Ashes to Ashes and Dust to Dust: Why Lutherans Receive Ashes on Ash Wednesday

Not all things “catholic” are “Catholic.”

Life Through Lutheran Lenses

Many non-Lutherans wonder why their Lutheran friends or family members wear ashes on their forehead at the beginning of Lent. Are they showing off? Are they trying to stand out? Is it some weird secret church ritual? What does it mean? Should I get them too?

There are three reasons why Lutherans go to church to receive ashes on Ash Wednesday. First, the ashes remind people of their sinfulness. Second, the ashes remind people of their mortality. Third, the ashes remind people that they have been redeemed. Let’s unpack this a bit.

Since ancient times, God’s people have used ashes as a sign of humble repentance (e.g. Jonah 3:5-9; Job 42:6; Daniel 9:3: Matthew 11:21; Luke 10:13). This tradition was carried on by the early church and remains an important tradition today. When one willingly goes up to a pastor and receives ashes on his/her forehead, they are admitting that…

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#THEBETTERMESSAGE      Coming in Lent!

Heb. 6  Though we speak in this way, yet in your case, beloved, we feel sure of better things—things that belong to salvation.

In a world full of seemingly as many opinions, philosophies, religions, social constructs, and overall “positions” as there are people, one thing is making itself more clear to me by the day:

We Christians have the better message.

Let me state that again. We Christians have THE better message.

If that is true, you may wonder, why not just call it “the best message?” I’ll give a two-part answer to that. The word “best” seems to close off all discussion of the other options out there. It invites us simply not to consider them. The word “better” keeps all the other failed ideas out there in the discussion better so that we can see why the Bible’s message is THE better one. We should want to engage all other failed ideas out there if we believe ours is better.

The other part of my answer to the question, though, is that the word “better” is the term of preference for the preacher in the book of Hebrews. Hebrews is not a letter; it is a sermon. It is a sermon about Christ. But the goal of the sermon is to help his Jewish Christian hearers to understand that in Jesus, they have the better message, the one better than all others. The word “better” appears no less than 14 times in the book of Hebrews (an average of slightly more than once a chapter). Peter, in his two epistles, uses the term in a similar manner twice as well. The early church made it their point to preach the Gospel as better than all other options.

At present, I am working with the Board of Elders and the PPC to craft a vision for the next few years here at St. John’s around the theme: #thebettermessage. I even created this hashtag on Twitter a couple of years ago. Now the idea is, however, to make it the focusing principle of the work we do here. We have been given this better message. Now what are we going to do with it?

We will start casting this vision in Lent. The theme of our midweek series is #thebettermessage. We will be exploring the powerful way the Preacher to the Hebrews comforts his hearers with this better message and gives them strength to demonstrate to others that they have a better outlook and worldview and that the world can have this better message too!

I hope you will join us on Wednesday evenings this Lent. There’s Good News, the better message, for you! Don’t miss this opportunity to have your faith strengthened in the better message!

Sincerely, Pastor T.

Silence Is Golden

I’m not a doer of New Year’s Resolutions. I stopped around ten years ago. Like many people, most of my resolutions did not make it out of January intact. It dawned on me about ten years ago that our Lutheran, Biblical teaching explains exactly why this failure happens to most of us. The Law is limited in its ability to motivate. A successful change often only happens because of a change in the heart…and that requires both Law and Gospel.

The exercise of self-examination–the sort we often do at New Year’s–is a good thing, however. For me, this is a good time of the year to take stock and renew. I think most of us see it that way.

I have moved over to what I think of as 3 or 4 “themes” in my life I wish to concentrate on. The first one is usually the most important one and impacts the others quite often. My first priority theme for 2019 is “silence is golden.”

This is not a commitment to not talking! Although I do hope this theme means that when I talk I do so more positively and constructively. This theme isn’t as much about what comes out of my mouth as it is about what goes into my ears.

There is too much noise in our world today. All the noise is easy enough to see when one turns on the television. Recently, in a public place, I was subjected to a television tuned in to the day’s episode of TMZ, the entertainment show. It looked as bad as a 24/7 news channel in that its staff were busy arguing. About what? Brad Pitt’s new hairstyle? There may be too much arguing and noise on the news channels, but I will contend that a good old political argument still has more value than what I was seeing and hearing.

It doesn’t improve when you move over to social media. Our exhaustion with social media continues to grow for the same reasons. It may be in text form, but the noise is still very much there.

