited to family. Jesus unambiguously clarified the question, “Who is my neighbor and should I care for them” in the story of the Good Samaritan in Luke 10:25-37.

Although we are not responsible for the words and actions of others, we are called to care for the world around us.

In the Small Catechism, Martin Luther addresses this as he explains the meaning of the Fifth Commandment…

“You shall not kill.”
What does this mean?
Answer: We should fear and love God, and so we should not endanger our neighbor’s life, nor cause him any harm, but help and befriend him in every necessity of life.

 I know I am not telling you anything new here. Maybe I am reminding myself as I see all the pain and suffering over the past several weeks (hurricanes, Las Vegas shootings, the North Bay fires). Instead of spending time being angry, we should use that time and energy doing what we can to help others.

God bless you,
Pr. Ben

 

 

Article: A Shared Reflection from Las Vegas

As most of you know, I am one of the directors of a summer camp experience called Leadership Lab. 17 years ago, my youth director and I took a group of youth from Las Vegas to Leadership Lab. Ever since then, students and staff continue to come to Leadership Lab for a week of faith development and inspiration. Selfishly, I am proud of the legacy of that decision to drag students halfway across the country to attend the summer camp that I have been a part of since 1985.

One of those students, Keri Ann Triunfo wrote this after the tragedy in Las Vegas this past week…

Early this morning, in the wake of tragedy, I went outside to see an orange sky. The wind blew with harsh determination, causing the air to feel cold. It was as if nature itself was in mourning, and I couldn’t help but feel as if God was angry.

When suffering strikes our nation like it did last night, it’s easy for some of us to believe that God is punishing us. That he has taken up his hand against us in wrath and vengeance, like Sodom and Gomorrah. Las Vegas especially, has been likened to that ancient city by some. But those people don’t take into account the innocent women and children exploited here. Where is their justice? Why are they punished? They don’t take into account the brothers and sisters in Christ who are faithfully serving the Lord with their families and churches in this city. No, this massacre was not an act of God. 

The God we serve sent his son Jesus to us, to become a part of humanity. To share in our weaknesses. To feel our pain. To feel sorrow, frustration, fear, joy, love, and even to experience death. Matthew 5:45 tells us that The Lord makes the sun rise and rain fall on both the just and the unjust. Truth be told, bad things happen because our world is broken at the seams. We are broken people. But our Father has not abandoned us.

When these things happen, it’s important for us to remember that the function of the Holy Spirit, is to be our Helper. Our comforter, advocate, intercessor, counselor, and strength. 
In these times of despair and uncertainty, I urge you to remember that our God is not one of wrath, but of compassion, mercy, and love.

So, when I say that I feel God’s anger, I believe it is his empathy on our behalf. I believe he is beside the families, and loved ones of those whose lives were needlessly taken in a moment. I believe he is with the first responders and off duty authorities that risked their lives to protect civilians. He is with the civilians that dove into harm’s way to protect the people beside them, and assist the wounded. He is with the ones that had to watch in horror as countless others were killed or maimed before their eyes. God is here amidst the heartbreak and fear, sharing once again in our sorrows, and in our frustration

Romans 8:38-39 For I am persuaded, that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor powers, nor things present, nor things to come,nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature, shall be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.

Very moving, very thoughtful and very faithful. Please keep all people affected by gun violence in your prayers, including the people of Las Vegas and beyond.

God bless,
Pr. Ben

Article: A Difficult Sunday

St. Paul writes,
“For, as I have often told you before and now say again even with tears, many live as enemies of the cross of Christ. Their destiny is destruction, their god is their stomach, and their glory is in their shame. Their mind is on earthly things. But our citizenship is in heaven. And we eagerly await a Savior from there, the Lord Jesus Christ, who, by the power that enables him to bring everything under his control, will transform our lowly bodies so that they will be like his glorious body.” Ephesians 3:18-21

This past weekend was full of passion for many people. There were some who were supportive of the NFL players who took a knee during the national anthem to protest incidents of police brutality and racial injustice and there were some who were not.

As I read the combustible volley of words on social media Sunday afternoon, the verses above came to mind. Specifically, “But our citizenship is in heaven.”

