Archive for November, 2012

Vocationally Challenged

November 29, 2012

This article yesterday caught my eye, about one of the stars of a popular television show that has taken some serious flack for some very unflattering comments he made about the show.  Thanks to Gene Veith’s blog (always very worthwhile reading!) for a link to this interview with the actor last month before the controversy erupted.

This is an interesting – and very public – study in vocation.  How does a Christian live out their life of faith in the context of any number of roles or responsibilities in their life, in this case, actor/employee, son, co-worker, student.  
Angus T. Jones would seem to have it all.  He has been blessed to be a child actor on a very popular television sitcom.  He is well paid.  But he has reached a point where he recognizes that the themes of the show are in direct contradiction to his Christian beliefs.  In a taped interview with a source not related to his church, Jones called the show “filth” and encouraged viewers not to watch it.
This is indeed an interesting situation.  Jones feels that it is very difficult if not impossible for Christians to be actors or actresses because the industry is promoting a world-view contrary to the Scriptural one.  Yet he finds himself in exactly this predicament.  His personal comments have been widely criticized, and it’s a safe bet that, had he not already probably been planning to leave the show at the end of his current contract, he will be asked to leave now.  I can’t blame his employers for that, even if I commend Jones for his honesty.
But is his honesty a faithful way to live out his faith and vocation?  The article by Christianity Today doesn’t provide any information on Jones’ life of faith.  He indicates that he’s always gone to Christian school, but also that his home life wasn’t terribly Christian (at least by his standards).  He has recently found a place to worship in an African-American Seventh Day Adventist Church.  He describes an epiphany – moments of divine revelation – that have woken him up to the contradictory nature of his very visible vocation as an actor on this series.  Now what to do about it?
I suppose it becomes a matter of how he defines his vocation at this point.  Is his vocation to work for reform from within the industry?  He’s probably blown that chance.  Is his vocation to try and destroy a show that he sees as directly hostile to the Christian life?  I suspect he’s learned that even if he felt this was his vocation, he isn’t going to be very successful at it.  Not that success is necessarily a vocational criteria, since none of us can know the impacts of our words or actions in the long term.  Is it to provide a role model for young Christians aspiring to be entertainers?  Jones seems to close the door on that possibility, instead choosing to discourage others from getting into the entertainment industry.  He talks about the fantastic visibility he has, and the willingness of people to listen to him based on his stature.  I suspect that is a good clue as to how he can and should think of his vocational obligations right now.  
He does have obligations to his employer that are part of his vocation, regardless of how he feels about that vocation.  Publicly denouncing your source of employment as “filth” is going to be widely understood to be hypocritical and ungrateful, and not without good reason.  As he himself says, when you sign the dotted line on your contract, you have obligations to your employer.  So long as he remains bound by that contract, he is obligated in good faith to fulfill those obligations to the best of his ability.  I suspect that if it isn’t explicit in such contracts, the implication is that the employee will not publicly denounce their employer or its products.  In allowing himself to make negative statements that could be made public (since I don’t want to assume he knew his comments were going to be made public), he’s not fulfilling his vocational duties.  
All that being said, I think that Jones could still have made a very powerful witness to his faith, but avoided a lot of the public backlash and the vocational biting-of-the-hand-that-feeds-you by not speaking specifically about his show.  “Stop filling your head with filth” is a good admonition to anyone, and while people might connect the dots to determine that he thinks his show is filth, the dots would be a lot farther apart then he made them.  
It will be interesting to see if Jones leaves the series at the end of his contract.  It will also be interesting to see how God uses him in the future.  

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The Advent Conundrum

November 28, 2012

I’ve celebrated Advent all my life, and it has always struck me as a bit strange.  After all, how is it that we are supposed to be all anxious and vigilant, waiting for an event that happened 2000 years ago already?  I mean, where’s the suspense in that?  Why not just jump to Christmas and be done with it?

