Wednesday, May 29, 2013

America Losing Its Religion

CNN Religion blogs ran the headline yesterday: America Losing Its Religion.

The headline is a bit of a misnomer because Americans aren't exactly losing their religion.  The article spells that out.  The headline is a cheap ploy to get people to read--yours truly included.  :-)

Pertinent quote--the first four paragraphs:

More than three in four of Americans say religion is losing its influence in the United States, according to a new survey, the highest such percentage in more than 40 years. A nearly identical percentage says that trend bodes ill for the country.

"It may be happening, but Americans don't like it," Frank Newport, Gallup's editor in chief, said of religion's waning influence. "It is clear that a lot of Americans don't think this is a good state of affairs."

According to the Gallup survey released Wednesday, 77% of Americans say religion is losing its influence. Since 1957, when the question was first asked, Americans' perception of religion's power has never been lower.

According to the poll, 75% of Americans said it the country would be better off if it was more religious.

So, the headline is blatantly wrong.  America isn't losing it's religion.  In fact, the poll actually suggests the vast majority (3/4) of Americans believe the country would be better off if it were religious.  This speaks volumes!!  People believe religion has a positive effect on the country!!!

Yet, these same people believe religion is losing influence. 

It's not surprising.  Religion has had a very tough time adapting to a host of things:

1. The rise of secularism.  The secular worldview has ascended to prominence when it comes to debating what goes on in the United States.  Faith based arguments generally no longer have much persuasive power.  This forces people of faith to suspend the place where they draw most of their ethics and morality and argue from a much different, uncomfortable place.  Too many people of faith do not have the tools to do this or to argue the difficulty of dealing with moral issues from a strictly secular point of view.  #2 below has contributed to this mightily as well.

2. The rise of relativism.  This path of thought developed to deal with pluralism.  In our now global culture, we have been made aware of the differences in thought and practice of people and belief.  It is not easy to forge a way forward when confronted with many differing worldviews.  Yet, instead of arguing the merits of which worldview provides a better way forward (atheism? Christian? Muslim? Jewish? Secular? Scientific?), we strive to say all worldviews are equal--none is better than another.  This is most certainly an absurd argument, but it actually has a good number of adherents.  Many people of faith have few philosophical tools to argue with the rise of relativism.

3. The prominence of science.  Science is cool.  It's brought about some awesome things--the ability to understand the world, how it works, and how we can work in the world to improve our survival.  Yet, science has proven poor at providing a framework for morality and ethics despite the claims of some that it is capable of doing such a thing.  Science has also been shown to be quite limited in other areas and aspects; yet one might never really know this based upon what one hears in the news.  For many, science is the be all and end all, and people of faith have had little training in saying, "Science is not this.  It is good in one area and not in others."

Because people of faith have not been provided such tools, secularism, relativism, and scientism have undermined the power of religious faith to shape public policy.  Most are unhappy with this because they see the benefits faith can bring.  Yet, most don't have any idea how to argue in the cultural milieu we find ourselves in.

Perhaps Christian apologists like Timothy Keller, Richard John Neuhaus, Ravi Zacharias, John Lennox, William Lane Craig, and Alvin Plantenga will be read and studied more as they offer some substantial tools to deal with this process, for it seems like America does not want religion to lose its influence--and you can count me in that portion of America as well.

Awesome: Trinity Sunday Sermon

This past week, I had a text conversation about some church matters with one of our members. This member needed Sam to send something, but Sam was home sick. I have permission to share the following, so please allow me a moment to do this:

Me: Sure. I’ll have Sam send it tomorrow. I sent her home because she was sick.

Our member: No problem. I hope she feels better.

Me: Me too. Working without your secretary is like steering a boat without a rudder.

Our member: Awww, I am sure you do a great job. You are awesome.

Me: I am only as awesome as those I work and serve with.

Now, why would I say such a thing instead of blushing and offering a word of thanks? Why even say anything at all? Why not just let the comment stand alone since a response can either seem conceited or self-depreciating? Why tie this member’s thoughts about the job I do to the congregation as a whole? Why?

Because, I believe this whole Christianity thing is about individuals who live in relationship with one another.

Let’s talk a moment about the way a congregation works. All too often, our congregations are only focused upon the pastor and the job he or she does. But is this fair? I mean, don’t get me wrong, a pastor is very important to the life of a church. He or she serves as its spiritual leader.
If a pastor doesn’t have a solid relationship with God, can’t preach a decent sermon, and does not show kindness and compassion along with having a strong sense of doctrine, problems will arise. Effective pastors are essential to the health of a congregation.

But pastors can’t make a congregation thrive alone. I think you know this, but let me repeat it just so it sinks in: pastors can’t make a congregation thrive alone. I mean, what if a pastor preaches excellent sermons, shows kindness and compassion to everyone he or she meets, has a strong sense of doctrine and belief, and has a solid relationship with God–what if a pastor has all these traits, yet, his or her congregation continually bickers with each other, refuses to invite and welcome others into its midst, or refuses to give to support the ministries of the church or try to connect with the community and its needs? Do you think that congregation will thrive? Of course it won’t. The pastor and congregation must work together as a team in order for a church to thrive. This is why I said, "I am only as awesome as those I work with and serve." It’s about relationship.

But there is one more component to this whole dynamic. At this point, we have a pastor and a congregation. Is this enough? Is this alone enough to make a church thrive in this world? At this point, I will argue no. That might raise a few eyebrows, I am sure, but none the less, I believe I am correct. It is not enough for a church to thrive to have a good pastor and a good group of people. This relationship is not enough. Yes, you heard me correctly, this relationship is not enough.

For, you see, the Pastor and the congregation must be intimately connected to God. In order for a congregation to truly be effective in doing God’s work, in order for a pastor to be effective in doing God’s work, they each must be connected to Him. The relationship actually forms a triangle–a dance between three entities that work together to accomplish what needs to be done in spreading the good news of Jesus Christ to the world.

And how is that accomplished? Well, we have to move the points of the triangle a little bit. The pastor is now included into this entity that is called the congregation. There now exists a relationship between God and the congregation, but one more component is now added–the surrounding community. We bring people within the community into the relationship dance. The triangle continues and shifts. What I find interesting is how the relationships I am talking about need three entities.

God + the congregation + the pastor = a thriving church–relationship.

God + the congregation (including the pastor) + the community = fulfillment of the Great
Commission–relationship.

Relationship is at the core of the Christian message, and can anyone here see the mirror yet with the nature of God Himself? If you can’t, please let me attempt to show it to you.

Today is Trinity Sunday. It is the Sunday of the church calendar where we celebrate the nature of God. God is the Father. God is the Son. God is the Holy Spirit. Yet, these three do not make up three Gods but one God. Logically, this does not make any sense. Mathematically, it doesn’t make any sense. But relationally, it makes plenty of sense. Relationally, three are one and one is three. At the core of God is a relationship; a relationship that is so strong between the entities that they cannot be seen as separate.

And, here is an intriguing thought based upon a portion of our gospel text for today. Jesus says about the Spirit, "14He will glorify me, because he will take what is mine and declare it to you. 15All that the Father has is mine. For this reason I said that he will take what is mine and declare it to you." The Spirit will glorify Jesus. But we know later that Jesus says He strives to glorify the Father. And we also know that the Father glorifies the Son.

In this relationship called the Trinity, all three parts continuously strive to glorify each other. Let’s put this into different terms. In this relationship called the Trinity, God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit work diligently to make one another awesome. They love one another to the point that they strive diligently and with reckless abandon to build each other up in a glorious dance of eternal love.

Is it possible for us to do likewise?

We know that God loves us and wants us to be awesome.

We know God loves the community and wants it to be awesome.

Do pastors love their congregations and seek their awesomeness?

Do congregations love their pastors and seek their awesomeness?

Do congregations love their communities and seek their awesomeness?

And can you imagine what would happen if we set aside our own personal desires to implement those kinds of relationships in the world? What effect would that kind of love have in communities affected by disaster like in Oklahoma? What effect would that kind of love have with parents who have lost their children to tragedy? What kind of effect would that kind of love have with people who were striving to find their purpose in life? What kind of effect would that kind of love have on people who truly are seeking to know whether or not God existed? What kind of effect would that kind of love have on those who struggle with abusive relationships? What kind of effect would that kind of love have on the world?

Well, in a word, I guess it would be awesome. Amen.

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

God's Will and Suffering

This is the second CNN article which grabbed my attention this past week--especially in light of the suffering endured by parents and children in Moore, OK.  Is suffering God's will?

This is a most difficult question...for believers.

For atheists, there is no difficulty in wrestling with the question, because there is no question.   How can a non-existent God cause suffering?  Suffering just happens.  Period.

