Archive for the ‘Reading’ Category

Book Review: Protestants

August 26, 2019

Protestants: The Birth of a Revolution by Steven Ozment

I was loaned this book, and enjoyed it.  It’s popular currently (and perhaps always) to interpret the past in the light of present.  Perhaps it’s impossible to truly do otherwise to at least some extent, since historians are products of their time even when examining a very different time.

In our current Western culture that devalues and is highly skeptical of Christianity (ironic, given how many people claim to be spiritual), historians have taken to reinterpreting the Reformation not so much as a spiritual matter but a political, social, or economic one.  And while all of those certainly have roles to play, Ozment’s main intent is to demonstrate that it really was first and foremost a spiritual revolution.

To do this Ozment draws from primary source documents – woodblock prints that were popular at the time to quickly summarize and drive home key points, as well as excerpts from letters and other materials written by ordinary people rather than the political and religious movers and shakers.

At times the book can bog down in these references, but overall it moves well and is accessible to a broad range of readers and interests,  whether cultural, historical, or theological.  Ozment’s writing style is engaging throughout.




Reading Ramblings – September 1, 2019

August 25, 2019

Reading Ramblings

Date: Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost – September 1, 2019

Texts: Proverbs 25:2-10; Psalm 131; Hebrews 13:1-17; Luke 14:1-14

Context: Humility is hardly a popular character trait in our society today. Everyone is promoted and encouraged as though they are the next Nobel Prize winner or Poet Laureate. Perhaps this contributes to skyrocketing levels of depression and suicides. Yet Scripture calls us repeatedly to humility. This is not a defeatist mindset, but rather a sober assessment of who we are. This assessment is grounded first and foremost in our relationship to our Creator, from which we should be freed from the pressure to aspire to worldly greatness. Some will attain the accolades of those around them and perhaps even from history itself, but these are very few, and whatever there is to gain is insignificant to the eternal crown of life we receive only from the grace of God the Father through God the Son.

Proverbs 25:2-10 – The book of Proverbs is attributed to King Solomon in the middle of his life and reign, the result of a wise king seeking to provide Godly wisdom to his people. This section has first to do with the king, who needs a court free of pandering and other foolishness (dross, v.4) which could pollute his wisdom. Rather, the king needs the best and most unselfish advisers and courtiers so that he can be guided well and the kingdom as a whole flourish. As such, people aspiring to greatness should consider the risks their ambitions might pose to others. Would they put themselves forward regardless of their lesser talents or abilities? A humble wisdom regarding our abilities is a blessing, something we should attain in part from those around us in Christ who we trust. While everyone should be encouraged to do and be their best, it is dangerous folly to encourage people to overreach their talents and abilities.

Psalm 131 – Where is our hope? Is it in ourselves or others? Or is it in God? Once again we are called in very blunt terms to be wise in assessing our abilities so we might not overreach ourselves. Ultimately, this extends to our relationship with God. The temptation to try and overreach ourselves, to answer where God has not spoken and inquire where God has not revealed himself can be overwhelming but, as with Job, fruitless. Rather than attempt to make ourselves equal with God (the primal sin of our ancestors!) we should trust in God even when we don’t understand what He is doing or why. This requires an active effort on our part – calming our aspirations or our ideas and preventing them from trespassing where they are not reliable and could be dangerous to ourselves and others.

Hebrews 13:1-17 – What we anticipate (the kingdom of God) our lives here and now should be guided by what we are destined for. The world behaves according to principles it derives for itself, but we as followers of Christ and heirs of an unshakable kingdom are to behave differently. We are to acknowledge everyone we come into contact with as created by God and redeemed in Jesus Christ, potential brothers and sisters in eternity. So we do not use one another for our own benefits but exalt and honor one another, even those who may be in difficult circumstances (the imprisoned). Furthermore, within the community of faithful we are to treat one another differently, seeking unity as well as maintaining good understanding of the Word we have been given, in order to resist dangerous false doctrines, and recognizing God has appointed leaders in order to assist us with this but whom we must take seriously our obedience to.

Luke 14:1-14 – The theme of humility established with the Old Testament and the psalm continues. The context is a Friday evening (Sabbath) dinner party where Jesus is an invited guest. But the environment is hardly hospitable – the entire occasion is organized to catch him in some false teaching or other practice they can discredit him for. Pretending to honor him, their intentions are dishonorable. As such, Jesus challenges them directly, first healing someone on the Sabbath and then confounding their efforts to criticize him before then can even articulate them. Their understanding of Sabbath would prevent them from doing good to a creature of God, though they would extend that healing indulgence to an animal rather than a person! Their doctrinal wisdom is hardly that, yet is the basis of a pride that puffs up their self-perceptions and prevents them from hearing and learning what Jesus has come to teach them.

Jesus exhorts his hearers to a humility that would enable them to see the children of God as God himself sees them, exhibiting grace and mercy to them rather than judgment. In such a situation our worldly distinctions of wealth or social equality mean nothing. Knowing who we are in Christ and what we will inherit at his return, we are free to share ourselves and our resources without expectation of repayment, in genuine love and care for one another and a frank humility that will not allow us to hold ourselves aloof or expect others to defer to our social standing. We think this is simple and that we do these things, but far more often we are influenced by societal and cultural assumptions and expectations.

