Archive for December, 2020

Burning Books

December 28, 2020

Thanks to Ken for forwarding me a link to this story in the Wall Street Journal lamenting (weakly) a growing movement to ban classic literature from teaching curriculum for being out of touch with modern concepts of political correctness. (Note, the WSJ has a pretty strict firewall so you may not be able to access the article from the link above)

Some who are willing to continue teaching classical literature indicate they will only do so in the service of modern definitions and conceptions of anti-misogyny, anti-racism, anti-sexism, etc. Meaning the works will be studied out of their appropriate context and forced to serve modern ideas of what literature should or shouldn’t affirm or deny.

Disturbing, but hardly surprising.

What is more surprising and more disturbing is the apparent bubble some educators feel they work in, wherein their comments and decisions – even those they choose to publicize openly on social media like Twitter – are supposedly immune to any query or question. Surely if you’re so proud of your changes to school curriculum you should be willing to talk with a reputable news outlet like the Wall Street Journal rather than retreating behind victim language such as invasive!

It’s hardly invasive, it’s important. What educators decide to teach – and not teach – as well as how they teach it matters a great deal beyond the private kingdoms of their classrooms or school buildings or districts. The decisions they make contribute to their larger community and, in our age of mobility, to our nation as a whole and potentially the world. Of course, I trust some educators are fully aware of this and it is with such audiences in mind that they craft their curriculum and nuance their instruction so their students sow similar ideological seeds in further fields.

All of this might also reflect the growing educational emphasis on science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) coursework as the necessary and ideal educational focus for children on through university age. Such an emphasis obviously devalues a grounding in history and literature and the arts, the arenas of a classical liberal arts educational tradition stretching back perhaps thousands of years. The idea is no longer to create well-rounded individuals but rather to provide useful skills for particular business or industry careers. Why focus on all that other stuff that isn’t useful when you could focus in on what really matters? And if you have to teach those other, lesser areas, at the very least they should be made the servants of contemporary ideological goals rather than windows into different times and places and ideas.

The educator in the article who is aghast that 70-year old values might be seen as somehow beneficial and valid still today demonstrates an alarming disconnect. Those 70-year old values enabled her to be in the profession she’s in. What exactly does she think the United States of 70 years ago looked like, by and large? That would be an interesting conversation to have.

And of course conversations – including or especially conversations with the past – are at the heart of education. It isn’t that assigning Uncle Tom’s Cabin as reading material means you’re justifying everything in it. Much value is gained in seeing positive changes over time. But much value is also gained in being cautious to assume that only the current moment is valid or right. The old maxim that those who don’t learn from the past are doomed to repeat it is not an old maxim for no reason. The present continually makes the mistake of presuming now is all that matters and what is now must be what is right and best, when a cursory glance at the past might indicate otherwise. Might provide a break against directions very likely to lead to disaster.

But that would be education. Learning to think critically. To analyze not just words on a page but ideas conveyed in those words, to test and weigh and determine relative value. And when you teach someone to think critically rather than limit them to what you deem as safe and appropriate, you create the dangerous possibility that it is your ideas that will be found wanting in the evaluation.

One of my most cherished aspects of my secondary educational experience came the summer before I started tenth grade. I was given one of those lists of recommended books to read. And that summer, I set out to read everything on that list. I didn’t finish it by a long shot, but I read a lot of great literature. I did so without guidance, so I undoubtedly didn’t get as much value as I could have from reading them with someone there to guide me. But then again, reading them without someone there to guide me led me to discoveries I might not otherwise have come to. I could fall in love with the stark beauty conveyed in Death Comes for the Archbishop. I could find myself entranced with the curious Babbit. I could recognize my flailing through The Inferno or The Canterbury Tales and knowing I needed far more tools than I had accumulated to make good sense of them.

Limiting reading to young adult literature denies students the opportunity to grow their vocabulary or force them to research an allusion to some historical person or figure. One might appreciate Harry Potter as literature to some extent, I suppose. But comparing it to The Lord of the Rings helps us to better see the difference between something written for young adults as opposed to something written as, well, literature. Denying students the literary achievements that enabled their own teachers and professors to get to where they are today seems patently unfair, and will only ensure that at least for the near future, we chop ourselves off at the knees, culturally. Can you imagine winning the Nobel Prize for Literature without having read anything written before 1950?!

So pay close attention to what your kids and grandkids are being taught – or not being taught. Asking for reading lists and reading recommendation lists is a very good idea. And it is not invasive for someone to be interested in what kids are learning these days. It’s part of being a community.

Reading Ramblings – January 3, 2021

December 27, 2020

Date: Second Sunday after Christmas – January 3, 2021

Texts: 1 Kings 3:4-15; Psalm 119:97-104; Ephesians 1:3-14; Luke 2:40-52

Context: It’s the last Sunday in the season of Christmas, and the readings today center on the Word of God, the Word John testified in the Christmas lesson who came into the world and the world did not know him. That Word – since the Fall – undergirds the world but is a stranger to much of the world that lives in denial or rejection of it. Jesus as the Word made flesh is fully consonant and consistent with the written Word of God. Jesus is the embodiment of the wisdom of God, wisdom sought by and granted to Solomon. Wisdom by which life is ordained and sustained, and which we are wise to live in accordance with. Jesus cannot be inconstent with the Word of God as He is the Word of God. Therefore He is drawn to that Word even at a young age, and is obedient to that Word in terms of his relationship to his parents. To live at odds with the revealed Word of God would be sinful, and Jesus has come to be just the opposite – perfect.

1 Kings 3:4-15 – Solomon ascends his father David’s throne, the living embodiment of God’s promise to David of a royal dynasty. He is not a child when he begins his rule – probably being about 40 years old and used to court life and undoubtedly familiar with his father’s style of rule and the nuances of power and influence and control. Yet despite his comfortable upbringing he humbles himself before God, and rather than asking for the things we might be inclined to in our selfishness, asks for wisdom. God responds by not simply giving Solomon his request but blessing him in numerous ways. Solomon will not prove to be a perfect king, but he will be a good one, guided as he is by the gift of God’s wisdom. By abiding in the wisdom of God Solomon can be assured he will know how to govern God’s people. In doing so he foreshadows Jesus, who in combining the Old Testament roles of prophet, priest and king will perfectly rely on obedience to God the Father throughout his Incarnate ministry just as He has relied on it through all eternity. What Solomon does impressively but imperfectly Jesus will – as the Suffering Servant Isaiah prophesied – accomplish perfectly but not impressively, by worldly standards, going so far as to allow himself to be thoroughly humiliated in public execution. But just as Solomon’s wisdom remains famous even to this day, Jesus’ perfect obedience remains more so, and of infinitely more value and import to us today than the wisdom of Solomon.

