Archive for September, 2012

Age of Accountability

September 28, 2012

I found the news coverage of this situation to be rather curious.  Since I don’t know the personal details, my critique here is not so much of the individuals involved, but primarily with how they are portrayed through media such as this.  

I’ll begin my statements with this clarification, which I’m sure will be stripped off by anyone who cares to quote me out of context, but what the heck.  I don’t in any way approve of this situation or the actions of either individual involved.  The teacher who ran off with a 15-year old student needs to be held accountable for his actions which are most definitely criminal in nature.  
Let me clarify further – 15-year olds are capable of monumentally stupid decisions, which it is the responsibility of their parents and teachers to help dissuade them from.  When either parents or teachers fail in this responsibility either actively or passively, stupid decisions should be expected from time to time.
That being said (or ignored), the coverage in this story is interesting.  Particularly, I find it interesting that there is nothing in this story that indicates any level of participation or responsibility by the young woman involved.  The language is entirely victim-oriented, as though she was somehow rendered unconscious and dragged around Europe in a suitcase.  
At least based on the limited reading I’ve done, and this article in particular, it would seem that the young woman was involved in a highly-inappropriate, ongoing relationship with her math teacher which culminated in them either escaping to Europe together or simply going there on some sort of moron’s holiday, as though this wouldn’t set off international alarms.  I’m guessing that based on the news coverage and their failure to turn themselves in, it was the former.  Somehow, both of these people convinced themselves that they could run away together and avoid identification, capture, and years of therapy and imprisonment, respectively.  
But as far as I can tell, there aren’t any reports that he used a gun on her or otherwise forced her.  And however distasteful it may be to say it, articles like this ultimately teach young people (the few that are likely and able to read them) that they are not responsible for their actions in any way.  See my disclaimer above – I’m not suggesting that 15-year olds are always able to think clearly.  I’m assuming that the teacher encouraged the young woman in her affections and actions, contributing greatly to her poor decision-making over a long period of time, not just in this continental escapade.  For that he should be properly disciplined and punished.  
I suppose that down the line, once things are more clearly understood, it could come out that she was forced into all of this.  But I doubt that.  I suspect that down the line it will turn out that she had a huge crush on him or loved him or whatever, and that she was a willing – if extremely ill-informed or manipulated – partner in the relationship and eventual trip.  But that won’t get reported on.  Certainly not in the headline-grabbing way it has been thus far.  
I’m sure that the papers can’t suggest that she had a role to play in all of this for fear of lawsuits.  The family will likely publicly maintain insistence that she was a complete victim, in no way responsible at all for her actions, and that her teacher is completely and solely to blame for abducting her.  He certainly is responsible.  But failing to acknowledge moral and intellectual failures on both parts is inaccurate and dishonest (again, assuming that new evidence doesn’t come to light to indicate that she was drugged or otherwise forced against her will).  And young people continue to be taught that their actions and thoughts and emotions are not their responsibility.  Not their fault.  Not anything that they can be held legally or morally accountable for.  
That hardly seems healthy, as I suspect that simply reaching the age of majority doesn’t flip a magic switch in a young person’s head from “Not Responsible” to “Responsible”.  I’m glad that the young woman is safe and will be home soon.  I hope that there will be lots of discussions with her by her family – I won’t assume she has a pastor or church community as well – to help her see not just that what she did was wrong (again, insofar as she was acting consciously), but to identify the process by which her thoughts and emotions eventually led her to actions that had disastrous and potentially lethal implications.  
That’s the sort of discussion that ought to be had in homes and classrooms and churches everywhere with young people.  Let’s not insist that they are completely innocent and incapable of any rational thought or action.  Let’s insist that they are, and then help train them how to think and feel and act responsibly.
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More of the Same?

