Pastor's Blog

Archive for February, 2012

A Brief, Belated Valentines’ Reflection

Wednesday, February 29th, 2012

At our church’s annual Sweetheart’s Banquet, I shared a brief reflection on marriage. I centered my talk around the ideas of couples being roommates, teammates, or soulmates.

  • Roommates share a room. Their highest goal is peace—a quiet coexistence.
  • Teammates share a task. Their highest goal is success—accomplishing a task (be it starting a business, raising children, or serving in ministry.)
  • Soulmates share a life. Their highest goal is companionship—to know and be known as fully as humanly possible.

Most of us would desire a soulmate level relationship, but there’s a caveat: our culture has destroyed the concept of “soulmates.” We believe in this mythic connection between two people—predestined, unavoidable, perfect. “If only we find the right person,” we say, “we’ll be happy.” Just witness the trend of serial monogamy to see this play out.

Scripture teaches us differently. Rather than stumbling upon a fated soulmate, the marriage covenant creates soulmates. So if we desire to share that deep level of intimacy with our spouse, we need to realize three things:

  • My marriage vows made us soulmates.
  • Happiness will not and cannot be found with someone else.
  • My focus should be on becoming the right person for my spouse, not trying to “find” the right person to be my new spouse.

Monday Morning Quarterback – Hebrews 8

Tuesday, February 28th, 2012

First things first: it’s no fun to preach with a cold. And I’m sure it’s no fun to listen to someone preach with a cold. My apologies.

A few additional reflections from Hebrews 8:

  • The connection between the ministry of Jesus and the true return from Exile for the Jews shows up numerous times in the New Testament, not least in Hebrews 8 (and its reference to Jeremiah 31). N.T. Wright explores the concept in depth in Jesus and the Victory of God.
  • The true return from Exile was marked not by geography or national sovereignty, but by faithfulness to God’s original purpose for Israel—to bless the entire world.
  • For one example of how to “dwell in the word,” look here
  • As we walk along this path, allowing God to perform a divine heart transplant, it can be helpful to see signposts of progress. Here are three I didn’t have time to mention in my sermon:
    • Christlike actions start to become “second-nature.” When we respond instinctively in a Christlike way, we know that God is at work in our hearts.
    • Our “circle of concern” expands. One of the hallmarks Jesus identifies as we progress towards “perfection” (Greek to teleion; maturity or completion) is concern beyond family or friends—concern that expands to strangers and even enemies. (Matt. 5:43-48)
    • Prayer & Praise become prerequisites for daily living. Prayer & praise are baselines for Christian spirituality, and as God renews our hearts, we find them more and more indispensable.

Monday Morning Quarterback – Hebrews 7

Tuesday, February 21st, 2012

A few reflections on this past Sunday’s sermon:

  • I’m deeply indebted to N.T. Wright for the understanding that Paul—along with other New Testament writers—refers specifically to the Mosaic Law (not “laws” in general or morality in the abstract) when writing about “law.”
  • For a more comprehensive look at why “one worldwide family” is so essential to God’s plan, I would encourage you to read Wright’s book Justification: God’s Plan and Paul’s Vision.
  • I didn’t have time to read & explain Hebrews 7:20-25 during the sermon. The primary point of these verses are to reinforce that God gives Jesus his priesthood, and God does it with an oath. (The “oath” (“The Lord has sworn and will not change his mind, ‘You are a priest forever’”) is first found in Psalm 110, and the author(s) of Hebrews believe this coronation passage to be prophetic, referring to Jesus.)
  • If the author of Hebrews is right, and the life, death, burial and resurrection of Jesus results in “the abrogation of an earlier commandment because it was weak and ineffectual (for the law made nothing perfect),” then we have to ask why so many people still rely on the Law as a method of evangelism. In many circles (notably the neo-Reformed movement, but elsewhere as well), it’s taught and practiced that “the Law gives knowledge of sin; therefore the Gospel is meaningless without the Law.” This is why we see street preachers beginning their Gospel presentations with some of the 10 Commandments; if they convince someone they’re “guilty before God,” then they’re more likely to accept Jesus’ offer of forgiveness. While I can understand the impulse, it seems deeply misguided in light of Paul’s writings and the Book of Hebrews. Why would we try to share our faith on the basis of something that “is obsolete and growing old [and] will soon disappear” (Heb. 8)? It’s not unlike trying to arrest someone for drinking alcohol on the basis of Prohibition—a law that is repealed and no longer in effect. Understanding that the New Covenant “abrogates” the Old Covenant should push us to deeper understandings of sin, forgiveness, salvation, and evangelism.

