Archive for February, 2017

Practical Immigration

February 8, 2017

Much has been said about hypothetical immigration and immigrants.  I prefer to wonder what my role can be in this complex issue.  Certainly leading a Christian institution, I would consider it our duty and honor to be a blessing if there were immigrants in our midst to minister to.  Particularly if those immigrants were actively seeking us out not just for material assistance but spiritual sustenance.  But how complicated the matter would become were politics also part of the picture – as it almost inevitably would be.

So I found this letter from the Lutheran pastor of a church in Germany who is dealing with this issue firsthand eye-opening and more than a little terrifying.  In Germany, those seeking asylum are evaluated as to their suitability for integration with German culture and society.  One of the evaluation points centers on their faith.  Christians are at least in theory given points in that they share a faith with the historic faith of German culture.

This creates a complicated situation.  How do you tell if someone is simply calling themselves a Christian in the hopes of improving their odds for acceptance permanently in Germany, as opposed to someone who genuinely has converted to the Christian faith?  It’s a question that the Church has had to deal with for two thousand years.

But in Germany, it is politicians and bureaucrats that are deciding who is and who isn’t Christian, and by some accounts, without an ability for themselves to understand what the basic tenets of Christianity even are for themselves.  The result, according to the letter, is that those who have converted to Christianity and received baptism in the Church are being declared non-Christian by the State and slated for deportation.  Despite the fact that some of them are enduring persecution for their conversion from militant Muslim refugees, and despite the reality that they will face greater persecution in their homelands for converting.

How do you sort out a Gordian Knot of this scope and scale?  As a pastor, my emphasis and priority would be on preaching and teaching the Word so that people might come to faith regardless of the repercussions in their lives.  But what a terrible thing to be blessed to proclaim Good News to a people who have been oppressed and persecuted for so long – by their prior fellow-adherents! – and then watch those children of God ordered for deportation.  How awful to be privileged to share the Good News of Jesus Christ, only to have these converts deemed non-Christian, oftentimes by people who are not even Christian themselves but have inherited the blessings of being born in a traditionally Christian culture!

What a terribly important ministry evolves then, the ministry of preparing these people for whatever may come down the road because of their conversion.  The ministry of distinguishing between the Good News of Jesus Christ, and the bad news that inheritors of Christian benefits won’t recognize these converts.

Is it a good idea to make Christianity a determination point for asylum seekers?  It’s a logical one I suppose.  Certainly there will be some percentage of people who claim to have converted but haven’t really, and who will take up their Muslim faith again as soon as they are safely settled for good.  But Christianity has always dealt with those who seek the status of the faith when it mingles with cultural and societal status and ambition.  The Church must be discerning to the best of our ability, but our discernment is necessarily imperfect and limited by sin.

How do I determine whether a person is Christian or not?  I begin by acknowledging this ultimately is not my job but Christ’s.  For the purposes of my work, I look for signs of the faith in a person’s life.  Have they been baptized?  Are they regularly in worship and hopefully also communal Bible study?  Have they been instructed in the basics of Christian doctrine as outlined in the Ecumenical Creeds?  I would not resort to some sort of Christian or Bible trivia game, asking for obscure details from the Bible or complex explanations of Christian doctrine.   If someone comes to me seeking Christian instruction, and after receiving it indicates that they believe this and wish to become a Christian and want baptism, I will baptize them.  If they continue coming to church (or I know they are attending elsewhere regularly), and if they are taking seriously the teaching of the Bible in terms of how they live their lives and make their decisions, then I acknowledge them as a brother or sister in the faith.  My evaluation of that may be off the mark, but it is an evaluation with some solid criteria to recommend it which relies on something beyond an overly simplistic mastery of basic data.

The Church’s long history of discernment on this issue might be of use to the State in seeking to determine who is authentic and who is not.  Again, the results will not be perfect, but they are likely to be better than having the State arbitrarily determine what makes a person Christian or not.

