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The Paradox of Freedom and the Christian

The history of the American experiment is making it less possible for Christians to live ignorant of the moral condition of our societal context. The Rev. Bart Day from the Office of National Mission of the Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod, put it this way in his public response concerning the Planned Parenthood atrocities that are coming to light:

Today let us confess life with renewed vigor — to our friends over supper, through letters to the editor of our local paper, by writing our congressmen, in tweets and emails to Planned Parenthood, on our Facebook pages.

Let us pray that our Lord would bring an end to abortion altogether and that He would stop the horrible sale of infant bodies.

And let us pray that He would forgive us, renew us and bolster us to make a good confession in season and out of season: one that is always, no matter what, for life.

As I reflected on the news of the last couple of days while watching Bruce/Caitlyn Jenner’s acceptance speech after receiving the Arthur Ashe Award on the ESPY’s, my mind reeled trying to process the current zeitgeist of America. Then through the darkness, there shined a bright ray of commonality between it all. I do not just mean a commonality between Jenner and Planned Parenthood, but a commonality that traces back to the beginning of time – the idolatry of freedom.

God told Adam and Eve that they are free to eat of any tree in the Garden of Eden except the one that was in the middle. And placing freedom above divine mandate –  fearing, loving, and trusting freedom above God, if you will – they fell into sin as did the whole creation with them. So why are we surprised when the same ideas are expressed within a creation that is afflicted with the same sickness.

Throughout the entire abortion debate, pro-choice advocates cast their arguments in light of freedom. Whenever one opposes abortion, that person opposes the freedom of a woman to do with her body as she wishes. Is there anything that is more “anti-American” than opposing freedom? Whenever one speaks out against homosexuality, transgenderism, promiscuity, fornication, co-habitation, adultery, or anything else the Bible would call sin or a result of sin, that person is opposes the freedom of a person to be happy, love who they love, be true to themselves, etc. Is there anything more hateful than limiting someone’s freedom?

The hard answer to all of these questions is the fact that we are not called to be free or American (in this sense of the word). We are called to be God’s. Our freedom ends where it conflicts with the Word of God. Freedom is not all that it is cracked up to be. Freedom to ourselves means freedom from all that would confine us. Freedom to ourselves means freedom from God, and it does not take long for a Scripturally-minded Christian to see how scary of a place that is. If you want to see what freedom from God looks like, take a look at Christ on the cross. This is where God turns His back on His Son because of the sin of the world that He bears. It is where He turns His back on the one who bears our sins. All of them. It is in submission to God’s Law that we find repentance. It is in repentance that we find forgiveness. All of us. So to deify and laud those who celebrate freedom to themselves above obedience to God, is succumbing to Satan’s old tricks.

We cannot ignore this anymore. We cannot live as if we are of the world. We are not. We are of God. Let us find comfort, courage and peace in His blessings. His Word. His Sacrament. These are for you. Forgiveness and strength are found when we gather, we pray, we praise, and we give thanks. In this forgiveness there is true freedom. Freedom to be the people of God.

5 Things the Church Wishes the Culture Understood

So… this post has been a long time in the making. For the past decade, every time I read a post by some avant-garde religious/church-planting/emergent/post-modern blogger, I think, “Hmmmmm. I should respond to that.” Then kids need diaper changes, sermons need to be written, and shut-ins need to be visited. Right now, however, I have some time to write a response. I have, once again, stumbled across a blog post that takes its aim at the church. If you care to take a glance at what has precipitated this post, take a gander at the article here.

Time and time again, I have read blog posts about how the church is doing church wrong. The church is a victim of its ambivalence toward its own perpetual exclusivity of the present generation who has needs that are not being met. And each time I read the same list of an interchangeable 5-7 attributes (unloving, culturally irrelevant, superficial worship, and unintelligible jargon are ones that top the list most often), I realize that the ire and frustration comes from a misunderstanding of what church is. So here in this post, I am breaking the silence on behalf of the church… The Church… The historical Christian Church. I am tired of being misrepresented. I am tired of being judged (sound familiar?). I am tired of disenfranchised people making more people disenfranchised with an improper understanding of church.

So… Without further ado…

 5 Things The Church Wishes  the Culture Understood

1. We want you here. No. Really. We do. However, the reason might surprise you. It is not to boost the average age of the worshiping community to give us more “street cred”. It is not so that we can have your money. It is not so that we can legitimize our existence. As a matter of fact, the reason that we want you here has nothing to do with us. It has everything to do with you. We firmly believe that God distributes HIs good gifts of grace and forgiveness in the worship service. We learn together. We grow together. Christ is present for us, and we want you to have those good gifts of God. We want to pray with you. We want to praise God with you. We want to be at the font and the altar with you. We want to hear from the pulpit with you. And we want all of this for your good. We’re already getting the goods. We want you to have them also.