But the atheist has to then answer a very important question--at least a very important question to a whole host of people: where then is hope?  In the atheistic world view, there is no hope to be offered anyone who loses a child to a tornado, a school shooter, cancer, a tsunami, or what have you.  Essentially, one is left with "Sh*t Happens.", with no ifs, ands or buts.  One is out of luck.  For those of us who believe hope is essential to the viability of the human species, atheism is not an acceptable route.

Which brings us to belief.  And suffering.  And the place of God in it.

Joshua Prager's article struggles with meaning in this regard.  He offers two options:

And it occurs to me that whenever any of us wish to assimilate why we suffer (or prosper), we must choose between these same two narratives. We can attribute our lots to God and his writings, his unknowable ways. Or we can root them in the natural world and chronicle them ourselves -- on paper or simply in our minds. We can take comfort in ultimate if inscrutable justice. Or we can take comfort in observable reason and responsibility.

Pragner confesses later in the article, he falls squarely in the second camp.  He professes to be agnostic toward God--which is fine for him.  He comes to a place where he has come to grips with why he suffered by getting rid of God.

Suffering as God's Will

Interestingly enough, he also found others who suffered who found comfort and solace in his first narrative: that God ordains suffering.  Again, a relevant, long quote:

Surrounded by seven shelves of holy books, Yaakov, the family patriarch, told me that God had caused the crash and spared our lives. He said we had to follow the example of Job and serve God though we did not understand him.

Next, I found the widow of the bus driver. She was a secular Jew of Yemeni descent and lived in the industrial town of Petach Tikvah. (She wished to keep her name private.) She told me that her husband had feared nothing but God. And, she said, it was God who had ordained the crash. "It is written," she told me. "If you don't believe that, you will go crazy."

Finally, in the Arab town of Kfar Qara, I found the driver whose truck had crashed into the left rear of the bus where I sat. Abed told me that he had become religious after the crash and that the crash was an act of God. He then paused from his coffee and his Hebrew to speak an Arabic word: Maktoob. "It is written."

I left Abed, mindful as I drove south toward Jerusalem that, in this land of competing narratives, Arab and Jew were for once in perfect agreement.

Three different sets of people found comfort and understanding by believing God had ordained the bus crash which caused their suffering. 

Theologically, this gives people like myself the heebie-jeebies.  There are a good number of theologians who do not believe God intentionally causes suffering in the manner understood above--and for good reasons which I will outline below.

However, before I do that, please allow me to relay why I believe this understanding of God's will is held onto by many.  Much of it has to do with the understanding of God's power.  If indeed God is all-powerful and God is all-knowing, then God has ultimate control over everything--every event--every occurrence both with natural disasters and human inclination. 

This is the logical conclusion of believing in a God that is all-powerful and all-knowing.  The hope that people have is that since God is all-powerful and all-knowing, there is a reason God caused the suffering even though that reason is not known.  Emphasize the word hope.  Not content to deal with the way things are, there must exist a deeper, more meaningful reason for suffering.

Problems with this Approach

The biggest problem with this approach to suffering has to do with the theological assertion: God is all-powerful.  Does God have such power that He controls each and every formulation of the human mind and will AND each and every act of nature?  If one concedes that God indeed is this powerful, then there is no free will (which is one of the reasons I believe Pragner uses the word responsibility only from the agnostic, second perspective). 

If there is no free will; however, then we are left with another significant problem.  If we as humans have no free will, we are simply puppets being used at the mercy of the divine persona.  One could easily get the perception of a kid playing with his toys.  He's got some favored toys which he cares for and keeps in pristine condition, but there are others which he cares less about.  Why not have some fun with them?  Make car crashes.  Have them play army against one another.  See what happens when they get caught in massive amounts of water, and fire, and rain, and wind, and falling earth--just as a child does with toys he doesn't mind getting broken.

Is it any wonder why some rebel against this notion of God?  Is it any wonder why they run screaming from this theological position?  I personally would too, but does this mean I am left with only one alternative?  Does this mean I have only one other option as Pragner suggests?  In a word: no.  (Let me stress here, that I have no animosity toward those who hold this particular theological position.  In it, they have found hope and comfort, and it is my last desire to remove that from them.)

A Christian Approach to Suffering

It is necessary to say that there are many approaches to the problem of suffering within the Christian tradition.

There are those who subscribe to the understanding that suffering is a part of God's will.

There are those who believe our suffering is a part of God's redemptive plan for the world--as Christ suffered, we also suffer for the sake of the world.

There are those who find meaning in the words of St. Paul in Romans 5:3-5: 3And not only that, but we also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, 4and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, 5and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.

I believe a Christian approach to suffering begins with the understanding that God intended a creation which was perfect where suffering did not appear.  I believe God created such a creation only to have it ultimately rebel against Him.  I want to be very clear here: it was not just man that rebelled against God, it was the entirety of creation that did.  This is an important point.

It is well argued that God gave free will to human beings so they were not puppets on a string.  In order to fully live in a relationship, one must be free to have some choice in the matter.  God initiates every relationship and brings people to belief; however, He gives us the ability to walk away.  At this point, I am also conceding this ability to creation as well.

How can I do such a thing?  In the Judeo-Christian story of the Fall, man and woman desire to be like God, so they disobey God's instructions and eat the fruit of the knowledge of good and evil.  Yet, they were coaxed into eating by...a part of creation: the serpent.  Parts of the creation were already rebelling against God's command, and they knew the lynch pin was humankind since God had given humankind the job of tending the Garden.  If humans fell, the whole of creation would simply continue its rebellion unchecked, and that's exactly what happened.

God allowed humankind and creation to make it's choice, and God continues to allow it such freedom.  I do not believe that God ultimately has control over every action taken by humans or by nature.  I believe God gives freedom to each to act accordingly--humans to their thought processes or lack there of, and the world according to scientific laws (as best as we understand them). 

I believe sometimes God intervenes in the process in the form of the miraculous--I know scientifically this is possible--however, I have no idea God's reasons for intervening in some cases but not others.

Suffering, then, is a consequence of the brokenness of the world.  Humans bear responsibility for part of that suffering and it cannot be attributed to God.  Nature bears responsibility for part of that suffering that cannot be attributed to God.  Yet, I also believe that God bears responsibility for suffering in that He does not intervene at all times and in all places to prevent suffering.

Yes, you read that last statement correctly.  God is on the hook for suffering which takes place in our world since He theoretically has the power to abolish it.  However, we must note that God places Himself on that proverbial hook--not us.  He does so through HIS OWN SUFFERING AND DEATH.  This is something that is uniquely Christian--the belief that God took on human flesh, suffered, and died so that creation could be redeemed.

As Timothy Keller puts it in The Reason for God: Belief in an Age of Skepticism:

Let's see where this has brought us.  If we again ask the question: "Why does God allow evil and suffering to continue?" and we look at the cross of Jesus, we still do not know what the answer is.  However, we now know what the answer isn't.  It can't be that He doesn't love us.  It can't be that He is indifferent or detached from our condition.  God takes our misery and suffering so seriously that He was willing to take it on Himself.  (pp. 30-31)
But it is not enough for the Christian to simply say, "God suffers with us." because there is more--resurrection.  Christianity proclaims a God who is not content to allow tragedy and death to be the final word, and so He offers resurrection.  This is the news of Jesus' rising from the dead.  Jesus is the "first fruit" of what is to come--the creation of a new heaven and a new earth.

A Third Way

And so, we have arrived at a third way from understanding God's will and suffering as opposed to Pragner's two.  Suffering is not caused by God's will.  He does not intentionally cause tornadoes or train wrecks or bus wrecks.  Nature causes suffering.  Humans cause suffering.  God does not stop such things from happening for reasons only known to Him.  In some cases, God intervenes for reasons known only to Him.

But God takes responsibility for all suffering by taking it upon Himself as He willingly suffers and dies to redeem the world so that at the end of time a new world will be brought into being where all the wrongs are made right.  This is the hope to which we subscribe.

Thursday, May 23, 2013

In Defense of Prayer

I have been intrigued by two stories that appeared on CNN.com in the past few days.  Both concerned matters of the spirit.  Both concerned the place of God in human suffering.  Both deserve commentary, much deeper than can be found in the usual comments section on such websites.

Today, I wish to deal with the topic of prayer.

In this CNN article, there are a few people who are criticizing the practice of prayer, both Christian scholars and atheists. 