Contradictions – The Potter’s Field II

February 7, 2017

The next in this list of contradictions regards Matthew 27:9-10, where Matthew quotes Jeremiah as prophesying 30 pieces of silver purchasing a potter’s field.  However the author of the list alleges that this comes from Zechariah 11:12-13, not Jeremiah.  At stake is again the reliability of Scripture.  If Christians claim (and we do, historically!) that the Bible is the inspired and inerrant Word of God, how is it that Matthew, inspired by the Holy Spirit, flubs up his reference?

There are several approaches to resolving this alleged problem.  Some point out that Zechariah’s text actually has nothing to do with a field at all, and so Matthew can’t possibly be thinking of Zechariah but mistakenly crediting it to Jeremiah.  Rather, Jeremiah deals a great deal with the purchase of a field, though there isn’t a single verse or verses that are identical to what Matthew quotes.

Others point out that Matthew indicates what Jeremiah said, not what Jeremiah wrote.  In other words, of course it isn’t in the written prophesy of Jeremiah because that’s not what Matthew claims.  Perhaps Matthew is referring to a different writing of Jeremiah that is not canonical, or to a traditional saying attributed to Jeremiah as having been spoken, but that was not included in his written prophetic book.  Perhaps that Holy Spirit is inspiring Matthew by directing him to something Jeremiah said but didn’t write that nobody else knew about.  While all of these are possible, most skeptics are going to find them equally problematic.  If Matthew is thinking of another writing by Jeremiah, what was it, and why is there no record of it elsewhere?  While this is not itself a complete rebuttal of the explanation (there are other writings we know are referenced in the Bible but we don’t have copies of them), it’s not unreasonable.

The explanation I find more compelling is that there is a rabbinic tradition of referring to an entire section of writings in the Old Testament by only the first book, or by citing the first book of a section of Old Testament writings even though the particular quotation you’re using comes from a later book in that same section of writings.  The Jewish tradition groups the prophetic writings into two sections, a greater and lesser section.  The entire prophetic section together began with the prophet Jeremiah, not Isaiah as it is in the Christian Old Testament.  Jesus does a similar thing in Luke 24:44, where He refers to the entire Hebrew writings section simply as the Psalms, because Psalms is the first of the books in that section of the Old Testament.

The assertion that Matthew is mistaken is not necessary – there are other explanations that are reasonable.

Book Review – Silence

February 6, 2017

Silence by Shusaku Endo

I first heard about this book from advance articles on the movie release late last year.  I was fascinated that a director like Martin Scorsese could work for so long to bring this book to film, clearly obsessed with the book in his own way.  I got a copy for my wife for Christmas and when she finished, it was my turn.

Given the weighty reviews of the book and its status as a classic of literature, both Japanese and otherwise, I think my expectations were pretty high.  That’s not to say that this isn’t a good book – it is.  Although I don’t think I’ve read any other Japanese literature, Endo embodies what I imagine to be an Eastern literary binary tradition of sparseness and attention to detail.

It was the theological aspect of the book rather than the literary that I found surprisingly frustrating.  The book deals with the theological dark night of the soul of a Portuguese priest who journeys to Japan despite a violent intolerance for Christianity and foreign missionaries in that country at the time.  He risks his life, only to find his faith in tatters.  Or does he?  The book leaves that question more or less unanswered in my opinion.

I found parallels between this book and Elie Wiesel’s Night.  Both show the failure of a protagonist’s faith in the face of overwhelming evil, yet neither book deals with the issue of evil itself (it’s been a while since I read Night, so perhaps Wiesel addresses the topic more than I remember.  Silence never does).  It seems unthinkable that the priest Rodriguez would never bring up the subject of evil within his struggles.  He simply marvels at the silence of God in the face of human suffering and particularly in the face of persecution of God’s people.

Rodriguez sees the suffering of Japanese peasant Christians and wonders why God is silent.  He sees the persecution of Japanese peasant Christians and wonders why God is silent.  He sees the martyrdom of Japanese peasant Christians and wonders why God is silent.  His own suffering he is better equipped to deal with, but he is lost as to why God allows others to suffer for his Name.

But for the Christian, we understand that suffering is part of the life of faith – at least we should expect it will be, even if our particular life is free of active persecution and suffering.  This is not to justify passivity when other Christians suffer, but rather an acknowledgement that such suffering is not an indication of God’s silence, just as our own suffering or persecution or even martyrdom would not be a condemnation of God’s silence.  God is not silent, and Rodriguez cannot bring this to mind in the face of very real and tangible suffering.

