Archive for category: President’s E-news

Easter Greetings!

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

Dear Brothers and Sisters in Jesus,

Today marks the beginning of that three day period beginning with Maundy Thursday through the Easter Vigil on Saturday, culminating with our celebration of the Resurrection of Jesus! It is a time marked by all kinds of activities and extra church services. I have found, over the years, I must guard against the danger of falling into a mindset of simply going through the motions, not allowing these days to speak to me personally. That was especially true as a parish pastor, with a heavy schedule and so many details, it can be easy to neglect a personal connection with this very personal day.

Whenever I begin to feel that way I am always struck by the interaction between Mary and Jesus early on the morning of the Resurrection as she stood outside the tomb weeping, imagining the worst—that someone had stolen the lifeless body of Jesus.

Then Jesus, unknown to her in her grief, spoke to her. Jesus said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you seeking?” Supposing him to be the gardener, she said to him, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.” Jesus said to her, “Mary.” She turned and said to him in Aramaic, “Rabboni!” (which means Teacher)” Jn 20:15–16. I can’t help but imagine the flood of emotions in Mary’s heart when she heard this “stranger” speak her name. But hadn’t Jesus said, “I am the Good Shepherd. I know My own and My own know Me” (John 10:14).

What’s in a name? Doesn’t it make you feel good when someone you admire knows your name? The truth is, each of us are known by our name by the Risen Jesus! He not only knows our name, but He knows everything about us. He knows our success and failures. He knows our hurts and our hurrahs. He knows our hopes and dreams. And in spite of it all, He loves us with an everlasting love.

These days ahead are filled with many activities. Some will help you focus. Some will distract you. My prayer for you during these days is that the Holy Spirit will move in your heart to help you again recognize the great sacrificial love of Jesus. This is the foot-washing Jesus. This is the Bread and Wine Jesus. This is the knowingly betrayed Jesus. This is the beaten and abused Jesus. This is the crucified and dying Jesus.

But April Fools—He didn’t stay dead! He rose to new life, and with that brought each of us the promise of new life forever. It’s a life filled with His love and forgiveness, but also a life to live out His love with the world around us. He has chosen you by name to abide in Him forever!

May this be for you a very personal and special season for you as you once again stand at the open tomb and hear Jesus call your name!

Blessings on your Holy Week preparations and Resurrection celebrations!

 

In His peace,

Rev. Gregory S. Walton, President
The Florida-Georgia District, LCMS

 

Live in Love

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

Dear Friends,

Traveling through a local store the week after Christmas I was amazed to see that almost all of the Christmas merchandise was gone, only to be replaced by a plethora of pink and red hearts, and all things Valentine’s Day. What is amazing to me is the Valentine items in almost every department of the store, from clothing to kitchen gadgets to all kinds of food items. Recently I even saw an advertisement for personalized Valentine’s golf balls! How far we’ve come in trying to prove our love.

In March 1964 The Beatles released a single, “Can’t Buy Me Love,” written by Paul McCartney. He was later quoted as saying about the song, “The idea behind it was that all these material possessions are all very well, but they won’t buy me what I really want.” Interestingly, many of the early Beatles catalogue of songs talked about love. While I can’t interpret what they intended, this much I can tell you: despite the way love is often misused today, love is not just an emotion, but instead is a value.

When we truly love someone, be it our spouse, parents, children, grandchildren or friends, it’s deeper than a simple emotional attachment. Perhaps that’s why Jesus said, “Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends.” In just a few days, in fact, on Valentine’s Day, the season of Lent begins. What an awesome day to kick off this season because we celebrate in Lent how God made His love so visible in Jesus. It is because Jesus values each of us in His love, He willingly laid down His life by dying on the Cross. Jesus defines for us what great love actually is. Certainly Jesus knew the emotion of love, but it was the value that He placed on our eternity that enabled Him to sacrificially take our place and pay for our sins. This is the love He has for the whole world, for all people, every tribe and nation, even for those who refuse to recognize Him. While they may not receive the fullness of the benefits of His love, nevertheless, His promise is to love the whole world!

