Saturday, March 30, 2013

Why Did Jesus Have to Die? Part II

Holy Saturday.  Jesus rests in the tomb, and we must further explore why He had to die.  Yesterday, we saw how the world was broken, and how blame for the brokenness rests upon the desire of humankind to be our own God.  Instead of choosing God, we chose ourselves.  This had consequences--ones of particular severity.  Consequences that ultimately lead us to the death of Jesus.

One might wonder why God did not simply forgive humankind for its transgression.  After all, God can do whatever He wants, correct?  God can just let things slide.  Forgive and forget, right? 

That would be prudent except for one little fact: God is a God of justice as well as mercy.  It is not just for a debt to remain unpaid.

(I am indebted to Timothy Keller for providing the illustration that follows.  It is fully fleshed out in his book: The Reason for God: Belief in an Age of Skepticism.)

Think of it in this way.  Let us say that you own a nice house with a gated entrance.  One day, for a reason still unknown, your neighbor backs his car into your gate and causes hundreds of dollars worth of damage.  What are your choices?

Well, first, you could make your neighbor pay for the damages.  Hopefully, he or she is willing to do so since the accident was his or her fault.  After all, this person is the one who is responsible.  It would be right for the person to take care of the mistake.  If the person is unwilling to pay, you could accuse him/her in a court of law and demand restitution.  Of course, such litigation would also cause a rift between you and  your neighbor.  It would be pretty safe to say that the two of you wouldn't be inviting each other over for tea anytime soon.  In fact, your neighbor might actually seek retribution for your actions--which might lead to even more retribution on your part.  A never ending circle of retribution would ensue.  (This is how feuds get started.)  Of course, this is a worst case scenario, but we know that such scenarios happen, and they are usually based upon someone demanding payment for a wrong committed.

If you did not want to travel down this road, you could choose to pay for the damages yourself.  This would be called forgiveness.  You would pay the debt instead of the responsible party.  Perhaps you might feel a little anger and animosity toward your neighbor for a time, but because this was your choice and decision, those feelings would wane over time.

What is important is that in order to repair the damage, someone had to pay.  Someone had to incur the cost of mending what was broken.

In the damage which was wrought by humankind's sin, who would pay?

Initially, God worked with humanity to see if they could incur the cost, but the results were not good.  God worked through a chosen people giving them the Law and asking them to fulfill its demands so that humanity and creation could once again live in harmony with God.  God chose a special people to carry out this task--the Jews would be blessed to be a blessing.

Yet, as scripture reveals to us, it was not to be.  The sin of humanity was too strong.  We could not overcome it.  Some were better than others in fulfilling the Law's demands, but ultimately, it was an impossible task for humanity to collectively follow God's commands.  We could not pay the price for reconciliation.

Enter Jesus.  He would pay the penalty.

A couple of questions might arise here.  First, why death?  Couldn't there have been another payment?

Think about this for a moment.  Remember what Jesus was taking upon Himself.  He was taking upon himself all of the things that we have done which are contrary to the commands of Christ.  All of our hatred toward each other.  Every murder.  Every theft.  Every word spoken in anger.  Every injustice.  All this and more, He took upon Himself--AND MORE!  Jesus also took the sinful nature lurking within us.  Our selfishness and desire to be our own, little gods.  This Jesus took too.  Imagine offering restitution for all of that.  Is there enough money in the world to cover it?  Are there enough apologies that could be offered? 

Not a chance.  The cumulative debt incurred by all of this can only be paid with death.  Justice must be served.

But why human sacrifice?  Couldn't there be a better way?

Ah, but now comes the crux of the matter.

Christian doctrine states Jesus is fully human and fully divine.  Jesus is part of the Holy Trinity--God the Father, SON, and Holy Spirit.  In effect God condemns a part of Himself to die to pay the penalty of our sin.  God does not sacrifice one of us to make Himself feel better.  God does not need a human sacrifice to atone for sin.  God sacrifices Himself to pay, to make atonement, to reconcile humankind and creation unto Himself.  God Himself dies so that justice and mercy are shown.  Jesus dies so that justice and mercy are shown.

Friday, March 29, 2013

Why Did Jesus Have to Die? Part 1

It is Good Friday.  The day Jesus died on the cross.

For some, this day raises a significant question: Why did Jesus have to die? 

I remember when I was just starting my theological education and I visited my home congregation.  One of the confirmation students asked me during Sunday School, "Why did God have to pick such a lame way to save the world?"

I didn't have a good answer.  Thankfully, through time and education, things are much clearer for me, and I share with you so that you may share with others.

First, here are a few of my underlying assumptions: this world is broken.  I'm not sure I need to make much of a defense of this statement.  Unless you believe that it is perfectly O.K. that people die from hunger, that people suffer at the hands of others, that people are killed by tragic circumstances in nature and in human conduct, that in order for one entity to survive in this world some other entity has to die, and a host of other evidences, then you, like me, believe the world could be better, much better.

Second assumption: the world was not always broken.  My faith teaches that the world was created perfectly.  It was made to have no violence, no death, no animosity.  Everything lived in perfect harmony.

There was one little issue that had to be dealt with; however.  When God created humankind, God desired to be in a real relationship with us.  He didn't want us to be puppets on a string.  He didn't want us to be mindless, obedient fools.  If you truly want to be in relationship with someone, that means you freely choose that relationship.  It cannot be forced.

So, to solve this little dilemma, God gave one choice to humankind.  "Do not eat of the tree of knowledge of good and evil.  For on the day that you eat of it, you shall die."

The choice was plain, freely choose to live with God or eat and die.

Those who know the story now know a serpent enters the picture.  Some question, "Why did God put the serpent in there if He knew what the serpent would do?" 

Think once again of relationships.  Think that perhaps God gave creation the same choice He gave humankind except in a slightly different fashion.  Think that God desires to live in relationship with creation as well as humankind.  Now, perhaps you might think this is quite daft, but if you accept in the story that the serpent can talk, then you can certainly accept that God desired to live in relationship with creation--and relationship demands choice!

The serpent had obviously chosen its path.  It desired to be free from the relationship with God, but for some reason, it desired to bring about the downfall of all of creation, and it knew that to do so meant to bring down the pinnacle of God's creation: humankind.

And so, it offered temptation, "Eat of the fruit and you will be like God knowing good and evil."

Some question whether or not this is indeed a temptation.  After all, what is wrong with wanting to be like God?  As Christians, do we not even have the command to be imitators of God in the book of Ephesians? 

There are a few things that must be addressed:

1. There is a difference between imitation and independence.  One could assume that the temptation by the serpent was founded to tempt man and woman to imitation.  Man and woman so admired God that they wanted to be just like Him, and all they needed was a push to eat the fruit.  But why the need to be like God at this point?  Why the need for discernment for good and evil?  Since the world was created perfectly; in harmony; evil did not exist.  The only choice was to be with God or break God's rule.  Thus, the conclusion is that the temptation is not one of flattery but one of disobedience--disobedience and the desire to be independent of God.

2. The second thing that must be addressed is the matter of hubris.  The serpent was tempting man and woman with the idea they could be "like God knowing the difference between good and evil."  The assumption is that the human mind, even with its limits could somehow garner enough perspective to see as God sees.  Somehow, we could see the long term consequences of our choices and see whether or not those consequences were good and evil.  The temptation to be like God was the temptation to think that we could indeed do such a thing.  It is the pinnacle of arrogance.  Without a doubt, it has been shown that humanity is incapable of seeing the long-term consequences of its actions.  As individuals, we know this to be true.  There are times when we do something that we think is very bad, but as time passes, we see that the event actually brought quite a bit of good.  And, of course, we know the adage "The road to hell is paved with good intentions."  Many times, we set out to do good, and for a time things seem well, but then, indeed, all hell breaks loose.  We are simply incapable of seeing good and evil from God's perspective. 

It is more than obvious that humankind's selfish desire to be independent and like God--in quite a negative way--led to the fall of creation.  Such selfishness has not departed from our species.  It is quite evident.  If one spends any time with a baby, one will see quickly that selfishness is something we are born into. 

We are fallen. 

We have sinned and continue to sin against God through our selfish-disobedience.  It is more than the things we do--it is who we ARE!  It is bred into our very being.

This leads us to ask, "How can we be restored?"

Thursday, March 28, 2013

A New Commandment

I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.  By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.  John 13: 34-35

Enter a Christian church building on any given Sunday morning.  What do you see?