You can watch the full sermon here.

The Colluding Church

Wednesday, February 15th, 2012

“Eugene, the church is an evil place. No matter how good you are and how good your intentions, the church will suck the soul out of you. I’m your friend. Please, don’t be a pastor.”

Willi Ossa, church janitor by night, painter and atheist by day, offered these words of warning to Eugene Peterson. Willi had just finished a portrait of Eugene—a possibly prophetic piece that showed Peterson 20 years older, “gaunt and grim, the eyes flat and without expression.” Peterson hadn’t become a pastor yet, but he was on his way, and Willi wanted to save his friend.

But Willi’s warning wasn’t just the bitter or delusion ramblings of a cranky atheist; Willi knew that whereof he spoke. Willi grew up in Germany, during World War II.

He had lived through the war and personally experienced at close quarters the capitulation of the German church to Hitler and the Nazis. His pastor had become a fervent Nazi. He had never heard of Dietrich Bonhoeffer or Martin Neimöller or Karl Barth of the Barmen Confession. All he knew was that the state church he had grown up in hated Jews and embraced Hitler as a prophet. The state-church Christians Willi had known were baptized and took communion and played Mozart all the while they led the nation into atrocities on a scale larger than anything the world had yet seen. He had watched as they turned his beloved Germany into a pagan war machine. He couldn’t understand why I would have anything to do with church. He warned me of the evil and corrupting influence it would have on me. He told me that churches, all churches, reduced pastors to functionaries in a bureaucracy where labels took the place of faces and rules trumped relationships. He liked me. He didn’t want his friend destroyed.

Willi’s story—and the hundreds of thousands of stories like his—drives my fierce opposition to the politicization of the church. Yes, everyone invokes the specter of Nazi Germany—often unfairly—to make a point. However, when we study the history of Nazi’s and the German state church, we see that the specter is all too real: politicization destroys the bride of Christ.

When the Church colludes with government, when we confuse the kingdoms of this world for the kingdom of our God, when we use the machinations of the state as a substitute for the Spirit of God… we bring about untold destruction.

Yes, Christians can participate in the process. But we must exercise great caution when fidelity to any politician, any program, any party supplants our faithfulness to Christ. Whether liberal or conservative, Republican or Democrat, any government can be corrupted—and any church colluding with it will be corrupted, too.

(You’ll probably be seeing quite a few more posts from Eugene Peterson’s memoir, The Pastor, in the near future.)

Monday Morning Quarterback – Hebrews 6

Monday, February 13th, 2012

Hebrews 6:4-12 presents a vexing challenge to anyone who reads it. To a strict Calvinist who believes in predestination, it raises a host of issues relating to how one can “fall away,” why God would call such a person (predestined to fall away) in the first place, etc. To those who believe in free will, it throws the issues of eternal security and the limits of God’s grace right in our face.

As I said on Sunday, it takes more than a single sermon to fully explore the depths of the issue, but below are five thoughts on interpreting this difficult passage:

  • “Falling away” (“parapipto” in the Greek) refers to more than “sin.”Parapipto is what’s called a hapax legomenon, a word that occurs only once in the New Testament. We know the literal meaning (“para” is a preposition that can mean “away” or “under”; “pipto” means “to fall”), but the church has attached varying theological subtexts to the word. The theological connotations (what we mean when we say “fall away”) may or may not be accurate.
  • “Impossible” (“adynatos” in the Greek) is a tricky concept. We need to read Hebrews 6 in light of Matt. 19, where Jesus (speaking of “eternal life”) says that “For mortals it is impossible (‘adynatos’), but for God all things are possible (‘dynatos‘).”
  • Turning away from faith (what’s described in Hebrews 6) has serious consequences. We can’t abuse God’s grace a license to sin. We need to internalize this challenge.
  • Biblical warnings are always directed at “me,” not “them.” Rather than trying to point the finger at others, figure out who we know who as “fallen away,” we need to hold this passage up as a mirror, examining our own lives and faith.
  • “We are convinced of better things.This is the promise of Hebrews 6: there’s a danger in falling away and a danger of failing to mature, but there is hope for better things.

