Archive for April, 2019

Empty Empathy

April 17, 2019

A great article on the decline of empathy in our culture over recent decades.

While I’ve identified as an empath and described at empathic by many people throughout my life, I never really gave much thought as to the history of that term (which is relatively recent) or more technical usage of it.  To me it just meant the ability to understand and respond to something another person was feeling or going through.  It’s a handy enough definition, and it avoids some of the technical and clinical definitions or nuances that I might be more hesitant to agree with.

I immediately thought about empathy in light of the Christian faith.  The Bible doesn’t utilize εμπάθεια, the particular Greek word from which the English term derives.  And yet it seems as though empathy is very much an expected response to the Gospel.  At a basic level, we are to have empathy with others as creations of a loving God, but sinful creations in the midst of a broken creation.  Our shared circumstances, existentially speaking, drive us towards empathy from the Biblical perspective as opposed to away from it.  Others might argue the Biblical injunction to love your enemy or offer forgiveness freely make no sense apart from a certain amount of empathy.  While I’m not sure I’d say it’s required, empathy certainly might help the process of obedience.

It isn’t surprising in a clinical book and on the NPR website that there is no effort to mention a correlation between a decline in empathy and the decline of Christianity in our country.  But I can’t help but think that they are very much directly related.

Christianity calls the individual out of themselves,  placing them in a larger communal context in the past, present and future.  Everything in the  Christian faith is, Biblically speaking, a matter of community.  And this continuous outward direction of the life of faith will help develop empathy with others if it isn’t something that was present in the individual prior to conversion.

It seems to me declining rates of empathy are indeed unsurprising where this counterintuitive life of faith is not practiced.  It is far more natural to not be empathetic to people I disagree with, fear, or dislike.  It is precisely for this reason that the life of faith as described in Scripture must direct me towards and empathetic posture to those around me.  Despite Richard Dawkins’ attempts to argue that empathy and altruism could be attributed to natural selection, we seem to be witnessing a return to a more natural human state, the state unmitigated by faith and trust in a God who created all things, redeemed all things, and is bringing all things to a conclusion.  If there isn’t anything beyond myself, existentially speaking, why waste the time and effort to try and understsand others, especially if I don’t like them or disagree with them?  Life is short, eliminate the negative baggage, as social media continually reminds us.

The conclusions drawn by the author of the book on this subject seem very much on point.  A lack of empathy can only lead to deeper division and polarization, something fatal to democracy.  This is, historically, where we’ve come from, and it appears to be where we’re returning to.  Our experience of “civil society” as Fritz Breithaupt, the author, describes it, is one inextricably linked to being people of faith, and particularly I would argue people either explicitly and personally Christian, or who embrace Christian ideals for ease and simplicity.  This association has long been recognized and noted by people such as Alexis de Tocqueville.

But we’ve either forgotten it or choose to ignore it.  The results are devastating.

Breithaupt’s solution, the development of a selfish empathy, is equally doomed to failure.  As we discovered with the ruse of tolerance in the last 20 years, people don’t act in one manner very long if they believe in something very different.  If you believe that you’re right and someone else is wrong, eventually this is going to come out in the wash and tolerance gets swept aside.  Likewise, pretending to be empathetic may work for a short while but will get smashed apart as soon as someone gets hurt or is rejected or otherwise sees no personal gain to be gotten from it.

Unless we are obedient to a Creator that tells us we were designed to live together and for one another and Him  rather than just ourselves, we are left with the meaninglessness of materialism and evolutionary theory and atheism which says there is nothing greater, no purpose to any of this.  And as such, we might as well just enjoy ourselves as much as possible for the brief span of existence we enjoy.  While the rule of law will prevent some people from taking that mindset to an unhealthy extreme, it cannot foster the positive sense of empathy that requires a meaning and purpose beyond oneself.

 

ANF – Papias

April 16, 2019

I was disappointed in the very rudimentary and fragmentary material we have from Papias, which  consists primarily of other writers quoting from his writings, while his writings themselves have been lost to history (at least so far).

