Archive for the ‘Culture’ Category

Glitter and Ash

March 1, 2017

Of course, it can’t simply be Ash Wednesday.

We wear the ashes to remind ourselves of what we are.  We are dust.  Not glitter.  Dust and ash.  Sin and rebellion and all manner of other mean ugly things that we pretend aren’t there or mitigate by comparing ourselves to worse people.  We embody death.   We wear the ashes to remind ourselves of this.  All of our plans and goals, all of our hopes and dreams about what cars to drive or what school district to live in, what position we aspire to in the company or what we hope our children will choose as their careers – all of these things are dust and ashes.  There is no hope in any of it.  Ashes are bereft of hope.  They are the leftovers, the detritus of everything else.

Stopping by a used bookstore last week while waiting for a meeting to begin, I purchased a big book of newspaper front pages.  My eldest son has an interest in history and current events and I thought he’d get a kick out of looking at the daily news over a span of time.  Browsing through it, I was struck by the importance attributed to events that today are almost meaningless beyond a historical perspective.  All the successes and tragedies are smoothed over by the steady passage of time, day by day, until the divas and demons of the day are forgotten.  None of this matters.

We can stare at that reality only so long before we move one of two directions.  One is the direction of hopelessness and despair, the path of existential crisis that curtails or destroys our ability and desire to function.  I believe that we are dealing with this in our culture today.  The other direction is to find a source of hope, or to cling more tightly to the hope we already have.

That is what the ashes also do.  They remind us of death, but within the context of Christian worship they also remind us of our hope.  Life beyond the ashes.  Through faith in Jesus of Nazareth as the Son of God who died and rose from the dead on our behalf, we embody not only death, but new life as well.  Life free from the sin and self-centeredness that defines our sinful reality and all-too-often eclipses the new life within us.  Those in Christ can look into the meaninglessness of all our temporal aspirations because of the hope – grounded in history and geography – that there is something greater waiting beyond as well as within.

There will be no glitter in our ashes this evening.  Just as I wouldn’t mix ashes with whiskey for alcoholics, or cut the ashes with cocaine for drug addicts.  Just as I wouldn’t mix the ashes with chocolate for someone with an eating disorder, or shredded money for someone who is greedy or miserly.  Our cultural attitudes about what constitutes a problem or a condition will fluctuate.  But the Biblical standards regarding sin never will.  They can be ignored or followed, but they aren’t subject to change based on popular opinion or who yells the loudest.  Our sin – whether we approve of it or recognize it – is what brings us to ashes.  And it is only the forgiveness of Jesus Christ who can bring us – recreated and without sin – out of those ashes and into new life.

The ashes remind us that all sin leads us to the grave.  Not simply what we do or don’t do, but what we think or don’t think, what we feel or don’t feel.  Sin is not an action, it is who we are.  Sin-full.  The size of the sin doesn’t matter.  Gossip or genocide.  Murder or shoplifting.  And it doesn’t matter whether we think of our sin as sin, or whether we wish we were free of it or not.  Sin simply is.  I don’t place the ashes on one person’s head to proclaim them a greater sinner than the next person in line.  And the fact that there are glitter in one person’s ashes doesn’t mean they are any less of a sinner or more of a sinner than the next person in line.  The ashes don’t celebrate anything.  They are the solidarity of the dead.

My hope as I place the ashes on the heads of my people tonight and my own head is only and always that all of that sin is forgiven in Christ, and that we one day will be free of all that sin forever, even the things we refuse or are unable to see as sinful today.  I suspect there might be glitter involved at that point, despite the fact I really don’t care for glitter regardless of the reason.  Glitter would be appropriate then, though,  as perhaps it might be appropriate on Easter.  Glitter to celebrate not who we are and what we do, but who God is and what God has done for us in raising Jesus from the dead.  He gives us a reason to hope in the face of the futility of our lives, a hope offered to everyone whether they have glitter in their ashes or no ashes at all.

Postscript:  I nearly deleted this after I posted it.  Perhaps I still should.  I realized how bleak it sounds, and that is hardly in keeping with the Christian faith.