 I love living in the United States of America, but as a Christian I am reminded that I am only passing through and will spend more time in heaven (eternity) than I will here on Earth. Paul prompts me and all Christians to look up to heaven and not be consumed with “earthly things.” While Paul doesn’t list what those “earthly things” are, we can be confident about what it means to be a citizen of heaven even before we get there.

In the simplest of instructions, Jesus tells us to “love our neighbor as ourselves.” Matthew 22:39 This is quite different from, “If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? And if you greet only your brothers, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that?” Matthew 5:46-47

 That is our natural default. We tend to like those who see things the way we do. Jesus challenges us to do more than being nice to those who are like us or are related to us. Hate is never an appropriate response.

We are encouraged to love everyone including our enemies: perceived or real. That is hard stuff. This would include those we don’t agree with. We don’t have to agree with them, but as a citizen of heaven we should attempt to love them.

Yet this weekend reminded me that we still have a serious problem with race in our nation. As a white man, I will never understand the struggles that people of color have had and still have in our country. It would be ignorant for me to say, “I do not experience injustice or inequality, therefore no one does.” Not only should we be aware of such things, but as Christians we should be responsive to those who experience such things.

For those who believed the Sunday NFL was the wrong venue to bring this issue to our attention, I would ask, “What is the right venue?” I ask that honestly because the same is often said about peaceful street protests. It is clear for many, “never” is the appropriate time. There is never a comfortable time to talk about injustice and racial inequality.

It is clear that by Sunday afternoon, there was a national debate going on. Discussion clarifies and it allows us to hear various points of view.

As a Christian, how should we respond to those who are struggling? Paul when writing his letter to the Hebrew Christians shows us an example of how citizens of heaven should respond to those in peril…

Remember those earlier days after you had received the light, when you stood your ground in a great contest in the face of suffering. Sometimes you were publicly exposed to insult and persecution; at other times you stood side by side with those who were so treated. You sympathized with those in prison and joyfully accepted the confiscation of your property, because you knew that you yourselves had better and lasting possessions. So do not throw away your confidence; it will be richly rewarded. Hebrews 10:32-37

Lots to think about.

 As a citizen of heaven we should understand something about where we are headed. John gives us glimpse in Revelation 21:3-4

“Now the dwelling of God is with people, and He will live with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.” 

 One day, we will be living up close and personal with God. Everything that causes heartbreak in this life will be gone. Not just the things that cause me sadness, but the things that cause others to be brokenhearted (like the things mentioned above).

“The old order of things” will be a thing of the past. What is that, you ask? Lots of things: sin, pain, violence, sickness, injustice, racism, money, government, laws, pollution and the list goes on. One day, the only thing that will matter is that we will be living with God where we will live in peace and joy with Christ and one another.

Until then, we are still citizens of heaven and we should live into the words we pray every Sunday, “Thy Kingdom come, Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven…”

God bless,
Pr. Ben

 

 

 

 

Article: Integrity

The Bible mentions the word integrity 22 times and uses 5 different words (3 Hebrew and 2 Greek) to describe integrity.

According to these “root words”, integrity describes someone who is honest, truthful, upstanding, righteous, morally upright and incorruptible. These are great descriptive words of for being a person of integrity. When we talk about Christian integrity we are not talking about “salvation issues.” Jesus came to save sinners (us) and not those who try to be good. The truth is we are broken.

Living with integrity is all about our response to what God has done for us through the person of Jesus Christ. In other words, integrity is all about sanctification (the process of being made holy)!

A Christian author (I forget who) once said, “Integrity is being the same person in private as you are in public.”  In other words, we aren’t doubleminded (see the book of James) or being hypocritical. Integrity is when we act the same way in front of people as we do when no one is watching.

This past week our organist posted the article below on integrity. It is not faith-based, but the list is so good, I wanted to share it with all of you. I am sure you will Christian characteristics within the list below. I hope you find it useful.

 13 Characteristics of People Who Have True Integrity
from awarenessact.com

1. They value other people’s time.
They value their own time so they also value the time of other people. They know you have plenty of other places you need to be and won’t hold you up. If you spend time with them, it is likely they will thank you for that as well.