Papias is believed to have lived from the latter part of the first century to perhaps the middle of the second century, with alternate sources indicating his death in 155 AD or 163 AD, martyred either in Rome or Pergamus.  He is said to have known St. John the Apostle personally, and to have heard firsthand from others who were direct witnesses of the life of Jesus.  He served as Bishop of Hierapolis (in modern Turkey).  He is quoted by Eusebius and Irenaeus, who indicate that Papias composed a 5-volume work, Exposition of the Sayings of the Lord.

What little we know of Papias’ writings is due to Eusebius and Irenaeus quoting from them.  Some of the more interesting aspects of these brief mentions are as follows:

  • Papias claims (or claims Jesus said) there are various levels of divine reward depending on the faith and lives of Jesus’ followers.  Some will go to heaven and dweell in Jesus’ presence, others will go to Paradise, and others will go to the divine city (likely as per Revelation 21-22).  He ties this to Jesus’ teachings of different fruitfulness levels in Matthew 13 and Mark 4
  • Papias relates stories about Philip (Acts 8) as told by his daughters
  • Papias teaches a literal thousand year reign of Christ
  • Papias affirms Mark’s Gospel was the teaching of Peter, and that Matthew aimed his Gospel at the Jewish people

It is difficult to make sense of some of these claims  without actually being able to read Papias himself.  The church has long argued against millenial interpretations of Scripture, so it would be interesting to see the context which Papias places his understandings of these things.

 

 

Book Review: Death in the City

April 15, 2019

Death in the City by Francis Schaeffer

 

I was skeptical of this book just based on the title, but I’m very glad that I set skepticism aside to just read it.  Schaeffer ranks up with C.S. Lewis in my personal opinion for his ability to blend Biblical, theological and philosophical ideas in a compelling fashion for our time.  He considers this an integral aspect of four core books, three written by himself (Death in the City, The God Who Is There and Escape from Reason) and one written by his wife Edith (The L’Abri Story ).  I’ve read all of them except Escape from Reason, so you can trust I’m going to acquire that one before long.

Death in the City is a series of lectures Schaeffer delivered in 1968 at Wheaton College.  From some of the things he says, you can already see how much has likely changed not just in our culture at large but even at a Christian university in the past 50 years.  Yet Schaeffer sees already in 1968 what the  larger church in America is only just now admitting – our culture is post-Christian.  Christianity and the Bible are no longer defining aspects of our culture and,  what’s more, they are viewed more and more as contrary and undesirable by our culture.  These lectures diagnose the cause of this situation and offer preliminary thoughts on what to do about it, hopefully leading towards “reformation, revival, and a constructive revolution in the orthodox, evangelical church”.  Towards this end Schaeffer draws on the prophet Jeremiah and St. Paul’s letter to the Romans.

First he calls us to diagnose the root cause of the massive cultural shift he identifies in 1968 and we are dealing with more openly in the early 21st century.  That cause is a turning away from the truth and reality of God, as per Romans 1:21-22.  This leads to an isolation from God, and the necessity of hearing the Law of God on this issue.  People need to be told that they have abandoned God and his Word and are bearing his judgment.  This message needs to be given not only to the increasingly pagan culture around us but to the Church as well.  The Church has failed to teach and preach God’s Word fully and faithfully which has in part led to this turning away from God’s reality and Word.  He argues – contrary to what the Church has assumed for many years – that this word of judgment needs to come first in evangelism.  That the message of grace and forgiveness means nothing if there is no awareness of true moral guilt and therefore judgment by a righteous and holy God.

He then goes on to diagnose the malaise affecting our culture, as witnessed in skyrocketing rates of depression and other mental illnesses as well as attempted and successful suicides.  Evolutionary theory and natural selection have reduced man to insignificance, the mere accidental byproduct of millions of years of accidental genetic variation.  We have no significance, and we have no moral compass.  Everything is up for grabs and is ultimately meaningless and arbitrary.  If all we are is a random collection of atoms, and our fate is just the dissipation of those same atoms, then everything in between is a sham construction, the work of manipulative genes seeking to determine their continued existence with no other end or purpose than moving on to the next generation.  It is a bleak and dismal reality, one that many materialists try to rally against but ultimately fail.  Either man is significant and has meaning, as per the Biblical account of creation, or man is accidental and meaningless.

