Archive for category: President’s E-news

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

Targeting the Future

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

Dear Friends,

As we head into the fall season, I want to share a few thoughts about the work we do together as the District. The Florida-Georgia Board of Directors, a number of years ago, adopted three critical targets. They include Leadership, Congregations and Outreach. The thought is that if we are to stand back and reflect on what is necessary to best equip, empower and engage to connect people to Jesus, these three things are essential. We want to raise up leaders, strengthen congregations and always keep our mission-focus through outreach.

In archery a target is what you aim at and the goal is to hit the target. When it comes to critical targets for an organization, the goal isn’t simply to hit the target, as if once you’ve hit the target you’ve completed it and are done. Rather, with critical targets the goal, as in archery, is to learn to continually hit the target. Over the many years that I have served in the Florida-Georgia District I have experienced many times when we’ve “hit” these three targets, yet they are still before us.

The Apostle Paul writes in Philippians 3:12-16, “Not that I have already obtained this or am already perfect, but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. Brothers, I do not consider that I have made it my own. But one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus. Let those of us who are mature think this way, and if in anything you think otherwise, God will reveal that also to you. Only let us hold true to what we have attained.” Our gracious God has done marvelous things in, and through, the Florida-Georgia District. Many have been touched with the love of Jesus, many have been baptized, confirmed, married and buried in the faith because of the work that has been done in this District. However, God’s call to us is to press on!

These targets are not linear, but rather cylindrical, always moving in a circle. Strong and healthy leaders will lead to strong and healthy congregations, and strong and healthy congregations will naturally be engaged in outreach with the good news about Jesus, which leads back to the opportunity to raise up more leaders, and so on. Here are some of the ways that we are pressing on and “practicing” to continually work at hitting those three targets.

In the area of leadership we are working to provide the best resources and opportunities for our professional church workers that we can. We have committees that have put together awesome conference opportunities for workers to challenge and strengthen their skills sets for ministry. Certainly anyone will only get out of a conference what they put into it, but I can assure you that for both the pastors and educators conferences, great attention and care is taken to ensure that it is worth the very valuable time of those who participate.

In addition, we have brought in ministry partners to make it easier for our workers to participate in national programs. We have a working relationship with Pastoral Leadership Institute, Grace Place Wellness, and Doxology, who will all operate within the boundaries of the Florida-Georgia District this coming year, beginning this fall. In addition we have created with Kurt Bickel and Cornerstone a program called “Emergent Leaders.” What is unique about this training is that it is not only for professional church workers, but is inclusive of lay leaders as well, an area that we hope to spend more energy and focus on in the days ahead.

In the area of congregations the focus is on revitalizing ministries, encouraging them to embrace their community and engage in the Master’s business. We have several outside consultants available to congregations who desire to invest and renew their commitment to mission and ministry. Among them, I have deployed on a number of occasions Pastor Scott Gress, who serves on the staff of Lutheran Counseling Services in Orlando. Scott will work with congregations to help assess areas of challenge. In addition, he is a certified coach, and has coached a number of pastors, and in some cases lay leaders, to move them forward in ministry.

In this target of congregations we include the excellent work of Lutheran Church Extension Fund (LCEF), your ministry partner. LCEF has come alongside many of our ministries providing capital funding services, stewardship programs, not to mention loans. Our LCEF District Vice-President, Daniel J. Reichard, is constantly out on the road sharing the many free resources available to congregations through LCEF, including bringing Architectural Advisor, Greg Beste, along to help assess the physical needs of a campus.

All these things are done to help you hit the target of serving Jesus in your local community. Jesus said, “Let your light so shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.” Matthew 5:16. The District Office and Staff don’t exist to draw attention away from your ministry, but instead, to undergird your ministry so that it shines in your community. Like the foundation of a house, our job isn’t to be seen, but to support you so that you are better equipped to reach people in your community with the good news of the gospel.