A few other reflections on the sermon:

  • I was unfair to Søren Kierkegaard. Saying he’s “impossible to comprehend” was a bit of hyperbole. The man is often difficult to understand, but he was undeniably brilliant and offered a tenacious, challenging view of authentic Christian faith.
  • I think we Anabaptists are sometimes afraid to hold a high view of God’s grace. We rightly emphasize that “faith without works is dead,” and I wonder if we worry that speaking of the grace of God—with all its embarrassing language and sweeping promises—will prevent people from living out their faith. I recognize the tension, but I also want to proclaim the rich mercies of God.

You can view the sermon below by clicking this link.

Monday Morning Quarterback – Sermon on Hebrews 5

Monday, February 6th, 2012

I want to resist the impulse to “re-preach” my sermon in blog form each week, which would waste your time and mind. However, I do want to try and use this platform to offer some additional reflections or pieces of information that didn’t make it in the sermon or may not have been clear. So, each Monday (or maybe Tuesday) I hope to offer a short post looking back at Sunday’s message.

Yesterday we continued our series on Hebrews, looking at Hebrews 5. Here are a few quick thoughts:

  • Someone remarked, with a gentle sarcasm, on “how [I was] able to suddenly, and for no discernible reason, read Hebrews 5 in the middle of it.” Fair enough. I recognize that the primary point of the message—that we are not the hero of the story—may have seemed, at best, tangentially connected to the text at hand. Think of it this way: sometimes scripture invites us to put on our scuba gear and dive deep into the word. At other times, scripture invites to jump off its springboard, exploring new heights before we enter the depths. Sometimes we need to examine the minutia of the text with a microscope, looking and language and syntax and parallels. Other times, we need to look up, look around, take in an expansive view of God’s creation & God’s story. Sometimes we need to look directly at the light, and be dazzled by it. Other times, we need to look along the light, allowing it to illuminate our world. Both approaches are important and valid—as long as we end up immersed in God’s love when all is said and done.
  • The audio clip we played came from This American Life. Specifically, it was excerpted from episode 311, “Build a Better Mousetrap” (Act 3—What Would Fill-In-The-Blank Do)
  • My understanding of why the author(s) of Hebrews devote such significant space to Melchizedek (as a response to concerns about the Jesus vis-a-vis the Levitical priesthood) was shaped by N.T. Wright’s very accessible commentary, Hebrews for Everyone.

You can watch the sermon below:

Rejoicing and Mourning

Sunday, February 5th, 2012

In Romans 12, Paul instructs the church to “Rejoice with those who rejoice, and mourn with those who mourn.” Sometimes, we do both at the same time.

Today we’re rejoicing in the reunion of Mildred Mast with her creator, and we’re mourning with her family in the keen sense of loss.

Mildred will be missed dearly by her family, by her church, and by Lyn and me. We look forward to being reunited with her one day.

But we do not want you to be uninformed, brothers and sisters, about those who have died, so that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope. For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have died. For this we declare to you by the word of the Lord, that we who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will by no means precede those who have died. For the Lord himself, with a cry of command, with the archangel’s call and with the sound of God’s trumpet, will descend from heaven, and the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up in the clouds together with them to meet the Lord in the air; and so we will be with the Lord for ever. Therefore encourage one another with these words.

- 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18


The books on my nightstand

Saturday, February 4th, 2012

(and coffee tables, and desks, and in my bag, and on my iPad Kindle Reader….)

I like love to read. Not just the act itself, which tends to calm me, but absorbing information, being challenged, exploring new perspectives. So, periodically, I want to use this blog to share a few things that I’m reading or recently finished.

