Monday, September 30, 2013

True Rejoicing

    Three boys are in the school yard bragging about their fathers. The first boy says, "My Dad scribbles a few words on a piece of paper, he calls it a poem, they give him $50."

    The second boy says, "That’s nothing. My Dad scribbles a few words on piece of paper, he calls it a song, they give him $100."

    The third boy says, "I got you both beat. My Dad scribbles a few words on a piece of paper, he calls it a sermon, and it takes eight people to collect all the money!"

    I like this joke for a couple of reasons.  First, it’s clean.  Enough said about that.  Second, it’s about a boy unashamedly proud of his father’s profession–a father who just happened to be a pastor, like me.  Third, it’s a classic example of the games of one-upmanship we all like to play at some point and time in our lives.

    I mean, I don’t know what it is about our species, but when it comes to telling stories about the things that we have experienced, someone always seems to have a story that one-ups everyone else.  Maybe you’ve run into such a person before.  They’ve always got to have the last word or the tallest tale. 

    I remember sitting down and talking to a couple of our members over a game of cards.  They were talking about a guy who had at least one such tall tale.  Apparently, there had been some scattered showers around Cat Spring, and folks were commenting about how it seemed like the rain just seemed to hit a certain spot and then just shut off.  This one particular gentleman–I wish I could remember the name, said something to the effect of, “Yeah, I know exactly what you mean.  The other day, I was riding in my cart holding my shot gun when such a rain shower hit.  After the storm was done, one barrel was completely dry, and the other barrel was full of water.”  I’m not sure anyone could top that one.

    Neither do I think anyone could top Jesus as He one-ups the disciples in our Gospel lesson this morning.  And, He teaches them an important lesson to boot.  Let’s set the scene.

    As Jesus’ ministry was taking off, He wanted to get the word out about God’s Kingdom.  He brought together 70 of His followers, and He sent them out to proclaim the message of God.  Here were Jesus’ exact instructions in fact, “‘The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; therefore ask the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest. 3Go on your way. See, I am sending you out like lambs into the midst of wolves. 4Carry no purse, no bag, no sandals; and greet no one on the road. 5Whatever house you enter, first say, “Peace to this house!” 6And if anyone is there who shares in peace, your peace will rest on that person; but if not, it will return to you. 7Remain in the same house, eating and drinking whatever they provide, for the laborer deserves to be paid. Do not move about from house to house. 8Whenever you enter a town and its people welcome you, eat what is set before you; 9cure the sick who are there, and say to them, “The kingdom of God has come near to you.” 10But whenever you enter a town and they do not welcome you, go out into its streets and say, 11“Even the dust of your town that clings to our feet, we wipe off in protest against you. Yet know this: the kingdom of God has come near.” 12I tell you, on that day it will be more tolerable for Sodom than for that town.”

    That’s the background.  The 70 went out and did what Jesus instructed them to do, and in today’s Gospel reading, we get the results.  It’s like sitting down at a corporate meeting and asking them, “So how did the venture go?”

    The disciples respond with absolute enthusiasm!  ‘Lord, in your name even the demons submit to us!’

    Now, this is no small feat for those disciples, particularly in Jesus’ day.  For, you see, most folks had a particular worldview.  They believed the events on earth were directly related to events in heaven.  Up in heaven, there was a tremendous battle being waged between the forces of good and the forces of evil.  Events on earth oftentimes mirrored the events in heaven.  When evil was winning a hand or two, evil things happened to people on earth.  When good was winning in heaven, good things happened on earth. 

    When the disciples were giving their reports, they were convinced there were some very good things happening up in heaven. They were convinced the cosmic battle was going well, and that they were on the winning side.  If the forces of darkness were being defeated down here on earth, surely the cosmic battle was being won and handily.

    Jesus says a quite interesting thing at this point.  Scholars have wrestled with this saying for quite some time.  “I saw Satan fall from heaven like a flash of lightning.”  Oftentimes, one will ask, “Did Jesus really see such a thing?”

    My answer is no.  I don’t think so.  In fact, I think Jesus is being quite sarcastic.  I mean, if you take a look at our second lesson for today, John, the writer of Revelation, talks about the culmination of the final battle.  During that final battle, the Enemy, the Serpent, the Great Deceiver is finally thrown out of heaven and down to earth.  Mind you, John is writing many years after Jesus’ walked the earth.  So, in effect, Jesus didn’t see Satan fall from heaven.  The battle was still ongoing.  Jesus knew this which is the first reason I think Jesus is being sarcastic.  The second reason is that I believe He was using such rhetoric to set His disciples straight.

    “See, I have given you authority to tread on snakes and scorpions, and over all the power of the enemy; and nothing will hurt you.”  This is what the disciples are all excited about, and what does Jesus think of it?  See how He starts the next statement? “Nevertheless.”  That’s the word Jesus uses.  Nevertheless.  Jesus is drawing a stark contrast between what the disciples are excited about and what Jesus thinks is more important.  Hence, sarcasm to begin with.  Finishing out what Jesus says, “Nevertheless, do not rejoice at this, that the spirits submit to you, but rejoice that your names are written in heaven.”

    Jesus one-ups them with that which is truly important.  Sure, it’s nice to win a battle in the cosmic war between good and evil.  Sure, it’s nice to have the spirits submit to you in the name of Jesus.  Sure, it’s nice to accomplish something nice for a change, but these things, while important, pale in comparison to knowing your name is written in heaven.  These things pale in comparison to knowing that you are a child of God.  These things pale in comparison compared to knowing that you have a place reserved for you in eternity with all the saints who have gone before.

    Why would Jesus emphasize such a thing?  Why would Jesus steal the disciples’ thunder?  Why wouldn’t He allow them to just revel in the moment and celebrate their accomplishments?

    I think the reason is clear.  These skirmishes are just that: skirmishes.  These battles might have been won, but in the future, the battles might not go so well.  In the future, there will be times of loss.  There will be times when the forces of evil will seem overwhelming and all powerful.  There will be times when for the sake of the Gospel these same disciples will face torture, persecution, hatred, loneliness, and even death.  And what will they say at those times?  Where will their belief and faith rest?  Will they still be rejoicing, or will they cower in fear? 

    For those who know that their names are written in the book of life, there is no fear.  For those who know that their names are written in the book of heaven, there is no anxiety.  For those who know that their names are known by God, there is the realization that even though the worst may happen, God will ultimately bring about a positive outcome.  Even though we die, we will live.  That is the promise.

    As modern disciples of Jesus, most of us know both the thrill of accomplishment and the agony of defeat.  Most of us know happiness and sadness.  Most of us have felt total elation at some point as well as overwhelming grief.  We know the ups and downs of life.  We know there are wins and losses.  There is no shame celebrating those wins.  It’s nice to have them, but they are not the sum and substance of our lives.   They are not what gives us inspiration.  They are not the reasons we hold onto our faith and call ourselves Christian. 

     Some preachers believe these things indeed are a result of becoming a Christian.  They proclaim that when we become followers of Jesus and just have enough faith, then everything will be great in our lives--we will have health, wealth, and happiness.  Most of you here this morning know this isn't always the case.  Most of you here this morning know the reality of life.  Most of you know the pain of loss, the agony of having cancer or having a loved one who has cancer, the sorrow in having a family torn apart by divorce, and all other manners of hurt.  Some of you have been mocked and teased and made to feel down and low.  If your faith rested on all the good things in life, what would have happened to it when you ran into all of these things?   Where do you think your faith in God would have ended up?

    This is why Jesus one ups us today as well.  He does not wish for us to have our faith rest on the idea that good things happen to us because we believe in Him and have been given the power of the Holy Spirit.  For to live God’s Word daily means we know these things pale in comparison to the fact that God loves us, God calls us, God works on us to transform us into His likeness, and God has our names written in heaven.  Knowing this gives us tremendous strength to face both the good and the bad in this world.  Amen.

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Stretching the Mind

Those of you who read my blog know I like to delve into the deep questions of life:
  • Why are we here?
  • What is our purpose?
  • What is Truth?
  • What is the nature of reality?
And so on and so forth.  I read and write about biology, cosmology, quantum physics, biblical studies, cultural issues, difficult texts in the Scriptures, and other heady topics.

Honestly, I get a lot of energy and inspiration from dealing with difficult subjects.  I get a lot of energy and inspiration from trying to wrap my head around questions which have been around for a very, very long time.  I like crawling up into the realms of abstract thought and logic.

But then I come crashing down to earth rather quickly, and it is not preaching for my congregation which does it.  It is teaching Sunday School--especially this year.

For this year, in our Sunday School program, I am teaching the pre-K and Kindergarten students.  I am teaching kids who have just learned to potty train and can't tie their shoes.  I'm teaching kids who have no clue about the nature of atoms, quarks, and other subatomic particles.  They have no clue about evolution or science.  They can't even come close to comprehending the idea of the Trinity or historical-critical biblical methodologies.

And I am teaching them about God.

Talk about keeping you grounded and stretching your mind.

Jesus famously said, "Unless you accept the kingdom of God as a child, you cannot enter it."  Too often, I think we adults lose sight of this.  Maybe we should all try to teach a group of 3-5 year olds about God from time to time.  Might keep us a bit more humble.