Schaeffer paints a picture of these two very different positions and their corresponding outlook on reality in Chapter 9, The Universe and Two Chairs.  He reduces reality to a single room with no doors or windows.  There is a man sitting in the Materialist  chair and a man sitting in the Christian chair.  The materialist begins an investigation of  the room.  It is his life’s work, and he includes everything and  utilizes the scientific method and every branch of science to compile multiple tomes on the nature of the room.  The Christian is duly impressed by this, but responds after reading through it all that the materialist’s compilation is incomplete as it does not take into account those aspects of reality that the scientific method is insufficient for.  He takes out a Bible and says that this book describes more  of reality because it includes the things that the Materialist’s observations and experiments can’t touch.  The Bible does not invalidate science, but it does specify limits to what it can (and should) tell us, and itself provides additional information that scientific compendiums can’t.

Schaeffer then points out that far too many Christians operate in what he terms unfaith.  They function primarily in their outlook on life and how they live their lives as though they sit in the Materialist chair, even though they claim to sit in the Christian chair.  They affirm doctrines but don’t see how those doctrines apply to their lives.

This is a good book.  It is a challenge to the Church not to hold back from saying the hard things that God says in his Word.  To say them in love, but to say them unflinchingly as well.  Schaeffer is convinced – as I am – that only Christianity can offer an adequate alternative to the materialist world-view adopted so readily by Western Christianity over the last 150 years.  While some of Schaeffer’s other writings are at times difficult to make sense of, this is a very clear and lucid diagnosis of Christianity and Western culture.  Well worth the time  for this relatively short (130-ish pages) read.

 

 

 

 

 

Reading Ramblings – April 21, 2019

April 14, 2019

Reading Ramblings

Date: Easter Sunday – April 21, 2019

Texts: Isaiah 65:17-25; Psalm 16; 1 Corinthians 15:19-26; Luke 24:1-12

Context: In the last century theologians, some attempting to protect the Bible and the Biblical account from intellectual discrediting, shifted the historical events of the Bible into the realm of subjective experience. They downplayed the reality of Jesus’ resurrection for a theology that made the resurrection symbolic more than anything. But if the resurrection is not a reality, it certainly can’t serve as a very inspiring symbol. It seems highly unlikely that people would have gone to their deaths proclaiming as objective reality something they knew to be metaphorical or symbolic. If Easter is true, then it is the single-most important event in all of human history, and for 2000 years those who believe it is true have celebrated it as such. It is my hope and confidence personally, and I pray it is yours as well!

Isaiah 65:17-25 – The empty tomb is the beginning of the new creation vision Isaiah conveys here. Jesus offering himself as the perfect, sinless sacrifice satisfies fully the Law’s demand for obedience, and Jesus conveys this perfect obedience to you and I. The power of death is broken over us. Jesus’ resurrection is evidence that the Law has been fulfilled and He is not subject to death, and therefore his resurrection and promises to us are that we inherit his righteousness as if it were our own. A new creation free from the controlling power of sin and evil, death and Satan dawns. It’s a sunrise slow in coming, though, as we still await the full light of God’s power to reveal this new creation. But when it does at last, all things and persons will be transformed, freed from the destructive twisting of sin and Satan. The Church is called to proclaim the dawning of this new reality, and to be the place where we are encouraged and strengthened to begin living it out. Imperfectly and incompletely as of yet, but day by day in greater consistency with who we will be when our Lord returns.

Psalm 16 – What begins as a prayer for deliverance from temporal concerns ends as a declaration that not even death itself will separate the speaker from God. Miktal is likely some sort of poetic or musical description or perhaps instruction, but we are unsure of the best way to translate it from Hebrew. David declares his trust in the Lord as the ultimate source of goodness. He will set his eyes on those who live their lives similarly rather than those who follow other gods. There are other ways to live, other goals than obedience and thanksgiving to God, but David’s mind is firm. God alone will be the one to instruct and guide him, as God alone has trustworthy precepts. As such, even though situations may be uncertain David will continue to rejoice in God and trust in him, even to the point that not even death dismays him, as he knows God’s power can and will ensure that death is no separation for his faithful servant. Rather, the wisdom and power of God in this life are a foretaste of eternal joys for those who trust in God.

