Archive for September, 2018

Reading Ramblings – October 7, 2018

September 30, 2018

Reading Ramblings

Date: Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost, October 7, 2018

Texts: Genesis 2:18-25; Psalm 128; Hebrews 2:1-13 (14-18); Mark 10:1-16

Context: What pertinent verses for the events of these past few weeks! How far we seem to have drifted from the idea that man and woman were created for each other, for partnership with each other. How far we have run from the idea of complementary gifts and abilities and skills. Humanity is reflected fully only in the combination of man and woman together, but the curse of sin sets us at odds with one another, struggling for control and dominance. All is not as it was intended to be, but we still bear a reflection – together as man and woman – of God the Father who created us, the good that this denotes, and the joyous reconciliation we look forward to through his Son!

Genesis 2:18-25 – God knows full well that Adam is not enough, but he allows Adam the opportunity to discover this for himself. Man needs a partner, and woman’s very existence presumes one. The idea that we don’t need one another, or that we are ultimately enemies is a dangerous and damaging one. We are created for one another and to work with one another. Eve is the suitable helper, as most translations opt to convey the Hebrew. Is man sufficient without woman? Of course not – that’s the whole point of these verses! Is woman sufficient without man? Of course not! Does the fact that we are created for relationship with one another diminish either? No, it enhances us. Has sinfulness led some to interpret helper as inferior? Tragically yes. But this is not the Biblical assertion. Man and woman require one another. We are best when we work together, and either one striving alone is not optimal. To presume that we are interchangeable is to deny the very created differences that make us beautiful and special and reflections of God himself.

Psalm 128 – Family life is a blessing from God, a continuation of the species and a joy to parents and children alike. Family functions best with man and woman working together as God intended. This is not to say that single parents don’t work hard and admirably to care for and raise their children. But how much harder is it to work alone rather than together! God intended for family to be a blessing, a place of joy and growth and safety and love. Sin and brokenness sometimes interferes with this, so that the original plan is almost so obvious as to be forgotten. Right relationship with God results in right relationships with those around us, starting with those closest to us.

Hebrews 2:1-18 – Paul (the presumed author), having dealt with the proper relationship between the Son of God and angels, now distinguishes between humankind and angels in terms of the benefits of the Son of God’s salvation. We are brothers and sisters with the Son of God because of his Incarnation. In assuming human form, humanity is rescued from the inside out by the wisdom of God the Father. Paul wants to make clear that it is humanity (and through humanity all of creation by extension) that Jesus came to save. While other Biblical passages hint at humankind’s role in showing or demonstrating the power and wisdom of God to spiritual powers, the benefit of God’s wisdom is ours, not theirs.

Mark 10:1-16 – The lectionary actually leaves out verse 1 but it provides us with some important information in terms of where Jesus is teaching. He is in the old stomping grounds of John the Baptist, who we were told in Mark 6 was arrested and executed for speaking out about marriage. Obviously this is a sore topic for Herodias, the wife of King Herod Agrippa. It seems highly unlikely, then, that the questions asked of Jesus are random. More likely they are intended to cause Jesus to say something controversial that will land him in a similar situation to John the Baptist. But Jesus will neither be silenced or tricked.

The Jewish rabbis taught that Moses granted permission for divorce (Deuteronomy 24:1). Jesus clarifies the rationale for this permission – the protection of women. Men might otherwise abuse and neglect their wives by turning them out of the house without any evidence of divorce, meaning they could not remarry and would be reduced to begging to survive. The divorce certificate gave a divorced woman evidence that she was no longer married. Perhaps this might also be helpful for her in getting assistance from her family.

But God’s intention from the beginning was for man and woman to live together in marriage without divorce. Marriage is something deeper than a decision by a man or a woman or family units. Marriage changes those involved, so that they are no longer two but one. Adam was incomplete without Eve. Even could not exist without Adam. Only together did they form one humanity. God intends marriage to be according to his dictates and to last for life.

Jesus goes on to explain to his disciples that divorce creates adulterous relationships. Matthew captures Jesus’ fuller teaching on this in 5:32 and 19:9 where Jesus indicates that adultery can be grounds for divorce. This has been extended somewhat by the Church to also include cases of neglect or abuse – situations where one or both spouses are betraying their wedding vows just as certainly as if they had committed adultery.

Marriage is a serious arrangement that cannot be ended lightly without the risk of compounding sin on both parties. Those who commit themselves to one another are to take their vows seriously, as they reflect God’s original will for humanity. While sin sometimes necessitates divorce, we can never justify divorce as somehow acceptable or God-pleasing. It is a sin and the result of sin. Those who have divorced can seek forgiveness for the sin of divorce, trusting in the death and resurrection of the Son of God to provide forgiveness. The Church should take seriously the importance of encouraging and supporting couples in maintaining their marriage vows.

The Politics of Freedom

September 28, 2018

I didn’t watch the hearings yesterday.  I’ve followed the headlines in the papers and online.  I know the basic gist of what was going to be said.  I didn’t expect many surprises and there don’t appear to be many.  We’re left more or left where all of this started.  Two people.  Two narratives.

But let’s back up for a minute.  What may or may not be established about what may or may not have happened decades ago with these two people is not the issue.  It isn’t about that night.  It isn’t even about the intervening 30-some years.  It’s about the freedom to believe in something others disagree with, and the lengths people can go to in order to stop those beliefs from spreading.

Let’s start with some different assumptions from the partisan screaming out there.  Let’s assume that both these people are being as honest as they are capable of.  That they are operating out of lifetimes of integrity.

I assume Christine believes her memories of that night and has correspondingly been impacted by that night and those memories in very specific ways.  I assume most all of those ways are negative and painful which is a horrible thing to have to deal with.  It is horrible for any woman.  It should not be something any woman has to deal with.