What should we fill our ears with? The apostle Paul leads the way. Faith comes by hearing and hearing by the Word of Christ (Rom. 10:17). The word of Christ never ceases to astound me. One, because Jesus never seems to waste a word in His speaking. Two, because He understood the value of silence. At the manger, at the crowd who wanted to stone the adulterous woman (John 8:1-11), and on the cross, Jesus is silent. (He is in many other places as well). He doesn’t argue or fill our ears with more noise. The noise is always trying to force us. Jesus’ silence and His powerful Word economy only invites us. His words fill the ears not with noise, but with the beautiful Good News, the most important thing we need to hear.

For me this theme will bring other good things. It will bring less time in front of screens, perusing social media, or idly listening to anything other than the Word…and probably music. It will also mean, God-willing, more peace, joy, and hope. We are not better for all our media saturation. We are better for hearing the Word of Christ.

I share this with you in case you are looking for more of what only the Word of Christ brings. My prayer for you is that you will have a 2019 of greater peace and joy. I hope you find it in the silence and in the Word of Christ.

Sincerely, Pastor T.

Chicken Little – Lesson To Learn? BIG

The simple story of “Chicken Little” is known to most of us. Running around yelling “the sky is falling” repeatedly when it isn’t hurts your credibility and makes you an untrustable character.

Or at least it should.

I’m not sure this moral to the story is true today. Today brings just the latest example. Brett Kavanaugh now has a #metoo accuser. Color me skeptical. Here’s why:

  1. Nothing was said about her during the hearings although her Senator claims to have known about it since mid summer.
  2. The claim was not brought until almost the minute of the confirmation vote.
  3. The accuser has now come forward, with such inexact details that she can’t even remember what decade the incident took place.

Now whether or not Kavanaugh becomes the next Supreme Court Justice matters not a bit to me. I see him as fairly similar to the man he is replacing, Justice Kennedy. I don’t think he will always be a party line voter on the Supreme Court. Maybe that’s good. Maybe that’s bad. Maybe it’s both. I am more of the mindset that it’s truly rare when only one person is qualified for any position. I can live with either outcome when the Senate votes on this. It might still be that she has a case. It’s just that at present there’s not much there to see.

But the larger implication I draw–the reason I mention the classic old story–is the implication of America’s incessant victimhood for our overall health as a society. My problem is not what’s happening to Brett Kavanaugh in particular, but that this sort of victimization in order to castigate happens all the time now. Kavanaugh may just be the most recent example of this.

As a Lutheran pastor, I walk a fine line here, but that’s also why I write this. I am not saying there are no victims. On the contrary! I have known real victims. I have had to help them deal with the residuals of the tragedies that have happened to them. I have had to recognize that bad things happen to people and these can create real victims. [Note: I will add that a real victim does not want to be one. If someone wants to be viewed as a victim, there’s my reason number one to have doubts].

My fear is that the real victims lose their credibility when everybody wants to claim to be a victim. I’ll use another example from the arts. In the movie, The Incredibles, Dash is arguing with his mother after he got in trouble at school. He argues that because his family has superpowers they are special. His mom responds that “everyone is special.” The young boy follows that comment up with some pretty good wisdom. “When everybody’s special, no one is.” Later on, the villain in the story uses the same logic. Credit this movie for exposing this logic as damaging! It truly is.

Call it the “Chicken Little effect,” if you will. If everyone’s a victim and shouting that loudly, then the real victims will not be respected, trusted, and ultimately, helped and nurtured through their traumas. Why should we believe anyone anymore? When everyone’s a victim, then no one is.

[Oh, and by the way, if they get away with it in the Supreme Court hearings, then who will ever be good enough to be on the Court]?

When Asia Argento, one of the actresses who came out against Harvey Weinstein, was later exposed for sexual advances to a 17 year old teenage boy, it put the lie to the conventional ideas about victimhood. Keith Ellison’s former girlfriend was apparently beaten by him, but is her victimhood touted about in the media the way Kavanaugh’s accuser’s is? No. We’re already as a society to that place of ultimate cynicism where we know we can’t trust anyone anymore, so we’re just picking the victims we want to believe. There’s not much room for sympathy there for someone who is a victim NOT by his or her own choosing. You know, a real victim?

As Christians, we have an 8th Commandment responsibility to put the best construction on everything, but this does not mean that the facts aren’t still important in determining guilt or innocence. If the facts reveal that someone claiming to be a victim is not one, we are not keeping the 8th Commandment by asserting they are. After all, if another party is involved and they actually are innocent, we have the same commandment to remember with them. In most of today’s victimhood allegations, it’s important to remember that two parties are involved. What sort of sympathy and care we should want to show to both sides can still only be determined by the facts. If we won’t do that much for both sides, then not only do real victims lose credibility, but we will fail to defend the innocent as well.

