Reading Ramblings – June 7, 2020

May 31, 2020

Reading Ramblings

Date: Holy Trinity Sunday – June 7, 2020 – COVID-19

Texts: Genesis 1:1-2:4a; Psalm 8; Acts 2:14a, 22-36; Matthew 28:16-20

Context: Pentecost last Sunday marked the outpouring of the Holy Spirit in power – first on the disciples and then on to all those who receive faith in Jesus Christ. The role and nature of God the Holy Spirit in relation to God the Father and God the Son has been of interest from early in Christianity. In efforts to ‘resolve’ the mystery of the Trinity to the rationale preferences of Greek philosophy (or any other system of thought and belief, frankly) it has always been a temptation to eliminate the Trinity in favor of a God we are better able to understand. Such efforts at times have been popular, but have been consistently rejected across Christian history. If we take the Bible seriously as the Word of God, we have to take seriously what God tells us in it, even if we aren’t capable of understanding it entirely. From start to finish it describes a God who is one in nature, yet mysteriously plural in persons. One God, but three persons. Unity in Trinity and Trinity in Unity. All are wonderful ways of shrinking the Trinitarian nature of our God onto a bumper sticker without providing much more in terms of explanation. Then again, it is arguably not our job as creatures to explain our Creator, but it is incumbent upon us to trust our Creator when He discloses truth and reality about himself.

Genesis 1:1-2:4a – The story of creation is the story of the Trinity in unity from the beginning of things as we know them. The Holy Spirit of God hovering over the vast nothingness, God the Father speaking into creation all things via the Word of God, the Son of God Jesus Christ, as John reveals in the prologue to his Gospel. Perfectly in unity yet still distinct in person, so that as God the Father begins to create humanity He references himself in the plural, making mankind in our image. Within the Trinity is the entire scope of divinity, a single Godhead expressed in three distinct persons. Can we explain it? No. Can we find other examples of this sort of unified diversity in creation? No. But we can affirm what God the Father reveals through the Word of God by the inspiration of the Spirit of God. We can hold faithful to how God talks about himself rather than attempting to clarify and explain, generally meaning we ignore some of what He says to focus on other things He says, or disregard everything He’s told us in favor of our own theories. Though we are made in God’s image, we are not like God, and it should come as no surprise that the creature is unable to fully grasp the magnitude or the mystery of the Creator!

Psalm 8 – The superscription on this psalm addresses either a music leader or someone gifted in the musical art. Gittith could refer either to a musical instrument associated with the region of Gath, the journey of the ark from the Gittite house to Jerusalem (2 Samuel 6), or a grape harvest period coinciding witth the Feast of Tabernacles. The psalm opens with a pondering of the greatness of God. This pondering is prompted by observing the earth and heavens. These are truly amazing, but rather than worship or adore the physical elements around him, the author looks to the God who transcends them because He created them. How mysteriously great and powerful is this God who can use mere babies to defeat his enemies – a likely foreshadowing of the incarnate birth of the Son of God to defeat Satan. Seeing the greatness of creation the author realizes how small and insignificant mankind is in relation to not just God but the grandeur of his creation. In our cultural world view today man is often portrayed as the master of the elements but we know this is not the case, as recent COVID-19 outbreaks have demonstrated. How swiftly we are reduced to huddling in fear against even the most minute aspects of God’s creation! But the amazing thing is that the massive gap that should exist between Creator and creature does not – God is not far off and unconcerned with us. He honors us with our role in creation as having dominion over this creation. Surely, this is reason to praise our God who is not just transcendent and above all things but immanent and always with us!

Acst 2:14a, 22-36 – Peter proclaims Jesus as the prophesied Messiah, demonstrated by the powerful acts God did through him, culminating in his resurrection from the dead in fulfillment of King David’s words. King David was truly great and powerful, but even David acknowledged Jesus as his Lord, the one greater than he. David died and was buried but death and the grave could not hold Jesus of Nazareth. This demonstrates that Jesus is the Messian (Christ), because Jesus fulfills David’s words perfectly. Not only this Jesus remains active in the pouring out of the Holy Spirit which has caught the attention of those present on that Pentecost morning. Those who called themselves followers of God are called to see in the Word of God the picture painted of Jesus of Nazareth, the fulfillment of prophecy and now Lord over all creation and creatures. Note Peter’s clear Trinitarian language in v.33!