I mentioned last year that I would be reading a second book on the liturgical year and the lectionary cycle of readings that support it, Fritz West’s Scripture and Memory: The Ecumenical Hermeneutic of the Three-Year Lectionaries.  I know, I know – you can hardly wait to run out and get your copy of it, right?
It’s interesting and technical reading, but if your congregation/pastor utilizes the three-year lectionary readings, it might be a very helpful read in understanding better what the readings are doing and why they have been selected.  It might make a good gift for your pastor, unless you think he’s going to think that you don’t think his preaching is good enough.  In which case, tell him to get over himself and give it a read.  I don’t know anyone in any profession who doesn’t benefit by continued education and skill development, and pastors are certainly no exception!
Be aware, however, that if you’re an LCMS congregation, you’re likely using a revised version of the Revised Common Lectionary (RCL).  Because Lutherans are quirky (and because I haven’t found a better, more official answer), we’ve slightly modified the RCL at points.  I have no doubt there are good theological reasons for this, but it makes reading books on the RCL a bit frustrating, as they don’t take into account our variations on the RCL.  But the overall structure and the majority of the readings are the same, so it’s still a good gift/read.  
As I was reviewing this book with the change of liturgical season to Advent this Sunday, I appreciated West’s explanation of the purpose and structure of Advent.  Maybe you will, too.
Advent links together two separate sections of what is referred to in the liturgical year as Ordinary Time.  Ordinary Time consists of those Sundays of the Church year that don’t have special significance to them.  They aren’t part of either Advent or Lent and they aren’t feast or festival Sundays.  The bulk of Ordinary Time runs from the Sunday after Pentecost through to the last Sunday of the Church Year, right before Advent begins.  But the first section of it in the Church year comes between the seasons of Epiphany and Lent.  Advent therefore links the end of Ordinary Time in the last Church Year with the beginning of Ordinary Time in the new Church Year.
The end of Ordinary Time in the last Church year culminates on Christ the King Sunday.  But actually, the last three Sundays of the Church Year/Ordinary Time focus on the end times and the return of Jesus Christ.  This is a natural segue into Advent, which picks up these themes from the old Church Year and appropriates them for the new Church year.  We are waiting people, by definition.  It makes sense to end and begin the Church year focusing on this fact.  
Advent traditionally was a penitential season, similar to Lent.  The emphasis was on self-examination, repentance, and the giving up of pleasures to better discipline mind and body to focus on the promised return of our Savior.  Kind of a far cry from the glutton-fest that we’re encouraged to indulge in, isn’t it?  (though actually, there are competing traditions for Advent and Christmas, one a more penitential practice and the other a more celebratory practice, originating in different areas of Christendom and eventually combined.  So a little gluttony may be OK.  That sounds really weird.) The readings for Advent begin with end-of-the-world sorts of themes.  That’s what Advent is to remind us of – we’re waiting not just for the already-happened birth of Jesus, but for his return.  His birth serves an important point in this focus – it reminds us that God fulfilled his promise to his Old Testament people by sending Jesus to the world to save us.  As such, we can trust the promises of God about the return of Jesus to the world in glory.  Christmas is not just a memorial event, it is a guarantee that what we hope for in Jesus’ return is something God can and will fulfill.  We do not wait idly or in vain.
As the Advent season progresses, the emphasis shifts from the end of the world and the Second Coming, to the Nativity.  The Church has traditionally celebrated the birth of our Lord in two phases, mirroring his human and divine nature.  The first celebration is his physical birth – Christmas.  The second celebration and focus is the fact that this was no ordinary baby, but rather the Incarnate Word of God.  Epiphany emphasizes this aspect of Jesus’ two-fold nature.  
Thus, Advent leads us to anticipate not just any birth, and not just any return.  Rather, we celebrate the Word made flesh that came into the world to save us, and we anticipate (as the Old Testament people of God did) his coming.  We anticipate this in light of his first appearance.  
This means that our Advent celebration ought to be deeper and more somber than we traditionally make it.  After all, while there is great and ultimate joy in the Nativity, there is true and genuine pathos with it as well.  The suffering of Mary and Joseph.  The mad envy of Herod.  The death of the children of Bethlehem.  I think it would probably do us a fair bit of good to focus on the fact that the work of God in saving his creation from itself is not without enemies, enemies who will stop at nothing to drive as many people as possible away from the life-saving Word.
I’m considering a mid-week Lenten sermon series on this somber topic.  How is it that we give witness to the once and future King who has come and will come again?  How do we bear witness to that in a culture that wants us to substitute the deep consideration of these things with a bunch of material crap?  Good food for thought, hopefully!

Reading Ramblings: December 2, 2012

November 25, 2012

Reading
Ramblings

Date: December 2, 2012,
First Sunday of Advent

Texts:
Jeremiah 33:14-16, Psalm 25:1-10; 1Thessalonians 3:9-13; Luke
21:25-36

Contextual
Notes:
We begin a new Church Year! And as we do, we
begin a new lectionary cycle as well. We completed Year B of the
three-year lectionary cycle last Sunday, and now enter Year C. As
such, our primary Gospel source for the next year shifts from Mark to
Luke. Next year it will be Matthew. John does not have his own
lectionary year, but we draw on his Gospel at the high holidays of
every Church year.

Advent is a time of preparation. The
origins of this season of the Church year are unclear. Since it is a
time of preparation for the birth of our Lord, it would stand to
reason that Advent did not begin until the Nativity of Our Lord was
widely celebrated, which we can date with certainty no earlier than
the fourth century, at which point it seems to be widespread.
Traditionally it was a time of fasting and penance, very similar to
Lent which precedes Easter. While we don’t fast officially in the
Lutheran tradition, there is much to be said about treating this time
more somberly, not the least because of the tempering effect it might
have on the expectations that this time of year places on us to eat,
drink, be merry, and spend money on gifts. I tend to suspect that
Advent ought to give us pause to consider priorities, and a more
somber observance of the season lends itself better to that end than
the indifferent or even festive tone we are used to. The liturgical
color for the season of Advent is traditionally purple – the same
as Lent. In recent years however a deep blue has also become an
acceptable liturgical color.

Jeremiah 33:14-16 –
This is a beautiful passage of hope, particularly in light of the
first 13 verses of this chapter! The promise of a continuation of
Jesse’s line is made in the context of the final destruction of that
same line. Jerusalem is to be laid waste. The city will be filled
with the dead and dying. Yet in the midst of that stark promise
comes this bright hope – not all is lost! God must chastise his
people, but He has not completely rejected them. Though many will
die, some will live. Though the line of David will be cut off, it
will not be cut off forever. Our sufferings personally and
corporately are always experienced in the light of this same promise,
and in the fulfillment of that promise. Our God reigns over death
and suffering and the grave, and though these things still have their
place in our lives, they do not have the last word. The last Word
has been spoken, and it is a Word of victory!

