Resuscitating Your Heart

Baby Erika "died" for several hours in February of 2001, but is healthy and happy today.

Perhaps you’ve heard in the news this week the buzz surrounding “human hibernation.”  Basically, by using a chemical already existing in humans, doctors will be seeking to temporarily turn warm-blooded creatures into cold-blooded creatures by causing cells to virtually stop working, reducing the need for oxygen.

What would be the purpose for humans?  Well, there are many intriguing possibilities (like long-term space travel).  More practically though, this hibernation procedure could be used to help patients escape near-death fevers, prolong the time needed for organ transplant, and even make drastic advances in cancer treatment.  As it stands right now, treatments like radiation and chemotherapy kill off normal, healthy cells long before they kill off tumor cells.  Temporarily eliminating oxygen dependence in healthy cells could make them less vulnerable targets.

Believe it or not, several freak accidents in the past 20 years or so have been one of the main catalysts in leading scientists to this potential advance.  Perhaps most notoriously, in February of 2001, 13-month-old Canadian toddler Erika Nordby wandered outside in the middle of the night wearing only a diaper and a t-shirt and curled up in the snow.  She would be discovered by her mother several hours later in a state that doctors described as “like a block of ice.”  Her toes were frozen together.  She had no pulse.  In fact, her heart had been stopped for what doctors estimated was over 2 hours.  The temperature outside in Edmonton that day was -11 degrees Fahrenheit.  By the time they found Erika, her body temperature had dropped to 60 degrees Fahrenheit, the lowest recorded human temperature in history to that point .  Amazingly, doctors slowly warmed Erika back to a normal.  Frostbite problems notwithstanding, Erika returned to perfect health and was given the nickname “miracle”.

There are all sorts of medical theories as to how a toddler’s heart can stop beating in the ice-cold and somehow be resuscitated.  Doctors said there is simply no way Erika should have survived though.  And while this technically does not fit the biblical definition of “miracle”, it is undoubtedly support of the biblical concept that God alone creates life and he alone takes it.  God testifies this about himself, “There is no god besides me. I put to death and I bring to life, I have wounded and I will heal, and no one can deliver out of my hand.” (Deuteronomy 32:39) It’s as simple as it clearly “wasn’t Erika’s time” yet.

And brilliant as God’s governance over physical life is, he makes it clear in Scripture that he considers his ability to grant spiritual life to be his true masterpiece.  In Luke 5:23-25, while healing a paralyzed man, Jesus indicates that.  He says, “Which is easier: to say, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Get up and walk’?  But that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins….” He said to the paralyzed man, “I tell you, get up, take your mat and go home.”  Immediately he stood up in front of them, took what he had been lying on and went home praising God. Clearly Jesus sees granting spiritually health to be not only more important, but more challenging.  Nonetheless, faith and divine forgiveness are totally within his capabilities to give, and are something that he offers freely to all.

I bring this up today, because most of us, at some point in time, struggle perhaps not with true spiritual death, but a spiritual hibernation of sorts.  Physically, we’re fine.  Physically, almost zombie-like, we might even be going through Christian motions.  But internally, something doesn’t feel right.  In fact, perhaps we feel nothing.

Now, our national church body has never been accused of being a “touchy-feely” kind of group.  Nobly, this has been in response to church bodies who fail to understand that faith can only come from hearing the message of good news surrounding Christ (Rom 10:17).  As a result, those church bodies seek to generate emotions, regardless of content, in order to lead people to make decisions for Jesus.  Some of it could be interpreted as low-level brain-washing.

A quick survey of Scripture reveals that emotional manipulation has nothing to do with gospel motivation.  In other words, although the gospel can certainly emotionally excite us, the mere presence of emotional excitement does not necessarily mean that my heart has been touched by the gospel.  My point here is, our church body is correct in using the God-given instruments of Word & Sacrament as the only tools that create and sustain faith, which means, theologically speaking, that we’re a little sensitive to the very concept of “feelings”.

The negative consequence of all of this “separation from emotion & feeling” has been that our national church body has often received (and sometimes quite fairly) the reputation of being devoid of feeling.  Recognizing our sound doctrinal content and what it offers to people, a reputation of being “unfeeling” would be enormously sad.

