Making Way

April 14, 2021

….and Elisha the son of Shaphat of Abel-meholah you shall anoint to be prophet in your place. – 1 Kings 19:16

Preach the Gospel. Die. Be forgotten. ~ Nicolaus Zinzendorf

This was part of the Old Testament reading this morning in chapel. Not the Zinzendorf bit, of course. That would be highly unusual in our culture of success and leadership, a culture that even the Church assumes in what it says and what it chooses not to say. Yet the Word of God continues to creep in when we aren’t vigilant and expose our foibles and send our idols tottering.

Elijah the last of the faithful prophets, on the run from a murderous queen after a victory that even by our social media influencer standards would be impressive, putting to death 450 false prophets of Baal after God shows his reality and presence in power and authority. Elijah despairing that he has been a failure. That he’s no better than the ones who came before him, who were also unable to turn the hearts of the people back to God, or curb the ambitions and apathy of the kings of God’s people. Hiding in a cave.

What would God say to this guy, this faithful man who has done much and suffered much and who, in his own words, has been very jealous for the Lord? What sort of half-time pep talk might we look for? A rousing, inspiring speech to reinstill Elijah with vigor and hope and purpose? To put him back on the path to personal fulfillment and professional success? How might God show Elijah his despair is out of place and what spiritual secrets to job satisfaction might the Lord of hosts reveal?

…you shall anoint to be prophet in your place.

It’s easy to pass over those words. Easy to focus on the first part of God’s response, which is for Elijah to anoint two new kings who are going to kick ass and probably not even bother to chew bubble gum. Promises of swords and judgment. Probably not overly inspiring to Elijah, though. Kings come and go. Elijah’s fathers were proof of that. And those final words probably occupied Elijah’s full attention. You need to anoint your successor. Your time is coming to an end.

I’ll admit I’ve never been one for reveling in youthful exuberance. Being a student both of history and an enrollee in the school of hard knocks, I’ve never been prone to Stuart Smalley-style encouragements (go ahead and look up Stuart Smalley on YouTube if you like, but I’m sure it would be considered quite inappropriate these days), and I’m a anachronistic hold-out against the modern acquiescence to ubiquitous therapy. Zinzendorf resonates with me and getting older has only confirmed his maxim.

And perhaps that maxim is useful to us as well in a culture hell-bent on exhorting and encouraging and affirming generations of people to goals they can’t possibly accomplish in carefully curated social media magnifying glass they can’t possibly compete with or sustain.

Odds are you aren’t going to change the world. Odds are you won’t reach the top of your profession. Odds are you won’t complete everything you set out to do. This is not a failure on your part. After all, who among us is really much better than our fathers before us? And what metric are we going to grab to determine that?

This isn’t a call to apathy or listlessness or despair. It’s a call to realism. A call to quit looking in the mirror, or more accurately to quit comparing the mirror to the fitness model or the wildly successful day-trader or the latest celebrity phenom. It’s a call to value and appreciate what you do accomplish today, what you do contribute, and more fundamentally, simply that you are. The real metric of self-esteem isn’t what we do at all, it’s simply that we’re here at all. We exist. We are created. And inextricably linked to this reality of created, unique existence is the reality of redemption not in what we accomplish but what our Creator accomplishes on our behalf through his Son, Jesus.

At that point we can deal with our finitude. We can deal with ordinariness, averageness. We can deal with moments of failure as well as moments of success. We can come to grips with the fact that someone is going to come after us and pick up where we left off and maybe finish some of those things we weren’t able to, and that in one way or another, we’ve done that for someone ahead of us.

Reading Ramblings – April 18, 2021

April 11, 2021

Date: Third Sunday of Easter – April 18, 2021

Texts: Acts 3:11-21; Psalm 4; 1 John 3:1-7; Luke 24:36-49

Context: As we continue in the season of Easter (and every Sunday is really a celebration of Easter, regardless of the liturgical season) the readings emphasize the effects of the resurrection reality. Though a bit confusing as the readings from Acts also follow Pentecost, Pentecost is linked to the death and resurrection of Jesus, as Jesus explained to his disciples in John 14. The readings in 1 John show the continued impact of the resurrection on the longest-lived of the apostles, while the assigned Gospel text continues the story of that first Easter Sunday.

Acts 3:11-21 – What a difference from cowering in fear on Easter Sunday! Peter and John – empowered by the Holy Spirit – speak boldly to the crowd that gathers around them to marvel at the healing they have just performed. The disciples have healed in the past, but now they heal and also preach in the name of the resurrected Christ. Note the tone of their speech – they are not angry or bitter. They recognize Jesus’ prophetic fulfillment. The Holy Spirit has opened their minds to Holy Scripture as Jesus promised. Peter’s message remains the same from his Pentecost sermon (Acts 2) – he calls people to repentance. Rather than rejecting Jesus people are now to repent of their former rejection and embrace his identity and purpose as the Messiah of God. There is nothing we can do or add, no reparations to be paid. Acknowledge if we had denied Christ before, and accept him now. This is the essence of faith, the starting point for an adult who comes into contact with the Gospel. Of course baptism would follow next, as Peter makes clear in Acts 2 and Jesus instructs his disciples in Matthew 28. But for the adult who the Holy Spirit brings to Christ it begins with repentance and acceptance!