Matthew 28:16-20 – We return to our Gospel for this liturgical year – Matthew – to see Jesus’ final words to his disciples before his ascension. They worship him, acknowledging their resurrected rabbi as the incarnate Son of God, equal to God the Father and therefore worthy of worship. Jesus accepts their worship as indication their understanding and faith are correct, even if their understanding and faith is not perfect or complete. Doubt is not the same thing as a lack of faith! Then Jesus gives the disciples their commission, a variation of what Luke recorded in our readings from Ascension Day two weeks ago. He promises them his continued presence as they begin their work as his witnesses. They are to make disciples not by force (unlike Islam), but through baptism and teaching. And Jesus emphasizes that baptism is to be in the name of the Triune God – Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Jesus is a constant proclaimer of the reality of the Trinity, true distinction between the three persons of God even as there is only one God.

Poetry and Pentecost

May 30, 2020

My favorite poem for Pentecost, by T.S. Eliot:

The dove descending breaks the air
With flame of incandescent terror
Of which the tongues declare
The one discharge from sin and error.
The only hope, or else despair
Lies in the choice of pyre or pyre-
To be redeemed from fire by fire.

Who then devised the torment? Love.
Love is the unfamiliar Name
Behind the hands that wove
The intolerable shirt of flame
Which human power cannot remove.
We only live, only suspire
Consumed by either fire or fire.”

Facing the Mirror

May 28, 2020

The latest in celebrity outings happened late last week when late-night talk show host and comedian Jimmy Fallon was criticized for a Saturday Night Live skit he did 20 years ago where he impersonated Chris Rock.

For clarification, Jimmy Fallon is white and Chris Rock is black. In impersonating Chris Rock, Fallon wore blackface and it was this in particular that earned the ire of certain people. Dutifully, Fallon issued a heartfelt apology for his offensive actions. That is the expected response whenever anybody anywhere anytime criticizes you for something they decide was racist.

I was pleased to see that actor/comedian Jamie Foxx came to Fallon’s defense, drawing an important distinction between appearing in blackface to make fun of an entire race, and doing a particular impression of a particular person who happens to be of another race. Fair warning if you click on Foxx’ response above it is not exactly child-friendly. While doing a comedy sketch is unpardonable, public profanity is perfectly acceptable these days.

Foxx makes an important distinction. Fallon was impersonating a particular individual who happens to be black. He was not doing a caricature of all black people. I tend to agree with Foxx that Fallon’s impersonation was pretty good, though understandably tastes will vary. Comedic tastes may vary widely, but just because you didn’t find his impersonation very good or funny shouldn’t (and hopefully wasn’t) be the basis for alleging racism.

Is it impermissible to impersonate any other race but your own? I imagine it should have a great deal to do with what the purpose is, although we have to admit at the same time that what is considered an acceptable intention in one age may not be considered acceptable in another age – even just 20 years later.

Still, if the overriding principle is that nobody should ever portray another race other than their own, this principle should be evenly applied rather than targeting white people impersonating black people.

Is anyone calling for public apologies and/or self-immolation from the Wayans brothers and their whiteface movie White Chicks? That movie is only 16 years old and they were impersonating a particular kind of white female, but not specific white females. Seems like this ought to be grounds for an outcry, right?

Or Martin Lawrence might be called out for putting whiteface on as a recurring character on his TV show, Martin? Again, not impersonating a person but a kind of person. Appropriate?

Whoopi Goldberg in The Associate?

I’ll leave off pointing out Eddie Murphy or Dave Chappelle because their purposes were ostensibly to expose racism.

But we certainly needn’t limit it to white and black people impersonating each other. What about the universally lovable Tom Hanks? Should he be blackballed for dressing up as a woman for Bosom Buddies?

Pretending to be someone you’re not is not necessarily criminal. We teach kids to do this for Halloween. What you do with your impersonation could indeed be very, very wrong. That judgment has to be exercised within the current cultural conditions, though, and it’s unfair to call out a racist impersonation if it was not considered racist at the time – admittedly a complicated if not Gordian Knot to unravel.