Like many people (I presume) I had anticipations of greatness.  Hopes for the future and Big Achievements and Accomplishments.  I dreamed of being a famous writer.  But then the Internet and self-publishing came along and people don’t read so much anymore and there just isn’t the same appeal as there was when books were a bit harder to come by.  I began teaching with hopes of being a wise and beloved professor, but realized after the fact that teachers come and go, and most administrations don’t appreciate them the way they should when they’re on payroll, let alone after they leave.  And while I hope I had influence on a few students, that’s an elusive and unquantifiable thing.  I came to Seminary with ideas about the Church and the future.  But I learned a lot along the way, which is the whole point I suppose, not just about theology but about myself.  Maybe I’m not the person who inspires and points the way to the future.  Maybe I’m not St. Paul or St. Peter or St. Augustine or St. Aquinas.  

As 50 looms closer and closer I presume I’m dealing with the existential angst of mid-life, recognizing that the odds of being Important and Influential on any sort of grand scale are dwindling literally by the day. That I’m not the extraordinary person I hoped to become when I was younger.  Not on the larger scale, where strangers talk about you and marvel.  This is the reality for 99% of us.  Very few are lauded in history books and monuments, and for those that are, it probably isn’t much the source of pride because they’re dead.  I won’t be heralded through the ages as a great visionary or an erudite apologist.  If I’m lucky, I can speak God’s Word to people in a way that anchors them more firmly to the foundation of Christ.  That’s not exactly lousy in terms of consolation prizes.  Neither is being a spouse, or a parent, or a neighbor, or any of the other things you and I do every day.

What I do matters.  What you do matters.  Maybe not on the national or global scale.  Not in ways we’re going to appreciate and feel good about and enjoy the benefits of here and now.  What we do matters a great deal to the people who know us.  To our families and friends.  It matters that we do a good job at our work because that’s how we love our neighbor.  It matters because those people will go on to shape and impact others and future generations, so that a life spent invested in family and honest work and an admirable if not extraordinary example of dignity and honor and love of God matters a great deal, far more than we can recognize in our own lifetime.  I pray it’s one of those happy surprises of eternity, that we’ll be able to trace out the impacts we had on others.  I pray that the good impacts outweigh the bad.  

Life isn’t without meaning, and I apologize for my midlife grumpy-ness.   



Mea Culpa?

February 13, 2017

Having recently read Silence, I’ve been wrangling over whether or not to see the movie.   This essay should encourage me to do so.

My reasons for being wary of the movie are multiple.  I don’t consider myself a film buff.  The book was fascinating precisely because of the interior glimpses of the protagonist, and I’m not sure if that can or will translate onto screen.  There’s the unpleasantness of scenes depicting human suffering and cruelty – not in a popcorn-guzzling fake way, but actual, real human suffering and cruelty.

But as someone who frequently hears people lamenting about the state of our entertainment industry, and as someone certainly not immune to haranguing on the issue myself, I would do well to take this article’s point to heart.  Hollywood follows the money.  My money.  Perhaps I should be more willing to shell out to support Christian or ‘wholesome’ movies to encourage more of them to be made.

Or maybe I should just convince you to.

Practical Immigration

February 8, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Discussing vs. Teaching

January 17, 2017

By many accounts, we have a crisis of communication in American society today where people are unable to interact with people who hold diverging opinions and ideas from their own.  Being able to discuss things without taking it personally is an important skill to have, so I was curious when I saw the headline for this article.  Of course knowing the source, I assumed it would be hostile in some regard to a person of faith, but it was almost humorous how the author decides to start out.

By immediately dismissing as ridiculous a set of opinions and ideas on a number of hot-topic issues in American society today.  Not by discussing the actual facts or examining the other position, but simply by dismissing those ideas as obviously wrong and ridiculous and chalking them up to something other than possible alternate interpretations of data.

Admittedly, world-view shapes how we interpret data.  My world-view leads one person to assume that we all evolved from simpler organisms and there should be a fossil trail of some sort that shows that, so that ever fossil has to be fit into an evolutionary spectrum.  I don’t assume that this is how we got here, so I’m not forced to place fossils into such a spectrum.  My world view causes me to assume that scientists are just as prone to sinfulness – or to being exploited by other sinful people – as anyone else, so that companies based on science like pharmaceutical companies shouldn’t be presumed to be error or criminal free simply because they employ scientists.  I don’t doubt the reality of global warming because my understanding is that our planet has gone through plenty of cycles of warming and cooling over time.  But I may doubt that mankind is the cause of this particular warming cycle, and I may doubt the notion that we can actually reverse such a cycle.

