Archive for the ‘Church’ Category

Missed It by *that* Much

January 18, 2019

I was interested in an article reporting how the Pope was asserting that families – parents – have primary responsibility for the faith development of their children.  Pleased at this, I was also perplexed at the reported recommendations related to this admonition.  First of all, don’t fight in front of the kids, and secondly go ahead and breastfeed your children in church if they’re hungry.  It seemed like two odd pieces of advice, so I sought out a transcript of his sermon given on the observance of Jesus’ Baptism, and was able to find this.

First off, I agree wholeheartedly with the Pope’s basic assertion.  God created families in order to raise children in faith.  Long before the Church existed, or the priesthood, the family existed.  From the beginning, in fact.  The Church exists as a resource for parents and grandparents and aunts and uncles.  It exists in part to help the family communicate and explain the faith to children as they grow, but it cannot replace the family.

But in terms of practical advice he could have given in relation to this assertion, I can’t help but lament.  Certainly, children should not have to watch their parents fight incessantly or vehemently.  If fights are particularly heated, or if they become abusive in any way, this is something that children should not have to see and parents should receive professional help to improve upon.  Immediately.

But if parents disagree on occasion, it’s important for children to be able to observe how parents resolve conflict.  So long as it isn’t in any way abusive or excessive, parents pass on valuable skills to their children by allowing them – as they grow older and are better able to process what’s happening – to watch the parents express their disagreements and then work together towards a solution.

As for breastfeeding, this seems to have simply been a contextual comment, perhaps off-script and prompted by the noise of children around the Pope at the moment.

But to help instruct children in the faith, they have to see their parents acting in faith.  Praying as a family.  Reading Scripture together and discussing it.  Bringing the Word of God into other discussions and decision-making settings.  Faith needs to be seen not just as a theoretical thing, but as something breathed and applied.  Not just a Sunday morning thing but part of everything that the family is and does.  If kids think that you get along well and never fight, but also never see you pray, never see you reading the Bible or otherwise engaging in the life of faith at home, they’re still likely to struggle with continuing in the faith as they get older.

Parents need to live out the life of faith so that their children can see it.  Hopefully the Pope will have more to say on this topic in the future!

 

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I Must Break You

January 16, 2019

I’m pretty sure that I’ve never seen any of the Rocky movies.  Not the full, uncut, uncensored, unadapted-for-television-audiences movies.  I’ve seen bits and pieces and probably watched the original on TV sometime in the early 80’s.  But by the time I was close to getting out of high school there were already on Rocky IV.  I didn’t see it.  But the Cold War meeting of Rocky Balboa and Drago hardly needed to be watched.  We breathed it in the air and ate it in our breakfast cereal.

One line from the movie caught the attention of my best friend.  Drago says to Rocky in the ring “I must break you.”  Powerful words.  No mercy.  No kindness.  Nothing but the imperative to destroy and break Rocky as a fighter, as a man, and of course thematically, as an American.

But tonight, teaching a class on the first chapter of Romans to a group of women in recovery from alcohol and drug addiction, I realized how appropriate this line is on such a grander scale.  I think Satan would be happy to put it in his own mouth as he gloated over the recently fallen creation, over Adam and Eve choking on the forbidden fruit, on the penalty of the Law – Death – being introduced into perfection.  But the phrase is better and ultimately more appropriate in the mouth of God.  Insisting that none of our pretenses, none of our objections, none of our rebuttals can be left to stand in false defense of our sinfulness, of our brokenness, of our abject, filthy rebellion against the one true God and Creator of all things so that we might pretend to justify our rebellious acts, our eating of our own forbidden fruit as though nothing were wrong.

Paul won’t let that be.  God the Holy Spirit says through St. Paul I must break you.  Your objections.  Your false hopes.  Your pathetic excuses.  Your sham righteousness.  I must break you of all those things.  Completely.  Brutally if necessary, as brutal as a thrashing in the ring between two formidable opponents.  But it has to be done.  We must be backed into the corner with no defense, no strength, no illusions of how defeated we are, how completely unable we are to argue our way out of the power and righteousness and Law of God.  Ignorance?  Don’t be ridiculous.  Wisdom?  Don’t waste my time.  Create your own truth?  Go ahead, see how that works out for you in the end.  One by one batting away our feeble attempts to block, our limp jabs and efforts to push God away from us and leave us in peace as basically all right.