Psalm 25:1-10: The
progression in these verse of the Psalm are beautiful. They move
from a very plaintive cry for help in present distress (vs. 1-3).
The speaker is in the midst of affliction. Defeat is a very real
possibility and so the speaker cries out for deliverance and
vindication from their enemies. Verse 3 forms a turning point
though. It acknowledges that while the speaker seeks to avoid shame,
no real or lasting shame can come to the one who places their faith
in God. This leads the speaker in vs. 4-5 to ask for strength to
better study and understand the will of God which is the Word of God.
In turn, the speaker also asks – based on the Word of God – that
God not forget his loving kindness, and to deal with the speaker in
forgiveness and mercy rather than righteous judgment (vs. 6-7).
Finally, our reading selection for today ends in praise of God (vs.
8-10). They assert the good and holy nature of God, which are the
source and reason of our faith and trust in him.

1 Thessalonians 3:9-13-
St. Paul has been worried about the Thessalonian Christians. Did
they hold fast to what he taught them, or did they abandon the Gospel
after he left them? Were the persecutions that they encountered
enough to drive them back to their old ways, or had they managed to
cling tight to Jesus Christ (vs.1-5)? His joy is overwhelming though
when he finds they have remained faithful! What could be better than
to see them again and to celebrate together the faithfulness of God
in which they have been kept (vs.9-10)? Paul then prays for the
Thessalonian Christians that they would persevere in the faith as
Paul looks forward to being together with them again. But they don’t
wait idly in some sort of status quo – they are waiting while still
growing, while still overflowing in love for one another, and in
holding fast to their life in Christ. Waiting is never a passive
affair, but a constant, moment by moment, day by day active
anticipation of what is to come even in the midst of the enjoyment
and enlargement of what we have already received in Jesus Christ!

Luke 21:25-36:
The
alternative reading option for this morning was Luke 19:28-40. Both
readings are ones we associate with Holy Week and Palm Sunday and the
conclusion of Jesus’ ministry, and may seem a bit out of place here
at the beginning of Advent. But as we wait for the birth of the
Christ child, we affirm that He has already come. He has already
come and his ministry of reconciliation has not only begun, it has
been concluded through his suffering, death, resurrection, and
ascension. What we look forward to in Advent is a historical
reality, but it is also the continued promise of his return. As
such, the reading for this morning links us back to Christ the King
Sunday and the anticipation of the past few weeks looking forward to
the Second Coming of Christ. His first and second coming are linked.
They are part of the same activity of God.

Verses
34-36 are particularly powerful to me. Two thousand years on, how
many of us are weighed down in the concerns of our lives and the
world, and how many of us really, truly believe that our Savior is
coming, and that He could arrive at any moment? How many of us are
comfortable in the assumption that we will meet him after our death,
not before? How many of our decisions are guided by this assumption?

We
are the ones who are going to be surprised, caught unawares – we
who ought to be watching diligently! While we needn’t live in fear,
we do need to live with anticipation. It ought to guide our actions
and thoughts and words each day. It should continually shape who we
are by what it leads us to do and what it restrains us from doing.
Our lives ought to be characterized by this sense of anticipation
which forms the backdrop against which everything else in our lives
plays out.

We
grow up and marry and raise a family not as an end in itself but to
ensure that they know that the Lord is coming! We take a job or
follow a career path not as an end in itself, but as a means of
loving our neighbor for however many days we have until the Lord
comes! We make financial decisions not purely for selfish reasons or
to benefit our own small family but as a means of caring for family
as well as neighbors until the Lord comes again! If there is a
characterization that others ought to be able to make about us, it’s
that we are constantly awaiting the arrival of our Lord!  

“Tell All the Truth, but Tell It Slant”: Part 2

November 23, 2012

Here is a discussion of the first article that was actually sent to me (thanks to Lois!).  It is entitled “12 Myths about Mormonism”, and it’s good to remember the source publication – the Salt Lake Tribune.

