Thursday, July 31, 2014

Israel and Hamas

It's a poor analogy, but one I sometimes feel.

I feel as if I were watching a spectator sport and people are arguing about why you should support one side over another--which side is better--which side is more in the right than the other.

And then, there are others who claim a stance of neutrality is more appropriate.  "I don't have a dog in the fight.  Why join in?"

We must also add the voices of those who say, "Why the battle at all?  What is the need for the game?"

In this case, the game is a game of life and death; grief and destruction.

Yesterday, I sat on the porch of a house built in the 1860s.  A pastoral visit had turned into an entire afternoon of hospitality, fellowship, and revelation--revelation in the sense of getting to know you better.

The 89 year old man was a World War II veteran who participated in the Battle of the Bulge.  He has witnessed entire towns blown to rubble.  He couldn't help but feel for those who might have been in those towns.  "You have to think that those are men and women and children over there.  They are supposed to be the enemy, but they are humans.  There is no glory in war; there is only pain.  The politicians get us into war, and its the young people who suffer."

This man has had many years to reflect upon what he saw and heard and participated in.  Such wisdom tends to be missing in many of the conversations I hear about ongoing conflicts around the world.

I wonder what it is to be a pawn in someone else's game.  For that is what mostly tends to happen in such situations.  Civilians become pawns in the games of those who seek power--for is that not what war truly is?  Is that not what ultimately politics really is?  A striving for power?  A striving for control?  And if I have enough power, no one will mess with me--through power, safety and peace are achieved.

I remember an empire which expanded with the same sort of ideals (does the Pax Romana mean anything to anyone?).  It was an empire which eventually crumbled.  As do all of them.

All empires eventually crumble.  Historically, all nations eventually fade.  Maps are redrawn all the time.

And it will not change.  It simply won't. 

Because there is a part of us which desperately desires safety and control.  And the best way to ensure safety and control is to draw boundaries.  Within these borders, I am safe.  And to maintain that safety, I must be strong.  I must be powerful.  I must be willing to defend those borders, and if expansion of those borders offers me more opportunity to be safe, then so be it!  And if I show the slightest amount of weakness, then my safety is diminished.

Power and safety.  Hamas.  Israel.  The pawns: the Palestinian people.  The battle rages.  There is no glory.  Only pain.

And there will be only pain for generation after generation after generation. 

Unless something can diffuse that which dominates the human heart.  Unless something can turn us away from the hunger for power and safety.

Oh, we try to put all sorts of treaties into place.  And we always appeal to self-interest, but self interest leads straight back to power and safety.  All the time.

What can break us out of such a thing? 

Christianity offers a path--a path not based upon power and safety but upon powerlessness and risk.  It centers upon Jesus who, though being full of the power of God--God incarnate--did not choose equality with God as something to be exploited, but He gave up that power to empty Himself on the cross.  He died to reconcile the world unto God AT GREAT RISK!

What does that mean?

Jesus died for us while we were still sinners.  He died for us and offered us forgiveness before we even asked for it.  He reconciled us to God while we were and still are unlovable.  Why?  Why would He do such a stupid thing?

Because it is contrary to power and safety.  It's contrary to the nature of our own hearts.  If God can die for us and love us while we were sinners; if God can give up power and control; if God can risk it all on us to love us when we were unmerciful; if God can show that He has already given His all for us; then that can change our hearts. 

I remember reading The Cross and the Switchblade many years ago.  I can remember a powerful moment when an evangelist spoke these words to a gang banger, "You can cut me into a thousand pieces, and every one of them will scream, 'I love you.'"  At that point, one of a couple of things will happen.  You will cut the person to pieces regardless and continue on your merry way, or you will be forced to consider why it is someone would willingly offer themselves up for you.  How can someone face death and destruction so willingly?  How can someone allow another to inflict pain and suffering without seeking power and safety?

If someone takes the time to contemplate, the Gospel begins to take root.  The Gospel begins to show a different avenue to power and safety.  It's the route to love and risk.  You still may be killed.  You still may be subjugated.  But you have no need of power and safety because you know of something better--something infinitely more powerful and something infinitely more secure.

It's still very easy to jump back to the default.  I mean, I know if someone were going after my family and children, I wouldn't hesitate to use power to bring them to safety.  That default position is very, very strong.  But I hope I wouldn't demonize the one antagonizing my family.  I hope my heart has been at least changed that much by the Gospel.

That Gospel, I believe is the hope for the world.  For Israel.  For Hamas.  For the Palestinians. 

Don't ask me to be a cheerleader for any side in this conflict.  Don't ask me to be neutral.  Don't ask me why folks just can't get along.

They can't until sin is confronted.  And the only remedy for sin is the Gospel.  And the Gospel commands me to be on both sides and against both sides at the same time.  And to pray like hell for peace.

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

How Do You Know You are a Beloved, Chosen, Child of God?

How does one come to know such a thing?

How does one believe one is connected to a Reality above and beyond our universe and is not simply deluded as Richard Dawkins and others say?

I mean, it is one thing to argue for the existence of God--and as I have said, this depends upon assumptions which cannot be proved.

It is another thing to argue for the existence of that God being personal.

It is another thing to argue that this personal God became flesh in Jesus Christ.

It is another thing to argue that Jesus was indeed the Son of God as He claimed to be.

It is another thing to argue that those who communicated to us the life, death, and resurrection of this Jesus were accurate in their portrayal and can be trusted.

But, how does one know in the depths of one's being that this Reality has taken hold in one's life?  How does one know he or she is chosen and beloved--especially without falling into the trap of self-righteousness and self-aggrandizement?

This question is borne out of a discussion on a Lutheran message board which I frequent.  A poster was upset about the situation in Israel and Palestine as Israel and Hamas continue to battle.  The poster has a definite stance on the issue and who is in the right and who is in the wrong--one that I do not completely share; however, the questions raised by this poster definitely are relevant:
Who is to tell if a people is delusional or whether they were somehow "Chosen". (sic)
Remember the Branch Davidians and Charles Manson's followers? Weren't they too Chosen?  How are we to tell? And Does that mean that anything done by the "Chosen People" is the WILL of GOD?
While the poster refers to Israel and the designation as the Jews as the "Chosen People," I think the questions highly relevant to those of us who are Christian for many Christians believe they too are chosen.  Many Christians believe they are holy--set apart.  And many Christians seem to act as though their actions coincide completely with the will of God. 

And we also see that those Christians who act in such a manner oftentimes leave us to scratch our heads.  How can you say you believe in God and yet go and talk badly about your neighbor?  How can you say you believe in Jesus and yet condemn people and their actions?  How can you say you go to church when your church doesn't welcome certain types of people and seems cliquish?  How can you say you are a Christian when you willingly support businesses who mistreat their workers all in the name of money?  How can you say you follow Jesus when you criticize other Christians and say they are not "Christian" enough?

Now, if I begin to base my response to the original question based upon actions, then I am guilty of doing the very things I raised above.  If I look at people doing the above things and judge them for not being Christian enough, then I am simply falling into the same trap of self-righteousness as if I have the moral high ground.  Which I don't. 

Which may be a key to beginning to answer the question.

For if we are all honest with ourselves, we know we are abject failures when it comes to living an upright and moral life.  Sure, we can say, "I'm not so bad.  I do some good things."  But, really, when you think about the standards of what it means not only to refrain from evil but also for promoting good, then we all fail.  Perhaps we can refrain from doing all sorts of evil deeds, but that does not necessarily make us good for while we may abstain from adultery, murder, hate, racism, and what have you, that does not necessarily mean we work for our neighbor's good at all times and in all places.  In fact, very few folks truly give without thought to how it will affect their financial situation.  Few folks purchase goods thinking about the impact of the workers who made them.  Few folks stand up to injustice and bullying and other such things preferring to allow the "experts" or those we pay handle them. 

In Christian terms, this means none of us stand before God as holy on our own terms.  None of us can approach the throne and say, "I have done good, You must accept me because my actions speak well of me."  St. Paul put it this way, "All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God."

If we truly look at ourselves, we see this.  If we don't, we need only find someone who will really speak the truth to us.  They will show us our shortcomings.  Hopefully, they will be compassionate when they do so.  If we take their criticism to heart and know they are not intentionally not trying to harm us, we do not get an inflated opinion of ourselves.

Yet, there would be quite a problem if we stopped here.  For if we simply look at ourselves and see our brokenness; if we only see our shortcomings; if we know we do not measure up; we can become very depressed.  We can think of ourselves no better than a worm; beggars; dressed in filthy rags.