Pertinent quotes:

"A prayer is supposed to have a consequence for you," said Elizabeth Drescher, a lecturer at Santa Clara University in California. "It's not an act of magic."  ...“It seems to express hope and anxiety, and maybe even helplessness,” Drescher said.  “At the same time, it evokes this strong response from people who see it as a cop-out, a way of claiming some kind of spiritual space that doesn’t actually have any meaning to the people who are posting the meme or the community they are addressing.”

After MTV tweeted that pop stars Beyonce, Rihanna and Katy Perry are sending their prayers to Oklahoma, Gervais responded, “I feel like an idiot now … I only sent money.”

“If all people are doing is praying, it is worthless,” Hemant Mehta, an Illinois math teacher who writes the blog “Friendly Atheist,” told CNN. “If they are praying and donating to the Red Cross, that’s more like it.”

 Why We Pray

First, let's examine the reasons that Christians pray.  Of course, we must root our understanding on prayer in the person of Jesus, and it was he who commanded His followers to pray.  Jesus Himself prayed, and as imitators of Christ, we are called to do the things He did to the best of our ability.

Drescher is correct in her assessment that prayer is supposed to have a consequence for you, but what she believes that consequence is, I am not sure.  What I do know is that prayer, at its best, links a person to God.  During our times of prayer, we do not change God, but God changes us.  Oftentimes during those moments of intense prayer, God is working around in us rearranging our furniture so that we may come to a fuller knowledge of Him and His will for our lives.  This means, we are transformed to produce the fruits of God and His Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, generosity, and self-control.

This process also helps us realize our dependence upon God.  The Prayer of prayers given to us by Jesus guides us into realizing what is most important: seeking God's Kingdom, seeking God's will, seeking heaven on earth, depending upon God for daily sustenance, seeking forgive as we have been forgiven, and seeking deliverance from evil. 

In such a manner, prayer indeed has consequences for our lives including when we pray for others.

It's Not Worthless to Pray for Others

What are the consequences for us when we pray for others?  This question comes to the fore whenever we pray for those involved in natural disasters, are stricken with grief, are diagnosed with illness, cancer, and the like, or who are going through other rough stretches in life.  Is there any value in praying for these folks?  Are there any consequences?  For us?  For them?

First, there are direct consequences for us.  This may seem like a bit of a stretch, but I can assure you, it is not.  Jesus instructed His followers to "pray for  your enemies and bless those who persecute you."

Why engage in such an activity?  From an atheistic point of view, this truly seems inane!  Why pray for someone who actively seeks your harm?  Why pray for someone who stands against what you say and do?

Quite simply, Jesus does not want us to forget our human connection to even our enemies.  Jesus does not want us to dehumanize even those who are persecuting us.  This world is a bed of roses--thorns and all.  We are surrounded by immense beauty and harmony, but there are many thorns which cause hurt and suffering.  One way we as humans cope with suffering is to dehumanize those who suffer and keep them at arm's length.  "I don't know them, so why should I grieve when they hurt?"  Jesus says, "Pray for them because they are human, just like you.  Your heavenly Father cares for them, just like He cares for you.  They deserve your care and concern because they are a part of God's creation, just like you."

But praying for others goes further--much, much further. 

Gervais and Mehta criticize prayer as worthless because it actually does nothing for those affected by tragedy.  They emphasize money over prayer.  This isn't surprising since atheism is inherently materialistic.  Atheism denies the existence of the spiritual--and actually anything that cannot be proven by measurement and reason.  (This presents a bit of a problem since atheism cannot prove the existence of other minds--other bodies, sure, but other minds--big problem.)  The only things that count in regards to such matters is how one deals with material needs.  This is why they make claims that money is more important than prayers.

It is indeed true that prayers cannot rebuild homes.  Prayer cannot provide food and clothing.  Prayers cannot pay for medical bills or funeral arrangements.  But--and this is a very important point--people are much more than these things.  People are much more than material objects.  People have more than material needs.

Again: people have more than material needs.

When we pray for others, we seek healing for their emotional and spiritual needs.  Atheism cannot begin to touch this subject with a 10 foot pole because it has absolutely no capability of measuring the success or failure of such things--emotions, spirit, or prayer.  Here is where Gervais and Mehta become badly mistaken. 

Prayers have an effect.

I cannot tell you the hundreds of times I have heard people say, "I feel the prayers of those around me."  Hey, I've even said the exact same thing.  The prayers of God's people are very effective at bringing healing to one's emotions and spirits.

This means that even those who are not able to financially and materially assist those who undergo tragedy or illness can affect a situation.  They can contribute to the well being of the ENTIRE person, not just one aspect--the material.

Therefore, pray away, my readers.  Pray for those affected by the Oklahoma tornadoes.  Pray for the parents of Sandy Hook elementary.  Pray for mothers and fathers whose children have died.  Pray for those who are experiencing suffering and pain and illness.  Despite what some would say, you are making a difference.

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Above and Beyond

I changed the way I teach confirmation this past year.  I had to.

With the advent of a more mobile society and the involvement of families in their children's activities--especially on weekends, Sunday School for children has almost become a relic of the past.  Where once classrooms were filled on Sunday mornings, they are mostly barren in many congregations.

Consequently, when youth arrive in Confirmation, they are ill prepared to talk about any sort of significant doctrines of the Lutheran Church.  They have little or no understanding of the biblical story that our doctrines are based upon.  Therefore, you can't even begin to talk about Luther's explanation to the First Article of the Apostles' Creed since the kids have little concept of what God has done not only in creation but throughout Salvation History as recorded in the Bible.

Young folks have a lot--A LOT--of catching up to do.  Too much to cram into two years of class.

And so, I began assigning the kids homework.  Quite a bit of homework.  They were required, in a month's time, to read a significant chunk of scripture and answer questions about their reading.  In doing, they had to learn important portions of the biblical narrative.  Then, they had to write an essay on the Christian concept of grace.  Finally, they were required to put their faith into action by performing a service project.

When I assigned the final project, I anticipated kids doing minor projects: visiting someone in a nursing home, cleaning up trash, reading to a young student, and the like.  I did not anticipate anything like what two of the students decided to do.  They dedicated themselves to putting together boxes for Operation Hugs.

They set as their goal to collect enough goods and money to send 30 boxes/care packages to service men and women.  As of this typing, they had 38 boxes ready to ship and anticipated getting enough to send 43 packages.

Mind you, these are two junior high students.  Young men who are becoming adult men and who will hopefully continue this streak of helping others into their lives.

When I first heard what they were doing, I believed they were going above and beyond what I had asked them to do, and I still stand by that.

This past Sunday, the entire confirmation class joined in to put together these packages as they collaborated together on this project.

This proud pastor just wants to say: GOOD JOB!!

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Addressing My Home Congregation

This post is an address given to my home congregation recalled to the best of my ability from memory.

Good morning, and thank you for the honor of being here at our congregation's 100th Anniversary.  We pastor's are known for being pretty wordy, but I will try to keep things as brief as possible while dealing with the question, "What difference can a church make?"

What difference can a church make?

I remember when my great-grandmother, Pauline Galloway died.  We had the funeral at the old church, and afterward, I remember going to the fellowship hall, the old educational building.  I saw my grandmother, Estelle Haug, there setting out sandwiches and other things for the reception.  I went up to her and said, "Grandma, I didn't know you were related to Grandma Galloway."

She said, "I'm not."

I replied, "Then why are you here?"

She responded, "Well, this is what we do to help out when someone dies?"

What difference does a church make when helping someone understand what it means to care for others even when you aren't related?  What difference does a church make when reaching out to families that grieve?

What difference does a church make?

Story number two.  This one has to do with my cousin, Joshua Grote.  Josh was probably about 18-24 months old at the time just old enough to know there was a routine in church but not old enough to know what in the world was going on.  Pastor had invited all the kids up to the children's sermon, and, as I said, Josh was old enough he was supposed to go up there, but he was too young to actually listen to what was Pastor was saying.

I think a whole lot of people never advance past that stage anyway.  (congregation laughs)

No offense, Pastor Jeff, but I don't remember a single sermon that you've ever preached.  (congregation laughs)

Pastor Jeff responds, "I don't remember them either."  (But the congregation doesn't hear him.  I do.)

But don't feel bad about that, Jeff.  Now that I'm preaching on a regular basis, I've come to know there's nothing personal about it.  There's a story behind that one as well.

I challenged my congregation not too long ago to remember one of my sermons word for word.  I even gave them a place in the bulletin to take notes.  The Gospel text was on the wedding at Cana where Jesus turns water into wine.  In that text, Mary tells those gathered, "Do what he tells you to do."  So, I got up in front of the congregation and said, "Do what Jesus says.  Amen."

The congregation at that point was like, "What the hell?"  But that was it.

Next Sunday, I asked the folks gathered, "I've been here eight years.  How many of you can remember a sermon, aside from last week's, word for word?"