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

A Vote to Cut SNAP

At the end of last week, a huge uproar occurred on the left hand side of the political/ideological spectrum when the House of Representatives, along party lines, voted to cut the SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) by $40 billion over 10 years.

More than a few of my more liberally associated colleagues on Facebook erupted in moral outrage demeaning the Republicans' hard-heartedness, callous, and un-Christian attitudes and behaviors in their votes for this measure.  Their righteous indignation can perhaps be captured in the following article from Sojourner's 

Your Christian Hypocrisy Is Showing: On Pope Francis and the U.S. Congress

A relevant quote:

In July 2013, when lawmakers first passed a Farm Bill without funding for food stamps (officially called the “Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program,” or “SNAP”), one Republican lawmaker (Stephen Fincher, R-Tenn.) quoted 2 Thessalonians 3:10, “the one who is unwilling to work shall not eat.” In yesterday’s debate, Rep. Steve Southerland (R-Fla.) invoked Genesis —“God created Adam, placed him in the Garden to work it.”

Exegesis aside, what both of these quotes ignore is that most of those on food stamps are working. They might be working part-time, or for minimum wage, or both, but they are working. What they also ignore is that those who would be most severely impacted by such drastic cuts in food stamp funding — children — cannot work for their food. They can instead only wake in the morning and hope they are fed.

My curiosity, of course was peaked when I started seeing all of the blog postings and indignation on behalf of those who would be affected by this particular bill if it had a snowball's chance of passing the Senate.  Therefore, I started doing a bit of research to see just what the bill included.

The Executive Summary was helpful since it takes a masters in law in order to decipher the wording of the bill itself.

And then it was on to reading some news articles instead of blog postings and Facebook rants:

House approves bill with deep food stamp spending cuts
A very, very relevant quote or two:

The Cantor-backed package would limit able-bodied adults without dependents to three months of food stamps in a three-year period unless they worked part-time or were in a workfare or job-training program. It would end a provision, created by the 1996 welfare reform law, that allows states to give food stamps to people whose assets are larger than usually allowed.

Those two steps would save $39 billion over 10 years and reduce enrollment by almost 4 million people in 2014, said the Congressional Budget Office. Another reform would reduce benefits by $90 a month for 850,000 households.

Marcia Fudge, Democrat of Ohio, and other Democrats said there were not enough jobs, workfare assignments or job-training programs to match the number of people who could lose food stamps after three months.

So, let's put the actual facts on the table.  The bill actually passed by the House of Representatives does not affect those people who actually work--per the Sojourner's article unless the folks are already making more than usually allotted.  Same goes for those who have dependents--as per the Sojourner's article.  And, the bill does not target at any women or children--as per the Sojourner's article, unless, again, these folks are already making more than is usually allowed.

The only argument that can be made against it is that of Fudge who said there aren't enough jobs or training programs out there for able bodied individuals to participate in.  That may or may not be true depending upon the situation in which one finds oneself.

However, yours truly has heard more than his fair share of stories about people living in the Great Depression who moved several states away from their families and friends to find work until jobs became more available.  What is preventing such things from happening today?  Why do we feel like people are anchored to a particular place or area and are unable to seek out other opportunities where there are jobs and training programs?  That is a relevant question to respond to Mrs. Fudge with.

But all of this is quite beside the point.  The point, at least from my perspective, is that I believe that in the Church, we are responsible for being speakers of truth.  We are responsible for relaying the facts of a particular matter and speaking to it truthfully.  I do not believe some within the Church have fulfilled their responsibility adequately in this particular matter.

It is not the first time.

It probably won't be the last.

This particular misstep comes from the left side of the aisle.

There are numerous from the right side as well.

A damnable question arises from the willingness to see what we want to see instead of putting the facts on the table and then working from those:

Why would anyone trust the Church if we do not speak the full truth?

Monday, September 23, 2013

Using Dishonest Wealth Faithfully

    I want to forewarn you this morning that when I was in seminary, I wrote a 30 page paper on today’s Gospel lesson.  And as I continue to wrestle with this text, I had a really evil thought.  You see, this text is pretty mind boggling.  It doesn’t seem to gel with what we see and know of Jesus throughout the rest of scripture.  Since it seems so head scratching, I thought I’d just read my 30 page paper this morning leaving you utterly bored and just as confused as when you first read it.  That way we could all still walk out of here scratching our heads and still trying to figure out just what point Jesus is trying to make.

    Well, that was the thought, but I don’t even want to put myself through 30 pages of Greek translation, the nuances of the words, tying them into other biblical texts, and what have you.  If I ever go back to school, maybe I will force myself to do such things, but right now, I rather enjoy letting others do that kind of work and simply reading about it.

    But that is beside the point, what is on point is our Gospel lesson and the difficulty wading through it.  I mean, there are certainly parts of this text which are straight forward and easily understood, but it seems like there is not a good flow of logic.  It doesn’t seem like one thing necessarily follows from the other as we move through this teaching of Jesus.  So, I’d like to attempt this morning to wade through this text once more in a careful manner to see if we can indeed make sense of it and see if there is an underlying logic to it.

    We begin with a story about a rich man and his steward.  Someone brings charges against the steward, accusing the steward of squandering the rich man’s property.  The rich man acts accordingly, “You are squandering my property?  Give me an accounting because you can no longer be my steward.”

    Well, the rich man must have given the steward some time to get his paperwork together, because the steward now has time to contemplate his future, and he is not happy about what he sees.  “I am not strong enough to dig, and I am too ashamed to beg?”  Mind you, in Jesus’ day these two options were looked down upon greatly.  There was great shame in working with your hands.  There was great shame in begging.  The steward was not happy at all with his lot at this point. 

    But, in the midst of his thinking, he comes upon a solution–a grand plan, if you will.  He says, “I know what I will do  so that, when I am dismissed as manager, people may welcome me into their homes.” 

    The steward starts calling in the people who owe his master money.  The first guy owes a hundred jugs of olive oil.  The steward says, “Make it 50.”  Of course the guy who owes the oil is very happy.  Second guy comes up and owes 100 containers of wheat.  “Make it 80.”  Of course, the guy who owed the wheat is happy.  But there is more.

    The culture of Jesus’ day really and truly revolved around a “you scratch my back, and I will scratch your back” reality.  People were constantly doing one another favors to put themselves in a position of honor.  Folks weren’t doing nice things just for the sake of being nice, nope, not at all.  Folks were doing things so that they might be repaid at a later date.

    And the steward is doing just that.  He is setting these folks up.  He is performing a kindness to them so that if indeed his master lets him go, he will have a place to stay.  Essentially, the steward can go to the guys who owed his master olive oil and wheat and say, “You know, I did you a favor in reducing your debt significantly.  I need a place to stay.  Do you mind?”  And because of the cultural norms in that day, the debtors would have been obliged to let him in.

    Now, here is the other kicker to the puzzle.  This is something that just occurred to me this past week.  Perhaps it has occurred to others who study such matters, but I have never read it in any other work.  The steward, by his actions also brought the rich man honor.  How did that happen?  Well, the guy who owed the olive oil and the guy who owed the wheat actually owed it to the master–not the steward.  So, in effect, what the steward did was make these debtors doubly indebted to the rich man.  They now owed the rich man massive favors.

    So, let’s think about this.  By reducing the debt of these men, the steward can either go to them and say, “You owe me.”  Or he can go to his master and say, “Because of my actions these men now owe you.”  The steward brought his master honor, and now the master owes his steward a favor.  The steward manipulated the system perfectly!  Is it any wonder then why the master praises the steward for acting shrewdly?  The guy indeed is a master when it comes to manipulation.

    At this point of the story, I think the disciples are pretty much going, “Yep, that’s the way it works.  That’s the way the system is set up.  Jesus continues, “For the children of this age are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light.”  This is probably very much a truism.  Those focused on this reality and how it works indeed are more shrewd in dealing with this generation.  But what about those who are not focused on this reality?  What about the children of light who are called to focus on the reality of the Kingdom of God?  What do they do with wealth?

    Jesus continues, “9And I tell you, make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth so that when it is gone, they may welcome you into the eternal homes.”  This statement to me is fascinating.  For it leads me to ask a couple of important questions: what does it mean to make friends out of dishonest wealth?  And how can those friends welcome you into the eternal homes?  Last I saw, the only friend who can welcome us into the eternal home is Jesus.  And Jesus himself knows that only God can welcome us into the eternal home.   So, I have to wonder at this point if Jesus isn’t being a bit sarcastic.  Is Jesus trying to make us contrast reality and eternity?  The reality is: manipulate the system to put yourself in an advantageous position even if you have to be dishonest to do it.  Does eternity work that way?  No.

    Jesus finishes with these words, 10 “Whoever is faithful in a very little is faithful also in much; and whoever is dishonest in a very little is dishonest also in much. 11If then you have not been faithful with the dishonest wealth, who will entrust to you the true riches? 12And if you have not been faithful with what belongs to another, who will give you what is your own? 13No slave can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth.”