And this is where the Gospel steps in.  This is where Jesus intercedes by His death and resurrection imparting to us His righteousness as He lived the life we should live and died the death we deserved.  Through His action, not our own, we are justified--this means we are looked at differently.  By ourselves?  Kind of.  But not necessarily.  We are looked at differently by God.  Instead of seeing a condemned sinner, God looks through the actions of Jesus and sees His child.  God sees a redeemed soul.  God sees someone clothed in Jesus' righteousness.  We are accepted by Him.

At the same time we are failures and accepted.  We are chosen and rejected.  We are saint and sinner.

If we find ourselves becoming depressed in our failure, we should remember we are children of God clothed in the righteousness of Christ.

If we find ourselves becoming haughty and thinking we are special because we are chosen, we need to remember we are actually failures.

Only by keeping the two poles in balance does one walk the line.  Only by keeping the two poles in dynamic tension does one find oneself deeply loved without crossing into the line of self-righteousness; self-glorification, and seeing one's self and actions as completely and totally in agreement with God's will. 

The Gospel--Christ's actions on our behalf--brings us to this place.  The world is in desperate need of that Gospel.

Monday, July 28, 2014

Your Prayers are too Small

    Martin Luther, the namesake of the Lutheran church wrote the following words in his Large Catechism as he explained one of the petitions of the Lord’s Prayer.  He writes,

   For just as when the richest and most mighty emperor would bid a poor beggar ask whatever he might desire, and were ready to give great imperial presents, and the fool would beg only for a dish of gruel, he would be rightly considered a rogue and a scoundrel who treated the command of his imperial majesty as a jest and sport, and was not worthy of coming into his presence: so also it is a great reproach and dishonor to God if we, to whom He offers and pledges so many unspeakable treasures, despise the same, or have not the confidence to receive them, but scarcely venture to pray for a piece of bread.

    Now, what is Luther saying here?  Basically, he is saying our prayers are too small.  He’s saying that when we come before the creator of the universe–the one who made the heavens and the earth and who continues to sustain it each and every day–we ask for trifling things.  We are not audacious enough in our prayers to God.  Why so?

    Let’s delve into this by looking at our first lesson from the book of 1 Kings.  In this text, the great king of Israel, David has died and left the kingdom to his son Solomon.  Solomon is very young and unsure of himself.  God speaks to Solomon and basically says, “Ask whatever you want of me.”  Imagine God asking that of you.  Imagine God speaking to you and saying, “Ask what I should give you.”  What would you respond?  What would you say?

    Solomon, being young and unsure of himself in his new position of king gives a rather intriguing response.  He doesn’t ask for wealth or health or that he may defeat Israel’s enemies.  Solomon looks at the daunting task of ruling this kingdom, and he says, “9Give your servant therefore an understanding mind to govern your people, able to discern between good and evil; for who can govern this your great people?”   It’s an interesting request if you ask me.  Really interesting.  Why do I find the request so fascinating?

    If you remember back in the garden of Eden when God placed Adam and Eve in it, do you remember which tree they were forbidden to eat from?  Do you remember what the name of that tree was called?  I do.  I remember it vividly.  It was named the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil.  “For on the day you eat of its fruit, you shall surely die.”  But wanting to be like God, the man and woman ate of the fruit after some prodding by a nasty little serpent, and all hell broke loose.  I find it interesting that thousands of years later, Solomon wants the knowledge of good and evil so that he may discern between them as he governs the people.  Anyone else find this fascinating?

    God is actually rather pleased with this request.  We are told

10 It pleased the Lord that Solomon had asked this. 11God said to him, “Because you have asked this, and have not asked for yourself long life or riches, or for the life of your enemies, but have asked for yourself understanding to discern what is right, 12I now do according to your word. Indeed I give you a wise and discerning mind; no one like you has been before you and no one like you shall arise after you. 13I give you also what you have not asked, both riches and honor all your life; no other king shall compare with you. 14If you will walk in my ways, keeping my statutes and my commandments, as your father David walked, then I will lengthen your life.”

    All seems well and good, and if we just read this snippet, we might think our prayers should include this petition for wisdom and the discernment of good and evil.  But, as Paul Harvey used to say, now it’s time for the rest of the story.  Solomon started out in fantastic fashion.  He made some very good decisions.  He wrote a couple of the books of the Hebrew Bible–Proverbs and the Song of Solomon.  The Kingdom of Israel grew in power and prestige and wealth.  The discernment thing seemed pretty good.  But then something started to happen.  Solomon began doing some very wise things to help the Kingdom of Israel.  He began marrying quite a few foreign women.  Now, remember, marriages in those days were not for love.  Marriages were arranged for political and power purposes.  I mean, it was very hard to attack another nation when a king’s daughter was married to that other nation’s leader.  Solomon was making very wise decisions for Israel’s future, but it came at a great cost.  Solomon’s wives did not worship the Lord, and Solomon did not require them to.  He build altars to false gods and even worshiped them himself.  What happened to the discernment for good and evil? 

    Just this, Solomon’s request was too small.  It was too limited.  One cannot know and discern good and evil when one’s back is turned from the One who established the difference between good and evil.  Because Solomon turned his back on God, he is seen as a failure as a king despite Israel’s prosperity–and when Solomon died, the kingdom of Israel split apart.  It wasn’t pretty.

    Solomon’s prayer was too small.  He didn’t make a large enough request.  So, what might be a large enough request?  What might be a request befitting the Creator of the universe that doesn’t lead down the same path that Solomon walked?

    Interestingly enough, in the Gospel of John chapter 17, Jesus prays what is called the High Priestly Prayer.  In it, He says the following,

“20 ‘I ask not only on behalf of these, but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word, 21that they may all be one. As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. 22The glory that you have given me I have given them, so that they may be one, as we are one, 23I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one, so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.”

    Now, I want you to think about this for just a moment.  I know for decades pastors like myself have talked about church unity in regards to this prayer.  Church unity is important, but I think there is something much deeper taking place.  “Let them be one as you and I are one.”  What does this mean? 

    Remember, Christians profess God to be the Trinity.  From eternity, God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit have glorified, loved, and honored each other.  From eternity, these three have been in an inseparable divine dance filling each other with love and adoration.  They pour themselves into each other; never becoming empty; always remaining full of love and adoration.  As such, in their relationship, they are complete.  They are full.  They are completely and utterly satisfied, and Jesus prays that His followers may experience the same thing.

    How could such a thing be possible?  Let’s come back to asking God for something in prayer.  What is the most audacious thing we could ever ask for in prayer?  If, as Luther suggests, our prayers are too small, what could we ask for that would give God great honor and be so audacious as to seem over the top?  As I thought about this, it hit me: what if I prayed, God, give me You.  Yes, God, give me You.  I want You.  Nothing else is large enough.  Nothing else could satisfy.  Nothing else could bring comfort and peace and joy and security.  God, give me You!  What do you think God would say to such a request? 

    I’ll tell you what He’d say.  He’d say, “I already have.”

    For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son so that all those who believe in Him should not perish but have eternal life.  For God sent the Son into the world not to condemn the world but so that the world may be saved through Him.  While we were still sinners, God took on flesh and lived among us.  God became incarnate in Jesus and poured out His life for each and every one of us.

    St. Paul puts it this way in the second chapter of the book of Philippians:

    5Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, 6 who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, 7 but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness.  And being found in human form, 8 he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross.  9 Therefore God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, 10 so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, 11 and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.

    God emptied Himself for you, and He still empties Himself for you.  Each time we receive the sacrament of Holy Communion, we hear the words, “This IS the body of Christ given for you.  This IS the blood of Christ given for you.”  God gives Himself to you!!!  And we are told the Advocate, the Holy Spirit is our constant companion who lives in us and guides us in our daily activities.  God gives Himself to you!!!

    And yet, most of the time, we don’t even realize it.  We don’t realize that God has given Himself to us and delights in giving Himself to us–filling us so that we can pour ourselves out to Him and to each other.  We are constantly asking for health, wealth, healing, protection, peace, happiness, joy, and such things–which are not bad things, but they are too small.  They are bread crumbs compared to the one thing which can bring all of those things and much, much more.  The next time you ask God for something, be audacious.  Ask Him to give Himself to you, and don’t be surprised when you find: He already has, and He always will.  Amen.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

The Kingdom of Heaven is Like...

Matthew 13: 44-52

44 ‘The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which someone found and hid; then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field.  45 ‘Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls; 46on finding one pearl of great value, he went and sold all that he had and bought it.  47 ‘Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a net that was thrown into the sea and caught fish of every kind; 48when it was full, they drew it ashore, sat down, and put the good into baskets but threw out the bad. 49So it will be at the end of the age. The angels will come out and separate the evil from the righteous 50and throw them into the furnace of fire, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. 

