My life and my thoughts - on faith, culture, politics, whatever comes to my mind

Wednesday, April 27, 2005

What is left unsaid...

Through John at Blogotional I found this whole discussion about preaching going on on several blogs. Well, I’m not a pastor. But I’m very interested in teaching (I teach children’s church and sometimes youth and I love discussions about the bible and our faith). And it seemed interesting to me to look at some questions from “the other side”. Which means from the viewpoint of those who listen to sermons.
Mick at Unveiled Face asked the question if the application part of pastors’ sermons was constrained by culture or by the pastors’ own experiences and lives. He came up with some topics, e.g. keeping oneself unstained from the world and the question of watching TV, submission of wives, leadership by husbands and servanthood of leaders.
I read through this list and thought I’m really interested in the answers. Well, maybe all of those taking part in the discussion talk about those issues. But I have not really heard sermons or received teaching in church on any of these issues. Until a few years ago I attended the German Protestant Church (which is mainly Lutheran) and my pastor never talked about controversial topics like those as far as I can remember. I received some very valuable instruction by a pastor at a pentecostal church I visited once a month with a friend and at the church I attended during my semester in Norway. Now I am a member of an international protestant church. I really appreciate my pastor. He’s great. But I miss challenging sermons. I don’t want to feel all cuddly and good about myself when I leave church. I desire edification, instruction, some serious teaching on God’s will for my life and all those more difficult topics.
And then it just makes me wonder why my pastor does not do sermons about them. Maybe because we are such a diverse congregation with many different denominational backgrounds. Maybe because many are probably at the starting point of their faith and he does not want to scare them or drive them away, but thinks that other topics are better for them. Maybe he considers the topics too controversial. Although I’d then prefer a sermon about them where all different understandings are explained and he takes a stand for his understanding than no sermon about it at all.
Concerning Mick’s example of watching TV: I’d prefer a pastor to take a stand even if he watches lots of TV himself. I do not expect my pastor to be perfect, but I want a clear teaching of what the bible says about a topic. I’d appreciate bold teaching of the truth, even if some (or I myself) might first feel offended or some might even leave. There are many issues I am interested in or even struggle with and I earnestly would love to hear sermons about it. I study the bible, I read books and stuff on the internet, I discuss it with others, but still I desire pastoral teaching. So I hope that pastors will not be worried about speaking against cultural trends going away from the bible, the fear of people leaving their church or things in their own lives, but give us God's truth on all issues.

Thursday, April 21, 2005

A need for adaptation?

After Pope John Paul II died, I read a comment in a newspaper that quite struck me. The journalist claimed that the church has to adapt itself to modern society. I guess this journalist regards this as the task of all Christian churches: Adapt to our society, cause how on earth can you stick to your “old-fashioned”, “outdated”, “conservative”, “fundamental”, "intolerant" morals/beliefs? Some of those adjectives sound familiar to anyone? Those are labels stuck on the church, on our beliefs, on us. Well, maybe some of us are proud to wear them, but sometimes it’s hard and sometimes it hurts.
The supposed demand for Christian churches to change is repeatedly made. And very often by people outside the church. What does this change include? There are different changes asked for. Some want churches to change the way their services are run, e.g. to have more modern services or services that are more appealing to people outside the church or the post-modern generation. But a lot of the wanted changes concern the content of what Christians teach. Many desire a fundamental change in what is taught in churches and therefore a fundamental change in what we believe. Different things come to my mind concerning the different desires for change.

I will first address the question of a change in the way services are conducted, sermons are held or certain liturgies. I will not name any favorite liturgy, way of service etc. I think that traditional services include a lot of valuable parts, e.g. the recitation of creeds. But I agree with critics that many people of our generations – many of my friends – would probably never attend a traditional service. It is not fair, but they would most likely not give another thought about the message, just because it’s not appealing. I consider it a good idea to develop special ways to reach people outside the churches. And to me it doesn’t matter if this includes videos on screens, candles, (Christian) rock bands or some other method to bring the content of the gospel into the attention of those people, to bring it where it touches them.
Paul said in 1. Cor. 9, 20-23: To the Jews, I became like a Jew to win the Jews. To those under the law I became like one under the law (though I myself am not under the law), so as to win those under the law. To those not having the law, I became like one not having the law (though I am not free from God’s law but am under Christ’s law), so as to win those not having the law. To the weak I became weak, so as to win the weak. I have become all things to all men, so that by all possible means I might save some. I do all this for the sake of the gospel, that I might share in its blessings.
So new methods may be a good thing, as long as the method does not gain primacy over the message! And personally I think it is not the method that will bring people to Jesus, it is the message and the Holy Spirit. Just think about Pentecost. 3000 people where added by a sermon of Peter. Peter, the fisherman. Paul, the apostle among the Gentiles, said that he knew nothing among them except Jesus Christ and Him crucified (1 Cor. 2, 2).

