Archive for the ‘Theology’ Category

To Sing or Not to Sing

May 16, 2023

Some interesting articles that caught my eye belatedly regarding an interesting (though I’d say hardly surprising or even new) trend in Christian worship – congregations aren’t singing.

As if often the case (when I remember to check their website) the good folks at GetReligion.org first caught my eye with this story. Which in turn led to this essentially same article, which in turn led me to this list of nine reasons one person thinks congregants are no longer singing in worship, in an ironic reversal of the Protestant tradition of congregational singing contra the previous Roman Catholic tradition of singing relegated to choirs rather than congregations. I think the list is very useful and accurate.

In my times worshiping in other Christian traditions the challenge of congregational singing is evident. Certainly in the more non-denom, big box environments where professional musicians, lighting experts, sound mixers, and special effects artist create a ‘worship’ experience to rival a lot of smaller-scale secular professional performers this is the case. But even in some traditional mainline denominational congregations I’ve experienced difficulty joining in the singing. One notable location plays familiar enough hymns, but the accompanist has the annoying habit of raising the octave with each stanza, so what began as a graspable but slight reach for my aging voice becomes near-impossible to sing by the third verse.

Is congregational singing an important or even necessary part of Christian worship? I posed that question to a small online discussion group this evening. We came up with several reasons why congregational singing ought to be part of Christian worship. Strangely enough, we came up with nine reasons :-)

  1. Music is beautiful!
  2. As such music is a near-universal part of the human experience whether on the large scale or individual scale. If we listen to music for simple enjoyment, and if we sing along in the shower or during our daily commute to the office, why wouldn’t we also sing in worship?
  3. Congregational singing is very Biblical. Think of Moses and Mirian leading the people of God in communal worship after having been delivered from the Egyptians in Exodus 15. Think also of Revelation and the continual chorus of praise raised to God by angels and the saints.
  4. Because of this, much historic liturgy and music is drawn directly from Scripture. As we sing together in worship we are joining with the communion of the saints who are doing the same thing, and practicing what we will be doing in eternity.
  5. Congregational music is a way of teaching.
  6. Music is often a good mnemonic device to assist people in remembering.
  7. As an extension of this, I’ve had numerous parishioners over the years suffering from severe illnesses who reported that while they weren’t able to think or communicate much, they had hymns playing in their heads as they lay in ICU and these familiar tunes provided extraordinary comfort and peace in an otherwise terrifying situation.
  8. Group singing is an encouraging experience – we grow in our willingness and even ability to sing praise to God as we join in with our brothers and sisters who are doing the same thing. This is true even in small groups (albeit a bit more timidly!) as it is in arenas.
  9. Music is a part of liturgy and even when other aspects of the liturgy are somewhat lackluster, congregational singing can still deliver God’s Word and promises to people in an important way. As a pastor I take comfort that not all of my sermons will be good, but choosing some solid hymns is a way of ensuring congregants are still fed!

In my narrow Lutheran circles the argument is more often stylistic, with some preferring traditional (though no less arbitrary, just with a longer pedigree) forms of hymnody and instrumentation while others feeling more updated music and lyrics are necessary (particularly for “the young people”). Perhaps the focus needs to be more on how to engage communicants in singing than worrying about the instruments or tempos they’re singing to/with. And I’d argue it’s another good reason to reconsider building a stage and putting the praise team on it to “lead” worship. While this can work, I suspect it more often than not leads to less congregational participation in singing for the reasons articulated in the article above.

Ending With a Whimper

May 6, 2023

Perhaps this will be my final Covid-related post. Living outside the United States for the last 15 months provides a fascinating comparison perspective. Unlike much of the rest of the world, the news out of the US in any regard to Covid is uniformly negative, as it has been since the inception of this virus three years ago. Dire warnings of triple-demics this past winter were, once again, grossly incorrect. Attempts to milk Covid for additional revenue whether in advertising dollars or ‘free’ vaccines and boosters have, however, inevitably run out of steam.

The pandemic is over. Some might argue it was over months ago or more but let’s not dicker. The World Health Organization (WHO) determined it’s over and of course they’re the wisest voice in all of this, right?