I am not preaching on this text for Sunday, but I did a little homily on it just a few hours ago for our Senior Service.  Something struck me as I prepared for the homily.

All my years, I have assumed the Kingdom of Heaven is like treasure or a pearl of great price.  I've assumed Jesus was making a direct comparison and a direct metaphor.

The consequences are plain for you and I: sell everything; give up everything for that one thing that satisfies.  We must sacrifice on our part to gain the treasure.  We have to do something to inherit the treasure of the field or the pearl of great price.

But what if the metaphor is the entire saying?

Think about it in those terms for just a moment.  Don't relegate the Kingdom of Heaven to a treasure or a pearl.  Think about it in terms of the ENTIRE parable.  It particularly works strongly for the second of these two sayings.  The Kingdom of Heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls.  He finds one.  He sells everything to obtain it.

What kind of state is the merchant in?  Where does he find himself after he has obtained the treasure?  What happens to the guy who purchases the field and has obtained the treasure?  What would their sense of being be?  (Awkward question and sentence structure, I know.)

If upon obtaining the treasure, they would be in a state of complete enjoyment and satisfaction?  Would they find a sense of bliss, peace, and joy?  Would they worry about anything?  Would they consume themselves with what their neighbor had?  Would their sense of joy and completeness trickle into their other relationships?  What state of being would they be in if they had obtained such a treasure?

Think about that.  Think about it hard.

And what if, as Christians, we already knew we had obtained the great treasure?  What if we already knew the pearl of great price was ours?  What if we already knew we had obtained the most valuable thing in the world?  How would that affect us as we lived our our daily lives?  How would we "live and move and have our being?"  What would our lives look like?

The Kingdom of Heaven?!!

And the Gospel--the Good News--is that through the death and resurrection of Jesus, we have obtained the treasure!!!  We have obtained the pearl of great price!!!  We have been reconciled unto God, clothed in the righteousness of Christ, and given eternal life!!!  God has given Himself for us--broken people that we are. 

And yet, many times, we don't realize it.  We get so consumed with our counterfeit gods and our self-righteousness to the point we become bitter, angry, and frustrated at the world and with our neighbor (who should just do what we say, and then everything would be okay!!!).  We fail to act in a spirit of love and compassion toward each other and toward the world and even toward God because we fail to grasp that He has already given us the treasure. 

Ponder for a moment that fact.  Through Christ, you have been justified.  God views you as His precious child--through no action of your own.  You have been given something worth everything.  How does that affect your heart? 

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

We are Meant to be Here!

Last night, I was caught flat-footed.  It was not a bad thing in the least.

During our congregation council meeting, I was working through a "Finding Your Story" process which I had found immensely helpful in my own understanding of my calling as a pastor and person.  This process was actually meant to be done by groups as large as an entire congregation, so I asked my council to participate.

We spent 30 minutes dealing with six questions, the last one being, "The quotation reads, 'Your church can't be anything it wants to be, but  it can be everything God wants it to be.'  What do you think God's vision is for our church?"

During the duration of the question/answer time, I tried to remain as silent as possible.  This exercise was the council's exercise of which I tried to facilitate not dominate.  I wanted to hear what they thought of themselves.  The conversation was extremely fruitful for me to just listen, and I did so for this question as well. 

One of the answers caught me flat-footed. 

"God wants us TO BE HERE."

That was it.  An explanation followed:

One of the previous pastors came in and said he was basically told to shut the place down.  The synod had done demographic studies and all sorts of other studies which told them the congregation would not survive and it needed to move to a nearby town if it had any chance to continue.  The pastor had been sent to bury the last member and then shut the doors.  But no one here wanted that.  No one here wanted to see the doors of the church shut.  We didn't want to move and then be absorbed by another congregation or what have you.  Something then happened.  There were about 60 of us in worship at the time, and that little group managed to build a fellowship hall and a church building.  We managed to pay it off, and here we are now, thriving.  God wants us TO BE HERE!

Other thoughts were added: 

Yet, we don't want to get a big head about this, because then we get arrogant and think it was all about us.  We need to be humble.

I added:

That's why we preach the Gospel.  The Gospel tells us that it was and is God working through us to accomplish things.  We know everything comes from Him, so when the Gospel is preached and takes hold of us, we cannot get arrogant.  God wants us TO BE HERE and to PROCLAIM THE GOSPEL--WHAT HE HAS DONE.

Wrestling with God's vision for a congregation is a difficult thing.  Oftentimes, congregations focus on what they believe they are supposed to be doing.  Because of this, many times, it's not so much God's vision that comes through but the peoples' vision of themselves, but this seemed different.

GOD WANTS US TO BE HERE!  Being.  Not doing, being.  A presence formed by the Gospel and proclaiming that Gospel.  A presence formed by God's action in Jesus Christ and letting the community know about that action.  Everything flows from this.  Everything. 

This caught me flat-footed because the answer came so quickly from one of my council members.  It was not something agonized over and wrestled over with difficulty.  It flowed.  It caught me flat-footed because of its simplicity.  It caught me flat-footed because it seemed right--deep down in the core of my being, I sensed it was the Truth.  It caught me flat-footed because I expected something quite different, but what was said and brought forth was better than whatever expectation I had.

God wants us to be here.


Monday, July 21, 2014

Weed or Wheat? Sermon on Matthew 13:24-30; 36-43

    So, are you a weed or are you wheat?  That is the question that is before us this morning.  And I’ll be up front with you–it’s a trick question.  Seriously.  It’s a trick question.   Why?

    Let’s look at Jesus’ explanation of the parable of the Weeds and the Wheat to begin with.  Jesus says, “The one who sows the good seed is the Son of Man; 38the field is the world, and the good seed are the children of the kingdom; the weeds are the children of the evil one, 39and the enemy who sowed them is the devil; the harvest is the end of the age, and the reapers are angels. 40Just as the weeds are collected and burned up with fire, so will it be at the end of the age. 41The Son of Man will send his angels, and they will collect out of his kingdom all causes of sin and all evildoers, 42and they will throw them into the furnace of fire, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”

    When you read this particular explanation, one thought usually goes through your head, “Man, I hope I am wheat.  I hope I’m not a weed because I don’t want to get thrown into the fire!”  And it’s interesting where our brains can go at this point.  It usually goes in one of two directions.

    First, the brain can take us to a place of great fear.  For those of us with guilty consciences, we begin examining our lives and say, “Uh oh!”  We say, “You know, I’m not such a good person down deep.  I get angry a lot.  I have impure thoughts and lust after people I am attracted to.  I love making money and having wealth and possessions.  I am not as charitable as I should.  I drink too much.  I am not as kind to others as I should be.  I don’t do a very good job of taking care of God’s creation.  I am broken.  I must be a weed.”  And we feel really, really bad about ourselves.  We carry a burden of guilt and shame, and a little black cloud seems to follow us around.  This is one response to this parable, and I think it’s the wrong one for reasons I’ll get to in a moment.

    The other response to this parable is quite different.  Some of us hear this parable and think, “Well, I’m not too bad of a person, I must be wheat!  I will end up in eternal glory!  I go to church regularly.  I put money in the offering plate.  I treat others decently.  I’ve provided for my family.  I love my spouse and my kids.  I do a few nice things from time to time.  Sure, I may have a few flaws, but my good deeds far outweigh those other moments I have.  God won’t hold that against me because I am pretty decent.”  When we are in this camp, we start feeling pretty good about ourselves, and before long, it actually has some interesting consequences.  Before long, we begin to look at others who don’t measure up to our standards as weeds.  “They just don’t have it all together like I do.  Those folks aren’t quite doing what God asks them to do, and they’d better get with the program or they will be in for a hot time.  That church over there doesn’t teach the Bible right, and God isn’t happy with them.”  Before long, the folks who believe they are wheat end up with a self-righteous attitude that looks down on others who they believe are weeds.  This is another common response to this parable, and again, I think it’s the wrong one.

    Why would I say that these two responses are wrong?  Here’s why: I don’t think God wants us to end up in either of these places.  I don’t think God wants us to end up worried and frightened and depressed thinking we are a rotten worm who can’t do a lick of good.  Neither do I think that God wants us to end up thinking ourselves better than anyone else with self-righteous behavior.  Both of these responses are dead wrong.

    But the question is how do we avoid falling into either one of these responses?  How do we avoid thinking of ourselves as weeds?  How do we avoid thinking of ourselves as wheat?  –Especially when the pastor starts off his sermon by asking, “Are you weeds or wheat?”  Remember, I told you that was a trick question.