It would be more helpful in the pursuit of better race relations to have conversations about these things rather than flinging hateful accusations to elicit knee-jerk reactions. This matter with Jimmy Fallon is going to quickly disappear, as it should. But it’s unfortunate that it was raised without an ability or desire to actually engage in discussion about whether what he did was racist in general, was racist 20 years ago, or racist only now. A chance to educate about comedy and that funny doesn’t always equate to insulting.

No word from Chris Rock on what he thinks of the allegations or what he thought or currently thinks of Fallon’s impersonation. Hopefully he’ll have something helpful and witty to contribute, something fitting for a man with a keen insight into human nature as well as race relations.

Cults of Personalities

May 27, 2020

I often am critical of our culture’s obsession with personalities. Individuals. Compelling figures of at one extreme of the spectrum or the other without much concern about which is which. People find themselves drawn towards one or the other embodied less articulately by ideologies and beliefs and more simply by the people who espouse them in compelling or symbolic ways. Our obsession with people as representative of positions is the equivalent of bumper stickers in lieu of serious thinking and communication. Bold. Eye-catching. But ultimately poor embodiments of whatever ideology they are supposed to be representing.

Or claim to represent when they really don’t.

A couple of articles in the past week caught my eye, bound up with the person of Jane Roe, the plaintiff pseudonym of Norma McCorvey and the landmark Supreme Court decision Roe v. Wade which legalized elective abortions in America. The first is here, the second here. Much was made of McCorvey’s change of heart, the fact that she denounced abortion and her role in legalizing it. Pro-life people were heartened by the fact that even the woman technically responsible for abortion becoming legal was not beyond the Holy Spirit’s reach and could be brought to repentance. Powerful symbolism. Quite a personality to be able to say came around to the opposing point of view.

Though now that symbol appears rather tarnished. McCorvey claims in a documentary that she never really changed her mind about abortion, but rather accepted money from pro-life activists and organizations to simply say she had changed her mind.

The curious thing is that pro-choice supporters use this confession of duplicity as some sort of evidence of overall duplicity on the part of the pro-life position. In other words, if you’re slimy enough to pay someone to lie, your cause must be slimy as well. No critical comments are leveled at the now-deceased McCorvey by pro-choice folks, though in the first article the author claims that pro-life supporters knew she was willing to stoop to dishonesty to further her personal goals.

But what the authors of these articles miss is that McCorvey is not synonymous with pro-choice ideology and theology. The fact McCorvey was willing to lie for money, or that some pro-life advocates were willing to pay her – does not discredit pro-life ideas at all. I’m not happy people thought it was necessary to bribe this woman to lie. But her lying doesn’t mean my commitment to life is wrong or unfounded. My commitment to the sacredness of human life isn’t tied to one person or one organization. It’s much deeper and more comprehensive than that.

So yes, we put people on pedestals. Sometimes they deserve to be there and sometimes they don’t. Sometimes our accolades are misplaced and sometimes they aren’t. But the qualities for which we put people on pedestals – those are the things that really matter, that transcend the individual and that individual’s ability or inability to bear the weight of those qualities and ideals.

Just because you’re obsessed with individuals, don’t make the mistake of thinking they matter more than they do. As with most things in life, there are bigger issues at play. Individuals come and go, but the ideals and goals they espoused or embodied predate them and continue on after their death or disgrace.

Rushing Back to Church

May 27, 2020

Our congregation will be gathering for worship this coming Sunday for the first time in about 10 weeks. It’s the longest I’ve ever gone without worshiping, either as a parishioner or a pastor. I can safely say the say for the majority of my members. Though some remember living through polio quarantines earlier in their lives, those were of a far more limited scale. For most all of my folks this is the longest they’ve had to go without Church in their lives.

But for those for whom weekly worship isn’t part of their routine, it might seem as though the push to reopen churches is a curious thing. Hence an article like this one, characterizing the push for a return to worship as a rush.

I thought it was interesting the article drew a distinction between Christian activism on this issue and comparative silence from Jewish and Muslim Americans. I can’t verify whether that’s true or not, since I’m not in the communication chains for those groups. If it is true, perhaps the issue is different definitions of what worship is.

