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Help for a Busy Season

The calendar always seems to be filled to overflowing between Thanksgiving and New Year. How are you supposed to focus on following in such a busy season?

Check out this short video for some practical help. This next step strategy is good year-round; and having a game plan is especially helpful when your calendar looks like a kleptomaniac’s Christmas tree.

What’s your plan for taking an Advent Next Step?

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Something Different for Advent

“Why write a book of Advent devotions?”

That’s what I kept asking myself this summer. And I couldn’t come up with a very good answer.

I mean, friends and family who enjoyed my Lenten Thy Will Be Done prayer book have been asking about an Advent resource for a couple of years. But really, does the world need another collection of readings and prayers and devotional anecdotes to help people mark time from December 1 until Christmas?

“Not really,” was the best answer I could come up with. Or maybe, “Not from me.”

yfma cover thumb.jpg

So the Kindle edition of my Advent devotional book is now available at https://amzn.to/2r5npap, along with  both a paperback edition https://amzn.to/2NpSkH8 and a large print edition https://amzn.to/2qsFS0y (paid links).


So what changed? How did I go from no mas (or at least, no Christmas) to publishing in time for Advent? Well, therein lies a tale…. Continue Reading »


A Jackpot with a Countdown Timer

tiny slotLet’s imagine this situation: in a very posh casino, with a very unique promotion, and some crazy luck, not one but two people end up hitting an “Easy Money” jackpot at 11:00 pm exactly. The time stamp is important, because this never-before and never-to-be-repeated jackpot comes with $50,000 of the house’s money; but there’s a catch. (Of course there’s a catch.)

The winners get to play with the $50K for exactly one hour; after that, whatever’s left of  the $50,000 along with whatever the gamblers won with the house’s money must be returned to the casino. The players get their chips, and the countdown timer starts. What would you do…?

The first contestant briefly considers blowing it all on one spin of the roulette table or one hand in poker–after all, it isn’t his money!–but eventually decides to ride his luck as far it will take him. At all the big-money tables in roulette, and poker, and craps, and even baccarat, the player plays. His fan club grows as his luck continues to soar.

Just before midnight, our protagonist reaches one million dollars in winnings, which the casino promptly confiscates at the stroke of twelve, according to the rules of the countdown jackpot. The man leaves the casino as broke as he entered it, but wow! What a night!

poker bet

Let’s go back to our second winner. As soon as she collected her $50K in chips, she started shrewdly scanning the casino for whales or other people with major influence. A smile here, a nod there, and she places a $10,000 bet on behalf of the wife of a large bank owner. The lucky number 7 doesn’t come up, but who cares? Our heroine walks away with the banker’s goodwill–and his business card.

The next hour sees our lucky lady lose or spend all $50,000: some of it goes to buying expensive drinks for everyone else at the Player’s Club Lounge. Some of it goes to cover the bets of real estate brokers, stock brokers, a magazine editor, and a university professor. She even ensures a life-time of platinum-level service at the casino’s restaurant and hotel by leaving a couple of $1,000 tips.

By the time midnight rolls around and the casino comes to collect their money, she hands them her final $10 and leaves with a phone full of contacts and a bright future full of opportunity.

Do you get the situation? You’re playing with house money, and the countdown timer is running. What are you going to do?


I think that modern-day parable is a rough but reasonable equivalent of Jesus’ parable of the shrewd manager in Luke 16. Do you remember that weird parable where the master (God??) seems to applaud how dishonest the manager is?

Here’s the thing, though: that shrewd manager is playing with house money, and the countdown timer is running. He has a short amount of time to set his master’s affairs in order; he is going to get fired, any minute.

And instead of skimming a little off the top and padding his own bank account, an account that could be confiscated without warning by the IRS or Federal Trade Commission, the guy lines the pockets of all the other major players in town, assuring that when–not if, but when–his current employment is terminated, he will have enough friends in high places to help him out.

The moral of the story isn’t, go be tricky with other people’s money. The moral is this: any and all physical possessions you have aren’t yours permanently. You are by definition playing with house money. And the countdown clock is ticking; sooner or later, you are going to be terminated. So what are you going to do in the short time remaining to you?

I don’t think the master in this parable is actually God; which makes this metaphor story of Jesus pretty unique (the master is, like, always God).

I think, instead, God is the whale at the baccarat table: and you are supposed to “waste” whatever resources are temporarily at your disposal for the short time remaining to get in good with THAT guy; he’s the one who can make sure you have a future after the clock strikes midnight.

Of course, you could play all the expensive tables and collect as many chips as you possibly can. And that would be fun. But what good would it actually do you? You are going to head out as broke as you came in.

You can’t serve both God and money. You either use God to get as much as you can get, this side of eternity; or you use this side of eternity to get as much God as you can get. Jesus knows which play he thinks you should make.

You’re playing with house money, and the countdown timer is running. What are you going to do?


Seedbeds of Discipleship in Greenhouses of Grace

I’ve been reading a business book lately about what it takes to launch something new in an unstable or uncertain environment (welcome to my life). The book’s got some really helpful business insight, and under the umbrella of, “All truth is God’s truth,” or maybe, “Every good and perfect gift comes from above,” it occurred to me that some of this really good business insight might be good for the Church.