I’ve heard horror stories of church leaders being disciplined or even dismissed by their congregations for reading the “wrong” things; I’m confident this won’t engender similar controversies. Whenever we encounter ideas or theologies that differ in minor or significant ways from our own, it’s helpful to recall Paul’s actions in Athens (Acts 17):

While Paul was waiting for them in Athens, he was deeply distressed to see that the city was full of idols. So he argued [Greek: “dialegomai,” the root of the English word “dialogue”] in the synagogue with the Jews and the devout persons, and also in the market-place every day with those who happened to be there. Also some Epicurean and Stoic philosophers debated with him. Some said, ‘What does this babbler want to say?’ Others said, ‘He seems to be a proclaimer of foreign divinities.’ (This was because he was telling the good news about Jesus and the resurrection.) So they took him and brought him to the Areopagus and asked him, ‘May we know what this new teaching is that you are presenting? It sounds rather strange to us, so we would like to know what it means.’ Now all the Athenians and the foreigners living there would spend their time in nothing but telling or hearing something new.

Then Paul stood in front of the Areopagus and said, ‘Athenians, I see how extremely religious you are in every way. For as I went through the city and looked carefully at the objects of your worship, I found among them an altar with the inscription, “To an unknown god.” What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you. The God who made the world and everything in it, he who is Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in shrines made by human hands, nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mortals life and breath and all things. From one ancestor he made all nations to inhabit the whole earth, and he allotted the times of their existence and the boundaries of the places where they would live, so that they would search for God and perhaps grope for him and find him—though indeed he is not far from each one of us. For “In him we live and move and have our being”; as even some of your own poets have said,
“For we too are his offspring.” Since we are God’s offspring, we ought not to think that the deity is like gold, or silver, or stone, an image formed by the art and imagination of mortals. While God has overlooked the times of human ignorance, now he commands all people everywhere to repent, because he has fixed a day on which he will have the world judged in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed, and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead.’

When they heard of the resurrection of the dead, some scoffed; but others said, ‘We will hear you again about this.’ At that point Paul left them. But some of them joined him and became believers, including Dionysius the Areopagite and a woman named Damaris, and others with them.

Rather than cloistering himself in an intellectual bubble, Paul immersed himself in a foreign ideology, going so far as to quote their own poets, subverting their poetry in apologetic and worship.

It’s important to note, though, that the only that allowed Paul to do this was his firm conviction in the truth of the Gospel. Paul was centered in scripture, focused on Jesus, and confident in the Gospel. May the same be true for us as we encounter differing theologies and ideologies.

So, that preface in place, here’s a small sample of some things I’ve been reading:

After You Believe: Why Christian Character Matters
Our Church has been using N.T. Wright’s masterful exploration of Christian virtue to shape our Wednesday evening Bible studies. Although I’ve read through this one before, I still find myself challenged by the Biblical to be “transformed by the renewing of my mind.”





The Pastor: A Memoir
Occasionally, the “memoir” genre seems self-serving. Not in Eugene Peterson’s capable hands. Although he’s best known for his writing (particularly his paraphrase of the Bible, The Message), Peterson is first and foremost a pastor. Not a celebrity pastor. Not a rockstar pastor. Just a pastor. He writes graciously and with humility about his extraordinary life, and offers remarkable guidance for young pastors like me. (I quoted this book in my last post)



Jesus and the Victory of God
My wife laughs at me whenever she sees me reading this. She calls it my “boring pastor’s book.” And, to judge a book by its cover, she’s right: it’s the most basic of basic blues, with a simple Orthodox icon of Jesus, and some basic text. Open it up, and it doesn’t look much better: the font is tiny, the pages seem crowded, and the one or two diagrams are crudely drawn. It’s also massive (even in paperback). I read one review by someone who, when he started the book, was a single man with an undergraduate degree; by the time he finished, he was married and halfway through his doctorate. It’s massive. And it’s also brilliant. N.T. Wright examines the (then) current state of “The Quest for the Historical Jesus,” and, with patience and thoroughness, demonstrates how solid history need not be the enemy of careful theology. I’ll post more thoughts when (if?) I finish it.

Incognito: The Secret Lives of the Brain
Not theological, or even written from a Christian perspective, but David Eagleman’s exploration of cognition—how the brain works—fascinates me.






I don’t have nearly enough time to indulge in good-quality fiction writing, but when I do, Marilynne Robinson’s works are near the top of my list. Gilead was one of the most beautiful, moving books I’ve ever read. The plot moves slows, intentionally, glacially, but the prose is poetic and powerful. Home is the companion novel to that book. I’m only a few pages into it, but I can’t wait to finish.