2. We are not better than you. However, we have the same struggles as you do. Namely, we struggle with sin. We have the same inclinations toward pride, jealousy, selfish ambition, and self-aggrandizement that you do. We like things a certain way. We like our carpets certain colors. We like people to dress certain ways because those ways make us feel comfortable. We can be hypocritical, judgmental, and prejudiced without cause. We are all of these things because we are sinners. No, dear culture, we are not better than you. But that is why we are here every Sunday. We do not seek to be confirmed in those things that divide us. We seek to be forgiven for the times when we do not act like Christ. And we are. We are forgiven and renewed by Christ, and that makes all the difference. You do not want us to judge you by your checkered-past of sins? Why would you judge us by ours?

3. The church is for sinners of whom we are the worst. Much like #2, but nuanced. The church is the place where God has ordained the forgiveness of sins to take place. The church exists to proclaim the Gospel. It exists to proclaim that you are a sinner, but you are a forgiven sinner when repentant. Why would you exclude yourself from that because you are surrounded by other sinners? Are you differentiating sins and making one sin worse than another? Judging, by chance? Hmmm. Interesting. Please forgive the snark, but this is the point that is made time and time again by the historical Christian church. We are sinners AND we are saints! Forgiven only by the blood of Christ. The blood of Christ is for us. The blood of Christ is for you. So we beg you, come. For your sake, not ours.

4. The church is bigger than you. This is the part that you might not like to hear, but it is the truth. The church is not about you, your preferences, or your tastes. The church is about Jesus. It is about the Son of God who came down to earth in humility as part of His creation. It is about this same God-man who dies willing on the cross bearing the sins of the whole world… bearing your sins. It is about Jesus who left your sins in the tomb, dead on Easter, and rose victorious to reign for you. It is about the victorious Christ who will come again… who will create a new heaven and a new earth… who will restore these lowly bodies to be like His glorious body by the power that allows Him to subdue all things to Himself. This is the church in which uncounted saints have had their uncounted sins forgiven. Uncounted souls have been saved through the waters of Holy Baptism, taught through countless hours of instruction, bowed and numerous altars and received the infinite body and blood of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of sins and strength for their lives in Him. This church is the voice of ages of martyrs who have not recounted the faith that we make to appear so malleable. This church has a language, an order, a life that is bigger than you. It is a life that includes 90-year-old Uncle Bud and 9-day-old Stryker. It is a life that is big enough to include you also. So if you want to be part of this church, show some initiative. Learn the language. Learn the story of the church that spans all time and space in the promises and words of Jesus. Which brings us to point number 5.

5. We will always be here…and so will Christ. For you. Thank you for your concern about our demise. However, throughout the entirety of the Scriptures, the Lord has promised that the pure preaching and teaching of His Word will not vanish from the earth. There will always be a remnant who live in and proclaim the forgiveness of Christ. It might not always look the same or be the same size. But it will always exist. So when you realize that the forgiveness of Christ is more than the trifles of interpersonal relationships, we will be here… and so will Christ. When you want to stop poking holes in the very institution (yeah, I said it… institution) that was created to give you comfort of sins forgiven and the certainty of salvation, we will be here… and so will Christ. He will always be here for you with all you need and more.

Please understand that we do want you, because Christ wants you. My snarkiness and righteous indignation is not really aimed at those who are legitimately searching. They are aimed at those who wish to co-op the church for their own agendas. Their agendas and straw-man portrayals of the church are not what the church is. If you are legitimately searching, I pray you find a biblical, confessional, Lutheran congregation in which to abide. For in this place you find the true and pure preaching and teaching of the Word of God. You also find Christ who gives Himself for you… every time you come. So please, come. Once again, for your sake.

O God, Forsake Me Not!

During my morning study the other day, I came across this gem. It is hymn # 730 in Lutheran Service Book.

O God, forsake me not! Your gracious presence lend me;
Lord, lead Your helpless child; Your Holy Spirit send me
That I my course may run. O be my light, my lot,
My staff, my rock, my shield – O God, forsake me not!

O God, forsake me not! Take not Your Spirit from me;
Do not permit the might Of sin to overcome me.
Increase my feeble faith, Which You alone have wrought.
O be my strength, my power – O God, forsake me not!

