Archive for the ‘Culture’ Category

Universal (Catholic) Wisdom

June 22, 2017

A great article which I would argue encompasses all those who consider themselves Christians, not simply Catholics.  These are problems endemic throughout American Christianity (yes, even among conservative Lutherans!), and they are dangerous to people eternally as well as here and now.  How many of these are you guilty of?


Testing the Boundaries

June 12, 2017

Here is a great article about an important judicial case that you probably never heard about until now (at least I hadn’t).

Attempts to undo religious liberty via workplace laws will continue and intensify.  But so far, those efforts are not succeeding – at least in the case of clearly confessional religious bodies.  For smaller churches unaffiliated with a broader denomination or historic church I’m guessing the vulnerability is greater.

I really like how the article stresses that while accusers in such cases often try to portray the actions of a congregation who terminates an employee as unloving or hateful, this is deliberate misrepresentation.  Terminating someone for violating the fundamental tenets of faith is not a hateful act.  At it’s heart, it should ultimately be a call to repentance, a firm reminder that God has spoken through his Word and we need to be careful when we violate it and expect to be commended.  This is, in the best application, another form of church discipline intended to call someone back to repentance and the forgiveness and grace of God, rather than allowing them to live with the potentially damning misunderstanding that what they do is approvable by God, regardless of what society says.

It’s an unfortunate situation for both the congregation and the individual involved, but it is not likely to be the last such situation, or the last such lawsuit.  It will be fascinating to see how long the courts side with churches on this issue.

Your Life, Co-Opted

June 10, 2017

On the heels of my earlier post about how a soccer player’s dreams may have been broken by a team (or corporate?) decision to have the team honor gay rights rather than simply play soccer, here’s another example of how people’s lives are getting co-opted.  A local high school has a long-standing tradition, as in a 77 year old tradition, of male students wearing green gowns and female students wearing white gowns to graduation.  This building on another, almost equally old tradition of male students wearing suits to graduation and female students wearing white dresses.

But because of the current climate of  “inclusivity”, that tradition was scrapped this year so that everyone could wear green robes, thereby eliminating gender distinctions.  Students may not have been consulted about the change in advance, but no matter.  Scrap decades of tradition on the whim of a single on-campus group making a request for change.

I find it interesting (and disappointing) that it wasn’t just a matter of letting students who might identify as a different gender choose the robe color they wanted (the sparse news story didn’t indicate whether any student was actually affected or concerned about the issue).  Rather, everyone’s experience had to be altered.

It’s not enough simply to celebrate graduating high school.  It has to be a cultural/political statement as well.  It’s not enough simply to play a game like soccer, players must be utilized as propaganda for ownership preferences or interests.  Your skills and abilities will increasingly be co-opted for someone else’s agenda.  Congratulations, and welcome to a new age of tolerance and inclusivity.

Making Choices

June 10, 2017

Sunday mornings have really changed since I was a kid.  There were no school activities and no sports activities on Sunday mornings.  Maybe Saturday, but not Sunday.  But today it’s no big deal to have sports groups out on Sunday mornings practicing and competing.  Many parents make the decision that this is best for their kids.  Many Christian parents seem to make this decision for their families as well, lamenting that they can’t be in worship but claiming that this is really what is best for their kids.  They have such an ability, we can’t deny them the opportunity to do what they really love, some might argue.  It sounds compelling.

I’ve repeatedly stated that it’s going to become more difficult – already is more difficult – for Christians to live out their beliefs in our culture.  Options for professions and careers are going to become more limited.  It has become harder for Christians to live out their lives and their beliefs, and that isn’t going to change.  That’s not just true for bakers or farmers or government employees.  It can even be true for soccer players.

This week it was reported that one of the members of the US women’s national soccer team would be dropping out of the team during a Scandinavian tour this year.  No explanation was given beyond “personal reasons”.  Both the men’s and women’s US teams indicated that they would wear rainbow jerseys in celebration and support of gay pride this month.  Jaelene Hinkle withdrew from the team though she had been on it since 2015.  Speculation is that she has withdrawn because of Christian objection to being used as a public support for homosexuality.

There are lots of times – and they will only continue to grow in frequency – when parents and grandparents will be tempted to set aside their beliefs for what they consider to be the good of their family.  This young woman – if speculation is correct – is a beautiful example of refusing to do that.  By all means encourage your kids and grandkids and family to pursue things that they love and enjoy, but to do so at the expense of their Christian faith, of demonstrating to them what is truly most important about life and existence is foolish and dangerous.  Equipping our kids and grandkids to make difficult decisions like this one should be the primary goal of every Christian family.