Reading Ramblings – August 25, 2019

August 18, 2019

Reading Ramblings

Date: Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost – August 25, 2019

Texts: Isaiah 66:18-23; Psalm 50:1-15; Hebrews 12:4-24; Luke 13:22-30

Context: Our relationship to God is one not simply of creature to Creator – that would appear to more accurately describe the relationship between all other living species on Earth and God. Rather, human beings created in the image of God (imago dei) are invited into a personal relationship with him that makes us his children. And as children, we should expect discipline from our heavenly Father just as parents are expected to discipline their children. Once upon a time such a concept was common sense. But years of psychological theories have reduced the willingness and ability of parents to discipline their children. Remembering their own discipline experiences in their youth, they overlook the long-term character formation created in moments of transitory, unpleasant discipline, and vow not to discipline their children. In foregoing temporary unpleasantness, long-term character issues become not just possible but likely. Our readings remind us that discipline from our Creator (and therefore from our parents) is a gift, not child abuse.

Isaiah 66:18-23 – The people of God are always apt to adopt an exclusionary attitude towards those outside the faith. But God’s intention and desire is that all might be saved, and to that end works unceasingly towards reaching all nations and peoples with his Good News of Jesus the Christ. Our apathy must always bear correction from our Creator, a reality which is unpleasant as it forces us out of our comfortable routines to question seriously how to follow God the Holy Spirit’s promptings. It is God the Father’s good pleasure that everyone – not just Hebrews – receive the Good News of Jesus Christ and turn to him in faith and trust. As they do, they become full co-heirs with God’s existing faithful, not just second-rate newcomers. We must continually check our own hearts and the hearts of our faith community to ensure we are not allowing ourselves to become indifferent to God’s plans, both for ourselves and in the lives of those who have yet to hear of him.

Psalm 50:1-15 – The Lord’s discipline will come to all of Creation, either as a refining fire that purifies, or as the fire of destruction. God’s faithful should expect that they will feel the refining fire, and we are dangerously mistaken if we presume even our acts of worship and obedience to be completely free from sin and error. We seek always to worship God in fullness and truth, acknowledging that the sin within us keeps us from doing even this correctly, and further acknowledging that we are prone to going through the motions, or enshrining practices we consider pleasing to God that may well not be. What God desires is the sacrifice of our hearts and minds and wills not in mindlessness but in active, searching, joyful obedience to his will and Word. We should not presume that our tithe checks or our estate planning are what satisfies God – He who created and owns all things has no personal need for our assets, whether firstfruits or leftovers. But He desires our day be day leaning on him as both our wisdom and strength as true acts of worship and adoration.

Hebrews 12:4-24 – The Lord’s discipline will be, by definition, undesired and unpleasant. Whatever contradicts our willfullness we seek to avoid. And whatever pain or discomfort we might experience we presume to be solely from Satan. But God chastises and disciplines those He loves. We are to see this discipline as good, then, shaping us for eternity and beginning the process of burning away the dross and impurities from our lives. It will not be easy or pleasant, necessarily. Therefore we must strengthen ourselves and those around us for God’s discipline, that we might bear up under it not in cursing and confusion but in continued trust and reliance on the one who sustains all Creation. What we are being prepared for is nothing less than the presence of the Holy One, the Creator, Redeemer and Sanctifier of all things. We are being prepared for communion not only with the saints who have gone before us but with angels and all the hosts of heaven. Are we ready for such a union? Hardly! Therefore rather than speculate on the nature or source of the burdens and struggles in our lives, we continue to bear up under them as faithful children promised the kingdom of God, and knowing that even the work of Satan in attacks against us can be used by God the Holy Spirit to make us that much closer to readiness for our eternal glory in Christ.

Luke 13:22-30 – In direct contradiction of our cultural mantra today that everyone is essentially good, Jesus makes it clear this is not the case by a long shot. Our random and inconsistent and selfish acts of kindness to others are hardly the holiness and righteousness our Lord created us for! Moreover, Jesus makes it plain that not even all those who consider them to be his people are actually his people! Some of those who think they are followers of Christ are in fact not, and will be denied entrance to eternity. Simply having your name on the membership roster at church does not make you a follower of Christ. Relying exclusively on the grace of your baptism when the entire rest of your life has been lived in denial or ignorance of that baptism does not automatically include you in the redeemed.

Does Jesus seek here to rattle our faith? Of course not. But He does intend that we should consider our faith soberly and seriously, and we should be active – striving – in our lives of faith to take seriously the Word of God as it guides and directs. The life of faith is never one of rest and satisfaction. While we don’t live in fear and anxiety, neither do we reach a place where we ‘retire’ from an active faith, assuming that all we’ve done already is enough to sustain our faith in Christ. It is not simply the young who can wander away from the faith through spiritual apathy – it happens to the elderly as well!

Each day, each week should be a celebration of Christ’s work on our behalf and the Holy Spirit’s continued work within us. Each day and week should include times of self-examination. Are we apathetic or anemic? Do we prefer our little creature comforts over the Word of God and his Sacraments? Do we assume that we’re good enough, and no longer need these things, or that God doesn’t really provide them to us for good reason? These are dangerous paths to wander down. Our works do not save us, but how we prioritize our time and money and thoughts goes a long way towards showing us what really matters in our lives.