Psalm 119:97-104 – A psalm fitting for King David to have spoken, following his dream and God’s gift of wisdom! Psalm 119 is an acrostic extolling the perfection of the Word of God as a rule for life. God’s law is the source of wisdom, a wisdom that is deeper and more sure than the wisdom of the world (v.98). Likewise, to be intelligent in the ways of the world is necessarily of secondary importance to being wise in the ways of God (v.99). It’s possible to be quite intelligent by worldly standards yet repeatedly struggle because of a rejection or denial of God’s wisdom (v.100). The world offers options the Word of God often calls us to reject or avoid, and in time we find that this is better, even if it requires a sacrificial obedience in the short term. Over time, this teaches us to hate false options and disobedient choices, knowing that adherence to God’s wisdom and Word is inevitably the better choice.

Ephesians 1:3-14 – The key in hearing Paul clearly here is to listen to what he says, and avoid the urge to fill in things he doesn’t say. God the Father is to be praised for Jesus the Christ, through whom we are blessed completely in terms of our sanctification and justification before God. These are things we don’t sense here and now, can’t discern objectively, but they are spiritual realities that will, in time, be made physically plain and clear as well. And indeed, God who knew all things at the start of creation truly did and does choose us for his own, as we are his creations and are rightly intended for relationship with him. Is there anyone the Father did not choose? There is nothing in Scripture that would lead us to that conclusion and so we don’t add that in here. This isn’t a matter of God wanting or choosing or predestining some and not others. His good gifts are poured out to all of his creation, even though not all of his creation will accept them. The source of our redemption is not in some hidden decision of God’s at the dawn of creation, but rather in the blood of the crucified Son of God (v.7), as part of his plan to unite all things once again (v.10). If some reject and resist this plan it does not mean God has predestined them as such, only that He allows them that option, just as He allowed Adam and Eve the choice between obedience and disobedience – with all the attendant consequences. Chris is the center and cause and means of all the things we are blessed with – spiritual blessings (v.3), adoption (v.5), the praise and glory of God the Father (v.6), redemption and forgiveness(v.7), an inheritance (v.11), and the sealing of the Holy Spirit as a guarantee of our future inheritance (vs. 13-14). All things come through Jesus, the crucified Christ-child.

Luke 2:40-52 – Jesus is the Word of God incarnate. As such, it’s only natural He would gravitate to where that Word is central – the Temple in Jerusalem, the center of God’s dispersed people. Luke is assembling various reports concerning Jesus – essentially interviewing different people to get their stories. I presume he spoke with Jesus’ mother and she shared this story with him. Did she share others? Did Luke only choose this one to include among several others? Or did this one stand out in Mary’s mind? We won’t know this side of eternity. But the passage gives us insights into the character and devotion of Mary and Joseph as they raised their family. They were obedient to the expected duties as God’s people, a theme seen last week in their redeeming Jesus at the Temple according to Exodus 13 and also offering the appropriate purification sacrifice for Mary after her pregnancy. These are people who take the Word of God and their identity as his people seriously. It is to be expected they emphasize this with their children as well, and Jesus takes this to heart perhaps a bit more strongly than was expected! For four days Jesus found not only conversation and people to teach him humanly regarding the Word of God, He was also sustained somehow in these efforts! People must have given him food and shelter so He could continue his inquiries and learning. His surprise at his parents’ surprise is touching but also a little bittersweet. Already the bonds of son and parent are beginning to unravel, a process fully completed as Mary watches her son crucified. Jesus is not willfully disobedient but rather caught up in the excitement of the Word. Jesus will have other, later experiences in the Temple, most of them confrontational. But here, as the young boy on the verge of manhood He exhibits dedication to the Word of God and the Temple as the appropriate place for that Word to be explored. In due time He become in his own right the replacement of the Temple, the fullness of the Word made flesh rather than the Word surrounded by impressive stones.

Book Review: Steps of Transformation

December 21, 2020

Steps of Transformation: An Orthodox Priest Explores the Twelve Steps by Archimandrite Meletios Webber

A friend of mine in the midst of recovery shared this book with me as she is converted to Orthodox from more traditional evangelical Christianity.

This is an excellent resource for anyone trying to understand addiction and the people embedded in addictive behaviors. It essentially is a series of reflections – some theological and others more clinical in nature – on addiction, addicts, and finally the Twelve Steps. Arguably the book’s strongest feature is the introductory sections on addition and people in addiction. The author does a good job of plainly explaining many of the thought processes involved in addiction that are so puzzling and infuriating and heartbreaking to those who love and care for them. Recognizing that traditional tools for dealing with other people (communication, rationality, honesty, etc.) are practically ineffective with people active in their addiction can be hugely comforting, and hopefully will direct friends and family to support groups such as Al-Anon designed for those who aren’t addicts themselves but have addicts in their lives. The author spends almost no time at all on these organizations but those with addicts in their lives would likely benefit immensely from a support network of others in similar situations.

Bible verses are quoted throughout and there are attempts to find examples of each of the Twelve Steps in Scripture, often in the parables of Jesus. References were also made to Orthodox saints and writers which, as a non-Orthodox Christian were curious to me and spurred me to outside research for more information.

Some of his language early on points to a perceived or real hostility among Orthodox Christians of the Twelve Steps as an alternative to Orthodox Christianity. Webber works hard to demonstrate why the Twelve Steps insist upon being so vague and non-specific about higher powers and the God of our understanding, which was helpful for me as I have been critical of the Steps for this in the past. Keeping perspective that the Twelve Steps are first and foremost focused on helping someone leave behind drinking or other addictive behaviors is critical. But at the same time Webber argues that the Steps offer a deep spirituality, however it is a depth I often see lacking (at least externally) in many of the recovery people I work with regularly. The steps are easy to pay lip service to, since many of the changes are -as Webber admits – internal and deeply personal and subjective. They’re hard to measure in any quantitative or qualitative fashion beyond whether a person is remaining sober or not.

This is a great resource for anyone with an addict in their lives, but it will make most sense to those who also are Christian. While aimed at Orthodox readers it is not done so in a way that is exclusive or which prohibits other Christians from benefitting.

As is generally the case in practical theology, there are aspects I think he should have mentioned as differences rather than focusing so much on trying to show the Steps as consistent with Orthodoxy, or at least not contradictory. For instance, his discussion in Chapter 12 of Steps 8 and 9 (making a list of all people we have harmed and being willing to make amends, and then actually making amends where possible) completely ignores the limitations of these steps compared to the deeper healing offered in Confession and Absolution. Many addicts have criminal backgrounds in the not-so-distant past. Sponsors are not protected or exempt from being subpoenaed and forced to disclose things a person in recovery may have admitted to them. A list of persons harmed and needing amends made to could be used against an addict when obtained from their sponsor, and for this reason some addicts are very honest that they can’t put everything down.