    The answer is, of course, the Gospel.  “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son so that all those who believe in Him should not perish but have eternal life.  For God sent the Son into the world not to condemn the world but so that the world may be saved through Him.”  Remember, God did this, God took on flesh and entered into the world not because we were good–not because we were following His commands and His Law, but precisely the opposite.  God did this because we could not follow His Law.  We could not follow His commandments.  We could not be good people.  We were and are broken, and could not live up to God’s standards.  We could not redeem the world and reconcile ourselves unto God, so He acted for us.  He redeemed us while we were still sinners.  Let’s put this in the terms of the parable, God sent His son into the world to be wheat while we were still weeds, and by grace, Jesus took our weediness upon Himself and faced the fire so that we could become wheat.

    How does this happen?  I think we have to remember that Jesus came into this world to do two things: to live the life we should live and to die the death we deserve.  First, Jesus lived the life we should live.  Jesus followed the commandments of God perfectly.  He lived totally dependent upon God.  He did not seek wealth and privilege.  When Satan tempted Jesus, Jesus walked away.  In the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus did the exact opposite of Adam and Eve–instead of seeking to save His own skin and be dependent upon Himself, Jesus sought obedience to the Father.  Jesus did all the stuff we should have done.  He lived the perfect life when we could not.

    And then He died the death we deserved.  Because of our selfishness, because of our desire to be gods ourselves, we issued into the world violence, death, disease, racism, sexism, warfare, and all sorts of evil.  We were created to be the caretakers of creation, and as such we were the lynch pin for creation as well.  When we rejected dependence on God for our own desires, we allowed all this stuff to happen, and we participate in it to this day!  What should the penalty for all of this be?  Nothing less than enduring the entire wrath of God.  The only problem with that is, we could never endure that.  Never.  We would be blasted out of existence.  And God knew this.  He wanted more for His creation, and so He sent the Son to endure that wrath for us.  Only God could endure God’s wrath, and Jesus suffered that on the cross.  He died the death we deserved to justify us.   And what does that justification mean?

    Just this–and this is important–it doesn’t mean that we completely stop sinning.  It doesn’t mean we have become perfect.  It doesn’t mean we are perfect people who are perfect in our actions.  Far from it.  It means God looks at us differently.  God looks at us through the actions of Jesus.  Our sin has been taken up on Jesus, and Jesus’ righteousness has been imparted to us.  In other words, we are still weeds, but because of what Jesus has done, God sees us as wheat.  Think about that for a moment. 

    I like how Timothy Keller put this: “In the sight of God, we are justified.  In ourselves, we are sinners.  A Christian is an honored failure–a righteous sinner–a justified sinner.”  Listen to that statement one more time: a Christian is an honored failure.  We are both saint and sinner.  We are both weed and wheat at the same time.  This is what the Gospel helps us understand.  And what does this mean?  How does it help us get away from the consequences that I spoke of earlier?

    Just this: if you think you are a weed and are a horrible, terrible person who can’t do anything right–the Gospel says, think about this for a moment–God sent His Son to die for you.  God does not want you to perish.  You are of too much value to Him.  Do not consider yourself rubbish.  Do not get down and depressed about yourself.  You are loved.  You are cherished.  All you need to do is look at the cross to see what price God paid for you.  You are that dear to Him.  Pick your chin up.  Know that you are a child of God.

    And if you believe you are wheat and that you can look down your nose at others because of your righteousness, the Gospel says–not so fast buddy.  You don’t even come close.  You aren’t as good as you think you are.  You are still a sinner.  You still don’t follow the commandments of Jesus.  You still don’t love in the manner God calls you to love.  The only reason you have any standing with God is because of what Jesus has done–not because of anything you do.  Get your nose out of the clouds for it doesn’t belong there.  Be humble.  You are only a child of God because of what Jesus has done, not because of what you do.

    The Gospel raises the lowly and it brings down the haughty.  The Gospel lets us escape the two fold trap which leads either to depression or self-righteousness.  The Gospel helps us see that we are not exclusively weeds nor exclusively wheat.  We are both at the same time.  We are honored failures.  We are justified sinners.  This is what it means to be a Christian.  Amen.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

What is Your Definition of a Christian?

A Facebook friend asked this question in her status. 

It made me think.


I mean, at one level, the definition of a Christian would seem to be very simple: one who follows Christ.  But is that the sum and substance of what it means to be a Christian?  I mean, I know of quite a few folks who follow Jesus, but they are not professing Christians.  There are may who profess to be Christians--they say they follow Jesus, but they do not worship or receive the sacraments.

And it goes further. 

In the intramural debates within Christianity, there are many who point fingers accusingly in our culture.  Those on the "right" hand side of the squabble point to those on the "left" hand side and say, "You aren't following Jesus because your morals are out of whack!  You support gay marriage; the ordination of practicing homosexuals; legalized abortion; the legalization of marijuana; banning prayer from schools; the promotion of safe sex; and so on and so forth.  You are not true Christians!!!"

Those on the "left" are just as vociferous toward those on the "right."  "You aren't following Jesus because you don't care about justice.  You care more about your pocket book and supporting the rich and do not want to fight for health care; to ensure those in poverty are not kept there; to end racism, sexism, ageism, and whatever other ism is out there!   You don't care about the environment!  You don't care about the structures that cause poverty!  You are not true Christians!!!"

The truth of the matter is--no one follows Jesus correctly.  No one.  None live up to His standard, and the self-righteous finger pointing that we do only serves as an illustration of this fact.  When we, as Christians, act in such a fashion, are we no different than the disciples who argued about who should sit at Jesus' right and left hand as they walked along the road?  Jesus had a few words of chastisement for such behavior. Yet, we cannot seem to escape it.  We cannot seem to get passed arguing about who follows Jesus "better." 

And so when we try to say a Christian is one who follows Jesus, we inevitably find ourselves in a conundrum.  For who really follows Jesus by Jesus' standards?

But that is just the tip of the proverbial ice berg.  There is even more to this because there are quite a few doctrinal concerns to deal with as well when it comes to defining what it means to be a Christian which are not tied to simply following the commands Jesus offers.

  • Can a person be defined as a follower of Jesus--strictly speaking--who does not believe in the Trinity?
  • Can a person be defined as a follower of Jesus--strictly speaking--who does not believe in Jesus' divinity?
  • Can a person be defined as a follower of Jesus--strictly speaking--who does not believe the Bible is inerrant or infallible?
  • Can a person be defined as a follower of Jesus--strictly speaking--who does not believe in the resurrection?
  • Can a person be defined as a follower of Jesus--strictly speaking--who is not baptized?
  • Can a person be defined as a follower of Jesus--strictly speaking--who rejects the miraculous?
  • Can a person be defined as a follower of Jesus--strictly speaking--who rejects substitutionary atonement?
Oh, and there could be quite a bit more things added to this short list.

As I reflected upon such things, I realized how much emphasis was placed on how WE acted and what WE believed.   The definition of a Christian centered on us, but Christianity isn't about us, is it?  Christianity isn't about our actions and our beliefs.  It's about God's action through Jesus Christ.  It's about God's grace bestowed upon the world through the death and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth.

Shouldn't the definition of a Christian center upon God and His work and not our own?

Using this as the starting point, I propose the following:

A Christian is one whom God views as redeemed by what Jesus has done.

I invite your thoughts.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Is the New Testament Reliable?

Last week's series of posts left off at a crucial point: is the Bible reliable?  Specifically, I would like to deal with the New Testament.  As I have studied and read and contemplated many philosophical/theological/scientific points and arguments, I believe the lynch pin in the whole ordeal is Jesus.

If Jesus really was raised from the dead, then that historical phenomenon changes everything.  If Jesus was who He claimed He was, well, that adds another dimension.  There are those who scoff at Jesus and the claims of the resurrection.  Rightfully so.  We are even told by St. Paul in scripture that the idea of the resurrection was foolishness and a stumbling block to many even in the ancient world.  Dead men don't just come back to life--especially those who had been crucified by the Romans.  You see, the Romans had a 100% success rate of death by crucifixion.  Once you were nailed to a cross, you were a goner.  Plain and simple.

But one can even doubt the historical veracity of the crucifixion or the historical veracity of Jesus Himself by simply saying the Bible stories about Jesus were simply made up--lies--inventions of various communities or people who were starting a new religion.  These things are actually floating around, and some have gained quite a bit of steam.  Richard Dawkins even casts doubt on Jesus as a historical figure in his book The God Delusion.