Do you see Jesus' statement in action?

Attend a church conference meeting or synod assembly.  What do you hear?

Do you hear people asking, "How can we more effectively follow Jesus' command?"

Read about the interactions between church denominations.  What jumps out at you?

Do you see them saying, "We love you even though we disagree with you." or "You are wrong and we will not fellowship with you?"

In the U.S., our church bodies love to announce to the world what it should or should be doing.  The following list is not exhaustive, but certainly covers an across the board rendering of the things certain denominations have lobbied or advocated governments and individuals to do in society:

Ban abortion.
Ban gay marriage.
Institute gay marriage.
Feed the hungry.
Provide health care.
Redistribute wealth from the rich to the poor.
Increase government giving to poorer nations.
Stop raising taxes.
Decrease government welfare.
Force people to take responsibility for themselves.

Hopefully, you can see that some of these are polar opposites, yet they are advocated for by well intentioned Christians and church denominations in the U.S.  And God help us, if two Christians from either end of these spectrum's come into contact with each other.

Before you know it, a doctrinal battle begins.  Bible verses are thrown back and forth.  Jesus' name is invoked.  Perhaps even a word or two is spoken about another's final, eternal resting place.  And both sides separate convinced even more that they hold the truth in the matter and the other is dead wrong.

Such is the state of much of which passes for Christianity in our nation. Such is the state of relationships between believers.  For some reason, we are more enamored with lines in the sand than we are with reconciliation and discovering where another raises truth the weakness of our own position.  We engage another person believing in the moral superiority of our own position instead of realizing our position may just be warped with the same sin that has pervaded humankind since the forbidden fruit was tasted.  Humility is replaced by hubris.  And one of the most foundational commands of Jesus is ignored.

By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.

But how does such love play out?  How does this take place in a church where human sin is prevalent and pervasive?  How does this love manifest itself?  For until it does, I am convinced our denominations will continue their slow spiral towards oblivion.  And I believe it is much more than superficial hugging and smiles thrown each other's way on a Sunday morning.  I am convinced people can tell superficiality from genuine care and concern for one another.

Before giving this command to His disciples, Jesus washed their feet.  He humiliated Himself and did something no respected rabbi or person in authority would do.  Interestingly enough, one of His disciples, didn't want his feet washed (Peter).  I believe these two characters raise significant issues for us in the church.  At times we are like Peter in that we don't want to subject ourselves to having our feet washed.  We are too proud to allow anyone to do such a thing.  And yet, we are also too proud to kneel at the feet of others and wash their feet.  Both positions require some amount of humility on our parts--a willingness to serve and be served. 

But, in my estimation, humility is subject to power in our nation.  And the church likes power.  Sure, it believes it is wielding its power for good--to increase morality or to increase justice.  But the One who instituted the Church took quite the opposite route.  When pushed came to shove, He gave up power.  He embraced powerlessness and humility.  Through that route, He showed amazing love.

Truly loving one another requires giving up power.

What does a group of people look like who gives up power?  Who gives up pride?  Who is willing to serve each other and be served?

Apparently, Jesus says it will be obvious to others when they see it: by this everyone will know that you are my disciples. 

May our hearts and minds be changed to enact such communities, and may they be obvious to those who are seeking them out.

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Gay Marriage and the Supreme Court

I have been loathe to enter this debate preferring to sit on the sidelines as I believe there really shouldn’t be a debate to begin with. Unfortunately, this issue is loaded with pure, raw emotion and very little logic and reason. I believe if we were reasonable in our discourse regarding this topic, then we would immediately see the solutions are obvious. Yet, when it comes to the polarization of this issue, I believe neither "side" is reasonable.

The Anti-Gay Marriage Side (which is grounded in faith/religion)

I think it is time for the church especially to admit, we lost. This nation is no longer a Christian nation. At one time deep into our history, we were. The basic rights and principles that governed our nation were deeply rooted and grounded in the Judeo-Christian tradition. The Founding Father’s thoughts that we all have the inalienable rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness were grounded in the belief that a Creator God granted such self-evident rights. Those who dispute this seriously do not know their history.

Yet, these same Founding Fathers intentionally left religious language out of our governing document: the U.S. Constitution. They did not want to establish a national religion for fear of what had happened in Europe a couple of centuries earlier. Many in our country were still burned by the fires of religious persecution, and we wanted a nation where no such thing would happen. Therefore, we have the assurance that the government will not impose religion nor restrict our freedom to exercise it. This has, in my estimation, actually helped our churches, temples, and mosques as such entities are forced to "compete" in the milieu of our nation rather than receive automatic membership.

Yet, this set up does have a drawback, at least as far as religion is concerned. Our governing document is not the Bible. Read that again. In the United States, our governing document is not the Bible. As much as both liberal and conservative Christians might like it to be, the Bible and its teachings do not dictate how we as a nation are supposed to act. Our Constitution is the ultimate law of the land.

At one time, the knowledge and understanding that our Constitution’s principles were founded on the Judeo-Christian belief system was very strong. No one dared to separate the two, but time has passed. A great deal many things have happened driving these two entities apart so that no longer does our nation function as though these two traditions walk hand in hand. Many things have caused this to happen–to detail them would be to go far beyond the scope of this blog post.

Those in our churches today would do well to recognize this. We would do well to recognize that arguments appealing to the Bible generally fall upon deaf ears–whether we argue for or against gay marriage, divorce, abortion, gun control, welfare, social security, health care, or what have you. Strictly appealing to our faith stances–be they liberal or conservative–is an exercise in futility. Our biblical faith no longer holds much sway. The Constitution trumps it.

Which is why there should be no debate as to whether or not gay marriage should be allowed. According to our Constitution, it should. A segment of society is being discriminated against. Sure, we could go into the arguments regarding nature and nurture, behavior versus biological attributes, etc. But, since the U.S. Constitution is the law of the land, it dictates the conclusion to the matter. Whether we like it or not.

The Pro-Gay Marriage Side

Despite what many on this side say, the belief that marriage is between man and a woman is not grounded in hate. Sure, you can point to Westboro Baptist Church as the evidence to show that there are some people who do hate gays and lesbians. Sure, you can point out that there are hate crimes committed against gays and lesbians. There is no doubt that there are those in society who hate gays and lesbians. I will not dispute this at all.

Yet, it is also true that a great many people do not support gay marriage out of hate. They do so because they have a high regard for the teachings of their faith tradition. This is not restricted to Christians, but I will focus on this group because I am a Christian and am intimately connected to the Church, particularly the Lutheran expression of that faith.

Christians who hold the plain reading of Scripture to be the best form of biblical interpretation see very clearly the Bible’s labeling of homosexual behavior as a sin. I know very well there are other Christians who turn to the historical/critical methodology of interpreting Scripture who see no such conclusion. In my experience, their argumentation is weak and easily debunked, but this is not the place for those arguments. What is important is the realization that such behavior is labeled sinful.

Usually, the immediate response to such assertions is: Thou shalt not judge!–at least from those who have some understanding of Scripture.

This response is quite weak for two reasons: 1. It misunderstand’s Jesus’ statement. Jesus never tells His followers to cease judging actions. If we were to do that, no Christian could never call any act by another evil, sinful, or what have you. If a Christian caught another stealing, he/she could not say, "Stealing is a sin, and you are sinning." Doing so would be rendering a judgement. 2. By calling someone judgmental, you are rendering a judgement. Sorry, but it’s true. So, is there any logic to using Jesus’ statement "Thou shalt not judge," to judge what another is doing? Didn’t think so.

This in itself is a fun exercise in logic, but it fails to address the main issue: the issue of hate. Here is the important part: the rendering of a judgement of sinfulness does not equate to the rendering of hate. In the Christian faith, it never, ever should for at least two reasons.

#1. Jesus Himself never hated anyone who was sinning or caught in sin. His example alone should give us ample evidence that hatred toward a sinner has no place. In fact, His ultimate statement regarding such matters was spoken from the cross as He hung, dying. Instead of speaking out in hatred or frustration, He said, "Father, forgive them for they know not what they do." Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. The Church would do well to heed Jesus’ example.

#2. Each and every person is a sinner and is living in sin. Each and every person’s identity and being is warped by sin. This ultimately should lead to humility, understanding, and reconciliation.