When Rodriguez is faced with the choice between apostasy and the suffering and death of real human beings, he is torn to his core.  The argument is made that if God is a God of mercy, then God would certainly expect Rodriguez to apostatize, that Jesus himself would apostatize were He in a similar situation.  But this is a childish and wholly unfair caricature of God and mercy.  The reality is that despite the very real suffering – or impending suffering – of his closest followers, Jesus did not apostatize but rather submitted himself to death and told them to do likewise.  In other words, the avoidance of temporary suffering or death is ultimately not the goal of Jesus or God for our life.  God does not desire our suffering, but He permits it.   God the Father through God the Son overcomes our suffering and even our temporal death through obedience.

I critique Endo’s presentation of this dilemma fully aware that I have not faced persecution or the possibility of martyrdom for my faith yet.  Nor have I been given the choice between apostatizing publicly in order save others from suffering, or remain true to my faith while others suffer and die.  If I am ever placed in such a situation, I pray I will have the strength to resist the lies and implications of my accusers and tormentors.  It is not I who causes the suffering and death of others, it is rather our persecutors.  It is the old serpent Satan leading others once again to do his will.  Evil is to blame, not me.  And my willingness to abandon my faith to save the lives of others ultimately does a disservice to the very faith we share in common.

I hope I’ll be able to keep all of that in mind.  Perhaps I won’t, in which case I know that there is forgiveness in Christ for my weakness.  But I think that the struggle that Endo seeks to portray will be much more complex and multifaceted.  God is not silent.  Ever.  God is continually speaking, and is his most eloquent in the life and death and resurrection of his Son, Jesus the Christ.  It is the Word made flesh that both explains the persecution of the faithful and promises us victory despite what looks and feels very much like complete and total defeat.  I would hope that a priest would at least deal with this in passing, rather than marveling only at what he considers to be God’s silence in a particular situation.


Reading Ramblings – February 12, 2017

February 5, 2017

Reading Ramblings

Date: Sixth Sunday after Epiphany – February 12, 2017

Texts: Deuteronomy 30:15-20; Psalm 119:1-8; 1 Corinthians 3:1-9; Matthew 5:21-37

Context: I will preach on the lectio continua aspect of the assigned readings, focusing on the 1 Corinthians text again. The readings as a whole emphasize the importance of God’s Word in guiding our lives and keeping us from sin. Our tendency is to grade ourselves too easily in terms of obedience, or to grade on a curve where as long as we do better than others, we still end up passing. But Jesus won’t allow us such false conceptions. They are too dangerous, allowing sin to go unnoticed or even passed off without worry. Sin is death. It is always dangerous. Not because it is unforgivable but because we can eventually be led through sin away from Christ, to value our sin more than his forgiveness.

Deuteronomy 30:15-20 – Obedience to God – living in the proper flow of his created order – inevitably enjoys the blessings of God. Similarly acting outside of our created purpose and nature inevitably will cause us suffering and loss of blessing. Creation is designed to function a certain way. Sin has made this impossible now, but the closer we adhere to how God has showed us to live, the better off all of creation is. This is even more the case for God’s chosen covenant people. They are to mirror to all of creation a closer relationship with God made possible by his special revelation to them of his Law. They will enjoy his special blessing and protection unless they choose to reject him, in which case they incur the penalties of the Mosaic covenant, losing the tangible blessings embodied in their promised homeland. Ultimately obedience leads towards life, and disobedience leads towards death.