The rite of Confession and Absolution is however (at least for the time being) still recognized by the State as a sacred place, the contents of which cannot be disclosed and which a recognized priest or minister cannot be forced to disclose to others. Although there are active efforts in various places to begin undoing the private nature of Confession, at least for now Confession can offer a much deeper healing in that it can allow the recovering addict to be fully, brutally honest. And of course, making amends is not the same as seeking the forgiveness of God. Only in Confession and Absolution can the promises of forgiveness in faith in Jesus Christ be articulated by another human being and, perhaps, finally truly heard and accepted in a way not possible with generic corporate confession or through the Twelve Steps.

Again, I strongly recommend this book to those with addicts in their lives, or those who care for those with addicts in their lives. Certainly it should be required reading in seminaries where future ministers are trained in practical theology. Webber speculates that perhaps addiction has become a far more common occurrence in our time and place as opposed to in Jesus’ day. Perhaps that is true, both in terms of our psychological climate as well as the increasing availability and cultural acceptance of more and more addictive substances, as well as the increased anonymity possible in a culture where the family is fractured. If these things are true, it will become increasingly important that pastors and religious leaders be more familiar with the nature of addiction and the addicted mindset.

Reading Ramblings – December 27, 2020

December 20, 2020

Date: First Sunday after Christmas – December 27, 2020

Texts: Isaiah 61:10-62:3; Psalm 111; Galatians 4:4-7; Luke 2:22-40

Context: Christmas is not a day but a season, a time of the liturgical church year to observe with wonder that God would become man, the eternal Son of God through whom all creation was spoken into existence was born as one of us, with a name and under the Law, themes of both the Isaiah passage and Galatians and also bound up in the Gospel account. The psalm calls us to praise the great works of God, and verse 1 stresses the public nature of this praise and worship, just as Jesus’ presentation at the Temple becomes a very public (and no doubt curious and stressful for his parents!) event.

Isaiah 61:10-62:3 – With this reading we’ve covered almost all of Chapters 61 and 62 from Isaiah since Advent began. While the speaker might be Isaiah, it makes better sense to hear these words in the chosen Suffering Servant Isaiah has introduced already, the Messiah himself. This indeed is what God does for his servant when He has completed his work, and that work is made clearer in the opening verses of Chapter 62. That work remains incomplete, at least from our perspective, and won’t be revealed in the fullness of completion until our Lord’s return. God will accomplish the reconciliation of his beloved people, symbolied here by Jerusalem and bound up in identity with the heavenly counterpart of Jerusalem, Zion. The day is coming when the splendor of the Lord will return in power and glory and at that time the people of God – resurrected and living both – will shine forth in a shared radiance. God’s people may look weak and inconsequential now, but a time will come when their true value, as established in the sacrificial death of the Son of God, will be evident to everyone. The mention of a new name in 62:2 plays well with the birth of Jesus, Emanuel, God with Us, who in the name dictated by God the Father himself becomes the Word and promise of God made flesh.

Psalm 111 – A powerful hymn of praise and thanksgiving to God. There are no requests for divine assistance here, only acknowledgement of God’s glory in who He is and what He has done for his people as well as all creation. Psalm 111 and Psalm 112 are sometimes treated as a complementary pair. Psalm 111 calls forth praise based on who God is and what He has done, while Psalm 112 focuses on how the people of God or the person of God lives their life. Because of God in Psalm 111, therefore the life of God’s people is described in Psalm 112. Psalm 112 is introduced by the last verse of Psalm 111. Although written from the standpoint of an individual reciting it, Psalm 111 is an applicable psalm of praise for the entire assembly of God’s people – the individual does on a small scale what the people of God do corporately across time and space. Structurally, verse 1 describes what this psalm will be about, and verse 2 provides the rationale by which the psalm is appropriate. Verses 3-6 rehearse the works of God in the history of his people, and verses 7-10 deal with the goodness of the commands God has given to his people. Verses 2-9 as a whole fulfill verse 1, while verse 10 moves into a different space, emphasizing the response of God’s people (beyond praise and thanksgiving as in the rest of the psalm) in obedience to the good commands of God.

Galatians 4:4-7 – The great transformation, the event which moves the people of God from children under guardianship of the Law to sons/daughterse and heirs and members of the family of God forever. We have been redeemed under the Law and from the Law by the Son of God who fulfilled the Law on our part. We are now taught how to come to God the Father by God the Holy Spirit of God the Son. We are the recipients and God is the active entity throughout. The Sender, the Redeemer, and the Holy Spirit crying out on our behalf to God the Father, so we might learn how to do it ourselves. Enabled and emboldened to call God our Father, we find that we have indeed become his children to whom He responds in loving faithfulness giving us the inheritance we were created for, redeemed to become eligible to receive, and which God the Holy Spirit in the gift of faith makes our own. All of this bound up in the Christ child, the first visible step of God’s plan of salvation, witnessed to not just by shepherds and farm animals but expectant people of God like Simeon and Anna.

Luke 2:22-40 – The Christmas story doesn’t end in the manger. The birth of Jesus renders Mary ritually unclean, as per Leviticus 12, and requires sacrifice. While it is conceivable that they could have fulfilled this back home in Galilee, both Mary’s physical condition after the birth as well as the proximity of the temple in Jerusalem likely made it reasonable and desirable that they stay on with relatives in Bethlehem for 40 days after the birth.

The reality that Jesus is also the Son of God does not negate the Levitical law. Jesus will later state that He has not come to abolish the law but fulfill it (Matthew 5:17), and this is true even from his infancy. Mary and Joseph adhere to the expected requirements of the Law pertaining to their newborn son. But in case they might begin to say to themselves after the birth that the visitations and dreams were flights of fancy, they meet Simeon and Anna in the temple grounds. These devout figures serve as prophets – speakers of God’s Word and wisdom. Simeon’s primary message is to Mary and Joseph, who are astonished (despite the angelic dreams and visitations!) at what he has to say. Anna speaks to others, linking Jesus to the anticipated redemption of Jerusalem. It must have made for quite a spectacle!

Luke neatly completes his narrative of Jesus’ early years with the summary verses 39-40. By ancient standards, this was certainly more than adequate in terms of biographical detail. Ancient biographies emphasize what a person did to become noteworthy. Our modern ideas of biography are heavily influenced by modern psychology and the idea that in order to understand a person fully we need to understand everything about them, not just the noteworthy things. So it is that we hunger to know more about Jesus’ childhood. Luke only tells us that the child grew and was strong and wise and favored by God. The implication is also that his parents, who began so faithfully fulfilling the requirements of the Law in his regard, continued in this fashion.

Simeon’s words have come down through the Church as the Nunc Dimittis – the opening words of Simeon as translated in the Latin Vulgate of the Bible by St. Jerome in the fourth century. Simeon’s words are also seen as the last of the three great canticles (or sacred songs) of the New Testament – the first being Mary’s Magnificat in Luke 1, then Zechariah’s song also in Luke 1.