This statement is born out of response to those who say, "God made me this way. Homosexuality is genetic and caused by nature not nurture." Or some other similar argument. For centuries, the Church has taught that each and every person has fallen short of the glory of God. For centuries, the Church has taught that each person is born in sin–Original Sin, as it has been called. For centuries, the Church has taught that we cannot escape our sinfulness during this lifetime–"for I do the very thing I know I shouldn’t"–St. Paul.

We are fallen creatures. All of us. God made me a man. Sexually, I desire women, and even though I am happily married, there are times when I see another woman, and impure thoughts enter my head. I would happily argue that this is just a part of genetics–this is just how God created me–these are natural responses, and I would be correct in my argument. I would also be correct in stating that I cannot stop these thoughts. I can’t turn off my sexuality! Yet, Jesus calls them sinful. Jesus says I commit adultery when these natural thoughts enter my brain. Is Jesus wrong? Am I not sinning because I am simply being male? No. Jesus is correct, but rather than have self-hatred, rather than hate other men, I am humbled. I must turn to the cross. I must admit my brokenness and ask for forgiveness. I must realize that my brokenness goes deep to my very core of being.

If every Christian realized their brokenness in this fashion, there would be much less hateful judgement rendered. Instead, it would be a compassionate outreach grounded in a mutual understanding of what it means to stand condemned by the Laws of God. Such understanding should never, ever lead to hatred because we know we are broken like everyone else.

Admittedly, such compassion is oftentimes lacking as we struggle to confront sin. More often than not, we fail miserably, and this is why our actions are often seen as hateful–even though, for many, they are not.
I believe there is a failure of pro-gay marriage people to understand this aspect of those who do not support their position. While it is perfectly o.k. to disagree with the stance, in my estimation, saying that someone is driven by hatred is not kosher.

The End Results?

As a nation, the legalization of gay marriage is a given, in my estimation. Not because I support it from a faith standpoint, but because the law of our nation is the U.S. Constitution and not the biblical faith.

It is also certain, in my estimation, that churches, mosques, temples, and other religious institutions will not be forced to conduct such ceremonies should they choose not to.

It is also quite certain that there will be those who will call such places "hate filled."

It is also quite certain there will be those who will continue to say "God hates gays."

And there will be those like myself who will continue to strive to work toward understanding while holding onto the orthodox Christian faith’s position on marriage–striving to show love, grace, and compassion to those who are sinful, just as I am sinful.

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

The Bible: The Miniseries

Admission: At the writing of this post, I have only viewed the first installment of The History Channel's The Bible.   I have no official review at this moment; however, there are more than a few who do.

I have been struck by those reviews, in fact.

Admission #2: I am a part of the mainline, U.S. Church; specifically, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, and most of the reviews I have read have come from colleagues and other Lutherans.

Those commentaries have generally bemoaned the more evangelical/fundamentalist interpretation of this mini-series.  I understand their unease with the interpretation.

Several years ago, B.C. in fact (before children), my wife and I attended the Passion Play in Eureka Springs, Arkansas.  This town is roughly an hours drive from my grandfather's house in Bella Vista, AR, and since clergy get in free, it was quite the no brainer to go ahead and see it.

I had actually sat through the play once before before I even went to college and had enjoyed it thoroughly.  On this occasion, things were quite different.  I did not have positive feelings once the experience was done.

The script of the play is actually pre-recorded and the actors and actresses pantomime the words.  Jesus sounded like a southern, Baptist/Pentecostal preacher.  In all of the teachings recorded in Scripture, none of Jesus' teachings about care and concern for the poor and oppressed were used.  Much of the teachings were pulled, out of context--of course--to present "decision making" theology; i.e. the theology that a person must make a personal decision to follow Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior so that one can be saved.  Lutherans don't exactly talk in such a fashion as we believe that only the Holy Spirit can bring about belief.  We can't accept Jesus is Savior on our own.  We can reject Him, but we can't come to believe in Him without the power of the Spirit.  (There are substantial theological reasons for this, but I will not go into them here.)

After watching the Passon Play's interpretation of Jesus and His last days through this particular lens, I was quite upset and vowed not to return until they decided to make changes which were truer to the biblical narrative.

My response was very similar to the way some are responding to The Bible.  I understand.

But I have mellowed somewhat over the years.  I have come to understand a few things including the very real fact that each and every individual approaches the biblical text with a certain lens of interpretation.  Not only each and every individual does this, but so does each and every church body.  All have a particular lens of interpretation when it comes to reading and implementing the story of the Bible.

If, as a Lutheran, I had directed this mini-series, you can bet it would have been different.  And I am quite sure there would be more than a few Christians howling that my interpretation wasn't correct. 

And, of course, they would be correct.  In order to facilitate the story in the appropriate time frame, I would be forced to cut certain aspects and narrow down what was included.  And, of course, I would keep those things which I believed to be central to the narrative and leave out others.  By virtue of doing this, my interpretation of what was going on would be front and center--not necessarily what was in the text.

Which is exactly what is happening in this mini-series now.  Of course, "progressive" Christians are bemoaning the mini-series as too evangelical.  However, would they be open to criticism from evangelicals if they had put together the mini-series themselves?  Would they be willing to acknowledge a criticism that "they just put this series together to promote their brand of social justice, progressive Christianity and they don't emphasize a personal relationship with Jesus at all?"

My guess is they wouldn't like that kind of criticism any more than evangelicals like the progressive critique right now. 

Ah, but what if we could take some time to simply appreciate the different perspectives and interpretations being offered--even though they don't particularly agree with our own?  Is that even possible?

Is it possible to admit that our own systematic theologies all fall short of reality?

Is it possible to admit that by engaging a theological perspective that is not our own, our weaknesses may be revealed and we may be forced to dig deeper into understanding the reality of the story which reveals God to us?

Is it possible for us to admit that while our systems of theological thought are indeed important--for they give us the boundaries of what is acceptable belief and what is not acceptable belief--they are deeply flawed because they are put together by people who are deeply flawed?

Is it possible for us to admit that while are systems of theological thought are indeed important, we cannot say that we know fully and comprehensibly the Absolute Truth--yet, instead we are possessed by that Absolute Truth?

And if we realize that Christianity isn't so much about possessing the Truth but instead being possessed by said Truth, can we learn to watch The Bible for the pure enjoyment of seeing someone attempt to put into film the greatest story ever told?

Perhaps I am asking too much, but then again, perhaps not. 

Am I willing to put my money and my actions where my mouth is?

Yes.  In fact, I think I'm ready to go watch the Passion Play once again.

Monday, March 25, 2013

Palm Sunday Sermon: No Need for the Stones to Shout

Will there come a day when the stones will need to shout?

There is much talk in the church these days about the "nones." This is a growing group of people who, although they generally believe in God, do not affiliate themselves with any form of religious thought or function. They do not join churches or synagogues or mosques or temples. They are content to believe what they believe and refrain from trying to impose their beliefs upon anyone else.

Much banter has taken place as to why these folks will not join the church. It has created no small amount of angst among some church leaders. As many denominational leaders here in the U.S. see shrinking numbers of worshipers, congregations closing their doors, and membership dropping, they wring their hands. "What should we do? We have to change? We must do things differently or this will continue. We are going to die!"

The idea of a day when all are silent and only the stones will be able to shout is a distant reality for some who get caught up in this scenario.

But I personally am not worried about such a thing.

I personally am not concerned about the growing number of nones.

I personally am not concerned about fewer people worshiping in mainline denominations.

I personally am not concerned about congregations closing their doors.

This might seem callous. This might seem blasphemous. I mean, if one part of the body suffers, all suffers,

Yes. That is true, but it doesn’t change my concern. I still sleep well at night. I do not fret. For such things are out of my control. I have no ability to stem the tide. I have no ability to suddenly make these trends reverse. None of us have that ability or that power. So, in my opinion, such things are not worth focusing on. Such things should not take up our time.

But that then begs the question: what should? What should we be focusing on? What should consume our thoughts and our time as Christians?

Jesus came riding into Jerusalem riding on a donkey. Long before the prophet Zecheriah had penned these words:

Rejoice greatly, O daughter Zion!
Shout aloud, O daughter Jerusalem!
Lo, your king comes to you;
triumphant and victorious is he,
humble and riding on a donkey,
on a colt, the foal of a donkey.

The people remembered that prophecy. The people remembered what Zecheriah had said. The people knew that Jesus had performed great acts of power. They knew he had fed thousands with just five loaves of bread and two fish. He could end hunger. They knew that Jesus had healed the sick. He could cure disease. They knew Jesus had calmed the storm. He could stop natural disasters. They knew Jesus had raised people from the dead. He could defeat death. When Jesus came riding into Jerusalem on the back of that donkey, there was little doubt that the King was coming to them; triumphant and victorious, humble and riding on a colt, the foal of a donkey.