Take the following quote as an example. The author is talking about how important it is, even for businesses who have an establish track record of success, to invest in finding new ways of delivering benefit to their customers:

The amount of time a company can count on holding on to market leadership to exploit its earlier innovations is shrinking, and this creates an imperative for even the most entrenched companies to invest in innovation.

In fact, I believe a company’s only sustainable path to long-term economic growth is to build an “innovation factory” that uses Lean Startup techniques to create disruptive innovations on a continuous basis… but on an industrial scale and with an established cohort of managers steeped in traditional management culture.

Eric Ries, The Lean Startup (34)

As far as business advice goes, I think that’s pretty sound. But I also think that insight might matter for the Church. I have worked with groups and individuals over the years who are trying to start new things to reach new people for Jesus. I have also seen ministry at established congregations from the inside. From my experience, I would say there is a Kingdom truth embedded in that business insight.

If I were to paraphrase Eric Ries for the Church, that quote might go something like this:

The amount of time a company church can count on holding on to market leadership (members) to exploit its earlier innovations (what used to work to get new members) is shrinking, and this creates an imperative for even the most entrenched companies church bodies to invest in innovation.

In fact, I believe a company’s church’s only sustainable path to long-term economic (Kingdom) growth is to build an “innovation factory” that uses Lean Startup techniques to create disruptive innovations on a continuous basis…but on an industrial scale (it has to include the local church but must go beyond the local) and with an established cohort of managers (church professionals and lay leaders) steeped in traditional management (church) culture.

Eric Ries, paraphrased and revised

Faced with the kind of cultural shift that has remade the landscape of American religion almost over night, I think we have to find more and more new yet faithful ways of following Jesus and connecting with people who don’t see any cultural value in church. I’m concerned that if we leave all the innovation in discipleship or outreach to the people starting new things to reach new people, our established congregations will continue to dwindle and close at alarming rates.

blue-factory-flame-1474993 (1)

We can’t start enough new ministries or congregations to reverse that trend. But what if even the most entrenched congregations or church bodies invested in innovation? What if every follower of Jesus thought part of their job was discovering new ways of following and new ways of connecting in their local communities? What if even the most conservative in theology and practice still made it their job to foster a local “innovation factory” for the Gospel?

OK; there’s something wonderful and right about that term “innovation factory” for finding new ways of following Jesus and connecting to new people; and there’s also something not quite right…

I like the idea that a factory pumps out a product in regular and consistent ways; to think of innovation as something new and different and exciting and tenuous as the regular product of a standard process makes me excited to see if we could actually build the structures and practices that would lead to regular and consistent new ideas and methods and insights when it comes to Christian discipleship and mission.

But I also know that we have a natural tendency to turn the life-on-life discipling journey I think Jesus had in mind (as you go, disciple the nations) into an efficient and standardized process done by professionals (go, make disciples of the nations). So I think we should probably avoid “factory” language in the church.

So what language might we use?

What if we imagined every congregation, every small group Bible study, every home and neighborhood where Jesus has planted his Word as a seedbed of discipleship? And several of those seedbeds together could then comprise an innovation greenhouse, a greenhouse of grace.

You can run experiments in a greenhouse to see which methods produce growth in which conditions. You would expect all kinds of variety of growth and would celebrate all of it while still observing and sharing what you learn in the process. You would even still expect regular patterns and consistent innovations, innovations you wouldn’t necessarily be able to control or even predict, but innovations that arise from the growth you are intentionally seeking to promote.


Maybe what the Church needs is more seedbeds of discipleship in innovative greenhouses of grace. Maybe we need to try out some different ways of imagining daily Bible study or prayer. Maybe we need an environment free of the pressure to get it right that can serve as playground and laboratory for those who desperately want to connect to Jesus, and connect other people to Jesus, in ways that resonate in our current culture.

Maybe we need teams of holy horticulturalists like Paul and Apollos who will plant and water, fully aware that it is the Spirit who grants growth; and fully aware that the planting and watering still matter, and that some new methods of planting and some innovative approaches to watering may be necessary when the soil’s pH is all over the board and drought conditions seem to be worsening.

We need a firm foundation of salvation by grace through faith for Christ’s sake. (Happy Reformation!) And we need to find ways to promote and normalize innovation for the sake of the Gospel, even in our most entrenched congregations or church bodies.

We have to discover new ways of faithfully being Church, new ways of faithfully following Jesus into his world, so that we can connect with people who are disinterested in the Gospel and distrustful of the Church.

We need innovation factories that can run experiments and bring new tools to our proclamation of the Gospel. We need seedbeds of discipleship lovingly cared for in innovative greenhouses of grace.

Sign me up. Anyone else want to play?



Orientation vs Performance: GPS or GPA?

I got a chance to walk a dozen people through a “Moving the Needle” self-evaluation tool last Sunday night, and I was reminded of a couple of things I thought I would pass on to you (because I think anyone who is trying to take a next step or help others take a next step following Jesus will run into some of the same things).

1. People automatically feel pressure to perform.

I began to develop this self-evaluation tool as the Pastor for Adult Discipleship down in Texas, and refined it some more in my ministry in Ann Arbor. It’s not yet ready for public consumption but I am continuing to run experiments to make it better.

Whatever else might change in the tool, I will be sure to keep the key distinction between finding your GPA and using a GPS. Whenever you measure attitude or behavior, you will intuitively get some kind of sliding scale from “Absolute Heathen” to “Fully Devoted Follower.”

testEven if you admit that Jesus loves the people on the bottom of the scale, and go so far as to say no one reaches the top of the scale until the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come, you still get a bell curve of disciples. Everyone wants to be at least a C- follower (or a little better than the person taking the test next to them) and as long as I can compare myself favorably to anyone else, I must be doing OK. That’s Discipleship GPA.