1 Corinthians 15:19-26 – The resurrection is real. Paul has encountered the resurrected Christ. Such an encounter alone was sufficient to turn Paul’s entire life around. He recognizes that if the resurrection was not real – if it was a psychological or theological construct, an emotional projection, anything less than a tomb formerly occupied but now empty because the dead inhabitant has been raised to real, corporeal life again – then Christians are pathetic fools, wishful thinkers constructing a false reality and future for themselves, and as any person who lives their life in fantasy instead of reality, objects for pity (or ridicule) above all others. Only a real resurrection vindicates Jesus’ identity and work. Only a real resurrection can lend credence to his promises to us (John 14:1-14, etc.).

Luke 24:1-12 – We need to remember that each writer remembers certain aspects of the event. It’s obvious from the slight differences of perspective or details mentioned that there was no effort between the Gospel writers to settle on a single identical account. Each account picks up different aspects and neglects others.

Luke provides a variety of specific details. Dawn on the first day of the week (Sunday, since Saturday is the Jewish Sabbath, the seventh day of the week as per Genesis 1 & 2). He names two women specifically (23:55) which doesn’t exclude that there were others. They bring spices to properly anoint the body for burial (Jews did not embalm like the Egyptians). They didn’t expect the stone to be rolled away, but this curiosity is eclipsed by the fact that upon entering the tomb there is no body. Luke does not identify the two men they meet but describe their clothes as dazzling. The Greek word is likely associated with words for lightning or even a star. It is clearly not typical clothing, and the hearer is meant to interpret the sparse description as an angelic messengers, further indicated by the women throwing themselves on the ground in fear.

These messengers do not provide new information to the women, but rather help the women make sense of the information they have based on Jesus’ words alone. This is important. Jesus prophesied everything that would happen to him. His hearers will remember this and will lead them to understand him not simply as a prophet but as the great prophet prophesied by Moses himself (Deuteronomy 18), the very promised Messiah of God. Easter is not some unexpected matter, as though Jesus’ followers hadn’t heard him describe it in advance. But now, for the first time, they can both remember and understand his words, contextually. A physical, literal resurrection from the dead. An empty tomb. And by the grace of God, two messengers to ensure that the women remember, understand, and therefore can adequately communicate this reality to the disciples. The women are the first to share the message that He Is Risen!

But they are not taken seriously. As women, their testimony is treated as unreliable by the disciples. They are overcome with emotion or distraught or any number of other possible explanations. The disciples might be imagined to be very good amateur psychologists, diagnosing the women’s words. But Peter finally decides to go and see for himself. He discovers not the messengers, but just the empty tomb and, another detail, the linen cloths his body had been hastily wrapped in the previous day (Luke 23:53). Without any idea what else to do, Peter returns to the place where they were all staying, no doubt to affirm at least part of the women’s story. Full understanding has not yet come, as he returns marveling. Not until the end of that first day will Jesus’ followers begin to truly understand what has happened!

Listening Matters

April 10, 2019

My family arrived to Lenten soup dinner tonight with tales of anger.  The weekly home-school park gathering was disrupted by a woman screaming at the kids from the other side of the park.  She was apparently irate that the kids were sitting on a low-hanging tree branch.  She screamed that they should get down, that somebody could get hurt, that their mothers surely must not be paying attention.  The moms were paying attention just a few feet away.  The kids were confused, the moms were a bit shocked, and the woman wandered away when nobody immediately met her demands.

One of the mothers went after the woman to talk with her, and ensure that the woman did in fact realize that the mothers were present and monitoring the situation.  The woman had no interest in listening – outright refused to actually talk.  Apparently she had wanted to scream her demands, not engage in an actual discussion.

Listening is getting harder, and rarer.

I was reminded of this by the above anecdote, and like many people in such a situation I clucked my tongue at the woman’s absurdity and inability to engage in actual dialogue or conversation about an issue.

But the below issue demonstrates that I – and perhaps you as well, dear reader – can be just as guilty of not wanting to listen, particularly when we think we know what we’re going to hear or not hear.

Currently there is a bill with bi-partisan support making its way through Congress.  I know.  Shocking, isn’t it?  The bill would ban the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) from developing a free e-filing program for itself.  The ban is heavily opposed by big business.  Specifically, big businesses in the business of tax preparation, like H&R Block and Intuit.  These companies have spent millions of dollars trying to ensure that the IRS doesn’t develop any such program as it could hurt the business of private tax preparation services and software.  These companies argue that they already allow people to use their products for free if they are below a certain income level.  And while 70% of Americans would qualify for their free e-filing services, only 3% of these eligible Americans use them.  Presumably another, higher percentage of these eligible Americans end up purchasing services that the companies upsell.