The target of outreach is one of the most crucial, but I believe that it often fails to happen because we often lack leadership or healthy congregations. The final command that Jesus gave His disciples before ascending into heaven was an outreach command. He said, “Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit; and teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you…” Jesus also gives that privilege and responsibility to each of His followers. As a healthy rose will bloom naturally, outreach is the natural outcome for believers. It’s what we were created to do.

Certainly a part of this is planting new missions. Many of us can remember when it was common to plant new missions, and we marveled at how quickly they often grew. That doesn’t seem to be as common in our day. Could it be that we’ve not taken the command of Jesus seriously? Could it be that we’ve neglected the One who chose us and called us to bear fruit by failing to bear fruit for Him?

We have partnered with Lutheran Hour Ministries and even participated in a pilot program, The Outreach Initiative. We have seen some great things from this, but it’s only one avenue to explore. Shouldn’t it be our goal to find as many ways as possible to build relationships and share the good news of Jesus?

I was blessed last month to visit the North Georgia Mountains with my family. We visited the Vineyard of one of our LCMS members, and in the middle of the Vineyard was a giant Cross, very visible from the tasting room. Over and over, as guests entered that tasting room the question was asked why there was a big cross in the vineyard. It was an open opportunity for witness from my friend, who didn’t miss the opportunity. The truth is, these opportunities to testify to our faith in Jesus are all around us. Reaching out in the name of Jesus isn’t the same as growing a church. It’s all about caring for the eternal welfare of a soul. If we love people with the love of Jesus it may just be the seed that God plants to bring someone into faith or back into a faith relationship with Him.

For this reason we were chosen in Christ and called as His servants. Outreach isn’t only about pastors reaching their communities with the good news of Jesus. It’s about all of us being disciples of Jesus and telling the good news to those who need to hear. Maybe that means where you work or go to school. In some cases, maybe it’s just in your own family.

It has been said that actions speak louder than words. I didn’t grow up in a typical ministry family. I’m the first pastor in my family. But my father’s faith was a huge influence on my life. He was the manager of loans and finances, and I remember as a kid visiting his work from time to time. In fact, my first job was near his office. I would stop in occasionally at lunch, and almost every time he was studying the Bible during his lunch hour. His employees would see him studying, and knew his character, and would often ask him questions about faith and spirituality. He never had to push his faith. It was evident in how he lived. I pray that it would be so for each of us as well. This is the heart of outreach.

Critical Targets of leadership, congregations, and outreach, form the focus of our ministry together. May God grant us wisdom and grace to always be about the Master’s business as we work together to connect people to Jesus.

 

Your fellow servant,

Greg

Rev. Gregory S. Walton, President
FLGA District, LCMS

Living for Jesus All Summer Long

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

This month the Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod gathers in Milwaukee for the 66th Regular Convention. The theme that gathers us is “Upon This Rock,” pointing us to Peter’s confession of Jesus, and Jesus’ response to Peter in Matthew 16:18. We confess our faith in Jesus, and we do that through repentance, through proclamation and through praise. As the Synod meets in convention, this is the chief legislative group within our denominations, decisions are made, issues are addressed, and fellowship ensues. Occasionally things get heated…

Over the years I’ve attended a few conventions. I’ve seen the turmoil, I’ve experience the exuberance, and I’ve renewed acquaintances from years past.  Conventions offer delegates the chance to see the church at its very best, and sometimes, struggling with our sinful humanity. I have often thought that when you move a group of LCMS people into a confined space for several days, while emotions can run high, we always ought to bear in mind the public witness that we portray. In a day when many have, by and large, already written off the church, how we live out our faith in the world matters. Jesus said, “By this will all men [and women] know you are My disciples, if you have love one for another” John 13:35. The world is watching us, and when what we proclaim doesn’t match how we live, especially with one another, it creates confusion.

Our witness is almost more important in how we treat one another within the household of faith. Even the world knows that if we can’t treat each other with love and respect, how can we love the world with the love of Jesus? John writes to the Christian community in 1 John 4, “We love because He first loved us. If anyone says, “I love God,” and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen cannot love God whom he has not seen. And this commandment we have from Him: whoever loves God must also love his brother.”