I assume Brett believes his memories of that night, and will correspondingly be impacted by these accusations regarding that night in very specific ways.  I assume most all of those ways  are and will be negative and painful which is a horrible thing to have to deal with.  Nobody should have to deal with those things – man or woman.

None of that is why the world was watching and listening yesterday, although I assume a great many people thought it was.  No, the world was watching and listening ultimately because of politics.  Because of a carefully planned and orchestrated effort to derail the nomination of a man who holds views that others disagree with.

It really isn’t about Christine because she wasn’t sought out in order to help her deal with her memories of that night, to provide healing and relief as necessary.  There are many women who suffer similar things.  They weren’t sought out.  She was sought out specifically because her understanding of that night involved a man poised to become a Supreme Court justice for life and there are people  who are committed to preventing that from happening.  Because for these people, Brett is a bad man not because of what he did or didn’t do 35 years ago, but because of what he actively believes right now and for his entire professional life.  Christine is only useful towards this end.  She has been used, no doubt about it.  Perhaps she is willing to be used towards this end.  Perhaps she is willing to be used because she agrees with the ultimate goal of preventing Brett from being appointed and thus preventing the things he believes from being promoted.  But she is being used all the same, and it’s no less dignified or honorable than being used for your body.

It isn’t about whether or not Brett is a decent guy.  We’re not talking about a systematic abuser of women.  We aren’t investigating a pattern of dishonesty, a pattern of violence towards women, a pattern of sexual manipulation.  I get the impression that both sides are pretty much agreed that his life has been a consistent one of integrity and professionalism.  Certainly that understanding could change over time if there are more accusers.

He simply has the misfortune of believing things others disagree with.  And in order to stop those beliefs from potentially altering policy and law, they are willing to destroy him.  They are willing to destroy Christine as well.  This is not a #metoo issue.  This is politics.

Conservatives have done similar things in the past to liberal nominees – I’m not trying to make a partisan argument here.  Lives are smashed and destroyed for convenience and to serve a hazy and vaguely defined greater good – a greater good the American people themselves are divided on.

The goal is not justice or truth.  The issue is freedom.  The goal is ideological dominance at any cost.  Neither Christine or Brett receive justice in this  process and the truth is still largely in the mind of the beholders.

And know full well that you could be in the hot seat next.  Even if you aren’t a lawyer or a judge.  Even if you aren’t a politician.  Because politics affects everyone in this age of near-instantaneous and universal communication and coverage.   You might be used to destroy someone else.  Or you might be the person destroyed.

But hey, it’s nothing personal.  It may not even be true.  It’s just politics.

Women’s Roles in the Church

September 27, 2018

The idea has been brought up in the last nine months that perhaps our congregation should have women Elders.  Our denomination traditionally has fought against this practice, although it is technically permissible through the careful wording of language in a congregation’s Constitution (which must be vetted and accepted by our polity in order for a congregation to be truly affiliated with the denomination.  So, as a pretty traditional and conservative Church body, we stand with the predominant Christian practice of the last nearly 2000 years and do not generally permit women Elders, and never women pastors.

There are exceptions, of course, to allowing women to be Elders and interestingly enough our two closest daughter congregations both allow it.  This is one of the reason some of my parishioners are asking about it.  Other reasons include some people growing up in other denominations that allow women pastors and Elders.  And of course our cultural climate for the last 50 years has really stressed that if women are to be considered equal to men, they must do identical things to men.  This is  not an option for strident feminists.  A woman should get a college education and join the workforce and stay in the workforce.  The maternal instinct should be shunted to the side as much as possible, and certainly a woman who truly upholds the equality of women should never opt to be a stay-at-home mom.  Equality requires that we be identical, our culture says, and our parishioners are hearing this message loud and clear and internalizing it.

So it was that I received a short note asking me why I didn’t think women were worthy to be Elders and bringing up two New Testament women who some think were not just Elders but perhaps even pastors – Priscilla  and Phoebe.  After clarifying that this is not an issue of worthiness or capability, but rather a matter of maintaining God’s Word to us that our value and worth is contingent not on what we do or don’t do but rather on the fact that God the Father created us, God the Son died for us, and God the Holy Spirit seeks after every last one of us, here is my quick treatment of Priscilla and Phoebe.