 2. They give credit where it is due.
They do not take credit for things they did not do. They will always credit those who deserve it. If you help this person with a project he or she will likely mention your name so you can take credit for your work.

3. They are authentic.
They are their truest forms. You won’t catch them in a lie or being fake.

4. They are always honest.
They are honest people that feel no need to lie as it is important for them to get to where they need to get in life honestly.

5. They never take advantage of others.
They are not the kind of people who will take advantage of someone else. They love to build people up and help them get where they need to be. Taking too much from someone else will never be an issue with someone who has a lot of integrity.

6. They do not argue over disagreements.
They will talk through things in a civil manner or not talk at all. You cannot and will not force this person into arguing over something completely ridiculous. I find this to be a very respectable trait.

7. They give most people the benefit of the doubt.
They try to see the good in everyone. I think this is because they feel like maybe there are more people in this world that also have integrity. That being said, if you take advantage of them too much they will get rid of you.

8. They know when something is bothering someone.
They have a great intuition that lets them know when something is going on. If someone is down in the dumps they will notice. Chances are they will actually do what they can to cheer you up.

9. They believe others.
They accept your word as truth until it is disproven. That being said, they do not take lying well. And once you lie to them, it is unlikely that they will ever take your word again.

10. They apologize first.
If they have done something wrong they will come to you and apologize. This is just how they are. They own up to their mistake and try to make things right.

 11.They are humble.
They do not quite know their own worth. While they are very important and do so much good they don’t quite see it. You should remind them of it.

 12. They do good when they can.
They are always helping other people. They love to know that they have improved someone’s life. It gives their lives meaning.

 13. They are always kind to those who need it.
Giving kindness can go a long way. When someone looks like they need a little pick me up these people deliver. They can brighten up almost anyone’s day.

If you are someone who has true integrity, thank you for being who you are and thank you for all that you do. You really do actually make a difference in society, please keep up the good work. If you feel no one else is proud of you, know that I am.

Article: Reformation Reflections

We are quickly approaching the 500th anniversary of the “accidental reformation” of the Church. Dr. Luther had no intention of starting a new church. He sincerely wanted to change the only Church Europe knew: The Roman Catholic Church. He saw errors in the practice of faith that troubled him greatly. He truly believed that the Pope had no idea that these errors were being committed and once he clarified and stated his position clearly, everything would be corrected.

Little did Dr. Luther know was the fact that Pope Leo was raising funds to rebuild St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome and did not appreciate the German theologian getting in the way of this construction project.

Needless to say, Dr. Luther was surprised that he was told to recant everything he ever taught and wrote. He didn’t. And the se rest is history.

Reformations are messy. Church splits are even messier. Although this was a needed correction (at that time)—it wasn’t without great turmoil and loss of life (Peasant Revolt). This story did not come anywhere close to “and they lived happily ever after.” It is only after 500 years that we see a warming of relationship between the Lutheran Church and the Roman Catholic Church even if we do not agree on everything and probably never will. However, that does not mean we have to disparage each other and break one of the commandments in the process.

I find it interesting that Dr. Luther came to an understanding of God’s love and grace shortly before the 95 Theses were posted to the Wittenberg Chapel door in 1517.

It was this verse that changed his understanding of God and caused the Western World to be changed in ways he could not even imagine at the time. For in the gospel a righteousness from God is revealed, a righteousness that is by faith from first to last, just as it is written: “The righteous will live by faith.”- Romans 1:17

 It was in studying this passage in depth that he came to a new realization- we are made righteous by God through faith. Instead of trying to prove our righteousness through the things we say and do, which is impossible, we are made righteous by trusting in Jesus Christ.

The amazing part of this is that faith is also a gift from God. Listen to this– For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God. -Ephesians 2:8

 Later on, when Dr. Luther wrote the Small Catechism for family use, he made this statement which reflects the Ephesians 2 verse. “I believe that by my own reason or strength I cannot believe in Jesus Christ, my Lord, or come to him. But the Holy Spirit has called me through the Gospel, enlightened me with his gifts, and sanctified and preserved me in true faith…”

 We have been asked by God to resist the urge to be skeptical of all things we cannot see. Instead, let the Holy Spirit create and sustain faith in us through the gospel story of Jesus and the receiving of the sacraments.