1.  Mormons Practice Polygamy – I think this is a carefully crafted statement of the myth, allowed to provide the best possible answer.  No, the LDS Church does not practice polygamy.  Now.  But it has in the past, and might in the future.  The pronouncements in 1894 and 1904 banning polygamy and making it an ex-communicable offense did not repudiate the practice theologically, but rather essentially stated that it was a right that was being set aside for the time being by divine provision.  The question only focuses on practice, so the author is answering truthfully.
2.  Mormons are not Christians – The author takes a curious tack here.  Ms. Stack acknowledges some of the core differences between LDS theology and historic Christian belief (as traditionally defined in terms of Scriptural authority and attestation in the Ecumenical Creeds of the Christian Church).  But she seems to dismiss these core differences (which she does not define clearly), and focus on the fact that since Mormons center their faith on Jesus and see him as the source of salvation, they are Christian.  Unfortunately, that is not the litmus test for Christian orthodoxy.  That test has been for at least 1700 years the confession of the Nicene Creed, and later the Athanasian Creed and Apostles’ Creed, which Mormons cannot in good faith agree to since they deny the Trinity.  Ms. Stack also decides not to take on the issue of Christianity being monotheistic – there is only one God even if that God has three persons – while in LDS theology there are any number of gods, and any good Mormon man who fulfills his duties faithfully to the Church and family can become a god someday as well, something that Christianity soundly rejects.
3.  Mormons Aren’t Supposed to Drink Caffeinated Beverages – This is an area of doctrine that I’m less familiar with.  My impression that caffeine was the target of the prohibition, though the Church in recent years has reiterated that caffeine is not the issue.  If it isn’t the issue, then I wonder why the specific injunctions against coffee and tea, and why the overwhelming appearance of avoiding all manner of caffeinated sodas and other beverages.  
4.  Mormons Don’t Dance – Another myth I’m less familiar with.  The author makes it unclear if dance is allowed in a formal, artistic sense, or in the hip-hop, pop-culture sense.  The implication is that it is all allowed.  My very limited experience on this topic is that very conservative Mormon kids are certainly less inclined to dance than not.  
5. All Mormons Live in Utah – Kind of a silly myth to pick up on.  Mormons are some of – if not the – most robust evangelizers of any religion or denomination in the world.  They have adherents across the globe.  While Utah may have a lot of Mormons in it, they certainly don’t all live there!
6.  Women Can’t Be Leaders or Speak in the LDS Church – Again, this is a matter of definition. Women are prohibited from the priesthood, just as they are in conservative, historical Christian denominations.  The writer seems to be trying to soften the impact of this reality – just as many conservative, historical Christian denominations attempt to.
7.  All Mormons Are Republicans – Really, is this the best you can do for myths?!?  Couldn’t we be investigating something a lot meatier than political affiliation?  Ugh.
8.  A Mormon U.S. President Would Be a Puppet of the LDS Prophet – This is not an accusation/myth peculiar to Mormonism.  Prior to John F. Kennedy’s successful bid for presidency, this was a common charge against Catholics in politics (though the puppet master was the Pope, not the LDS prophet, obviously).  It’s really an interesting question.  What does one mean by ‘puppet’?  I have no doubt that, similar to Catholic politicians, Mormon politicians are quick to appeal to individual conscience as a means of guiding their decisions, even when those decisions directly contradict the stance of their religious polity.  As with Catholic politicians that support abortion, I question how someone can consider themselves a faithful member of a religious organization if they reject core teachings of that organization.  But abiding by the decisions of a religious organization is hardly the same as being a puppet!
9.  Mormons Baptize Corpses – Again, a curiously phrased myth that allows the author to unequivocally answer ‘no’.  No, Mormons don’t perform baptism rituals on dead bodies.  However they do utilize live bodies to stand in for people who have died, seeking to baptize people – of other religions even! – into the LDS Church after their death.  The LDS church appears to have backed off this practice somewhat, but not out of theological changes.
10.  Mormons Can’t Use Birth Control – News to me.
11.  Mormons Get Naked in the Temple – Again, can we propose a serious allegation instead of a straw-man one that can be easily refuted?  Notice the author does not directly refute this as a myth.  Nor does she provide any actual details about why such a myth could have evolved.  
12.  Mormons Don’t Believe in the Bible – Yes, Mormons claim to believe in the Bible personally, and their doctrine and church make it an official stance.  But in my experience, their knowledge of the Bible is very, very limited.  Various missionaries I’ve sat down with over the years have been perplexed when confronted with passages such as Jesus’ teaching on marriage in Matthew 22:23-33, which directly contradicts the LDS doctrine of eternal marriage.  Also, if the Mormon church disagrees with Christian doctrine drawn from the Bible, such as the triune nature of God and the relationship between God the Son and God the Father, what does it mean to say that you ‘believe in the Bible’?  
Overall, this article seems aimed at trying to make the LDS church seem very similar to Christianity – something that the Mormons have been keen on for a long time, despite their claims that they are the only true and correct church on earth.  It seems odd to want to align yourself with a bunch of groups whom you deny the validity of!  Considering that this article was published November 1, just prior to the election, it’s not a surprising tack to take.  I

Case Dismissed

November 22, 2012

Still recovering from a bout of some sort of nastiness yesterday – possibly food-poisoning-type-nastiness, I’m deciding to opt for a less intellectually rigorous post today.  Or perhaps that’s my typical kind of post?  Hmmm.

I saw this little news item about a mixed martial arts fighter having a vandalism case against him dismissed.  He broke into a church, sprayed fire extinguishers around the place and was discovered by police naked on a couch.  Yet the case against him was dismissed, and I can’t tell why.  
Was it an act of grace and forgiveness by the pastor who discovered the break-in?  Was it a legal loophole?  Was it a judge who was being lenient despite what seems like an open and shut case against the young man?  Had he arranged reparations already with the church, therefore causing them to dismiss the case against him?  I wish I could tell, but the very few news sources I could find on the issue all neglect to indicate why the case was dismissed.  I suppose he’ll be having a much happier Thanksgiving now, but I pray the church he was discovered is able to move on from this incident as well!

“Tell All the Truth, but Tell it Slant”: Part One

November 20, 2012

This is one of the few tangible pieces of information I trace directly to high school and remember as though it were yesterday.  I can recite in entirety this short Emily Dickinson poem.  That I apprehended some great truth in it as an adolescent, and that such truth has remained intact is a marvel I can’t explain.