Priscilla – Our knowledge of Priscilla comes from four places:  Acts 18, Romans 16:3, 1 Corinthians 16:19, and 2 Timothy 4:19.  These passages tell us she was married to a man named Aquila who were Jews and tentmakers like St. Paul, had been expelled with other Jews in Rome likely in association with the Emperor Claudius sometime between 41 and 54 AD (probably 51-52 based on the reference to the proconsul Gallio).  These events are referenced as well by several Roman historians.  They are Paul’s travel companions from Corinth (where he meets them in their exile) to Syria.  They remain in Ephesus while Paul continues his travels, and it is in Ephesus where they meet Apollos and expounded or proclaimed to him the Christian faith more fully.  They are also in Rome and are referred to by Paul as co-laborers or co-workers in Christ.  They are said to host a church in their home in Corinth.
What do we learn from this?  Aquila and Priscilla are valued and trusted friends and co-workers with St. Paul.  Together they are credited with laboring on behalf of Christ, including the further education of Apollos.  Priscilla is not singled out in any of these things, but is treated as a partner with Aquila.  The reference to them as co-workers in Romans 16:3 is not a theological or church term, but a common expression of someone working together.  It doesn’t mean that they were necessarily doing the same things, but that they worked together.  Paul makes it very clear that there are many ways to serve Christ in the church (1 Corinthians 12), and not all of them are the role of Elder or Pastor.  The fact that Aquila and Priscilla serve Christ does not mean they are doing the same things Paul is doing.  And the fact that they host a church in their home does *not* necessitate that they were the leaders of that church.  Paul nowhere makes that assertion, and I most frequently hear that interpretation of the texts by people who already have made up their mind that women ought to be pastors or Elders/leaders in the Church and go off looking for texts to support their point of view.  An objective reading of the verses about Priscilla do not, I believe, lend themselves to this interpretation.  Particularly when we recognize that nowhere else in Scripture are women understood to serve in official capacities within the priesthood or Church, and that Paul specifically cautions against this elsewhere.
Phoebe – She has only one mention in Scripture – Romans 16:1-2, where Paul greets her as a deacon in the Church and a sister in Christ.  He instructs the Roman Christians to receive her and to be of whatever assistance to her they can.  Some scholars presume that she might be the person carrying Paul’s letter to the or perhaps even reading it to them.  Once again, he clearly has respect and appreciation for her and her work on his behalf and Christ’s.  But once again, there is nothing specific in what Paul says about her or  her work that would lead us to assume – again especially in light of Paul’s other words on the topic of women in leadership – that she is a pastor or an Elder.  Deacon is a Greek term typically interpreted as servant.  Because of Paul’s usage of the word, it has come to have a more specific, Church meaning as some sort of professional Church worker.  I assume this is why some translations don’t use the word deacon in Romans 16:1 – to avoid some of the confusion that has evolved regarding the word vs. the church function.  The question then hinges on how Paul uses the word deacon, and whether we can or should interpret this to be strictly or even primarily any sort of pastoral or spiritual oversight role.
Paul uses the word deacon in six places:
  • Romans 16:1 – in reference to Phoebe without further clarification
  • Philippians 1:1 – mentioned along with the overseers of the congregation, implying perhaps that deacons – while serving an important role – are not the leaders/overseers of the church –
  • 1 Timothy 3:1-12 – Paul lays out the qualifications for overseers as well as deacons, indicating fairly clearly that their duties were not the same.  The qualifications of a good deacon are considerably fewer in number and scope than the qualifications to be an overseer.
Once again, a straightforward reading of these verses would not lead us to think deacons were the same as overseers/pastors/Elders, but rather serve another function within the Church that bears mentioning along with overseers/pastors/elders.  Again, most arguments that Phoebe was essentially a pastor or elder are made by people who seem to have their minds made up on the subject already, and who are also blatantly ignoring Paul’s other teachings on this topic (most notably, 1 Timothy 3:12).  Towards that end, there are a few other references that are often brought up such as Euodia and Syntyche in Philippians 4:2-3.  They are also acknowledged and praised and thanked by Paul as co-workers working closely with him in his ministry, but not said to be doing the same things he is.  Also frequently mentioned is Galatians 3:28.  But it is clear contextually that Paul doesn’t mean that these differences don’t exist.  There clearly are still men and women, still Jews and non-Jews, still those who are enslaved and those who are free.  His argument has to do with the freedom we have in Christ as opposed to the constraints often endured culturally or societally.
The argument that women were leaders in the early Church requires a backwards reading of today’s ideas of equality and feminism into Scripture.  The argument today is that equality means doing the same things – and this is never the Scriptural definition of equality.  The argument today is that if women are not doing the same thing as men, it is tantamount to oppression by men and a betrayal of their gender by women, neither of which is Biblical (or frankly even logical!) in the least.
Biblically, our value and worth come from the fact that we are creations of God the Father and bear his  image, not what we do.
For 2000 years the Church has tried to give witness to this Biblical truth.  We are created equal but different.  Oftentimes that message has been confused or warped by sinfulness.  It has certainly been used inappropriately as a tool for oppression or suppression of women by men.  But the fact that we misuse it sinfully sometimes does not deny the essential truth behind it.  Frankly, our misuse of it only further heightens the validity of the situation.  In Genesis 3 God tells Eve that part of the effects of sin in her life and the life of her gender will be a constant struggle with men for control, and that more often than not, women will lose that struggle.
It has nothing to do with ability.  Men and women are equal before God, and have equal and intrinsic value and worth.  They have different giftings and abilities as well.  I  know women who would be far better pastors than some guys I know!  But that doesn’t mean we are free to arbitrarily define or redefine Biblical reality.  Even if we don’t understand the reason, we are to remain faithful to God’s Word to the best of our ability.  Women voluntarily recognize this authority and submit to it – it is not a means for men to exert control over women.
The LC-MS acknowledges that, despite 2000 years of church history, sometimes congregations feel compelled to make women Elders.  We tend to resist this as the Elders traditionally carry authority similar to the Pastor, and so confusion can be started.  If women can be Elders, why not Pastors?  So the LC-MS has discouraged the use of women Elders.  Yes, there are LC-MS congregations (locally!) who have women Elders, and loopholes exist Synodically that allow this.  Does that mean we should do it?  The fact that a loophole exists does not mean that it must or even should be taken.  The larger question is how does our congregation sees herself in 2000 years of Christian history and practice, and what are the overwhelming arguments put forth that women should be Elders here?  Is it simply a matter of convenience?  Is that an adequate argument against a pretty strong and consistent Scriptural argument against such a practice?  Should we go ahead and permit women Pastors as well?  The LC-MS draws a very firm line on this one!  But if women are up helping distribute Communion, isn’t that similar to being a pastor?  The questions continue and flow out from there.
So, it is not a matter of capability or  worth, but an attempt to hear what God’s Word says.  There are some who will abuse God’s Word to make women inferior to men.  They are sinful and wrong who do this.  Women are every bit equal to men, but that very equality requires that women be women and men be men, rather than attempting to take on one another’s roles.