What Mr. Shermer doesn’t seem to recognize is that world-view contributes to how everyone interprets data to create facts.   His world-view leads him to discard opposing view-points, and the data that might support them – as erroneous.  He exhibits firm faith in a certain understanding of things despite the fact that evidence is hardly conclusive and exhaustive.  And while I’m no fan of conspiracy theories as a rule, the idea that something sounds conspiratorial is not in and of itself grounds for dismissing the idea out of hand.  The melting point of steel is a scientific matter, is it not?  While I don’t hold to a conspiracy theory on the 9/11 attacks, it seems odd to dismiss such a piece of data or fact as minutiae  as I’m sure that such data contributed not just to the creation of those steel girders, but their selection for use in the building of the Twin Towers in the first place.

The good news is that his advice for dealing with those irrational people who disagree with him actually works in reverse as well.  And if  both sides are willing to abide by these as a means towards deeper conversation, there’s a chance that useful conversation might be had – useful conversation that might ultimately lead one or the other to change their ideas, if not their world-view.  In a surprising turn of events, I’m actually optimistic that such respectful dialogues are the hope of moving towards answering questions and away from demonizing people who disagree with us.

Tea Leaves

January 6, 2017

My denominational polity published a new examination of the state of Christianity (and particularly our denomination).

It’s a long, dense, statistics-packed paper that studies economics and societal factors to try and determine why Christianity and the LC-MS are declining in America.  The results are somewhat less than satisfying.  The most prominent conclusion is the declining birth rate in America (and the LC-MS) is probably the single-biggest factor determining smaller numbers of congregants and congregations these days.  Other societal factors also weigh in, as do economics, but all of these are murky and unclear compared to a pretty clear-cut population decline.  The biggest growth factor in our denomination – the largest source of new members – is children, and if people are having fewer of them, our churches are going to get smaller.

I’d like to say that it’s interesting reading but it really isn’t.  I also don’t care for the implicit premises – that our denomination (or any particular denomination or polity, for that matter) should be able to determine a way to continue thriving indefinitely.  Recommending that people have more kids may be meritorious on a variety of levels, but if it is being recommended as a way to maintain congregations and our synodical polity, then it seems ultimately very self-serving.

Knowing Jesus

January 5, 2017

I know Jesus.  At least the Jesus in the Rose Bowl Parade.  We were at Sem at the same time and he serves two congregations about 70 miles south of me.  We see each other about once a month at our pastoral Circuit gatherings.  He endures a great deal of good-natured ribbing for his recurring role!

Thanks to Becky for pointing me to this news article that summarizes some of the responses the float – and Jesus on the float – elicited on Twitter.  I have to say that I share some of the mixed feelings of the responders.  Admittedly I’m not a big parade person and therefore don’t share the same enthusiasm that many others do for this parade in general or the Lutheran Hour float specifically.  But having a Jesus imposter on a float does seem to create more than a little room for criticism or at least confusion.


Bugs for Lunch

December 26, 2016

Recently having joined the fraternity of people who have eaten bugs, I can tell you that I don’t anticipate these being on the menu regularly in our home any time soon.  Ever, actually.  That doesn’t stop a small group of people out there from continuing to argue that insects are the culinary future.  So much so that someone has given thought to the reality that our current Western utensils are not necessarily the best suited for gorging ourselves on bugs.

Enter the BugBug set of new utensils specifically for eating bugs.  The pincers are intriguing, as are the spear-tipped chopsticks. Although this is just a proto-type set, I don’t anticipate being an early adopter if and when they become available for purchase.  I prefer to continue dining on larger critters!

Truly Safe Spaces

December 12, 2016

Long-time readers know that we home school our children, and that my wife helps lead a home-schooling cooperative.  It’s mostly a means for about 300 home schooling families to communicate, sharing resources, ideas, field trip invitations, and any number of other miscellaneous items with one another via a somewhat moderated (and very unwieldy) e-mail list.

