Friday, June 28, 2013

The Opposite of Faith is...

I'm really starting to get sick of this postmodern world we live in.


I mean, it has become perfectly acceptable to redefine years of history and tradition and meaning in regards to particular words, phrases and beliefs simply by using rhetorical sleight of hand.

I've pointed out one such dastardly redefining in regards to those who proclaim "The opposite of love is not hate but apathy."  No.  The opposite of love is hate.  Period--no matter how one tries to argue to the contrary.

The latest: The opposite of faith is not doubt but certainty.

There's a (ahem!) wonderful article seeking to argue just this trite little snippet in this month's Lutheran Magazine.  I'm not sure what's worse--the article, or the fact that the magazine chose to print it.  Now, the author does indeed provide an argument which sounds nice and sweet and sappy: the idea that seeking certainty in doctrine and practice has caused division and strife, and if we would just set all that aside and focus on loving one another, all that stuff would just go away.

Well, what does this guy base this assertion on?

He bases it on the certainty that loving one another will cure such ills--but that is actually beside the point.  There's a deeper theological issue at stake--the author's interpretation of Hebrews 11:1:

Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.

Pertinent quotes:

That seems to allow some leeway on the finality on many of our opinions.  I add to this God's words in Job 38 and following.  "Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?...Who has the wisdom to number the clouds?"  Then God's comment is one we need to take to heart, "Surely you know."

It ranks with Jesus' "You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times...but I say to you..."  (Matthew 5:33-34).  The ancient prophet states it this way: "For my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways, says the Lord."  (Isaiah 55:8)

Is this not a call to humility?  Don't these approaches to our rigidity encourage us to lighten up in our certainties?  A theologian has boldly stated, "The opposite of faith is not doubt but certainty."  When we speak as if in ultimate certainty, we are proudly declaring, "I'm right, you are wrong."  We then should remember God's words to Isaiah and to Job and Jesus' words to the Pharisees.
Aside from the horrendous removal of context of these words from Scripture to prove an ideological point, let's first deal with the assumption that Hebrews 11 allows us "some leeway on the finality on many of our opinions."

First off, I don't read opinion in the statement from the writer of Hebrews.  Not at all.  In fact, I see vastly different words:  assurance and conviction.  Assurances and convictions are much more than opinions.  If I have an opinion that God exists, then such a statement is simply a matter of choice.  Believe or not believe--there is little difference between one who does and who does not.

But this is not the case--at all.  A conviction is something much more than an opinion.  It is something much deeper which resides within one's heart and soul.  It is something that links to the core of one's identity and being.  It is not easily renounced or given up.

In Hebrews 11, Christians are encouraged to live with the assurance and conviction that God exists, that Christ is risen from the dead even though they have no visible proof or evidence of such matters.  They are to live their lives following Christ with conviction and hopeful assurance that though the surrounding culture acts one particular way, they are called to a different way of life--a way of life that may face ridicule and even persecution.  This is no simple matter of opinion--it is a matter of living with the certainty of belief in Jesus Christ--a belief and faith which has consequences in life.

Perhaps the quintessential text in showing this is Jesus' meeting with doubting Thomas found in John 20.  In this resurrection story, Thomas doubts that Jesus is raised from the dead.  Jesus eventually reveals Himself to Thomas and saysto him, "Do not doubt but believe."  Now, knowing just a smidge of Greek is important in this matter.  The Greek for faith is pistis.  Funny thing about Greek is that when it wants to show the opposite of something, it simply adds an "a" in front.  So, the opposite of faith in the Greek is apistis.  So, let's do a little bit of word play with this particular saying of Jesus--please remember the context of the statement in John 20.

Jesus says to Thomas, "Do not have certainty, but believe."

Does that even make the slightest bit of sense given the context?  I didn't think so, but there are more than a few who will buy this "wonderful" argument regarding certainty as the opposite of faith.

It's not surprising given the world we live in which seeks relativism instead of Truth.

Oh, but the whole right/wrong thing.  Yeah.  That's really what the author is trying to get at.  The idea that certainty leads to self-righteousness.  Well, let me put just a slight bug in this guy's ear.

If he were really certain that Jesus was the Messiah, the Son of God, the resurrected Lord, the second person of the Trinity, then all he need do is point to just a few of Jesus' statements:

Whoever becomes humble like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. (Matthew 18:4)

All who exalt themselves will be humbled, and all who humble themselves will be exalted.  (Matthew 23:12)

I tell you, this man went down to his home justified rather than the other; for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.’ (Luke 18:14)

Or this little snippet or two from Paul:

Live in harmony with one another; do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly; do not claim to be wiser than you are. (Romans 12:16)

Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. (Philippians 2:3)

Dealing with right/wrong does not necessarily lead to self-righteousness.  Certainty does not necessarily lead to self-righteousness, especially when actually following Christ's commands and the teachings revealed in Scripture.  In fact, when implemented, they actually lead to humility.

Yet, despite this, there are those who wish to push for redefinition and further movement from orthodox Christian faith.

I am beginning to detest this postmodern world.

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Cutting Back on Blogging

Perhaps to the joy of many and the chagrin of some, I have felt called to cut back on blogging. 

Oh, I have much that I would like to type and relay.  That is not the issue. 

The issue is, I feel compelled to write a book or two.  I have several unfinished manuscripts that need attention and a really big one that has been formulating itself.

I have managed to discipline myself so that I can produce a blog for four days a week, and I wish to use some of that discipline in writing manuscripts. 

I apologize to those (few?) who check this blog daily to see what I've written. 

I have come to a rather stark conclusion recently.  In this day and age, we are swamped by voices.  Anyone and everyone has the opportunity to add their voice and their understanding of faith, life, politics, and what have you--no matter whether or not that voice is an informed voice or not. 

Because of an increasing relativism that pervades society, some believe all voices are equal in what they say.  This is most certainly untrue.  While every person is indeed endowed with a voice, not all carry the same weight.  And in the increasing cacophony of voices, sometimes the only way to get heard is to shout the loudest and become the most controversial. 

I do not believe shouting just to be heard is exactly in accord with the Christian faith.  Neither do I think it is necessary to be controversial in the sense that one has to push the boundaries and venture into areas where once it was taboo in order to seem relevant.  In fact, I would argue the pushing of such boundaries and the venturing into such areas has actually been part of the cause of the decline of the Church in North America. 

I believe that perhaps, just perhaps at this point, instead of a continued "need" to make one's voice heard, it is time for quiet reflection and thought.  Much of my time in reflection and thought has led me to a place where I feel I must use much more than a blog post to articulate what is going on within me. 

For those who can't stand what I write: enjoy the reprieve.
For those who might actually miss: I apologize.
For those who are undecided, lukewarm, or who could care less: carry on.  Perhaps you are in the best position of all as you will not be affected.

For my congregation members and community folks who check in to see my sermons--especially if you miss worship--don't worry, those will be a mainstay. 

Enjoy the relative silence.



Monday, June 24, 2013

Too Priceless Not to Share

From Luke Timothy Johnson's book The Real Jesus: The Misguided Quest for the Historical Jesus and the Truth of the Traditional Gospels (bold emphasis and strikeout emphasis is mine.  Italics are Johnson's):

Christianity has credibility, both with its own adherents and with its despisers, to the degree that it claims and lives by its own distinctive identity.  This means, at a minimum, recognizing that Christianity is not measured by cultural expectations but by the experiences and convictions by which it lives.  A church that has lost a sense of its boundaries--that is, a grasp of its self-definition--can only recover it by reassessing its character as a community of faith with a canon of Scripture and a creed.

The erosion of these boundaries has been exposed in the current Historical Jesus debate.  There has been no clear sense of where "the church" stands as a community concerning the historical Jesus.  Indeed, as we have seen, official leaders of a church, like Bishop [Shelby] Spong, have expressed opinions that are, on the face of it, incompatible with the classical Christian creed.  "Christians" have been strung all along the continuum of stimulus and response in this discussion.  But there is no explicit realm of discourse that can be called the church's.

One reason has been the loss within the church of any sense of how the Scripture can function as a basis for debate and decision making in response to crisis.  This loss, in turn, is in considerable measure owing to the hegemony of the historical critical method.  Several generations of scholars and theologians have been disabled from direct and responsible engagement with the texts of the tradition in their religious dimension.  Even more obvious has been the disappearance of the creed as a meaningful framework for reading Scripture and undertaking theological discourse within the Christian community.

