Pastor's Blog

December 2016

Christmas Light

Is your heart filled with Christmas light?

Chances are you might be considering taking down the Christmas lights already or wondering if you can get away with leaving them up year 'round. But does the light of Christmas still shine in your life?

St. John called Jesus the, "Light that shines in the darkness," in John chapter one. The darkness is our world. It is a world of night, a world of sin. You see that sin as you go about your daily life. You see that sin in the pain of disease, in the hatred that is in the world, in the wars that never cease, in the innocent people hurt and killed.

And perhaps this Christmas the darkness was a little darker. You look at the dinner table and someone who should be there isn't. Or you are reminded of painful holiday memories from years before, a tragedy or some other terrible thing that always seems to take place around the holidays.

This is the darkness that lives around us.

But we don't have to live in that darkness. Why not gather around the light of the stable where Jesus was born? Outside is the darkness, but here, here is the Light of the World. That light takes away our darkness. That light chases the darkness of sin away because that light came to be light. Jesus was born to live like no other--to live perfectly. His life was lived in harmony with God's will. He did what we try to do, but he did it perfectly. And he offered the light of his perfect life as a sacrifice--a payment, really--for the darkness of this world's sin.

So Christmas is really about the dawning of something better and more hopeful. Christmas is the dawning of God's light in this world of darkness. Christmas is the dawning of the Day of Christ, a day that culminates in his death and resurrection, a day that ends when he comes to take his people home. And on that Great Day, he will forever put an end to the darkness of sin and we will live in eternity's light.

So in the midst of this world dark sin, you have a reason to shine with light. You can put away the sadness of your heart and live with a real joy in the light of Christ. You can spread that light to others by being a good person, getting rid of sin, and fixing your wrongs. You can let that light you see here fill your heart and fill your life and fill your home with the Light of Christmas.

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Our Good Shepherd Plan - Part Four

Merry Christmas from all of us here at Good Shepherd's! May you and your family be blessed by knowing your Savior was born to live, die and rise for you.

It is that important message that we proclaim every week at our congregation. That's why it's so vital to stay connected to God's Word. Here is part four of "Our Good Shepherd Plan" which is our program of Christian love to help people stay close to their Savior their whole life long.

Dear friends in Christ, 

Aristotle said, “We are what we repeatedly do.”   Thankfully, Aristotle was no theologian!    For while we repeatedly sin, through faith in Christ Jesus and for his sake, God does not count us as sinners, but holy saints.

However, Aristotle was onto something.   Repeated behavior eventually becomes normal behavior.   We call it habitual behavior.    For example, if every morning you go for a run, we call you “a runner”.   That is your normal behavior.   “We are what we repeatedly do.”  

How long does it take for habits to form?   There have been many psychological studies done on that topic.    The answer to the question depends on the activity and how regularly it occurs.    But the consensus seems to be that for most regularly occurring activities, habits form somewhere between four weeks and nine weeks.   

For example, say you want to take up running.   After a week of running, you probably could quit pretty easily.    You just need one good excuse, and you will stop.   The same is true after two weeks.   But somewhere between four and nine weeks of running, it would become a habit.   At that time it would seem odd to you to not run.   You are “a runner.”   “We are what we repeatedly do.”   In four to nine weeks, behavior becomes a habit.

Apply that to church attendance.   Pastors in mission churches will tell you that when a prospect comes for five straight weeks, the pastor is pretty certain that prospect will become a member eventually.    Attending that church has become that individual’s habit.

The converse is true as well.   If people miss church for five weeks, it may be that not attending church is becoming their new habit.   It might vary for some individuals, but not by much.  The point is, research (and experience!) would seem to suggest that if someone is absent from worship for four weeks, that is a good time to check up on them.

That is the first step of Our Good Shepherd Plan.   When an individual has missed worship for four straight weeks, we want to check up on them.   We are not assuming that the person missed worship because they despise God’s Word.   The four-week contact is not accusatory.   Our first assumption is that the person missed a month of church for a legitimate reason, like a change in work schedule.    However, just in case it is a matter of the individual losing interest in hearing God’s Word, we want to contact people at four weeks.

