Archive for category: President’s E-news

Stories from the Storm

Categories: News & Announcements, President's E-news

Dear Friends,

To read stories from your friends and colleagues, go to the FLGA District Facebook page.  We are posting the stories as they arrive.

Samuel Taylor Coleridge penned the words, “Water, water everywhere, And all the boards did shrink; Water, water, everywhere, and not a drop to drink.” That’s how some people described the conditions after Hurricane Irma barreled through Florida and Georgia on September 10th and 11th wreaking havoc and destruction in many places. As bad as the storm really was, loss of life was minimalized by people who took reports seriously and heeded the warnings to hunker down or evacuate. Some estimate that there were 6 million folks that evacuated from South Florida to avoid the punishing storm. All this while people were still trying to figure out how to help our brothers and sisters in Houston in the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey.

The news carried stories of power outages, water systems shut down, limited gas, and continuous lines of traffic—first heading north, and then, once the storm passed, heading south again. People were anxious to get to their homes to assess the damages. Many places had to wait over two weeks to get their electricity back as they struggled with stifling heat. It was a scary storm. In spite of all this, God was at work and we have heard some tremendous stories of God’s blessings in the midst of the storm.

In Matthew 8 we have this story of Jesus out on the Sea of Galilee with His disciples. Matthew reports: “And when He got into the boat, His disciples followed Him. And behold, there arose a great storm on the sea, so that the boat was being swamped by the waves; but He was asleep. And they went and woke Him, saying, “Save us, Lord; we are perishing.” And He said to them, “Why are you afraid, O you of little faith?” Then He rose and rebuked the winds and the sea, and there was a great calm.”

Despite the fact that these were seasoned fisherman well familiar with this lake, they feared for their lives. I can relate, and maybe so can you. Having been on the Sea of Galilee when a storm arose, I can sympathize with their fear. Having heard the howling winds and the driving rains of Irma, I would have to admit that there were very scary moments when I felt like crying out “Save us, Lord; we are perishing.” All the time the Lord was with us, and we knew that regardless of whatever might happen, even to losing our very lives, we were secure in a future with Jesus. The disciples would learn that very thing as they grew deeper in their relationship with Jesus.

Can you imagine the stories they told their families after Jesus calmed the storms? “It was crazy. One minute we think the boat will capsize and the next there’s not a cloud in the sky!” “When Jesus spoke, everything listened!” “You should have seen it. When Jesus told the wind to shut up it immediately stopped!” These disciples would have more encounters as they traveled with Jesus and no doubt had many stories to tell.

Hear some of the stories we have heard. Holy Cross, North Miami has a school with over 400 children, most of whom eat both breakfast and lunch there. As a result their freezers were packed with food. When the power went out they had some decisions to make. They could let the food go to waste, or find a creative way to use it. So they began to cook it all up and made signs to hold on the roadside inviting people in for a hot meal. Hundreds of people took advantage of this opportunity, and Holy Cross had dozens of volunteers!

The pastor of one of our churches knew they wouldn’t be able to hold worship on Sunday morning so he prepared a devotion for his members and included an emergency order of baptism just in case. That Sunday morning, as families gathered in the fellowship hall of this congregation a grandfather was able to baptize his teenage granddaughter, giving her the comfort and peace in the midst of a very tense time of life.

One of our staff told of how at her daughter’s home there was an old phone pole in the back yard. It looked out of place. It turns out God had a plan. When the hurricane came through it knocked a tree over that would have crushed the home. That tree had branches that branched off into a Y formation, and wouldn’t you know that the Y landed right against that phone pole so that it couldn’t reach the house. Later, when they went to look at the damage they discovered two additional trees leaning on the tree against this old phone pole. Coincidence? I don’t think so!

Grace Lutheran Church in Naples pulled together some supplies to hand out to the community. When they were well stocked they figured they would need three days to hand it all out. However, when their doors opened it was gone in the afternoon. The pastor put out an appeal to his “northern” friends and people responded.

One of our pastors rode out the storm even though his family had evacuated. He stayed behind to help some who couldn’t leave. As they prepared for the storm there was no plywood to be had, so they improvised and took apart the man’s deck to cover the windows.

I’ve heard stories of volunteers coming from all over the country, bringing generators and water, food and supplies. We have had a great response with flood buckets—so thank you to all who have supplied them. There is much to be done and especially in Southwest Florida and the Keys it will be a long and arduous recovery.

Like many of you, we were very fortunate to have some minor damages. We had lots of branches down, and I’m convinced that my oak tree, which still looks full, shed another oak tree in the process. It took me three hours to clean up the branches. Two significant things happened because of the storm. I travel many weekends and as a result, I don’t get to spend much time with our neighbors. When the storm came I had to change plans and remain at home. In the midst of this, I got to spend time with some neighbors who shared tips with me about being prepared for a hurricane. Afterwards, there was a little block party as we cleaned up, and helped each other out. One man said he had ropes and a truck, another had tools, one said he would be happy just to do grunt work, and then they looked at me and said, “It’s good to know we have a spiritual covering, too.” Just about then I heard in my mind, “Why are you afraid, O you of little faith?” We all worked together to clean up in some of our neighbors yards who evacuated. It felt great!

Stories from the storm are all around us. God presented us with tremendous opportunities to share the love and grace of Jesus. What I discovered is that many of the things that divide our nation, even things that divide our denomination, mean very little in times of crisis. At those times our focus becomes clearer, and what matters most is safety and well-being. We begin to see that despite all the diversity around us, we are all God’s children and that often our actions will speak far louder than our words. When we live in the love of Jesus and actively practice it, not to gain favor with God or man, but simply because of God’s calling on our lives, this has a powerful impact on those who don’t yet believe. It opens doors for conversations as it peaks the curiosity of those who may have a preconceived notion.

A few weeks ago, days after Hurricane Irma, Edith and I were on our way to an appointment when traffic stopped on the highway. As I watched the car ahead of me, I was struck from behind by a car that tried to pass me on the left. The impact left my car damaged, and the young man who hit us flipped his vehicle. It was miraculous that more vehicles were not involved. As I saw the flipped vehicle in that moment of shock, I prayed that nobody was hurt, although it looked bad. I didn’t stop to ask if the man was a Christian, much less a Lutheran; I didn’t check out his color or where he grew up, whether he was gay or straight. What I saw was a man that I believed was hurt. A number of drivers pulled off and rushed to his car. Thankfully, he walked away. Here’s the point, in a crisis we tend to value things differently. But why does it take a crisis to soften our hearts?

There is a crisis all around us. Certainly we face the threats that our world throws at us. However, what looms larger than those things is the crisis of sin and death, and it effects all people. God calls us into the midst of that crisis to connect people to Jesus. We are privileged to share the freedom, love, forgiveness and peace that belongs to all who proclaim Jesus as our Lord and Savior. God provides the opportunity, even in the midst of the storms, for us to share the hope we have within us through Jesus. Sometimes God has to rock our boat in order for us to pay attention. Yet, He’s always there, even in the midst of the storm, to show us His power and might.

Life is filled with storms—some are weather related; others we create ourselves. We may lose our electricity but no one can take away our power! That power, and its promises, were given to us in baptism, and even when the wind is whipping up, we can be confident of the One who will never leave us nor forsake us. He is Lord of the wind and the waves, and He is the Lord of our lives.

We’re still hearing great stories, and hope you might share yours too. Go to our website and you can share it there!

Showered In His Grace,
Greg

Laboring for Jesus!