We’re not basically all right.  Not by default.  And nothing we do or create or say or believe can make us right.  Only God can.  Only the God who created us can restore us from our fallenness.  Only the Word by which all creation came into being is the Word that can proclaim  forgiven.  Only the presence of the Holy Spirit of God can guard us from the ever-present whispering temptations to shift our reliance back onto ourselves, to claim some of God’s glorious forgiveness and grace as our own, some of his holiness as our own.

We either accept it completely from him or we have nothing at all.  He must break us of our delusions to the contrary.

That moment when people finally realize this, when they cut through the crappy theology in pop-worship focused more on entertainment and self-improvement and feel-good  effects rather on the truth that we are hopeless without God, that moment is amazing.  To watch the struggle, the rejection, and – if fortunate enough and honest enough – that recognition of this truth, that is amazing.  That moment when someone admits that even when they do something nice or kind or good, there’s a stinking little pellet of  self-centeredness at the heart of it is exquisite.

To be able to tell them that only the Bible will tell them this.  Every other philosophy and religion or lack thereof will tell them just the opposite.  That there is hope, and that hope is inside of them.  All they need to do is open themselves to enlightenment.   Submit themselves more rigorously in obedience.  Strive with all their utmost  to attain God’s grace and share  his love, trust the whispered promises of social science and genetic modifications and all other manner of  controlling the production of human life.  Only the Bible, only when God’s Word is preached and taught in fullness and truth do we hear the terrifying, offensive truth.  You can do nothing.  You have nothing.  You are guilty as charged and deserving of the full penalty of the Law.

Only in the Word of God are we fully broken.  And only in the Word of God are we more fully restored.  Forgiven.  Healed.  Perfected.  Only when we have nothing left of our own can we be capable of receiving what God has to offer in his Son, Jesus the Christ.  We must be completely broken down, so that He can restore us to more than we ever knew we were or could be.  Only when we are stripped of confidence can we truly hope.

Brutal and beautiful.

Inevitable?

December 23, 2018

A humorous little imagining regarding how to utilize virtual reality (VR) as an alternative to Christian worship.  Think that this is outrageous?  Don’t.  I have no doubt somebody will try this.  I also don’t presume it will be very popular.  I don’t think people who are not willing to go to church in the first place will be willing to spend time on this instead.  Although perhaps those who prefer watching religious networks rather than going to church might.  Hmmm…

People  have been trying to integrate technology and church for years.  When I was nearly done with seminary, there was a pitch from someone putting together an online Christian community (including worship) so that non-Christians could peer into the lives and experiences of Christians.  Predictably, it wasn’t very successful.  Meaning, not at all successful and short-lived.  Others continue to try and figure out how to do this.  The logic is flawless – meet tech-obsessed and isolated people where they like to hang out – online.  But traditionally, something gets lost in the translation.  While technology can augment our human connections and interactions, it can’t replace them.  Attempts to do so inevitably fail, and people become more isolated, not less.

I don’t fault people for trying, but I don’t predict it will ever be very successful.  Even if it is attractive on many levels.  What would you add or eliminate from your Sunday worship if you could just press a button or wave your hand?  Now, why should you not have the option to do that?

 

St. Meinrad Mass Bread

November 3, 2018

When we bake bread for use in Holy Communion, this is the recipe we’ve used for nearly two decades.  The recipe comes St. Meinrad Archabbey in Indiana.  I’ve never been there, but I’m grateful for their recipe!

  • 2 1/2 cups whole wheat flour
  • 1 cup regular bread flour
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
  • 2 teaspoons salt
  • 2 Tablespoons oil (olive or avocado)
  • 3 Tablespoons dark honey
  • 1 1/2 cups water (slightly warm helps)

Add all the dry ingredients into a mixing bowl and sift well.

Mix the liquid ingredients in a separate bowl and stir until well mixed.