    Again, we have Jesus calling us to use dishonest wealth faithfully.  Does this mean we have appropriated our wealth dishonestly?  Well, maybe.  But not necessarily by intent.  I mean, let’s think about how wealth is acquired.  Sure, we acquire it by working.  There is no shame in that.  “A laborer is due his wages,” writes St. Paul.  But are our wages completely free of dishonestly?  Is the wealth we accumulate completely free of sin and injustice?  We know this is not true.  We know many of the things we buy are purchased from industries overseas who do not treat their workers well.  We know that many goods we buy, including our food, are cheap because of cheap labor–sometimes labor which has been abused.  We know that our wealth doesn’t necessarily come cheap–sometimes it comes out of the pockets who can least afford it.  And yet, it is wealth given to us, and the question is: how do we use it?  Do we use it dishonestly?  Do we squander it?  Or, do we use it to do God’s work?

    That, I think becomes the ultimate question.  Do we use our wealth to the glory of God?  Do we use our wealth to be faithful to Him?  The reality may be that in order to get ahead and work the system we are supposed to be dishonest; however, as Christians I do not believe we are called to work and move with this reality in mind.  I believe we are called to think about the eternal homes–the homes in the Kingdom of God.  And in that reality, we use wealth to serve God even if that wealth is tainted.

    It seems to me that if we are called to Live God’s Word Daily, we must be cognizant of how we use our wealth.  We must be cognizant of our intent in how we use it.  Do we use it to make friends for ourselves here to save our bacon?  Or do we use it to glorify God?  To Live God’s Word Daily, I think the choice is clear.  Jesus said it himself, “You cannot serve God and wealth.”  Amen.

Thursday, September 19, 2013

The Knowledge of Good and Evil

"Why did God restrict humans when He placed them in the Garden of Eden?  Why didn't He want them to have knowledge?"

I've watched numerous Youtube debates between atheists and believers, and this question has popped up numerous times.  Several answers have been given.  Many of them rather adequate, but none I have heard take the following view.

First, the background text:

15 The Lord God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to till it and keep it. 16And the Lord God commanded the man, ‘You may freely eat of every tree of the garden; 17but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall die.’  Genesis 2: 15-17

Now the serpent was more crafty than any other wild animal that the Lord God had made. He said to the woman, ‘Did God say, “You shall not eat from any tree in the garden”?’ 2The woman said to the serpent, ‘We may eat of the fruit of the trees in the garden; 3but God said, “You shall not eat of the fruit of the tree that is in the middle of the garden, nor shall you touch it, or you shall die.” 4But the serpent said to the woman, ‘You will not die; 5for God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.’ 6So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate; and she also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate. 7Then the eyes of both were opened, and they knew that they were naked; and they sewed fig leaves together and made loincloths for themselves.  Genesis 3:1-7

Why did God restrict knowledge?

Well, one must be a bit careful in asking this question, because as the story tells us, God did not restrict all knowledge.  He only restricted the knowledge of good and evil.  The knowledge of how things work.  The knowledge of beauty, the knowledge of love, the knowledge of trust, one could even argue scientific knowledge and the knowledge of the earth was open to humankind.   Only one type of knowledge was restricted: the knowledge of good and evil.

So, let's rephrase the question to reflect reality: why did God restrict the knowledge of good and evil?

Well, was there a need for such knowledge?

God had provided the man and woman with food, shelter, purpose, safety, and community.  There was nothing they lacked.  All was taken care of.  There was no need for the knowledge of good and evil.

However, there was need for the ability of man and woman to make a choice.  Without some sort of choice and free will, then there can be no relationship.  God does not desire a forced relationship but one of trust, and He trusted man and woman to obey one simple rule.  "Don't eat from the tree of knowledge of good and evil."  You don't need this.  All is taken care of.

I mean, from a practical standpoint, what would our lives be like if we did not have to worry about what was good and what was evil?  What would our lives look like if we did not have to think through the consequences of our actions to see if they would produce good or evil?  How many of us stress over decisions knowing if we get them wrong, there will be negative results?  The knowledge of good and evil--even in the limited fashion we have them now--causes moral, ethical people angst and stress.

God did not want the pinnacle of His creation to bear such a burden; especially in paradise.

But as is the wont of human nature--we are never satisfied with what we have.  There is something that always wants more.  We cannot simply enjoy that which is around us and our situation in life no matter how good or how bad it is.  We cannot simply be satisfied that our needs are provided for--want takes hold.

"Eat of the fruit for then you will be like God knowing the difference between good and evil."

I can be like God.  I can have all knowledge then.  I will no longer be limited or have any boundaries.  I will be truly free.

Well, it didn't exactly turn out that way, did it?  Broken trust.  Broken relationships.  Blame game.

Here's a question I haven't heard ex posited on: if after eating the fruit of the knowledge of good and evil, and knowing that blaming another for one's own actions is evil, why then did the man and woman do exactly this after eating?

Apparently, knowledge doesn't exactly lead to doing.  Furthermore, even if we have knowledge, human minds are limited in their ability to calculate fully the consequences.  We may think one thing seems good, but when implemented it becomes evil.  And something may appear evil but when implemented it brings about good.  Who but God can fully know good and evil?

And so, God kept it from us.  In paradise, we didn't need it.  And now that we have some idea of it, neither can we implement it nor can we fully grasp good or evil fully.

Seems like God was pretty smart in His restriction in that light.

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Faith and Evidence

I find it quite interesting that it is not enough for we as Christian believers to simply deal with those who do not believe in our faith and seek to articulate and defend our positions to them.  No.  For some reason, we also must deal with one another and oftentimes to seek to articulate and defend our positions to one another.  Oftentimes, when we engage in such debates, non-believers can simply sit on the sidelines and watch us go at one another all the while laughing at our inter-squad rivalries.

It would be nice if we did not have to have such inter-squad arguments.  It would be nice if we could have an agreed upon methodology of interpreting Scripture, formulating doctrine, and defining practice.  But, alas, Pandora's Box has been opened, and we cannot stuff all the entities back into it.  And so we must wade through the varying theologies and methodologies to seek the Truth and hopefully be grasped by it at some point.

One of the great struggles in the Christian faith has been the interpretation of Scripture and how we view the documents called the Old and New Testaments.  Much ink has been spilled in how to view these documents throughout the ages from the earliest decades of Christianity to the present, and, in some cases, the arguments of how to handle these documents has gotten rather heated.

In our own cultural situation (North America, U.S.A.) perhaps the most heated debates on how to deal with the biblical canon are between those holding to biblical inerrancy and those who embrace the historical/critical methods of interpreting scripture.

I am of the opinion that each side takes its particular position too far in its effort to prove its credibility oftentimes ending up with the following exchange:

"You historical/critical folks do not take the Bible seriously enough and you try to manipulate it to say what you want to say."

"Well, we believe and worship the God of the Bible and not the Bible itself!"

The accusations on both sides are flawed.  Each side takes the Bible very seriously--there is no doubt about that.  Yet, each side fails to recognize some very basic truth as well.  I believe some of these differences can be reconciled if we view the Bible in a particular manner--as evidence.

Professor John Lennox in one of his lectures found on Youtube said the following:

We have a job to do to explain what John does in his Gospel so brilliantly.  That faith is not something that just happens to people.  It’s a response to evidence–these things are order that you might believe.  Here is the basis, and faith is based on evidence.  Otherwise, by definition, you wouldn’t need the New Testament.  If faith is believing where there is no evidence, then the greatest faith is shown by those people who never read the New Testament.  Because it is evidence, I am sorry to say, but I am not sorry to say. 

This is a very important statement in my estimation.  And as I have thought about it, it makes a lot of sense to me.  Here is why:

Evidence demands interpretation, and it does not tell the full story.  Those who hold to the inerrancy of scripture would do well to remember this.

Consider the analogy with dinosaur bones.  (I am sorry.  I cannot help but use this example as my son is a huge dinosaur fan.)  The bones tell us an awful lot about anatomy.  They give us a great glimpse of what the skeletal features of these creatures looked like.  But, we also know these are the basics.  There are much more to dinosaurs than just bones.  In a very real way, we have to fill in some blanks.  There is interpretation which must be done especially in regards to behavior.  How did the dinosaurs act?  Hunt?  Move in their environment?  How fast could they move?  Were they warm blooded or cold blooded or did different species have different blood types?  We can make some very good guesses based upon the bones, but the full truth actually escapes us.  There is no way to fully verify.

The God of the Bible can be viewed similarly (please allow that I realize no analogy is complete).  Scripture gives us the bones in a very real way.  We see God revealed as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  We see God revealed in how He acted in the Old and New Testament.  We see God revealed in the flesh as Jesus of Nazareth, fully divine and fully human.  However, there is much which begs interpretation.  There is much which begs to be filled in.  There is much to God which we still do not know.  Given the tremendous advances in technology, how indeed does God view genetic engineering?  The use of fossil fuels?  The role sporting events now play in our nation?  The rise of science?  The fact that we interact so much over our computers and phones?

If we are true to ourselves, we will answer that we truly do not know for sure.  We can get a pretty good idea, but the full Truth is just beyond our grasp, and the best we can hope for is to be grabbed by it.