While it has often been traditional to interpret Simeon’s words as indicating that he is ready to die, this is certainly not a necessary interpretation and may be overstating Simeon’s point. The assumption is that Simeon was advanced in years, but the text doesn’t specifically tell us this. Rather, Simeon’s song is an acknowledgment that God has fulfilled his promise to him to see the Messiah. He can leave the Temple grounds secure in this knowledge, and no longer needs to look anxiously each day to see whether today is the day that he will see the Messiah. His words ring true to us today, and particularly at Christmas time. By the eyes of faith, through the historical words of eye-witnesses, we too have seen God’s salvation incarnate. We anticipate eagerly when we will see him face to face in glory and for eternity!

Annunciation – the Sitcom

December 19, 2020

Perhaps interpreting Mary’s confusion in Luke 1:26-38 as an attempt to unravel a theological or existential riddle is a bit heavier and serious than intended. What if Mary is simply perplexed by the enthusiastic joy of Gabriel as messenger? And if this is the case, perhaps meditating on Fra Angelico’s depiction of the Annunciation is less helpful to a modern Christian who is far more at ease with the promptings and cues of another art form (?) – the sitcom. If so, perhaps the episode might look something like this:

Scene: God, sitting at a giant celestial desk. Feet up (in sandals). Smoking a cigar. Long white robe, radiant white lighting around him. A computer screen is on his desk. Across the desk from him sits an angel with an iPad and conversation is already ongoing as the opening credits and theme song (Amazing Grace being rapped to jazzy music). Music fades out and conversation picks up as God takes his feet off the desk and leans across earnestly to the angel.

God: All right, I’ve got big news. It’s time!

Angel: What time?

God: The time!

Angel: The time?

God (nodding smugly): That’s right, the time. It’s time for the Incarnation. Time to fulfill that promise back to Eve so she quits nagging me. I think I’m allergic to those fig leaves she keeps waving around (laugh track).

Angel (visibly flustered and excited): You mean right now? Without warning? Without planning?! Ohmygosh, we have so much to do! So much to figure out!

God (leaning back again enjoying the angel’s agitation): Naw, it’s pretty simple. Me and the Holy Spirit have the basics worked out. But I figure we need to clue in the Mom, Mary of Nazareth.

Angel (tapping quickly at the iPad, then scrolling and looking increasingly perplexed): Her? Sir, but she’s nobody!

God (laughing): No she’s not! I made her! She’s Mary of Nazareth! (laugh track)

Angel: I mean, she’s really not anybody of any import. No last name, no real social standing, a few notable ancestors but otherwise, I mean, sir, surely you want someone who’s a bit more of an influencer? (laugh track)

God: Naw, this will be great! Really hit home with the poor and disenfranchised! You know me, I like to work from scratch, do the unexpected!

Angel: Yes, well, the duck-billed platypus certainly was unexpected, sir! (laugh track)

God (shaking his head angrily): That was a great idea! I can’t help it if you all insist on categorizing everything so narrowly! Sheesh, I might as well have just let things evolve out of goo like Satan wanted if I’d have known you were going to all be so uptight! (laugh track)

Angel (sighing and shaking his head with an eye roll): Yes sir, if you say so sir. Anyways. How are we going to clue this girl in?

God: Gotta be gentle. She’s young. Really young. Probably skittish. We need someone with a light touch.

Angel (continuing to peruse iPad): Hubert and the heavenly choir are suggesting an angelic flash mob and free-style annunciation, sir. (laugh track)

God (shaking head vigorously): No, I’ve got those guys in mind a little later on for some late night work with some shepherds out in some fields (laugh track). Who else have we got?

Angel: Pickings are slim, sir. Although Michael did win the celestial office pool on when you’d announce this was happening. He was within 10 months of today – definitely the closest of the angels. He’s going to be pretty happy about his winnings! (laugh track)

God (sputtering): Michael!? Are you nuts? In his armor and covered in demon blood or whatnot? (laugh track) I said a light touch! Somebody a bit more nuanced. Who else could we send?

Angel (setting aside iPad and shaking his head): That’s pretty much it, sir. Everyone else is already on other assignments.

God: What about Gabriel?

Angel (visibly shocked): Gabriel? Sir, you can’t be serious!

God: Why not? Gabriel’s a good guy. I’ve used him before, right?

Angel: Yes sir, and not with very good results. You asked him to explain and clarify some visions you gave to Daniel hundreds of years ago, sir.

God: Yes, that’s right! I remember now! See? I told you he had experience.

Angel: Sir, he gave some of the worst explanations ever. Worse than IKEA assembly instructions (laugh track).

God (looking concerned): Really? His explanations weren’t helpful?

Angel (rolling eyes): About as helpful as a child trying to explain a smart phone to their grandparents! (laugh track)

God (shuddering visibly): Oooh…that’s not good. Not good at all. Still. He’s been moping around for a few hundred years now. Maybe he needs a second chance. Grace and forgiveness and all that. (laugh track)

Angel: Sir I really don’t think that’s a good idea. This is a really important event – arguably the most important in creation history. We can’t risk him complicating things.

God: It’s a simple message. Nothing complicated. No visuals. Mary – congrats! – you’re having a baby! I’ve got full confidence in you! Even have the name picked out – Jesus – one of my favorites! Gonna be really successful. Piece of cake. Even Gabriel can’t screw it up! (laugh track)

Angel: What if she has questions?

God: Questions? What could she have questions about? It’s just a baby, after all! Go ahead and send Gabriel!

Angel (sighing heavily and tapping on iPad): Yes sir. He’s on his way.

* * * * * COMMERCIAL BREAK * * * * *

Fade in to new scene – humble 1st century mud and straw home in Nazareth, Galilee. Mary, a young girl of about 13 or 14 is seen in very poor clothing, sweeping the dirt with a straw broom. Natural lighting. Nobody else around. Suddenly, very bright light! Mary drops broom and holds her arms up to shade her eyes. Stumbles back and falls to the ground. Gabriel appears in the midst of the light, smiling broadly.

Gabriel (in very thick, Texan accent): Well hooooooowwwwdeeeeee!! (laugh track – Mary looks perplexed but remains silent)

Gabriel: Well if you ain’t just the cutest little thing since I don’t know when! (Mary looks perplexed)

Gabriel (looking worried and hastily pulling out a crumpled paper and smoothing it out and reading it in extremely thick Texan accent): Oh, uh, hey! Um, Greetings, O favored one, the Lord is with you!” (Mary continues to look puzzled)

Gabriel (sighing in exasperation, rolling his eyes, wadding up the paper and tossing it over his shoulder): Oh please, give me a break! Honey, this is so exciting! I can’t believe I’m the one who gets to breatk the news to you, and they give me this “Greetings O favored one” schlock! Good grief girl, this is BIG! Exciting! Everything is going to change and you’re ground zero! This is bigger than the giraffe! Bigger than the whale! It doesn’t get any bigger or more exciting than this and I’m the one who gets to tell you! Look, you’re going to have a BABY! Not just any baby but a special baby. Not Joseph’s baby – trust me, I know you ain’t been misbehavin’ (laugh track) but this is God’s son!