But the main demand of many people is a change in content. They want the church to give up its positions based on the bible and support the views of our modern society. People want all kinds of different things: same sex marriages, no teachings that homosexuality is a sin, no teaching against sex before/outside marriage, no teaching against abortion, against divorce, against “the right to die”, ... Church teaching, in their view, should go more conform with society, not society go conform with Christian teachings/beliefs. I actually read a pastor (!) who claimed that if Jesus came back today He would teach completely different things than He did. BUT if the church, if Christians believe in the words of Jesus, many teachings can not be given up. Jesus said that God’s word (the bible) is the truth: Sanctify them by the truth, your word is truth (John 17, 17). This is also stated by Paul in his second letter to Timothy: All Scripture is God-breathed ... (2 Timothy 3, 16). Jesus’ words are the rock on which we build our lives (Matthew 7, 24). The truth that God has revealed to us cannot be given up.
This is not understandable to a world that believes in relativism, to which the concept of an absolute truth is absolutely alien. We as Christians can not get around Jesus’ teaching. Some of it may be uncomfortable even to us, but there is no getting around Jesus’ words, no picking and choosing the “nice” parts, ... If we believe the bible to be the truth, the truth that will decide over eternal life and death, how could we water it down just to please people?
Paul commanded Timothy: “Preach the Word; be prepared in season and out of season; correct, rebuke and encourage – with great patience and careful instruction. For the time will come when men will not put up with sound doctrine. Instead to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear. They will turn their ears away from the truths and turn aside to myths. [...]” (2 Timothy 4, 2-4)
Paul warns us in Romans to not conform to the pattern of the world (Romans 12, 2). Some changes we cannot accept, changes that are clearly against the word of God. This seems to be incomprehensible to the world, but to me it seems obvious. How could we move away from truth? How could we move away from Jesus?

Monday, April 18, 2005

Let’s have the godparents over for coffee

Yesterday my beloved and me visited my best friend Steffi and her family in Wuppertal. That’s about an hour and a half by train from Bonn and it’s directly south of the Ruhr area with all the heavy industry. The city is not very pretty. I’m sure Steffi could have imagined lots of nicer places to move to. They just moved to Wuppertal the beginning of April. Her husband is a pastor and now an assistant at the theological university there where he pursues a doctorate in New Testament Research.
It was fun visiting them. It’s great if you can talk with your best friend, see your godchild and have a look at their new apartment – all in one afternoon :). Their first daughter is my godchild. She is almost fifteen months old now, walks or better: runs most of the time and has the biggest grin I’ve ever seen on a child. She’s just adorable! She was baptized last year in the Easter sunrise service. So it’s been a year. And her parents want us godparents to especially remember her baptism day every year instead of her birthday. I think that’s a good idea! I personally lean strongly towards baptism of adults, but if you baptize a child, it’s great to have a remembrance “party” every year. Of course now she is far to young to talk about it or anything like it. But we enjoyed the coffee and the time together. It is very special to be a godmother. And quite a responsibility too. It’s wonderful that her parents really want us to be part of her spiritual upbringing and not just people who give extra presents. (Although I love buying her presents...)
I’m really looking forward to her growing older so we can have talks as well and not “just” cuddling and fun (that's a great part though).

Thursday, April 14, 2005

When I was just a little girl...

