Derek Johnson Muses

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What I Wear to Church

Yeah, me

Yeah, me

When I go to church, I look like the way Christopher Nolan and Heath Ledger wanted the Joker to look like in The Dark Knight: like a young man who spends a fortune on clothing and goes out and parties all night, only to have his clothes appear ratty and tattered. Granted, I buy things on sale or at thrift stores, but my appearance remains urban hipster. I get mistaken for a Concordia student every now and then, mainly because I’m a walking billboard for American Eagle Outfitters.

While I’m always slightly miffed when everyone thinks I’m in college, I’d rather where my ratty blue sports jacket, 1980’s second-hand tie, and off-color pants than 3-piece suit stuff. I don’t care for polo shirts, and I only go really formal when I serve on worship committee. It’s not that I’m directly anti-establishment, but maybe I’m just more comfortable wearing a hit like it’s the 1950’s. If it were, I’d probably be going to a very different job than I do today.

Thanks, Dr. Walther

I had a joyous experience Tuesday night. I had the privilege of attending the coordinating council at St. John as the rep from the worship committee. Finally, I was hanging out with the cool people and have made a small step toward becoming one of the elders.

Not only that, but I was also privileged to read the group’s devotion and choose a daily devotion from God Grant It by C.F.W. Walther. The devotion covered John 3:14-15, and was on new birth. Even though I read it at home before the meeting, hearing myself read to the group was a bit surprising. Dr. Walther had a way of piling up words against each other that we don’t hear in today’s diction.

“our bodily birth gives us a bodily life and natural movements, desires, wills, understanding, and powers…” (p. 472, God Grant It, Concordia Publishing House. Translated by Gerhard P. Grabenhofer. 2006)

“a born-again person…thinks, judges, speaks, and lives according to the Word.” (p. 473, God Grant It.)

For a young man who was eager to be in a place of church leadership, I’m glad to remember how little I really know. Today, we read news stories and blog posts that say, “Bill got up. He ate breakfast and went to work. His boss supported him.” Walther hammers on points, making them over and over again, one sentence after the other. In our modern twitterverse, you will rarely hear one person expound the same principal in such a way, for fear of loosing audience. Which you will if you are too repetitive.

A hundred and fifty years ago, when sermons would last an hour and political debates three. Now, pastors I know tell me that they have, at most, fifteen minutes of people’s attention until their eyes start glazing over. Our technology in America today is amazing, great, and a blessing from God, but we should never think that we are so much smarter today than we were fifty years or a hundred years ago, even if we have a greater libraries of information. What we do with information and using it well is what counts for something.

So thank you, Dr. Walther for knocking me off of my pedestal. 

walther

Why go to Easter Vigil and Long Communion Lines

If you are good Lutheran, you will have been to church three times in four days by the time Easter is up, so why would it hurt if you went four times in four days? I get it: you’re physically spent, and you literally can’t go to church again. But if you live in Seward, here’s the benefit of coming to Easter Vigil at St. John: you will get to watch yours truly play with fire!

Okay, that’s a really lousy reason compared to hearing about God’s grace and reason. But it is ironic that the two major festivals in the church, Christmas (celebration of the Incarnate Word) and Easter (Celebration of Christ’s victory), are both marked by service the night before that involve candles. One is the height of all celebration, the other is an afterthought.

Pastor Will Weedon does a lot better job of explaining Easter Vigil in this podcast, but let me state this from my experience: the service is a lot of readings (not unlike Christmas day), and focuses on how the story of the Bible has culminated in the event we celebrate on Easter, Christ’s resurrection, the promised and testified to hope. If you’re home, going to bed early for 6:30 sunrise service, I understand. But you are missing out.

It’ll look just like this.

Lutherans seem talk about communion a lot, but in one of two ways: one, there are those who talk about what a joy it is to receive Christ’s body and blood, and two, how long it takes. I haven’t met a lot of Lutherans who will talk about both.