Scene shift – back to heaven, God staring nervously at a monitor on his desk with the angel from before behind him looking over his shoulder.

God (annoyed, pushing the angel back): Don’t worry, don’t worry. I’ve got this guy named Luke…he’s going to smooth over the rough edges. Everything’s fine! (laugh track)

(Scene shift – back to the room with Mary and Gabriel, Gabriel just finishing up with “and of his kingdom there will be no end!” still in very heavy Texan accent)

Mary (visibly puzzled and perplexed): How will this be, since I am a virgin?

(Cue flashing red lights and alarm noises back in God’s office room. God and angel throwing papers in the air in visible panic. Cut back to Mary & Gabriel with Gabriel arlready talking, clearly making things up as he goes along)

Gabriel: – and a little seed is planted in the mommy’s tummy and it grows into a baby! (looks very satisfied. Mary slaps her forehead with the palm of her hand and shakes her head in frustration)

(scene shift back to heaven, God at desk with head in his hands. Angel on floor next to him in fetal position crying. Sound of Mary & Gabriel’s voices over the monitor: “That was the worst explanation “ever!” Gabriel: “Funny, Daniel told me the same thing.” [laugh track]. )

(scene shift back to Mary’s room. Gabriel sitting cross-legged on the floor, dejected, halo askew, Mary sitting on a chair nearby staring at him and listening)

Mary: I mean, that’s it? That’s the best you can do? Look this is all really confusing but it would be a little easier if I just had some idea how it’s all going to work!

Gabriel: Honey, I don’t even know how sex works (laugh track – Mary looks surprised and a little scornful). I just know that you’ve been picked for something really important. Probably the most important job since, well, since that whole incident back in the Garden of Eden – I told him that Tree of Knowledge was a bad idea. (laugh track, Mary shakes her head bemused but still listening)

I don’t know how God is going to work this, but your child, He’s something special. He’s the one God promised to Eve way back then. Her descendant that would stomp on the serpent’s head. That’s who you’re going to bring into the world. That’s who’s going to be growing inside you. Not Joseph’s kid, but God’s. Don’t worry, we’ll figure out how to let Joseph know what’s going on – probably with a different messenger after this fiasco, though. (laugh track, Mary looks questionably relieved).

This kid, he won’t just be special and important to you. He’ll be special and important to everyone. We’ve all (jerking thumb skywards, laugh track) we’ve all been waiting a long time for this. A long time for God to send his Son into creation. To undo the Fall. To kick Satan’s butt and end the power of sin and death in all of creation. It’s a really big deal, despite the fact that thosands of years from now people are going to compete to find the uglieset sweaters to wear to commemorate this event. I’ll never understand humans. (laugh track).

So, whaddya say, Mary? Are you on board with this? Are you ready to be a nearly not single-mother? I don’t have all the answers, but He does (jerking thumb upwards again, sympathetic audience noises). He’ll be there every step of the way with you, I promise. Whaddya say?

Mary (pausing dramatically, then smiling beatifically – cue light shining on her, faint glow of halo appearing over her head): Sure, why not. I mean, I’m nobody. I’m just a servant. If God wants to do it this way, who am I to say no?” (audience applause. Gabriel gets excitedly to his feet – makes victory pump, audience laughter)

Gabriel (looking upwards as spotlight appears on him): Ok Boss! Beam me up! (Gabriel covers his mouth as though he’s said something he shouldn’t, Mary scratches her head, puzzled, audience laugh track)

(light increases in frequency until whole screen is whited out, fade back in to God’s office in heaven, God and angel high-fiving each other behind God’s desk.

God: Make sure you’re taking good care of Luke – we’re going to need him to do some heavy-duty editing. But I’ve got a good feeling about this. A really good feeling!

Angel: Yes sir. You were right sir, Gabriel was the perfect choice.

God: Of course I’m right! I’m God!

(laugh track, cue commercial break and roll credits)

If the Lord Wills

December 14, 2020

Come now, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we will go into such and such a town and spend a year there and trade and make a profit” – yet you do not know what tomorrow will bring. What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes. Instead you ought to say, “If the Lord wills, we will live and do this or that.” As it is, you boast in your arrogance. All such boasting is evil. James 4:13-16

I was talking with a friend the other day who cited something I’ve heard floating around a bit the latter part of this year. I’m not going to go see my parents this year for the holidays so that I can see them next year for the holidays. The idea being that because of the risk of COVID and the higher danger to older people more likely to have co-morbidities or weaker immune systems, the responsible thing to do is stay away from them (and have them stay away from everyone else) and then next year we’ll all be healthy and COVID will be gone and we’ll celebrate together then.

I understand the rationale. I don’t fault people for saying it. I know they mean well. And as I’ve maintained since all this started back in March each person has to figure out how to navigate the COVID landscape for themselves within the larger guidelines suggested or mandated to us by various government or health officials.

That being said, I always want to remind Christians to weigh this in the balance with James’ words above. There are no guarantees as to what the future holds, other than that our Lord is returning at some point! We make our decisions with the best available information and as we feel led or compelled to by the information at hand, but that doesn’t mean it will play out the way we hope it will. That’s not in our control. This means two things.

First, it doesn’t mean we switch our brains off and pay no attention to planning or available information or reasonable levels of prudence and wisdom. To say we are not in control is not to say we have no control. It’s just that our control is limited – a fact we dislike and often seek actively to avoid completely in our considerations. Christians who refuse to use the minds God gave them and the knowledge available around us are not being faithful, and those who are not Christian and wish to maliciously characterize a life of faith in Christ as one devoid of intelligence or thougthfulness are being disingenuous, to say the least.

Secondly, it means that Christians should temper our plans for the future with the understanding things are not fully in our control. And this is the important aspect to keep in mind with the adage above about keeping distant now to ensure opportunities to be together when the pandemic has passed. Although a great deal of hope is being foisted onto the shoulders of various vaccines available in various degrees, we don’t know how that will play out.

We can certainly hope that vaccines roll out as scheduled (or faster) function as intended and with similar rates of protection to what has been seen in human trials. But even if this is the case, the likelihood of COVID fears dissipating fairly soon is unlikely. Even if rates drop, the vaccines don’t seem to offer long-term protection from COVID, meaning that additional doses will be necessary to ensure the virus loses access to a large enough spectrum of the population long enough to begin dying out of circulation. That’s likely to take at least another year. It could take longer – we just don’t know. After all, it was just two months ago the media was laughing at our president for claiming vaccines would be available before the end of the year. Now that the election is over, what a shock to find out he had been right. Hmmmm.


That’s all COVID stuff. Ministering to older adults, many of whom have children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren they miss dearly and look forward to seeing any chance they get, I know how hard the social isolation has been on them. I also know a fair number of these older adults are taking directions from their kids, and being more careful than they themselves might be left to their own devices. And I also know that things can change quickly as people get into their 70’s and 80’s – more quickly than they or anyone else expect, and sometimes with less advanced warning.

