Archive for the ‘Theology’ Category

Reading Ramblings – October 28, 2018

October 21, 2018

Reading Ramblings

Date: Reformation Sunday, October 31, 2018

Texts: Revelation 14:6-7; Psalm 46; Romans 3:19-28; Matthew 11:12-19

Context: Reformation Sunday commemorates the anniversary of Augustinian monk Martin Luther posting a series statements for debate and discussion, now known as the 95 Theses. This act – not particularly subversive in and of itself, would lead to arguably the single greatest change in the Christian Church since the split of the Eastern and Western churches hundreds of years earlier, or perhaps even Pentecost itself – the Protestant Reformation. Many of my brethren prefer to call this Sunday a celebration, but I can’t. It isn’t that Luther’s insights weren’t necessary to restoring the Gospel to Christianity (a process that is always ongoing and in need of reasserting every week!), but rather it is unfortunate that what began as a hope for reformation within the Church led to schism, and to literally centuries of various wars and conflicts afterwards about religion. Although division is sometimes necessary, it is never desirable. This Sunday should emphasize the radical nature of the Good News that the Son of God died for you. Not because you’re good enough or try hard enough, but purely out of divine love and mercy. This is the real and true and ultimately only Good News, capable of changing your life not merely for the span of a few years, but for all eternity.

Revelation 14:6-7 – In Lutheran circles this is a traditional text for Reformation Sunday, in part because there are some who see these verses as descriptive of Martin Luther and his role in restoring the centrality of Jesus Christ crucified and resurrected to the Church. While I don’t think that interpretation of these verses is necessary, it is a possibility that God the Holy Spirit used Luther towards this end. Contextually in Revelation, this angel is the first of three that bear warnings and messages to creation in the last days. This angel bears an exhortation to worship God based in good news (gospel). The good news is of Jesus, who is not named here but no other source of good news could easily be invented or surmised here instead. Because of the victory of the Son of God, his sinless life, sacrificial death, vindicating resurrection, glorious ascension, and promised return, Creation can respond in praise of God the Father who has worked all of these things to his glory and our blessing.

Psalm 46 – You can hear Luther drawing inspiration for his famous hymn, A Mighty Fortress, from this psalm. The psalm does not promise exclusion from fearful and devastating events, but rather assures us that God remains the source of our hope and strength in such times (vs.1-3). Verses 4-7 are very reminiscent of Revelation 22, which describes the glorious eternal city, complete with a river that flows from the presence of God. Verses 8-11 again call us to faith and confidence in God, who will bring all evils to an end. Verse 11 is a repetition, a refrain with verse 7. God will continue to act in his creation and bring all things to their proper ending, to his glory and our blessing. This is where we set our confidence and hope, rather than in the transient affairs of our day.

Romans 3:19-28 – Perhaps we feel we have heard this a million times, and yet it bears repeating another million times because of our easily confused and swayed hearts. In all aspects of our lives we are prone to the idea that we reap what we sow, we get what we deserve. These are pleasant indulgences if we happen to be blessed with health and wealth. I suspect, however, that those who suffer from pervasive poverty, hunger, and oppression of all sorts would be hesitant to say that they themselves are the cause of their own suffering. Likewise, we are prone to thinking that, while of course we’re not perfect, we’re a fair sight better than many other people, and God must appreciate that and take that into consideration as He blesses us. But this is not true. If we want to stand before God the Father next to the Law in order to point out how we’re better than Hitler, the Law will still silence us, because the Law demands perfect obedience. It does not grade us on a curve. And even if it did, we would still fall short because Jesus fulfilled and obeyed the Law perfectly – He ruined the grading curve for us! No, if we want to feel good about ourselves based on the Law, the Law will only and always shut us up and deny us the comfort and boasting we are prone to wanting. Rather, God has determined to save us apart from the Law, by his own plan, his own Son. It is only and completely here that we can find comfort and peace. It is only and completely in the perfect life, death, resurrection, ascension and promised return of the Son of God that we can take heart and hope whether we live our lives in relative comfort or in the grip of terror or sickness. We have no room to boast, and no room to rest on our laurels, as we have no laurels. Rather, we appropriately boast only in Christ, and give him the praise and honor.

Matthew 11:12-19 – Who is going to heaven and who isn’t? Who is worthy and on what basis? What does the kingdom of heaven consist of? Has there been any shortage of assertions and ideas? Why does heaven always tend to look the way the person describing it wants it to? We have our ideas, but our ideas fall short of the glory of God the Father’s perfect plan, and the very perfect reality of the Kingdom of Heaven. Try as we might to claim it for ourselves, deny it to others, define it the way we like, it remains out of our hands, and all our efforts come to nothing. We can only receive what God brings or reject it. Either we allow ourselves to be brought into the kingdom on God the Father’s terms, through God the Son, by the power of God the Holy Spirit, or we don’t enter at all. We have no leverage, no way of bending God to our will, coercing, convincing, or forcing him to do things the way we like or the way we expect.

What beautiful news this is! If it is all really in God’s very capable hands, then we can’t screw it up! If it is all in God’s hands, all his plan and all his doing and all his glory, then we can’t be locked out based on the sinfulness of others or even the sinfulness within ourselves. God will remain God. The Son of God will remain the Son of God, despite two thousand years of reinterpretation and reapplication, each seeking to claim and co-opt the God-man for our purposes whether beautiful or banal.

It is all God’s plan. It is all God’s work. It is all God’s glory. And by his grace, you and I find ourselves there, unexpectedly and surprised no doubt by both the beauty and magnitude of his plan, and the graciousness and persistence of his love.

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Heir of the Dog

October 15, 2018

Here’s a good essay by well-respected author and academic Gene Veith.  He asks the question whether adults should still be held culpable – even prosecutable – for crimes they committed as minors.