The road is, in fact, narrow. Not because God’s grace is limited, but because our sinfulness is so deadly real and serious that it continually strives to lead us away from that narrow road into fields of poppies (or worse yet, flying monkeys!) that ultimately prove to be dangerous and even fatal. Together, the people of God set our eyes on the promised new Jerusalem and the Word of God that alone can lead us through the sinfulness of this world and the sinfulness of our own heart by the power of the death and resurrection of the Son of God to life everlasting.

Reading Ramblings – August 18, 2019

August 11, 2019

Reading Ramblings

Date: Tenth Sunday after Pentecost, August 18, 2019

Texts: Jeremiah 23:16-29; Psalm 119:81-88; Hebrews 11:17-12:3; Luke 12:49-56

Context: There’s a scene in C.S. Lewis’ The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe early on as the children – minus Edward – are given hospitality by an old beaver couple. Here the children learn a bit about Aslan and some of their misunderstanding is dispelled. Aslan is not a person, but a lion. Understandably this causes some fear, verbalized by the oldest girl, Susan, who asks if Aslan is safe. Mr. Beaver’s response is direct – Safe? Who said anything about safe? ‘Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good. He’s the King, I tell you. The readings for this week immediately made me think of this exchange. How often we wish (or assume!) that God is safe and tame, at our beck and call. How often we wish God were an oversize cat, one who doesn’t always do what we want but this makes him endearing to us, knowing eventually he will come ’round when it’s dinner time. Instead, the image of God as a lion is far more accurate. And while this reality should ultimately be far more comforting, it is not without a strong disconcerting streak as well. Our attempts to domesticate God only do violence to ourselves.

Jeremiah 23:16-29 – Speaking the Word of God is different than any other kind of speech, and it is correspondingly tempting to set aside God’s Word in favor of words that are easier to hear, easier to swallow. Words that don’t rock the boat and don’t push people for more than they want to hear. But such talk, while attractive to both the speaker and the hearer, is unfaithful. God is at war with evil in this world and within ourselves and offers no quarter. We are never to presume that God’s intention is our mere comfort. We are part of his purposes, not the other way around. And while we can and should always trust that God’s purposes are perfect and holy and always for our ultimate good, it may well be that we must deal with a great deal of discomfort and temporary unhappiness. In the meantime, the one who speaks God’s Word must seek to do so faithfully, properly distinguishing between the Word of God and the speaker’s ideas so that the hearers can distinguish the two and ensure that God’s Word always takes precedence in their lives.

Psalm 119:81-88 – Despite it being the most prominent psalm (in terms of length), this is the first time we’ve drawn from it in this liturgical year. It is an acrostic, with a separate eight-line section for each of the letters of the Hebrew alphabet. This section is the letter kaph, which corresponds roughly to our K in terms of a hard C sound. If you look at these verses in Hebrew, you’ll see that each verse starts with this letter. This section poses a situation of longing for God’s response and deliverance. The speaker is in a difficult position and is being persecuted by others. This is not a life of comfort and ease! But it is a life of faith and trust in God. So the speaker can call to God and ask for his help and wonder aloud when that help will arrive. Though the temptation to forsake God’s Word and way in favor of tactics that are not righteous but could help is real, the speaker commits himself to God’s Word and way; they alone can be trusted! The section ends without resolution, but remains steadfast in anticipation of the Lord’s help.

Hebrews 11:17-12:3 – The list of faithful Biblical examples continues from last week. Each called upon to respond in faith to the promises of others as well as God. None of them protected from the harsh realities of being sinful people in a sinful world, but each being called to place their faith and trust in the God who created all things and is restoring and redeeming all things. Each of them, like us, received part of what they were promised, but awaited the full completion of those promises, something attained ultimately and only through Jesus Christ. We are not exceptional in being called to live by faith, but we are blessed with a cloud of witnesses who have gone before us to both show what faithfulness looks like, and to affirm that God is faithful to his promises.

Luke 12:49-56 – Once again we are confronted with words that contradict any image of Jesus as weak or pacifistic or otherwise too timid to raise a commotion. He understands perfectly the nature of his ministry. His ministry is the focusing of God’s wrath against sin and evil – focused in on Jesus himself as He takes on our sin and evil into himself. This is the fire of God the Father’s judgment that falls first and fully on Jesus, so that all of humanity might be spared in faithfulness. Those who will not receive this gift in faith, however, will feel that judgment fire themselves. Those who accept the gift in faith will also feel the fire of God, but not as a destructive, judgmental fire but as a refining flame that gradually purifies us through our lives in anticipation of our complete and perfect purification when our Lord returns.

Jesus has been baptized in water already, but anticipates his baptism on the cross, his ministry framed in water and in blood just as water and blood pour from his pierced heart, and how John asserts that it is water and blood that testify to Jesus’ work and person (1 John 5:6-8). As he awaits this final consummation of his incarnate work, he is under anticipation as well as dread.

All of this to offer us hope, but not peace. He comes to defeat evil but evil will continue in the throes of death after Jesus’ ascension and until his return. Jesus’ perfect sacrificial act will be the centerpoint of all created history, dividing those who believe from those who don’t and creating continual conflict that will penetrate to the most intimate of settings – the home and family. Jesus does not desire this, but our sinfulness makes it inevitable. Jesus has no illusions about how this will play out in some situations.