September 27, 2012

Presentations.  Private conversations.  Statistical analysis.  Consultations.  The words may vary but the picture they paint doesn’t.  The way we’re used to doing church isn’t working any more.  Not just us Lutherans, but literally every mainline Protestant denomination is losing traction nationwide.  Attendance is down.  Congregations are shrinking.  Youth is largely non-existent.  Conversions & baptisms are essentially a trickle.  

I sit in a conference room with perhaps 150 other pastors and congregational leaders.  We hear the words.  We take in the charts and numbers.  We sigh audibly and nod our heads in ready agreement with the conclusions.  But then we go back to our congregations and do the same thing that we did last week and the month before that and the decade before that.  For some, it has worked – sometimes very well – for years.  But for more than not, it isn’t working any longer.  
For many the writing is already on the wall.  The local numbers are not sustainable.  Costs are trimmed as much as possible.  The wagons are circled in an effort to stave off the inevitable.  We pray for a miracle, hope for an influx of energy and giving, some young families with kids – surely we have to have kids, right?  
For other pastors, while we acknowledge the truth of the words and numbers, while we fully acknowledge the trends, we aren’t there yet.  It’s somebody else’s problem for now.  Things are going well.  Maybe really well.  Well, well enough at least.  The budget isn’t as strong as we’d like it.  A little in the red but manageable.  Some well-timed endowments or perhaps a giving program could solve that problem though, and then we’re set to keep on moving.
It can’t possibly be that the statistics will one day apply to us.  That will be somebody else’s problem.  Somebody else’s cross to bear.  We can last a bit longer.  Until we retire.  Until we die.  We don’t want to be the one that redoes everything in the congregation.  Not on our watch.  Our job is to faithfully keep the church on course, not tear things apart and begin rebuilding from scratch.  Surely that can’t be our job.  Our duty.  Our privilege?  
If not us, then who?  If not now, then when?  When it’s too late?  
Ugh.
The added problem is that there are very few (any?) reliable road maps for what lies ahead.  There are innumerable experts and gurus that are willing to sell books and seminars and consultation programs, claiming to be able to equip us for the future.  I haven’t seen any of them work first (or second) hand.  It’s not that the intentions aren’t good, it’s just that there don’t seem to be a lot of (or any?) models that can replace 500 years of accumulated congregational practice and structure.  Too much ambiguity.  Too much uncertainty.  Satan in the midst of it all stirring the pot and driving us to distraction and conflict and frustration.  Congregations spend their dwindling resources on consultations and programs that more often than not don’t yield the results we hope for.  People grow further frustrated and jaded and cynical.  Whatever impetus and resolve for change was once there is expended in dead-ends.  
How do we maintain the best of what we have inherited while freeing ourselves up to take that best into our communities?  How much of what we do is ultimately driven by comfort and familiarity, memory and memorials?  
And if nobody is willing to budge until it is too late, how are those new road maps going to be written?  If nobody is willing to risk a change that might fail, preferring to stay a course that is almost certainly doomed to failure, what happens?  

Reading Ramblings – 9/30/12

September 24, 2012
Reading Ramblings
Date: September 23, 2012 – 18th
Sunday after Pentecost

Texts: Numbers 11:4-6, 10-16, 24-29;
Psalm 104:27-35; James 51-12)13-20; Mark 9:38-50

Contextual
Notes:
We
remain in the longest season of the Church Year, the non-festival
season of Ordinary Time. Except for a few other festival Sundays,
Ordinary Time will continue until the beginning of Advent. This time
of the liturgical year focuses us on the work of the Holy Spirit and
the Church in light of the resurrection and ascension of Jesus
Christ. The readings will not always neatly line up together to form
a common theme, but the Gospel and the Old Testament readings will
normally support one another.