It is not at all obvious how Christians can recover some sense of community, canon, and creed.  The present polarization and distrust between conservative and liberal tendencies within Christianity make the recovery more difficult.  But a start might be the simple recognition that whatever the church's discourse is, it should not be the same as the academy's, nor should it be subject to the same rules or the same criteria of validity.  It is time for a return from the academic captivity of the church.  It is time for Christians to recognize that not every intellectual tendency or shift of mood is one that enhances the church's fundamental responsibility for handing on a tradition of life from one generation to another.  --p. 169

Words still very relevant today as they were when written in 1996.

I argued in 2009 after the ELCA made the decision to begin ordaining non-celebate homosexuals living in life-long monogamous relationships that the vote was really a decision as to who would dictate the meaning of Scripture: the scholars or the people reading and interpreting the plain language.  The scholars won the vote, and even though people are invited to share their own readings and interpretations, they must always take a back seat to "the scholars" who are the ones who "really know" what the Bible means. 

But Johnson's statement is astute; yet it generally falls on deaf ears--at least in mainline, liberal Christianity, "It is time for Christians to recognize that not every intellectual tendency or shift of mood is one that enhances the church's fundamental responsibility for handing on a tradition of life from one generation to another."  I am convinced that until those in the mainline grasp this reality, the slow death spiral will begin accelerating until there is just a remnant of those who tenaciously hold onto this perspective. 

The Messiah is Among You

    Today’s second lesson contains one of my favorite Bible passages from the third chapter of the book of Galatians.  To me, it embodies the ideal that is the Kingdom of God and how that kingdom ideally operates.  St. Paul writes, “For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ.  There is no longer Jew or Greek.  There is no longer slave or free.  There is no longer male or female for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.”

    Imagine a world where we are not divided into categories or separated by gender or social status.  Imagine a world where those things make absolutely no difference at all: where Republicans and Democrats sit at table together and don’t argue about politics and who is right and who is wrong and whose fault it is for the economy or poverty or what have you.  Imagine a world where men and women do not blame gender differences for how one acts and the hobbies one engages in or the television shows a person watches.  Imagine a world where country folks are not called redneck hicks and city folks aren’t called city slickers and each works for the betterment of the other.  I can imagine such a world, and it looks pretty good.

    The early Christian church imagined such a world, and when it came to worship, they actually managed to enact it in many and various places.  And for many during that period, it was a sight to behold.  For in the Greco-Roman society, you just didn’t cross social, ethnic, and religious boundaries.  Jews didn’t associate and sit down to eat with Gentiles.  Slaves were not allowed to eat and associate with free.  Males and females had their various spheres and the two were not to clash.  But, when the early church gathered for worship, exactly those things happened.  All of these differences were set aside as the early church gathered to be nourished with God’s word, fellowship, and meal.  Those who were outside the faith marveled at this new world being embraced by this entity called the Church.  Within, there was no mystery.  Those who gathered believed that Christ had called each and every one of them.  They believed they were redeemed sinners and called to live differently, and it started in worship as they sought to have a piece of God’s Kingdom on earth.

    God’s Kingdom on earth.  It is something we pray for each and every time we pray the Lord’s Prayer.  “Thy kingdom come–thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”  We see glimpses of this kingdom from time to time in our daily lives as we see acts of kindness, compassion, and hope.  We see glimpses of this kingdom as we see children laugh and play.  We see glimpses of this kingdom when we throw our heads back and laugh loudly and powerfully.  We see glimpses of this kingdom as we see the love and commitment in a couple married for 50 or more years.  But we know that kingdom has not arrived fully.  We know there is much still that must happen before that kingdom encompasses all of reality.  And, so it is that we gather for worship each week.  We gather for worship to pray for the fullness of that kingdom, and, this is important, we gather to enact a piece of that kingdom on earth.  Just like the early church, it is our goal now to provide a place where there is no distinction where all are clothed with Christ and we worship Him with reckless abandon.

    That’s the ideal.  But what is reality?  What is the reality of most of our churches these days?  These are the questions I began asking myself this past week as I worked on this sermon.  I started delving into my own heart and mind as I wrestled with this favorite Bible passage from the book of Galatains.  “For as many of you as are baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ and there is no longer Jew or Greek.  There is no longer slave or free. There is no longer male or female.  For all of you are one in Christ Jesus.”

    As I took my journey of introspection, I realized something quite concerning.  I realized something quite unsettling.  A question began resonating deep within the recesses of my heart and mind.  “Do you see Christ in those who are gathering for worship?”   I had to stop for a moment as that question formulated.  I had to catch my bearings.  For I realized, I do not.  And I realized it’s not intentional.  I mean, when I come to worship each Sunday and see each of you, I see you.  I see Rick and Jean and Melvin and Suzie and Glenda and Shirley and James and Otto and Clarence and so on and so forth.  I see each and every one of you as the unique individuals that God made you.  But I confess to you this morning, I was not seeing Christ–and in many ways, I still am not–even though I should.  For seeing Christ in you and as we see Christ in one another, I believe, could set us apart tremendously from the rest of the world in how we treat each other.

    To illustrate, let me tell this old story that I believe I have recounted before.  There was once a monastery that had fallen upon hard times.  No longer did pilgrims travel to this holy place to chant the old liturgy and seek spiritual peace and guidance.  No longer did people offer donations to help the monastery engage its job and practice of prayer and holiness.  The stress and labors led the brothers to begin bickering and arguing amongst themselves.  Rumors often spread like wildfire, and bitterness reigned.

    The abbot of the monastery had tried many and various things to try and turn things around, but all had failed.  Nothing seemed to work, and so, at his last straw, he decided to visit a teacher who resided in a nearby wood.  According to legend, this teacher had regular visits with the Lord and spoke with the Lord just like you and I would speak on the phone.  Desperate for advice, the abbot sought this teacher out.

    Walking down an old, beaten path, the abbot finally came to the teacher’s humble hut.  The teacher was sitting outside, and the abbot saw that the teacher seemed to be expecting him.  The teacher stood and embraced the abbot, and unexpectedly, the abbot began shedding tears. 

    The teacher led the abbot into his home, and they sat down.  There, the abbot poured out his grief.  He told the teacher of how the monastery had fallen onto hard times–how pilgrims no longer sought spiritual comfort or peace there–how no longer people would come and worship with them and support them–how the brothers seemed to argue and bicker and fight and spread rumors–how he had tried everything he knew to reverse this process but how they had all failed.  Knowing that the teacher regularly spoke with the Lord, the abbot had come seeking a word that might help their situation.

    The teacher embraced the abbot once more.  “I know why you are here,” he said.  “The Lord told me to expect you.  That’s why I was waiting outside.”

    “Did the Lord give you anything to tell me?” the abbot asked.

    “Yes,” the teacher replied.  “He told me to tell you one thing.  He said, ‘Tell the abbot that he is to go back to the brothers and tell them, ‘The Messiah is among you.’‘”

    Pondering this news, the abbot returned to the monastery.  The brothers anxiously asked the abbot what the teacher in the woods had said.  The abbot gathered the brothers in the chapel and said, “The teacher said the Lord had one thing to say to us.  The Lord said, ‘The Messiah is among you.’”

    Immediately, this caused a stir among the brothers.  Who is the Messiah?  Is it Brother John?  Is it Brother Alfred?  Is it Brother Lawrence?  They began pondering the implications of this, and since they didn’t know who the Messiah was in their midst, they began treating each and every brother as if he could be the Messiah.  Soon, bitterness and rumor was replaced with gentleness, compassion, and friendliness.  The respect, love, and joy the brothers showed toward one another became palpable.  You could literally feel it when you walked into the monastery. 

    Soon, pilgrims from all over began making their way to the monastery once again to sing the old liturgies, to seek spiritual wisdom, to give their offerings, and to marvel at this group of brothers who treated one another in such a marvelous way.

    My brothers and sisters in Christ, we do not need anyone to tell us that the Messiah is among us.  We know that where two or three are gathered in His name, Jesus is with them.  We also know that as many of us who were baptized into Christ have clothed themselves with Christ so that there is no longer any distinctions.  Christ is among us and can be found sitting next to us.  How do we desire to treat Him?  Amen.

Thursday, June 20, 2013

Missing the Mark

I will return to the questions raised in my blog posts the last two days sometime next week.  For today, perhaps something a little lighter.

I have become a dead shot.

I do not say this as a statement of pride or arrogance.  In fact, until very recently, I wasn't exactly the most confident shot or a very good shooter at all.  There are probably a lot of reasons for that which I will not go into here.  But after purchasing a new rifle, equipping it with a pretty good scope, and firing a whole lot of rounds through it, the results are coming in:

With an appropriate rest, I can put a bullet where it needs to be with very little variation.  The last four times I've gone pig hunting, I've managed to drop three pigs each shot right behind the ear.  Previous to this, I hadn't hit a pig right in the head like that at all.  Something has happened to help me hit the mark and hit that mark on a regular basis.