To try and get out of that sliding scale mentality, I have my tool set up as a series of gauges, like you might have on the dashboard of your car. I’m not grading your engine temperature or even your fuel level. In fact, the intention of the tool is to give you some idea of where you are in six different areas of discipleship and then give you some idea of the direction you are heading.

The express purpose is to find your location and orientation, not to score your competency. Yet even though I tell people this is a GPS, not a GPA, as soon as they start putting pen to paper they feel like they want to do well on the test.

Many of the questions they ask about the tool actually mean: “How can I score better on this??” They want to get it right, even when there is no single right way to answer. In fact, the whole thing is geared toward helping an individual take a next step. So if they think they would have used a different word here or there, I tell them to go ahead and change it on their sheet. If they want to add a new category, fine. I want them to find some way of taking their temperature somehow. Just talking about how you could possibly measure your direction and faith walk gets you thinking about the right kinds of things.

But as soon as you start to measure anything, we always end up in a competitionEven when trying to use a GPS, people automatically feel a pressure to perform. Meet them where they are. Assure them they are doing a good job. And get into the discussion about what Jesus is doing in their lives as quickly as you can. The only way to move the focus off of individual performance is to turn their attention to where Jesus is and where he is headed.

That’s actually the point of the GPS: asking where are you, where are you pointed, where is Jesus, and where is he headed? Even when you frame it as a GPS, American GPA mentality makes people feel pressure to perform. So if you are trying to take a next step, watch it! You are going to naturally think this is all about you, when the point is to find where you are so you can see Jesus more clearly.

2. People are complex.

You can measure some surface behaviors like worship attendance and giving pretty directly. But as soon as you try and get at the attitudes behind those behaviors or the general direction of those habits over time, things get pretty complex pretty quick.

I think we have to measure more than just how often people are in worship or how often they read their Bible at home because the answers to those kinds of questions are inherently framed as GPA rather than GPS. Someone who is anxious to come to worship and is coming more and more and is there at least once a month is at a different place than some who is begrudgingly there every week, never gets anything out of it (and never tries to) and has been stuck in that pattern for 30 years. The second disciple would have a higher GPA, but I’m pretty sure he is not seeing what Jesus wants to give or where Jesus wants to lead.direction

Of course, behaviors matter, and you would rather have people in worship twice a month than once a month, or three times a month instead of twice. But their attitude and the trajectory of their worship life over time is probably more important than their present behavior.

Not that behavior isn’t important! We want to measure that, too. In fact, I would rather you come to worship even when you don’t want to, than not come to worship because you don’t feel like it. But most of all, I want you to come more and more regularly over time; and I want you to be on the lookout for what Jesus is giving you and doing for you in worship, more and more joyfully and intentionally as you grow. Behavior matters, but because people are complex, attitude and trajectory over time matter even more.

Because people are complex, they also sometimes have trouble putting down on paper where they actually are, at least when it comes to attitude and direction. (Behavior is a little more straight-forward: you just take your real behavior and increase it by the guilt tax and record about 15% more activity than you actually do…)

When it comes to attitude and orientation, complex people can be in more than one place at the same time. One woman at our Sunday night Bible class thought talking about Jesus was both “scary” and “exciting” at the same time and felt conflicted about those two answers being on the opposite ends of a spectrum. I told her to answer both ways. Sometimes we have more than one attitude at the same time. Don’t let nuances of any discipleship tool get in the way of the real goal: to help people see more clearly where they are and where they are headed, so they can reorient toward Jesus and take a small step forward.

Any measurement tool will necessarily simplify. Be willing to let complex people be complex, and then let the tool do its work. The point isn’t to get the tool right (more performance pressure!). The point is to follow Jesus.

3. Burden is our natural heart language as sinners.

I think every time I have used any version of a discipleship self-evaluation tool, at least some people feel pretty guilty about their results. No matter how many times I say this is about orientation, not performance, writing down my attitude and behavior when it comes to following Jesus still brings some sense of personal failure.

Last Sunday, when the group was finished, I asked them in general about their experience taking the evaluation. The first person who responded was a woman who slapped her own face–she didn’t say it was a slap in the face, she actually slapped her own face!

Now a wake-up call is not necessarily a bad thing, and whenever you do any kind of evaluation, the Law is at work. Of course there will be some sense of guilt or shame, because we are always sinners. But we are not only sinners. Whenever you work with anyone (even yourself!) on taking a small next step following Jesus, you are going to have to get past the poor, miserable sinner mindset. Of course, theologically, they are (and you are); and of course as blind, dead, and an enemy of God, you can’t take even a small step forward following Jesus.

But that’s kind of not the point. Even that way of talking is getting back to the realm of performance and GPA: of course none of us could ever have a high enough grade point average to earn God’s favor. Now that we have that out of the way, let’s take out this GPS and talk about where you are in your faith journey, where you are headed, and where Jesus is inviting you to take a next step.

Jesus didn’t just die for the sins of the disciples, he also invited them to follow him. Even after the resurrection, when Jesus dealt with Peter’s three-fold failure, the punchline was still, “YOU must follow ME.”

