Archive for the ‘Reading’ Category

Book Review: Wild & Weird

August 13, 2022

Wild & Weird: William J. Seymour, Azusa Street and Early Pentecostalism as Reported by the Los Angeles Secular Newspapers, edited by Larry E. Martin

First note – the title sounds pejorative but it’s not the author’s bias. The author is a Pentecostalist. Rather, the title summarizes (very aptly and somewhat generously) the gist of headlines and articles in the Los Angeles press about the erupting Apostolic/Pentecostal movement on Azusa Street and beyond.

Second note – I discovered after this book arrived that it’s the ninth book in a 12-volume (so far!) series of books by Martin on the start of Pentecostalism in America. Thankfully, this in no way compromises the reader’s ability to enter the material. The author provides occasional, very brief notes when additional explanation is helpful. He also at some points offers his opinions about whether the material presented is accurate or not. Such notes are indicated in italic soas not to be confused with the actual article reprints.

Mrs. Hutchinson was my AP American History teacher in high school. She was a strict but fantastic teacher, and one of two main influences in high school that directed me towards history for university studies. She made sure we understood the importance of evaluating information as closely to the actual events/persons as possible – primary source documentation was our mantra in that class and it remains something I look for whenever possible still. I’m far less interested in what someone else thinks about something that happened, and as much as possible I’d like to draw my own conclusions from accounts directly related to the events at hand (realizing that this does not remove bias completely!).

So when I decided to put together a seminar on the roots and teachings of Pentecostalism, I was naturally thrilled to find this book, which claims to simply duplicate ver batim Los Angeles press stories from 1906-1908 about the emergence of Pentecostalism in the city. A variety of papers are drawn from. I doubt the replication is comprehensive, and the author admits this as well, though indicating he tried to be as comprehensive as possible.

The result is curious and somewhat repetitive. Biases and prejudices racial, political and theological are all on display in these articles, but in parsing them it’s possible to start building a basic idea of the distinctive characteristics of Azusa Street and later Pentecostal movements. These rough sketches can then be compared to Scripture to begin evaluating the claims of the early movement that has gone on to deeply impact Christianity around the world.

My goal is first and foremost to understand not only how Pentecostalism started in the 20th century, but how it evolved theologically and doctrinally. Then I can better make sense of those evolutions and their current expressions in light of Scripture and the larger tradition of the Church throughout the last 2000 years. All of which should hopefully equip potential attendees with an awareness of what Pentecostalism is and a way of critiquing it’s teachings and practices. Which hopefully will in turn lead to some guidelines and suggestions on interacting with Pentecostals or their organizations. Considering the deep impact and spread of Pentecostal influence throughout much of the world this seems like a crucial undertaking, though by no means an easy one and hopefully one that recognizes both real and potential benefits as well as risks to the movement.

I may try to get further installments of this series on future trips back to the States, but for now this is a good start before moving on to more theological treatments of the movement.

This book is a great resource as a glimpse of both secular ideas and attitudes (which were perhaps not entirely secular in their source) in early 20th century Los Angeles, as well as getting close to specific, alleged actions, beliefs, and expressions of early leaders and followers in the movement. I appreciate the author’s restraint, since the articles are almost entirely negative in their treatment of the holy rollers, and the author’s own self-professed adherence to the Pentecostal tradition. I’m also grateful he kept poor-quality copies of articles and illustrations to a minimum, and I trust he faithfully reproduced the articles rather than altering them.

I like to think Mrs. Hutchinson would approve of my initial efforts, and I’m grateful for her own secular echoing of the Renassaince’s (and the Reformation’s) mantra of ad fontes – “(back) to the sources”.

Book Review – The Things They Carried

July 25, 2022

The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien

I finished this book in one sitting on a two-hour plane ride. It’s that readable, that engaging. While it’s worthwhile to study about the Vietnam conflict it’s also necessary to hear the voices of those who were there. The motif of carried objects as portals into stories about individuals the author knew and served with personally in Vietnam is compelling.

O’Brien is careful and also explicit about not wanting to create moral lessons for his readers to grasp, but rather to simply say what he remembers about what happened and who it happened to. This is helpful but of course one can’t read a biographical account of a war like this without being viscerally reminded of the awfulness of war, whether it is a just or justified or necessary engagement or something less definable. The very real and permanent loss of life should be a constant guard and exhortation to be firm in resolve but also wise in how we spend that blood and those lives and relationships.

Even if you’re not a history buff I think you’ll find this a compelling read. Names and dates and the details of history most have learned to shudder and avoid are kept to a minimum so that the names and the lives and actions of real men and women might stand clearer. Those men and women might have served in any conflict in any part of the world and the stories would be substantively the same. This doesn’t trivialize the concrete reality of Vietnam as a location for conflict, but reminds us that immense loss, immense horror, and immense beauty can and do exist most anywhere and at anytime.

Perhaps we should be more intentional about seeing them and interacting with them when we have the chance.

