Archive for October, 2015

Difficult Diversity

October 19, 2015

What makes someone diverse?  What, as a culture, do we consider to be healthy diversity, or is there no distinction in such a term?  And once something is considered mainstream, does it become non-diverse?

All interesting questions raised by recent events at Wellesley College, a women’s university in Massachusetts.  The multicultural affairs coordinator is an student position dedicated to fostering a “culture of diversity” on campus.  But what does that mean?  And should the person holding that office embody a type of diversity themselves?  And is transgenderism so old-news already that it is no longer considered diverse?

That might be the case.

The story doesn’t mention how the students feel about having a peer who self-identifies as a male in an all-women’s school, but that would be an interesting follow-up story.  Instead, the major issue seems to be having a personification of the established white-patriarchy in a position committed to diversity.  Even if that person isn’t *really* a man.  I’m curious as to how welcome this new student really has been, when there is such a committed effort by some students to keep her from this office. I wonder why the other three candidates all dropped out of the race for the office.  So many more questions than this tiny article answers.

Wouldn’t a self-identified man in an all-woman’s school be an emblem of diversity?  Apparently not.  Perhaps a conservative Christian young woman would be a model for diversity?  Not likely.  Diversity has boundaries and definitions, I suspect, creating an interesting paradox for whomever you ask to foster it.

Reading Ramblings – October 25, 2015

October 18, 2015

Reading Ramblings

Date: Twenty-Second Sunday after Pentecost – October 25, 2015 – Reformation Sunday Observed

Readings: Revelation 14:6-7; Psalm 46; Romans 3:19-28; John 8:31-36

Context: This is Reformation Sunday observed, since next Sunday, November 1, is All Saints Day. Observation of Reformation Sunday is a joyous occasion in Lutheran circles, but I maintain that it should also be a day tinged with sorrow and hope. We rejoice that the fullness of the Gospel was restored through the work of the Reformers (as well as those who came before them in this effort but were cut down for their position). But we are also sorrowful that the restoration of Christ’s Good News came as such devastating bad news for his bride, the Church. We do not rejoice in schism or separation, but our hearts and prayers should be directed towards the reunification of God’s people around the Gospel. This is what we look for ultimately in the day of our Lord’s return, but in every way possible, we should seek such unity in the faith here and now each day. While out of honesty and respect we cannot worship with one another and receive the Sacraments with one another (since different denominations preach differently about these things), we can and should work together in other ways so that the Good News continues to be shared with our world.

Revelation 14:6-7 – The Gospel is eternal. It has always been and will always be. It may be muffled from age to age, but it will be proclaimed at all times not simply by Christians but by the very messengers of God. The Gospel is for all people – none are excluded. It calls us to right understanding and relationship with God the Father solely through the atoning work of God the Son, Jesus. The Gospel is proclaimed. It is not added to, augmented, expanded upon, nor does it require anything more from us. In receiving it, we are called to a posture of worship and glorification of God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

Psalm 46 – The words of this psalm form the basis for the famous Reformation hymn, A Mighty Fortress, penned by Martin Luther. Indeed, the earliest title for this hymn might have included the Psalm by name. God is the source of strength in all situations. No matter what we face – even the apparent destruction of the world around us, we can trust in our God to hold us in his hands and bring us into his presence. While our world is broken and prone to calamity, the kingdom we look forward to is not (vs.4-5). Our lot in life may now be uncertainty and even certain death, but we look forward to a life without such threats. The kingdoms of the earth that hold so much power and sway over the lives of so many people have no power compared to God. Their efforts to destroy one another and even to war against him will ultimately be futile and completely dismantled. No opposition will remain one day to God’s rule, and we as his children through faith in his Son look forward to an eternity of peace and joy. Note the exclusive emphasis of this passage on God’s work!

Romans 3:19-28 – Paul’s glorious summary of the nature of grace through faith. Having already demonstrated how neither God’s chosen people the Jews nor any other people have been obedient and faithful to God and thus deserving of his reward and love, Paul summarizes Biblical theology – which he will shortly expound upon and illustrate from the Bible – that God’s intent is not that we earn his love, but that we receive his love as a free gift, fully separate and unrelated from our ability to fulfill the Law.