I’m convinced that this invitation to follow Jesus is at the heart of the promise in the Great Commission: “I will be with you always... not to stand over your shoulder and grade your performance, but so that you can look around and find me and follow me, again and again, as often as you get turned around or lost or confused. I will be with you always… follow me.

No discipleship tool is ever supposed to merely pile on more guilt and shame. Burden is the natural heart language of sinners, and we make everything about performance, even Gospel invitations. (I can follow Jesus better than you can! In my whole class, I’m the best at not rejecting the promise!) So we will naturally experience any evaluation as burden. But guilt and shame can’t help us move in the right direction.

dashboardIf you want get unstuck, honestly take a look at where you are, and then start looking for ways Jesus is inviting you to take a step forward. Of course forgiveness is a natural part of moving forward, but the point is not to hammer people over how they have failed (that’s GPA thinking again); a GPS is value-neutral, it tells you where you are and maybe which direction you are heading. Feeling bad about where you is a real experience, and guilt and shame need real forgiveness. But you can’t always only focus on your sinfulness.

In fact, carrying that burden makes it harder to move forward. So give people–even yourself–lots of grace. Forgive sins and ease burdened consciences whenever necessary. And then try to help people see some small way Jesus is gently and persistently and lovingly trying to get their attention.

And while Jesus getting your attention is sometimes uncomfortable, it is also fundamentally good news: Jesus loves you and is leading you and has something he wants to give you. That’s awesome.

Featured image credit: dashboard photo by Oleg Magni from Pexels



Look, Lift Up Your Eyes, And See

Warfare, Containers, Harvest, Living Water, and the LCMS Constitution and Bylaws

By Justin Rossow

One of my favorite moments in the Gospels comes in John, chapter 4, right after the Samaritan woman at the well leaves her empty jug behind to share what she has seen about this Jesus guy:

So the woman left her water jar and went away into town and said to the people, “Come, see a man who told me all that I ever did. Can this be the Christ?” They went out of the town and were coming to him.

Meanwhile the disciples were urging him, saying, “Rabbi, eat.”  But he said to them, “I have food to eat that you do not know about.” So the disciples said to one another, “Has anyone brought him something to eat?” Jesus said to them, “My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to accomplish his work. Do you not say, ‘There are yet four months, then comes the harvest’? Look, I tell you, lift up your eyes, and see that the fields are white for harvest.

John 4:28-35 (ESV)

“Look, I tell you, lift up your eyes, and see …”

Jesus says the same thing three times in slightly different ways. I think it must have been important to Jesus. And I think it must have been easy for the disciples to get wrong. In fact, Jesus is asking the disciples to reorient, to re-calibrate, to put on Jesus-colored glasses and perceive the world differently.

Look, I tell you, lift up your eyes, and see … the fields are white for harvest.

Jesus wants to change their perception of reality at precisely the point where they are seeing and evaluating people who don’t know and follow Him.

I don’t think it is stating it too strongly to say that the disciples saw this Samaritan village as nothing less than enemy-occupied territory. They were of course products of their culture, and the Jewish/Samaritan animosity runs deep. We might catch a glimpse of their default position in the rather obscure little scene in Luke 9 when, after the Transfiguration, Jesus turns His face toward Jerusalem, and for that reason alone, He and His entourage are not welcome at the next Samaritan Motel 6.

The Sons of Thunder immediately jump to Shock and Awe: “Lord, do you want us to call down fire from heaven to consume them?!”  You see, if Samaria is enemy-occupied territory, then acts of war seem like a reasonable response to provocation.

Pulled PorkIn this case, the disciples go on a reconnaissance mission to buy food, and they are somewhat aghast when Jesus says He already has food they know nothing about. I think we are supposed to imagine this Samaritan village has exactly one kosher drive-through, and the disciples have to go looking for it, knowing that their purity and therefore their identity was at stake. Not to put too fine a point on it, the Talmud says that food from the hand of a Samaritan is more unclean than swine flesh.

If these disciples had anything like that attitude hard-wired into their worldview, it’s no wonder they went on a trek to find a Jewish deli in enemy occupied territory! It’s no wonder they asked among themselves, “Did someone else bring Jesus something to eat?” I don’t think their question expresses shock at the hospitality of hostile enemies so much as shock that Jesus would eat the pulled-pork sandwich these enemies would probably have offered.

Only much later did the disciples come to understand that the teaching of Jesus declared all food to be clean, and even then it took a divine vision. At this point in the story, the food laws are the most obvious way to tell a Jew from a Samaritan. Crossing that boundary is a bridge too far.

IN and OUT, US vs. THEM

So we have an idea of the way the disciples saw the situation: there is an US and a THEM, with an IN and an OUT, and clear boundaries—like food laws—that must be defended. The outsiders are enemies, and rules of engagement apply.

And that’s the worldview Jesus wants to change. Emphatically, He says, Look, I tell you, lift up your eyes, and see … the fields are white for harvest.

Harvest, bringing in valuable grain, giving thanks at the completion of time and labor, taking what is outside and joyfully bringing it in: that’s how Jesus wants His followers recalibrate their worldview.  A few verses earlier, Jesus has also talked about bringing salvation in terms of offering living water to drink.

The disciples look and see enemies and purity boundary infractions; Jesus sees harvest and offers living water. No wonder He has to say it three times! The disciples see the world very differently.