And just like a paleontologist has to put together a skeleton based upon his or her knowledge of anatomy, we too have to put together the pieces of God as revealed as the Trinity.  We know the fullest revelation of God is in the person of Jesus, and so we must look to Him as the example as we move forth in our talk about God.  So, as we look at Jesus, does the "bone" regarding the stoning of disobedient children in Deuteronomy 21 fit?  Obviously not.  Furthermore, Jesus Himself told us that some bones are not to be dealt with any longer (dietary laws).  Based upon the evidence of Jesus, we have a great guide to wade through some of the issues regarding inerrancy in the Bible.

However, there are a couple of things that we are not allowed to do.  We are simply not allowed to rearrange the skeleton in whatever fashion we desire.  I mean, when a paleontologist puts together a mess of dinosaur bones, he/she does not take a bone away just because it doesn't seem to fit his/her own imagination of what a dinosaur looked like.  If a full skeleton of a dinosaur is found, and the bones are arranged in a certain way in the ground, the paleontologist does his or her best to deal with the skeleton as it is and tries to work with the bones as they are presented.  One cannot manipulate the pieces and rearrange them to fit one's preconceived notions.

There are more than a few who involve themselves in the historical/critical methodology who do just this.  They take the evidence presented in the Bible and arrange it to fit their own ideas of what God is like.  They are more than comfortable saying, "Well, this bone/saying of Jesus doesn't fit what I think God/Jesus is really like, so this must be made up by a particular community; it must be legend; it must be an invention in the mind of a particular scribe who is trying to push his own agenda."

Evidence demands to be interpreted--not thrown out because one does not like it.  And too many scholars enjoy trampling on pieces of scripture because they do not like it and it does not fit their own ideas of what God/Jesus is/should be like.  Indeed, this is tampering with the evidence instead of truly wrestling with it.

And so, what do we have if we view the Bible as evidence?  Where do we arrive if we assume this book is God's people writing down how God has revealed Himself throughout history?

We have something we must take very seriously--but realize there are limitations.  We have something concrete and unchanging: beyond manipulation--but some blanks that beg to be filled in.  We have guidance in wresting with the tough issues of our day without having to come across as completely dogmatic and thinking we have it all figured out.  We also have the ability to invite other eyes to come and view the evidence--to see if they can uncover things as well.

It seems to me, that viewing scripture as evidence of God and His work gives us a path forward to navigate in the rough seas generated by two particular views of Christianity which are highly incompatible 

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

The Probability of Life

I've had an interesting month or so when it comes to discussing the origins of life and its probability.

Last week's final post on God in school elicited a response from a friend who is a science teacher, and is someone I respect tremendously.  She outlaid what I knew to be true but didn't articulate clearly in my post.

Many teachers are forced to teach certain curriculum and have no say in how it is presented.

I think that is unfortunate, particularly when covering evolution and the origins of life.

Please understand this important point: I adhere to evolutionary theory as an explanation as to how life evolved on our planet.  I do not dispute this at all.  What I dispute is unguided evolution based on the probability of life originating and then evolving as rapidly as it has.

Please allow me to explain using the origin of life on our planet: DNA.

There is little dispute among the biological community that the first forms of life on our planet were simple bacteria.  There is little dispute that the building blocks of these bacteria are proteins composed of the DNA molecule.  There is little dispute regarding the DNA molecule and how it is in a double-helix shape composed of nucleotides.  These are composed of  nucleobases (guanine, adenine, thymine, and cytosine), recorded using the letters G, A, T, and C.  (Don't worry, I'm not going to get into anymore detailed scientific terms.  Please bear with me.  I think this is extremely important.)

Now, in the simplest of bacteria, there are hundreds of thousands of nucleobases.  This is important.  The human DNA has over 3 billion base pairs, dwarfing bacteria.  So, we are talking about the very, very basics.  Simple, correct?  And with the trillions of planets that must exist in our universe, life should be a slam dunk?  Correct?

Richard Dawkins, noted biologist and atheist gives the origins of life a one in a billion chance.  As such, he is a firm believer in the existence of life throughout the universe.  But I wonder where he got that one in a billion figure?  Is it that small?  And yes, I believe it is too small.

Interestingly enough, in a debate between Dawkins and John Lennox, who is a mathematician, Lennox states that he cannot believe that life developed randomly.  Dawkins, either sympathetically or condescendingly says, "I know that."  I think Dawkins would do well to study some mathematics and try to understand why Lewis says what he says.

I think I get it, and here is why:

The first nucleotide would be either a G,A,T, or C. It has a one in four chance of being the correct one or 25%. Not too bad a chance. But let's extend that down to ten places. Each place has a one in four shot, so we get 1/4 x 1/4 x 1/4.... or 1/4^10. That's a 1/1,048,576 chance that all 10 would come together. The odds are getting much smaller--already passing Dawkin's one in a billion chance. So, let's extrapolate down another 10 spots. 1/4^20 or 1/1,099,511,627,776. Those odds are essentially nil, zero, not a snowball's chance in h-e-double hockey sticks, and we are only to the 20th nucleotide. Would you ascribe such a coming together of chemicals to chance? Even if you have hundreds of billions of planets out there, do you really believe that number comes even close to lessening the odds? Statistically, not a chance. At all.

Somehow in the primordial soup that was our planet nearly 3 billion years ago, life emerged as these chemicals came together to form it. You can say that it happened by chance that these chemicals somehow did this on their own, but that's not exactly a very rational statement in light of the math. It's possible that it could have happened in such a fashion, but it is definitely more rational to believe that it didn't just happen on its own.

So, once again, we are left with three options presented to us regarding the origins of life:

1. Pure chance--mathematically laughable.
2. In an impossibly large number of parallel universes, we happened to be in the one that was just right--not evidence based as there is no way to measure or observe some sort of parallel universe by definition.  One must adhere to this option purely by faith.
3. Life was create--the most probable of the three given the numbers along with the fact that our universe began out of nothing and is finely tuned.

In our school systems, when it comes to teaching biology and the origins of life, #1 and #2 can be freely taught without repercussion despite the known difficulties.  I am of the persuasion that option #3 needs to be added as an option in our educational system.  It seems the most rational position.

Monday, September 16, 2013

Changing One's Mind

    As the summer was winding down and my family and I began the preparations for back to school, my oldest daughter came up to me and said, “Daddy, will you take me fishing before the end of summer?”

    I wasn’t exactly thrilled by the request.  Not in the least.  Some of you might remember me articulating very clearly the experiences I had in my youth which made me basically despise fishing.  It has never really been my favorite sport.  Give me a rifle and a deer stand, and I am happy.  Shove a fishing pole and bait in my hand, and I’m much less inclined to smile.

    But this was my daughter making a rather simple request.  And those of you with daughters know that they can melt a daddy’s heart in an instant.  Somehow, daughters can make daddies do things they might not otherwise do, and I know deep down I am no exception to the rule.

    I looked at my daughter and said, “Yes.  I will take you fishing.”

    Well, that started the process.  A couple of trips to Wal-Mart, and I had obtained equipment for us to go fishing.  We planned a date, and with the help of a church member, we found a spot in a spring fed pond stocked with fish. 

    And then something even more interesting happened.  My other two children, upon hearing I was taking my oldest spoke up, “We want to go fishing too!”  A couple of borrowed poles turned a father/daughter outing into a family outing–an outing which increased my children’s desire to keep on fishing. 

    At this point, I began to think to myself: you know, my kids really enjoy fishing.  My wife really enjoys fishing.  I am the only stick in the mud preventing us from actually having an outdoor family activity which we all can do without argument.  Perhaps I would do well to get a better attitude toward fishing.

    And so I worked at it.  A few more trips to Wal-Mart and Academy, and I had all the basics for my family to fish together.  Looking around, I discovered tools and clothing which helps a person grab, hold, and take hooks out of fish mouths–something which had always given me a little bit of difficulty.  Fully equipped and having been invited to fish at local ponds, we made a few more fishing trips.

    And as I made these trips; as I spent time with the entire family; as I spent time engaging in the process, I began to change.  Years of hatred and uncertainty melted away, and now I am standing before you this morning recanting my earlier position on fishing.  I have come to really like it.  I won’t quite say that I love it just yet, but it’s getting close.  And what was the catalyst for this change?  What made me work through all the earlier baggage I had and arrive at a different place? 

    Initially, the love I have for my daughter who began the process, and then the love I have for my family and the desire to spend quality time with them.

    Love has such effects on people.  Love drives us to do things which we might not ordinarily do.  Love has the ability to change hearts and minds and bring about transformation.  Love even has an effect on God.

    That might sound a bit strange, but according to our biblical witness this morning from the book of Exodus, I can assure you, it is true.  The snippet of the story we have before us is actually very, very fascinating.  Let’s set the scene.

    God has delivered His people out of the hands of slavery in Egypt.  He has brought them to Mount Sinai.  After arriving there, Moses, the leader of God’s people, was called up the mountain, and God gave Moses instructions for how the people would live with God and with one another.  We call this the Law.  The Law includes the Ten Commandments of which the first is: You shall have no other gods before me.   When the people heard these laws, they agreed to keep them, and here is where things get interesting.

    God calls Moses to come back up on top of the mountain.  While there, God writes these laws in stone: literally.  Moses is up on the mountain for 40 days, and the people do not see him during this entire time.  They become restless.  They wonder what is happening.  They become anxious and worried.  And before you know it, they turn on God and create an idol–a golden calf representing another god and they begin worshiping it.  As you might imagine, God is none too pleased.