So far, no big deal.  But then I spy this article about liberal firebrand Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez complaining about this very issue, and suggesting that the IRS could – and should – provide auto-completed tax documentation free of charge.  The great majority of Americans have simple enough tax returns that the essential data could be auto-filled by the IRS, verified by citizens and then submitted electronically.  Other countries apparently do this already.

I was tempted to skip the article.  After all, I disagree with most everything I’ve heard this person say so far.   I don’t know the larger context of her comments, but at least in this limited sense, until I see a counterargument, I think it’s good that she’s raising the issue.  Since the IRS isn’t going to go away anytime soon, and since any changes to the tax codes result in more confusion, it would be nice to see the IRS develop a system that could help eliminate the headache for many Americans.

I also, however, don’t believe the IRS is capable of developing this kind of system, and that’s pretty depressing.

But the important thing is to keep listening.  Even to people you disagree with.  Disagree with ideas, not with people.  And by all means, look for  opportunities to be reminded that even people we disagree with (rather than ideas!) can sometimes say things we resonate with.  That’s an important thing to remember as more and more people become more and more comfortable with just screaming their demands or objections from a distance.

 

 

ANF – The Epistle of Barnabas

April 10, 2019

Authorship of this work is generally disputed.  It  is believed to have been written sometime after 70 AD (because it mentions the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem), but no later than mid 2nd century.  It is included in the Codex Sinaiticus in the 4th century, and for some years was treated by some Christians on the same level as Scripture while others rejected such a status.  This makes it part of the antilogomena – Christian writings that are disputed in terms of their authority.  Clement and Origen both assume it to have been written by the Barnabas mentioned in Acts, a traveling companion of St. Paul.  However Eusebius refused to see it as such.

I had the idea when I embarked on this effort that I would discover gold mines of biblical explication in the ancient writings of the Church Fathers.  While that may still well be the case, I wouldn’t say that this is such an example.  The majority of this epistle (letter) is dedicated to refuting Judaism and exalting Christians as the true chosen people of God.  To do this the author quotes a great number of Old Testament passages – oftentimes incorrectly or in paraphrase – and mixes this with apparent references or quotes from lost, non-Biblical texts.  He uses these texts in metaphorical ways to demonstrate the failure of the Jewish people to remain faithful to God and therefore their exclusion from his good graces as the Gospel passes to Gentiles.

Several very interesting tidbits come at the very end of the epistle, in the second section that enumerates the positive behavioral characteristics of  Christians as well as the negative characteristics of those who reject Jesus as the Messiah.  Included with these is the exhortation that Christians do not “slay the child by procuring abortion; nor, again, shalt though destroy it after it is born.”  Once again testimony, along with the Didache, that the Christian faith has historically rejected abortion and infanticide, something the modern church in Europe and America would do well to take heed of.  This text also refers to the Christian practice of worshiping on Sunday rather than the traditional Jewish Saturday Sabbath, in deference to Jesus’ resurrection on Sunday morning.  This is perhaps the earliest reference to the Christian practice or worshiping on Sunday and anchors the practice deep in history, perhaps within a few decades of the life of Jesus.

Interpreting Authority

April 9, 2019

We had our monthly gathering of pastors in our denomination today.  We come together spanning a stretch of territory just shy of 100 miles in length, and we were at the far southern terminus of our area today.  The study we started briefly on had to do with proper pastoral authority.  What authority does the pastor have (and not have), and where does he derive it?  It’s a theological discussion with a rich tradition, but not one that I’ve had to have many conversations with lay people about.

But it coincided with some other thoughts on authority and how we interpret it.

Two out of the last three weeks I have worshiped in places that sing the song “Our God”  by Chris Tomlin.  It’s got a catchy rhythm and, while being somewhat vague on details, is a fun song to sing.  But both times it was used, the bridge got me thinking:

And if our God is for us then who could ever stop us

And if our God is with us then what could stand against.

Now these words are true, but I wondered how the people singing and swaying along to them interpreted them.  In both settings there was no further explanation of this very strong claims.  And barring interpretations, people are prone to filling in their own explanations.