Verses 54-56 are linked with the following verses logically (but tragically not in the lectionary!). As Jesus journeys with his disciples and the crowds, he reminds them they are on a journey as well, quite literally a journey to appear before a judge. If that is the case, the reality that we as creatures will one day stand before the Creator, it should be obvious that we should be preparing for this encounter, and recognizing the signs it is getting closer. Jesus’ ministry in word and power should be an obvious sign to them that something is afoot, that the kingdom of God is at hand and therefore their encounter with the judge is fast approaching!

Reading Ramblings – August 11, 2019

August 4, 2019

Reading Ramblings

Date: Ninth Sunday after Pentecost ~ August 11, 2019

Texts: Genesis 15:1-6; Psalm 33:12-22; Hebrews 11:1-16; Luke 12:22-34

Context: Faith is trusting the promises of God. Faith by definition means trusting despite the tangibility of those promises having yet to materialize. If I promise to give you $20 you have to trust that I will. Once I have given you the $20, trust is no longer necessary – you have not just my word but the $20. Followers of Jesus have the unique privilege of living lives of faith – trusting his Word in terms of his return and all that follows. When those promises are fulfilled we will no longer need to live by faith. We are unique in all of creation in that we can receive the promises of God and either trust them or reject them!

Genesis 15:1-6 – Abram has been following God since Genesis 12. A lot has happened since then, from relocation to the Promised land, a run-in with a Pharaoh in Egypt, a seemingly unexpected land division with his nephew, Lot, then a dramatic rescue of Lot and his family from local warlords and raiding parties, culminating with an encounter with the enigmatic Melchizedek, priest of God Most High. Abram has been richly blessed, but God has not fulfilled all of his promises, most notably the promise of an heir. Abram points this out to God. Abram isn’t getting any younger – he was 75 when God called him in Genesis 12! At this point he only has Eliezer, who may be one of his trusted servants but we have no defining information for. God’s response is not to immediately confirm his promise of an heir to Abraham, as He does definitively in Genesis 18. Rather, He reiterates his promise. Abraham has trusted so far, and is to continue to trust. He will continue to live by faith, which the author of Hebrews will interpret as a lesson for those who wait on the return of the Son of God today. We stand in a long line of people who chose to trust God’s promises.

Psalm 33:12-22 – Faith in God is a subjective response to an objective reality. God is really there. He really is in charge of all things. Faith recognizes this and seeks to live in harmony with this reality. Rejecting God and refusing to acknowledge or trust him does not alter the reality that is God and his relationship with his creation. Those that acknowledge his reign are the blessed ones (v.12). There is one nation that can be said to be truly blessed through faith in God, and that is the nation that God chose and created for himself in the Old Testament, the people and nation of Israel. That people should have, of all people in all of history, understood better God and their relationship to him. Of course, we know that this was only true to a limited extent, and given enough time, sin obscured that proper relationship and brought it to an end. We are encouraged in the final verses both individually and corporately not to let this happen to us, to keep our plans and ideas secondary to the will of God as much as humanly possible.

Hebrews 11:1-16 – Though this should be the lectio continua portion of the readings, we’re doing a fair amount of jumping around. We skipped the last chapter of Colossians and now the first 11 chapters of Hebrews! Based on the Old Testament readings from Genesis the past few weeks, this section of Hebrews makes good sense. Here Paul (the traditional author if not the universally acknowledged author) paints a picture of what faith looks like. This is helpful to us since in the preceding chapter Paul asserted that we live and are saved by faith. Now, to help substantiate this assertion he turns to the Old Testament and the patriarchs, using them as a picture of those who trusted God’s promises as they waited for fulfillment. Abel, Noah, and more centrally Abraham are all examples of people who trusted God, living their lives out actively in that faith and trust. Noah actually built the ark he was told to – what a tangible expression of faith! Abraham left his extended family to follow God’s instructions to a land God promised would be his own. He lived in that land as a sojourner rather than an owner for nearly all of his life. Paul extends his argument that while they didn’t necessarily receive everything promised to them in this lifetime, they trusted God to fulfill his promises to them ultimately. If this life is not the end, then God’s promises can be fulfilled beyond our lifetime, and our trust in no ways should be diminished as we can expect to see them fulfilled beyond our deaths.

Luke 12:22-34 – Verses 35-40 are optional for the Gospel reading and I opted to omit them. On first blush they seem to deal with a very different issue – preparation for our Lord’s return as opposed to needless worry. However the two things are very much related. Rather than worry and fret, we prepare our hearts and our minds. Rather than worry and fret about the uncertainties of life in a sinful and broken world, we center our thoughts on the assurances of our Lord. Preparation may seem a side-effect of fear or worry, but it more rightly should be the proper course of action of someone who is not at the whims of fate but rather firmly in the hand of their Creator and Redeemer.