The truth is that we’re not, nor should we be, anti-feeling.  Unless we have a desire to fill our churches with robots who merely (and hypocritically) talk about some abstract concept of Christ’s love, we’d better not lack mercy, love, compassion, and, what’s unfortunately come to be almost a dirty word in Lutheran orthodoxy…….”feeling”.  Humans feel.  We head down a dangerous path if we label a blessing from God as a bad thing.

My fear is that a downplay of feelings or perhaps talking about feelings in negative ways has left many well-intentioned Christians feeling, well……….nothing.  Perhaps we’ve talked about a Jesus who lived 2000 years ago and did some great things for us, like dying for our sins, but fail to talk about him as the Resurrected Lord who continues to this day to reign for our good and on our behalf at God’s right hand.  Perhaps we’ve talked about God as a distant divine Creator of the entire universe, but fail to talk about God as the involved, loving and intervening parent who has every component of our lives on a string that he may tug for our benefit.  As we  approach Reformation this week, perhaps we talk about Martin Luther as a saint through whom God worked some wonderful things for the church, but we fail to remind one another what Luther was seeking to do – glorify his God by getting God’s people on track spiritually through the means of grace – something that needs to be done today as desperately as was needed then.  In other words, if I’m under the impression that everything about my faith was “long ago”, despite knowing the key ingredients of faith, I might be left feeling nothing today.  And I have a hard time believing that the same God who created me as an emotive human creature would be happy for me to feel nothing in my faith.

I don’t know how many people realize this, but pastors can see their faces in church on Sundays.  It’s almost as though people become so conditioned to watching life on a tv or computer screen that they assume worship is the same.  Every once and awhile I’ll ask one of my teens in church what they were thinking about during the ___________ portion of the service, much to their discomfort.  It isn’t to shame them, just to let them know that church isn’t going to magically work spiritual benefits in their lives if they “check out” mentally during it.   After a worship service, I could tell you what mood just about every person in the congregation is in that day.  Now, I don’t claim to be an expert analyst of body language, but my honest evaluation is that some people are happy to be there, some people are there because they know it’s good for them, some people look forced to be there, and some people look as though they feel nothing.  For this group, my heart breaks, because these hearts may need resuscitation.  I think I’ve been there.

The answer to hibernating hearts is probably not a laser light show or a rock band in worship though.  While worship styles are always open for adjustments, while excellence ought to be aimed for, and while presentation style is probably more important to 21st century listeners than perhaps to any other generation in history, the only thing that will continue to change hearts is the truth of God’s Word, because that alone is the channel through which the Bible promises the Holy Spirit works to change hearts.

Does that mean that there is nothing we can do to help ourselves or others to experience a renewed passion for worship and fellowship with God and God’s people?  Can we in no way contribute to feeling faith?

Not exactly.  Spiritual renewal in our hearts requires us to 1) Regularly be in God’s Word, and 2) Pray about it.  Have you ever found yourself “bored” with the study of God’s Word or in worship with God’s people?  The looks I’ve seen on faces in worship and study would suggest that many do at times struggle with such feelings.  My next question, however, would be: When was the last time that you asked God to open your heart to be inspired and encouraged by your connection with Him and his Word?

God’s Word is anything but boring.  So, there’s no excuse for ministers or worship leaders to be rolling out “boring” efforts that indicate that God’s message to us is such.  Then again, “boring” is pretty subjective terminology.  Perhaps if we regularly pray to God that we see how profound the only book on earth that he himself authored is and ask that we see direct implications for our lives, he will grant us just that.

Having just come off of a worship week focused on prayer, hopefully we’re learning to take greater advantage of this gift.  And when God knows that his children, who are “feeling” human creatures, desire to sense connection with their Lord, this is a prayer that is clearly in line with God’s will.  I have a hard time seeing God not grant such a request.

As Leon Carr (the guy who put Mounds/Almond Joy candy bars on the map with his famous jingle) once stated, “Sometimes you feel like a nut, sometimes you don’t.”  The same person’s feelings can change from day-to-day.  Feelings are unreliable and can be manipulated like silly putty.  Consequently, churches shouldn’t target the feelings of their members.