The words  could easily be interpreted to mean that as followers of Christ we can’t suffer any setbacks, any failures, any disappointments, let alone any meaningful persecution or violation of the rights and privileges which we – as American Christians in particular – have come to enjoy and expect.

God is indeed for us and with us, and as such we are indeed conquerors in Christ.  But we need to remember that Christ conquered through his death, and his command to his followers was not to go out and dominate culture and society and politics but rather to pick up their crosses and follow him.  To expect the kind of suffering, even, that Jesus experienced and, perhaps, to even be killed for our confidence and faith in him.

That is a very real, very powerful victory indeed!  Satan cannot stand against us in any eternal sense.   Those  who cling to Christ may lose everything else – health, wealth, prestige, honor in the eyes of the world, even our lives – but we inherit so much vastly more.  It is a promise that has held Christians faithful on their way to the gallows or the shallow graves, in the face of guns and knives and fists and fire.

But is that how people today hear it?  And what if they seem to be stopped in their lives?  What if their jobs disappear or that promotion never materializes?  What if their family life is a struggle or they deal with the very real threat of sickness and disease?  Does this song support and encourage them to trust completely in Jesus and endure all things and all losses?   Or does this song leave them without a means of explaining their struggles?  Does it set up a false hope or point them to  the only true hope and definition of victory in Christ?

Only time will tell, I suppose.  But the rates at which people seem to be leaving their faith behind for the none category in survey after survey, the rate at which participation in worship continues to decline, I have to wonder if these kinds of songs – which can and should be so powerful and comforting when provided the proper interpretation – are leading people to a shallow, straw-man sort of faith in a god-djinni who grants wishes and offers protection rather than dies and rises again for them?

Those are the conversations I’d rather be having with my colleagues.  How do we equip our people to face real suffering and loss rather than letting their shallow roots wither and die in the blistering sun of an enemy?  Defending and explicating the proper role and use of pastoral  authority requires, after all, a congregation of people to explain it to and live  it out with.  That might require some more diligent preaching and teaching rather than letting them define their pop hooks by the world’s standards rather than God’s.

 

No Excuses

April 8, 2019

Last night was another exhausting exercise in building trust and relationship with wounded people.  I wrote a few weeks ago about deliberately choosing to be shorter in response to some things one of our Sunday evening folks was putting out there.  Last night the follow-up conversation I knew would come eventually came.  I’m not sure if the conversation is done yet, but it at least began.

Towards the end of a two-hour long emotion-laden conversation with this person, he asked me a question, the precise nature of which I can’t remember exactly in the fog of the evening.  Something to do with why we welcomed him to our house every week.  My response was immediate.  Because I love you.  He responded with a follow-up question – why do you love me?

It’s the type of question from a wounded person who needs and wants affirmation and encouragement as he’s rebuilding his emotional life.  It was an invitation to make comments about him personally, comments that would in some ways soften the blunter responses I gave him a month ago.  I knew there were things I could have said that would have made him happy, but I also was convicted that the right answer was theologically, not emotional or psychological.

Because you’re a child of God.

The disappointment was immediate and palpable.  And he drew the conclusion I assumed he would – that such a basis for love was relatively indiscriminate.  The same rationale would apply to any person who walked through that front door.  I agreed.  And I went on to affirm that yes, the rationale was indiscriminate in quantitative terms.  I am called to love every person I come across in my life because God created them.  Whether they like me or visa versa is irrelevant.  The command from my Savior is unequivocal.

This prevents me, ideally, from favoritism.  I’m not allowed to love some and not love others.  It will be easier to love some more than others.  I may like some more than others.  But I am called to love everyone.  That decision has been made for me already by my Lord and I am under his command in this regard.

But the love that I show to the people in my life does differ qualitatively.  It is in this category that I need to figure out the best way to love each particular person.  One person is more delicate and needs more encouragement.  Another is more cocky and sometimes needs a challenge.  Each needs to feel welcomed and important but hopefully in ways that are best received by them.  This should not be favoritism, though of course everyone has favorites.  There’s nothing wrong with having favorites but there is something wrong with favoritism (read James 2:1-12).  It can be a tricky line at times.