I think the biggest thing is becoming consistent.  When practicing, I finally found a method which allows me to consistently hold the gun in exactly the same manner, aim in exactly the same manner, and pull the trigger in exactly the same manner.  I don't think I've always been so consistent.   And now that I have figured out how to bring the same method of the gun range into the deer stand, the results are fabulous!



You see, I've pulled the trigger on four pigs and bagged three.  Last night, I missed the mark.

I saw a monster boar.  He weighed anywhere from 350 to 400 lbs.  When he came out, I figured he was going to head to the feeder, and I'd get a shot at him there, but I was wrong.  He started circling well behind the feeder, and he turned to head toward the woods at the far end of the property.  I didn't want him to get away, so I steadied my gun, rested it perfectly, aimed, and the pulled the trigger.


I saw dust kick up right behind the pig and a very startled pig take off running like a bullet.

"WTH?" I thought to myself.  "How did I miss that?  Is my gun off?  Did I jump?"

The pig ran off toward another stand at the place where I hunt, so I jumped out of the blind and headed to the other stand.  After several minutes, I arrived only to see another group of pigs heading back toward my previous spot.  And, since I saw no sign of the giant boar, I headed back to the previous stand. 

I came out into the clearing and there were nearly 30 pigs under the feeder!  I was 30 yards from the stand, and I thought, "They'll probably see me and take off."  But they didn't.  I managed to get back in the stand.  Set up my shooting bag, and get perfectly situated to get off another shot.  There was only one problem: with so many pigs running around, I couldn't get a very good head shot.  I had to wait 2 or 3 minutes before finally getting the right shot.


Pig down.  Walking up to it--dead shot right behind the ear.

Nothing wrong with the gun.  Nothing wrong with the scope.  Nothing wrong with the rest.  Nothing wrong with the shooter.  Why did I miss earlier?

As best as I can figure, the darn pig ducked his head just as I was squeezing off the trigger.  The bullet just sailed over his head, and I missed the mark.

Now, for some theology:

One may think one is doing everything correctly.  One might think one is a dead shot.  One might become arrogant and overconfident that one hits the target every time.  But no one hits it every time.  All sorts of circumstances come into play which lead one to miss the mark.  And it really doesn't matter whose "fault" it is for missing.  One still misses.  There is no such thing as perfection.

But it is demanded.  Luckily, I am not in a situation where I needed the meat from that first pig, but if I were, I just lost the opportunity to feed me and my family for a while.  I just lost the opportunity to rid this area of another animal which has become a major nuisance.  Missing is unacceptable.

Just like sin.  One of the traditional understandings of sin is to miss the mark.  It's something we all do no matter how much of a dead shot we think we are.  Sure, we might think we hit the target perfectly from time to time, but sometimes we just think we're doing well until we find ourselves in a situation where there are quite a few things out of our control.  Then, we miss the mark.  And if we live in a world where things are always changing--where there are things that are always out of our control, we will miss the mark often and a lot.  Even if you think you are a dead shot, you'd better be humble because you will miss--guaranteed.

And this is why I am thankful for God's forgiveness and grace.  Missing isn't the end of the world.  There's another chance to take aim and fire.  And perhaps this time, you'll hit dead center.

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

One More Piece for Clarity's Sake

Yesterday, I spoke of how the theologies of Rudolf Bultmann, Marcus Borg, and John Dominic Crossan have heavily influenced the teachings of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.  Seeing how the poor quality of their theology has influenced the teaching/preaching/social ministry of my denomination brought some clarity as to one of the reasons my denomination is struggling.  But there is another piece of the puzzle which has affected the larger denomination--Liberation Theology.

This particular brand of theology finds its roots in Latin America where social stratification is very pronounced.  You have rich and poor and little to nothing in between.  As people at the bottom of the social strata began reading scripture, they found comfort, solace, and perhaps even more important, empowerment in the Bible's teachings regarding God's preferential support for the poor and oppressed.

There is little doubt that Scripture shows a continuity from Old to New Testament of God's deep desire for the care of the poor, widowed, and orphaned.  Law after law, teaching after teaching, and exhortation after exhortation show this.  There are more than a few condemnations toward the rich and powerful, especially those who revel in their wealth and refuse to care for those who are less fortunate.

Poor peasants in Latin America found this to be vastly empowering and vastly hope filled.  God shared their plight!  God frowned upon those who would seek to keep them impoverished!  They had theological and moral backing for speaking out against the injustices committed against them! 

Of course, this theological movement made more than a few in the hierarchy of the Church uncomfortable.  What about the wealthier folks who frequented the pews and put money in the offering plate?  Should the church join the voices of the poor and oppressed to speak out against such injustice when it is likely to offend those worshiping and contributing?  What about the people in power who supported the Church as long as the Church talked about spiritual matters but left worldly matters in the hands of the government--even if the government was corrupt?  What was the Church to do?

Actually, the answer was a no-brainer.  The Church was and is called to speak out on behalf of the poor and oppressed.  There really is no argument on that.  In fact, I would push it even further--the Church is called not just to speak for the poor and oppressed, but the Church is called to help the poor and oppressed find their own voice and speak for themselves.  That's true empowerment.  Otherwise, the poor and oppressed become dependent upon the Church, and that's not the egalitarian nature intended by Christ.

So, what is the problem with liberation theology?  In the context above, nothing.  But when removed from the particular context it was formed, there is a big problem. 

Liberation theology teaches that one must look at the world through a particular lens: the lens of oppressor/oppressed.  God gives preferential care and concern to the oppressed--again, clearly articulated in Scripture.  Therefore, if one seeks to apply Liberation Theology to ANY given context, one seeks to be oppressed!  It becomes fashionable to be oppressed!  Well, this means there needs to be an oppressor, so we have to find one of those too.  Soon, Jesus is seen to be on my side, and everyone else is the one with the issues. 

Luke Timothy Johnson is instrumental once again in his critique found in The Real Jesus: The Misguided Quest for the Historical Jesus and the Truth of the Traditional Gospels

The popularity of liberation theology in many liberal Protestant and Catholic seminaries has only widened the gap between the critically educated clergy and the people they were called to serve.  Such liberation has tended to base itself squarely on a "historical Jesus" that has been critically reconstructed from the Gospels after they have been subjected to the appropriate ideological criticism.  The distinction between "Jesus" and "Christianity" is ideologically exploited.  In the feminist reading, the "woman-defined Jesus" who preaches a version of female wisdom and displays all the appropriate gender-inclusive attitudes is supplanted by the patriarchal Paul, who, despite his nod to egalitarianism, suppresses women in his churches, and through his letters also suppresses women through the entire history of the church.  In the Latin American reading, the Jesus who proclaimed a Jubilee year for the poor and followed an itinerant lifestyle is supplanted by the bourgeois tendencies of Pauline Christianity, which softens the countercultural edge of the Jesus movement.  In the radical gay liberationist reading, the antiestablishment Jesus is declared "as queer as you or me" and the heroic enemy of heterosexist hegemony.  Once more, Paul's statements against homosexuality represent the enemy.  In each version, Jesus is pitted against the church, and the Gospels are pitted against the rest of the New Testament, but only when read against their plain sense to yield a portrait of Jesus that fits the ideological commitments of the readers.  (page 65)

Add one more way in which people form their own personal Jesus--this time based upon their own cultural ideology.

So, what do you get when you put together:

1. A theology which denies the miraculous and places science and reason above faith? (Bultmann)


2. A theology which makes Jesus into a liberal academic? (Borg)


3. A theology which makes Jesus a poor peasant criticizing the religious establishment and oppressive powers--whose body was not resurrected but eaten by dogs, and whose followers had a mental understanding of Jesus still living? (Crossan)


4. A theology which makes it fashionable to be oppressed and lift up any marginalized group (even if that marginalization is due to that group's embracing beliefs contrary to scripture)?


5. A theology which takes the concept of grace and then leans too far toward the anti-nomian position?

Well, my friends, you've got the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America--as well as several other mainline denominations.

Poor scholarship.  Poor practice.  Is it any wonder for the declining state of mainline Christianity?

I asked yesterday, and so I continue today...what is the remedy?  Believe me, I know too well the futility in stemming the tide of this theological monstrosity.  It's entrenched and isn't going anywhere.  So, what is one to do?  Where does one turn?

More to come...

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Getting More Clarity

I am slowly (it takes me a while, alright!) getting more clarity as to what ails Christianity in these United States of America.  Thankfully, I am not the only one who sees this.  There are others, and their thoughts are informing mine.  So perhaps, this blogging is me just regurgitating what I have heard, but for me I think it is more than simple repetition, for when one regurgitates, one does not keep anything inside.  Much of what I am learning, I am retaining and making it my own.