Psalm 119:1-8 – The great acrostic poem of the psalms, with each section corresponding to a letter of the Hebrew alphabet, and unity coming from the theme of God’s Word. The psalm begins with the assertion that obedience to the Word of God results in a state of blessedness. Verses 1-3 summarize the obedient nature of such a person. Their way is blameless because they walk in God’s Law. They look after him wholeheartedly, and so their way is without wrong. Because God’s Word always leads towards life and obedience, the person who is devoted to it will be kept from wrong paths. Verse 4 acknowledges that it is for this reason that God has given his Law. However perfect obedience is impossible, and so the psalmist prays starting at verse 5 for steadfastness in following God’s Law. It is an aspiration, not a current reality. The result would be shamelessness, since the speaker would be free from any guilt or accusation. Does this imply that they are facing these things at the moment? The psalm concludes with the resolution to praise God, looking forward to the day when the speaker can offer such praise with a righteous heart, presuming they cannot do so at the moment and so offer praise that is tinged with sinfulness. The speaker resolves to obedience, but prays that in the meantime, God would not abandon them, a clear indication of the speaker’s sinfulness in the moment, but confidence of God’s love.

1 Corinthians 3:1-9 – Paul begins to apply the ramifications of his explanations in Chapter 2. There is wisdom that is imparted through human sources but with spiritual origins, and this wisdom must be discerned by spiritual people, those with spiritual maturity (2:14-16). But the Corinthians, though they are in Christ, do not have spiritual maturity and therefore lack spiritual discernment and must be fed the basics of the faith. Unfortunately, two or more years later they still lack maturity as evidenced by the divisions between them. They are thinking in a human way rather than a spiritual way. They are obsessing over the wrong things. It is not the messengers who matter but the message, just as in the previous chapter it was not the delivery that mattered but the content. They are mistaken if they think that Paul is competing with Apollos in any way! Rather, they are (or should be) working together, assisting in building up what one another starts. What matters is the result – the field of growing seeds of faith that is the Corinthian church.

Matthew 5:21-37 – Jesus has come to fulfill the Law perfectly, but around him are undoubtedly people who think that they are fulfilling the Law, more or less. After all, they haven’t murdered anyone. They haven’t committed adultery with anyone. They likely feel that they are sharing with Jesus in his purpose of perfect fulfillment of the Law. Perhaps this is even why Jesus has called them as his disciples! But the Law is not a matter of externals, and Jesus destroys any notion of perfect fulfillment by teaching about the true nature of sin as a matter of the heart and mind rather than simply of the body.

The commandment against murder might seem the easiest one to fulfill. But Jesus shows this is hardly the case, because even anger or a dismissive and insulting attitude towards another person in thought or speech is equivalent to murder. Murder is not simply the elimination of the breath of life, but the internal dismissal of the other person, the refusal to see them as a creation of God and a brother or sister in Christ to such a point that we can insult them.

Adultery might seem the next easiest command to fulfill, but here again his disciples are mistaken. Adultery is not just an act of the body, but an act of the mind and heart. And we can’t make the mistake of thinking that somehow the sin of the mind or heart is less serious than the sin of the body – all sin is equally dangerous to us, and if we realized the truly seductive danger of sin we would treat it like a physical danger, like an infection in the body that has to be stopped before it endangers the entire body.

Jesus continues on to address lackadaisical attitudes towards divorce as well as oath-taking. There is no shortage to our sinfully mistaken notions about what obedience to the Word of God does or does not entail.

Our typical way of evaluating ourselves in comparison to others is an inaccurate understanding of obedience. Obedience is not simply being a better person than someone else. Obedience is obedience – total and complete in mind and spirit as well as our body. Only when we are able to perceive this and recognize our inability – and often unwillingness! – to obey God’s Word do we more clearly perceive our condition and need for a Savior.

Assistance vs. Insistence

February 2, 2017

I hope to be visiting the Netherlands for the first time this spring.  I just hope that I don’t fall ill and unable to speak for myself, or tick off my family to the point that they decide I need to die and are willing to hold me down to make it happen.  Well, that’s probably a poor analogy.  But let’s just say that the Netherlands are not a place I would feel safe living in if I was getting on in years and suspecting I might be developing dementia.  Someone might make the decision that it was time for me to die, even if I didn’t want to.

That’s what happened to one woman, and the Dutch courts have cleared the doctor involved of any criminal responsibility because she acted “in good faith”.  I’m not sure what that means.  Family members were asked to hold down the woman so the doctor could inject her with a lethal dose of drugs.  This after a sedative in her coffee failed to sedate her enough for them to do this peacefully.  Clearly, the woman didn’t want to die – certainly not at this point, although there are indications that perhaps she had once been open to the idea.