That said, feelings are immensely important.  They are a wonderful part of the way God made us, and when guided by the message of Scripture, they are tremendous blessings in the lives of Christians.  Consequently, churches (and Christians in general) shouldn’t ignore feelings (or the lack thereof).

If you’ve been living the recent months or years of your Christian life in a state of hibernation – as though you’re merely going through the motions – remember Christ’s passion (in the sense of suffering) through which God has forgiven your lack of passion (in the sense of zeal, desire, or interest).  And then ask God to create in you a new heart, one that is inspired by the thought of coming closer to God and intrigued by getting to know Jesus better.  Pray that God help you feel more spiritually alive then ever, and then run to the resource that he promises will grant spiritual life – the living Word (Heb 4:12).

Remember, you don’t have to do it alone.  Your church is filled with people who are struggling with the same issue.  And your church leaders will walk you through this Word.  And when your spiritual bulb gets replaced and  that light goes on, it’s almost like a hand pulling you out of the water for new breath.

If you’re up for it, God will awaken that stilled heart.

owning your church

The Crystal Cathedral filed for bankruptcy on Monday in Southern California after months of trying to overcome mounting debt. The megachurch, birthplace of the "Hour of Power" televangelist broadcast, announced its filing as it deals with being behind by millions of dollars.

God promises that his Church will last forever (see Matt 16:18).  There are, however, no promises made by God that our local churches or our church bodies will last forever.

Stated in more depth: the Holy Christian Church, filled with saints triumphant, the same Church we confess in the Creed each week, cannot be harmed.  Nothing can pull believers away from Christ as their head aside from their own decisions to leave him.  However, the local churches that we belong to, those in whose directories our names, addresses, and phone numbers are recorded, are certainly susceptible to collapse.  Likewise, our national church body, the specific denominational affiliation to which our local church belongs, has no guarantee of longevity attached to it either.

It may surprise you that current statistics indicate that approximately 4,000 churches close their doors for good each year.  That’s 80 churches on average in each state each year.  Sound like a lot?  Sound like it could never happen to your church?  Well, on Monday, one of the most famous churches in America in recent memory filed for bankruptcy.  The Crystal Cathedral, a 10,000 member megachurch in Garden Grove, California, is rumored to be between 50-100 million dollars in debt.

Although continuing services while cutting back staff and outlets to their national television program (the “Hour of Power”), the Crystal Cathedral seems on the verge of closing doors.

It’d be really easy to sit back and cite all sorts of problems in doctrine that the Crystal Cathedral has as reasons for its decline.  And, to be sure, sound doctrine is incredibly important and lack of sound doctrine can be deadly.  God says, “(My Word) will not return to me empty, but will accomplish what I desire and achieve the purpose for which I sent it” (Isaiah 55:11) and “the grass withers and the flowers fall, but the word of the Lord stands forever” (1 Peter 1:24-25).  Sound Christian doctrine and its powerful and lasting results is what is being referred to in these sections.  Consequently, if false doctrine were prevalent in a church, it would seem that this lack of sound doctrine would be a natural thing that Christians would point to for lack of success, i.e. “God didn’t preserve this church because it wasn’t doing any good for his people (His Church).” That argument could only be entertained though if it was strictly the churches with the most blatant false doctrine that were closing.  The truth is, churches from all different levels of faithfulness in teaching are theoretically at risk to close.  What that means is that there are a variety of reasons, a combination of both practical and spiritual, that contribute.  And realistically, it’s pretty basic. 

We’re  not going to cover in a single week’s post all of the factors that contribute to local churches suffering and collapsing, but for the most part it boils down to a lack of weekly attendance (failure to worship), lack of Christian service (failure to cover necessary volunteerism), and lack of finances (failure to bring offerings to the Lord).  Historically, it was the same basic problem that led to the collapse of God’s Old Testament “church”, the Israelites.  In general, God’s people B.C. gradually became apathetic about God’s Word and will, they stopped caring about and caring for one another, and they saw no need to thank God for his blessings.  Instead of creditors, God had the Assyrians and Babylonians close their doors for them.