His basic point, one that is reflected in many of our legal forms and procedures (such as – in general – treating minors accused or convicted of offenses differently than adults, including lighter punishments and the possibility of having their criminal records as minors expunged or sealed permanently), is that we generally understand that children are children and held to different standards of accountability.  We all did things as  children that, having attained some level of maturity or at least age, we wouldn’t repeat.  The why we wouldn’t repeat might be sketchier – is it just a better understanding of legal ramifications or actual recognition that words or actions once somehow judged appropriate never really are?  But barring some extreme situations, I don’t presume to judge the character of an adult based on some random fact about their childhood, especially if what I know of them as an adult outweighs that random incident.  Such as, say, eating glue in third grade.

There are also times when a minor commits one or more crimes so heinous that they are no longer treated as children but as adults, because the fundamentals at play ought to be understandable even by someone under the age of 18.  There’s a line between adulthood and being a minor, but it can be a permeable one, as well as an inconsistent or inaccurate one.

What interests me, tangentially to this conversation, is our obsession as a culture with beginning to rescind honors and accomplishments by individuals based on a later-discovered moral failing or flaw, perhaps an isolated incident but more typically of an ongoing nature.  I first wondered about this with Bill Cosby.

For example, his honorary degree from Penn University was revoked in February 2018 as the nagging rumors of sexual foul play finally materialized and were acted upon, leading to his conviction and a 3-10 year prison sentence.  Wikipedia claims Cosby has over 70 honorary degrees from various institutions.  Many rescinded those degrees once his misdoings were verified.  Other institutions did not revoke their degrees, such as Virginia Commonwealth University.  Other schools removed the names of prominent honorees from buildings because of either real or perceived transgressions.

Obviously Cosby’s sexual behavior is deplorable and deserves punishment.  However on the flip side, does  such behavior counteract or overwrite a person’s other achievements?  Is this a binary thing – where you are either an accomplished professional or a disgusting criminal?  Can you only be one or the other?

That is problematic to me, as I don’t know many binary people.  I know many people who have wonderful characteristics but also who have some characteristics I don’t like so much.  And of course in my vocation as pastor, I am called upon to hear confession from time to time.  Very personal and specific confessions of actual bad or even illegal things people have done in their past.  And I am then charged and privileged to declare the forgiveness of Jesus Christ to that person, and to mean it.  I’m not allowed to distance myself from that person afterwards because what they confessed was too heinous.

Yes, there is a difference between the forgiveness of Jesus Christ and potential  legal liability for one’s actions.  But again, this isn’t a  binary thing.  We’re all guilty of some infractions real or imagined, large or small.  Did we make a full stop at that stop sign?  How often are we going over the speed limit?  Yet we generally say that such things don’t negate the good things a person has done or accomplished in their life. Sure, you ran that stop sign, but we’re not going to take away your Nobel Peace Prize because of it. 

As a Biblical Christian, I hold the tension that says that each of us is capable of amazing acts of love and grace, and at the same time capable of amazingly hurtful, cruel, even criminal behaviors.  The person is the same, capable of both sides of the coin, and therefore not binary.  Perhaps for short periods of time, but when considering the work and span of a person’s life, only in rare cases (Hitler, duh?) can we say that a particular person was practically universally bad.  Or good.

St. Paul fleshes this out in his amazing words in Romans 7.  This reality that we all live with – that there is a continual battle within us between the sinful and evil me, and the holy and righteous me.  I’m not binary.  By putting my faith in Jesus Christ, both mes exist within me – for the moment.  Only one is going to last, however.  Eventually I will be binary – I will be completely and only perfect.  But until that day, when Jesus returns and ushers in a new creation, I remain both saint and sinner.  The traditional theological phrase is simul iustice et peccatorAt the same time righteous/just and a sinner.

What this should lead to is not a glossing over or ignoring of sin, but the recognition that someone might be capable of a great sin, and yet still capable of accomplishing something great and praiseworthy, either before or after the period of time when they perpetrated the great sin.  It allows me to condemn Mr. Cosby for his sexual violence against women while recognizing that he is a legitimately gifted comedian, actor, and even thinker.  The two are not mutually exclusive.  And just as the sin needs to be punished, the gift remains worthy of praise.

And such praise is necessary, every bit as necessary as the punishment of sin or illegality is.

If  we’re only going to acclaim the admirable works of perfect people, we have nothing left to praise.  Nothing at all.  Which means what remains would be to determine which sins or illegal actions would be severe enough to counteract not only whatever good someone may have done in the past, but any good they might achieve in the future.  (And, for the Lutherans reading, I’m using generic terms and not dealing with a theological argument about whether we on our own are capable of any good works!)

And who will determine what sins or illegal actions those are?  And on what basis?  And what happens when a sin that is at one point considered heinous is eventually not viewed as a sin at all?  Can we counteract not the punishment that was due, but also the praise that was scrubbed out?  I don’t think so.

Hopefully Mr. Cosby learns from his sins and their consequences.  Not only that, I hope that others in positions of power or influence or wealth learn that such behavior is wrong.  Always.  But his accolades and accomplishments need to remain in the public eye as well, as reminders of what is possible despite our shortcomings, our failures, our sins, and as encouragement to others that good can be accomplished even if they get off to the wrong start.

Reading Ramblings – October 21, 2018

October 14, 2018

Reading Ramblings

Date: Twenty-Second Sunday after Pentecost – October 21, 2018

Texts: Ecclesiastes 5:10-20; Psalm 119:9-16; Hebrews 4:1-16; Mark 10:23-31

Context: As a father I think a lot about what I want my children to do and be. Not that I have preconceived notions, necessarily, but I think about how we as parents should be preparing them for life and the world. What should we emphasize and what should we not emphasize? Culturally, the emphasis by many parents we know – both Christian and non-Christian – is that the most important thing to do is prepare their kids to enter university and complete a college education. They go to great lengths to accomplish this, whether it’s private tutoring, working with their kids after school, home-schooling, pushing them to do volunteer work, etc. But as Christians the most important thing we can do is to convey the faith to our children, and I wonder how things might be different if parents were as fixated on this as they are on educational and vocational preparations. What if parents and grandparents valued and modeled a value on spiritual growth and maturity rather than standardized test scores? I think the texts for this week contribute towards this discussion.