The woman suffered from dementia and lived in a nursing home.  She had exhibited signs of fear and anger – neither very unusual in these cases as I understand it – and also was prone to wandering around at night (also not necessarily unusual for someone with dementia).  The article doesn’t make clear who requested the euthanasia.  Had the woman left instructions when her mental faculties were capable of such things?  And if so, should she be forced to abide by that decision against her own will in the moment?  Did the family request the euthanasia, and is there any reason to think they could be held accountable?  Or was it the doctor’s idea, assuring the family that this was the merciful and loving thing to do, fully in keeping with the woman’s own (previous) wishes or ideas?

Proponents of assisted suicide never talk about these sorts of situations, yet they go develop sooner or later.  After 17 years of legal euthanasia, I’m sure there are plenty of Dutch doctors who have absolutely no qualms about ending a human life, even when the person doesn’t want to die and is capable of physically resisting.  I don’t understand how anyone can not be worried by this sort of thing.

ANF -The First Epistle of Clement

February 1, 2017

One of my goals for many years has been to familiarize myself with the Church Fathers.  Though defined in different ways, I define it as those earliest Christians who left us manuscripts after the Apostles.  Thanks to a generous and very kind gift from Lois, I’m able to begin work on this goal at long last.  Yes, I know there are online resources for many of these things, but I’m old fashioned and like the idea of having a physical book to mark-up and refer to as necessary.

While many folks talk about the Church Fathers, I was never introduced to them properly in Seminary so I assume I will display gross ignorance on a regular basis as I comment on these writings.

Lots of interesting things to note.  Firstly, the Church Fathers don’t generate a lot of interest these days, as the last major translation work was done over 100 years ago (at least in treating of all of the writings and Fathers as a whole).  Scholarship is likely to have improved at least in some respects for some of these writings, but I’ll figure that out down the road, maybe.

The first writing in the compendium is the First Epistle of Clement.  Clement is traditionally held to be the one mentioned by Paul in Philippians 4:3, which means Clement is a contemporary of Paul and knew him personally – something I didn’t know – and which merits him priority as the first of the Church(post-apostolic) Fathers.   This letter is written from Clement, presumably at Rome, to the church in Corinth – the same church that St. Paul founded in Acts 18 and wrote two letters to that are included in the New Testament canon.  This Epistle is the only writing that is known (at least through tradition) to come from Clement’s hand, although other various writings are less reliably attributed to him.  Roman Catholics refer to him as Pope Clement I.  He is presumed to have been ordained by St. Peter prior to Peter’s martyrdom.  Little is known about his life and death (anything claiming to be authoritative or specific dates from 300 years after his life and death), but he is referenced as early as 199 AD by Tertullian.

The letter itself is a call for peace and reconciliation in the church at Corinth, which was apparently experiencing an even greater division and lack of unity than when St. Paul wrote his 1 Corinthians.  The issue appears to be a group of people in that church who wished to be treated with special honor and prestige, and were causing division in the congregation, to such an extent that word has come to Clement in Rome as well as to other Christian communities.  Clement calls the Corinthians to humility, repentance, and reconciliation.

To do this, he quotes a rather stunning number of Old Testament precedents while also making reference to Paul and the apostles.  Reconciliation is the duty of Christian community, and those guilty of causing discord should be willing not just to repent, but to even bear suffering or eviction from the community if those are the only means by which unity can be restored.  Clement concludes his letter trusting that such measures are unnecessary and looking forward to further reports that his admonitions have been heeded.

It’s not a particularly fascinating read, and is markedly different from the apostolic writings of the New Testament.  The Apostles write with authority – quoting Scripture on occasion or frequently, but for the most part simply saying what needs to be said.  Clement relies far more on Scripture quotations than he does on his own words for at least 3/4 of the letter, becoming more direct and authoritative towards the end.  Clearly he wants to demonstrate that the Corinthians should listen in accordance to the word of God and not just his own word, but even still – it’s a lot of regurgitation on a scale far exceeding the New Testament.