Before we get to the article and statements from the WHO, I’ll simply say I think the 6.9 million people who died would prefer we celebrate a bit, having gotten through all of this. Instead of a whimper and simply turning our voyeuristic and opportunistic lenses elsewhere, we ought to stop to give thanks to God. If your congregation hasn’t done this, let me humbly suggest it should. An opportunity to acknowledge losses and give thanks for those who avoided infection or found it didn’t affect them as direly as it did many others.

I find it fascinating that the article (if not explicitly the WHO) credit the end of the pandemic to vaccination, treatments and herd immunity. No mention of the weakening strains of the coronavirus that have proved less and less dangerous to most of the people they infect. In other words, the pandemic is over because we beat it, not because the virus weakened and diluted and became more and more inconsequential. Not even a combination of the two factors. It was simply our ingenuity. Really?

I’m curious about the statement in the middle of the article asserting “In most cases pandemics truly end when the next pandemic begins.” What in the world is that supposed to mean? Is the presumption we careen from one medical emergency to another, one bubonic plague to the next, one Covid to the next when clearly, historically this is not the case. Or perhaps Michael Ryan of the CDC simply means there is always a pandemic, always some contagion circling the globe. Of course that might be true, though substantiation of this would seem problematic at best. The only reason we paid attention to Covid – or swine flu, or any other number of illnesses – is that we proved ill-suited in our immunological response to it, to the point where enough people died in enough places to connect dots and determine something larger was happening.

But I’d argue the statement makes little sense regardless of which interpretative line you follow.

And I’m curious exactly how Mr. Ryan thinks we will fix our weaknesses, whether biological or systemic and bureaucratic, so that no other virus can ever threaten us again and we need never fear another pandemic. Again, history certainly doesn’t bear this out. A certain humility, lacking in the comments in this article, would seem appropriate when we realize our solution to Covid was by and large to hide for three years, separated from friends and loved ones to cower in fear. It’s clear that the promise of immunity from vaccines gave way to a less grandiose, muted hope that, if they did not prevent infection, they would at least weaken the symptoms of covid and the mortality rate.

If anything should be learned from Covid it’s a healthy humility and awareness of our fragility. An awareness that even the combined resources of the richest and most scientifically advanced countries could not prevent the spread of Covid nor significantly blunt its initial impact. Science is not the impervious or impartial champion it wanted to be in all of this. People did the best they could and I don’t fault the efforts in the least, but rather the overblown rhetoric by which certain measures were justified despite little reliable data on their effectiveness. The way in which people were demonized for disagreeing or even asking questions. There is indeed a lot we could learn from this pandemic experience, but I don’t think we’re likely to. History shows us this as well.

So when will your life go back to normal? When will you gather with friends again without cringing when someone blows out birthday candles before carving up the cake and handing you a piece? When will you not jump a little when someone nearby coughs or sneezes? There’s a powerful argument to be made that despite national or global decrees, the pandemic will never be over emotionally or psychologically for those of us who lived through it.

I was fumbling with something in my shirt pocket the other night, trying to figure out what it was. It wasn’t bulky enough to be a handkerchief (a necessary, constant companion in the oppressive heat and humidity of a tropical climate). I finally managed to pull it out, and it was a face mask. While there are still plenty of people going around with facemasks in Southeast Asia, and while this may be the case for years to come, or perhaps forever, it was a profound moment that I was so surprised at what it was, that I should have it on me and not need it any more. Or at least feel like I didn’t need it.

Maybe that’s a first step towards the true, personal end of the pandemic. Thank God.

Revival (?)

February 18, 2023

Several readers and friends have forwarded me articles on the revival being reported in some circles at Asbury University in Kentucky. This is a Christian (Methodist) school and a typical chapel service started early last week started and hasn’t ended yet. Understandably this has generated a lot of interest in some Christian circles (if not secular). Much of this interest comes from social media posts from people at Asbury University (including the chaplain) being reposted over social media. This has led to people traveling to the school from other places to experience it for themselves.

So what should be made of this?

I’d say overall, nothing in particular needs to be made of this. I’m grateful for the students (and others) experiencing this moment and pray it is a continued blessing in their lives. Many Christians experience moments of profound awareness of the Holy Spirit’s presence in their lives. Less often are these moments linked in time and place with other Christians, but just as I’d not (barring unusual issues) feel the need to question someone’s individual experience of God (unless it directly contradicted his Word), I don’t feel the need to question a communal experience. But, conversely, just as I wouldn’t try to extrapolate an individual’s experience into something greater, neither do I see the need for such an extrapolation of this communal event in Kentucky.