    And that’s where our lesson picks up this morning.  God goes to Moses and says, “Go down at once! Your people, whom you brought up out of the land of Egypt, have acted perversely; 8they have been quick to turn aside from the way that I commanded them; they have cast for themselves an image of a calf, and have worshiped it and sacrificed to it, and said, “These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt!” ’ 9The Lord said to Moses, ‘I have seen this people, how stiff-necked they are. 10Now let me alone, so that my wrath may burn hot against them and I may consume them; and of you I will make a great nation.”

    Take note of this little detail: God tells Moses–these are your people who you brought out of Egypt.  God does not claim them at this point.  He wants nothing to do with them even so far as to say that He was not the one who delivered them, but Moses was.  And since God doesn’t claim them, He can readily allow His wrath to consume them for their hypocrisy.  

    So, what does Moses do when faced with God’s anger?  How does Moses react?  In an intriguing manner to say the least.  Moses responds, “O Lord, why does your wrath burn hot against your people, whom you brought out of the land of Egypt with great power and with a mighty hand? 12Why should the Egyptians say, “It was with evil intent that he brought them out to kill them in the mountains, and to consume them from the face of the earth”? Turn from your fierce wrath; change your mind and do not bring disaster on your people. 13Remember Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, your servants, how you swore to them by your own self, saying to them, “I will multiply your descendants like the stars of heaven, and all this land that I have promised I will give to your descendants, and they shall inherit it for ever.” ’

    Moses essentially gets in God’s face and reminds Him of His promises.  “You didn’t promise to make a great nation out of me.  You promised to make a great nation out of Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, your servants.  You made a covenant with them, and these people are their descendants–as numerous as the stars in the sky and sands of the sea.  That’s what you said.  Furthermore, if you destroy them, then the Egyptians will tell everyone about how cruel you are.  You delivered them from slavery just to kill them in the wilderness.  Do you want everyone saying that about you?”

    There is no doubt God was extremely angry, but Moses tapped into something more powerful–Moses tapped into God’s love.  There is no doubt God loved Moses and respected Moses for leading the people out of Egypt.  There is no doubt God loved Abraham and Isaac and Israel.  There was no doubt God had chosen them to make a great nation, and the love of Moses; the love of Abraham and Isaac and Israel; and the reminder of the promise broke through the anger and hatred and changed God’s mind.

    Love has that effect, even on God.

    And it makes me wonder, what do we love enough to change our minds over in this day and age?  What do we love enough to make changes in our hearts and in our lives?  What do we love enough to sacrifice our own egos for so that a better goal can be achieved?  What do we love enough to swallow our pride and engage in even though we have made public statements to the contrary?  Has God so touched our lives; have we such a deep love for Him that when He asks us to do something, we are willing to change our minds?   It seems to me that if we seek to live God’s Word daily, we might just have to do this from time to time.  May we have enough love to do so.  Amen.

Thursday, September 12, 2013

God in School

I wish I had a better title than the above for I do not believe it does this post justice.  Nothing better came to mind to kind of pull together the thoughts roaming around in my head.

Let's start with Miley Cyrus.  Not only did she grab attention at the VMA's, but the next thing you know, she is featured in a music video riding a giant wrecking ball naked (with hands strategically placed) seductively licking a sledge hammer.  I've read more than a few opinion pieces analyzing, criticizing, and supporting her behavior.  And I ask, "Is it surprising?"

Let's then move to Anthony Weiner.  I posted about a shouting match he had the other day with a fellow Jewish New Yorker.  New York voters soundly rejected him as a mayoral candidate particularly after he was found to be sexting even after losing his congressional seat for doing the same thing.  One of his sexting partners showed up at his election party.  After all was said and done, Weiner flipped the bird at reporters showing little contrition for anything he had done or was doing.  And I ask, "Is this surprising?"

We move now to violence and the horrendous murders we have seen taking place in the news--particularly those with a racial overtone.  I find it interesting how the different news networks have begun dealing with such matters after the George Zimmerman trial.  Suddenly, each time a black person harms or kills a white person, there is a racial overtone and vice-versa.  There seems to be a concerted effort to highlight violence that occurs between people of different color/race/ethnicity.  And I ask, "Is such violence surprising?"

Now, we head toward the widening gap between the wealthy and the poor.  I saw several stories in the past few days highlighting the fact that the wealthy keep getting more wealth while the poor remain in poverty.  The few are lording it over the many, and there are cries rising up about the injustice of it all.  But I ask, "Is it really surprising?"

I mean, I think all of these things have something in common.  There is a common thread that actually binds it all together.

Think about what we teach now in school regarding human beings and how they came into existence.  In our science classes we teach that man descended from apes.  Man is simply another animal who evolved--there is nothing special about him.  And how did that evolution occur?  Through natural selection and genetic mutation.  Now, we know we have little control over genetic mutation.  This happens when our genes fail to make exact replicas either by a mistake in the replication process or from some sort of mechanism including being affected by radiation from the sun.  It really doesn't matter--it's out of any control that we exert.

Ah, but natural selection--that's another story.  For natural selection is all about the survival of the fittest.  Death and disease wipes out the lesser and the weaker leaving the strong to thrive and survive.  Passing on one's genes means rising to the top of the food chain, striving to be the highest on the ladder to ensure survival of one's genetic lineage.  It means attracting the alpha of the opposite sex as well to ensure a good genetic bond.  And protecting one's genes from those considered lesser is paramount!  When a threat arises to challenge our status, it must be met and put down decisively.  This is the natural way of things.  Nature isn't some kind of Eden where everything gets along.  It's fight, flight, freeze, and reproduce to pass on one's genes and ensure the survival of the species.

Sure, we talk about tit for tat and kindness being a part of the evolutionary process.  We talk about how one species can be kind to ensure its survival--particularly if it's effective for a weaker beta male or female.  But this is merely descriptive--it is not proscriptive.

This what we teach in school.  Plain and simple.  And we offer no sort of corrective to this in our science classes at all.  Most high schools that I am aware of do not have the resources to offer philosophy or theology classes, and so most students are taught that this is what makes us tick--as the animals we have evolved to be.

And God forbid that we invoke any thought of a Creator in the educational process for that violates the separation of church and state.  That is establishing a religion, and we simply cannot have that. 

But we have no presented ourselves with a major conundrum.  For science isn't capable of getting us from what is to what ought.  And as a society, we have walked away from any sort of universal ought when it comes to morals and actions--in short we have walked away from any sort of religious foundations for morals and ethics.

And because of that, we are left with evolutionary thought guiding our behaviors and thoughts.  The very stuff we taught in school.  And it surprises me that many get so upset when people act like evolution has bred us to act:

When Miley Cyrus uses sexuality to make herself desirable and wealthy, she is simply using what nature gave her to climb the ladder and pass on her genes.

Anthony Weiner does the same thing from a male point of view.

Interracial violence mirrors what goes on in nature when different colors of fur cause species to attack one another from within.

Garnering more wealth is simply a way of garnering more power and prestige--rising to the top of the evolutionary ladder.

And even though kindness is shown in nature, there is nothing--nothing at all--there to take us from is to ought.  There is nothing which says kindness ought to be the rule instead of fight, flight, freeze, or reproduction. 

Only religion offers a foundation to take us from is to ought.  Only faith gives us a foundation to go against many of the evolutionary instincts which drive us. 

A failure to recognize this means we will simply keep teaching the same things and expecting different results.  Perhaps God does indeed need to be reintroduced in school--not as a means of forcing religion upon anyone, but by helping folks understand:

We are more than animals.

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Bandaids Versus Systemic Change: God's Work

One of the blogs I follow had an interesting take on this past Sunday's emphasis on God's Work.  Our Hands.  I get what he is saying.  Really.  I do.  But I find some of the theology behind the assertion a bit troubling.  Let's think about these statements in particular:

And we did this all the while knowing that acts of kindness and charity are poor replacements for systemic change and activism.

 Really; that’s just the plain truth.  Systems don’t change because I’ve handed a person a sandwich.  Systems change when I press back against a culture that creates the have-nots in the shadow of the haves.

God’s work would be to flatten those economies in a way that changed life for everyone.

So, God's work--His REAL work--would be to flatten our systems of power and injustice and change life for everyone.  That's the underlying theology, isn't it?  Handing out sandwiches is good work, but it's not quite on a par with something grander--an overhaul of the system that causes people to go hungry.  Well, there is truth in that statement.  It would be nice to come up with some sort of system where there were no hungry, or thirsty, or naked, or imprisoned.

But there is a two-fold problem with this theology.

Problem #1: In reality, this is a modified theology of glory; a theology which seeks the boldest and grandest; a theology which seeks a total remaking of the world and its structures; a theology which focuses on the end times promise of a new heaven and a new earth; a theology which seeks earthly comfort in the way I think it should occur.  Oh, that statement will probably cause a little bit of ire, but there is little difference, at least in my book, between saying, "If I just believe and have enough faith, then I will be blessed with wealth and prosperity." and "If I just push back against a culture that creates the have-nots in the shadow of the haves, then I am really doing God's work [and systems will change so that more will have.]"

