Archive for June, 2015

Enemies

June 18, 2015

Many people (not just Christians) are in shock today with the news of the shooting deaths of nine Christians during a Bible study in a South Carolina church Wednesday.  I hear surprise and shock, that somebody would do such a thing at a church.  We’ve grown accustomed to hearing about shootings at shopping malls and theaters, schools and on the freeway.  It seems so profane that someone would do something like this at a church.  After sitting in on a Bible study with the people for an hour.

It isn’t that there haven’t been killings in churches before, but somehow this seems to have struck a deeper nerve.  The randomness of it, perhaps.  I’ll admit that when a car sat out front in our parking lot for a few minutes this afternoon with a guy I’ve never seen just sitting in the front seat checking his phone, there was a twinge of nervousness as I passed by.  Does this guy have a gun?  Is he a copycat killer, ready to crash our afternoon Bible study?

Maybe.

If he doesn’t, someone else does.  Will they come to my church?  Maybe.  We get through the day by thinking that these sorts of things can’t happen here.  But they can and do.  I suspect it will become more common.  I hope I’m wrong.

And as usual, there will be the media circus attempting to answer the $64,000 dollar question of why.  Why this guy?  Why that church?  Why those people?  Psychologists will weigh in.  His childhood and family and education will be scrutinized.  If we can just label the why, then we can prevent it from happening again.  That’s the mindset.

Except we can’t.  Even if we think we know why, we can’t prevent it from happening again.  As much as we want a safe world with cushioned walls and no jagged edges, this isn’t the world we create each day.  It isn’t the world we’ve inherited, and no pie-in-the-sky mantras about imagining the reality you want and having the universe deliver it to your doorstep will change that.

Evil is real.  We may think we can link cause and effect, but there is a deeper and darker cause and effect at play that no amount of education or eugenics can breed out of us.  Evil is real and lurks in the hearts of all men and women.  Worse yet, evil is beyond us as well.  We have an enemy.  An enemy that hates us precisely because God loves us.  An enemy who can’t hurt God, so he busies himself with hurting what God loves.  You.  Me.  Nine people in a Bible study.

Of course it can happen in a church.  Of course it’s profane.  That’s the point.  To make us afraid.  To rattle the cages we build for ourselves, convinced that the bars protect us.  Except they don’t because the enemy is inside the cage with us as well as outside.  The world may not be willing to come to grips with this but as Christians we must.  We cannot afford to close our eyes and hum a happy tune and pretend that poor education or improper diet or inaccurate medication is to blame for these sorts of things.

Our enemy wants us dead.  Or better yet, cowered in a corner quivering in fear.  Or screaming at God for allowing us to continue hurting each other.  Followers of Jesus Christ need to maintain a clarity of vision that does not permit us to be bamboozled by terminology or the promises of campaigners or profiteers.  Our enemy has been defeated.  And this we must continue to proclaim calmly, day in and day out.  To ourselves.  To our children.  To our friends and neighbors.  The enemy is defeated.  Even if he happens to be pointing a gun at my head next week, my enemy is defeated.  I have the privilege and duty of living out this reality, which I imagine makes the enemy even madder than before.

Don’t ask why.  If you’re a Christian you know the reason why.  Evil.  Satan.  Lies.  You know the answer is not in our schools or our medicine cabinets.  The answer, the remedy, the cure is an empty tomb 2000 years ago and a formerly dead man who claimed He was the Son of God walking around again alive.  Don’t be surprised.  Don’t be afraid.  Our enemy has been defeated.  Don’t give him the satisfaction of your fear.  Turn off the news.  It’s good to know what’s going on in the world, but it’s sickening to bathe in it.

Pray for the families whose lives have been shattered so heinously.  Pray for the congregation that will never meet together without remembering what happened once before when they gathered.  Pray for the young man who apparently carried out this wickedness.  Pray for our Lord’s return and the final setting things to right.  Pray for faithfulness and strength and peace to wait until that day dawns, whether tomorrow or ten years from now or 2000 years from now.

Pray because the enemy hates it when God’s people turn to Him in praise and prayer and trust, when we don’t respond in fear and hatred and all the other emotions he would like us to.  Our enemy is defeated.  There’s no need to play by his rules.