Let me just say this, since Easter is tomorrow and you’re probably going to find yourself in a long line: give thanks that it takes so long to go up for communion. You get to sing more hymns, and more time to ponder the mystery of the sacrament. And if you’re church has a lot of old people who sit in front like mine does, it’s going to take them a long time to get up there. I’m on the ushering committee at St. John, I know how long it takes.

I’m guessing there are certain congregations in the LCMS that discontinued weekly communion because it just took so long and so many volunteer hours, which I get. But while it’s up to an individual congregation to decide how often they communion, just remember: you are receiving a gift from God, with your brothers and sisters, for your eternal salvation. Do you really want to complain about how long it takes to set the table and do the dishes?

Let me share from my own personal experience. Since I usher at St. John’s, there are Sundays I don’t get to read the prayer in the front of the hymnal before I go up to take communion. Sometimes, I do feel rushed, since I communion at the end and have to tell Pastor who needs to receive communion in the pew (which is a significant responsibility). I don’t always take communion with the best mindset, but I’m there, and my receiving depends on what God does for me, not what I’m thinking at the time.

So this Sunday, when you’re in a long line headed to an assist who is standing outside the altar, just remember: you’re able to have slice of heaven this because Jesus gave up his God-head and rose from the dead. Even if you’re groggy, you’re getting Christ’s body and blood.

Judges 21: Stealing Wives & Israel’s Leadership Void

At St. John in Seward, the Heritage Room Study recently completed a series on the book of Judges. Yes, that’s right, we dug into the Old Testament. (Jerry Pfabe said he’d kept the notes around for thirty plus years.) Last Sunday, we had an interesting discussion on the end of the book

When I was a kid, I always thought the ending of Judges was odd. The Benjamites couldn’t marry their fellow Israelites because of their injustices, so they went off and stole wives from a foreign country. The main thing I remember was the last verse. ” In those days there was no king in Israel. Everyone did what was right in his own eyes.” (Judges 21:25 ESV) The Benjamites kidnapping the daughters of Shiloh didn’t really sound  that bad, but of course, a lot of things don’t sound as bad after you read about Israel annihilating the Benjamite women, children, and livestock. So when Dr. Pfabe compared what the Israelites did to human trafficking, I reconsidered the story in those different terms.

“Everyone did what was right in his own eyes.” Kind of sounds like the modern slogan of whatever is true for you is true. But one thing that comes through in the whole story is no one is leading Israel in the campaign against Benjamin. You can’t always fault people for not having great leadership in front of them, although it doesn’t absolve the from personal responsibility either. Israel may have had the Moses and the books of the law, but they didn’t listen to them.

That’s probably why I don’t fault the Benjamites that much for stealing daughters away from Shiloh, and taking them away from their families. May be if Israel had good king or judge, that leader would have gone around Israel and taken up a national offering to pay the dowries for the Benjamites to marry wives from another neighbor. But instead, they took the more expedient route.

Still, their world was much different than ours is today. Remember, Lot’s daughters slept with their father to continue their line (and so created two of Israel’s worst enemies, Genesis 19). Letting the Benjaminites die off and loosing a tribe of Israel was so heartbreaking to the rest of the nation, they compromised their own plan. Keeping the family together is important, even at the expanse of breaking up someone else’s family.

But at least the men who wrote the Old Testament were honest enough to include Israel’s flaws. Prof. Moulds noted this at one of St. John’s studies on Leviticus, that while Israel’s neighbors were writing long books with nothing but praise for their kings, Israel’s priests and prophets constantly condemned their own people, which undoubtedly (aside from divine inspiration) helped the Scriptures endure down to our day.

We don’t know hat happened to those girls. Personally, I hope that many of them went on to lead, long happy lives, and become good wives and mothers. Of course, I’m being really optimistic, but that’s just my hope, that even though these guys treated them poorly at first, they repented, and treated them better.

Productive Lutheran Worship Discussion?