When we become believers in Jesus He calls us to live for Him and to make disciples for Him. Our privilege and responsibility to live for Jesus isn’t meant to be only when it is convenient. His intent and desire is that we live it out every day. There really is no summer break from our faith, or at least there shouldn’t be.

One of the things I love about summer is that often schedules slow down, families go on vacation or at least spend more time together. I know companies that will flex their hours during the summer months, providing families an opportunity to travel. I remember how the traveling sometimes had a negative impact on the church attendance and that had an impact on the service. It always seemed like everyone picked the same week to go away. I remember certain members who would always bring back a bulletin from the place they had worshiped while away. I had one who used to say, “I may take a vacation from work, but I don’t take a vacation from church. Just because I’m not here doesn’t mean that I haven’t found another place to worship.”

I really appreciated his attitude. We never take a vacation from our faith! In fact, how we live our lives, whether at home, work or vacation, or even at a convention, should reflect the love of Jesus within us. Did you realize that each of us can impact how someone views Jesus? You might be the only representative of Jesus a person ever meets. How we live is important.

In May I had the privilege to travel with some of our Circuit Visitors to a training event in Charlotte, NC. One evening I was with a couple of other participants, and we decided to go to an Indian Restaurant. I have to be honest that I was a bit hesitant, simply because I know that Indian food can often be spicy, and I don’t always get along well with spicy food. The Lord had a plan. On our way into the restaurant we met one of the trainers, and he encouraged us to talk to the owner about his mother who had passed away recently. He told us that the man had a powerful story. So as we were seated we asked if the owner was there and if we could speak to him.

He came over to our table and we told him what our friend had said. The man had not been a believer in Jesus, but was converting to the Christian faith. Here’s why. His mother was sick with cancer, and they all knew she was dying. He told us of the small village where he was raised as a child. There were over 600 Hindu families in his village, but only two Christians in the whole village. They were kind of outcasts. When his mother was diagnosed with cancer the two Christian women came and visited her. One of them offered to pray for her every day, which she did. About two weeks before she died his mother made a profession of faith, and became a believer in Jesus. When he arrived about a week after his mother’s conversion he could immediately see a difference in her, even though she was being eaten away by cancer. He said that she had a joy and a peace, and she would offer prayers to Jesus. He had never seen her like this before.

The son was perplexed by the changes, but not completely convinced. Interestingly, he moved to Charlotte to marry a Christian woman from there who had a very conservative Christian background. He told us that his in-laws were very concerned at the wedding because he didn’t share her faith. Anyway, he spent about a week with his mother before she died and the Spirit was at work in him. He knew that death was coming, and that she was at peace with it, but when it happened he told us that he didn’t know what to do. So he immediately sent for the Christian lady, the prayer warrior. He said she came immediately, and was there within five minutes of his mother’s death. She prayed with him, and stayed with him, comforted him, and her witness, along with the change he saw in his mother, transformed his life.

Here was a man who was married to a Christian lady who was living out her faith, who had heard the stories of Jesus from his in-laws, who simply had no interest. What seemed to make all the difference was the love of Jesus flowing through this Christian prayer warrior. He was so deeply touched that he couldn’t wait to get back and tell his family. We saw him about two weeks after he arrived home and the excitement in his voice served to remind us all of our calling to be witnesses of Jesus. We prayed with him and for him. It was exciting to see that joy in him! And, by the way, the food was great—although I had the least spice you could possibly have…

How we live out our faith in the world should not be discounted. People aren’t often convinced by our words only, but when our actions support what we say, it can be a powerful witness. James, the brother of Jesus, expressed this to the followers of Jesus when he wrote: “What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him? If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, be warmed and filled,” without giving them the things needed for the body, what good is that? So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead. But someone will say, “You have faith and I have works.” Show me your faith apart from your works, and I will show you my faith by my works” (Jas 2:14–18). James seems to be saying that faith is always expressed through actions that amplify that faith, not in order to earn or work for God’s grace or forgiveness, as if we could deserve it, but rather as an expression of one who has received these gifts.