Why I Love My Small Church

Friday, February 3rd, 2012

In America, we’re taught that Bigger is Always Better. And American churches have swallowed that tripe wholesale. My church is not a big church. By empirical standards, it’s average (around 50 regularly participating adults.) But to judge by the media that flickers across my TV screen, pops up in my internet browser, or lands on my desk, we’re tiny—and our smallness means we’re “unsuccessful.” Don’t we know there are souls to be saved, a kingdom to be built, a multimedia empire to be established?

If I’m being completely honest, that message gets to me. I start to buy in to the idea that “faithfulness” creates “success,” and “success” is best measured in quantitative metrics—attendance and giving and conversions and baptisms that can be graphed and pie-charted and bragged about.

Today at the gym, I was continuing my way through Eugene Peterson’s memoir, The Pastor. In it, he describes a group of clergy (the “Company of Pastors”) that met regularly to shape their vocational identity, to answer what it means to be a pastor. They learned together that being a pastor meant focusing on presence over solutions, and focusing on prayer above performance, and focusing on God above all else. I’ll let Eugene take it from here:

“One Tuesday as we were getting ready to break up, one of our company announced that he was leaving his congregation for another, a church of a thousand members, three times the size of where he was. He described it as “more promising.” I had lunch with Phillip later that week, and he told me that he felt his gifts were being wasted where he was, that he needed more of a challenge, more opportunity to “multiply his effectiveness” (his term). He had not been one of the original members of the Company, but he had been with us for seven years. He was thoroughly familiar with the particular ethos of pastor that had been developing among us.

The more he talked that day over our plate of breadsticks and bowls of vichyssoise, I realized that he had, despite the Company of Pastors, absorbed a concept of pastor that had far more to do with American values—competitive, impersonal, functional—than with what I had articulated as the consensus of our Company in Five Smooth Stones. That bothered me. It didn’t bother me that he was changing congregations—there are many valid, urgent, and, yes, biblical reasons to change congregations. But Phillip’s reasons seemed to be fueled by something more like adrenaline and ego and size. I made a few shy demurrals, but he wasn’t listening. So the next week I wrote him a letter:

Dear Phillip,

I’ve been thinking about our conversation last week and want to respond to what you anticipate in your new congregation. You mentioned its prominence in the town, a center, a kind of cathedral church that would be able to provide influence for the Christian message far beyond its walls. Did I hear you right?

I certainly understand the appeal and feel it myself frequently. But I am also suspicious of the appeal and believe that gratifying it is destructive both to the gospel and the pastoral vocation. It is the kind of thing America specializes in, and one of the consequences is that American religion and the pastoral vocation are in a shabby state.

It is also the kind of thing for which we have abundant documentation through twenty centuries now, of debilitating both congregation and pastor. In general terms it is the devil’s temptation to Jesus to throw himself from the pinnacle of the temple. Every time the church’s leaders depersonalize, even a little, the worshipping/loving community, the gospel is weakened. And size is the great depersonalizer. Kierkegaard’s criticism is still cogent: “the more people, the less truth.”

The only way the Christian life is brought to maturity is through intimacy, renunciation, and personal deepening. And the pastor is in a key position to nurture such maturity. It is true that these things can take place in the context of large congregations, but only by strenuously going against the grain. Largeness is an impediment, not a help.

Classically, there are three ways in which humans try to find transcendence—religious meaning, God meaning—apart from God as revealed in the cross of Jesus: through the ecstasy of alcohol and drugs, through the ecstasy of recreational sex, through the ecstasy of crowds. Church leaders frequently warn against the drugs and the sex, but, at least in America, almost never against the crowds. Probably because they get so much ego benefit from the crowds.

But a crowd destroys the spirit as thoroughly as excessive drink and depersonalized sex. It takes us out of ourselves, but not to God, only away from him. The religious hunger is rooted in the unsatisfactory nature of the self. We hunger to escape the dullness, the boredom, the tiresomeness of me. We can escape upward or downward. Drugs and depersonalized sex are a false transcendence downward. A crowd is an exercise in false transcendence upward, which is why all crowds are spiritually pretty much the same, whether at football games, political rallies, or church.

