Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Christmas Letter 2012

I wish you a Merry Christmas, as well as a happy and blessed New Year.  May the message of the coming Jesus Christ set your hearts at peace.  

Before she was in labor she gave birth;
before her pain came upon her she delivered a son.
Who has heard of such a thing?
Who has seen such things?
Shall a land be born in one day?
Shall a nation be delivered in one moment?  (Isaiah 66:7-8 NRSV)

There is the world that we wish for,  and there is the world that is.   The events of these past few months have shocked us into recognizing that the world in which we dwell is not how we would really like it to be.   The storm earlier this fall reminded us that even with all our advances that comfort and protect us, raw nature can wipe away what took years to build up in a few short minutes. The shock of children being killed in their school rooms reminds us that the world contains great evil that can erupt any moment.   Yet, in this mess of a world we live, we read:  “I know that there is nothing better for them than to be happy and enjoy themselves as long as they live;” (Ecclesiastes 3:12 NRSV)  For these events remind us that every moment is precious and comes by only once.  This Bible reminds us that this point is reason enough to savor the times and the seasons this Christmas, and yet if this is all there is, things may still seem bittersweet.  

But there is always more with God.   There is the true miracle of Christmas: the incarnation. God becoming one of us.   God out of love does not leave the world to its own devices, he enters into the mess, becoming as we are,  to tell us we are not alone in our suffering.  For Christ suffered as we suffer.  “Nails, spear shall pierce him through, the cross be borne for me, for you,”  writes William Dix in the hymn “What Child is This?”  Through the resurrection of Jesus suffering is always transformed into hope. Nikolaus Herman wrote:

He undertakes a great exchange,
puts on our human frame,
And in return gives us his realm,
his glory and his name.  

At both the manger and the cross, God transforms the mess of our world; at both, the Spirit comes to call people together into a community to support and be there for one another.   Likewise if the suffering we have witnessed these past few months is to have any meaning we must answer the Spirit’s call to come together, listen to each other, offer our tangible and emotional support in order to be with our neighbors in their suffering as God has shown to be with us in ours.  We have the power to give suffering meaning by demonstrating love in all its tangible forms.  One of the best ways to demonstrate our love and to start this process is simply just to celebrate with others so that we all get the message that we are not alone.  Yes this world is a mess, but we are in this mess together, I would rather be in the mess with you than be in the most perfect of worlds alone.   That is what Christmas means to me, that is what I have seen in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus.  So Merry Christmas and as always....

Keep the Faith,

Pastor Knecht 

PS: If you are around the Springfield NJ area come and celebrate with us this weekend.    

Saturday December 22,  5:30PM Worship & Christmas Carol Sing along (with cookies!!) 
Sunday December 23, 10 AM Worship featuring special guest artists.  

Monday December 24, 3PM Live Nativity,  
4 PM Family Christmas Worship, 
7 PM Candlelight Worship. 

Saturday, December 15, 2012

How Do We Respond?

Words can not express how I sad, outraged, and fearful I feel in the wake of yesterdays' shooting.  As a father of two children of the ages of those killed this really hit home,  but I would like to think about how do we minister to our neighbors in times such as these.  Lots of people will have lots of questions.   Lots of us will be providing answers that may make ourselves feel good, but may or may not be helpful to others.   I would like to just quickly go through some of the questions I have seen in media, social networking and conversations with friends.

Where was God?

The question that always comes from these events.   How can a good God let this happen?  Some will answer that God is not really there, others (even people of faith sometimes) will say that God was powerless and could not be there.  Others will answer that God was in the midst of the suffering (my default response as a Christian) and still others will say God was in the actions of those who executed the countless acts of self sacrificing love to protect and comfort those involved.   As our society has fragmented, how people answer these questions may depend as much on what group they are in as it does on personal reflection.   Those in the secular media will err on the "God was not there" side,  those of  us in the Church will find stories of God's presence in many of the details as they come out over the next few days.   The real point for those of us who want to be there for others is, what are the real ideas and emotions behind these responses?  Those who speak of God not there, may have something deeper that they are trying to grasp.  Those of us who affirm God's presence may be wanting to make sure that our friends and neighbors have hope to meet uncertainty of living in this mixed up world.  So my prayer will be for the Spirit to lead me and all those who care the wisdom to listen through the conversation to the deeper realities.