Book Review – A Woman Rides the Beast

September 24, 2018

A Woman Rides the Beast: The Roman Catholic Church and the Last Days

by Dave Hunt


Without a doubt, one of the best aspects of my job is that  people are constantly recommending books for me to read.  And, without a doubt, this is also one of the most challenging aspects of my job.  I love to read, but basic math dictates that I will always have more recommendations than time to read – on top of my own reading goals.  The  other challenge is that what may be meaningful and helpful to one person may not be to me.  While this is true of any book and any relationship, it seems more complicated when a parishioner recommends a book to their pastor.

So by all means keep making recommendations.  And if you really like a book and I don’t, it’s nothing personal, promise!  I don’t think less of you, and hopefully you won’t think less of me.

So Karl dropped off this book a couple of weeks ago with a note to just read the first 30 pages or so.  I made it through the first 40.  After talking with him, his particular interest was really that I only read the opening pages, which provide some historical background on developments between the Roman Catholic Church and certain elements of Evangelical Christianity.  It was material  I wasn’t  aware of before, centered on joint declaration entitled Evangelicals and Catholics Together, signed on March 29, 1994.  Aside from March 29 being my birthday, I found this author’s take on the agreement interesting.  He claims it’s the most important development in church history  since the Reformation 500 years ago.

I haven’t read the document yet, but intend to.  The author of this book claims that it is tantamount to a massive heresy intended to insulate Roman Catholics from proselytizing by Evangelicals in exchange for vague promises of a lack of persecution of Evangelicals by the Catholic Church (particularly in South America).  All of which is interesting.

So, thanks Karl.  Something new to investigate!

But I couldn’t get farther than that.

The premise of the book is intriguing, focusing on the woman riding the beast in Revelation 17.  But my difficulty with the book is the writer’s emphatic insistence that his particular interpretation of the prophecies and symbolism of Revelation are absolutely and indisputably correct.  I appreciate the strength of his conviction, but find it somewhat overstated, to say the least.  People have been interpreting Revelation for 2000 years.  Many have been firmly convinced of the accuracy of their predictions, many of which focused on their own immediate contexts and local/world events.  All were eventually demonstrated to be incorrect.  Faithful, but incorrect.  Or at least partially incorrect.

As such,  I have to stand with my current take on Revelation.  We aren’t given enough to accurately interpret the symbolism with complete  accuracy.  Attempting to glean information about the nature or timing of the very last  days (since I think we’ve been in the last days for 2000 years) will ultimately prove unsuccessful, as per Jesus’ warnings to his disciples (Mark 13, for instance).  We are to be watchful, but not with the idea that we’re going to be able to see it coming or forestall it, but so that we can remain faithful during trying times – whether they turn out to be the eschaton or not.

If I’m wrong, I’ll apologize to Mr. Hunt in heaven.  It may well be that we’ll meet there  as martyrs in the very last days, something that I doubt will be of any greater comfort to him with his foresight than our shared consolation in Christ and the promise of our resurrection when He returns.

Reading Ramblings – September 30, 2018

September 23, 2018

Reading Ramblings

Date: Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost, September 23, 2018

Texts: Numbers 11:16-17, 24-29; Psalm 104:27-35; James 5:1-20; Mark 9:38-50

Context: God works how and where He pleases. Sometimes this is encouraging and helpful and other times it is disconcerting, but it is always done with the ultimate goal of drawing us to him in repentance through Jesus Christ.

Numbers 11:16-17, 24-29 – The assigned reading included vs. 4-6, continuing on with 10-16 and then concluding with 24-29. I always dislike when the assigned reading is chopped up like that. In this case, the reason seems to be eliminating some extraneous material. But the material isn’t extraneous, it’s just that there are two separate issues dealt with in Chapter 11. One is the complaint of the people for meat which leads them to wish they were back in Egypt as slaves again. The other is God’s provision to Moses of additional leaders to delegate some of the work of guiding God’s people. The hinge is 10-16, where Moses laments to God that he has been asked to carry too great a responsibility. The psalm leads us to contemplate the meat issue, but the Gospel leads us to contemplate the matter of God’s freedom to work through the Holy Spirit in whatever fashion He determines. This sometimes may seem counter-intuitive. Yet God who creates and sustains all things is also working all things towards his purposes. We aren’t able to discern his patterns and works, yet we can oftentimes discern his work by the fruits.

Psalm 104:27-35 – These verses start out referencing the creatures God created. He sustains and provides for them in ways that are still a great mystery to us. For instance I read an article this morning describing the migration of Great White sharks across the Pacific Ocean. Scientists only just discovered that an area between Baja California and Hawaii that the sharks travel to isn’t an empty stretch of ocean but rather an area of remarkably dense creatures that the sharks feed on. We should continually marvel at the ways God provides for his creation! What an endless source and reason for the praise of our God’s wisdom, power, and love!

James 5:1-20 – The first dozen verses of this chapter were optional, but if we’re supposed to be reading more or less through entire letters in the New Testament, we might as well go ahead and do so! James’ warning to the rich in vs. 1-6 is clearly not aimed at wealthy Christians, but those outside the community of faith who place their faith in their riches and abuse and cheat others in order to increase their wealth. He then turns his attention to Christians, many of whom were likely poor and dependent on the work provided by the wealthy, and therefore sometimes the victims of predations and unfair labor practices. James encourages his brothers in the faith to patience. While this encouragement may be related to the unfair treatment of the wealthy it may not be, but rather may be a more general encouragement to make the coming of the Lord their main concern, rather than focusing on what they have to endure here and now. A brief warning against taking oaths follows, and then a longer section on the role of the Church in the Christian life.

