Archive for July, 2011

Now You Tell Me?!

July 28, 2011

Being more than a bit trepidacious about my lack of in-depth political savvy, I’ll admit that up until now I’ve tended to favor the Republicans who are demanding accountability and cuts in government spending and resisting demands by the Democratic party to raise the debt ceiling.  In my scanning of headlines, this has invariably been portrayed primarily in partisan terms.  Those awful Democrats just want to tax and spend.  Those mean Republicans are being unreasonable and holding our nation hostage.  It gets old, fast, because it isn’t very informative.  

Without taking time to comment on the relative accuracy of Republicans being mean or Democrats being awful, I found this little tidbit of information very interesting.  Both Republicans and Democrats have raised the debt ceiling in the past.  Reagan did so 18 times.  George W. Bush did it seven times.  Obama has already done it three times.  In other words, it is hardly a practice without precedent, it has been the sitting president & his party that has had to take the heat for asking to increase the debt ceiling, and whichever was the opposing party invariably criticized it.  The Democrats have vigorously opposed raising the debt ceiling under Republican presidencies.  The Republicans have vigorously opposed raising the debt ceiling under Democratic presidencies.
For me, this clouds the matter further.  And I’m far more inclined to feel that the Republicans are grandstanding, even while I wholeheartedly believe that we must begin trimming government spending significantly, as going indefinitely deeper into debt seems to make no sense at all.  
I just wonder why this basic fact hasn’t been front and center all along in the news?  Or have I just missed it?  

Whose Poster Boy?

July 26, 2011

The anti-Christian blogosphere is fairly rife with the shrill shrieks of those who believe their anti-Christian assertions have been justified by the Norway killer Anders Breivik.  He said the word God!  He mentioned praying!  He said “Christian”!  And suddenly we are told that this is the logical conclusion of religion, of Islam and Christianity.  However intelligent folks are reading in his manifesto ample evidence that not only refutes the assertions of those who would point to this as yet another reason to further diminish the power or influence of Christianity.  In fact, his manifesto points out the rather basic fact that he is not a Christian, but rather sees Christianity as a cultural-political glue.  It can provide the cohesiveness the West needs to resist the tide of Islam and other influences, and it can provide this cohesiveness apart from any actual claim to theological truth.  Christianity is not a faith that Anders places himself into (or thinks anyone else truly should, for that matter), but rather an expeditious fortification against far less appealing world views and political philosophies.

Here are two different blogs in the past day or so.  Both critique the claim that Anders is somehow a Christian in any theological sense, and both point towards his use of Christianity for something far different, and through means far more evil, than anything the Christian Scriptures point towards.  
The first is from a theological site that I respect for it’s intelligent treatment of the faith and particularly Reformation theology – the White Horse Inn.  
This second blog is along the same lines, but the author has a name for this phenomenon which Anders is just one – albeit extreme – example of.  I haven’t fully thought through all of the implications of what the author is asserting, but it seems to make sense.  What do you think?
I think both these authors offer an insightful way of cutting through opportunistic rhetoric to examine what Anders actually said and what the basis of those actual words is both theologically and philosophically.  The result is disturbing.  So disturbing, that his requested lawyer has already insisted that Anders must be insane.  
Insane, or just the logical byproduct of a system of thought, of a philosophy and worldview where the most abhorrent behavior can be justified as ‘protecting’ a people, a nation, a way of life.  People don’t understand why the moral codes and norms that Western civilization rests on have to be linked to the Judeo-Christian Scriptures.  They are perplexed when Christians insist that morality is a universal given from the outside rather than created from the inside.  Yet whenever they see examples of individuals completely divested from any sense of objective moral norm, people who are taking to logical conclusions (not the only logical conclusions certainly, but certainly no less logical than other, more benign conclusions) the assertions that morality is something that we decide for ourselves, they insist these people must be insane.  
It would seem that those who argue for moral relativism wish it to be relative only in certain conditions favorable to their own goals – often in areas of sexual morality and gender roles.  In other areas they wish it to remain very, very un-relative.  They naively assume that if you unhinge moral behavior from any sort of objective standard, you will be able to control the outcomes and direct moral evolution in the directions that you wish it to go while preventing it from going in directions you disagree with.  
Which is precisely what Anders was trying to do in his bloody rampage.  Control the direction of moral and cultural drift.  Violently.  Coldly.  Perhaps moral relativists need to rethink their assertions and expectations.  It could be that those assertions are insane, rather than just the actions and individuals that root themselves in those assertions.  