Psalm 4 – There is an urgency in how this psalm begins, an urgency based on some great, pressing need, perhaps to do with the unfair or dishonest treatment of others (v.2). Yet the psalm transitions quickly and unexpectedly into a declaration of confidence. Whereas the speaker called for God to hear him in v.1, v.3 is an affirmation that God definitely has listened and does listen to the petitioner. Despite the sinfulness of the world and the sometimes overt persecutions of God’s faithful, we should never lose hope or sight of the reality that we belong to God, and that designation cannot be altered by the machinations of even Satan or his powers. We belong to God, and God listens to us! Verse 4 offers some confusing options for translation, with the most common option following the Latin translation and talking about anger. Despite this, the psalm (and the verse) has little if anything to do with anger, whether within the specific situation of the speaker or as a more general theological position on the potential for righteous anger. Likewise in v.5 the idea of right sacrifices could be interpreted several ways, whether in the cultic definition of the Old Testament or more spiritual sacrifices (a la Psalm 51), or even a somewhat vague reference to the propitation of the Son of God on our behalf (likely part of why this psalm was chosen for today!). The conclusion is the same – we are to trust God, not ourselves or others. So the psalmist concludes in confidence. Yes, his situation is still uncertain, but he trusts in God. So much so that he has no trouble falling asleep (v.8) because he knows it is God himself who provides his safety.

1 John 3:1-7 – John rightly emphasizes God’s love for us, a reality much of modern American Christianity reverses in emphasizing our love for God. What love we have for God is only because God loves us first, and therefore is hardly the appropriate option for extended emphasis. The reality is that because of God’s love for us in Jesus Christ, we who the Holy Spirit has brought to faith in this are really and truly children of God here and now, not simply in the creative sense of God being the Creator and therefore we are his creations, but in the redemptive sense of being brought into the family of God through faith in Jesus Christ. Our identity in Christ is a reality here and now, and furthermore a reality that will likely alienate us from the world around us. The world around us that does not know God will deem us to be the misfits, but when our Lord returns it will be shown to all that our clinging to Christ and being conformed to him is actually the deepest of realities and identities. This is our hope as we cling to God’s Word as the normative guide to our lives rather than tacking our sails to the shifting and unpredictable winds of culture. First and foremost in this conforming to Christ is the acknowledgement that sin should have no place in us. Contrary to psychology and culture that deems whatever we want or like to be intrinsically good as such, Scripture defines right and wrong, and further warns us that our ability to judge right and wrong for ourselves is not only flawed and broken, but tends to opt towards wrong rather than right! Therefore we must cling and trust to God’s Word as the only source of absolute truth in a world where truth is redefined more and more radically and quickly!

Luke 24:36-49 – People don’t die and then rise to life again very often. It wouldn’t be a stretch to say that, at least in terms of documented accounts of such things, a few handfuls at most can legitimately be described as miraculous restorations of life. To presume that people 2000 years ago accepted the idea of rising from the dead as a less sensational event than we do today is ridiculous, and the disciples’ shock in this passage is a good reminder. Despite having seen Jesus do a variety of impressive miracles in his lifetime (including restoring life to other people who had died), and despite his explicit descriptions to them beforehand of what would happen – including his resurrection – they are not at all expecting to see Jesus alive again. Jesus must demonstrate this reality to them. They are not hallucinating. They are not seeing a ghost. They are not being deceived by some spiritual power. Jesus invites them to explore the signs of his ordeal. It is interesting to me that beyond the physical wounds of his crucifixion, Jesus does not seem to evidence any of the other mistreatments He received. He does not direct them to examine his scalp for the scarring from his crown of thorns. He does not bear the evidence of the brutal beating the Romans gave him prior to his execution. Only the marks directly associated with his death are present and presented as evidence. Even this extraordinary opportunity was not really enough to convince them, and so to further make it plain that He truly was bodily resurrected as a man, Jesus eats.

We must think of the resurrection in such blatantly physical terms. Jesus is recognizable, and He is able to substantiate his identity further, and He is also able to demonstrate that He is thoroughly physical and human as well – so shall we be. Our hope is not to float as spirits in the afterlife, nor to flit from cloud to cloud plucking harps. Our hope and confidence is that as our Lord was raised bodily from the dead as a human being (albeit also as the Son of God – something you and I will not be!), so you and I will be raised physically from the dead for a physical eternal life. While this will not happen until Christ’s return, and therefore may involve a period of waiting wherein we are spiritual but not yet spiritual and physical (Revelation 6:10), our final hope in eternal life is to be what we were created to be – human beings. Perfected and immortal. But very much creatures.

Changes

April 10, 2021

In a couple of hours I will officially change jobs. Last Sunday – Easter Sunday – was my last official day with the parish I’ve been pastoring for nearly eleven years. And this morning I will be installed into a position I accepted nearly two months ago, have nearly completed initial orientation and training for, but still isn’t official until I’ve been installed.