This was cause for celebration!

This was cause for elation!

This was cause for a giant welcome!

And they came. They prepared Jesus’ way. They waved palm branches and put their cloaks in Jesus’ path. And they shouted. They raised their voices saying, "Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord! Peace in heaven, and glory in the highest heaven!" This is how you honor the King! You are not silent! You proclaim it with reckless abandon–even if it makes people uncomfortable.

And it did make some people uncomfortable to hear what was being said. It made people uncomfortable to hear Jesus being proclaimed as the King who comes in the name of the Lord. "Jesus, make your disciples shut up! Make them stop! We don’t want to offend anyone! We don’t want the Romans to think you are starting an insurrection! We don’t want anyone angry! Make them be quiet!"

"If they were quiet, even the stones would cry out."

But the stones didn’t cry out then. They didn’t need to. They shouldn’t ever have to.

For as celebretory as this procession of palms was, it pales in comparison. It pales in comparison to what is coming in just a little while. For when Jesus wouldn’t silence the crowds, others took the initiative to do just that.

They plotted and schemed. We will hear about that plot and their schemes later this week on Maundy Thursday. They had Jesus arrested. They trumped up charges against Him. They tried Him. They beat Him. The crowd who saw this turned on Jesus. "Crucify Him!" they yelled. We will hear about how they carried out this death sentence on Good Friday. We will hear about the cross.

For three days, silence indeed reigned.

And then, first one stone cried out as it was moved. More stones cried when the earth shook. And the unthinkable happened.

We will celebrate this on Easter Sunday. We will move through the cross to the ultimate day of our faith. We will celebrate the defeat of death, the promise of the destruction of evil, and the gift of eternal life. We will remember how God acted; how He acts; and His promised action in the future. We will hear the good news that is meant for you and for me.

Ah, and when we hear that news, it will touch a chord down deep within us. It will resonate so deeply that our voices will begin to stir. No matter what we try, we will not be able to stop it. The Spirit will move and our voices will shout, "Jesus is Lord!" And the world will know who it’s Savior is.

Our witness will go out. The proclamation will come out of us. And there will never be a need for the stones to shout. Amen.

Friday, March 22, 2013

An Open Letter to Mainline Christians in the U.S.

I am a pastor in a denomination much like yours.

I am a part of a denomination that is in decline.  We've lost 1.2 million members since our inception in 1987.  Your denomination may be on a steeper or a more gradual decline, but your denomination, like mine is declining.

I am part of a denomination that knows it is declining despite strong revenues.  Unfortunately, these two things are incompatible in the long run, and we know this.

I am part of a denomination that has continuously beat the drum, "We must change or die."  We've made lots of changes.  We are still dying.

I am part of a denomination that leans toward the left.  You might be a part of a denomination that leans toward the right.  It makes no difference; the decline is there for both of us.

Recently, my denomination's largest seminary was hit by major cut-backs.  The financial winds finally caught up with the precipitous decline in membership, and now a new course is being set.  Of course, major change brings about anxiety.  Anxiety leads to questioning and requests for action.  The students at Luther Seminary, put together a list of 9.5 Theses--a take off of Martin Luther's 95 Theses--in response to the changes at the seminary.  They are found in the link above, but I will reprint them below.  I believe these "theses" offer a window into what ails my denomination and yours.  Please look them over carefully.

1. We want open disclosures and open imagination about the path forward.

2. We want injustice named and truth told so that confession and accountability ground this community.

3. We want stated and communally agreed upon theological values to guide the process.

4. We want to help inform the decisions, not be informed of them.

5. We want to be recognized as the church leaders we already are. We want to contribute to the process and learn form it as active participants.

6. We want to acknowledge that God is the owner, we are the stewards, and we are God’s hands and feet to the world. As partner[s] with God, we need to be in constant communication (prayer).

7. We know each decision made about faculty and programming will have far-reaching effects. We want to know how these effects are being taken into consideration.

8. We want to trust those making decisions at Luther. Being a part of the decision-making process would allow us to rebuild trust in leaders and process[es].

9. We want to be a learning community that is centered around God and open to God’s agency in the world. To begin to think about what a seminary is or could be is also a way into listening to faculty, student, and staff voices.

9.5 We think Luther Seminary is similar to a church that needs redevelopment. If we were a church, how would we approach redevelopment? How might that change the way in which we are approaching these matters?

Now, before you become obsessed with the content of these "Theses", stop a moment and really look at them.  Call them out for what they really are.  These are not items for debate as Martin Luther's 95 Theses were intended.  Call them a list of demands.  Only one of these particular statements does not include the words "we want."

"We want..."

Think about that statement as you ponder the goings on of your denomination.  Ponder how it enters into the conversation about your particular congregation and what goes on in its day to day life.  Is this the statement of those who follow Jesus Christ?

"Not my will, but thine be done."  "Thy Kingdom come.  Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven."

It is God's will we are called to seek and strive after in the midst of our dealings with the world and with one another.  Read just a few of the beginnings of Martin Luther's 95 Theses.  Do you see a single instance where Luther offers a demand with these items?  Luther is concerned with God's Will and how God's Word is being proclaimed -- or in the Reformation's case, being used to abuse and control.  The ultimate goal is bringing God's Word into the world more fully.

I do not dispute that many within your denomination or mine wish to do this.  We want God's love to be shown, but our want flows because it is God's want and not necessarily our own.  Generally, the sinful side of human nature represses this desire and makes us curve inward toward ourselves.  Oftentimes, when we say "we want" it is not necessarily driven by the Spirit of God, but is driven more by our own agendas and our own desires.  Because we say "we want" and do not ask, "What do You want?" we find ourselves focusing on surviving instead of obedience--loving obedience to the One who dared to die that we might have life.

What is God's will for our denominations?  What is He leading us toward?  What things are we called to do and who are we called to be?  Rooted and grounded in the historic, orthodox faith and in the revelation of God given in His Holy Word, what should our public and private focus entail?

Of all the things found in Scripture, I have found the following to be most helpful in discerning those things:

 18And Jesus came and said to them, ‘All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.’  --Matthew 28:18-20

34I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. 35By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.’ --John 13: 34-35

33 Then they came to Capernaum; and when he was in the house he asked them, ‘What were you arguing about on the way?’ 34But they were silent, for on the way they had argued with one another about who was the greatest. 35He sat down, called the twelve, and said to them, ‘Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.’ 36Then he took a little child and put it among them; and taking it in his arms, he said to them, 37‘Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.’ --Mark 9:33-37

28 One of the scribes came near and heard them disputing with one another, and seeing that he answered them well, he asked him, ‘Which commandment is the first of all?’ 29Jesus answered, ‘The first is, “Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; 30you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.” 31The second is this, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” There is no other commandment greater than these. --Mark 12:28-31

Yes, there are probably many more that could be added to this short list, and many of you may actually engage in multiplication.  Yet, I believe if we center the discernment process on Jesus and the call to become more and more like Him, we will indeed be heading down the path of discerning God's will for our churches.

This letter might seem over simplistic in both its description of the problem and its suggested cure.  But I submit that while its description is perhaps simplistic, the cure is difficult--not in articulating but in actually carrying out.

Yet, it is the path I strive to walk upon.  It is a constant battle between what I want and what I believe God is calling me toward.  I pray that I surrender to His hand, and it is my hope that our denominations will as well.

In His Name,

Kevin Haug
The Country Preacher

Thursday, March 21, 2013

Football, Rape, Respect, and the Church: Part II

I thought I was done commenting on this story until I read an editorial by Rachel Simmons this morning titled: In Steubenville, why didn't other girls help? 

Simmons asks some probing questions:

On the night in question, girls watched the victim (Jane Doe) become so drunk she could hardly walk. Why didn't any of them help her? Why, after Jane Doe endured the agonizing experience of a trial in which she viewed widely circulated photos of herself naked and unconscious, did one of the arrested girls tweet: "you ripped my family apart, you made my cousin cry, so when I see you xxxxx, it's gone be a homicide." Why were two lifelong friends sitting on the other side of the courtroom?

She begins answering with these words:

The accusation of rape disrupts the intricate social ecosystem of a high school, one in which girls often believe that they must preserve both their own reputations and relationships with boys above all else. This is a process that begins for girls long before their freshman year and can have violent consequences.