Do we do politics?

This seems to be the most divisive question.  The default answer that many people come up first is no.   It is not the time.  President Obama said as much in his response yesterday.   Lots of posts on my Facebook news-feed said something similar.  The emotions are too raw,  people need time to grieve,  it will upset those who are have been victimized by this shooting are some of the default answers.   There is some truth in this but not the whole truth.   I would encourage those of us who minister to listen to those on the other side.   There will be a significant portion people who hear behind this response a lack of resolve to make the necessary changes to help avoid these types of events in the future.   People who want to make sure that we don't change the wrong things, or change too much, will also fear that emotions will lead people to make choices that will have unintended consequences down the road.   There will be people on all sides of the spectrum who will say now is precisely the time to use political processes to either make changes or guard cherished values.   Please understand these people care just as much about those who suffer tragedy as those who need time to mourn or process do.  It is just another way that people cope with the horror.   So my prayer will be for the Spirit to lead me to listen to those who have a different response than I do, take it in, and think about it seriously.

How do we tell our children? 

I am an advocate of limiting children's access to the media.   We do not leave the cable news on in our home.   Images have power, and have been shown in neurological studies to rewire the brain.   So we need to be careful.   I  am also an advocate of telling the truth to our children in ways that they can handle.   This means being upfront that people, and yes children died.   I am not a big believer in using euphemisms to talk about death to children.  I think that talking around death only confuses children and merely communicates our our anxieties.   Young children can basically only think concretely, but are masters at reading emotions.   This does not mean you need to tell them every detail,  but you should find a way to communicate the essentials.  It is also important to communicate your love and your willingness to be there for them.  Kids need stability especially when they hear about tragedy.  When they go to school on Monday the other children will be talking about this.  So my prayer is for the Spirit to help me communicate to my children the tragedy in the most healthy way and to let them know how much I love them. 

I know there may be other things on people's minds, but these were the three that stood out to me.  I am sure there is much more to say and to listen to.

Keep the Faith,

Pastor Knecht 

Monday, December 10, 2012

Tolkien's Gospel: Morality recap week 5

J.R.R.Tolkien wrote the Hobbit and Lord of the Rings in order to create a mythology that would transmit timeless virtues to a culture that he feared was losing its soul as it hurdled toward modernity. Tolkien a life long friend and colleague of C.S. Lewis, also used his devout Christian faith as a source of the virtues he wanted to share with through his stories. These facts make the stories wonderful sources to illustrate the nature of the true Gospel of Jesus Christ.While in contrast to Lewis' Narnia, no one figure represents Christ, each virtuous character in Tolkien's works represents Christ in some way despite their faults and weaknesses. 

Whether or not we need morality seems to be an open question for people today.  Since the latter 19th century many have questioned  the idea of morality.  The philosopher  Nietzsche in his work "Beyond Good and Evil" advocated a radical honesty of human motivations that relegated morality to being a mere social convention that kept a person from reaching his or her full potential.  Ayn Rand in the 20th century, would build on this foundation write the influential novel "Atlas Shrugged" which posits that the highest good is one's free choice, no matter what the outcome.  The notion of doing the right thing for the right reason seems to be relic of a bygone time, our culture seems to be living in a post-moral age.   

In Tolkien's "Lord of the Rings" there is an underlying moral  counter argument to the utilitarian view of modernism in his day and the moral relativism of ours.   We saw Tolkien's underlying view of morality in full display in this week's scene where two hobbits, Merry and Pippin attempt to enlist the support of the Ents (tree like beings, who are very strong and powerful) in the war against the demonic forces that threaten middle earth.  They respond with an answer that is so familiar to each of us "this is not our war"  (not my problem!).   The narrative will show that this is a false statement; the war will come to threaten all eventually, but even if it didn't the right choice would be to actively help others in their struggle against the evils that assail them.  