I’m staring at piles of boxes in my office as I write. I’m 80% done with packing things up, waiting now to figure out where we’ll be living for the next few months until my family and I are able to deploy to the field I’ll be serving. We’re leaving the United States and I’m leaving traditional parish ministry, both for the indefinite future. I’ve accepted a position as a regional theological educator for my denomination in Southeast Asia, working as a support and resource to partner church organizations in that part of the world. I bring to the task a curious mixture of parish pastor experience as well as experience as a collegiate educator and corporate trainer. It’s an unusual mixture, accumulated in reverse order from many of my colleagues who pastor first and then go on to teach.

Change is hard for people and I’m no exception, though my tolerance for it is higher than some. Apparently that’s a valuable trait in overseas work, where daily routines can be fluid, to say the least. I leave behind the joys of preaching and teaching in a predictable cycle for the uncertainties of learning a new language, adapting to a new culture, and participating in the work of the Church in a different capacity. While there’s the exoticness of relocating to the other side of the world, there’s also sorrow at leaving literally one of the most perfect climates on earth for a much hotter and more humid climate. I’ve demonstrated repeatedly in my life that I can learn enough of a language (four of them, at present) to achieve short-term academic objectives, but now I have to become fluent in a fifth language. And not just ordinary fluent, but theologically fluent.

It’s exciting. Slightly terrifying at times. Oddly comfortable most of the time. I’m grateful I don’t have to do it alone while also realizing my family will need to negotiate most of these same challenges. Together we’re confident we can do it. We do believe God the Holy Spirit is leading us in this direction, opening doors and facilitating the transition. We also realize that’s no guarantee of success (at least in worldly terms). Finding that balance between humility and excitement is a day-by-day process.

I’ll be continuing to blog, though the topics may take on a decidedly more international slant. The same issues of culture and faith and life that I began writing here with fifteen years ago continue to be a source of continued fascination. And I’ll try to keep it mixed up a little bit with less weighty observations. Perhaps I’ll have time to resume work on some of the longer-term projects I’ve launched here, such as completing my study of the Bible’s treatment of alcohol, and finally finishing my analysis of Pope Francis’ 2020 encyclical, Fratelli Tutti. I plan to keep up with the Rambling postings each Sunday, as hopefully I’ll continue to have preaching opportunities, even if those become sparser as time goes on.

I hope all of you will keep in touch here as well. Your comments and questions have been the best part of blogging, and I’m grateful for the opportunities to dialog.

Guess I should go finish packing the last two boxes of my theological library. It will be fascinating to see where those boxes get unpacked!

How We Do Things

April 9, 2021

Tomorrow I will be installed in a new position. I move from being a parish pastor to working for my denominational polity in the capacity of an overseas theological educator serving partner church organizations in Southeast Asia. This requires the relocation of myself and my family to Southeast Asia, after a process of creating a network of supporters who will pray, encourage, share with others, and provide the financial stability for us to sustain years of work on the other side of the world.

Different church bodies handle these sorts of transitions differently. Some are very directive and a person can be moved at will by the ecclesiastical hierarchy to different locations or different positions. Some are very localized and independent and a pastor is essentially accountable to no one for the career decisions he (or she) makes. Lutherans are in this regard very consistent with our approach to most things, trying to hold together the tension the Bible sometimes creates when it describes different things without directing or prescribing them.

That means as an ordained minister I am not solely responsible and neither is my denominational body for matters of new or different positions. There are multiple entities involved in this. The Holy Spirit of God is acknowledged as a prime mover and director in these things, though in practice He is difficult to identify or quantify! I have a role to play, as does my denominational polity, and finally the specific people also affected by such changes – the congregation I have served for the last 11 years and the people I will be working with in the future. All of those entities are presumed to have a voice in this. The nature of that voice and how it is expressed vary, but they are all factors that contribute. Ideally this minimizes personal whim to some degree and provides some level of accountability.

I was issued a Call at the end of January. Think of a Call as an offer for a job. These days a Call usually occurs after some period of mutual exploration and discussion. Traditionally though, this was not necessarily the case, and a pastor in our denomination might simply receive Call documents in the mail out of the blue from some unknown congregation. In either situation, it’s the pastor’s duty to inform his current congregation of the Call, and then to prayerfully consider the Call and whether he should accept it. The Call documents should contain the basics to inform such a decision – location, information about the Calling entity, job description, compensation description, housing issues, and medical insurance details, for starters.

The pastor prays, discusses with family, and comes to a decision. If he declines the Call he notifies his own congregation and informs the Calling entity in writing and that’s the end of the story. At least until another Call arrives! I know a guy who had three Calls to consider in a period of less than six months!

If the pastor decides to accept the Call, he informs his congregation and the Calling congregation as well and plans to transition. Transitions are hard and therefore are recommended to be reasonably swift without being too abrupt. The congregation the pastor is leaving needs to begin making plans to Call a new pastor and hanging around for months and months is usually counter-productive to this.

All of the various necessities of relocation and other things are secondary to the installation of the pastor in his new capacity. A formal installation is a public event wherein someone called to an official position in the Church is installed in this capacity. Ideally it’s a public witness that the process of reaching this point has been conducted in good faith, though that isn’t always the case, unfortunately. But it is the public declaration that this person has been asked to perform these particular tasks on behalf of the Calling congregation or entity.