On the To-Read List

June 16, 2015

I was excited to stumble over this information today.  I really enjoy Gene Veith’s book The Spirituality of the Cross, and give it to my non-Lutheran members and attenders to give them a way of seeing how Lutheran theology applies in daily life.  I’m excited to see that he has teamed up with John Warwick Montgomery for a new theological essay compilation.  I might have time to get this and take it with me next month.  Otherwise, it will have to wait.  It looks very promising!

Book Review – The Defense Never Rests

June 15, 2015

The Defense Never Rests: A Lawyer’s Quest for the Gospel

by Craig A. Parton, Concordia Publishing House 2003

Yet another on the reading list for this.

Apparently there is now a second edition of this book that I didn’t know about.  Guess I’ll have to get that at some point as well!

This book chronicles the personal journey of Craig A. Parton from being a tepid Christian Scientist to a conservative Lutheran, with particular emphasis both on his time in evangelical circles (a la Campus Crusade for Christ) and his frustrations with the tendency of Lutheran congregations to try and emulate evangelical practices and styles, thinking that this will somehow lead more people into their doors.  Along the way he provides some excellent apologetic arguments on the validity of Scripture and how lawyers and judges examine evidence, as a prelude to discussing whether or not the Bible functions well as evidence as defined by trial law.

I don’t read many auto/biographies, and so part of my issues with the latter portions of this book can probably be explained by the fact that this isn’t a genre of literature I’m overly fond of.  He makes a rather strong case for the historic Lutheran liturgy and hymnody as the best worship style and practice.  He provides some good reasons for supporting this opinion – namely the understanding that worship is expressed theology.  How we worship reflects what we believe.  While I personally prefer more traditional liturgy (though I’m open to different musical styles to accompany it), I recognize that multiple generations have now been brought up in Lutheran congregations with less exposure to this.  Combined with a technology culture that essentially allows someone to never have to interact with anything they don’t like or prefer, I think there needs to be an openness to certain tweaks to liturgy and music.  It isn’t a necessity, but neither is it necessarily anathema.

So while the majority of the book would be interesting to both non-Christians as well as evangelical Christians, the final sections of the book read more like an in-house critique of variations of Lutheran worship practice.  While that may (or should!) be of interest and use to Lutheran pastors and laity, it likely will be lost on broader audiences.  Perhaps one of the best features of this book is a very robust bibliography of additional reading related in various ways to things discussed in this book.

I’ve had the pleasure of having lunch a few times with the author, and look forward to getting to know him better in a few weeks at the Academy.  He has a keen mind and a lawyer’s ability to quickly distill things to their essence, which I both value and find at times intimidating.  If you’re interested in apologetics as well as some discussion about differences in Christian belief and worship, this is an excellent book to help start you on more in-depth study.

Reading Ramblings – June 21, 2015

June 14, 2015

Reading Ramblings

Date: Fourth Sunday after Pentecost – June 21, 2015

Texts: Job 38:1-11; Psalm 124; 2 Corinthians 6:1-13; Mark 4:35-41

Context: The readings continue to stress the power of God. While our Christian lives are often inwardly focused – am I praying enough? am I loving enough? is God happy with me? – our focus more rightly needs to be simply on God. His power. His purpose. His promises. When we focus on Him rather than on ourselves, we come closer to proper worship and reverence and praise.

Job 38:1-11 – The beginning of the end of Job, both literally and figuratively. After focusing on himself and what God owes him in way of an explanation, Job is now called to account by his Creator. The book of Job does not end the way we would like it – with God explaining patiently to Job all his reasonings, with God justifying himself to Job. God is God and we are not. This is the simplest and most succinct definition of reality we could ask for. Perhaps too simple and too succinct. God’s ways are above ours. This is not an attempt to shut down our intellects, but rather the means by which we are to guide and condition our intellects. The God who gave us our mind and instilled his ways in our hearts is not subject to either of these things. We are called not to surrender our minds to irrationality, but to fall to our knees in trust of the God who sacrificed his Son to save us.

Psalm 124 – One of the psalms of ascent, sung together by God’s people as they journeyed to Jerusalem for festivals. As such this psalm focuses on God’s actions in history. We are not without information about our God. We are not without precedents and means of discerning his attitude towards us. God is acknowledged as the source of physical salvation, important when one is more keenly aware of his vulnerability as a pilgrim. The choice of metaphor is important. God’s people are a bird that has escaped the snare, rather than a bear or a lion that has smashed the snare and defeated her adversaries. The trap is broken, but the bird is not the one who has broken it – God has. Truly our help is in the name of the Lord – the maker of heaven and earth has promised good to us and nobody and nothing can take that promise away from us, so that in any situation we are free in Christ.

