Fishing in the Aquarium

February 15, 2019

Last week’s Gospel reading was Jesus and Peter, some empty nets and a miraculous catch of fish (Luke 5:1-11).  The net result, so to speak, was Peter’s recognition (undoubtedly he had a similar response at the wedding at Cana in John 2) that Jesus was something more than just an ordinary rabbi.  In response to Peter’s confession of sinfulness, Jesus conveys the equivalence of absolution in telling Peter to get up.  There are things to be done, and Jesus is the one who is going to make Peter capable of doing them.  And there in the boats in the hot mid-day sun on the Sea of Galilee, as the fish pulled up and weighing the boats down undoubtedly began to grow rather pungent, Jesus tells Peter that from now on he will be catching men.  People, not fish.

That fishing was going to be real fishing.  Not on the Sea of Galilee but throughout Judea.  It was real fishing because while they were casting nets and lines among God’s chosen people, they were bringing them into something new and different.  Not sacrifices and festivals but the presence of the Son of God, the inbreaking of the Kingdom of God.  Everything was changing, and people needed to be brought from where they were and what they knew (or thought they knew) into the new reality unfolding around them so that it might unfold within them.

Our congregation had an outreach Sunday a few weeks ago.  Like many congregations, we watch our members grow older and our numbers begin to shrink.  In response, some of our leadership determined that we needed to be intentional about inviting people.  A date was set, a brunch was planned, and we had multiple visitors that day.  More than I expected, frankly.  It was great.  And now we’re in the midst of follow-up and hoping that they will return and become part of the community permanently.

I’ve felt guilty, as I’ve talked about with my wife, because I don’t believe that ultimately this sort of thing is the answer to our congregation’s long-term viability.  I would never say we shouldn’t.  In fact, we shouldn’t need to have outreach Sundays because people should always be thinking about inviting people to church!  Yet I don’t feel that this will solve the long-term challenges facing the vast majority of Christian congregations of all stripes around our country today.  Long-term challenges that are being encountered in very short-term timeframes.

Am I just a pessimist?  Many would say so.

But my wife pointed out that invite-a-friend Sundays are useful for inviting Christian friends, neighbors, and family to come to church with us..  People who might not have a church home at the moment, or maybe have been away from church for many years but still consider themselves a Christian.  They haven’t rejected Christ or the Bible or the Christian faith, but they’re out of the habit of Christian worship and might need a little nudge (or a big kick in the rear) to get them back where they should have been all along.  In other words, we’re reaching out primarily to people we already know and people who are very likely already Christian.

It’s like fishing in an aquarium.  Fishing among fish that have already been caught.

And the problem with that is that very quickly you deplete the aquarium.

Our culture is in the midst of a massive shift.  It has been for decades and now we’re really seeing it pick up steam, as what was once marginal issues for fringe elements of our culture has become front and center and mainstream.  That shift is driving people away from church.  It is convincing parents that they should not force their children to come to church but rather let them make up their own minds.  The result is predictable.  If faith is not a core matter to the parents, it isn’t going to be for the kids either, barring some sort of miracle.

And what is rapidly happening is that the number of fish in the outreach aquarium of pre-existing believers not already in a congregation is shrinking.  Ideally, congregations everywhere should be struggling to reach these people and draw them into Christian community where they can be nurtured and cared for and discipled in the faith.  Hopefully, there are a lot of nets and a lot of lines being cast out there.  Either those folks are going to be drawn into Christian communities (hopefully!) or they will refuse to be.  Either way, the pool of available fish in the aquarium will continue to rapidly shrink and there are going to be fewer and fewer fish to replace them.  If fewer and fewer people are going to church in the first place, there will be fewer and fewer people with a Christian background or upbringing or even just a familiarity with some Biblical or doctrinal basics that, for one reason or another, quit going to church and wind up in the aquarium, hopefully to be reeled back in at some point.

