Archive for the ‘Theology’ Category

How Do You Study the Bible?

July 28, 2020

I’m preparing to record a Bible study for posting online. It’s primarily for my parishioners during this time when meeting together is far more complicated. We began a study on 1 Corinthians in June when the state prohibitions against church gatherings were partially lifted. But since the reinstatement of those restrictions we’ve been on hiatus again. I want to try and lead my people through additional study but I don’t find Zoom to be the best format for this. So I plan to record short (less than 15 minutes) studies – lots of them most likely! – posted to YouTube for now but hopefully hosted eventually on our own website. People can read through the preparatory material, listen to the corresponding YouTube posts, and then gather for a Zoom time of discussion together.

I always begin my Bible study series with a section on isogogics – the contextual information we have about the book or section we’ll be studying. This contextual information does several things. It can help give us insight into the why of what is being said. It also is a reminder to us that these words do have a context. They have a time and place and actual people in and around them. They aren’t fantasy but a part of history.

Since this is an online study, I want to begin with a brief introduction to how we study the Bible. I’m trying to think of the major things I want to say in this regard. So far, they include:

  • We don’t study Scripture in isolation. We study with others – either in real time with people around us (either virtually or otherwise) and/or in conjunction with the thoughts and insights of earlier Christians on the text in question. This is the process of using commentaries and other resources to help us understand. We bring our own minds to it – we don’t simply parrot what others have said since they could be wrong. But to not refer to other people’s insights and knowledge is equally dangerous because we can be wrong as well.
  • We expect God the Holy Spirit to be present and active. God’s Word is not static. It is fundamentally different from any other written resource in existence. Opening the Bible is to bring oneself into the direct presence of God. Not that the book itself is holy, but what the book says is. What the book says is the inspired Word of God and it can and should work on us in unexpected ways.
  • Faith matters. A Christian reads the Bible differently than a non-Christian. A Christian – by the power and presence of God the Holy Spirit – will find things in Scripture the person without faith not only won’t but can’t. How does this work? I can’t tell you. I can only affirm what Scripture itself claims in this regard (Luke 24:45-49; John 3:6-8, 14:26; Romans 8:6; 1 Corinthians 2:10-11; 1 John 2:19-27, etc.) . The Holy Spirit is the one who opens our minds to be able to see Scripture more clearly. A non-Christian can study the Bible and learn a great deal. But they read it at a fundamental disadvantage compared to the person of faith. We at least need to bear this in mind as we study the Word of God.
  • Scripture interprets Scripture – We shouldn’t read small sections of Scripture in separation from the rest of Scripture. We aren’t free to impose an interpretation on a particular section of text if that interpretation directly contradicts or ignores other sections of Scripture. This requires a broad knowledge of Scripture, which highlights the necessity of reading it with others as few people have an encyclopedic knowledge or recall of Scripture.

Other suggestions?

Reading Ramblings – August 2, 2020

July 26, 2020

Reading Ramblings

Date: Ninth Sunday after Pentecost – August 2, 2020 – COVID-19

Texts: Isaiah 55:1-5; Psalm 136; Romans 9:1-13; Matthew 14:13-21

Context: God cares for his creation. He cares specifically for you and I but we are a small part of creation rather than the sum of it we often feel ourselves to be, even if we wouldn’t state it as such. His care is demonstrated historically, always in the past tense but we are called to faith and trust in that care in the present and future tenses based on his track record. To those who would accuse Christians of blind faith we would respond this is inaccurate. Our view of God’s work is much better looking back than at the current moment, and only God knows the tangible specifics of the future. He has revealed some of these to us though, so we know what to expect, and contrary to people who reject his Word, we actually have far better vision.