2 Corinthians 6:1-13 – We continue to work through 2 Corinthians for the third week in a row (lectio continua). Paul has moved on from his theme of our temporal versus eternal bodies that we heard the last two weeks at the close of chapter 4 and the opening of chapter 5. He has moved on to the theme of reconciliation with God, and now moves on to exhort his hearers/readers to respond to the Lord. This is the goal of the apostolic ministry of Paul – that people would hear the Good News of Jesus Christ and receive the reconciling work of God towards humanity.

Towards this end Paul has labored diligently, and he summarizes some of what he has encountered in order to make this Good News available to as many as possible. If we are unhappy with how the Gospel is received in our popular culture today, we should take notes from St. Paul and praise God that we have not (as yet) had to endure what he did! He has given everything of himself to share the Gospel, and he encourages his hearers/readers to a similar openness as they receive and live out the Good News.

Mark 4:35-51 – The emphasis on the unilateral power of God as expressed in Job is picked up in the Gospel lesson. Mark records multiple instances where the Sea of Galilee is a grounds for opposition to Jesus and his followers. In every situation his disciples – many of whom were lifelong, skilled fishermen – were unable to handle circumstances on their own. In each situation it is Jesus who demonstrates his divinity through his commanding of the natural elements. Jesus embodies the power over nature that God the Father refers to in his comments to Job. It is a defining characteristic of God to have complete control over the natural order and natural elements, something that man strives towards but with very, very limited success.

But rather than recognize in Jesus’ mastery of the wind and waves that God has come among them, his disciples are confused and terrified. If the wind and waves are terrifying on their own, how much more terrifying is the one who can control them and bend them to his will! How much more dangerous is that one – and what if that one were to become displeased? Could He who saved them from the tempest not just as easily consign them to death by the tempest?

Without God’s assurances of his intentions towards us, the only reasonable response to the reality of God is terror. He is by definition completely beyond our control or even our understanding. We have no power with him or against him. Unless He reveals his intentions towards us we can only cower in fear and wonder at the fate that must await us for failing to be the creatures He desires us to be. As such it is paramount that the person and work of Jesus is not ultimately a moral example encouraging or threatening us to greater or more perfect obedience, but the final sacrifice on our behalf. God offers himself, his own Son, in exchange for us. It is only in the cross and the empty tomb and the promises of Jesus the Christ that we can cease trembling in fear before God and respond in joy and love to his promise of forgiveness.

Yes, God cares that we are perishing. And He has acted decisively in human history to provide the solution to our suffering and perishing. We are to respond in faithful joy and thanksgiving, taking God at his Word not blindly or foolishly but based on the historical witness of those who knew and experienced the Son of God firsthand.

Awkward

June 14, 2015

That’s the first time I can ever remember spelling that word – awkward.  It looks so…awkward.  Curious.

Anyhow.

I haven’t watched Game of Thrones, (or Seth Meyers, for that matter) but this little clip seems so appropriate for the Church in so many ways.  This is how Church seems these days.  Awkward.  Dealing with a reality that is much larger and harsher and at the same time more mind-numbingly beautiful than what our culture is willing and able to recognize.  Culture wants to prattle on about Bruce/Caitlyn or global warming or who Taylor Swift is dating, blissfully ignorant or ignoring the nightmare that haunts our steps and seeks our souls; rejecting the gift of life and love and joy in the God who created us and redeemed us and promises to make us holy.

Being awkward is no fun.  The Church, being comprised of broken, sinful human beings such as myself, often would just rather fit in.  Would rather try to forget for a few moments the dark howls beyond that parapets, would like to focus on itself a bit more, maybe meet a pretty girl and chat a bit.  The Church is constantly being counseled to change the tone, water down the rhetoric a bit, go easy on the whole sin and death business, emphasize love and acceptance and hope and joy a bit more, muddying all of them together until we have the appeal – and usefulness – of, at best, a motivational speaker.