Categories: News & Announcements, President's E-news

Dear Friends,

In just a few days we will celebrate Labor Day. This was a day originally set aside to recognize and celebrate workers who built this nation. Tracing its origin to the labor movement in the late 19th century, in 1894 Labor Day became a federal holiday. Today it is primarily associated with the end of summer and lots of sales! The Bible has much to say about labor and laborers, beginning in Genesis after the fall, when God made it clear that man would be required to work the soil to get his food (Genesis 3:17-19).

Later God would make clear that despite our labor, we are to set aside a day for Sabbath. In Exodus 5:13-14 we read, “Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the LORD your God. On it you shall not do any work, you or your son or your daughter or your male servant or your female servant, or your ox or your donkey or any of your livestock, or the sojourner who is within your gates, that your male servant and your female servant may rest as well as you.”  The nation of Israel labored to restore the walls of Jerusalem when they returned from the exile.  The Psalmist also wrote about the fruits of your labors.

Even Jesus spoke about labor, but He put it in context of service. In Luke 10:2 He said, “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few. Therefore pray earnestly to the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into His harvest.” We are the laborers for which Jesus encouraged His disciples to pray. Isn’t it fascinating that all these years after Jesus spoke this to His disciples the words still ring true two thousand years later. The harvest is still plentiful and we are the laborers chosen in this generation to work the fields for the sake of Jesus. And the field is huge and continues to grow!

The Florida-Georgia District is almost 110,000 square miles, providing a home to over 30 million people. Our population continues to increase while many of our congregations experience a decrease. Jesus continues to bring people to our shores and to our doors, but somehow reaching them with His love has proved to be a difficult challenge for us. The fields are white unto harvest, yet fewer seem to be willing to answer the call from Jesus.

As I’ve considered these facts I have thought about reasons why it might be so. Perhaps people lack training? Perhaps they lack time? May it never be that they lack the inclination or desire to engage in the Master’s business to connect people to Jesus! To push this off on another, as if it is the responsibility of someone else, is to ignore the call of Jesus, who has called you and me and promised to give us all we need to carry out the task He calls us to. More than that, He walks beside us every step of the way to empower our witness for Him.

A few weeks ago I was preparing a sermon on Peter’s confession of faith in Matthew. That section of Matthew 16 ends with this line: “Then He strictly charged the disciples to tell no one that He was the Christ.” I joked with the congregation that this seems to be the only part of the story that we, as followers, consistently carry out! Imagine if everyone who proclaimed Jesus as their Lord and Savior actually lived out and shared their faith with others. It could change the world as people are connected to Jesus!

This is where our labor really isn’t hard work. Years ago our Synod had an evangelistic push, “Each one reach one!” How the world would be different if we did! Telling people about the One who has transformed your life is a privilege! We get to tell people about how we have a God who provides; a God who heals; a God who forgives sins; a God who loves and cares with a deep compassion; and a God who claims us and will never forsake us. More than that, imagine the joy of adding brothers and sisters to our family as God uses us to rescue those lost in the darkness of sin.

Certainly making time to share our faith in Jesus isn’t always an easy task. It takes a level of commitment that is often reserved for other self-interests. It takes courage and vision, having our eyes open to the opportunities all around us, not to mention inspiration by the Holy Spirit. It also takes coaching and encouragement. Someone has said that the purpose of the church is to bring people in, build them up, and send them out into the world to proclaim Jesus. Looking to the future, we will be providing more intentional training opportunities to equip people for ministry. In fact, there are some great resources online through Lutheran Hour Ministries right now that you can learn from in your own home! The Florida-Georgia District will continually emphasize the need to engage in the Master’s business to connect people to Jesus. This is our calling! Another way of stating this is we have a great opportunity and privilege to multiply ministry and reach more people for Jesus while there is still time. Don’t wait for an invitation; as the old Nike commercial used to say, “Just Do It!” One of our former Synod Presidents used to remark that time is short and hell is hot, so we need to be out there reaching the lost and pointing them to Jesus!

In the midst of this, Jesus promises to be beside us all the way. In fact, Jesus says, “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light” (Mt 11:28–12:1). Jesus invites us to come and rest in Him so that we can be strengthened and renewed for service. His yoke really is easy, and His burden is light. He will equip us and empower us to go in His name to connect people to Jesus!

We don’t go it alone—ever! Jesus says He will never leave us nor forsake us. He always walks beside us as He empowers us to tell others about Him. We may not always see the result that we anticipate or want, but Paul reminds us in 1 Corinthians 15:58, “Therefore, my beloved brothers [and sisters], be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that in the Lord your labor is not in vain.” I’ve often said that God is less interested in our ability and more interested in our availability.

As we live in a mission opportunity world, my heart’s desire is to see leaders trained in the Florida-Georgia District among our pastors, all professional church workers and laity to reach more people for Jesus while there’s still time. Could there be a more glorious labor for us to be involved with? As you celebrate Labor Day, remember Jesus’ call to be in His harvest field, engaged in the Master’s business, connecting people to Jesus!

Happy autumn!
Peace in Jesus,
Greg

God’s Grace at Work in Us

Categories: News & Announcements, President's E-news

Dear Friends,

Grace came with joy and excitement to her new community. She was happy to meet new people, and excited for the opportunity to grow in her faith. She had come from a congregation that embraced her with love, had nurtured her faith, and taught her about Jesus. Grace didn’t know that every church wasn’t like the one she grew up in. But now out of college and entering the workforce for the first time on her own, Grace came to the big city. She didn’t know anyone, but with the help of her new coworkers she found a place to live, and she was thrilled that it was only about a mile to the church her pastor had recommended. It was called Ebenezer Church. Once she moved into her apartment, she called the pastor at Ebenezer to schedule an appointment to learn more about the ministry there.

Pastor Smalls agreed to meet her the next day and she came to the appointment eager to get involved the way she had been at home. She knew that one of the best ways to settle into a new community was to jump in and serve. Pastor Smalls began their meeting with a cheerful smile, and a welcome. He showed her around the church, told her about service times, and shared with her some of the ministries that the congregation currently offered. Grace listened intently, wondering how she could plug in, but it seemed to Grace that most of the ministries were designed to serve only the people of Ebenezer Church. So she asked Pastor Smalls, “What are the ministries that reach into the larger community to share Jesus with those who don’t know Him?” Pastor Smalls responded with a quizzical look on his face as if to suggest he didn’t comprehend her question. He explained that Ebenezer had grown quite small, and there was not enough interest or volunteers to do more than what they were doing. Pastor Smalls gave her some literature and offered to pray with her, and Grace understood that their meeting was over.

Grace was unsure about worshipping at Ebenezer, but she decided to go that Sunday. She arrived early, and found a greeter at the door who shook her hand and said welcome to worship. She tried to strike up a conversation but got little to no response. She milled around the narthex hoping to be noticed and welcomed by others. Nobody approached her. She found a seat in the sanctuary on the front left side about two rows back, and it seemed that there were plenty of seats available. About five minutes later she was asked to move because “that’s where we usually sit.” Grace moved to another pew. As the service began it was familiar, but she found that there was little energy and enthusiasm in the participation. As she looked around the sparse attendance she understood what Pastor Smalls had said about the congregation. Pastor Smalls preached a very good sermon, but Grace noticed that some people kept looking at their watch and yawning. Sunday at Ebenezer was uninspiring.