O God, forsake me not! Lord, hear my supplication!
In every evil hour Help me resist temptation;
And when the prince of hell My good conscience seeks to blot,
Be then not far from me – O God, forsake me not!

O God, forsake me not! Lord, I am Yours forever.
O keep me strong in faith That I may leave You never.
Grant me a blessed end When my good fight is fought;
Help me in life and death – O God, forsake me not!

It occurred to me that we often pray this prayer corporately in worship and individually in private. It might come in different forms with different words, but our prayer remains the same. For the Christian, a life without God in your corner is a life that is full of fear and trepidation. So our prayer is often, “God, help me”, or “God, don’t forget about me”, or “God, be with me”, or simply, “GOD!!!!” Many times, our prayers are simply one-word exclamations because we do not know what to say.

I have, often, preached that God holds true to His promises to never leave or forsake His people. I have, often, pointed to the date of baptism and the Lord’s Supper as places where we see the presence of God in our lives. His washing us. His feeding us. However, it occurred to me that the Word is a vital weapon of the Christian that oft goes overlooked. We know about the Scriptures. We know the accounts of the Scriptures. But there are many times when we fail to see the Scriptures containing the wisdom and the power of God. For this is precisely what the Gospel message contains (Romans 1:16). It is the confidence that God has not forsaken us. He is here for us in time and eternity with His Holy Word. It is a Word that, at its center, conveys the salvation of God’s people through Jesus. It is a Word that saves. It is a Word that encourages. It is a Word that teaches. It is a Word that endures.

May the Word of God always be the power of God’s salvation in your life. May you read it. May you cherish it. Always.

3 Easy Ways to Make Sure Your Life Doesn’t Stink

Throughout every age of my life (against the counsel of my parents), I have always been looking ahead to the next venture. Each and every age has brought with it a pining for the greener pastures of maturity, more freedom, more knowledge, and more experience. But as the years and decades have been torn of the calendar, I find that those elusive pastures of greener grass change and morph, much like a mirage of an oasis in the desert. Right when you think you have achieved the perfect life, you look around and find that there are brown and bare spots in this pasture also. They are just called by different names. What were once the bare spots of lack of freedom, immaturity, and relationship issues are now the bare spots of responsibility, financial issues, and sleepless nights because your child refuses to sleep through the night and you just want those teeth to come in because you need some sleep!!! Then, one day, you trade those bare spots for patches of wasted time, the longing for how things used to be, and the ever-crushing want for that little baby to be in your arms again. Each age of life has reminders that life can really stink. But I have a sure-fire three ways to make sure that this does not happen to you. If you follow the following three recommendations, I can promise you that your life will not stink.

1) Do not ever read an article that promises 3, 4, 5, or even 25 ways to be happy. They are false claims, and they make you look precisely where you should not be looking. You’re right! The title was a gimmick. I do not have the key to happiness in 3 easy steps. I do not have it because it does not exist. Anyone who tells you differently is selling something. The sooner that you realize that this world is sinful and fallen, the sooner it is that you will realize that you are sinful and fallen. Once this crushing blow to your ego has taken place, you will be ready to turn to the place where you should have been looking the whole time.

2) Life in light of the cross of Christ reveals that happiness is not the goal.. Happiness is not promised anywhere in Scripture. Joy is promised, but joy is not happiness. Joy comes in the midst of pain and suffering. Joy comes from knowing that your Savior has died for all of your sins. He has forgiven you, and you are now able to forgive others. Christ’s forgiveness gives you the strength to begin to forgive the unfaithful significant-other, the annoying children, and the spouse who squeezes from the middle of the toothpaste tube. The comfort and hope that comes from Jesus’ resurrection gives you the hope that sustains in the midst of illness, loss, hurt, pain, anxiety and depression. This life is NOT all that there is. Life is so much more than happiness.

3) While I don’t have 3 easy steps to make sure that your life doesn’t stink, I do have three places where God has promised to be for you. These three places bring joy in the midst of all the dead grass in the pasture of life.

First, your baptism. Baptism now saves you according to 1 Peter. It is the washing and renewal of the Holy Spirit according to Paul’s letter to Titus. It is the place where Christ seals you. Washes you to death, so that you might arise to new life in Him according to Romans 6. Your baptism is the daily promise that you are who Christ says you are. You are His child. Pure and holy.

Second, the Word. The pages of Scripture are full of accounts where God has remained faithful to His promises for His people. It is THE place where we learn about our Savior, and God’s mercy. It is written so that we might know that Jesus is the one who was promised and that by believing, we will have life in His name. Read it. Study it. Memorize it. Keep it close to your heart. For the one who meditates on the Law of the Lord is like a tree that is planted next to a stream (Check out Psalm 1).