What the Church needs, in my opinion, is not to quit fishing in the aquarium, because by all means, those people need to be brought in and plugged in to Christian community.  But more and more the Church needs to retrain itself to fish out in the wild.  On the lakes, in the streams, out on the ocean.  Casting out nets and throwing out lines to draw in people who have very little or no Christian or church background or experience.  The Church needs to go back to what the apostles and the early Church had to do – preach the good news to people who didn’t know it already because they’d never heard it.

For that type of fishing, an outreach Sunday isn’t the right tackle.  Not the right sort of bait.  If someone knows nothing of the Bible or church, has never heard the Gospel, that the Son of God took on humanity in order to suffer and die and rise from the dead to reconcile us to God, then a Christian worship is not going to make any sense.  All the shorthand and lingo that Christians take for granted is going to go right over these other people’s heads, or going to hit them between the eyes in an offensive manner.  Worship is  an action appropriate for those who have come to faith and who are learning what that means for  their life.  It isn’t ideal for someone who has no clue.

Some congregations might be inclined to say that fishing in the wild doesn’t sound very appealing.  They don’t have the gear for that.  They’ve not worked with that kind of bait before and don’t know what sort of weights to use or the right time of day for that kind of fishing.  But the reality is it doesn’t matter if you think you’re equipped.  You’re going to have to learn how to do it because the aquarium will be depleted at some point, and either you’re learning how to fish in the wild, or you starve and die.

Most congregations and Christians, in my opinion, prefer to take their chances.  We’ll just be the best aquarium fishers out there, and we’ll get all those fish, and we’ll keep going longer than the others!  I can’t say it’s not a reasonable strategy, but  I’ve rarely seen a congregation go all in on that, follow up their preference with action in a meaningful, sustained way.

But I’ve really never seen a congregation that wholeheartedly decided it was time to put their emphasis into fishing in the wild.

Locally, in their own community and city or neighborhood.  I’ve never seen a congregation that realized that missionaries are now appropriate for their city, not just for some distant group of people living in the forest somewhere and speaking a different language.  But that’s the kind of fishing Jesus called Peter and the other apostles to.  Wild fishing, but local fishing.  There wasn’t an aquarium at that point.  They had to learn how to preach and teach the Gospel.  They had to learn how to trust the Holy Spirit to be at work preparing their hearers ahead of time and working in their hearts and minds during and after their preaching and teaching.  They had to learn to see the people they had grown up with and worked next to and even worshiped next to as people who needed a missionary, fish needing to be brought in to the Good News.

Fishing in the wild is hard and frightening.  It takes  getting used to.  But it’s part of being faithful, and I believe that congregations will need to recognize it and begin adapting themselves to it.  And quickly.  Because as rapidly as you see our culture shifting and changing before our very eyes? As rapidly as you see people deny truth and embrace death as victory, that’s how quick the aquarium is being depleted.

That’s how quickly you’re going to need to start fishing in the wild, locally.

 

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Unexpected Kindness

February 15, 2019

I can count the number of times I’ve run into a parishioner while I’m practicing or competing in the bar pool league – in an actual bar – on zero fingers.   I’ve invited a parishioner to join me for a beer and a game of pool, but never bumped into one.  Given the demographics of my congregation, age-wise, it just isn’t very likely, and so it hasn’t happened in the eight years I’ve been playing.

Until this past Tuesday evening.

I had just arrived at the bar we’d be competing at.  I showed up early to practice, and because it’s one of my favorite bars to play in because of the number of tables, their overall good condition, and the general ambiance of  the place.  Low-key.  I know the bartenders and they know me – or at least what my drink of choice is.  I enter, do a cursory scan of the place, find an open table, open my drink, and start setting up my gear.