Not a single hand went up.

"Now, how many of you remember last weeks?"

A whole bunch of hands. 

"And that was only four words."

There's a lesson there somewhere, but I'm not quite willing to learn it just yet.

But, anyway, back to the story.  I don't remember the content of Pastor Jeff's children's sermon fully that morning. I do know it was about God's love, and Jeff concluded the sermon by telling the children he would give them all a hug.  He finished, and all the kids stood up to get their hugs.

Well, Josh, as I said, being too young to actually listen, knew enough of the routine to believe the children's sermon was over and that it was time to head back to his pew.  He took off running back to his mom and dad.  Well, of course, Landon and Marie told him, "Josh, you didn't get your hug."

Well, Josh took off like a bullet right then.  He moved as fast as his little legs could carry him. He ran around to the back of the church, behind the organ and the piano.  He rounded the back pews and started heading down the center aisle, but he wasn't fast enough.  Pastor Jeff had finished giving all the kids their hugs and was turning to begin the adult sermon.

Josh was about half-way down when he realized this, and he began squealing.  That's as best as I can describe it.  He ran and squealed at the same time to get Jeff's attention.

And what do you do at that moment when you are a pastor?  You do the only thing you can do.

Jeff turned around and caught Josh.  He picked him up in the air and gave him a huge bear hug much to the absolute delight to everyone who was there that morning.

What difference does a church make?

Joshua is now on his vicarage year as he is preparing to be a pastor in the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod.

What difference does a church make?

When it is showing God's love within in and without and intentionally taking that love out into the community, it survives and thrives for 100 years.  And if it continues, it will last for hundreds more.  God bless you today and always as you seek to show that love. 

Thank you again.

Thursday, May 16, 2013

How do Bad Ideas Continue to Stick Around?

I usually don't take work home with me, but right now, I cannot help it.  Richard Bauckham's book Jesus and the Eyewitnesses: The Gospels as Eyewitness Testimony has me hooked.  Last night, as I read in my recliner at home, I found myself enlightened and bewildered at one and the same time.

As I wrote yesterday, I was taught biblical criticism which had its roots in form criticism.  As I read through Bauckham's thoughts on this matter, I found myself sitting right back in Theology 101 and New Testament 301.  "This is exactly what I was taught," I thought.

And then Bauckham began listing the criticisms of form criticism.  These criticisms had never seen the light of day in my theological education--and they were enlightening.  There were no less than nine criticisms which effectively shattered the assumptions form criticism were built upon relegating this form of biblical study to the academic scrap heap--at least one would think it would have done so.

But Bauckham writes something very, very telling (bold emphasis mine):

Even a few of these criticisms would be sufficient to undermine the whole form-critical enterprise.  There is no reason to believe that the oral transmission of Jesus traditions in the early church was at all as Bultmann [one of the movement's chief proponents] envisaged it.  It is remarkable that this is not more widely acknowledged explicitly, though, once one is aware of it, it is not difficult to see that many contemporary Gospel scholars acknowledge it implicitly by ignoring form criticism in its classical form.  But what form criticism has bequeathed as a long enduring legacy is the largely unexamined impression that many scholars--and probably even more students--still entertain: the impression of a long period of creative development of the traditions before they attained written form in the Gospels.  The retention of such an impression is not defensible unless it is justified afresh, for the arguments of the form critics no longer hold water.  pg. 249
I can attest to the truth of the bold statement.  And it made me wonder two things: 1) why weren't the criticisms noted by Bauchham taught by my professors?  and 2) Why does this stuff continue to stick around even though it has been thoroughly debunked?

The first question, I cannot hazard to guess as I do not know the hearts and minds of my professors.  Perhaps one day I will get the gumption to ask, but at this point, it doesn't really matter.

The second question is a bit more troublesome because I have an educated guess.  Mind you, it is educated, but it is still a guess.

The reason this particular idea has stuck around for so long is that it gives a theologian who is taught in this manner the permission to explore "what Jesus really said" and slough off anything he or she perceives as added by a particular community.

Paraphrasing the infamous words of Depeche Mode, it allows a person to build his or her "own personal Jesus."

One of the things I remember most about attending Texas Lutheran University in the theology department was the deep seeded distrust and animosity toward "Fundamentalist Christians."  Particular animosity was directed to the exclusivity of said "Fundamentalist Christians."  There were many at TLU who didn't like anything which proclaimed to be exclusive, and great pains were taken to be extremely inclusive.

However, this does pose a bit of a problem when studying the Gospel stories of Jesus--especially when traveling through the Gospel of John.  Jesus makes numerous exclusive claims in this book most notably the claim read at many, many funerals from the 14th Chapter of the book of John, "I am the way, and the truth, and the life.  No one comes to the Father except through me."

How does one reconcile this passage with inclusivity?

Easy enough if you subscribe to the form criticism assumption that it was communities of faith who put together these stories after a long period of time to state the community's thoughts instead of what Jesus supposedly, really said.   One could say, "This snippet from the book of John reflects more the community's thoughts about Jesus instead of the actual words of Jesus." 

And in one fell swoop, one can discount what Jesus reportedly said in this book so that one can maintain his or her ideology surrounding inclusivity.

Of course, this doesn't have to be limited to Jesus' claims of exclusivity.  If someone doesn't like Jesus' teaching about wealth, one could use the same methodology to point out that this was what the community's thoughts of Jesus were and not what Jesus actually said.  Of course, that won't do for those who believe Jesus really did say stuff about wealth and privilege, so therefore, they have to come up with ingenious ways of discovering the historical nuggets of what Jesus really said embedded in the Gospels.

But, as I pointed out yesterday, it is striking how the historical nuggets most often come to reflect the personal biases of those who seek to "discover" them.

Yet, this is not surprising.  We all would like Jesus to confirm our particular way of life and how we look at the world, and we're not too comfortable when His teaching confronts us and shows us to be in error.  Early Christian thought and teaching called a person to repentance when such a thing happened--but today, it's much easier to explain that teaching away instead of actually following it.

This is why, in part, I believe the impression left by form criticism has stuck around--even though the technique itself has been thoroughly shown as bad.  Will it ever go away?  Not likely--especially if people can continue to construct their own images of Jesus instead of seeking to be transformed into His.

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Rethinking What You Thought You Knew (or at least what you were taught)

Every once in a while a book will come along which will change the way you think--or, at the very least, it will challenge the orthodoxy of that which you were taught during the education you received.

Perhaps it is a blessing (or a curse) that in the past three or four years, several books have done this very thing to me:

Timothy Keller's The Reason for God: Belief in an Age of Skepticism
Dallas Willard's compilation of several Veritas Lectures titled A Place for Truth: Leading Thinkers Explore Life's Hardest Questions
C.S. Lewis' Mere Christianity

These titles gave me some much needed tools to wrestle with my faith in a manner that was not given to me by the liberal education that I received in theology and philosophy.  For once, I was able to wrestle with my faith from an orthodox perspective, and this wrestling helped me deal with the major points I found lacking in my previous theological education.

Currently, I am reading another book which promises to do the same thing in the area of biblical scholarship that the above books did in theology/philosophy.

The book is by Richard Bauckham, a Scottish scholar, and it is titled Jesus and the Eyewitnesses: The Gospels as Eyewitness Testimony.  Thus far, (I am approximately 1/4 of the way through a 500 page tome) it is turning everything I learned in college and seminary upside down.

Revisiting the Past

During my college and seminary years, the third Quest for the Historical Jesus was well under way.  Some of you might remember the famous or infamous Jesus Seminar from the mid to late 90's.  I remember it well as it was another culmination of a particular way of doing biblical studies introduced to me by Dr. Norm Beck at Texas Lutheran University.  I'll never forget the distinction he made between the Jesus of History and the Christ of Faith.

How does one go about making such a distinction?

Well, first one must approach the Gospel stories in the New Testament with  certain assumptions:

The Gospels originated in communities of faith who wrote down the stories of Jesus years after the death and resurrection of Jesus.  These stories were first passed down as oral traditions, and over time, they became embellished.  Certain things were added to the stories to make Jesus seem more powerful and attractive.  There are kernels of history still included in the Gospel narratives, but these must be weeded out from the faith statements/embellishments added by the various communities in which the Gospel stories originated.

How can one go about distinguishing the Jesus of History from the Christ of Faith?  Good question.  Certain scholars have come up with numerous sets of criteria to accomplish this task.  These vary of course from scholar to scholar and from methodology to methodology.  The Jesus Seminar was quite ingenious in that they had a vote by color scheme to decide what was "authentically Jesus" and what was embellishment.  Such methodologies could be applied in the following manner, and I will use two of the most important events surrounding Jesus: the crucifixion and the resurrection.