That being said, vs. 22-34 are tailor made for our culture of worry and fear. With God and his Word now mostly removed from the public sphere and considered dangerous conversational topics, it can only follow that the void will be filled by something darker and terrifying. Without the assurances of our Creator’s constant presence and concern, we fall back on ourselves as the sole determiners of our lives. Everything becomes an opportunity for pride but more often than not a source of fear and worry. How do we prepare our children for the future? How do we ensure they get good jobs? How do we ensure they’re happy and well adjusted? For that matter, how do we ensure these things for ourselves? In a culture of affluence and plenty we focus on the fear of scarcity or failure.

Christ’s words are simple, though by no means the answer our sinful hearts would prefer. We have no control over many, many things in our lives. The more control we attempt to exert, the more we realize all the other arenas we need to apply ourselves in as well to ensure better control. It’s a cascade that can lead ultimately to despair, as evidenced by skyrocketing rates of depression and violence against self and others. Jesus simply reminds us of the truth. We have very little control. We are not called to control our lives and the lives of others but to live each day in faith and trust in our Creator. Then, whatever happens and whenever it happens, we will have peace. There is sense and order in the world, or perhaps better put, the apparent lack of sense and order in the world will no longer be a source of fear.

This is not easy! To quit worrying is difficult, at best. And Jesus is not calling for a passive disengagement with our lives, an abandonment of personal agency and responsibility. Rather He calls us to see our engagement and agency within the proper context. We are not gods. Our control is limited and imperfect. But this should not lead us to despair because there is a God who is neither limited or imperfect. In him and only in him we can rest our uncertainties and fears. The one who sent his Son to die on our behalf and raised him from the dead again as evidence of grace and forgiveness to all is ever-present, and while we may feel our lives are out of control we are never out of his hand, and therefore never need give ourselves over to despair and anxiety.

Reading Ramblings – August 4, 2019

July 28, 2019

Reading Ramblings

Date: Eighth Sunday after Pentecost, August 4, 2019

Texts: Ecclesiastes 1:2, 12-14, 2:18-26; Psalm 100; Colossians 3:1-11; Luke 12:13-21

Context: This is one of the very few Sundays with a reading assigned from Ecclesiastes. The book has been a conundrum to Jewish and Christian theologians for almost three millenia. But it well suits a larger theme in the readings of the meaning of life. Man’s quest for meaningfulness in his short life is not a new thing, even if our answers to that question (at least as far as Western Civilization goes) differ markedly from previous generations. Without God to anchor our identity and therefore meaning, we seek after alternatives, winding up at best with the desire for a good life – long life, health, wealth, fame, etc. But as the Gospel text points out, these are false and misguided purposes as we are not the determiners of our own fate.

Ecclesiastes 1:2, 12-14, 2:18-26 – Ecclesiastes is traditionally ascribed to King Solomon, son of King David and last of the monarchs of a united kingdom of Israel. Solomon is credited with writing Song of Solomon as a young man, Proverbs as a middle-aged man now king of Israel, and Ecclesiastes as the work of an aged Solomon reflecting on his life. The philosophical bent of the book has made generations of the faithful ill at ease, but it calls us to an understanding of our identity and purpose as creations of God meant for relationship for him through the vocational callings of our lives. Anything that eclipses God will soon prove itself to be shallow and meaningless, providing an ever decreasing return on investment. When we live out our identities as creatures of God, we can properly deal – theologically and philosophically – with the ups and downs of life, enjoying moments of happiness and weathering moments of sorrow and loss.

Psalm 100 – This psalm beautifully captures the spirit of the final verses of the reading from Ecclesiastes. We are made to praise God. This is our natural purpose, though it is distorted and misdirected by our sinfulness. When we cease to see our lives as primarily about us and what we want or like and more as an opportunity to acknowledge and then praise our Creator, when we place ourselves into his hands, trusting his care and provision in all circumstances, there is peace which will naturally flow out into praise and thanksgiving. This might sound like a tenuous position to place ourselves in. But God is not capricious! God is good! He creates and tends us like a shepherd does his sheep, and his love is steadfast and endures. The implication is that it endures despite our cold-heartedness and our misguided fears and distrust and rebellion against him. We are not ever-loving or steadfast in our relationship with God but He remains steadfast with us. Who could more rightly deserve our joyful noises, our service, our singing, our thanksgiving, our praise and our blessings?

Colossians 3:1-11 – Paul is not expressing doubt about the salvation of the Colossians. His opening thought in verse 1 is not maybe you are or maybe you aren’t saved. Paul is engaged in rhetoric, based on the strong assertion of the reality of the Colossians’ faith in Christ expressed in 2:1-19. The Colossians are in Christ! And if that is a reality (which it is) then certain things flow from that reality logically. They are dead to the ritualistic prescriptions of the Levitical laws and rabbinic traditions (2:20-23). Since their identity in Christ is secure they are free to divert their attention from these distractions to more important and appropriate things – the things of God (3:1-4). But this is not to say that the behavior of the Christian is unimportant or should not be attended to. Paul constantly has to defend himself and the gospel against the charge of antinomianism – the idea that Christians can ignore and flout the Law of God because of the grace and forgiveness they have in Christ. What a silly idea! Those who have been restored to proper relationship with God cannot help but value and seek after the will of God, and this will is summarized in the core of the Law. He deals with idolatry (1st Commandment), inappropriate speech (2nd Commandment), adultery (6th Commandment), the roots of theft (7th Commandment), false witness/slander (8th Commandment) and covetousness (9th & 10th Commandments). While ritualistic rules about food and protocol are no longer binding, the center of the Law in the 10 Commandments is. Rather than maintaining distinctions between who is of God and who is not, Christians are to see that such distinctions are misleading, since all are creations of God whom God desires to have in right relationship with him again through Christ (v.11). Our lives are to conform to the will of God but not the whims of mankind, and those who seek to equate those whims with the will of God are dangerously mistaken, however good their intentions might be (2:23).

