Covering the Bases

July 2, 2020

As I continue to work slowly through a book on improving my preaching, the next chapter deals with different ways a speaker/preacher connects with the people they are speaking to.

Ethos listeners prioritize the relationship between the speaker and the hearer. If there is a strong connection with the speaker the message will be heard better. Likewise (though not explicitly stated in the book) if the relationship is strained or not good between the speaker and the listener, the listener is going to have a harder time connecting with what is being said. Sometimes this is referred to as an issue of integrity or character on the part of the speaker or the hearer’s perception of their integrity or character. Reaching people who react well based on ethos involves reminding them of this shared relationship. Speaking about we and us as opposed to them or you. Referencing personal stories or the impact of the sermon topic or verses on you personally.

Logos listeners focus on the cerebral or intellectual content of a sermon. They want to be presented with ideas to chew on and mull over or be challenged by. They’re most engaged when learning something new, and sermons that include a focus on information sit well with this group.

Pathos listeners react on the emotional level. They love real-life stories or anecdotes, but they also are most attentive when they are part of the sermon, and can connect what is being preached to their lives.

Ideally every sermon should have some of each aspect in it to best reach as many of your hearers as possible. And that seems reasonable. I can certainly confirm that people who are not in a good relationship with me have a harder time hearing what I say in the sermon, and are more apt to take things the wrong way (or at least in a way I wasn’t intending). Likewise I believe a good preacher should be teaching in a sermon. Not like I would teach a Bible study class, but there should be elements where I’m sharing what I’ve learned rather than just rehashing what I’ve heard all my life from others. The familiar can be comforting but if that’s all I give, people get bored. Or at least I get bored! And I’ve seen firsthand how a good story can really draw people into the sermon.

I like to think my sermons involve all three of these ways of preaching, though certainly the balance will vary from week to week. I also find myself hearing St. Paul in his first letter to the church in Corinth emphasizing how we should also be careful not to be too calculated in how we speak the Word of God. Ultimately the power in a sermon is God’s Word and the Holy Spirit at work in that Word. While I want to be a good and effective preacher I also realize I can only control this to a certain extent, and there are limitations to my abilities so that I shouldn’t rely on them.

At the end of the day (Sunday?) I hope people have heard the Word of God applied to their lives in a concrete way. I’m experienced enough to know this can happen when I personally think my sermon stunk. And it can not happen when I think my sermon was a home run. I resonate well with those masters of the preaching craft who insist that if the sermon stinks, it’s my fault. But if the sermon is really good, then God gets the praise and glory. That’s how it should be, not as an excuse for me to neglect my duties or be shoddy in my preparation, but as a means of keeping my humbled and my community focused on what is important – Christ crucified.

Utopias & Sin

July 1, 2020

Not surprising, the latest experiment in radical re-imagining of city life has come to an end. The Capitol Hill Occupation Protest (CHOP) that took over six blocks of downtown Seattle was dismantled by order of the Mayor because of crime and violence in the area. Turns out that without police around to encourage people to behave, some people tend not to behave and ruin things for everyone else. People being, after all, people.

I am naturally skeptical of such efforts. In part because of a historical awareness that such efforts rarely are effective or very long-lived. Partly because as a citizen, I understand cause and effect in these sorts of things. The kind of cause and effect not typically mentioned in news reports that, at least these days, tend to be rather sympathetic to such experiments and efforts. Little details like how much it’s going to cost to clean up the debris and detritus from CHOP. How much relocating the police force for several weeks cost. Because these things all have costs, and I’m pretty sure that the very few people who actually benefited in any material or spiritual way from this experiment won’t be required to pay the cost, and rather the cost will be borne by all the city taxpayers. Just as the radical decision by a few people was foisted upon others in the CHOP area who may not have been so thrilled with either the underlying motivations, the execution, or the results in violence and fear.

Even the best intentioned of protestors here fail to take into account the common problem of all utopian visions – human sinfulness. People seem blind to the reality that we are broken through and through. Every one of us. And as such, our good intentions and efforts to love our neighbor as ourselves will be imperfect at best. Abject failures at worst, particularly when you factor in the reality that some people have no intention of loving their neighbor as themselves, and that even when that’s a common goal, there are widely divergent views on what such love looks like.

