Saturday, January 18, 2014

The Unsettling Work of God

I've spent most of the day writing this and I know it's not polished up. There are other things to do, though, so I just will need to stop for now and hope it's helpful to someone out there, or at our own church.
The slide above is from the message that we shared at Crossroads on Dec. 29.  The message was titled "The One and Only" and was based on John 1:14-25.  We shared other scriptures that day too: Phil 2:5-7;  John 3:13; 1 Cor 1:10-17--plus this one -- Matthew 23:8-12.

I thought I'd write just a bit about this because I think some of what was said on Dec. 29, plus some of what we've been reading in connection with our "Church Study Group" has, for some, been unsettling.  And what has felt strange?  It's the way the Word of God seems to question the religious titles (that is, the "names" we call people -- "Pastor," "Rabbi," "Father" etc.) we have used all our lives.

I believe it is the Word of God that unsettles us in this.  And, in the end, if we follow God's Word, we will come to a place where we will be settled once more, not in the opinions of human beings that are codified in denominations, but, instead, in the Truth of God.

So let the Word have its way -- unsettling or not.
un·set·tle - verb
cause to feel anxious or uneasy; disturb.
example: "the crisis has unsettled the financial markets"
synonyms: unnerve, upset, disturb, disquiet, perturb, discomfit, disconcert, alarm, dismay, trouble, bother, agitate, fluster, ruffle, shake (up), throw, unbalance, destabilize; informal: rattle, faze, pull the rug (out) from under
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I'll share a bit below about what actually was unsettling for some on Dec. 29, but before I get there I think it would be helpful to say that the journey of faith that I've been on, particularly since 2010, has been "unsettling" for me too--and for my family.

Since 1986 I've been called "pastor."
I DON'T MIND.  It's okay.  Feel free to call me that.  I have not gone off being called "Pastor Steve" or even "Pastor Thorson."  Or call me "Steve."  Nothing I write here is about personal preference.  The "greeting" on my phone is still a cheerful "Hi! This is Pastor Steve..."  Calling me pastor is just fine.  When you do that, however, just remember that we're doing it as a matter of "custom," not as a matter of what the Bible teaches about leadership.  More about that in the future. (*See note at end.)
Pastor Walter Dörr in "Alfavil"
near Brasilia in early 1984
In fact, some people called me pastor even before I was "ordained" in June 1986.  When I lived in Brasil (1983-84) I served alongside pastors as an "intern."  Many local people called me "pastor" then.

They didn't care much about whether I was "ordained" or not.  I was working alongside pastors and participating in some of their work... and I wasn't from their community, so they called me "Pastor."  (Same spelling as in English.)  And, when I was there, when I was serving as an intern, I wore what Brazilian pastors wore - a black cassock with long white "tabs" (history here).

(The picture at right was taken at a worship service conducted by Walter Dörr, one of the pastors I worked with while in Brazil.  This particular worship service was held in someone's home.  Click here for a picture of a Brazilian Lutheran ordination -- it will give you a better view of their clerical garb.)

When I returned to the USA, I completed my years of seminary and was ordained and installed as associate pastor in Ladysmith (Wisconsin) I again worked with more experienced pastors.  It wasn't until 1992, when we moved to Taylors Falls, that I was "the" pastor of a church.  By that time it seemed normal and natural to be called "Pastor Steve."

Fast forward 18 years to 2010.  By that time I had served as pastor of four Lutheran churches.  In 2010 things changed.  I can't go into detail -- that would truly take a book to write about -- ask me personally and I'll fill you in -- or click here to look at some of the things written in August of that year.  To make a long story very short, I made a choice.  I decided that I would follow the Word of God no matter where it led.

It's been so good.  God has been faithful.  I praise Him every day.  But His Word is POWERFUL.  It is sharper than any two edged sword.  It doesn't care about our comfort.  It continues to call us to places we would never imagine that we would go.  As we read this week in My Utmost for His Highest: "The call of God is not a reflection of my nature; my personal desires and temperament are of no consideration."

There are so many things that the Lord has taught me (and others... I know of many who have been on a similar spiritual journey over the past few years including my own personal family members and folks connected with our spiritual family at Crossroads).  Some of the things we've learned have caused me and us to reconsider and examine, using God's Word as our guide, almost everything we have ever known and experienced about the church--including the whole issue of spiritual leadership and the titles these leaders have traditionally been given.