So how about us? When we evaluate the present and the future of our church, when we look at our situation, how do we see the people around us?

That’s not an easy question to answer. But the answer has to do with the missional heart of our Synod.

So I looked at the most recent Handbook of the LCMS (available at https://www.lcms.org/about/leadership/commission-on-handbook) to see how we talk about, how we perceive, how we frame people who don’t know and follow Jesus.

I have to admit, I didn’t do a thorough study. I simply looked at our expressed objectives, figuring that those at least should express clearly our heart for the ongoing kingdom work of Jesus in the world.

Here’s what I found.

Protection and Purity in Synod’s Goals and Objectives

The Objectives expressed in our Constitution begin by stating that the Synod shall “conserve and promote unity of the true faith” specifically by “providing a united defense.”

“Conserve” and “defense” are both protection, combat, rules of engagement kind of words that cast those who are different from us as enemies, at least to the extent that our true faith needs protecting and defending from them. The paradigm of “true faith” sets up a binary dichotomy of true and false, with a very clear delineation of those who are on the inside of the unity of the true faith and those who are on the outside, from whom those on the inside need protecting.

After one sentence, we are sounding more like the disciples with their concern for purity and their enemy mentality than I think we actually intend.

And those aren’t the only expressions that frame those who do not believe like us as either enemies or outsiders or both.

Article III section 6 says the Synod will provide resources to help congregations in “conserving and defending their confessional unity in the true faith.” Section 9 promises to “provide protection to congregations, pastors, etc.”

Likewise, Article II of our Articles of Incorporation, paragraph c., lists as one of our objectives and purposes to “protect member congregations and ministers of religion” while paragraph a. uses the container we are most familiar with, the human body, to define a very clear IN and OUT, with a very clear boundary line: “congregations that remain true to the Book of Concord of the year of our Lord 1580” are on the inside, and everyone else is on the outside, and we need to protect and defend our faith, our unity, our congregations, and our church workers from them.

In John 4, it seems to me that Jesus is combating a tendency in His disciples to automatically consider people who do not follow Him as outsiders and enemies from whom those on the inside must be protected so that they may remain in some sense pure.

As I read the way we express ourselves as an organization, I find a similar tendency to define others as outsiders from whom our faith and our people must be protected so they may remain safe, faithful, pure.

But perhaps that is not quite fair. Of course organizations, in defining themselves, will naturally use language that sets up a binary IN and OUT. I’m perhaps a little surprised at the defensive and protectionist language but again, to be fair, that’s not the only language our Handbook uses to describe the Missio Dei of which we are a part.

Article III of the Constitution paragraph 2 says we will “strengthen congregations and members in giving bold witness … and extend that Gospel witness into all the world.” Witness is certainly a good, biblical word … but I wonder if the setting of a “bold witness” asks us to imagine a hostile environment, where even those to whom we are giving a witness are primarily some kind of threat. If they were not a threat, why would a witness need to be bold? And “extending that Gospel witness into the all the world” just sounds kind of like military expansionism to me; but perhaps I am being overly sensitive.

The Purpose of the Synod as defined in our Bylaws is to assist congregations as they serve—well, first Jesus, and then His body, and finally the world: a world “which stands in need of the Word and the impact of his redeeming love.” So those outsiders are needy, and we know what they need, and we are going to impact them.  I can’t shake the image of airdropping care packages from a safe distance or hitting people over the head with a club labeled “redeeming love.”

Along with uniting and protecting, our Articles of Incorporation list as one of our objectives: “To spread the Gospel of Jesus Christ throughout the world by every means possible.”  I think I like that way of putting it… though I am left wondering about the entailments of “spreading.” Does the Gospel spread like butter? Like wildfire? Like a disease? Like political influence?  I’m just not clear enough on the evaluations and expectations built into that metaphor to say whether it has military overtones or not.

Listen. I am not saying there is one right way, or that these are necessarily wrong ways to talk about our relationship with or attitude toward people who don’t know and follow Jesus. In fact, the Bible clearly uses designations of IN and OUT: there are sheep on the one hand and goats on the other; those inside the wedding banquet and those outside in darkness where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth; both wheat and tares exist side by side in the field.

But note that these IN and OUT designations are not ones that we are invited to live by this side of eternity: the sheep are separated from the goats when the Son of Man comes in glory as judge; the wedding banquet is eschatological; our theology of the Invisible Church conforms to the Parable of the Wheat and Tares—you can’t pluck out the one without damaging the other, and in fact, you can’t even tell them apart … until the harvest.

Walking With

I think the best metaphor in our entire Constitution and Bylaws is the simply word Synod: “walking with” is exactly what Jesus does with people who don’t yet understand Him, people who do not yet believe in His atoning work or resurrection from the dead, people who constantly get their theology wrong, misunderstand His mission, and fail to grasp His promises.

Walking with.” Now that’s an approach to outsiders I could get on board with. That’s an approach to non-believers that sounds like Jesus spending two extra days in a Samaritan village because they asked Him to. “Walking with” could define a biblical, Christ-like attitude toward people who don’t pray or think or believe like we do.

But we hide “walking with” behind the Latin “Synod,”[1] and use it refer to our insider relationships, and then add objectives like “encouraging congregations to strive for uniformity in church practice” so that any walking with we are allowed to imagine is rank and file marching in lock step, defending their unity and using their bold witness to impact the world.

