Emboldened by Anonymity

laptopPastor Matthew Peeples talks about how people in our society today in the new realities of communication are emboldened by anonymity. Because we cannot physically see the people we are talking to on social media and other platforms, we often tend to say things we wouldn’t otherwise do in a public setting, Peeples explains, and so we share things publicly that we would normally  keep private.

We all know of situations or circumstances in which people perhaps “overshared” on social media which then led to some unintentional consequences or had unforeseen implications.

We in the Church need to be aware of this current tendency in communication. What is perhaps posted to church websites or Facebook pages may not be what our grandmothers would reveal, but that should never mean that we reject it or downplay it out of hand. We need to validate everything that is being shared and really listen to what is being said, even if it is not in a form we are accustomed to.

Even the early disciples said, “As for us, we cannot help speaking about what we have seen and heard” (Acts 4:20).

In some ways being emboldened by anonymity can help us to learn more about each other and can help us to see that perhaps we are not as unusual in our opinions as we may have thought we were.

We often think that being emboldened by anonymity means sharing negative things. But the flip side of being emboldened by anonymity is that it may inspire us to share more about the great good things about our faith life than we would otherwise be more reticent to reveal. Jesus said in Luke 12:3:

What you have said in the dark will be heard in the daylight, and what you have whispered in the ear in the inner rooms will be proclaimed from the roofs.

He wants us to be emboldened when it comes to witnessing our faith, and the new avenues of communication give us that opportunity.

Let us follow the example of St. Paul in our approach to communicating in the new reality, who said,

I have written you quite boldly on some points to remind you of them again, because of the grace God gave me. —Romans 15:15

Be emboldened by God’s grace to be constant reminders of what is most important: our relationship with God.

Worth

worthIn a lecture at Concordia Seminary-St. Louis on April 4, 2017 called “Paul, Grace and Liberation from the Human Judgment of Worth,” noted theologian Dr. John Barclay related that our society is currently experiencing a crisis of self-worth. There has a been rise in anxiety, depression, self-doubt and even suicide related to the feeling that we lack worth. Much of this, Barclay said, has to do with the increase in interactions on social media in which there is a great deal of value placed on our posts being “liked,” our pages being “followed,”  etc. We, unfortunately, are living in a more and more judgmental world in which we seek affirmation more and more from our peers.

Fortunately for us as Christians, we have Paul to set us straight on the concept of self-worth, Barclay reminded us. St. Paul writes:

For he chose us in him before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless in his sight. In love he predestined us for adoption to sonship through Jesus Christ, in accordance with his pleasure and will to the praise of his glorious grace, which he has freely given us in the One he loves. —Ephesians 1:4-6

We have worth because of Christ. We are made sons and daughters of God through the death and resurrection of Jesus. And nothing can change that. Not even the opinions of our peers or our any failure to live up to some earthly standard.

So how do we live our worthiness in Christ? Paul helps us in that regard as well, Barclay explained. In Ephesians 3:8, we read Paul’s mission statement, if you will:

This grace was given me: to preach to the Gentiles the boundless riches of Christ.

And that is our mission as well: to use the grace of worthiness that we have been given in Christ to share the richness of that gift of grace with others.

Our worthiness in Christ is never something that we earn, but something that is given to us unconditionally through faith in Christ. That flips our whole value system, Barclay noted. No longer are we to seek achievement to win favor from God and man, as is the way of the world. But our Christian viewpoint is to simply receive the gift of worthiness through Christ and to then live in response to that gift by showing grace to all, no matter what worthiness or unworthiness the world has ascribed to them.

What a wonderful and uplifting way to look at ourselves and look at one another through the eyes of Christ. We are more precious than gold or silver to our God and we always will be.

Clutter

clutter

Is this how our brains look sometimes?

I recently read an article in the Lifestyle section of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, in which the reporter talked about the clutter that accumulates on her dresser and how that clutter affected her morning routine negatively (Sultan, Aisha, “The Trick To Organizing Flat Surfaces,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Feb. 26, 2017, H4). She ended up hiring an organization consultant to help her out, and the consultant told her to keep only those things that she truly used or wanted to look at every single day and remove all the rest. You can see the results in this before-and-after photo.

clutter 2

We all have “dumping grounds” where we put all our stuff. And at some point we need to go through it and get rid of the clutter so we can live in a calmer, more peaceful and more organized environment.