Luke 12:13-21 – In the presence of a renowned rabbi who is gathering an impressive following due to his teaching and working of miracles (12:1), this man wants Jesus to use his religious prestige to settle an inheritance dispute! Rather than attending to Jesus’ words, rather than weighing the sober reality that following Christ might entail (12:4-12), this man is focused on a financial consideration, as though this was more important than the message Jesus came to teach. While we might be quick to dismiss this man’s words as shallow, how often do we seek God in prayer for things not of eternal consequence? It isn’t that this is necessarily wrong, but perspective is critical!

The parable illustrates this reality. The wealthy landowner nowhere gives thanks to God for his blessings (though we presume the character is intended to be Jewish and therefore would follow prescribed rules for offering sacrifices at the proper harvest times). Nor is his concern for the poor (although as a Jewish character he would no doubt more or less follow the injunctions of Leviticus 19:9-17, which we read a few weeks ago). While the man’s outward appearances conform to the requirements of the Law (presumably) his heart is focused entirely on himself.

Note also that the man’s demise is not painted as the direct result of his heart’s self-centeredness. God knows the length of our days and holds them in his hands. We are properly called to remember this not only during times of great joy and blessing but also during hardship and suffering. God alone knows the day of our death, and therefore our perspective should retain this reality at all times, which will inevitably affect both how we endure suffering and enjoy blessing. These are transient things. We like to function as though they are within our control, and if we just do these things and avoid those things we can chart a trajectory towards a long and happy life. But we must acknowledge that God alone determines these things. While that doesn’t make us passive or inactive, it should lead us to see that all things are in God’s will, not ours. All things are according to his plans and purposes, not ours. James 4:13-17 is instructive here!

The purpose of life is not simply comfort or longevity but proper relationship to God as expressed in obedience to God’s Law – loving God and loving our neighbor. We live our days acknowledging God as the author of all of them. Just as we did not will ourselves into creation we do not fully control either the number or quality of our days. But if we leave this in God’s hands in faith and trust, we will have his peace in all of our days, and into eternity.

Acts 16:6-10 and Change

July 23, 2019

By all  accounts it was a successful trip so far.  Wonderful reunions with congregations Paul founded on his first mission trip.  Congregations in Derbe.  Lystra.  Iconium.  Psidian Antioch.  How the Holy Spirit was at work!  How much more might be accomplished!  Plans were made to build on these successes by further mission work in the area to the north.  But such plans came to nothing.

What does it mean to be forbidden by the Holy Spirit to speak the word in Asia (v.6) ?  Was it clear to Paul and his associates that this was the case?  Did the Holy Spirit reveal the divine will in this matter?  It would seem not.  They attempted to go to Bithynia and were unable to.  Confusion.  Frustration.  They had the will and the ability, why couldn’t they make good on their plans?  Why did they reach nothing but dead ends despite all the good work accomplished thus far?

More time should probably be given to considering verses six and seven, to the simple statements that the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of Jesus prevented Paul and his companions from sharing the Gospel in certain areas.  What a strange thought to us today, who are so certain that we control evangelism, we make our plans, we execute them!  Confident that the Holy Spirit desires all to hear and be saved, how can we make sense of the possibility that for the purposes of God, and without conflicting with the reality of a good God who desires that all would be saved, God the Holy Spirit might for his unrevealed reasons frustrate the plans of faithful Christians to share the Gospel with certain others?  I’d argue we can’t, and we don’t even try any more.  But that’s a secondary consideration for me right now.

In the midst of confusion and frustration comes a vision.  More than a dream, perhaps.  Something visible, and something with supernatural overtones.  Paul can see this man.  Perhaps he can hear him as well.  He understands him despite an accent perhaps.  He sees the different clothing.  Somehow Paul understands where this man is from, where this man represents.

Morning comes.  Paul reports his experience to his associates.  Silas.  Timothy.  And based on the sudden change of pronouns in v.10, many presume also Luke himself was there, the author  of the book of Acts.

What to make of it.  The message is clear – an appeal for help in Macedonia.  Moving from the Asian continent to the European continent.  An entirely different arena for sharing the Gospel.  The vision was clear, but what to do about it?

I imagine that the men were hesitant at first.  After all, they’d had such success in the area of what we call Turkey today.  Thriving congregations!  Certainly, they hadn’t been able to travel north as they intended, but surely that would resolve itself in short order and they could continue with their plans.  Surely there were other opportunities closer to hand.  They weren’t doing anything wrong, but what they were doing wasn’t working the way it had previously.  Was it clear to them this vision came from God?  I presume not necessarily, as we’re told in v.10 they concluded it was.  There was some level of analysis, consideration, prayer.  And the result of all those things was a determination that God was behind this and it was time to follow.

