Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Opinion Versus Conviction

A conviction is something that actually then in many ways is rooted in your soul. It is in your conscience. To change a conviction will involve a changing of who you are as a person. So, we are really not talking about preferences or opinions, and so when two worldviews collide, when two convictions collide, the best thing one can hope for is at least the cordiality with which we can disagree, and the civility with which we can interact in the midst of that disagreement. –Ravi Zacharias, Veritas Lecture "Is Tolerance Intolerant? Pursuing the Climate of Acceptance and Inclusion

I heard the comment many times in my first congregation, "That's just your opinion."

But it's not just an opinion for many.  It's a conviction.

Ravi Zacharias put it succinctly in the above paragraph from his linked Veritas Lecture.

I don't think we are very good at making this distinction in our society today.  We love spouting commentary about another's opinion.  We actually denigrate their stances by calling them such.  For the truth of the matter is, when it comes to many of the things we debate in this day and age, we are dealing with conviction.

And convictions, more often than not, cannot be proven.  They are taken by faith.

For instance, a person who is a believer of God believes in two types of knowledge: knowledge gained by reason and knowledge gained by revelation. 

A person who does not believe in God believes in one type of knowledge: knowledge gained by reason alone.

Which conviction is correct?  (I would also add here, one could call these convictions "assumptions.")

The person of faith cannot prove there is such a thing as revelatory knowledge--at least not by reason alone.  He or she assumes that such knowledge is real. 

The person who believes all knowledge comes from reason is making an assumption as well.  The statement "knowledge comes from reason" is an assumption.  It cannot be proved by reason.  That's called circular logic and has long been acknowledged as a fallacy.

Both convictions are taken upon faith.  Period.

These basic convictions lead to very, very different conclusions about life.  Period.

To change these convictions changes the entire worldview a person holds.  Period.

And how easy is it to change a worldview?  How easy is it to change one's basic assumptions/convictions about life?  Very, very difficult.  Period.

And so how can we discuss things when people hold vastly different convictions, those convictions are so difficult to change, and they lead to such vastly different conclusions about how the world operates and our place in that world?

...when two convictions collide, the best thing one can hope for is at least the cordiality with which we can disagree, and the civility with which we can interact in the midst of that disagreement.

Cordiality and civility.  Two things hardly evident in much of our discourse in these days, especially since we are hardly taught to be humble.  Everyone has to win.  No one's self-esteem can be harmed.  Everything has to be fair. 

I call B.S.

If we are to have a civil and cordial discourse in this day and age, a massive dose of humility must be given to each and every person.

Christians, shouldn't have much of an issue as The Man instructed us, "All who exalt themselves will be humbled, and all who humble themselves will be exalted."  --Matthew 23:12

Monday, April 29, 2013

Sunday's Sermon: Why Should Anyone Listen to the Church?

Why should anyone listen to the church? This question has haunted me since Monday of this week when our bishop made the following statement in a post on Facebook. He said:

Some days I feel the church has abdicated its role as a clear moral voice ik (sic) society, and as a community of reconciliation.

Now, first off, I disagree that the church has abdicated its role as a moral voice in society. That voice is oftentimes not clear. It is quite muddled by the many various denominations who oftentimes disagree on moral issues, but there are still voices that speak up about moral issues within our society. But why should anyone listen to those voices? Why should anyone stop acting in a certain fashion and begin living differently? What compelling reason can we, in the church, give to persuade others that ours is not only a voice to be listened to, but a voice to follow?

I struggled with this mightily. For in reality, I could think of no good reason that we in the church should be listened to. I mean, think about the reality of the Church. Think about the reality of most congregations. Think about how many Christians act and move within our society. What would give anyone the idea that they should listen to what we have to say?

As a global body, the Church is a divided group. We are separated into many denominations. This, in and of itself, is not a bad thing. I mean, even St. Paul goes so far as to describe the Church as a body with many body parts. Each part has its own function and is needed for the whole to function correctly. The head of this body is, of course, Christ. Given this belief, we should recognize one another as fulfilling a particular function that is necessary for the body to work. Yet, do we do this? Do we treat one another as fellow brothers and sisters in Christ, or do we spend an inordinate amount of time arguing about who is and who isn’t a part of the body–who is and who isn’t legitimately following Jesus?

Now, I’m just as ready as anyone to get into a doctrinal argument. I’m ready to argue that we as Lutheran Christians are closer to the truth than others, but what I am not ready to do is pronounce that no one else isn’t sincerely trying to follow Christ. I am not ready to make someone else cease and desist following Jesus as a Roman Catholic, Baptist, Missouri Synod Lutheran, ELCA Lutheran, Presbyterian, Amish, or what have you. As far as I am concerned, you are a brother or sister in Christ, and while I may argue with you very heatedly about a particular issue or stance of a particular denomination, I do not think my position grants me any particular place above another–anymore than my particular calling as a pastor places me above any one of you in the eyes of God. It doesn’t.

And yet, there is a tendency to think that because we have a particular stance, we are somehow better than another. I believe we need to re-evaluate such thoughts.

For, you see, the Gospel doesn’t allow us to do such a thing. Let me repeat that: the Gospel doesn’t allow us to do such a thing. For we must be reminded, we are saved by grace through faith in Christ Jesus and not through any works, deeds, actions, or beliefs of our own. It is God who does the saving, and not us. Why is this so crucial to remember?

If we attained salvation because of what we did or what we believed on our own, then we could get the idea we were indeed morally superior to someone else. We could get the idea that we were somehow more holy than another by practicing certain things–either a particular moral code–no drinking, cussing, smoking, dancing, acting out sexually, or what have you–or by rigorously following the commands of how we treat our faith–putting the proper amount in the offering plate, doing more to feed the hungry, seeking and practicing justice to the nth degree. We begin to see ourselves as doing a better job than others, and so we begin to head down what Timothy Keller calls the slippery slope of the heart.

We think we are morally superior, so we distance ourselves from those who we feel are not as good as we are. Suddenly, we have it right, and they are wrong. We don’t need to be with them or worship with them or hang out with them because of what they do or not do.

Then we begin to caricature them. We begin to paint others with broad brush strokes. Suddenly "they" become the 1%, the lazy leeches on society, the fundies, the liberals, the conservatives, and what have you. No longer do we take the time to get to know people on an individual level. Instead, we categorize them, label them, and make fun of them.

Finally, after the dehumanizing effects of caricaturing them, we begin to passively and then actively oppressing them. We work to keep them out of leadership positions. We bad-mouth them to our friends and family. If enough in society jump on the bandwagon, we begin working toward passing laws to restrict their behavior while enhancing our own positions.

These are the consequences of thinking that we can be and are morally superior to anyone else. Grace destroys the assumption. Grace says, you are morally superior to no one. Grace says, you can’t commit enough good to cover for your weakness and your sinfulness. Grace says, it’s not up to you. It’s up to God. It’s up to Jesus. It’s up to the cross and resurrection to save you and bring you into a relationship with God. It’s up to God to initiate belief within you–as I said a couple of weeks ago, some neurosurgeons are starting to believe we are hard wired for belief! God always initiates belief! You can’t even believe without Him!

And if we agree with what grace says, it changes the way we treat others. No longer do we see ourselves as morally superior. No longer do we think we are better off because of what we do or what we believe. We are humbled by the actions of Christ on our behalf to atone for our sins and bring us into a relationship that we could never have initiated in the first place. When confronted with the sinfulness of another, we say, "Man, that’s messed up, but down here, in the recesses of my heart, I know that I am just as messed up. I know that it’s just as dark down here. That person and I are alike more than we are not alike. That person and I both need God and His love to cleanse us from this darkness. Neither of us have reached this perfection. And because we are so alike, I cannot treat that person with hostility, but I must treat that person with the same kindness given to me by Jesus."

And so we now reach the reason Jesus gives us the new commandment, "Love one another. As I have loved you, so you should now love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another."

Now, to return to the original question, why should anyone listen to us? They shouldn’t, unless we can practice what we preach. Unless we can somehow show others that our way of living with one another–our way of treating those we disagree with is somehow better than the way the world operates. If we can show the world a better way of living and moving and having our being, then, they will perhaps be willing to listen. And my brothers and sisters in Christ, it starts right here, in our relationships with each other. May we love one another as Christ loved us. Amen.

Thursday, April 25, 2013

Why Should Anyone Listen to the Church? (Part 2)

As I have pondered the question of why anyone should listen to the Church, I have actually come up with many more reasons why one would be skeptical of the Church's message.  It's an unfortunate list to think about. 

#1. We have no clear voice to begin with.  As I stated yesterday, we are a divided Church.  How can a body speak with any authority when it does not have any sort of unity or shared upon definition of what is right and wrong?

As I thought about Christianity and politics, I thought about the two major groups working in society: the Christian Right and the Christian Left.  Both movements seek to influence government policies.  Both groups believe very strongly that their basis for doing so is grounded in the Biblical witness.  Yet, the two groups disagree on nearly everything.  It leaves an outsider very confused as to what a truly Christian voice is.  And these two groups actually represent the extremes.  There are a whole host of Christians who fall somewhere in the middle who, quite frankly, aren't as outspoken but who still have particular understandings of what it means to relate one's faith to the public square.  When you add these, albeit quiet, voices, the confusion grows.