Grace left Ebenezer a little discouraged and disillusioned. She thought that all churches had joy-filled worship with people who liked to be with one another. She thought that all churches understood the call of Jesus to “Go and make disciples of every nation,” and that worship was to build believers up to go out into the world to connect people to Jesus. One of the very first Bible verses she memorized came from John 3:16, “For God so loved the world, that He gave His only Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life.” The pastor she grew up with had taught the congregation that Jesus was pointing them to go into the world. This same Jesus said, “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; therefore pray earnestly to the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest.” (Mt 9:37–38). Grace was certain that Jesus meant the world needed to be harvested, and that the Church was to be sent out as the laborers to reach those who didn’t know the truth of salvation in Jesus. Yet it seemed that Ebenezer was focused on caring only for itself. She went home that day confused and disheartened. She knew that the only way that a church like Ebenezer would grow is if it reached beyond itself to share the good news to the people in the surrounding community. She struggled with whether to return to Ebenezer or to find another church to attend.

Grace’s story, while fictional, is actually a compilation of stories I’ve heard and even experienced in my own life. The reason people worship at a church is as varied as the people themselves. We do a great disservice to our Lord when we allow the church to become self-serving. When we evaluate our ministry and find that most of what we do serves only our needs, we are off track. Jesus has sent us into the world, and the ministry of the church is to encourage believers to live out their faith in ways that show the love and grace of Jesus to the world around us. Church isn’t about “putting in our time for God,” but rather about being built up and prepared to live out our faith wherever God places us. It’s not about impressing God–as if we could. Through Jesus He’s redeemed us, called us His own, and wants to work through us to reach into the world and show people His grace, His forgiveness and His love. He does that through you and me!

So let me ask you. How do you make the visitor feel when they enter your church campus? What is the impression that people who are not members of your congregation have when the leave? Every church sees itself as a friendly church because often members are friendly with each other. When a stranger appears, how are they received? Often we feel like someone else will be responsible to greet them, when God may just be calling on you. In Hebrews 13:2 we read, “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for thereby some have entertained angels unawares.” Our motivation isn’t to score points with Jesus. Instead, consider the privilege we have of welcoming others in His name. When people visit the church it is a responsibility of every member to welcome them in the name of Jesus. Making people feel welcomed and special is a reminder of grace, neither earned nor deserved, but freely given!

August is a time when people seem to get back into the routines of life. Schools are starting up again and often people seek to establish new patterns of life. That may include attending church. Are you ready to receive those who might come? Peter tells us in 1 Peter 3:15, “But in your hearts honor Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect.” Do it for Grace, do it from grace, but do it all for Jesus!

In His peace,

Greg

A Time to Celebrate

Categories: News & Announcements, President's E-news

Dear Friends,

The Psalmist wrote, “Blessed is the nation whose God is the LORD, the people whom He has chosen as His heritage!” Ps. 33:12. What a blessing to know that despite our sinfulness, despite our weaknesses, our gracious God has still chosen us in Jesus, and claimed us as His very own. It isn’t by random chance or mistake that the God who chose us places us where we are. He has a plan. He always has a plan, for your life, for my life, for all of those He has redeemed through the blood of Jesus. He has placed us in this great Nation, and in this 241st year of existence, we celebrate the freedoms we have as citizens of this country. Of course our true freedom comes through Jesus, and what a grand opportunity to celebrate again and again the 500th Reformation Anniversary celebration of the freedom of the Gospel! Still, it’s a great time to celebrate this Nation!

Irving Berlin is noted among 20th Century America’s most beloved lyricists and composers. In fact, George Gershwin once called him “the greatest songwriter that has ever lived.” While some may argue that point, Berlin, in his time, produced many familiar and popular tunes during the Second World War, that brought comfort and hope to our Nation. Many of his tunes were used in some of the great Broadway shows of that time, and they have an enduring quality even today. One of my favorite songs that Berlin wrote he penned on a hot July in 1940 in California. No one could have predicted just how popular the song, “White Christmas” would be, but even now at Christmas it still has a strong sentimental place in many hearts.

Long before his success with “White Christmas,” in about 1918, Berlin wrote another tune that captured our Nation. The song is “God Bless America,” and he wrote it while serving in the Army during World War I. Later, during World War II, he revised the words to the song that most of us have heard again and again. “God bless America, land that I love; Stand beside her and guide her, through the night with the light from above.” Here is what I find so fascinating. Berlin was born Israel Isidore Baline in Tolochin, Russia. With the persecution of Jewish people, his family fled to the United States when he was still a baby, but he heard the stories, and he was grateful to be in a country that not only received his family, but gave him unparalleled opportunities. Berlin held a deep appreciation for his adopted country, and he was considered by many to be a patriotic supporter. He celebrated this nation!

Last month I was summoned for Jury Duty, and almost got on a case. As we gathered in the Jury Room at the beginning of the day, we were sworn in, and then we stood together, well over a hundred of us, and recited the Pledge of Allegiance. I must admit that it’s been some time since I’ve had occasion to do that, and my immediate thought was, “Do I remember the words?” Honestly, as we began speaking it, like riding a bike (which I also haven’t done for a while…) the words just came. Amidst all of the issues we face as a nation, it almost seems as if we have forgotten being “one Nation, under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.”

How easy it can be to take our liberties for granted. While there are certainly things that perhaps each of us would wish to change, we live in a marvelous place filled with ample opportunities and experiences that many others in our world simply don’t ever get. God has blessed us in so many ways, and while there is work to be done, God has placed each of us here for such a time as this, as witnesses of the love and grace of Jesus Christ. What a joy to celebrate our faith in this nation!

In Acts 3:17-21, Peter says, “And now, brothers, I know that you acted in ignorance, as did also your rulers. But what God foretold by the mouth of all the prophets, that his Christ would suffer, he thus fulfilled. Repent therefore, and turn back, that your sins may be blotted out, that times of refreshing may come from the presence of the Lord, and that he may send the Christ appointed for you, Jesus, whom heaven must receive until the time for restoring all the things about which God spoke by the mouth of his holy prophets long ago.”

God’s calling on our lives is to proclaim the saving name of Jesus to the nations, beginning in our own neighborhood. He washed us clean in the waters of Holy Baptism, He has given us the gift of His Word, and we have the right, privilege and freedom to worship Him, all so we can grow in our faith. God is purposeful in all He does. His desire is that all are saved and come to the knowledge of the truth. He equips, empowers and engages us as His missionaries in the conditions He has placed us so we can tell others of His love and grace. So, let me ask you, do your neighbors see Jesus living in you? Often, because of ignorance or sometimes even willful disobedience, we have not allowed the light of Jesus to shine through us.

If that’s true for you, and I admit there are times it’s true for me, we aren’t alone! Consider the Apostle Peter. We often remember him as the leader of the Apostles, but the truth is, he wasn’t always a particularly good witness throughout his sojourn with Jesus, sometimes putting his foot in his mouth. He knew how to talk the talk, but he learned that walking the walk takes time and is a learning experience. Right before the crucifixion of Jesus Peter pledged his undying loyalty to Jesus, and then quickly denied him when the pressure was on. Following the resurrection Peter hid with the rest of the disciples, and they slowly went back to their former life of fishing. Yet, God’s call was on Peter’s life. That wasn’t the end of the story. One morning, following the resurrection, as the disciples were fishing, Jesus called to them from the shore. You no doubt remember the story. From John 21 we read, “When they had finished breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” He said to him, “Feed my lambs.” He said to him a second time, “Simon, son of John, do you love me?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” He said to him, “Tend my sheep.” He said to him the third time, “Simon, son of John, do you love me?” Peter was grieved because he said to him the third time, “Do you love me?” and he said to him, “Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Feed my sheep.”

Jesus restored Peter and refocused him as a servant. It wasn’t until the power of God’s Spirit came on Peter that he really began to catch on, and even then, from time to time, he made blunders. Even then, he knew who to turn to for forgiveness. Here’s the point. Peter is an example for each of us of the true power of restoration.