We are not going to create a Utopian society on our own. We don’t have it in us. And it isn’t just a matter of some deficiency which we can fill. That’s a common assumption in Utopian experiments, that our deficiencies can be compensated for through education or force or drugs or whatever. Sin is more than just a missing of the mark, as Aquinas defined it in the 13th century. His definition is helpful but fails to take into account that our aim can be somewhat improved, to be certain, but never perfected. Not by ourselves or any system we create for ourselves.

So you can kick out the police because you’re convinced that system is corrupt and you’re better off without them. But what you find is that whatever system you replace them with – or whatever lack of systems you replace them with – is going to be just as corrupt and problematic. It may take a little time for that to become evident or it might be obvious pretty much immediately, as with CHOP. Changing systems only goes so far, and often times it’s more damaging a process (or more expensive) than working for change and reform within existing systems.

My Biblical Christian worldview is able to explain this, whereas protesters and those working for change at any level seem to continually be shocked and surprised their efforts are short-lived or inadequate. I believe this is the root cause of so much anger and fear today – people no longer have a mechanism for explaining why some people do very, very bad things. By secular human understandings of things, such issues should be largely preventable through proper education, financial incentives, psychological retooling or psychiatric chemical (prescription or otherwise) rebalancing and controlling who has children or doesn’t have children. Genetic modifications will soon be added to this arsenal of tools.

But the problem is much deeper than these things and the psychological constructs they’re based on. They may each be helpful to some degree (as well as potentially or actually very dangerous) but they only scratch the surface. The real issue is much deeper and can’t be ferreted out of us. And so, though we should always work towards improvement both individually and communally, we won’t ever reach Utopia on our own efforts. And if we continue to deny or ignore the depth of the problem, we’ll continue to have generations of people unable to cope with the world around them, lost in a permanent haze of fear and uncertainty that at times can become paralyzing.

The Bible nails our human condition. And it does offer the cure, and the reality that this cure is external to us and not something we can control. We can only accept and receive it not just for what it is but who it is, the Son of God Jesus the Christ. I know this will continue to be an increasingly less desirable answer for a growing percentage of our population, but the reality is that it’s the most accurate diagnosis of our continued problems.

Maybe the Biblical solution is something more people should consider.

Preaching Progress

June 30, 2020

About ten years ago – oh wait, it was really just this past February! – I began a book on improving my preaching.

Then the world fell apart.

But the book remains on my desk open to the chapter I have been working on sporadically for several months. Chapter 2. I did say sporadically, didn’t I? Intermittently? More not than often? Anyways.

Chapter 2 has me go through past sermons over the last several years to determine when parts of the Bible I primarily preach out of. He divides Scripture into different sections –

  • Genesis-Deuteronomy (Pentateuch)
  • Joshua – Esther (History)
  • Job – Song of Solomon (Wisdom Literature)
  • Isaiah – Malachi (Prophets)
  • Matthew – Acts (Gospels/Acts)
  • Romans – Philippians (Pauline Epistles)
  • Hebrews – Revelation (General Epistles & Revelation)

What I learned in this is my system of saving my sermons does not lend itself to an easy examination of what texts I primarily preached from. So I had to open every single individual sermon to determine what I preached from. Which is incredibly time-consuming, and so I didn’t go through five years of back sermons. I made it through about a year and a half and I’m going to call that good.

I preach primarily on the Gospel texts. This makes good sense as I believe the Gospel should predominate in worship. However I often incorporate the Old Testament lesson or the Epistle reading or even the psalm into the sermon as well, so that even while I’m preaching mostly on the Gospel readings it isn’t exclusive to the other readings. I guess this is good. The author’s idea is that you should have a balanced use of Scripture in your sermons over time, an idea I agree with in principle so long as the Gospel predominates.

Ready for Chapter 3, I guess!

Apples & Oranges

June 29, 2020

I am not qualified to assess whether the US infection levels of Coronavirus are increasing as is commonly reported, staying the same, or perhaps decreasing. Variables in terms of reporting methodologies, the number of people being tested, and probably dozens of others I’m not even aware of are more than I’m willing or able to quantify. I’ll assume our infection levels are increasing somewhat after we bent the curve in April.