#2. Part of this stems from the fact that we have no agreed upon definition of what constitutes the Good News of Jesus Christ (the Gospel). 

Is it God's reconciliation of the world unto Himself through the death and resurrection of Jesus?
Is it Redistribution of wealth (Jim Wallis)?
Is it God's solidarity with the poor?
Is it God's sacrifice of Himself as the God incarnate Jesus to pay for our sins?  (Similar to the first, but phrased a little different.)
Is Salvation accomplished by God alone, or do we have a part to play in it?
Is the Gospel about heavenly matters or does it apply to earthly things as well?

#3. Depending upon what one's view of #2 is, it influences the ethics one practices--particularly how one views the commands and instructions of God given in the Biblical witness.

Does the Law focus on the individual?
On the community?
On the nation?
Does one follow the Law out of fear or out of love?
There are obviously some laws which are followed and others which are not.  How does one differentiate between what is God's ongoing command and what can be left behind?  For instance, why is it possible for a Christian to remove certain dietary restrictions?  Answer: Because Jesus made all foods clean.  Not all laws are quite so clear cut which adds to the confusion.

With no clear cut understanding of what the Gospel constitutes and how one puts together Christian ethics in the larger community called the Church--as defined yesterday by the Augsburg Confession--the Church actually sows confusion.

#4.  Much of #2 and #3 comes from the inability to come up with a shared understanding of what it means to read and interpret the Bible.  More than a few methodologies abound and are practiced in American Christianity.  Each has their strengths.  Each has weaknesses.  And we darn sure can't agree which is better.  When a disagreement comes to a head--well, add one more denomination to the Christian landscape.  Divisiveness and confusion once again.

#4.  There is much hypocrisy in the Church.  The news media in our country is always ready to jump on a scandal, and the Church provides plenty of fodder.  Sexual abuse by clergy.  Mismanagement of funds by church leaders.  Congregations fighting and splitting over doctrinal issues.  All blatantly contradicting the commands of Christ and other teachings in Scripture.

Even in our passive actions, we tend to disregard what Christ calls us to.  I mean, I know of few clergy who simply accept their compensation packages without scrutiny.  Many "fight for every dime due to me."  And who of us isn't interested in our pension plans and how much money we've saved?  Which clergy among us--especially Protestant--don't like living in comfortable houses, taking vacations with family, driving nicer cars, and having expendable income to fund hobbies?  Even how we live speaks volumes as to what is more important, and it proves our hypocrisy as well.

#5.  Even when the Church can agree on some moral values, those values oftentimes clash with the perceived goals of a particular government.  For instance, many within the Church argue that each and every human is afforded basic rights given that we are all created in the image of God.  Yet, in our own nation, some of these basic human rights are denied to some because of the goal to keep everyone safe.  Further, our society is based upon several announced basic rights: the rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.  Our Christian faith actually has a particular way of understanding how we can best experience these rights, but those understandings are oftentimes at odds with government and culture.  One need only look at what our movie culture glorifies in order to see this.

Why should anyone listen to us when such conflicts abound?  Why should anyone pay us the least bit of attention when our actions fail to match our words?  In the pluralistic culture that has become the United States of America, the Church is just one more voice at a very crowded table.  This list does not inspire me to give credence to anything the Church says.

As I continue to think this one through, I hope that there is an answer out there as to why anyone should listen to our voice, especially when there are more than a few holes in our proclamation and action.

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Faith and Doubt Revisited

Recently, I listened to Francis Collins' Veritas Forum lecture.   Dr. Collins is perhaps best known for heading up the Human Genome Project.  He is a world famous geneticist and a practicing Christian.  He is very thoughtful in his presentation, and his take on the relationship between faith and science is well worth listening to.

In the Q & A portion of the video, Dr. Collins is asked about certainty, and in his response he makes the claim which I have heard on numerous occasions--doubt is a part of faith. 

Throughout my life, I have heard many pastors say the same thing.  The first Sunday after Easter is traditionally the Sunday we read the account of Jesus' appearance to Thomas--Doubting Thomas, many call him.  Recently, this has also become the Sunday when some pastors, particularly those of a mainline denomination bent tell their flocks, "It's perfectly O.K. to doubt.  Faith requires doubt."

I understand why this is said.  I also preached this early in my ministry.  And one might justify this kind of preaching if one focuses on Thomas and sees in Thomas a reflection of ourselves.

But as I said in a blog post earlier this year, this text isn't about Thomas.  It's about Jesus.  And what does Jesus say to Thomas?  "Do not doubt, but believe."

Pastors say, "It's O.K. to doubt," and encourage it.

Jesus says, "Do not doubt, but believe."

There is a disconnect here!

How can it be resolved?  Is it possible to resolve this?  Can one believe without doubt and somehow have absolute certainty?

Believe with out doubt--I think we can come close.

Have pure certainty--no.

But is what I am suggesting even possible?

If someone gets the gumption to ask me about this matter, I will respond, "I believe in God/Christ/the resurrection with the same certainty that I believe the sun will rise tomorrow."

"Aha!" you might exclaim, "You are talking about absolute certainty!"

Let me ask you: are you absolutely certain the sun will rise tomorrow? 

Prove the sun will rise tomorrow using the scientific method.  Bet you can't do it.  You can make the hypothesis, and that hypothesis may or may not be confirmed.  There is a very high probability that it will, BUT, it is not absolutely certain.  Consider the possibility, however remote, that the sun suddenly goes supernova on us unexpectedly.  Stars do explode.  Or consider there is a giant piece of space matter which has been obscured and unseen by our telescopes.  What if such a thing were large enough to smash into our sun without incinerating causing our sun to explode?  What if such an object were to slam into the earth knocking us out of orbit?  These are possibilities.  Very, very remote possibilities, but still possibilities.  Nothing in this world is absolutely certain.

Yet, I don't know many people who live their lives worrying over such matters.  Not too many people go around doubting the sun will come up tomorrow.  They live their lives with the conviction that it will--even though they can't see it until it happens. 

My faith in God is very much like the belief that the sun will rise tomorrow.  I can't prove it with certainty, but I have the conviction that He is there; that He became God incarnate; that He died and on the third day was raised from the dead.  I don't doubt this.  I believe it like I believe the sun will come up tomorrow.

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Why Should Anyone Listen to the Church? (Part 1)

The question stems from something my bishop, Michael Rinehart, said at the end of a lengthy Facebook post:

Some days I feel the church has abdicated its role as a clear moral voice ik (sic) society, and as a community of reconciliation.

My question: Why should anyone listen to the church in the first place?

Let's consider an important assumption to begin with: the church has a clear moral voice in society.  Does it?

Well, first, we must define "The Church."  I am a Christian of the Lutheran persuasion, and I have come to see the wisdom of the Augsburg Confession's definition of the Church:

1] Also they teach that one holy Church is to continue forever. The Church is the congregation of saints, in which the Gospel is rightly taught and the Sacraments are rightly administered.

2] And to the true unity of the Church it is enough to agree concerning the doctrine of the Gospel and the administration of the Sacraments. Nor is it necessary that human traditions, that is, rites or ceremonies, instituted by men, should be everywhere alike.  As Paul says: One faith, one Baptism, one God and Father of all, etc. Eph. 4:5-6.

In my estimation, this definition of The Church allows a very big tent.  Most Lutherans accept a liberal view that our brothers and sisters in Christ include those of the vast majority of Christians found throughout other denominations.  I personally do as well.  I believe Roman Catholics, Presbyterians, Methodists, Congregationalists, Baptists, et.al. all constitute "The Church."

Yet, there is quite a problem with this definition--this Church is hardly unified in beliefs, practices, understandings, and implementation of doctrine.  We are NOT of one accord.  We do NOT speak with one voice.

In fact, there are many voices presenting many views and interpretations of what it means to be Christian in one's private and in one's public life.  There are many voices presenting many views about what it means to be a moral person and one of upright character.  There are many voices presenting many views about what constitutes a sin and which parts of the Scriptures should and should not be followed.

In short, the American Church has no clear, moral voice.  It is more like a giant cacophony of voices all crying and decrying together.  In the smorgasbord that is American Christianity, one may choose a denomination or congregation based upon what that particular denomination or congregation teaches as it's particular flavor of Christianity.  If the flavor isn't suitable to that person's taste, he or she may leave and seek out another.

This leads me to say, "How can the church abdicate a clear moral voice when it does not have one and hasn't had one for some time?"

This is quite problematic for the Church.  For it leads to a very substantial question: Why should anyone listen to the Church anymore?  Why grant it any authority, moral or otherwise in this day and age?

Unfortunately, I am going to leave it right there for the time being.  The question is actually pretty new and raw for me just coming into focus yesterday afternoon.  It is one thing to defend the Truth of the Christian message.  It is another thing to argue why anyone should listen to it when the Church itself cannot speak with one accord on important moral issues.  This is something I must ponder.

Monday, April 22, 2013

Sunday's Sermon: Reflecting Jesus

Last Sunday, I finished my sermon by leaving everyone with the idea that as Christians we should reflect the light of Christ into the world. We do this because it is our job as the Church and as Christians to bring people to Christ–not necessarily to worship or to Sunday School or to argue them to belief. Only Christ can change hearts and bring people to faith, not us.