Numbers 11:4-6, 10-16, 24-29:
The verses are selected to consolidate several different issues into
a manageable reading. The main focus is on the outpouring of the
Holy Spirit onto 70 Israelite elders. Far from being jealous of his
power and position, Moses is only too happy to have the Lord share
his Spirit with these men so that they can help Moses in leading.
Additionally, Moses re-emphasizes that he is not jealous of this
shared Spirit – quite the contrary! He’d rather that all God’s
people received the Holy Spirit of God, rather than guard and hoard
that Spirit for himself. How unlike us this often is – how jealous
and possessive we can be of our titles, our accomplishments, our
wealth, our pride, our belongings, and even of our God. Yet we are
not impoverished as the Spirit of God is poured out on others! The
power and presence of God is more than ample for everyone to enjoy
it – we don’t need to try and keep it all to ourselves!

Psalm 104:27-35: This is
a psalm of praise, the early verses recounting various of the Lord’s
mighty acts for which He deserves to be praised. The verses for
today focus on our response – we live and trust in the Lord’s
provision. From him we receive life itself, and He alone determines
when it is time for us to die. The effect of God’s outpoured Spirit
(v.30) is rather interesting – those creatures that died and
returned to dust are able to live again. There is nothing that can
be taken from God’s creatures – including the breath of life
itself, that God is not able to restore according to his plan and
purpose. We should see ourselves in this context, trusting in our
creator God the Father and redemptor God the Son and ever-present God
the Holy Spirit to sustain us in all of life’s conditions and
situations.

James 51-12)13-20:
James continues his very practical discussion about how Christians
are to live. The first six verses of this chapter are a strict
admonition to those who are wealthy, and in particular to those who
misuse their wealth for self-indulgence and to defraud others. Those
who value their money over their fellow human beings are going to
find things very uncomfortable on the Day of Judgment. However, as
verses 7-12 make clear, it is not the role of the abused and
dispossessed to take what is their rightful due. Rather, they are
to be patient, trusting God to restore them and to undo the wrongs
they have suffered. Rather than grumbling, or by taking the Lord’s
name in vain, we are to bless even those who wrong us.

More to the point, as verses 13-20 pick
up on, we are to be in prayer constantly, for all situations. Such
prayer can bring physical healing and forgiveness of sins. But note
that this is communal prayer, it assumes that the believer is with
other believers. The focus is to submit ourselves for others to pray
for, as well as to be active in praying for others. In doing so we
receive the blessings of God. Likewise, since the believer is part
of a praying community, it will be easy for the community to stand
with one in their midst who has abandoned or lost God’s truth, and
speak in love and power to that person to restore them to a right way of living before their God.  Needless to say, this prickly aspect of life in the body of Christ, the issue of discipline, is one that many churches (and pastors) are extremely uncomfortable with.  

But James is very clear – the point of discipline is the restoration of the wandering brother or sister, which can have eternal consequences.  The modern notion that it is somehow unloving to call someone away from dangerous and unhealthy activity denotes a warped understanding of free will and individualism.  Discipline is a necessary step for the brother or sister who is becoming lost and misled in their sin.  

Mark 9:38-50: The
Gospel lesson for today picks up on echoes of the Old Testament
reading. Once again the faithful are jealous of the power they
possess, and seek to prevent others from appropriating it. But Jesus
makes it clear that whether someone is in the inner circle of his
followers or not, the use of the name of Jesus the Son of God – and
the power that flows from that use – will demonstrate whether or
not the person invoking Jesus’ name is doing so faithfully. The one
that calls on the name of Jesus for power to save or heal, and who
receives what they have asked for, will find it difficult to switch
gears in order to act against the name of Jesus.  

This verse also makes it clear that the name of Jesus is not a magical incantation that grants the invoker power arbitrarily.  Power – particularly power claimed in the name of Jesus – has a source that is outside the person making the invocation.  If someone is performing wonders in Jesus’ name, then we should be able to trust that the source of that power is the Holy Spirit.  Wonder workers who invoke any other name, or fail to invoke the name of Jesus, or who rely on less specific terms such as ‘god’, may be evidencing power from evil sources rather than God.  We must be wise and discerning both in whom we call upon and who we trust for power.  