If you’re wondering how specifically, the Crystal Cathedral church – a church of 10,000 members – goes belly up?  It’s been many of the same factors:

  • decreased attendance – the church’s attendance had noticeably grown older and smaller throughout the years.  When churches become dependent on one guy – as the Crystal Cathedral had seemingly become with Robert Schuller – this pattern is not uncommon.
  • controversy and dispute – after senior pastor Robert Schuller retired in 2006, his son, Robert Anthony took over as senior pastor.  After two years, Robert Anthony was removed from his position for a “lack of shared vision” with the leadership at the church.  Robert Sr.’s daughter, Sheila Schuller Coleman was made senior pastor.
  • decreased offerings – the Crystal Cathedral saw a 30% offering drop in 2009, as many churches did, due to a continued lagging economy.
  • poor stewardship/management of  those offerings – for instance, one of the church’s financial hang-ups right now is that they are being sued by vendors who haven’t collected payment for their animal services provided at last year’s Christmas and Easter pageants.  Clearly, you’d imagine that a church called “the Crystal Cathedral” would perhaps have some proclivities toward lavish expenditures, so it isn’t too surprising.  Continuing to do all this on credit though is just plain foolish.

Poorer attendance, internal turmoil, and financial struggles are all practical issues that have led to the downfall of one of America’s most influential churches.  And practically speaking, these issues, which most often sprout from hearts grown cold, can happen to any local congregation.

This week, we’ve had several important financial meetings at my church.  Like many churches in this economy, we’ve fallen quite a ways behind in where we need to be financially in order to operate (i.e. behind budget).  When you have church leadership going through every line item in your budget to see where slashes can possibly be made in order to ensure that “lights stay on” in the future, this is a serious situation.

There is no desire to “cry wolf” here.  God’s people, by virtue of being God’s people, never have legitimate cause to panic.  But, for our purposes today, it’s important to understand this: when churches do end up shutting their doors, many of the church’s members end up flabbergasted that God would allow such a thing to happen.  What they may fail to understand, however, is that the way God intended to preserve his churches was by working through his members (Ephesians 2:19-22), not by dropping mortgage payments, utility bills, and payroll checks from the sky.  In other words, if I never maintenance the engine on my car and then that car breaks down, I have no right to blame Ford.  I failed to take responsible ownership of a blessing.  This one’s on me.

What can we do to ensure that our local churches can continue to faithfully minister to God’s people without hindrance?  What can we do to ensure the winning and nurturing of souls for Christ through law and gospel proclamation?  What can you do?  A TON.

Naturally, as a member, encouraging the health of your congregation starts by regularly being with your church in worship.  It then continues by loving and serving those in your church.  And it concludes with the area that Martin Luther said was the last part of a person to be converted (the pocketbook).  Faithfully offering financial support to the body that regularly feeds you with God’s Word has always been God’s will for his people too.  Show me a congregation that, as a whole, is regularly joining in worship, lovingly serving one another, and generously financially supporting the ministry, and I will show you a congregation that has almost zero chance of closing.  It just doesn’t happen.  This is simply part of the practical brilliance with which God created the concept of “church” – when Christians do the things that Christians do, that church will be just fine and will be able to focus on what it was meant to do – rescue the lost and nurture the found.

Before I began regularly serving in churches, I’m not sure I understood the concept of taking ownership in my church.  It’s been a progression of maturity for me.  I originally went to church because I was, in part, forced and told it was good for me.  As I grew in faith, I became convinced that it was indeed good for me.  As I exercised that faith by becoming involved in service, I started to enjoy it.  And as I started to see God working through me (in a small way) to reach others with the message of Jesus, I began to figure out that it wasn’t just about me, but about others too.  Grumpiness, self-centeredness, or apathy were no longer a Sunday morning option.  God had in mind to use me for good, to make me part of something much, much bigger than myself.  This bigger thing was to expand and bless the Church by using me and the gifts that he’d given me to expand and bless my local church.  I, as a Christian, was a mere messenger, a jar of clay, out of which God was seeking to dispense a message that saves lives (2 Cor 4:5-7).

God has given us all tremendous gifts with which to serve the church (1 Cor 12:4-7).  Own your church – Be there.  Serve it.  Support it.  I’m guessing, if you haven’t done this already, you’ll share my experience – “Oh……this is what church is supposed to be like.”  It’s an amazing thing when God leads us to the realization that “church” is not something we have to do to make him happy, as though God is desperate for our affection, but it is something we get to do that can direct us to eternal happiness.  I’m pretty sure I was told that when I was younger.  Today, I believe it.