Part of what my wife coordinates is a weekly play date at a local beach or park (depending on the time of year).  It’s a great way for people new to the area or new to home schooling or both can come and meet others and integrate into the community.  Over time, she’s made some really good friends with a handful of other home schooling moms who come regularly for their kids to play together and for them to talk together.  They’re all very different people, to be certain, and were it not for home schooling, they might never have crossed paths, let alone become friends.  There’s a mutual respect and appreciation which has developed despite different home schooling approaches and backgrounds.

So it struck me recently, as she was talking about a conversation that had happened the day before, how destroyed our society is.  The conversation among the mom’s veered over to the issue of vaccinations.  One of the mom’s felt it necessary to remind or warn the group that this is a controversial subject.  How sad.

How sad that a group of adult women who are highly capable and educated, who have known each other for some time and have grown to truly appreciate one another, feel like they have to warn each other before talking about a controversial subject.  As though because it’s a controversial subject, they’re suddenly going to turn on each other and become nasty and rude and dismissive?  As though it isn’t possible for intelligent people to reach different conclusions on a topic, be able to discuss the topic respectfully, and remain committed to one another even if nobody changes their mind as a result of the discussion.  As though there are things that we shouldn’t talk about because it’s just too risky.  As though issues and our stances on them are what defines and determines our relationships, rather than mutual respect and appreciation.

Home schoolers, of all people, ought to recognize not just the benefit but the need to model healthy dialogue and intellectual discourse to their children.  To demonstrate that it is possible to disagree without disparaging.  That someone who reaches a different conclusion than you is not necessarily an idiot or deranged or less of a human being than you are.  If public schools are more and more prone to ideological indoctrination that makes people intolerant of others – all in the name of tolerance – then truly those educated outside of that box are going to need to know how to communicate with one another, how to engage in true intellectual discourse rather than just name calling and ad hominem attacks.

The great fallacy of our age is that there is only one right solution to any given situation, and that anyone who holds a position different from our own must be wrong and bad and stupid.  The problems that face our society are nothing new.  They have been around as long as people have, despite the shiny gadgets we have that are new.  If solutions have eluded us for thousands of years, the odds of one group having the silver bullet solution and everyone else being raving morons are pretty low, it seems.  And perhaps focusing on issues and challenges, rather than on political associations and ideologies, might be a better way of moving forward together.

If our education system is a mess, I don’t really care if a Democrat or a Republican is the one who comes up with a better solution.  If we really want to slash our national debt, it’s going to require a new alternative to what has traditionally been championed by one party or another, if only because party-politics prevents any plan from being implemented very well.

There shouldn’t be any issue that can’t be discussed, particularly among people who respect and care about each other and yet may have different attitudes on the topic.  Sharing different perspectives, learning about how and why people think differently is hugely important.  It’s important for us as adults but also important for our kids as well, and I’m grateful that my wife has a place where this can occur, and where our kids can watch and hear it happening.

The alternative is that we aren’t allowed to discuss anything, and that’s truly deadly for all of us.

Thinking Provocatively

December 6, 2016

It isn’t what you think it is, you cheeky monkey, you.

Here’s an amazing interview/article with an intelligent man who is infuriating those who see freedom of speech as a dangerous and unfair thing.  Beware of a few obscene words here and there, but beyond a shadow of a doubt it is his counter-cultural stance that many will find most obscene.  He does an admirable job of defending something we used to take for granted – freedom of speech even when we disagreed with what was being said.  For this, his job is likely on the line, and perhaps eventually, if he refused to change his tune, his freedom.

Belatedly, Halloween

November 29, 2016

A short article with some good links debunking the wildly popular notion that most holidays are somehow ancient pagan celebrations that Western Christianity has plastered itself over.  I was taught these myths as I studied history and read lots of books in my younger years, but scholarship is examining more closely the claims that Christianity is just ripping off older rituals.

I just saw a post on Facebook the other day mocking Christians for celebrating events like Halloween using ancient pagan rituals that were intended as worship for other gods.  It’s good to remember that many of these claims are patently false, and actual historical scholarship rather than Internet memes should be the basis for demonstrating that.