I’ll hypothesize here – for lack of better certainty – that in Jewish and Muslim circles weekly worship is seen primarily as social and educational. A time to be with friends and family and a time to grow in their understanding of the faith. That might be in very loose terms or very traditional and religious terms. Weekly gatherings are, in that sense, somewhat optional. They aren’t receiving something in weekly worship they couldn’t receive in other forms on their own, in private, through the Internet or Zoom meetings. Of course they miss the in-person fellowship, but maybe they aren’t missing anything else.

For Christians, the historic understanding is that worship is more than just educational and more than just fellowship. We love to gather with our church family, to be certain. We look forward to catching up with one another, planning brunch afterwards, hobnobbing over coffee in the fellowship hall.

But the most important thing about Christian worship is we claim things happen there that don’t happen in other places – at least not in the same way. Which makes Christian worship – at least for those who understand the historic practice and theological underpinnings – essential and necessary, not simply a pleasantry we can do without as the mood strikes us. Granted, a lot of Christians have exactly that latter opinion of worship. Tragically even Lutherans – and even some of my parishioners – have that perspective.

Traditional worship understands worship as a time when God gives to us. This is the proper emphasis – what God gives to us. We respond in thanksgiving and worship, but the initiative is on God’s part, not ours. He gathers us in order to give us his gifts. Those gifts come in two forms – Word and Sacrament. We hear his Word and receive his grace in the Sacraments, and this happens only in worship as He gathers us together.

Yes, the Holy Spirit is always with us. Yes, we can read the Bible at home and have his Word. Yes, we live in his grace and forgiveness at all times, and so, strictly speaking, don’t need to receive the Sacrament of Confession and Absolution. We don’t have to have Holy Communion as another means of God’s grace and forgiveness. We can exist in the faith without them. But it is neither safe nor healthy to do so for extended periods of time. Actually engaging in corporate confession is much more powerful than whether I remember to confess my sins before I fall asleep at night. Hearing the declaration of a Called pastor/priest that my sins are forgiven is much stronger than just reminding myself of that reality.

And of course Holy Communion is a corporate event – unless overriding other issues prevent someone from receiving it as such. Jesus instituted it as a corporate event and the Church has understood it should be celebrated as such. Am I forgiven and in the grace of God whether I receive the Eucharist or not? Of course. But to taste forgiveness, to smell it, to gather around the Lord’s table with my brothers and sisters in Christ? That’s a worship thing.

For Christians – at least those who understand worship as it has been designed and practiced for centuries – worship is essential. We come together to be strengthened, to receive the gifts of God before heading back out to our homes and neighborhoods and classrooms and workplaces. It grounds us in our identity in a way watching online or on the television can’t and doesn’t. We can pretend it does, but we’re wrong – and there’s certainly no shortage of psychological studies to back that up. Being together in person is different than being together virtually. It’s how we were designed and made, and while we might like to think our iPhones replace that, they haven’t. If anything, they’ve highlighted just how badly we need it!

Evaluating Risk

May 26, 2020

Yesterday Governor Newsom announced religious institutions would be permitted to resume worship and other services. Stipulations and requirements are of course, well, required. Our congregational leadership has been preparing for this for some time and we’re ready to roll. But of course there is inevitably – and appropriately – the nagging question of whether it’s safe to do church again.

Lots of voices weigh in on this. My ecclesiastical supervisor issued a notice today encouraging pastors in his jurisdiction to not rush back to holding worship services again, but to make sure they have properly followed the instructions outlined by the Governor to protect their parishioners. Judicious advice. And while I’m sure there are a few hard-headed pastors out there who are hell-bent on starting worship again without any consideration for their parishioners, I trust they are a very small minority. I trust most pastors care a great deal about their parishioners and shudder at the thought that, perhaps, regardless of preparations and precautions, one of them might happen to catch something at church that leads to serious illness or death.

Should we sing? Should I wear a mask? The what-ifs abound. Despite very low occurrences of COVID-19 in our county it’s still a concern. Given the age of my parishioners the concerns are not unwarranted. Now, as always, I desire that worship not be an associated cause of death for anyone. Now that we know about a new virus, are additional concerns warranted?