It is becoming more and more apparent that one of the major things that ails U.S. Christianity is: bad theology leads to bad practice and bad practice leads to bad theology.

I'll begin with some thoughts on the former and then proceed to the latter of those two thoughts.

More often than not, we seek justification for our beliefs and actions.  When this occurs, our actions drive our theology.  One need not look too far in the present or in the past to see this happening.

  • Slave owners justified slavery citing certain portions of scripture while ignoring others.
  • Kings and popes justified the crusades by citing certain portions of scripture while ignoring Jesus' explicit commands.
  • Christians continually lobby the government to instill policies and laws which uphold their ideals of what Christianity is about.
These are just a few examples.  I could get into the nitty-gritty details, but I will save that for another time and another place.  What I wish to do right now is delve into how this has affected certain theologians and scholars and how those theologians and scholars have thus affected my own denomination: the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.

Some of my readers at this point might be thinking, "Oh great.  Time to stop reading.  I'm not interested in theological/scholarly battles.  I'd rather just practice my faith without worrying about such matters."

I understand such thoughts.  Believe me, I once held to such a line of thinking--content to do my own thing in my area of influence without regard to what was going on in the wider field of the church or society.  But I have a problem: I care very deeply about what happens to this faith that has claimed me.  I care very deeply for its public expression: the Church.  I care that the influence of the Church is currently in decline as is Church membership and attendance.  While I am loathe to say that I can have much of an impact on this decline as it is far beyond my power or scope to change anything, I also know that I cannot simply remain silent when I have discovered things which I believe are adding fuel to the fires of decline.  If you agree, then please read on.

Of Bultmann, Borg and Crossan

 In my recent reading, I have come to see just how much of an influence such scholars as Rudolf Bultmann, Marcus Borg, and John Dominic Crossan have had in my own denomination.  I believe each of these scholars' work was/is driven by a particular practice leading to bad theology.  That theology, in turn, has become very influential in its teaching which has led to bad practice.  We begin with Bultmann.

Bultmann worked in the early 1900's, and he was heavily influenced by Enlightenment thought and the rise of reason and science.  He found difficulty in reconciling reason and science's empirical nature with what he deemed the mythology found in Christianity.  How could one embrace the wonders of science and reason which seemed to eliminate the possibility of God acting in the world and breaking natural law with the miraculous deeds and wonders found in the Bible?  Bultmann's answer: demythologize the Bible.  Recognize the miraculous as stories and deeds meant to convey a point but lacking any historical reality.

Of course, this meant that one had to approach the Bible in a certain fashion.  One could no longer rely on Scriptures to convey the historical truth of things--one had to dig deep within the Bible to figure out what was "really" factual and what was myth.  Scripture must now be approached with a hermeneutic of suspicion instead of a hermeneutic of trust.  One cannot underestimate the pull that Bultmann had with his theology.  It's still around today and has been pushed to some rather unfortunate conclusions.

Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan both embrace this hermeneutic of suspicion in their works, and they continue to have tremendous influence in my denomination despite being taken to task by more than a few other scholars.  Some outside the ELCA might scoff at this suggestion, but I can assure you, it is no mere flight of fancy of this writer's mind.  In the last issue of L Magazine two of the prominent "Resource Picks" are none other than these two scholars.

Each of these men has delved into seeking the "historical" Jesus--again, reading the Gospel narratives with the idea of suspicion instead of trust in an attempt to distinguish what is "really" Jesus from that which is more a community/early Church construct of Jesus.

Yesterday, as I re-read through Luke Timothy Johnson's The Real Jesus: The Misguided Quest for the Historical Jesus and the Truth of the Traditional Gospels (A head's up to my New Testament prof in Seminary Dr. Ray Pickett.  He actually had the guts to suggest this book to his class and say that it was far and away the best of the books to read in the Third Quest for the Historical Jesus.  I think Johnson has been surpassed by Richard Bauckham personally, but there are still great and timely thoughts by Johnson even though his book is dated by scholarly standards.), I was struck by Johnson's thorough critique of Borg and Crossan.

 Against Borg:

It does not take an exceptionally discerning eye to detect more than a little of the "dominant consciousness" of yet another sort at work in this [Borg's] analysis, namely, the cultural assumptions of the contemporary American academy.  Jesus' "relevance" turns out to be the way in which he can function as the prototype of the sort of "cultural critique" that many academics think the rest of the world needs: the "politics of holiness" that is overly concerned with rules and status and exclusion should be replaced by a "politics of compassion" that is committed to freedom and equality and inclusion.  (page 43)

Johnson's critique goes further and deeper, but it is of note that Jesus, for Borg, becomes like Borg--a cultural critic who embraces academia's concerns.  As I have noted before, Borg makes Jesus look just like Borg.  This is not good theology, historical study, or scholarship.

Against Crossan:

For all their self-conscious methodology and social-scientific sophistication, Crossan's efforts reveal themselves as an only slightly camouflaged exercise in theologial revisionism rather than genuine historiography...To construct his portrayal of Jesus, he will draw on any apocryphal writing in preference to any canonical writing.  The criteria that matter for determining authenticity are those that make up the predetermined portrait that Crossan wishes to emerge.  His use of cross-cultural patterns reduces Jesus to a stereotypical cultural category, that of a member of "peasant culture."  Into this historical cipher Crossan can pour his own vision of what "Christianity" ought to be: not a church with leaders and cult and creeds, but a loose association of Cynic philosophers who broker their own access to the kingdom of self-esteem and mutual acceptance.  (page 50)

Again, we see Crossan constructing his own Jesus to suit his own desires of what Christianity should be.  This is not good theology, historical study, or scholarship.

So, how is it that L Magazine holds up Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan as important resources for leaders in the ELCA?  How is it that Marcus Borg is invited to a theological conference to speak to pastors and others leaders of the three Texas/Louisiana synods of the ELCA?  How is it that these scholars continue to have such an influence in my denomination?

One of the Major Problems with U.S. Christianity

I think Borg, Crossan, and Bultmann give theologial underpinning and theological blessing to the particular agenda embraced by the leadership of the ELCA.  These scholars provide a methodology of allowing Scripture to be read with suspicion so that scripture must prove itself.  When one approaches scripture in such a fashion, one can easily say, "Well, sure, that's what the Bible says on the surface, but what does it "really" mean?"

With this methodology, one can easily and purposely alter scripture to fit one's personal or social agenda.  Certain texts and passages can be disregarded at one's leisure and can be changed to fit the particular historical/social context.  In effect, we can change Jesus/we can change the teachings of the Bible instead of Jesus and the teachings of the Bible changing us.  Well, that's not entirely true because OUR reading of the Bible has made us pretty comfortable, but it is everyone else who doesn't read the Bible like us who needs to change.

This is a major problem because it leads us straight to idolatry.  We construct our own God.  We construct our own Jesus.  We construct our own faith.  We are not held accountable by a faith that is outside of ourselves--it is others who have to change, not us.  God has blessed us and our doings, but not those others who disagree with us.

I want to take a small tangent here because one might get the idea that it is only liberal Christianity that I am critiquing.  One would be wrong.  The Christian right is just as guilty as the Christian left of participating in such matters.  While they might deny it vehemently, it is not that difficult to see they too construct their own personal Jesuses.  Case in point: I have never met a conservative Christian who says that they take the Bible literally actually take Luke 14:33 literally.  ("So therefore, none of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions.")

It has become clear to me that in the U.S. in this postmodern age, we live in an age of idolatry.  We construct our own personal Jesus based upon our own ideology and actions.  We then seek out congregations and denominations and scholars which embrace our portrait of Jesus or paint one very similar to our own.  We justify such actions with bad theology which begins with the assumption that the source and norm of our faith--the Bible--be held in skepticism instead of trust.

And voices which call us back to the historic/orthodox faith are all but drowned out and muted.  They are not controversial enough.  They don't generate headlines.  They make us uncomfortable because they do not allow us to be complacent.  They call us to transformation, and we are content to be like we are feeling we have no need to change ourselves or our worldviews. 

What is the answer?  I think I've managed to get some clarity on part of the problem, but it is not enough to simply articulate the problem.  Solutions are also demanded.  A critic comes down off the mountain after the battle is done and shoots the wounded.  A doctor heals them.

What does the orthodox faith teach us?  What does the Great Physician say?  More to come...

Monday, June 17, 2013

Christ Didn't Die for Nothing

Years ago, after I had attended a year or so of college, I returned home for vacation.  I went to my home congregation, and the pastor was on vacation.  I remember walking into the pastor’s confirmation class and talking to the students there.  I remember very vividly talking to one of the kids.  He was pretty bright in the sense that he didn’t just accept any answer to certain questions.  He was what one might call a critical thinker.