She started speaking when my back was turned, and I turned around surprised to see one of my parishioners.  One I haven’t seen for a while.  Turns out, she and her husband relocated to Montana recently.  He’s been retired for a few weeks now.  She suspects she’ll follow suite in a few more weeks.  She raved about the beauty of the state, but more importantly, the culture.  Born and raised in California, she confided that she no longer feels welcome in this state.  Her faith, her values – all those things are mocked and derided by the representatives in government whether local, state, or national.  To live in a place where Christianity is more part and parcel of the atmosphere is an amazing experience she confides.

There might be, for some pastors, a moment of panic.  To be caught in a bar.  Drink in hand.  Tsk tsk.  But then again, for the past eight years my parishioners have known about my hobby.  They’ve heard a few salient stories about passing conversations and encounters with the many different folks I run into.  It’s no secret, but it’s still an environment where I don’t expect to bump into parishioners.

I’m happy for her and them, asking questions, glad to know why she hasn’t been around recently.

She pauses, and after a moment, says You don’t always get the chance to tell a pastor you’ve appreciated them.  But I get to now.  And she proceeded to say some very kind things.  Encouraging things.  Affirming things.  A 10-minute conversation in a bar where I never expected to bump into anyone from my vocation, only to be surprised and gifted in an unexpected way.

It was a good night.  We won.  I won.  I moved up the rankings in my division,  Poised to break into the top ten rankings if things go well the last few weeks of the season.  All nice things, but not as nice as someone going out of their way to say some good things about what I do.  I’m glad she did, and that she and her husband are happily settling into a place that appreciates who they are.

Logical Conclusions…

February 13, 2019

For those of you with kids or grandkids or great-grandkids.  Or for you, yourself.  As we try to justify doing things a way we know isn’t ultimately right or healthy, it’s always wise to see whether our justifications make sense when carried out to logical (and only somewhat tongue-in-cheek) conclusions.

For your consideration, one such extrapolation on the popular argument of living together before marriage to make sure it will work out.

Book Review: V is for Vendetta

February 11, 2019

V is for Vendetta by Alan Moore & David Lloyd

Back a few decades, my best friend started to get into graphic novels.  The genre was really beginning to explode, but it never interested me.  I felt then – and still do – that you either have to focus on the art or the story but it’s difficult to do both.  Inevitably, the visual tends to overshadow the literary, and while some might argue that this is why it is a separate or unique genre, it just doesn’t work for me.

Part of the fun of your children getting older is that as they enter their teens there’s an opportunity for them to begin sharing with you some of the things they’re discovering.  Musically, this can be a challenge as my oldest son really likes rap!  Fortunately though, I grounded him in the classics of rock and roll as well, and so we can talk about what he’s listening to.  Similarly with books.  And while the kids really enjoyed various comic-style books over the years (Asterix & Obelix, Bone, etc.), for the first time I’ve read something more substantive that my son picked up at the library the other day – V is for Vendetta.

I watched a good chunk of the movie without sound on some plane flight at some point, but didn’t realize it came from a graphic novel.  I can’t say that I was overly impressed, and therefore my opinion of graphic novels as a whole remains the same. The story line is interesting, but predictably (to me) the story and character development is rather shallow.

The setting is in the 1990’s in a post-apocalyptic Britain that has become a totalitarian state in the aftermath of atomic warfare that  wiped out most of Europe and Africa.  The titular character – V – is never unmasked in the novel, but wears several different masks, the most common of which is a lightly colored Guy Fawkes mask.  He saves a young woman from police brutality and disciples her in the ways of anarchy.

However it’s a very idealistic anarchy, to say the least.  V is strong, resolute, moral in a brutal sort of way.  He’s literate and enlightened thanks to forced drug therapies at a concentration camp years earlier that probably also contributed to his physical prowess.  He wages a one-man war against the totalitarian government, leading towards a breakdown in control and the beginnings of a popular uprising against the State.  V’s murderous violence is clothed in the righteousness of a holy warrior against a completely evil and unjust State.  He opines that anarchy has two elements, one destructive and one creative, and that the destructive element should be renounced and abandoned as soon as the status quo is overthrown.  But we don’t see that in the book – much as we don’t see it historically or in real life, either.  The truth is it’s hard to put away the bombs and the bombers, as they often find themselves as the new government.  While V does not find himself in this predicament, it’s a historical reality.