Funding the Wrong Fight

February 1, 2017

Our country is anecdotally being torn apart at the moment over the issue of immigration and refugees.  It’s not as though anybody is doing much on the issue other than screaming at the other side, however.  I don’t see people running out to offer refugees and immigrants a place to live in their own home.  Nor do I see much in terms of actions against immigrants and refugees other than headlines and social media storms.  There’s much room for discussion on this issue, but little substantive discussion seems to be occurring.   And I’ve yet to hear anyone honestly try to grapple with coming up with a solution that would be satisfactory (if not delightful) to both sides.

The issue of sanctuary is one way this fight is playing out on the ground.  Cities have been fond of insisting that they are places of sanctuary – where Federal immigration laws will not be enforced and nobody will be deported from their precincts.  While this issue has gotten attention because of a couple of illegal immigrants who perpetrated violent crimes in the past couple of years, I think that’s ultimately a red herring.  There are dangerous and violent immigrants and refugees just like there are dangerous and violent citizens and people born legally in this country.  Violence is always lamentable but it is a distraction from dealing with the issue at hand – how do we control who comes into our country?  Arguing that we must enforce immigration law because of the possibility of violent people entering our borders, or arguing that such cases are very rare and therefore we should not enforce our immigration laws is a sideshow.  The main issue is our immigration laws.  Either they work or they don’t.  Either they reflect what we as a nation want or they don’t.  If they don’t, we should work to amend or replace them.  If they do, we need to enforce them regardless of whether the people involved are violent or not.

Sanctuary cities are coming under fire from the Federal government, which under President Trump has indicated that it won’t hesitate to cut Federal funding and subsidies to cities that openly violate or refuse to enforce Federal law.  This makes sense to me.  We don’t get to pick and choose which laws we obey or we don’t obey.  Private citizens can’t do this so I don’t see why cities should be able to.  Some cities have reversed their sanctuary stance pretty quickly.  Understandably so.  Talk is a lot less expensive than losing money you need to fund your projects for your citizens.

However, in my progressive state, this attempt to draw cities into line with Federal law is being met with increased resistance, to the point that now the entire state of California could become a ‘sanctuary state’, funded by tax-payer dollars.  SB 6 as I understand it would allow the use of county and city tax monies to provide legal representation to people illegally in our country and state, to prevent them from being deported as per Federal immigration laws.  While this has always been an option through non-profit organizations (which I have no problem with and hope they do their jobs well), the change is that now public tax dollars would be made available for such legal defenses.  I have a huge problem with this.

We’re constantly being told that there isn’t enough money to fund infrastructure projects or education or health care or any number of other important matters.  We’re constantly being subjected to new taxes and bonds in order to pay for these things.  Yet now cities and counties can take the money I pay them in taxes in order to defend people who are breaking the law?

I understand that immigration is complicated.  I understand that people sometimes get caught up in unfortunate situations.  I understand that families are threatened by deportation. I do not like any of these realities.

But if that is what we are concerned about, then we need to spend our money to come up with an immigration policy that works.  Simply throwing taxpayer money down a literally bottomless hole of legislation and legal proceedings on behalf of illegal immigrants will not change policy.  It will not protect the people it alleges to protect, because they will still be at risk of needing such legal representation because the immigration laws don’t change.  At best, this is a delay tactic, a waiting game in hopes that the next president won’t enforce immigration laws.  At worst, it’s a flagrant misuse of taxpayer money that enriches nobody other than the lawyers taking the cases.  Nothing changes, nothing improves, and the problems simply grow and grow and grow.

This is not a new problem.  We’ve been dealing with it for decades.  We still don’t have a good solution.  I should not have to pay more taxes in order to support sanctuary policies that don’t change or improve the situation at all.  This is irresponsible partisan grandstanding.  Both sides are guilty of it, because both sides claim to be unhappy in our current immigration system but are opposed to working in a bi-partisan manner to come up with a solution.  Neither the solution of let everybody/anybody in or keep everybody/anybody out is tenable, nor is it actually desirable by either side, regardless of the polemical headlines.  What we need is a sensible policy that deals with future immigrants while taking into account people who, because of our convoluted policy and enforcement issues, have built their lives in this country.