From the earliest age, girls are flooded with conflicting messages about their sexuality. They are socialized to be "good girls" above all: kind, polite and selfless. Yet they are also told -- via media images, the clothing that's marketed to them and the messages conveyed by some adults -- that they will be valued, given attention and loved for being sexy. The result is a near-constant anxiety about not being feminine or sexy enough.

I will not dispute her words as I think they are spot on.  But I wonder if her answers to the problems suffice?

Girls must understand not only their moral obligation but their power to be allies to each other at parties and other potentially unsafe spaces for girls. If boys knew that girls banded together to support each other, they would be less inclined to share on social media, much less commit, these horrific acts of sexual violence.

Well, there are girls who run in packs for such support.  Guys do as well.  We used to call them cliques.  Who knows what kind of jargon is used today?  But the jargon isn't important.  What is important is the dynamics of how folks interact.

Humans are social animals as well as animals who need their individuality.  We crave independence.  We crave being attached to a group.  Ideally, these two arenas are kept in balance.  Bowen Family Systems Theory says that a person must be differentiated (understand one's self and know be self-defined) while being connected to others.  It's a fluid process. 

Just as faith is a fluid process.  Individually, we can garner insight and knowledge about God through prayer and study, yet we still need attachment to other fellow Christians to 1) insure we are not creating our own image of God to suit our given needs, 2) to remember we are part of something larger than ourselves and that we are not the be all and end all as individuals, and 3) for mutual support and consolation.  Yet, we must also maintain our individuality and refuse to allow group-think to define us as groups are easily manipulated by sin.  The process should ideally balance out.

What I believe is missing from the puzzle is how we are called to interact with those who are not part of the clique.  Simmons misses this point.  Why didn't the other girls speak up for their friend?

Take this scenario:

You are at a park one day.  You are watching your children play when you notice something happening in another part of the park.  A boy who is obviously mentally challenged is interacting with other kids.  He does not have appropriate social skills.  He even urinates on the sidewalk instead of going to the restroom.  Before long, a couple of the other kids start picking on him.  One even goes so far as to physically slap him.

Do you intervene?

Most folks today do not.  Most folks today are taught to stay out of it.  Stay out of trouble.  Don't get involved.  You might face the wrath of parents or others because of getting involved.   And so, many folks don't. 

This scene played out in front of me one day when I took my kids to the park, but I wasn't going to let this pass.  I looked at the kids who were bullying the mentally challenged kid and said, "Do you like being a bully?"

The kid looked at me and said, "I do this all the time at home."

To which I responded, "Does that make it right?"

The kid mumbled, but he didn't mess with the other kid the rest of the time I was there.

Could I have gotten in trouble?  Sure.  Could I have been confronted by an irate parent?  Sure.  Would it have changed my actions?  No. 

My definition of a clique is a little bigger than most.  While some feel it is inappropriate to correct other people's children in public, I don't.  When kids are picking on someone who is obviously defenseless, I'm going to speak up and stop the behavior.  Someone needs to help teach what is appropriate and what is inappropriate.

Simmons is correct that other girls should have stood up for this girl.  Heck, anyone around should have stood up and addressed the inappropriate behavior.  But the fear of crossing over such boundaries is strong.  The lack of strong sexual, ethical boundaries adds to the problem.  Permissive attitudes toward underage drinking and lack of parental supervision compounds the problem even more.  And an unwillingness on the part of some to draw clear distinctions between what is right and what is wrong exacerbates things even more. 

Many pundits have proclaimed that we live in a time called post-modernism.  Truth is something that is relative in this movement of philosophy.  "You can't impose your culture or your perspective on me" is a by-product of this movement.  But the movement is inherently flawed.  It leads to clique morality.  My group dictates what is right and what is wrong; but what if the group is wrong as it obviously was?  Few have the courage to say stop in this day and age.  Few have the courage to put themselves out there and open themselves up to criticism and the berating by those who refuse to set boundaries.

My children are beginning to get old enough to experience the cliquishness of school.  It is my hope that I can instill in them the ability to have the strength to do what is right; to call out the wrongs committed by others whether the folks are a part of their clique or not; and to think independently enough that they do not just go along with the group. 

Not only is this a challenge in parenting, but I would submit that it is a challenge for living.

Wednesday, March 20, 2013


Jesus said, ‘Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.  --Matthew 18:3

I conducted a chapel service this morning at the church day school where my son attends.  After it was over and I was driving home, I began having some serious reflections about my experience leading worship with these kids and the experience I've had leading services for adults.  It led me to a "things that make you go, hmmm." moment.

Mind you, my experience with leading worship for adults is colored by my service in a mainline denomination, having attended a mainline seminary, and being informed with mainline Christian doctrine and theology.  In no way does my experience represent the totality of Christian worship.  With that caveat, please allow me to proceed.

The children: This morning it rained.  The playground and its equipment is off limits, so the kids won't be getting much exercise and have no real way to let their energy out today.  Knowing this, I suspended the rules for Lent.  We sang, "Ha-la-la-la" or "Shake Another Hand" or whatever other name you wish to call it.  The kids clapped and danced and shook hands and hugged and scratched backs and patted heads without a care that we were breaking the rules of Lent.

The adults: More than a few liturgical Lutherans would roll over in their graves if such a thing were done in worship.  "How could we not honor the sanctity of Lent?  How dare you proclaim the "A" word when it's reserved for Easter?  There is a reason for the seasons of the church year, and we should adhere to them with as much respect and dignity as possible.

The children:  Pure exuberance.  In singing the songs they knew well, the children clapped, danced, and sang at the top of their lungs--even if they missed the notes completely.  They just didn't care about whether or not they sounded good or what they looked like as they danced around.  They just sang and offered their praise.

The adults: "I can't sing, so I don't."  "Clapping isn't allowed in church because it's disrespectful.  If you are clapping because of someone's singing or such you are honoring them and not God.  If you clap for one person/group and not another, someone will get offended."  "Dancing is appropriate in a dance hall, but not in worship."  So, many times, the church is full of people with only a few who are actually singing, and those not too loudly lest they slip on a given note.  Praise is muted because of a fear of embarrassment.

The children: During my sermon, I asked numerous questions.  The kids don't even wait for you to call on someone, they blurt answers right and left--even if they are wrong.  Undaunted, they come back time and again and respond time and again.  The sermon actually is a dialogue--a give and take of ideas and thoughts as we interact with one another.

The adults: Hardly a word is spoken.  Hardly a head is moved in acknowledgement or disagreement.  Inviting a response and pulling a wisdom tooth have much in common.

The kids: Spontaneity rules.  At the end of service, I said, "Y'all did such a good job singing and interacting today."  Without hesitation, a little girl chimed in, "You're welcome!"

The adults: If it isn't printed out or scripted, it more than likely isn't going to happen.

The kids: Chapel service is obligatory, but there is no whining.  There is no complaining.  There are smiles, laughter, and the general mischievousness that goes along with a bunch of two, three, four, and five year olds.  No one skips school because it's chapel day.  The kids make the most of it even if they don't know the songs or get a little bored.  And they learn.  They hear the lessons.  Other parents and the teachers have informed me about how much those little tykes remember, and it is always a joy to have my children singing the songs I have taught them at chapel service.

The adults: Church is voluntary, and there's always an excuse to skip.  It's raining or it's too beautiful to be inside.  It's too early or too late.  There's no other day to sleep in and/or I've got too much to get accomplished before Monday hits.  Etc. Etc.  For those who feel church is an obligation, there seems to be little happiness in how they engage and interact.  Playfulness and mischievousness is sporadic to non-existent. 

In my experience there is a MARKED difference in how children and adults participate in worship.  Given Jesus' command that I quoted at the beginning of this blog, I have just one question:


Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Football, Rape, Respect, and the Church

I read a very disturbing editorial this past weekend about two football players who were convicted of raping a girl when she was passed out drunk.

I was not disturbed by conviction of the players.  I believe they got what they deserved.

I was disturbed by a whole host of other things.  Things which made me shake my head in disgust and bewilderment.  Hopefully you have read the article by now and I do not need to go into all the details, but I am still disturbed.