Do not withhold good from those to whom it is due, when it is in your power to do it. Do not say to your neighbor, “Go, and come again, tomorrow I will give it”—when you have it with you. Proverbs 3:27-28

We often think of morality in negative terms.  Don't smoke, or drink to much, or lie or steal. While this indeed important, it is not the most important aspect of a true Christian morality.  The most important way to view morality for the person of faith is in positive terms.  Asking the question  "How can I help?" is a very moral thing to do.  In this scene the Ents are not acting morally,  the response:  "This does not concern me"is not an option for the true disciple.   The minimum response is prayer to examine what is in our power to accomplish aided by the spirit of God.

If you do good to those who do good to you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners do the same. Luke 6:33

Jesus primarily taught a positive view of morality.  In both the Sermon on the Mount and the Sermon on the Plain Jesus teaches that the real good that people do is something more than a mere exchange of favors done for one's pure self interest.  There is ultimately a difference between survival and faith. Self preservation is not discipleship.  Discipleship involves trusting your life to God and taking the risky road of actively coming to the aid of our neighbor.  The retreat from danger, to sit in a comfortable life and hide from the problems of the world like the Ents would like to do can never be held  up as anything more than a mere expediency.  

But love your enemies, do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return. Your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High; Luke 6:35

Christ calls us to do active good for others, even our enemies.  This is why Christians are concerned for the well being of all God's people.  Jesus called for us to take up our crosses and follow him.   The oft missed aspect of Jesus’ exhortation above is the last clause.  How we treat others, whether or not we come to their aid in their need shows how close you are to God.   Your willingness to do concrete acts of love reveals that you are connected to God!!  For since the start of the Jesus story it has been about all the world coming in contact with the healing we brings.   Luke quotes Isaiah when describing the ultimate point of John the Baptist’s mission to introduce Jesus.  We read that one day “all flesh shall see the salvation of God.” Luke 3:6

Indeed, rarely will anyone die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person someone might actually dare to die. But God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us. Romans 5:7-8

In the end a Christian morality is always grounded in the person and work of Jesus Christ.   The story of why we don’t retreat and hide in our personal caves when others are in need has its beginning in the story of Jesus.   Nothing we do can change God.  God could say to the world “not my problem”, but God did not.   When the hobbit Merry tried enlist the support of Treebeard the Ent, he cried “but you are part of this world.”  God when sending Jesus says much the same thing.   God wants to be in the world with all of His children,   God said your problems do concern me and Jesus came to bring healing hope and salvation to us all.   So we love because we have been loved.   Indeed a true Christian morality is nothing more, or nothing less than actively loving our neighbors and world.

Keep the Faith,

Pastor Knecht

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Tolkien's Gospel: the Seduction of Evil (Recap week 4)

J.R.R.Tolkien wrote the Hobbit and Lord of the Rings in order to create a mythology that would transmit timeless virtues to a culture that he feared was losing its soul as it hurdled toward modernity. Tolkien a life long friend and colleague of C.S. Lewis, also used his devout Christian faith as a source of the virtues he wanted to share with through his stories. These facts make the stories wonderful sources to illustrate the nature of the true Gospel of Jesus Christ.While in contrast to Lewis' Narnia, no one figure represents Christ, each virtuous character in Tolkien's works represents Christ in some way despite their faults and weaknesses.

A central theme found in Tolkien's Lord of the Rings is how people are seduced by evil.  The Ring of Power is the metaphor for the struggle with evil found in the human heart.   In the narrative many come face to face with the ring and give in to its seductive power.   Some give in to the the greed for outright raw power, but others fall for the more alluring trap.   The real pitfall portrayed in the story is the trap that comes when people wanting to do good believe that the Ring can be used by them without corrupting them.   They believe that they are different than other people and that they are not capable of falling prey to evil.   Much harm has been done in our world by those who thought they were doing good.  For example many despots and dictators thought they were doing the right thing when they grabbed their country's reins of power.   One of the ways that we are seduced by evil is when we become blinded to our own limitations.  We overestimate our abilities, we become blind to our true motives,  and we come to believe that we are the sole arbiters of right and wrong.     In the scene we watched on Sunday we see the wizard Gandalf refuse to take the risk of guarding the Ring.   He shows his wisdom by being aware of his own weakness and faults.   He knows that if he used the ring even out of a desire to do good it will corrupt him.  St. Paul says something similar in the following verses. 