After reading Pastor Todd Wilken’s Worship Wars article in the Fall Issues Etc. Journal, I would like to examine  the choices that lead a congregation to worship the way it does. While I agree that doctrine is inevitably at the center of worship controversy, looking across our synod and making a sweeping judgment that a return to doctrine is going to automatically going to cure worship-related-anxieties is not the only answer that everyone will accept. It starts with doctrine, but it doesn’t just end there.

As I’ve traveled around our Synod, I’ve been many different congregations, some who use the liturgy in its fullness, and some that use some or all contemporary. One thing I’ve found that’s a bit surprising is that the churches who use the liturgy (and keep closed communion) are more friendly and outgoing than the churches who use contemporary worship. I suspect this in large part because the liturgical churches know that they are asking more of people, and they are okay with that. Some people may find their worship dense and confusing, but the liturgical church uses this as an opportunity to present the gospel. Meanwhile, the non-liturgical churches often have greeters with authenticity and zeal of a car salesman.

As I’ve heard the stories of the advocates of alternative worship, they all follow the same narrative. Dying church, no young people are coming, older adults panic, so contemporary worship gets instituted. Visitors come in and don’t understand the liturgy. Instead of explaining it, the pastor says “Lord have mercy on me” and runs for his guitar. Notice how all these methods are reactionary, presumptuous, and don’t even involve discussion with the people they are trying to reach.

So, in some sense, the difference in our synod between those who use the liturgy and those who use the praise band can come down to “Inner Scoreboard”, as Warren Buffett would say. If your congregation is a middling 150 people, how do you feel about it? Are you okay with consistent attendance by a select few who give and who do a lot of the work, or do you want more? To put it within the context of Wilken’s post, are you okay with worshiping in the way that best reflects the doctrine you believe, or do you have to go chasing people? I will say this: while it’s admirable to try to reach more people, if a congregation holds steadfast to its doctrinally principals, even the most worldly people will admire that.

But of course, none of this deals with the primal issue in our synod, namely we are divided on the nature of what worship should be, going down multiple generations, and don’t have a platform to discuss these issues. In my CUW class, there was a per-seminary student whose father was the pastor of a LCMS parish who embraced contemporary worship and church growth practices. His senior seminar tried to justify contemporary worship’s place in our synod, but it lacked any opening for anyone from the opposing side to come in and engage him on the topic. Even the moderate students didn’t respect it.

So how do we create a platform to have meaningful conversations about worship in our synod? Doctrine is a huge part of the worship wars and at the center, but to find a real solution to the worship wars, we have to talk about practice within the context of doctrine. First, we talk about what we believe and why we are part of this synod (given how we are slaves to tradition at times, such self-examination). Then, let’s move beyond that and talk about what’s essential to teach our churches through worship and preaching. Then, move on to circumstance. If people are leaving our church, what’s the solution? Is changing the worship style the real solution? What about the churches that are taking in more people with alternate worship? Do we want to do everything that they do and believe what they want to believe?

So, there are two parts to this discussion, first doctrine (in the pastor’s study and in the sanctuary) and then practice. The way to have a productive discussion about worship is starting with doctrine, working through this issues, clear through to practice. But it’s important that as we move the discussion from doctrine to practice, we don’t suddenly stop talking about doctrine and jump to practice, because these things are inevitably connected. And even if they aren’t we should weigh them to be sure.

The LCMS is divided on this issue, and working through it is probably going to take another generation. Be honest about what you’re doing and consistent in doing it. Don’t sit on the differences you have with your brother; instead, bring them to the front, and share them openly. Even if we don’t come to a consensus, maybe we can at least move forward.

Church Work: Taping for Shut-ins

A while back, I saw a blurb in the St. John bulletin asking for someone to help with the tape ministry at St. John, which made audio tapes for the older adults at St. John. I called about, and it turned out that our family friends Gene and Marian Faszholz were in charge of the production. So I began helping them make tapes for the shut-in members of the congregation.