Add the liquid to the flour and knead until a dough effect is attained (I prefer to do this by hand or with a spoon or you could use a mixer – it doesn’t take long).  Knead only until the dough sticks together, then push it out onto a floured surface.  Knead for a few more moments but not too much – the dough should remain a bit tacky after you shape into into a round loaf.

Cut the round loaf of dough into 12 equal pie-shaped sections.  Roll each section into a ball and with a rolling pin, roll out into a circle 6-7 inches in diameter.  Place on a greased baking sheet, score with a cross, and brush with olive oil.

Bake at 400 degrees for 12 minutes.  You want them to be just done, not brown and crispy.

 

Saying What God Says

October 31, 2018

A respected person on Facebook recently posted a link to this video.  It might be helpful to view it or have it available as we go through this.  The video was published in June, but remains more or less applicable to the current tittering over the wave of migrants making their way to the US border from various points in Central America.  Though I assumed I wouldn’t agree with what the video has to say, I watched it all the same in case there was something to be learned.  Unfortunately, the only thing to be learned is how to make an inane video and drag  the Church into a challenging situation while condemning anyone who disagrees with your vacuous statements.

Let me say that I am sympathetic to the plight of those in need, regardless of where they live.  I can easily empathize with those who are willing to risk everything for the chance at a better life rather than remain at risk of certain death or abject poverty.  What I can’t empathize with are those here in our country who think the solution to such situations is to ignore common sense and reasonable laws aimed not only at helping these people, but helping and protecting our own citizens as well.  Nor can I easily empathize with Christians who insist that either you support their position on this issue or you’re essentially denying Christ.

Let’s break this down.

The video starts by attempting  to answer a question – Why do people hate migrants and refugees?  There’s a clear hint that this isn’t going to be a nuanced, intelligent discussion of either politics or the faith.  The implication right out of the chute is that if you disagree with this man’s particular (and unsubstantiated) religious and Biblical opinions (which may or may not be right, but I can’t tell because he doesn’t bother to substantiate them) you are a hater of migrants and refugees.

I am not.  I don’t know these people personally.  I’m also well aware of our nation’s history as a country of migrants and refugees.  I take pride in that as an American and a Christian.  I believe there are valuable precedents that should be maintained in welcoming your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, to quote Emma Lazarus.  We have always done this to one degree or another and we always should.  But in general, we have had laws and rules and regulations for how this should be done.  Not because we hate these people, but because it is part of the responsibility of our nation to our own citizens, and part of the reason we can continue to be a lamp to so  many people throughout the world.

Side question: How many countries do you know that have no rules, laws, processes, or procedures regarding who can come into their country, how they can enter, and the rules that they need to abide by while they’re there?  If you know of one, and that country is serving as the model for ignoring or decrying any sort of immigration law here in the US, I’d really, genuinely love to hear about it because I can’t think of one.

If  I want to go to another country, not only must I follow proper procedures to leave mine, I have to respect the laws and rules of the country I want to enter.  Our family entered and exited seven countries last year.  I fully expected I would be required to follow rules governing my entry and exit and I abided by them.  My desire to visit their country did not entitle me to demand they suspend their rules for doing so.

Ok.  Back to the video.

His first point is to criticize conservative Christians who point out that migrants and refugees are breaking the law.  No.  Migrants and refugees are not breaking the law by wanting to enter our country or enter it by legal means.  Illegal migrants and refugees, however, are breaking the law.  Period.  Otherwise, we would not have a distinction between legal and illegal.

Rev. Martin then makes the emphatic statement that seeking asylum is a human right.  Now, we need to distinguish here.  This man is wearing a collar, has already referenced conservative Christians (which he apparently does not include himself among nor provide definitions for beyond disagreeing about the issue of legal migration and refugee processing), and therefore it  is not unreasonable to assume that he’s asserting that seeking asylum is a human right as defined by God through the Bible.  I’d like to know the verses that he would reference to support his assertion.

Because if it’s  not a Biblically defined human right, then it’s a man-made human right.  And as Rev. Martin is going to move on to next, not all human-defined laws are right.  If seeking asylum is a man-made human right, then there is a place to question how that right is substantiated.  Now, I have no problem with a man-made human right to seek asylum.  But such a human right merely entitles someone to attempt to seek asylum.  It does not insist that they must be automatically received on those grounds.  Also, does asylum apply to those fleeing persecution or  danger, or those leaving their homes and seeking to move elsewhere on any number of other grounds?  We have major terms being hurled around here without definition and I don’t think  they’re being used properly.