I imagine there will be more conversations ahead.  In talking and debriefing with my wife today, she commented that I was brave to be willing to confront this individual as I did a month ago, and then to follow-through with the harder work of working through that with him.  Community and relationship is a two-way exchange, though.  In our culture that demands that everyone accept everyone else for who they are there is no actual exchange, no actual interaction between real people.  The relationship is artificial if there is not honesty.  That honesty should be conveyed in love, but sometimes the loving thing to do is not the polite thing to do.  Ultimately I believe that committing to this way of relationship ultimately offers the greatest hope of real relationship, and then the greatest hope of the Holy Spirit being at work in that relationship to point the way to Christ.

Not easy but necessary.  In a culture of convenience, just as I’ve rejected the use of a microwave in our home as antithetical to the kind of life we want to embrace, certain relational short-cuts have to be eschewed as well.  It might mean that people who aren’t able to handle this will walk away.  But it does encourage the people who remain (myself included) to really learn and grow in how to relate to one another as children of God pointing the way to Christ.

 

Reading Ramblings – April 14, 2019

April 7, 2019

Reading Ramblings

Date: Palm Sunday – April 14, 2019

Texts: Deuteronomy 32:36-39; Psalm 118:19-29; Philippians 2:5-11; Luke 22:1-23:56

Context: Palm Sunday enjoys a long-standing and highly valued place in the liturgical church year for both the Eastern and Western Church. Traditions vary from region to region but generally involve palms, branches, flowers, or some other combination of greenery. I prefer to celebrate it both with large palms in the worship space in addition to the smaller, dried palms shaped into crosses that have become popular in recent decades. I also like the tradition of reading the entire passion narrative from the triumphal entry into Jerusalem to the crucifixion and burial of Jesus on Good Friday. This provides a cohesiveness to the various snapshots we will focus on from Maunday Thursday to Easter Sunday. It prevents people from simply jumping from the celebration on Palm Sunday to the celebration on Easter Sunday without giving thought to the events of Maunday Thursday through Holy Saturday. As the culmination of Lent, this seems only reasonable, and worth the extra time and effort of a long Gospel reading!

Deuteronomy 32:36-39 – What God purposes, God accomplishes. Despite the temptations of Satan and the threats of religious and political leadership, the Son of God arrives in Jerusalem right on schedule to accomplish the Father’s will. God the Father will accomplish the vindication and rescue of his people, but on a scale that even his own people can’t imagine or understand. He intends the rescue not simply of the Hebrews from oppressive pagan occupation, but all of creation from the grip of sin and death and the power of Satan. He will accomplish this in a most baffling yet simple way – the death and resurrection of his eternal Son. Moses’ song before his death beautifully express both God’s miraculous deliverance of his people from Egyptian domination as well as his ultimate intentions of delivering all creation.

Psalm 118:19-29 – If we adopt the idea that the psalms are not written for David or for you and I but rather for and embodying Jesus, then these words fit perfectly with Palm Sunday. It may seem like a strange idea at first, but Satan certainly takes this approach when he tempts Jesus by quoting from the psalms (Luke 4:9-13, Psalm 91). If we imagine Jesus saying these words, they make so much sense. Jesus embraces his identity and purpose, recognizing completely who He is, what He is going to accomplish, and giving his Father the appropriate praise and thanksgiving. This culminates in a call to the assembly/crowd/faithful congregation to give praise to God (v.24). Verses 25-27 function as the communal response to the activities of both God the Father and God the Son. A recognition that what is happening is for their (our) benefit. Verses 28-29 could be the words both of Jesus as well as his gathered people.

Philippians 2:5-11 – While Palm Sunday celebrates a brief moment of Jesus receiving more proper acclaim and glory fitting to his identity and purpose, it is a very brief moment indeed. Jesus’ humility is evidenced throughout his very humble and challenging ministry in Galilee in Jerusalem. But we should consider his humility in terms of the eternal, divine Son of God, the Logos through which creation was spoken into being. In this case He humbles himself to become part of creation. Humbles himself not to arrive in glory but to be born of a poor simple woman. To be raised as a human child with a family and community, with poverty and dirt and simplicity. To be obedient to his parents despite his divine authority over them. To engage in ministry among a poor and ignorant people, among bitter and predatory religious and political authorities. To ultimately suffer the most awful fate imaginable in those days and perhaps in any other day – public humiliation as a common criminal, stripped of any pretense of glory or honor and left to hang naked as a reproach to his people and himself. It is nearly impossible to imagine such firm, constant, intentional humility! And yet God’s people are called to model this same sort of humility – made possible only as a gift from Christ himself – rather than to seek our own glory or acclaim in this world. In doing so we embrace the counter-intuitive truth that Jesus speaks and demonstrates – that the first are last and the last first. How much we have to learn, and how gracious is our God who continues to forgive and equip and renew us!