I think the same thing is true of our minds. We can let so many thoughts, worries, images, issues and comments clutter our minds that it is hard to really focus on what is important: our faith and our relationship with Christ. Thankfully, we have an organizational consultant to help us on this matter: St. Paul. He said,

Now you must put them all away: anger, wrath, malice, slander, and obscene talk from your mouth. —Colossians 3:8

Then he said:

Whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things. —Philippians 4:8

Make it your morning routine to clear off all the unnecessary clutter from your mind and only think about “such things” above. Then your day is bound to go better, more smoothly and according to God’s plan for you.

Backchannels

backchannelsAnother new reality of communication that Pastor Matt Peeples reveals is: Backchannels are always open. What are backchannels, you ask? They are the conversations behind the conversations that are always going on in our digital age.

I have seen this in play at conferences and other meetings where they even encourage backchannel engagement in real time by announcing a hashtag with the conference name or meeting locale for people to use to converse on Twitter about what is happening at various sessions.

I also see this at play within the comments sections below a post or a video link. People’s reactions, good or bad, are exchanged and discussed, and we as the viewer become privy to these interchanges, if we like it or not.

We in the church must recognize and acknowledge that backchannels are always open even within worship or board meetings or Bible studies. The fact that parishioners are texting each other during these church events and activities has to some degree become par for the course, and we as church leaders do not need to be angered or offended by it.

In many ways we can use backchannels to our advantage in the church. Encouragement and even criticism that we see in backchannels can help us to learn more about ourselves and help us to improve upon what we are doing in our ministries. It also is an opportunity to engage in a more in-depth discussion of faith in Christ offline with someone who wrote something on a backchannel.

What people say on backchannels is not normally what they would maybe say in person to a pastor or a church worker, but may be more real and genuine. Backchannel conversations can help to understand better what is really going on in people’s experiences in the church that you may not hear as a pastor or church worker otherwise.

The knowledge that backchannels may be happening at any time while I speak in Bible study, for instance, also helps me to polish and hone by message and choose my words a little more carefully. In the process, my presentation becomes better. I have a greater sense of confidence that if what I say in Bible class ends up on a text or post or website or tweet, I am OK with that because I was thoughtful about it and it is exactly what I wanted to say.

And anything that gets more people engaging within the Church has got to be a good thing. So celebrate backchannels, I say, and encourage your parishioners to take part in them.

Walking in Circles?

walking in circlesOn 99.1 Joy FM, the Christian radio station in my area, there is a segment every morning called “A Moment in the Word,” and the passage they focused on one morning was the story in Joshua 6 when the Lord commanded the Israelites to march around the walls of Jericho six days in a row, until the walls finally tumbled down after they marched seven times and blew the trumpet on the seventh day.

The radio hosts pondered what the people must have been thinking on the third day, the fifth day, the sixth day. “Why are we walking in circles? What is the point of this?”

These are the same questions we may be asking ourselves these days, too. I don’t know about you, but I often feel that I am walking in circles, not getting much done, just doing the same thing over and over and not seeing too many results.

But the story of Jericho reminds us to continue to put one foot in front of the other and to walk it out. God has a plan for you, even if you cannot see it today or tomorrow or the next. You may feel like faith is not getting you anywhere, but, in fact, it is, according to God’s timing and God’s way. We simply need to trust and get out there and walk the walk of faith and not stop. The reward will be great. The troubles of this earth will tumble down by God’s design, and he will triumph on the Last Day when the trumpet will sound and all believers will be welcomed into the city of God.

As the Bible reminds us:

Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up. —Galatians 6:9

So do not give up. Don’t worry if it feels like you are walking in circles. The walk of faith is worth it.

Revisiting the Third Use of the Law

10 CommandmentsIn confirmation class we learned that there are three uses of the law: as a mirror, as a curb and as a guide. The first two uses have a negative slant: look at what you have done (mirror) and make sure you stay within these parameters (curb). But the third use of the law has a positive bent that sometimes gets lost in our society.

The idea of the third use of the law is that it guides us toward holy living. It is forward thinking. It directs us toward ways in which we can follow God’s Law by looking at the reserve side of the law.  This came to mind when I recently remembered the second half of Luther’s explanations of the 10 Commandments which I memorized long ago. See the phrases marked in bold italics below.