The Law of God applies to all people (just as the Gospel does in the reading from Revelation). Nobody is free of it, nobody can claim it does not apply to them. It condemns all equally, in that all violate the Law to some degree. Nobody can claim that God owes them his love and goodness on account of their perfect fulfillment of the law (vs.19-20).

This should dismay us, because Paul has already stated in 1:18 that the wrath of God is even now being poured out on those who fail to observe his holy Law. So it is good news that a new way of righteousness is revealed. But it is not our righteousness, but God’s. It is conveyed to us through faith in the Son of God incarnate, Jesus the Christ. Nobody is exempt from God’s plan of salvation in Jesus. All have sinned. All are in need of redemption. All receive that redemption by acknowledging that this is what God has done through the life, death, and resurrection of his Son.

We caused the problem unilaterally – the sin of Adam and Eve which I inherit and propitiate. However the solution to the problem is God’s, unilaterally. We do not get to advise him, we are offered no alternatives or substitutes. Rather than making God into a villain, this should make it clear his great righteousness! (vs.21-26). And, it prevents us from taking any pride, any ownership in our salvation. We have done nothing to merit it or cause it. By faith in what God the Father has done through God the Son – a faith provided by none other than God the Holy Spirit – we are saved. The emphasis and focus is solely on God and his actions, as it should be.

John 8:31-36 – The alternate recommended reading for this Sunday was Matthew 11:12-19, but I felt this made better sense. Jesus calls God’s people to faithfulness in himself, Jesus. God’s people respond that they have no need of Jesus, because they have an identity, a history – they are God’s chosen people, recipients of the divine revelations of God. They believe that these things mean they are free.

Jesus clarifies. They are not free, because they are slaves still to sin. Yes, they have the Temple and the sacrificial system and the divinely revealed means of receiving forgiveness for their sins. But all of that is meant to help them see their true, enslaved condition! Instead, it has led to just the opposite – the illusion that they are free! Jesus must show them their chains, so they can see the one who comes to break those very chains. Jesus can do what the Law and the Temple and their sacrifices can’t – He can free them from their sinful chains eternally. Nothing short of faith in God’s plan of salvation can save even God’s chosen people from their rightful inheritance of death because of their sin. What the sacrifices and Temple can’t do all their life, Jesus will do in the single sacrifice of his life. The assurances they must receive from the High Priest over and over again that they are forgiven, Jesus will pronounce once and for all in his resurrection from the dead.

This is the heart of the Reformation. The Good News is not in our knowledge of the Law, nor in our special designation as a particular tribe or race. The Good News is not about Jesus the Christ, it is Jesus the Christ. His death is for me and for you. His resurrection is for me and for you. Not simply one day in the future when we die or He returns, but today, now, this moment. Through faith in his death and resurrection I am declared a sinless child of God, free from the chains of sin and a full citizen of the Kingdom of Heaven. The reality is that my sin still lives in me as well and wars against this new identity, but that does not denigrate the new identity! I now see two identities at war – my old identity that demands that I be the Lord of my life, to my own death, and the new identity with Jesus as the Lord of my life, to my eternal life. At one and the same moment sinner and saint, simul iustice et peccator. One day, my only identity will be in Christ, and my assurance of that is in his triumph over the sinfulness and evil of man that nailed him to a cross and buried him in the tomb. His life promises me my life.

This is the Good News! There is nothing more to be done! Christ has done it all – we need only accept it and live!

Expensive Grace

October 17, 2015

I’m glad to be Facebook friends with some devout Catholics.  I enjoy some of the things they share that differ greatly from either the outright heretical stuff that some “Christians” share, or the hoppy-poppy motivational stuff that others share.  I have big beefs with some Catholic theology, and immense respect for other aspects of it.  One of my beefs is the consistent confusion over grace and who pays for it.