Isaiah 55:1-5 – Blossoming from the Suffering Servant language of chapters 52 & 53, chapter 55 continues beautiful language of restoration and love and comfort and care from God for his people. These verses in particular are beautiful in evoking power, specific images and ideas about what the reign of God made possible by the Suffering Servant will allow for. An entire way of existing foreign to us, where work for payment and receiving the blessings of God’s creation at a financial cost are unheard of. They no longer exist, they are no longer necessary. There is more than enough for everyone and there is no scarcity, no monopolies, no fluctuating markets and no need for work in the sense we understand it now. The emphasis is not on achieving but rather on what God provides to and for us. And what God provides is always good and of the highest quality (v.2) and alone capable of sustaining life (v.3).

Psalm 136 – The assigned verses for this week exclude the middle section of historical remembrance (vs.10-22) but since I think history is important, I’m asking you to read them all the same! After all, our hopes of God’s goodness to us now and in the future are based in God’s goodness in the past. His reputation establishes his trustworthiness and it’s good to remember the past when looking forward to the future. We remember God for his mighty acts of creation He has revealed to us in his Word, but his Word is validated to us through his works in human lives and history, prophetically demonstrating that He is who He claims to be. All of which will come to a climax not in isolated victories over specific enemies but in his final deliverance of his people from our most ancient of foes, Satan, which I think is a very reasonable application of vs. 23-26. There is little reason to give thanks for a God whose love lasts forever unless we will be able to enjoy that love forever!

Romans 9:1-13 – Paul moves from his central message of faith in Jesus Christ crucified and resurrected as the source of our salvation rather than obedience to the Law to deal with a possible objection or conundrum (v.6). If Jesus is the source of our salvation, the promised Messiah, then why in the world didn’t more Jews recognize this and receive this? Why weren’t more of the Jews of Paul’s day Christians? Paul begins with a moving lament in behalf of his Jewish brethren. How desperately he wishes they would open their eyes to the Word of God and see Jesus Christ there! How many of God’s gifts had been given specially to these people, only for them to remain blind! The emphasis in this section is not on the Jewish people but rather on the work of God. Those to whom God extends his promises can trust on his ability to deliver his promises. Abraham and Jacob were not special or different than all other people except in that God made promises to them and would keep them. They had only to trust in those promises. Likewise, as God extends his promises to all people through Jesus Christ, all can and should trust God is capable of delivering them. If He chooses to do so using the weak figure of a crucified Messiah, is this any different than God choosing the second-born Jacob instead of Esau? Or the much delayed Isaac rather than Ishmael? God works how He will and through whom He will but all are invited to trust his promises!

Matthew 14:13-21 – What can and can’t Jesus provide? Should we place our trust in God rather than ourselves? Should we simply receive the good gifts of God without at least demonstrating our deservedness of them? This passage should raise many questions in our minds, yet I can imagine many good Christians responding as the disciples did – let these people take care of themselves! They should have planned ahead for their meal and needs! This isn’t our concern – it’s more than we can possibly handle! And yet it wasn’t too much for Jesus to handle. Jesus is pointed in his rejection of the apostolic suggestion that Jesus send these people away. You give them something to eat. Make that your first goal and intention, and leave it to me to do what you can’t possibly envision being done! Don’t begin with the assumption this is none of your business, but don’t also assume that your business is somehow separate from my presence and power!

How easy for the Church to act in this way. How easy to dismiss the needs of the people around us with a clucking of the tongue and a prideful If you had made better decisions like me, you’d be better off! People God the Father created and God the Son was preparing to die for were in need, and He expected his followers to take that need seriously rather than presuming they had no part in it. Jesus had compassion on this great crowd and He gave them everything – first the Word, and then food and ultimately his death and resurrection. First the good news, and then evidence of just how very good the news was and why they should listen to him, then the creation of and validation of the good news He preached.