The Cost of a Lost Reputation

It's possible that recent allegations of misconduct could do to football's ironman what 20 years of nagging injuries could not: sideline Favre.

Alright, if you’ve had any contact with media in the past two weeks, I think you (like most) have heard the story by this point.  I’m not talking about the miners in Chile.  That one is much more uplifting.  I’m talking about the allegations raised against football’s Wrangler-wearing, gun-slinging, “good ole’ boy” Brett Favre.

Now please understand, I hesitated to even use this story this week so as not to add to the problem that I’m trying to warn against with this post.  But, there comes a point in time when, if a story is everywhere, you’re beyond the point of bypassing it for discretion’s sake, so you use it as one of those “teachable moments.”  If I was a parent, I would absolutely be talking to my kids about Brett Favre’s situation.  They are undoubtedly talking about it at school and beginning to ask questions (at least to themselves) as well as forming opinions – i.e. is this normal?, is this okay?, does greater status in life mean greater entitlement? A 13 or 14-year old is probably not mature enough to process this info and come up with a thorough conclusion.  They need guidance.  We all do.  (By the way, this week’s 5-8th grade Sunday School lesson deals with Sexual “Freedom” – probably a good thing for them not to miss).

For those who have attempted to steer clear of the story, I will spare you any of the gruesome details.  The basics are this: Allegedly, during his time with the New York Jets in 2008, Favre sent graphic and inappropriate text messages (and voicemails) to a Jets commentator (female).  Recently, these picture texts and copies of these voicemails were sold (by someone who got their hands on them from the Jets commentator) to a gossip website.  Quickly, the world found out about it and now the NFL is investigating the authenticity of the materials.  This is part of the reason why this is such a big deal, since a professional football player having an affair is not news anymore.  This woman worked within a football team’s organization so this falls into the category of harassment that the league has to follow-up on.

Other similar stories have certainly come out with professional athletes.  America was disgusted with Tiger’s scandal.  Pittsburgh Steelers’ quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, the youngest quarterback to ever win a Super Bowl, was forced to miss the first part of this NFL season as a result of sexual harassment claims.  Favre is a little different though.  Tiger and his Swedish model wife didn’t have a very relatable life.  Roethlisberger was notorious for living a more rugged lifestyle.  Favre, however, is a sweetheart to America.  He drove a tractor.  His wife, Diana, is a breast cancer survivor whom Favre has appeared with in commercials.  Favre is supposed to be the embodiment of how the game of football (and maybe life itself) is supposed to be played.  Forget the $10 million/year plus in endorsements, speaking engagements, and post-career commentary work that Favre would be set to lose if these allegations would be true (and perhaps even if not).  I’ve seen several articles so far that have calculated the loss for him in dollars and cents.  I’ve yet to see an article that has calculated what it’d mean for him to lose his reputation, just for the sake of it being his reputation.

When I was younger, I remember learning in church that “A good name is more desirable than great riches; to be esteemed is better than silver or gold.” (Proverbs 22:1).  In youth, that doesn’t make much sense.  You haven’t seen the effects of someone losing their reputation.  You haven’t perhaps yet done something you regretted that could change the way others look at you.  You haven’t understood that NOT having a good name means you have the stink of shame upon you, a stink that can’t be Febreezed out by money.

I have absolutely no idea if the allegations against Brett Favre are true.  Nor will I speculate.  I will say, however, that in recent history, accusations like these haven’t turned out well for athletes.  If you’ve read any professional athlete biographies, you probably know that sexual escapades run rampant throughout professional sports.  Likewise, I will make the obvious observation that every other columnist has made on the issue – choosing not to address it, Favre hasn’t made any statement of denial, something he’s certainly within his rights to do.  I hope this is some legal advice he’s received that I don’t understand.

As a Packer fan, I grew up thinking the world of Favre, like many Minnesota children now have (at least last year).  A lost reputation changes everything.