Whether we like it or not, our focus as Christians comes in the form of the God made flesh: Jesus.  And Jesus wasn't exactly revealing to us the methodology of bringing about such a theology.  He wasn't one to tell his followers to "do the right things and God will bless you."  He wasn't one that said, "Do the right things and you will bring heaven to earth."  He wasn't one going around saying, "We need to push back against this Roman invasion and those who collaborate with it to produce poor people and stomp on people."  He famously spoke, "My kingdom is not of this world."  And it's not.

It involves the creation of a whole new world.  Why?  Because it is we as humans who build the systems.

That's Problem #2: What is the system that God has built to replace that which He supposedly would/could/is tearing down?  Somehow, there is an assumption built into this whole shebang that some system exists that is indeed perfect where human poverty is eradicated.  Somehow, there is an assumption that some system exists which the distinction between haves and have nots is erased.  Looking at the history of the world, has such a system ever been established?

I am waiting for the answer....

Again, humans build the systems of which we are a part in this world.  And those systems are just like us.  They have their good points.  They have their bad points.  They are saintly in some ways.  They are sinful in others.  What more can you expect out of a system put together by beings such as we? 

Even the Church, in all of its myriads of expressions throughout the world does not come close to reaching perfection.  It does not come close to reaching the vision of heaven as articulated by Jesus and the earliest disciples.  Why?  It is composed of humans.  Plain and simple.  In order to create a perfect system, we must achieve perfection as human beings.   Anyone want to take a guess how long it will take for that to happen?

Which brings us back to God's work.  What is God's work?

Perhaps it is a bit old fashioned, but let's remember what the basics of our faith tell us.  You know, those things called the Creeds. 

1. God is creator.
2. God is salvation bringer.
3. God is sustainer.
4. God is sanctifier.

I think it poignant to recite at this point Luther's explanation of the Third Article of the Creed:

I believe that I cannot by my own reason or strength believe in Jesus Christ, my Lord, or come to Him; but the Holy Ghost has called me by the Gospel, enlightened me with His gifts, sanctified and kept me in the true faith; even as He calls, gathers, enlightens, and sanctifies the whole Christian Church on earth, and keeps it with Jesus Christ in the one true faith; in which Christian Church He forgives daily and richly all sins to me and all believers, and at the last day will raise up me and all the dead, and will give to me and to all believers in Christ everlasting life. This is most certainly true.

What is God's work in this day and time:

Calling.  Gathering.  Enlightening.  Sanctifying.

That sanctifying one is pretty important, you know.  That's the one where God comes in and rearranges the furniture deep within us.  Where He makes us holy--more Christ like.  And when we start becoming more Christ like, we start doing the things He asked us to do: feeding the hungry, giving drink to the thirsty, clothing the naked, all those stop gap measures.

Why the stop gap?  Why not something more?  Why not something grand?  Why not something transformational which blew up the imperfect systems of which we are a part?

Well, that would involve blowing us up first.  That would involve eradicating all of our selfishness; all of our desire for more; all of our focus on what we want instead of what we need.  Get rid of all that, and we can have a perfect system.

And that's not going to happen until the parousia--the end of times.  Jesus knew this.  He had the big picture, and He knew sanctification is a life-long process.  He knew the grand things weren't going to happen short of remaking the world, so He taught us to see God's action in places where it hadn't been seen before--like a child and a seed and a prodigal father and a cross.

The grand remaking of the world is still to come.  The trashing of all those imperfect systems is still to come.  In the mean time, God's work continues.  Don't sell it short.

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

It's Hard to Get My Head Around This

The last two days have been quite the whirl wind.  I have been training and working with a new addition to our congregation's staff: a part time youth director.

Sometimes, I have a hard time getting my head around this fact.

When I first started serving this congregation nine years ago, we had a baptized membership of 189.  Our average worship attendance was 65.  Most would have not considered it a viable congregation--at least not for a full time clergy.  Most would have considered it needing to be yoked to another church in a dual point parish.

Yet, the people here had a sense of call about them.  They rejected any such notions and wanted a full time pastor.  Not only this, they had discerned a call to add a part-time secretary--something they had never had in their history.

I came on board, and within a few months, we hired a secretary.  Life was good.

I arrived in Cat Spring from a large congregation in Seguin.  My previous congregation had nearly 1400 members, and the work load was intense.  I generally was up at the church 4 nights per week.  Sometimes, the meetings were grueling lasting two and a half to three hours.  After four years there, I was tired, worn out, ready for a change.

Coming to Cat Spring was very, very different.  There were hardly any meetings at all!   There wasn't a full staff.  But things were getting done, and getting done in a big way.

Congregational growth has been tremendous.  In those nine years, our membership has more than doubled to 430.  Our average worship attendance hovers at 120.  Of course, if we weeded out the "summer slump" we would be at 140-150.   Offerings are steady and very good.  People do things--good things on a consistent basis--without having meeting after meeting after meeting.

As the congregation has grown, we have consistently added staff.  First, the secretary.  Then, a worship and music director.  Then, came the leap of faith last year.  The congregation decided to seek a part-time youth director.  We budgeted for the position in the annual meeting, sent out advertizements, prayed, and waited.

Last week, the position was filled, and I woke up Monday, the head of a staffed congregation.

Now, at this point, there are some pastors who would begin telling you, "If you want your church and congregation to do the same thing, then here is what you need to do..."  I'm not going to do that because I really don't know what technique to use to make any church grow.  I really don't.  I don't know the magic pill to make a congregation take off and grow like gang busters.

Too often, I think our congregations become obsessed with a theology of glory--a proverbial step by step plan that leads to growing attendance, offerings, and participation.  If you do this, then you will be blessed by growth.   If you follow the Lord just right, then He will add numbers to your congregation.

Problem is--I've seen numerous congregations strive to follow the right steps and still experience no growth.  I've seen congregations throw out the welcome mat, make people feel warm and fuzzy, have all sorts of programming geared toward children, youth, young adult, middle-aged, and elderly; congregations who incorporate traditional and contemporary music; who become more conservative and more liberal, and nothing works.

I don't believe there is a secret formula to church growth or participation.  I think much of it, like salvation, rests upon God's work upon the individual believer.  I think much of it, like salvation, involves God's Spirit delving into the hearts and minds of people inspiring them to become a community of compassionate, caring, generous individuals who seek to do His will in the things they say and do.  I think church growth revolves around God's action and not our own.  Of course, we Lutherans proudly proclaim this to be Word, Sacrament, and the mutual conversation and consolation of the believers.  

I do not know what the final outcome will be as this congregation moves into the realm of a staffed congregation.  This congregation has never been there before.  Sometimes such a move is met with tons of blessings.  Sometimes, it so shakes the dynamics of the church that the opposite takes place.  We are dealing with an institution made up of humans, after all.  Yet, I keep reminding myself that it's not totally up to me.  It's not totally up to my secretary or my music director or my youth director.  Heck it's not totally up to the congregation members.  For without God, we could do nothing.  He makes the whole thing work, and if He needs me to lead a staff here at this church, I submit to His will.

I just have a hard time getting my head around it.

Monday, September 9, 2013

Can We Just Skip this Part?

    How many of you have ever wanted to have your dessert first?  Be honest.  If you are like me, you have.  On numerous occasions.  Forget having to eat the main course.  Forget having to eat your vegetables.  Forget cleaning your plate.  Bring on the apple pie.  Bring on the ice cream.  Bring on the cookies.  Bring on everything that is sweet and sends your taste buds into ecstacy.  Let’s just skip to the good part.

    It’s kind of like watching movies when I was a teen.  I loved those action/adventure movies of the ‘80s.  Yeah, I got hooked on Rocky, Rambo, Commando and anything with Bruce Willis, Jean Claude Van Damme, Arnold Schwartznegger, and Sylvester Stallone.  But invariably, there would be slow moments between all the action sequences.  More than a few times, I’d grab the remote control and fast forward through the slow stuff to get to the action sequences–the stuff I considered to be the good stuff.

    And who of us in life wouldn’t like to fast forward through all the boring, meaningless, and bad stuff in our lives so that we could just enjoy the good stuff?  Who of us wouldn’t like to skip the difficult stuff and enjoy the rewarding times?  Most of us probably would in a heart beat.  And most of us would probably like to do the same thing with our lives of faith.

    I mean, take one look at our Gospel lesson for today.  Incidentally, gospel, the literal translation of that word from the Greek is “good news.”  Let’s read this again and see just what kind of “good news” Jesus proclaims:

    25 Now large crowds were traveling with him; and he turned and said to them,
(Good news #1): 26‘Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple. (Good news #2) 27Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple. 28For which of you, intending to build a tower, does not first sit down and estimate the cost, to see whether he has enough to complete it? 29Otherwise, when he has laid a foundation and is not able to finish, all who see it will begin to ridicule him, 30saying, “This fellow began to build and was not able to finish.” 31Or what king, going out to wage war against another king, will not sit down first and consider whether he is able with ten thousand to oppose the one who comes against him with twenty thousand? 32If he cannot, then, while the other is still far away, he sends a delegation and asks for the terms of peace. (Good news #3) 33So therefore, none of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions.