July 26, 2011

I’m not sure off the top of my head how many presidents have publicly mused about the temptation to sidestep the laws that placed them into office in order to do things their own way rather than work within the system of checks and balances.  And I’m not sure how many have justified their public musing on the idea of “bypassing” Congress to elicit applause and encouragement from the very voters they should be educating on the reasons for checks and balances.  

I can only hope that it’s lots and lots.  Otherwise, this clip really frightens me.  I found the full speech just to see what he says after the sound bite clip shown above.  If you want to hear the rest of the speech (or the entire speech), you can click here.  
Adding to my disturbment is that he doesn’t explain that his sentiment is misplaced.  He doesn’t lead the hearers back from the edge of self-righteous indignation or revolutionary fervor.  He doesn’t demonstrate any awareness that the freedom he’s opining about is problematic.  He states that the Constitution doesn’t allow him to bypass Congress.  He doesn’t indicate whether he’s in agreement with that limitation or not.  It is left as more of a “I would if I could” sort of expression.  And that’s problematic for me as a hearer/voter/citizen.
The idea of checks and balances is not to make everything easier.  Lord knows it would be easier to act unilaterally, and I’m sure every president and legislator has privately harbored those sentiments at one point or another in their career.  The idea of checks and balances is to prevent the likely-misguided notion that any one person (or one group of people) has The Answer, and everyone else is completely wrong.  Checks and balances exist both at the legislative level, and hopefully at the level of ego as well, constantly reminding the men and women we entrust to public office that they do not have all the answers, and that even if they do, the process of governance is far more important than the particular outcomes of governance.  We are free to make poor decisions together.  Making poor decisions together is far better than any one person (or group of people) making correct decisions unilaterally.
That’s our system.  That’s our philosophy of governance.  It may not be the best one or most perfect one – which is why the American Democracy is traditionally referred to as an “experiment”.  But to publicly joke about the desire to scuttle the experiment without clarifying your actual support of the experiment, that’s dangerous.  
Unless, as I said earlier, lots of other people have done it.  In which case, I’ll look forward to all sorts of references to political quotes of all stripes (United States elected officials only, please).  And frankly I’ll be more relieved to see them, so I’ll know that perhaps this one shouldn’t be taken so seriously.  

Well, Now That You Put it That Way…

July 24, 2011

…my plans for next weekend seem a little, well, weak.  

Catch a Wave…

July 23, 2011

So our oldest son was taking surf lessons this week through the city summer rec program.  From 9am until noon each day this week, he squirmed into a wet suit, lugged a full-size surfboard across the beach, engaged in warm up exercises, and was fairly unceremoniously sent out into the ocean to stand up on a plank of wood careening through the waves.  He was aided in this by 2-3 affable, young, beach-hippie-surfer dudes and dudettes.  They were patient and encouraging.  The eight or so kids that came in and out of the class over the past five days experienced varying degrees of success.

Monday there was one girl in the class who made it to her feet and never looked back.  She seemed born for it.  A natural.  We cheered her on.  But as the days slipped by and she continued to make it look easy while our son struggled to wrangle his board through the break zone and out into the waiting waters to catch a wave, it was hard not to compare.  Hard not to wonder whether our son would make it beyond riding the board in on his knees as Tuesday and Wednesday slipped into Thursday.
We sought to be the Understanding Parents Who Don’t Measure Success By Outcomes But Rather By The Process of Learning Itself.  Some moments it was easier to be those parents.  Other times we just wondered why he hadn’t gotten to his feet yet while that @$#!%! girl did it every five minutes.  
We want things so badly for our kids at times.  We want them to be happy without being foolish.  To hold their baptismal grace with the humble casualness of saints and sinners simultaneously who are still in the throes of learning what that means and looks like in their lives each day.  We want them to be well-liked but not dependent on the opinions of others.  We want them to be strong in their self-confidence without the cockiness that can lead to a disregard of others.  We want them to be obedient but willing and able to ask questions and feel confident that we’re there for them and love them, even if they still have to eat their vegetables and refrain from smacking their siblings.  We want them to be autonomous while retaining a firm understanding of themselves as part of a larger family with all of the blessings and responsibilities that come along with it.  We want them to grow and develop in body and mind and spirit into all that they are capable of, and more than they believe they have the capacity for.  We want them to be willing to try new things, willing to admit when they like something that they thought they wouldn’t, and willing to deal graciously with things that they thought they’d like but really don’t.  
We want a lot of things for our kids.  And this week that included learning to surf.  But as much as we want these things for them, we can’t force them.  Don’t really see the benefit of forcing them, even if we could.  We try to model (imperfectly).  We try to exhort (sporadically).  We sometimes discipline (agonizingly).  But in the end they must come to the realization that we know what we’re talking about and that we have their best in mind even when it doesn’t feel that way to them.  And if they don’t or can’t, then we have to figure out how to love them in the midst of that, adjusting as necessary, never marginalizing the important things while constantly loving them and seeking to suggest to them who they could be, if they’d just let themselves.  
I imagine that these sorts of issues are common to all parents in one way or another.  At least I hope they are.  And I give thanks for those moments of fuzzy clarity where I think I better understand the heart of Our Father who art in heaven.  Better understand His frustration and love with His children.  And better understand the feeling of many of his children so bound in fear and uncertainty that they can’t quite trust or believe what He’s leading them towards, the people He always intended us to be.  
And I imagine briefly the celebration in heaven when one of those children climbs wobbling to their knees, trusting in the presence and strength and encouragement of their Father.  Imperfectly.  Temporarily.  But growing all the same in the process.  Sort of like Alec did this morning, on the last day of class, when he was able to ride three waves in standing up on his surfboard.  