We, too, can know the relief from sins forgiven and God’s refreshing restoration. Jesus sets us free to engage in the Master’s business. He desires to renew us and refresh us so that we are better equipped and empowered and engaged to connect people to Jesus. In Him we have been given such an awesome gift to share with the world. So take time to celebrate your freedom, as a child of God redeemed in Jesus, and as a citizen of this nation. May God bless America, and may He draw us back to the principles upon which this nation was founded and make us bold witnesses of our faith in Jesus. Keeping our eyes on Jesus, we can do this for His sake.  As the writer to the Proverbs says, “It will be healing to your flesh and refreshment to your bones.” Proverbs 3:8.

Celebrating our nation and our Savior with you,

Greg

Summer Walks

Categories: News & Announcements, President's E-news

Dear Friends,

Things are supposed to slow down in the summer, aren’t they? While I don’t particularly see that happening, one of the things I do enjoy about the summer months is being able to get out and walk, especially in the cool 90 degree mornings. Walking has obvious health benefits. It also can have spiritual benefits as well, especially if we use the time to grow in our relationship with God. I have often used my solitary walks as a prayer time to formulate those questions I throw before God.

A few weeks ago in my personal devotion time I was reading a passage from Paul’s letter to the Colossians. I read through it several times, and the more I meditated on it, the more intrigued I became, as I sought to understand it and apply it to my life. That’s when I knew it was time for a walk. As I began to unpack Colossians 1:9–12, I was struck by how the message of the text spoke to my heart.

Paul writes, “And so, from the day we heard, we have not ceased to pray for you, asking that you may be filled with the knowledge of his will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding, so as to walk in a manner worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing to him: bearing fruit in every good work and increasing in the knowledge of God; being strengthened with all power, according to his glorious might, for all endurance and patience with joy; giving thanks to the Father, who has qualified you to share in the inheritance of the saints in light.” Paul is writing to the Colossian Church as a result of hearing about their faith in Jesus. Paul is excited for them, and offers a blessing to them. I began to wonder about the people in the Church in Colossae and how it might relate to the Church today. Would Paul rejoice over the faith in churches today?

It occurred to me that the faith of the Colossians was a cause for celebration for St. Paul because Paul knew future generations would be touched by their witness. Not only was it a cause for rejoicing, but it was also a cause for his personal prayers. Notice how specific the prayer was.  He prayed that these new Christians would be filled with the knowledge of His will. To know God’s will is both simple and profound. It’s simple because we know God’s will is for all people to hear the proclamation of the Gospel and know that their sins are forgiven through the blood of Jesus. It’s profound in that it requires immersing ourselves in God’s Word and listening for His voice to know specifically what God has in store for us. As we grow in our knowledge of God we begin to grasp the depth of His love and grace for each of us.

As I walked I also began to think that Paul also prays for their spiritual wisdom. There is something about spiritual wisdom that gives me the impression that it is cultivated in our lives over time. None of us are spiritually wise automatically. As we daily spend time with our Lord and in His Word we grow and mature in our faith and spiritual wisdom. God invests us with His wisdom as we draw closer to Him. Often this wisdom is borne from experiences, both positive and negative, that molds and shapes us for our service to Jesus. In other words, spiritual wisdom, at least for most of us, doesn’t come naturally, but is given by God as we experience daily life, walking with Him. Paul’s prayer perhaps could be seen as his desire for the Colossian Christians to continue to mature in their faith trusting more and more in Jesus.

Paul also prays that the Colossians be filled with understanding. I began to imagine what it must have been like in places like Colossae, where the culture was primarily pagan, and now those who had become followers of Jesus were trying to live out their faith in this new paradigm. I wonder how many times they didn’t understand the persecution or how to react in a given circumstance. This was new territory for most of them. They no doubt wrestled with how to understand why suffering was a part of this joyful faith. They no doubt struggled with severed relationships among family and friends because of their profession of Jesus. These people needed understanding so that they could fathom the grace of Jesus even in the midst of difficulties.

Then it occurred to me that Paul’s prayer had greater purpose, as important as these other things mentioned were, His greater desire was for the Colossian Christians to “walk in a manner worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing to Him…” Then their public witness could impact many in spite of how they were mistreated or misunderstood! The same is true for each of us who profess Jesus as our Lord! These disciples were to bear “fruit in every good work and increasing in the knowledge of God.” Fruitfulness was visible, not only by the things they did, but also in their being. Their lives were to exude the grace and love of Jesus, even as they increased in their knowledge of God and His love for them. Paul goes on to say in Colossians 1, “being strengthened with all power, according to his glorious might, for all endurance and patience with joy; giving thanks to the Father, who has qualified you to share in the inheritance of the saints in light.” He is the One who gives us strength in our weakness, power in our exhaustion so that we can live in joyful perseverance as His saints, shining the light of Jesus!

Summer is a great time for growth and exercise. It is also a great time to walk in a manner worthy of the Lord. As I was nearing the end of my walk I realized this walking theme runs throughout Scripture. Paul writes to the Ephesians, “We are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do the good works which God prepared in advance, that we should walk in them!”  Later Paul writes, “I therefore, a prisoner for the Lord, urge you to walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called…” He then goes on to elucidate with some familiar characteristics like humility, gentleness and the like.

Paul’s letters are filled with this language. He reminds us that we walk by faith not by sight; that if we walk by the Spirit we won’t gratify the desires of the flesh; that we are to walk as children of the light, walking in love, taking care how we walk, not as unwise, but as wise. While Paul often encouraged people to be mindful how they walked, let me end with this one from Romans 6, where Paul tells us to “walk in the newness of life.”
Summer is a great opportunity to slow down and walk in that newness of life. Take some time to refresh and renew, physically and spiritually, so you are better equipped to walk in a manner worthy of the Lord. Spend some time meditating on God’s Word, asking the questions that can help you grow and mature in faith. As His Spirit works in you, make an impact on our world for the sake of the Gospel, praying and being prayed for as those who share in His inheritance.

So, happy summer! Take a walk in a manner worthy of our Lord Jesus, rejoicing in every step of the journey!
Peace,
Greg

Fixing Eyes on Jesus

Categories: News & Announcements, President's E-news

Dear Friends,

As we continue our celebrations of the 500th Anniversary of the Reformation the opportunities are all around us to proclaim the three solas which distinguish us as Lutheran Christians. 500 years later we continue to stand on Grace Alone, Faith Alone and God’s Word Alone! These are not only what guide us as a denomination, but they are the foundation of our Christian faith. At the center of it all is Jesus! That’s why I love our focus in this Reformation Anniversary year of “It’s still all about Jesus!” There is no other name under heaven by which people can be saved except for Jesus! Without Him there is no faith; without Him there is no hope; without Him there is no forgiveness of sins! It’s all about Jesus! The Church in Luther’s day had strayed from proclaiming the pure message of the Gospel and focused on how one could earn their salvation by doing certain things in a certain way. Some have claimed that the Church in our time has fallen back into a similar pre-Reformation pattern, imposing man-made, extra-biblical demands on people, rather than allowing God’s grace to impact and transform lives, as if what we do can add anything to God’s magnificent grace!

In a sense the Reformation began really as an attempt to engage the culture of that time with a conversation about a God who loved the world so much that He sent His one and only Son, Jesus, so that whoever would believe in Him would not perish, but have eternal life. In our day we sometimes give the impression that eternal life depends on being part of a parish. It is by His grace that we are saved, not our affiliation with a congregation.  As important as congregational ministry may be, if it’s not about Jesus it is missing the boat.   As members of the body of Christ, saved by grace He has called us into fellowships of believers to build us up and send us out into the world as witnesses of Jesus. Paul so masterfully wrote about this in Ephesians 2:8–10 (ESV), “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.”