But to the contrary, if our actions are
sinful, we need to take seriously the impact that sin can have on us.
So serious is sin that Jesus somewhat exaggerates (or does he?), admonishing his
followers that, rather than sin, they should be willing to rid
themselves of their offending members. A hand or a foot or an eye is
a small price to pay to try and eliminate persistent, growing sin in
our lives. While the Church has never taught that this should be
followed literally (which I wonder about, frankly), Jesus’ exaggerated speech should give us pause to
think. Sin is a serious issue. When we begin to make peace with the
sin in our bodies, we risk that both body and soul should be lost in
eternal separation from God.

As such, we should be ruthless in our
confession, seeking to be directed to those areas of our lives that
are sinful and in need of change.  A time of confession and absolution in worship is crucial for reminding us that we are sinful, and that if not for the sacrifice of Jesus Christ, our sin would separate us eternally from God the Father.  Confession is good for the soul in both the psychological and spiritual sense, I believe, and we should not view it as lightly as we often do.  We who possess the Holy Spirit of
God that dwelt with Moses and the 70 elders need to take seriously
God’s call to live consistently with this indwelling presence.

Rather than worrying about greatness,
we ought to be worried about sin. If we spent less time determining whether or not we’re better than the person next to us, and more time in honest prayer and confession and thanksgiving for the saving grace of God in Jesus Christ, what might our lives look like?

Meanwhile, in Austria…

September 23, 2012

Just a preview of coming attractions:

In Austria, a court will determine whether a lesbian partner can adopt the biological child of her partner, thereby terminating the child’s biological father’s right to continue to have any custody or visitation rights with his child.
We can pretend that this sort of thing isn’t going to come up here (assuming that gay marriage is legalized either federally or in most if not all states – which I don’t think is a far-fetched assumption), but I can’t for the life of me see why it wouldn’t.  
 

I’m Lovin’ It

September 20, 2012

I don’t often reflect on my time in the fast-food industry with great affection or nostalgia.  But it’s nice to know that it possibly provided some real benefits beyond a paycheck.

According to this article, over 20 million Americans have worked at McDonald’s.  (Actually, I’m not sure from this article if that is the total number of Americans who have ever worked there, or just the number of Americans for whom McDonald’s was their first job).  In either case, the number is a cumulatively impressive one.
I worked for McDonald’s competition, Burger King, on and off through late high school.  However I did hire on at McDonald’s for the span of roughly five days as I graduated high school.  I found a job that didn’t require me to submerge my arms up to my elbows in pickle vats, however, and I jumped ship before I ever had to work an actual shift.  
This article is nice because it makes me feel better about my fast-food experience, and I certainly can vouch that the things this article highlights are true for me.  I wasn’t the best student of these principles – and certainly a poor student at the time – but in hindsight I can see that they were things that the job reinforced.  
The are also things that are important to a healthy understanding of vocation, the Christian notion that what we do is important, regardless of what we do.  Whether I’m slinging a burger or putting a piece of equipment on Mars, my work can benefit those around me and therefore it has dignity.  While I can think of a lot more dignified jobs I’d like to have, I know that countless times in my life, my needs (or wants) for food (if not nutrition) were fulfilled by the boys and girls, men and women who worked in a fast food restaurant.  
Besides, slinging burgers might be a thing of the past.  As cultured meat becomes a reality, who knows what might be involved in making a hamburger?  If you haven’t just eaten, and don’t plan on eating any meat real soon (or wearing leather), you might find this article both fascinating and disturbing.  
What sort of work did you do in high school or college (or later in life!) to make ends meet?  Did you learn anything valuable in the process?

Jesus’ Wife?

September 20, 2012

I had a two hour plus drive ahead of me this morning, so I was delighted to hear that NPR had a hot story about a newly discovered ancient text fragment that refers to Jesus’ wife.  Oooooh!  Nothing better than a poorly informed news report about a blown-out-of-proportion find.  