But this poem came to mind as I read two articles today – one an online article in the Christian Science Monitor regarding myths about the Bible, and the other an article from The Salt Lake Tribune entitled 12 Myths about Mormonism.  Both are examples of how we all tell the truths as we want to see them, and sometimes that results in less truth than fiction.  But of course even to make that assertion, I have to admit that I do the same thing, which means I am inclined to read what others write or hear what others say in light of my own beliefs.  Quite the conundrum.
Because it’s going to take some time to work through these, I’ll break it into two posts.  I’ll start with the article I came across second.  
The piece on the Bible strikes closer to home for me, since it deals with the bedrock of my faith and understanding of the world around me.  Here are the ten myths the article seeks to dispel, along with my response:
1.  The Bible is drier than the Mojave Desert – The article by Lyle Young starts with an interesting assertion – the Bible is “just a bunch of words”.  This seems like a strange way to begin your response.  It directs that the written word – any written word – is somehow only the conglomeration of its parts.  Are the works of Shakespeare also “just a bunch of words”?  What about the words of Mary Baker Eddy, the founder of Christian Science?  If any writing is “just a bunch of words” then how is it that Mr. Young finds his vocation in putting them together?  Does he expect his readers to derive meaning and value from them that transcend the pixelated squiggles and lines?  I trust he does, so this is an odd way to start as it denigrates all writing and therefore all efforts at communication (since oral tradition is still “just a bunch of words” as well).  
If we assume that words communicate meaning, than the fact that writing or speaking is a collection of words holds value and purpose.  Monkeys on typewriters might assemble “just a bunch of words” because they hold no purpose or meaning in their assemblage, even if they happen to make sense here and there to our ears.  But when a human being assembles words to communicate ideas, they aren’t just a bunch of words any more.
Is the Bible dry in places?  Sure it is.  Is all of it dry?  Hardly!
2.  The Bible Teaches Religiosity, not Spirituality – This implies a distinction and a judgement – religiosity (or specific spirituality, if you will), is bad, while spirituality is good.  If the Bible were just teaching religiosity, it would be of marginal value, if any.  But if it teaches spirituality (which I hear infer to mean providing food for thought that we can rework any way we like), then it has use.  I’d argue that the Bible teaches both.  The Old Testament is full of religiosity – the specific rites and rituals and practices and beliefs that the people of God were to follow.  That religiosity is based in profound spirituality and is the manifestation of such spirituality, but this is a causal connection our culture refuses to acknowledge.  Likewise, the New Testament has some specific teachings on points of doctrine and Christian life that make it religious, but again, that religiosity is founded upon spirituality – you can’t divorce the two in that direction (you can be spiritual and not have it make any real impact on your thoughts or actions, and that appears to be what most spiritual people prefer, in my experience).
3.  The Bible is Antiwomen – Another hot button issue.  The author defends Scripture against this allegation, but does so apologetically, noting that the Bible does set behavioral expectations for women (as it does for men).  The assumption being that if the expectations for men and women differ, then the Bible can be seen as antiwomen.  This whole topic can’t even be dealt with succinctly because our culture and Scripture make completely different assertions about the nature of equality.  Scripture maintains the stance that equal does not mean identical.  Our culture has defined equality exactly the opposite way.  By cultural standards and definitions then, the Bible will sound antiwomen at times (and antimen, for that matter).  I maintain however, that our cultural definitions should not be assumed to be any more valid and binding than Biblical definitions!
4.  The Bible is Exclusivistic – another classic arena of conflict.  The Bible must be open to everyone on everyone’s terms.  It is not allowed to define the terms because in doing so it becomes exclusivistic, is the charge against it.  A charge that conveniently ignores the exclusivism this very definition creates.  
The Bible is very exclusivistic in many ways, meaning that it describes a God who has no qualms about choosing one people over another for particular purposes.  He calls Abraham.  He builds a people from his descendants and enters into a relationship with them that is unique in all of human history.  The Word of God becomes incarnate as a single human male at a particular time and place in human history and geography.  Exclusivisim in the most literal sense is rampant in Scripture.  
At the same time, the heart of Scripture is inclusive.  Abraham is chosen for a purpose, and that purpose is the blessing of all the world – not just his family (Genesis 12:1-3).  The Word of God becomes flesh and blood so that any who believe might be saved (John 3:16).  The love and forgiveness of God are available to all people, but on God’s terms (which are universal), not our own (which favor our own preferences and ways of doing things).  
5.  The Bible Says that People Who Aren’t Christian Are Just Plain Wrong – This is really just a restatement of the previous point.  Since we don’t (culturally) want a Bible that is exclusivistic,  then it must be shown to be otherwise, even though it clearly is exclusivistic in the claims it makes about our world and ourselves and God.  The author’s way of defending Scripture is interesting – he quotes Acts 10 and the story of Peter’s visit to the Gentile Roman Cornelius.  
The author asserts that this is evidence that God welcomes everyone based on each individual’s personal righteousness.  But to do this, the Mr. Young omits the heart of the story, vs. 36-48.  It isn’t Cornelius’ personal righteousness that saves him, but the hearing of the Word of God, by which the Holy Spirit of God is receive
d.  
6.  The Bible Teaches That We’ll Go to Hell if We Don’t Accept Jesus as Our Personal Savior – another variation on the same exclusiveness issue from the previous two points, but this one drives to the real heart of the matter.  Is Jesus the only way to God or not?  Since the author clearly doesn’t like the sound of such an exclusive claim, he looks for a way to deny it.  He places the issue of salvation on whether we “think and live the way that Jesus did”.  
But the point of Scripture is that we can’t do this – none of us can, including Jesus’ closest friends & family.  We are saved rather by the grace of God through Jesus Christ (John 3:16 again), and this is the “word” that Jesus is referring to in the verses the author quotes from John 8.  Agreed, Scripture doesn’t say a lot about hell – certainly not nearly as much about it as many ministers have wanted to say about it!  But it does direct us to Jesus as the way of salvation.
7.  The Bible Contributes to an Unhappy Status Quo in Societies Around the World – What the heck does this even mean?!?  The author talks about slavery and civil rights to defend the Bible against this nebulous charge, neglecting to mention that  the Bible was also used by supporters of slavery and discrimination to back their positions.  Which seems to demonstrate less the Bible’s effect on society and more the dangerous nature of human use of the Bible in society.  
8.  The Bible is Old Fashioned and Is Becoming Obsolete – Again, this is a massively open-ended and nebulous statement.  It is often made by people who don’t want to think through more clearly their objections to Scripture, or as a general grab-bag intended to imply a variety of allegations about Scripture.  Often these allegations are related to sexual practices, gender roles, and marriage.  The author defends the Bible on the grounds of the influence it has in legal conceptualizations.  
But the core message of the Bible is not how to behave, but how to be saved.  It deals primarily with our existential situation of never measuring up – not only to God’s standards but even to our own standards.  It describes why this is the case, dispels foolish notions that we can ever change this of our own efforts, whether through secularism or reincarnation or strict adherence to the law, and tells us that what we can’t do for ourselves has been given to us in Jesus Christ.  This message never grows old because we never measure up, we are always dealing with the guilt and regret of lives that don’t match our own hopes and dreams, let alone the perfect standard of God!
9.  The Bible Should Be Interpreted Literally – If this is true, then there are a whole lot of churches in trouble who have opted to spiritualize certain teachings to make them more palatable!  And because the Bible is such a large and diverse book, getting into the issues of exegesis and how to read Scripture carefully and properly can’t be dealt with and the author doesn’t.  Rather, he makes the dangerous move of asserting that the Bible can’t be taken literally – at all.  In which case, why are we basing our legal systems on it, as he asserts in the previous point?  If the Bible has no literal application, then we are left with basically inventing faith on our own.  Not all of the Bible can be taken literally, but a great many parts of it should.  Learning how to read it faithfully and intelligently is a lifelong process that should not be dismissed so callously!
10.  You Could Study the Bible for Centuries, But it Can Never Save You from Dying – What do you mean by death?  The author reflects the Christian Scientist understanding that the Word of God helps us to discern illusion from reality in our day to day life, freeing us from the illusions of illness and suffering and perhaps even death itself (though nobody other than Jesus was able to reach that level of understanding).  
This allegation is interesting, because no where in Scripture is someone who is sick or suffering or diseased or dying told that they simply don’t understand reality.  No where does Jesus teach a person in order to heal him.  Jesus heals people who are actually sick.  He raises people from the dead who have actually died.  These conditions are real, and nowhere does Jesus assert that they aren’t.  