Here Paul reminds us that grace is a gift, neither earned nor deserved. We can’t worship well enough, we can’t sing loud enough, we can’t lead well enough, and we can’t even keep doctrine pure enough to earn God’s favor. As Lutheran Christians we believe, teach and confess that grace alone is enough, and yet while we speak this with our mouths, our actions often proclaim that while we appreciate grace, we still need to add more by our own actions. Paul tells us that we are God’s workmanship, ποίημα, literally a thing that is made, created and then recreated in Jesus Christ, and made with a purpose. That purpose is to do the good works God already has fashioned for each of us. Have you ever stopped to wonder how many good works have gone un-done because believers have failed to recognize that we are saved to serve, and we are called to serve with a purpose?

With all the talk about the decline in worship attendance; with many congregations turning inward rather than reaching outward; as church members seem to focus on caring for members rather than caring for the lost; wondering why the church isn’t thriving as we watch congregations dwindle, one can’t help but wonder if a contributing factor is that we have lost a sense of mission and a sense of purpose. Jesus’ parting words to His disciples was a command to share the good news with the world around them. Over and over Scripture makes this clear. Peter writes in 1 Peter 2:9-10 (NIV), “But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God, that you may declare the praises of Him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light. Once you were not a people, but now you are the people of God; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.” God made us His people so that we could proclaim Him to the whole world, shining His magnificent light into the dark places all around us.

The ministry that Jesus gave His disciples started out clear and strong—think of how quickly the church grew under the leadership of the disciples—however over time it slowly became more and more institutionalized. Instead of being about salvation through grace through faith in Jesus, it became more about structures, wealth and power. Where once the mission had been to proclaim the name of Jesus, it seemed like more and more the mission was taking a back seat. Luther sought to restore a missional church by refocusing on the Word of God and the heart of the Gospel. As the early disciples and church fathers were willing to lay down their lives for the truths of this Gospel, so Luther and other reformers were willing to lay down theirs to restore these truths.

As you look at history we often find that those who fail to learn from history are destined to repeat it. I’ve heard it said that we are currently living in a time in which there is a desperate need of reformation. In fact, the conversation lamented the fact that while many in our day turn their back on faith and Jesus, the Church continues to be preoccupied with her self-preservation and focused on internal matters “while the multitudes are dying and the Master calls for you.”

Dr. Luther wrote, “Has our Lord himself not depicted here the foolish, perverted conscience which offends God by making important matters trifles and trifles important? How is it that a man can take such a careful sip of outward works that he even strains out a gnat, and can take such a gulp of the right works that he even swallows a camel? It is because he makes things which matter little if at all into strict matters of conscience, but has a very free and easy conscience in things of great importance on which everything depends. People who do this are all Atrienses Sancti, churchyard saints.” Luther, M. (1999). Luther’s works, vol. 44: The Christian in Society I. (J. J. Pelikan, H. C. Oswald, & H. T. Lehmann, Eds.) (Vol. 44, p. 238). Philadelphia: Fortress Press.  The Church that focuses on man-made externals without focusing on growing in God’s Word, the Church that allows anything to keep people from the supremacy of knowing Jesus as Lord and Savior, straining gnats while swallowing a camels, is in need of reformation.

David Kinnamen, president of the Barna Group, in His book “UnChristian” found that the unbelieving world sees the church as an institution filled with hypocrisy, speaking of love, but often failing to display it to those most in need of it. He writes, “When outsiders claim that we are unchristian, it is a reflection of this jumbled (and predominately negative) set of perceptions. When they see Christians not acting like Jesus, they quickly conclude that the group deserves an unchristian label. Like a corrupted computer file or a bad photocopy, Christianity, they say, is no longer in pure form, and so they reject it. One quarter of outsiders say therefore most perception of Christianity is that the faith has changed for the worse. It has gotten off-track and is not what Christ intended. Modern-day Christianity no longer seems Christian.” For many outside the church, and even some inside the church, this is what the church has become. We are seen as homophobic, judgmental, elitists.

We know that isn’t true in every church, especially within our Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod, but as the old adage says, “One bad apple spoils the whole barrel!” In other words, when people have had a bad experience with a church, it becomes more difficult to win them back to faith, especially outside the Holy Spirit’s work!

Here’s the point. In this year of the 500th Anniversary of the Reformation and all the ensuing celebrations, let’s not forget that as important as Luther was, his goal was to point us to Jesus. The most important person and reason we rejoice in eternity is Jesus. It was His death and resurrection that covered our sins and opened to us the door of heaven. Only One was willing to lay down His life to die for your sins, and only One could pay the debt we could never pay. That One is Jesus. So in this celebration year, when so many opportunities abound for us to share our faith in Jesus, to engage in conversations about our God, to touch hearts and lives with the power of His love, “Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the Author and Perfecter of our faith, who, for the joy set before Him, endured the Cross, scorning it’s shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.” As our eyes are fixed on Jesus, God will reform us and use us for His glory! The month of May is often seen as a time of growth. May it be so for us as we engage in the Master’s business with our eyes fixed on Jesus!

In His peace,
Greg

An Urgent Church or a Church of Urgency?

Categories: News & Announcements, President's E-news

Dear Friends,

Somewhere I heard the statement, “The hope of the Church is in God’s people.” While I’m not sure I entirely agree with that, for our hope is in Jesus, the Risen One, there is some truth to this statement. Luther reminds us in his explanation to the third article of the Apostle’s Creed, “I believe that by my own reason or strength I cannot believe in Jesus Christ, my Lord, or come to him. But the Holy Spirit has called me through the Gospel, enlightened me with his gifts, and sanctified and preserved me in true faith, just as he calls, gathers, enlightens, and sanctifies the whole Christian church on earth and preserves it in union with Jesus Christ in the one true faith. In this Christian church he daily and abundantly forgives all my sins, and the sins of all believers, and on the last day he will raise me and all the dead and will grant eternal life to me and to all who believe in Christ. This is most certainly true!” The hope of the Church rests in Jesus, and how grateful we can be for that! The Cross is a potent reminder of the depth of love Jesus has for us sinners. He willingly laid down His life for His Church, and now He sends us, even as He did the disciples on Easter evening, in the power of His Spirit to reach the world with His love.

Many churches are in the midst of making Easter plans and determining how to reach out to the community to invite them to come hear about Jesus.  This is a noble thing, but not meant for one festival service once a year. I came across an article by Thom Rainer the other day called “Nine Changes We Must Make or Die.” He states, “Around 200 churches will close this week, maybe more. The pace will accelerate unless our congregations make some dramatic changes. The need is urgent.” This is where I see the hope of the Church being God’s people who have an opportunity to make an eternal difference if we can gain clarity of our primary mission—to connect people to Jesus. Take Easter services, for example. We can place the focus on special music, food and festive worship, but what will visitors encounter the Sunday after Easter? Will it be business as usual? Or will the excellence with which many approach Easter Worship, putting on our Sunday best to draw people to Jesus, become the norm we strive after?  You may or may not agree with Rainer’s conclusions. They are far from doctrinal or Scriptural, and that is not his point. In fact, he makes it clear that doctrine should not be compromised and that God’s Word is sacred and unchangeable. What he’s really focusing on are the things we actually can do something about if we are motivated by the Gospel to truly engage in the Master’s business and connect people to Jesus. It is certainly worthy for some thought and discussion.