All of which is to say that not seeing your family is no guarantee you’ll get to see them next year, even if none of you contract COVID or have any complications from it. As James reminds us, life is fleeting. All too brief as well as unpredictable. And this at least needs to be discussed as plans (or no plans) are being made for Christmas time.

Again, it isn’t as simple as saying go see your aging parents or grandparents because you may not get another chance to. But it is worth reminding people that life is fleeting, like a mist. Talk about it together. Pray about it together. Make decisions together. Grant a great deal of grace and forgiveness in the midst of all the stress and craziness of this past year. And also take seriously the sovereignty of God in all things, even pandemics. Life is a beautiful gift we don’t have absolute control over but receive day by day as it is given to us without any assurances of the next minute let alone the next year.

You may reach the same conclusions you were inclined to before, but you’ll all be better for the discussion and the prayer and the deliberate inclusion of the faith you proclaim in the process.

Reading Ramblings – December 20, 2020

December 13, 2020

Date: Fourth Sunday in Advent, December 20, 2020

Texts: 2 Samuel 7:1-11, 16; Psalm 89:1-5; Romans 16:25-27; Luke 1:26-38

Context: Finally our eyes move to our Lord’s imminent arrival. What happens here? Is it one of us rising above our sinful natures to give to God what is his rightful due from his creation? Or is it God with us, coming to do for us what we cannot and will not do for ourselves, let alone him? What is our response to this divine and excessively generous gift? Is there more we can do than receive it humbly and cling to it desperately as our one source of hope and value and good in this broke world and our broken selves? More we can do but praise God for his goodness and mercy while reminding one another of that same goodness and mercy extended to them as well? Is there a more fitting response than Mary’s – Look, I am the servant of the Lord. Let it be to me according to your word.

2 Samuel 7:1-11, 16 – It is more than likely that at one point or another in your life you’ve made a promise to God. A promise of change predicated on either his existing goodness or a dire need in your life. The urge to make a trade or a promise, to somehow even the scales so that God’s mercy and goodness and love is not so painfully one-sided is near irresistible. David, recognizing all God has done for him and the comparative opulence and leisure he enjoys compared to his early days as a shepherd in the fields, vows to make God a home at least as splendid as his own. Grand and good intentions, without a doubt! But God makes it clear who is always the giver and who is always the recipient. There is nothing we can offer to God, as though God has need of anything. No way we can slightly even the balance that hangs so amazingly heavy on his side and so empty on our own. Our promises – even those we manage to fulfill – never offset that imbalance of God’s daily and eternal love and grace and forgiveness. It is our duty to give him thanks and praise for this, living our lives as best possible in his wisdom and forgiveness and grace. As David will learn very soon, that is far more difficult and less appealing than constructing a glorious Temple for the Lord!

Psalm 89:1-5 – The psalm represents the beautiful and appropriate response of God’s creatures to our Creator. It is our privilege to know our duty in singing the praises of our God based not on what we hope He will yet do or what we would yet like to receive from him, but rather in who He is and what He has already done. There isn’t much in Scripture in regards to the author, Ethan the Ezrahite. 1 Kings 4:30-32 mentions him only for comparison, as a way of emphasizing the special wisdom of Solomon that exceeded even the apparently well-attested wisdom of Ethan the Ezrahite. But just these five verses display a masterful blending of expectation based on experience, certainly evidence of wisdom! Verses 1 and 3 emphasize praise of the Lord based on what He has already done, the faithfulness He has already been demonstrating and continues to demonstrate to all generations, and his particular love and care for the House of David. Verses 2 and 4 then state the expectation of God’s continued grace and favor – God will establish his faithfulness and will fulfill his promise to David for all generations to come. This blend results in the call to corporate praise and worship as response in verse 5. Not just the response of the gathered faithful but all of creation. Together they offer to God the proper response of his creatures in praise and worship and faithfulness!

Romans 16:25-27 – Paul’s stirring conclusion to the Roman Christians is oven overlooked (at least in my Lutheran circles!) in favor of his more doctrine-oriented earlier sections. But his ending is no less dense in implication than his beginning. Paul’s prayer to and praise of the Trinity here is gorgeous if not immediately clear. Paul assures the Romans they will be strengthened through Paul’s preaching of the good news of Jesus the Messiah by a one, that might easily be interpreted as God the Holy Spirit, whom Jesus himself promised would abide with and enlighten and encourage his followers after his departure. Their strength is grounded not in the heavens but in the very earthly revelation of the mystery of the life and death and resurrection and ascension and promised return of Jesus the Christ, which is of course the very Gospel Paul is preaching. That revelation is disclosed in the empty tomb of Jesus which the prophets foretold hundreds of years earlier. Their prophetic word was intended not simply for the Hebrews as God’s chosen people but for all nations – all the earth – to bring about faith in God leading to obedience to God. This was commanded by God the Father himself, as part of his plan to reconcile creation to himself and fulfill his promise to Eve in Genesis 3:15. The prophetic writings given so far in advance should surely bring about faith in those who are uncertain or doubt a God could plan out such amazing things! It is to this God – Holy Spirit, Son and Father that Paul ascribes glory to – on account of the obedience of God the Son to this great divine plan.

Luke 1:26-38 – It is not humankind that brings about the fulfillment of God’s promise to ourselves. Rather, God fulfills his own promises, through his own plans and ways, and makes us part of the process – a point nowhere more obvious than in the Incarnation of the Son of God in the young woman Mary. We are told nothing about her. Nothing about her beauty or physical appearance, about her pedigree or strength of faith, about her moral purity of thought and word as well as deed. All that matters is that God can work through her, and she is willing to allow that. The tenderness that fills this scene is palpable. Gabriel’s gentle and favorable greeting to Mary, and his gentle assurances to her question, culminating in Mary’s truly meek response and acknowledgment – which should be the acknowledgment of all followers of Jesus Christ – we are only servants and the Lord’s will should always prevail in us.

No discussion of rights or propriety or anything else. No explicit answers to her very logical understanding of creation and the normal ways God ordains things to work therein. Only an acceptance that with God nothing is impossible, and as such there can never be grounds to deny or doubt his presence and power as well as his love acting in our lives. Of course, this may be uncomfortable or difficult, as it surely was for both Mary and Joseph. But God is sufficient. Fully and completely able to not simply do what He wishes but to sustain us lovingly in and through it.

While the Roman Catholics and the Orthodox might be rightly criticized for making too much of Mary, Protestants should be rightly criticized for making too little of her, a move perhaps as much in keeping with Western philosophical developments in the Enlightenment and subsequent political developments emphasizing the equality of all people. Mary is truly unique, and if she is not of necessity the Queen of Heaven as our Catholic and Orthodox brethren proclaim, she without a doubt enjoys a unique expression of the Triune God’s favor. Mary is the first to receive the Messiah, quite literally, even as she is the means by which God the Father brings and gives the Messiah to creation.

