While Journeying to Paradise

ZZZ - Psalm Intro and Response

Christians talk a lot about Paradise.

We look forward to the day when the New Jerusalem will come down out of Heaven and when God will, personally, wipe the tears from our eyes. We long for the Day when there will no longer be any pain and suffering, mourning and sorrow,  or crying and grief. And we, sometimes, disagree about how that Great Day will come. Some folks invest a lot of time and money reminding people of the Day of Christ’s return. Others speak of God’s Kingdom in the world today – slowly transforming everything into what God wants it to be. And, of course, in the last few weeks, we’ve been focusing upon “Olam Haba” – “What our world is yet to be” – while keeping in mind that the words “Olam Haba” don’t appear in the Bible even though the concept has been discussed and debated by the rabbis and theologians in the Christian tradition for thousands of years.

We look forward to the Great Day when the promises of Christ will be fulfilled; but we, also, need to live in the world today. So let’s keep things practical in the same way that the writer of Psalm 15 did so many years ago.

The writer of Psalm 15 begins by reminding us that we are sojourners – travelers – who are moving from one place to another. The psalmist reminds us of the days when the people of Israel worshiped God in a tent that was located in the Wilderness. The psalmist then goes on to speak of the days when God’s people worshiped in the Temple – before it was flattened like a pancake by the Babylonians and then, again, by the Romans. But, much to our surprise, the psalmist doesn’t write about cultic practices and about how we should worship as we travel from “where we are right now” to “where God wants us to be in the future.” In fact, the rabbis even warn us against using Psalm 15 as an “Entrance Quiz” to determine “who is welcome” and “who is not welcome” as we gather in worship.

And so, how do we live as we are journey toward Paradise?

The psalmist is clear. “Do what’s right and speak truthfully from you heart.” “Tame your tongue and use words to build people up.” “Be a person whose life is clearly marked with honesty and integrity.” “Live your life with a spark of hope in your heart and honor other people by treating them fairly in a world that’s often marked by heartless attitudes.”

Have you ever though about why God put you on the earth?

How would your life and your relationships with others change if you focused upon the fact that you’ve been put on the earth to learn how to love?

The promise of “Olam Haba” continues to point toward better days. The vision of “what our world is yet to be” can ignite a spark of hope in our hearts and send us into the world as people who point other folks toward the light at the end of the tunnel in a world that’s often both challenging and cruel. And isn’t that what Christian ministry is all about? Isn’t Christian ministry about going into the world and doing God’s work with our own hands – after we’ve captured a vision of “Olam Haba” – “What our world is yet to be” – in times of prayer and worship?

Click Here for this Week’s Message

 

Why the Church needs Lutherans

 

Luther Rose Picture (1)

The last year has taken me in many interesting directions. I’ve spoken with bishops and pastors from many denominations. I’ve talked with Raymond Bonwell, an economist and Presbyterian pastor, who’s lectured at Princeton Theological Seminary and Yale Divinity School, about time management, the challenges of ministry, and the laser-type of focus that pastors and church leaders must maintain in order to help congregations fulfill their mission. I’ve spent time with Eric Law, an Episcopal priest and executive director of the Kaleidoscope Institute, learning about six “Holy Currencies” that congregations need to consistently exchange in order to remain both missional and sustainable. I’ve talked with many people, who belong to the congregation that I serve, about our ministry in the 21st Century in Conversation Circles; and I’ve had the chance to talk with Nadia Bolz-Weber, an ELCA pastor who has discovered refreshing ways to reach people, who weren’t being touched by traditional ministries of the Church, through radical authenticity and embrace. And in the midst of all that activity, I’ve learned many lessons about life and faith.

But there’s something else….

The Pittsburgh Theological Seminary recently sponsored a “Being Church” conference that attracted Church leaders from across the nation and invited them to join in lively conversations about ministry. Nadia Bolz-Weber shared the story of her life; and then, she talked with us about why she’s a Christian. She spoke about God’s embrace and love for people that we often don’t understand. She talked with us about finding God’s presence in the midst of ordinary people and about watching the Spirit move in people’s lives. She spoke about the radical implications of “justification by grace through faith”—something quite familiar to me as a Lutheran. And then, Nadia Bolz-Weber invited us to gather in small groups to simply listen to each and to share ideas.

The small group that I attended was very diverse. We crossed our denominational lines, moved past racial barriers, embraced people of all ages, and intentionally tried to be as inclusive as possible. We talked about many of the things Nadia Bolz-Weber had lifted before us during her presentation. And then, a woman in our group surprised me when she said, “I found the ways that Nadia spoke about ‘grace’ to be both insightful and refreshing. I’ve never heard anyone talk about ‘grace’ that way.” I smiled….

We live in an age where churches are trying all sorts of things to make themselves more attractive to new members. The pastor of a church in my community recently removed all of the crosses from the walls in the building—because “The cross is offensive to people in modern times.” I’ve seen many churches strip denominational affiliations from the name of their congregation and become a “Bible” church. I’ve seen other churches transform worship into a weekly self-help seminar designed to help ordinary people become both happy and successful in life. We want to find an easy fix. We want to believe that if we just change the style of our music—or the name on the front of our building—or, perhaps, get rid of our denominational affiliation altogether—people are going to flood through our opened doors and we’ll be happy again. We’ll even have to start setting-up chairs in the aisles, so that people have a place to sit.

But it doesn’t work that way.