However article leaders like the ones in this news report are not helpful.

The US is compared unfavorably with New Zealand, South Korea and Singapore in our rising infection levels. The first thing I went and did was check on the populations of these countries. All of them are substantially smaller than the United States in terms of population. South Korean is roughly 1/6 of our population at 50 million people, while New Zealand and Singapore have approximately 5 million, or 15% of the US population level of roughly 330 million people.

Now maybe the article takes this into account and is comparing infection levels adjusted for population. It doesn’t indicate it, however. It seems to at least acknowledge that the geographical size of the US and therefore the reality that infections can surge in one area and then another is something different from the other countries it cites. So there’s that.

So be careful out there, but also pay attention. As I was crunching some local numbers I realized that for our particular county, infection rates are at less than 1% of the population. Of course, that’s just the cases that are tested or confirmed somehow, but still. It’s a much smaller number of people than you would think given the unrelenting news coverage.

Irony

June 29, 2020

I’m a sucker for irony, so perhaps it’s just my skewed view of the world that finds it darkly humorous that players in the National Women’s Soccer League have the option of sitting in the locker room during the national anthem rather than being on the field as has been traditional in most American sports for decades.

Perhaps people will find it interesting that a soccer league – regardless of gender – was created in part to make the world a better place by creating a “platform” for players to voice their individual opinions and preferences. I’m willing to bet those opinions and preferences are not uniformly encouraged or supported, which leads me to suspect it’s less about player rights and self-expression and more about an organizational perspective of what makes the world “a better place.”

I have a solution to this curious conundrum of a team not being unified in their expressions of national support – just remove the word national from the league name. Since it clearly doesn’t indicate anything more than a designation of location, it hardly seems necessary. And if players believe that dissent means publicly disowning their nation until their nation does what they, personally (or organizationally) want it to do, all the more reason to remove the confusing nomenclature.

Clearly the national anthem is not a requirement for citizenship, and since most (all?) professional sports teams are private enterprises, there shouldn’t be a necessity of a tradition of the national anthem being played if they are ashamed of their country. Of course, I’d think it also reasonable that such teams would repudiate any compensation they might be receiving from public funds, whether in the form of tax breaks or other incentives. To make sure they don’t feel compromised in their play. Of course. I’d hate for them to feel unduly burdened in those ways as well as in the issue of the national anthem.

Reading Ramblings – July 5, 2020

June 28, 2020

Date: Fifth Sunday after Pentecost – July 5, 2020 – COVID-19

Texts: Zechariah 9:9-12; Psalm 145:1-13; Romans 7:14-25a; Matthew 11:25-30

Context: God gives his good gifts to his creation. Even now, in the midst of our sinfulness, God continues to pour out upon his creation more than enough to satisfy everyone. God is not stingy, but we are not very good at sharing his gifts. But we look forward to a time when God himself ensures perfectly that his gifts are enjoyed perfectly. A time when we are freed from the limitations of sinful powers of varying sorts in our world. A time when thanks and praise to God flows from all lips because all equally receive and perceive his goodness as the giver. We his people here and now are not only to be about the business of sharing his goodness throughout creation but also telling of his blessings in our lives. On this weekend when Americans celebrate our freedom, we as American Christians remember our true and lasting freedom is in Christ.

Zechariah 9:9-12 – God is coming to his creation! The true and rightful King is coming to demonstrate his rule and power over all creation. This is cause for rejoicing! Not much is known about the prophet Zechariah. He is mentioned in Ezra 5:1 and 6:14 along with Haggai, evidently with an important role in the rebuilding of the Temple after the return from the Babylonian exile (circa 530 BC). Nehemiah 12:16 lists him as the son of the priest Iddo who returned from the Exile with Zerubbabel. Some see this as conflicting with Zechariah 1:1, 7 that indicate Zechariah is Iddo’s grandson rathher than son. We presume Nehemiah 12:16 simply omits the intervening generation, a practice not uncommon with Biblical genealogies. Zechariah is also evidence that the roles of priest and prophet were at some point combined