As usual, GetReligion has an excellent article on this topic. I’d highly recommend a read.

The things to look for in these situations are not the signs, not the experiences in and of themselves, but what and who they might point to or lead towards. The signs in and of themselves are fleeting and limited in scope. But what and more importantly who (Jesus) they point to or lead to are bigger.

A few years (12?!?!?!) ago all the rage was a book called Heaven Is for Real. It detailed a young boy’s account of visiting heaven and meeting Jesus and deceased family members. People made a big deal about the child’s experience. But why? Many Christians have reported encounters with Christ (so have some non-Christians I’ve met, and the experience brought them to faith in Christ). For Christians, such reports are just that, reports. They don’t tell us anything new. They may encourage our faith, but so should the Word of God first and foremost! Do we need additional reports to improve upon what God has already told us? I blogged about it here. And tangentially here. And again here, related to the aforementioned tangent.

Again, this is not to disparage such reports. I trust the boy did indeed have the experience he claims to. I am happy so many people are being touched at Asbury University. But these things don’t change my faith in Jesus Christ. At best, they encourage my faith. At worst, they have no impact at all because they aren’t happening directly to me.

Might revival be occurring? I suppose so, depending on how you define that word. Revival is nothing new in the Christian faith either on the individual or collective level. I don’t obsess about revival, which of course is in part due to my own church’s perspectives on such things. But I do pray as Jesus taught us that our Father’s will be done and that his kingdom come and that his name would be honored – most of all by those who profess to follow him. Is that the same thing as revival? Frankly, I think it’s probably much deeper, powerful, and longer-lasting than revival. Revival should lead towards these things. If revival is valued solely for the religious or emotional experience it imparts to those touched by it, we’re missing the deeper point.

Experiences and emotions fade. They can alter as we age, and of course Satan is happy to try and confuse us about them. God’s promises to us don’t change or alter. So I prefer to focus on and give thanks for those. I’m certainly not against a subjective, emotional spiritual experience, but my faith is not dependent upon having received one in the past or getting one now. My faith is grounded in God’s enduring Word and promise to me, objectively received in my baptism and received again and again at the Lord’s Table.

So, I pray that people’s lives are being touched in Kentucky. And in the rest of the world, whether it’s being reported on or not, whether or not there’s a critical mass of people involved. You don’t need to go to Kentucky to get in on the action. Likewise, if you’re so inclined and it doesn’t diminish your other vocational responsibilities, feel free to. Regardless, continue to nurture your life of faith in the Word of God and through his Sacraments and gathering in Christian community. If the Holy Spirit wants to reveal something to you or grant you some sort of special experience, don’t worry, He will. You aren’t going to miss out.

Billiards & Theology

December 29, 2022

Truth be told, billiards is a hobby that for me, usually doesn’t involve a lot of thought. Perhaps that’s why I’m not a world champion after playing for 30+ years. More often (especially if playing alone) it clears my head and I don’t think about much of anything else. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t possibilities for more useful intellectual and theological engagement with the game.

Earlier this week I headed out to one of my favorite locales with my colleague here in town, Matt. Although he readily admitted it had been a long time since he last played, he was eager to get out and I was happy to introduce him. As I was preparing to go I was WhatsApping with another long-time friend, peer, and colleague (in another country), JP. He was happy Matt and I were heading out and hoped it would be a good opportunity to build the relationship. But, he added, I should still show Matt no mercy when we played!

That got me thinking a bit.

In billiards (or any other competitive activity, I suspect), mercy is complicated. Mercy is, in fact, not always merciful. Showing mercy (deliberately missing shots or trying to otherwise throw the game so the other person feels more capable or hopeful) is actually unmerciful if the other person doesn’t have at least a nominal baseline ability to make a shot now and then. Showing mercy to someone with absolutely no skill at all only makes both people miserable by drawing out the game forever. Mercy is appropriate in a situation where there the other person has at least some ability, or some ability to improve on their current ability. Otherwise mercy becomes pointless and torturous to everyone involved.