The crucifixion of Jesus is found in all four canonical gospels.  It is also attested to by extra-biblical sources.  The crucifixion would also be considered an embarrassment to the early Christian community as their leader was executed as a public criminal.  To include this in the works despite the embarrassment means there is a very high likelihood that the event actually took place.  Ergo-the crucifixion is definitely something that happened in the life of the Jesus of History.

The resurrection cannot be attested to by science or reason.  Extra-biblical sources comment that Jesus' followers say He rose from the dead, but there are no other witnesses other than those followers.  Such comments are not objective and are not historically verifiable.  Ergo, the resurrection is an event which is faith based and belongs to the Christ of Faith.

Now, this type of hair splitting can be rather concerning to many Christians.  There is a sense of "this is what really happened" versus "this is what was made up" lurking very near.  But, professors are usually not willing to totally destroy someone's faith.  They quickly point out the difference between reason and faith and that faith isn't something reason can confirm or deny.  There is no danger from entering into this process.

However, there are more than a few issues with this process:

1. Even though professors (and others) try to comfort believers by pointing out the difference between faith and reason and saying there is nothing to worry about; a good chunk of folks set faith and reason at war with one another.  There is a tendency to elevate one particular type of knowledge above the other, and this has led to all sorts of issues for the Church and for society.

2. When dealing with the Jesus of History--if you actually think you can whittle down to it--one must be able to make the Jesus of History as powerful as the Christ of Faith.  If the Christ of Faith developed later as an embellishment of oral history, then there must have been something quite powerful about the Jesus of History to initiate a movement based upon Him and His teachings.  Have Jesus of History scholars had to do their own embellishment to make the Jesus of History as appealing as the Jesus which appears in the Gospels?  Not sure on that one.

3. There is an oddly peculiar thing that happens in this quest for the Jesus of History.  Whenever a scholar "reconstructs" Jesus, then that Jesus seems to share many of the same passions, inclinations, and concerns as that particular biblical scholar.  So, one must ask whether or not the scholar is truly objective or is simply trying to make Jesus into a mirror image of his or her own beliefs?

Revisiting the Basic Assumptions

Bauckham makes such problems irrelevant. 

How?

He challenges the basic assumptions of such biblical scholarship.

Bauckham begins by building a case that the Gospel narratives were NOT based upon oral histories and traditions that developed over time and were embellished.  (That's an important statement.  Read it again.)  Rather, Bauckham builds his case that each Gospel narrative was written based upon the eyewitness testimony of individuals who both saw and heard Jesus in person.  Each Gospel writer uses different eyewitnesses with at least one primary one, and three of the Gospels actually give indications as to who the primary eyewitness(es) was.

Mark's primary eyewitness was Peter.
Luke's primary eyewitnesses were several women who were disciples.
John was written by an eyewitness--the Beloved Disciple.

As I mentioned earlier, I am only 1/4 of the way through the book, but Bauckham's arguments are thoroughly researched, grounded, and documented.  There are multiple footnotes on just about every page.  He is very, very thorough.

Consequences

If indeed Bauckham is correct in his challenge of the basic assumptions of the formation of the Gospel narratives, then we have just entered into a whole new world of understanding the stories about Jesus.  These are not the stories of legend, but the recollections of people who were there.

Now, one can say that these folks are making all the stuff up.  It's a reasonable thing to say.  However, these are multiple witnesses recounting many of the same stories without too much difference.  In fact, knowing the way our brains work and the details they remember, it might even be safe to say that the differences we encounter in many of the biblical stories are there because these eyewitnesses remember certain details over others--much like eyewitnesses who testify to a jury differ in their details.  In no way does it discount the truth of the events!

Furthermore, the dualism of distinguishing between the Jesus of History versus the Christ of Faith is no more.  The Jesus of History IS the Christ of Faith  (basically, this was the same thing Luke Timothy Johnson said during the whole Jesus Seminar hullabaloo; however, Bauckham is much, much more thorough).  The Gospels are stories based upon individual testimony and not compilations put together by particular communities.  And, if Bauckham is correct about the Gospel of John, we have at least one narrative written by a person who witnessed the life of Jesus, His death, His resurrection, and His appearances after the resurrection.

Fascinating, exciting stuff!!!  Stuff that makes you rethink everything you thought you knew or at least what you were taught.

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

The Presidential Motorcade

Last Thursday, I attended my Bowen Family Systems Class in Austin, TX.  I rode with a couple of friends, enjoyed a pleasant drive to the state capitol, and participated in the last class of the semester.  Then came the ride home.

We had forgotten the President of the United States would be visiting Austin that day.  We quickly received a reminder.

As we drove, I looked toward downtown and saw the entire highway blocked off.  I figured there was a massive accident to shut down traffic like that.  Continuing on, another major artery was blockaded.  I commented, "I wonder if North Korea launched a missile?  We'd better get the hell out of here."  It was a joke, BTW.

We turned on the local radio and began listening.  Somewhere in the recesses of my memory, something stirred.  A link on the Drudge Report about the President visiting Texas.  "Is Obama in town?" I asked.

"That's what I thought I just heard," replied my friend.

The local talk radio station was taking calls regarding the traffic situation surrounding the President's visit.  Traffic was backed up all over town--around the airport; heading downtown; and on HWY 290 where the President was currently engaged in a speaking arrangement.  We just happened to be traveling on 290 East, and we got stuck.  Parking lot stuck.

We waited and visited, listening to which route the presidential motorcade would take, and it just so happened that it would pass on 290 West in full view of where we sat.  We waited.  After some time, the motorcade arrived, and it was a sight to behold.

I would estimate that it was over 100 vehicles: Patrol sedans, SUV's, motorcycles, fire engines, ambulances, and the President's limo.  Yes, fire engines and ambulances are a part of the presidential motorcade.  I didn't know that until that time.  On numerous SUV's, the back windows were open with sharpshooters prepared to open fire on anyone brave--wait, rephrase that, anyone daft--enough to attack the motorcade.   

My mind worked to comprehend this massive transportation machine; the shutting down of all these routes majorly inconveniencing thousands of drivers, the hours of man power and the thousands of dollars spent on this endeavor all for the protection of one individual.

I commented, "If you ever thought there was a difference in the bourgeois and the rest of us, I think that just proved it."

How important is the life of the President of the United States compared to your life?  Is it worth more than yours, or mine, or the homeless man residing under the bridge close to 6th Street in Austin, TX? 

Now, this question presents a bit of a conundrum, does it not?  For if we say that all people have the same worth, then we must question the expenditures surrounding the presidential motorcade.  If we say the President's life is worth more, then we can justify the expenditure. 

On a further note, is it any wonder why the general public sees our politicians as out of touch with reality?

Monday, May 13, 2013

Does God Give Warning Tickets?

Last Sunday after church [Sheriff of Austin County] Jack Brandes asked me a very good question, "Does God give warning tickets?" "You know, pastor," Jack said, "we issue a lot of warning tickets. Does God give warnings?"

Jack, of course was referencing my sermon last week about the reasons we follow Christ’s commands and God’s laws. My initial response was, "Yes, God does issue warning tickets." And I stand by that. This might seem like a rather odd topic for Mother’s Day, but bear with me. I’m trying to be faithful to the biblical texts appointed for the day and answer a really good question brought forth by one of our members.

The Old Testament is full of references of God sending warnings to His people who were disobeying the law. All one need do is read through the prophets. When the people sinned, God repeatedly sent men of faith who called Israel to repentance. "Stop worshiping false gods," they would cry out, "lest God bring forth punishment." "Thus says the Lord, stop your pious festivals because what I really desire is for you to do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with your God. Do this, or there will be consequences."

Warning tickets. Such things are issued to get you to think about what you are doing wrong and turn around to do the right things. But what about the New Testament? Are such warnings found after Jesus’ death and resurrection? I think there are.

Let us look once again at our second lesson this morning from the book of Revelation chapter 22. This is the very end of John’s vision, and in this vision, John is being shown around heaven. John paints the picture of this reality several times in this final book of the Bible including in these last few verses, "12 ‘See, I am coming soon; my reward is with me, to repay according to everyone’s work. 13I am the Alpha and the Omega, the first and the last, the beginning and the end.’ 14 Blessed are those who wash their robes, so that they will have the right to the tree of life and may enter the city by the gates. 15Outside are the dogs and sorcerers and fornicators and murderers and idolaters, and everyone who loves and practices falsehood."