There are bad systems that should be raged against, undoubtedly, but the book doesn’t dwell on the reality of the human condition – that I identify as sin – which ensures that no matter how virtuous or benign the ruling system may be, it will inevitably become corrupted and co-opted by people driven to utilize the system to achieve personal ends and needs.

The novel glorifies the fight, and pictures it as inevitably victorious.  But it doesn’t deal with the aftermath and the struggle to replace a corrupt system with something better.  Nor does it deal with the individualistic nature of anarchy, which means that just because one system is overthrown doesn’t mean there will be a mutually agreeable replacement.

I’ve enjoyed talking through the book some with my son and hope to do more of it.  I look forward to his continued explorations in literature and the world around him.

Reading Ramblings – February 17, 2019

February 10, 2019

Reading Ramblings

Date: Sixth Sunday after the Epiphany – February 17, 2019

Texts: Jeremiah 17:5-8; Psalm 1; 1 Corinthians 15:1-20; Luke 6:17-26

Context: I expanded the Epistle lesson to include the first 11 verses of chapter 15, which were noted as optional, but which I feel are essential to the line of reasoning in the next eight verses. The message of the Church is not desire of heaven nor fear of hell but rather Christ crucified and resurrected. The message of the Church is not merely inspirational, not merely devotional, not merely practical, but all of these things and more grounded first and foremost in the historical assertion that a man who claimed to be the Son of God and claimed to offer himself as a sacrifice for sin and claimed He would rise from the dead after three days actually did rise from the dead after three days, which means that all those other things He said need to be taken very, very seriously. It is easy to go to church these days in many places and hear many things, learn many things, even study the Bible but not focus on the resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth as the core reason for our being there. If it happened, everything has changed. If it didn’t, nothing has changed. There is no Christianity without the resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth. He would not be worthy of our devotion and praise for any other reason or on any other account, no matter how wise or gentle or good He might have personally been. To place our hope in a mere person, as Jeremiah asserts, is foolishness. Our hope can only be anchored in God if it is to be worth anything at all.

Jeremiah 17:5-8 – There is much talk politically about how to best care for one another. How do we best ensure the happiness of diverse people? It’s a pertinent topic to be sure, and one that does deserve and require our careful consideration and evaluation. But all such plans – which must be implemented to some degree, should be viewed ultimately with skepticism and a recognition that the best laid plans and noblest aspirations almost always devolve at some point into far more sinister things. It is not within human power to solve the ultimate problems that we face. Not as a nation, not as a species. While we can and should endeavor to improve the condition of as many as possible, it is dangerous foolishness to presume that we can do so for long, or that one solution, one candidate, one party will be able to deliver on everything they promise without any of the attendant problems and abuses that will ultimately undo their efforts. This may sound pessimistic, but it ought to be realistic. We must always be on guard against the seeds of destruction that inevitably lie within any human plan of salvation. We will not be able to guard perfectly. We should enjoy the benefits we are able to provide for one another while recognizing that ultimately God is the only sure hope of real, lasting, and perfect peace and care for all his creation.

Psalm 1 – The introductory psalm lays out the basic premise for the entirety of the psalms. God’s Word is the source of wisdom and benefit to all who ground themselves in it. In God’s Word alone is the power and comfort necessary to weather the difficulties of life and to withstand the constant allure and pressure of evil. God is the ultimate judge of all things and all people, and those who ground themselves in his Word need not fear that judgment. It places our hope completely outside of ourselves and one another, and makes God’s Word the baseline for every aspect of our lives. Failure to utilize this one and only reliable baseline will result in uncertainty and error, which inevitably will lead to evil and sorrow. God’s Word bestows what is most needful to us – God’s blessing, and the state of blessedness it creates in us.