Article 14 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, drafted and adopted by the United Nations in 1948, asserts that Everyone has the right to seek and enjoy in other countries asylum from persecution.  I don’t have a problem with that definition.  But let’s be clear that barring some Biblical reference (which I can’t think of off hand and Rev. Martin never provides), this human right is a man-made one.  The Bible certainly refers to people from other places and how God’s people the Old Testament Israel should treat them (Exodus 22:21, Leviticus 23:22, Leviticus 24:22, Numbers 15:15, Deuteronomy 10:19, etc.).  There are broader requirements to love my neighbor (Luke 10:25-37).  But again, definitions are not being pinned down anywhere in this video.  Note also that these verses don’t address how a sojourner enters into their land or community.  It only addresses how that sojourner should be treated once they are there.  I assume this means the sojourner has already been allowed to enter and sojourn with God’s people in God’s land, and in such a case certain rules apply.  I don’t assume this means anyone for any reason could impose upon God’s people and land.

Disclosure: I don’t believe the majority of Old Testament rules apply to the US today, or to any other country or time other than Israel in the Old Testament, which was a theocratic example and experiment, unique in all of human history.  But since people like to try and draw on the Old Testament as binding for Christians, I’m happy to critique such arguments.

He then moves on to claim that those who disagree with his position will try to use the Bible to support their view but that they’re  doing so incorrectly.  First off, he accuses them of being inconsistent – wanting to refer to the Bible to support their stances against abortion and same sex marriage, but apparently while ignoring the Bibles’ clear statements about welcoming migrants and refugees.

The Biblical argument against abortion, briefly stated, is that murder is forbidden (Genesis 4:10-11 , Genesis 9:5-6, Exodus 20:13, etc.), and that the unborn child is every bit as human as an adult (Psalm 22:10, Psalm 139:13-16, Jeremiah 1:5, Job 31:15, etc.).  The Bibles’ stance on abortion seems clear if the unborn child is just that – a human being.  Science comes in pretty handy here to demonstrate that this is clearly the case.

In regards to same-sex marriage and/or homosexual behavior, the Biblical argument rests on some very clear verses:   Leviticus 18:22, Romans 1:26-28, Jude 1:5-8, 1 Timothy 1:8-11, etc.

If Rev. Martin – or someone else – will show me a Biblical verse that does not deal with how we treat people among us, but rather directs us in how to determine who should live among us, that would be helpful in making his case.  Lacking this, I can only come to the conclusion that Christians who argue against abortion and against homosexuality and gay-marriage and also argue against illegal immigration are not being inconsistent.

Next Rev. Martin asserts that Christians are misusing Scripture to support their positions against illegal immigration and for enforcement of  the laws already on the books regarding how to handle people seeking entry to our country.  He uses a rather embarrassing clip of Sarah Huckabee Sanders as she attempts to vaguely use the Bible as a defense for following the law of the land.  What Sanders might have been thinking of were verses in Scripture such as Romans 13, or Hebrews 13, both of which seek to make it clear that our freedom in Christ does not entail freedom from the civil rule of law, assuming said law does not force us to violate our faith in Jesus the Christ.

Then Rev. Martin makes the very strong assertion that God’s Law demands that we welcome migrants and refugees.  Depending on what he means here, I agree with him.  Although since he doesn’t explain what this means, or provide any Scriptural references to support his claim, I can’t be sure we agree.

I agree that we should love and care for people we encounter in our day-to-day lives regardless of whether we think they are here legally or illegally.   I even agree that our government should seek to provide protection for those who are fleeing persecution or even poverty.  But what does this mean?  Does this mean that we let in everyone who shows up at the border?  Do we ignore the entire concept of borders?  What if we let people in but require them to live in humane, temporary shelters while we process their requests and make sure they are who they say they are and that their reasons for seeking entry are legitimate and consistent?  That would seem to be a form of welcoming people, wouldn’t it?  An attempt to show love and care to the outsider without presuming that such love and care must require us to either make them citizens immediately or release them into the general  population without any idea who they are or what their real purposes might be here?