Rainer is primarily referring to churches that are struggling with their purpose and direction, that are seeing diminishing worship attendees, that are becoming less and less in touch with their own community. He calls these churches “the urgent church,” mostly because failure to do something will result in making them a memory. Of course, what he says applies to ALL churches. It is healthy to step back and evaluate our ministry, and Rainer gives some challenging points to ponder using the phrase “the urgent church.” I prefer the phrase “churches of urgency” describing an urgency to share what new life in Jesus is all about—the hope, the joy, the peace He brings us. That isn’t what Rainer was referring to at all. He also admits in his article that necessary changes don’t come easy, but as the great Hockey player Wayne Gretzky is quoted as saying, “I miss 100% of the shots I didn’t take.” What might your congregation consider to be more effective in proclaiming Jesus to the world? Let me encourage us all to consider Rainer’s thoughts. Here are his nine:

  1. We must stop bemoaning the death of cultural Christianity. Such whining does us no good. Easy growth is simply not a reality for many churches. People no longer come to a church because they believe they must do so to be culturally accepted. The next time a church member says, “They know where we are; they can come here if they want to,” rebuke him. Great Commission Christianity is about going; it’s not “y’all come.”
  2. We must cease seeing the church as a place of comfort and stability in the midst of rapid change. Certainly, God’s truth is unchanging. So we do find comfort and stability in that reality. But don’t look to your church not to change methods, approaches, and human-made traditions. Indeed, we must learn to be uncomfortable in the world if we are to make a difference. “We’ve never done it that way before,” is a death declaration.
  3. We must abandon the entitlement mentality. Your church is not a country club where you pay dues to get your perks and privileges. It is a gospel outpost where you are to put yourself last. Don’t seek to get your way with the music, temperature, and length of sermons. Here is a simple guideline: Be willing to die for the sake of the gospel. That’s the opposite of the entitlement mentality.
  4. We must start doing.  Most of us like the idea of evangelism more than we like doing evangelism. Try a simple prayer and ask God to give you gospel opportunities. You may be surprised how He will use you.
  5. We must stop using biblical words in unbiblical ways. “Discipleship” does not mean caretaking. “Fellowship” does not mean entertainment.
  6. We must stop focusing on minors. Satan must delight when a church spends six months wrangling over a bylaw change. That’s six months of gospel negligence.
  7. We must stop shooting our own. This tragedy is related to the entitlement mentality. If we don’t get our way, we will go after the pastor, the staff member, or the church member who has a different perspective than our own. We will even go after their families. Don’t let bullies and perpetual critics control the church. Don’t shoot our own. It’s not friendly fire.
  8. We must stop wasting time in unproductive meetings, committees, and business sessions. Wouldn’t it be nice if every church member could only ask one question or make one comment in a meeting for every time he or she has shared his or her faith the past week?
  9. We must become houses of prayer. Stated simply, we are doing too much in our own power. We are really busy, but we are not doing the business of God.

I was struck by how his comments made me a bit uncomfortable, but at the same time I found myself easily identifying that these are real in some churches. As I look at the history of our congregations across the Florida-Georgia District I’m overjoyed when I see how often missions were begun in response to a need to proclaim Jesus. A group of Christian Lutheran men and women saw a need, saw an opportunity, and worked together for the sake of God’s Kingdom. How many congregations started a preschool program as a way to serve their community, and often in our day these ministries are seen as either a “money-maker” or a “drain on finances.” We miss the fact that there are lives that are being impacted by the Gospel of Jesus Christ. I bet, if we’re honest, each of us could relate to one or more of these nine!

A few years ago Doug Kallesen and I attended the 50th Anniversary for Lutheran Church of Nassau in the Bahamas. It was a grand day, broadcast on the national radio station, and filled with dignitaries, including the Mayor and the Deputy Prime Minister of Nassau. He shared a story with us regarding the Prime Minister of Nassau, who was very familiar with the Lutheran Church there. The reason was because as a child he attended Vacation Bible School there and heard about Jesus! He isn’t a member there now, but this ministry touched his life.

When Jesus returns He isn’t likely to ask any particular congregation how big their worship attendance was, but what we did with the resources He provided. All around us we see the signs of spring with trees budding and flowers blooming. When a fruit tree is cared for properly it will naturally bear fruit. This is what a fruit tree was created to do—bear fruit. You and I were recreated in baptism to bear fruit for Jesus. This is our purpose. We should be the “urgent church” only in the sense that we want to reach more people with the power of Christ’s forgiveness and the good news of new life in Jesus. In fact, Jesus says, “I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing. If anyone does not abide in me he is thrown away like a branch and withers; and the branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned. If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. By this my Father is glorified, that you bear much fruit and so prove to be my disciples.”

Fruit bearing churches of urgency is the call of Jesus to each of us. Those kind of churches discover that you don’t need to abandon history or liturgy or tradition and certainly not God’s truth to meet the needs of today. Peter writes, “But in your hearts set apart Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect…”(1 Pe 3:15). This is our calling! This is our privilege! We must become creative, adaptive, flexible and loving people of God. We must care about people and about building relationships. Why? Because this is what Jesus did! If we’re serious about the mission it requires that we learn patience with the uninitiated to Jesus and those that are slowly growing in their faith. It may mean stepping back to explain and educate those who are seeking by simply telling the story of how Jesus has impacted your personal life. We can do this by the power of the Spirit! Maybe the hope for the church really is in God’s people—a people touched by grace and empowered by the Spirit. Each one of us has the calling to be part of that church. The question is, as Easter people, will we listen to our Lord’s call to be pruned, be fruitful and live as His disciples? I pray that we will!

A blessed Holy Week and Easter to you all!

Peace,

Greg

The Grace of the Irish

Categories: News & Announcements, President's E-news

Dear Friends,

Later this month many will celebrate the luck of the Irish on St. Patrick’s Day. The truth is, it really has nothing to do with luck and everything to do with grace. The legends surrounding St. Patrick are numerous, and have grown through the years. What we do know is that Patrick had been captured and enslaved by pirates from Ireland when he was a teenager, and forced into slavery for about six years. He escaped and returned to his home in Great Britain. He later became a cleric, perhaps as a result of his enslavement, and was compelled by the love of Jesus to return to the very place that had impacted his life to share the forgiveness, grace and life in Jesus Christ. As Paul reminds us in 2 Corinthians 5, “For Christ’s love compels us, because we are convinced that one died for all, and therefore all died.”

It is always amazing how something that started out as a way to celebrate the work of God through His servants, often becomes an excuse to celebrate ourselves. Patrick was a missionary who risked his life and made great sacrifice to reach a people he had great reason to resent. Instead, his life was so transformed by God’s grace that he took to heart the words of Jesus in Matthew 5, “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven. For he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust.” So Patrick dedicated his life to proclaiming the redemption of mankind in Jesus Christ to the people of Ireland. He was engaged in the Master’s business, and devoted the rest of his life to that service. He is said to be buried in Ireland near where he first proclaimed the good news of Jesus.

If we truly want to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day then perhaps it should focus more on missions. Patrick was a true missionary. As much fun as it might be to look for a pot of gold or a four leaf clover, what if we made St. Patrick’s Day a time to celebrate Patrick’s commitment to serving Jesus? What if St. Patrick’s Day was all about celebrating mission?

The story of Patrick’s life story is a great reminder of the call that God has placed upon each one of us. While we may never have had to experience the trauma that Patrick faced, God uses every circumstance of our lives to prepare us for His mission. We are called to engage in the Master’s business, and share the stories of how Jesus has impacted our lives.

We are living in a day when we have allowed the church to become too institutionalized and comfortable. We are living in the third largest mission field in the world. Yet we somehow have convinced ourselves that everyone knows Jesus and that this is basically a churched society. The truth is, we are more like the Ireland that Patrick was enslaved in, and to which he would later return. He didn’t go there because he felt that it had become a safe, Christian environment. Legend has it that he went back because he saw the hopelessness—in fact, he experienced that hopelessness personally! He looked upon Ireland as Jesus looked upon Jerusalem. Jesus said, “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but you were not willing.” This was the world that Patrick faced as he went back to Ireland. It is also the world that we face each day.