For I know that nothing good dwells within me, that is, in my flesh. I can will what is right, but I cannot do it. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do. Romans 7:18-19 NRSV

The Bible reminds us in multiple places that the fear of The Lord is the beginning of all wisdom. One reason we fear the Lord in the first place is because we are aware of our finitude and limitations.   It is when we forget these that we get in trouble.   When the serpent tempts eve in the garden,  he speaks only of potentialities and possibilities and not of her limitations.   He encourages her to believe that she can really do anything with no downside.   Paradoxically, it is our recognition of our limitations that opens us to the power of God's Grace.  St. Paul continues:

Who  will rescue me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! So then, with my mind I am a slave to the law of God, but with my flesh I am a slave to the law of sin. Romans 7:24-25

Paul reminds us that we are as Martin Luther explained simultaneously saint and sinner.   We have need for God and others to complement us so that together in community we are able live in fruitful, life-giving and virtuous ways.  It is this knowledge that can act as a vaccine and immunize us from the seduction of evil.   When we have a realistic idea of what it is we can and cannot accomplish we guard against falling into the trap of believing we are the only ones capable to act.   The danger of falling into this trap is heightened when times are tense.   When stressed we may obsess that we need to do something and that we are the only ones capable.   This is where the end time teaching of the Bible can be a word of grace.
People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken. Luke 21:26

One of the great things about the eschatological (end-time) writings of the Bible is that it teaches us how to respond in healthy ways to times of heightened stress and anxiety.   In the Gospel lesson this past Sunday, we read of Jesus teaching about the end of the temple in Jerusalem in Luke 21.  He taught that it will be a time of great and profound fear and worry.  It is in these times that one is susceptible to panic, curving in on oneself and acting out of the more primitive places of the mind.   These are actually the times when we should be really engaged in higher level thinking of planning, problem solving, and risk assessment.  So look at what Jesus recommends:

Now when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.” Luke 21:28

The disciple is to embrace anxious times boldly, depending on the God of grace and understanding that while there may be cause to be wary, there is really no cause for alarm.  One of the false ideas that has gotten into people’s heads through some fundamentalist end time preachers is the idea we have to do something in order make God come, so they come up with all kinds of ridiculous and irrational schemes to make this come about.   (like breeding red cows, supporting the sabotage of the mideast peace process and so on)   What they have failed to understand is that they are not being faithful to actual biblical witness.   In the Bible, God never comes because people are somehow ready for God.  God comes because those whom he loves need saving.   So by definition every time God has intervened in history the people have not been ready.  Those who teach the contrary have fallen prey to the seduction of evil,  that they are somehow immune to sinfulness and limitation, and that they may even need to act for God.  The faithful Christian trusts in God to act and to show us the way.

For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received a spirit of adoption. Romans 8:15

The real answer of how to avoid the seduction of evil is “communion”.   In some ways I do mean it in the sacramental sense, but in others I mean something deeper.   In Tolkien’s Lord of the RIngs no one person could keep evil at bay by him or herself, they needed to work together.   Gandalf could not carry the ring, Frodo could not make his way to Mordor without the fellowship showing him the way,  Aragorn could not defeat Sauron without the destruction of the Ring by others. In the church we realize that in order to safeguard against evil we need to be in communion with God and others.   If you look at times when we in church have failed (and there have been many) it is because we have become isolated, insulated and retreated into our own bubbles.   The idea of communion reminds us that we are interdependent upon one another and upon God.  We are adopted members in a community, which makes accountable to other members of the community and to God who heads it.  This idea of communion with God and others also guards us against passivity in the face of anxious times.  We do go forward and do things to help and show love but we do them through a process of spiritual discernment.  Historical examples of this can include the abolition, women’s suffrage, and anti-child labor movement all founded by Christians seeking to do good at God’s direction.  In order to help foster wellness and wholeness, some say “it takes a village” others say “it takes a family”  for  Christians it takes a “body”, the body of Christ.  

Keep the Faith,
Pastor Knecht