I agree with his next point, that migrants and refugees have become demonized and dehumanized.  That is unfortunate.  But I would also assert that humanitarian assumptions have been extended by other Christians to entire groups of people without any actual thought being given to it.  If I wish to enter another country in order to facilitate illegal activity, I probably won’t say this at the border.  I’ll come up with another reason to enter.  That country then has to determine whether or not my rationale is reasonable to accept.  We do this shorthand through passports and visas.  Passports and visas are national  endorsements of sorts, saying that we are likely to be good visitors to other countries because we are good citizens at home.

I don’t hear any talk about passports or visas in most discussions about migrants and refugees.  I don’t hear much talk about vetting their backgrounds.  Is this unreasonable?  Is this unloving?  Is this the same as demonizing and dehumanizing them?  I guess it depends on who you ask.  If you ask me, it isn’t.  It’s  reasonable.  And it’s necessary in a sinful world where people lie and misrepresent things.  Our investigations will be imperfect – again because we are sinful and broken and very, very finite.  This means some bad people will still come in under false pretenses.  And it also means that some good people who were entirely honest and genuinely in need will be refused entry.  That is lamentable, and we should strive to minimize it as much as possible.  But it will happen unless we simply cease to acknowledge that we have borders with other countries and allow anyone who wants to to come and go as they please.

Then we have the obligatory references to Hitler, the Rwandan massacres, and Japanese-American policies in World War II.  I don’t think President Trump’s use of the word vermin was either Christian or appropriate.  That being said, simple  reviews of arrest records will easily reveal that there are genuinely bad people who enter our country both legally and illegally.  Unfortunate, but true.  And I ask my government, to the best of its ability, to keep out the bad people and let in the good people.

I very much like his suggestion of getting to know the people and stories behind their situation.  I think that those who are obsessively afraid of any outsiders should do this.  And so should people who would blindly attribute only the purest of motivations to everyone and anyone.  But this isn’t just helpful for the issue of immigration.  Perhaps it would stimulate interest among our people to take an interest in the plight of the people and where they come from.  What are the situations of the countries they are fleeing?  Why is there such endemic poverty?  Why is violence rampant?  And do we as a nation have a humanitarian obligation to be of help to these people just as much as we seek to be of help and a defender of the helpless on the other side of the globe, where oftentimes the regions involved are rich in natural resources we are interested in?

Yes, we should remember that these are human beings and seek to treat them as such.  To treat them, in fact like the people we currently live next to and among, people that we assume are following the laws of our states and nation and communities.  I might very well seek to flee my homeland and bring my family to safety.  And I would pray that if that were the case, the country I fled to and its representatives would be sympathetic.  That they would listen to my story and provide an opportunity for a new life.  But I would fully expect that this would be on terms they determined, not me.  I could be free to reject those terms if I didn’t like them, and to seek better terms elsewhere.  But I couldn’t possibly presume that I would be made exempt from their laws.  I presume that in large part, it is those very laws that created a more stable environment, which is what I would be trying to find for myself and my family.

As for his final question, it’s one worth considering.  But it’s a question separate from national policy.  The parable of the Good Samaritan seems instructive here.  But it’s a story aimed at me, personally.  Not at public policy or national security.  If I have a say in those things, then by all means I should take seriously that privilege.  But for me personally, I pray that I will show the love of Christ to everyone that crosses my path every day, whether that’s my wife, my children, or a stranger asking for help.  I will pray to respond in love, rather than with a question about their legal status in my country.

But that question really wasn’t what prompted the video.  I truly hope someone will point out the verses to me that clearly indicate how I as a Christian am supposed to support and articulate public policy as opposed to verses that do clearly dictate how I personally am to respond to these people when they actually cross my path.  That would be a discussion I’d love to have.  I haven’t memorized the entire Bible, and perhaps there are folks, like Rev. Martin, who have passages  in mind I’ve forgotten about or am less familiar with.

If that’s the  case it would be a lot more helpful to cite those passages rather than accusing people  of hating a class of people and then demanding our public policy be crafted on Biblical verses and principles which aren’t bothered to be cited.