Psalm 145:1-13 – I lopped off verse 14 from the assigned reading, as it seems to be out of synch with the previous section, introducing a new line of thought. The dominant theme in the first 13 verses is giving testimony, witnessing to the power of God. The speaker begins in the first person in verses 1-3, but then expands the scope of this praise, indicating that one generation should witness to the Lord’s goodness to the next generation. How easy it is to forget this as part of our Christian life and witness, sharing with children and grandchildren how God has blessed our lives! Certainly in times like these COVID-19 days, we have much to give thanks for and much to share with others about how God continues to bless us and watch over us. This care is summarized best in vs.8-9, making it clear that God does not limit his goodness just to his faithful, but extends his blessings to all of his creation. The net result of this should be his blessed creation giving thanks to God and acknowledging him as the source of these blessings (vs.10-13).

Romans 7:14-25a – It’s helpful to reread verse 13 that was included in last week’s reading as the opening thought for these verses that follow. If the Law was the means by which sin was made known and defined in creation and in me personally (vs.7-12), it might be wondered whether we would have been better off the Law. Doesn’t the Law bring death where otherwise there would be no death because we would have no concept of sin? Hardly! Sin is to blame for death. Sin that worked initially in the flesh and blood of Adam and Eve and all their offspring, and that was only later codified and clarified to the people of God under Moses. The Law has always existed and therefore sin is always a violation of the Law woven into creation. The Law serves to rightfully condemn the sin I find within me. And I need both that clarification and condemnation of my sin because I would otherwise often be conflicted and confused regarding my sin. Sin isn’t simply what I want or don’t want. Now, in Christ, I’m very aware that while I may want what Christ wants, I act oppositely. So good and bad are not simply a matter of what I do or don’t do, or want to do or don’t want to do. I am in fact enslaved to my sin still at a certain level, acting it out in thought, word and deed even when I know better and want better. So the Law is necessary to clarify this for me so I know what sin really is and can condemn it within me, trusting in the deliverance that doesn’t come from knowing the Law or somehow learning to perfectly keep the Law but only in the person and work of the Son of God, Jesus the Christ, on my behalf.

Matthew 11:25-30 – Oftentimes I’ve heard it said, If only Jesus were here today, doing what He did 2000 years ago, it would be so easy to believe! Yes Jesus says otherwise. It is not as simple as seeing is believing, as Jesus has just finished condemning Capernaum for unbelief in spite of Jesus’ preaching and teaching and healing and driving out demons there. They had all the evidence they could want of who Jesus was, but still rejected him. We can’t trust our own senses or our own reasoning skills! As such, we cannot reason ourselves to faith nor deduce faith logically, but faith must be revealed to us, shown to us and presented to us either to receive in gratefulness or spurn in arrogance or idiocy. The greatest gift in all of creation history isn’t received by everyone because not everyone will allow themselves to receive it as a child, unable to contribute anything of their own, and discarding whatever they thought was good and valuable in their lives as of no consequence to their salvation.

Writing History

June 26, 2020

You wouldn’t know it from reading local news stories, but public officials are allowing mobs of people to destroy public landmarks – the costs of which are borne by taxpayers.

For instance, in San Francisco several statues were recently knocked over by mobs of people. The reports of what happened and why are fascinating. Consider this report, which begins as a fairly neutral account of what happened and some of the costs entailed, but then devolves into a virtual legitimization of the destruction due to essentially bureaucratic red tape. If only officials had moved more quickly to respond to input, the situation could have been handled properly. The writer ends the column justifying the destruction of public property as appropriate, despite the fact that some of the destruction mentioned in the article is also described as “less thought out”.

Or you could read this report, that begins with justification of the actions. Neither article describes any real effort to apprehend the vandals or stop them from destroying the statues in the first place, even though it seems likely the police could have effectively intervened. Perhaps fear of reprisals in the form of demands for disbanding or defunding the police department caused officers to hesitate to get more directly involved? Regardless of the rationale, those police officers will be directly involved in terms of their tax monies being used to pay for necessary cleaning, removal, storage, and whatever other costs the mobs incurred.

Closer to home an effort was made – perhaps half-heartedly – to destroy a statue in Ventura, California.