1 Corinthians 15:1-20 – One of the most powerful of Paul’s passages, he here focuses the Corinthians on the center of the Biblical and Christian message – the proclamation of Jesus of Nazareth crucified and resurrected from the dead. This single event in human history, witnessed by hundreds of people, is the center of Christianity’s claim of Truth. It is popular in some quarters of modern Christianity to treat the Resurrection of Jesus as an afterthought, a footnote, or even an unnecessary thing. There is a desire in some quarters to spiritualize the meaning and disassociate Paul’s words here from applying to anything so palpable as a bodily resurrection. But this is exactly what Paul points to. It was the center of the message he preached to the Corinthians originally. He told them not simply to trust his word, but directed them to literally hundreds of others who could validate his claim. If Jesus was actually resurrected, then his identity and purpose as the Son of God is validated, and we have real hope that our faith in his identity and purpose will translate into our own resurrection from the dead. If Jesus was not resurrected, we have no such hope, no such reason for expecting anything. At best, Paul and the Corinthians (and by extension you and I today) would continue to be faithful Jews, following the Mosaic Covenant and awaiting the promised Messiah. This passage – particularly vs.3-11 – is also important because these particular verses are acknowledged as Paul’s even by skeptics who claim that most everything attributed to him was not written by him. While this claim is spurious, at least in these verses there is a common ground to acknowledge that Paul’s message was Christ crucified and resurrected, and this was not something added to the Gospel message by later Christians.

Luke 6:17-26 – While these are understood by many people to be words of great beauty and comfort, imagine if they were not being said with authority. How presumptuous and, at best, idealistic! They only have the power to comfort if they are actually true rather than wishful thinking. Likewise, Jesus’ warnings to those enjoying the benefits of creation at the expense of others would be little more than the threats of a child, if Jesus is not actually the Son of God, fully divine and therefore capable of warning of a judgment that truly is coming! If we remove the resurrection from Jesus’ story, then Jesus becomes just this guy, and his words become at best ineffectual, and at worst outright lies or at least inane chattering.

But if Jesus truly is the Son of God, if his death does accomplish real reconciliation with God, real defeat of evil, real forgiveness of sins, then these words become some of the most beautiful in the world, as they can be trusted. Trusted even when evil has the upper hand and it seems that it will never be stopped. Trusted even when our personal experiences don’t reflect these promises fully. There is truly hope, evil truly has been defeated and that defeat will be revealed one day. Nobody will be lost or forgotten or overlooked who placed their trust in the Son of God and his words.

Book Review – Miracles

February 5, 2019

Miracles – by C.S. Lewis

 

In this book, C.S. Lewis lays out the claim that Biblical (or even non-Biblical) accounts of miracles should not  be ruled out a priori as impossible.  He begins with this basic issue – the philosophical assumption – often masked as scientific – that everything we know is a closed system dependent totally and exclusively on causal relationships.  That there is, by definition, nothing outside this system, and therefore nothing and no one to interfere with the purely cause and effect progression of events within the system.  The universe – and in multi-verse theories or multiple dimensions the sum total of all universes/dimensions – exists in essentially a snow globe, where outside interference or activity is impossible.

Lewis seeks to undermine this by arguing that human consciousness, the ability to contemplate the system, is just such an example of something outside the system, as it could never develop purely from the causal relationships of a closed system.  This opening section is perhaps the most difficult part of the book but also the most important, as everything after hinges on the reader either agreeing, being convinced, or suspending disbelief of this premise in order to contemplate those that follow.

Lewis’ further explorations of miracles is also interesting, though perhaps not as detailed as many would like.  He is dealing with the concept of miracles, less so with specific miracles.  He offers some helpful reflections on how Biblical miracles differ markedly from miraculous events in other systems of mythology, retaining an essential synchronicity or flow with the created order.