    I don’t know if it was because I didn’t seem imposing or whether or not I wasn’t a hyper-critical threat, but this young man opened up with both barrels.  The question he asked was explosive.  It went something like this, “I don’t mean to be offensive or anything, but why did Jesus have to die like He did?  I mean, I understand God saving the world and everything, but why did He have to pick such a lame way to do it?”

    Tough, tough question to answer for a 13 year old.  Tough, tough question for a 20 year old college student to answer.  Tough, tough question for a pastor to answer in an understandable manner for that confirmation student and for a congregation in the midst of a 15 minute sermon.  The answers are there, of course, but how does one convey such thoughts in a clear, concise manner that can be understood?  I say this since volumes of thought have been put down in books and papers throughout the centuries since Christ suffered and died on that cross to reconcile the world unto God.  Why was Jesus’ death necessary?  Why did He have to die in the manner He did?  And how do we respond to it?

    St. Paul has condensed this down into a short paragraph in the book of Galatians as he deals with a congregation that is trying to impose the Jewish law on anyone and everyone who seeks to become a Christian.  This congregation believed that if one became a follower of Jesus Christ, then that person had to adhere strictly to all of the Law lest they would be eternally damned–this included circumcision.  As you can imagine, gentlemen, this was not a selling point for many men who were seeking to become Christian.  I don’t know about you, but if someone told me, “Well, you are becoming a Christian.  If you are not circumcised, then you have to have this done now.”  I’d be like, “Um, I’m not so sure about this anymore.”  But that was just the tip of the ice berg.  Circumcision was just one part of the Law.  There were those in Galatia who believed that the entirety of the law must be adhered to in order for one to become Christian and attain salvation.

    Paul resoundingly says, “No!”  Why?  Why would Paul say this?  Why would Paul say that adhering strictly to the Jewish law to become Christian and attain salvation is wrong?

    Let’s begin with an analogy that Timothy Keller uses in his book The Reason for God: Belief in an Age of Skepticism.  Let’s say that you have worked diligently to install a wonderful gated entrance to your home.  You’ve spent a lot of time and money putting things together, but then someone runs into it with their car doing a couple of thousand dollars in damage.  What happens next?

    Well, someone has to pay for the damage.  If the person who was driving is forced to pay for the damage, this is called restitution.  Whether legally or voluntarily, this person pays for the damages he or she caused by his or her actions.  This is the right and just thing to do.

    Now, let’s say that God created the heavens and the earth.  He put humankind on the earth, and He endowed all of creation with free will so that creation could live in a true relationship with its creator.  Now, let’s say that humankind and creation rebelled against its creator and broke that relationship.  Who is going to fix it?  Who is going to pay to have it fixed?  Well, in the broken gate scenario, it is right and just for the one who broke it to fix it, is it not?  So, how do we as humankind and creation fix what we broke?  Is it possible for us to fix this relationship when in fact we discover that we are broken ourselves?   And what if the price to fix this relationship hinges on our absolute perfection?  Can we fix something this broken?  The fact of the matter is, we don’t have the ability, capability, or finances to fix what was broken by humankind’s and creation’s rebellion.

    Which brings us to the next phase of the scenario in the broken gate.  The landowner/homeowner can forgive the damage and fix it himself.  Of course, this will cost the landowner.  He or she will have to dig into his or her own pocketbook and pay the price.  This is called forgiveness.  Notice that there is a cost.  You can’t just let the gate lie in disrepair.

    And so, when it comes to the broken nature of the relationship between humankind and God, who chooses to fix things?  Well, God Himself does knowing that there is no possible way for us to fix it ourselves.  And the price is high.  I mean, think about the broken nature of creation.  This isn’t just a little do it yourself project.  The damage is great, and the cost is astronomical.  Therefore, God had to die to repair it.  God had to take on human flesh, face betrayal, evil, injustice, suffering, and finally death to pay the price for creation’s failure.  Thus, the crucifixion. 

    Ah, but there is also resurrection.  This is the promised first fruits of the new creation–a creation where God, humankind, and the world God created will be renewed and all the evil will be unmade.  The price is paid.  The reconstruction is underway to be brought about fully and completely in God’s time.  This is the grace of God which Paul talks about in the snippet from Galatians chapter 2.  This is why Jesus had to die in the manner He did.  He paid the price.

    Which leads us to the question: what next?  What is our role now that Christ has paid the price?  Where do we go from here? 

    Let’s pick apart this final statement from St. Paul, “19For through the law I died to the law, so that I might live to God. I have been crucified with Christ; 20and it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. 21I do not nullify the grace of God; for if justification comes through the law, then Christ died for nothing.”

    This is dense stuff.  Really dense in its application and implication.  Do I pursue the works of the law believing that I must accomplish it to receive salvation?  Do I say, “I’d better not lie, cheat, steal or else I will go to hell.”?  Do I say, “I’d better worship regularly, give to church and charity, feed the hungry, work for justice, and do all sorts of good things or else I might find myself in a fiery ordeal.”?  Do I say, “There are certain things that I have to do and other things that I can’t do so that I get into heaven.”?  No.  If it is by your actions or inactions that you believe you go to heaven or hell, then Christ died for nothing.  If you think your actions or inactions have anything to do with where you end up eternally, then Christ died for nothing.  For then everything depends upon you and what you do–not what Christ did.

    And Christ did not die for nothing.  His actions are responsible for our salvation.  Period!

    But that does not mean we do not adhere to those things I spoke about earlier?  Again, no.  For as a believer in Christ, I live to and for God.  I live by faith in the Son of God who loved me and gave himself for me and who now lives in me.  And if I live to and for God, I must ask myself, “How does my life reflect this reality?  How does my life show that I live to God and for God?  How does my life reflect that I have been crucified with Christ and it is no longer I who live but Christ who lives in me?”

    Do I lie, cheat, steal, commit injustice, gossip, live in self-righteousness looking down my nose at others?  Does this convey the nature of Christ?  Do I walk around telling everyone how sorry they are and how they are sinful in the eyes of God and how they need to repent?  Does this convey the nature of Christ?  Do I act as though I have everything figured out with all knowledge and power?  Do I come across as though I know all there is to know and have achieved perfection?  Does this convey the nature of Christ?  Or, do I seek to be like Christ–humbling myself in perfect obedience to God, pouring myself out in service to God and to others showing compassion, forgiveness, and an uncompromising faith in the power and goodness of God?  Christ did not die for nothing.  Let your life show this convincingly.  Amen.

Saturday, June 15, 2013

Why I Will Not Unplug

Thanks to Edward Snowden and the Guardian (British newspaper), those of us in the U.S. have now been informed that tons of internet (email, Facebook, Google, etc.) data is being collected by the U.S. government.  We also know that Verizon Wireless customers have had their metadata collected by the U.S. government.  It's a pretty safe bet other phone companies are being required to hand over their metadata as well--even though we don't have those news stories at this point.

I remember reading 1984.  Anyone else having flashbacks?

But here is the thing for me: I refuse to unplug.  I refuse to watch what I say.  I refuse to code my language or cease and desist from saying certain things on this blog or on my Facebook account.  I refuse to get rid of my cell phone.  Was there a desire to do so?  Yep.


Get away!

Don't let them look at you.

Now, I like my privacy.  Don't get me wrong.  I'm not exactly thrilled with the knowledge that someone is monitoring every word I type or put out there.  I'm not exactly thrilled that there are those who might try to use what I say as fodder for coming after me in one fashion or another.

But if I give into those fears, then I've truly lost my freedom.

If I give into those fears, then my voice gets lost because of a perceived or real threat.

If I give into those fears, then I have to run into a field to hide and find just a little bit of escape.  (Remember that from the book?)

I refuse to do that.

There were those in early Judea who tried to silence Christians.  Thankfully, the early disciples and followers refused to keep silent.  What would the world look like if they had kept their mouths' shut?

There were those in the Roman Empire who tried to silence Christians.  They even went so far as to kill and feed Christians to wild animals in arenas.  What would have happened if such tactics would have silenced those Christians?

Where would the Church be if those souls had ceased speaking about Christ and His death and resurrection?  What if they would have succumbed to the pressures of government and the authorities?  History would be vastly different, that is for sure.

In many ways, we as Christians shouldn't have to worry about such matters.  St. Paul instructed us in Romans 13:

Do you wish to have no fear of the authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive its approval; 4for it is God’s servant for your good. But if you do what is wrong, you should be afraid, for the authority does not bear the sword in vain! It is the servant of God to execute wrath on the wrongdoer. 5Therefore one must be subject, not only because of wrath but also because of conscience. 6For the same reason you also pay taxes, for the authorities are God’s servants, busy with this very thing. 7Pay to all what is due to them—taxes to whom taxes are due, revenue to whom revenue is due, respect to whom respect is due, honor to whom honor is due. 