    After I finish reading this little snippet, I can’t help but ask, “Can’t we just skip this part?”  I mean, can’t we just gloss over this teaching and live our lives as happily and as merrily as we can?  Can’t we skip that part about hating our family; hating life; carrying the cross; and giving up our possessions?  Can’t we just explain this stuff away and say that Jesus is simply joking or using exaggeration to make a point? 

    There are more than a few people who indeed skip past these teachings.  There are more than a few people who disregard them and explain them away.  There are even a few preachers who blatantly teach a theology which ignores these words completely.

    Yeah, in some ways, I’m taking a shot at the guy just down the road.  You know, I have a number of folks who post his sayings to their Facebook timelines.  Like the following one: “When you realize that God has put a blessing on your life, and you go out each day with the attitude that something good is going to happen to you, that’s when God can do exceedingly, abundantly, above and beyond.”  Or here’s another one, “God doesn’t take you through challenges just to leave you beaten down. No, it’s time for you to rise up and claim everything that belongs to you.” 

    And here’s what Jesus says belongs to you, “Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.”

    What an interesting contrast.  Let’s kind of put this in theological terms.  The guy down the road is representative of a thread of Christianity that likes to skip the cross–to fast forward through the crucifixion and go straight to Easter.  The resurrection is all the good of life.  The resurrection is all the greatness of God.  The resurrection is what it is all about: healing, wholeness, redemption, graciousness, eternal life, the presence of God in all its fullness.  Yeah, we love that stuff.  It’s fantastic.  It’s more than the icing on the cake–it’s the whole cake in all its deliciousness.

    But you can’t have the resurrection without the crucifixion.  You cannot have the empty tomb without the cross.  You cannot have eternal life without death.  And a lot of times, we don’t want to talk about that.  We don’t want to talk about going down those paths.  We want the sweet stuff, but we don’t want to endure the heaviness.

    Yet, we as Christians must ask the tough questions, and one of those questions is: which is closer to the Truth?  Which is closer to the reality of life?  Which is closer to the life that Jesus revealed to us and called us to live as His followers?

    Listen to this quote from Bret Blair: The mark of a great leader is the demands he makes upon his followers. The Italian freedom fighter Garibaldi offered his men only hunger and death to free Italy. Winston Churchill told the English people that he had nothing to offer them but "blood, sweat, toil, and tears" in their fight against the enemies of England. Jesus demanded that his followers carry a cross. A sign of death.

Andrew died on a cross
Simon was crucified
Bartholomew was flayed alive
James (son of Zebedee) was beheaded
The other James (son of Alphaeus) was beaten to death
Thomas was run through with a lance
Matthias was stoned and then beheaded
Matthew was slain by the sword
Peter was crucified upside down
Thaddeus was shot to death with arrows
Philip was hanged

The demands that Jesus makes upon those who would follow him are extreme. Christianity is not a Sunday morning religion.  No.  It’s much, much more.  It’s a religion that demands your entire life.  The good, the bad, the pretty, the ugly, everything.  It demands a willingness to suffer, to die, to walk away from all that is precious and dear in our lives, to give up our possessions.  There is part of our faith that doesn’t necessarily come across as “good news”–at least while we are going through it.  For carrying a cross isn’t “good news.”  The cross means death, pain, and suffering.  Christianity is not for the faint hearted.

    But it is for those who can keep the end in mind.  It is for those who believe that on the other side of the cross is the resurrection.  It is for those who willingly count the cost and say, “The Lord will never leave me or forsake me.  The Lord is my helper.  What have I to fear?”  The answer is: nothing.  When we live God’s Word daily, we know that we will bear the cross, but we do not fear such a burden because we know the end.  Amen. 

Thursday, September 5, 2013

Hell of a Shouting Contest (Who Can Judge Me?)


Anthony Weiner, of course, became the target of many when he sexted with numerous women.  It cost him his job in public office.  Yet, in a bit of hubris in my opinion, he decided to run for mayor of New York City.  Well and good.  To err is human.  To forgive is divine.  Well...  Um...  That is... Until it is found out that the sexting continued even after he was caught the first time.

Apparently, the guy in the video objected to Weiner's decision to remain in the public eye, and they stood toe to toe.

And this is what I found interesting:

The repeated mantra, "Who are you to judge me?  What makes you morally superior to me?  Are you my judge?  And you are perfect?  You know who judges me?  You want to think of me as your superior.  Where do you get the morality to judge me?  You are not my God."

Weiner and this guy going back and forth are Jewish, and it would be an intriguing question for them to sit down with a Rabbi and indeed hash this thing out.  But there is a bigger problem raised in this exchange:

What is the standard for morality within our nation?

I'll give you 30 seconds or so.

Found it yet?

That's because I think you won't.  I don't think you will find a moral standard which covers 100% of the folks in our nation.

This is one of the fall outs of the Post-modern world.  Essentially, one can do whatever one wants as long as it does not "harm" anyone--to one's best definition of the word harm.  Where this is exactly rooted as a particular philosophy in life, one must question for there are more than a few examples of where harming someone short term is actually a good thing in the long run.  Don't believe me: vaccines.  Short pain for the kids.  Long term protection.  But that is another issue.

What is at stake is how does one confront someone who has done something which the majority of people in society feel is wrong (sending nude pics and receiving nude pics from others when married)--when that person doesn't necessarily feel like he's done anything wrong?  How does one invoke morality and a standard of life when another doesn't hold that same standard?  How does one find some sort of moral high ground to point to when two people have such a vehement disagreement?

I mean, I could type this post out and fill it with all sorts of colorful language.  Some of you might call me on it and say, "As a pastor, you should not be using such language."

I could easily respond, "God judges me.  You don't.  I don't believe I am doing anything wrong."

"But society thinks it's wrong.  There are societal norms, and you are violating them."

"And society's norms are perfect?  We live in a perfect society?  What if their norms are wrong?  Like back in the early history of our nation when people of color were thought to be less than fully human?  Society dictates the norms?"

One can easily undermine any sort of argument just as Weiner does to this chap in the video.

Now, it is one thing to point to one's religious faith as a resource for such norms.  It is another to point to the U.S. Constitution.  It is another thing to point to case law interpreting that Constitution.  It is another thing to point out the interpretation of certain passages from the Bible.  All of these things are different!

Where is the agreed upon base, foundation, center?

We don't have one.

And until we get one, I believe we will see more shouting contests.

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

The Monster isn't so Bad

    How many of you here this morning have ever read “The Monster at the End of this Book?”  I think we have at least a couple of copies of this book at my house.  It’s based upon the Sesame Street character Grover.  Grover is a furry, lovable monster who is quite full of drama.  I used to love him as a kid because every once in a while, he’d become Super Grover and fly through the air.  But that is beside the point.

    For those few of you who might not be familiar with this kids’ book, Grover starts off by saying, “What, what did that say?  On the cover?  Did that say there would be a monster at the end of this book?  Oh no.  That’s terrible.  I am so afraid of monsters!”  As the book goes on, Grover begs the reader not to turn the page.  He nails the pages together.  He builds brick walls.  No matter what happens, the pages keep getting turned.

    At last, we get to the page just before the end.  Grover pleads and pleads and pleads.  “The next page is the end of the book, and there is a monster at the end of this book.  I am so afraid of monsters.  Please don’t turn the page.  Please.  Please.  Please.  Please.”  Grover is sorely afraid.

    Most of the children I have read this book to in my life love this story.  In many ways they resonate with it.  What child isn’t afraid of monsters?  I mean, I don’t care how hard we as parents try, eventually our kids are exposed to those things which go bump in the night.  Whether or not it’s Scooby Doo or Twilight or some other such fiction, sooner or later they learn about vampires, werewolves, blobs, ghosts, and goblins.  Sooner or later they have nightmares about such things, and we as parents have to comfort them and tell them, “These things are imaginary.  There’s no such things as monsters.”

    Sometimes it works.  Sometimes it doesn’t.  Hopefully, as they get older, kids grow out of such beliefs in monsters, ghouls and goblins.  But the interesting thing that I have found, is that even as we grow up and put those fears aside, we do not stop being afraid.  In fact, in many ways, our fears just leap from one particular thing to another.  And I have come to think that as a nation, as a society, we suffer from an incredible amount of fear.

    What are we afraid of?  Let’s start the list:

    One of the main items of fear since September 11, 2001 is terrorism.  To stave off any sort of terrorist attack, we’ve battened down the hatches at airports.  We’ve created the NSA.  We’ve allowed spying on citizens lives in cyberspace and in reality.  We’ve killed suspected terrorists and their children without trial or evidence that they have indeed committed an act of terror.  And there is more that such agencies and the government would like to do to keep us safe.

    There are many who are extremely afraid of crime.  There is a heightened sense of fear as one reads the news stories about school shootings, inner city gang violence, and the beatings/killings of innocent people who are just going about their daily lives.  Depending upon which side of the political aisle you sit on, you believe the answer either has to do with more government power or making people take personal responsibility.