You see, I was a high school football player.  I excelled at the sport although I did not play at the collegiate level.  I received all-district honors three years on the offensive side of the ball and was a unanimous all- district player on the defensive side of the ball my senior year.  I was privy to all the locker room banter.  I knew all about the weekend parties and the drinking that occurred in my small town.  And honestly, can we get over the apologies for kids doing such things in a small town because there's "nothing to do."  I mean, from what I read and hear, kids in the city do the same d@mn things.  It isn't a small town problem.  There's something more.

The addition of technology to this issue is both a blessing and a curse.  Without it, those football players would never have been accused of rape and convicted and held accountable for their actions.  Yet, with it, there is now a culture of sexting, recording sex acts, and sharing pictures and videos of things that should remain private.  Yet, I am convinced technology is not a part of the problem.

You see, I will freely admit that I did not have sex with any of the girls I went to high school with.  I never got drunk.  I attended very few parties.  I had reasons for doing so, then.  But this story took me back.  It took me back to those days when I did have several girls throwing themselves at me.  But I never took the bait.

This story caused me to stop and think, "Why?"  Why didn't I engage in that culture?  Why didn't I engage in sexual promiscuity when I was a youth and full of vim and vigor?  Why didn't I give in to all the opportunities when they were so readily available?

Yes, there was some fear of the long-term consequences of getting a girl pregnant.
Yes, there was the influence of my faith in terms of saving sex for marriage.
But I think there was a different aspect of my faith that was driving things which was related to the concept of marriage and relationships--it was respect.  Respect for the ladies I went to high school with.  Respect for them as people.  Respect for them as friends.

As I think about it now, I believe I felt very uncomfortable with "using" someone for my pleasure.  Sex without a relationship is just that. 

You see, as a Christian, I believe that when two people engage in sex, they become one flesh.  This is rooted and grounded in the story of Adam and Eve, when God caused a deep sleep to fall upon Adam.  God removed a rib and created Eve.  She was called "woman" for out of "man" she was taken.  Understanding ancient Judaism is crucial to this text here, for when God removed a rib from man, he was no longer complete.  He was no longer whole.  He was lacking something, and that something could only be found with woman.  This is why the biblical writer says, "The two become one flesh."  It is in relationship, that man and woman are made whole.

Now, one could take this two ways.  One could say, "Well, then if I am made whole with woman, then I should be made whole as much as possible."

Yet, if this attitude is taken, then one must remember, for a time you are made whole, but when that relationship is severed, there is a great rending in one's spirit.  Consensual sex has consequences.  Spiritually, you have been joined with someone, and that is not simply undone and walked away from.

Therefore, the other way has been promoted in the Church for centuries: be patient.  Find the one you were meant to be with.  Find the one who completes you spiritually, and the physical will take care of itself.  This requires discipline.  It requires putting off short term pleasure for long term joy.  It is the path least trodden in a culture which promotes sex as the best way to become a man--or hold power over men.  It requires members of both sexes to hold the opposite sex in the highest regard with the most respect possible.

The article highlights the utter and reprehensible lack of such respect.  The article highlights the utter and reprehensible lack of dignity of another person.  And the article highlights the utter and reprehensible understanding of that culture that this is just what people do.

Maybe it is what some people do, but it does not make it right.  There is another way.

And that way might just work wonders dealing with some of the other major issues that arise in our nation:

Like 54% of all children are now born out of wedlock thereby increasing their chances to live in poverty.
Like half of all marriages ending in divorce.
Like the culture of sex and the drive to be beautiful/hansom/well toned, etc.

There is a reason the Church has taught what it has taught regarding sex, respect, dignity, and the worth of another human being's body and soul.  Unfortunately, through an inability to articulate this in a modern culture which is more enamored with sex and sports, we are confronted with such stories. 

Is it possible for things to change for the better?

Monday, March 18, 2013

Hold Fast to What You Have Attained

I remember long ago coming across a story about a man who discovered an ingenious way to capture monkeys–at least I think it was monkeys. I read this story a while back and my memory is not what it used to be. The man would fill a jar with food, but this jar had a narrow neck. It was just wide enough for a monkey to stick its hand through. Then, the man would secure the jar where it could not be moved. You see, the man had discovered something important regarding those monkeys. They would reach their hands into those jars to get food, but in their greed, they would try to grab as much food as they possibly could. With their fist being so full of food, they couldn’t remove it through the neck of the jar. And here was the interesting part, no matter what happened, they wouldn’t let go. They stubbornly held onto that food even when the man came to capture them. They would yell and scream and shake their other extremities, but they wouldn’t let go effectively capturing themselves.

Now, you might think that I am going to go on a rant about us being greedy and our need to let go of things.
No. I’m not. You’ve probably already heard enough folks saying that many of us have way more than we need. You’ve probably already heard enough folks tell you that a refusal to let go of things can lead to you being trapped by those things. You’ve already heard enough sermons in your life about discarding all of the external things. In fact, our second lesson this morning from Philippians would have led in that direction had I left it as suggested by the folks who put together the Revised Common Lectionary. But, like any good preacher, I did a bit more homework when I was reading through these texts. Generally, every week, I read the passages just before the suggested texts and those right after.

When I read this week’s second lesson, I noticed that the folks who put together the Lectionary, omitted verses 15 and 16–even though those two verses are a part of the paragraph in the New Revised Standard Version. My curiosity was piqued. I wondered why they would have been omitted. Of course, it’s purely guess work. I don’t know the hearts and minds of the people who suggested the readings for today. I don’t know their motivations. I can’t begin to fathom their reasons without directly speaking to them and asking them why such things were omitted. I just don’t know.

But here is something I do know. I do know that in my time serving as a pastor, I have heard and read a lot of pundits talking about the state of the Lutheran Church in America. I’ve heard and read a lot of folks talking about the decline of mainline denominations. No matter how they package their talks and books, the theme is always the same. They repeat ad nauseam, "The Church must change or die." In fact, I believe this tenet has been repeated so often, that to question it would be tantamount to questioning whether or not the Texans who were killed at the Alamo were heroes. You’d get more than a few strange looks, and some might even label you an out and out heretic!

And more often than not, when folks talk about the change that needs to occur in our churches and congregations, they aren’t shy about offering their laundry list about what needs to take place. Here’s a little list I composed off the top of my head:
The church needs more contemporary music.
The church needs more traditional music.
The church needs to stop being so judgmental.
The church needs to stop emphasizing doctrine.
The church needs to be more welcoming.
The church needs to be more ethnically diverse.
The church needs to use more technology.
The church needs to listen to young people more.
The church needs to care more about the poor.
Oh, and I could go on and on. But I won’t. Instead, I’m going to point out how the beginning of our second lesson from Philippians bolsters this theme of change. Paul begins by saying "More than that, I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and I regard them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ 9and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but one that comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God based on faith."

Paul expressly says that he regards everything as loss compared to the value of knowing Jesus Christ. In fact, Paul says that losing all things isn’t bad. He calls everything else rubbish, trash, not only worthy of being discarded, but that it should be discarded. "Jesus is most important! Change everything–get rid of everything except for Him!"

Who would argue with this? Certainly, I wouldn’t. For knowing Christ Jesus is the crux of Christianity. Believing that Christ died for our sins and was raised from the dead is central to salvation. Yet, as I have oftentimes said in my sermons, Christianity isn’t just about belief. Christianity isn’t just about intellectually saying, "I believe that this stuff is true." No. Christianity goes far beyond that as it affects every aspect of our very lives. Christianity is about our continued transformation until we are transformed into the image and likeness of Jesus Himself. Yes, this means we are called to act like Jesus, talk like Jesus, and be like Jesus. Quite an impossible task, is it not.

Paul recognized this as well. He continues, "10I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death, 11if somehow I may attain the resurrection from the dead. 12 Not that I have already obtained this or have already reached the goal; but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. 13Beloved, I do not consider that I have made it my own; but this one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, 14I press on towards the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus."

You see, Paul himself knew that he hadn’t attained the goal of knowing Jesus fully and being like Him. Paul knew he hadn’t reached that point in his life, and we know that neither have we. We know we haven’t become like Jesus fully. We know we have not reached the place where our hearts and minds are in line with Christ’s heart and mind. But Paul isn’t complacent. He doesn’t worry that he’s not there yet. He has a goal. "I press on to make it my own because Jesus has made me His own." Think about that for a moment.
Do you know why we strive for perfection even if we know we can’t make it? Do you know why we strive to be like Jesus when we constantly fall on our faces time and again? Do you know why we struggle to be sinless even though we keep sinning? Because Christ has made us His own. We do so out of respect, out of love, out of our desire to please God–not because we will be punished or that we have to so that we may somehow attain salvation. But we press on because of what Christ has first done for us.