I don’t like feeling awkward.  It hurts to watch faithful members of my congregation struggle with that same awkwardness, that same growing cultural irrelevance.  It’s hard to know that these people grieve spouses and children and grandchildren who are physically alive but spiritually dead.  It’s hard to know that, like me, there are relationships where the Gospel can’t be brought up without people rolling their eyes, without long pauses at the dinner table.  Without awkwardness.

Truth and reality are awkward.  Evil is real but God is more real.  Forge ahead.  Watch.  Wait.  Pray.  Don’t lose heart.  Don’t sacrifice the importance of the Gift that has been given for a few fleeting moments of relevance or the allure of a pretty set of eyes.  Winter is here, but spring has come and summer is coming.

The Horror, the Horror…

June 13, 2015

Read this.

You probably need to read it again.  Lord knows I do.  Go ahead.  I’ll wait.

Now bookmark it.  Print out a copy of it and hang it on your refrigerator.  Maybe tape it to your bathroom mirror.  Stick it under your keyboard at work.  All of the above.

Read it again.  And again.  And again.

Amen.  For the love of God, Amen.

I’m Just Sayin’

June 12, 2015

This is where we have arrived, culturally.  No grounding.  No baseline.  No fixed point from which to make judgments.  Everything is a free-for-all.  And the funny thing, is that everything is not equally a free-for-all.

Culturally we’re going to do back-flips of joy for Bruce Jenner/Caitlyn Jenner.  We aren’t going to explore background issues.  We aren’t going to examine family life.  We aren’t going to investigate medications or any other things that Jenner may have used over the years.  We’re just going to assume that it is perfectly normal, natural, and even laudable for a man who was once the poster-child of masculinity to declare himself a woman.  End of story, and don’t anybody dare to challenge either his decision or the media treatment of it.

So a man who simply declares himself a woman (no surgery as yet, at least according to best information) and goes and does a glamour shot for a magazine cover, he should legitimately be viewed and treated fully as a woman no-questions-asked.  If he were next week to declare that he considers himself a guy, should that be whooped up and made a national obsession as well?  If three months from now he decided that he’s a woman again, would that be another cause for celebration?  If people are simply making random declarations about themselves, why is this a) newsworthy and b) laudable?  At best, it just is.

If determining that you’re more comfortable as a woman than a man is socially acceptable, why would it not be equally socially acceptable (and scientifically a heckuva lot more justifiable) to embrace an alternate ethnicity that you are more comfortable with?  After all, most of us are legitimately enough of a hodge-podge of backgrounds that we could make any number of different ethnic claims about ourselves that probably have at least a smidgen of actual reality to them.  Unlike gender.

Yet people seem far less cool with becoming a different ethnicity than they do about becoming a different gender, if initial reactions to Rachel Dolezal being outed as a white person basically impersonating a black person would indicate.  Dolezal’s parents outed her as white this past week, despite her efforts to pass herself off as a woman of color.  There are some who are publicly scratching their heads about this disconnect.  They are, predictably, being told to shut up and butt out of things.  They don’t have an opinion worth offering on the matter, while others will undoubtedly decry Dolezal as racist while still staunchly defending Bruce/Caitlyn.

This is what happens when you don’t have a baseline.  When you don’t have something to anchor yourself to.  This is the price you pay for emancipating yourself from an external and objective authority in favor of doing whatever you feel like.   It is just exactly the sort of goofiness one should expect when everything is relative and determined by personal feelings rather than reality.  It will be curious to see how folks sort out the inconsistency between supporting a man pretending to be a woman while still being inclined to castigate a Caucasian pretending to be an African American.  Curious, but also pointless.  However they sort it out they won’t have any authoritative rationale to back it up.  It will simply be a matter of who yells the loudest the longest.  Again.

Ambiguous Sonnet

June 11, 2015

Boy gets girl, or else the girl gets the boy

With arts and charms that lovers still employ –

We prefer our stories bound with a bow,

Our ducks aligned in a neat little row;

Endings happy or sad but well-defined,

The ambiguities of life refined.

We struggle for control we never find,

Driven by expectations in our mind

That we should be the ones we’d like to be,

That we produce the film we’d like to see.

We need our redemption once-and-for-all

Yet breathe the persistent state of the Fall.

We need a constancy we can’t seduce;

Finality in faith we don’t produce.