Rest in Peace?

July 21, 2011

This innocuous article caught my eye this morning.  Famed Nazi Rudolf Hess has been disinterred from his burial spot.  His remains have been cremated and either have been or will be scattered at sea (though Wikipedia indicates they are to be scattered at an unidentified lake).  This was done in order to minimize or eliminate the practice of Neo-Nazi groups and adherents showing up to pay their respects on the anniversary of his death.

It caught my eye for several reasons.  First off, Hess was buried in a Lutheran-run cemetery.  In 1987 when Hess died, the church had allowed Hess’ wishes to be buried there where members of his family are buried.  But the church has rescinded that permission due to the unwanted attention of Neo-Nazi supporters.  Spandau Prison, where Hess was held for over 30 years, was destroyed after he died (he was the last inmate) for similar reasons.  
It makes sense on the surface, but it still leaves me with some underlying discomfort.  Certainly I can understand why a German church would not want to be associated in any way with promulgating Nazism in any form.  I remember all too vividly the personal horror that German friends of ours experienced when visiting Dachau with my wife and I some years ago.  People born long after the war still burdened with an overwhelming sense of cultural guilt that I can’t pretend to understand fully.  I can well see how avoiding the glorification of one of the most powerful members of the Nazi party would be very important to the town and the church.
On the other hand, it raises questions.  I’m no expert on Hess’ life by any means, but it would appear that at least his father was Lutheran.  Was Hess Lutheran?  Did he consider himself so?  Given the rather fascinating details of his life, could there be reasonable room for doubt on this matter?  
What is the role of Christian burial?  What obligation does the church have to respect the memory of those who died in the faith?  What about those whose faith was less obvious?  And how to deal with the understandably horrifying situation where the grave of someone is being used to continue or foster the type of hateful ideologies that at least to some degree dictated a significant portion of Hess’ life?  Is there a middle ground between repudiating a Christian burial and allowing the free rein of unwanted attention?  What would you do if this was your congregation’s cemetery (does your congregation even have one?!)?  
This seems to be an interesting footnote to an intriguing life.  While I in no way sanction Nazism or any of it’s beliefs, I wonder if there was reason to suspect that Hess died as a Christian (even a Lutheran one!), and whether that should impact a congregation’s decision about how to handle the earthly remains.  Thoughts?

Because I Said So

July 21, 2011

Granted, the Huffington Post is hardly to be confused as a bastion of unbiased reporting.  Still, I find it interesting to read their takes on things from time to time.  If nothing else, it helps keep the heart rate elevated.