Pray for our Synod in Convention, that we would stand “Upon This Rock” of Jesus and make a bold confession together to the world of our love for each other, and for all whom Jesus died to save. Pray for your church in these summer months when people are traveling and things sometimes get tight financially. Mostly, pray for your witness to the world right in your own community, that you would grow in imitating Jesus as you grow in His grace and love.

In His peace,
Greg

Pray for Orlando…

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

Dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ,

Somber greetings in the Lord of Life, Jesus!

Early Sunday morning I received word about the catastrophic slaughter of what is now reported as 49 people mercilessly gunned down at a Club in Orlando. While details continue to emerge and in some cases remain sketchy, this has a tremendous impact on this whole community, and the world is watching us. While the incident took place at a gay nightclub, the effect is felt well beyond. These victims, including the shooter, were sons and daughters, brothers and sisters, aunts and uncles, cousins, and friends. They were co-workers and probably even some who worshipped in area churches. So many lives tragically cut short. Many are still hospitalized and we don’t know if the number of dead will continue to grow.

In these days there are very few families that aren’t impacted in some way by the LGBT community. Our hearts are broken for these families who have been torn apart. This has been described as the worst killing spree in the United States. It has left many in fear, traumatized by these heinous events. It’s a stark reminder that we live in a broken world.

Orlando Mayor, Buddy Dyer, has asked that community vigils not be planned right now as it puts a further strain on already stretched law enforcement officers. Both Trinity Lutheran and Prince of Peace are planning their own vigils for later this week.  We will post information as it becomes available about other activities. Right now law enforcement is focused on protecting and assisting victims of this crime and doesn’t need additional community concerns. We are working with the City of Orlando, through Pastor Billy Brath, to provide assistance in whatever way might seem best. Dr. Rick Armstrong with Lutheran Counseling Services has assured me that they stand ready to help as well. In addition, Tim Hetzner with Lutheran Church Charities in Chicago has offered to bring K-9 Comfort Dogs to help bring comfort to those who are grieving, throughout Orlando.

What can you do? Please pray for this city. Satan is working overtime, instilling fear and hate in many. We need to respond in the love of Jesus. Yesterday morning I worshipped at Prince of Peace in Orlando, and Pastor Ken Green preached on the Good Samaritan. While this was not planned with this present tragedy in mind it spoke loudly. Jesus commended the Samaritan for putting his personal beliefs aside to help someone in need. He didn’t focus on the differences or the things that kept them apart, he simply led with his heart and cared for the one in need. Hurting and confused people are all around us, not just those impacted by this event, but in all our communities impacted by hate, prejudice and fear. We can make a difference by standing together in the love of Jesus. Regardless of all the differences, despite the fact that we are all sinners, the love of Jesus is more powerful! His love is more powerful than fear, more powerful than hate, more powerful than differences, even more powerful than our sin, which often divides.

The Apostle John writes, in his first Epistle, “There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear. For fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not been perfected in love. We love because he first loved us. If anyone says, “I love God,” and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen cannot love God whom he has not seen. And this commandment we have from him: whoever loves God must also love his brother” (1 Jn 4:18–21).

This is the time for us to brightly shine with the love of Jesus; to be those havens of love and grace that Jesus has called His church to be. This is a time to be not just hearers of the Word, but doers. This is not a time to be arm-chair quarterbacks. This is not a time to stand in judgment or condemnation. This is a time to not only talk about the love of Jesus, but to find ways to show it, wherever we may be.

Satan continues to wage his war, but we know how the story ends! We have the victory in Jesus! He is the solution to the problems of the world. So with the writer to the Hebrews, I encourage you, “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 its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider him who endured such opposition from sinful men, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart’” (Heb 12:2–3).

In times like these, when our hearts are aching and filled with confusion, we can still trust the God who brought order out of chaos, and continues to do that even now. In all these things He is somehow at work for good! We can place our trust in Him.

Again, please pray for Orlando, as we trust the Lord to give us wisdom in the midst of hurt.