So is all mercy like billiards mercy? Is God’s mercy like billiards mercy?

The Bible describes God as merciful (Exodus 34:6, Deuteronomy 4:31, Nehemiah 9:17, Luke 6:36, etc.) and I believe this is true. In his mercy He extends forgiveness and grace through the incarnation, life, death, resurrection, ascension and promised return of his divine Son, Jesus the Christ. This grace is necessary because of the sin that separates us from God’s perfect holiness, a condition creation has endured since the Fall of Genesis 3. And it is in mercy that God’s perfect timing continues to play out, allowing his broken creation to continue experiencing redemption person-by-person through Jesus (Ephesians 1:3-10). There is a purpose to God’s timing and mercy. Otherwise continuing to experience the suffering of the world would be more than pointless, it would be cruel, even evil.

So what is it in us that makes God’s mercy merciful rather than simply torture?

The traditional – and wrong – answer is our good works in some way. Pelagius tried this route early on and it was roundly rejected by the Church and rightly so. If we contribute in any way to our own salvation, then the Son of God’s work on our behalf is only partial, imperfect. Passages like Romans 3 or 1 Corinthians 1:18-25 are strong in making sure we don’t mistake our efforts for something worthy of or deserving of God’s grace. Pelagius meant well, I assume. That’s the mark of a compelling heresy – it’s not trying to be heretical, it’s just trying to make sense to us in some way.

And as such, others attempted to rehabilitate his ideas. And frankly a lot of preachers I’ve heard are effectively Pelagiasts in barely mentioning Jesus at all in their sermons, never mentioning our sin in any specific, overt way, and focusing exclusively on exhorting their hearers to good works. Good works are important to talk about, but without any context to them, hearers presume it is these that impress God or lead him to bestow his mercy on us.

So it can’t be our good works, whether we define this in the narrow sense Pelagius tried to, as in our reaching out for/acceptance of God’s offer of grace in Jesus Christ, or in the wider sense of impressing God with our good works. JP and I agreed on that so it’s clearly the right answer. But if so, what might there be about us that makes the mercy of God merciful?

I suggest going all the way back to the beginning, to the imago dei of Genesis 1:27. The quality that makes us redeemable, that makes mercy actually merciful rather than sadistic torture, is not something generated by us but gifted to us by our Creator, Redeemer and Sanctifier. Like everything else, it is received, not generated. Because God has created us in his image, we are redeemable. This is not something we can boast about, as Paul makes clear in Romans 4. It is something which God alone receives the glory for, and any boasting to be done should be done about him.

I’m still playing around with this theological noodling. Thoughts? Alternatives? Is the analogy flawed to begin with?

In any event, I didn’t show mercy, and we had a good time regardless. :-)

Lying and Hating

November 25, 2022

Living on the other side of the world I try to keep abreast of global news including back home in the US. Lately it seems most of the news stories revolve around Americans killing other Americans in America. Sometimes for reasons we know, other times not.

All of these are atrocities and tragedies. The Biblical rule against murder is not conditional. The Biblical command to love our neighbor as ourselves (and even to love our enemies) is not conditional either. Which means Christians should be praying for everyone. Certainly this should be a standard practice but certainly in times of crisis the need is more obvious. Those Christians who refuse to pray or pray selectively should go back to Scripture and remind themselves that our political or cultural identities do not define us and our duties to our Lord. Our Lord determines them and has made himself pretty clear. If society and culture has rejected the Biblical truths we confess, it does not free us of our Lord’s command to love and to pray.

That being said, there are more than a few disturbing aspects to the Colorado Springs shooting at a gay club.

It caught my attention that the initial information about the shooter indicated that, by all accounts, he likely shared some commonalities with more than a few of the attendees of the club. I was prepared for the barrage of anti-conservative critics pointing out the shooter’s fundamentalist Christian background. Instead, I read the shooter identified as non-binary and preferred non-gender-specific pronouns. Although I’m sure such indicators don’t preclude Christian (anymore) or conservative ideologies, in my experience that would not be the more likely reality.

Perceptions and expectations are tricky things. But so is outright ignorance.