Luke 22:1-23:56 – The early Church would gather all day, or for hours on end to listen to the teachings of the apostles, to hear the stories of what Jesus said and did and the power of God the Holy Spirit now loose and active in the world and in their lives. Yet we all too often get restless after a few minutes, or if the sermon goes long, or if the service isn’t over exactly on time! How many other things demand our time and attention, entice our anticipations and distract us from the greatest gift in all the world – the Word of God that tells the story of God the Father’s great love for his rebellious and distracted creation! What a blessing to stand (or sit) to hear the story, the full story of Jesus’ final arrival in Jerusalem, the excitement and joy that attended this event after years of teaching and working miracles. But their attention spans – like ours – are short. The crowds and excitement dissipate when revolution or revival does not immediately break out. By the end of the week there are not enough people to gather to speak on Jesus’ defense, and a small, probably hand-picked crowd is enough to convince Pilate that it is better to sentence Jesus to death than to use his authority to thwart the Sanhedrin’s desires. Joy, love, sorrow, fear, hatred, violence, suffering, death. The Passion narrative has it all on a grander scale than any Netflix original series. We see ourselves reflected in the many varied attitudes and responses to a Jesus uninterested in giving us what we want or prefer and insistent on giving us what we need, even though to do so will require his death. Even though it will require the death of our sinful self-centeredness in the waters of baptism, so we can arise dripping wet and newly created to cry Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!

What’s on Your Pastor?

April 4, 2019

A famous tagline for a credit card is What’s in your wallet?  A simple question posed by smiling, wealthy, successful entertainment spokespersons that imply perhaps your credit card should be the same as theirs.  After all, if it’s good enough for the rich and famous it should be good enough for you, and perhaps it will bring you a bit closer to that status yourself?

But should parishioners be paying attention to what their pastor is wearing?  Some folks think that it’s worth consideration, and I can’t really fault them for raising the question.  Of course part of my agreement is couched in the comfort of knowing that nobody is going to call me out for $1000 shoes.  One of my parishioners expressed surprise a few years ago when I wore a different shirt to teach Bible study class.  My wardrobe is sparse, perhaps too much so.

There are some who would say that’s a sin, something I criticized briefly years ago.  Or at least a marketing disaster.  Pastors are in the public eye, and need to take better heed of their personal appearance.  And at some level this is true.  I remember one seminary prof who strongly reminded us to keep our shoes polished.  He once had a parishioner chide him for his scuffed and worn looking shoes.  That anecdote sticks more firmly in my mind than much of my Hebrew lessons, but I still don’t shine my shoes very often.  Are leather shoes, even the sensible, not-too-expensive-but-still-polishable kind an offense, an indulgence or luxury because others don’t have them?

Perhaps.

Though of course these things are relative as well.  I don’t consider my Levis a luxury, but somebody else likely could.  I splurged on my sunglasses a couple of years ago, and undoubtedly that could be questioned.  When it comes to most everything that we do and wear someone could always point out that there is some level of extravagance by some corresponding vantage point of poverty.  At what point do you draw the line?

One of the pastors mentioned in this article asserts that all the pricey items they were sporting were gifts to them.  Does that make the situation any more or less awkward?  If you mention to the rich and famous, if they pay you a salary that many pastors might only dream about, and shower you with perks that aren’t any big deal to them – much as a rural parishioner might drop by a few pounds of pork spare ribs to put in the pastor’s freezer – is it sinful to accept?  It’s a slippery slope, and one I don’t feel comfortable calling others out for.  But pastors should remember that it *is* a slope.  And even if it’s a simple thing and a blessing to them and the giver, people are always watching, and somebody, somewhere is going to be offended.  Even if they don’t choose to put it out on Instagram.