One of those Facebook friends posted this blog (not their own) the other day.  I like the general theme of taking our faith seriously and challenging the expectations and assumptions of our culture.  But this phrase slapped me across the face:

We don’t hear nearly enough that grace costs. We don’t hear nearly enough that to follow Christ more or less means being poor. We’re not called to live in destitution but we’re clearly called to not own much more than we can use, which is really not all that much. We’re called to poverty, chastity, and obedience.

Yes, I agree completely, grace costs, and we don’t think about that nearly enough.

However it doesn’t cost us.  It cost God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit an amount that I am unable to comprehend as a creation rather than the Creator.  That is where the cost lies.  The grace that is offered to me through faith in the incarnation, death, resurrection, ascension, and promised return of the Son of God, Jesus, is free.  I don’t owe God anything for it, and I can’t possibly pay God anything for it (which is the point of it being free, not surprisingly).

So it isn’t that grace is costly, but rather two other realities that are very costly.  The first is that living in this sinful world, I have an enemy who hates God and can’t hurt him, so he targets God’s creation and particularly those who have received this free grace from God.  So from that perspective, I can expect suffering and loss and frustration.  I may feel deprived of the things in life that I would really like, not because God is capricious or cruel but because I need to learn what is best for me and because I have an enemy that wants to keep God’s blessings from me.

The second reality is that in response to the grace I have received from God, the Holy Spirit now living within me leads me more and more to empathize with those who suffer and are in need.  Being rescued from the wrath of God against my sinful rebellion, I want to pour out a measure of that love I have received so freely to others around me, just as freely.  How this looks in my life will look differently from person to person, but will have a commonality in being with those in need in one way or another.  Spending time with the lonely.  Being generous with the resources God has entrusted to me.

I disagree that the Bible calls all followers of Christ to subsistence living – though I believe that God the Holy Spirit does call some people to this.  The passage out of Ecclesiastes that is the Old Testament lesson for this Sunday is helpful with this (Ecclesiastes 5:10-20).  Enjoy and give thanks to God for what you have received but keep it in perspective!  This is not a passage that teaches us to impoverish ourselves, but it does remind us the dangers of mixing up our priorities.

There is no inherent virtue in poverty, and no inherent crime in wealth.  In both situations the danger is losing sight of our relationship with God, and both extremes lend themselves well to that.  Likewise, for those in the middle, the danger is apathy and the atrophy of the heart towards those with less, or spitefulness towards those with more.

We give of ourselves not because the grace of God is expensive to us, but out of joy for how lavishly God gives to us in his forgiveness and grace.  It is expensive not in that much is required of me to receive it – I merely have to trust that this is what He offers me!  It is expensive in that, having received this generous grace, I am no longer free to keep myself as my highest priority.  I have submitted myself to the Holy Spirit’s ongoing work in my heart and I am warned to take that seriously (the second half of Hebrews 3 & 4).  But if I am honest and trusting, in time, I’ll learn that even when I am prompted to sacrifice for others, it really isn’t very expensive at all.  It becomes a joy.

Alma Mater

October 16, 2015

I don’t really have strong affinities for my undergraduate alma mater.  It was a huge school when I attended, and it’s larger now.  I was a commuter student, so life didn’t revolve exclusively around campus.  I worked one-two jobs throughout college to help pay for my expenses, which further reduced my campus experience to pretty much just attending classes.  And playing pool.  Lots and lots and eventually too much pool.  So, when you consider that my undergraduate experience stretched across 13 years, you’d think I’d be more attached than I am.

But I’m not.

But it is cool to see the school doing interesting things.  This is one of them – a virtual museum centered around Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, in an effort to generate discussion and interaction on the very-much-related topics of ethics and science.  When I was teaching undergraduate students science fiction literature, this was one of my favorite choices to read, as it deals with profound issues that go beyond the this-is-cool-lets-see-if-we-can-do-it attitude that appears (from the outside) to pervade some aspects of scientific R&D.

I hope to keep up on this venture and participate in it.  Somebody remind me in three years when it is slated to open!