But this leads us to now ask, what does it mean to reflect Jesus? How do we as people who live in a relationship with Him, reflect His goodness in this world?

I mean, let’s ponder this for just a moment and ask a few questions.

What happens if a person who is seeking Christ comes to worship at a church on a particular morning and encounters a group of people that looks like this :-(. What will that person infer about being a believer in Jesus?

Or, not to poke fun at majorly serious people, I’ll be an equal opportunity offender. What if someone who is seeking Jesus runs into a person like this: "Oh, it’s a great day. God is so good. Yes, my mother just passed away. My spouse just lost a job. My child is in the hospital with an infection, and my dog just ran away. But praise the Lord! I know He is a good God and I must rejoice and be glad!"

Or, what happens if someone walks into church and tentatively sits down close to a couple of congregation members. As worship begins, this person hears two folks talking. "Can you believe it! Do you see what the pastor is wearing today underneath that robe. Oh the scandal! Can you believe he has blue jeans on. And boots. And I bet those boots have something on them. It’s a shame. On the Lord’s Day, he doesn’t even wear his finest to preach in. Scandalous, I tell you. Scandalous." What impression will the seeker come away with?

Or, what reflection does a person leave if they go through life with a constant scowl on their face being critical of everything? For instance, the guy who was asked by a friend how church was that morning. The guy replied, "Geez. It was horrible. The sermon was too long and boring. The hymns were too slow. The choir was off key. The prayers were too general. The communion wine too sweet, and the room too hot." Of course, at this point, the guy’s son looks at him and says, "Gee, Dad, I didn’t think it was all that bad for only a dollar."

Oh, and I know I might step on a toe or two here, but I’m sorry. I just have to do it. What reflection does it leave with others when a person stands up during a song or a hymn looking like this :-\. "Hey, can I ask you a question? What are you doing?" "I’m praising God."

You see, our words, our actions, how we look, and how we deal with our feelings and events that happen to us all leave an impression on those we come into contact with. If they know we claim to be a Christian, they will watch these things and see what kind of reflection we make of our Lord and Savior.

This leads us to the place where we must ask: what does it mean to reflect Jesus in this day and age even though we know we cannot do the job perfectly?

Let’s take a moment to look again at our second lesson from the book of Revelation. This might sound like a strange book of the Bible to turn to in order to answer that question, but I think there are some strong clues here for us this morning.

Let’s focus our attention on John’s description of heaven beginning in verse 15, "For this reason they [the multitudes in heaven] are before the throne of God, and worship him day and night within his temple, and the one who is seated on the throne will shelter them. 16 They will hunger no more, and thirst no more; the sun will not strike them, nor any scorching heat; 17 for the Lamb at the center of the throne will be their shepherd, and he will guide them to springs of the water of life, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes."

Let’s break this down a moment:

First, the multitude in heaven makes God the center of their life and being. They worship Him day and night. Now, we know we cannot spend every waking moment in church. Believe me, I don’t even want to hear myself preach that long! But can we keep God at the center of our lives and beings? Can He be our chief concern as we live and move and have our being? What would our lives look like if we worked, played, and interacted with others as if we were interacting with Christ Himself? Would it change how we do things? Perhaps.

Second, we see in heaven that God shelters the multitude. What would it mean for you and me to reflect this reality? This, I think is pretty easy. We reflect God by doing what He does at this point. We shelter those who have none. We feed the hungry. We give drink to the thirsty. We provide shelter from the heat and cold. This isn’t much in dispute. Most Christians know this, and I know this is something that is near and dear to many of you. You have and continue to practice reflecting Jesus in this way, and I have little more to add than "Good job. Keep up the work!"

Third, the Shepherd guides the flock to the springs of the water of life. This might be a little tricky here. We must ask what are the springs of the water of life? What might they be in this day and age? I believe this is more than physical needs. We addressed those above. Perhaps this refers to helping others fill their spiritual needs. Again, I say, this is tricky. Many times people do not realize their spiritual hunger. A lot of times they know they sense something. They sense they are not being filled. And so they experiment with all sorts of things. They will turn to drinking, drugs, obtaining possessions, sex, food, exercise, success, and a host of other ways to feel fulfilled. And what does it mean for us to lead people to the spiritual waters that quench such thirst?

I believe it is more than us telling folks, "You shouldn’t do this." That’s like telling an addict they need to give things up. They will turn on you immediately. Perhaps, just perhaps to reflect Jesus in this manner, we must be willing to offer other options–other things that will satisfy–particularly, we must somehow be willing to lead them to Christ. And this is best done by reflecting Him. It can’t be done with argument or logic or otherwise.

And so we move on to the last piece from revelation. God wipes away every tear. Stop a moment and think about that. As I hear this, it tells me two things. Number one, our emotions aren’t taken away from us in heaven. Think about it! Those in heaven are crying. They feel things. Now, I know there are such things as tears of joy, but the vast majority of tears are shed in sadness. I don’t think John is referring to tears of joy. I think he is referring to tears of sadness.

To me, I think this tells us we can be authentic in our emotions. Far from the example I provided above, I believe authenticity compels us to honestly tell one another what is going on in our lives. If a parent has died, a spouse has lost a job, a child is in the hospital and a pet has run off, you don’t try to put on a smiley face as if everything is O.K. Be real. Shed tears. Be angry. Be frustrated. And if you are happy, be happy. Radiate joy. Smile. Laugh out loud. Don’t believe you have to put on some sort of mask to hide what is really going on down deep. They don’t in heaven. We shouldn’t on earth.

And then, there is the second thing that comes forward. How God acts. If we aren’t particularly unhappy or what have you, it is we who wipe those tears. It is we who laugh with those who are joyful. It is we who offer a word of comfort to those who are angry. We reflect Christ by walking with others in their grief, anger, happiness, and so forth.

If this list is helpful in understanding how we are called to reflect Christ, let’s put it to the task in light of the events of this week. How does a Christian reflect Jesus in light of bombings, explosions, poison being sent to our top elected officials, gun fights and manhunts covered by a 24 hour news coverage which seeks to instill fear and anxiety?

Does a Christian walk around with a smile on their face saying, "I’m happy?" No. That doesn’t seem too authentic.

Does a Christian frown and mourn and wallow in misery saying, "Oh this is terrible. The world is terrible. We should all be so sad." No. Again, not to authentic.

Does a Christian stamp his or her foot and say, "By God, I am angry. Justice must be done. Retribution must be forthcoming." Not exactly Christ-like in my estimation.

As I thought about these things, I hearkened back to the memory of one of our departed saints who I got to know in the past several years. She had a recurring saying when faced with life’s issues. It didn’t matter if her husband had died, her son-in-law had committed suicide, if she was confronted with health issues or listening to her granddaughter talk about life’s issues; she would repeat the same sentence over and over and over. "It will get better."

This seems to me an authentic, Christian response. It acknowledges the severity of a given situation. It doesn’t say things are O.K., but it also doesn’t wallow in misery. It trusts that there is more to come–more that is good. It is a statement of resurrection.

How do we reflect Jesus? By being authentic and proclaiming hope. For it will get better. Amen.

Friday, April 19, 2013

The Non-Living Became Living

"The dead cannot come to life."

This argument might present a Christian with a big problem--especially when spoken by someone who approaches a person of faith from the standpoint of reason and science.

Our usual defense is, "We take such things by faith and not by sight or by reason or by science."

This statement is true on our part, but may I suggest another tact.

First, see if those who say this will modify their statement to, "The non-living cannot become living."

If they agree to this premise, then ask the following:

Do you believe that scientists tell us that the earth was once a part of a bi-nary planet system and that those to planets collided?   The remains of that second planet are actually our moon.  Do you concede that because of this collision, the earth was once one giant ball of molten rock?

If they concede the point, ask them if they believe this rock was non-living or living.

If they are true to their logic, they will have to say that it was non-living.

Continue: And then, somehow, this planet, which was entirely non-living, molten rock somehow brought about living organisms?  Correct?

They must concede the point.

Therefore something that was non-living actually produced something that was living.  The non-living became living.  It happened once.  Isn't it possible it could happen again?

Thursday, April 18, 2013

On Immigration Reform (warning: Long post)

Normally, I wouldn't touch such a topic with a ten-foot pole.  It's loaded with emotion.  My bishop cited statistics showing that 25% of folks welcome immigrants with excitement, 25% of folks don't want any kind of immigrants what-so-ever, and 50% of folks just don't care.  Polarization at the extremes with a big chunk in the middle who don't care.  It's a situation rife to get one's self into trouble. 

And perhaps my own take will indeed get me into trouble, but I have spent some time thinking about this issue.  Living in Texas, one has no choice but to think about it as our neighbor is Mexico.  My family has a ranch near Freer, TX, and we have had a few run ins with folks avoiding the Border Patrol as they traveled toward towns and cities farther north. 

I do not wish to force anyone to my particular position, but I want to lay it out for you to see if it makes sense to you as it makes sense to me.  I draw from my faith tradition and the history of our nation to make my argument.