We remember that James is writing about the life of faith, providing some concrete warnings and exhortations about various different arenas and issues of life that have no direct relation to each other beyond that most people will deal with some or all of them and therefore Christians ought to know how to do so. Some interpret vs.13-20 as, in part, a ritual of sorts for healing, as though following this particular process will result in divine healing. But anointing with oil was a standard medical practice for the relief of various ailments and conditions, and so to interpret it in a spiritualized way may not be completely accurate. James could just be indicating that the Church should provide what comfort and help they are able to for a suffering person, chief of which is keeping that person in prayer. Is the result in v.14 a promise of healing? God the Holy Spirit certainly does provide miraculous healing in response to prayer sometimes, but perhaps the statement the Lord will raise him up is not specifying physical healing but our ultimate and final healing in the resurrection of the dead when our Lord returns? This would make good sense in association with the following statement about the forgiveness of sins. Our sins are forgiven in Christ already, regardless of whether or not we suffer physical illnesses!

Mark 9:38-50 – The most relevant verses appear to be 38-41, in terms of relation to the Old Testament reading. Jesus’ disciples are concerned that someone unaffiliated with them or otherwise a disciple of Jesus was casting out demons. This might seem a petty matter of protecting their turf, but we tend to be concerned about this still today. Someone claiming to perform wonders in Jesus’ name – are they legitimate? Are they out for personal gain? Is there an agenda or something below the surface that might impugn Jesus’ name? Jesus’ response is not entirely comforting – don’t stress so much over it. If someone is able to perform a work in Jesus’ name, then at some level we can’t discern the Holy Spirit is willing to work through them. Jesus doesn’t, however, promise that such things are always done by people who are fully in Christ, but that even if they aren’t, for some time after the event they won’t be able to speak evil of Jesus. When the Holy Spirit works the outcomes are not under our control, even if we’re who the Spirit works through. Rather, we should trust that God knows everything and will ensure that any misunderstandings or apparent misuses are ultimately made right.

Jesus then turns the conversation from speculating about others to being discerning about ourselves. We can speculate about the motives of others or their potential (or actual) sin. But we need to first and foremost be concerned about our own sinfulness. And not just our sinfulness, but how our sinfulness affects others. We are to be very careful to not mislead others into sin. Such strong words Jesus uses here! This is not a casual issue – eternity is at sake not just for us, but for the other person and untold numbers of other people that could be affected either in the short or long term.

We are always tempted to soft-peddle sin, to not make too big a deal about it. After all, it’s not like we’re Hitler, right? But sin is sin. The scale of sin matters a great deal to you and I but the sin remains identical before God. Is Jesus advocating self-mutilation here? Many are quick to say no, but some think He’s more literal than you and I might like to think.

Sandwiched between two predictions of his betrayal, death, and resurrection, however, Jesus is likely doing something else. As we recognize the sin in our lives, wouldn’t it be nice if it could be as simple as eliminating a part of the body and eliminating the sin? But what we would quickly realize is that sin will express itself by another means. The punishment of sin is eternal death and therefore we need to take it seriously. But do we seriously think we can stop our sin on our own, even by resorting to such drastic means as cutting off parts? Sin is more pervasive than this. Jesus dealt with this in 7:14-23.

Our hope must come from another source then – and that source is the death and resurrection of Jesus. It is to save us from our sin, to offer his life rather than ask us to offer up pieces of our body, that Jesus goes willingly to the cross and suffers humiliation and agony and death. We can put the knives and cleavers away because Jesus’ death and resurrection has freed us from the mastery of sin and made possible our becoming children of God.

More on Context

September 22, 2018

We were sitting this morning as a family around the breakfast table.  We’re reading a book together,  The Life of Fred: Financial Choices  .  It is a source of great conversation, laughter and thought for all of us, not just the kids.  The author is clearly a very goal-oriented, disciplined kinda guy (or at least projects that persona).  I find this an admirable trait, though not one I can claim to share beyond a certain extent.

The chapter this morning focused on instant gratification vs. long-term rewards, and the author dutifully notes that these ways of thinking apply to all of life, not just financial decisions.  The author is very clearly in favor of long-term reward thinking and planning.  He speaks very dismissively about instant gratification, even as he tries to remain balanced and accepting of some instant gratification.

It’s true that very few people possess the discipline for long-term goal setting.  It makes those who are both admirable and probably more often than not more successful.  My wife and I were in a follow-up conversation about it after breakfast, talking about how some people just seem to be wired more towards long-term thinking.  They know what they want to accomplish – often from a very young age – and are nearly single-minded in their determination to accomplish it.

My wife mentioned the girl who sailed solo around the world at age 16 (this girl, I assume), and related how at one point she ran away from home for fear her parents might not let her pursue her dreams (not sure if this is an actual biographical detail or not, but we’ll assume it is for the purpose of our conversation).

It reminded me of my musings a few days ago.  It struck me that we admire these people when they’re successful.  We hold them up as examples of human capability.  They are inspiring and become models that we point to for our kids and grandkids.  But if she had failed and died in the attempt, we wouldn’t glorify her.  We’d likely vilify her parents for not doing their job to guide and look after her.

Again the issue of context becomes critical.  Goal-setting is important and valuable but it requires a context within which to function both healthily and safely.  Without such a context, it can become actually dangerous both personally and relationally.  It appears that Laura Dekker’s parents (or at least one of them) was pretty supportive of her efforts.  But we could easily understand if they had not been.  And at that point, Laura faces a decision – reject her parents’ duty and authority to pursue her goal, or abide by their guidance.

Sounds like the plot context for a movie-of-the-week.

I want my kids to be happy and successful but more than this I want them contextualized, embedded in a larger understanding – a meta-context – that helps them define what these terms even mean and could look like.  Without that, the definitions become slippery and evasive, potentially even damaging to themselves and those around them.

This is part of what faith in the Judeo-Christian God of the Bible does.  I don’t simply adopt it or teach it to them as a means to an end of personal fulfillment.  I believe it is true, and because it is true, it will have these side benefits of providing a healthy context for my life and my children’s lives.  It doesn’t mean it will always be easy to remain consistent to this faith, this meta-context.  But it provides a means for doing so, and those means by and large seem very consistent with my personal experience and the experience of those I know both personally and historically.  There will be anomalies, and those might be inspiring, but only if we also acknowledge the real costs involved, the real risks that remain whether that person succeeds or fails.