So while I pray for the owner of the club, his patrons, the victims, everyone associated directly and indirectly with the event and our country and society as a whole, his recent comments on the event are problematic. His interpretation is the shooting is simply the logical outcome of those who oppose normalizing alternative sexual or gender identities. Once again it’s the alternative lifestyles being victimized by the oppressive conservatives who refuse to promote their preferences.

But that isn’t the case in this situation. This seems more to be the case of one who might see himself – or be seen by his victims – as somewhat similar. More like one of their own. Which complicates attempts to cast it otherwise. Or at least should. Perhaps it’s just a way of interpreting life that is so ingrained with the owner it still gets voiced even when the facts don’t support it.

As always, I’m happy to retract any of my statements disproved by additional news sources or information I may not have seen.

The owner seems to at the very least not be aware of or understand the shooter.

Similar to the situation in this article, which is much larger and more problematic level.

Now, to be fair, I don’t have an encyclopedic knowledge of everything Boebert has said about the LGBTQ+ community or agenda. I know she’s mouthy and not exactly diplomatic, a trait shared by a disturbingly larger and larger percent of the population it seems and our leaders as well.

For clarification – religious or otherwise – disagreeing with someone yet still caring about them is not hypocritical. To disagree with someone does not necessitate (and should not necessitate) dehumanizing them or wishing evil upon them. This is a typical assertion of the LGBTQ+ community, insisting that anything other than full acceptance of and promotion of their radical redefinitions of humanity is hateful. Disagreement is not hatred. Failure to understand this is a failure to understand the fundamental rules of logic and disputation.

Again, perhaps Boebert has said things in the past that deserve the hypocritical charge. But if not, if she – like many, many, many Americans (far more than the left or the media would like to admit) – disagrees with attempts to redefine humanity, then it is not hypocritical (especially if they are Christian) to still pray for those they disagree with. It is, rather, commanded of them. Failure to understand this is a failure to understand even the basic elements of the religious convictions of roughly a third of the world’s population and the overwhelming majority religion in America.

I’ll put the best construction on things and assume the statements by the owner of the club and leaders of the LGBTQ+ movement are just ill-informed rather than lying about the facts at hand or about the fact that disagreeing is not hatred. Otherwise, the alternative seemingly insisted upon is that we always agree with anything anyone says about anything at any time for fear of creating hate of some sort that erupts into violence. By such logic LGBTQ+ advocates immediately null their own argument.

Violence is not the answer, and anyone on either side of this or any other argument that first resorts to it is wrong and should be condemned. In fact, it is facile attempts to invalidate opposition through words and reason and faith that can lead people to frustration and eventually violence. Let’s agree that there is a profound disagreement over the LGBTQ+ agenda and treat it as an actual intelligent disagreement that deserves to be vetted in the public square rather than immediately squashing and vilifying any dissent (on either side, by either side).

It won’t stop the killing, but it may slow it down some. Stopping it completely is going to take a long time and a much more difficult willingness to recognize we’ve been going down the wrong ideological rabbit hole for the last 70-some years. I don’t think that will happen in my lifetime but I pray it begins soon. It’s the only way these horrible killings (whether murder or suicide) will stop.

Let He that Has Ears (and stands in the pulpit) Hear

October 21, 2022

Amen and amen to this essay on the purpose and point of preaching. Give them the goods, brothers!

A Needed Gospel

October 2, 2022

I was having a theological discussion the other day with a friend regarding the challenge of sharing the Gospel in some cultures, particularly affluent ones. I pointed out that in such situations there might be no perceived need for the Gospel to address, and therefore people would be less open to the Gospel. He countered that we have to be careful about tailoring the Gospel to fit the perceived needs of recipients. This is a flaw in a great deal of global Christianity through the heretical prosperity gospel, which preaches that faith in God will naturally lead to tangible, economic benefits that will improve the lives of the faithful because God the Father’s intent is to lavish his good gifts upon us.

As I contemplated the discussion later, I kept coming back to this issue of need and the Gospel. It’s a historical reality that the Gospel often finds the most faithful and eager adherents among the most marginalized of society. Whether it was the lepers and the prostitutes blessed by Jesus directly, or the lower classes of Greek and Roman society who heard the disciples preach, or the poorer citizens of cultures around the world – such as the untouchable class in India’s Hindu caste system – people with very real and imminent needs often hear the Gospel more clearly and place their faith in it more readily.