The language we use in our institutional documents matters. The way we talk about our objectives and purpose, the way we frame our relationship with people who do not yet know Jesus, carries along with it primary assumptions, inferences, expectations, values.

In John 4, Jesus uses the language of ripe harvest to describe what the disciples saw as enemy-occupied territory. Jesus uses the language of sharing living water with people the disciples assumed would make Him unclean. Jesus is sent by the Father, and His food is to bring about the Father’s will and do the Father’s work. The disciples are concerned that the food Jesus has will make Him unclean, unclean like those enemies and outsiders.

The Question Before Us

So my question for you is simple: what language should we use to describe our purpose and define our relationship with people who don’t know Jesus? I think defining non-believers as outsiders from whom our faith and our people must be protected hinders bringing about the Father’s will and doing the Father’s work. I’m not sure spreading the Gospel or giving bold witness is much of an improvement.

So what language should we use? White harvest, a bringing from the outside in rather than a spreading from the inside out? Living water, offering a drink to the thirsty rather than impacting the world?

I don’t know. But I think we need to find out. I think I can hear the voice of Jesus gently but firmly insisting: Look, I tell you, lift up your eyes, and see. Jesus is inviting us to reorient, to re-calibrate, to put on Jesus-colored glasses and perceive the world differently.

Where we see enemy-occupied territory, He sees fields ripe for in-gathering. And if Jesus will teach us to see the world that way, then I am confident He will also teach us how to speak about our purpose, even in our Constitution and Bylaws, in ways that help other people see it that way, too.

[1] For more on the Latin (but mostly Greek) origin of the word “synod” as well as its interpretation as “walking with” or “assembly,” see https://justinrossow.com/does-synod-mean-walk-together/ or https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jyb9j8vP0Zs.

“Pulled pork”by sousvideguy is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Airdrop photo by Melvin Heng from FreeImages

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A Tale of Two Easters

Preachers sometimes find themselves saying the same thing over and over again. Regardless of the text or day, they feel like they are running the proclamation of the Word through the same theological ringer week after week. Yearly celebrations of the same festival can magnify that feeling: I’ve preached Easter and Resurrection 15 years in a row—what is there left to say?

If the preacher feels that way, you can imagine what the congregation is thinking …

Heresy has killed its thousands; boredom its tens of thousands.

How, then, do preachers tell the old, old story in new and engaging ways not only when the theme varies from week to week, but when the primary focus stays the same from year to year? How do you preach Easter or Good Friday or Transfiguration or Christmas or the Baptism of Our Lord again and again and again without feeling like every liturgical festival is Groundhog’s Day?

One primary answer has to do with sermon structures.

I preached the two sermons below at St. Luke, Ann Arbor on consecutive Easter Sundays. While the primary texts differ, the focus remains the same: the resurrection of Jesus and the reality of death and resurrection in the lives of the hearers.

Although both sermons say some of the same things, they feel very different. The emphasis of the content has changed because the presentation of the content has shifted. In spite of very similar themes, the difference in sermon structure changes the experience of the sermon.

Easter Sermon 1: Four Pages Structure

In 2013, St. Luke was just coming to grips with the fact that one of our long-time and well-loved staff members was not going to recover from his recently diagnosed brain cancer. Such a sudden and public terminal illness in the congregation made the law of our own mortality a very palpably part of our life together.

When I went to write my sermon for Easter, I began with this experience of the hearers: I wanted to use the text and the day to speak Gospel into that lived experience of Law.

David Schmitt suggests that every Lutheran sermon will weave four threads together to make the work of art that is the preaching event: Textual Exposition, Theological Confession, Evangelical Proclamation, and Hearer Interpretation. (You can read Schmitt’s excellent article “The Tapestry of Preaching,” here.)

While we regularly begin the preaching task by considering the text, there are times when we start with the experience of the hearers and work our way back into the text, our theological framework, and the preaching of the Gospel. In this sermon, I began with the experience of the hearers and wove the other three threads into the sermon.

So the people are facing the death of a loved one in a very real and tangible way. Easter is the answer to that experience of the Law. But how to make sure this Resurrection sermon doesn’t sound like a reheated version of last year’s pancake breakfast?

To keep that Easter sermon fresh I borrowed language from a new song we were just learning as a congregation; and I paid close attention to the structure of the preaching event.

In Lent of 2013 we were just learning Kip Fox’s compelling song, “This Dust.” The refrain captures the essence of what I wanted the Easter sermon to do.

Death is all around us;
We are not afraid.
Written is the story:
Empty is the grave.

That refrain, repeated throughout the song, served as the hook for the whole sermon. It shaped the way I phrased both Law and Gospel. It helped add connective tissue and thematic unity. It named two of the worst enemies of God’s people—fear and death—and provided the antidote to both—Jesus’ empty grave.

Armed with this phrase, I still had to decide how I would structure the sermon. In the end, I decided that the trouble and grace expressed in this refrain matched well a structure that expressed the trouble and grace in the text and in the lives of my hearers.

This dynamic sermon structure is often called the Four Pages, not because it’s limited to four sheets of paper, but because there are four distinct moves in the sermon. You can read more about Paul Scott Wilson’s The Four Pages of a Sermon here, but the four basic moves are:

  • Trouble in the Text
  • Trouble in the World
  • Grace in the Text
  • Grace in the World

These four movements can come in any order within the sermon for different effect. Weaving together Fox’s refrain with Wilson’s structure, I got this sermon outline:

  • Trouble in the Text: death was all around the disciples and they faced fear.
  • Grace in the Text: the disciples learned the end of the story—empty is the grave!
  • Trouble in the World: death is all around us and we face fear.
  • Grace in the World: we know the end of the story—empty is the grave!