When the Law Isn’t the Law

July 15, 2022

A few choice articles this morning when my brain is still fuzzy, highlighting the dilemma we create for ourselves when the law ceases to be the law. When the rules – even the ones we create for ourselves – are ignored in favor of other factors, chaos ensues. The alleged search for a better law, an amorphous law of equality or love or fairness or whatever term is seen as useful at the moment, a law that transcends the laws we actually *do* have in the end is never helpful. Only if the law can be redefined, recast, recodified into something that is actually better than what we’re trying to skirt around for various reasons can there be any hope of avoiding current and future chaos.

Of course, changing the law is complicated and difficult and time-consuming and expensive and all manner of other things. Oftentimes, there is no better consensus on what a new law should look like than there is on whether we ought to just follow the existing law. Public opinion can be vastly misrepresented by a remarkably small but vocal minority with the ear of the media and policy makers (or policy enforcers). And of course, some laws can’t simply be changed – and shouldn’t be. But more on that later.

The first example is this one, regarding legendary athlete Jim Thorpe. I’m no athlete and no historian of athletes but even I know the name, even if I didn’t know any other specifics. The upshot of the story is that Thorpe was stripped of his 1912 Olympic gold medals because he wasn’t technically an amateur – he had played for pay several years before the Olympics, which disqualified him from playing and therefore from winning. Based on the story, it appears that people were upset about this not because of the rules themselves, or whether or not Thorpe actually had violated them, but because he was a world-class athlete of great and deserved renown, and because he happened to be Native American.

I’m going based on what the story linked to above says. If the story is wrong then my facts are wrong and I apologize.

There wasn’t any indication that the rules have been changed (although with the US sending an Olympic basketball team comprised of professional NBA stars in the past, maybe it has?). There wasn’t even a complaint, per se, about the rules indicated. There was only the complaint that the rules were applied to Thorpe. I get the impression from the article that the rules are partially seen as ridiculous because of the small amount of money involved (although I presume it was a more reasonable wage in 1910 and we shouldn’t let our 2022 gauges skew things). And clearly there are other folks upset because they see a racial implication. But no indication is given in the article as to whether the rules have been unfairly applied to Thorpe, whether other minority athletes have been treated similarly, etc. The story states the decision to strip Thorpe of his medals was controversial but doesn’t indicate who else felt the decision was unfair, or why, other than Native American advocates.

Why does the IOC consider this an “exceptional and unique situation”? No clue from the article. So what I’m left with is because people complained on the basis of his ethnicity, the IOC bent the rules. Once in 1982, and now fully 40 years later because current sensibilities say it’s the right thing to do.

Were the rules broken or not? What does this decision mean moving forward? What other people who were disqualified for breaking a rule or not meeting other criteria will feel emboldened to complain and lobby that if Thorpe is permitted this violation, they should be as well? Does ethnicity override other rules, and if so, how and when and to what extent? My questions would remain the same regardless of the date or whether ethnicity was a factor or not (these days it always is though, so…). And if ethnicity is the driving issue here, what does this decision teach people? That rules don’t apply as much as your ethnicity? Who defines ethnicity? Who determines whether someone is actually a minority or not, and based on what factors? What does this mean to those who aren’t minorities – by their or anyone else’s standards?

Again, I have nothing against Thorpe. He sounds like an amazing and gifted man and he, his family, and his people ought to be proud of that. All people ought to recognize and respect that. Such is sports and sportsmanship at it’s finest – based solely on ability and not on other issues. Decisions like this one ultimately undermine that level playing field. It fosters the creation of a subset of unwritten (at least as of yet) rules because the existing rules are deemed inadequate in some way.

The solution to this is to change or update the rules. Otherwise the rules eventually cease to be rules at all because they can be circumvented based on an ill-defined and always evolving and changing set of unspoken criteria.

Second example is the ever-evolving poster-child case for legalized, universal, on-demand, no-holds-barred abortion to not simply be allowed (as Roe v. Wade permitted) but codified national law and policy (as Roe v. Wade never was). President Biden (self-proclaimed faithful Roman Catholic despite his intense advocacy for legalizing abortion) trotted out the terrible situation of a 10-year old girl who had to travel across state lines to obtain an abortion after she was raped. Turns out the situation is a whole lot more complicated and even potentially more tragic than originally described, though not of course for the reasons Biden promoted.

The girl’s (alleged but unconfirmed) mother is claiming the girl is “fine” and that somehow the accused is not at fault, though why that is the case is not made clear in the article which instead bends over backwards to defend abortion providers.

First off, if a girl is pregnant and receiving an abortion at the age of 10 she is NOT fine. Period.

The mother is defending a person who admitted to raping the girl twice. Why is she defending him? Why is she quick to insist she is not the one who pressed charges? Is this not the right person? Then why did he confess? I’m sure all of these questions are bound up in the fact the accused’s address is listed as the same address as the mother and daughter.

Although some outlets are reporting the perpetrator is in the country illegally the Post story above and other outlets make no mention of the man’s citizenship status, and formal charges are related only to the alleged and confessed rape. Although citizenship status doesn’t alter the horrific nature of the crime, if we’re intent on knowing all the details about an alleged criminal this seems like a fairly major one to omit.