In my case, the Call wasn’t from a congregation but from our denominational polity, and specifically from the part of that organization overseeing overseas church work. In this situation, my installation has to occur here in the United States, with a local congregation essentially standing in and representative of our denominational polity. The congregation I am leaving will voice support for and acceptance of my work in this new capacity on behalf of the larger church body. The installation happens here rather than on the other side of the world because here we have congregations who can speak on behalf of denomination.

Installation is a rite, something our church body has developed under the influence of Scripture and in an effort to be faithful to it, but ultimately it’s something we have created for our own use. I’m installed by another representative of my denomination – oftentimes an ecclesiastical supervisor or designated representative. In my case, I’ve asked to be installed by a retired pastor who is a member of my congregation but also spent the first decade of his ministry career serving as a missionary in the Philippines. I like the symmetry of someone who has worked in that part of the world on behalf of the church installing me in my new role in that area, even if my role will differ markedly from his.

Installations can be big affairs – entire church services crafted around the Rite of Installation. I’ve opted for a more stripped-down approach. It’s more appropriate to have a big celebration when the installation is in the congregation where the pastor is arriving. It’s a little harder to celebrate when the pastor is leaving that congregation (though of course there are times when that kind of celebration is pretty appropriate!). I’m a simple guy. A simple service will do.

Once that installation is complete the transition will be final. It is the final acknowledgement that all parties involved trust that not simply human agency was involved in this transition, but God himself. It’s his glory and purpose we’re after, in the end, not our own personal preferences (although I believe He can use those preferences). It isn’t a guarantee of success, but rather how we do things in an attempt to be faithful to God’s Word and God’s people. When it’s done properly it can be a beautiful thing, but it is also a system involving sinful human beings and so it can be manipulated.

Hopefully, this transition is one of the former rather than the latter!

Reading Ramblings – April 11, 2021

April 4, 2021

Date: Second Sunday of Easter – April 11, 2021

Texts: Acts 4:32-35; Psalm 148; 1 John 1:1-2:2; John 20:19-31

Context: Easter is a season as well as a specific date. Our Lord rose three days after his crucifixion, and this unparalleled event in human history is given a liturgical season to better flesh out more of the nuances and implications of this reality. At eight full weeks it is the longest liturgical season of the Church except for Ordinal Time which is not reallly a season in the same sense of the word. The readings continue to declare our Lord’s resurrection, with the Gospel relating events that occurred later that first Easter Sunday and afterwards. The Old Testament and Epistle lessons flesh out how the resurrection affects not just those first witnesses but all who hold in faith to the veracity of that event and the implications promised by our Lord. The resurrection is not simply a get-out-of-hell-free-card at the end of our lives, but transforms every moment of our lives into something richer and deeper, leading towards a particular reality that will last forever.

Acts 4:32-35 – The implications of the resurrection on the disciples and the early Christian community were profound. It fundamentally changed the way they looked at and experienced day-to-day life. Some would rightly point out that this passage is descriptive, not prescriptive. It tells us what they did, it does not dictate what we must do. This is a true and important distinction, but it is also a quick and easy way to grapple with the reality of this transformed community. Because they had seen personally or trusted the testimony of the apostles that Jesus of Nazareth was no longer dead, just as He had prophecied would be the case, their priorities and lives altered dramatically. How they viewed and treated one another was now no longer dictated by socio-economic and cultural distinctions but rather by the reality they were united for eternity through baptism into Jesus Christ. That eternal fraternity had very temporal implications as well. Could one part of the body live in luxury and excess knowing another part of the body did not? Would not one part of the body care for in very practical ways the well-being of another part of the body? This was not faceless charity or a social agenda, but rather people who saw each other differently now that they saw Christ differently. These are challenging verses for American Christians, but we should think seriously about how they apply to us individually (as opposed to congregationally or as a geo-political entity or on any other level of scale that eliminates or automates our conscious and active participation) today.

Psalm 148 – This is a beautiful psalm of praise, in which every aspect of creation is called to exalt and praise the Creator. What strikes me upon this reading is v.6 – the heavenly bodies of stars and sun and moon are called to praise God specifically for his decree. What is this decree? It is the decree of creation in Genesis 1. God called these entities into existence through his Word and sustains them. Perhaps more specifically, we might wonder if his decree is to be thought of as his approval, declaring his created entities to be good (Genesis 1:14-18). As such, God continues to sustain his created order despite the Fall into sin, a Fall that extends beyond humanity to include all of creation (Romans 8:18-23). But He doesn’t simply sustain us in perpetual sin, rather He has raised up a horn for his people (v.14). God has, does, and will save his people, and for this He is to be praised as well. Creation praises God simply because He has created it. God’s people praise God because not only has He created them, He has saved them!

1 John 1:1-2:2 – Another aspect of the resurrection of the Christ is that the forgiveness of sins is a very real thing, available not through sacrificial rites as the Jewish people understood them. Those rites were given as foreshadowing of the final and perfeft sacrifice of the Son of God on behalf of the people of God. This is God’s Word of life, the Son of God made flesh, which is not only a declaration of life to be heard but an embodiment of it to be touched. It is the blood of the Word made flesh which forgives our sin. Confession of our sin accesses the blood of Jesus Christ. Failure to confess, as though we did not sin and have no need of forgiveness, is to live in darkness and self-deception, cutting ourselves off from the forgiveness won for us by Jesus Christ. Sin is to be taken seriously. We are to seriously resist it, and we are to soberly repent of it, that we may walk in the light of God in whom there is no darkness.