When I was little, life seemed so much easier and clearer. Sometimes I miss that feeling, because nowadays life often seems to be difficult, decisions unclear, situations complicated. Understand me right, I am not complaining. And I don’t have reason too. I’m not whining either. Why should I? But these last days made me remember the times when life seemed different.
As a little girl it seemed obvious to me that parents love each other (mine still do) and I was a lucky kid who didn’t see their disagreements (which probably weren’t many, but I’m sure they were there). Of course I thought everybody had parents that love each other and their kids. I thought people always liked each other. At least kids :). I must have had disagreements with my friends, but we stayed friends. The feelings of being betrayed and not liked started later at school. I thought everybody believes in Jesus. At that early age (between 5 and 7 years) I did not know about depression, war, hate, drugs, divorce, rejection ... Well, I maybe knew about it, but I did not understand it. It had not touched my life yet.
By now a lot of things that I read about as a teenager and thought – well, this is a book, that doesn’t happen to people I know – have happened to people I know. Even to some of my best friends. It seriously hurt them and it hurt me. Some have happened to me (story for another day). And the scars are still there and influence my behavior sometimes, I guess. Although I have gone through a healing process by grace and love.
Excuse me if I sound moody today. But yesterday I heard that two of my friends are in hospital. One is actually quite fine, she “just” has to lie in bed because she is bleeding although she is pregnant. But she and the baby are well. I was so glad.
My other friend though was hospitalized for the third time in a year with depression that lead to suicidal thoughts. It is a long story I cannot share in this post. She went to hospital herself after recognizing what was going on. So we are really proud of her and glad she got help. But I am hurting for her and her family. I love her so much, I just wish she got healed.
Those are things that were not part of the little girl’s world, not even of her imagination. Neither were school acquaintances turning heroin-addicted or dying from cancer, friends having miscarriages or loosing their children, hurt and rejection for being the way I was, difficult decisions concerning one’s future, abuse of teenagers I know by their parents ...
We really live in a fallen world. But sometimes it just hits harder. It is good that we do not have to carry worries and pain alone. As Christians we are called to laugh with the joyful and to mourn with the mourners. We can share our burdens and our joys. (And there are lots of joys, they’re just not part of this post.) And God wants us to share them with Him. Cast all your cares on Him, for He cares for you (2. Peter 5, 7). It is good to know where we can go when life seems overwhelming and we are hurting for ourselves or others. Although I have to remind myself over and over that I can cling to the Rock and leave my concerns at the foot of the cross (and not take them back again, I'm really good at that).

Sunday, April 10, 2005

Remembering German resistance against Hitler

60 years ago shortly before the end of their terror regime, on 9 April 1945 the Nazis murdered nine of their most decided enemies. All of them were part of the German resistance. Some were in prison, some in concentration camps – which were liberated by the Allies only two weeks later.
Among them were soldiers – Ewald von Kleist-Schmenzin, Hans Oster, Wilhelm Canaris, Karl Sack, Hans von Dohnanyi, Ludwig Gehre, Theordor Strünck – , part of Hitler’s enemies among the military, many of them associated with those who attempted to assassinate Hitler on 20. July 1944. Among them was Georg Elser, one of the first who tried to assassinate Hitler – his attempt on 8 November 1939 failed. And among them was the now “famous” German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer (Cost of Discipleship, Life together). While incarcerated he wrote a song expressing trust in God, the knowledge of being sheltered by wonderful powers and the assurance that God is with us every morning, every evening and surely every new day. One of the verses expresses the willingness to also take suffering out of God’s hand, with thankfulness and without fear, for we know that God’s light also shines in darkness. This verse has always amazed me. This willingness to take on suffering, this childlike and at the same time mature faith that accepts what God gives us, even suffering. God understands our suffering. He has suffered for us. And he did not promise us a life without it – far from. This absolute trust in God – even in the face of death – is an awesome example for all of us.
Here are some lyrics of the song (I hope I got them right, I did this out of my head):

Von guten Mächten treu und still umgeben, getröstet und behütet wunderbar,
so will ich diese Tage mit euch leben, und mit euch gehen in ein neues Jahr.

Von guten Mächten wunderbar geborgen, erwarten wir getrost, was kommen mag,
Gott ist mit uns am Abend und am Morgen, und ganz gewiss an jedem neuen Tag.

Und reichst Du uns den schweren Kelch, den bittren, des Leids, gefüllt bis an den höchsten Rand, so nehmen wir ihn dankbar ohne Zittern aus Deiner treuen und geliebten Hand.

Wednesday, April 06, 2005

Where pride will take us ...

Better to be a nobody and yet have a servant, than pretend to be a somebody and have no food.
Proverbs 12, 9

How important is it for us to look good in the eyes of others? I want others to have a positive image of me. That in itself may not be the problem. The problem starts when I want others to have a positive image of me that does not mirror the reality of me.
We desire other people to like us or praise us or even to admire us – actually what we make them think we are. Because so often, we just cannot believe that people could really, I mean REALLY, like us just the way we honestly are. Or could they? Well, God does...we think and although we know that that should be enough for us, really often it just is not. We long for unconditional love and acceptance. But we have problems accepting it. And if we already have problems accepting God’s unconditional love for us – which is real – than it is no big surprise that we cannot believe that other humans really love or accept us the way we are. So we strive to be real, but start to put on the “perfect” front for others. And this is furthered by our pride. Pride in our accomplishments, pride in our looks, pride in our status... Pride is the root of sin, so I’ve read in a book about humility. Pride leads to dishonesty, to lies, to covetness ...