 

 

Curmudgeonly

October 12, 2018

That’s how this post will make me sound, I’m sure.  Though if you’re a regular reader you probably drew that conclusion a long time ago.

But particularly, my grumpiness has to do with the efforts of congregations these days desperate to try and improve their image in their community.  Often times this is tied to declining membership and a desire to appear welcoming to the community.  Task forces and committees get together to come up with ways and means for engaging  with the community.

This is one of those vague, nebulous phrases that takes on a life of its own and won’t seem to go away.  I think it assumes that the reason Christian congregations are – overall – shrinking in size and growing older demographically as fewer young people bother to attend is that the community doesn’t know they’re there or views them as disconnected.  To disprove this, congregations seek to show up in their community as involved entities, demonstrating love and care for the community.  Oftentimes this comes in the form of providing services the community might want or view favorably.  It could mean providing help to the less fortunate.  It could mean supporting and promoting local artisans and small businesses.  It might even extend into the political arena  to some degree.

Through community engagement, a congregation will benefit from greater exposure and an improved public opinion about them.  I suspect that’s the basic goal.  The further, often unstated goal is that there will be people in the community impressed enough with the congregation’s engagement to begin attending.

It sounds nice  and good.  I can’t completely fault it, as much as I’d like to.  I guess I don’t fault the idea of being part of a community, but I question whether a congregation is able to do so as opposed to individual members doing so.  And I definitely question whether community engagement accomplishes the goals it sets out to achieve.

I  don’t think there are a lot of people in our communities who aren’t already active members of a church (or mosque, or synagogue) who sit around each week  lamenting that they have no idea where to find other like-minded believers to gather with.  Before the Internet we had phone books where you could easily look up pretty much every major church (or mosque, or synagogue) in your community.  It might have just been a single line or a full-page ad, but you could find them.  It’s even easier now with the Internet and Google.  If people want to know you’re here, they will figure it out.  I don’t think that publicity or exposure is a major challenge Christian congregations face and that accounts for falling attendance.

Similarly, I don’t think the community will have a much changed opinion about a congregation that engages in the community.  It seems like every cause or event now has sponsorship placards and signs all over it.  It’s easy to shell out a few hundred dollars and have your name slapped on a flyer listing supporters.  So easy, in fact, that I never pay any attention to it.  The only reason I might pay attention is if it’s something that I disagree with or find objectionable and I want to know who’s supporting it so that I don’t support them in some way.  But if it’s a good thing?  Hey, everyone should be supporting this, so it’s no big deal if one particular church is supporting it.  If I’m going to church already I’m not going to change churches just because I see a church supporting something I like (at least that shouldn’t be the reason I change churches!).  If I’m not attending church already, I’m probably not going to just show up randomly at a church I see on a flyer or a sign for an event.  I’m far more likely (statistically) to go to a church where I know someone and where someone has actually extended an invitation for me to attend.

So while the community might be happy to have support for a particular cause or event, I don’t think that support is going to result in new people showing up for worship.

Particularly if you’re a conservative, traditional sort of congregation that doesn’t support abortion, euthanasia or same-sex marriage.  More and more these churches are going to be seen as anathema.  Not simply out of touch with the times but actually evil and wrong.  More and more, younger generations wouldn’t be caught dead in a place like that.  What if their friends saw them?  What if their employer knew they went to a church that didn’t support abortion?  More and more faith is going to become a cultural and therefore professional liability.  People will choose churches – if they go at all – that won’t cause them difficulties in seeking that big promotion at work, or cost them the chance at public office.  Even President Obama learned that lesson once he was more permanently fixed in the public eye.

Communities will be happy to receive whatever congregations are willing to give them.  Well, that’s not actually true.  Communities are going to be less and less interested in receiving the one thing those congregations should give them – the Gospel.  The truth that there is real and true and objective good and evil, and that there are eternal ramifications to these things.  That by default we’re in the camp of evil rather than good, and that we can’t extricate ourselves by any words or actions or feelings or thoughts.  Our only hope lies in the Son of God who suffered and died for our sins, received the punishment we deserve for our sinfulness, and offers resurrection hope and life in his own empty tomb.