Third, the Supper. No, not the roast that you have in the oven. The Lord’s Supper… the Eucharist… Holy Communion. This is the one place that Jesus has promised to be with you. Seriously, His body and blood with you… for you. Much like baptism, the Lord’s Supper is not effective because of you. It is not effective because of the pastor giving it to you. It is effective because Christ says it is. It is the strength and nourishment that you need when your soul feels like it has been rocked to the core with doubt, hurt, or anxiety. It is the place where forgiveness for others starts. In the Supper, Christ gives strength for your life in Him. And when you find that your life is in Christ every step of the way, there is joy. Joy in the midst of sadness, suffering, and loss. Eat. Drink. Live.

While these things do not promise happiness, Christ promises joy through His presence in His gifts. Christ promises to sustain you. He promises to forgive you. He promises to never leave you. So stop reading the lists. Remember your baptism. Read your Bible. Receive the Sacrament. May God bless you in this endeavor!

Ordination Nostalgia

This Sunday will mark the 6th anniversary of my ordination. Through the past 6 years, I have been challenged, I have failed, I have succeeded, and I have been blessed. While there are days when I want to throw all of my theology books out on the street corner and go work for a record store, I really, really, really like what I do. I am very thankful for a supportive wife, a caring congregation, and the continual strength that God gives me each day.

Ordinatino

I am (quite often) asked, “When did you know that you wanted to be a pastor?” This question is rather hard for me to answer. It is a question that was painful to think about during my college and seminary years, because it did not have an answer until the beautiful work of the Spirit was completed in calling me to the ministry in 2008. Let me explain.

When I graduated high school and enrolled in college, I did not want to be a pastor. I wanted to be a high school band director. However, the narrow escaping of the first semester of Music Theory led to major occupational discernment. If I could only pass the first semester of music theory with the intense help of my roommate, how in the world was I going to make it through the rest? So began one of the first of many existential crises.

As I debated my life and future, I examined the interests that I possessed. I liked to read. I liked to argue. Why not try theology? So I changed my major (just like roughly 75% of college students by the way), and I began to pursue a major in theology. I was also convinced by a few friends to join the Pre-Seminary Student Association (PSSA). This is where I was introduced to the painfulness of answering the above stated question. I heard story after story of members of the PSSA that involved most if not all of the following events:

1. They were the sons of pastors.
2. They had known their whole life that they were going to be a pastor.
3. When they were three-years old (the age that randomly occurs in every story), the clouds parted, a beam of light shown from heaven, and the voice of God told them that they were to be a pastor.

I had no higher calling. I did not know I wanted to be a pastor. I just knew that I wasn’t failing my classes, and the homework did not seem so awful. So I kept taking classes and I never came close to failing. I actually enjoyed what I was studying. The pages of Scripture were filled with people that had no want to be a prophet, apostle, teacher, pastor, king, judge, etc. Yet God worked through them. They became important/necessary cogs in the plan of God’s salvation of humankind. This gave me hope. If God could work through the likes of Abraham, David, Paul, Peter, et al., maybe I stood a chance. Yet, my answer to “When did you know you were going to be a pastor?” was still, at best, “I don’t know yet”.

This continued all the way through college and seminary. I took classes. I passed. I went on vicarage. I had a great experience. I passed. I came back for my fourth year of classes. I passed. Then, on Call Day of 2008. I heard the words. “John Patrick Niles. Missouri District. St. Paul’s Lutheran Church, Concordia, Missouri. Associate Pastor.” Then, I knew. The Holy Spirit had led a congregation to call me to be their pastor. God had acted in time to call another unprepared, unqualified, mess-of-a-sinner to stand in His stead for His saints. But there was still a question of authority.

Then, on June 29th, 2008, I kneeled before a circuit counselor and numerous other pastors. I took my vows. They placed their hands and blessings upon me. The pastoral yoke (figuratively seen in the stole and personally felt by the weight of the vows I had just taken) was placed upon me. A few weeks later, I was installed at St. Paul’s, and have been serving there for the last 6 years. I have epic moments of triumph. I have equally epic moments of failure. But I know that I am meant to be a pastor to these people at this time. That certainty comes from a beautiful marriage of Call Day and my ordination.

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For those that might read this and find themselves frustrated at the process of finding a vocation, frustrated in their current vocation, doubting where they are or where they are going, not sure of how God will use them in this life, take heart! If God can use an uncertain servant who failed music theory like me, He can and will use your talents, passions, and skills. Let the accounts of Scripture be your certainty.