"15Outside are the dogs and sorcerers and fornicators and murderers and idolaters, and everyone who loves and practices falsehood." A warning ticket. Now, those of you who read my blog know this verse was omitted by those who were choosing today’s Bible passages for some reason or another. I wasn’t happy about its exclusion, so I made sure it was printed in the bulletin. We need to see what is in scripture and be allowed to think about it, wrestle with it, and ask tough questions about it. Like, why would God keep people outside of heaven?

Now, this might not be a troubling question for some. I mean, there are many Christians who willingly accept the Christian doctrine of hell, but there are a good chunk of people who find this problematic. How could a loving God destine people to eternal punishment?

Well, let’s start with the fact that God does not destine anyone to hell. God does not destine anyone to eternal punishment. God doesn’t condemn people. They condemn themselves.

Now, that might sound harsh, but let’s go through this step by step. First off, remember that you don’t have the power to come to belief in God on your own. Some people have trouble with this concept. Some folks believe you have to consciously make a decision to believe in God and follow Jesus Christ. I respectfully disagree as Scripture is very clear. St. Paul writes that no one can say Jesus is Lord except by the power of the Holy Spirit. For those of you who want verse references, it’s 1 Corinthians 12:3. If you have an argument with me about this, you will first have to argue with St. Paul. Martin Luther, namesake of the Lutheran Church picked up on this in his explanation to the third article of the Apostles’ Creed when he wrote, "I cannot by my own reason or strength believe in Jesus Christ or come to Him, but it is the Holy Spirit that calls me through the Gospel, enlightens me with His gifts and sanctifies and preserves me in the true faith." And now, if Andrew Newberg’s brain research is correct, we know that we are actually hard-wired for belief in God. The brain is wired for belief! In my book, that means God has predestined each and every one of us to believe in Him and have salvation.

So, why hell then? Why people sitting outside heaven? Well, because God gives us the choice to walk away. We can freely stay in a relationship with Him, or we can walk away from it. We have free will.
"But why does God give us this free will. If He loves us so much and wants us to be with Him, why does He allow us to walk away?"

Well, let’s think about that a moment. If He didn’t give us free will, then we would simply be puppets on a string. God would control us. That’s not exactly a relationship now, is it? True relationships, relationships which are built upon love and trust require freedom. They require people having the ability to say yes to each other or no to each other. It’s that simple, really. There must be a choice involved when it comes to our relationship with God, and that choice remains squarely with you and me as to whether or not we stay in that relationship. God doesn’t waver in His resolve toward us. He wants us to be with Him, and He will do everything in His power to make that relationship work. It is we who choose to walk away.

Which brings us back to those sitting outside of heaven: the dogs and sorcerers and fornicators and murderers and idolaters, and everyone who loves and practices falsehood. How do we reconcile such things with grace? How do we reconcile those sitting on the outside with the knowledge that it is not by our actions that we are saved but purely by God’s love? Doesn’t God love even those who are outside the gate?

Of course. In fact, God loves them so much that He gives them their heart’s desire.

Verses 16 and 17 read, "16 ‘It is I, Jesus, who sent my angel to you with this testimony for the churches. I am the root and the descendant of David, the bright morning star.’ 17 The Spirit and the bride say, ‘Come.’ And let everyone who hears say, ‘Come.’ And let everyone who is thirsty come. Let anyone who wishes take the water of life as a gift."

Stop and think a moment about your heart’s desire. Stop and think a moment about what is at the center of your life and what your life revolves around. Consider for a moment that your heart’s desire is your thirst. Consider for a moment that your life revolves around what you believe will quench that thirst. And consider that God wants to give you your heart’s desire. God will allow you to pursue your heart’s desire for eternity. And consider now, that if your heart’s desire isn’t God, that desire will never be quenched. Yeah, that would be hell.

Now, consider the fact that the only desire that can be quenched completely when we enter into eternity, is our thirst for God. "Let everyone who is thirsty come. Drink the gift of the water of life. Be satisfied. Be filled. Enter into the peace that passes all understanding." Heaven.

What is your heart’s desire? Do we need a warning ticket? I sincerely hope not. Amen.

Friday, May 10, 2013

More Absurdity from the Political Correctness Front

Some people believe the political correctness garbage floating around in our nation is about sensitivity.  We must be sensitive to the feelings of a particular group or person, therefore we shouldn't say or do anything that offends them.

I call B.S. for two reasons.  One experiential.  The other, practical.

First, the experiential.  Political correctness presents quite the conundrum for a family like mine.  Yeah, this is for all of those out there who want to rain on my parade with that whole "you're speaking from the position of white privilege" line of unreasoning.  (I purposely use that word because there is nothing reasonable about that comment.)

My family is a mixed family.  My wife and I adopted two bi-racial girls.  Technically, one is tri-racial, but who's counting?  (Can you say absurdity when it comes to defining people by race?  There is only one race, the human one.)  Both of my daughter's would be classified as black by their skin color--but we all know we're not supposed to judge anyone by the color of their skin!!!

As you can see by the dripping sarcasm of that last paragraph, I don't deal well with such distinctions, but political correctness adds a whole other dimension of stupidity.

You see, what does a family like mine do with the "N-word"?  Of course, that word arose as a derogatory, dehumanizing word long ago when people of color were considered to be less than a full human by some.  As such, at least in my opinion, the word should be scrapped from our vocabularies and relegated to the history books so that we do not forget and repeat this shameful terminology.

There is only one problem with that: within the black community, it is perfectly legitimate for people to refer to each other as the "N-word."  Now, no person of any other culture is allowed to use that term, because THEN it is seen as derogatory.  But it is not derogatory when used within the culture itself.

Really? 

What convoluted logic.  So, if I get this straight, it would be perfectly allowable for my daughters to call each other the "N-word", but if I utter it, then I have crossed the line?  So, what if I truly believe this word is derogatory and carries the historical connotation of dehumanizing--as I am told by pundits.  I try to convey that meaning to my daughters, but then they hear someone say, "Oh, it's O.K. for black people to call each other that."  They come home and say, "Daddy, we can call each other nigggers, but you can't!"  What kind of lesson does that convey?

Not a good one, I can assure you.  This inherent contradiction is a poor methodology for dealing with the sensitivities around race and culture. 

What my wife and I intend to do in such areas--not only with the "N-word" but with other such sensitivities, is help our children grow thick skins.  Instead of making them sensitive to what others' may say about them, we will equip them to understand the importance of not allowing such actions and speech to push their buttons.  This is the practical application.

This grows out of my own experience growing up and out of my study of Bowen Family Systems Theory. 

You see, growing up with the last name of Haug presented its own form of hell as a child.  At least for a little while. 

I dreaded the first day of school for years.  For whenever the teacher called out my name, she invariably pronounced my name Hog.  There wasn't any malice.  None.  It was an honest mistake.  What was particularly painful--at least at first--was the reaction of my classmates:

Unmitigated laughter.

And, of course, if I reacted, that opened the door to further teasing.  "Hog!"  "Hog!"  "Hog!"  "Kevin Hog!"

The angrier I became, the worse the teasing.

My parents did their best to reassure me.  "Don't listen to them.  They are jealous.  They are the ones with the problem, not you."

Small comfort to begin with, but at this stage in my life, I realize the wisdom behind those words.  "Don't let them push your buttons.  Once they find a button, they will repeatedly push it just to tick you off."

So, one can either try to make people stop pushing the buttons (They won't.  It goes against human nature.), or one can work to insure there is no response when the button is pushed.

These days, I don't react when someone mispronounces my name--purposely or otherwise.  Neither do I react when personally attacked.  I've learned to subdue the knee-jerk response and think things through.  It's brought about mental toughness--a quality I find more and more lacking in our society these days.

If anyone decides to make fun of my children, I have the options of trying to make everyone stop (an exercise in futility) or giving my children the tools to overcome such things.  I can make my children into wimps who think that it is someone else's job to make everyone stop picking on them, or I can teach my children to be tough and realize the immaturity of those who wish to get under their skin by calling names.

Political correctness does the former.  I choose the latter. 

(For further understanding, I encourage you to read a little parable by Ed Friedman entitled, "A Nervous Condition."  It's highly enlightening.)

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

A Proper Burial

So, apparently the family of one of the Boston Marathon bombers is having trouble finding a cemetery who will bury him.

A relevant quote from the linked article:

"The difficult and stressful efforts of the citizens of the City of Cambridge to return to a peaceful life would be adversely impacted by the turmoil, protests, and wide spread media presence at such an interment," Healy said.

Is this how far we have come as a nation now?  When doing the right thing is subject to turmoil, protests, and wide spread media presence?

Don't get me wrong.  I am not pleased with Tamerlan Tsarnaev's actions or the actions of his brother.  I believe what they did is despicable, but I am also informed by my Christian faith.