First, let's describe the issue.  Hundreds of thousands of people are detained each year for violating our immigration laws.  Because they have violated our laws, they are indeed illegal immigrants, by definition.  Numerous immigrants die in their attempts to enter the U.S. because they travel through the desert with inadequate supplies or shelter.  Yet, they still come, mainly because they have the opportunity in the U.S. to earn more money and have freedoms not granted in their own countries of origin.  Many employers hire illegal immigrants because they are willing to work for lower wages at tasks many Americans refuse to engage in.  The U.S. spends billions of dollars in protecting its borders, legally prosecuting deportation cases, and in the deportation of illegal immigrants.  Besides this cost, there is an emotional toll paid by immigrant families which are sometimes torn apart when parents are deported and children remain in the U.S.  In my estimation, this system is not viable or just.

What is a possible answer to the situation?  One that provides opportunity, fairness, and lessens the chance for abuse of those immigrating and those who abuse the current system?

Here's my radical idea: completely open borders.

Yes.  You heard that correctly.  (Please bear with me.  I know a good chunk, perhaps all of my congregation members may disagree with that statement, but please hear me out as I present my argument.  I do not ask you to agree, only to think about it.)

If you think back to the earliest days of our nation, you will quickly realize we were founded by immigrants--those who left or escaped the European feudal system which oppressed them religiously or relegated them to a particular status for their lifetimes.  America gave them the opportunity to be free and pursue happiness and wealth as they were ordained with inalienable rights.  Think back over history: were there any borders to our nation then?  And even though there were fights for territory by nations, was there any sort of enforcement of immigration policy?  No.  None.  People moved in and out of our nation freely.

Imagine what might happen if we took such an approach today. 

1. We would save billions of dollars as these immigration laws would no longer have to be enforced.  We would no longer have to burden the judicial system with costs of deportation trials.  We would no longer have to spend money to house immigrants who broke these laws while awaiting deportation.  We would no longer have to pay expenses for the deportation of people.  The cost savings here would be monumental.  (But, one might argue, if immigrants flocked to the U.S. would they become a burden as they entered into our welfare system.  See #5 below.)

2. No longer would the vast majority of immigrants seek to enter our nation through the back roads and through treacherous terrain.  Vastly fewer lives would be lost.  For those who are people of faith who see the image of God in fellow man, the lessening of loss of human life should be sought.  Immigrants would no longer pay "coyotes" high wages to bring them through.  A few dollars at a safe border crossing is all that it would cost.  The economics for immigrants makes tons of sense.  Further, those farmers and ranchers who see much human traffic on their lands would ideally see this traffic dwindle down to nothing along with a substantial lessening in the amount of trash, garbage, etc. that is left by those entering into the country illegally(But what about border safety?  Again, see #4 below.)

3. Upon entering our nation, we would issue a work pass without question.  This process would include obtaining a photo ID, finger prints, and the issuance of a worker number that employers could use to withdraw taxes, etc. just like an American worker.  Those entering would be given information as to the process of becoming an American citizen--and that process should be made extremely easy.  In this manner, we would know the vast majority of who came into our nation and give them a clear path to work and citizenship should they choose it.

4. Now, for the safety issue.  Some might complain that if we open the borders, we will have a rush of people entering for nefarious reasons.  We would not be safe should we let in potential terrorists or criminals.  I rebut this argument with the following:

  1. The economics alone mean that the vast majority of people would come through established border crossings.  If people tried to come in at other areas, in secret, it would be quite obvious they were up to no good. 
  2. By creating a photo and finger print registry as well as issuing work numbers (we have the technology to do this easily) we have a data base for those who have entered the country.  Since we have finger prints, etc. we can more easily track down people who commit crimes.  --And please spare me the criminal aspect of this.  Are there illegal immigrants who commit crimes?  Sure.  But what is the percentage?  If Wikipedia's numbers are correct 1.8% of illegal immigrants committed a crime.  Crime is not a problem.
  3. By giving opportunity, those who receive it will be zealous in their attempts to preserve it.  Just think of how the colonists gave the British army hell when Britain tried to quell the freedom people were experiencing!  Those who benefit from open borders will seek to keep them that way and keep in check those who would "spoil it for everyone."
  4. For those who continue to cross nefariously with intent to do the U.S. harm, I remind everyone we still have the Second Amendment in place.  We can protect ourselves from such threats, and I believe we are stronger when we take this responsibility upon ourselves instead of leaving it up to the authorities.  Sheriff and Police Departments will tell you they rely a lot on the public to help them solve crimes.  We already are a part of the safety process.  Why should this be any different with open borders?

5. It must be made clear, an immigrant cannot simply enter into the country to begin receiving welfare and government assistance.  I am not completely sure of the logistics; however, in my estimation, it would be in the best interest of the nation to impose a waiting period--a paying in period of sorts--of a decade or so before a person can begin receiving such benefits.  Now, does this mean people should be turned away from hospitals or other such services?  No.  But they must be held accountable and asked to pay.  We would be able to track and monitor such things because of #3 above.

I believe the benefits to open borders far outweigh the costs that might be involved.  It is a radical return to the founding principles that once made our nation great.  Once again, we would be seen as the Land of Opportunity and we would draw those who were interested in working and improving their lot in life.  Does it come with some risks?  Sure.  But I think those risks are well worth taking.

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

The Conversation Goes to Hell

Satan: You love them?  So you say.  If you love them so much, why do you let me have some of them.  Don't get me wrong.  I mean, I'll take them when I can get them, but if you love them so dearly and your love is so boundless and you are willing to die for them, then why send them to hell?

God: I was with you right up to that last statement.

Satan: I'm confused.

God: I tend to keep you that way on purpose, but I don't send them to hell.

Satan: Wait a minute?  You don't send them to me?

God: No. I don't.  I just give them what they want.

Satan: Now, my confusion is even greater.

God: I am not surprised.  Let me try to put it into terms even you can understand: I let you fall from grace.  That was your choice not mine.

Satan: You mean you could have kept me up in heaven.

God: Do you really want me to exercise that power?

Satan: On second thought, no.  I kind of like my freedom.  I like doing things my own way, calling my own shots, being in charge of myself.  I don't like the idea of submitting to you and your set of rules and regulations.  I like being independent and on my own.

God: Exactly.  You are on your own.  You have chosen separation from me.  You have shunned my protection, my providence, my goodness and gone your own way.  I did not force that choice upon you.  You took it yourself.

Satan: And your point in all of this.

God: Look, heaven is where I AM.  Hell is my absence.

Satan: And some people are perfectly content without you.

God: Yep, and I let them go on their way.  Eternally.  If they want to do it their way, be their own boss, call their own shots, take care of their own salvation whether they believe it or not, I let them go.

Satan: But what about punishment?  What about eternal justice?  What about your wrath?

God: Ignoramus.  What do you think the cross was for?  I don't need to send someone to a place of eternal fire.  That's nothing.  Being separated from me is far, far worse.

Satan: In what manner?

God: If people choose to walk away from me, they walk away from all those who believe in me.  They walk away from eternity with those they love.  They are completely and utterly on their own.

Satan: Well, they do have me.

God: Do you really think that is a comfort?  Lies, manipulation, never fully knowing the truth, wondering what the purpose of life is and what everything means.  They find those things with me.  When they choose separation, they forsake all of this. 

Satan: But don't you want them afraid of hell?  Don't you want them afraid of me?  Pitchforks and everything?  Don't you want them scared of such eternal damnation?

God: Well, then that would mean they turn to me out of fear instead of out of love.  That's not an option as far as I am concerned.  I don't want people believing in me in order to save themselves from some sort of everlasting bar-b-q.  That's not what I am about.  That's not what the cross is about.  Plus, when you turn to me because you are afraid, then you are simply trying to save yourself.  That's counter to grace.  So, no.  I don't want them to be afraid of hell, but I want them to know the consequences of the choice they make.

Satan: And you give them that choice because...????

God: I...

God and Satan in unison: ...love them.

Satan: Phooey!

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Justice Versus Charity

As seen on one of those cute/inspirational Facebook posters:

Charity pulls people out of the water.  Justice jumps in, swims upstream and stops the people who are throwing them in.

Fictional Conversation:

Justice: Hi Charity, still busying yourself feeding as many hungry as you possibly can, I see.

Charity: Yes.  Those who work with me have fed billions over the years.  It's a never ending battle.

Justice: I seem to remember telling you that.  I seem to remember telling you that unless the system is changed, "the poor you will always have with you."

Charity: I understand that all too well.  That is why I continue to work.

Justice: But you are not changing anything.  I am working to change things.  I am working to overthrow the system and replace it so that no one ever has to go hungry again.

Charity: That sounds fantastic!  That would give me an opportunity to finally rest.

Justice: Well, why don't you take a break now, come with me, and work with me for change?

Charity: Hmmm.  The opportunity intrigues me, but please let me ask a few questions to begin with.

Justice: O.K.

Charity: What do you actually do?

Justice: I speak Truth to power.

Charity: O.K.  What does that entail?

Justice: I lobby...er...advocate in front of governments to pass laws to care for the poor and oppressed.  I work to ensure that there are programs and monies set aside to ensure that everyone be fed, clothed, housed, educated, treated for illness and disease, and have everything they need to live without fear of hunger, thirst, being homeless, or other such malady.

Charity: That sounds O.K.  How successful have you been?