After all, their other options might be few to none.

Add to this the Church’s historic (and present) practice of providing help and relief to the suffering both locally and globally, and it makes sense that people suffering through dire need who hear the Gospel and are assisted by those already professing it would be more open to making it their own faith. They’ve seen it in action.

It sounds good, but the flip side is just as slippery. Should a perceived need not be met by the Gospel or the Church, it might be equally easy for someone new in the faith or only shallowly familiar with it to despair and give up the Gospel in search of another, better option. Or the option of giving up entirely. My friend is right, relying on the ability to assist with a particular need in terms of tangible aid is a potentially dangerous confusion of the Gospel.

But the reality remains that the Gospel does meet our needs. And it should be preached and taught as such. But this requires adequate teaching to counteract the default cultural teaching and assumptions about life and reality. It requires an active counterpoint to cultural mantras (at least in the West) of rugged individualism or the promises of science and technology to solve our problems. It requires a more fundamental awareness of the Big Picture. This can’t be stressed enough, particularly in cultures where there no longer is a Big Picture. Where there’s nothing but the abyss of meaninglessness that logically follows in a mechanistic universe formed by accident. When culture insists there is no meaning in anything or anyone, the Church must work harder to teach that there is meaning in everything and everyone.

The Gospel does meet our needs, but those needs are not always (or ultimately) a matter of food or clothing or money. The Gospel fulfills our deepest needs and longings, but in many places those needs or longings have been buried under nothingness. There is no explanation for the sense of guilt, or disappointment, or frustration. And there is no fundamental hope that things can, should, or will be radically different at some point in the future. There can only be the vague encouragements to pretend life has meaning and to soldier on through suffering.

Given the skyrocketing rates of violence in the West – both in suicide as well as in the wanton destruction of other lives – such encouragements are understandably less than convincing. Evolutionary theory and natural selection can’t address the fundamental issues we face as human beings – why am I here? why is there suffering? why should I endure suffering? why should I help others? why should I continue on day after day when I’m unhappy? will there ever be anything more or better than this?

But the Gospel can and does answer these questions. It provides the meta-answers that place the problems human face individually and corporately in perspective, providing ways and means of interpreting them, coping with them, and continuing on in the face of adversity. As such the Gospel not only meets our needs, it defines them for us. We might be happy enough to simply acknowledge unhappiness with our lives, dissatisfaction with our jobs, loneliness from a lack of meaningful connection to other people. But the Word of God lifts our eyes to the Big Picture. A Big Picture that accounts for why we deal with such things, how we can deal with them better, and provides the all-important basis for hope to endure – things will not always be this way. There is a better day coming – the Day of the Lord.

So I’d still argue that the Gospel does address our needs and it’s not wrong to talk about it in such terms, so long as we allow Scripture rather than our sinful and narrow-minded hearts to define what our needs are. My need is not more followers on my blog, or more money in the bank, or a better car or a prettier wife or better behaved children. My needs are at the core of my being and cannot be addressed by more zeros at the end of my bank balance.

Let the Gospel address the needs people have, because it has addressed – and defined – the needs of those who share it. Jesus is the answer not just to temporary happiness or satisfaction but to the deepest existential questions existence conjures. Including, sometimes, hunger and nakedness and oppression. And miracle of miracles, the Gospel draws us in to sometimes be direct or indirect contributors to meeting the needs of those around us, which we find usually results in our own needs being met at the same time.

Book Review: Wild & Weird

August 13, 2022

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

When the Law Isn’t the Law

July 15, 2022

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Which Texts, Please?

June 27, 2022

I mean, how hard did you have to look to find a group like this to support your-predetermined conclusion that religious groups are in favor of abortion?

The group’s website is here, but although it claims to have started in the 70’s, the copyright information is only indicated as last year and there’s literally no information or activity on this site (at least without being a member). Not only that, there’s absolutely no indication of which sacred texts support the idea that a baby can be physical but not spiritual, or rather a clump of cells like a fingernail and then miraculously a human being with an immortal soul simply because of the birth process.

I’d love to know which texts they’re relying on. But really, for reporting purposes, we don’t need to actually substantiate anything. The average reader is neither literate enough nor has the attention span to process it, so we’ll just skip it.

Trust us. It’s true. Really.