I’m sure we all have stories we could tell about someone (perhaps someone from school) who was given the proverbial “Scarlet Letter.”  The general rules seem to be that 1) girls reputations get ruined more easily than guys,  and 2) the higher position you hold, the more damage done if rumors fly that could destroy your reputation.

I can recall vivid times when rumors about girls that I went to school with would come out, where I got nearly sick to my stomach in knowing that this could haunt the young woman for years.  Fortunately, God always forgives and that same gracious God has programmed it so that time usually helps forget.  The point remains though, that there is perhaps nothing in this world that compares to the value of a good reputation.

Jesus was a man with a sterling reputation.  He was honest and gentle and humble and loving.  Seeking to get rid of him though, the only thing people could think to do was lie to ruin his reputation.  When nothing could be substantiated, his enemies switched to misinformed claims – the charge of blasphemy from the Jews and finally the charge of treason (i.e. calling himself a “king”) from the Romans.  What a joke!  When addressing the crowd who shouted for his execution, Pilate reasoned, “You brought me this man as one who was inciting the people to rebellion. I have examined him in your presence and have found no basis for your charges against him.  Neither has Herod, for he sent him back to us; as you can see, he has done nothing to deserve death.” (Luke 23:14-15)  Nonetheless, with the little breath that he had left, this same Jesus, on the cross, asked his Heavenly Father to forgive these people who had sought to ruin his reputation.  And at that moment, their sins and our sins were absolved.

I guess, in general, I have several things I’d like people to walk away from this whole Favre saga with:

1) If your reputation at some point in time has been ruined, breathe easier in knowing that when the life beyond time comes, no one will be able to point to any past indiscretion. As it is, all of us technically deserves to have our reputations ruined.  Who of us can stand with any pride when our pasts are littered with mistakes?  And yet, we ALL have had that past cleaned by Christ’s sin-bleaching blood.  And eventually that mistake that you’ve never been able to forgive yourself for will exist only in the mind of a world that ceases to exist, for a new heaven and earth will be all that remains.

2) Seek to build up the reputation of others. Naturally, this leads us to not gossip or slander – passing on information (whether true or not) that could easily damage.  In the explanation to the 8th Commandment in Luther’s Small Catechism, it’s stated like this: We should fear and love God that we do not tell lies about our neighbor, betray him, or give him a  bad name, but defend him, speak well of him, and take his words and actions in the kindest possible way. In my humble opinion, this is the best of the “explanations” in Luther’s Catechism.  It is tremendous wisdom for what comes out of our mouths as well as for how we process what comes in through our ears.

3) Seek to maintain your own reputation. No, this is not bragging about yourself :).  That would be counter-intuitive.  Then you will gain the reputation of being a braggadocio (top 10 favorite words by the way).  The easiest (and yet not easy) way to maintain your Christian reputation is to live out your Christian calling.  Your reputation will then take care of itself.  Understand that you’ll have a target on your back.  Satan will hunt to destroy your name because you associate yourself with Christ.  That’s just the way a sinful world works.  But you have your God protecting you, and the support of your church.  We will not judge you for your past sins.  We will love you for your Christian repentance that makes you a brother or sister.  And we will help you restore and maintain your priceless reputation.

If you were to ask Brett Favre this week if he’d take all the glory of the past 20 seasons of football back to make these allegations go away, what would he say?  I don’t know if he would do it or not.  I would.  I can’t imagine what he or his wife or his family are feeling right now. Say a prayer for him.  If there was sin, may it be repented of and a family restored.  If these are mere rumors, may the truth come out and reputations be cleaned.  Hopefully we’ll all learn from this though – the cheering of a million fans over a thousand touchdown passes can’t drown out a whisper that can ruin a reputation.

In the midst of getting a paper done for a pastors’ conference next week, I thought this week’s post would be a good opportunity to alert people to some other helpful materials out there.

I have a bias and a story and a background that certainly affects what I write.  However, obviously that might not resonate with everyone.  So, it’s always nice to have resources to direct people to that would naturally feel more directly tailored to them.  One group that I may not inherently have a ton in common with and understand the struggles of is, believe it or not, young mothers :).  I’m thankful that there is a lot of great encouragement out there for them though.  One such source of biblical wisdom is……

Hope you get the chance to check it out!  See you next week!