The words from the song provided unity, but these four movements structured the sermon as a whole. The structure, in turn, shapes and enables the experience of the Law of death and the Gospel of resurrection. The theme is certainly not unique, but the structure expresses the theme in a unique way.

You can listen to the sermon below or read the last draft of the sermon manuscript here.  You can also read an interview with Kip Fox about This Dust here.

Easter Sermon 2: Metaphor Structure

Easter of 2014 came at the end of a Lenten sermon series called The Season of the Cross. We were just finishing a look at different crosses (Anchor Cross, Jerusalem Cross, Ankh Cross, etc.) and we wanted to keep with the theme by talking about the meaning behind a symbol for Easter.

Our preaching team decided to focus on the Easter Lily as a symbol for resurrection. Preaching on that symbol connected Easter worship to the Lenten series on the symbolism of different crosses.

easter-lilyIn terms of the Four Threads, the sermon began with Evangelical Proclamation: because I knew I wanted to preach the Gospel in terms of an Easter lily, I shaped the Textual Exposition, Theological Confession, and Hearer Interpretation accordingly. Of course, the Easter Lily connects directly to themes of death and resurrection, so it fits well with the theme for the day.

Notice that this second sermon deals with some of the very same themes as the first. Perhaps every Easter will deal with death and resurrection as part of the Law and Gospel proclamation. But changing the structure that gives rise to the preaching event changes the experience of the hearers.

Instead of working with the Four Pages structure, I chose to take advantage of the metaphorical potential of the Easter Lily symbol and structure the sermon according to the Metaphor Design. You can read up on this design here.

Briefly, the Metaphor Design takes the basic dynamics of metaphor interpretation and uses them to structure the experience of the sermon. The four moves of this kind of sermon are:

  • Evoke the Source
  • Map to the Target
  • Test the Limits
  • See Through a New Lens

Using these basic dynamics of metaphor, I crafted the sermon that explored the dynamics of an Easter lily and its relationship to a bulb and used that dynamic to look at both the text and the lives of the hearers. All four threads of the tapestry of preaching are present; the structure of the loom as changed.

This Easter sermon felt very different because it was shaped in a very different way. The structure of this Easter sermon was something like this:

  • Evoke the Source: bring the experience and knowledge of bulbs and lilies to mind.
  • Map to the Target: the dead body of Jesus is like the bulb, the New Creation, Resurrection body of Jesus is like the full-grown flower.
  • See Through a New Lens: interpret the text through the logic of bulb/flower (continuity and discontinuity; hard to believe if you didn’t know better; end result is much more alive).
  • Map to the Target: our bodies/lives are like bulbs, our New Creation, Resurrection bodies/lives will be the full-grown flower.
  • See Through a New Lens: interpret our lives through the logic of bulb/flower.
  • Test the Limits: Unlike a lily, we already experience the promise of the New Creation flower even as experience life as a bulb.

The logic of the image is central in this design. The contrast between the bulb and the flower and the inherent relationship between the two is the primary dynamic of the image and of the sermon.

You can watch the final product here:

Though both of these sermons were preached on Easter and both dealt with the dynamics of death and resurrection, the experience of each sermon is very different. This variety of expression arises from the diversity of structure: shaping the progression of the sermon over time will shape the way the hearers experience the sermon.

If two sermons on the same festival with the same theme can end up sounding so different, it stands to reason that changing the structure from week to week will also allow for a variety of expression and experience. Conversely, using the same structure week after week will lead to stagnation, even if the theme and focus change from Sunday to Sunday.

The more sermon structures you are aware of as a preacher, the greater potential for variety you have available.

If all you have is ketchup, everything tastes like a hamburger.

The tale of these two Easter sermons is simple: changing the structure of the sermon changes the experience of the hearers. Preachers can use that insight to help their preaching ministry stay fresh and engaging for their hearers. (And sermon variety is a lot more fun for the preacher, too!)


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Discipleship & Everyday Life

On Sunday morning, as I sat way up high in the balcony with my boy, this prayer caught my attention:

P: For those who are in danger of having the seed of the Word choked out by the cares of this world, or through the neglect of the means of grace are in danger of having the Word in them be unfruitful, that they may be called to faithfulness once again, let us pray to the Lord:
C: Lord, have mercy.

That prayer strikes me as relevant to a conversation I seem to have again and again on the topic of “discipleship.” I seem to hear people regularly affirm that salvation is by grace alone, through faith alone, for Christ’s sake alone, and then, as if it were a next logical conclusion, that discipleship is a matter of “living out your faith,” a response to the gift we have been given.

I think that’s selling discipleship a little short.

Of course salvation is by grace alone, through faith alone, for Christ’s sake along. AND the Spirit promises to work that faith through means, through the means of grace. In fact, we have no promise that the Spirit works apart from means.

(Which is not to say the Spirit doesn’t, or won’t, or couldn’t work apart from means; God does whatever God wants. But if you wish to be certain, if you want to show up where God promises to be found, then you are left with the means of grace: Word and Sacrament.)