Art Is Complicated

October 15, 2015

But some art is more complicated than other art.  Which is why sometimes it is helpful to get some insight into the artists thoughts.

And sometimes, it isn’t.

Rethinking Chicago

October 14, 2015

I’m sure it’s ignorance and my Western bias, but I’ve never really associated Chicago too much with common sense.  The city’s reputation for political shenanigans is legendary, so while admitting to some prejudice on this matter, I don’t think it’s entirely without cause.

So imagine my surprise to hear that Chicago is demonstrating some common sense.  They are refusing to allow a transgender boy (a boy who wants to be a girl) from using the female locker rooms.  The ACLU is pressuring them to cave on the issue.  The school district in question has previously ceded ground on this matter, allowing transgender students to compete in sports as their self-identified gender rather than their actual gender, and to utilize their self-identified gender restrooms in schools because there are stalls that allow for privacy.  However the district is refusing to back down on allowing the boy to use the girl’s locker room.  The student can use a private room away from the girl’s locker room, but this is not enough for the ACLU.

I hope that more and more school districts will begin challenging the foolishness of their political higher-ups.  This will require parents to be vocal and supportive of such stances.  The ACLU claims that forcing the boy to change in a separate room amounts to “ostracizing” him, and claims that shifting American views on such topics demand that schools no longer treat transgender students differently.  I’m willing to wager money that, when put to an objective vote, most parents of school children would vote to provide transgender students separate facilities, but would not like them getting naked with people of the opposite gender, regardless of how they self-identify.  But parents are going to need to stand firm on this and not get bullied into accepting something that pits the interests, privacy, and mental health of the majority against the interests, privacy, and mental health of a tiny, tiny, tiny minority.

This is not disrespectful, it is common sense.  Boys and girls are physically different, regardless of how they choose to think about their gender.  It is unfair to subject the rest of the students in a school to an uncomfortable situation so that one or two students can be encouraged in their preferences.

Ashes to Ashes

October 13, 2015

Playboy magazine built an empire on the lust that readily burns in many men’s hearts.  When the magazine launched 62 years ago, pornography was in limited supply.  Playboy filled a want that couldn’t be met in many other ways.  Over time Playboy mainstreamed that niche using the questionable assertion that it fulfilled intellectual as well as baser interests.  Perhaps Playboy was the first to argue publicly that pornography did not have to be dirty, and in the process was pivotal in making pornography a topic of conversation.  We might want to argue that the conversation was mostly against Playboy, but the success of the brand tends to mitigate that argument.

But the niche that Playboy fulfilled no longer exists.  At least not as a niche.  Now pornography is the norm in our culture, available on your computers and phones rather than behind a convenience store check-out counter.   The stigma is gone because simultaneously it is more private – no need to embarrass yourself asking for a copy of a dirty magazine in 7-11 – and more public – the assumption is that everyone has dabbled and that this is healthy and natural.  A cultural expectation of self-control has given way to a cultural expectation of self-indulgence.  Sex is no longer the arena of marriage, it is open to everyone, and you don’t even need another person there with you to indulge.

In recognition of this, Playboy has once again struck a bold and counter-cultural stance – they’re no longer going to feature nude women in their magazines.  Mostly nude, probably.  But not fully.  Not now, when people have access to everything you can imagine – and much that you can’t and shouldn’t – with the click of a button.  Rather than compete with a virtually limitless supply of pornography, the magazine is shifting their content and format.

Will they be successful or not?  Only time will tell.  There are other storied companies that exist for some time on name-brand recognition alone.  But I think what their decision says about our culture is the most fascinating thing.  Competing in pornography – at least for a print publication – is no longer possible.  Showing more is no longer a going venture, as there isn’t much more that can be shown.  A self-imposed modesty is perhaps the direction our society is headed towards.  It’s just ironic that Playboy might be the first to recognize that – or lead the way towards it.