My assumptions weren’t far off.  But don’t just take my word for it.  Listen to somebody who knows a lot more about this stuff than I ever will.  
In short, a text fragment from Egypt that dates several hundred years after the life, death, & resurrection of Jesus makes a mention of a wife.  Dr. Gibbs says it very well.  The original scholars’ own work is being misrepresented by media hungry for an interesting news bite.  
So don’t get all freaked out.  Nothing has changed about the life of Jesus as we know it.  

Philosophically Yours

September 18, 2012

An interesting article on faith and reason in a Discover Magazine blog.  

Kudos to the author for attempting and mostly succeeding in an even-handed tone of respectfulness (unlike the comments section below – yow).  For those who do not subscribe to a religion, the concept of faith is baffling.  Frankly, for many of the faithful the idea is baffling and regularly described on a spectrum that is, to say the least, ginormous.  
Sean Carroll’s question is an important one to ask, however.  If faith is a divinely implanted sense in an individual, how can (or even should this) be distinguished from any other type of random thought that might pop into someone’s head, whether well-intentioned or beyond batty?  
Many Christians are at a loss for how to answer this.  For those raised apart from the authority of the Bible, for those that have abandoned the idea that the Bible could be the inspired Word of God, there is nothing upon which to hang their hat on this question.  Outside of tradition or comfort or social conventions or even scientific reason, they have no way of distinguishing why one person’s Word from the Lord is commendable and another is to be rejected.
The answer to Carroll’s question for Christians ought to be the Bible.  This is the rule and norm by which faith and the life of faith is lived.  If we are uncertain as to what the proper behavior or response is in a given situation, we should refer to Scripture (and ideally, be familiar enough with Scripture to not have to spend an afternoon searching randomly for an answer).  Does Scripture have something to say about the issue at hand?  Are you correctly understanding what Scripture has to say?  Then you have your answer.  
Mind you, this can be more complicated than it sounds.  Historic Christianity has insisted that Scripture interprets Scripture, which means you shouldn’t just hunt for a verse that matches what you want to do and use that as your proof.  There are a great many things that Scripture doesn’t speak directly on but does speak on in a round-about sort of way.  
But once you’ve determined Scripture has something to say on an issue, you have to do your best to ensure you understand what it’s saying.  Are you perhaps taking something out of context?  Are you isolating a passage that says one thing, when you know full well there are other passages that should force you to a more nuanced interpretation of the passage?  
All to say you need community in this endeavor.  The Word of the Lord that you have received may be all well and good and wonderful – the Holy Spirit is free to do whatever He wants, however He likes.  But understanding that Word and seeking to apply it properly is not an individual effort – it is a communal one.  Failure to recognize this is not just problematic, it is dangerous.  
But there is an answer to Mr. Carroll’s question.  For the faithful Christian, a Word received by faith must be matched against the Word of God as revealed in Scripture.  We must always bear in mind Paul’s strong words in Galatians 1:8 (“But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach a gospel contrary to the one we preached to you, let him be accursed.”).
I doubt Mr. Carroll will find this answer very helpful, as it leads us off onto the issue of Scriptural authority.  But Christians should remember what our guide is to be, to the best of our collective ability.

Reading Ramblings – 9/23/12

September 16, 2012

Reading
Ramblings

Date: September 23, 2012,
Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost

Texts:
Jeremiah 11:18-20; Psalm 54; James 3:13-4:10; Mark 9:30-37

Contextual
Notes:
We remain in the longest season of the Church
Year, the non-festival season of Ordinary Time. Except for a few
other festival Sundays, Ordinary Time will continue until the
beginning of Advent. This time of the liturgical year focuses us on
the work of the Holy Spirit and the Church in light of the
resurrection and ascension of Jesus Christ. The readings will not
always neatly line up together to form a common theme, but the Gospel
and the Old Testament readings will normally support one another. 