Ecclesiastes 5:10-20 – Traditionally ascribed to Solomon late in his life, this book has long challenged and confused theologians uncomfortable with philosophical musings and what seems a very secondary focus on God. Yet the verses quickly sum up the reality of our lives – we spend so much effort on what we have and how to have more and better of it, yet these things actually mean very little and don’t last. Certainly it’s nicer to have more than less, but if this becomes the center of our lives we are destined for disappointment. Then more is never enough. More brings more worries and concerns about how to maintain it or use it. Our goods can be lost in an instant, whether through natural disaster or economic crisis or bad management or fraud and theft. And for the person who once had much and now has little? How bitter and angry that person might well be. Yet God created us for work, and to take joy and pleasure in our work for the sake of working. Luther would point out that our work is intended to be for the benefit of our neighbor, and this sort of work is a fulfillment of the summary command to love our neighbor. If this can be our focus – doing what God has gifted us to do so that not just us but those around us are blessed – we have a simple joy that is not easily rattled or stolen.

Psalm 119:9-16 – What should we train our children to be most concerned about? In our culture it seems that acquiring a certain kind of education and therefore a certain kind of job is most important, and families sacrifice nearly everything in order to assure this happens. The sort of enthusiasm and deliberateness these verses convey are hardly ever spoken of regarding our children’s (or our own!) spiritual formation and maturation, but are reserved almost exclusively for education and work and advancement. What dedication and focus (v.10)! What eagerness and enthusiasm (vs.11-12)! What a willingness to not alone learn but to apply and emphasize (vs.13-16)! How can we teach our children and neighbors and ourselves that this sort of effort is more valuable and beautiful than a Harvard degree or a six-figure income?

Hebrews 4:1-16 – We follow the lectio continua with Hebrews, just as we did with James, Ephesians, and 2 Corinthians earlier in this season of Pentecost or Ordinary Time. The theme continues from the latter part of Chapter 3, emphasizing the importance of not allowing ourselves – or those around us – to slowly lose faith and hope and trust in God and in the source of our salvation, Jesus the Son of God. Scholars debate whether these sections should be read as primarily applying to ministers and other workers in the Church, or more broadly to the priesthood of all believers. The point is important either way. Faith is something that can be lost, and the repercussions of doing so are brutal, both individually and – in the case of leaders in the Church – for those they lead. It’s easy to assume that once someone has accepted Jesus as their Savior, they could never lose this beautiful reality. But the more accurate reality is that we can – not necessarily through some violent rejection, but simply as something that fades away through neglect until one day it just isn’t there any more. So we must continually nurture our faith, growing in not simply understanding but appreciation of what we have received, and learning each day to see and experience life through faith and the God who created, redeemed, and sanctifies us. This is again a communal process, not an individual one, yet we as individuals must be intentional towards this end.

Mark 10:23-31 – I can’t believe that the lectionary creators split up 17-33 into two separate readings over two weeks! It makes absolutely no sense as the two sections go together, the latter interpreting and helping us to make sense of the former. Split up, it’s easy to read the first part as moralistic teaching, with the idea that we should not be like the rich young man, but rather be willing to sacrifice anything and everything for Jesus. Yet each one of us likely has something that we would be unwilling to offer or give up in order to follow Jesus! This is the point of Jesus’ explanation to his disciples in vs. 23-27. While many have tried to re-interpret the camel-through-the-eye-of-a-needle statement, making it very difficult but attainable, it’s clear that Jesus’ disciples recognize the point Jesus is trying to make. It isn’t just difficult for us to enter the kingdom of heaven based on what we do – it’s impossible! Jesus affirms that this is true, and offers the alternative – that we enter heaven not based on what we do but what God does. We can’t do it. The rich young man – who appears to have been very earnest and devout, whom we are told Jesus loves – couldn’t do it. How much less can we? Jesus says it is impossible. The moral is not to not be like the rich young man, but rather to cling tightly to the faith God the Holy Spirit brings to us, allowing us to see Jesus as the Son of God sent specifically so that we might enter the kingdom of heaven, who is willing to extend us his righteousness in place of our sin, his death in place of our own so that, like He, we might be raised to new life.

And the irony in all of this is that Jesus’ disciples don’t get this point. Rather, Peter does what you and I are tempted to do. He tries to show how his faith is better than the rich young man’s. Peter – and all the disciples – have left behind their means of making a living and whatever lot they had in the family business to follow Jesus. Isn’t that impressive? Isn’t that laudable? If Jesus is demanding poverty, surely the disciples have won the contest and done what the young man could not? Doesn’t that mean that they have done what they need to in order to receive eternal life? Jesus doesn’t directly respond to this insinuation. Rather, He assures them that if they are feeling bad for all they have left behind, they should recognize all they have and will receive. The call to follow Jesus may involve a call to poverty by this world’s standards, but never by God’s standards. Not everyone will receive a calling to poverty, but we shouldn’t fear it as the worst possible thing, either. The riches we earn and enjoy in this world don’t last, but what we are offered in right relationship with our Creator can’t ever be taken away.

Curmudgeonly

October 12, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

Slavery Is Bad – Unless It’s Good

October 8, 2018

The basic idea of feminism as I understand it:

Is that women and men are equal, but women haven’t been treated as equal.  They won’t be fully equal until they are emancipated from the economic and social constraints that have bound them through the years.  One of these constraints is the fact that, unfortunately, they are the bearers of children and, unfortunately, children need their mothers.  We don’t have a solution for that yet, but  we’re working on it.  In the meantime, women should be encouraged to work just like men work, and should be freed from the penalties of being out of the workplace to take care of their children until the children are old enough to be shipped off to early childhood care or preschool.  Motherhood and the constraints of child-bearing are part of the slavery imposed on women (by men, no doubt), but should be fought against and equalized in every way possible until  we figure out how to make men have babies.