The person who conducted the abortion also happened to be the person who brought the case to media attention. Ironic, considering she appears to have made a rather major mistake in her report, indicating the perpetrator’s age was 17 rather than 27. In typical current fashion, when caught in an error, go on the offensive. Her lawyer is hinting at potential lawsuits against prominent officials based on the age discrepancy involved. Granted, the doctor could have been lied to. Full disclosure of her report has not apparently been made yet (though why I’m not sure. Why leak part of it but not all of it?).

In the middle of all this grandstanding remains a 10-year old girl who has suffered some horrible things. That ought to be the primary discussion point and focus.

Instead, it’s a matter of law. But it’s a matter of which laws we want to emphasize and which we don’t. Do we want to push for laws permitting abortion and ignore laws which deny it? Do we want to focus on laws about immigration or push those to the side? And deeper still, do we still wish to ignore laws regarding marriage and the nature of adult relationships, preferring to rely on copy-cat partnership laws or, worse yet, ignore all of that completely and pretend people can safely and morally cohabitate as though they were married and committed for life even though they may have no such intentions?

All very important discussions to be sure, but secondary to the trauma this girl is dealing with. What sorts of resources are being provided to her to deal with it, and by whom? Who is her community, as opposed to those who simply want to exploit her for their own benefit, furthering the damage already done by her rapist? Which laws are we going to enforce or ignore?

All of this has to do with human law. Human law that is obviously imperfect, though supporters of this law or that law will argue their position is infallible. But the very existence of opposition – fallible opposition – implies our positions may be incorrect in full or in part. We can’t even follow our own laws or agree that they’re correct.

No wonder people are scrambling to run away from the reality of a law we didn’t create and can’t change. A law woven into the natural order and human nature. A law that serves as a guide for our best behavior, that restrains our worst impulses, and ultimately demonstrates our fallibility and guilt. No wonder we strive so hard to ignore any such reality and instead pretend we can simply dictate morality by creating or abolishing our own laws. We are creatures of law and we crave the chains which imprison us, believing in our burden that we are at least better than the people around us. That our chains are less deserved than the chains of others, and in this we imagine a kind of freedom.

God tells us otherwise. We can’t ignore his Law but at our own peril, a peril very much on display in huge ways as our country convulses with the consequences of indoctrinating generations of people with the idea that there is no ultimate accountability but therefore no purpose, no meaning to our own lives or the lives of others. That we are essentially accidental cosmic burps so whether we commit atrocities or acts of mercy makes no meaningful difference. People wonder why shootings are happening so often and they blame guns, but guns have been around for a long time, and part of our national identity (for better or worse) since the beginning. Yet their use to slaughter neighbors and children and loved ones is skyrocketing. Take away meaning, purpose, any sort of objective moral code and you set people free for many awful things. And while some would argue this is a false control placed on us by a contrived set of beliefs resting on an illusory divinity, our reality shows we have no ability to create any sort of meaningful laws on our own. All we can do is mirror – closely or poorly – the Law of our Creator. Results will vary in direct proportion to how far we diverge from his revealed order.

When we are unable and unwilling to follow even the laws we create, how much worse will things be when we refuse to acknowledge the divine Law in which we live and breathe? We have only two options provided to us by the Creator and the embodiment of that Law. One is that we can rage against it, continue to be crushed by it, and die without hope in it. Or, we can recognize our guilt, seek mercy from God, and find – miraculously – that mercy has already been extended freely through his Son, Jesus the Christ, who fulfilled the requirements of the Law and then offered his own wrongful conviction and execution to pardon us.

When we find the latter, we begin to recognize that God’s law while not always what we’d like in any given moment is always best in that moment and in all the moments before and after. In that law we find true equality based on our created nature rather than our accomplishments or genetic blessings. In that law we continue to be guided, though through faith in Jesus Christ we no longer face the eternal consequences when we violate that law. We are freed to live our lives in that law not in fear but in joy and relief.

Or we can keep trying to redefine it and replace it. And the results will continue to be as abysmal as they are right now. Repentance is always possible but I believe gets more difficult the longer we remain in our rebellion. I pray that people’s hope and purpose and joy comes to lie not in what they’ve done or whether what they’ve done has been properly honored. I hope their hope and purpose and joy comes from knowing who created them and everyone around them, and who loves them unendingly and unceasingly and demonstrates this in his gift of a Law that cannot be changed or ignored, a call to obey that Law, and the promise that because of Jesus, our performance of that law will not be the basis of our eternal condition.

There is a law, greater and deeper and more eternal than the transitory laws of any human society. At best, human laws should model and support this deeper divine law. At worst, they contradict it directly and in so doing reap the obvious consequences, just as pretending fire wasn’t hot or oxygen isn’t necessary for breathing would lead to very dire consequences. Continue to pray that our nation – and all nations – recognize this deeper law and seek to protect it. And continue to pray that we as a community and nation would argue not about whether we should enforce or ignore a given law, but continue to require our lawmakers and representatives to wrestle with these difficult matters on our behalf. If a law needs to be modified, then do so. If a law needs to be repealed, do so. But always with an eye towards how well (though imperfectly) any such changes match the deeper law of our Creator.

Watching From Afar

June 26, 2022

I’ve been privileged now to have observed some pretty major events in recent American history while abroad. It’s a curious feeling, being physically so detached while glued to Internet news feeds. A few observations.