We are all poor beggars in the eyes of God. We have nothing to offer of worth. It is God through Jesus Christ who graciously gives us all things.

Let us rejoice and be glad…and point fellow beggars to the bread of life.

God bless,
Pr. Ben

Article: Identity

There’s been a lot of talk about “identity” in culture. Whether that is found in “identity politics” or the seemingly never resolved church discussion about “sexual identity.” We are so consumed with identity that we are very vocal about who we are and who we are not! It is a sad state of affairs when a Christian sees or experiences hate being spewed by another Christian and must inform their friends and acquaintances, “Oh, I am not that kind of Christian.” A friend of my wife recently made a statement like that to her, forgetting that Rachel is married to a pastor.

What do we do when we see or meet other people- if we are not careful? We make snap judgments about them based what is important to them… you know, their identity. It is easy to label someone based on very little. “Oh, they are (fill in the blank).” Instead, we should take the time to get to know a person as an individual.

It totally bums me out that Christians have to differentiate themselves from other Christians who claim the same faith in the embodiment of God’s unconditional and sacrificial love (Jesus) yet most of their personal theology is all about who God is against while subtly reinforcing the notion that they are good in God’s eyes. Life was simpler when we (Lutherans) would distinguish ourselves by saying, “Well, were definitely not Methodists or Roman Catholic, we are somewhere between those two.”

This is not contained to just in religious matters. In the highly partisan environment of politics we are in right now, I have heard people say to me, “I am not sure I can be friends with a person who supports ‘that’.”

I am not telling you anything you don’t already know. I would not be surprised if the topic of identity is upsetting at this point.  I can hear people saying, “Can’t we stop talking about this?” “Aren’t we making it worse, by talking about this stuff so much.” No, we aren’t making worse by talking about such things. We make it worse when we fight, shout and demonize others. Besides, when has ignoring an issue ever made it better?

I think it is easy to be nostalgic, if not naïve, to say things like, “This wasn’t an issue 50 years ago.” Actually, it was an issue, we just didn’t talk about it and used social pressure root out those who wanted to talk about these things. Just because we didn’t talk about things doesn’t mean there was unity. No, it meant we kept things to ourselves in fear of being ridiculed or ostracized. A lack of constructive dialogue on difficult subjects does not equate to harmony.

For those who long for the “good old days,” it may have been good for you but certainly not everyone.

Is there a way forward? Absolutely. The last two weeks, I have talked about how to change the way we think (developing a Christian mindset) about things based on Paul’s writings found in Romans 12. Essentially, one of the ways to change the way we think is to change what we are putting into our brains (social media, news, etc.)

Here are those two messages (if you are interested):
http://benbergren.com/sermon-transformation-explained/
http://benbergren.com/sermon-transformation-explained-part-2/

As hard as change can be, I have good news. Seriously. What I am about to share with you will change the way you think about others, even though these words were written 2000 years ago. It has everything to do with identity.

You are all children of God through faith in Christ Jesus, for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. Galatians 3:26-27

 If you are a Christian (I am assuming you are), you only have ONE identity that matters: You are a child of God. More importantly, when we look at other Christians, we should see only ONE thing—a sister or brother in Christ. No more worrying about other people’s identity or what they stand for or against. St. Paul tells us we have ONE identity as Christians—we are children of God, period, the end.

We don’t have to spend needless hours getting worked up about other Christians identities and they don’t need to get all worked up about us. We just don’t. We still need to be concerned over hateful, divisive language and actions. We should always act to end such behavior within the church and in the world.

Paul in his letter to the church in Ephesus says this about being a child of God (and being in the family of God).

Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you.  Be imitators of God, therefore, as dearly loved children and live a life of love, just as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God. Ephesians 4:32-5:2

 Instead of getting worked up, we are encouraged to be sympathetic, empathetic and let things go, i.e., forgive. If we engage in living a life of love the way Christ did, we don’t have time for hate. As a matter of fact, hating is so contrary to the message of Jesus that I can’t imagine a Christian hating groups of people or individuals based on identity differences of any kind, let alone within the Christian community. That in itself is contradictory since we are instructed only to see each other as children of God.

Hate is destructive. Hate breaks community. Hate only attracts hate or its offspring of: fear, suffering and violence. Instead, we commit ourselves to love and only seeing others as children of God. To put another way, we are all in the same family and we should attempt to get along. If you have ever been to an awkward Thanksgiving dinner because of who was invited, you understand the encouragement and necessity for everyone to get along and love each other.

And yes, “it takes two to tango.” This is not just an encouragement for those who already love to be kind those who hate. This exhortation is for those who hate (for any reason) to change. Otherwise the church ends up being like a dysfunctional family that allows the angry hateful person to dominate while the loving person makes excuses for poor behavior.

Paul is so convinced that our only identity as Christians is that of children of God, he doubles down.  There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.  Galatians 3:28

 Whoa. Paul dismantles all the major “identities” of his time. Characteristics that people used to oppress, discriminate and treat poorly. It is clear (by Paul’s words) that within the church, differences in gender (in its various physical and relational complexities) are nonexistent as well as social structure and ethnicity. The only thing God sees when he looks at us is that we are His beloved children. God asks us to do the same when we look at each other.

Of course, this is pointing to a larger reality of God’s Kingdom. Any dichotomy we can imagine that separates people within the church—doesn’t change God’s view of us and how we should view others. Whether it be: Married, single or divorced, white or black, republican or democrat, brown eyes or blue eyes, Lutheran or Presbyterian! These things (or anything) doesn’t matter to God and they shouldn’t matter to us either.

Instead let us love each as brothers and sister. And if we pursue this… “we shall overcome, someday.”

From one child of God to another—I love you.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A Tale of Two Churches

Maybe that title is a little misleading. This isn’t a story or a tale. If I had named this article, “An Observation of Two Churches” most of you wouldn’t take the time to read it. (Just kidding, I hope.) I am being transparent up front about this… so if you want to stop reading, this is your exit ramp!

It appears more and more there are two distinct types of Christian churches in our nation.

One type of church is primarily focused historic doctrinal purity and making sure their church members adhere to the proper way of believing and acting. If they don’t, they are asked to leave. And many people are never welcomed at all. Believing in Jesus Christ “the right way” is the most important thing. This works well for many members of these churches because they fit in and agree with the rigid theological structure that is expected of every member. A person who does not conform to this type of orthodoxy is not welcome. There is no room for discussion because everything is crystal clear, black and white. Most churches that operate this way have a clear sense of who is going to heaven and who is going to hell in the afterlife.

“Righteousness” (in this case) is obedience to the doctrine and behavior. This type of obedience “pleases God”. Living up to God’s standards is very important to members of this church and often, they are quick to point out those who do not, especially members of the other type of church.

The other type of church is focused on the relational aspect of God, specifically in the person of Jesus Christ. That isn’t to say doctrine isn’t important to these people. This church views the love of God as more important than “getting it right 100% of the time.” Members of this type of church see that humanity is so flawed (sinful) that living up to God’s standards is impossible. Instead, they rely on God’s loving forgiveness given at the cross of Christ for all things. That doesn’t mean they have given into sin and do whatever they want, far from it. These people will tell you that they live from God’s abundant grace and that is what motivates them to reflect the love of God to others. Since religious conformity is not their top priority, this type of church tends to judge other people a lot less than the first church described above. They see that sin permeates everything and drawing lines in the sand doesn’t really fix anything because there is sin on both sides.

“Righteousness” (in this case) is a relationship with God and one another. Loving God and loving their neighbor is very important to members of this church and often welcome those who don’t fit in at the other type of church.

It is clear (from experience) that the first type of church (described above) sees the other church as “soft on sin” and unbiblical. It is also clear that the second church (described above) sees the other church as rigid and unwelcoming of anyone who may be different theologically speaking.