Peaceful Rest at the Last

October 12, 2015

I imagine – and statistics bear this out – that most people would prefer to die in their own home or the home of a close friend or relative.  They would prefer their final moments to be in familiarity and comfort rather than the stark, antiseptic environment of a hospital.  I know that’s how I would prefer things to go, if I have that option.

There are those who fear that dying at home instead of a hospital would mean more pain and suffering, away from the immediacy of medicines and pain-killers that hospitals have stockpiled, ready on short notice.  It is interesting that recent surveys indicate that this fear might be misfounded, and that dying at home does not involve more pain and suffering than dying in a hospital, and may involve less.

Which makes it all the more unfortunate that few people actually do die at home.

I see this often.  Someone is caught up in an unfortunate accident that leads to prolonged time in a hospital, which might result in complications or infections and the person never returns home again.  Very few of us are blessed (or cursed) to know what is going to lead to our death and when.  So it becomes very important to talk about these things with family and friends beforehand.  It sounds morbid, but it’s crucial.  Those who will be responsible for overseeing your final months or days need to know what your preferences are.  And we all need to be better informed about what our options are in terms of dictating these things to hospitals, which seem to more and more direct what happens (or won’t happen) to their clients.

Talk about this stuff.  Write it out.  Make it well known to everyone who might be a part of your final days.  It reduces stress and strain on your friends and family, and gives you peace of mind as well.

Reading Ramblings – October 18, 2015

October 11, 2015

Reading Ramblings

Date: Twenty-first Sunday after Pentecost – October 18, 2015

Texts: Ecclesiastes 5:10-20; Psalm 119:9-16; Hebrews 4:1-16; Mark 10:23-31

Context: We live in the grace of God through Jesus Christ. As such, our lives should be content and trusting in him. He has already given us all that we need through his death and resurrection. The days of our lives are free to be spent in meaningful work, but we should never confuse our work with our identity in Christ. Nor should we make the mistake of assuming that our identity in Christ is in any way affected by the good works we strive to do. Our good works are worthless in God’s eyes for the purposes of earning his love. They are useful only as we are shaped into the image of Christ by God the Holy Spirit.

Ecclesiastes 5:10-20 – The Hebrew title for this book is Qoheleth, taken from the first verse of Chapter 1. The word appears to be both a title for the book, as well as the nom de plume of the author. It is not used elsewhere in the Old Testament. Tradition attributes this book to Solomon, but there is by no means unanimity (either in Hebrew or Christian traditions) on that matter. It has been common since Luther’s time to assume a later, post-exilic author. However no compelling identification of author, time, or place has ever been posited. Along with Song of Solomon and Proverbs, it follows the Psalms as deference to the potential authorship of Solomon (who follows David both as son and king). Each book traditionally is relegated to a period of Solomon’s life – Song of Solomon in his youth, Proverbs in middle age as he becomes a ruler concerned with wisdom, and Ecclesiastes towards the end of his life.

The verses for today’s reading emphasize – as does much of the book – that we are to carry out our divinely allotted responsibilities in life without allowing ourselves to be distracted and misled. We must work to survive, but money is not itself the purpose for which we work. We work because that is what God created us for (Genesis 2:15). Our focus is to be on God as the source of all our blessings as well as our consolation during times of loss and lack. Failure to keep this focus leads us to great unhappiness (v.17).

Hebrews 4:1-16 – Chapter 3 concludes with a strong warning not to fall away from the grace of God through negligence of sin. Allowing sin to remain unchallenged in our lives is a threat to us – not because the sin is not forgiven, but because we might eventually become numb to it, so that it leads us away from the grace of God. He utilizes the Israelites who were brought out of slavery in Egypt only to die in the wilderness because of their unwillingness to heed God and trust him.

Paul continues this metaphor in chapter 4. We as followers of Christ must be diligent in faith and restless against the sin in our lives so that we might enter the rest promised to us in Christ, unlike the Israelites who did not receive the Promised Land. God’s Word is described as the sharp, two-edged blade that cuts through everything including our pretensions and masks to lay bare the heart. This might terrify us, but for the fact that Jesus is our great High Priest. He intercedes for us who understands the grip of temptation and the pervasiveness of sin in our lives. He is empathetic and sypathetic to our plight, and therefore we can trust him as a source or mercy in our supplications and forgiveness for our sins.