So to free women from the slavery we allege child-bearing and child-rearing to be, our solution is to impose that exact slavery, the very slavery we are trying to free women from, on men.  We will force men to do what women have traditionally done but don’t want to do any more.   

In the name of equality.

There are undoubtedly spectrums and nuances to this and varying degrees of agreement and support.  But this is what gets published.

Literally.

The Wall Street Journal ran an essay a couple of weeks ago advocating for mandatory maternity leave for men, and arguing that this would ultimately be a good thing for the family.  They literally quote an executive:  “Bias plays such a clear role, we decided we are going to say, ‘It’s not an option.  You [men] have to take time off.'”

So in the interest of freeing women from a perceived form of slavery, the answer is to impose that same slavery on men and call it a good thing rather than a bad thing.  I understand the goal – the goal is that men and women are equally employed across all sectors earning equal amounts of money.  That all sounds rather fascinating and good – in and of itself.

What this article does not address at all – similar to a recent Time article on this topic in Sweden, is what’s best for the baby/child, and even what may be most desirable by the woman/mother.   The baby/child/family is treated ultimately as a secondary concern to personal vocational advancement.  The assumption is made that neither mother or father are really all that crucial to raising a healthy child – physically or emotionally (and of course we won’t even acknowledge the spiritual component).  Family is a distant second (or maybe even third) consideration.  What matters most of all is work.  Earning money.  Nothing is said about why or towards what end.  Earning money is the Holy Grail of feminism.  If you earn the same amount as a man, you’re finally equal.  No other metric will do.

I don’t consider it accidental that since the institutionalization of dual-income families the mental and emotional health of children seems to have declined precipitously.  Depression rates are apparently skyrocketing, and while some might chalk that up to better diagnoses, perhaps we also  should think about other more fundamental reasons why kids might be more depressed these days.  Factor in bullying by peers that no longer is restricted to school hours but can go on non-stop, 24/7 through the use of technology, and children seem to face a far more  hostile landscape than in previous generations.

Of course we can make all of this sound selfless.  After all, mom and dad are spending all their time and effort at work to make life better for you, Junior.  To ensure that you get the toys you want, live in the right school district, can attend the best universities, and in turn get the best jobs that will continue this cycle.

But what if kids really don’t need all of that?  What if kids really need their moms and dads?  What if emotional security and health begins with this rather than with school counselors and therapists and psychiatrists?   What if we’re killing ourselves for the wrong things, and equality is found in something other than a paycheck?  What if we  prioritized the family as the most important thing, and acknowledged men and women’s equally important and necessary and even unique roles in the family instead of treating them as interchangeable parts on an assembly line?

Radical thinking by today’s standards.  Just the sort of backwards, chauvinistic and misogynistic thinking to be expected of a man, I’m sure some might say.  But I’m willing to stand with what the Bible says – which is that our equality and value doesn’t come from what we do, but simply from the fact that we are.  That an employer or a paycheck doesn’t determine our worth, but rather the fact that God created us in the first place.

Of course this has a lot of implications on topics like abortion, euthanasia, family life, gender roles, and all manner of different things that certain groups in our society have decided they can arbitrarily change.  Even by natural selection and evolutionary standards though, the idea that we can arbitrarily redefine all of these evolved traits and characteristics is illogical.  Some might even call it arrogant.  But I guess if you decide you’re smarter than hundreds of thousands of years of evolution, you can make that argument.  I’m just not so sure you should trust that conclusion.

What makes you valuable?  Who makes you equal?  Nobody in this world – including yourself.  We dicker and fight about external means of  making people equal but I don’t know anyone who feels internally like they measure up, like they’re as good as everyone else or sometimes anyone else.  Those doubts and fears won’t be addressed by laws and business practices or more money in a paycheck.  Those issues can only be solved by God.  The God who created us equal in the first place, and who is re-establishing that equality through the voluntary death and resurrection of his Son.  Who insists that switching one form of slavery for another is no solution, and that nothing less than truly being free in Him will substitute.

I pray to be man enough to value and esteem a woman not because of her job or whether she earns more or less or the same as I do.  Just as I shouldn’t value or esteem her based on her looks.  But rather only on the fact that she is.  That God the Father created her, God the Son died for her, and God the Holy Spirit seeks to lead her back into a proper relationship with him that will reorder every other relationship in her life, including the one with herself.

Of course, I pray to be man enough to value and esteem a man for just the very same reason.  That sounds a lot more like equality than mandatory paternity leave does.

 

 

Reading Ramblings – October 14, 2018

October 7, 2018

Reading Ramblings

Date: Twenty-first Sunday after Pentecost ~ October 14, 2018

Texts: Amos 5:6-7, 10-15; Psalm 90:12-17; Hebrews 3:12-19; Mark 10:17-22

Context: Ah, what unwise times we live in! Has there ever been an age as deceitful, as full of pride and arrogance, as unloving and uncaring as ours? Has there ever been an age that people haven’t said this about? We are beamed the words and images of this arrogance, this pride, this deceitfulness, this lack of love and care on a second by second basis. We are sucked into it, either in our virulent denouncements of it, or as participants in the midst of it. Yet Scripture reminds us constantly that the source of wisdom is God himself, and whether we go along with the wisdom of the age or rail against it, we need to recognize a common danger in presuming that our wisdom is God’s, or that God specifically backs our point of view or admires our self-righteousness.