This also shows love to the absent member.  Many pastors have stories where they followed up on someone who had missed worship for six or seven weeks.   When the pastor called on the absent member, the member became accusatory.   “What took you so long?   Wasn’t I missed?   Don’t you care about me?”   The long time it took to follow up on the absence wasn’t viewed as patient.  It was viewed as apathy.

Therefore, four weeks seems the ideal time to check in on someone who has not been in worship.    If that person’s circumstance has changed so they cannot make it to worship, a plan can be made to serve that individual’s spiritual needs another way.   But if that person is beginning to stray spiritually, it can be discussed before a dangerous habit develops.      

Therefore, when Our Good Shepherd Plan is in effect, if you know that are going to be gone for four straight weeks, you have two options.    First, you could contact the pastor or a member of the Board of Elders and let them know.    It will be noted in our records.   However, you don’t have to do anything.   You will be contacted after four weeks, but it will simply be to see if everything is ok.   You will most certainly not be accused of sin!   At that time, you can simply explain why you were absent: long vacation, recovering from some surgery, change in work schedule, etc.    

This is why we will check up on those who have been absent for four weeks.   For that is the only loving thing to do in that circumstance.   And “we are what we repeatedly do.” 

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Our Good Shepherd Plan - Part Three

We continue our four part series on how we look out for one another in the Christian Church.

Dear Friends in Christ,

Are all sins equal in God’s eyes?   Most WELS Lutherans would probably answer, “Yes.”   We understand, “There is no difference, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:22,23).  There is no difference between one who steals and one who slanders.   There is no difference between a prostitute and a pastor.    All “fall short of the glory of God” and therefore are in equal need of a Savior.   The understanding that all sins are equal is good.  It prevents us from becoming self-righteous, looking down our nose at those who are “worse” than we are.   It also prevents us from despair when we realize our sin is particularly great.   Jesus died for that “great” sin too.   

However, Jesus himself taught that in a sense not all sins are equal.   He said, “I tell you, every kind of sin and slander can be forgiven, but blasphemy against the Spirit will not be forgiven” (Matthew 12:32).  This “unforgivable sin” is sometimes called “the sin against the Holy Spirit.”  Why is it that this sin “will not be forgiven”? 

  • It is not that this sin is worse than all others.  
  • It is not that God does not desire to forgive all sin.  
  • It is not that Jesus’ blood was not shed for this sin.     

Rather, it is the nature of the sin itself.   The sin against the Holy Spirit is a conscious and unrelenting opposition to the saving work that the Holy Spirit performs through the means of grace.   

Saving faith, like a fire, needs to be fed.   The Holy Spirit feeds faith and keeps it alive only through the Gospel.   “Faith comes from hearing the message” (Romans 10:17).    If a person pulls away from the Gospel, his faith will grow weak.   Eventually, it will die.  The believer becomes an unbeliever.   If this person, who knew the sweetness of the Gospel, becomes persistently and maliciously opposed to Word and sacrament, there may be no coming back.   He has committed “the unforgivable sin,” because he has consciously, persistently, and maliciously rejected the way that God forgives sin – through the means of grace. 

You may be worried.  “I have not always appreciated God’s Word the way I should!   Have I committed the sin against the Holy Spirit?”   Let your hearts be at rest!   If you had committed the sin against the Holy Spirit, you would be so hard-hearted that you would not be concerned about such things.  The fact you are concerned about it proves you have not committed the sin against the Holy Spirit.  

You may be worried about someone else.  “A friend of mine was removed from church membership.   Has he committed the sin against the Holy Spirit?”  Not necessarily.   Removal from membership or even excommunication is not the same thing as the sin against the Holy Spirit.   A person who has been excommunicated may still repent and be saved.   A person who has committed the sin against the Holy Spirit never will repent, for he has hardened his heart completely.   