Both churches have a developed theology—even if the theologically rigid church accuses the other church of “anything goes.” Both churches are trying to mirror what they think God has conveyed through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. Both churches read the same Bible, confess the same creeds and even pray the same prayer (The Lord’s Prayer). Needless to say, each type of church sees themselves faithful to the scriptures and a true representation of what God calls the Church to be.

Is there any way to reconcile these two views of the church? I don’t think so. There is a reason why there are so many denominations and non-denominational churches. No one can agree on everything.

Even with this division we should be clear about a couple of things. Churches and individual Christians that tell people that God hates them for any reason is both a lie and it is contrary to the good news that Jesus brings.

Wait a minute—what about Psalm 5:5-6? The arrogant cannot stand in your presence; you hate all who do wrong. You destroy those who tell lies; bloodthirsty and deceitful people the Lord abhors. As far as I can tell, that is all of humanity. It is disingenuous for a Christian to say, “God hates sinners but loves the righteous.” The primary mission of Jesus Christ was to save us from our sin and the separation from God caused by our sin. All of Christianity believes this. We can’t start cherry picking sins (and sinners) we don’t like just because we don’t sin like that or understand why “they” do those things. Besides, what is sin to me might not be a sin to someone else (ask me about that some time, it is Biblical).

Remember what Jesus said, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.” Mark 2:17

Jesus engages with people who are far from God or have been told they are not acceptable.

Many people who hold to a more rigid historic doctrinal purity think, “If ‘they’ don’t ‘change’ after believing in Jesus they really don’t believe and therefore shouldn’t be a part of the church.”

Here is what I know about that… I am still a sinner. Even being a pastor for over nineteen years, I still sin. I don’t think I am qualified to tell people that Jesus doesn’t love them. If Jesus doesn’t love them, then certainly Jesus doesn’t love me either.

I have yet to meet someone who is perfect. Life is messy because we are messed up. Martin Luther reminds us (Lutherans) that “Baptism never becomes useless, unless you despair and refuse to return to its salvation.” (Luther’s Works Volume 36 p.69) Baptism isn’t just a one-time thing as many believe. It is the source of forgiveness in our lives. A place to be washed clean again and again because we get messy (sin).

Luther isn’t suggesting a re-baptism. He is saying we need to return to our baptism in confession and repentance. Remember water doesn’t save, but Jesus attached to the water does. Only faith in Jesus saves, water is just the vehicle for Christ’s presence.

Hating sinners doesn’t work. Churches that label people as sinners and hates them (or excludes them) doesn’t exemplify the work of Jesus. It is also hypocritical because we are all sinners. As a matter of fact, we tend sin the same way over and over again and I am not sure Jesus loves us any less because of that habitual sin.

The response to this line of reasoning is this, “Where does it end? There are no boundaries!” Of course, there are boundaries. It is our responsibility to protect those who are being hurt by another in various ways (physically, emotionally, spiritually, psychologically). This is not arbitrary or a perception of what I think “being hurt” means. We are to love those who have no power to change their situation and we are to love those who have power over others too.  But we include a firm “Stop hurting others” with that love.

This goes back to the idea of agape or sacrificial/unconditional love. The kind of love Jesus showed to all people. Jesus’ death on the cross extended forgiveness to sinners of every age… even sinners who still sin, like me.

The church is imperfect because humans are involved. Nobody has it all figured out or gets it all right. Even with that said, I see my calling as pastor to love and forgive in order to draw people close to Jesus. I know God has changed me over the years, but I am far from being in “final form.” How can we expect people to change, when we can’t even change ourselves? That won’t happen until we see Jesus face-to-face. Until then, I will keep on loving, forgiving and welcoming.

I can’t help but think of this story of Jesus…

36 Now one of the Pharisees invited Jesus to have dinner with him, so he went to the Pharisee’s house and reclined at the table. 37 When a woman who had lived a sinful life in that town learned that Jesus was eating at the Pharisee’s house, she brought an alabaster jar of perfume, 38 and as she stood behind him at his feet weeping, she began to wet his feet with her tears. Then she wiped them with her hair, kissed them and poured perfume on them. 