Seventy years ago, as 48 men met together at Trinity Lutheran Church in Orlando to form the Florida-Georgia District, foremost in their minds was to share the love and salvation of Jesus Christ! At the District Convention this summer, 70 years later, it is still about sharing and abiding in Jesus. Recently I was preparing for a devotion on our convention theme verse, John 15:12-17, about abiding in Jesus. What I discovered is that the only time Jesus ever gave a commandment (as in I command you) was in regard to love. He said, no less than three times, “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.” (see John13:34; John15:12,17). Jesus never commands us not to sin, although I feel safe in suggesting that He would want us to avoid it. He never commands us to pray or worship to sing or read His Word. He never commands us to give, or even to evangelize, even though there are plenty of other Scripture passages that direct us to do so.

The truth is, love is a value, and if we value our relationship with Jesus, and love Him, we will naturally do the things He asks us to do! When we love Jesus we will want to not sin, we will want to pray and worship, sing His praises and read His Word. When we love Jesus we are enabled to give freely, recognizing that we received freely. Only in our love for Jesus can we truly express love to others simply by telling them about all the wonderful things that Jesus has done in our lives. In fact, this is the desire Jesus has for all of us. He said, “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another. By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” We show our love for Him by showing our love to each other.

This isn’t something that we are to reserve for only certain ones. Jesus calls us to love all people with His love. Someone once told me that you may not like everyone, and that’s a choice, but love is a command. So how can we love even the most unlovable? We value them as someone for whom our Lord Jesus was willing to lay down His life. We don’t love in our own strength, but we love others in His!

I am challenging our congregations to consider starting two new ministry starts per region per year over the next five years. That would result in 50 new starts and countless opportunities for us to share the love of Jesus with our neighbors. Faith and hope are great, but Paul reminds us that the greatest of these is love. That’s where it begins—right where Jesus gave His only commandment. May we live in that love and give it away, so that others may see the love of Jesus in us, and experience the true love and value that Jesus has for them! He’s counting on you!

In His love,

Greg

Looking Into the New Year

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

Dear friends

The Apostle Paul wrote, “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come.” (2 Co 5:17). The same could be said about 2017 transforming into 2018! Happy New Year! The New Year brings a lot of exciting things for the Florida-Georgia District. For one thing, it is our 70th Anniversary year. We will actively celebrate from Pentecost 2018 to Pentecost 2019 as the Spirit moves among us! It is also a Convention year, and that means that June will be a busy month.

The theme for the Convention comes from John 15:12-17, “Chosen with Purpose: To Abide in Jesus!” This section of John 15 begins with Jesus commanding that we love each other. He doesn’t give any option here. The disciples were to love each other the way that Jesus loved them, even to the point of laying down their lives. Imagine the power of that kind of love! It transformed them from servants into friends, depicting the kind of intimacy that Jesus longs to have with each of us.

Each day of the Convention we will experience His transforming love through a specific focus. As we begin on June 22 the theme will be “Abiding in His Presence,” as we gather together in His presence. There is no greater place for us to be than in the presence of Jesus! Day two will focus on “Abiding in His Fruit,” as we will do much of our Convention work on this day. These works of our hearts and hands are to bring glory and honor to Jesus! On the third day we will focus on “Abiding in His Love,” as we gather to worship and celebrate His love, and then are sent out into the world, not only abiding in that love, but also carrying that love with us into the world, starting right where we live!

Life is all about choices, isn’t it? From clothing styles to favorite foods to where we live, we make many choices every single day. In John 15:16, Jesus also talks about choices. He says, “You did not choose Me, but I chose you and appointed you that you should go and bear fruit and that your fruit should abide, so that whatever you ask the Father in my name, He may give it to you.” Jesus chose each of us, but He chose us with purpose—to abide in Him, and to bear abiding fruit for Him. We are to be fruitful followers, connecting people to Jesus as we engage in the Master’s business.