 

In God’s peace,

Greg Walton
President, FLGA District, LCMS

 

Love is All Around Us

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

Dear Friends,

This is a special year! It’s not very often that Ash Wednesday and Valentines’ Day fall in the same month, much less the same week! Too bad for all of you who gave up chocolate for Lent! Seriously, there seems to be a dichotomy between the two. Ash Wednesday is all about remembering our frail humanity, while Valentine’s Day celebrates romance and love. As I reflect on the diverse nature of these two days, one very somber, the other very merry, perhaps the common theme that ties them together is love.

The Apostle Paul writes, in Romans 5, “For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. For one will scarcely die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person one would dare even to die—but God shows His love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” Ash Wednesday points us to the greatest love that mankind could ever experience as we rehearse again the truth that God willingly sacrificed His beloved Son, and Jesus willingly gave up His life to show us the depth of His love. At my last parish we would exercise the imposition of ashes early in the service, but following communion I stationed elders to wipe the ashen crosses off as people left the communion rail with these words: “Christ has cleansed you; you are free.” It was to be a beautiful and powerful testimony of the power of the Sacrament of the Altar. “If we confess our sin, God is faithful and just to forgive our sin and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” Far from penitential somberness, maybe Ash Wednesday should also be a celebration of God’s love!

There are many tales about the origin of Valentine’s Day, but suffice it to say that Valentine was purportedly a priest, and His love for God and for God’s people made an impact that, while far from what perhaps was originally intended, is still for us an opportunity to witness to our faith in Jesus. In fact, I believe Valentine’s Day could be a great time to tell of the real love that God has lavishly poured on us. John, the beloved Apostle, wrote in his first epistle words that may have influenced St. Valentine. He wrote, “Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love. This is how God showed His love among us: He sent His one and only Son into the world that we might live through Him. This is love: not that we loved God, but that He loved us and sent His Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins. Dear friends, since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another.”

I heard a scathing review of Christianity not too long ago. The author stated that Christians speak a lot about love, but they aren’t so good about practicing it. Or as someone has stated, “Your words say you love me, but your actions say otherwise.” I don’t know about you, but when it hits that close to home it kind of stings! Jesus said to His disciples, right before He would be crucified, “By this all people will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another.” No amount of flowers and candy can make up for a perceived lack of love! And likewise, the non-believing world around us can sense when there is a lack of authenticity in love. Maybe Burt Bacharach had it write, “What the world needs now is love, sweet love, it’s the only thing that there’s much too little of.”

Speaking of old songs, I know I’m aging myself, but I remember back around 1978 when John Paul Young sang the song, “Love is in the Air.” For some of you reading this, you will no doubt start humming it to yourself—but beware, because you won’t be able to get the tune out of your head! Others of you probably have no idea what I’m talking about. It was an instant disco hit.

“Love is in the air everywhere I look around; Love is in the air every sight and every sound; And I don’t know if I’m being foolish; Don’t know if I’m being wise; But it’s something that I must believe in; And it’s there when I look in your eyes.” Of course, the song goes on (and on and on) from there… Okay, this may not be a “church” song, but what if the eyes we’re looking into are the eyes of Jesus? His eyes are filled with His love for us, and for the world around us. That’s why He’s called us to engage in the Master’s business, so that His love becomes evident, not only by our words, but by our actions! Then maybe His love will become more evident in our eyes, too!

All around us are symbols of God’s love for us. We talk about it in the explanation to the First Article of the Creed in Luther’s Small Catechism. God provides us with so many blessings each day, yet often we choose to focus on what we believe He has failed to provide. All around us are opportunities for us to share God’s love. The good people at Lutheran Church of Providence in Deltona, FL have begun carrying little wooden crosses in their pockets, and as they eat in restaurants or talk to clerks at the store they ask a few simple questions, and if they sense that people are going through a struggle, they hand them the cross and share how the cross has brought them peace and hope. A very simple way for us to share God’s love. The opportunities are all around us. His love is in the air—so breathe it in and share it with the world! Don’t just let it be about what we say we believe, but let the world see His love living in us. That’s how people are connected to Jesus!