Jeremiah 11:18-20 –
Evil hates the one who speaks Truth. Nobody likes to hear that they
are in the wrong. Sometimes, the need to preserve our fragile
illusions of rightness and correctness lead us down dark and
dangerous paths of manipulation, threat, and even violence and
murder. Jeremiah has brought the harsh Word of God to the people of
God who have abandoned that Word. Rather than repent and seek God,
some of these chastised people plot the death of Jeremiah.

In this particular instance, the power
of God first reveals to Jeremiah the plot, and then assures him that
the perpetrators will be punished. Note that the passage doesn’t
explicitly promise Jeremiah that he will be spared from their plot,
although the implication seems rather strong. But it places the
safety of Jeremiah in a greater context – one where evil will
ultimately be punished regardless of whether or not it seems to win
the day for the moment. .

Psalm 54: 1 Samuel 23
and 26 both record instances where David is betrayed by the people
of Ziph, who promise King Saul – who is pursuing David out of
jealousy – that they will hand David over to Saul. The first time,
Saul is about to capture David and his men when an attack by the
Philistines requires Saul to divert his attention. The second time,
David and a compatriot sneak into Saul’s camp at night, making their
way all the way to the bedside of Saul himself. Instead of killing
King Saul though, David steals his spear and water jug, later showing
these to Saul from a distance and shaming him with the fact that
David could have killed him in his sleep but did not.

This Psalm takes on greater and more
specific meaning when seen from this context. Surely David was
vindicated by the Lord. Surely God sustained him. Surely the
machinations of Saul only brought disaster on himself. Surely David
was delivered. This is a Psalm of trust, written apparently at a
moment where vindication and and deliverance had yet to be grasped
fully, yet David remains steadfast in his trust in God. In
conjunction with the Jeremiah passage, we see the similarities –
prayer for protection as well as for the punishment of those who are
breaking the law of God in their intent to slay the faithful of God.

James 3:13-4:10 –
James continues his exhortations to followers of Jesus to realign
their lives in keeping with their allegiance. They are not able to
continue to live the way the world would call them to live. We can
easily recognize the world’s emphasis on selfish personal ambition,
the earthly wisdom that has led to such famous phrases as “look out
for number 1”, or “Just Do It” or even “You Deserve a Break
Today”. The world is always encouraging us to focus on ourselves
even at the expense of others.

But
our identity in Christ, our submission to his authority insists that
we no longer follow the injunctions of the world. We are to model
our lives on the servant king who saved us from selfish ambition
leading to death. Rather, we are to live in consideration of those
around us. This doesn’t mean that we have to make ourselves doormats
to every abuse and demand. But it does demand that we quit seeing
others as doormats and means to our own ends. In keeping with the
admonitions earlier in chapter 3, we are to see one another as fellow
creations of our loving God. We cannot abuse those created in the
image of God and yet claim to love God. The Law insists on fervent
love for God and
neighbor.

At
risk is salvation itself. We cannot serve two masters. Sunday
morning worship and study must inform how we live all seven days of
the week or we just might be fooling ourselves into thinking we are
Christian when we are not. We should be firmly convinced that while
we might fool ourselves, we won’t fool God.

Mark 9:30-37:
This
is the second of three times in the Gospel of Mark where Jesus
explicitly tells his disciples what is going to happen to him –
betrayal and death and resurrection. The first was in Chapter 8,
just before the Transfiguration. Our reading for today occurs within
a few days after the Transfiguration. The first time Jesus revealed
his destiny, he had to rebuke Peter for tempting him away from
obedience to his heavenly Father. Today we see the disciples once
again wildly off course, focused on their own designs and goals
rather than on their master’s suffering and death.

It
sounds rude and callous, and it is. But are we any better? How much
of our lives are spent figuring out how to improve ourselves, how to
raise our standard of living, elevate ourselves in the eyes of those
around us? How much of what we buy is geared towards demonstrating
the station in life we’ve accomplished? How much does this determine
where we live and what kind of car we drive and where we buy our
clothes? Our selfish human nature is obsessively turned inwards,
focused always on our own pleasure, our own wishes, our own
glorification.