This report makes it seem like a rather innocuous discussion, really. A respectful exchange of ideas about the future of a statue commemorating a historical figure prominent in California history. A “rally” is described to “discuss” relocating the statue to private property.

Or you could read this account, which describes a far more volatile confrontation and a desire for more than discussion, at least by some of those present. Again, police presence is described as somewhat distant, but in this case enough to deter those bent on illegal activity from pursuing their goal.

I’m not quite clear how these events are described so casually despite the destruction of public property intended or carried out. Does the fact that someone is allegedly angry mean they are not subject to the law? Isn’t the law intended, at a very practical level, to discourage certain behavior by people who might be highly emotional and not thinking most clearly? I’d be fascinated to learn if Black Lives Matter has plans to reimburse cities for the forced redecorating (dedecorating) carried out in the movement’s name? Perhaps they’ll take up collections from people happy that the offending monuments are gone to defray the costs? Or is that really not at all something they’re concerned about? Hmmm. That’s a tough one to figure out, isn’t it?

It’s a dangerous situation when people believe they can act with impunity, destroying parts of their community without bothering to consider how others think or feel about the destruction, and expecting those other people to pick up the tab for their actions. If this is a foreshadowing of how things will operate in the future of defunded police departments, I can’t say I’m a fan of it.

Not that anybody’s asking me.

Filtering

June 22, 2020

Thanks to Ken for sharing an article with me from the Wall Street Journal about Amazon’s discriminatory advertising practices. The article highlights something everyone should know but is easily forgotten – Internet companies like Amazon and Facebook and Google are just that, companies. They are not required to provide equal access to everyone. They are not required to sell every possible product that is available. And each one answers to shareholders and is very responsive to market forces.

Which means if you publish something that might be considered politically incorrect, you may not find your product listed or highlighted or advertised on these sites. Which means of course you’ll have a harder time making people aware of your work.

This brief reminder also highlights another level of censorship from some of these same companies – which materials are made available in electronic format for e-readers, and whether titles available today will be available in the future.

Both of which are reasons I love me a good used bookstore, and I’m fortunate to have several not too far away that can help me get my hands on all sorts of things that may increasingly become difficult to find through Amazon. And it’s why I prefer actual books to e-readers (I’ve never owned an e-reader, even though I love the convenience factor they provide). You never know when your copy of something may end up being one of the last copies in existence because of censorship.

Reading Ramblings – June 28, 2020

June 21, 2020

Date: Fourth Sunday after Pentecost – June 28, 2020 – COVID-19

Texts: Jeremiah 28:5-9; Psalm 119:153-160; Romans 7:1-13; Matthew 10:34-42

Context: It is the erroneous assumption of some (many?) Christians that there can be a happy medium, an accommodation of sorts between the world and Christ. That the world will accept Christ if He is presented in the right way and right conditions, and that we can in turn continue to enjoy the world on our terms. But middle ground is tenuous at best and always fleeting. The prince of this world will not permit compromise unless he believes it will lead to his advantage. And likewise, God the Father has no intention of sharing his creation with any pretenders to the throne. Whatever middle ground we may appear to occupy will not last long, nor should we ultimately desire it to as it’s an expensive and dangerously misleading place to stand.

Jeremiah 28:5-9 – We don’t lack for conflicting messages in this world, and that has always been the case. Those who claim to speak on behalf of God appear to have an easy job. But the proof is in the pudding, so to speak. Jeremiah echoes the sentiments of Moses in Deuteronomy 18:14-22 – those who claim to speak in God’s name should be held to their word, and judged by that word. Jeremiah faces the additional difficulty of reminding not just Hananiah but those inclined to listen to him that it’s easy to prophesy good things, as that’s what people want to hear. God’s Word often calls his people to the reality of how difficult things are in this world and how desperately Satan would like to see God’s people crushed and broken away from the loving hand of God the Father. Preaching peace and security has always been easy but rarely been accurate!