Like Patrick, we are sent as missionaries into a sometimes hostile world. Understanding that our nation is now more discerning and distant when it comes to matters of faith and we no longer enjoy the privileges once afforded to the church really must shape how we approach the world in our day. We can’t assume that people understand what faith is, or who Jesus is, or what the church is all about. In fact, we have often allowed the church to be portrayed in a negative light to the world. Rather than engaging in the Master’s business to reach those outside of the Kingdom we have often focused only on the needs of the redeemed. Ministry often seems to take place within the confines of our own ministry campus rather than reaching out to the world around us. From the start Jesus commanded us to go and make disciples. Instead of being fishers of men, we have often succumbed to becoming keepers of the aquarium. Our calling is to connect people to Jesus, rather than simply allowing an exclusive country club mentality to lull us into institutionalism. Jesus calls us to reach hopeless people with the true hope that comes by faith in Him!

In 1 Peter 2:9-10, Peter reminds us, “But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for His own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of Him who called you out of darkness into His marvelous light. Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.”   The very reason God set us apart, saved us through the shed blood of Jesus on the Cross, sanctifies us continually by His Spirit, is to shine His light in the world’s darkness. Like Patrick, we are chosen people. We may not always appreciate the circumstances for which we have been chosen, but God makes no mistakes. He has each of us where we need to be for the present time. He’s chosen us to reach the world around us with the good news of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

Over the next month and a half we will be making that Lenten journey once again. It certainly is a time to be reflective and to live out a life of repentance. It’s also a time to not just focus on self, but to do those things that share the light and love of Jesus with the world. Each year at Lent for me it is not so much about what I give up but rather what I take up for the sake of Jesus. The season of Lent isn’t so much about our sacrifice as it is about the sacrifice Jesus made for each of us on the cross which inspires a sacrificial attitude in His people. St. Patrick learned that as he gave his life for a people that had mistreated him at one time, but now celebrate him as their patron saint. While you and I are not destined for sainthood in any earthly sense, we are already made saints through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

So celebrate St. Patrick’s Day, but not because of the luck of the Irish. Instead, celebrate it because of the grace of our God. May the self-giving love of St. Patrick, a love that flows from Jesus, be a love that not only touches us, but also a love that flows in our lives to those around us. And as you make this Lenten journey, remember the words of this traditional gaelic blessing: “May the road rise up to meet you. May the wind be always at your back. May the sun shine warm upon your face; the rains fall soft upon your fields, and until we meet again, may God hold you in the palm of His hand.” May He do all that and more so that we can always be engaged in the Master’s business, connecting people to Jesus!

Siochan leat  (pronounced “shee/oh/con lat”, meaning in Irish: Peace be with you)

Greg

How Will You Celebrate?

Categories: News & Announcements, President's E-news

October is a month filled with celebrations. In fact, like most months, there are national celebrations for almost every single day. You can celebrate everything from National Ghost Hunting Day on October first, National CB Day on 10-4, National Taco Day, National Gumbo Day, National Bald Day, all the way to National Grouch Day. In addition to a few other things, October 31st is National Knock-Knock Joke Day, which may explain my warped sense of humor. My wife has told me several of those special days seem to apply to me …

Of course, October has a few more significant celebrations as well. It’s National Breast Cancer Awareness Month. It’s also Clergy Appreciation Month. Since late August the stores have been reminding us about Halloween. For many of us, who have grown up in the Lutheran Church, it is also the month we celebrate the Reformation. In fact, we are on the eve of the 499th Anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther nailing the 95 Theses on the Castle Church door in Wittenberg in 1517.

As people prepare for the big 500th Anniversary in 2017, many trips have been planned to visit the Luther sites. Numerous celebrations are in the works across the world, not to mention those being planned in our own Synod, District, Circuits and congregations. It will be an exciting year to proudly reflect on our heritage as Lutherans. However, I strongly believe that Anniversary celebrations are a great time to look back, but they also provide an opportunity to look forward. Looking to the past while trying to move forward causes one to walk into a wall!

Luther looked to the past and didn’t really like what he saw. He was discontent with what the church of his day had become. It had built wonderful legacies of traditions, but had moved the focus off of Jesus. For Luther it was all about God’s free gift to us in Jesus. I sometimes wonder if the church in our day hasn’t somehow slipped back into a false sense of security, bolstered by knowing the right doctrines and words, rather than celebrating a living faith in Jesus.

I used to tell a story in Adult Instruction class about a family who brought their precious baby to be baptized. On the day of his baptism a wealthy family friend gave the baby’s parents a large check to bless this baby in the future. It was actually for a million dollars, and this friend could well afford it. These parents were overwhelmed by this generous gift, and never having seen a check for a million dollars, they framed it and hung it on the wall of the nursery. It brought smiles to their faces every time they saw it hanging there because they knew that their child’s future was secure.

In time the baby began to grow, and the nursery became a bedroom, and as the boy grew this check was actually forgotten, and it was packed up with a lot of the items that had adorned that nursery. The boy grew, and as he was about to graduate high school tragedy struck and his parents were killed in a terrible car accident. He was left an orphan. At the funeral, in the midst of the sorrow, the family friend whom the boy had heard about but never met, came to the service. He expressed his condolences and learned that the boy would be left virtually penniless. He asked him about the check, and the boy vaguely remembered it being on the wall.

Days after the funeral, as he was packing up the house, he came across the box with all his baby things, and he found that framed check. He was astonished that his parents never cashed it. He took it out of the frame and took a huge risk. He went to the bank and he learned that the check was still somehow valid after all these years. He was able to cash it, and once he did this family friend came and helped him learn how to invest it. It took him through the rest of his life.

Obviously this was a made up story, and flawed at that. However, it had a point. How many of us are never given the opportunity to be invested in the life we’ve been given through baptism? How many fail to take advantages of the promises offered to us there? How many miss out on something because they just didn’t understand the gift that has been given? Here’s the point—the gift is still valid, even if it’s stuck in a box and forgotten. It’s time for the church to unpack the box and start living for Jesus!

My mother, now in her 80’s, has an iPad. She resisted touching a computer when my father first got one, even though I tried to explain to her the benefits of being part of the digital age. She got her iPad primarily to keep up with pictures of her children and grandchildren, and now great grandchildren. Here’s what she discovered. She got an iPad expressly to look at pictures, then she discovered that it could do so much more! She now reads books on it, she looks up recipes, and she keeps up with Facebook, and even facetimes on her iPad. I think she regrets not trying to do this sooner. Living with regret is bad when you’re talking about technology. It’s even worse when you talk about faith. That’s why we need to invest in the Word and live it out each day.

Luther, when he learned we were justified by faith apart from the law, wanted all Christians to understand God’s grace as a free gift. Paul writes in Ephesians 2:8-10, “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.” We are saved by grace, not to celebrate our good fortune, but rather so that we can walk in good works to proclaim Jesus to the whole world!

Luther’s whole struggle with the Church was born of a desire to bring about a true reformation, refocusing people on the beauty of God’s gift of grace to us in Jesus. The Church of that day had become so institutionalized, so ritualistic, and so controlling of people with fear of the law rather than devotion inspired by faith in Jesus’s love and grace. The Church was actually teaching that if you did certain things, if you said certain words, it you obeyed the church, you could earn your way to heaven. Luther encouraged the Church to go back to the basics of Scripture, focusing on God’s Word. In a world that was so culturally influenced by the Church in wrong ways, Luther moved outside the box for the sake of the Gospel. In fact, one of the primary emphases of the Reformation was the priesthood of all believers, meaning that each of us are gifted by the Spirit for service to Jesus.