Here’s what I know: an apple tree cannot bear peaches, and a plum tree will not grow bananas. As each is unique and created for a specific purpose, so also are each of us. The fruit borne in your life will not look the same as that which is borne in mine, and vice versa. In other words, this is not about comparing ourselves to another, but rather about living out our faith in the world each day for Jesus’ sake. It’s all about Jesus! As we abide in Him our lives are filled with fruit as a natural overflow of His love living in us. Unused fruit rots and is useless. Just so, we share the fruit of our faith with others so that they can be blessed by Jesus. May that guide our life and actions in 2018 and beyond!

A New Year is a time to reflect on the past and look forward to the future. Over the years I’ve learned that you can’t change the past, but you can make an impact on the future through the decisions you make today! As we look to the future what a blessing it would be if in the next five years we made every effort to grow God’s Church by bearing fruit and reaching more people with the Gospel and connecting them to Jesus. Currently the Florida-Georgia District has about 200 ministries and about 51,449 members. What might happen if each of our five regions intentionally worked together to raise up 10 new ministries by 2021? That amounts to about two new ministries per region each year. Jesus told us that the harvest is plentiful, and who of us could argue with that? What if we began by challenging ourselves our congregations to baptize 1000 babies and 2,000, adults all by 2019? That would mean each of the five regions would baptize 200 infants about 400 adults and in the next year! Now, think about this: with 203 congregations, this would amount to about 1 infant baptism and 2 adult baptisms per congregation in a year. It is certainly a possibility, but will only come about as we make every effort to grow God’s kingdom by connecting people to Jesus. In fact, I bet some of you are already thinking of people that might be reached as we work together. Mind you, this isn’t a numbers game at all, but rather a desire to bear fruit for Jesus by obeying His call to make disciples as we live in His love. Jesus reminds us that what we ask in His name, the Father will grant to us, so let’s ask Him to help us connect people to Jesus!

As you consider your personal resolutions for the New Year, let me encourage you to gather with the congregation or church leadership and resolve to baptize two adults and one infant this year. If you really want to challenge yourself, make it this quarter, and then follow the same pattern throughout 2018. You won’t get any extra points with God, but you will rejoice with the angels because of all the souls saved! You have been chosen with purpose, to abide in Jesus and bear fruit for Him. May this be a year filled with fruitful ministry for Jesus in the Florida-Georgia District!

Happy New Year!

In His peace,

Greg

Incarnational Holiday Living

Categories: President's E-news

Dear Friends,

I was almost 30 years old the first time I actually watched the holiday classic, “It’s a Wonderful Life.” I’m sure I saw it many times before, but it never really captured my attention, and as with many of the Christmas Classics in my younger years, I would quickly change the channel. That particular year my son, still a toddler, had his tonsils taken out, and that led to a few sleepless nights around our home. One of those late nights, or rather early mornings, when it was my turn to stay up and rock our son, I had flipped on the TV and did the obligatory channel surfing. It was well after 1 a.m. and I found nothing of interest on. So I settled for the holiday classic my wife had no doubt recommended many times before.

Most people are familiar with the story of George Bailey, who was a kind and giving person. Despite his dreams to leave the community he had grown up in, his sense of responsibility and concern for putting others before himself kept him in the “measly, one-horse town.” In fact the major premise of the movie, what life would be like if he hadn’t been born, was a result of really wanting a better life for his family. Without giving away all the story, in case there are some of you who haven’t seen it for the millionth time, George Bailey recognizes that he has a wonderful life, and that his life was a major influence on his family and friends. It’s a movie that was considered a box office failure in 1947, it was later placed on the American Film Institute’s list of 100 best films ever made, and ranks number one on its list of most inspirational films of all time.

You may wonder what the big deal with this movie is. For me, it was the way that George Bailey was depicted. He was a normal guy who cared about people. His was a life of self-sacrifice and encouraging others. He had a wonderful life. In fact, even though Frank Capra was aiming at this, I would say George Baily had an incarnational life! He learned that no matter who you are, you have purpose in life. Have you ever wondered what it might be like if you were never born? How many other lives would be impacted because of how God has used you? He’s given you an incarnational life, too!