Amos 5:6-7, 10-15 – As we call the wicked to account, we do so first and foremost in light of God’s Truth. We strive that those who commit evil would turn from their ways to embrace God’s Truth for their lives. There is no such thing as a cessation of evil while still in rejection or denial of God and his Truth. There is either life in his Truth, working itself out in our thoughts, words and deeds, or continued death apart from him. But this prayer for salvation through God’s Son will be met by some with derision and rejection. Even a willingness to turn from sin might still include an angry rejection of the God who defines good and evil by his very nature. This will naturally express itself in anger against the ones proclaiming God’s Truth, so that, as we experience today, it is often wiser to stay silent than get into angry confrontations. Yet those who live in God’s Truth can and must still live out that truth even when people aren’t willing to discuss it. Doing so is faithfulness to the God who has created and redeemed us and promises us life with him forever.

Psalm 90:12-17 – God the Father is the source of all Truth and wisdom. To him we turn not only to guide us with this wisdom throughout all our days, but to call out to him in anticipation of him fulfilling his promise of Christ’s return and the end of all evil and wickedness. This should always be our first and final longing! In reality, though, we’re often not looking at this, not seeing this as our ultimate and final hope. We simply want things to be a little different, a little better here and now. There is a difference between God’s sustaining of creation as a whole and each of us individually, and his ultimate plan to restore or renew creation completely, purging it of sin and evil once and for all. It is towards this end that we labor here and now. Our efforts in social justice, in caring for the marginalized, in showing love to our neighbors, all these things only have meaning in a universe where such efforts are brought to perfect completion one day and have a real meaning as part of a moral and just universe. This is how God has created things, and we strive to live out that reality each day of our lives as we wait for our Lord’s return.

Hebrews 3:12-19 – Paul (the author historically presumed, although many question his authorship) stresses what matters most in our eternal relationship with God. It is not our works, but rather our hearts. It is our persistence in accepting God’s graciousness rather than rejecting it. The sin referred to by Paul in v.17 might best be interpreted as the refusal to trust the God who freed them from slavery in Egypt when He first brought them to the Jordan River and they were to cross over in trust. Instead, they grew fearful and refused to go, prompting a 40-year sojourn in the wilderness until the generation that refused to trust God died off. Their refusal to trust God resulted in a much longer and harder life than God intended for them. They didn’t enter into the rest He intended for them on the other side of the Jordan River. Paul exhorts us to live in trust of God and his providence and wisdom rather than rejecting it in favor of our own. Trusting God results in his peace, created by his Holy Spirit within us. Not that we won’t have moments of fear or doubt. Not that life may not have difficulties. But we are to remember that it is our sin that creates these problems and difficulties, and it is our sin that Jesus died for so that we look forward to resurrected life without sin.

Mark 10:17-22 – Are we so convinced that we are pleasing to God, unlike all those people out there who mock him or mock his truth or seek to rewire creation to suit their own philosophies and ideas? Do we take solace in our faithful worship, in our adherence to his Word, to our lives of simple faithfulness? Do we mistakenly think these things are what we do to inherit eternal life? Do we think that our flawed efforts at holiness are what set us apart from sinners and blasphemers?

Jesus’ words to the young man are said in love (v.21). It is the love of God that refuses to allow us to live a lie that might damn us. He refuses to tell us that our best efforts are good enough, that He grades on a curve, that so long as our sin is less heinous than Hitler’s or Stalin’s or our next door neighbors, He likes us better.

No, He insists that we understand that our best intentions and best efforts are fatally flawed and no better than filthy rags (Isaiah 64:6). He refuses to allow us the self-satisfaction of thinking that we have earned his love and grace and therefore are better than those who haven’t. He asks the earnest young man to give up the one thing he couldn’t. In our self-righteousness do we reprove the young man? Do we shake our heads and moralize, swearing that we would never make that same mistake? That we would be faithful where he was not? Is that what Jesus is aiming for here?

Each one of us has something we would be unable or unwilling to do if Jesus asked us. Sell our house and give our possessions to the poor? Leave our parents and family to preach the Gospel in poverty in a third-world country? Suffer the ridicule and hate of those around us for publicly holding to the Word of God? Make no mistake, each of us has something that would cause us to go away sorrowful like the young man. Each one of us has our limits in thought, word, or deed. Have you never had to face that? Praise God. Have you faced it and failed? Praise God – so long as that praise is based on the realization that it is God’s unswerving, unmerited love in Jesus Christ. So long as it is the recognition that you can’t possibly do everything necessary to earn and deserve God’s love, which necessitates that He send his Son into creation to rescue you.

This passage is not a diatribe against wealth. It is a brutal tearing off of the pretenses that we all want to live with, the idea that we’re really not so bad, really much better than those around us, really more deserving of God’s love because of what we do or don’t do. But God doesn’t grade on a curve. Salvation is pass/fail, and missing even one point, even one sin in thought, word, or deed results in a failing grade. This is where you and I and every person in all of history – except Jesus of Nazareth – stand. But that one man, Jesus of Nazareth, also the divine and eternal Son of God , makes all the difference. He suffered the penalty of sin – death – for all of us. He conveys his righteousness and perfection and holiness – his passing grade – to you and I. Not based on our merit but rather based solely on our realization that we need his perfection, and that without it we would be eternally lost in our sinfulness.

Wealth can indeed be dangerous. But so is anything – or anyone – that would prevent us from receiving the grace of God in Jesus Christ!

Book Review: The Daniel Dilemma

October 1, 2018

The Daniel Dilemma: How to Stand Firm and Love Well in a Culture of Compromise

by Chris Hodges

As a Lutheran, I’m a bit cursed.

That may have conjured a variety of thoughts for you, but I had a specific application in mind.  It comes to a basic difference in how to read Scripture.  Is it a story about us, an exhortation and encouragement and threat to constantly do better, live more faithfully, be more deserving of God’s grace and love, or is it a story about God and how good and faithful and persistent He is despite our constant rebelliousness, disinterest and apathy?