John 20:19-31 – Fear gives way to amazement, which gives way to proclamation, which gives rise to doubt, which is put to flight in confession, which is received with blessing. The progression of this short set of verses is a visceral demonstration of the power of the resurrection. Fear of the world – whether from religious oppression or pandemic or political chaos is overcome in proclamation – we have seen the Lord! This naturally should create doubt. After all, to die and rise again truly is miraculous! How can we be sure? Isn’t there a more rational explanation? For centuries such alternatives have been proffered, but each requires a greater suspension of disbelief than the simple but astounding reality of resurrection. The heart of the Christian message is Christ crucified and resurrected, and it is here that doubt must be either clung to tenaciously or abandoned to embrace confession. The eyewitness accounts are credible. The reasons to doubt them rest not in the quality of the testimonies themselves but rather our attachment to a purely material explanation of the universe which leaves no room for God and no room for miracles and ultimately no room for life itself. Confession acknowledges that such a tenaciously materialistic view is in itself an act of faith, certainly no less so than embracing the simple testimony of simple people saying what they saw and heard and touched with their own senses. Independently corroborated and certainly, given the outrageous nature of the claim, easily demonstrable as false if such were the case. Yet the tomb remains empty 2000 years later, and we are confronted with that powerful confession – we have seen the Christ! And that confession of faith draws us into the direct blessings of the resurrection both here and now as the other readings have pointed to, as well as eternally. He is risen! He is risen indeed! Alleluia!

Fear and Loathing in the Confessional

March 30, 2021

Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, even so I am sending you.” And when he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you withhold forgiveness from any, it is withheld.” John 20:21-23

The work of the Church is declaring the good news of the forgiveness of sins in Jesus Christ to those wracked with guilt and desirous of change. Often this gets abbreviated to just telling people about Jesus, but the crucial matter is what you tell them. If you tell them only that Jesus loves them, and never tell them of their sin and need for forgiveness, you haven’t shared the full story. If you only introduce them to the historical figure of Jesus without ever telling them why this historical figure matters to their lives unlike any other historical figure, you haven’t shared the full story. For someone who can see their sinfulness, their need for sin and forgiveness, the most beautiful part of the story is that this is exactly why Jesus is relevant to them. This is what Jesus brings them that nobody else can. And the Church is to be the place marked by both the proclamation of this reality and the actual forgiving of sins.

So when the Church (or a particular parish or priest) refuses to offer forgiveness to those desiring it, there’s a serious problem. An issue in one Roman Catholic parish in New Jersey recently due to the pandemic. Due to complications arising from properly disinfecting surfaces in the confessional – the small cabinet traditionally used in Roman Catholic churches to screen the penitent from the priest and allow them to confess their sins and receive absolution – a priest refused to allow un-vaccinated people to come to Confession, one of the sacraments of the Roman Catholic church.

People are understandably somewhat frightened and weary of COVID. But refusing to absolve repentant sinners is a gross failure of an ordained priest, and one rightly corrected by ecclesiastical supervisors.

The irony here is that the prohibition against any un-vaccinated person coming to Confession was ostensibly for their own “protection”. However to not receive forgiveness is a far greater danger to a person’s well-being than COVID, with potentially eternal ramifications!

Now, I’m not Roman Catholic and I do not necessarily agree with their traditional practice of Confession, or their understanding of the need and role for penance in receiving forgiveness. But if you’re going to tell people their forgiveness is dependent on Confession, and forgiveness is the means of eternal life, and then you refuse to hear their confessions, there’s a dangerous problem at play here!

Thankfully the situation was rectified quickly.

Silencing Dissent

March 29, 2021

Thanks to Ken for this Wall Street Journal article discussing how social media companies censor religious speech and even eliminate accounts and access to their platforms when it disagrees with vaguely defined rules against fake news or simply contradicts the cultural narrative they prefer to reinforce and support. This means affirming the inherent value of all life (contra abortion or euthanasia) or other traditional and ancient religious views may be grounds for content being banned or deleted. The appeal process in such a situation is by no means clear or guaranteed to result in a restoration of access or content.

A good reminder that while free speech remains a Constitutional freedom, when private companies hold monopoly-level power over digital communication that freedom becomes a technicality. Private companies are not bound to respect freedom of speech and are free to impose their own limitations on what sorts of statements and content are permitted. While they will find politically correct descriptions for these limitations, the effect is further limiting the expression of viewpoints held by a large (perhaps even majority) proportion of our nation.

Again, I urge people to reconsider supporting these platforms and their monopolies through continued membership and usage, whether it costs you anything or not. Between the blatant bias against conservative, traditional Biblical Christian beliefs and the increasingly egregious collection of personal data, the corresponding benefits of such social media giants (and other tech companies such as Google) become questionable, at best. It’s ironic and sad that Google, a company whose motto was originally Don’t Be Evil has come to represent some of the most questionable practices in terms of gathering data on the people who use it’s products.