Mark 10:23-31 – I’m not very happy with the geniuses who divided the Gospel lesson up from last week’s. This section is intricately bound up with Jesus’ encounter with the rich young man, following on that encounter and explicating it. Much like today, popular opinion in Jesus’ day was that the rich were blessed – their wealth was both evidence of God’s blessing and a means to increasing that blessing because they could give generously to those in need. It was assumed that rich followers of God endeared themselves further to him through their acts of generosity. As such, the disciples and we might be inclined to surprise at Jesus’ teaching.

Frequently we try to mitigate what Jesus says, just as we want to mitigate his command to the rich young man. We want to find a way whereby we can fulfill Jesus’ expectations. So it is that explanations abound as to why this passage isn’t as terrifying as it sounds. The eye of the needle, some say, is a smaller door in a city wall that would only permit an unmounted person to enter, so that a camel needing to enter would need to be unloaded, commanded to kneel, and then led through on it’s knees. This makes Jesus’ teaching bearable. There is a way to accomplish it.

But Jesus’ disciples clearly do not interpret his words that way. They respond with incredulity and fear – who can be saved? They clearly recognize that Jesus isn’t just saying it’s difficult but possible for the person who works really hard. Rather, it’s impossible, no matter how hard a person works at it. If our aim is, like the rich young man, to determine what we must do to merit eternal life, the news is bad – there is nothing in our power to do this. It is impossible for us. All of us.

But it is not impossible with God, Jesus continues. What we cannot do on our own, God can and must do for us. This is Jesus’ point. Twice He has revealed his destiny in betrayal and death and resurrection to his disciples. Twice they have completely misunderstood his teaching. He is about to bring up the topic for the third and final time in Mark. Will they hear and understand this time? It is pointless for them to argue about who is greatest (9:34). It is pointless for them to be jealous of others who accomplish things in the name of Jesus (9:38-41). It is pointless for them to point to their own holiness (9:42ff). It is pointless for them to seek to keep Jesus to themselves (10:13-16). And it is pointless to emphasize their own efforts, as the rich young man tried to do. They cannot do it. God must do it for them. God will do it for them through the death and resurrection of Jesus, his Son. They must receive this as the wholly unmerited and undeserved gift that it is, just as the children earlier received Jesus’ blessings and attention (10:13-16).

You and I are prone to spiritual pride, comparing ourselves against one another in hopes of showing more favorably. We do this even as we say with our lips that we cannot earn the love of God and eternal life. Still we spend much of our time defending our alleged piety and holiness, at least in comparison to those who believe differently than we do. All of this is pointless. We are either in Christ or we are not. If we are, then we already have all that we need. If we are not, there is nothing that we do that can better our situation.

Jesus is dealing strictly with justification in these last two chapters – how are we made right with God the Father, how do we inherit eternal life. There is much else to be said about sanctification – our gradually being shaped more and more into the image of Christ through our lifetime – but we dare not confuse this with our justification in Christ!

Study in Crisis

October 10, 2015

There are many aspects to the plight of refugees.  We are familiar with the common ones – where they can go and how they get there; the complexity of creating new lives in unfamiliar places; the longing for home; the slow path towards assimilation in a new culture while trying to maintain their cultural identity.  We tend to think of their needs in terms of housing and food, medical treatment, relocation services.  But another important issue is education.

Refugees have their lives disrupted, but those lives include not just family and work, but also schooling.  Continuing collegiate studies or starting them can be particularly difficult for refugees who likely don’t have the necessary paperwork (transcripts, etc.) to allow them to continue their academic work elsewhere.

This is an exciting initiative that could help refugees continue their education even during a very unsettled time of their lives.  It holds out the promise that while their present and past may be lost to the ravages of war or whatever displaced them, their futures needn’t be.