Yet, there are really no serious ancient historians who doubt the existence of Jesus.  None.  Nearly all regard Him as a historical figure.  Why?  Frankly speaking, we have more evidence for Jesus than we have for folks like Julius Caesar or Alexander the Great. 

There have been several lectures I have watched on YouTube from many experts in the field.  Below are several videos.  Nearly all of them are over an hour long.  If you are truly interested in the evidence, I invite you to watch them and judge for yourself:

These four videos are thorough with their presentation of the evidence regarding Jesus.  They also make a strong case for the reliability of the New Testament especially the Gospels.  A very detailed approach to the reliability of the Gospels comes from Richard Bauckham in his book Jesus and the Eyewitnesses: the Gospels as Eyewitness Testimony.   Bauckham is thorough--very, very thorough.

Mind you, none of these folks gives absolute proof that the New Testament is 100% accurate, but they are saying, quite frankly, that by the tools of ancient history, the Gospels are reliable.  They can be defined as ancient biography based upon the testimony of eyewitnesses to the events surrounding the life of Jesus of Nazareth.

Eyewitness testimony is not without its faults.  It does not capture every detail of an event, and our brains tend to remember only certain points.  However, there is something quite interesting about eyewitness testimony--it begs to be accepted as long as the witness is deemed credible.  (The credibility of the eyewitnesses is dealt with very strongly, I think, by the videos.)  I mean, as I have pointed out in a sermon illustration before--if you are on a date with your significant other, and she outlines her day for you.  If you respond, "That sounds great, honey, but do you have any corroborating evidence to back up your assertions?", then your night is going to go downhill very, very fast. 

If indeed the New Testament is reliable and we can get a sense of Jesus through those writings, then we must deal with two important claims: Jesus was raised from the dead, and Jesus claimed to be God.

Time demands me to stop today.  Tomorrow is another day.

Monday, July 14, 2014

Setting MInd on Things of the Spirit: Sermon on Romans 8:1-11

 Romans 8: 1-11

There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. 2For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and of death. 3For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do: by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh, and to deal with sin, he condemned sin in the flesh, 4so that the just requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit. 5For those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit set their minds on the things of the Spirit. 6To set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace. 7For this reason the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God; it does not submit to God’s law—indeed it cannot, 8and those who are in the flesh cannot please God.  9 But you are not in the flesh; you are in the Spirit, since the Spirit of God dwells in you. Anyone who does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him. 10But if Christ is in you, though the body is dead because of sin, the Spirit is life because of righteousness. 11If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies also through his Spirit that dwells in you.

   I have said for many years that St. Paul oftentimes becomes pretty convoluted in his writing.  I mean, there are some portions of his letters which are straight forward and easy to understand.  It’s not hard to understand him when he says, “All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.”  We get this.  We get this easily.  But then there are those portions of his letters in which we get bogged down.  There are those portions of his letters where he seems to ramble on and on and on, and the more you read, the muddier things seem.  I’d argue our second lesson is like that.  Paul talks at length about what it means to have one’s mind set on the Spirit and one’s mind set on the flesh.  One of these is good, and one of these is bad.  We get that part, I think, but I’m not sure we fully understand it–at least as it relates to the Gospel. 

   For I think many of us come away with the idea that Paul is telling us here, “Think about all the things God wants you to do, and then make sure you do them.  That leads to life.  But don’t let your mind get caught up in the flesh–the sinful stuff; the stuff that is against God’s law, because if you get caught up in this, then that leads to death.  It does not please God.”  This is where we tend to end up, but I’d like to remind you of something right now.  I’d like to remind you about where Paul started out before he became a Christian, and it also has ties to Jesus’ encounters with the Pharisees.  Remember, Paul tell us in his letters that he was blameless according to the Law.  Paul had fulfilled all the requirements of the Jewish Law–many of the Pharisees had as well; yet, Jesus nearly always had harsh words for them.  Here was St. Paul, following the Law to a tee, and here were the Pharisees doing the same thing, yet Jesus spoke against them.  Why?

    Why did Paul in the middle of these verses from Romans 8 say, “7For this reason the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God; it does not submit to God’s law—indeed it cannot, 8and those who are in the flesh cannot please God.”?  Let’s take a moment to consider what it really means to have one’s mind set on the flesh and then to have one’s mind set on the Spirit.

    Before converting to Christianity, St. Paul had his mind set on the flesh.  Likewise, the Pharisees had their minds set on the flesh as well.  “How is this possible?” you might ask.  “Weren’t they following God’s Law?  Weren’t they following the Ten Commandments?  Weren’t they worshiping correctly and offering all the sacrifices to God in the appropriate manner?”  Well, yes they were.  So how is it that their minds were set on the flesh?

    Here’s the answer: they were trying to work out their own salvation.  You might ask, “How is that such a bad thing?  They are doing the right things.  Isn’t this what religion is supposed to get you to do?”

    If religion were only about what you do, then sure.  But you see, God isn’t interested in simply what you do.  He’s interested in who you are.  He’s interested in you to the very depths of your heart.  He looks into your heart and sees what’s going down deep in its recesses, and when God looked deep into the heart of the Pharisees–when God looked deep in the heart of St. Paul before Paul was converted, do you know what God saw?  He saw self-righteousness.  God did not see a heart bent on loving and pleasing God.  Instead, God saw hearts which were totally selfish.

    How could that be?  Think about this for a moment.  Why does a person follow the commands of Jesus?  Why does a person follow the Ten Commandments?  If a person follows them to work out his or her own salvation, then the person is following them for a very selfish reason.  What?  You might say.  Yes.  If you follow the Ten Commandments or the teachings of Jesus because you want to go to heaven, you are following them for a selfish reason because you are following them to avoid punishment.  You have a deep self-interest in avoiding punishment and getting rewards.  You are trying to save your tail-end.  You are only trying to please God for your sake, not for God’s sake.  Can you see this, or do I need to explain further?  And when you are trying to save yourself, your mind is set on the things of the flesh.  Your mind is set on yourself.  You are no different than those folks who engage in sinful behavior to make themselves feel good.  You are both sinful.  One disobeys the law of God to feel good about one’s self through indulgence.  One strictly obeys the law of God to feel good about one’s self through obedience.  Neither has God at the center of their heart.  Both are centered on themselves.

    This is why Paul says that a mind which is set on the flesh is hostile to God.  It cannot follow the Law of God and please God.  It is only concerned with itself.  Nothing else.  It may be doing the right things, but for completely wrong reasons.  And this is why Paul says, “Set your mind on the things of the Spirit!”

    Now, what does that mean?  How does a person set his or her mind on the things of the Spirit?  What are the things of the Spirit?

    Simply put, setting the mind on the Spirit means concentrating on the Gospel.  You know the Gospel.  I’ve been saying it over and over and over again in my sermons for the past 10 months.  I’ve repeated it again and again and again.  For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son so that all those who believe in Him should not perish but have eternal life.  For God sent the Son into the world not to condemn the world but that the world may be saved through Him.  This is at the core of what Christianity proclaims.  God took on flesh in the form of Jesus the Son, and He died for us while we were still sinners.  He died for us when we were not following the commands of God.  He died for us when we were centered totally and completely on ourselves.  He died for those who were disobeying God’s Law, and He died for those who were following God’s law to save themselves. 

    Jesus came to live the life we could not live, and He died the death we deserved in order to reconcile the world to God–to reconcile you unto God.  You didn’t do a blasted thing to help this process.  It was all on God.  It was all on Jesus.  Your salvation; your reconciliation unto God was accomplished for you when you were heading in the opposite direction.  When you begin to contemplate this, you are setting your mind on the things of the Spirit, and this changes you.

    How?  How does thinking about what Jesus did by dying for us change us?

    First off, remember, if you are trying to work out your salvation and avoid punishment, you are acting with a ton of self-interest and selfishness.  The same goes for thinking that you have to do something to keep your salvation.  I mean, there are plenty of Christians who believe Jesus died for them and saved them, but they also believe they have to work their tail ends off or they will lose their salvation.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  Your salvation is complete.  It is done.  Period.  End of discussion.  Jesus paid the price for that.  Jesus lived the life you should have lived.  He died the death you deserved.  It is finished.  It was done by Jesus, and you can’t claim any credit for it.