Of the multiple dozens of news feeds I scan daily, I have seen exactly zero headlines indicating there is a large percentage of US citizens who oppose abortion and are relieved this heinous practice is no longer federally protected. Not a single one. By just reading headlines you would be led to believe nobody in America was praying and hoping for this reversal, and that it’s a cruel and barbaric ruling imposed on a population overwhelmingly opposed to it. Although survey data is hard to analyze, what is clear is that the numbers fluctuate greatly depending on how terms are defined. Although there is a +- 10% at either end of the spectrum, who either support or oppose abortion under any circumstances, the vast majority of Americans fall somewhere in between. And somewhere in between is not what Roe v. Wade provided for.

The only headline I’ve seen all week indicating the presence of Americans who welcome the overturn of Roe v. Wade was from the British publication The Guardian.

Headlines almost universally refer to the repeal of Roe v. Wade in language that would lead the uneducated person to believe abortion is now illegal throughout our country, rather than the reality that it is no longer a federally mandated option. Abortion is not illegal in our country. It may be illegal in certain parts of the country, or may become illegal. But that’s a decision best left to more localized populations than dictated from the national level.

Much is said about the changes conservatives are bringing to American policy, but all of the extremely liberal changes that have been wrought since Roe v. Wade are depicted as de facto rights that have always existed and should be above challenge, as opposed to legislation and judicial decisions which, per our Constitution, are always open to review or revision. As amazed as many news stories sound, it is not an alien thing for the Supreme Court to reverse a previous decision. It is rare that it reverses it’s own decisions, but this should be a good thing, assuring both sides that such instances represent some very lengthy deliberation and study of the Constitution and law rather than a simple response to popular pressure. For example, the original Roe v. Wade decision is about 36 pages long. Dobbs vs. Jackson, which overturned Roe v. Wade this week, is 213 pages long. Clearly a lot of thought was given to this case.

I’ve seen stories citing cherry-picked, Western and European countries who are shell-shocked America could change it’s mind on this issue. This ignores the fact that abortion is limited in a large number of countries in the world. Again, since abortion has not been outlawed in the US, it would be more helpful if news reports compared apples to apples in their reporting.

There have also – predictably – been news stories featuring Christians lamenting this decision and asserting their support for abortion. Very little is mentioned – if at all – in such articles that probably the overwhelming majority of Christians worldwide understand abortion to be a violation of God’s Word in the Bible, and that certainly the largest Christian denomination on Earth – the Roman Catholic Church – has and does and (God-willing) will continue to oppose the practice steadfastly. I know there are Christians (some of them Catholic) who disagree with the Bible and their denominational stance, but it’s dishonest to ignore this difference of opinion simply to make it sound like all Christians everywhere support abortion (or should support it).

The (apparent) total lack of regard many lawmakers, celebrities, politicians, and other leaders in our culture have for the many, many people in America who believe abortion to be morally wrong, and who therefore believe it should not be a mandated right (paid for with tax dollars no less) or believe it should be illegal, is indicative of the growing polarization of our population and contributes directly to it. If you wish to disparage the logic or argumentation or conclusions of another citizen, all well and good. But if you simply want to insult and deride them and flip them off, you are not part of the solution to our polarization, you are part of the problem. This applies equally to people on both sides of any given issue. The unwillingness and inability to actually debate and simply scream and yell is a condemnation of our churches, our schools, and should be of utmost concern to our leaders. That they prefer to exploit it for their agendas is abysmal.

Much mockery has been made in recent years of those Americans who openly question the honesty and reliability of American media and news outlets. I suspect most of us are too jaded these days to implicitly trust much of any source (outside a sacred text). The incredibly disproportionate tone of the news media just this week alone ought to give pause for thought to whether or not the major American news outlets really are, as they claim, representing the news fairly and without bias. Not that this shouldn’t have been obvious for decades, but if anyone had any doubts about it, this week ought to make it clear.

Hospitality, Meals & Scripture

May 9, 2022

I’ve had a long interest in the intersection of hospitality, meals and Scripture. The Bible frequently uses the language of food and feeding to teach spiritual truths, and hospitality is not only repeatedly described throughout the Bible (Genesis 18, as just a single example), it is also prescribed (Hebrews 13:2 as just a single example and related most likely to Genesis 18).

I finally verified something I suspected for years – I have access to a theological database called Atla (originally short for American Theological Libraray Association). So now I can start to research what others have said on this topic as I continue to draw my own conclusions from the Word.

The first article I read can’t be accessed without paying for it (unless you also have access to Atla). It’s by a Presbyterian pastor in North Carolina by the name of David W. Priddy. The essay is entitled Eating with penitence: An essay on the local church eating responsibly (sic) and it was published in the Review & Expositor, a quarterly Baptist theological journal.

Priddy’s thesis deals with what the local church can do towards food reform and agricultural renewal. He posits three key issues. Firstly, a high regard for Word and Sacrament; secondly, examining the role of meals in Scripture (particularly the New Testament) and specifically in association with themes of judgement and a call to humility; and thirdly, the importance of continued remorse over sin (penitence).