So there we are, in our need and longing for love and acceptance and supported by pride working in us, we worked up a certain image people have of us that we pretty much like. Just name it, it can be lots of different things for different people: high level of spiritual maturity, success in jobs, success in family, knowing all those important people, wealth, tons of friends, ...
And then, it collapses before our very eyes. There can be many reasons for the break-down. My question is: How do we deal with it? I’m talking about a scenario where it is not obvious to others what happened, but we seriously need help. But if we ask for help, the “perfect” image we built up for others to see, will be shattered. Gone.
There are then two possibilities: to humble ourselves, to be honest, to tear down the false image with our own hands – and to hopefully get help. (And trust me, from caring friends, we will receive help). Or to cling to that image that is so dear to us, that maybe became our second skin – and receive no help. To put it with the words of the verse from proverbs: to have no food.

The first option is hard to us. Even though as Christians we know this is what we should do. We are called to carry each other and also each others burdens. Christ humbled himself for us. It is hard to realize that we are not the perfect nice-guy person that is so successful and spiritually mature. Sometimes we hardly want to confess it before God, far less before our brothers and sisters. But this is the way to freedom, to healing and to Christian love between fellow believers and friends.
The other option leads to starvation. It leads to spiritual starvation and in a bad-case scenario it will actually lead to physical starvation. But there are people and there are Christians who are rather willing to starve than to have others realize who they really are. Who expect God to work a miracle rather than having to show others their problems. This results in bitterness and drives them farther away – from others and from God.
So we have to ask ourselves this question again and again: where do we (consciously or unconsciously) allow pride in our lives and how far do we let it take us?

Tuesday, April 05, 2005

In memoriam Pope John Paul II

Since Friday, whenever my beloved and I have been watching TV, we watched “Rome”. We watched news Friday evening and Saturday evening, the live feed from the place in front of St. Peter and the then still-alive Pope John Paul II. As thousands on that place and millions in front of their TV we watched for the bronze doors of St. Peter and the light in the Pope’s windows and waited for the bells. When the bells starting tolling Saturday night around 10 pm our time we actually got up again and spent another half hour in front of the TV. It was an event in history that was important to us. Maybe more important than we would have thought before. By now, we think we’ve seen about all the documentaries and pictures of the Pope there are ... (well, probably not all, but lots of them!). And it has moved us a lot.

As a Protestant, I do not share the reverence and a similar love for the late Pope like many devout Catholics. There are theological issues (and quite some important ones) where I respectfully disagree with the teaching of the Catholic Church and also this particular Pope.
But he has done many good and important things. He has been a light for Christ. And he still is now in his death. He has shown us and the world that suffering is part of our lives. A part that needs to be accepted, maybe even embraced, like all those other parts that sound more fun to our worldly minds. He has emphasized the value of life throughout his papacy. In his Encyclical Letter Evangelium vitae he wrote

Here we are faced with one of the more alarming symptoms of the "culture of death", which is advancing above all in prosperous societies, marked by an attitude of excessive preoccupation with efficiency and which sees the growing number of elderly and disabled people as intolerable and too burdensome. These people are very often isolated by their families and by society, which are organized almost exclusively on the basis of criteria of productive efficiency, according to which a hopelessly impaired life no longer has any value.
The choice of euthanasia becomes more serious when it takes the form of a murder committed by others on a person who has in no way requested it and who has never consented to it. The height of arbitrariness and injustice is reached when certain people, such as physicians or legislators, arrogate to themselves the power to decide who ought to live and who ought to die. Once again we find ourselves before the temptation of Eden: to become like God who "knows good and evil" (cf. Gen 3:5). God alone has the power over life and death: "It is I who bring both death and life" (Dt 32:39; cf. 2 Kg 5:7; 1 Sam 2:6).
This natural aversion to death and this incipient hope of immortality are illumined and brought to fulfilment by Christian faith, which both promises and offers a share in the victory of the Risen Christ: it is the victory of the One who, by his redemptive death, has set man free from death, "the wages of sin" (Rom 6:23), and has given him the Spirit, the pledge of resurrection and of life (cf. Rom 8:11). The certainty of future immortality and hope in the promised resurrection cast new light on the mystery of suffering and death, and fill the believer with an extraordinary capacity to trust fully in the plan of God.

By far not everything he said was popular, not even in the Roman Catholic Church. But he stood up for what he thought was right and God’s will with boldness and courage. And I think that that is a good example for all of us.
The world has watched and wondered. This is a wonderful opportunity to share our beliefs with others. May we use it with boldness, respect and love.