There are two caveats I need to acknowledge.  First off, I think most intelligent or mature Christians would be likely to say it’s the latter.  Lutherans aren’t unique in this.  Secondly, once everyone says this, many Christians (including a good number of Lutherans) proceed to gobble up books and instructions that place the emphasis squarely on what we should be doing, rather than emphasizing God’s grace.

To be fair, you aren’t going to sell many books by telling people to just focus on how loving and gracious and good God is to us and allow that to percolate through you and work itself out in a life of faith.  I just did it in one sentence.  Even by Twitter standards that’s pretty short.

On the other hand, you can write endless books interpreting Scripture as one long warning or encouragement to faithfulness, promising any number of fascinating rewards, from personal health and fitness to national renewal.  And since we all like good stuff, these books are constantly churned out.  Whereas the Bible – which tells us we’ve already gotten the good stuff in Jesus the Christ, the Son of God incarnate who lives and dies and rises again to convey his forgiveness and perfection to us – is, well, just one book.  And copyrighting it can be very complicated, I’m guessing.

It isn’t that we shouldn’t think about how to live our lives as Christians.  It isn’t, Lord knows, that we couldn’t be doing a better job of it.  But most books focus exclusively on this – what we call sanctification, the process of becoming more and more the holy and righteous person we will be on the day of Jesus’ return.  Most books pay lip service at best to the actual Gospel – that Jesus has done all of this for us already, and while this will certainly transform us in surprising ways, we are actually free.  Free to live out our lives in joyful response to God’s goodness.  Free to love others sacrificially.

Books that focus almost exclusively on our life of faith and almost not at all on God’s grace in Christ tend to enslave people though.  They give the impression – often well-intentioned or not intended at all – that if we don’t do better, God is probably going to love us less and we’ll miss out on all the cool stuff He wants to give us or do through us.

That’s a heavy load.

Lutherans balk at that load.  That’s not the Gospel, we say.  That’s transforming the grace and love of God into a work we have to earn, we say.  That’s not freedom, it’s just more chains and slavery, we complain.

The challenge is that there is a lot of room to talk about the life of Christian faith and our response to God’s love.  Lutherans may sometimes miss this or not talk about this out of fear that people will hear the Gospel being turned into Law, freedom into enslavement.  So it’s tricky.

Enter this book.

It’s a predictably engaging and affable book by a pastor of a huge church in the Southeastern US.  While I’m not personally familiar with him, I assume he’s earnest, kind, faithful and honest.  That these traits have enabled him to be very successful as a pastor and now also as an author and probably speaker.  So be it.  None of those things really matter to me, since I’m not his parishioner or in the same ministerial circles to be a brother pastor to/with him.  All I have is his book.

And his book is a lot of Law.

It’s not that, as the Law, it’s bad or wrong.  It’s just that it’s the Law.  And while he undoubtedly mentioned Jesus and love and grace and forgiveness a lot in the 250 or so pages, the much greater bulk of the book is aimed at trying to get Christians to actually live the way the Bible describes or prescribes.  He often uses italics at the end of chapters to drive his point home.

  • Have a good attitude.
  • Don’t wait until you have a breakdown.  Do it now.
  • The scales are waiting.
  • Don’t wait.  Don’t put it off.  Do it now.
  • The choice is yours.
  • Do what God wants, not what people want.

I get it.  You’re reading his book.  He has your attention for a few moments, and he wants to drive home the urgency of his message and he wants you to begin changing your life right now.  All well and good.  I’d argue it’s all well and good for a pastor to say to his congregation, whom he has a relationship with and a means of being in contact and follow-up with.  It’s a lot harder in a book.  In a book, it’s just a lot of pressure.  Failure to do these things, it is implied, is failing God.  And failing God either results in a less joyful life, or possibly eternal damnation.  Also true.  But again, a lot of pressure on the random reader who may have no other connection to Christian community or teaching.

The book allegedly utilizes the story of Daniel in the Biblical book of Daniel to provide insights into Christian living in a foreign culture.  Frankly, his use of Daniel is rather thin, and he goes long stretches without referencing him at all.  He utilizes a broad cross-section of Scripture otherwise along the way.  And his conclusions – none of which in and of themselves are bad – are appropriate in any context, not just in a culture that insists on compromise in belief and behavior.  Christians are to live out their lives of faith regardless of the particular cultural setting they find themselves in, just as they would live out their faith in essentially the same way regardless of whether they lived in Hawaii or Antarctica.

Throughout, he utilizes the Bible primarily to show us how we should be faithful.  Again, this is fine to a point.  But at other points it really seems to stretch this way of reading Scripture.

The most challenging, for me, came early on, in Part 1, starting around page 40.  Here Hodges relates Daniel 1:15-19, which describes how Daniel and a few other promising prisoners of war are put on the fast track to upward mobility in a foreign culture and government.  Part of the benefits of this are that they get the best of everything.  In fact, they eat the same stuff the king does.  Sounds like a great benefit, right?

Not if you have some very specific dietary restrictions.  Which the Israelites did (and faithful Jews today still do).  So Daniel’s response to this generosity is to ask – politely – permission to follow a diet more faithful to their faith, and if the results aren’t good enough in terms of their health and appearance, they’ll switch over to the king’s food.  At the end of the trial period, Daniel and his buddies who eat the alternate diet are stronger and better looking than any of the people eating from the king’s table.  So much so that the diets for all of the trainees are changed over to vegetables and water, just like Daniel and his buddies.

Hodges highlights this as an example of great faith on the part of Daniel and his buddies.  It’s an example of Daniel seizing an opportunity to test his faith, and being proved faithful in it.  It almost sounds as though Daniel’s faith was the cause of the turnout of the experiment.