Change is hard.  It isn’t what is expected.  It isn’t what is familiar.  Yet small changes can yield incredible results.  A diversion from Asia to Europe – such a small matter in the moment and yet the history of the world is changed no doubt as part of that change.  Would the Holy Spirit still have worked through Paul and his associates if they came to the conclusion that while the vision was interesting, they really were better suited and preferred to stay in Asia?  Of course.  They might have been mistaken, but that certainly wouldn’t have made them bad or evil.  Perhaps the Holy Spirit would have sent a clearer indication of the proper path.  Perhaps He would have worked with them where they were.

It’s good to remember ultimately that the Church claims that God the Holy Spirit is behind everything we do.  That doesn’t mean we aren’t prone to error, it doesn’t mean we don’t interfere.  It doesn’t mean that things are always clear and simple and easy.  But we have to trust the Holy Spirit to work in and through and at times despite us.  And this should foster a level of humility, a willingness to acknowledge our limitations and brokenness and therefore the very real possibility that we might be mistaken.  And it should drive us to hear in others the possible voice of the Holy Spirit, even if we don’t like or agree with what they say.

Change is difficult.  So is staying the course.  Such forks in the road are an opportunity for faith to work itself out in surprising ways.  Not necessarily pleasant ones, but surprising ones, with the trust and confidence that the Holy Spirit is working things out to the glory of God regardless of what is motivating us and our decisions.

Humbling indeed.  But comforting as well.  Sola dei gloria.  Always and in all situations.


Reading Ramblings – July 21, 2019

July 14, 2019

Reading Ramblings

Date: Sixth Sunday after Pentecost ~ July 21, 2019

Texts: Genesis 18:1-14; Psalm 27; Colossians 1:15-29; Luke 10:38-42

Context: Two women, separated by roughly 2000 years but perhaps little else. Both tending households. Both given the unique opportunity to serve the Son of God (I side with those who see in Old Testament accounts of a physically present God a pre-figuring of the Son of God, Jesus). Each one listening in to a conversation the Son of God is having with someone else in the household. Each one preoccupied with their duties yet hoping perhaps for something more. So many different nuances in these passages. Hospitality. Domesticity. The presence of God with his people, and the love and care of God for his people even when they are focused on other things.

Genesis 18:1-14 – The assigned reading only goes through the first half of verse 10, indicating that the intended focus is on Sarah serving, rather than the divine exchange with her regarding a promised son and clarifying the relationship between this passage and the Gospel. However the story is so classic that it seems a shame not to finish it out! Sarah is busy with her duties. Her husband sits at leisure with his guests. She does all the work, yet Abraham has the honor of being the host who presents the meal to his guests. Yet as Sarah labors behind the scenes, seemingly unnoticed, it is clear that she is not unnoticed. The Lord inquires of her. But this is hardly necessary. The Lord who created Sarah knows her better than she knows herself. And He loving passes over her dishonesty and incredulity. More important things are afoot, and Sarah is remembered thousands of years later because of them and the promise that she would bear in the birth of Isaac.

Psalm 27 – The assigned portion of this psalm is just the second half – verses 7-14. Again I believe this is done to narrow the focus but I prefer to read complete sections of Scripture rather than fragments whenever possible. These words might well have been spoken by Sarah or Martha in their hearts, but the texts are silent on the matter. Likewise the texts are effectively silent as to what prayers Sarah and Martha might have prayed and waited for answers on, though Sarah’s thoughts in Genesis 18:12 might be interpreted as evidence of many years of frustrated prayer. The emphasis in the latter half of this psalm is patience, trust not only in the Lord’s care and presence but his timing, which may not always line up with our own preferred timelines. The psalmist faces adversity in the form of enemies. If this is a psalm of David then it might refer to the rebellion of his son Absalom. But the main emphasis for the speaker is rightness with God, proper worship and contemplation of the divine more than a particular prayer for deliverance. Deliverance is presumed: the Lord is capable of delivering the psalmist from any situation, and while the psalmist prays for such deliverance from this present situation (vs. 5-6), the psalm as a whole is more an assertion of the Lord’s ongoing and eternal goodness, and the importance of right relationship with God as the foremost concern.

Colossians 1:15-29 – I’m not sure why the assigned reading skips vs. 15-20. Yes, it’s a discrete unit of thought and therefore easily removed, but if the point of lectio continua is to read portions of Scripture in whole, it makes no sense to exclude this. And in fact, what appears to be a tangential discussion of the nature of the Son of God is in fact very important in tying together the assurance of forgiveness and redemption in v. 14b with the reality of who the Colossians used to be in v.21. It is because of the eternal and divine nature of the Son of God, Jesus the Messiah, that the Colossians can rest assured of their grace and forgiveness. These are real things they can trust because of the reality and trustworthiness of God the Father himself, acting through and in God the Son. It is our faith that binds us to these promises.