I was reminded, once again, that the Lutheran congregation that I serve has a precious gift to share with the Church, and with the world, as I listened to the words of a woman in our small group at the “Being Church” conference. “I found the way that Nadia spoke about ‘grace’ to be both insightful and refreshing. I’ve never heard anyone talk about ‘grace’ that way,” she said. The continuing Lutheran witness to God’s radical love and embrace is a gift to the Church. The continuing Lutheran witness to God’s power to forgive and to embrace people that we find hard to accept and understand is a precious “gift” that Lutherans have to share in a time when that message is not always clear. I don’t need to challenge the congregation that I serve to give-up its rich Lutheran heritage in order to help the Church to move into the future. I don’t need to listen to the voices of those who think that the Church needs to become “more generic” in order to appeal to the next generation. The message of the Gospel of Jesus Christ doesn’t change. We may need to find new ways to talk with people about God’s message of radical love and embrace, and we may need to embrace new ways of doing ministry in a changing world, but we don’t need to abandon “who we are” and become “what we are not” in order to become more appealing to the next generation.

I’ve been encouraged as I’ve spoken with other people about the future of the Church. We’re moving through quickly changing times—and that can be scary. But the Spirit’s alive and moving in our midst. It’s exciting to watch people, who don’t even know each other, talk about the evolving ministry of the Church of Jesus Christ in similar ways. This is a time when prayer is absolutely crucial. This is a time when we need to listen to each other, when we need to build each other up, and when we need to speak with each other in helpful and respectful ways. But this is also a time when I need to remember, and when I must continue to remind the people that I serve, that the Church of Jesus Christ needs the precious “gift” that faithful Lutherans bring to the table when we bear witness to God’s continuing love, forgiveness and embrace in our crucified and risen Lord, Jesus Christ.

When in Doubt – Just Love People

ZZZ - Psalm Intro and Response

Last week, I had a great chance to talk with children about diversity.

I began by looking at the story of Creation and by remembering that, in the Beginning, God created our world to be a place filled with many different things. God created the sun and the moon, the birds and the fish, trees and even worms. And then, to top it all off, God made people and filled them with the Spirit that gives life. And God was happy!

But we need to remember that God didn’t only make a lot of different things. God made a lot of different things that are different than each other. There are blue birds and red birds and yellow birds – but they’re all birds, aren’t they? There are people with brown eyes and blue eyes, with long hair and short hair, with darker skin and lighter skin – and there are even people who speak different languages and who are born in countries all over the world. But, when we get back to the basics, we’re all people, aren’t we? We all want to be loved, don’t we? We all want to know that we’re going to be safe as we move around in the world. We all want to have food to eat when we’re hungry. And we all just want to be happy, in one way or another, don’t we…?

But, sometimes, we’re not happy.

Even though God was happy with the diversity that fills our world, people don’t always find it easy to be happy and celebrate the diversity that surrounds them. Kids sometimes pick their friends based upon the kind of clothes that they wear, or the type of shoes that they wear. Adults, sometimes, put up walls when they see people who are different than themselves because they’re scared and want to fee safe. The sin in our lives encourages us to divide and separate our world into more and more disconnected pieces. And when that happens, it makes God sad. It makes God so sad, in fact, that God even decided to do something about it.

God sent Jesus into the world to remind us that “it’s all about love.” The Bible tells us that, in Christ, there is neither Jew nor Greek, male nor female, slave nor free. The Bible tells us that faith and the love of Jesus level the playing field and help us see that differences and diversity can be embraced and celebrated as a part of the goodness of the Creation. The Cross of Jesus brings us together! And, if we ever doubt that the words of Jesus are true, all we need to do is remember Easter. God raised Jesus from the dead on Easter to show us that Jesus is right! It really IS all about love!

And that’s the message I shared with the children at Vacation Bible School. It’s a message that reminds us that God loves us just as we are and that God, also, calls us to extend that very same love to each other. Our differences and all of the diversity that surrounds us can encourage us to divide the world into smaller and smaller pieces, and to build more and more walls to keep other people away from us. Our differences can tear our world apart and create more challenges and problems than we’re facing right now. But there’s another path. The “Jesus Path.” We can learn to embrace and celebrate diversity. We can learn again, with the help of Jesus, see other people through the eyes of God! And when we do that, we’ll be taking a big step toward helping our world to be a better place — the kind of place that God wants it to be.

So, let’s try that, this week. Let’s work together to begin transforming our world into a better place for all of us by embracing the goodness of the world as God made it! Olam Haba – “what the world is yet to be” – is closer than we’d ever imagine. And we can even get a little taste of it — when we go into the world and when we allow love to win!

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עולם הבא

ZZZ - Psalm Intro and Response

In the coming weeks, we will be using the Hebrew words: Olam HaBa. Olam HaBa, which can be translated as “what the world is yet to be,” lifts-up images of hope and of what life and the world will be like when God’s final plan for the Creation is complete.

Olam HaBa is widely discussed by theologians. Some speak of Olam HaBa as the time when those who will be resurrected and those who will not share in the “world to come” will be separated. Others speak of Olam Haba as a time of radical transformation—as a time when single grapes will produce enough wine to fill a flagon, when trees produce fruit one month after they are planted, and when God’s people will be known throughout the world as the producers of the finest grain and wool. Olam HaBa is the fulfillment of God’s promised Messianic Age.

But we can’t fully enjoy (or understand) Olam HaBa because it doesn’t exist yet–and that’s what this week’s message  is all about. Olam Haba is still in the future. Think of the day when God will personally dry your tears, and when all of your suffering and pain will come to an end. Think about a Great Day when every type of suffering and sorrow and mourning will come to an end. The words “Olam HaBa” don’t appear in the Bible; however, John of Patmos captures the essence of Olam HaBa when he writes:

“Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, ‘See, the home of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them; they will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them; he will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away.’ And the one who was seated on the throne said, ‘See, I am making all things new.’” ~ Revelation 21:1-5a