It is after this important tenet that Paul adds those last two sentences. "15Let those of us then who are mature be of the same mind; and if you think differently about anything, this too God will reveal to you. 16Only let us hold fast to what we have attained." Paul knows that as time goes by, different thoughts will possess us. Paul knows that new ideas and understandings will be revealed. Paul knows that things do not stay the same forever. It is the nature of humankind. We need change in order to keep us stimulated and motivated and–dare I say it–alive. But there are certain things we need to hold fast to. There are certain things which we shouldn’t let go of. There are certain principles and beliefs that we cannot offer any compromises on.

"Hold fast to what we have attained," Paul says. And what have we attained? What is so valuable to hold onto that we may become trapped by it, like those monkeys holding onto that food?

Just this, you are saved by grace through faith in Christ Jesus. Your salvation has been secured by Him and through Him. No one can ever take that from you, and you should never, ever seek to compromise this belief. Hold fast to what you have attained. Amen.

Thursday, March 14, 2013

Heart Disease in Mummies

Apparently, heart disease has been around for a while.  Studies on mummies have confirmed this.

There has been much hullabaloo about heart disease and its prevention, and most of it focuses on diet, exercise, and lifestyle choices.  Many times we are told that if we eat the right kinds of food, work out a certain number of minutes per week, and refrain from unhealthy choices--see drinking alcohol, smoking, drugs, sugary drinks, etc.--then we can prevent or substantially lessen our chances of developing heart disease.

Yet, the study reveals that even in cultures where people were supposedly living healthy lifestyles and eating healthy foods folks developed heart disease.

Many moons ago, I wrote about one of my Bowen Family System's classes in which we had watched a video concerning baboons.  In that video, we saw how the alpha male baboons--the apex baboons who have little to fear or be anxious about because of their dominance--did not have plaque build up in their arteries.  They were relatively healthy.  However, the beta males--the ones further down the social ladder who were at the mercy of the alpha males and who experienced much more chronic anxiety--were found to have substantial plaque build up in their arteries.

Now, certainly this is not the only variable separating these two groups, but perhaps, just perhaps it could be studied much, much more.  For I have come to believe that anxiety, particularly of the chronic nature, has major, major, major implications for health.

Yes, I know the supposed links between cigarette smoking and alcohol consumption and lack of exercise and what have you regarding heart disease.  But, is it possible (or perhaps even likely) that those who suffer from chronic anxiety tend to be those who drink more, smoke more, and exercise less?  Is the "reason" for their lifestyle choices based upon anxiety rather than an act of will?  Does smoking, drinking, and lack of exercise serve more as binding mechanisms for anxiety than as simply poor choices that people make?

Please note that I am not suggesting people have no responsibility in the choices they make.  They certainly do.  However, anxiety wages a particular strength and power that is very, very difficult to overcome, and it transcends culture and time.  No culture or family or person is completely free of anxiety.

And as anxiety increases, so does instances of cancer, heart disease, obesity, and other such issues.

Unfortunately, we live in a culture where anxiety is multiplied many times over.  We are constantly being worked up by much of what we view, read, and hear.  Rarely do we come across anyone who truly works to lessen the anxiety of a group or a culture.  There aren't many leaders around willing to say, "We have nothing to fear but fear itself."

Bowen was fascinated by the aspect of faith and its effects on anxiety and self-differentiation.  He believed it could serve as a catalyst to help people define themselves and lessen their anxiety as they tapped into the wealth of strength that spirituality offered.

Christianity particularly has a strong bent toward lessening anxiety--especially if we take Jesus' words recorded both in the book of Matthew and the book of Luke seriously:

"Don't worry.  You are more important than birds, and your Heavenly Father cares for birds.  You are more important than grass and flowers, and your Heavenly Father provides for grass and flowers.  Don't worry about tomorrow because today has enough worries for today.  Seek first the Kingdom of God, and everything else will be given to you."  (Paraphrased.)

If indeed, this study is correct, heart disease is not so much governed by diet and exercise and lifestyle choices.  There are underlying causes which transcend time and culture.  Anxiety is one such thing, and it's lessening isn't exactly easy to accomplish. 

But faith certainly helps.

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

The Right to Life

This story and its fallout is brought to you by medical technology.

Synopsis: A woman living on the edge of poverty volunteers to be a surrogate mother.  She is implanted with embryos, and one of them takes.  During routine testing, it is found that the fetus has some severe medical complications.  The donor family wants an abortion and offers money.  The surrogate mother does not want said abortion and fights to give birth to the child.  The story unfolds, and the child is born with many medical issues.  The child is adopted by another couple who is caring for her, and the medical costs are significant.

Perhaps I am wading into some very troubled water by offering my thoughts on this story, but there were so many of them that I cannot help it.  Of course, the headline is the attention getter, "$10,000 to Get an Abortion."  But this story is actually more about the ethics of medical technology.

What does a person do now that we have the ability to diagnose severe medical problems while a child is still in utero?  Is it ethical to abort a child to prevent suffering?  Is it ethical to have children by any means including using donated eggs and/or donated sperm?  If a couple has used this method before and there are already children with significant health issues, is it ethical to strive for another child using the same batch of fertilized eggs?

Each and every one of these questions have arisen because of medical technology.  A hundred years ago, they would have been moot.  We did not have the ability to test children in utero.  We did not have the technology to harvest eggs, fertilize them, freeze them, and then implant them.  There was only one way to become pregnant--the old fashioned way (and, honestly, does anyone actually prefer any other sort of method?).

There are a few things I have a very strong opinion on, and I will begin point by point:

1. Is it ethical for people to strive toward having children at all costs?

Two of my children are adopted.  I understand infertility very well.  I wanted to be a dad, and badly.  But I was not going to drive my family deeply into debt to do so.  When my wife and I reached the extent of what our insurance would cover, we decided to head toward the adoption route.  I was not about to try and shell out $10,000 a pop for rounds of shots that may or may not work--not on my salary.  That was a big gamble.  I knew if I spent $10,000 on adoption, I'd have a child, and genetics was not the driving issue. 

I know that evolution has built into most of us a deep, deep desire to procreate.  From a faith standpoint, it's one of the original commands God gave to us.  "Be fruitful and multiply."  The urge to follow God's command or evolution, depending upon one's assumptions is not easily discarded.  And there is no sin in choosing to remain childless. 

But I cannot help but think that spending thousands upon thousands of dollars in pursuit of having a child is not ethical.  I cannot help but think that digging a family into debt to have a kid (which limits finances even further) is not what a family should do.  I believe there are limits.  Now, exactly what those are, I cannot tell you.  If you've got the expendable income, I've got no problems.  If you are octo-mom, I've got a major issue.

2. Is it ethical to have an abortion if the child is destined for a life of suffering?

The answer will depend upon the assumptions which drive your belief.  If you believe that suffering is sinful and to be avoided at all cost, then you will probably say it is not only ethical, but necessary.  If you believe that all life is sacred and that suffering is a part of life that we all must endure, you will answer in the negative.

I will be frank in acknowledging that my experience in dealing with children who suffer is limited to a particular area: those parents who have chosen to care for their children no matter what.  In every circumstance, those parents care for and love their children no matter the circumstance.  Even though those kids have undergone tremendous difficulties, the parents still consider the kids to be a blessing.  Despite the hardships and continuous medical issues, no parent that I know of would trade their kids for anything.

As I reflect upon my faith tradition, I do not see suffering as without purpose.  My faith teaches that suffering leads to something else.  The cross led to the resurrection.  We, as limited human beings cannot see far enough down the road to judge the possible outcomes of suffering.  Oftentimes our vision is myopic and can only focus on a limited stretch.  That stretch may seem overwhelmingly evil, disgusting, horrifying, and senseless; yet, there are very few people in life who point to suffering without also pointing out that there was something good that came out of it. 

The belief that there is oftentimes good that comes out of suffering and that human life is precious in the sight of God leads me to say that aborting a child who has medical issues is unethical.*

3. Is it ethical to continue implantation processes when children from the same batch of eggs already have medical problems?

In my mind, this is a risk/reward statement which has several assumptions to deal with.

If you believe abortion is an ethical way to end a chancy pregnancy, then you will say that it is more than ethical to continue to use that batch of eggs.

If you believe that abortion is not an ethical way to end a pregnancy and do not wish to be responsible for a medically challenged child, then the answer is no, you will not use that batch of eggs.