Part of that concern is due, no doubt, in part to early reports of super-infection events concerning churches, reports that no doubt led to not just a shutdown of religious institutions but added ammunition for shutting down most institutions in general. Perhaps the first and most widely cited such event occurred on March 10th, a week before the statewide shutdowns started, and occurred at a small Presbyterian church in Mt. Vernon, Washington. Sixty some members of the church choir assembled for practice and within short order more than 40 of them were infected with Coronavirus and at least two died from it. Truly a horrific event that would haunt a pastor for the rest of his or her life.

But what if there was more to the story? What if it wasn’t simply a matter of a church choir? What if additional details weakened the link with churches and singing? Does that eliminate the possible risk to my people? No, it doesn’t. Are individuals and churches more informed and aware and in a better condition to practice reasonable cautions now than we were two months ago? Undoubtedly.

Still the effort to link houses of worship – particularly Christian ones – to COVID-19 spread and as justifying continued restrictions and modifications to worship persist. Consider this story from just last week. The headline makes it sound like this just happened – some crazy church someplace met in defiance of orders and now look what happened! Confirmation bias from the headline alone is pretty powerful.

But if you read the story, it has to do with a church event back in early March. March 6-8 to be specific. Not just a worship service but a multi-day children’s event. The article doesn’t indicate whether it was a retreat style event with children sleeping at the church. But it’s clear it’s not just a typical church event, and I’m guessing there’s more than a good chance that many of those present were not members or attenders of the church. Yet the headline and lead off of the article stresses the need for churches to either remain restricted or modify their services to protect the public.

But there is still risk. I argue there has always been risk. I have members paranoid about deranged shooters showing up, and certainly that’s a risk. We have flu season every year and for many of my folks the flu could be every bit as fatal as the Coronavirus, yet we continue to have church. Over the years many members have fallen, suffered seizures and other health crises during worship. Does that mean church should not meet? Does it mean Christians should be afraid lest injury or illness or death strike during worship?

At the end of the day, we know quite a lot. We know that one of two events is going to bring life as we know it and experience it personally to an end. Either each one of us will die, or our Lord will return to bring creation history to fulfillment and usher in something much greater and larger and better. Barring the occasional Enoch or Elijah, I can guarantee that one of these two events will affect every single one of my members. What we don’t know is the when and how.

But the Biblical injunction in uncertain times is always the same – don’t be afraid. Don’t be an idiot, either, but don’t be afraid.

God’s words to Abram in Genesis 15? Don’t be afraid. What did Moses command the Israelites, caught between the Red Sea and the Egyptian army? Fear not. God’s command to Joshua as he takes over Moses’ role as leader of the Israelites? Be courageous. Jonathon’s words to David as he fled Saul under threat of death? Don’t be afraid. Elijah’s words to the widow and her son who were preparing to die of starvation, when Elijah asked her to use the last of their foodstores to help feed him? Don’t be afraid. God’s message to Joseph in a dream after Joseph discovered Mary was pregnant before they were fully married? Don’t be afraid. The angels’ words to the shepherds before announcing the birth of the Messiah? Fear not.

Followers of Christ are not to be people of fear, and this takes tangible expression in how we live our lives and make decisions. Risk and danger are all around us – will we live in perpetual fear of drunk drivers or nuclear missiles or contaminated drinking water or COVID-19? No. We will use the brains God has given us and we will trust in our God, knowing that He has conquered all things in Christ and even our own health and death has been conquered by Christ. We don’t seek to die, but if and when we do we do so in the confidence we will live again.

Christian worship is the expression and articulation of this faith and anticipation. As we join our voices of praise with angels and archangels and all the company of heaven we proclaim the dead are not gone but saints with Christ in glory, as we one day will also be. And that all of us will stand with Job and gaze upon our Redeemer with our own eyes.

So as churches open – and bookstores and movie theaters and sporting events eventually – we live our lives using the brains God gave us. This may mean we wait a little longer than others before showing back up for worship or using our season tickets to the Lakers. If that seems wisest given our own health condition, so be it. But each person will need to eventually make a decision whether they will live in fear or not. I can’t make that call for them, I can only try to show what it looks like to live confidently in my own life. Failures and all.