Justice: Monumentally, actually.  Because of our efforts, governments around the world spend billions upon billions of dollars on such programs and initiatives to care for those in need.  We are making an impact!

Charity: If you say so.  I hardly notice a difference.  I'm still up to my eyeballs helping those in need.

Justice: Um...er...well, perhaps so, but we ARE getting governments' attention.

Charity: I believe you, but I am pointing out one small item and that is despite the increased spending and attention you are getting, you haven't stopped the need.

Justice: But we are trying.

Charity: I understand that, but it hasn't convinced me to stop and join you.

Justice: Why?

Charity: Who's going to care for these folks while you are on your quest to eradicate poverty?

Justice: Um....

Charity: Who is going to make sure these people have food, water, and health care in my absence?

Justice: Um....Well...Uh...You'll just have to remember we're going after the greater good.  We're working to eradicate this.

Charity: I understand, and I am truly grateful.  Would that we could change the world so drastically that people never go hungry, never go thirsty, have health care, and clothing and shelter.  Would that this could be brought about by our own efforts.

Justice: You don't believe it can?  You don't believe it is in our power to accomplish such a task?

Charity: Do you ever study history?  Have you ever seen a nation where poverty doesn't exist?  Have you ever seen a nation where greed doesn't rear its ugly head and people take what they do not need?  Sure, there have been some places where the poor are better off than others, but never has there existed a state where I am not needed.

Justice: But we can change that!  I know we can!

Charity: How?  How will you bring about such perfection?  How will you attain the Kingdom of God here on earth?  Is it in your power to bring it?

Justice: Well, shouldn't we work toward it?

Charity: Of course.  Go on your way, SPEAK to your heart's content to the powers that be.  I'll stay here.  Until you accomplish the perfect nation, I know I will have WORK to DO.  I wish you the very best of luck, Justice.  I don't think I will ever see you completely brought to fruition, but I will hope for your success.

Justice: But you need me!  You need me to do what I do!

Charity: Yes, I do, and I am grateful.  I wish you the best that faith can give you and the power to speak truth.  Perhaps it will make a difference in the long term.  I can only hope.

Monday, April 15, 2013

Another "Ask the Pastor" Response

A few months back, I addressed an "Ask the Pastor" question from the ELCA Living Lutheran Website where I believed the responses given were a bit inadequate.  Today, I sense the urge to do so once again.

Today's question is a very important one raised by Bob Lawrence from Chicago:

It’s evident that violations of the laws of nature do not occur in our universe. Christianity depends on the existence of events that violate those laws. How can an intelligent human being be a Christian?

The responses given by fellow clergy are predictable and do little to actually further the discussion.  Essentially, they say, "We live by faith not by science or the laws of nature." or "We don't understand or know all the laws of nature."  Admittedly, these statements are true; however, they will not convince Bob or anyone else who comes with Bob's premise to give faith a shot. 

A congregation member of mine, Rick Shilling, is very prominent in the world of heat exchange engineering.  He is a tremendous person of faith as well as a very, very good scientist.  He and I have written the following response.  Rick's additions are distinguished by being in red print :

An excellent question, Bob, but I would like to challenge the premise a bit.  Which laws of nature are you referring to?  The laws of Quantum Mechanics or the Laws of General Relativity?  I hope you are aware that these two theories dominate the discussion of the way the world works.  Quantum Mechanics deals with the subatomic world and General Relativity deals with large objects.  They both work very, very well; yet, we also know they are incompatible.  You cannot extend General Relativity's laws into the Quantum world, because they do not work well there and vice versa.  This has troubled scientists, and, at least for a time and quite possibly still, the Holy Grail of science was a Grand Unified Theory (GUT) which brought these two areas into accord.  It still hasn't been found, and, in fact, it is quite possible that it will never be.  Why?

One must take up the study of mathematics for a little while, particularly the proof of a German mathematician by the name of Kurt Goedel.  He wrote a rather short paper On Formally Undecidable Propositions in Principia Mathematica and Related Systems I where he proved the limitations of all but the simplest of systems of thought and logic.  Goedel wrote the paper in such a way that its implications spilled over into the realms of not only mathematics but science and philosophy as well.  Long and short of it, each and every system of thought is limited.  It cannot cover all of the bases.  Exceptions will always arise.  Let that sink in a moment.   (I direct your attention to Stephen Hawking’s book The Grand Design, where if you can overlook his poor attempts to play philosopher in the name of atheism, you can find a good intro explanation of a new concept in physics called “m-theory” where specific sets of scientific “laws” are used only within defined length scales since their inaccuracies are too great outside of these length scales.)

It is because of Goedel that the term scientific law has basically been abolished.  (Ever wonder why Einstein’s theory of relativity is still called a theory after more than 100 years of successful testing, more than most any other accepted scientific theory had undergone in the past before being called a scientific law ?)The term is kept around out of respect for Newton and others who first formulated the concept; however, science does not talk in terms of certainty any longer because we have discovered that no law is always true at all times and in all circumstances.  Again, take a moment to let that sink in.

When it comes to dealing with interactions in the world, scientists now talk in terms of probability.  There is high probability and low probability.  There are even cases of extremely minute probability--for instance the probability of a person being resurrected from the dead.  It is highly improbable, but it is not impossible--at least according to science.   In engineering, where scientific laws are applied to development of real world technologies, the use of probabilities and/or safety factors in design are always included to protect the public.

This means, Bob, unfortunately, your premise is flawed.  However, the confusion is understandable and common.

First of all, the secondary education system performs a disservice to its students by teaching the "laws of physics" as if they were immutable truths instead of very accurate approximations best suited for use within certain limits. This "new" understanding became widespread in the practicing scientific community in the early decades of the 20th century but, unfortunately did not filter down to the masses. In addition, universities avoided teaching the full implications of Godel since they did not wish to sow uncertainty among their students who were struggling under heavy course loads. Nowadays, many university professors have never learned that much of Godel and proceed merrily along as if all things were determinant.

Secondly, there are some Christians who adopt a simplistic understanding of what they read in the Bible that cannot easily be defended. This is because as human beings we always "fill in the blanks" of everything we read in our attempts to understand. For most children, the Bible is understood as God performing a series of magic tricks without realizing that the magic tricks are their additions of what they have read to try to understand it. If a reader has not learned how to separate his "filling in of the blanks" from the actual written text, this reader can incorrectly misinterpret new learning as in conflict with what he believes is written in the Bible. Unfortunately, the public protests of some of these Christians get disproportionately high exposure, sometimes drowning out the majority of Christians who do not see any conflicts and are quite comfortable with both science and Christianity.

Thirdly, there are some in the atheistic community who cannot accept the fact that atheism is also a choice. This has to be troubling, if one believes in the infallibility of man or science and then discovers some of the limitations of science or of human thought. Often, some write a protest in defense of atheism by trying to use science and a childlike understanding of Christianity to prove their point. This has always failed and probably always will because neither science nor mankind is completely infallible. There are always choices that must be made.

The Christian faith does not rest upon the necessity of natural laws to be broken.  In fact, it is quite compatible with what we have come to understand as the way the world works.

And as those of us who believe in God begin to understand more and more about how the world works, we marvel at God's handiwork.  Far from a "God of the gaps" approach, we see intricacy and wonder.  We are stupefied by the physical constants and how they are just right to support intelligent life.  We marvel at how evolution brought about thinking, intelligent beings out of primordial, unthinking sludge.  Far from dismissing what science has shown us about the natural world, we embrace what science has shown us about the majesty of God.  It's not that difficult to be an intelligent person and believe in God--even the Christian God.  Just ask Francis Collins who headed up the Human Genome Project.

Transforming a Worldview

Have you ever had a dream so real that you couldn’t tell the difference between a dream and reality? It’s not surprising if you have. There’s an interesting bit of brain research which has come out recently. Brain researchers did an experiment in which they had subjects look at a picture of an object. While subjects did this, researchers monitored which sections of the brain "lit up" on brain scans. Researchers then took the picture of the object away and asked subjects to imagine the picture of the object. Mind you, the subjects were focusing on the object no longer. They were simply imagining them. Guess what happened on the brain scans? The exact same portions of the brain lit up. The exact. Same. Portions. This means our brains literally do not know the difference between something that is real and something that is imagined. Does this mean some of you are sleeping right now and I am haunting your dreams? I honestly hope not!

Interestingly enough, this premise was used by the movie The Matrix which came out almost a decade ago. The movie is built on the premise that most of us are living in a dream world induced by machines which have taken over the world. We are kept in this dream world because the machines are actually using the energy our bodies generate to fuel themselves. I know, this is a little far-fetched, but please stay with me for a little bit.

There is a segment of humanity which has escaped this induced world and become freedom fighters of sorts for humanity. They seek out people in order to free them and bring them into the real world to fight against the machines. One of the people they free is a character named Neo. After they wake him up from the dream induced world, they literally have to build up his muscles which have atrophied over time. Usually, Neo is asleep while they are doing this, but one day he wakes up during the process. Lying on the table, he opens his eyes and squints. "Why do my eyes hurt?" he asks.

One of the other characters replies, "Because you have never used them."

In our first lesson this morning, St. Paul, who at the time is called Saul is blinded by such a light. But this light is the light of Christ, and in the end, this light is truly eye opening.