Although at times abstruse, Priddy does a good job outlining these key issues, and I concur with most of the ideas he presents. Although we come from different denominational backgrounds I suspect we’d have a lot in common theologically, at least on this particular topic.

The only difficulty I had with the essay was his disdain for the history of some property owned by his congregation. His difficulty reflects modern notions of contemporary remorse (penitence) as well as potentially the appropriateness of some sort of compensation for past injustices (penance) although he stops short of such an assertion here. He relates how a 200-acre plot of land and large home was donated to his congregation well over 100 years ago (perhaps as long as 170 years ago). The problem isn’t the property per se, though Priddy has ideas about how it could be better put to use in food reform and agricultural renewal. The problem is the man who donated it to the church owned at least ten slaves and apparently sired children through at least one of them (and it’s implied that it was far more). The congregation’s fellowship hall is named after this man, something Priddy clearly finds offensive and problematic.

However in the little he says in the essay, it’s hard to know whether Priddy has investigated the donor’s penitence. The life of faith is indeed a constant one of confession and absolution, of contrition as well as accepting the gracious forgiveness of God, something Priddy highlights admirably in his brief discussion of historic liturgical formulations. Yet the presumed damning evidence of the congregation’s benefactor all those years ago leaves little room in Priddy’s words or spirit for the idea of forgiveness either sought or granted, the idea that the offending donor might have in fact been penitent, which may have spurred his donation of land to the church as an act of penance.

Priddy speaks a lot about penitence but very little about absolution and this is most clear in this real-world application. The Church must speak this loudly in the face of rising intolerance in cancel-culture. The irony is that culture has discarded Church, the Bible and God, and with it the only worldly assurance – and demand – for forgiveness and absolution. In lieu of this we are now daily on trial by a culture that rapidly evolves in it’s ideas about what is right and wrong, acceptable and unacceptable, and that views any past sins of either omission or commission as equally damnable and irredeemable. The psalmist might these days say If you, O Culture, should mark iniquities, O Culture, who could stand? (Psalm 130:3, modified). The answer is no one, and unfortunately Priddy conveys a similar unwillingness to accept the possibility of penitence or penance if the sin is great enough, and therefore denies effectively the possibility of forgiveness and grace – certainly in this world and if so, then perhaps in the creation to come.

Pastors and congregations do have an opportunity to encourage members to reflect more on the choices they make as consumers (in this case, specifically as consumers of food products). While I don’t have the basis Priddy apparently does to label the entire food industry as essentially evil, I recognize wholeheartedly there are some major problems that affect land and health. Congregations have the opportunity to read Scripture with an ear towards how these topics are discussed, avoiding the temptation to simply apply Biblically-specific verses and situations to modern-day issues, yet recognizing the Church is continually called to contrition and penitence as well as to joyfully proclaiming the forgiveness won for us in Christ. Failure to do either inevitably leads to darkness.

I’m excited by the prospect of continued research and academic engagement, and grateful my seminary provides this benefit to alum, particularly now that my work has taken me to places where obtaining physical books (including my own professional library in boxes in storage) is either impossible or unreasonably expensive!

Reading Ramblings – March 13, 2022

March 11, 2022

Date: Second Sunday in Lent ~ March 13, 2022

Texts: Jeremiah 26:8-15; Psalm 4; Philippians 3:17-4:1, Luke 13:31-35

Context: As we give thanks for reconciliation to God the Father through faith wrought by God the Holy Spirit in the Son of God’s redemptive work, we must also recognize such reconciliation will put us at odds with the assumptions and practices of the world. Daring to take God at His Word will often produce mild or massive ripples which can upend plans, relationships, careers and lives. While this is not what we set out to accomplish we cannot predict how and where and when Satan may move against us through worldly philosophies, personages, and powers. This should not surprise us. We have been warned.

Jeremiah 26:8-15 – Jeremiah has the decidedly unpleasant duty of speaking truth to power – in this case power being not only the Judean monarchy but the hierarchy of the prophetic ministry, an institution intended to provide God’s Word and guidance to the king. The problem is they are not giving the king God’s Word, but rather providing words of their own. Words to comfort and assure and encourage. Jeremiah is placed by God the Holy Spirit in direct opposition to this, a position which elicits swift rebuke and the threat of execution. Jeremiah’s response to such threats is not to go back on the Word he proclaimed but rather to acknowledge both the truth of the words he has spoken as well as the power wielded by his adversaries to end his life. Death is better than unfaithfulness. The God who gives life is also capable of sustaining and protecting it but Jeremiah does not ground his steadfastness in any assurance he will be spared. They might kill him but it will not change the Word of God nor will it make his adversaries’ position with God any less dangerous. In fact it will place them under even more judgment! Jeremiah’s words are therefore not simply contentious but ultimately – as the Word of God – aimed at the conversion of the heart and repentance not simply a foreign policy change or a shift in domestic agendas.