Handling Crises

December 9, 2020

COVID continues to surge around the world, including areas of the world that seemed previously to have contained it.

I’m curious – at least out here in California – why I’ve not heard any mention of expanding ICU bed capacity? China famously put together entire COVID hospitals in record time early on in the COVID crisis, drawing undoubtedly on experience with other outbreaks of SARS viruses since 2000. And granted, there are massive differences between what a totalitarian regime can dictate done in record time and what a democratic country can reasonably accomplish. Not to mention differences in building safety and any number of other issues. The first article referenced above talks about shipping containers being repurposed for ICU beds. It wouldn’t have to be building new buildings from scrath.

Considering the idle real estate scattered around the country and owned by various levels of government organizations, from school districts to the National Guard, it would seem we could spend money to actually expand our capacity to cope with increasing rates of COVID hospitalizations, enabling us to ease the economic disaster foisted on small and mid-sized businesses who can’t operate at anything near full capacity due to state restrictions.

By repurposing – even temporarily – properties already owned by cities, counties, states, etc. it seems as though we could expand ICU bed capacity at least in the major metropolitan areas that are hardest hit. We’re undoubtedly spending a lot of money already, what if some of it could be directed in this way?

Reading Ramblings – December 13, 2020

December 6, 2020

Date: Third Sunday in Advent, December 13, 2020

Texts:Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11; Psalm 126; 1 Thessalonians 5:16-24; John 1:6-8, 19-28

Context: John the Baptist and his prophetic voice enters more into the spotlight this week. Isaiah’s words might seem very appropriate for John the Baptist to utter, but only insofar as we clearly understand his words not to be pointed towards himself, but rather towards the true Messiah. John the Baptist had a job to do as the Church does today – proclaiming the Word of God and pointing to the deliverance of God made flesh in Jesus of Nazareth. It’s only in the Messiah that our hope lies. Were John the Baptist to have misunderstood his role or misapplied his message would have been disastrous. Likewise, for the Church to misunderstand her role or her message today is disastrous, leading people ultimately away from Christ and the forgiveness and grace alone available in him to self-made plans of social justice and the establishment of heaven on earth. Writing to a later audience, St. John tries to clarify John the Baptists’ proper place and role as the one who points to the messiah, rather than as the messiah himself.

Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11 – It’s easy to disassociate this language from ourself. This is just the Holy Spirit speaking through the prophet Isaiah to the people of Israel in the early 7th century before Christ. Or this is just John the Baptist preaching the Holy Spirit of God to the people of God 2000 years ago. But this is also the voice of the Holy Spirit to the people of God today, spoken through faithful servants in pulpits in churches around the world. These words are not merely historical but rather remain prophetic as we await their total and eternal fulfillment in our Lord’s return. Only then will restoration and reconciliation be complete. This prophetic voice also calls us to look for precurors, sneak previews, partial fulfillments here and now. We as the people of God should be different because of our Lord’s incarnate work, his faithful obedience, his willing death on our behalf, his vindication in his resurrection, his promise to return as He ascended. Among his people particularly we should expect not only a shared anticipation of what is to come but a current thanksgiving for what already has and is and will be received here and now.

Psalm 126 – One of the psalms of ascent (Psalms 120-134), presumably recited en route to Jerusalem by the people of God on pilgrimages for the three major festivals each year. The phrase translated in the ESV as restore(d) the/our fortunes in verses 1 and 4 is a very difficult Hebrew phrase, and more literally means when the Lord turned again the returning of Zion. It’s a phrase used also in some of the prophetic writings to indicate a dramatic change of God’s attitude towards his people, moving from righteous anger and discipline to loving kindness and mercy. Some scholars view this phrase as a post-exilic phrase, meaning the psalm was composed after God’s people returned to Jerusalem under the auspices of the Persian Empire after their exile to Babylon. But it could also refer to other instances where the people of God experienced God’s grace and forgiveness after a time of his chastening and discipline. Regardless of what the author had in mind, the basic prayer is that as the Lord restored his people in the past, may He restore them now. Suffering is present, and deliverance is both a thing of the past and an anticipated hope for the future. The author is confident the Lord will not only hear but respond to this prayer, and we would be quick to say the answer is grounded in the empty tomb of our resurrected and ascended Lord along with his promised return.

1 Thessalonians 5:16-24 – In rapid fire succession St. Paul exhorts the Thessalonians for their life in Christ. Rejoice. Pray. Give thanks. All positive exhortations – appropriate to those who follow Christ, the very Christ who will come to collect his people at the perfect time as Paul has just finished discussing at the end of Chapter 4 and the beginning of Chapter 5. There are things Christians should not do as well – do not frustrate or snuff out or quench the Holy Spirit’s work among and in them. Do not despise prophesies, either those in the Old Testament, or those of Christ and his return, and potentially even the ongoing revelations of God the Holy Spirit. But also be wise to test such prophesies and ensure they are of God and not of some other, unholy source. What is good should be clung to. Evil should be spurned. By these actions the God of peace will continue the sanctification – the making holy – of his people, just as his justification of our faith through Jeusus Christ will render us blameless in his sight when our Lord returns. Lest we think this is something in our hands, Paul reminds us it is not. God himself will do this. We simply trust him to do what He promises to.

John 1:6-8, 19-28 – St. John is the last to compose a Gospel, thought by some to have wrote it shortly before 70 AD (no mention is made of the destruction of Jerusalem or the Temple), though other scholars consider the date of writing after this. He writes firsthand as a disciple, as Matthew does. And he writes first and foremost to affirm the identiy and purpose of Jesus of Nazareth as the incarnate Son of God. As part of this he writes to address what was possibly a problem – that some of John the Baptist’s disciples still felt that John the Baptist was the important figure, perhaps even the Messiah, rather than Jesus. St. John uses the words of John the Baptist himself to emphasize this was not the case. John the Baptist had an important role in salvation history as the precursor to the Messiah, speaking with the power and the authority of Elijah as prophecied by Malachi (4:5-6). But to understand and see the Messiah for who and what He was and is requires that John the Baptist be understood in the proper context to the Messiah.

Likewise the Church today must remain clear in her mission. It is not the Church who saves, but the Church who points people to the Son of God who alone has the power to save, and through whom alone forgiveness must be received. It is not participation in worship but faith in Christ alone that saves. The messengers of God today must keep that message clear and relevant week after week after week, because the saints of God are always prone to being led away into false understandings and beliefs not simply by the wiles of Satan but the persistence of the world around them and their own brokenness. Christ crucified and resurrected for us must remain the central messag of the Church.