This game only has losers. It’s petulant, divisive, dangerous and, in my humble opinion, evil.

Image result for Good FridayConsider Jesus Himself. Truly innocent, He was crucified as guilty and mocked by His tormentors through the whole situation. And people say the Bible is irrelevant! I can’t see a story that is more relevant to today’s headlines than what happened to Jesus. If we make everyone a victim, then the innocent will truly get crucified along with the real victims who have lost our sympathy.

I’ll give a little suggestion. If the media says there is a victim, be careful. Such allegations, if false, can create new and very real victims. We owe it, in our love for the neighbor, to pursue our own facts about the case and not let some reporter mediate the story to us. Our job is not to assume there are no victims, but to find the real ones. In today’s mess of a society, that can be like looking for a needle in a haystack.

Love should never allow us to become that cynical. When you meet a real victim? Love them. When you meet someone falsely accused who is actually innocent? Defend them and care for them.

One crucifixion’s enough.

Hope Is Here

Matt. 24  32 “From the fig tree learn its lesson: as soon as its branch becomes tender and puts out its leaves, you know that summer is near. 33 So also, when you see all these things, you know that he is near, at the very gates. 34 Truly, I say to you, this generation will not pass away until all these things take place. 35 Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.

As I write this, it’s our second consecutive 70+ degree day. There was plenty of sunshine until about an hour ago, but it is still very nice outside. After a 100 year snowstorm only a couple of weeks ago, the earth is showing signs of waking up. Jennifer mentioned to me last night that it seems like we’re a month behind, but let’s not let lose our gratitude for this gorgeous weather.

The change from winter into spring, and then from spring into summer, has served as a symbol of hope both inside and outside Christianity. Those outside Christianity would do well to notice the cycles of the seasons and how well they intersect with the Bible’s “dying and rising” Law and Gospel message. Every year the earth dies its little death. Every year the earth rises to new life. Death and life, dying and rising, these are the most basic themes of the Law and Gospel message recorded for us in God’s Word.

For the Christian, this dying and rising is not limited to the seasonal cycle. It’s a daily reality. The daily meaning of our Baptisms is that we daily drown our sinful natures and a new man emerges and arises to live before God in righteousness and purity forever. This daily gift of God is our greatest asset. God’s will is to put our sinful natures to death and that a new person, freed from the guilt, regret, and death of sin, would get a chance to live a new life TODAY. God does not want us burdened by sins He has forgiven. He gifts us with new life, a good conscience, and the freedom to pursue the good works He has ordained beforehand for us to do (Eph. 2:8-10).

The world that does not know this wonderful news is consigned to death. By choosing not to hear the Word, the unbelieving world chooses its own fate. This is sad. Don’t you think?

We have the #thebettermessage. The only thing that holds us back is our own fears and doubts from not fully hearing this great message as well. We have hope, a hope for today, a hope for eternity. It’s already ours! Look anywhere else and will you find such a great hope? Peter writes that all Christians are to be “always prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you” (1 Peter 3:15). Christ is our hope and the world needs that hope. That is painfully obvious.

And Christ will return! As we look for that return, we let the beautiful and hopeful return of summer remind us, just like the fig tree in Jesus’ words above, that Christ is returning. He is at the very gates. This is not bad news. This is great Good News! Lord, come again soon! Deliver us to a new heavens and new earth!

Praying you are enjoying this first shot of warmth! God use it to bolster your hope in Him who is returning soon!

Peace in Christ,

Pastor T.

Too Bored To Care?

For many friends and acquaintances who are far too anxious these days…

Are we living in consequential times? Or do we just think we are because we have nothing better to do?

Over the last several months, I have noticed certain writers out there who have been advancing the argument that the world’s situation in 2018 is not as consequential as most of us believe. I suspect one thing most people would agree on today is that we are living in a period of significant consequence. There’s an abiding belief that we live in an age unlike any other, and while the advent of the Internet and its easy breezy access to “data” as well as the onslaught of social networking probably is as revolutionary as the printing press was in the mid 15th century, do these innovations necessarily mean we now live in an age that is more consequential than any other? Or is this just a myth perpetuated through endless strings of tweets and posts and comments from people whose understanding of their own importance is higher than it ought to be, fueled by the fact that social networking has now made it easy for them to do so?

In a March 11, 2018 article titled, “There Will Be No Civil War Today,” Kevin Williamson rather brilliantly advances this point that the world’s current situation is not as consequential as we imagine it. Moreover, we only imagine it because of a distorted view of our own lives. The truth? We are bored. This explains why we are glued to our TwitFacetagrams and why we take endless selfies and post them for the world to see. Wouldn’t Narcissus himself be proud? Just think what he could do with a selfie stick! Meanwhile, we post all these things thinking our legions of followers need to know and must necessarily agree because they follow us.