So why are we pastors so unsuspicious of crowds, so naive about the false transcendence that they engender? Why are we so knowledgeable in the false transcendence of drink and sex and so unlearned in the false transcendence of crowds? There are many spiritual masters in our tradition who diagnose and warn, but they are little read today. I myself have never written what I really feel on this subject, maybe because I am not entirely sure of myself, there being so few pastors alive today who agree. Or maybe it is because I don’t want to risk wholesale repudiation by friends whom I genuinely like and respect. But I really do feel that crowds are a worse danger, far worse, than drink or sex, and pastors may be the only people on the planet who are in a position to encourage an imagination that conceives of congregation strategically not in terms of its size but as a congenial setting for becoming mature in Christ in a community, not a crowd.

Your present congregation is close to ideal in size to employ your pastoral vocation for forming Christian maturity. You talked about “multiplying your influence.” My apprehension is that your anticipated move will diminish your vocation, not enhance it.

Can we talk more about this? I would welcome a continuing conversation.

The peace of Christ,

That was the end of it. We never did have the conversation. He accepted the call to the big church, and then another, and then another. I would get occasional reports on him from friends. All the reports seemed to document that size was turning out to be a false transcendence in his life.

Reading that spoke to the depths of my soul. Our congregation is not big, but we’re serious about our faith. We may be only an inch wide, but we’re digging a mile deep into scripture, into relationships, into the mystery of faith. We live our lives together, worship together, pray together. We mourn with each other, suffer with each other, and rejoice with each other. We pursue—together—”intimacy, renunciation, and personal deepening.” We don’t always get it right, but we’re trying. And I’m trying, learning how to embrace our smallness as an ideal venue for faithful pastoral ministry.

You can purchase a copy of Eugene Peterson’s memoir, The Pastor, at your local bookstore or at

Happy Birthday, MCUSA

Thursday, February 2nd, 2012

To mark the 10th anniversary of the merger of General Conference and Mennonite Church (which formed the MCUSA denomination our church belongs to), Pastor Harry Jarrett, Jr. asked people to contribute a few thoughts on why MCUSA matters. Below is a copy of my response:

At the time of the merger, I was on the furthest periphery of the Mennonite Church. The high-school-aged son of a military contractor, I barely knew what a Mennonite was; I just knew I had found something that looked like home in this small Mennonite youth group. During the talk of the merger, I heard plenty of conversation about things I cared very little about—atonement theology and same-sex attraction and church discipline. None of that really mattered to me; I just liked Dutch Blitz, and LOVED Rook.

Now, 10 years later, a young Mennonite pastor serving a small, rural congregation, I care quite a bit more about atonement theology and same-sex attraction and church discipline. I don’t have nearly enough time for Rook these days. But I’ve grown to deeply love this strange, flawed, glorious institution we call the Mennonite Church. It looks like home.

My wife and I—neither of us “cradle Mennonites”—love this church, and love The Church, and particularly love how the Anabaptist vision subverts and shapes our understanding of church, bringing us more in line with Jesus and his first disciples.

We love our proclamation of the Gospel—how we celebrate Christ’s life, teachings, death, and resurrection with both our words and our deeds.

We love our shared commitment to justice—how it spills over into our attempts to be faithful stewards of God’s creation, how it redefines our relationships with our “stuff,” how it reflects Christ’s care for the least of these.

We love our theology and praxis of peace—how it offers hope and a path forward for the violent community where we reside.

We love our approach to the Bible—how we read it together, how we allow it to read us, how we take it seriously.

We love our fellowship together as sisters and brothers in Christ—how we create a community that rejoices with those who rejoice, and mourns with those who mourn.

I may not share Harry Jarrett’s unbridled optimism; in fact, I’m quite confident that there are tremendous challenges coming to our families, our congregations, our area conferences, and our denomination. I worry that some voices will be marginalized while others are raised in anger. I worry that relationships will be damaged, that our commitment to peace will fail to translate into a commitment to reconciliation. I worry that we’ll lose sight of the God who provides for all of our needs and become financially distressed.

I worry, but I have hope. Hope that in spite of our flaws and our failures, our shortcomings and sad internecine conflicts; somehow God will guide people to this Church that somehow, strangely, looks like home.