Christmas is all about the Incarnation of God in Jesus Christ. How well we know the story. Most of us can recite it by heart. We know all about the shepherds in the fields, about the angels in the air, the long trip that Mary and Joseph made from Nazareth to Bethlehem. We remember the Inn Keeper, who kept the holy family out, and the cave where Mary gave birth to Jesus in a manger—an animal’s feed trough. Talk about a humble beginning! The most amazing part of the story is how God came to dwell among us in human form. We read in the Gospel of John, “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen His glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth.” Jesus is God incarnate, something we celebrate during the season before us in the Word, worship and song!

It’s wonderful to remember the Christmas story, but what does it motivate you to do? What action does it bring about in your life? Incarnational living is about allowing Jesus to live His life through us. Incarnational living is all about telling people about Jesus, not so much with words as with our deeds, with how we live and conduct ourselves in the world. Incarnational Holiday living is even more focused as we prepare to celebrate the birthday of Jesus!

I have found that people are far more receptive to talking about faith and issues of faith at Christmas time more than any other time of the year. Even many secular retailers carry nativity scenes and play familiar Christmas carols that speak of the birth of Jesus. Even good old Bing Crosby sang so reverently about coming to “adore Him, Christ the Lord!” These are all what have been called “Gospel handles”—opportunities to grab hold of the Gospel in natural circumstances and share the good news in new ways. There are so many of these all around us that enable us to connect people to Jesus.

The Word became flesh so that we could experience the power of His love. Now we get to share that love with others as we live it out in the world all around us.

Paul Harvey once told the story of a family on Christmas Eve that reflects life in our current post-churched culture. The family had cultivated a tradition where the mother and children would go to the Christmas Eve service, and the father would stay home and read the paper. Then when they got back from church, they would open their gifts. The father was not a bad man, he just had trouble believing in the Incarnation–that the Son of God was born to a virgin, and that she wrapped Him in swaddling clothes and laid Him in a manger.

One cold and snowy Christmas Eve when his wife and children left to go to church he sat down in his favorite chair opened up the evening paper and began to read it. He was buried in his own world when suddenly, he heard tapping on the window, and went over to investigate. It was a bird flying against the window. He concluded that the bird must be cold and was attempting to get into his house to get warm. He felt sorry for the bird, and he went outside, to see if he could catch it and bring it inside to keep it from dying.

As he approached the bird, the bird frantically began flying into the window even harder. Pretty soon, the bird flew into the bushes below the window, half frozen, and exhausted. But it was still too afraid of the man, and the more he tried to reach for the bird, the more the bird tried to get away from him. After a few minutes outside in the freezing temperatures without any luck catching the bird the man yelled out in frustration, “Stupid bird, don’t you understand that I’m trying to help you?” The man paused and thought, “If only you understood you wouldn’t fly away … if only … if only I could become a bird, and get you to understand you would see that I want to save you.”

Just then, the church bells rang, as they always did at the beginning of the Christmas Eve Service. But when the man heard the bells this time, he fell to his knees and began to cry, saying, “Oh, God, I didn’t understand. Oh, God, I didn’t understand.” You see, this man came to the realization that God became incarnate for our sake. God, in His compassion, saw us flailing around, confused and needing help. So He became like us. The Son of God had come in the form of a baby. The Holy God of heaven and earth was incarnate for our sake. He came to help us and tell us how our relationship with Him could be restored. Sure the man was late to church that year, and it was the first time he had been in many years, but he started a new tradition for their family, and their celebration was rich as they celebrated the incarnation of Jesus in a brand new and more meaningful way.

How many families do you know that are just waiting to be invited to know the true story of Jesus? Your incarnational living, allowing the love of Jesus to flow through you, could make a huge difference in someone’s eternal life. You see, we have a wonderful life because of Jesus. Now He’s calling us to spread that good news so that others may know Him and live eternally!

May this Christmas season be filled with opportunities for you to live Incarnationally for Jesus! You have a purpose as you abide in Jesus! Merry Christmas!

Peace,

Greg

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