 39 When the Pharisee who had invited him saw this, he said to himself, “If this man were a prophet, he would know who is touching him and what kind of woman she is—that she is a sinner.” 

 40 Jesus answered him, “Simon, I have something to tell you.” 

 “Tell me, teacher,” he said.

 41 “Two men owed money to a certain moneylender. One owed him five hundred denarii, and the other fifty. 42 Neither of them had the money to pay him back, so he canceled the debts of both. Now which of them will love him more?” 

 43 Simon replied, “I suppose the one who had the bigger debt canceled.”

 “You have judged correctly,” Jesus said. 

 44 Then he turned toward the woman and said to Simon, “Do you see this woman? I came into your house. You did not give me any water for my feet, but she wet my feet with her tears and wiped them with her hair. 45 You did not give me a kiss, but this woman, from the time I entered, has not stopped kissing my feet. 46 You did not put oil on my head, but she has poured perfume on my feet. 47 Therefore, I tell you, her many sins have been forgiven—for she loved much. But he who has been forgiven little loves little.” 

 48 Then Jesus said to her, “Your sins are forgiven.” 

49 The other guests began to say among themselves, “Who is this who even forgives sins?” 

50 Jesus said to the woman, “Your faith has saved you; go in peace.” (Luke 7:36-50)

 Our faith in Jesus has saved us. Not our behavior and certainly not for having the ability to identify sinners and exclude them.

If you are still reading this… know that you are loved and always welcome wherever I am.

God bless you all,
Pr. Ben

 

 

 

 

Article: Spiritual Growth According to Peter

…make every effort to add to your faith goodness; and to goodness, knowledge; and to knowledge, self-control; and to self-control, perseverance; and to perseverance, godliness; and to godliness, mutual affection; and to mutual affection, love. For if you possess these qualities in increasing measure, they will keep you from being ineffective and unproductive… 2 Peter 1:5-8

Shortly before his death at the hands of the Roman government, Simon Peter wrote two letters to the churches of Asia Minor (See- 1Peter 1:1).  It is clear that Peter was Jesus’ right-hand man. In this short passage we see Peter’s encouragement to add specific qualities and characteristics to our faith so that we might be the fully prepared for life itself.

Knowledge
It seems like Peter is asking to build upon our faith one block at a time and it begins with knowledge. Faith doesn’t require knowledge but having information or facts about God can help each of us to understand the nature of God and the world around us. The more I learn about God the easier I find it to trust Him and God’s will for my life. However, many people confuse having knowledge of God with faith. Trust is not knowledge.

Self-Control
Being a person of faith, it is clear that some things are better for me than other things. The ability to say “no” to some things is not easy, but it is a sign of maturity. It is not difficult to avoid things that cause pain but I don’t think that is what Peter had in mind. As it is, don’t we pray “And lead us not into temptation” on a regular basis? That is because there may be things that give short term satisfaction but hurt us in the long haul. Temptations are like a wolf in sheep’s clothing… we will eventually be bitten. More than that, we are examples to others. Someone is always watching us.

Perseverance
String enough “no’s” together and you develop perseverance. This is the ability to stand by your beliefs. This is integrity. The more we are able to walk away from temptation, the easier it becomes. Endurance and perseverance leads to constancy. When you are known as being steadfast, others will come to you for help and advice.

Godliness
Who doesn’t want to reflect the nature and will of God? I know I do. As I said last Sunday, when Jesus returns one day, I want Him to be able to recognize qualities of the Kingdom of God within me. Clearly, no one ever quit being a Christian because it was too easy. This is challenging stuff! I sincerely strive to reflect the love and grace of God in everything I do. The path to that goal is through knowledge, self-control and perseverance. There is no short cuts to achieve this goal! Thankfully God gives us all the time and forgiveness we need.

Mutual Affection
Godliness should lead to mutual affection. That is nice way of saying, people like you and you like people. The Greek word is Philadelphia or better known as “brotherly love.” It is the first step toward a larger love. We begin with training wheels. In a lot of ways, this is a stepping stone to something better but definitely more difficult. We begin with liking and being liked by people who are comparable to siblings… like fellow Christians.