Long-range planning isn’t enough on its own – it requires a context to function within.

Context matters.  Authority matters.  What’s yours?

A Luxury Denied

September 21, 2018

I’m an introvert.  A quiet person.  I don’t like crowds.  I prefer one-on-one interactions.  I dislike small talk.  I’m very private and not very expressive of my emotions.  The idea of people looking at me is uncomfortable.

I’m also a pastor.  And this means that despite my preferences, I don’t always get things they way I want them.  People are always looking at me.  I am expected to deal with large groups of people as necessary.  My quietness and privateness needs to be tempered with the understanding that my parishioners need to know me at some level.  My vocation requires that I give up some of my preferences because of the role I serve in my faith community.

This sounds easy enough until it comes to the issue of grieving and loss.

A colleague of mine suffered a tragic and unexpected loss this week.  His wife died unexpectedly.  She was on life-support for a few  days but it was apparent that it was the machines keeping her alive after her accident and that no recovery was to be expected.  When they took her off the machines she died.

It was three days before the other pastors in our area knew about the situation.  The information came from another associate that works closely with this person, and came with the tag line we hear often – the family asks that everyone would respect their privacy during this difficult time.

That’s not-so-secret code for don’t call, don’t e-mail, don’t inquire, don’t offer help,  don’t stop by.  It’s the equivalent of a No Soliciting sign on a front door, intended to keep others away.

I understand the motivation.  I understand the desire to hunker down alone to sort things out and come to grips with a situation.  It will be my instinct as well.

But it’s an instinct my vocation requires me to fight, as I think this brother should as well.

Ministers serve a public role.  One of the aspects of that role is to serve people in times of grief, in times when they deal with the loss of a loved one whether expected or unexpectedly.  We’re expected to be there in whatever way the family can allow us to be, as a source of comfort not in and of ourselves but in who we represent.  It’s one of those times when a Christian minister is supposed to embody the presence of Christ.  It’s a palpable reminder that they aren’t alone, and that by the grace of God the deceased is not alone either.

And as such we need to recognize it is our responsibility to model this when we ourselves suffer.  We aren’t superheroes who don’t need the comfort of others.  We aren’t omniscient and perfectly and always aware of the presence and love of Christ.  We aren’t immune to the agonizing desire to know why, or the brutal accusations  of the conscience or our Enemy, telling us if only we had done such-and-such, or not done such-and-such, this wouldn’t have happened.  The deceased would still be alive.  We would not be aching.

We need to model an openness in times of grief and loss, even (or perhaps especially) when it is counter-intuitive.  We need to model a grief that allows itself to be embraced by the community of faith, supported in prayer and in presence.  If we want our people to understand this and to commit  themselves to this for themselves and their loved ones, we need to show  that we aren’t above it either.  We need it just as much.

I grieve for my brother and his loss, but have no way to express it.  That’s difficult.  And as an introvert (as I think he is as well) I recognize that he doesn’t want those expressions.  Might not be able to handle them.  Has no response for them.  That’s fine.  A response isn’t necessary and we need to accept this.  A perfectly composed reception is not necessary or expected.  But I need to be willing to allow people to grieve with me and for me in my loss.

I encourage you not to try and keep others at arms length in the midst of grief and loss and tragedy.  I understand why you’re inclined to.  Truly, I do.  I see it a lot.  But struggle against it, to find a way to allow others into and alongside your grief.

And I pray for the grace and strength of God the Holy Spirit to follow this advice myself if and when it becomes applicable.




Contextualizing Advertising

September 20, 2018

Despite a much-delayed and oft-sidetracked undergraduate career spanning 13 years, I did eventually graduate from Arizona State University.  It’s an accomplishment I am proud enough of but typically stoic and realistic about.  Going back to university at nearly 30 to complete a degree you gave up on years earlier because of a lack of direction or motivation is difficult, and I acknowledge that.  But what credit there is to be taken for that lies in me (by the grace of God), and not so much my alma mater.  I know folks from my high school that are die-hard fans of the universities they graduated from, and constantly sport the clothes, tail-gate parties, and hand signs of those institutions.

I’m not one of those folks, and anyone who knows me probably isn’t very surprised by this.

To be fair, I don’t feel an unusual attachment to any other institution I’ve ever attended, whether primary, secondary, or graduate.  It’s just not in my genes.

But that doesn’t stop these institutions from sending me their magazines every quarter, hopeful no doubt that perhaps I’ve improved my situation in life markedly from my earlier years and am looking for a place to devote some of my wealth.

I’m not one of those folks either, sorry.

But as I was quickly flipping through my alma mater’s most recent magazine, the only thing that really caught my eye was the back page and an advertisement from Starbucks.  An attractive and undoubtedly upwardly-mobile-minded female barista smiles glowingly at the reader, hands on hips in a pose of confidence.  The tag line, which claims to be a quote from her, reads:

Always push for what you want, what you love, and your passions.

But if news these days is to be believed, this is the fundamental problem  in our culture.  People pushing for what they want.  The news is decidedly anti-male these days, highlighting a cavalcade of men past and present who followed the above mantra fully and are now paying the consequences for it.  I doubt anyone would recognize this mantra as appropriate in the context of allegations about Brett Kavanaugh.  Or Bill Cosby.  Or Harvey Weinstein.  For that matter would people agree with this mantra in the context of Trump and his tariff policies, or Obama and his health-care reform?  Would liberals agree with this in terms of who gets confirmed as a Supreme Court judge?  For that matter would conservatives?