That’s the unique gift a Christian church can offer the community.  The one thing the community can’t get anywhere else.  The only things that really truly matter.  Truth.  Hope.  Forgiveness.  Grace.  Life.

I wish I heard more congregations and Christians talking about how to get those things, that message out into the  community instead of how to get the community to like us more for doing things that anybody or any organization could do by writing a check or fielding a few volunteers to wear t-shirts.  The Church’s job is not to get our community to like us.  The Church’s job is to witness to Christ crucified and resurrected.  More and more, that message is going to be offensive and will engender hatred rather than social  media likes.  It’s going to prompt vandalism and protests and angry letters to the editor.  Not because we want it to, but because we have an enemy at work stirring up hearts and minds and confusion in opposition.  That’s real community engagement, loving your community so much that you’re willing to tell them the things they don’t want to hear.  Offering the real assurance of forgiveness and grace if and when they come to repentance.  Feeding them with the Word of God that conveys eternal life and sustaining and nourishing them with the sacramental gifts of God.

Why can’t we create some great t-shirts for that?

 

 

Women’s Roles in the Church

September 27, 2018

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

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

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

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

 

A Luxury Denied

September 21, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

A Deeper Loss

September 19, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Reinventing the Wheel?

September 6, 2018

I received a mailer at work and at home for a new church starting up in our community.  They will be meeting at the local community college campus, and the theme of the mailer is hope.  They are apparently intending to bring hope to our community, which doesn’t sound like a bad goal per se.   Who couldn’t use some hope in this divisive culture?

I go to the website listed on the mailer.  There’s not much information.  Their values are summarized in three rather generic sentences that emphasize the grace of Jesus Christ for everyone, their intent to value gathering together (interesting that they choose the word fight to indicate how they hope to accomplish certain things like unity), and that they value the larger community.  Encouraging statements but generic to the point of uselessness.  I doubt they’d bother starting a church here if they hated our community, and I doubt they’d start a church here if they didn’t value being with other people with similar ideals and beliefs.  And their mention of Jesus is so cursory as to indicate almost every and any stripe of not just Christianity but also Mormonism, Judaism, Islam, Bahai or Buddhism.  There is no doctrinal statement or indication of denominational or other church affiliations.  Most of the About page is taken up with winsome, professional photographs of the Lead Pastor and his family and the Worship Pastor and his family.  The site includes cool gifs or videos of recognizable local places, but there is literally no more information about who these people are, where they come from, what they believe, or why they want me to join them.

I’ll assume that these are earnest, honest, well-intentioned Christians.  There are at least 50-60 Christian congregations in our community already.  How do these people see themselves fitting in?  What do they offer?  What differentiates them doctrinally from  these other congregations.  They must have some financial resources behind them if they’re bringing two families of five people each into the community and setting up shop.  What might be accomplished if they partnered with a local congregation instead of working separately?

It’s sad to think that people might show up at a new church in town with absolutely no information about who they are or what they believe.  It’s sad to think that a flyer might be the impetus to visit, or just the fact that they’re new and have young, photogenic families.

Six or more years ago I participated in a church fair on the campus of a local Christian college.  The idea was for local congregations to come out and provide information to the students about their congregations and programs, so that students could find places to worship in town.  I showed up with some handouts with information on our beliefs as well as opportunities we offered each week for study and worship.  My table looked pretty sparse compared to many others, replete with boom boxes, big boxes full of sunglasses and bouncy balls and other trinkets to give away.  Needless to say interest was pretty slim in my table, but where they were giving stuff away, there was sure a crowd.

Is that how you choose a church?  Is fun and hip the only metrics that matters now?  Or am I just bitter, being neither particularly fun nor hip?

I can’t help but think how much stronger the body of Christ would be as a whole if we learned to work better together, rather than setting up new shops all the time.  Is it so foregone a conclusion that a new infusion of ideas (rather than doctrines) could occur in a congregation, or that an existing group would never be willing to take in and work with people who are hungry and eager to share the gospel?  Are new congregations established because we actually have doctrinal differences we can’t get past, or simply because new is easier and more attractive?

Sad, but perhaps true.