So this editorial on what makes a Christian is fascinating.  Let me say a few things at the outset.  I tend to side with his overall point – that the number of people who claim to be Christian is probably inflated somewhat compared to the number of people who practice anything resembling historical, orthodox Christianity – Sunday morning or otherwise.  His distinction of fans as opposed to followers has some usefulness.  I’ll also grant that the bar he wants to set for Christians is headed in the right direction – more taking up our crosses, less rooting for Jesus from the sidelines.  
But this article is problematic in several ways.
First off, he has his own definitions of both what Christianity means and what it should look like.  Not surprisingly, both of these are measurable in terms of social justice.  If there are Christians, there shouldn’t be poor people or hungry people or any of the other social ills that plague our nation and world.  Where there are Christians, these things shouldn’t be an issue any longer.
That’s a nice idea, but on what does he base this?  Certainly not on Jesus’ own admission in Matthew 26:11.  There Jesus makes the rather astounding assertion that while He is around, the task of his followers is to glorify him, not seek to end the world’s problems.  Now that the incarnate Son of God isn’t among us, we should definitely be turning our attention towards glorifying him in other ways – and serving the least among us certainly can be a way of glorifying Christ (though it needn’t necessarily be in and of itself – an atheist can care for the poor just as well as a Christian).  
The disagreement I have with Pastor Kyle Idleman is that he has determined what Christianity is about.  He has set up a metric for evaluating it according to his definition, and he finds most Christians lacking.  Convenient.  Dangerously so.  In fact, the danger breaks wide open when he attempts to quote Scripture and interpret it for us.  Quoting Luke 9:23 is fine – that is indeed the measure of faith.  But then Pastor Idleman immediately twists these words to suit his personal definition of what faith should look like.  The emphasis quickly slides away from “following me” to “take up a cross” (emphasis mine).  
Jesus doesn’t say “a” cross though.  He says the equivalent of “his own” cross.  In other words, we don’t get to choose our crosses.  A cross is something that is forced upon us, as it was forced upon Christ.  We take it up painfully, reluctantly even.  But the decision is whether to take it up, not whether or not we’re particularly fond of what it looks and feels like.  Since it’s a cross, odds are we aren’t going to like what it looks and feels like.  If we did, we’d call it something else.  Like a choice.  Or a pillow.  Or a big donation.  Or eliminating poverty.  
The examples Pastor Idleman chooses to support his assertions of what a follower of Christ looks like are admirable.  But they’re also highly visible and public and measurable, and they’re also within his rather narrow definition of what a Christian looks and acts like.  If Jesus didn’t bother to clarify exactly what the cross ought to look like, how is it that Pastor Idleman feels he is qualified to fill in that blank?  Jesus’ cross brought his physical death.  Pastor Idleman’s examples are all of people giving out of their wealth in one way or another.  That’s important and beautiful, but it’s hardly the equivalent of the soon-to-be crucified savior telling his soon-to-be martyred followers that they’re going to have to take up their crosses and follow his example.  
Earlier in Matthew’s account of Jesus’ ministry, Jesus preaches what for Pastor Idleman and myself is a particularly hard thing – that we aren’t supposed to make a big deal out of the things that we do for the kingdom of heaven.  In fact, Matthew 6 leads off with the idea that our giving and caring and loving should be rather discrete.  And if it’s rather discrete, then it’s very possible that a great deal more love is being shown by a great many more Christians than Pastor Idleman’s beautiful but rather skewed examples would lead us to believe.  
And if that’s the case, we need to be cautious about determining who is and who isn’t a follower of Jesus Christ.  I imagine we’re all going to be rather surprised about those categories when Jesus returns.  That was certainly the case in the parable in Matthew 25:31ff.  As such, I’ll attempt to remain encouraging, hopeful, and very, very generous in my assessments, even as I exhort people to greater sacrifice, greater service, greater love (myself included!).  Most of the time I don’t know the crosses that the people around me are bearing.  But I’m grateful our Savior does.

Bruce Springsteen Sings Romans 7

July 18, 2011

The lectionary readings for the past few weeks have been leading us through the book of Romans.  I was listening to this song the other day by Bruce Springsteen and it clicked for me.  This is what Romans 7 looks like, in case we want to romanticize it and isolate it from reality.  This is what it looks like (or sounds like) to suffer with who we are and who we know we ought to be, to suffer and struggle and to never break free of the chains that hold us in place.  

Bruce isn’t singing about theology here, he’s living it, observing it, recording it.  That’s authentic theology.  He doesn’t get to the Gospel, to the answer and solution (at least not in this particular song), but he does understand the need.  Understands it and conveys it with a rawness that we all too often are lacking in the hymns and praise songs on Sunday morning.

Don’t Say We Didn’t Warn You

July 15, 2011

One of the issues with redefining our understandings and practices of marriage is that once you undo the fundamental, biological, historical, social, cultural, and theological underpinnings of marriage, you leave it fairly open to arbitrary redefinition.  While the homosexual community may be the ones arguing most publicly and vociferously for the redefinition of marriage according to terms more friendly to their goals, they aren’t the only ones making arguments and seeking to redefine it.

