opinion-1 

"Pastor, that's just your opinion." Perhaps there is no more frustrating sentence to us pastors than that.  But before pastors become defensive or angry, we ought to take a short time out and reflect upon what we said that triggered that answer. It very well may be that what a pastor says is only his opinion. A good question to ask is, "Where is what I said found in Scripture?" If it is not found there, maybe what you said is just your opinion! A second question would be, "Is what I said just my interpretation of the Scripture?" Your interpretation may be correct, but in today's world, anyone can scour the internet to find interpretations of Scripture passages. You will have to explain why your interpretation makes more sense than others.

On the other hand, the parishioner's judgment may come from a different place. It may be a defensive comment meant to justify that person's belief or action taken on the strength of that belief. If you have said their idea or practice is wrong, most people, including yourself, will become defensive. For example, many of those who disagree with our position on homosexuality have family members who are homosexual. Sometimes questions to pastors come in innocent forms that cover a personal story. I found out years ago that sometimes the question, "What about infants who die before they are baptized?" was not just a question of doctrine. They had suffered a stillborn and were concerned. Needless to say, my rookie, doctrinal answer did not help! I learned to follow such a question with one myself, "Why do you ask?"

We can find ourselves in hot spots because our catechism instruction relies so much on what is called "proof texts." Sometimes they are fine, but in other cases, seeing the entire text in its context provides insights that correct misapplication. For instance, many popular passages quoted today ("I know the plans I have for you," etc.) were spoken to the nation Israel about its future and are not easily applied to us.

All of which is to say that pastoral practice is an art; the pastor's seminary training in this area is only a jumping off point. Much more will be learned through trial and error. Thanks be to God, we have Christ's Gospel promises to which we, too, can turn for forgiveness when it turns out that what we have said is only our opinion!

ethiopialandscape

I'm writing these words from Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, having been invited to be part of a team to teach marriage and family to three different geographical groups of Ethiopian pastors and church leaders.  It was humbling to hear pastors talk about the size of their congregations, and the size of their synods (districts). In contrast to our churches, the vast majority of their Sunday attendees are thirty years old and younger. New church starts are so numerous that in a few years they will go from some 29 synods to 34 or 35. But not all is well. Statistics reveal a surprising number of divorces, and, if what we heard is to be believed, divorce rate in the church is higher than the national average! The church leaders are crying out for resources to teach about marriage and the family, as well as an increased number of counselors to offer alternatives to divorce or separation. It was stunning to hear of church workers who had lived separated for many years find reconciliation. But resources are scarce. So our team, which included Dr. Ben Freudenburg from the Concordia Center for the Family in Ann Arbor, responded to the cry, “Come over here and help us.” While we don't know where this will lead specifically, we do know that an impact has been made that will lead to further partnerships.

We learned that family problems are not the only challenges they face. Islam presents a strong challenge in several of their northern synods. Tribal pagan religions are regaining popularity among those who do not wish to see their culture disappear. Problems arise where new families are living in extended family settings and feel pressure from in-laws. And yet the Mekane Yesus church continues to march forward, all the while making incredible sacrifices. The Gospel rain, which Luther talked about, is falling fresh on Ethiopia and other African areas, producing abundant fruit. Until the rains return to the Western world, doesn't it make sense to invest more heavily where the Spirit is working?

funeral

Funerals are times that can upset one's spiritual equilibrium, especially if the deceased died unexpectedly, and especially if the family has to put together all of the details in a rushed manner.  But one aspect that I find disturbing is how easily sentiment can trump what a person (supposedly) has been taught for most of that person's life. Twice I have found the following in a funeral bulletin or memorial card:

"God saw that he was getting tired,
and a cure was not to be.
So He put His arm around him
And whispered, "Come with Me."
With tearful eyes, we watched
him gradually fade away,
Although we loved him dearly
We could not bid him stay.
A golden heart stopped beating,
Hard working hands to rest.
Through grace and faith,
God proved to us,
He only takes the best."

Oh boy! The last lines of that poem should raise a red flag for any Christian, let alone Lutheran! God only takes the best?? Wow! That leaves the entire world excluded except one person, doesn't it? Obviously the author tried to qualify his assertion by throwing in some words "grace" and "faith," but that only makes the whole last sentence a bit of nonsense. The best shouldn't need grace, nor do they need faith. They earned their place by being the best, thank you. Unfortunately, that kind of "best" won't be good enough. The rest of us need all the faith and grace God will give, and, thankfully, it is a sufficient abundance, thanks to the best Jesus gave, His atoning death.
The troubling part of this is, long after the pastor's words about faith in Christ have been forgotten, this poem will still be around in print to influence the thinking of friends and survivors.