Let’s work our way through the story for a moment to see how this happens. First off, we must remember Saul was raised to be a Pharisee. By his own admission, he was an excellent student far surpassing his peers in zeal and knowledge of the Jewish law. He calls himself blameless before God in regards to his ability to follow the law according to the Pharisaical tradition. So, we are not talking about your ordinary Jewish citizen. We are talking about a die hard–a religious zealot if you prefer the term. Saul is so seeped in this tradition that when he hears about the threat Christianity poses to Judaism, he readily joins in its persecution. In fact, when we find Saul today, he is on his way to Damascus to persecute Christians living there.

Yet, as he travels along, something marvelous happens. A blinding light strikes Saul, and a voice speaks to him, "Saul, Saul why are you persecuting me?"

Saul replies, "Who are you, Lord?"

The voice said, "I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting. But get up and enter the city, and you will be told
what you are to do."

Now, stop just a moment before we go further. I want you to imagine for a moment what Saul might have been thinking. Imagine for a moment what might be going through his head. I mean in this moment, everything Paul once thought had now been called into question. His entire world-view is being shattered.
Remember, Saul was so seeped in the Pharisaical tradition that he was persecuting the church. He believed this whole Jesus raising from the dead thing was a lie. He believed he held the absolute Truth when it came to following the Jewish faith. This point of view affected his entire life–from the things he ate to how he ate them. It affected how he related to others and who he hung around with. Now, with this one encounter, everything was called into question.

This is actually a snippet of how our human lives work. For we make some basic assumptions about the world. Based upon those assumptions we begin building a frame of reference about the world. Layer upon layer is added to those assumptions until we have what is called a world-view. And rarely do we ever change our world-views. It’s just too hard. I mean, pause a moment to consider a basic assumption that many of us have–we assume we have freedom. Try changing that assumption in your brain for just a moment to believing we are not free. What would that do to the way you think about life and what you do and how you operate? Would it shake things up greatly? Of course it would. And many of us wouldn’t change our world-view even if we were offered evidence to the contrary. It would mean rethinking everything we ever knew or thought we knew. It would be extremely uncomfortable.

This is what Saul is going through. All of his basic assumptions have just been challenged by Jesus himself. This experience on the road to Damascus is fundamentally changing the way he looks at life. And he is blinded by the experience. Literally.

I had a thought about this. Why is Saul blinded? Why does he spend three days neither eating or drinking? Perhaps it is because his brain literally needs time to reconfigure itself. His brain literally needs time to reconstruct a world-view. Everything he believed or thought he believed has just been shattered and come crashing down. If he didn’t take the time to work through all of this, he would go insane. So, perhaps, just perhaps, God is giving him sufficient time to work through this experience. Perhaps, just perhaps, God is giving Saul an opportunity to begin working through the transition of believing the resurrection was a lie to understanding the resurrection is true and Jesus is Lord. Perhaps, just perhaps, God is giving Saul an opportunity to really and truly come to grips with a new way to look at things. Until this point, Saul hadn’t really been seeing the world. "Why do my eyes hurt?" "Because you have never used them." Now, Saul would be able to see it with open eyes.

Now, what does this story have to do with you and me? You might be surprised to hear the direction I am going to take now. For I am going to talk about our calling given to us by Jesus Himself in Matthew 28. You know it as the Great Commission–the call of the Church to "make disciples of all nations baptizing them in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit and teaching everyone all that Jesus commanded."

It is indeed our calling to go into the world and make disciples of everyone. Yet, this is an extremely difficult task. In this day and age, it literally means getting someone to change their world-view. It literally means getting people to challenge and perhaps change the basic assumptions about how they view the world. How easy a task do you think this is? Do you think we will be able to accomplish such a thing on our own? I mean, have any of you ever tried? Have any of you ever tried to argue with someone to attend a worship service when their assumption is they don’t really need it? Were you able to make a difference? Probably not. It’s not surprising. You cannot argue with someone and make them change their perspective on life.
You can’t make them change their basic assumptions. Saul surely didn’t. It wasn’t until Saul had an
encounter with Jesus that this actually happened.

This, I think is paramount here. Saul was only changed when he met Jesus. Saul was only changed when the light of heaven surrounded him. This begs the question: how can we bring people into contact with Christ? How can we help lead a person, not to church, not to worship, but to Jesus? Where can we help people find Jesus so that He can bring them to faith?

Ponder this point for a moment. You and I cannot produce the light of heaven. We cannot produce the light of Christ. At best we can only reflect it. At best, we can only mirror Jesus in our own words and actions. How does your mirror look? Is it dusty and dirty? Is it turned toward Jesus so that it may reflect that light? When others see you are they blinded by the light of Christ bouncing off of you? And if they are not, ask yourself; why not? Amen.

Friday, April 12, 2013

Absolute Truth: Your Choice

A couple of days ago, I watched a debate on Youtube between the late Christopher Hitchens and John Lennox.

I was intrigued by one of the questions Hitchens asked Lennox in the Q and A session toward the end.  "Can you give a statement of absolute Truth?" Hitchens asked.

Lennox replied with a statement which he believed was absolute Truth.  Hitchens argued the statement was not absolutely true.

I gave the question some thought myself, and I think I have come up with a choice of two statements.  One of these is absolute Truth.  I'll leave it up to you to decide:

Truth exists.

Truth does not exist.

Take your pick.  One of those is Absolute Truth.  My suggestion: choose wisely.

(No weaseling.  It is not allowable to say "Truth is relative."  That is an untenable position since the statement "truth is relative" rests upon the truth of the statement "truth is relative".  It is a self-defeating statement.)

Of Course the Church is Judgmental: Part 3

I truly believe there is a difference between being judgmental and judgmentalism.

Being judgmental is necessary.

Judgmentalism, also known as self-righteousness, is sinful.

I am sure that much of the criticism of the Church has more to do with judgmentalism than actual judgment.

It is not hard to see how judgment quickly turns into judgmentalism.  I am indebted to Timothy Keller's articulation of the following "Slippery Slope of the Heart."

1. A group believes it has the Absolute Truth and so begins to have a sense of moral superiority about itself.
2. The group begins to distance itself from other groups who do not share the ideology or morality which stems from their belief in Absolute Truth.
3. The group caricatures other groups.
4. The group begins passive oppression toward those groups.
5. The group begins active oppression toward those groups.

Some have said the answer to this conundrum is to do away with the belief in Absolute Truth.

I have argued before the impossibility of such a thing.  We all make Absolute Truth claims.  Even the claim "Truth is relative" rests on the assertion that "Truth is relative" is an Absolutely True statement.  (Let your head rest a moment after reading that.)

For Christians, it is further a non-starter to do away with Absolute Truth.  Jesus proclaimed to be the Way, the Truth, and the Life.  To suggest there is no Truth is to suggest there is no Jesus at the worst or that Jesus lied at the best.  Not an option.

So what is the option?

As Keller said in the video from the Veritas Forum: we need to be reminded of the "grace narrative."

Those who venture down the "Slippery Slope of the Heart" and begin self-righteous judgmentalism do so because they believe themselves to be morally superior.  Either by toeing the line of observing sexual purity or by how much they give to the church or by how much they give to charity or by how much justice they practice, a group of people believe their ACTIONS or their following of the Law or the Commands of God/Jesus give them a sense of pride.


The grace narrative destroys pride because:

The grace narrative says, "You didn't earn your own salvation."
The grace narrative says, "Your good works are done through God's power."
The grace narrative says, "It is through Christ alone that you are justified."
The grace narrative says, "You can't be moral enough or do enough justice to be right with God."
The grace narrative says, "You are not morally superior."

The grace narrative centers on a man who bore the weight of our sin, took it to the cross, and from the cross offered forgiveness to those who killed Him.  The grace narrative centers on the One who said, "Love your enemies and bless those who persecute you."  The grace narrative centers on the One who cut every human being's pride off at the knees with the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7).  The grace narrative centers on the One who showed humility to be a central, core, trait of His followers.

Jesus does not allow self-righteousness toward those who are different.  Instead, His actions showed quite the opposite.  Though He had the morally superior position according to Absolute Truth, He engaged those who disagreed with Him.  He refused to caricature them and paint them with broad brush strokes.  He ate with the Pharisees, the tax collectors, the sinners, the social outcasts, and the members of the Jewish Council.  He knew them personally and sought no oppression of them passive or active.  Yet, He also was not afraid to render judgment on their misguided/wrongheaded beliefs.  He modeled the life we are called to ascribe to today.  Not one of judgmentalism, but one of humility.

Thursday, April 11, 2013

God Trusts Us?

Satan: You actually trust those insignificant beings?

God: Yes.  I do.

Satan: You are daft.

God: Some would indeed say so.