Reading Ramblings – November 25, 2012

November 18, 2012

Reading
Ramblings

Date: November 25, 2012,
Twenty Fifth Sunday after Pentecost, Christ the King Sunday

Texts:
Daniel 7:9-10, 13-14; Psalm 93; Revelation 1:4b-8; John 18:33-37

Contextual
Notes:
This is the last Sunday of the liturgical
church year – Christ the King Sunday. The previous two Sundays
have begun focusing us on the return of Christ, the end of sinful
human history and the beginning of a new heaven and a new earth that
are unified, not separated. This Sunday focuses on the regal, royal,
and awe-inspiring power of Jesus Christ as King of Kings, before whom
every knee will bow and tongue confess (Romans 14:11 paraphrasing
Isaiah 45:23). 

As Americans, this is a bizarre concept. We have no
king, we have no Lord. Our elected officials at least nominally bow
to our authority as an electorate. There is no one who is above
reproach or beyond recall – at least on paper. While we are
obedient to our officials and their delegates, we do so
philosophically out of our own volition. What are we to make of the
fact that we have a Lord who commands our obedience and is not
subject to our votes or approval polls? If we cannot tolerate the
temporary authority of one we disagree with, how can we tolerate the
absolute sovereignty of God?

Daniel 7:9-10, 13-14 –
I selected this from the two possible verses for the day (Isaiah
51:4-6 was the alternative) because of the focus on the glory of God
the Father and God the Son. Daniel does utilize these titles, but
as we let Scripture interpret Scripture, it is very clear who these
two divine personages are. I liked Daniel’s emphasis on describing
the glory of God, his radiance and power. 

Though we affirm that God
the Father is true spirit, not human flesh, Daniel is being given a
glimpse of the glory of God in terms that he can make sense of. He
is seeing God in the throne room motif that is recurrent throughout
the prophets and into John’s Revelation. We cannot conceive of a
God that is not physical, so God appropriates a physicality and a
setting that we can make sense of – a divine king and judge who is
beyond compare in terms of power and glory. Daniel, who would be
used to the pomp and circumstance of his Babylonian captors and king,
conveys the true grandeur and glory of God as incomparable. And
before this glory there is only one person who is capable of standing
to receive authority and glory and power – the Incarnate Son of
God, Jesus Christ. Whatever our conceptions of heaven may be like,
if they conceive of heaven apart from the overwhelming awe and
majesty of the full presence of God, we are not imagining it
correctly!

Psalm 93: A beautiful
psalm of glory and honor to the all-powerful creator of all things.
Louder than the most persistent thundering sound on earth, the sound
of waves crashing against the shore, the voice of creation will
praise its maker. God alone is eternal, from all eternity, and
therefore is solely appropriate to reign in all power and majesty.
As the creator of all things, God alone is the fit recipient of the
praise of all creation. If the waves themselves sing the praises of
their creator, how is it that humanity could even consider
withholding praise?

Note that the embodiment of God is the
Word of God in the final verse. God is not separate from his Word.
We are not free to conceive of God and what pleases him on any basis
other than his own revealed Word. It can’t be truly said that we
can’t conceive of God, because we can conceive of him using the words
and descriptors and statutes that He has revealed specifically to us.
It is the Word of God that we should study and meditate on, rather
than on vague imagined ideas of divinity.