Jesus’
example of this was a child. Children were hardly doted on in the
ancient world. They were considered less than human in a very real
way, consuming resources and contributing very little in return.
They were hardly the natural model of how to live life. Yet Jesus
sees in young children (how quickly we learn, unfortunately, to
follow the world!) a lack of self-awareness that is helpful to
illustrate his point. We are not just to think lightly of ourselves,
we are to think much of others, even those who seem least deserving
of it. Perhaps especially
these people.

Failure
to do this, a refusal to see in others fellow creations of God the
Father worthy of dignity and love simply because they exist, is a
rejection of the God who created them. Once again we are driven to
see that how we treat others is not an arbitrary issue, but a core
demonstration of where our heart towards God is. We cannot love God
but hate our fellow man.

Our
lives are spent in praise and glory of the God who has redeemed us,
and this must have practical application in how we treat others –
and therefore how we see ourselves. What we experience in worship
must both penetrate deep into our hearts to change us from the
inside, and emanate out from us in changing how we deal with others.  

A Fine Line

September 14, 2012

Not too long ago I ordered a new study Bible, one I had resisted buying for some time because of the obviousness of the purchase.  It was a no-brainer that I should have this study Bible and that it likely should be my go-to study Bible.  Because it was such a slam-dunk decision that I ought to have this study Bible as soon as it was released, I refused to buy it.  Stubborn much?

So I finally bought The Lutheran Study Bible.  
It’s a nice Bible, to be sure.  But since I don’t rely on study Bibles the way I used to (one of the advantages/curses of Seminary), I haven’t really spent much time examining the commentary and study notes in it.  But I sat down yesterday morning to see what it had to say around the Gospel lesson for this coming Sunday (Mark 9:14-29).  There was a full-page essay nearby entitled “God’s Care and Miracles” that caught my eye and I read through it.  
It is an interesting exploration of the nature of the miraculous.  What constitutes a miracle and what does not?  The author uses this definition for a miracle:  “A miracle is when God directly intervenes in nature in such a way that the natural order of things is overruled.  Something happens that goes beyond nature.”  
I think this is a traditional understanding of the miraculous, at least in terms of modernity and post-Enlightenment culture.  We’re willing to call something miraculous if we have no other possible explanation for it, and if we can’t duplicate it.  As science and technology have advanced, it would seem to logically reduce the number of things that are miraculous by the above definition.  There are some who take this to mean that there really isn’t anything such as the miraculous, just things we don’t understand and can’t duplicate – yet.  Many outspoken atheists are in this camp.
The author distinguishes the miraculous from the providence of God, which they define as “that activity of God whereby He uninterruptedly upholds (preserves), governs, and directs all of life”.  God may intervene in the lives of his creations without disrupting the natural order, and this is providential, not miraculous.  God directing the forces of nature towards his purposes without violating the laws of nature.  God acting in ways that we can understand or replicate or at least in patterns that we recognize as relatively normal.  
These are fine definitions.  Theological distinctions that help people make sense of the world around them and more accurately attempt to explain the workings of God in their life.  The problem comes when we try to push these definitions too far, assuming that the nature of what happens determines the category of miraculous or not.  The author tries to push these definitions, giving specific examples of miracles vs. God’s providence.
For the person experiencing God’s intervention in their life, I doubt that such a distinction is ultimately helpful.  And I think they tend to drive us further away from seeing all of life and creation as miraculous.  I understand the theory of gravity but that doesn’t necessarily make it any less miraculous.  I can call gravity part of the ‘natural order’, but all this really does is lead me to think of it as somehow less than divinely given.  
What can eventually evolve is a distinction between things that happen because they must, because those are the laws of nature, and things that are beyond those laws or exceptions to them.  The beauty of new life is thusly relegated to the former category, and because of that loses much of it’s grandeur and majesty simply because we understand the mechanics of reproduction.  It ceases to be miraculous because we view it as a causal relationship.  When x and y happen, z results.  
I like the Lutheran emphasis on God not just as the creator of all things – the ultimate watchmaker who designed and wound the universe and then stepped away for a bit – but as the sustainer of all things.  The laws of nature are not inviolable in some objective sense.  They exist because God is a God of order who has designed things for the benefit of all his creation.  God does not appear to be arbitrary or fickle.  He is consistent.  Steadfast.  Faithful.  
When I remind myself to treat each new day not simply as another interruption to a lovely night’s sleep, but as a gift of God never before given and never to be repeated (despite it’s similarity to many other days in the past from a natural law perspective), this ought to instill greater gratefulness, greater anticipation, a greater sense of the mystery and glory of God’s plan of salvation that is still being worked out in my life and the life of creation around me.  
I’m glad God is consistent, and I’m glad that he’s given us the ability to unravel a bit of the mystery of his creation.  But I hope to encourage myself and others to insist on the reality of a God who is omnipresent, closer and more faithful and more predictable, if you will, than gravity.  That’s the kind of God we need, and it is the kind of God we have.