Making wise choices is not easy, nor is it guaranteed to be easy or inexpensive.

Reading Ramblings – Easter Sunday

March 28, 2021

Date: Easter Sunday – April 4, 2021

Texts: Isaiah 25:6-9; Psalm 16; 1 Corinthians 15:1-11; Mark 16:1-8

Context: He is risen! He is risen indeed! Allelluia! Victory over those who opposed God’s perfect love and will – first spiritually with Lucifer and his followers, and then eventually humanity and creation through the Fall. Any who thought they could better God’s plan are shown to be what they always had to be – grossly in error. God alone holds all wisdom and knowledge as well as power and love. In the unlikely and unexpected death of the Incarnate Son of God, God does not destroy his wayward creation but throws open the doors to grace and forgiveness and hope. Reconciliation is made possible on the only terms that could ever exist – God’s terms. Through trust and hope in God’s promises to us on the cross and in the empty tomb all are invited out of rebellion, to lay down arms and sing the praises of God who alone could make such reconciliation possible. What God promised to do in the beginning (Genesis 3:15) and continued to promise to his people for thousands of years is fulfilled. We await the final consummation, the return of our crucified and resurrected Lord. The victory is already won – now we’re waiting for the victory celebration to begin!

Isaiah 25:6-9 – The promises of God are not narrow and skimpy. They do not hedge and trim and cut corners. They are broad and endlessly generous! God intends not just the preservation and salvation of his chosen people of Israel, but that the blessings conveyed to them would in turn pour out into all of creation. All peoples (v.6) are to be included in the invitation to these blessings, blessings carefully spelled out in detail so we can almost smell the bounty from here! The universal covering over all people – death – will be swallowed up and no more. Tears will be dried, never to pour out again in suffering and grief in the face of death. And the reproach, the stigma, the disgust the world marks God’s people with will be removed once and for all. In that day there will be no discussion of relative or comparative merit. This feast is not on our behalf. We are the invited guests of our Lord and Savior at the celebratory feast of and for God the Father, who will himself be vindicated from any and all claims that He is not truly good, wise, and powerful. Those who trust in him will be shown to have been right all along. He is risen!

Psalm 16 – A love song where the speaker describes his feelings for God. It begins with a standard call for help – but the rest of the psalm never mentions this again. There is no elaboration. It is as though the speaker were interrupted at the end of verse 1 by God himself, asking the speaker to clarify to God how he feels about God. In verse 2, the speaker begins articulating the nature of his relationship to God. God is the source of every good thing in the speaker’s life. The speaker is not alone in this relationship – there are others in the larger community who share this relationship with God and therefore they are more delightful to be with for the speaker than anyone else. Not that there aren’t other options out there, idols and false gods to sacrifice to and call on – but the speaker will have none of that. Why? Because the Lord has blessed him richly (vs.5-6), and even were there such a thing as other gods, they could not provide for the speaker any better than God himself has. Some of these things might be evident to any observer of the speaker, but his relationship to God goes deeper – God instructs him so diligently and thoroughly that even during the night as he sleeps, he is being instructed by God, and his heart responds in love and joy. God is present for the speaker here and now (v.8), and as such the speaker has no fear. He knows the Lord preserves him and will continue to do so. The blessings of God are not simply for this lifetime but for all eternity (v.11).

1 Corinthians 15:1-11 – Modern scholarship is dismissive of much of what the Church professes to be written by St. Paul, but these verses here are almost universally acknowledged to be Paul’s words. As such they are instructive for the wealth of information they tell us about the early Church and what it proclaimed – namely the prophesies fulfilled in the death of the anointed one, the Messiah/Christ, who did not remain dead and buried but showed himself alive again to hundreds of witnesses. Paul’s intent is clear – don’t simply take his word for it, ask around! There are plenty of witnesses (this letter being written less than 30 years after the events) who can testify that Paul speaks the truth. It is this resurrection of of the Son of God that provides hope to sinners, delivering to them grace rather than judgment. This grace is transformative here and now, as Paul can well attest to personally! And that grace can, by the power of God, work mightily in even the lowliest of believers, the darkest of repentant sinners. This was the essence of Paul’s teaching to the Corinthians, and it should still form their core identities. It should still be their assurance even though Paul has had to correct them on numerous issues in this letter. And therefore it should still be your hope and mine!

Mark 16:1-8 – Mark’s account of the resurrection is quick and to the point, just like the rest of his Gospel. Though we assume the latter half of Chapter 16 is not original with Mark, the first eight verses are well attested to in antiquity. The second Mary mentioned in v.2 is understood to be Jesus’ mother, who is mother also of James (and Joses, as per 15:47, which would make these men mentioned also in 6:3 Jesus’ brothers). The women obtained spices or scented oils (the language makes it clear it is a liquid) after the Sabbath ended Saturday evening, and made their way to the tomb early the morning after Sabbath, Sunday. Jesus was in the tomb from before the Sabbath/start of the day on Friday, then all Sabbath day, and then into the first hours of the day after Sabbath – late Saturday-to early morning Sunday. Jesus did likely not rise at dawn or just after sunset but probably in the pre-light hours of Sunday morning.