This is not rocket science.

Of course, we are to remember who the ultimate authority is:

But Peter and the apostles answered, ‘We must obey God rather than any human authority. --Acts 5:29

So, if we are commanded to do something against the will of God, we are to disregard any rules which would force us to do this; otherwise, we are to go about our business--doing good; proclaiming Christ; being responsible; working to make the world a better place.

The world includes the internet and the technology of cell phones these days.  I don't believe in running away from this.  I believe in being courageous--and not living in fear.

Thursday, June 13, 2013

The Trouble with Food

This past month, I received my copy of The Lutheran magazine--it's the official magazine of the ELCA.  The cover story read "The Trouble with Food."  (The link is an abbreviated article.)

Pertinent quotes:

The trouble is that the food in our grocery stores has “background.” It has been grown, harvested or slaughtered, processed, packed, shipped, distributed, stocked and shelved by the time we place it in our carts.

And at each step along the way, questions arise about the ethics of our eating. Questions that might complicate our customary ways of relating to food. Questions that also have theological dimensions, but ones most of us haven’t been asking since our food systems have become more technological, globalized and profit-driven.

A Lutheran ethics of food starts with the recognition that we are all part of systems that we create and support--either directly or indirectly--and ends with a hopeful account of what it means to be free in service to others and to creation.  A Lutheran food ethics should include room to think and work toward the improvement of our systems, and to develop awareness of the background of our choices.  Ethics is always messy, and it almost always involves tradeoffs.

So does God's grace extend to Minnesotans who eat strawberries in January?  Of course it does.  Does this mean there are not problems with this picture?  No, it does not.

Food is a necessity.  There are no two ways about it.  We have to eat.  It is a requirement.  This is not in dispute.

And it is not in dispute that in the U.S. most of us do indeed have choices in regards to the food which we purchase--including the fact that we can choose to purchase relatively fresh fruit when it is out of season in our areas as we have the ability to preserve and ship it around the globe.

There are some who decry that the use of preservatives and pesticides and herbicides are killing us, but those notions are actually destroyed by the data: just take a look at the life expectancy in the early 1900's versus now at the beginning of the 21st century.  Our increasing health is due, in no small part to our ability to provide relatively inexpensive, healthy food year round.  This is perhaps one of those tradeoffs that Sam Thomas should have put in his article.

But the article is less concerned with facts and more concerned to get people to think ethically about the food choices they make.  As Thomas says, "Ethics are messy."  Indeed they are.  For Thomas gives little consideration to the reality most people face when it comes to food choices today.

Not everyone has the ability or space to grow their own food--even if it is a little.
Not everyone (in fact, quite a few folks) do not have the luxury of shopping at farmer's markets or for organic foods which are much more pricy.

When shopping for my family of five, we hit the specials at the local chain grocery store.  We have to.  Otherwise, our food costs would be out the roof.  To keep the kids eating healthier, I buy all kinds of fruits and vegetables--fresh and frozen--when they are out of season.  I do this as a parent knowing my kids need those nutrients to develop into strong, healthy adults.  Tradeoffs.

Do I know about the ethics of food production?  Sure.  I grew up with a very close connection to my family farm.  I know quite a bit about the injustices of farming.  (Try beginning with the fact that farmers are the only folks who are told what they will be offered for their crops--and when they rebel against the system and try to sell crops themselves, they are usually investigated!)

But the question is: should our conscience be bothered by such things?

Thomas is astute when he says that we are a part of systems that we create and support either directly or indirectly.  But what Thomas does not lift up is the fact that such systems mirror our own human nature: they are both saintly and sinful.  They produce both good and bad, and there will be no escape from this reality this side of eternity.

It doesn't matter what you try to do, you will commit injustice--with food or otherwise.

Should your conscience be burdened by such a thing?

The Lutheran response is, "No."  When we go to God and ask for forgiveness, we can rest assured our sins are forgiven: those we know of and those we don't know of.  We know we are a part of a sinful world and that we cannot be perfect in all we say and do.  We know there are systems we participate in which we cannot escape and are dependent upon which are not perfect and cannot be perfected.  We would like things to be different, but we know that no matter how much effort we put forth, we will not eradicate sin.  We strive to do so within our sphere of influence, but are we to allow ourselves to be burdened by things which are completely and totally out of our control?

Does the budget strapped family need to worry about where their food comes from?
Does the worker at the food pantry need to feel guilt about accepting donations from a corporate food chain?
Does the person eating strawberries in January in Minnesota need to worry about whether it is ethical or not to do so?

In a word: no.  The church has no business burdening people's consciences with such matters.

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Rendering Judgement

I would like to revisit a portion of my blog from yesterday, particularly the topic of judgement.  Rereading St. Paul's admonition from the book of 1 Corinthians, I think is pretty informative and extremely important in how the church relates to society these days.  Please look at it again:

9 I wrote to you in my letter not to associate with sexually immoral persons— 10not at all meaning the immoral of this world, or the greedy and robbers, or idolaters, since you would then need to go out of the world. 11But now I am writing to you not to associate with anyone who bears the name of brother or sister who is sexually immoral or greedy, or is an idolater, reviler, drunkard, or robber. Do not even eat with such a one. 12For what have I to do with judging those outside? Is it not those who are inside that you are to judge? 13God will judge those outside. ‘Drive out the wicked person from among you.’  --1 Corinthians 5:9-13

Paul makes a very definite distinction when it comes to rendering judgement upon others.

"I wrote to you in my letter not to associate with sexually immoral persons--not at all meaning the immoral of this world, or the greedy and robbers, or idolaters, since you would then need to go out of the world."

Paul here makes it clear that Christians are not to remove themselves from the world.  They are not supposed to keep themselves ritually or ethically pure by refusing to interact with those who are immoral.  Indeed, we as Christians are actually called to go into the world and seek out those who are living immoral lives and bring the good news of Jesus Christ to them.  But there is a method we are called to use in engaging such folks, and please forgive me while I snip some of Paul's comments and reconstruct them.  I do not think I am changing their meaning, but I am striving to flesh out Paul's argument.

Paul is very clear that while associating with such folks, we are not in a position to render judgement upon them.  "For what have I to do with judging those outside? ...God will judge those outside."  For those who are not a part of the church, we cannot render judgement upon them.  Of course, we can render the judgement that we see their machinations as contrary to our own belief and value system.  We can call them immoral according to the commands and Laws of God/Christ.  We can refuse to participate in such behavior ourselves, and in some cases, we can and should protest certain behaviors when they are abusive, violent, and demeaning.  But, aside from those circumstances, Christians are called to keep their judgements to themselves.  It is not kosher to speak the following to a non-believer, "If you don't stop behaving in that manner, you will go to hell."

Such "evangelistic" methods will not bring anyone to Christ in this day and age.  In fact, it will usually have quite the opposite effect.  It will make you, and Christianity, seem harsh, uncaring, and self-righteous.  Ixnay on the judgements of those outside the church and who are not actively in a relationship with Jesus Christ.

Ah, but what about judging from within the Church?

Again, St. Paul is quite clear.  "But now I am writing to you not to associate with anyone who bears the name of brother or sister who is sexually immoral or greedy, or is an idolater, reviler, drunkard, or robber. Do not even eat with such a one... ‘Drive out the wicked person from among you.’"

There is a clear line of demarcation here.  If you are outside the bounds of the church, we shall not render judgement upon you, but if you are a part of the body of Christ...and you do not act accordingly...and you are being immoral...then judgement is necessary.

Paul lifts up the difference here between cheap grace and costly grace.  Cheap grace has no impact on me and the way I live my life.  Costly grace means I am changed and transformed (sanctification), and the way I live seeks to glorify God by following God's commands.  If I step out of those commands and live my life in a way that does not bring God glory, then there is a community of faith commissioned with bringing me back into line and calling me to repent.  They/We are justified in doing so, and it is quite necessary.

Of course, whenever this is done, there are those who readily say, "Take the log out of your own eye before trying to remove the speck in mine."

Granted.  Jesus was very clear in his instruction regarding such matters; however, He also commissioned a process of judgement which is not based solely at the discretion of any one individual.  It is intimately tied to a local community of faith--the church (Matthew 18).  Therefore, witch hunts driven by the ego of one individual aren't allowed.  Rendering judgement is necessary and is to be carried out by and on those within the Christian faith--not on those who are outside it.

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Who is Welcome?

A Facebook colleague shared the following blog post:

When my abuser is welcome at the table and, I am not.

Pertinent quotes:

It’s the cool thing in more progressive branches of Christianity now to talk about how EVERYONE is welcome at the communion table. I should be glad about that, I guess...