Jesus said, "Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you."  Matthew 5:44

Why would Jesus say such a thing?  Why would He admonish his followers to do something so contrary to human nature? 

#1. We are all made in the image of God.  One cannot overlook this very important point.  There is a basic level of humanity that we all share no matter who we are, what we look like, and what we do.  Loving an enemy and praying for one who is persecuting you helps you realize this connection, and it keeps you from dehumanzing them.  For when you dehumanize an enemy, it is easy to commit atrocity against them.

#2. We are all corrupted by sin.  I know many of us like to think we take the moral high road.  I know many of us believe we are right and "they" are wrong.  This may be most certainly true.  May be.  But if there is anything history has taught us, it is very easy to give ourselves pats on the back thinking we are correct--even if we are wrong.  History has taught us that it is quite easy to give ourselves theological justification for our actions against another--even when it is particularly clear that God in Jesus says that such actions lead only to death--"Those who live by the sword will die by the sword."  Loving an enemy and praying for him or her also helps a person recognize his or her own short coming and confronts a person with his or her own sinfulness. 

#3. Because we are corrupted, any one of us could snap at a given moment.  Sometimes psychological pressures caused by stress and anxiety lead us down a very dark path.  Sometimes it means the taking of one's own life.  Other times, it means taking the lives of others when carrying out one's own destruction.  We must realize that within each and everyone of us is a Tamerlan Tsarnaev.  How would you want to be treated if suddenly things came to a head and you snapped?  Would you want others to deny your basic humanity?

#4. Forgiveness.  Yeah, it's a big thing, sometimes very, very difficult when the situation is so raw.  But in loving an enemy and praying for those who persecute you, you are not allowing the enemy to control you.  You are not allowing the enemy to have a part of your heart and soul.  The enemy has no power over you.  This is one of those overlooked aspects of forgiveness.  In this particular case, burying Tsarnaev shows that even though he and his brother intended to do harm, we show a better way.  We show a way with more power that refuses to kowtow to hatred.  "You want to bomb us.  You want to show hatred toward us.  That is your choice.  We will defend ourselves.  We will seek justice, but we will not repay hatred with hatred.  We will kill you with kindness because we know hope."

Such reasons lie, I believe at the heart of why Jesus gives us these commands.  Unfortunately, these things are far removed from our society these days.  We have relegated the spiritual to the personal, and so it no longer informs our national psyche. 

And so, we repay hatred with hatred.  We repay death with indignity.  Instead of taking the higher road, we debase ourselves.

Let us show our strength by treating our enemies as humans, not as animals.

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Sanitizing the Bible

I sat down in my office on Monday to consider the biblical texts for this week recommended by the Revised Common Lectionary.  My attention centered for a time on the Second Lesson appointed for the day:

Revelation 22: 12-14, 16-17, 20-21

As a seminary professor once said, "They looked like roadkill."

If one were to print the appointed texts, they would read like this:

12 ‘See, I am coming soon; my reward is with me, to repay according to everyone’s work. 13I am the Alpha and the Omega, the first and the last, the beginning and the end.’ 14 Blessed are those who wash their robes, so that they will have the right to the tree of life and may enter the city by the gates.  17 The Spirit and the bride say, ‘Come.’ And let everyone who hears say, ‘Come.’ And let everyone who is thirsty come. Let anyone who wishes take the water of life as a gift.  20 The one who testifies to these things says, ‘Surely I am coming soon.’ Amen. Come, Lord Jesus! 21 The grace of the Lord Jesus be with all the saints. Amen.

Nice, tidy, pretty, and comforting. 

But let's add  now what was omitted.  The omissions will be highlighted for your consideration:

12 ‘See, I am coming soon; my reward is with me, to repay according to everyone’s work. 13I am the Alpha and the Omega, the first and the last, the beginning and the end.’ 14 Blessed are those who wash their robes, so that they will have the right to the tree of life and may enter the city by the gates. 15Outside are the dogs and sorcerers and fornicators and murderers and idolaters, and everyone who loves and practices falsehood. 16 ‘It is I, Jesus, who sent my angel to you with this testimony for the churches. I am the root and the descendant of David, the bright morning star.’ 17 The Spirit and the bride say, ‘Come.’ And let everyone who hears say, ‘Come.’ And let everyone who is thirsty come. Let anyone who wishes take the water of life as a gift.  18 I warn everyone who hears the words of the prophecy of this book: if anyone adds to them, God will add to that person the plagues described in this book; 19if anyone takes away from the words of the book of this prophecy, God will take away that person’s share in the tree of life and in the holy city, which are described in this book. 20 The one who testifies to these things says, ‘Surely I am coming soon.’ Amen. Come, Lord Jesus! 21 The grace of the Lord Jesus be with all the saints. Amen.

Question: Why the sanitizing?

(BTW: Since my congregation prints the lessons in the bulletin, I made sure the omitted texts were included.)

Monday, May 6, 2013

Putting it All in Perspective

All it takes is one hospital call.

There are moments when I hate this calling/job. 

It's not so bad when you are new to a place and don't know people very well, but spend a few years in a congregation serving with them.  Get to know them deeper than on the surface.  Bond with them.  Feel at home.  Feel like you are really and truly a part of the community.

And then go stand in a room with the parents of a two year old listening to a doctor tell them he is almost 99% positive their little, blond-haired, blue-eyed girl has cancer.  Watch them try to hold it together as the doctor explains the whats, whys, and hows.  Stand there as they begin breaking down, shed tears, and wonder what the future holds.  Watch their anxiety soar through the roof of that hospital.

Then, stand as grandparents enter, and the news is broken to them.  See grown men grow teary eyed work against all that teaching received growing up--"Be strong.  Be a man. Be tough."

How can you be tough when your daughter, your granddaughter is facing a threat like cancer?

How can you be passive when you know she will have chemicals induced into her body, make her sick, cause her hair to fall out, and weaken her immune system?

I hate watching this kind of stuff.  I absolutely hate it!!  It's easier when you don't know people.  You can be detached.  But when you know people, and you love them...it ain't easy.

There are moments when I hate this calling/job.

And as God's particular spokesperson at that moment, you know there is really nothing to say.  God's mysterious silence mirrors your own silence.

You don't know why.

You don't understand why.

You don't have any clue or any answer.

But you cling to hope.  It's your job to hold on tightly to that ray of light, and then try to point it out to those around you.

"Pardon me for continuing to make a joke or two.  Pardon me for smiling in the midst of all this.  I am not trying to make light of the situation at all.  But it is my job to remind you of hope.  It is my job to remind you life isn't stopping.  It's my job to remind you that even in the midst of this horrible news, God is still here."

"I'm glad you are here to do just that."

There are moments when I love this calling/job.

People need hope.  Even when hit with such news.

It puts things into perspective--a perspective that all too often we lose. 

We love to argue about insignificant things.  I mean, what difference does it really make whether or not a church service is conducted with organ music or with piano?  What difference does it make whether or not the flowers on the altar are real or artificial?  What difference does it make whether or not the cleaning lady missed emptying a trash can?  Who cares if the umpire called a strike when it was a ball?  Who cares if the ref missed a holding call?  So what if the best player on the team missed a last second jump shot for the win?  So what if the Democrats passed a law and the Republicans are holding up the process or vice versa?

Who really gives a damn?

Not those parents and grandparents who I was around today.  They could care less.  All they could care about was whether or not their little girl would survive this threat to her life.  All they could care about was whether or not their prayers and the prayers of their church family and friends would be effective.  All they could care about was the reality of doctors and hospitals and treatments for the next several years. 

Death and life.

Cross and resurrection.

Despair and hope. 

Put it in perspective. 

Remember what's really important.

Why Follow the Law?

I remember being frustrated at my mom when I was a kid. My frustration occurred whenever my family and I would go on long trips. Mom and dad would take turns driving to ease driver fatigue, and for some reason, it always seemed like dad drove faster than mom. I’m not sure if it was really true or not as I don’t remember looking at the speedometer with dad driving, but I do remember looking over the car seat to gauge how fast mom was driving. The needle never went above 55 mph. Yes, back in the day when the speed limit was 55, I don’t remember my mom driving any faster than that. As a kid, this was excruciating! My sister and I wanted to get where we were going faster, and it just seemed like when mom was driving, it took forever. We’d beg and plead for her to drive faster, but she wouldn’t. She obeyed the law.

I got to thinking about this earlier this week as I prepared my sermon. I especially thought about it in light of Jesus’ words which begin our Gospel lesson this morning, "Those who love me will keep my word, and my Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them. Whoever does not love me does not keep my words; and the word that you hear is not mine, but is from the Father who sent me."