This is a helpful book for those who struggle with the idea of miracles.  I imagine that, although Lewis is a Christian and this is his focus, the book would be handy for anyone of any belief persuasion trying to make sense of why or how anyone would believe in something that is, by definition, so rare and difficult to corroborate.  I doubt this book would convince a hard agnostic or atheist to reconsider, but for those less pre-disposed in their convictions it could be very helpful, and should be very helpful to Christians who might feel a bit embarrassed about the supernatural elements of Christianity and the Bible.  Definitely worth a read!

Reading Ramblings – February 10, 2019

February 3, 2019

Reading Ramblings

Date: Fifth Sunday after the Epiphany, February 10, 2019

Texts: Isaiah 6:1-8; Psalm 138; 1 Corinthians 14:1-33; Luke 5:1-11

Context: It’s popular parlance to talk about searching for God, or asking someone have you found Jesus? In reality, searching for God is not something we are able to do, as though God were playing hide and seek with us like a giggling child. God’s Word tells us that despite the abundance of pointers to him (Psalm 19, Romans 1), it is He who continually pursues us. As we come into relationship with him we recognize our unworthiness and unpreparedness for this relationship. We who have rebelled against the rightful King discover that the King wants us to be his friend, and is willing to work with us and within us and at times despite us to replace our rebellion and hate with obedience and love, conforming us back into the image we have rebelled from and against.

Isaiah 6 – Isaiah is a prophet in the late 8th century BC, speaking to leadership in Jerusalem over the course of four kings and several decades. Here in chapter 6 we have Isaiah’s commissioning, his formal and divine preparation to deliver the Word of God. This isn’t necessarily predictive of every prophet’s experience, but Isaiah is affirmed in his role as well as in his readiness to perform it. Brought face to face with the holiness and majesty of God, Isaiah on his own merits can only despair, aware of how improper it is for him – a sinful man – to be in the presence of the divine. God does not exhort Isaiah to purity, but rather provides it to him. God does what Isaiah cannot do for himself. Thus emboldened, Isaiah can attend to the difficult task of calling for penitence and faithfulness from leaders bent on self-reliance.

Psalm 138 – God is to be praised for many reasons. As the creator of all things, for his enduring presence and power, and here, for his love and faithfulness. In a world where truth is subject to regular reinterpretation or subjective rejection or acceptance, where people change their minds and identities like outfits, where technology outpaces our ability or even desire to keep up, let alone to think meaningfully about the implications of our automation, God’s faithfulness and love are unique and distinct in their enduring nature. There is no time at which God does not love his creation and seek to restore it to proper relationship with him through the death and resurrection of the Son of God. There is no one to whom God does not extend the offer of amnesty and forgiveness. We can know that whenever we reach out to God in prayer and praise, He is there and listening. This faithfulness and love should be the wisdom upon which human understanding and application is built. Good leaders ought to not simply emulate God’s faithfulness and love but actually lean upon it and promulgate it, leading by example in their recognition and praise of God’s love. And because God is not fickle, we need never worry that He is distracted or disinterested, and that even when we are enduring difficult situations, He is with us and will deliver us ultimately, strengthening our hearts to face whatever is necessary. His enduring faithfulness is the grounding and baseline and rationale for our own limited and flawed efforts to improve ourselves and one another and the world around us.

1 Corinthians 14:1-33 – I expanded the assigned reading to include Paul’s full teaching on this topic rather than just part of it. This chapter continues the flow of Paul’s thoughts from Chapter 12, and fits within the overall scheme of the letter in drawing the Corinthians back into unity in Christ rather than division among their own ideas. God the Holy Spirit is the giver of all gifts, and He gives gifts that are varied in nature, but always for the end goal of building up the Church (Chapter 12). All are to be grounded in and submissive to the overriding, greatest gift which is love (Chapter 13). The Corinthians appear to prize speaking in tongues more than other gifts, but they need to ensure that this gift – like all others – is acknowledged to be from God and used for the blessing of his people. Paul paints a picture of spiritual gifts that are rarely – if ever – given beyond our ability to control their use. We who are granted a particular gift must determine the best way to apply it.