I know what you are thinking: can’t we just digitally record the service? Yes, the service is recorded digitally and with full video. There is a ministry that distributes DVD’s but so far, we haven’t worked out a way to easily distribute a distribute an audio recording or CD’s, so we’re stuck with tapes until these machines break. The machines have already been paid for, so anything else we get out of them is gravy.

On the Sundays I tape, I arrive around 8:10 to set up the taping equipment. It’s stored in the work area behind the fellowship area by the pastor’s offices. I take the three bulky tape copiers out of the cupboard, plug them in, and stock them with tapes. I take a clean tape that’s never been used before and write the date on it, and head upstairs.

The taping equipment is up in the corner of the balcony at church. During the school year, I usually have to climb past choirs (bells or voice, and sometimes both), to get to the tape deck and where I insert the tape. I have a little over forty minutes of record time, so I have to cut certain things out, like the pre-service announcements, or a couple of the hymn verses. Time has never been a problem, and once the service is done I head back down to the tape room.

Tape Deck

Once I’m there, I plug the tape into the first machine, careful to get the right side up (otherwise, I will have to stay late and record the eleven o’clock service). It usually takes me half an hour to get all of the tapes I need, during which time I sort the bulletins to send with the tapes, or just read the news bulletin. I need thirty tapes for all of the routes and another seven or eight for the church office, in case someone wants to pick them up during the week. I’m lucky-when Gene started working with the tape ministry ten years ago, he had to make twice as many tapes.

Yes, Tapes.

When I started, there were three delivery routes, so I always had to take a route to either Heartland or around town. But since there have been a few death, and we only do two routes now. While I enjoy not having to deliver and going to Bible study instead, I do miss seeing the people at Heartland. It’s great to be a presence in their lives.

(Worship Committee)

Church Work: What I Do For Worship Committe

Where I watch the sermon from when I’m on Worship Committee Duty

A two years ago, I was asked to be a part of the worship committee at St. John Evangelical Lutheran. As I wasn’t doing a lot at the time, I said sure, and since have been privileged to serve my Christian community in such a capacity.

Worship committee members are part of the ushering team at St. John and do a lot of the coordinating of the various participants in the service (acolytes, lay readers, etc.). One WC member is on duty at each service (two for 8:30 communion services), along with the usher teams, and mostly just handout programs at the beginning, help with offering, and direct people up to communion. They are also have the responsibility of finding a communion assistant if one doesn’t show up, or lighting the candles if one of the kids doesn’t show up (done both). Post-service, they collect bulletins and go up the aisles to collect attendance registers and take them to the office, and change the hymn boards. I’ve even had the privilege of setting up for baptism.

By and far the biggest responsibility of the worship committee is responding to a medical emergency if one arises during the service. This happened once when I was serving (thankfully others were there to help as well), a second time when I wasn’t to someone who was sitting directly behind me. There’s an automatic defibrillator that all of us are trained to use, and Clark urges all of the members to take CPR courses annually.

One of my friends told me when I first started that I had the perfect demeanor to be an usher. I suppose she’s right, although I hadn’t put a lot of thought into it. Sure, it’s a couple of meetings over the course of a year and staying late after service, but with everything God has done for me, it is the least that I can do to serve His people.

For 8:30 service, I arrive at 7:45. I collate programs and news bulletins for most of that time, greet people as they come in. I love it when we have an usher group of teenagers during lent because it usually means I can sit back and let them do all the work, and it’s great to have them involved. I always end up pacing a lot during the sermon, because I worry about having to help someone who might have a medical emergency. Surprisingly, Pastor Ratcliffe doesn’t find this distracting.

Issues Etc. Vidcasts: Liturgy and American Revivalism

Driving across Wisconsin and Iowa, while exhausting and tiring, was a great time to get caught up on some Issues, Etc. podcasts that had been piling up. Issues, Etc. works great on the road espescially when you have series, which thanks to Pastor Will Weedon, I did.