December 2, 2020

Thanks to Steve for his response to a previous post. I’m going to respond to his comment in this post out of convenience from a text-editing standpoint, and because the point he raises has been voiced by various people in different but related contexts. Steve wrote:

Would you really gather inside for worship wearing a mask and sitting 6 feet apart if the state allowed it? You would be devastated if a parishioner became ill after attending such a service. From a practical perspective it’s just not safe and too risky. Let’s be honest, this rant is about the separation of church & state.

This is about my sixth take on a response (I deleted the first five!), and I’ve probably written a few thousand words before deciding to opt for the less-is-more approach. I take Steve’s questions in good faith and pray these responses will be received the same way.

Yes, I would really gather inside for worship if it was not expressly forbidden by the State. We did so for over 100 years prior to COVID. We did so in June and July and again in October and most of November when we were allowed. This is a Church, I’m her pastor, and it’s my job to provide the Word and Sacraments of God to the people of God. I’ve been blessed to do this for the last 13 years or so without having to explicitly question the means by which we did so under the rubric of whether it was safe or not. Of course it was safe enough – it’s what we’d always done! The only thing that called our traditional ways of doing things into question was COVID and subsequent restrictions on houses of worship.

We are blessed to reside in a county with some of the lowest infection rates of any county in the nation. We’ve adhered to CDC and state stipulations and guidelines, even as those have flexed and changed and changed again over the past nine months. None of our members has had COVID, thankfully. I could say this is because of the precautions we’ve been instructed to take but I’ll never know that for sure this side of eternity. The precautions as a whole seem reasonable and so we abide by them. What is unreasonable is when exemptions are made for some businesses with far closer exposure and fewer precautions while houses of worship are by and large arbitrarily restricted. I’ve heard of two outbreaks allegedly linked to houses of worship in the last nine months. I’d encourage anyone to research those further and judge for themselves if they are good enough grounds upon which to base a large policy restricting a Constitutionally guaranteed right. In San Diego strip clubs are allowed to operate while churches are restricted. I pray that recent Supreme Court decisions will begin to help state leadership re-evaluate their mandates. Not every church can, should, or will allow people back inside for worship during the pandemic. But that is a decision the congregation should make, not some official with no direct knowledge of the particulars.

Not only have we met when legally allowed to do so, my people have wanted to meet. I haven’t forced them. We have some who won’t or shouldn’t attend and I understand that completely. I’m supportive of those who don’t feel able to worship to stay home. Nearly all of my members want to meet, but not all of them can. If the majority of my members desire to worship and consider the risk one they are willing to take, it is not my job as pastor to tell them they can’t, that I refuse to provide them Word and Sacrament because it’s not safe to do so. Safe is a slippery word.

I would definitely feel bad if a member got sick. Would I take personal responsibility if they did? No. I am not the one who ensures their health and safety. We come to give worship and praise to the God we claim is in control of all things, including COVID. I don’t presume this means we can hug and kiss and sneeze into each others’ faces with impunity, but at least my witness of faith needs to be that God is the only one who keeps us safe. Therefore if my members are willing to gather, I will feed them the Word and the Sacraments. We’ll use the brains God gave us to try and do so reasonably given the circumstances, but I will not deny them the option. I also will use the brains God gave me to listen critically to what my elected and appointed leaders tell me. History shows them to be far less reliable than God!

This may sound callous at first, but let’s play it out a bit. I had a member (recently deceased) who went through a bad period of falls whenever she would come to church. She wore high heel shoes well into her 90’s, and as her balance and vision betrayed her she would regularly fall. Outside on the patio. Inside on the carpeting. Should we not have met because she was getting hurt and refused to wear more sensible shoes? Should I have turned her away in the parking lot for her own protection?

I can’t keep people safe. I can do what seems good and right and salutary by any number of different standards Biblical and otherwise as an effort to love my neighbor. But I can’t keep them safe. That’s not my job. I have to leave that in my Lord’s hands. Again, I don’t say this lightly or flippantly, but faithfully. I have to trust God to keep me safe every time I make a hospital call. I’ve been around people in all manner of infectious states (pre-COVID) and trusted ultimately in my God to keep me healthy and safe. I still put on the gowns and masks and gloves when told to do so, but my trust goes deeper than those things. As Christians, we are called to this level of trust, to remember we are not the ones in control of our lives.

In regards to not safe and risky, I believe that’s a decision each group of believers has to make for themselves based on their circumstances and their understanding of God’s Word. Christians met illegally and under threat of death for 300 years in the Roman Empire and for decades in Communist China and the former Soviet Union. They are still persecuted and executed around the world for their faith. And yet in all these places and times Christians have prioritized worship. They took precautions, I have no doubt. But they often made the decision that despite the risks and despite a definite lack of safety they would gather together to receive the gifts of God in his Word and Sacraments. This meant many of them were arrested, tortured, disfigured, and executed. This did not discourage other Christians but oftentimes emboldened them. We hold up and honor those Christians who were willing to take risks and suffer the consequences rather than renounce their faith or opt for a safe alternative. How can we be critical when Christians continue to seek God’s Word and Sacrament today?

Perhaps the issue is not whether Church is a safe place (it’s not – spiritually and otherwise!), but whether Americans value worship as much in an age where the Word and worship is a click away – a television station or a radio station or a YouTube channel away. Maybe the deeper question is how technology has impacted our valuation of human contact and community, leading us to believe that technology can fill these needs in our lives. That in an age when everything else is self-serve and an Amazon delivery away, worship ought somehow to be the same – on our terms and for our short term comfort. Perhaps a deeper question is how our avoidance of death through a cult of youth and beauty and exercise has left us vulnerable to the rawness of a world we do not control.

Barring the return of our Lord first, all of us are going to die. The Church is here to teach people how to live as well as how to face death. To give hope and assurance that COVID or cancer or substance abuse or abusive parents or any number of other tragic events do not have the last word on us even if they kill us. If we’re going to glorify doctors and nurses and grocery store workers and other front line workers, we should no less glorify the God of Church for sustaining his people to proclaim the Word of God and provide the gifts of God to the people of God. The Church does no one any good by acting as though a few more days or months or years of life is more important than eternity. There is no other organization that bears witness to this truth! And just as I want doctors and nurses and teachers to stand by their posts and do their jobs despite the risks, those of them who are Christian need to be sustained by the Church to do so, to know that what they do has meaning and value and their lives – if sacrificed in love of neighbor – are not lost or wasted but eternally anchored in the Son of God who overcame COVID and death. Their non-Christian colleagues need this same support and truth, they just don’t realize it yet.

So yes, I will meet inside again as soon as my people are ready to. The cold and damp weather is just as dangerous to them as COVID. So is the isolation and distance that has plagued our country and world for the last nine months. I’m in no hurry to die, and I’m in no hurry for my people to die. But if they face death – and we each do every day – they should be prepared to counter that fear and anxiety with hope not grounded in the fiat of a government official but in the resurrected Son of God, Jesus the Christ. To the best of my ability I will model that courage, and give my brothers and sisters in the faith the opportunity to model it as well, even as we use our best judgment to love and care for each other.