We are living in a day when some feel that we’ve fallen back into the trap of celebrating our traditions rather than living out our faith. There are some who feel because they bear the moniker “Lutheran” they will get to heaven despite the fact that they have boxed up their faith rather than investing it. The LCMS has marked the theme for next year as “Its still All About Jesus!” My heart resonates with that, because as we engage in the Master’s business, we want to connect people to Jesus, and it is ALL about Jesus! Luther saw the Reformation as urging the church to return to the very Gospel we proclaim, and he was willing to lay down his life for it. How about you?

Next fall, in the midst of our celebrations of the 500th Anniversary of the Reformation, the FLGA District will host the President’s Equip Conference—a brand new idea to meet the needs of a church in transition. Rather than simply focusing on continuing education for pastors and teachers, the conference next year will also additionally focus on raising up the laity. People who seem to know and understand things far better than me are telling me that in the next five years or so the LCMS will experience a tremendous change in pastoral leadership as our baby boomers, which represents the largest portion of our pastors, will begin to retire. We are not replacing workers at a rate consistent with the growing needs. We already have an abundance of congregations without pastors or an inability to afford full time workers. What is the solution? I certainly don’t claim to have an answer, but in part I believe we need to raise up an army of our laity who become passionate about their faith and life in Jesus. This would be a true reformation!

To that end, the President’s Equip Conference is being designed for pastors and teachers, but also for our laity. It will be held on Thursday afternoon, Friday and Saturday, September 28-30, 2017, to encourage our laity to attend. As always we will offer breakouts for professional church workers, in addition to offering practical strategies and training for congregational officers and elders, for volunteers to understand their purpose and place in the context of congregational ministry, partnering with pastor and other staff for the sake of Jesus. There will be times of inspiration, fellowship and times of learning and applying skills for the sake of God’s kingdom. We’ve tried to find a centralized location in Ponte Verde at Sawgrass to that people from both Georgia and Florida can drive and participate. You’ll definitely be hearing more about this in the coming days, but mark your calendar now and make plans to be with us as we celebrate the Reformation and how God is reforming living stones!

What will the church look like in the future? We know that those great Sola’s of the Reformation (Sola Scriptura, Sola Fides, and Sola Gratia) won’t change. However, as God continues to shape us, He is transforming us into His people who move beyond the institution and traditions of our church to people who actively live out their faith to reach this world for the sake of Jesus. That’s always been His heart’s desire. As we celebrate this month, let’s remember that even now it’s still all about Jesus, and that is something to celebrate!

 

Peace,

Greg

Choices

Categories: News & Announcements, President's E-news

It often seems that life is all about choices. As I reflect on my life, there are choices I’ve made that have truly blessed my life. The choice to go to Concordia College in Bronxville was so influential on my life. That’s where I met the love of my life. The choice to ask Edith to marry me is one of the greatest, talk about marrying up—I am very blessed. The choice to go to the seminary, the choice to buy a home, the choice to have children, all have been blessings. However, there are choices that have not been so great also.

This past summer our denomination was faced with choices, and voices spoke loudly and clearly on a variety of issues. In fact, sometimes it became more loud than clear, but that’s a whole other blog. The point is, when we need to choose, we are able to do that. We make millions of choices each day. Which socks will I wear; what tie; which earrings and necklace; which shoes, and it could go on. What will I eat today? How will I get to work or school today? I love the folks that wait until the last minute to decide, they’re usually driving in front of me…  Life is filled with choices!

The only thing that we definitely don’t choose is God’s grace. It’s a gift, already given to us. Paul reminds us, “For by grace have you been saved through faith, and this not of yourself, it’s the gift of God not by works so that no one can boast. For we are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works which God prepared in advance that we might walk in them.” This passage, so familiar to many Lutherans, was a rally cry of the Reformation. It was a reminder that nothing we do, no choice that we make, no decision can impact what God has done for us in Jesus Christ. By His merit and favor, we have eternal life and salvation. We don’t choose God because in Christ Jesus our Lord we were chosen before the foundation of the world. Jesus said, “You did not choose Me, but I chose you and appointed you to bear fruit, fruit that will last.” We are special. We are loved. We are chosen with a purpose, to bear fruit for Jesus. We’re called to engage in the Master’s business.

As we live as His chosen ones in the world, we are called to be witnesses of His light. God chose us and called us with purpose to connect people to Jesus. Our worship life isn’t only about satisfying our own personal spiritual needs. God calls us to be built up so He can send us out. The Church is always at its best when it is a sending agency. Recently someone shared with me how the congregation they attend has sent a missionary to Africa, and that the congregation supports this missionary and his mission very passionately. At the same time he lamented that they do absolutely nothing for their local community. The truth is, we live in what is now considered the third largest mission field in the world. Africa is sending their missionaries here to evangelize the United States! Here’s my point—the opportunities for sending missionaries exist all around your church, and, by the way, God chose you to be His missionary, and He planted you right where you are to reach more people with the love of Jesus.

The other day I received a letter from one of our pastors concerned about our choices, or, in his words, lack of choices, in this political season. His purpose in writing me was to serve as a reminder that we as Christians have an obligation, a vested interest, a responsibility to be engaged. In fact, this is part of engaging in the Master’s business. It’s part of Luther’s theology of the two kingdoms, the spiritual realm and the civil realm. We aren’t excluded from the civil realm at all, but for the sake of Jesus and our Christian values stand up for what we believe and profess. That, my friends, is becoming ever increasingly important in a day that has devalued our Judeo-Christian values and sought to neuter the Church. Jesus said, to Peter in Matthew 16, “And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.” This is not a picture of the Church holding back hell from breaking in. Instead it’s a picture of the Church breaking down the gates of hell to reclaim those who have been ravaged by the impact of sin and the devil. Some would say that’s where we intersect with politics. It’s so important that Churches understand their duty and rights when it comes to politics. Your church may NOT endorse a particular candidate or political party, but it CAN encourage the body of Christ to get out and vote. We hear all too often stories about Christians who choose not to vote because it’s all in God’s hands. God has chosen you to be His representative in the world, not to be of the world, but to operate in the world as an ambassador for Him.

President James A. Garfield, who served our nation as its 20th President, was also a lay minister of the Gospel. He was assassinated in office and served from March 1881 through September 1881. He had served as a major general in the Civil War and had a passion to see this nation return to honoring Jesus Christ. He wrote to the nation about the nation, “The people are responsible for the character of their Congress. If that body be ignorant, reckless, and corrupt, it is because the people tolerate ignorance, recklessness, and corruption. If it be intelligent, brave and pure, it is because the people demand these high qualities….If the next centennial does not find us a great nation…it will be because those who represent the enterprise, the culture, and the morality of the nation do not aid in controlling the political forces.”

The truth is, if we’re to impact our culture for the sake of Jesus, we need to be involved as examples of the light of Jesus in dark places. That includes becoming active in national elections, regardless of your political views. You have a choice, so let your voice be heard. Don’t worry about how God is going to bless this nation, that’s His business. Our business is to represent Him and share His grace and love, with a world that is mired in sin. Yes, we confront the sins around us with God’s law without compromise. But the goal is always to point people to Jesus, and to somehow help them turn their hearts to Him for forgiveness and new life.

As you consider the fact that you have been chosen, and that you have choices, may God’s Spirit fill you with wisdom and joy to engage in the Master’s business!

In His grip,

Greg