The point is, the sin against the Holy Spirit begins with rejecting the work that the Holy Spirit does through his Word and sacraments.   And that is why we are implementing Our Good Shepherd Plan

Perhaps, when you read that your congregation is going to keep track of how often people are in contact with God’s Word, there was a part of you that bristled.   “Are they going to track every time I say a bad word?  Are they going to ask me how many beers I had this week?”  If you thought like that, realize the thought flowed from your sinful nature, which wants to be able to sin without consequence.      

The explanation of why Our Good Shepherd Plan focuses on worship attendance (and not other aspects of sanctified Christian behavior) is simple.   All sins – impure speech, drinking too much, etc. – are washed away in Christ’s blood and completely forgiven.   But the sin that isn’t forgiven is when one persistently, consciously, and maliciously rejects the way the Holy Spirit creates and sustains faith.    That is the sin against the Holy Spirit.   And the conditions for this sin to occur are ripe when a person persistently withdraws from worship.  

Our Good Shepherd Plan shows great love by trying to prevent anyone from slipping into the one sin Jesus says “will not be forgiven.”  

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Our Good Shepherd Plan - Part Two

We continue our four part series on how we look out for one another in the Christian Church.

Dear friends in Christ, 

Last week we informed you that our congregation will be implementing a new ministry program called Our Good Shepherd Plan.   The key component of the plan is very simple –  friendship registers.   During the offering the register will be handed down each row, allowing each family (or individual) to record that they were present.     

The primary goal of this plan is to follow St. Peter’s divinely inspired instructions. “Be shepherds of God’s flock that is under your care” (1 Peter 5:1).   If a member has to miss worship regularly because of work or illness, it is our responsibility to continue to feed them with God’s Word in whatever way we can, just as a shepherd feeds his sheep.

The secondary goal of Our Good Shepherd Plan is illustrated by a well-known event in Peter’s life.   

On Maundy Thursday evening Peter told Jesus that if all the other disciples left him, he would remain faithful.  Just hours later Peter denied Jesus three times. Peter had strayed from his Savior.   After Jesus rose, Peter wondered about his place among Jesus’ followers. Would Jesus even want him back?

So one day near the Sea of Galilee, Jesus pulls Peter aside.   (See John, chapter 21.)   Jesus does not berate or scold Peter.   Jesus is gentle.   He asks Peter three times, “Simon, do you love me?”   Three times, reminding Peter of the three-fold denial.    Each time, Peter responded, “Lord, you know that I love you.”  Peter knew that Jesus could read his heart.   Jesus could see that Peter loved him, even if Peter’s recent denials did not demonstrate love.   Jesus then made it crystal clear to Peter that not only was Peter forgiven, but Jesus also still wanted Peter to serve as a disciple.   For every time Peter spoke, Jesus responded, “Feed my lambs… my sheep.”    We would have understood if Jesus had been angry or harsh with people, but instead, Jesus gently restored Peter.   A crushing weight was lifted off Peter that day.   

St. Paul says that what Jesus did for Peter, we want to do for one another.   “If someone is caught in a sin, you who live by the Spirit should restore that person gently” (Galatians 6:1).     

That is a secondary goal of Our Good Shepherd Plan.   While many people miss worship repetitive weeks for legitimate reasons, there are others who begin to miss worship repetitively for illegitimate reasons.   Like Peter, they drift away from their Savior. It might be they are taking a “break” from church. It might be that they got into a quarrel with someone at church and don’t want to see them. It might be that they decided they disagree with some doctrine.   

Scripture tells us that when something like that happens we want to deal with it early on. (Jesus ascended forty days after he rose. So he obviously dealt with Peter in a timely fashion.) The Bible says that sin “hardens” the heart (Hebrews 3:13).   If you quickly talk to someone who is wrestling with a sin, they may be more apt to listen than if you talk to them six months later. Over that longer period of time, the person’s sin may have hardened them.   Think of it this way.  It’s easier to crush an acorn than it is to cut down an oak!    