If you believe that abortion is not an ethical way to end and pregnancy and you will gladly take responsibility for a medically challenged child, then you will use that batch of eggs.

As I think about those three possibilities, I am comfortable with the ethics of the second and third scenarios.  Scenario number one is unacceptable because of my answer to #2 above.

4. Is it ethical to have a child knowing that you cannot provide for that child's medical situation and that society may be stuck with the cost of providing for that child?

Again, we must go back to the assumptions:

Is human life precious?  Can we put a cost on human life? 

If the assumption is that human life is precious--that even in suffering, there is blessing--that a society that cares for the least of these is exhibiting the highest of morals, the answer is straight forward. 
  • Since no couple ever has a child expecting that it will have medical challenges
  • Yet those complications happen and are often expensive
  • And many couples cannot afford those expenses
in a society that values human life, it will help pick up the cost of raising said child.

Now, if that same society believes there is a limit in how much life is worth--if it believes life isn't sacred or precious--if it believes life is simply part of the process and there is nothing significant about any given person, then such a child actually becomes a drain on society's resources and it would be better if said fetus were aborted.

I don't fall into that second category.  Just a note, many evolutionists don't either, so please don't head down that road.  I believe life is precious and should not be ended in such a fashion.  I also believe that if a culture prides itself in being pro-life, then it is willing to use its resources to help out parents who choose to care for medically challenged children.  I believe this is where the Christian faith leads.

*Note to anyone who wishes to argue to the contrary: please do not try to argue on the basis of reason and philosophy with me.  Argue along the lines of faith, for my argument is not based in reason or evolution but in a statement of faith and belief.

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Head Scratching Government Stuff

There are just some things that don't make sense:

Desperate times: Marines told to save every round


Why is the Department of Homeland Security buying so many bullets?

Oh, and in case someone has an objection to Fox News, the Huffington Post ran almost the same story

Homeland Security Explains Plan to Purchase More than 1.6 Billion Bullets

Let me get this straight.

Our military is telling folks to be stringent about how many bullets they use for training while the Department of Homeland Security buys 1.6 BILLION (yes, with a "B") rounds of ammunition.

And people wonder why the U.S. Government is trusted by only 2 in 10.

Monday, March 11, 2013

Another Four Word Sermon

I had intended to have a little bit of fun with my congregation this past Sunday.

Sunday's Gospel Lesson was the story of the Prodigal Son (I prefer Timothy Keller's suggestion that we should rename the parable "The Prodigal God.").  There is not much to be said about this story that hasn't already been said, and I know this.  Yet, it is my calling to proclaim God's message, taking the old, old story and translating it's points into today's context. 

I thought it might provoke a bit of thinking to offer a choice as far as a sermon was concerned, a way to break out of the traditional rut of worship and get the congregation involved. 

Therefore, last Thursday, my traditional sermon writing day, I sat down at the computer to type out my sermons.  The four worder was easily accomplished.  Then, I turned my attention to writing the longer, traditional, fifteen minute diatribe.

I placed my fingers on the keyboard, and...


I mean nothing.

In 12 years of proclaiming the Gospel, that has never happened.

You see, I am a believer that the Holy Spirit leads me and guides me in my preaching.  Every sermon I have sat down to write has simply flowed--almost effortlessly from the mind to keyboard.  Yes, there are a few times I've had to back up and do things a little differently; but I have never suffered from "writer's block."  When there was absolutely nothing there, I took that as a sign.  The four word sermon was intended to be the sermon, and that's the one I proclaimed this Sunday.

It is the one I share with you now as you think about the parable of the Prodigal Son:

Be like the Father.*  Amen

*Father is intentionally capitalized, and when I asked members of my congregation who actually wrote down the sermon whether or not they had capitalized "Father", the vast majority of them did.  My congregation gets it!

Thursday, March 7, 2013

Eat Healthy. Exercise Regularly.

Die anyway.

It's the truth. 

I was doing some reading the other day, and I wish I could dig up the source once again for citation purposes.  Yet, I have found that as the numbers of my age rise, my ability to remember things decreases!

But I believe I am paraphrasing it accurately when I say that we humans spend more than our fair share of contemplating our deaths and striving desperately to avoid them. 

We are obsessed with prolonging, preserving, and maintaining not only our youth but our lives.

Look at all the crap out there specifically designed to make you "grow old gracefully", "make you more healthy", "extend your life", etc.  Think of the billions of dollars we spend on health care.  Know a dirty little secret?  Know where the bulk of that expense comes?  At the end of life--usually trying to eke out a few more precious months or weeks or days.  We must extend life at all costs!


Now, please do not think that I am somehow trying to diminish the importance or dignity of life.  Far from it.  But when does dignity and importance become obsession and idolatry? 

As I was contemplating this issue, I became struck by Jesus' words regarding children and the Kingdom of Heaven:

At that time the disciples came to Jesus and asked, ‘Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?’ 2He called a child, whom he put among them, 3and said, ‘Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. 4Whoever becomes humble like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. 5Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me.  Matthew 18: 1-5

I thought long and hard about this text, and I began observing my kids' attitude toward life and death.

Rarely do they ever think about death.  In fact, it doesn't consume their thoughts at all.  They freely go through life without much thought of death at all.  They don't obsess about their bodies.  They don't worry about tragedies that could befall them.  They don't think about whether or not they should eat pizza or spinach.  They run and play for the pure enjoyment of running and playing--not because they need the exercise.

Good Lord, most of us adults have forgotten what it means to be children.  We exercise because we have to keep healthy--not because we want to run and play and laugh.  We worry about counting calories and eating the right things instead of enjoying our meals and just stopping when we feel full.  We buy medications and make up and hair dyes to give us the appearance of being young and vital--when we are really buying them because of our vanity.  Oh man, what it would be to not care about such things. 

What if we just enjoyed playing and getting exercise through playfulness instead of worrying about our waistlines?
What if we just enjoyed our food instead of worrying about whether or not it was appropriate (politically or healthy)?
What if we didn't worry about our appearances?
What if we really trusted that death were not the end and that it is just a transition into eternity?

Might we be like children?  Might we be experiencing just what heaven is like?

Wonder how close I can come to being like a child--even for five minutes?

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Is God in Control?

Such was the question asked on Living Lutheran this past Monday.

Actually, the question was this:

Do you believe that God is in control of everything? Do you believe that sometimes there is an evil force that is battling God — especially times when there are bad times in our country?from Megan, an ELCA member and student at Wartburg College in Waverly, Iowa.

That's actually two questions, but I thought them worthy of commentary on my own blog.  (Does this mean I wasn't necessarily satisfied by the response of the ELCA clergy who handled Megan's question?  Yes.)

First: Is God in control of everything?

No.  God is not in control of everything.  If someone or something has control, then that entity is literally making each and every thing happen.  God is not the great puppet master ordaining each and every event.  God gave up control when He instituted free will, not only with humankind but with creation as well. 

I prefer to say that God is in charge. 

I'm a parent.  I have no control of my children.  That might sound a bit sacrilegious, but it's true.  I don't dictate to them how they are supposed to live, what they are supposed to wear, how they are supposed to spend all their free time, or who they choose to be friends with.  Does this mean I don't exert some amount of influence in their lives?  Certainly not.  I do seek to guide and help my children make good choices.  I am there when they get hurt physically, emotionally, and spiritually.  I help them try and take negative things and make them positive.  If I can intervene before something bad happens, I do so.  Do I sometimes let hurtful things befall them so that they learn consequences?  Yes, but it's usually things that will do no permanent damage.  That's what parents do.  They work to guide their children toward growth and maturity.  They do not control things.  They are in charge.

Second: Do you believe that sometimes there is an evil force that is battling God — especially times when there are bad times in our country?

Yep.  Sure do.  There is a reason all that talk about the Devil and demons is there in Scripture.  It's a reality that goes beyond the evil that we as humans create with our actions both individual and corporate. 

Oftentimes, I have heard well intentioned folks say that talking about the Devil and demons gives us an out to excuse certain behavior or to cease working to curb evil.  We should therefore minimize our talk of the Devil and focus on our behavior both individually and corporately. 

While this sounds good on paper, the reality is that you cannot fight evil on a purely human level.  There is definitely a spiritual component to the battle.  I am heavily influenced by C.S. Lewis in my thoughts here.  In his book Mere Christianity, he offers some very good insight into this reality.  I urge folks to read it.