First, I’d argue that rather than being an epic issue of faith, this is first and foremost an issue of training and therefore preference.  Having presumably been raised on a kosher diet and warnings against food prepared by outsiders who might not keep kosher or who might dedicate their foods to false gods, this would be the natural response for Daniel.  If you visited Vietnam (as I had the chance to a few years ago) and had the opportunity to eat dog, perhaps you would pass on this.  Our American culture finds that very inappropriate and disgusting.  Of course you’d ask for something else.

Secondly, if it is an act of heroic faith on Daniel’s part, it is God who gets the glory for both strengthening Daniel to stand firm in his faith and then blessing the outcome to vindicate Daniel’s faithfulness.  But these aspects are not mentioned at all.  The whole story becomes a moral model and encouragement for you and I to follow.  The emphasis is on Daniel, and therefore on you and I, rather than on God the Holy Spirit who is both the source of our faith and the promised presence of God with us in faith.

The rest of the book follows pretty much the same line.

Again, it isn’t that we all don’t need reminders and encouragements to deepen our faith.  But a book like this ultimately gives the impression that this is primarily our responsibility.  Biblically and anecdotally, I’d argue this is a false impression.  St. Paul sometimes has to clarify what behaviors are and aren’t appropriate for Christians, but he also clearly understands that whatever good there is in him to pursue those appropriate behaviors is not himself but rather Christ working in and through him.  This distinction is largely lost or ignored in this book.

Based on the title of his book, I think the best chapter in the whole book is the last one.  Ironically, it’s the chapter he begins with I hope you haven’t started with this chapter.  Yet this chapter reflects a more appropriate emphasis on the grace of God the Holy Spirit at work, and our chief tool in terms of prayer.  I wish more of this had permeated the rest of the book!

I read this because it sounded like an appropriate book for our times.  What I found was neither very deep exploration of Daniel and other of God’s people who lived in challenging times, nor anything very particular to challenging times.  If you proclaim Jesus as your Lord and Savior, live like it.  But remember even as you do this that it’s not really you doing it – once again it is God giving you the will and the strength and the power for you to put into use.  As such, you don’t get the glory when you succeed, or the right to look down on others who struggle more than you do.  And on the flip side, when you fail you rely on grace and forgiveness as an encouragement to get up and try again.

And in all of this, seek to live out the Reader’s Digest version of the Commandments – Love God, and Love Your Neighbor.  Whether they like you or not, whether they agree with you or not, and whether you really want to or not.

I think that last line was the sequel to my earlier book in this blog.  I’m on a roll.

 

 

 

 

Women’s Roles in the Church

September 27, 2018

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

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

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

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

 

Book Review – A Woman Rides the Beast

September 24, 2018

A Woman Rides the Beast: The Roman Catholic Church and the Last Days

by Dave Hunt

 

Without a doubt, one of the best aspects of my job is that  people are constantly recommending books for me to read.  And, without a doubt, this is also one of the most challenging aspects of my job.  I love to read, but basic math dictates that I will always have more recommendations than time to read – on top of my own reading goals.  The  other challenge is that what may be meaningful and helpful to one person may not be to me.  While this is true of any book and any relationship, it seems more complicated when a parishioner recommends a book to their pastor.

So by all means keep making recommendations.  And if you really like a book and I don’t, it’s nothing personal, promise!  I don’t think less of you, and hopefully you won’t think less of me.

So Karl dropped off this book a couple of weeks ago with a note to just read the first 30 pages or so.  I made it through the first 40.  After talking with him, his particular interest was really that I only read the opening pages, which provide some historical background on developments between the Roman Catholic Church and certain elements of Evangelical Christianity.  It was material  I wasn’t  aware of before, centered on joint declaration entitled Evangelicals and Catholics Together, signed on March 29, 1994.  Aside from March 29 being my birthday, I found this author’s take on the agreement interesting.  He claims it’s the most important development in church history  since the Reformation 500 years ago.

I haven’t read the document yet, but intend to.  The author of this book claims that it is tantamount to a massive heresy intended to insulate Roman Catholics from proselytizing by Evangelicals in exchange for vague promises of a lack of persecution of Evangelicals by the Catholic Church (particularly in South America).  All of which is interesting.

So, thanks Karl.  Something new to investigate!

But I couldn’t get farther than that.

The premise of the book is intriguing, focusing on the woman riding the beast in Revelation 17.  But my difficulty with the book is the writer’s emphatic insistence that his particular interpretation of the prophecies and symbolism of Revelation are absolutely and indisputably correct.  I appreciate the strength of his conviction, but find it somewhat overstated, to say the least.  People have been interpreting Revelation for 2000 years.  Many have been firmly convinced of the accuracy of their predictions, many of which focused on their own immediate contexts and local/world events.  All were eventually demonstrated to be incorrect.  Faithful, but incorrect.  Or at least partially incorrect.

As such,  I have to stand with my current take on Revelation.  We aren’t given enough to accurately interpret the symbolism with complete  accuracy.  Attempting to glean information about the nature or timing of the very last  days (since I think we’ve been in the last days for 2000 years) will ultimately prove unsuccessful, as per Jesus’ warnings to his disciples (Mark 13, for instance).  We are to be watchful, but not with the idea that we’re going to be able to see it coming or forestall it, but so that we can remain faithful during trying times – whether they turn out to be the eschaton or not.

If I’m wrong, I’ll apologize to Mr. Hunt in heaven.  It may well be that we’ll meet there  as martyrs in the very last days, something that I doubt will be of any greater comfort to him with his foresight than our shared consolation in Christ and the promise of our resurrection when He returns.

Reading Ramblings – September 30, 2018

September 23, 2018

Reading Ramblings

Date: Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost, September 23, 2018

Texts: Numbers 11:16-17, 24-29; Psalm 104:27-35; James 5:1-20; Mark 9:38-50

Context: God works how and where He pleases. Sometimes this is encouraging and helpful and other times it is disconcerting, but it is always done with the ultimate goal of drawing us to him in repentance through Jesus Christ.