More and more frequently, they’re going to be faced with these sorts of choices.  The least we can do is model for them how to make them.




Ethics and Faith

June 8, 2017

I’m part of the professional networking website Linkedn.  I’m not looking for a new job, but it helps me to stay connected with people I have worked with over the years.  This week a colleague that I taught with at a private university 15 or so years ago posted this letter on the web site (he isn’t the author, he just shared the article and responded in the comments thread).

The article is from an educator who is angry that as part of his application to teach for a Christian university he was expected to fill out a detailed response regarding how he is living his life and the views and opinions he holds, regardless of how he is or isn’t choosing to live his life at the moment.  His argument is that as an educator teaching business courses, the school has no right or basis for making such a probing inquiry.  He appeals to others online to validate his outrage, which stems from an anti-Christian bias (he asserts in the comments that Christians are incapable or at least unwilling to engage in critical thinking or encouraging others to consider multiple points of view).

The irony, of course, is that he asserts his own methodology for handling such a situation with the assumption that he is objectively right, while castigating the school for holding a different point of view and practice.  His objections override the very ‘value’ of critical thinking and openness to other viewpoints that he claims to defend and demand.   The irony is also that other schools apply very similar (though opposite) probings to those who not only wish to teach, but those who wish to pursue terminal degrees, making it difficult for committed Christians to gain acceptance into high-calibre universities.

At the core is a fundamental misunderstanding of the Christian faith, a misunderstanding that has in large part been perpetrated and fostered by so-called ‘Christian universities’ that really aren’t Christian.  The misunderstanding is that Christianity is primarily an ethical system and more guide which only touch on certain aspects of life but do not permeate all of our life, both public and personal.

It is unfortunate that for some time, many Christian schools have de-emphasized the Christian aspect of their historic or current identity, acting as though faith can be compartmentalized and relevant to only certain areas of a person’s life.  It is no wonder that this gentleman is confused.

Having taught in higher education for nearly 15 years, I understand that teaching is not always a simple matter of information conveyance.  Good teachers (and especially good online teachers, which is what this man was applying for) need to be able to connect with their students, to bridge the technology gap that leads to isolation and separatism and foster a sense of community through personability which helps motivate and encourage students to stay plugged in and to strive for excellence.  This inevitably leads to side conversations and discussions both in public forums as well as through private messaging, and it is within these contexts that the professor’s opinions and life choices may come into play.  It is in these contexts that it isn’t merely what I as a professor do or say that matters, but the reasons why I do or say them which become important in the dialogue.


As Bernie Sanders’ outrage this week amply demonstrated, there is considerable confusion and antagonism against Christianity for asserting that some things are true and others, logically, are not.  The irony is that in castigating Christians for their world view, Sanders – as with this gentleman – ignore the reality that those they claim to be defending adhere to just as exclusive a world view, which in turn is no more exclusive than the world view they themselves are seeking to impose.  Ethics cannot ultimately be divorced from a deeper underlying worldview and understanding that unables them and lends them meaning and purpose.  Otherwise they are not so much ethics as matters of convenience, subject to change as the popular opinion changes.

To pretend that one’s own worldview is not exclusive while berating a differing worldview is inconsistent to say the least, and it doesn’t matter whether you’re teaching business administration or theology.  What you believe and how you live your life should matter, and to think that it shouldn’t matter to other people is defeatist of even bothering with an ethical and moral framework at all, let alone an all-encompassing worldview.

Meanwhile, in Michigan…

June 6, 2017

Just the latest instance in a rising tide of discriminatory moves aimed at silencing, shaming, and economically targeting people who have the nerve to actually act on their beliefs.  Or more specifically, people who act on beliefs that are contrary to the petulant demands of a tiny minority steamrolling cultural changes.  Or more specifically, Christians.  This time, a farmer is being banned from participating in a farmer’s market.

But, hey.  Tolerance is awesome, isn’t it?  Freedom of speech?  Freedom of religion?  Yeah.  If you have kids or grandkids, I hope you’re having conversations with them about how they choose their careers because if they intend to live as Biblical Christians, their range of options is going to grow narrower in the coming years.  I mean, a lot narrower.   I mean, incredibly narrower.  This is for real.  It’s happening now.  It will only become more and more institutionalized in a self-perpetuating cycle of compliance.  Ignoring this reality is going to be very, very costly for a lot of families and individuals.

Then again, that’s the point.  To make Biblical belief and practice unattractive and cost prohibitive.

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.