But why the abrupt ending, an ending that seems open-ended – some translators as They were afraid, you know. I like the interpretation that says Mark does this intentionally, writing to Christians several decades later who are already experiencing persecutions. Christians who are suffering simply for believing all of this is true. Christians who might be inclined (like us?) to think that if only we had been there and seen these events ourselves, it would be easier, there would be no need for fear. We could confidently and joyfully endure anything.

No, Mark says. Those who were there that first Easter morning? They were afraid too, you know. Fear is not limited to those who did not see and hear Jesus personally, even those who knew him best – even his own mother – were afraid. Our fear does not make us lesser believers. Our fear binds our sinful human hearts with all the sinful human hearts before and after us. Sinful human hearts who nonetheless, trembling and fearfully at times, put their faith and trust in the account of Jesus’ resurrection, and trusted that what He promised them was true – He would come for them to take them to be with him (John 14:1-12). Fear does not make us unfaithful, but we must cling to our faith in spite of the fear, in defiance of it.

Even Peter who denied Jesus vehemently three times a few days earlier was not to be excluded from the promises of the resurrected Christ! Jesus specifically names and specifies Peter. How much more so should you and I trust that this good news is for us! He is risen! He is risen indeed! Alleluia!

Reading Ramblings – Palm Sunday

March 21, 2021

Date: Palm Sunday – March 28, 2021

Texts: Zechariah 9:9-12; Psalm 118:19-28; Philippians 2:5-11; Mark 14:1-15:47

Context: Palm Sunday is one of the great Sundays of the Church year, with a long history in both Eastern and Western Christendom, and processions are an ancient part of this day’s celebrations. Palms are a sign of victory in many cultures, as they are used in the reading to denote Jesus’ victorious entry to Jerusalem. But victory over what becomes the question. His opposers feared his victory was an ill-advised attempt to overthrow Roman rule, something that would inevitably end not with only Jesus’ own death but the death of hundreds and perhaps thousands of others. Did those who waved the palms that morning have such a victory in mind? Perhaps. Perhaps they were caught up in the excitement of God at work, doing something He had told his people to watch and wait for, and were much shorter on actual specifics of what that would look like. Perhaps it was enough to welcome Jesus as a prophet, as the speaker of God’s Word after a long period of divine silence. What is it we welcome Jesus for today, and how do we imagine his presence will and should change our lives here and now rather than simply in eternity?

Zechariah 9:9-12 – Zechariah is a post-exilic prophet, one who returns with God’s people to Jerusalem and helps in the rebuilding of the Temple (Ezra 5:1, 6:14; Nehemiah 12:16). Nehemiah indicates Zechariah is the head of a priestly house, confirming that the roles of priest and prophet sometimes overlapped. Chapter 9 of Zechariah begins a curious prophetic progression dealing more with end of times prophesy than short-term prophetic material and history as dealt with in Chapters 1-8. The emphasis of our verses today is not so much the ending of the old way, but the start of a new day. There is no emphasis on the struggle which achieved this victorious, kingly entry, beyond the cryptic language in verse 11 regarding the blood of my covenant with you. Zechariah and his hearers may have interpreted this as referring to the blood bonds at Mt. Sinai in Exodus, but now we know this is only a foreshadowing of the blood that forms the new covenant, the blood of the Son of God poured out in sacrifice for creation.

Psalm 118:19-28 – Many scholars divide the psalms into five sections or books, and Psalm 118 falls into the fifth such grouping. This particular psalm has two main sections, vs. 5-18 and 19-28. Verses 5-18 are an individual’s praises to God in testimony to the gathered community of the faithful. The second section is more a song of thanksgiving after being rescued from some dangerous situation. There is a dialogue, in which someone speaks, is responded to, and is spoken about. The particulars of the situation are vague, so the psalm is appropriate under a variety of conditions and situations. However vs. 17-18 indicate the seriousness of the situation, literally life and death. But within the liturgical context of Palm Sunday, these words take on another aspect, an aspect completely unique to the completely unique person and work of the Incarnate Son of God, Jesus the Christ, who gives himself into death on our behalf, but lives in spite of his death and burial. He has suffered for our transgressions, but now lives to attest to the Father’s grace and mercy through his blood and death.

Philippians 2:5-11 – Christ’s attitude is to be our own. These are not poetic words, these are not artistic exageration but a call to suffering and sacrifice, to a constant attitude of humility rather than pride and self-exaltation. This is not our own work or will. It is only possible in Christ Jesus (v.5), and therefore is the exclusive expectation and domain of the follower of Christ. Only in Christ does such an intentional rejection of self-seeking make sense. Only knowing what we have received in and through Christ can we find the strength and joy to forego other forms of personal glory. Paul reiterates the humility and suffering of Jesus not just as a history lesson but as instructive to us. What should we not be willing to suffer, so that we may be like our Lord? And if such is the intention and effort of every believer, what lengths shouldn’t fellow-believers go to to ensure the care and love of each member, rather than seeking to take advantage of them as the world will? There will be no shortage of non-believers who seek to benefit themselves at a Christian’s expense, but in the body of Christ, where each is seeking to live out this humility and knows full well the costs that can sometimes require, how much love and care and charity there should be, that the body itself might never be the source of pain or damage to any part!