“I’m a Good Lutheran”

September 13, 2012

That’s what she told me as she dropped off flyers for a local charity event.  She was already turning around and prepared to run off as she said this, offering the additional comment to the effect that, since she was Norwegian, the Lutheran issue was a given.  

My response stopped her short.
“So where are you going now?”
There was a pause as she checked her direction.  Arms crossed as her face changed from a bright and cheerful smile to a look of concentration and reflection.  She attends a local mega-church (well, mega for this neck of the woods).  She had been involved with other large churches as well after marriage – Mariners, Calvary Chapel.  And now her current one.  She conceded that maybe she ought to check out a Lutheran church again.  But she didn’t seem very convinced of that admission.  “But I’m a good Lutheran” she repeated as she left, the smile back on her face, probably relieved that I wasn’t going to try and lecture her or something.
I thanked her and let her know she was always welcome.  I hadn’t intended to make her feel guilty, but if you’re going to share that you’re a good Lutheran (Episcopal, Baptist, Methodist, Whatever) to a clergy member of that particular stripe, you ought to expect to be asked where you’re attending worship now.  That’s part of our job – to take people seriously when they make assertions about who they are.  Because our culture makes it eminently easy for us to claim to be something – and to really believe our claim – that we really aren’t.  Not in any tangible, meaningful sense of the word.  
What did she mean by “I’m a good Lutheran”?  Maybe that’s how she really thinks of herself still, theologically, as a Lutheran.  In which case my question should challenge her to think seriously about why she chooses to worship non-denominationally if she values her Lutheran-ness.  My question might have exposed the fact that she’s not really attending anywhere right now, in which case the Holy Spirit might have worked on her to convince her to try worship again somewhere, if not necessarily at a Lutheran church.  My question might have revealed that she’s active in another Lutheran congregation, in which case that’s awesome and wonderful.  
It reminds me of a scene from the short-lived sci-fi series Firefly, where one of the characters, a preacher, is conversing with the less than orthodox captain of the ship.  When asked why the preacher received preferential treatment at a medical facility, he tried to joke about how everybody likes to welcome a man of God.  The captain’s retort is probably more accurate than most pastors would like to believe – “No they don’t.  Men of God make everyone feel guilty and judged.”
It wasn’t my intent to make this very nice woman feel guilty, but it seems clear that my simple question did.  I’m not out to convince her to leave her mega-church to come to my church, or another Lutheran church.  But the Holy Spirit works in strange ways through insignificant connections sometimes.  It seems clear that maybe this woman feels a little guilty for having left Lutheran churches even though she still considers herself a Lutheran.  It’s not my job to judge whether or not that guilt is appropriate or not.  But I pray that wherever she goes to church this Sunday, she hears the Gospel and recognizes that it’s not a guilt she needs to carry around with her.  And I pray that she spends some time in prayer and reflection over why my question made her feel awkward.    
And hopefully I didn’t ruin her day!