Reading Ramblings – May 31, 2020

May 24, 2020

Reading Ramblings

Date: Pentecost Sunday – May 31, 2020 – COVID-19

Texts: Numbers 11:24-30; Psalm 25:1-15; Acts 2:1-21; John 7:37-39

Context: Fifty days after Passover, Pentecost is the Greek word for the Hebrew festival of Shavuot, also known as the Feast of Weeks, primarily a harvest celebration. However the Jewish people also associated Shavuot with the giving of the Law to Moses at Mt. Sinai. So there is great significance that it was during this festival celebration the Holy Spirit was poured out first on the disciples and then on all those who were brought to faith in Jesus by the Holy Spirit. The symbolic timing would not be lost on those Jews gathered together and listening to the disciples speaking miraculously in languages they did not know, perfectly understandable to a broad cross section of Jews gathered from around the Roman world for this special festival celebration. The God of the Bible continues to pour out his blessings on his people, marking special occasions such as the creation of his chosen people Israel at Mt. Sinai, and the expanded people of Israel through faith at Pentecost.

Numbers 11:24-30 – Moses is tasked with leading perhaps as many as two million people through a desert wasteland where they are daily dependent upon God to satisfy their needs for food and water and safety. Needless to say, they are not always pleased with how God chooses to do this, quickly forgetting the laborious slavery and genocidal policies He delivered them from in Egypt. Their constant complaining is a burden to Moses, a responsibility he is unable to handle on his own. God’s solution is to provide assistance. Moses is instructed to gather 70 leaders of the people. These men would have come from each of the twelve tribes (though 70 isn’t neatly divisible by 12. It could be that larger tribes would have more leaders to watch over them) and would already be held in high regard by the people (v.16). But that esteem and regard was not enough. To properly lead and guide the people of God, these leaders needed the very Holy Spirit of God, and so God the Father shared the power and presence of God the Holy Spirit among these 70 persons as well as continuing to abide with Moses himself. Joshua’s response to the Holy Spirit’s presence even with those who had not obeyed the summons to assemble is understandable – why should they benefit from the Holy Spirit? Isn’t the Holy Spirit something to be guarded and restricted? Moses understands better though. What could be better than the abiding presence of the Spirit of God with every one of God’s people? What should better guide and keep the people of God in unity and obedience if not the indwelling Holy Spirit? Moses’ words foreshadow Pentecost, when God will indeed pour out the Holy Spirit upon all believers!

Psalm 25:1-15 – In Hebrews this psalm is an acrostic with the ongoing theme of the necessity and importance of being taught by God. The opening line of the psalm is a visualization of prayer itself, a lifting of and presenting to God of oneself in acknowledgement that all we have comes from God and is dependent upon him. In contrast to the speakers’ enemies, who are presumed by their actions to be enemies of God as well, the speaker desires most to learn (vs.4-5). This is the major blessing of the indwelling Holy Spirit of God, opening minds and hearts in obedience to the will and Word of God where alone we can find reliable and truthful guidance through our lives. While we may obsess over the acts of power the Holy Spirit works through the disciples on Pentecost and all through the book of Acts, these acts of power are secondary and dependent upon the disciples acceptance of divine wisdom and guidance. As such these acts of power are no longer to be interpreted as the arbitrary initiative of the apostles, but rather as their obedient following of the Holy Spirit’s prompting to heal, cast out demons, raise the dead, and work other powerful signs and wonders as well.

Acts 2:1-21 – Jesus granted his disciples the Holy Spirit on Easter evening (John 20:19-23) but now they receive the Holy Spirit in power, a power made discernible as a mighty rushing wind instead of the gentle breath of Jesus on Easter evening. A power made visible in tongues of flame setting apart the followers of Christ – not just the apostles but all those gathered in faith together there. A power demonstrated through the sudden speaking of foreign languages. Multiple senses as well as internal and external observations validate that something is happening, the Holy Spirit is at work suddenly and mightily. Likely gathered together in the vicinity of the Temple, the languages now spoken by the apostles draw the attention of the Jews surrounding them, pilgrims to Jerusalem from much farther away than Galilee! They are amazed that these men – who obviously are not men of leisure or learning – can speak their languages fluently. Yet these mighty signs are quickly shown to be secondary to what really matters – the preaching of the Gospel, confronting the hearers with the objective reality of Jesus of Nazareth raised from the dead and the subjective implications on the hearers’ lives. Either accept or reject. Either repent or refuse to acknowledge responsibility or guilt. Either believe the testimony of the gathered witnesses or ignore or reject it. Power in and of itself is never of value, but rather is the means to accomplishing some other end. That end can be personal and sinful, or it can be the salvation of individuals as guided by the Holy Spirit.