I’d referenced this before, but I wanted to mention again how great Dr. Larry Rast’s podcast on American Revivalism is. It goes a long way to showing how dangerous emotion-driven Christianity and the idea of “new measures” are. Dr. Rast, I hope you write a book on this.

Acts 2 has to be the most-abused chapter in all of Scripture. The feminists use it to justify woman pastors, the non-dems use it to justify throwing out the liturgy, and the real extremists use it to justify universal redemption.

Jesus and His Brothers

And his mother and his brothers came, and standing outside they sent to him and called him. And a crowd was sitting around him, and they said to him, “Your mother and your brothers are outside, seeking you.” And he answered them, “Who are my mother and my brothers?” And looking about at those who sat around him, he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers! For whoever does the will of God, he is my brother and sister and mother.”  (Mark 3:31-35 ESV)

This was the text for the Sunday morning Bible study I attend, and its one that cuts to me personally because of what it says about the family. In conservative, religious-based political circles, there is a lot of talk about fighting for the family, family first, etc. Given the track record of the lifestyle left, I’m actually surprised that they haven’t used this passage to say, “See, Jesus didn’t confine himself to the traditional definition of family.”

Jesus’ family must have been an interesting dynamic. Jesus is the talent sibling who goes out into the world to pursue his teaching and ministry, which leads to “Jesus mania”, aka Bieber fever without social media. Jesus is out teaching the people. Back home, Jesus’ brothers and sister are running the carpentry business, taking care of Mom, and feeling that Jesus is ignoring them.

Yes, Jesus does still care for His family. From the cross, he told John to look after his mother (John 19:26-27). But his vocation was/is God’s Son, Savior of the World. In short,  head of God’s family. What God gave, first to Adam and Eve (the first family), he fulfills in Christ, who unites us to him.

 

 

Some Holy Week Summations, and a Recommended Podcast

Last Sunday (Palm Sunday), I was asked by a friend how I would explain Palm Sunday, Maundy Thursday, and Good Friday to kids. Since I have neither skills nor experience with children, I tried to sum each down to a couple of concepts. Palm Sunday, Christ coming in humility on a donkey. (Thanks Issues, Etc.) Maundy Thursday, Christ institutes His Supper to leave a piece of himself with us, just like a parent or grandparent would leave a trinket with his or her grandchild when they went away on a journey (I know, a possibility for a mixed metaphor). And Good Friday, Christ receiving glory in suffering, being the seed that goes into the ground and dies to produce spiritual fruit. (John 12:23-24).

Horse vs. Donkeys-Christ's feet were dragging on the ground

Also, here’s a favorite Issues Etc. Podcast: Rev. Paul McCain on Luther on the Passion of the Christ: Link

A continued blessed Holy Week to you all.

Lent Wraps Up. Now…

Yesterday was Palm Sunday, and I am now thinking back to the post that I wrote back on Ash Wednesday about repentance, and my experience going into Lent. Now that Lent is over, I find myself wondering if I should ask me myself if I learned anything.

I suppose there is some legitimacy to my musings; if I were a student, I suppose I would have to write notes on the subject of what repentance means. But isn’t more than that? Don’t I have to record some moment of personal growth? Not necessarily, but here’s what I heard at church and what I took from it.

Our sermon series at church was messages preached from the perspective of many of those involved directly in Holy Week: Judas, Pontius Pilate, Peter, Barrabbas. Hearing from each of these people lead me to think through the cycle of sin and repentance. There are many days when that gets tiring, especially when I struggle with the same sins day after day. Once again, temptation lies open in front of me; you’ve heard this message, and it’s boring you now, it’s not new. Why do you need it? Being the type who loves to write, the temptation is especially powerful as I’m always seeking out new perspective (and being at the end of a creative “season” if you will, I feel that temptation strongly now).