Wet Bar Wednesday – Applejack

June 10, 2015

I decided to get rid of the last of a bottle of sour apple liquor this week.  I put together the following drink based on another recipe for a drink called an Applejack.

Applejack:

  • 1 part Jack Daniel’s Whiskey (or another whiskey)
  • 2 parts sour apple liquor
  • 1 part lemon juice
  • agave/sugar/sweetener to taste
  • Club soda

Mix the first four ingredients, then pour into a glass with ice.  Top with club soda and stir.  This reminded me a bit of a Long Island Iced Tea but more on the sour side.  If you find it too sour for your taste, try easing off a little on the sour apple or the lemon juice instead of simply adding more sweetener.  Enjoy!

Hurts So Good

June 9, 2015

Today, mandatory vaccination for children moved forward in our state legislature, facing a full legislative vote and signature by the Governor before becoming California law.  Not far behind it, a bill making its way through the State Assembly would require kindergarten before entering first grade.  Currently parents can opt their child out of kindergarten and have them go directly into first grade.  The here is the text for AB 713.

Both of these sound like good ideas.  Who doesn’t like the idea of protecting children and everyone else from infectious illnesses and diseases?  Who doesn’t like the idea of better preparing children for educational success and therefore, theoretically, professional and lifelong success?

The problem isn’t the hope or intent of these bills, but rather that the government is mandating the route by which the good goals are accomplished.  Rather than acknowledging that there are myriad potential routes to the goals of good health and good education, they are demanding that we follow their route.  The government is implementing public policy which eliminates my right and duty as a parent to care for my child and look after their welfare, both now and in the future.  While the intent is good, I cannot condone the means.

I’m sure plenty of good people support these bills for good reasons and with good intentions. However I believe that in doing so we continue to empower a faceless bureaucracy.  We continue to promote the idea that our officials know what is best for us and we would all be better off to fall in line with their mandates.  The most efficient means towards an end (as determined by some study or survey or public policy lobby) becomes the only means to an end.

People sometimes joke about a nanny state, the State as the doting guardian who does what is best under the auspices of parental authority.  To some extent this is more accurate than probably intended.  A nanny is not the parent.  The nanny is charged with a set of responsibilities based on parental directives.  A nanny is needed when the parents themselves are either too busy or can’t be bothered to directly do the parenting themselves.

Our Founding Fathers resisted the idea of a nanny state, because they understood all too well that personal responsibility is both a right and a duty that cannot be safely farmed out to any other person or entity.  They understood this because they had seen and experienced the alternative dangers.  That nannies sometimes displace the authority of the parents, sometimes exceed their stated boundaries and inflict harm.  Our Founding Fathers didn’t just learn the history of abuses in other places and mollify themselves with the idea that could never happen here.  It would seem that we are too far removed from those painful lessons.  People have convinced themselves that it can’t happen here, and that therefore it won’t.  That it’s perfectly safe to farm out personal responsibility and parental responsibility to the government.  That it is perfectly acceptable and safe to have the government observing, or potentially spying on its citizens, and that such actions could never be used against innocent people, or people who disagree with government policies, but only against bad people.

I’m not so optimistic.  I love my country and the ideals that we once stood for.  But I also have absolutely no doubt that I am a broken and sinful human being.  I am essentially self-centered even in my altruism.  I am constantly fighting the sinful inclination to make my needs and wants the overriding priority and justification in my life.  I believe that every human being is in the same condition. Collections of human beings – whether a congregation or a government agency – can not undo this dangerous selfishness.  At best we can hold one another accountable, and encourage one another.  At worst, we can choose to enable one another’s behavior regardless of what it is, whether out of a misguided attempt to love the other person or simply because we are outnumbered.

I need my government to do some important things for me, and I’m grateful that it does these things.  However faithfulness in a few areas does not guarantee faithfulness in all areas, and justifying a need for limited government and centralized authority is not a blank check for unlimited government and centralized authority.  I don’t trust my government because I don’t trust me.  Just as giving myself more and more unilateral authority is ultimately a dangerous thing, so is giving over my authority to a collective of other people, relinquishing my right or authority – or having my right or authority taken from me – with the assurance that it’s a good thing.  That these people are somehow immune from sinfulness and error.

I will have to give an answer to God someday for how I exercised my vocation as a father.  The State will not have to.  Or perhaps now it will.