Psalm 4 – Words perfectly appropriate to Jeremiah in his situation though penned long before he was born. How many of God’s faithful have taken refuge in this psalm, its words filling in for their gasps and cries and inarticulate pain? The speaker clearly recognizes the difference between the power of God and the transience of human power, even though human power can wreak incredible suffering within its allowed spans and spheres of influence. Does such suffering deny God’s existence? Hardly. Evil has been dealt with in the resurrection of the Son of God. Revealing the defeat of evil in tangible terms is at God’s discretion and timing. This is ultimately good, though we might wish his timing were closer to our own preferences. Yet we know that what God allows and the waiting He bids his faithful endure is ultimately to his glory and towards the salvation of as many as possible (2 Peter 3:9). We ourselves are undoubtedly beneficiaries of his gracious patience! This is to be our peace and solace in the midst of suffering rather than rejecting the reign and will of God to suit the passing whims of the world.

Philippians 3:17-4:1 – How much news have you watched in the last two weeks? How about the last two years? Where are your eyes, your ears, your thoughts, your fears? What are your hopes and aspirations for yourself and your loved ones? Safety? Security? Protection from the threats of the world – from pandemics and recessions and even nuclear war? Should our hopes and aspirations be limited to the perspectives of nightly newscasters and pundits and experts, whether in lab coats or three-piece suits? Or are we called to a greater hope? A hope that transcends the passing ups and downs of this world, even as we are caught up to some extent in those ups and downs? It isn’t that we don’t have better places to look and listen! How many have gone before us in our own lives? Faithful in the midst of wars, depressions and sickness? Do we prefer to look elsewhere to greater examples? More impressive? More impressive than what we are promised in and through and by Christ? More enduring? Think carefully about what and who you put into your ears and eyes.

Luke 13:31-35 – The last two years have been an incessant call to live in fear. To take the advice of this person or that agency. Good intentions have driven most of the world into a state of heightened fear and paranoia in the hopes that we might preserve our lives. It is not wrong to love our lives and seek to be wise in how we use them. After all, they aren’t ours – they are gifts of our Creator! Nor is it wrong to use the minds God has given us to understand his creation better and to wisely seek to utilize the blessings woven into it to heal and restore. But to live in fear day after day? As though the powers of this world microscopic or global have any real, lasting, permanent power? As though we are not heirs to an eternal kingdom? To eternal life – free from the ravages of either ‘blind’ circumstance or calculated cruelty? Lent calls us to remember that not even Satan and sin itself can keep us from who we are in Christ, and that while we must struggle against these very real and active enemies just as we struggle against the forces and powers of this world, the battle is already won. The victor declared. The enemy vanquished. We are privileged to live in this reality here and now, in the midst of a reality that transcends the reality those more powerful in the world would prefer us to think ourselves victims in.

Lenten Poetry

March 7, 2022

It may at first seem counterintuitive, that in the midst of Lent we could find and enjoy beauty. But contrition and repentance are not the same thing at all as boringness or repetition or monotony or ugliness. If anything, our Lenten contemplations should drive us in part by comparison – the aching awareness of our sinfulness against the panoramic beauty of creation. Our unfaithfulness in comparison to God the Father’s endless and bounteous and undeserved fidelity. We do not deserve anything, and we are given so much. So much that is good and beautiful.

And these days when beauty and good seem even more elusive, when war and rumors of war rattle our consciences and make our creaturely comforts somehow condemning in the face of others’ utter ruin, these days we need the beauty. Amidst the ashes of war. Amidst the ashes of Lent.

So read this. It’s short, but it will take some time to both understand all of it and resonate with it. I’ve mentioned Wendell Berry before, but this is a good reminder to me I need to find more of him. I need his beauty, that does not seek to cover over or temporarily displace the evil and hardness of the world and our lives, but points us to the greatest beauty yet to come, and which already spreads – if only palely – its glow on all beauty here and now as well as all ugliness.

Well You Can Just Rock Me to Sleep Tonight

March 4, 2022

And in case you’d like to stay awake a little longer tonight silently contemplating things you never thought about before as well, here’s this little article on whether or not Superman – were he real – should be baptized.

As the article indicates, the main factors the author uses to consider this are based in the theology of Thomas Aquinas, some 900 years later arguably still the Roman Catholic Church’s greatest theologian. I appreciate the attempt to provide a consistent, coherent answer to the question while addressing some very legitimate questions. The author isn’t the first to ponder this possibility, as I’ve noted before. I’d prefer to lose sleep if/when we actually discover alien life to which we might apply such questions as this (as opposed to microbes or other forms of life we deem baptism inappropriate for). But it’s nice to be reminded others are being more proactive in their theology.

Reading Ramblings – First Sunday in Lent

March 3, 2022

Date: First Sunday in Lent – March 6, 2022

Texts: Deuteronomy 26:1-11; Psalm 91:1-13; Romans 10:8b-13; Luke 4:1-13

Context: Context is so important! Before we can realistically take inventory of our sinfulness and confess and more importantly repent to God, we need to see how far we are from who we should be. We must be reminded our sin is not just the occasional slip-up in language or thought or deed but a fundamental disjunct in who we are. Sin requires not just a few touch-ups here and there but a core-level refashioning. Only God can accomplish this and it begins in repentance. The readings emphasize the perfect relationship we were intended for with God, a relationship that constantly recognizes and depends upon God first and foremost as the provider of all things (Deuteronomy 26), as the protector from all evil (Psalm 91), as the source of all salvation (Romans 10) and as the only one capable of resisting the allure of evil (Luke 4). We are dependent upon God for our existence, our sustenance, and our salvation. In this context we see the gulf that separates who we are from who God created us to be, and our aching need for a Savior to rescue us.