But this trend in Christianity where EVERYONE is welcome scares me.
Maybe it’s because of the time when a former friend of Abe’s, who knew my back story, told Abe and I that we had to be grateful that Jesus forgives rapists. Who told us that because we could not see rapists as sinners just like us, we must not know Jesus like he does.
Or maybe it’s because of the people who cut off all ties to me because I’m not all that cheery and positive in my critiques of abusive systems and ideologies. Those same people who talk about how they long to sit down at the communion table with popular spiritually abusive leaders in a show of grace and forgiveness.

Or maybe it’s because of the way I see so-called progressive Christians in powerful positions react when my friends who are gay or trans* or disabled or people of color say, “Hey, this person/ideology is oppressing us.”
EVERYONE is welcome. But more and more it seems the “EVERYONE” that Christians are really going after is abusers.
And why not? How radical and Jesus-like does that sound? Abusers and survivors, sitting at the same table. Sharing the same bread and wine. The lion lying down next to the lamb.
Sure. That sounds great. Excuse me while I go have a panic attack or two.

I apologize for the length of that quote, but I do not want to diminish what Sarah Moon is saying.  She's been abused.  She's been raped.  She's terrified of coming to a place where her abuser is welcomed, and she senses that she is not--not that she isn't welcome, she knows that, but where it seems like there is little compassion, comfort, or even safety for her.

Everyone is welcome.  That is the mantra.  No boundaries.  Anything goes.

This is one of those responses to pluralism that has infected the church--yes, I used infected purposely.

The idea that everyone is welcome has never been embraced by orthodox Christianity.  It wasn't embraced by Jesus.  It wasn't embraced by Paul.  So where did this idea come from?  Where did people start buying into the idea EVERYONE is welcome at the table of the Lord?

It's About Grace

Progressive Protestantism is enamored with the concept of grace.  I don't blame them in the least.  I am too.  When I hear the words of Romans 3

21 But now, irrespective of law, the righteousness of God has been disclosed, and is attested by the law and the prophets, 22the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction, 23since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God; 24they are now justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, 25whom God put forward as a sacrifice of atonement by his blood, effective through faith. He did this to show his righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over the sins previously committed; 26it was to prove at the present time that he himself is righteous and that he justifies the one who has faith in Jesus.

 and Ephesians 2

8For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God— 9not the result of works, so that no one may boast. 

my heart quickens.  This central doctrine of Christianity is something I cling to and refuse to let go of.

But there is a dark side to the concept of grace.  A dark side which reared its head in the early church and still rears its head even to this day.  It's called antinomianism.   That's the fancy word for it.  The less fancy word is lawlessness or anti-law.

You see, Christianity is both law and gospel.  The laws are the commands of God, the commands of Christ, the admonishments to live our lives according to God's will and do the works He commands.  The gospel is the acclamation that since we are unable to accomplish living the commands of Christ to perfection, we are forgiven and set free to live our lives striving to achieve perfection (follow the law) without worrying about being punished when we fail.

There is a bit of tightrope walking that I am doing in that last paragraph.  I hope you can see it.  In no way, shape or form does grace git rid of the law.  In no way, shape or form does grace nullify the commands of God or the commands of Jesus.  They are still in effect.  What is gone is that we are no longer under the discipline of that law should we fail. (Galatians 3:25).  But that certainly does not mean we are allowed to simply break the law.  Far be it.  For the same person (St. Paul) who wrote that we are no longer under the DISCIPLINE of the law also wrote:  Do we then overthrow the law by this faith? By no means! On the contrary, we uphold the law. (Romans 3:31)

So, as Christians, we are free from the discipline of the law, but we still strive to uphold it.  This is important for without the Law, there are no boundaries; and in Christianity, there are definitely boundaries.

Who is Out?

The idea that Jesus showed this radical love and accepted everyone regardless of who they were and what they did is simply asinine.  It is a misreading of Jesus.  The very fact that Jesus died for the world does not mean that He accepted everyone and believed everyone was welcome.  There is a very important teaching to illustrate this point, and it applies to Sarah Moon's situation as well as to the understanding of boundaries in the church.  From Matthew chapter 18:

Jesus teaches: 15 ‘If another member of the church sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone. If the member listens to you, you have regained that one. 16But if you are not listened to, take one or two others along with you, so that every word may be confirmed by the evidence of two or three witnesses. 17If the member refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if the offender refuses to listen even to the church, let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax-collector. 18Truly I tell you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.

 Would that the church follow these instructions!!  But alas, I can hope, can't I?

First off, we must recognize immediately Jesus saying, "If another member of the church sins against you..."  There is definitely right and definitely wrong going on here.  And how do we know what sin is?  How do we know what is right and what is wrong?  The Law.  We cannot abolish the Law!!!  It is necessary for clarity and boundaries and helping us know what is sin!!!

If another member of the church sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone.

That's the first step.  Now, if I were counseling Sarah or any other woman or man who had been abused by another, I would never counsel them to go alone.  There are exceptions to things, and this is one of them.  I would counsel them to bypass this step and move to step two--for protection's sake and for courage's sake.

I know intimately people who have been abused.  I know the pain inflicted upon them.  I know their desire and want to avoid those whom have harmed them, but I also know that if one tries to avoid everyone and every situation that one might encounter an abuser, then the one who was abused becomes trapped.  This is not good.  The church, in whatever form that might take, should provide a safe place for someone who has been abused to find courage, strength, healing, support, a place to break down without judgement and other means of emotional, physical, and spiritual healing.  We cannot diminish these things.

And one of those things is the courage to stand up to those who committed the abuse with the knowledge that person will not be allowed to harm him or her again--the courage to announce, "You sinned against me!"

Now, here is a very important piece.  Jesus says, "If the person repents, you have gained a brother."

This might cause some consternation because forgiveness comes with difficulty.  The healing is not necessarily done at that moment, but it none-the-less must take place.  Reconciliation is hard--very hard.  If you don't think so, just listen to some of the voices in minority communities these days when dealing with the effects of the Jim Crow laws.  There are still demands for retribution--even given to generations born well after these laws were in effect.  Forgiveness does not come easy.  Forgetting never happens.  Which is why support from those abused should never, ever be withdrawn until the abused say, "I am healed."

But that is just one scenario.  "If he repents..."

What if he doesn't?

Well, there are a series of steps to continue on with including exposing the sinner to the entire church.  Yeah, I know all about privacy laws and such things, but in order for infection to be dealt with, it must be exposed.  In this case, if an unrepentant sinner refuses to acknowledge wrongdoing--refuses to come to grips with what he did to damage another, then the church must act.

"Treat that one as a Gentile or tax collector."

These were outsiders in the Jewish society.  They were not allowed certain privileges when it came to worship and the holding of positions in Jewish society.  It doesn't mean that Jesus didn't come in contact with such folks.  It doesn't mean that Jesus didn't care about or love them.  They were now restricted though.  There were certain things they were not allowed to participate in.

In the early church and as the church grew, this meant excommunication--a refusal of the Lord's Supper.  Until repentance was shown, the means of grace would not be allowed to this person.

Boundaries.  They were important then.  They are still important now.

St. Paul knew this--knew it well.  He had to deal with a situation in Corinth which was not healthy, and once again, we see him drawing the lines in the sand with a particular church member:

9 I wrote to you in my letter not to associate with sexually immoral persons— 10not at all meaning the immoral of this world, or the greedy and robbers, or idolaters, since you would then need to go out of the world. 11But now I am writing to you not to associate with anyone who bears the name of brother or sister who is sexually immoral or greedy, or is an idolater, reviler, drunkard, or robber. Do not even eat with such a one. 12For what have I to do with judging those outside? Is it not those who are inside that you are to judge? 13God will judge those outside. ‘Drive out the wicked person from among you.’  --1 Corinthians 5:9-13

How quickly we forget such admonitions from both Jesus and Paul.  How quickly we forget that they drew boundaries, lines in the sand, which should not be crossed.  How quickly we forget that radical grace meant radically new ways of living and transformation of the heart and soul. 

Who is welcome?  Well, all sinners are welcome.  There is no doubt about that.  But sinners who are accused of sinning against another and refusing to repent according to Matthew 18 are not.  The church has had means of dealing with such things since its inception.  Somehow, there are those who have forgotten. 

Monday, June 10, 2013

"They Glorified God Because of Me"

    Paul was no friend of the early church.  He freely admits this.  In fact, Paul admits that he violently persecuted the church.  We have further witness of this from Luke’s account in the book of Acts when Luke tells us about the first martyr of the church, Stephen.