I pray that we would celebrate Ash Wednesday with joy, focused on God’s love. As we begin our Lenten journey once again to the foot of the Cross, there we see God’s love manifested in such a powerful, transformative way. The world has taken over the celebration of St. Valentine, but we can still redeem it by first remembering God’s love for us in Jesus, and then sharing that love in small ways that reflect His love living in us. His love is all around us. May God make each of us, during this season of Lent, reflections of His love.

In His awesome, life-changing love,

Greg

Rev. Gregory S. Walton, President
FLGA District

The Force Awakens

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

Dear Friends,

Happy New Year! January 1st is a great time for new beginnings. It’s also a great time to reflect on the past year as we take time to look forward, learning from the past, and understanding the real meaning of grace. We get another chance. We get the chance to try to exercise more and eat less, to spend more time with loved ones, and to even strengthen our walk with Jesus! Now is a time to set some goals and make some plans for how you want 2016 to go, always trusting in the Lord who charts the path!

For me one of the most important parts of the New Year is how I will grow in discipleship this year. I know that there will be times of struggle and maybe failure. I also know a faithful God who promised to never leave me nor forsake me! That was set up long before I ever saw the light of day, but still holds true to this very day!

The other great thing about the New Year is that in just a few days we celebrate Epiphany, remembering the star that led the magi to Bethlehem. Speaking of stars, you can hardly turn on the TV or see a magazine cover without knowing that there’s a new Star Wars picture that has recently come to theaters near you. Are you among the millions of people that waited in line to get tickets to the long awaited Star Wars movie, “The Force Awakens”? I would have to admit that I am among those anxious to see the continuing saga. It’s almost nostalgic! “A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away…” Many of us remember those words from the original that came out way back in 1977. It was a revolution in cinematography, at least for a teenager in the 70s.

The special effects were outstanding for that day. I’m not even sure how many times I saw the original in the theater, but there was a time when I could recite the lines… So many great memories about the people I was with and the fun we had mimicking the movie. The fact that many of the original characters are reprising their roles almost 40 years later is really quite impressive. I suspect that it will quickly become a box office smash. The Force Awakens is set approximately 30 years after the events of Return of the Jedi, where the Rebel Alliance and the Empire have become the Resistance and the First Order, respectively, and it will have lots of twists and turns. In the end, of course, we would expect the Light side of the Force to win. It will be fun entertainment.

Get ready to hear those familiar words over used again, “May the Force be with you…” Someone has joked that you can always find the Lutherans in the theaters for any six of the Star Wars films because they respond to the screen when the words “May the Force be with you” are spoken by saying, “And also with you…” While I haven’t seen the movie yet, I am intrigued by the title. The mythical Force that is either evil or good is an age-old movie image.

Theologically, we don’t agree with the viewpoint that sees a balance in the Force, partly good, partly evil, partly light and partly dark. Perhaps it’s a way for the non-Christian world to grapple with the good and evil all around us with the hope that the good will win out! Even in the Christian Church some might equate the light “Force” with the Holy Spirit and the dark “Force” with the devil. However, we know that there really is no comparison. There is no equality between the light and dark. The truth is, good will win because God is good! In fact the Bible says in John 1, “In Him (Jesus) was life, and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.” The Light of Jesus destroys the darkness in the world!

Let me take a little liberty with this image and try to make a point. We have a Force within us through Holy Baptism—it’s the Holy Spirit! Paul reminds us in 1 Corinthians 6:19-20, “Or do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, whom you have from God? You are not your own, for you were bought with a price. So glorify God in your body.” We were purchased with the blood of Jesus, and now sanctified by the Spirit who is at work within us—a tremendous Force indeed!