Williamson’s more basic point is that this boredom, played out all over the place on the Internet, makes us suckers for just about anything. He cites the “QAnon” conspiracy theory that is the rage among many conservatives. Confidently asserting that our current president is winning a 9-Dimensional chess match with the Left and the Media, Q-Anon predicted that yesterday (March 11) John Podesta was going to be arrested. (It didn’t happen). Former President Obama is slated to be incarcerated at  Gitmo according to this theory.

The problem is actually how many people really believe this stuff. Williamson is not arguing that we are lacking the intelligence to see through this piffle. He’s arguing we’re too bored, so we are too ready to believe it must be true. He portrays modern life as a constant seeking of tension and release, tension and release. We go looking for this tension and release because it breaks up the boredom. Online fake news, online porn, online social interactions, 24/7 “news,” (add drugs and alcohol here), etc.  In our little online echo chambers, we pick the sources of our information. So obviously what we know must be true. Do you watch Fox News or CNN?  Truth is determined by us and which of these outlets we believe is telling the truth. The sad reality is that much of this tension does not get released. Of course, much of this tension didn’t need to happen in the first place. Americans need to learn to engage their higher brains before putting their emotions, particularly anxiety, into gear.

Slaves to the grind? We are the guilty parties here. We let all these pursuits ratchet up our anxiety and then release it when other information comes out. If it’s what we want to believe, we will believe it. Facts need not enter into the discussion for us to believe it. We have “our facts,” not necessarily objective facts. Certainly, this is partially the fault of a biased media. The word “media” translates “middle” and precious little in the media seems to be objective enough to be presenting the middle of anything. Still, our suspicion of the media, or even our own preference for this or that outlet for our information, really fails to deal with the problem. We remain slaves to the very outlets we seem to distrust. The only real solution is to turn our TVs and computers and devices off or at least cut off our addiction to news and information, whether or not any of it is true.

But then we would be really bored. But whose problem is that? The justification of all this silliness is that we live in consequential times. Ergo we need to know the truth. Unfortunately, the objective truth is not what we mean. We need to know that what we believe is the truth and it’s not about facts. It’s about how many people agree with us. This is what brings the millennial college student who protests a speaker off the campus and a conservative Fox News viewer together. They are both looking for validation not of the facts, but of what they believe is true. They are both threatened by anyone who sees things differently. They both get angry when someone raises valid questions about their beliefs. (It’s getting increasingly dangerous to be a pastor in these times as the Bible doesn’t offer validation for any of this). The opponent provides tension. The ally provides release. To give all this up would be to bore ourselves to death.

Or would it? America in 2018 is an anxiety driven mess and this chronic anxiety is the only thing that makes our age consequential. Countering boredom with anxiety does not seem like a win to me. I could make the argument that there is a case to be made for boredom, for allowing oneself to be bored. I don’t really believe that. As a pastor who teaches the Holy Scriptures, I believe the better argument is to fill our minds with better things. I have always loved our church body’s youth ministry “Higher Things” if for no other reason than its name. The idea is to give young people higher things to think about. Those higher things come from the Scripture, not their Snapchat accounts, Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, et al.

One of the more beautiful things Paul ever wrote encourages Christians to rise above the din of all the noise in our world today.

Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. What you have learned and received and heard and seen in me–practice these things, and the God of peace will be with you. [Phil. 4:8-9 ESV]

If Christians, in particular, are feeling the weight of all this anxiety, if they can’t relate to the idea of “peace,” I would suggest there is something seriously wrong with their faith. I am not arguing that peace is a feeling necessarily. I will argue that filling our minds with Paul’s “true, honorable, just, pure, lovely, commendable, excellent, praiseworthy” things WILL ratchet down our anxiety. It will not be boring. And peace, whatever we think it is, will likely emerge.

There is a better way. The boredom which fuels the information addictions that fuel the anxiety that fuel the echo chambers that fuel the narcissism, all of that is a dead end. There is a better way. All of Paul’s terms are summed up in the Gospel, in Christ, in the Good News of a God who saves us. Time spent meditating on the Gospel is time far better used than the time spent glued to our many and various screens.

The biggest benefit of all is that such a pursuit will draw us outside of ourselves. Narcissus, our Old Adam, will drown in the pool from which he admired his own reflection. The Gospel draws out our concern for others and their needs. We won’t be too bored to care. We will care, and care for others means we are not bored. We are engaged, engaged in our salvation and engaged in our concern for others.

There is a better way.

In the love of Christ,

Pastor T.