Paul begins by distinguishing who speaking in tongues benefits. Firstly, it benefits the individual speaker (vs.1-5). In this respect, prophecy is to be desired more than speaking in tongues because it more directly builds up the body of Christ. Speaking in tongues benefits the body only if the gift of interpretation is also given, so that those present might know what is being said (vs.6-19). The mere fact that somebody is speaking in a different language is secondary to what is being said! So Paul desires that the Corinthians keep their focus on the community rather than the individual (v.12). Paul concludes by indicating that the gift of tongues is primarily for the outsider, rather than the community. The outsider who can be spoken to in their own language will take note (Acts 2). However this effect is counteracted if everyone is so busy speaking in tongues that it appears to be a circus act rather than God the Holy Spirit at work. The outsider may be compelled to faith by finding someone who can speak her language. But only insofar as what is said is meaningful in itself, and in this respect Paul once again highlights prophecy, which encompasses more than just speaking the future, but speaking the Word of God. It is the Word of God that convicts, creates faith, and draws the hearer into repentance and grace through the good news of the Son of God, Jesus the Christ.

Luke 5:1-11 – Jesus does not audition disciples. There are not eager people flocking to him seeking to be his followers. Nobody has found Jesus, so to speak. Rather, He finds them. John 1 makes it clear that Jesus had already met these men near the Jordan River, outside of Jerusalem, at some time previously (perhaps a matter of a few weeks). There is a relationship already, but there is not faith. Faith only can make it clear to Peter that he does not belong in the presence of Jesus, similar to Isaiah in the presence of God. It must come from God to assure us that He has made it possible for us to be with him. He makes us worthy, rather than waiting for us to become worthy so He can approach. They are able to leave behind everything to follow the one who makes it clear that He has everything to offer. Not simply fish and sustenance as here, but ultimately eternal life (John 6:68). We need never wonder or worry if we are good enough for God. The answer to that in our own strength is always no. But we are assured by the gracious faithfulness of God that He always comes to us to make us worthy. As such, there is no past so blackened that it cannot be wiped clean and restored to innocence in the blood of Christ. There is no cry for forgiveness that is too far gone to be answered. If you wonder if Jesus can be for you, hear his words, that He has come that anyone who trusts in him will be saved (John 3:16).

Book Review – Between the Testaments

January 28, 2019

Between the Testaments by D.S. Russell

This book has some interesting information, though on the whole it is very much an introductory sort of book.  The bibliography is rather brief (and of course 60-some years old).  On the whole it displays what I think of as a typical mid-century approach to Biblical scholarship.  Russell assumes and presents wholeheartedly the idea that the Biblical texts cannot be trusted in terms of their presumed authorship dates (Isaiah can’t really be 8th century BC since, of course, that would mean it’s prophetic about events that will happen much later!) and at times in terms of their content.  Other sources are presumed to be more reliable, particularly if they don’t have a theological bent to them, or at least one that we aren’t expected to take seriously.

While some of the background information is helpful I wanted greater depth and detail.  And of course as someone who takes God and therefore the possibility of prophecy seriously, I reject the basic assumptions that Russell is very comfortable with.  It isn’t that he has better data or information that I’m lacking, he’s just comfortable with a different understanding of God and therefore the Biblical text that ultimately, in my opinion, undoes both.