This text can be a bit problematic for those of us who believe to the core of our being that God’s love for us is not contingent upon what we do. Jesus seems to indicate that the Father’s love hinges upon whether or not we keep Jesus’ word. And if we want the Father to love us, then we’d darn sure better keep Jesus’ word. If we want Jesus and the Father to make their home with us, then we darn sure better keep Jesus’ word.

Now, it is not my intent to lessen what Jesus says this morning. Neither am I going to stand up here and tell you what Jesus "really means." You can read His words plainly right there before you. And without trying to make those words say something they really don’t, I want to take a moment to look at Jesus’ teaching very carefully.

Let’s start with the first phrase, "Those who love me will keep my word..." "Those who love me," Jesus says. I think this is a very important place to start. It is not the first time Jesus spoke these words in the 14th chapter of the book of John. In fact, Jesus says this phrase or something very much like it not only in verse 23, but also in verse 15 and 21. "Those who love me will keep my commandments," Jesus said. Why will they keep His commandments? Why will they keep His word?"

I think there are at least two possible reasons. The first is fear, and the second is because out of respect for what Jesus has done and will do. There may be more reasons, but for the sake of brevity, I will focus on these two.

First, to focus on fear. Remember the story about my mom’s driving when I was a kid? Why do people follow the speed limit? Usually, it’s out of fear. We drive the speed limit because we do not want to get ticketed. We don’t want to pay a fine. We don’t want our insurance to go up. But there is a problem with the primary motivation being fear. Sorry, Jack (Brandes, Austin County Sheriff), I know you are sheriff and all, but I’m about to explain why fear is a terrible motivation for keeping the law using the speed limit as an example.

The first thing I think we should note is that even though there are speed limits, there are a ton of people who disobey them–a ton. Anyone who drives knows this. Just drive down I-10 in the 75 mph zone at 75 and see how many cars still pass you. So, even though there is a law, why are people constantly breaking it?

Because they have little to actually fear. When fear is the motivation, unless you can rapidly and consistently enforce the law, people will begin losing that fear. When it comes to driving, there are many, many more cars driving than there are patrol officers. In addition to this, patrol officers are sometimes very random in who they stop and who they don’t stop. You can drive a hundred miles without seeing a cop sometimes.
Consequently, the chances of actually being stopped for breaking the law drop precipitously. And when you do not fear getting caught, you do not fear breaking the law. And when you do not fear breaking the law, the law gets broken–quickly and easily. Hence, the number of speeders on the highways and bi-ways.

I believe this is why God operates on the concept of grace. I believe this is why God chose to give the law, but then to stop using fear as a means to get you and I to follow it. If there is no punishment; if there is no immediate consequences; if we can seemingly get away with breaking God’s commands with no harm to ourselves, we will disregard it and continue to do it. God used fear at one time. He’s changed tactics through Christ.

"If you love me, you will keep my word," Jesus said.

Which brings us to the second reason to obey the law–respect. As I said to the kids in the children’s sermon, there is generally a reason laws and commands are put in place. Most parents give their children this command, "Do not play in the street." Now, we give them this command because we want them to be safe. There is a chance, in some places a higher chance than others, that they could be seriously injured or killed by someone not paying attention while driving through.

All kids push boundaries. They will wander into the street from time to time–even intentionally. But as parents, it is our job to explain to them our reasons for giving them the commands. If we tell them, "We aren’t trying to spoil your fun. We aren’t trying to hate you or limit your ability to be fulfilled. We just know the consequences of playing in the street. We know what can happen." If our children love and respect us, they will hear us. They will understand the wisdom behind the commands and rules. Even though they are tempted to do otherwise, they will realize, we are looking out for their best interest, and they will follow our commands. Not because they fear us, but because they know we love them and are looking out for them.

This is magnified a hundred-fold with God’s love for us. As Christians, we realize that God has sacrificed Himself for us. God took on human flesh in the person of Jesus of Nazareth and died on the cross to save us from our sin and give us eternal life. God acted on our behalf and for our safety. He willingly showed us His great love for us by doing what was unheard of–until this point in history, no religious faith had ever had their deity die for humanity. This made Christianity singularly unique. God is willing to die for us because He loves us that much.

And how do we respond to this great love? How do we treat God with the knowledge of His sacrificial nature...with the knowledge of His grace and peace which is given to us...with the knowledge of His willingness to take our sins upon Himself so that we may be forgiven? Do we respond with indifference, or do we respond with love for God and respect for His commands? I think you know where I come down on this issue.

So, returning to Jesus’ statement, "Those who love me keep my word." Of course we do. We do so out of love and respect for Jesus and what He has done. This means that the second part of this statement "and the Father will love them and we will come and make our home with them," is simply stating the obvious results of what happens when a person loves Jesus. When a person comes to belief in Christ they do so because they have experienced His love. They willingly follow His commands out of respect for what Christ has done, and they experience the love of the Father and the sense that Christ is with them each and every day–each and every moment–making their lives full of the peace which passes all understanding.

Go therefore and keep Christ’s word, not out of fear but out of love. Amen.

Friday, May 3, 2013

Calling B.S. on Political Correctness

I am sick and tired of political correctness.  I believe it has become a game--a deadly game that is more about power and control disguised as compassion and empathy.

Here is why I believe thus:

I have seen more than a few comments recently railing against the term "illegal immigrant."  The reasoning: a person should not be labeled as illegal.  A person's actions are illegal, the person himself or herself is not illegal.  At first glance, this argument makes sense.  Pure, rational sense.  Until you think about what is going on.  And that's the key, to think.

Now, before we go any further, let's take a bit of a detour.  I promise we will get back on the current track, but we must take a trip and see how cultures define themselves.  I am drawing on Dr. Revi Zacharias' Veritas Lecture on tolerance here.  Dr. Zacharias actually draws from Dr. Paul Tillich in the following assessment on how cultures principally organize themselves.

#1. A theonomous culture.  This culture is not a theocracy.  It is a culture where people believe that God's laws are so self-evident that they guide the entire culture.  I believe this ideal is espoused in the opening lines of the U.S. Declaration of Independence, "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness."  Self-evident truths endowed by the Creator.  Theonomous culture.  The United States can no longer be considered such a culture because with the rise of secularism, any talk of God has generally been relegated to the private sphere.

#2. A heteronomous culture.  "Different law."  In this culture, there exists a governing few who dictate which laws should and should not be followed.  You have the leadership at the top and the masses below.  The masses must follow the laws whether they agree with them or not.  Most would probably say the United States is not such a culture; however, I'd just about beg to differ at this point.  You will see why below.

#3. An autonomous culture.  "Self-law."  In this culture, each person is a law unto his or her self.  We are self governed and self regulated.  Ideally, this means we interact with one another and treat one another with respect.  We do not have to agree with one another.  Yet we have enough of a shared understanding that we can disagree with one another with cordially without celebrating or accepting another's point of view.  Most would argue the U.S. seeks to be this type of culture.

Where does political correctness fit?

If it is not self-evident that political correctness fits in with a heteronomous culture, let me go on and show you it belongs in that category using the push to do away with the term "illegal immigrant."

What is the shared definition of illegal immigrant historically and legally?

Well, if you are like me, you would immediately say, "A person who breaks the immigration laws of a particular country by entering that country without following the proper process."  The historical, legal definition does not define a person as illegal.  Instead the definition calls the person's actions illegal while recognizing the humanity of the individual.  Let me stress this, and I apologize for shouting: THIS IS THE AGREED UPON HISTORICAL AND LEGAL DEFINITION.

Now, what is being done with political correctness?  The historical, legal definition of "illegal immigrant" has been replaced with a substitute definition--a definition which is technically correct but that ignores the historical, legal meaning.  It is an overly literal reading of the phrase--an illegal person.

So, political correctness is substituting a different definition for the historical, legal definition, knocking down the substitute definition and declaring the phrase "illegal immigrant" to be illogical, immoral, and so on and so forth.

Can you say, "Straw man argument?"

One might as well argue that we should stop using the phrase "cotton farmer" as it is illogical and immoral to call a person a plant.  Or that we should stop using the phrase "milk cow" as it is illogical to say that a cow is composed of milk.  Or we should stop using the term "wet nurse" as a substitute breast feeding woman is neither wet nor a nurse.

Can you see the stupidity of the argument?  And why would such a weak argument be used in trying to force a particular type of discourse? 

Heteronomous culture.  A particular group is seeking to impose its own particular laws and ideas upon culture--not through reason or appeals to logic, but by appeals to emotion.  Such emotional appeals are really nothing more than manipulation and can change in a heartbeat.

Which is why, I call B.S.