    We are afraid of losing our health.  Talk to anyone who is having to deal with the recurring nightmare of dealing with a major injury or cancer or an extended hospitalization.  They will flat out tell you how much of a headache they get from dealing with the whole medical industry.  They will tell you they wonder how it is possible for anyone who is poor to pay for healthcare.  They will tell you how much it costs them to regain some semblance of normalcy in their lives.  They will tell you the frustration in dealing with medications and their side effects.  So, we throw ourselves into all sorts of exercise routines and diets.  We are told to eat organically and locally even though it costs quite a bit to do this. 

    We are afraid of losing our money and income.  Whether it’s by losing our jobs or by having the government increase taxes or by the oil and gas companies increasing the cost of gasoline, we are afraid of not having enough money to live on.  We are afraid of having to cut back on what kind of lifestyle we live in.  We are afraid to be more generous with the money we have and make just in case we might need it in the future. 

    We are afraid of the weather.  Whether it’s the threat of climate change or the threat of drought or the threat of hurricanes or tornados, we are flat out scared of the weather.  It’s unpredictable, but that doesn’t mean we won’t try to control it.  We’ve got to change our behavior so that the climate changes and we won’t have more rain, less rain, more hurricanes, more tornadoes, or what have you.  Think about that for a minute–the suggestion we can actually control the weather.

    Oh, and I think I’m just touching the tip of the ice berg.  I think there are more than a few more fears and concerns I could throw out there.  I haven’t even dealt with the fears we as parents face when dealing with our children.  Will they do well in school?  Will they run with the right crowd?  Will they end up making good decisions?  Will they end up like Miley Cyrus?

    Fear after fear after fear pounds us.  News story after news story raises our anxiety.  Television commercial after television commercial scares us and then promises a product witch will offer salvation.  Documentary after documentary appears telling us that food isn’t safe to eat, water isn’t safe to drink, our cars aren’t safe to drive, and our homes are full of toxins.

    Is it any wonder people in our society tend to be more and more isolated?  More and more inward focused?  More and more depressed?   More and more unwilling to simply engage and talk to each other?  It’s much safer to text or email or perhaps call someone instead of having a real, live, sit down conversation.  After all, that other person might get angry with something you say or challenge a point of view you hold and realize one more fear: the fear of conflict.

    And it would be fortunate if we could come to church and find some comfort.  It would be nice to come to church to hear a word from God which would cut through the fear and anxiety and help us to walk through the world with confidence.  But all too often, we hear the opposite–or we hear claims of falsehood.  We either arrive to have the hell scared into us so that we may believe to avoid the pitfalls of the eternal fire.  Or we arrive to have our awareness raised about some other problem we cannot possibly hope to solve.  Or we arrive to have a preacher tell us if we just believe enough, our best days are ahead of us and God will provide us with wealth, health and prosperity.

    Alas, oftentimes, we leave the confines of these four walls beaten down even further thinking we are somehow inadequate because we do not measure up to God’s standards.  We are sinful.  We are part of sinful structures.  We don’t have enough faith to attain prosperity and the perfect life. 

    Is there a word of hope for us?  Is there a word that actually speaks to our situation?  Is there a word which acknowledges the reality of fear and anxiety; acknowledges our inability to overcome it and change ourselves and the world; and yet offers us hope?  Is there such a word?

    Take a listen to this word; a word given by the writer of Hebrews.  See if it hits you where you live:  3Remember those who are in prison, as though you were in prison with them; those who are being tortured, as though you yourselves were being tortured. 4Let marriage be held in honor by all, and let the marriage bed be kept undefiled; for God will judge fornicators and adulterers. 5Keep your lives free from the love of money, and be content with what you have; for he has said, ‘I will never leave you or forsake you.’ 6So we can say with confidence, ‘The Lord is my helper; I will not be afraid.  What can anyone do to me?’

    What can anyone or anything do to me?  We know how we are called to live.  We know not everyone accepts this way of life.  We know we may suffer along the way, but we know how it all ends.  We know the page will turn.

    When the final page of “There’s a Monster at the End of This Book” is reached, Grover looks around and says, “Well, what do you know?  This is the end of the book, and the only one here is me.  I, lovable, furry old Grover am the monster at the end of this book. I told you and told you there was nothing to worry about.”

    For those of us who are Christian, the end of the book is God and His Kingdom.  The end of the book is resurrection.  The end of the book is hope.  Therefore, we can live God’s Word daily by saying with confidence: the Lord is my helper, I will not be afraid. What can anyone do to me?”  Amen.

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

With Reluctance...A Word About Miley

There is a saying on internet chat boards: don't feed the troll.

Now, a "troll" is a person lurking on internet chat boards who makes it his or her job to incite anger and fury, taking things out of context and blowing them up to be something larger than what is intended.  Or, the person intentionally adds a comment beyond the scope of the original thread simply to cause conflict.  The theory is if you don't "feed" the troll by responding, it will go away.

Miley Cyrus' performance at the VMA show qualifies as such behavior, I think, and I am loathe to even comment on it.  Yet, the performance achieved at least one goal--it raked in lots of viewers during and after the fact.  Advertisers are licking their chops with the revenue generated.  Such a thing, perhaps is at the root of the whole issue, by the way.  Money.  Money.  Money.

I generally don't watch any sort of award show.  It simply doesn't appeal to me, and I rather frankly don't care.  In my estimation, there are much more important things in life to deal with and worry about than who can best keep us entertained and out of our boredom.  For that is what such entertainment is all about, is it not?  Isn't that the reason people flock to the movies: to be entertained and escape reality for a while?  Isn't that why we tune into sporting events in record numbers?  I mean, the Romans perfected sporting events a couple of thousand years ago, and we've managed to ratchet it up entertainment wise while minimizing the amount of blood spilled.  And the business which has sprung up around these industries is amazing.  Billions upon billions of dollars are sucked out of the average Joe's and Jane's pockets to fund this stuff, and we keep paying it because we are bored with our lives.

And face it, we all like a bit of excitement from time to time.  Yes.  We really do.  We need something to get our hearts pumping and our adrenaline racing.  We need something to make us take notice and help us believe there is something more to our lives than simply earning a paycheck, being at home watching our kids, sitting in front of pixellated screens watching characters enact lives full of excitement, adventure, and cunning, and then going to bed only to step into the same routine the next day.

Heck, yesterday, with the kids out of school and not much to do around the house, I found myself actually going nuts a bit.  I wanted to be engaged in doing something besides just sitting at the house and watching my kids play.  I wanted to be active.  It was too hot to fish or hunt, and I've gotten to the point where playing video games no longer keeps me occupied very long.  I craved some adventure and excitement of my own.

I needed a reminder of that one line from the book of Hebrews--a line I read the past Sunday (that sermon will be posted tomorrow): 5Keep your lives free from the love of money, and be content with what you have; for he has said, ‘I will never leave you or forsake you.’ 6So we can say with confidence, ‘The Lord is my helper; I will not be afraid.  What can anyone do to me?’  (Hebrews 13:5-6 emphasis mine.)

Be content with what you have.

My God, what a concept!  It actually goes quite counter to what I've been taught most of my life through my schooling and society.  The spoken and unspoken mantra pulsing through our culture is: don't ever be satisfied; push on; attain more; rise through the ranks; there are no limits; don't allow yourself to have any boundaries.

And there is something to be said for such a thing, especially when it comes to rising out of poverty and becoming self-sufficient.  There is something to be said for "making it" and living the American dream.  And, of course, that involves some work on our part.  There is much satisfaction in creating and doing and earning something on your own.  Simply having it given to you or expecting someone to give it to you isn't quite the way it works.  And so, I think it important to draw a fine line between contentment and laziness.

And most of us should be more content.  Should be.

I think about my own situation.  I have a loving wife and three adorable children; a roof over my head; food on the table; a job I love; places to hunt and fish; congregation members who I truly enjoy working with and interacting with; plenty of "toys" to play with; good health; cushion in my bank account.  I should be content.  All of my needs are being met.

Ah, but there is that little voice which creeps in.  "Wouldn't it be nice if...
  • You had your own ranch.
  • You had a bigger church.
  • You had a better paying job.
  • You had more opportunity for upward mobility.
  • You had a better car.
  • You had a larger audience to hear you preach.
  • You had more opportunities to travel and get away.
Perhaps things might be nicer, but there is no guarantee.  Not at all.  In fact, things could get a whole lot worse in pursuing such things.  I might lose family time.  I might find another congregation to be much more stressful.  I might lose sight of the more important things in life.  I might not have time to hunt and fish.  I might find a congregation where the people and I don't get along so well.

Be content with what you have.

Miley Cyrus actually has it all.  She made millions as Hannah Montana.  If she and her parents invested wisely, she would never have to work again.  In the minds of millions of kids, she is/was a heroine of sorts.  Fame.  Fortune.  Millions of devoted fans.  What more could one want? 

Apparently a lot. 

Just like a lot of us want a lot more even though we've got what we need.

Some of us are much more adept at listening to that other voice within our heads that says, "Slow down.  Think.  Think about what you have.  Think about how you have been blessed.  Think about what you are doing and what you would like to do.  Think about what is most important and then think about what the best situation for you to achieve those things might be."

I am quite convinced when we stop and think about such matters, we will realize that we can indeed follow the writer of Hebrews' advice: be content with what you have.  And we can stop feeding that other voice which is pretty much a troll in disguise.