Revelation 1:4b-8-
The alternate reading option was Jude 20-25, but I preferred the
Revelation text because it focuses us squarely on the glory of God
and not on ourselves. Note how John begins his revelation. What
follows in his revelation might be terrifying if it were not for the
assurance of who Jesus is, not just as the firstborn from the dead
and ruler of the kings of earth, but as the one who
loves us and has freed us from sin

(v.5). 

I have had discussions with people who struggle with the idea
that they might need to fear God, because for them fear is a negative
emotion and God should not engender any such negative emotions. But
the natural reaction to anything so much greater, so much more
powerful, and so much more different
than ourselves is fear. A lack of fear indicates a level of
confidence in something, either that we stand apart and unaffected by
God, or that we somehow stand over God. Neither is true! We fear
the power of nature, how much more ought we to fear God – but how
much more ought our fear of God be tempered because of his love for
us. Without that assurance of his love, without the incarnation and
crucifixion and resurrection and ascension and promised return of the
Son of God, our only possible
reaction to God could be fear. But because of the Son of God in
human time and space, we are free to love God, knowing how deeply and
firmly He loves us!

John 18:33-37:
Though I like the Mark 13:24-37 alternative text option, I think the John
text more accurately conveys our dilemma regarding the kingship and
authority of Jesus Christ.  If the focus of this morning is on the Kingly glory and authority of our Lord, we must also recognize that we are peculiarly unable to accept this and act upon the truth of it.

We
are pragmatic people. We are grounded in the day to day events of
reality as we know it, and so while we confess Jesus Christ as our
Lord and Savior, we have practical issues that we need to deal with
that sometimes push our appropriate response to this confession
aside.

Pilate
knows that Jesus is innocent of the charges made against him. He
seems genuinely puzzled and intrigued by this enigmatic teacher and
healer who he has undoubtedly already heard about. Pilate doesn’t
have difficulty believing that Jesus conceives of himself as a king.
But Pilate’s response is so often our own – even if Jesus is a
king, the truth of this is easily lost in a pragmatic world. We can
hear Pilate as perhaps the first postmodern, the first person to
utter what has become the mantra of our culture today – “What is
truth?”. If it exists, how can we know it? If we can know it, how
can we attune ourselves to it? And if we attune ourselves to it,
what difference will it make in the big picture? There are things
that need to be done. Money that needs to be earned, bills that need
to be paid, people that must be placated or loved or raised or cared
for. Jesus may in fact be a king, but the fact of the matter is that
the constant demands of the moment are what truly reign in so many of
our lives.

Pilate
has issues to consider. He has a restless population to keep
satisfied. He has a career to nurture and advance. He has a wife to
deal with. He can’t be distracted by petty concerns such as truth –
he is a pragmatic man who knows that all too often the truth gives
way and is ground under whatever private interests demand to hold
sway. Jesus may well be a king, but that won’t make the crowds
outside any quieter. Jesus may well be a king, but that won’t
satisfy Pilate’s higher-ups when they demand to know why he wouldn’t
agree to the demands of his constituency.

Christ
the King Sunday should force us to confess that Christ is often our
King in name only. It should drive us to repentance for placing
ourselves and others before his will and truth. And it should afford
us the assurance that the King has forgiven us and has raised us back
to our feet to once again seek to obey him. While that may seem
impossible, he assures us that his yoke is easy, and his burden is
light (Matthew 11:29-30).

Movie Review: 9

November 17, 2012

9 was one of the in-flight movies I watched recently.  I thought that the trailers for it looked interesting when it was released, and I was happy to get the chance to see it.  But I was disappointed.  Some broad spoiler material ahead, so be forewarned.  


This is a visually impressive but otherwise tedious rehashing of sci-fi themes without any deeper thought or real addition to the genre. It struggles to find a cohesiveness for its hopefulness, and ends up falling flat on cliches that were the source of the original failures it seeks to divest the future of.

Post-apocalyptic world, where machines have turned on their makers and unleashed biological warfare that has terminated all life. What remains are a few animated machines, and a series of animated sack-dolls created by the same genius who created the machines that promised the future and delivered death. Apparently several generations of these creatures have been unleashed into the world, with 9 being the last. None of the first 8 remember anything about the creator though, despite the fact that he apparently was still alive when they were created. He has infused these mechanical sack-dolls with his own soul, bringing them to life for mysterious purposes.  

9 accidentally awakens the final great machine which is capable of self-replication and the exploitation of resources to do so. Essentially, this mega-machine is a metal man, fixed on personal survival for somewhat tenuous reasons. The sack-dolls find themselves attempting to undo the reanimation of this creature while trying to sort out philosophical and theological differences amongst themselves that do a credible job at replicating the fractured soul of a mad genius.  


The cry throughout the film is ‘back to the source’ – the same rallying cry as the Renaissance. By going back to the genius of antiquity we can recreate ourselves and realize our full potential in the future. The movie dutifully falls into the same cracks and chasms created by the original Renaissance, however. No authority can be tolerated save the authority of the individual. The Church is a blind slave to tradition and personal ambition masquerading as self-sacrifical piety, willing to rely on strong-arm tactics to coerce obedience. Fine – any institution is going to struggle because it has humans in it, and the Church certainly falls into this category. Technology is demonized on the macro level while being idolized at the micro level (the small light that 9 creates to illuminate his path). The problem is that mankind doesn’t know where the dividing line is between the beneficial micro technology and the self-destructive macro technology. The metaphor of light in this sense is reminiscent of Frank Miller Jr.’s fantastic post-apocalyptic literary masterpiece, “A Canticle for Leibowitz”.