An interesting little note here about a lawsuit seeking to undo our prohibitions against polygamy.  It has nothing to do with homosexuality – in fact, it’s based in a vigorously heterosexual context.  But the result is the same.  Redefining marriage, so that in the end marriage becomes essentially meaningless.  The goal can be reached from myriad directions but the ultimate effect is the same.  In many ways, the arguments behind polygamy are a lot stronger, since as the author notes the practice of polygamy is legally valid in other parts of the world (whereas homosexual marriage, up until the last 20 years or so, has not).  
Hats off to Gene Veith’s blog for putting me on to this article.  I highly recommend his site for cultural and theological reflections from a Lutheran perspective.

Measuring the Seeds

July 10, 2011

I had an opportunity to attend a special event this evening, despite the fact that I wasn’t really in the mood for it.  No, I wasn’t one of the few special people invited to mingle with William & Kate at the Santa Barbara Polo Club just a few miles from where we live.  Rather, I was invited to attend the graduation ceremony for five women and nine men from the Santa Barbara Rescue Mission, where I’ve begun volunteering in terms of mentoring and leading worship on occasion.  

I’ve attended more than a few graduation ceremonies over the years.  Almost 10 years working in support positions for the University of Phoenix, another 11 years as a full-time and then adjunct faculty member for UAT – I’ve heard pomp and circumstance more than a few times despite never attending a graduation ceremony for my own undergraduate or graduate degrees.  Graduations are special events, and the one this evening was more so.  These weren’t people who had navigated an academic curriculum.  These were people who literally had their lives turned around and given back to them.  Each of these graduates has spent the last 12 months in a clean/sober living program at the Rescue Mission.  
It was a mixed bag of folks graduating, and it was a mixed bag of folks there to congratulate them.  Lots of tattoos and interesting hair-dos sprinkled amidst the smart dresses and fashionably casual menswear.  Looking at the graduates, as well as the alumni of the program who had come to support the graduates who in some cases were friends and family members, I couldn’t help think of the Gospel text for tomorrow morning – the Parable of the Sower from Matthew 13.  
A sower is out doing his job and the seed lands on all types of different soil, with varying results.  I thought of the parable in relation to congregations seeking to understand how to do outreach, how to share the Gospel with people.  I thought about how often, we agonize over how to share the Gospel with just the right people.  As though the sower hadn’t just sown the seed, but rather placed individual seeds into specific points on the ground.  After an extensive survey of the field to determine the ideal planting locations.  And a chemical analysis of the soil to see the most favorable spots.  As though the seed is so limited that it mustn’t be wasted, so much a part of our own being that if any of it fails to produce, we ourselves as congregations and individuals are diminished.
With that sort of approach to sowing, we’re going to hold on to a lot more seed than we actually plant.  We may be pleased to be able to point to return on investment-style reports that demonstrate that our evangelism or outreach or advertising efforts have yielded x number of visitors or members per dollar spent or hour invested.  But we may be missing out on so much.
Because we aren’t soil experts.  In fact, we’re remarkably bad judges of soil.  Or perhaps we’re just bad judges of the seed.  It’s the seed that has the power, the potential that is actualized into growth.  The soil only hosts it.  And while some soil just isn’t suitable, we aren’t always able to determine which soil is which.  
The men and women up on front this evening were an unlikely assortment of soil.  A year ago, I imagine there would have been few present who would have said that investing time in that soil would ever bear fruit.  And yet a year later, they stand clean and sober and scrubbed and embarrassed at all the fuss, but also furiously proud of what God has done in their lives, and what they themselves have accomplished as well.
If the Rescue Mission had turned them away a year ago because they weren’t the right kind of soil, they wouldn’t have graduated today.  Some would be in prison.  Some would be on the streets.  Some would be trapped in addictions.  Some might even be dead.  The same could be said of the people that need to hear the transforming power of the Gospel.  What’s more, we know the end result for those who don’t hear and accept the Word.  We know that there’s not another program or alternative out there for them.  
The Church doesn’t go out of it’s way to throw seed outside of the field.  There are times and situations and people that clearly are not receptive and we’re not called to spend all our time trying to coax a harvest off of the path or the rocky ground.  But we are called to sow.  And I think to sow generously, lavishly, even carelessly.  The seed isn’t ours after all, it has been given to us specifically for sowing.  It doesn’t run out.  Every time we dip our hand back in the sack, there’s more to be given.  And we aren’t responsible for the harvest result.  We’re just called to sow.
I pray that I become a better sower.  More lavish.  More generous.  More careless, even.  Because I know I’m a lousy judge of soil, and I know that I underestimate the power of the seed.  But I can give thanks that probably more often than not, I’ll be surprised by what God does through seed that I thought fell on lousy soil.