Love
It shouldn’t be a surprise we end here. Why? Because love is where we begin. We wouldn’t even be having this discussion if God didn’t love us first. But this is more than brotherly love. This is agape love, unconditional love. You know, the kind of love God has for sinners (like us). Love that is not reciprocated. This kind of love is sometimes translated as “charity.” Why charity? Charity is a gift that often goes unnoticed or received without gratitude. This is the highest of all types of love because it requires nothing in return. Because of that, it is the hardest to give. Maybe that is why it is the last on the list, because it is the hardest to achieve for most people.

These verses remind us the importance of spiritual growth (one of our core values). We don’t have to grow spiritually, but I hope we do. Yes, we will still make mistakes and sometimes become stagnant in our faith but God’s unconditional love will never leave us. Jesus is the proof of that.

God bless,
Pr. Ben

Article: From Bishop Holmerud

If you are not signed up for the Sierra Pacific Synod e-newsletter, here is what Bishop Mark Holmerud wrote about “hate” and the events of this past week. I hope you find it helpful as we discern who we are and what our response should be to those who hate.

God bless,
Pr. Ben

“Could it be, could it be, that we are called — for such a time as this?” a song by Jonathan Rundman

Hate. Hate speech. Hate rhetoric. Hate crimes. Hate groups.  Hate is the common thread and the impetus behind the 917 Hate Groups that have been identified as operating in the United States. The “Hate Map” of the Southern Poverty Law Center shows that there are 79 such groups in California and 4 in Nevada. These groups advocate hate in all forms — racism, neo-Nazism, white nationalism, anti-Jewish and anti-Muslim sentiments, xenophobia and anti-immigrant beliefs, misogyny, and violence towards the GLBTQ community.

I’m sure the list of those whom these groups identify as objects of hate is more extensive than we want to believe, and more present in this part of our country than we may be aware. At least that’s been true for me. I had no idea there are over 83 hate groups operating in our backyard – in the territory of our Sierra Pacific Synod. I imagined the “stronghold” of these groups was in the southern part of our country, in places where violence has been erupting for years, where the lynching of black people was once common, and where people needed to press for their right to ride on public transportation and sit at lunch counters. Not true. It’s here. It’s now. I have recently been made aware that there are planned demonstrations in the coming months by white supremacist and neo-Nazi groups here in northern California. Perhaps there are planned demonstrations in northern Nevada as well.

The events in Charlottesville a few days ago and many other recent acts of hatred and violence are a clarion call for us to pray, to be aware, to be vigilant, and to speak out where such hate emerges from the shadowy depths where its adherents are emboldened to act out of fear and hate. Could it be that we are called for such a time as this to be voices of the light and peace of the Gospel to be proclaimed with even more ardor and purpose? To make clear, as Presiding Bishop Eaton has called us to do, that “White supremacy has no place in the kingdom of God, only the love and healing of the reign of the Prince of Peace.”

If you are feeling called to speak out, The Southern Poverty Law Center has provided a helpful guide called “Ten Ways to Fight Hate” to move us from the uncertainty of knowing how to respond to hate and violence to taking small steps toward speaking out, organizing, standing with those who also wish to decry hate speech and hate groups in our communities.  I invite you to contact your local ecumenical and interfaith groups, civic and governmental leaders and community organizers who are seeking to address the presence of these 83 groups in our area, and the 917 that exist in this country. I am and will be committed to providing support and resources in as many ways as possible to speak of Christ’s love in the face of this monstrous evil. I encourage you to follow the links below to learn how you can be involved in this Gospel call to action.  I believe this is a time in which we have been called to speak and act.  May God be with us as we step forward in faith.

Ten Ways To Fight Hate – From the Southern Poverty Law Center website

  1. Act
  2. Join Forces
  3. Support the Victims
  4. Speak Up
  5. Educate Yourself
  6. Create An Alternative
  7. Pressure Leaders
  8. Stay Engaged
  9. Teach Acceptance
  10. Dig Deeper

Peace,
Bp. Mark