The sack-dolls have to save themselves from their mechanical nemesis while somehow rebuiding the world anew based on the inherited soul of the man responsible in large part for destroying the last world. Does this seem problematic to anyone else? Isn’t this part of the failure of the Renaissance? The idea that self-reliance based on the work of earlier generations of failed empires could somehow produce a new and different ending? This is the promise of humanism – heir of much of the Renaissance and Enlightenment themes – “We can make ourselves better by doing the same things we’ve always done but doing them better. We can somehow escape the mistakes of the past even though we ourselves are products of the past.”

The movie tries to end on a hopeful theme, but I’m not sure what the hope is based upon. There is the hint of a recreation of biological life, but I’m not sure how this in and of itself is supposed to be hopeful. Nor is there any explanation how a group of sack-dolls without any reproductive capabilities of their own are going to recreate and re-establish the world. Definitely a major leap of faith.

The movie is beautiful to look at, but it offers nothing of substance underneath the graphics.

Brushes With Hostility

November 16, 2012

As plans were made for a trip to Israel, there were more than a few people here in the States that expressed concerns about a trip like that, particularly in the past several months prior to the US elections, when media reports about heightened tensions became more prominent in the US media.  Not the least among those who worried were my folks.  

I brushed off those concerns as politely as possible.  Living is one constant risk, and only because of our routines are we numbed to the dangers that face us as we drive down familiar streets and walk in familiar places.  It is only because travel takes us out of the familiar that those dangers that the dangers seem higher when traveling.  Then again, sometimes travel takes us places that definitely have more prominent types of dangers than other places.  
A week before we departed, a parishioner asked me if I wasn’t worried about going to Israel.  
“No, not really.  Why would I be worried?”
“What if somebody takes a shot at you?”
“What do you mean?”
“You know, what if someone tries to shoot you?”
“Well, as long as it is a clean shot, I’m not too worried.”  Long, awkward pause. 
I need to be careful about how I joke with some people, I’m learning.  My sense of humor definitely falls into the gallows category from time to time, and not everyone understands or appreciates that perspective!
But then, while we were in Israel, there were mortar exchanges in the north along the Syrian border, and terrorist groups in the Gaza Strip began firing rockets into Israel again.  Still, even though we were in Israel at the time, it seemed like a long way off.  There wasn’t much discussion of it that I could see.  Not that I had the time to really look for that kind of discussion.  I was safe within the bubble of a tour group, and there generally wasn’t much time for that sort of conversation.
But now I know where Gaza is.  The day after we left the country, for the first time in 50 years there has been a rocket attack on Jerusalem itself.  Where we just were.  The rocket didn’t hit Jerusalem, it landed in the West Bank.  Which is someplace else we just were.  Suddenly the news takes on a new tone.  These aren’t just names and places, they are streets I have walked on, where people live whom I got to meet because they drove us around for a week and a half and guided us through the sites around Israel.  
I’m not afraid of dying, but as Woody Allen joked, I’d prefer not to be there when it happens.  Death doesn’t scare me but I’m in no hurry to get there.  My thoughts and prayers are with those on both sides of this conflict for whom death has come much closer.  The political situation in Israel is complicated, to say the least.  I’ve developed a better empathy for the Arab population in that country.  I feel for them as they are exploited by the extremists of their own population as well as the Jewish rulers of the land.  They are victims daily of politics and war and borders and all the nastiness that goes with such affairs.  
Now when I see the headlines, they impact me differently.  When we bade goodbye to our driver, Sammi, he entreated us to come back to the United States and tell our friends and relatives about the time we had in Israel.  How we were guided and taken care of by friendly and professional Arab Christians and Muslims.  How Israel isn’t a place they need to be afraid of, that they should also come and see.  As I shook hands with Sammi for the final time shortly afterwards, I reminded him that he also had a job to do, with his family and friends.  That he needed to share the news that Americans were not their enemy, that we are more alike than we are different.  
Israel is likely going to take drastic measures against militants in Gaza, as they should.  It is outrageous that the world should demand that Israel take no action against those who try to kill civilians with random rocket strikes.  But the ones who are really going to suffer are the Arab civilians living in Gaza, held hostage by their own extremist element,.  unable to demand that those using their homes and apartment buildings as bases for rocket launches should stop.  Who are in no position to argue with bands of armed men who hide behind women and children and then condemn Israel for the deaths of those women and children in retaliatory strikes.  
I can support Israel’s right to self defense.  But I can’t pretend any longer that the victims and casualties that will result simply had it coming to them.  Some of them will have – the people who assume that indiscriminate rocket attacks on civilians is an acceptable way to achieve political ends.  Some of them won’t have – human shields who have no choice.  
I know a little better now.  And I pray for them.  I was able to leave when the rockets came.  They aren’t blessed with such mobility.  
 

I Could Have Used Some of This Yesterday…

November 16, 2012

I’ve never been a Cracker Jack addict.  When I was younger, I didn’t much care for peanuts.  By the time I started to enjoy them more, it seemed silly to start eating Cracker Jacks.  Though this twist on the old favorite might be worth investigating – caffeine infused Cracker Jack’d.  

Don’t worry though, in case you were wondering, there are already groups protesting this product line, as the article linked to above notes.  Good grief people – aren’t there more important things to be protesting than caffeinated popcorn?