Psalm 119:153-160 – This portion of the acrosstic psalm uses the Hebrew letter resh. Speaking God’s truth to a world insistent on lies (Romans 1:18-32) will result in suffering for those who proclaim that truth. This psalm is spoken by the one who is faithful to the Word of God and is being punished for it. The speaker requests deliverance (v.153) from a potentially life-threatening (v.154) persecution (v.157). While the source of this persecution is not specified, it seems to have to do with the speaker’s refusal to compromise or violate God’s law (v.153) or statutes (v.157). It is reasonable for the faithful to pray to God for sustenance and vindication against the lies of the world. Such vindication ultimately is to the glory of God rather than just a personal blessing. Whether our preservation in the moment will best accomplish God’s purposes or not is not knowledge we’re usually privy to, calling us to trust that even an ignoble death can be used by God towards his ends, and we remain both in life and in death firmly in his care and love.

Romans 7:1-13 – The Christian’s relationship with the law is a matter of considerable confusion. The Law remains, but in Christ our relationship to the Law has changed. In Galatians 3 Paul will explain the Law as the means by which God protected creation until the coming of the Messiah. Paul uses the metaphor of marriage here to demonstrate the substantive change we have undergone in relationship to the Law. We were born sinfully bound to the Law and under it’s power to condemn us, but as we join ourselves to the death and resurrection of Jesus in baptism, we spiritually die and are reborn. So we are no longer bound to the Law as before, and we are free for Christ to claim us as his own. The Law in some ways stirred us to greater sinfulness once we understood what was prohibited to us. Our sinful nature found in the Law a guide as to what further and deeper sin we should be pushed towards. However the Law was not to blame for this, but our slavery to our sinful nature. The Law is good because it defines good and evil for us and saves us from the error and confusion of trying to define these things for ourselves, something we are always having to relearn. We can in no way transfer blame or guilt to the Law, but must always acknowledge it as the good gift of God, the righteousness of God spoken into a creation broken and unable to know that righteousness directly as Adam and Eve did in Genesis 1-2. So the Christian is not free and separate from the Law, but only from the condemnation of the Law. Sin remains sin, but the penalty of our sin is now satisfied not in our condemnation but in the forgiveness afforded by the incarnate suffering and death of the Son of God on our behalf.

Matthew 10:34-42 – Having prophesied the opposition his disciples will eventually face in fulfilling their duties as messengers, Jesus clarifies what will result from his work among us, the division it will create as the prince of this world fights against it, seeking to keep God’s creatures blinded and enslaved. God does not seek such division, but is committed to standing firm against the plots and plans of Satan. To imagine a God that shrinks from confrontation is to misunderstand both God and the nature of our depravity and sinfulness. There is no such thing as a little bit of salvation, or a partial victory or negotiated peace with evil. There is only victory. And while amnesty is extended in grace to those who repent of their former disobedience and rebellion, those who refuse such amnesty place themselves under eternal judgment. It is quite literally all or nothing and this should not surprise us as we live in the confusion and shifting ground of a creation constantly trying to mistakenly assert such compromise is not only possible but desirable. As though good could ever co-mingle with evil, purity with impurity, holiness with desecration, righteousness with outlaws.

Against attempts to hold such a middle ground Jesus speaks starkly. If you love the things and people of this world more than God you ultimately lose both eternally. Only by loving the things and people of this world in their proper place as fellow creations and creatures rather than gods and goddesses can we hope and pray both for their salvation and our own. It is not that we are to neglect or abandon the Fourth Commandment or our marriage vows. But for those in Christ all these relationships are derivative from and therefore only possible when kept in their proper relationship to our relationship with Christ.

Filling in Gaps

June 18, 2020

Does anybody here remember Vera Lynn?

Remember how she said that we would meet again

Some sunny day?

Vera, Vera, what has become of you?

Does anybody else in here feel the way I do?

Pink Floyd, “Vera” from The Wall

I remember being blown away by the power of Pink Floyd’s The Wall when I discovered it in high school. The disturbing power of that album, the bitter disappointment and rage at the society that arose in Britain from the ashes of World War II were all heady historical commentary set to music. And as often as I’ve listened to this album – or most any album or book or movie – there are references and allusions I miss or never bother to track down.

Vera Lynn is one of them. I assumed at some level she might be a cultural/historical figure from the British World War II era, maybe a film star. But now I know she was a singer. A singer who was never able (or allowed) to move beyond her cultural mooring of wartime Britain, and who has now died at a very respectable age of 103.

Another brick in the wall of understanding.