Our culture is in the throes of chaos precisely because of people who follow this mantra.

It doesn’t sound like a bad mantra though, does it?  Doesn’t it sound warm and glowing and awesome?  Isn’t it inspiring and confidence-building?  Doesn’t it reek of the go-get-it attitude that once characterized America?

Yet on the other hand, we could argue this mantra is destructive, evil, patently bad advice.

How can this be?

Because this mantra, this slogan – as with any mantra or slogan – needs a context.  It needs a larger background within which it fits, and which determines how it is  applied.  Only a fool would assume  that marketing companies and companies should be dictating human behavior in any given country, right?  That would be chaos, with norms and expectations and standards changing every time a new, more compelling slogan or mantra came out.

It’s terrifying to think that for many people this is exactly what is happening.

It isn’t that mantras and slogans are new.  They’ve been around for centuries, and we all can think about the most successful of them.  Be all that you can be.  Just do it.  Have a Coke and smile.  Have it your way.  There’s a common theme in them – they’re all applied to the individual and designed to encourage the individual to activity, engagement, and eventually or ultimately consumption of one form or another.

As marketing campaigns these were wildly successful.  But as rules for living your life?  Not so much.  And over and over again we are reminded that while it sounds like a good idea to Always push for what you want, what you love, and your passionsin reality this isn’t something that we should always do.  By a long shot.  Or perhaps ever do.  Because society is going to determine what is acceptable to push for, what is acceptable to love, and what sorts of passions are acceptable.  It may decide these things in retrospect years down the road.  It may change its mind about them.

What these mantras and slogans need is a context.  An overarching understanding of how one is to live their lives that makes sense of these urges or prompts, determining when they are acceptable or appropriate and when they are not.  And I think this meta-context is what our culture has discarded in the last half-century.

I suggest that the meta-context that used to be in place was Biblically based and easy to remember.  Love your neighbor.  While not everyone might know or agree with the person this meta-context is associated with (Jesus), they understood the basic concept.  It’s a concept that – on its own and out of the fuller context of how He said it and what else He said – isn’t even strictly Judeo-Christian.  It could be argued that this idea is implicit in all of the great religions and even philosophies of the world.  Of course each will define the terms and parameters slightly (or radically) differently, the basic underlying idea remains.

So then I’m free to Always push for what you want, what you love, and your passions, as long as it doesn’t cause me to cease loving my neighbor.  As long as I’m anchored in this larger meta-context, I can apply the mantras and slogans of the day in a limited fashion.  And of course the meta-context also provided the criteria to know what was loving my neighbor and what wasn’t, since we all tend to define this in ways that are easier or more convenient for us.

It’s not a perfect system, of  course.  There will still be anomalies and violations.  But we could at least identify them as such and deal with them as such.

Now, it’s a lot harder.  Oftentimes it seems to come down to who yells the loudest as to what constitutes a proper or  improper application of the mantras and slogans around us.  There was an effort a few years ago to come up with a new meta-context for life in our culture – tolerance.  It didn’t work so well.  It continues to not work very well.  And now we’re being told that in some situations, tolerance is actually the equivalent of refusal – which anyone with half a brain would have recognized right away.

So be careful what advertising or marketing mantra or slogan you grab on to.  Be careful what you quote to your kids or grandkids as inspirational and life-guiding advice.  They might just listen.  And they might just discover that it’s really not very good advice.  Not without something deeper and more reliable behind it.  Something not prone to the whims and waves of public opinion at any given moment (driven so often by slogans and mantras as well).  Maybe you should consider passing on something much deeper, and more  reliable.

For that matter, maybe you ought to consider adopting it for yourself.



A Deeper Loss

September 19, 2018

I work with the recovery community in town.  For years I’ve been teaching and mentoring people as part of their commitment to a year-long recovery program.  It’s some of the most enjoyable time I spend each week, speaking the Gospel to people who still aren’t sure what it is and whether or not it is for them.  And since the beginning of August my work in that community has deepened through opening our home to some of the women in recovery for dinner each week.  It has created a closer relationship with some of them, participating together in a less formal, non-programmed time each week.  It has allowed them to get to know my wife and children, and for us to get to know them better.  A little bit about their families as they experience our family life.

My family looks forward to Thursday night every week.  They’re excited to meet new people, to share themselves around the table or playing xBox games together.

But it makes the pain of losing one of those people we’ve broken bread with that much more acute.   And tonight I found out that one of the first ladies we had over had to leave the program today.  She was past the halfway mark in the program.  She was sweet and kind and seemed to be taking everything to heart.  The grief of the ladies tonight who met with me for Bible study was palpable.  The tears were real.  And in a way I haven’t ever really before, I felt that anguish at a deeper and more personal level.

This is the challenging and painful work of relationship.  Of getting to know people and caring about them and wanting the best for them.  It is the visible face of sin and evil, those powers and forces, those addictions and other issues that drag us away from love and hope and back into dangerous waters.  We prayed tonight for her, and I prayed not only for her but for the women who mourn her loss as a sister in recovery.  And while my words in the prayers weren’t explicit, they were  words for my own hurt as well, and for the hurt of my family when I share with them in a few minutes.

I don’t know the details of this woman’s departure.  It was a second infraction, a second violation of the rules against  drugs or alcohol while on a home pass.  I don’t know if she’s back in full-blown addiction.  I pray not.  I pray that what she’s learned in the months before will give her tools to help protect herself.

But if nothing else, she’s isolated.  She’s away from her recovery community, and unless she establishes herself in regular recovery community through AA meetings, that isolation will grow and the odds of her relapse into addiction are agonizingly high.  Nearly overwhelming.