    This is important to realize because it means you can’t be self-righteous anymore.  You can’t look down your nose at another person and claim that you are somehow morally and spiritually superior to another person.  You are not.  None of us are.  When you know that you were saved by sheer grace, and it hits your heart, all of a sudden, there are sins revealed to you that you didn’t even know you were doing.  As I’ve said before, one of the ones that was revealed to me was when I listened to Timothy Keller give a lecture on evangelism and he talked about being reclaimed by the gospel.  Keller talked about those of us who are clergy and how we really don’t get the gospel.  How?  Keller said, “I don’t know what extent it is for you, but to some degree your self-worth is tied to your ministry.  How do I know this?  When the worship attendance is up, your spirits are up, and when worship attendance is down, you get depressed.  Your self-worth is tied to your ministry to some extent.”  I hung my head because I knew it was true.  I wasn’t living out grace.  I was still caught up in trying to get my self-worth from other things.  This kind of sinfulness is revealed to you when the Gospel takes root in your mind.  You know you are broken.  You know you are still in need of healing, and it humbles you.  It humbles you so that you don’t see yourself as any better than anyone else–you see that you need Jesus just as much as that other person out there needs Jesus.  And a well spring of thanksgiving swells up in your heart because you know Jesus died for you when you were broken.

    And that leads you to say, “How can I show my thankfulness?  How can I show my appreciation to Jesus for what He has done?”  This is important because there are many who think that grace gives them sheer license to do whatever they want to do.  I can do whatever makes me feel good because I’m forgiven anyway.  There’s a term for this: cheap grace.  Cheap grace means you don’t understand the price that was paid for you.  Dr. David Lloyd Jones used a sermon illustration to get at this.  Let’s say you come home from vacation one day, and your neighbor comes over to give you your mail.  He says he saw a bill in your mail, and he paid it for you.  Dr. Jones said, “At this point, I need to know how large the bill was in order to know how to respond.”  If it was simply a matter of postage due, I can offer a word of thanks and go about my merry business.  But if it was a letter from the IRS telling me I had to pay thousands of dollars in fees that I didn’t have, well then there is a very different response.  That’s when I fall on my knees to thank you profusely.

    If we realize the size of the debt that Jesus paid for us, then we fall at His feet in thanksgiving and we seek to please Him–not because we are trying to get anything from Him but because we have already received it.  Not because we feel good about ourselves but because we know what Jesus did for us when we weren’t too good at all.  We follow the Ten Commandments and what Jesus taught us because of what He first did for us in dying for us and removing our debt.

    This is what the Gospel is all about.  Jesus dying for us when we were still sinners leads us to a place of humility.  It leads us to a place of serving God for His sake and not for our own.  It is far removed from setting our mind on the things of the flesh.  Thinking about the Gospel is setting our mind on the things of the Spirit, and that leads us to abundant life.  Amen.

Thursday, July 10, 2014

The "Something" Out There is Personal

Michio Kaku offers an interesting take on transcendence and whether or not God exists.

Interestingly enough, this famous physicist ends up basically where I left this blog yesterday.  There is a transcendent reality, but it isn't personal.

I would like to argue that this transcendent reality is indeed a personal reality, and I would like to start with a common parable--one which I have used in my sermons a couple of times--the parable of the blind men and the elephant.

This parable is about a group of blind men who stumble upon an elephant in their path.  They strive to see the elephant.  Each touches a different part of the elephant, and then they argue about the nature of that elephant.  One argues the elephant is like a spear--he touched the tusk.  One argues the elephant is like a hose--he touched the trunk.  One argues the elephant is like a wall--he touched the torso.  One argues the elephant is like a rope--he touched the tail.  One argues the elephant is like a tree trunk--he touched the leg.  And so on and so forth.  Each believed his piece of the elephant constituted the entire reality of the elephant, but they were all wrong.  In one way, they were all right, but in another, they were all wrong.

Folks like to use this analogy/parable and apply it to religions.  Most religions worship a transcendent reality, but how does one know what that reality is like?  The parable suggests no one really knows for sure--all are blind and only "see" one part.  None has the big picture.

This might be an interesting argument to talk about the nature of religions except for one small problem--the parable doesn't work unless someone knows what the whole elephant looks like to begin with.  Only an outsider who knows what the whole elephant looks like can say, "All the guys were right, and all the guys were wrong."  Therefore, if you want to use this parable to talk about religion--and how religion views God, then you either have to admit you are blind (and only have a limited knowledge of God yourself) or that you somehow see the entire elephant.  At this point, you've actually backed yourself into the proverbial corner.

Unless there is someone who has actually seen the nature of God.  Unless there is someone who has encountered the transcendence and become immanent.

Christianity is the only religion which professes such a thing to have happened.  Christianity is the only religion which claims the transcendent reality of God took on flesh and lived among us.  Christianity is the only religion which claims we don't have to work our way up to God, but God worked His way down to us.

If we as humankind are striving to work our way up to a transcendent reality, we will never make it. We will never know what kind of transcendence is out there.  It is an impossibility.  But, if that transcendent reality has made itself known...that changes everything.

Christianity claims Jesus came to reveal the true nature of God--being fully God and fully human, and this claim grounds itself in the writings of Scripture.  Jesus claimed to be God and to know God.

The claim was radical--absolutely radical--especially given the Jewish culture to which Jesus entered into. It would have done more than raise eyebrows.  It would have been cause to see Jesus as insane, dangerous, blasphemous, even evil.  We see hints of this throughout the gospel stories.

Which brings me to the crux of the argument--if the transcendent indeed became immanent in Jesus, then the stories about Jesus must be reliable.  Are they?

Another blog topic.

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Why I Think There's Something Out There

Luc Ferry in his book A Brief History of Thought offers a scathing criticism of materialists and those who follow the philosopher Nietzsche's lead by saying there is no such thing as transcendence.  In a nutshell, Ferry calls them hypocrites.  No one lives as if there are no universal rules.  No one lives as if there is no transcendence.  Everyone has some sort of belief in the common good.  Everyone.

Ferry is no intellectual light weight, and his criticisms go beyond just this one.  I encourage folks to read this tome of Ferry's even though he does not cross into belief in God.  Though he finds the Christian narrative very, very appealing, Ferry wants to work out his own salvation.  This is his choice.

Yet, his argument about transcendence is very important I think.  Everyone lives as if there is a transcendent reality.  Everyone lives asking, "What should I do?"  Everyone lives as if there is a frame of ethics which supersede individuals, cultures, and nations.  C.S. Lewis did some fascinating research finding that nearly every civilized culture has some form of the Golden Rule within it.  Why?

Lewis makes his case in this fashion: if there is such a thing as natural law--a higher morality, then there must be a law giver.  Hence God exists.  While a powerful argument, it is not absolute.  Folks can argue, and they do that the discovery of such laws might be humankind's evolution and discovery of what is needed for a fully functional human society.  Evolution has produced the Golden Rule; it is not given by God.

The criticism is duly noted, but this does not make the Golden Rule transcendent.  In fact, it lessens the universality of the rule.  For if evolution decreed that the Golden Rule is necessary for civilization now, evolution could easily lead us to disperse the Golden Rule if it gets in the way of the survival of the species or our own personal survival.  After all, evolution is governed not by any transcendence which tells us what we should do, but it is governed by natural selection and genetic mutation.  The Golden Rule is necessary for survival now, but what if it becomes a hindrance in the future?  Evolution would say, discard it!!!

Those who believe in transcendence would not discard the rule so easily.  In fact, they would continue to hold onto it despite any pressure to discard it because it is a universal law.  And if Ferry is correct, even evolutionists who are convinced the Golden Rule came about by evolution would continue to hold onto it even if evolution tries to pull us away from it.  (I personally believe this is already the case, for in evolution, the weakest members of any species--sans humankind--are dispatched by nature rather quickly.  Only human beings care for their physically and mentally ill.  Only humans disrupt the natural process in this manner--including many evolutionists.)

The question in my book is: can someone claim there is no transcendence and then act as if there is?  This kind of life, in my opinion, would eventually lead to a mental break down.  There is just no integrity in it.  Perhaps this is why Nietzsche went insane when he saw a man beating a poor horse.  Perhaps he felt compassion for this animal, and yet he had absolutely nothing to fall back upon to say why this abuse was wrong.  One cannot have one's cake and eat it too.

Ferry argues in his book there is indeed transcendence although his argument and mine diverge at this point.  If you would like to read his, I again encourage you to read his thoughts.  Mine is a little less philosophical at this point and a little more realistic.  If everyone acts as if there is transcendence and has acted as if there is transcendence, then there is transcendence.  It's not scientifically air tight.  It's not measurable.  It just is.  Kind of like love.  It just is.

But how do we know that this transcendence is God?  How do we know this transcendence is personal?

Well, today's blog is long enough.  Perhaps tomorrow.

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Is There Something Out There?

In a conversation with a congregation member this past Sunday, I invoked the name of Isaac Asimov.  My congregation member and I were discussing the relationship between science and faith and how there is quite a bit of arrogance on the part of both "sides" as they promote their particular points of view.