Therefore, the secondary goal of Our Good Shepherd Plan is to identify when people are slipping into the sin of neglecting the means of grace. If someone starts to fall into the habit of skipping worship, we want to gently encourage them to return to the unique blessings that God offers in the assembly of the saints. That is probably going to be easier to do if we talk to them early on, instead of waiting till they have been absent for many months.   

“Restore that person gently.”    Just like Jesus did for Peter.   That is another goal of Our Good Shepherd Plan.    Next time, we will see why this is so important.  

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Our Good Shepherd Plan - Part One

Starting this week and continuing for the next three, we are reprinting here some information that will be handed out at our worship services. For those who are members we're just trying to make sure you have received the information. For those who are not members, this might serve as an interesting read into how churches watch over the spiritual lives of their members. God's blessings!

Dear friends in Christ, 

Our congregation is about to implement a program we think will be of great benefit both to our members and to our congregation.   It is called Our Good Shepherd Plan.    The goal of Our Good Shepherd Plan is simple – to better feed our members’ souls with God’s life-saving Word.

It is St. Peter who wrote, “Be shepherds of God’s flock that is under your care, watching over them…” (1 Peter 5:2).   Peter compares the care a congregation gives its members to the care a shepherd gives to sheep.  (The word “pastor” is simply Latin for “shepherd”.)

A shepherd’s job was two-fold.   He would feed the sheep and protect the sheep.   Those are both tasks that are done with God’s Word.   God’s Word feeds our faith, sustaining it and making it stronger.   And since our faith is in the gracious King of Kings and Lord of Lords, nothing can really hurt us, not even death.  

Peter had to encourage congregational leaders to “be shepherds.”   It is a joyful but often difficult task.   Especially if the “flock” is larger, it is easy for sheep to slip away without being noticed.   One of the biggest challenges in a congregation is keeping track of who is being fed with God’s Word.  

It can be very difficult for a pastor or church leader to remember who is present on any given Sunday.   It is impossible to remember everyone who has missed two or three Sundays in a row.   Simply relying on memory, a congregation will not accurately know who is being fed by God’s Word and who is not.   

This is not good.  Imagine a member named Jim who was not able to make it to any of our worship services because of a change in his work schedule.   Currently, it is possible that Jim could be absent for months before someone realized, “Hey, I haven’t seen Jim in awhile.”    Someone might say, “Well, Jim should have told the pastor he would be absent.”   That is true.  Part of the fault is on Jim.   However, Peter told a congregation to care for people like a sheep cares for a shepherd.   That puts responsibility on the congregation too.  The congregation would want to have a system in place so that it would know that Jim was absent.  That way, someone could bring Jim devotions and the Lord’s Supper at a time that fits Jim’s work schedule, until he could return to worship.

Or imagine a member named Cathy has a surgery that she thought was going to be minor.    However, there are complications.  She heals slowly.   Cathy has now been homebound for six weeks.   She thought about calling the church, but she was afraid she was going to be a bother.  “Be shepherds!” Peter says.   The church would want a system in place to identify that Cathy had been absent, not only so it could continue to care for her spiritual needs, but also so it could provide assistance in her time of physical need.  Perhaps some meals could be delivered, or someone could simply come by and visit.

Therefore, we are implementing Our Good Shepherd Plan so that we might follow the divinely inspired encouragement of St. Peter.   The core of the plan is simple – we will continue to use the friendship registers. As the offering is gathered, everyone fills their information in the friendship registers as they’re passed down the pews.  

Our Good Shepherd Plan will allow us to know if someone has been absent for awhile.   The first “check point” would be four weeks of absence.  At that time we would follow up on the member, simply to see if everything is ok.   We can offer the Word and Sacrament to that member in other ways if something is preventing them from attending worship.   And if it would be something else that is keeping them from worship, it gives us a chance to discuss that with them too.  

St. Peter says that the Good Shepherd wants to feed his sheep regularly.   That is the good and godly goal of Our Good Shepherd Plan.

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For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son. ~ JOHN 3:16