Satan: I mean, how could you trust them after all they have done which is contrary to your will.  I mean, not just those two way back in the garden.  I mean, they ate the fruit contrary to your obedience, but everything that has transpired after that.  They've made a mess of things.
  • They became so rebellious and evil you had to flood the world and basically start over.
  • You chose a people to carry your blessing and time and again they turned away from you.
  • You delivered them from Egypt and saved them at the Red Sea, yet they rebelled, built a golden calf, feared entering the Promised Land, and had to wander around in the wilderness for 40 years until a generation died off.
  • When they entered the Land they rebelled and worshiped my minions.  Until you sent invaders to punish them.  Well, then they repented.  You sent a deliverer, and all was well until they started turning to my minions again.  They cycle just repeated.
  • So then they decided they didn't want to listen just to you.  They wanted their own king, and you let them have it!  Priceless!  They brought government upon themselves, and do you know the heyday I've had with governments since?  Those places are fertile ground for me to do some of my best work!
  • Their kings didn't do such a good job of following your mandates.  They worshiped other gods.  They committed injustice and failed to care for the widow and the orphan.  You became so fed up, you allowed other nations to conquer your precious people and take them out of power permanently.
  • Oh, then you did that thing with your boy, but to what effect?  Sure you have that body you call the church, but how effective has that been?  Taking power when Jesus said be powerless?  The Crusades?  The Inquisition?  Splitting into thousands of different sects? Sex scandals? Televangelists?  Tent healers who fleece your flock? 
  • And then the rise of science and technology.  This was supposed to drive religion away, into the background.  All the wars fought over ideology were supposed to vanish.  For a time I thought I was in good shape.  But then came the results of their arrogance. World War 1 and World War 2.  The Holocaust.  The Pogroms.  Millions killed on a scale which was once unimaginable.
  • And now people have unleashed the power of the atom.  They have the capability of destroying what you created.  I've ensured this technology has found itself into the hands of those who are unstable and power hungry to raise levels of fear and distrust.
And yet, you say you trust them?  Despite all of these horrendous things, you still trust them?  Why in the world would you do such an asinine thing?

God: Because I love them.

Of Course the Church is Judgmental: Part 2

The Church must be judgmental.  It has no choice.

The Church believes that Jesus Christ is God incarnate.  He made that claim in rather stark fashion in the book of John.  Now, I know there are some Christian scholars and others who lessen this claim.  They argue Jesus may have never made such a claim that it was only His followers who later added this bit of belief.  They base this on the assumption the New Testament documents evolved over a great deal of time and each particular community included exaggerations of what Jesus said or did to get across that community's perception of Jesus--not necessarily what Jesus said Himself.

This was the agreed upon consensus in scholarship which I was taught in college and seminary.  However, a recent book by Scottish Scholar Richard Bauckham titled: Jesus and the Eyewitnesses: The Gospels as Eyewitness Testimony challenges those very assumptions.  Admittedly, I have not read the book.  I have it on order and it is scheduled to ship April 10th.  I am anxiously awaiting its arrival, but not so anxious to wade into its 550+ pages!  Those who have read it say, Bauckham is very thorough.  What would ever give a person that idea?  :-)  If Bauckham is correct, then the scholarship I received is quite overthrown, and the Gospels are not the stuff of legend.  They are the stuff of eyewitness.

Even regardless of this bit of academia, the Orthodox Church has held fast to the belief Jesus was fully human and fully divine.  He was/is God incarnate. 

Think about that deeply, my friends.  If Jesus is God incarnate--God come to earth--then doesn't it stand to reason His teachings should be taken quite seriously?

And if Jesus renders a judgment, should the Church not follow that same judgment?

I have heard more than a few folks say Jesus came along and destroyed societal boundaries--social constructs put in place by humankind and the organized religion of Jesus' day.  I agree.  I cannot dispute this, but Jesus did not leave us boundary-less.  He drew some definite lines in the sand.  He flat out said there were certain things which were sinful.  He flat out said there were some things that should be done lest God's judgment fall upon a person.

Case in point: in the Gospel of Matthew, chapter 25, Jesus tells a parable of judgment.  There is no escaping the nature of this parable.  It is quite straight forward.  He tells His followers it is paramount to feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, clothe the naked, and visit the sick and imprisoned.  The sheep who do this will enter into paradise with the Master.  The goats who failed to do this will depart from the Master in eternal separation.  A judgment is rendered upon those who fail to care for their neighbor. 

Now, there are hardly any folks around who dispute Christ's call to feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, clothe the naked, etc.  Most of us know deep down this is the right thing to do, and we must make no apologies when we render judgment against those who call themselves Christians yet fail to follow this command.

When the Epistle writer and early Church missionary Paul penned the words in Galatians 6 concerning the works of the flesh:

19Now the works of the flesh are obvious: fornication, impurity, licentiousness, 20idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousy, anger, quarrels, dissensions, factions, 21envy, drunkenness, carousing, and things like these.

he made it quite clear we were to avoid such things.  I am warning you, as I warned you before: those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God.

So, what should a congregation do if it sees such things within its midst?  What if it sees enmities, strife, jealousy, anger, quarrels, dissensions, factions happening amongst its members?  Should it simply allow people to be people and continue to commit such things?

Or, should church leaders and pastors render judgment?  Should they say, "These things are sinful.  We are called to live differently." 

I think you know the answer.

For to be non-judgmental means one condemns nothing.  One allows any behavior, individual or collective, to proceed unchecked. 

I think you can see the consequences of allowing such a thing to happen, and if you are honest with yourself, you know those consequences are not good.  Therefore, the Church must be judgmental.  Christians must be judgmental.

However, they must not cross the line into judgmentalism.  That subject is tackled tomorrow.

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

The Enemy Undermines Grace

Satan: It will never work, you know.

God: What?

Satan: That whole grace thing.  People just won't buy it.

God: And your point?

Satan: You know, you just think you are being smart with this whole thing, but I know how it will play out.  I know how those people will react to this whole faith thing.  Even though you talk about grace, the exact opposite will happen.  They will head down a slippery slope of the heart.*  First, they will believe they have the absolute truth.  They will become excited about this and feel empowered and justified by their grasping of it.  They will get a sense of superiority because they think they know the truth.  Second, they will look around and see others who don't quite measure up.  They will distance themselves from all of those who don't fall into step with their view of the truth.  Third, they will caricature those they see as less than righteous.  Fourth, they will begin passive oppression, and then finally they will actively oppress others.  They will not give them the same regard as they should.  Just wait and watch.  You will see this unfold right before your eyes.

God: I already have.

Satan: Aha!  I was right!  I knew this would take place.  Your creation is just too enamored with itself.  It's just too caught up in its own self-righteousness to even begin considering humility.  They really don't want to get along with others.  They want and have a deep seeded need to be morally superior to everyone else.

God: It's a product of their fallenness. 

Satan: A product I am all to happy to exploit!  And I even gleefully watch it transpire within your church.  Oh yes.  Yes.  I enjoy watching them claim moral superiority over each other.  I enjoy watching them believe they are superior to one another and then watch them draw their lines and hide behind their walls.  I love it how they call each other "Fundies" and "Libtards" and condemn one another.  I love how they caricature each other as "Bible Thumpers" or "Modern Day Pharisees" or "Scripturally Illiterate" or "Moralists" or "Pickers and Choosers" in what they apply to living the so-called Christian faith.  Do you know how much I delight in the left/right, liberal/conservative, polarization in the church.  It gives me a lot of room to operate and sow discord.

God: I know it does, but if they looked closely, they would discover that I have given them all they need to overcome this.  They would discover there is no need to act in the manner they do.

Satan: Maybe you did, but they apparently don't.

God: Yes, they do, but they only give it lip service.  They don't actually apply it.

Satan: One of my specialties: hypocrisy.

God: No, this isn't hypocrisy.  It's actually something worse.  It's truly not realizing the implications of what I have taught them.

Satan: Now what is that supposed to mean?

God: Well, when I took on flesh and dwelt among them, I made it as plain as day that no one was morally superior to another.  You remember that little speech I gave on a mountainside to the crowds?

Satan: Actually, I do.  I rather thought the speech delightful.  At every step of the way, you made it very clear that no one was righteous.  Adultery wasn't just an action.  It was a thought.  "Thou shalt not kill" wasn't just someone acting, but being angry at a fellow brother.  Making a public spectacle of one's faith and drawing attention to one's belief--a no no.  Turning the other cheek if being struck.  Praying for one's enemies and blessing those who persecute you.  That's a laughter.  No one is going to follow through on that one!!!  Don't worry, you'll provide for them.  He, he, he.  Look at them down there, working like ants scared to death that they'll never have enough!!!  And I loved that little insertion, "Be perfect as your Heavenly Father is perfect."  That was classic!  No one can accomplish that one.  I was actually going to hang this speech on the walls of hell to help everyone know that you had just made our job the easiest in the world.  No one on the entire planet could live this thing out.  No one.  I thought in one fell swoop, you would add immeasurable numbers to my ranks.

God: That's what you thought.

Satan: Until you pulled that little stunt of yours.

God: Yeah, that little stunt, as you call it made all the difference in the world.

Satan: Who would have thought that Jesus, from the cross would implement this stuff to the fullest?  Who would have thought that he would ask for forgiveness on behalf of those who killed him?  They were committing a terrible, horrible injustice.  I knew he would call down fire and brimstone.  I knew he would send them straight to me, but he forgave them.  My ears are still burning from the sound of those words.  I dare not repeat them here.

God: You mean, "Father, forgive them for they know not what they do."

Satan: Ow!  Ow!  Ow!  Ow!  Stop it!  Stop it!  That's just horribly mean.