 

First Commandment Thou shalt have no other gods before Me.
What does this mean? We should fear, love, and trust in God above all things.
Second Commandment Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord, thy God, in vain.
What does this mean? We should fear and love God that we may not curse, swear, use witchcraft, lie, or deceive by His name, but call upon it in every trouble, pray, praise, and give thanks.
Third Commandment Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy. (Thou shalt sanctify the holy day.)
What does this mean? We should fear and love God that we may not despise preaching and His Word, but hold it sacred and gladly hear and learn it.
Fourth Commandment Thou shalt honor thy father and thy mother, that it may be well with thee, and thou mayest live long on the earth.
What does this mean? We should fear and love God that we may not despise our parents and masters, nor provoke them to anger, but give them honor, serve and obey them, and hold them in love and esteem.
Fifth Commandment Thou shalt not kill.
What does this mean? We should fear and love God that we may not hurt nor harm our neighbor in his body, but help and befriend him in every bodily need.
Sixth Commandment Thou shalt not commit adultery.
What does this mean? We should fear and love God that we may lead a caste and decent life in word and deed, and each love and honor his spouse.
Seventh Commandment Thou shalt not steal.
What does this mean? We should fear and love God that we may not take our neighbor’s money or goods, nor get them by false ware or dealing, but help him to improve and protect his property and business.
Eighth Commandment Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor.
What does this mean? We should fear and love God that we may not deceitfully belie, betray, slander, nor defame our neighbor, but defend him, speak well of him, and put the best construction on everything.
Ninth Commandment Thou shalt not covet they neighbor’s house.
What does this mean? We should fear and love God that we may not craftily seek to get our neighbor’s inheritance or house, nor obtain it by a show of right, but help and be of service to him in keeping it.
Tenth Commandment Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s wife, nor his manservant, nor his maidservant, nor his cattle, nor anything that is thy neighbor’s.
What does this mean? We should fear and love God that we may not estrange, force, or entice away from our neighbor his wife, servants, or cattle, but urge them to stay and do their duty.

Each of these bold italic phrases is a positive redirection, a plan to live as imitators of Christ, who obeyed the Law perfectly, Sometimes focusing on the negatives prevents us from seeing the positive in many things in life, and the Law is no different. I challenge you (and myself) today to apply the third use of the law in daily living and see what good places that guiding leads us to.

Maturing in Faith

Philippians 4:13Andrée Seu Peterson, in an article entitled “Learning Curves” in World magazine asks the question. “Why would you ever assume that you can’t do all things by Christ who strengthens you?” (World Magazine, March 4, 2017, p. 63). The Bible tells us we can, of course, but the devil and our human nature keep telling us we can’t.

We should never let stumbles or setbacks along the way in our Christian walk prevent us from moving forward, from carrying on, from dusting ourselves off and getting back to work. We must always look at any failure (large or small, real or perceived) as a learning experience. “How can I do that better the next time?” “What can I do to adjust my approach?” “What do I need to avoid?”

We as humans are not perfect, yet Jesus makes us perfect through his death and resurrection, so we need to let him guide us through troubling times. That’s what maturing in faith is all about. We need to never give up in our witnessing for Christ, in our connecting with him, in our building of relationships with our brothers and sisters in Christ, in our complete and total trust in him. He gives us the right words to say, the appropriate actions to take, the correct stance to have when confronting the next inevitable struggle.

The Bible is clear on this:

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 in your knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ. —2 Peter 1:5-8

Our goal is to grow in Christ and never give up. Remember that the next time a bad day hits you hard. You truly can do all things through Christ who strengthens you!

 

What Is a Bible Study Exactly?

Bible studyThe answer to the question of what a Bible study is seems at first glance to be a simple one: an in-depth look at Scripture. But a recent article in Christianity Today entitled “Let Bible Studies Be Bible Studies” reveals that the answer can actually be fairly complex in our church today.

“Over time, ‘Bible study’ has become a catchall to describe all kinds of gatherings,” the writer of the article, Jan Wilkin, explains. “As we have expanded our use of the term, we have decreased the number of actual Bible studies we offer” (Christianity Today, March 2017, p. 26).

Churches indeed in many cases have shifted away from offering basic Bible studies in favor of studies that are topical or devotional in nature. Many now resemble more of a book club than a theology course.

Wilkin contends that this has led to a decline in Bible literacy in today’s Christians. There is still value to be gained by engaging in a line-by-line study of Deuteronomy, for example. It is still important to hone our ability to observe, interpret and apply biblical texts. It is still good for us to know the structure and order of the books of the Bible and to be able to know and find the chapter and verse of a meaningful passage.

Topical and devotional gatherings have strong purpose and meaning, of course, but they should not be a replacement for traditional Bible study. The maintaining of Bible literacy among Christians is at stake.

Wilkin suggests that we as church leaders are clear in our terminology of what is being offered in our congregations. Reserve the term “Bible study” for classes that are basic studies of Scripture, and call anything else “Topical Discussions On … ” or “Devotional Reflections About … ” Then the participant will better know what to anticipate.