And addiction or not, her departure is not the equivalent of her losing faith in Jesus Christ, either.  Our faith is not determined by our sobriety, though  it can be severely impacted by the lack thereof.  I don’t treat this woman as a lost soul, necessarily, but I pray for her spiritually most of all.  It isn’t just recovery community she needs to be a part of, that might form the difference between a life of hope instead of a life of addiction, she needs to immerse herself in Christian community as well.  A place where she knows and is known, where she can be loved, supported,  encouraged.

So that’s what I pray for her tonight.  Grateful for the eight women who drive out for Bible study with me but who wept and had trouble focusing because of their fear, their loss,  their anger.  And I give thanks for the Good Shepherd who insists on pursuing the lost sheep, whose Spirit does not rest until she is  found and brought safely back home.

May that be so for Ash, Lord.  Tonight and every night after.  Amen.

Reading Ramblings – September 23, 2018

September 16, 2018

Reading Ramblings

Date: Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost – September 23, 2018

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

Context: We are to trust in God. This is easy enough when things are going well and we have the approval of those around us. But we are to trust in God even when things are going poorly and those around us think badly of us. And perhaps hardest of all is to maintain such reliance and faith in God when things are going badly and people think ill of us because of our devotion to him! Our sinful nature naturally desires the praise and honor of those around us on large and small scales. We derive a sense of value from this sort of esteem. But in Christ, the only honor we are to value is the honor we receive as a free gift – undeserved – in Christ’s death and resurrection on our behalf. Here is where we find honor that will last beyond our mortal years, and will in fact carry us into eternity. True wisdom receives this heavenly honor and glory humbly, knowing full well we don’t deserve it, couldn’t earn it, and can’t repay it.

Jeremiah 11:18-20 – Jeremiah is apparently the target of a murderous plot (vs. 9, 21) because he continues to speak the word of the Lord to a people who have abandoned it. In these verses Jeremiah admits his naivety, his ignorance of the depths to which some would stoop to silence him. Jeremiah pleads that the Lord would judge them appropriately for their intentions, as Jeremiah entrusts himself to God’s Word and protection. This places Jeremiah in a long line of Biblical figures – most prominently and importantly Jesus, the Son of God – who chose obedience to God over potential safety. Doing so is no longer an act of ignorance – they are aware of the danger they are in. But they choose to trust God to protect them and vindicate them rather than obey demands to quit speaking his Word or following his path. So you and I should also be willing to stand firm in faith in God who is the author of all things, trusting that his final word for our lives will be life.

Psalm 54 – A prayer of trust to the Lord. The context is given in 1 Samuel 23, part of the saga of Saul’s pursuit of David in the latter period of Saul’s reign. Thie chapter opens with David saving the city of Keilah – a village of Judah – from Philistine predations. This should have been the work of King Saul, but Saul is preoccupied in trying to catch David. David is rewarded for his bravery and kindness by intended treachery of the very people he just saved (1 Samuel 23:10-12). David and his 600 men flee from the approaching army of Saul. David flees to the wilderness of Ziph, but his presence is betrayed to Saul by the Ziphites. Both the Ziphites and the citizens of Keilah likely thought they were doing the right thing – trying to help the anointed king catch an enemy. They couldn’t know that David had been anointed as future king. David’s frustration with this situation must have been massive! David insists on trusting his fate to God, that his reputation will be vindicated and that he will be saved by those who seek to take his life.

James 3:13-4:10 – James continues to explore what the life of faith in Jesus Christ looks like. The faithful person not only hears the Word of God but puts it into action in their lives. This results in changes – we no longer distinguish or give preferential treatment based on wealth, we watch how we speak, and now we seek wisdom and to demonstrate wisdom differently than the world does. In the world, wisdom is a means of gain or influence or power. It is a tool for advancement, both personally and ideologically. But the Christian is to eschew such use of wisdom, seeking instead to be peaceable, gentle, and open to reason. Wisdom is all well and good but like any good gift from God it can be abused and misused, and when this happens it is sinful. Such misuse ultimately demonstrates an immaturity of faith that still seeks pride of place rather than the good of the community of faith. Being right is of no use if it damages others, or, as I like to say, what we do matters far less than how we do it. This is certainly not the way we are taught to behave in our culture, so we must be taught amongst the people of God.

Mark 9:30-37 – There is nothing of glory in Jesus’ prophesy regarding his death. To be betrayed, killed, buried? These are not the signs of great wisdom or power but rather weakness and even foolishness. Shouldn’t the one who knows ahead of time that they will be betrayed and executed also be capable of avoiding such a fate? What sort of weak fool – knowing what lies ahead – would continue down the same path?

This is in marked contrast to the disciples’ discussion about who amongst them was greatest. Even Jesus’ inner circle were products of their world and culture, which taught that honor and glory were to be greatly desired. Note Jesus’ response. He doesn’t get angry. He doesn’t berate them as a rabbi might his dense students. He speaks lovingly to them. Gently. He demonstrates the proper use of wisdom even as He attempts to convey heavenly wisdom to them.

The follower of Christ is no longer concerned about personal glory. Before God, we know that any glory we have comes only and completely from Christ, so there is no room to boast. And what glory does the world offer that is worth anything compared to the glory we have in Christ? Would you brag about finding a dollar bill on the street when you’ve already been handed ten thousand dollars by someone else? It makes no sense. What the world thinks of us is inconsequential because the world is passing away. It won’t last, and we won’t last in it. Only a handful of people are remembered through history – no matter how rich or powerful or talented they might have been all people die and are nearly all are eventually forgotten.

As such we are to welcome everyone as Christ does. Nobody should be considered beneath us or not worth the time or the effort. The world may teach us to show the kind of partiality James warned about in Chapter 2, but we are to strive against this instruction. If Christ is willing to welcome me, with all my many faults and shortcomings, all my pettiness and vanity, then how much more ought I be willing to accept someone else who I instinctively feel is less worthy of honor than myself?