The reality, my congregation member pointed out, is "everyone has faith in something that cannot be proved."

For those who base their thought process in science, the idea everyone bases their thought processes in faith is abhorrent!  "Science is not about faith!!" they decry.  And then, in the name of science, they proclaim, "There is no evidence for God."  Their conclusion is logical.  However, I will argue, their conclusion stems from premises which are indeed faith based.  Isaac Asimov is helpful here.

Asimov, of course, was a brilliant author, biochemist and philosopher.  If you read his works, you will see that he has an incredible ability to remain logically consistent as he conveys philosophical and scientific truth.  His short stories weave these truths throughout and (hopefully) help the reader better to understand them.  In the short story "Reason" from I, Robot, the following dialogue is found as the two human characters try to deal with a "rogue" robot:

"Then, for the love of Jupiter, we've got to do something." Donovan was half in tears.  "He doesn't believe us, or the books, or his eyes."

"No," said Powell bitterly, "he's a reasoning robot--damn it.  He believes only reason, and there's one trouble with that--" his voice trailed away.

"What's that?" prompted Donovan.

"You can prove anything you want by coldly logical reason--if you pick the proper postulates.  We have ours and Cutie has his."

"Then let's get at those postulates in a hurry.  The storm's due tomorrow."

Powell signed wearily.  "That's where everything falls down.  Postulates are based on assumption and adhered to by faith.  Nothing in the Universe can shake them.  I'm going to bed."

(If one desires to deeply understand why Asimov places this in his stories, one can study and read up on Goedel's proof.)

The scientist may decry, "I have no postulates.  I have no assumptions.  I base everything upon what I can see and measure."

But what assumptions are built into the statement, "I base everything upon what I can see and measure?"

Just this: you are confined to the natural world.  You are confined to only the things you can see and measure.  Nothing more.  Using science, one cannot answer the question, "Is there anything beyond the physical universe?"  Based upon a method which requires measurement, duplication, reason, logic, and observation, one cannot come up with any absolute conclusion for what may lie beyond what can be measured, duplicated, reasoned, and observed.  One is limited.  The only thing one can do is look at the evidence provided within the physical universe and deduce whether or not something may or may not be beyond it.  One cannot arrive at any definite conclusion--at least based upon the assumptions.

If one recognizes this, then one easily sees that the statement, "God does not exist," is actually a statement of faith.  It is not a statement of science.  It is not a statement of fact.  It is not a statement of pure reason.  It is a statement based upon what one tries to deduce from looking at the evidence in the natural world and extrapolating to that which is beyond the boundaries of the natural universe. 

One may ask, "Well, what is the problem with that?"

From Richard Dawkins' book, The God Delusion:

"The human brain runs first class simulation software.  Our eyes don't present to our brains a faithful photograph of what is out there, or an accurate movie about what is going on in time.  Our brains construct [emphasis mine] a continuously updated model: updated by coded pulses chattering along the optic nerve, but constructed nevertheless."

Think about that statement long and hard.  If one's assumption is "There is nothing beyond our physical universe," then one's simulation software is set to interpret any data which comes in as supporting the assumption. 

On the other hand, if one's assumption is, "There is something beyond our physical universe," then one's simulation software is set to interpret the same data as supporting this assumption.

This is why believers and non-believers can look at the exact same evidence and come up with vastly different conclusions.  It has nothing to do with the quality of the evidence.  The evidence might be just fine--for both!!  However, it has everything to do with the assumptions governing the logic!

The cold, hard fact is that we do not know what lies beyond the bounds of our physical universe.  We will actually never know.  (Asimov is helpful here too, but I won't go there right now.)  By a statement of faith we can either say, "There is something out there." or "There is nothing out there."  Neither of these statements can be proved. They are both statements of faith.   We would do well to recognize this.

It might just help to tone down the rhetoric and settle a few court battles along the way.

At least I can dream, right?

Monday, July 7, 2014

Resting While Burdened: Sermon On "Take My Yoke"

    Have you ever noticed that we as human beings seem to be caught in a constant struggle between freedom and being burdened?  Perhaps you have.  Perhaps you’ve never thought of it in such a fashion.  Let me try to explain.

    First the freedom part.  Perhaps this is easiest to explain since we have just come through the Fourth of July holiday and our nation celebrated its independence.  There is something about the human spirit which does not like to be contained.  It does not like to be told what to do.  It does not like to have any sort of burden placed upon it.  As Elsa from the movie Frozen sings in the song “Let it Go”, “No right, no wrong.  No rules for me.  I’m free.”  We long for such freedom. 

    People who work cannot wait to be free from the responsibility of their job.  There are more than a few who are workin’ for the weekend as Loverboy once sang.  Most modern music that you hear today is all about finding a party–escaping reality–finding freedom from the daily grind.  We long for those times of vacation.  We count down the years until retirement.  We gripe about government intrusion into our lives.  We quip to others who would impose their values upon us, “What works for you, works for you, but don’t tell me how to live my life!”  We want to set our own agendas.  We want to call our own shots.  We want to have complete freedom to do so.

    And if we find ourselves overburdened.  If we find ourselves with too many rules and regulations.  If we find ourselves constrained as if someone kept pushing down on us, eventually, we will snap.  It’s like a pressure cooker.  If the pressure keeps building and building and building with no release, something bad will eventually happen.  We will fight for freedom.  Historically, this has taken place over and over and over again.  There is a part of human nature that longs for freedom.

    But here is an interesting twist to this phenomenon of freedom.  We do not want complete freedom for anyone and everyone.  We want some sort of system of rules that govern us as well.  Why?  Think about it a moment.  Even those in our culture now who believe in relativism–the idea there are no universal truths say something interesting, “Believe whatever you want to believe and do whatever you want to do–as long as you don’t hurt anyone else.”  Do you see the qualifier?  Relativists don’t believe in true relativism.  They don’t believe anything goes.  Because we know what happens when anything goes.  We know what it is like when there are no rules.  We’ve seen this happen historically over and over and over again.  When there are no rules, the strongest take over.  The strongest surge to power and authority, and they prey upon the weak; they prey upon those who do not give obedience to them; they prey upon those whom they do not like.  Various factions arise centered upon the powerful, and open warfare reigns.  Many, many innocent people get hurt.  Anarchy is not a beautiful thing. 

    We know this.  We know this deep at the bottom of our souls.  Somehow it is built into us–the need for freedom and the need for rule.  We keep swinging back and forth back and forth along this pendulum in society and in our individual lives.

    At this point, you might raise a question: Pastor, I see how this happens in society.  I see how this happens historically, but what do you mean by saying this happens in our individual lives?  Are you talking about working and wanting to be free from work like you spoke about earlier, or is it something else?

    Let me expand this point a little.  In each and every one of us, there is a desire to be free.  We don’t like having a whole lot of responsibility.  We want to enjoy living our lives in a carefree manner.  We want to be at peace.  We want to be at rest.  And being at rest means being at a place of fulfillment–a place of peace–a place of joy.  We want to be unburdened so that we can rest, and so we think about all those things that burden us.  What are the burdens in our lives?

    •    Work.
    •    School.
    •    Family.
    •    Housework.
    •    Social responsibilities including church.

    These are some of the ones we immediately think about.  The obligations we feel toward these things give us a sense of burden.  They seemingly weigh us down, and so we look to cut them off.  They do not seem to give us a sense of peace, and so we look to something else.

    •    Vacation time.
    •    Sports.
    •    Partying.
    •    Music.
    •    Television.
    •    Drinking.
    •    Sex.

    And the list could go on and on.  We believe that such things give us freedom, but you know what actually happens?  Do you know what truly happens when you start looking to all of these things for freedom?  Do you know what they start doing to you?  They begin to demand your time and energy.  They begin to demand your allegiance.  They begin to demand your heart and soul.  The things which once gave you some sense of pleasure and peace now begin to dominate your time.  They begin to consume your thoughts.  You become a slave to them.  It’s easy to see this in the lives of others.  It’s easy to see this in the alcoholic who is a slave to the alcohol.  It’s easy to see this in the pastor who devotes all his time to the church.  It’s easy to see this in the person who sits, chomping at the bit to leave work as soon as the clock hits 5 so that she can get home to watch her favorite shows.  It’s easy to see this in the person who cranks the radio up as loudly as possible without regard to what anyone else thinks.  It’s easy to see this in the person who doesn’t miss a single baseball practice or game while skipping work and other social obligations.