God: Of course, it is mean to you and your divisiveness.  But those words set the example of what true believers adhere to.  They do not head down the slippery slope of the heart because their heart carries forgiveness.  They know that morally, even though they may not kill or maim or destroy or commit physical adultery...they know that even if they work tirelessly for justice...they may never smoke a cigarette or allow alcohol to cross their lips...they may never say a curse word...they still don't measure up.  They know they are not perfect.  They know they have not accomplished my will perfectly in their lives.  They know they are in need of my forgiveness--my grace.  And I never cease to give it.

Satan: You really are a sucker.  You let them get away with murder.

God:  Yes.  I did and do.  And I forgive them for it.

Satan: So why not punish them for it?  Why not zap them into submission?

God: And give some the idea they are morally superior to others?  Give some the idea that their lives are worth more than others because of the way they live or act?  Surely, you jest.  There is a reason I make the rain fall upon the just and the unjust--for in reality, they are all unjust--they all need rain, and they all need forgiveness.

Satan: Sounds hopelessly stupid in my estimation.

God: It would to you, but to those who get it--who understand it is not by any action they commit that salvation comes to them--they are more than willing to engage others they disagree with.  They are more willing to cease caricatures.  They avoid oppression--passive and active.  Now, this certainly does not mean they do not stand up against evil, but they are less quick to label someone or something evil because they know such evil rests in them as well.  When they point a finger at someone, they realize three fingers are pointing right back at them.

Satan: Well, I take great comfort in knowing there are so few who actually practice this kind of living.  I take great comfort in knowing there are more who think they are righteous and above others than there are of those who live by grace.  I mean, if all of those who believed in you practiced such a thing, there wouldn't be much hatred or racism or sexism or jealousy or strife or all those things I work so hard to keep going.  Keep up that grace stuff.  People will never, ever get it.

God: Don't be too sure of that.  I created them, and I trust them.

*I am obliged to Timothy Keller in his Veritas Lecture for this slippery slope.

Of Course the Church is Judgmental: Part 1

I admit I am getting rather tired and bored of the criticism that the Church is judgmental and full of judgmental people.

Of course it is.  It has to be.

Oh, don't get me wrong, I was there 20 years ago offering this criticism of the Church.  You know, back when I was first entering college and my professors were telling me that young people were leaving the Church in droves, refusing to worship or become members because the Church was judgmental and full of judgmental people. 

In 20 years, nothing has changed.  I still hear the same stuff, and generally the same response from hand wringing Church leaders who, looking at steep declines, say, "We've got to change.  We've got to reach out to this demographic or else we will die."

Well, in 20 years of reaching out to this demographic, not a whole hell of a lot has changed.  20 years of hand wringing and trying to keep from being judgmental hasn't offered much of a shift.  "But we've got to keep trying harder."

Go ahead.  Do that.  Keep doing the same stuff.

As for me, no thank you.  I'm not going to try and make the Church less judgmental.  In fact, I will argue that the Church MUST be judgmental.  I'll also argue those who call the Church judgmental and full of judgmental people are themselves being judgmental.  Finally, I will argue that being judgmental should not lead to judgmentalism or self-righteousness from a Christian perspective.

The first argument I want to tackle is putting the shoe on the other foot.  As I said, I am tired of people saying, "I don't come to church because the Church is too judgmental and full of judgmental people."

Stop just a moment and reflect upon that statement.  Instead of becoming defensive or having your pulse rate increased by an "we've got to do something to make you feel like the Church isn't judgmental," knee-jerk response.  Recognize that statement for what it is: a judgment.

Break it down: I don't come to church (associate with a group of people) because of the way they act and what they proclaim.

Do you see the judgment in this statement?  I don't hang around them because I don't agree with them.  They are wrong, and I am right, so I don't play with them.

Does anyone else see pot meeting kettle? 

Being judgmental is part of human nature.  If we believe we have stumbled upon any sort of Truth--and even if we say we believe truth is relative (an untenable position)--we render judgment.  The moment you say, "Stealing is wrong," you've rendered judgment on those who steal.  The moment you say, "We must work toward justice," you have rendered judgment on those who are unjust.  The moment you say, "You have no right to judge," you have rendered judgment on those who judge. 

So, stop it already.  Stop pretending that you or anyone isn't judgmental.  You are.  I am.  The Church is.  We cannot help it, and tomorrow, I will argue this is not bad.

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

The Enemy Reveals His Weapons

Satan: You know when I told you I'd work to make sure humankind chose poorly?

God: How could I forget?

Satan: Normally, I wouldn't do this, but I've got a couple of weapons I think even you can't defeat.  I've got a couple of doosies to throw out there that will muddle the waters so much your people will lose all sorts of traction.  And I'm not even going to throw it into the rest of society.  I'm just going to throw it into your precious body of believers: the Church.

God: You've peaked my interest. 

Satan: Oh, these are good.  Really good.  First, I'm going to make some people think there are some beliefs that are absolutely central to salvation.  I will make them so secure in their own beliefs that they know what is right and what is wrong that they become arrogant and obnoxious.  They will boldly proclaim, "I am saved, don't you wish you could be like me?"  Non-believers will become so turned off by their arrogance and smugness, that they will refuse to believe in you.  They will refuse to attend any church.  They will say, "I can't stand how obnoxious those people are." 

God: I've got to hand it to you, that's a pretty good one.

Satan: I will then take it a step further.  I will make them so certain that they are saved by their belief in Jesus that they will act like total jerks in public.  They will sit at restaurants and become demanding and rude--after all, the lowly people who serve them should be in church and are probably sinners anyway.  They will talk at the top of their lungs about how righteous they are and how much they give to their church and leave a meager sum for the waitress or waiter saying, "Oh the service was terrible."  They will wear their finest clothing to church, look down their noses at anyone who may dress differently and even make suggestions to others about what they should wear to church.  People will get the idea they are more concerned with what you wear than with an individual's well being.  I will showcase individuals who attend church every week and then treat employees like dirt, paying them marginal wages and forcing them to work ungodly hours.  I will have them become focused on morality and then reveal them to be immoral and unfaithful to their spouses and to others.  Yes, I will have them focus on building giant monuments of church buildings and neglect the poor and needy--"for if they just turned their lives over to Jesus, then they would rise out of their poverty!"

God: Hmm.  That definitely deserves some of my attention.

Satan: Oh, but wait. Wait.  See what else I have in store for that beloved institution of yours.  I've got this all worked out.  For, you see, I will also infuse another group with disgust at those first group of church goers.  This group will react with utter contempt.  They, in turn, will offer no certainty at all.  I will give them a healthy dose of relativism.  They will believe that belief has little to do with faith.  Instead, I will have them concentrate on saying, "It doesn't matter what you believe.  Just do good to others.  Try to make the world a better place."  Their rallying cry will be, "Justice!"  Before long, they will be saying, "Jesus is just one way of many ways.  There are many paths to salvation."  They will not hesitate to condemn the first group as moralists, and the first group will decry the others as liberal do gooders.  Their contempt and anger for each other will grow exponentially as they vie to win the hearts and souls of non-believers.  Their competition will drive non-believers batty as they ask, "Who is telling the truth?"  It will be warfare without weapons, and the chaos sown will wreck havoc on your wonderful body called the Church.

God: Since you are being so judicious in your willingness to tell me your plot, shall I tell you how I will work?

Satan: Oh, please do.  I really want to see how you will try and thwart this. 

God: First off, I will make it known that I don't mind people believing there are some absolute core convictions to faith.  Everyone needs something certain to hang their hats upon.  Something that is permanent and lasting--something that helps them define themselves and what they believe.

Satan: Ha!  So, you won't change what I am doing.  The result will be the same.

God: Second, I'm going to redouble my efforts to help people see they are saved by grace alone.  Apparently, I was wrong about Paul and Martin Luther being enough.

Satan: What is that going to do?

God: Well, isn't it obvious? 

Satan: Would I be asking if it wasn't?

God: You are working on people to make them believe it's all about their actions--what they choose to believe; what they choose to do whether it's an emphasis on morality or doing justice and communal works.  It's not about what they do.  It's about what I do!  Essential to salvation is my action, not theirs.  They can't make salvation happen.  Only I can.

Satan: I still don't see how that makes a difference.

God: Of course you don't because everything to you is consequential--If I want this, then I have to do this.  When it comes to salvation, it's--If I want salvation, then I can do nothing.  Only God can.

Satan: And...

God: When people realize it's all because of my action, they will grasp a very important fundamental: humility.  No one, by their actions or otherwise can get salvation.  It comes from me.  Period.  No intellectual assent to belief will do it--I have to cause that to begin with.  No amount of moral action can do it--you can't possibly be moral enough.  No amount of justice you perform will save you--you can't do enough.  Only I can.  The fact no one can means the playing field has just been leveled.  No one has reason to hold head high.  All find themselves in the same boat.

Satan: Well, Mr. Smarty Pants, that sounds all well and good.  Maybe you can get a few of those saps to actually humble themselves and refuse to attack one another, but what are you going to do about that whole relativism thing?  I haven't heard anything described above which will combat that one!

God: Anybody else's god out there willing to die for them?  Anyone else's god out there say, "I've got this covered?"  Most of them I know say, "Follow this path, and you will get to me."  I say, "I've beaten a path to you."

Satan: Crap!