None of us expected that moving out of a particular denomination would have caused so many things about our "religious" lives to become unsettled.  Some of us may have thought that perhaps we could settle in a denomination or affiliation that was more or less like the one we had left, just a bit more conservative.  But because we allowed the Word of God to have first place, we've allowed God to move us in unexpected ways.  And, as I said above, it's very good.

Part of what I've been hearing from God has affected what I think about myself as a "pastor."  Once again I need to say that there is much more about this to share, more than I could ever fit in any one blog post. The Holy Spirit, however, has been bringing this issue up in several ways: beginning most significantly by means of the the High School JAM time scripture from Matthew 23 that one of our students chose just before Christmas, I think on Dec. 18 -- and that fed into the sermon I'll talk about below.

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As I was preaching along on Dec. 29, someone asked about the Catholic church's tradition of calling their priests "Father."  Then someone asked about calling me pastor.

Here's a transcript - you can listen to the original here.  I posted my written notes too - they are here

In any case, here we pick up in the middle of the sermon.
... and then I want to look at another passage that we read at high school JAM a couple weeks ago from Matthew 23.  Some of you will remember this.  "You are not to be called ‘Rabbi'"...

And what is the word Rabbi?  It's a Jewish religious leader... really he [Jesus] is saying you're not to be called by the name of a religious leader. "For you have only one Master and you are all brothers and sisters." 

There's no distinction between different "levels" of spiritual authority in the church.  There is one man, "one master and you are all brothers and sisters."

"And do not call anyone on earth ‘father,’ for you have one Father..."

Someone asked at JAM time "Does that mean I shouldn't call my dad 'Father'?"

You can take this too literally. What he [Jesus] means by that is you don't want to call other spiritual leaders "Father." Because really, honestly, it's all about Jesus.  He's the only One.  Any other spiritual leader will fail you.  Any other spiritual pastor or teacher or priest or whatever will come to the end of themselves and you have to focus on Jesus instead.

"You have one 'Father' and he is in heaven. Nor are you to be called ‘teacher,’ for you have one Teacher, the Christ."

And then he goes on and says, "The greatest among you will be your servant. For whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted" (v. 8-12).
[At the point someone interrupted.  I love it when that happens.  The Holy Spirit often works through the gathered community!  (See 1 Cor 14.)  Just what they said is something I can't hear on the recording.  But I know they asked a question about the Catholic church's practice of calling priests "Father."]

[Here's what I said in response:]
Yeah that's a problem, I think.
[Someone else then interrupted asking about pastors, like me, being called "pastor," so I continued:]
Yeah, I think it's a problem even in our churches when we call somebody "Pastor." 

Because we really only have one*... because the word "pastor" means shepherd, and the scriptures say we have one Shepherd, really, and who is the One Shepherd?  Jesus Christ. 

So really, any of these titles, if you're not careful, they can get in the way of focusing on the One deserves focus.
[This is where I got back, more or less, to my prepared message.]
There's only One who deserves a title. 

There's only One Person who should be lifted up--and that's Jesus.  Only One.  Our Lord calls us to lift up Jesus, just like John the Baptist did, just like John the Evangelist did that... and Paul...

We are all brothers and sisters.  The scripture speaks of us as a family and we have One Leader, One Head.  As soon as we start to have other heads we divide up into factions... [a bit more extemporaneous speaking here] We decide we are in favor or we are opposed.  We decide we are in the group that is in favor of a particular person or we decide we are in the opposition.  And this should not be.  That's sin.  Factions is a matter of sinful behavior.

Anytime we divide up into competing groups or factions, anytime we follow leaders or teachers and grab a hold of them instead of just focusing on Jesus and the Word of God itself, we are turning against God.     
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That's the end of what I quoting here from Dec. 29.

As you have read through this VERY LONG post, I hope you have gotten a picture of this as a journey that I believe God is leading through his Word.  Whether someone calls me "pastor" or not isn't as important as whether we're willing to surrender everything to God and be willing to release any understandings we have to Him.

I'm going to stop writing now and publish this.  I'm sure I'll have to come back to this subject in the weeks to come.  Our church study group will be dealing with the question of leadership after we do some looking at whether the church is better understood on the basis of relationships (as an "organism") or as an organization.  The issue of leadership needs to connect with that if it is going to be faithful to Jesus Christ, the Head of the church.

As I said, more at a later date.

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*One of the things I want to write more about would be the scriptural background for what I wrote above, saying that we truly have only ONE shepherd (that is, "pastor") and that one is Jesus himself.  We can shepherd one another -- we can guide and care for one another -- but giving one human being that title in a church is different than what the scriptures call for.  Again, I'll need to substantiate this later.

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