    Stephen proclaimed the gospel, and he upset quite a few folks.  Rather than backtrack on what he proclaimed, he pushed the envelope, and he was stoned.  There was a young man who looked after the cloaks of those who were stoning Stephen, and that young man was named Saul, who would later become Paul.  This same Saul had obtained permission to head to Damascus and arrest Christians there when an extraordinary event took place that changed his life, but more about that later.

    Paul grew up as a Pharisee, and by his own account, he was a very good one.  He was the modern day equivalent of the churchman who went to church every Sunday rain or shine; who gave 10% of his offering to the church; who went to Bible study on Sunday and Wednesday night; who contributed to every fund-raiser and who served on the church council.  But I think perhaps it went even further than that because Paul calls himself blameless according to the law.  This means, Paul ate the right foods, washed his hands at the right times, wore the right clothing, prayed at the right times and associated with the right people.  The Jewish faith was not something Paul simply talked about and practiced when it suited him; no.  The Jewish faith was something he lived to the nth degree.

    Paul was so absorbed into the Jewish faith that it literally was his life.  And he was not happy about anything that would threaten his beloved faith.  When word started being spread that a group of people dared to say that Jesus of Nazareth was the Messiah who was raised from the dead, Paul knew this posed a threat.  It was obvious to him this was a lie.  The Jewish people were not free from their enemies.  Rome still occupied Israel.  God had not reestablished the Jewish monarchy as no descendant of David sat on the throne.  And indeed, no one could be raised from the dead.  Once a person was dead, that person was dead–no return from that state.  Despite all the evidence, this movement was attracting followers.  His fellow Jews were converting and becoming Christian, and this was troubling.  How could people follow this lie?  How could people desert the truth of the Jewish faith and say Jesus is the resurrected Lord and Messiah?  It did not make sense to him.  It was obviously false...and a threat.  The movement had to be countered.

    And Paul was all to happy to oblige.  The same drive that made him work to perfection drove him to persecute the early church.  He strove to find followers of Jesus and have them arrested.  His zealous pursuit and defense of the Jewish faith won admirers in high places, so when Paul heard about the church taking root in Damascus, he asked for and received permission to persecute the church there.  Armed with arrest warrants, he headed out.

    And that is when his life was changed.  In an instant.  In the blink of an eye.  A light appeared, and a voice spoke, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?”

    “Who are you?” Saul responded.

    “I am Jesus whom you are persecuting.”

    Paul had encountered the Living Lord, and it was a life-changing event.  I spoke not to long ago how this event completely shattered his worldview and forced him to rethink everything he thought he knew.  It turned Paul’s world upside down, and after all was said and done, he went from zealous persecutor of the Church to ardent missionary and proclaimer of the Gospel to the Gentiles.

    Most agreed, the transformation was amazing.  The one who persecuted the Church with zeal now became one of its strongest supporters and one of the most obsessed evangelists that ever existed.  Paul says as much in our second lesson this morning as he recounts all of these episodes in his life.

    He says, “20In what I am writing to you, before God, I do not lie! 21Then I went into the regions of Syria and Cilicia, 22and I was still unknown by sight to the churches of Judea that are in Christ; 23they only heard it said, ‘The one who formerly was persecuting us is now proclaiming the faith he once tried to destroy.’”

    And then we come to a very fascinating statement in verse 24, “And they glorified God because of me.”

    Think about that statement for just a minute.  “They glorified God because of me.”

    I began to wonder if I had heard such a statement in the entire time I’ve been serving as a pastor.  I began thinking about all the thank you notes I have received.  I began thinking about all the thank you notes I have seen published in church newsletters.  I began thinking about all the correspondence I’ve received from other religious institutions and such.  I began to think about all the comments I’ve received on my sermons and the comments I have given to others who have preached.  And to the best of my recollection, I cannot ever think of hearing anything similar.

    Usually, the things churches and pastors get say this or something similar:

    Thank you for your words of comfort at the funeral.
    Thank you for sending a donation to help us in our mission and ministry.
    Thank you for officiating at our wedding and helping us enjoy our special day.
    Thank you for helping our family out during this financial crisis.

    Now, these words aren’t bad.  There is nothing wrong with them, so if you are in the process of writing a thank you letter or what have you, please do not think that I am somehow slamming you.  I’m not.  But contrast these words with what Paul says:

    They glorified God because of me.

    While many people thank us, the early Christians were glorifying God because of Paul.  This leads me to ask why are people focusing on us instead of giving God the glory?

    I have to ask that question because I think it gets to the heart and soul of the purpose of the Church in society.  I think it gets to the heart and soul of what our mission and our purpose as Christians is in this world in which we live.

    Let me try to be as clear as possible without being too offensive: it is not the church’s job to call attention to itself.  It is not the church’s job to simply do good things and get recognized for that.  It is not the church’s job to get as many people to join as possible so that we can keep the lights on, the building air conditioned, run a few programs that keep kids entertained, hold a few fund raisers and benefits for those in need, and other such things.  It is not a pastor’s job to work hard to get compliments on what he or she preaches or teaches or does at a funeral or wedding.  Now, we certainly do all of those things, but this is not our primary purpose.  It is not our primary job.

    Please listen closely: our primary job is to introduce people to and point the way to the God who makes all of these things possible.  Our primary job is to lift up the awesomeness of our God and what He did in taking on flesh, dwelling among us, and reconciling the world unto himself.  It is our primary job to keep God as the focus, as the center, as that which our lives revolve around.  We do not want people to see us!  I know that may be hard to get your head around, but I assure you, I think it is absolutely true.  We do not want people to see us; we want them to see God.

    And so, we must ask ourselves: are people seeing us or are they seeing God?  Are they thanking us or are they thanking God?  Are others glorifying us or are they glorifying God?  And if they are focusing on us instead of God, why is that the case?

    Let us pray.  Heavenly Father, the early church glorified you because of your work.  Sometimes we get things backward today and strive to lift up ourselves instead of you.  Give us the strength, courage, and desire to set ourselves aside so that others may see you and give glory to you because of us.  Amen.

Thursday, June 6, 2013

Striving for Perfection

Be perfect, therefore, even as your heavenly Father is perfect.  Matthew 5:48

It is a given that we as humans cannot achieve what Jesus says.  It is an impossibility for us to completely be like God. 

We cannot be all knowing.
We cannot be all powerful.
We cannot love unconditionally--perhaps at moment, but not totally.
We cannot achieve perfection in our relationships.

We simply cannot do it. 

This is why we have the concept of grace.  This is why St. Paul penned the words in Romans 3:

For there is no distinction, 23since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God; 24they are now justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, 25whom God put forward as a sacrifice of atonement by his blood, effective through faith.

We are not saved/justified/made right with God by any of our actions.  We are only made right with God by Him through Christ.  Period.  End of story.

Which, of course, then leads to the question: why try to achieve perfection at all?  If perfection doesn't save me and I cannot attain it, why should I even go there?  Why should I even strive for it?  Why apply myself toward something that is an impossibility?  Why try when failure is the outcome?

Many times I have sought a good argument for these questions.  Many times, I have preached arguments, that I believe fell short.  But I think I've got one now--drawn from the world of athletics.

Should a baseball player cease trying to hit the ball because his chances of actually getting a hit are generally less than 1 in 3? 

Should a pitcher cease to pitch because of the rarity of throwing a perfect game?

Should a basketball player stop shooting the ball because the odds of making it are generally less than 1 in 2?

Should a football team's offense cease trying hard every play because the odds are short that they will score a touchdown on that given play? 

Should a bowler cease bowling because of the difficulty in throwing a 300 game?

Should a golfer stop golfing because of the rarity of a hole in one?

Most would say that stopping would be asinine.  You don't play sports because you can achieve perfection! 

You also don't practice Christianity because you can achieve perfection.

You also practice and dedicate yourself and work hard in sports training your body to do better.  The more reps you spend in a batting cage, the better chance you will have to hit the ball.  The more times you practice shooting a basketball, the better you get at making baskets.  The more you practice running a particular play in football, the more you maximize your chances of scoring a touchdown when you run it.  The more you practice golfing and tweaking your swing, the more you maximize your chances of making a hole in one. 

The goal drives what you do.  If your goal is to hit every shot in basketball, you will work hard at achieving it--even though it is a statistical impossibility.  If your goal is to get a hit in every at bat, you will work to achieve it--even though it is very, very unlikely.  And so on, and so forth.

The goal in Christianity drives what we do as well.  Not because we will achieve it.  Not because we will achieve salvation, but because this is what it means to love God and our neighbor.  Perfection is the goal, and it is our desire to achieve it--even though it is an impossibility.

But every once in a while, we hit a home run, score a touchdown, sink a hole in one, and bowl a strike.  It helps us enjoy the game/life/faith, and inspires us to keep trying.