And then there’s the opposite temptation: stay in church but stymie your ears. Hey, you’ve heard it, and you know it. You don’t need constant fellowship. There are so many sermons on the internet, you can just go to church at home, with a virtual presence. And after all you’ve been through and how people in the church hurt you…

I’m sorry, I’m getting ahead of myself. That’s a story I’m not quite ready to tell, only to see there were people who gave me (albeit indirectly) every reason to walk away from this church. But I have chosen otherwise.

So what exactly did I learn this Lent? That I’m not perfect. More precisely, though, I think I’d better get used to the fact that certain cycles never end. Praise the Lord that forgiveness is one of them.

A note on these videos from Pastor Harrison: we are indeed blessed to have such a powerful spokesperson for our church body, and one thing we should take from these videos is that it does a lot of good when we pray and write notes of support to our pastors and those above us (including Facebook comments). For those of my fellow young adults out there, consider his comments in the video above about young people loosing interest in religion, and know that you have the responsibility to encourage your leaders and share the message with those in your circle of influence. Let us continue to do so joyfully.

In closing, here’s Pastor Harrison’s Holy Week video from last year:

Isaiah’s Vineyard Prepares the Way

Personally, I’m not enamored with sermon illustrations.  If they go on too long, my mind wander. To me, a good sermon analogy is short, to the point, and leaves you thinking about the significant point of the passage.

But Jesus used parables a lot, and so did the prophets. Isaiah 5:1-7 contains one such parable, that of a vineyard. It bears a stark resemblance to two of Jesus’ parables in the new Testament., and in it, we see how Jesus’ interpretation of the Law and the Prophets set him apart from the Sadduccees and their clinging to the Torah over the prophets.

First, Isaiah’s words. He set up the scene: Israel is God’s vineyard, and the vineyard has produced “wild grapes” (meaning sour). God planted and fertilized his vineyard (the book of the law and the prophets), and there is no excuse for Israel’s lack of production. Therefore, here is God’s judgment on the vineyard: “It shall be devoured.” (v. 5), and not just devoured, but driven off the map. “I will command the clouds that they rain no rain upon it.” (v. 6) This language is mirrored in the end of the chapter, where Isaiah describes the coming

Compare this statement of judgment on the unfaithful to Luke 13:6-9, where Jesus tell the parable of the barren fig tree. The planter of a fig tree comes to the servant and tells him to cut down the unproductive vine, but the servant asks his master to wait another year. The difference from Isaiah is clear.: in Isaiah, God has had enough of Israel’s sin, and he is sending this generation to judgment. In Luke, the servant intercedes for the tree, and there is another chance, although judgment is not off the horizon. The servant represents Christ, who intercedes for us now,  and in some sense, our pastors and other leaders who intercede for Christians.

The other similar parable is the one of the wicked tenants in Luke 20:9-18. In this parable, Jesus uses the same set up, although the owner in His parable doesn’t get the return on his investment in the vineyard just because there wasn’t a crop. The owner of vineyard (God) doesn’t get a return on his investment because of wicked tenants (the Jewish religious leaders) beat every messenger (prophet) that the owner sends, and then they kill the son of the owner, Jesus. But both stories have the same ending: judgment on the vineyard. It is no wonder that the Jews wanted to seize Jesus after he told this parable; Jesus could not have made their unfaithfulness so clear, and unfortunately, they continued to seek refuge in their own works.

What does this show us about the importance of parables? It shows us that God does not exist only in the regulations of the law, although we would be foolish to deny that God speaks there. But God’s word speaks to us as we go about our lives every day,  in the field, in the office, or on the road, and we would be foolish to think our actions are without consequences.

So, here is the meaning of this passage: God’s word is to produce fruit in us, and just reading it isn’t enough. Even unbelievers who deny the truth read the Scriptures with vigor to disprove its truth. We must purge our hearts of our unclean thoughts and works, so that God’s word may take its free course in us, because ultimately, we can be our own worst enemy when it comes to our own salvation.

(All Scripture quote from ESV)

(More Isaiah studies)

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