Numbers 11:16-17, 24-29 – The assigned reading included vs. 4-6, continuing on with 10-16 and then concluding with 24-29. I always dislike when the assigned reading is chopped up like that. In this case, the reason seems to be eliminating some extraneous material. But the material isn’t extraneous, it’s just that there are two separate issues dealt with in Chapter 11. One is the complaint of the people for meat which leads them to wish they were back in Egypt as slaves again. The other is God’s provision to Moses of additional leaders to delegate some of the work of guiding God’s people. The hinge is 10-16, where Moses laments to God that he has been asked to carry too great a responsibility. The psalm leads us to contemplate the meat issue, but the Gospel leads us to contemplate the matter of God’s freedom to work through the Holy Spirit in whatever fashion He determines. This sometimes may seem counter-intuitive. Yet God who creates and sustains all things is also working all things towards his purposes. We aren’t able to discern his patterns and works, yet we can oftentimes discern his work by the fruits.

Psalm 104:27-35 – These verses start out referencing the creatures God created. He sustains and provides for them in ways that are still a great mystery to us. For instance I read an article this morning describing the migration of Great White sharks across the Pacific Ocean. Scientists only just discovered that an area between Baja California and Hawaii that the sharks travel to isn’t an empty stretch of ocean but rather an area of remarkably dense creatures that the sharks feed on. We should continually marvel at the ways God provides for his creation! What an endless source and reason for the praise of our God’s wisdom, power, and love!

James 5:1-20 – The first dozen verses of this chapter were optional, but if we’re supposed to be reading more or less through entire letters in the New Testament, we might as well go ahead and do so! James’ warning to the rich in vs. 1-6 is clearly not aimed at wealthy Christians, but those outside the community of faith who place their faith in their riches and abuse and cheat others in order to increase their wealth. He then turns his attention to Christians, many of whom were likely poor and dependent on the work provided by the wealthy, and therefore sometimes the victims of predations and unfair labor practices. James encourages his brothers in the faith to patience. While this encouragement may be related to the unfair treatment of the wealthy it may not be, but rather may be a more general encouragement to make the coming of the Lord their main concern, rather than focusing on what they have to endure here and now. A brief warning against taking oaths follows, and then a longer section on the role of the Church in the Christian life.

We remember that James is writing about the life of faith, providing some concrete warnings and exhortations about various different arenas and issues of life that have no direct relation to each other beyond that most people will deal with some or all of them and therefore Christians ought to know how to do so. Some interpret vs.13-20 as, in part, a ritual of sorts for healing, as though following this particular process will result in divine healing. But anointing with oil was a standard medical practice for the relief of various ailments and conditions, and so to interpret it in a spiritualized way may not be completely accurate. James could just be indicating that the Church should provide what comfort and help they are able to for a suffering person, chief of which is keeping that person in prayer. Is the result in v.14 a promise of healing? God the Holy Spirit certainly does provide miraculous healing in response to prayer sometimes, but perhaps the statement the Lord will raise him up is not specifying physical healing but our ultimate and final healing in the resurrection of the dead when our Lord returns? This would make good sense in association with the following statement about the forgiveness of sins. Our sins are forgiven in Christ already, regardless of whether or not we suffer physical illnesses!

Mark 9:38-50 – The most relevant verses appear to be 38-41, in terms of relation to the Old Testament reading. Jesus’ disciples are concerned that someone unaffiliated with them or otherwise a disciple of Jesus was casting out demons. This might seem a petty matter of protecting their turf, but we tend to be concerned about this still today. Someone claiming to perform wonders in Jesus’ name – are they legitimate? Are they out for personal gain? Is there an agenda or something below the surface that might impugn Jesus’ name? Jesus’ response is not entirely comforting – don’t stress so much over it. If someone is able to perform a work in Jesus’ name, then at some level we can’t discern the Holy Spirit is willing to work through them. Jesus doesn’t, however, promise that such things are always done by people who are fully in Christ, but that even if they aren’t, for some time after the event they won’t be able to speak evil of Jesus. When the Holy Spirit works the outcomes are not under our control, even if we’re who the Spirit works through. Rather, we should trust that God knows everything and will ensure that any misunderstandings or apparent misuses are ultimately made right.

Jesus then turns the conversation from speculating about others to being discerning about ourselves. We can speculate about the motives of others or their potential (or actual) sin. But we need to first and foremost be concerned about our own sinfulness. And not just our sinfulness, but how our sinfulness affects others. We are to be very careful to not mislead others into sin. Such strong words Jesus uses here! This is not a casual issue – eternity is at sake not just for us, but for the other person and untold numbers of other people that could be affected either in the short or long term.

We are always tempted to soft-peddle sin, to not make too big a deal about it. After all, it’s not like we’re Hitler, right? But sin is sin. The scale of sin matters a great deal to you and I but the sin remains identical before God. Is Jesus advocating self-mutilation here? Many are quick to say no, but some think He’s more literal than you and I might like to think.

Sandwiched between two predictions of his betrayal, death, and resurrection, however, Jesus is likely doing something else. As we recognize the sin in our lives, wouldn’t it be nice if it could be as simple as eliminating a part of the body and eliminating the sin? But what we would quickly realize is that sin will express itself by another means. The punishment of sin is eternal death and therefore we need to take it seriously. But do we seriously think we can stop our sin on our own, even by resorting to such drastic means as cutting off parts? Sin is more pervasive than this. Jesus dealt with this in 7:14-23.

Our hope must come from another source then – and that source is the death and resurrection of Jesus. It is to save us from our sin, to offer his life rather than ask us to offer up pieces of our body, that Jesus goes willingly to the cross and suffers humiliation and agony and death. We can put the knives and cleavers away because Jesus’ death and resurrection has freed us from the mastery of sin and made possible our becoming children of God.