John 7:37-39 – The third of the great Old Testament feasts is referenced here in the Gospel – the feast of Sukkot or the Festival of Booths as it is otherwise known. Solomon’s Temple was dedicated on Sukkot (1 Kings 8:2), and Sukkot was the occasion when the exiles returned from Babylon and assembled to hear Ezra read God’s Word to them (Nehemiah 8). Themes of true worship are then bound up closely with this festival. So when Jesus proclaims loudly in the Temple on the final day of the feast, it is accented heavily. Rather than coming to the Temple, people should come to him. Rather than worry about the required sacrifices, those who come to Jesus will instead be given living water to flow out of them to others. Here Jesus prophecies what will happen at Pentecost, but also in fulfillment of Moses’ words in Numbers 11. Only in Jesus will the Holy Spirit be poured out in full rather than on just a few. In Jesus all will find life that is not merely a subsistence living but is bountiful and plentiful and a blessing to everyone around them, perhaps foreshadowing the descriptions of the early Church in Acts 2:42-47.

Jesus’ words clearly strike a chord in the people. He speaks with the power and boldness of the prophets of old, as some in the crowd acknowledge (v.40). So Jesus’ call remains bold and decisive today, leaving each person to either accept or reject the witness of his resurrection and his promise of forgiveness.

Book Review: The Grasshopper Myth

May 22, 2020

The Grasshopper Myth by Karl Vaters

Much of church culture in the United States over the past 20 years or more has been dominated by the discussion of size. Mega-churches worshiping thousands of people have become the emblem of church success. Borrowing our economic ideas that bigger is always better, it only makes sense that a bigger church is better than a smaller church, right? More faithful? More impactful? Lots of different ways of describing it. The fact remains that the overwhelming majority of churches are small churches (defined by Vater as under 350 members but more realistically under 250 members).

This book premises that bigger isn’t always better. Vater does so without denigrating mega-churches and large churches, which is good and right, while providing inspiration and a new way of thinking to pastors of small congregations. Is the pastoral goal to grow a small church into a large church? Why? At what cost? What are small churches good at that large churches can’t be? Vater poses these questions in an easy-going style.

This is sort of a cheerleader book. Vater doesn’t make any specific propositions about how to do small church, but does a good job at encouraging pastors and congregations not to feel bad about themselves just because they’re small. It’s an important work in that respect, and I trust it might be helpful to many, many pastors and congregants and church leadership teams trying to figure out what the Holy Spirit might want them to be if they don’t have a million dollar budget and rock-star musicians and 300 programs running each week.

The shame is that a book like this is necessary at all, that we’ve so blindly swallowed questionable economic premises (bigger isn’t necessarily better for companies either!). But we have, and so books like this are a helpful corrective.

Vater has two other books, the next of which is Small Church Essentials. I’m reading that next. I’ve only just started the introduction, but his warning list of signs of an unhealthy church (regardless of the size) is certainly something pastors and congregants alike need to keep their eyes out for:

  • Inward focused
  • Threatened by change
  • Filled with petty infighting and jealousy
  • Not reaching their communities
  • Poorly managed
  • Settling for less

I don’t normally read these types of books, but I was asked to do so by a concerned congregant. I appreciate their concerns and hopes, as they are mine as well. Hopefully the books will offer some tangible help. Interestingly enough the author is already on the slate to do a special workshop on this topic in Los Angeles for my denominational polity. Apparently some people are finding what he has to say helpful!

Pandemic Possibilities

May 21, 2020

It’s not much of a secret that I love to drive. Since getting my license at 16 my love of the road has never waned. My wife indulges me and my corresponding discomfort at being a passenger, allowing me to do the bulk of driving when we’re together despite the fact she’s more than capable herself. And though I argue my reputation for a lead foot is exaggerated, it is not without a kernel of truth.

In addition to owning a couple of pretty speedy cars myself over the years, and pushing cars not known for speed (I once coaxed a late 80’s base model Nissan Sentra to over 100 mph cruising back from the Mogollon Rim to Phoenix), I’ve had the opportunity to drive race cars – though not as fast as I would have liked to.