    The reality is, when we think we are escaping from one thing, we simply replace it with another.  Whenever we think we are free from one particular aspect in life, we are simply trading it for something else.  Never are we truly free.  We are always bound.  We are always in a constant sense of rebellion because of this.  We are always have a constant sense of unease.  We are never at rest.  We are never at peace.  We are never fulfilled.  Why? 

    It’s because we keep burdening ourselves with the wrong burdens. We keep burdening ourselves with those things which will always put demands upon us without truly giving us freedom.  So what is the answer?  Is it possible to be at rest and still be burdened at the same time?  Is it possible to be free and still have rules? 

    The answer Christianity gives is yes.  Listen to Jesus’ words from our Gospel lesson once again, “28 ‘Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. 29Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. 30For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”

    How can Jesus say this?  How can Jesus say that if we take His yoke upon us–being burdened–we will be at rest?  This seems like a contradiction in terms, but it’s not.  Not at all.  In fact, when you think it through, it makes perfect sense.

    You have to remember where it all begins, though.  You have to remember that it all begins with the gospel.  You know the gospel: for God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son so that all those who believe in Him should not perish but have eternal life.  For God sent the Son not to condemn the world but so that the world may be saved through Him.  And this was done not by any work you or I did.  This reconciliation was carried out by Jesus and Jesus alone–not because we were loveable or good or holy, but precisely because we were not good; we were not lovable; we were not holy.  Jesus died for us when we were still sinners.

    Think about that for just a moment.  Jesus died for you when you were still broken–when you were still breaking God’s commandments–when you were not loving your neighbor as yourself.  You were still in the midst of your sin–your disobedience, and God died for you anyway.  In just about every case in this world, if you are disobedient; if you are not following the rules, you get punished.  You do not receive a reward.  Yet, when you were not following God, He took on flesh and died for you to give you eternal life.  This is an amazing act of love–an act that is beyond comprehension–an act that many would deem foolish.  Why say that?

    Because, if you are a parent, you know doggone why it’s foolish.  If your children are misbehaving and you give them cookies, they will just keep misbehaving.  They won’t change their ways.  You’ve got to punish them to make them get in line!  But what if their behavior led to them being arrested and convicted and sentenced to death.  As a parent, what would you do?  Would you gladly take your child’s place and suffer their punishment?  Would you die so that they might live?  And if upon seeing your love for them, what do you think your children would do?  If your loving parent stepped in and died for you when you deserved death, how would you respond?  Would you keep doing the things you had always done, or would you be profoundly changed by their love?  You would, of course, be free to continue in the path you had always walked.  You could still do the destructive things you had done before.  You could still rebel against all the rules and regulations.  You would be free to do so.  Your parents had kept you from the punishment.  But at great cost.  Would you let their sacrifice go for naught?

    I hope not.  I hope that having such love shown to you would radically transform your life.  I hope it would completely change the way you operated as you realized the extent of what it cost your parents to step in and save you from your disobedience.  Not because of guilt or obligation but because of thanksgiving.  Thanksgiving for your undeserved life at their expense.  It would seem like foolishness to some, but to a parent, it would be worth it. 

    If what Jesus did for us on the cross is anything like a parent willing to die for his or her child–and I think it is–then we too can be transformed by that kind of love.  We too can be transformed by that kind of good news.  We know we are free because of what Christ did for us, but at the same time, we freely choose to be obedient to Him.  We freely choose to take His yoke upon us.  We freely say, “I will follow you and your commands, Jesus because of what you have done for me.”  At one and the same time we are obedient and we are free.  At one and the same time we are burdened and at rest.  We are no longer bound by all the things that once put demands upon us in this world.  We have freely turned to another yoke–the yoke of Jesus–the only burden that can bring us rest.  Amen.

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Back to My Roots

This afternoon (July 2), I listened to that small voice inside which said, "This afternoon is family time."  Office work would wait.  Holy family time was needed.

I thought we'd go to the Houston Museum, but as we prepared to go, I remembered the kids bowl free stuff we signed up for at the beginning of summer.

"Museum or bowling?" I asked the kids


It's rare we have a unanimous decision.  Bowling it was.  Brenham bowling alley, here we come.

But there was a problem.  A summer school program or camp had invaded the bowling alley.  Too crowded.  We needed an alternate plan.  We got in the car, and I simply started driving up SH 290.  As we drove, I thought about the Cotton Museum in Burton.  We'd never been.  Kaylee had studied about it in second grade.  Perhaps this would be a worthwhile activity.

It was.

Video presentation.  Cotton gin tour.  Kids getting to see how cotton was ginned with a miniature gin.  Questions asked and answered.

Then, Kevin asks, "Daddy, can we pull a cotton leaf?"

There was a reason he asked this question--a reason dating to over 20 years ago when I was working with my grandfather in the cotton field.

It was the last year my grandfather farmed before he succumbed to cancer.  We were cultivating the cotton, and it was my job to ride on the tractor, spot weeds, flag my grandfather when I saw them, jump off the tractor, and then pull the weeds putting them in a burlap bag.  Grandpa liked his cotton field absolutely clean.

During a particular stop in a weedy patch, Grandpa told me to take a water break.  When I climbed on the tractor to get a drink, Grandpa asked, "Kevin, have I ever showed you God is in the cotton?"

I was in my second year of college studying Theology/Philosophy.  I thought Grandpa was about to get philosophical on me--perhaps talk about his love of farming and how it showed him God.  I had been exposed to all sorts of ideas at Texas Lutheran, and I thought I'd hear another one.

Boy, was my assumption completely wrong.  Grandpa had other ideas.  Very concrete ones.

"Go pick me four or five big cotton leaves.  They have to be really big ones."

I did exactly as my grandfather instructed and brought the leaves to him as he sat on the tractor.  He took a leaf in his hand and pulled out his pocket knife with the other.

"Now," he spoke, "you need a really sharp knife, and you have to cut the leaf in just the right place."

I watched as he spoke these words.  Grandpa's hands shook, and he had a hard time holding the knife steady.  He made a cut, looked at his work, swore, and threw the leaf and stem to the ground.  Picking up another leaf, he spoke again, "You need a really sharp knife, and you have to cut in just the right place..."

He cut again.  Looked at his handiwork again, and this time held the remaining stem for me to observe.  Looking at the cut, which had been made right near the juncture of the stem and leaf, I observed something mind blowing.  Wonderful.  Amazing.

The veins which brought water to the leaf formed the letters G...o...D. 

It was as if God left His signature right there in the midst of that field on each and every plant--on each and every leaf.  No wonder Grandpa had a special affinity for cotton.  God was in it.

I had told this story to my kids.  I had tried to show them at one point, but the leaves were too small.  Kevin, Jr. remembered.  He wanted me to cut a leaf and show him while at the cotton gin museum.

So I asked the lady giving us the tour, Linda, if I could have a cotton plant leaf.

She replied to Kevin, Jr. "Well, ordinarily, I would let you, but if I let you, then I would have to let other people as well.  Then, our plants wouldn't have any leaves on them."

My wife rose to the challenge.  I didn't want to talk about Kevin, Jr.'s reasons.  My wife had no such inhibitors.  "Tell her why he wants the leaf."

Linda's curiosity was piqued.

"God is written in the cotton," Dawna said.  "If you cut the leaf just right, you can read the word God in the stem.  I thought he (me) was crazy when he first told me about it, but then he showed me.  It's there."

"I've never seen that!" Linda said.  "I want to see that."

She took me outside to their cotton plants which grew in wooden barrels. 

"First, you need a really big leaf, and I hope my knife is sharp enough..."

We went back inside, and I sat in a chair.  Linda talked with my kids and another couple visiting the museum.

I cut the leaf.  I put my knife where the stem met the leaf.  I hadn't done this in years.  I wondered if my knife was sharp enough.  I wondered if I was cutting in the right place.  I cut slowly and carefully.  After separating the leaf from the stem, I looked.  Kiera, my eldest was right there looking over my shoulder.  "There it is!!" she exclaimed.

Sure enough: G...o...D.

The couple from San Antonio was next.  Exclamations of amazement as well as attempts to capture what they saw on camera.  Pretty difficult to capture on a cell phone.

Linda took the stem in her hand.  Being a little older, it took her moving the stem to where she could focus.  "Wow.  I never knew..."

I didn't either until my grandfather showed me in that cotton patch many years ago.  Linda thanked me  profusely for showing her God in the cotton.  I thanked her for the tour and a walk down memory lane--memories which took me back to my roots.  Roots which include cotton hoes, mile long rows, hot sun, cold drinks, the sounds of a roaring tractor engine, an old man smoking cigarettes who took some time to show his grandson God's signature.

Amazing how it still affects me today.