Reading Ramblings – February 3, 2019

January 27, 2019

Reading Ramblings

Date: Fourth Sunday after the Epiphany, February 3, 2019

Texts: Jeremiah 1:4-10; Psalm 71:1-6; 1 Corinthians 12:31b-13:13; Luke 4:31-44

Context: The season of Ordinary Time can seem a bit random. Not governed by an overriding event like the other major seasons of the liturgical year, it offers an opportunity to delve into what theologians sometimes refer to as the full counsel of God. The Bible speaks about a stunning array of topics and issues. Sometimes more than we’d prefer, sometimes fewer than we’d hope for. Sometimes in nearly mind-numbing depth, and other times in a cursory fashion that leaves us clamoring for more. Many preachers use this time for a variety of sermon series’ and other means of providing structure. I still prefer to utilize the assigned texts from the Revised Common Lectionary (RCL) – LCMS edition, but I look for ways to preach on a variety of different topics and ideas. My preference is to look for a theme common to all the readings, but sometimes I prefer to focus on just one. In light of recent legislation in

Jeremiah 1:4-10 – Powerful verses in this day and age, that declare that the Lord is the author of life, and life begins well before birth. If God can know us before we are even conceived, how much more important is it that we should recognize that life – once conceived -as a gift of God and deserving of full acknowledgment and treatment the same as any other human being? In a culture that seeks to redefine life to fit convenience, we can never forget that life is not our creation. The Creator of the Universe works in and through human beings to bring new life, but remains the sole author of all such life. We are bound to acknowledge his sovereignty and power in this respect, and to treat those lives as precious regardless of age.

Psalm 71:1-6 – Most people would agree that we should save others from wicked, unjust, and cruel people. What matters is how we identify perpetrators as well as victims. Ultimately God is the one who saves, and his salvation is not merely temporary or for the span of a lifetime. He alone is able to save eternally, and He alone is able to save even from the grave, even from the worst depredations we perpetrate on one another. When we act to save the innocent and the helpless, we do so guided by His wisdom, and trusting ultimately that He will do what we cannot, and that in Him, there is hope not only for the least remembered and overlooked victim of evil, but hope even for those who perpetrated the offense. For this God is indeed worthy of praise!

1 Corinthians 12:31b-13:13 – These verses are popular at weddings. They are full of hope and beauty, capturing the best we can aspire to in our love for one another. But ultimately these verses are not good news about what we extend to each other, but rather condemning verses. Who loves like this? Who can love so perfectly and completely and totally? God alone can. While these verses should serve to inspire, they should also serve to humble. They should also serve as warnings against our pride and arrogance, against assuming that we are justified because we have fulfilled them perfectly while others have not. Love is the necessary basis for all of our aspirations and actions, but love not as arbitrarily defined by us, but as defined by God. God alone as the source and embodiment of love can define how love should properly express itself. All other gifts and particularly spiritual gifts are granted and exercised within the God-defined realm and motivation of love. Anytime we seek to use a gift of God’s for a purpose other than love, we stand condemned and in need of repentance. Anytime we seek to justify our cruelty or unfeeling attitudes towards others in spiritual or Biblical language we are condemned and called to repentance. Love is what will remain when we are brought into the presence of God. First and foremost his perfect love for us, described so beautifully in these verses, and then secondarily and in response, our love for him, which will be perfected and restored to that love of which only Adam, Eve, and Jesus have been capable of in all of human history. How magnificent it will be in that day to love so completely and purely!

Luke 4:31-44 – If we consider the sick or demon-oppressed to be in need of rescuing, Jesus proves that He possesses the authority to do so. While we are prone to think of illnesses in terms of bacteria and viruses, and struggle with the idea of demon-possession, Jesus demonstrates the the intricacies of these matters are no match simply for the Word through whom all things were created (John 1). These are some of the afflictions we are promised release from in the day of our Lord’s return and the resurrection of the dead to new life. Note that the crowds marvel not at the existence of demons, but at Jesus’ authority over them. Note also the distinction Luke (traditionally thought to be a physician) makes between demon possession and illness. The fact that people were readily able to accept the existence of demons doesn’t mean they couldn’t recognize illness for what it was.

Life is a precious gift from God. While sin has brought sickness and all manner of other suffering into our world, God remains the source of healing, both temporally and eternally. It is always appropriate to pray for God for healing while trusting in his good and gracious will in all situations and circumstances.

He Says it Better

January 24, 2019

lewis