Deuteronomy 26:1-11 – God does not need your money. His Church usually does, but God does not. Tithing is commanded not so God has what resources He needs – He is the Creator of all things! Rather tithing is a reminder to us of who we are and what we have, and to remember God the Father as the source of both our identity and whatever worldly goods we possess. This passage interests me in the ritual aspects. First the declaration to the priest – God has fulfilled his promises to me. He has given me what He promised to, and therefore I am not only able and willing but glad to bring him the firstfruits, evidence of His gracious provision! This continues further, though. I am just one in a long line of those whom God has created and watched over and blessed. My blessings are not an anomaly in the history of creation (even my particular familial line within it) but simply a continuation of God’s great goodness. This all culminates not in grumbling but in celebration. What a blessing, to be able to return a small portion of the vast blessing God has poured into our lives!

How ought this context change our hearts in tithing? How might the Church today better communicate this context properly to people? I remember being shocked when making a home visit to a housebound member one time. She liked to reminisce about when she joined the Lutheran church decades ago after marrying because her husband was part of the denomination. The minister explained tithing using the analogy of the dues you pay at a country club. Although the intention was good and it resulted in a lifetime of faithful and generous giving, I cringed to hear such an analogy! Tithing is a joy and privilege, and the amount given is a secondary matter to the celebration that should precede and infuse and follow the giving!

Psalm 91:1-13 – We sometimes lament Adam and Eve’s Fall as though it were inevitable, as though it was just a matter of time until Satan wore down their resistance and they ate the Forbidden Fruit (similar to how C.S. Lewis imagines temptation on an unfallen world in the second book of his Space Trilogy, Perelandra).

But is that a fair assessment? Did Adam and Eve not have at their disposal the protection of God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, had they only sought that protection rather than relying on their own reasoning (Genesis 3:6)? Both the psalm and the Gospel lesson show clearly temptation and evil can be resisted and protected against. Not perfectly now, not after the Fall disrupts things, of course. But the power and protection of God is something real to trust in and rely on not simply when all other resources are exhausted but as a primary and first line of defense. We must trust in God’s wisdom in the midst of our sinfulness and sinful creation, as clearly He does not always rescue those who place their trust in him from the devastation of personal sin or the sin of a fallen world (such as the terrible situation playing out in Ukraine at the moment). Yet his protection and promise do remain sure – whatever fate we may meet in this world can never separate us from the love of God in Jesus Christ (Romans 8:18ff).

Romans 10:8b-13 – In the midst of Paul’s exploration of the role of the Jews as God’s chosen people he affirms once again the nature of salvation in Jesus Christ is a matter of confession, not of lineage or personal effort. This is part of the error of the Jews – seeking by their own efforts of piety and holiness to either ascend or descend as they imagine God wishes them to. Rather, they need only trust and confess not what they do but what God has done in Jesus Christ – sending him from heaven (descending) as well as raising him from the dead and back to heaven (ascending). Everything is accomplished in Christ! Our reconciliation and justification with God the Father is complete and finished. While our life of faith remains to be lived out in a life of ongoing sanctification, this is only possible because of the actions of the Triune God first as well as moment by moment on our behalf.

Luke 4:1-13 – Like Adam and Eve, Jesus can rely on the Word of God to refute the temptations of the devil. He does not need to evaluate Satan’s claims or assertions on their own merit, but rather trust completely that what God has said is always and perfectly true and right. Any suggestion to the contrary can therefore be immediately dismissed from consideration. I believe these were indeed real temptations to Jesus, who most likely knew what lay in store for him at the end of his earthly ministry. Matthew 16:23 and Mark 8:33 demonstrate the reality of these temptations, as well as the real possibility that Jesus – according to his human nature – could succumb to them. But He does not. He does what Adam and Eve did not – focus not on the suggestions of Satan but on the Word of God alone. Satan recognizes his defeat and chooses not to prolong the engagement but rather find another moment when Jesus might be weaker and more susceptible to his suggestions. Apparently 40 days of fasting in the desert is not enough to deplete Jesus’ strength to the point He would choose to forsake the Word of God for the lies of Satan!

Reading Ramblings – Ash Wednesday, 2022

March 2, 2022

Date: Ash Wednesday – March 2, 2022

Readings: Joel 2:12-19; Psalm 51:1-13(14-19); 2 Corinthians 5:20b-6:10; Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21

Context: The season of Lent begins, a season of repentance and remorse, self-examination and sincerity. This undertaking is not arbitrary. It functions within a larger context of the linear nature of history, a history extending from Creation, through the Fall, and to a Day of the Lord which will mean judgment as well as grace. Repentance is the acknowledgement that if not for God’s Son incarnating at a fixed point in our linear history, judgment would be our rightful due. But in Christ – and particularly his suffering and death – our sentence of death is laid upon him. So we examine and repent but not in uncertainty, but rather in the assurance that our faith in Christ and reliance on his perfection rather than our own is what makes all the difference in our linear history that ends with the Day of the Lord and continues beyond history into eternity. Such contemplation is indeed joyful, and therefore we should comport ourselves as those who are assured of forgiveness in Christ and already recipients of the mercy of God the Father.

