For church last Sunday, I went to the “Word of Faith” church and the Missouri Synod Lutheran church. Here are some items:
A. Both pastors shared stories about their experiences in ministry. The pastor at the “Word of Faith” church reflected on when he was a pastor in his 20s. He made a lot of mistakes, and there were people in the congregation who wanted him to leave. He met with those people, and he resolved to listen to what they had to say, without offering a defense of himself. One person went there with him, and this person would evaluate whether the pastor had a future at that church. This person judged that the pastor did have a future, and he calmed down those who were upset at the pastor. That person’s son was in the congregation last Sunday morning.
The Missouri Synod pastor talked about the days when he was a seminarian, and an elderly gentleman told him that he would be eaten up alive at a conference, over some political reason or technical distinction. But, if the pastor said he was with this elderly gentleman, things would go more smoothly for him at the conference. The pastor likened that to us claiming that we are with Christ when the last judgment occurs. But he also said that there is more: Christ is with us.
B. The Missouri Synod pastor talked about the time when he was an associate pastor, and the senior pastor had a falling-out with a member of the congregation. The senior pastor refused to visit the member in the hospital and to officiate at the person’s funeral. That reminded me of a Touched by an Angel episode that I watched a while back, entitled “The Grudge.” Robert Prosky plays a minister, and Bonnie Bartlett plays a medical doctor, and the two of them are at each others throats over an unresolved issue from their past. Tess, an angel, asks the minister how he can preach about love and forgiveness every week at church, when he has so much hatred in his heart.
When I saw that Touched by an Angel episode, I identified with the minister. He was imperfect, but he had a job to do, so he did his job, even if he fell short of the righteousness that he preached. At church, though, I was baffled by how a minister could preach one thing and do something else. Maybe I have become prouder and more judgmental as of late. I myself struggle with relationships, and yet, nevertheless, it baffles me that a minister of all people could refuse to forgive, without even batting an eye.
C. The pastor at the “Word of Faith” church talked about how he struggled over whether he should observe Christmas when his daughter was a child. Christmas, after all, is deemed to have pagan roots. The pastor concluded that he should observe it because that could challenge him to look at Jesus’ nativity afresh every year. This stood out to me, of course, because I grew up in a Christian movement that did not observe Christmas. And we were considered weird on account of that.
D. The pastor at the “Word of Faith” church was talking about how sanctification can be a slow process. We like things to be quick, he said. Making an analogy, he said that we like our McDonalds burgers prepared and warm within minutes, but God wants us to start by breeding the cow. How does sanctification take place, according to the pastor? We meditate on the word of God, and that is a seed within our heart, a seed that will grow over time.
I often wonder how one can tell if Christian growth is taking place. I remember when I expressed my bitterness towards a fellow Christian, and he told me that he wonders how, or if, I grew at all spiritually, with all that bitterness in my heart. That is a good question. At the same time, bad experiences, and even bad emotions, can make me humbler and more dependent on God, and even more compassionate and less judgmental towards others. Another observation: maybe I was happier and more carefree and loving before I felt the bruises of life. Can I say that I was maturer then than now? Well, Jesus did exhort us to become like children. But I see myself as more naive then, not more spiritually advanced, necessarily.
Sometimes, my sanctification seems to be a step forward and a step back. I think that I have learned compassion through my experiences, then I turn right around and judge somebody else.
E. In Luke 1, Mary goes to her cousin Elizabeth after Mary learns that she, as a virgin, will give birth to the Son of God. Elizabeth has had her own supernatural experience, as she has become pregnant with a son in her old age. The “Word of Faith” pastor said that, when we experience something supernatural, God may send us to someone who can understand and confirm what we are experiencing. The pastor also said that the virgin birth was as strange then as it would be today. He said that the incarnation would be inconceivable within Judaism, and he disputed that the virgin birth can be likened to the Greek legends about gods having sex with women who then had god-men.
I recall a conference about Christian community that I attended years ago, and the speaker there appealed to the Mary and Elizabeth story to argue that Christians should be in community. We were asked to consider what keeps us from seeking out our Elizabeth. I had issues with that: the speaker was essentially making a story into a law. But the way that the pastor at the “Word of Faith” church addressed the story made more sense to me: Mary went to Elizabeth because Elizabeth was one of the few people who could understand what Mary was experiencing.
F. The “Word of Faith” pastor said that Yeshua, the Hebrew name of Jesus, means “to deliver safely.” He said that we should recognize our fragility, and that Jesus wants to deliver us safely through our psychological problems and our debts. A lady later talked about her own deliverance from financial debt.
Some argue that we cannot expect God to deliver us from financial debt. Not only may we be setting ourselves up for disappointment, the argument goes, but for God to deliver us from our debt would be for God to enable us in making irresponsible decisions. I do not know if we can expect this of God: there are plenty of people who experience bankruptcy. Also, God has more things on God’s mind than our financial comfort. But I will not say that God never, ever delivers people from debt. There may be a place for hope.