As we stand at the beginning of the New Year of 2016, wouldn’t it be great if we recognized the real Force—the One and only Force who lives within us? Jesus said in John 16:13, “When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth, for he will not speak on his own authority, but whatever he hears he will speak, and he will declare to you the things that are to come.” We serve a Mighty God and we know that our Mighty God is at work among us through His Spirit, even when we fail to recognize it, to guide us into all the truth. What might our personal lives and God’s Church look like if that “Force” was somehow reawakened in our conscious so that we were constantly more fully aware of His presence with us and in us each and every day and every moment of the day? The truth is, while we know that God’s Spirit is present with us, we often fail to live in that promise. Even among those who worship regularly, read God’s Word, maybe even serve in some ministry, there is a struggle at times to live out our baptismal calling and the promise of the Spirit living in us and through us as a representatives of Jesus. Often there seems to be another “force” at work in us—and it isn’t Jesus. The unholy trinity of the world, the devil and our own sinful flesh seems, at times, to dominate us and display itself in the worst way, leaving us feeling shame and guilt. This is exactly where the devil wants us to be because it tarnishes our witness in the world for Jesus and we are less useful to God.

The beginning of a New Year is a great time to make some resolutions and recommit ourselves to living for our Mighty God. As we seek to engage in the Master’s business, I pray that the Spirit becomes an active “force” in your life. I pray for your awakening in the new reality of your faith in this year ahead as you walk in His light. You—yes you—can make a difference for the sake of the Gospel as you live your life in such a way that people see Jesus living in you. This connects people to Jesus. The Church has often thought that we could reach people more effectively through new programs. The truth is, people aren’t connected to Jesus by new programs or initiatives. People are connected to Jesus through caring people that share the love of Jesus. It’s all about relationships. My suspicion is that the unbelieving world around us is weary and leery of the programs in the church. Many think that the only reason we want them in our church is so the church can benefit financially, and if that is the case, they sense it the minute the come through the door. We don’t need to worry about survival of the church if we’re living out our faith. God has promised that even the gates of hell couldn’t prevail against His Church. Our goal is about reaching people before it’s too late. It’s really all about sharing the message and hope of eternal life that comes to us as a free gift in our Lord Jesus.

Over the past weeks as we’ve celebrated our faith we’ve remembered and rehearsed those events leading up to the birth of our Savior Jesus. What a joyful time to proclaim, the real reason for the season. The truth of this season doesn’t end once the decorations are down and things get back to “normal,” however you define normal. For the Christian, celebrating Jesus every day is our new normal because of the waters of baptism and the renewal of the Holy Spirit (Titus 3:5). Living in His Spirit is the “Force” that desires to be awakened in us new each day, as we remember our baptism, and how Jesus has cleansed us and claimed us to be His servants. Working together, carrying out the Master’s business, His Epiphany light shines in us and through us!

There are no (Hans) Solo acts when it comes to our faith life. We need the partnership, the fellowship, and the support of each other. We are called into community so that we can be more effective in standing together in our proclamation, carrying out the Master’s business. Solomon wrote in Ecclesiastes 4, “Two are better than one, because they have a good reward for their toil. For if they fall, one will lift up his fellow. But woe to him who is alone when he falls and has not another to lift him up! Again, if two lie together, they keep warm, but how can one keep warm alone? And though a man might prevail against one who is alone, two will withstand him—a threefold cord is not quickly broken.” (Ecc. 4:9–12). God didn’t create us to be alone. While our individual faith is important and needs to be nurtured every day, there is joy as we live our faith out together for the sake of Jesus in His church, and then in the community all around us. We are living testimonies of Jesus as the Spirit who lives within us and awakens us to the opportunities to share the joy of Jesus with the world!

So take time in the first days of this New Year to renew commitments, set new goals, and map out a plan for the days ahead, especially in regard to your faith walk. As you go through whatever process you may use to do that may the Spirit guide you and help you recognize His plan for your life. May the Spirit of Jesus, our “Force,” be awakened in you so that your chief goal is to live for Him in ways that others see Him in you and are drawn to Him. May you grow in your commitment to the community of believers into which God has placed you. May you find ways to engage in the Master’s business as you are equipped, empowered and engaged, to connect people to Jesus. And finally, “May the true Force be with you…”

Awakened in Jesus,
Greg