Joel 2:12-19 – This is a powerful passage, often quoted only partially. Small wonder the latter verses would receive more attention, decidedly more positive and hopeful than the bulk of the early chapter. Yet God’s grace is only fully appreciated when one considers the alternative – the destructive judgment we are deserving of in our sinfulness and selfishness. Even our repentance is sullied with sin and self-preservation, incomplete at best. It is not the quality of our repentance but rather than magnanimous nature of God the Father that spares us. Our haphazard contrition is hardly admirable, but barely appropriate. The hero of this scene is not the repentant sinner but the merciful Creator who bestows on his creation his continued good gifts day after day – grain and wine and new oil, necessities for day to day life to be sure, but also representative of God’s Sacramental, saving gifts of bread and wine in Holy Eucharist and oil which anoints us as the Father’s wayward but reconciled children. Ponder the entire chapter. Judgment is coming. It will be truly horrendous – more horrendous than the most barbarous of human behavior because it is true and right and necessary and therefore holy. Against the backdrop of war this week in Ukraine, such verses take on a brutal reality. Our rationality has not overcome our sinful nature, and judgment is coming for those who flaunt the Lord’s wisdom in favor of their own.

Psalm 51:1-13(14-19) – The initial 13 verses are the frank personal inventory of a sinful person. His sin is only too obvious, too glaring to overlook or ignore. Yet the speaker is constantly hopeful. His sin can be washed away. His brokenness can be knit back together. His sin is ultimately first and foremost against God, and yet it is this God who can remove the stains of that sin eternally. What beautiful hope intertwined with such pained contrition and confession! The latter verses emphasize the sinner’s response to the grace and forgiveness of God. What a joy and privilege to declare not just God’s greatness but his goodness and mercy to others! In our culture burdened by hopelessness and despair in not measuring up against the laws of science and technology as well as influencers and celebrities, what a joy to be able to speak of peace, of joy, of assurance that we are infinitely valued! How incredible to assert that no less than the eternal, divine Son of God himself spilled his incarnate blood on our behalf! What greater worth could ever be bestowed upon us or earned by us?!

2 Corinthians 5:20b-6:10 – Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians is full of mixed emotions. Sharings of his sufferings, references to chastisement, calls to forgiveness and to acceptance of his ministry among them and since them. Here, he calls the Corinthians to reconciliation to God himself. This is a serious matter and Paul feels at least some of the church in Corinth is at risk from slipping away from the grace of God in Jesus Christ they first heard and received from Paul, back into unbelief and apostasy. Their repentance is to be real and true and present, not something of the past lightly held and so easily discarded. In order to make sure Paul is not an obstacle to this he has endured many things, suffered many things, surrendered many things. By the world’s standards he would amount to a failure, hardly the victorious, hardly the celebrity, hardly the success. But God’s standards are not the world’s. And in ways that are no doubt as baffling to Paul as to the Corinthians as to us, the very suffering and death of Christ ensure immeasurable victory and reconciliation to those who will receive it. It is possible to reject confession and the forgiveness that comes from it. To do so because of personal pride and worldly standards risks an eternal loss and infinitely greater riches.

Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21 – The sermon on the mount started in chapter 5 continues here. Jesus instructs his disciples on how they are to carry out their ministry and lives. They are to live in contrast to the ostensibly holy people of the day, eschewing their public hallmarks and to seek satisfaction not in praise received from others but in the peace and promise of God himself. What they do they are to do in joyful obedience to their heavenly Father. As He richly blesses them they are to be a blessing to others, seeking no other reward than the approval of their heavenly Father. Likewise when they engage in fasting they are not to be obvious about it, so that everyone might realize they are fasting and applaud their spirituality. Rather, they are to act as though they are not hungry, seeking not the praise of others but the blessings of the fasting itself in their spirits.

This may lead us to consider receiving the ashes of Ash Wednesday as somehow inappropriate. And perhaps it is. Certainly being outwardly in mourning is Biblical (consider the decrees of the King of Nineveh in the book of Jonah). But if the ashes become for us a source of pride, a means of judging those around us as either as spiritual or religious as ourselves, then we’d be better off skipping the imposition and doing a bit more meditation and prayer on the meaning and nature of repentance. The ashes are not a mark of pride in something we’ve done, like attend Ash Wednesday service. They are rather a reminder of who and what we are, regardless of how the world sees and judges us. We are sinners, and as such of our own merit we are headed towards the grave and dust and ashes, to be rightly forgotten. But by the grace of God the Father in Jesus Christ, who suffered in our behalf on the cross – the shape of the ashes on our forehead – our future is most assuredly different! Not because of our pious posturing or even our heartfelt regret, but entirely because of Jesus himself, and because of the faith instilled in us by God the Holy Spirit. There is no part to claim in all of this for ourselves. Only glory and honor to be given to God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit who have accomplished our salvation against the raging and plotting of Satan and our own, blackened hearts!