But invariably the focus is drawn to vs. 24-25. What is Paul saying here? Were Christ’s sufferings somehow insufficient or inadequate? Is Paul adding to what Christ accomplished, improving upon it, extending it somehow? We must be careful with the language here. The concept of affliction is never associated with Christ’s redemptive death. Jesus dying for our sins on the cross is never described in Scripture as an affliction. But the nature of his public ministry might well be described as a long series of afflictions(Matthew 8:20, etc.). And Jesus makes it clear to his disciples that they will likewise endure many things for his name (Matthew 10:25, etc.). So Paul’s meaning here might be better translated as furthering the afflictions which Jesus suffered, just as many of the faithful over the centuries have endured terrible things for the sake of Jesus’ name. Paul’s sufferings in this respect have no bearing on salvation – they are not meritorious for the forgiveness of sins as Jesus’ afflictions and suffering and death were. But they are instructive to those who come after, just as Jesus’ personal ministry style was instructive to those who came after. All this to the end of making the Word of God fully known (v.25).

Luke 10:38-42 – The Gospel reading is the centerpiece text on any given Sunday. I’m not sure I’m completely comfortable with this, as it might mislead people somehow into thinking that it’s really just the red-letter aspects of the Bible – the things Jesus specifically said or did – that are somehow qualitatively better than the rest of Scripture. It might be said that they are oftentimes clearer, clarifying Scriptural interpretation for us, but the entire Bible is the Word of God. Yet it is true that the Old Testament points forward in various ways to the incarnation of the Son of God, and there is a logical rightness to making this incarnation the focal point.

Once again the woman in the domestic setting, providing for the needs of her honored guests. But it is not just a guest but the Son of God she serves, and as such He knows her and her concerns, perhaps a long history of sibling jealousy or small skirmishes based on personality differences. And yet clearly there is more to it than this, as Jesus declares in v.41. Martha has many things on her mind, perhaps perpetually. Yet only one of those many things is important, and only one of them sits in her house, present and tangible, teaching and sharing. Surely this is more important than a meal?

Notice that Jesus doesn’t tell Martha to quit making the food and come in and sit down. It isn’t what she’s doing that’s wrong, but rather how she’s feeling, and her desire to compel her sister to the same priorities as herself. Rather than reinforcing Martha’s request that Mary come and help her, Jesus makes it clear that He will not do this, but rather affirms Mary’s priority. Compare this to Psalm 24. David had many things on his mind as well but he knew what was most important. It is this Martha has lost sight of.

Jesus is the one needful thing. Our acts of service are demonstrations of love of God and neighbor and the world has need of them. We can’t all sit at Jesus’ feet 24/7. But even as we labor in our vocations, we can keep our eyes fixed on him, knowing that what we do ultimately is for and because of him. This should guide not just our actions but our motivations and attitudes.

Pumps & Systems

July 9, 2019

That’s the name of the magazine.  Really.

Thanks to Lois for sharing this article with me.  It’s a brief story about Mike Rowe, the guy who became famous for a show about dirty jobs and has gone on to become a leading proponent for re-introducing the trades to upcoming generations who are almost exclusively steered towards a 4-year degree – and the associated debt which more often than not goes along with it.

It’s something we continue to talk with our kids as they get older (17, 14, and 13) and look to the future.  As a former university faculty member I value education greatly.  But I also know there are many ways to learn throughout your life that don’t require the debt and other issues associated with a 4-year degree.  I worked my way through my undergraduate degree because back then you could still do that with part-time jobs.  Now even if you go to an in-state public school you aren’t going to be able to work and pay your way through it.

There’s nothing wrong with considering the trades.  Lord knows we need good, honest plumbers, electricians, and all manner of other folk to survive, and this is a beautiful way of loving your neighbor as you love God.  It isn’t necessarily for everyone, but neither is college.

I hope more and more folks will consider all of their options – or all of the options for their kids and grandkids.  You don’t need a college degree to be intelligent.  You don’t need six figures of student loan debt to be well-rounded.   You just need to know who you are and how God has gifted you.

Book Review: The Best We Could Do

July 8, 2019

The Best We Could Do: An Illustrated Memoir  by Thi Bui

I received my first graphic novel in late high school or early college, a gift from my best friend.  As a literature junky, I found it interesting, but difficult to consider it literature.  The artwork was good, the story was interesting, but it felt too compacted, too  sparse.

My interest in Vietnam and it’s history began years ago when I was tasked with taking over teaching a course on the Vietnam conflict from a fellow faculty  member.  I did a lot of reading and grew fascinated by the curious role of this country in the larger Cold War maneuverings of China, the United States, and the Soviet Union.  During seminary the field work congregation I served was in the process of attempting to merge with a Vietnamese Lutheran congregation, and I was able to spend time with the several Vietnamese families, second generation folks who came over when their parents fled Vietnam after the fall of Saigon.  Then in 2016 my wife and I were privileged to visit the country on business and pleasure purposes, and it deepened my appreciation of the beauty of the country and people as well as the complexity of their history, of which the US was only a very small part.

And Vietnamese cuisine is amazing – something that has been on my radar for  the last 20+ years!

So this book was a mixture of interests, memories, and impressions.  While I think it’s a great work, I still don’t know what to make of the graphic novel format.  If I don’t try to think of it as literature, but its own unique  thing, it’s much simpler.  Thi Bui tells a wonderful and at times overwhelming family story, and does so in a way that is compelling both visually and textually.  It is not an easy story, and she doesn’t attempt to reduce it to one, but rather to find a way to live with and in the complexity that is her family and her two countries.

If you’re interested in memoirs, family dynamics, Vietnam or history, this is a very worthwhile read.