The Lord’s Supper and Baptism–for Lutherans, these are the 2 Sacraments (you can also kind of count Confession and Absolution, which brings the total up to 2.5)–these 2.5 Sacraments happen most typically in the context of the Divine Service. (We can call it “Sunday worship” if you want, but the old school “Divine Service” emphasizes that, first and foremost, God is showing up to give you something–in, with, and under the means of grace–and then you also get to respond in God-given faith.)

The Word is there in worship, too; but the Word also goes with you into your week in a unique way. (OK, yes; to be baptized does mean to drown daily and rise daily to new life, but you aren’t doing the baptismal rite every morning, so you get what I mean.)

The fact that the Word goes with us into the week is why I’m not content to relegate “discipleship” to sanctified living after you are saved. I think “discipleship” is a matter of your ongoing connection to the means of grace on a regular, daily, weekly kind of way. Discipleship means handling the means through which the Spirit promises to work--to work not just your sanctification, but also your salvation.

Next Step Press recently published a Hymn Journal for Holy Week titled, When from Death I’m Free. That resource provides Scripture readings and devotions along with hymn texts and more modern worship songs combined with prayers and other faith experiments facilitated by illustrators from Visual Faith Ministry. If you head over to the When From Death I’m Free Pop Up Group on Facebook, you will find a large group of individuals from all over the country and around the world encouraging each other, sharing Scripture and art with each other, gleaning ideas and prayers and courage from what the group is doing as a whole. They are 500 strong and growing.

What those men and women are doing in that group is not merely staying busy while they wait to die. It’s not even a simple matter of vocation, living out their calling as a good mom or good dad or good wife or husband. What those people are doing day in and day out as they read, and pray, and sing, and sketch, and color, and meditate, and collage is actually handling the means of grace so that the Word might be planted deeply and take root and grow and bear fruit.

Otherwise, as the prayer from Sunday said, “through the neglect of the means of grace” any of them could be “in danger of having the Word in them be unfruitful.” Which may not mean they are not saved; but then again, it might. 

By neglecting the means of grace, you put your foot on a path that leads to death. It’s not yet too late to turn back. But one day it will be. So turn back!! Like, now!!!

Discipleship is living out in a practical and daily way dependence on Jesus in, with, and under his means of grace. Of course, daily interaction with God’s Word will mean some growth in sanctified living. But I think that growth is the natural outcome of your salvation being worked out in fear and trembling (Phil 2:12) of course not by your merit or effort, for it is God who works in you both to will and to do (Phil 2:13).

It is God who works in you both to will and to do; AND, if you persistently refuse to handle the means of grace except for a few brief, shining moments on Sunday, you are in danger of the fires of hell.

I think we should be able to say it that strongly.

Discipleship isn’t about being a little more faithful; discipleship is trusting beyond sight that your dependence on Jesus matters in your everyday life and Jesus is actually present by the power of his Spirit to forgive and comfort and strengthen and SAVE, again and again, and as often as it takes.

The alternative–getting a nice sermon on Sunday and a bit of communion at least once a month–leaves you in danger of waking up one morning and realizing Jesus has no place in your life, and that therefore you have no place in his.

Discipleship is not extra stuff beyond saving faith; discipleship is handling the things that create saving faith day in and day out, because you desperately need it.

O Lord, when I am in danger of having the seed of the Word choked out by the cares of this world, have mercy on me.

When, through the neglect of the means of grace, I am in danger of having the Word in me be unfruitful, have mercy on me.

Call me to faithfulness once again–again and again–as often as it takes, so I learn to trust your Spirit and your power in your Word.

Teach me to need you Jesus, every day. Amen.

Featured image by d0n mil0 from Pexels. Visual Faith art from Karen Hunter.

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Devotion, January 6

God has to take these sketchy, ignorant, and incompetent outsiders by the hand to lead them into the presence of Jesus. But I like the story better that way…

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Devotion, January 1

Jesus’ first question when he was roused from that maritime siesta was not, “Why didn’t you wake me sooner?” Instead, he asked, “Where is your faith?”

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Devotion, Dec 29

I don’t think I’ll ever forget the look on the face of the university president when I hit him square in the middle of his bald head with a rubber dart. And I don’t think I’ll ever forget what happened next …

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Devotion, Dec 28

Today, on this last Sabbath (Saturday) of the year, you are invited into both rest and jubilee. Today is a great day to cancel any outstanding relational debts you have accrued this year; to let them go and give them to Jesus; and to rest in the promise that sins are both forgiven and forgivable in his Spirit’s power.

Holding grudges and carrying guilt are both hard work. Today you get to rest from those labors.

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Christmas Devotion, Dec 25

I’ve got news for you: there is no “right” way to celebrate Christmas. You aren’t any less of a broken or sinful person on this day than on any other; and neither are the broken and sinful people you are going to see today. Whether you feel awkward in your group, or awkward without it, you don’t have to “put on a happy face” or “make the best of it.”

Jesus came to be with you in your broken and messed-up life, right where you are. There will be moments of joy and love and togetherness as well as times of sadness or shame or loss. Jesus signed up for all of it, because he came to be with you

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Advent Devotion, Dec 23

Day 23, Instagram (1)

Jesus is all set; the time is almost here. It could be any minute. The angel armies stand ready; the Last Trumpeter is warming up backstage.

Your God is coming to save. You won’t have to wait forever. The journey may get long or dark or confusing, but final Homecoming is just around the corner …

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