So it shouldn’t be surprising I have a fascination with the Cannonball Run – a highly illegal competition to see who can cross the United States from Manhattan, New York to Redondo Beach, California in the least time. This requires driving at insane speeds for sustained periods of time. It requires a bankroll to get a fast car and then modify it to decrease refueling stops and escape detection of radar traps and other possible hazzards.

Not surprisingly, during the COVID-19 pandemic and corresponding stay at home orders, roads have been a lot clearer than they would be normally. As such, there has been a flurry of activity as people attempt to set a new record for the Cannonball Run. And in the last five weeks, the record has been broken seven times. The new record is said to be under 26 hours to travel the 2800 mile journey. I’ll save you breaking out your calculator – that means an average speed of 107 miles per hour for the journey. And since it is necessary to refuel, it means that there are times when the speed is actually higher than that to compensate.

Impressive.

Yes, dangerous and illegal, but still, impressive!

ANF: Fragments from the Lost Writings of Irenaeus

May 20, 2020

The ongoing saga of my life-long effort to read through all the Ante-Nicene Fathers’ writings….

The first volume of the ante-Nicene Fathers (ANF) set concludes with a collections of quotes and paraphrases of Irenaeus from fragmentary documents as well as other authors.  These 55 snippets are various in nature, some conveying complete thoughts and others without much meaning in and of themselves but clearly part of larger works which have either been lost to history or remain to be discovered or translated.

Some notable inclusions:

Section III – contains a remembrance of Polycarp’s visit to Rome during the papacy of Anicetus.  They disagreed on the proper day to observe Easter, yet refused to let their different traditions cause a rift between them.  So firm was their commitment to unity rather than division that St. Anicetus allowed St. Polycarp to preside over the Eucharist celebration in the Church in Rome.  The translator references the Council of Arles in 314 AD as commemorating this by decreeing formally that the holy Eucharist should be consecrated by any foreign bishop present at its celebration, but I can’t find corroboration for this assertion.

Section XIThe business of the Christian is nothing else than to be ever preparing for death.  (as quoted by John of Damascus, likely from a work of Irenaeus entitled Miscellaneous Dissertations, which is referred to by Eusebius).

Section XVI – There may be some uncertainty as to  whether this is really from Irenaeus or not, but in treating the topic of the Fall in Genesis 3, Irenaeus lauds Eve not as the weaker of the the humans but the stronger.  She resisted Satan’s temptations for some period of time, even arguing with him, while Adam ate immediately when she offered him the forbidden fruit without any objection or apparent misgivings.

Section XXIV – He asserts that Matthew’s Gospel was intended for Jewish readers.

Section XXXII – Quotes a tradition from Josephus, that Moses was not just brought up on the Egyptian Pharaoh’s palace, he served as a general in a military effort against the Ethiopians.  Because of his victory he married the daughter of the Ethiopian king.  The translator offers this tradition as perhaps an explanation of St. Stephen’s words  in Acts 7:22, emphasizing Moses’ esteem and wisdom before being selected by God to confront the Pharaoh.

Section LV – A fascinating commentary on the mother of James and John asking Jesus to grant her sons special favor  in glory (Matthew 20:17-28).  Usually, commentators look poorly upon her request, coming as it does so immediately upon Jesus’ prediction of his upcoming suffering and death.  It seems to be the height of not  just pride or grasping for  honor or glory, but terribly poor  timing!  But Irenaeus looks at it differently.  He instead praises their mother.  While we often focus on the first part of Jesus’ prophesy, that he will be tried and condemned to death and be flogged and crucified, the mother hears only the last words.  So firm is her faith – according to Irenaeus – that she considers the tribulations and sufferings of Jesus truly as inconsequential compared to the glory they will bring to him and his followers.  Precisely because she makes the request at this particular point, rather than after the resurrection is a praiseworthy demonstration of faith on her part!  The Saviour was speaking of the cross, while she had in view the glory which admits no suffering.  This woman, therefore, as I have already said, is worthy of our admiration, not merely for what she sought, but also for the occasion of her making the request.  

With this, I’ve completed the first volume of the  Ante-Nicene Fathers.  Thank you again too Lois for her generous gift.  At this rate, I may indeed finish them before I die – just barely!