Mark 14:1-15:47The longest continual reading of the liturgical year, the Palm Sunday gospel leads us from the day or so before Jesus’ betrayal to his death and burial. We traverse the dizzying heights of his triumphant entry into Jerusalem, through the growing tension of the days until He celebrates his last Passover with his disciples and is arrested, executed and buried. Palm Sunday isas though we look out over the expanse of Holy Week from a high place and see it all – all except Easter, of course. Easter is so bright and dazzling it would blind us to everything else if it were included. And so it waits for the proper time in order to receive the proper glory. Only in a journey into the Valley of the Shadow of Death with our Lord can we truly appreciate the relief of his Easter morning victory!

This panoramic reading leads us through Maundy Thursday to the end of Good Friday. It should whet our appetites to consider all this week will bring, and all our Lord has done on our behalf. Vigil on Holy Saturday evening will herald our Lord’s victory over sin, death and Satan, a victory we will proclaim together in joy on Easter morning! It may be preferable by many people to skip Thursday and Friday and Saturday as too depressing, but they are every bit as real as Easter morning. More real, in some ways, because we can so easily relate to themes of betrayal, suffering, death and burial. These are our realities, and all the more so as we grow older. Easter is the contrast to our empathy, the counter-intuitive assertion that these realities we know so well and our Lord experienced as well are not the final word in our lives and identities. That final Word belongs to our Lord alone,who will call us from our graves with a command of power when He returns, and welcome his faithful into eternal glory.

A COVID Year

March 17, 2021

One year ago I was driving out of Las Vegas. My buddy had just placed third in the world in his division after a multi-day battle. COVID panic was setting in and already the shelves in Las Vegas grocery stores were bare of many common toiletries, basic medical items, and of course toilet paper and paper towels. I bought the last multi-pack of tissue boxes they had. My wife was texting me from home telling me to keep my eyes open as the supplies were all gone there.

We loaded up in my SUV for the drive home. Not just my buddy and I who had driven out together but another teammate hitching a ride back, as well as our billiards league president and his wife, who didn’t want to risk another night in Vegas and maybe having their flight canceled the next day.

As we left the city limits at dusk there was a storm in the distance to the east over the mountains, with occasional flashes of lightning. A beautiful, complete double-rainbow amazed us all from the same direction. And the radio station dedicated to people on the highway towards and from Las Vegas had their classic rock lineup interrupted so the Governor of Nevada could announce Las Vegas was shutting down. Hotels and casinos would cease all operations in just a few short hours. Everything was to shut down by his order. COVID was upon us and we needed to bend the curve of new cases to ensure hospitals weren’t overwhelmed.

The drive home was pretty quiet. Inside the car we were all disappointed the world tournament was cancelled and none of us got to play in our team events. I suspect everyone was slightly in shock – Las Vegas could just shut down? Just like that? Outside the roads were quiet as well. We passed by deserted truck stops and hotels with empty parking lots.

A year later. My wife and I sit in a pub in St. Louis. Masks everywhere, even though regulations in the City have relaxed in the past week or so. Restaurants can seat people indoors if they maintain social distancing and limit the number of customers they allow in. Back home our county has dropped out of the most severe tier of COVID urgency. Things appear to be easing back towards normality but the news feed is full of warnings of a third wave of COVID likely as restrictions ease and a population exhausted by a year of isolation champs at the bit to get back out and be with each other again. Overseas Europe and Asia are reporting spikes in COVID numbers and renewed and more vigorous restrictions.

None of us thought we would be here a year ago. We hoped and prayed things would go back to normal in a few weeks. They haven’t. And if things keep on at the current rate, normality is a long way off. A new level of fear and paranoia grips people. The airports we flew in and out of barked at everyone to keep their masks on and stay six feet away from each other, but we were seated shoulder to shoulder on the airplanes (masked, of course). Now that the election is history all the news stations seem able to talk about is COVID. News reports are beginning to admit what was obvious all along but nobody wanted to say – the vaccines are an uncertain bulwark against the virus, and even if they function as well as intended, people are going to need to get used to annual booster shots, similar to flu shots. Frankly we’ll be lucky if we only need one booster a year. I’m guessing we’ll be told to get at least two.

The world has changed. Not for the better. You don’t hear much of the ridiculous blather that was pushed early on in COVID, about how we’re all in this together and we’re working together for the good of the people. We weren’t. We aren’t. We’re tired and exhausted. Some people are terrified still and others are throwing all caution to the wind. The toll this all has and continues to take will only unfold fully over the next decade of more, ensuring multiple generations of social scientists of all stripes have plenty to dissect and analyze and hypothesize about. And the list of core memory moments in my lifetime increases from Reagan being shot and the Challenger blowing up and 9/11 to include COVID and a year-plus of trying to be a source of assurance in the midst of chaos, of calling people back to the Word of God that transcends all things, and has itself sustained many, many generations through far worse disasters and atrocities than this.

We are still here. And those with the Word know where we’re headed. May we all have the strength and grace and peace of God to know He’ll bring us there in his timing and his way.