Wilkin says that it sends a good message to your congregation to always offer something that is clearly a “Bible study,” because it shows that we as a Church make Bible knowledge a priority.

While there is nothing wrong with topical discussions and devotional reflection gatherings, we as the Church should never let good old-fashioned Bible study fall by the wayside.

The Bible Reads Us

Bible reading

Let the Bible read you.

In the Winter/Spring 2017 issue of the Concordia Journal, Prof. Erik Herrmann says in an article on the relevance of remembering the Reformation, “There is a saying that ‘there are some books that you read, and then there are some books that read you.’ For Luther, the Bible was that second kind of book. He did not see the Scriptures primarily as the object of our interpretation, but rather we are the objects as the Scriptures interpret us” (Concordia Journal, Winter/Spring 2017, p. 24).

Letting the Bible read us instead of us reading the Bible completely changes our approach to the study of Scripture. We are not to lay our own thoughts and opinions and values onto Scripture. Instead, we need to let the messages of Scripture overlay onto us and reveal where we are at in our spiritual lives.

Out initial tendencies when reading the Bible are to say, “Well, this is what it means for us today” or “What I think they meant was…” We need to be careful as Christians never to put our own personal spin on Scripture. That is not what it is for. It is not a tool that can be reshaped to match our own will or desires.

By letting the Bible read us, we let the words of Scripture wash over us and let it tell us where we are at. The messages may be hard to hear. “You are a stiff-necked people,” “O ye of little faith,” “You were not willing” may be directed at us sometimes, and we are then called to confess and seek forgiveness, to “return to God with our whole heart,” as the Scriptures say (Exodus 32:9, Matthew 14:31, Luke 13:34, Joel 2:12).

Letting the Bible read us opens us up to hearing familiar passages in new and different ways that speak to our current circumstances. The words are the same, but they can have an entirely different impact on us as adults than they did when we were children, for example. That is the Bible reading us.

And that is what happened so profoundly to Martin Luther leading up to the Reformation. The Bible spoke to him in a new way when he read Romans 1:7:

For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith for faith, as it is written, “The righteous shall live by faith.”

That verse read him and helped him to see that righteousness did not come from him, but from faith in Christ. That aha moment in Luther’s life is called the “tower experience,” and Luther described the revelation this way:

“I felt I had been born anew and that the gates of heaven had been opened. The whole of scripture had new meaning. And from that point the phrase, ‘the justice of God’ no longer filled me with hatred, but rather became unspeakably sweet by virtue of a great love.”

I pray that we all have our own similar “tower experiences” as we let the Bible read us.

 

Recapturing Awe

aweIn the Bible we often read about how the people of God were in awe of God and Jesus:

The Israelites trembled when they say the thunder and lightning and trumpet blasts announcing the presence of God on Mt. Sinai.

The wise men bowed down and worshiped Jesus when they came into his presence bearing gifts.

The disciples marveled at Jesus when he stilled the storm.

A Samaritan healed of leprosy fell at Jesus’ feet, giving thanks.

Unadulterated awe is something that is hard to come by these days in our modern society. What is awe? Psychologist Dacher Keltner puts it this way, “Awe is the feeling of being in the presence of something vast or beyond human scale, that transcends our current understanding of things” (Parade Magazine, October 9, 2016, p. 6).

Looking at the stars, standing at the edge of the Grand Canyon or staring up at El Capitan in Yosemite can elicit a feeling of awe for us. But in general, it seems that we have lost that sensation of  awe in our daily lives.

But awe-inspiring circumstances continue to exist all around us, We just need to be on the lookout for them. A flower blooms where once we  saw only dirt. The sun rises each morning to dispel the darkness of night. The clouds drop rain upon dry land. Awe-inspiring, indeed. But we can so easily take them all for granted.

When we take a step back and actually think about the many things we see every day, we can’t help but see the amazing hand of God at work.

That is why it is good to us to recapture of sense of awe on a regular basis. At Newcomers High School in Long Island City, N.Y., for example, teacher Julie Mann takes her students on “Awe Walks” to connect with nature and art (Parade Magazine, October 9, 2016, p. 7).

We can do the same thing to connect ourselves more and more to God.

“Awe Walks” give people a sense that life is still good, Mann said.

“Awe Walks” can help us as Christians remember that God is still good.

So get out and “Awe Walk” as much as you can to reconnect with God and renew your spirit. Just a jaunt around the block or a quick hike in the woods can give your faith life a a boost. Be awed by something every day!