There’s no indication in this passage that Jesus only gave food to those who really needed it. There’s no indication that some of these people didn’t take advantage – ate free food from Jesus when they had a perfectly good picnic basket next to them. What mattered was not them in that regard, but Jesus. Jesus as the source of all good things. Of his willingness and ability to feed his people what they needed. Would they recognize this or not? That was secondary. And recognition would be fully predicated on the giving of Jesus first. As with God the Father’s mighty acts of redemption in the Old Testament, the Son of God called the New Testament people – first his disiciples and then others – to faith in him based on the mighty acts He performed.

His goodness was sufficient. More than sufficient it was abundant enough to fill the crowd completely and still have plenty left over. What is not possible with man is possible with God (Matthew 19:26). We as God’s people are called to trust his abundance today as well, not simply as a historical miracle.

Listening for the Spirit

July 24, 2020

I take the Holy Spirit seriously. At least to the best of my ability. I know He’s at work, and that his methods and timings are not always ones I might expect. I don’t expect miracles in the Biblical sense, necessarily, but I do hold out the reality they could happen.

The first impression is important. As much as our culture attempts to convince us that first impressions are judgmental and flawed they remain necessary. In a sinful and broken world where trust is elusive and things and people are not always what we might want them to be, we look for clues to help guide us in how to respond.

His clothes appear clean, though he’s traveling with nothing more than a mostly-consumed bottle of Diet Coke and a jacket. He’s in his mid-to-late 30’s, I estimate. There’s a faint odor of unwashed clothes but it’s the stale odor, not the foul one. Not yet. I’ve learned in ministry that smells can tell you a lot the eyes might miss.

Yes, I have 15 minutes and I invite him in. He clearly has things on his mind though it’s impossible to tell yet what they might be. We sit in the front office and he begins to talk. Not disjointed, but the connections are sometimes complicated and slippery. He has ideas, ideas he’s trying to understand and more importantly trying to apply. He quotes passages from Scripture, demonstrates a familiarity with the Word of God and Christian concepts. But it’s also clear he’s spent time exploring many different sources and ideas, something he confirms later.

The intellect at work is not small. A good vocabulary, a line of reasoning that, while slightly flawed in terms of philosophical categories is still grappling with aspects of reality most people don’t spend much time contemplating – the interconnectedness of everything. How to make sense of the reality we are bound together in more fundamental ways than Black Lives Matter or Blue Lives Matter might have us think. That these ties that bind us grounded in our shared creatureliness entail obligations to one another we are too quick to gloss over in our bid for Facebook and Instagram popularity or notoriety.

He asks for a pad of paper and a pen, quickly sketching and writing out things as he talks, helping him track his line of thought. It’s difficult to tell if he’s under the influence. If it is, it’s chemical as I don’t smell alcohol on his breath, no slurring of speech. Is there mental illness as well? Odds are good of that as well. He wants validation but grows fidgety when I’m talking instead of him. He’s trying to listen but clearly also figuring out what he wants to say next more than listening to what I have to say. Certainly no shortage of that these days in people who consider themselves sane and rational!

He continues trying to drive towards his point, what he really wants to apply in his life but it’s difficult for him. Minutes click by. Not unpleasantly. As I listen I also watch. Body language says a lot, like odors and clothing. Is he violent? His obvious agitation when I speak, when I try to validate aspects of his line of thought while offering tweaks and adjustments, identifying limitations to how far some of his ideas can be blended together, they convey that he’s really here to talk, not to listen, and perhaps it would be better to do that. Perhaps dialogue is too much to hope for in this setting.

Of course I wonder as well if he’s violent. Alone in the office, I try to size him up. Not a large man but size isn’t everything, depending on what substances he might be under the influence of. I know that letting him in and sitting with him like this entails a risk I’d prefer not to think about but have to. I try to stay loose physically and concentrated on him, watching for tell-tale signs that might give me a second’s warning if he becomes agitated. I don’t think he will. But my gut instincts, while right far more often than wrong are not perfect.

This is a child of God. I ache for him as he runs circles in his mind, looking for how to connect the loose ends, perhaps looking for the break in the circle that will allow him peace from these dog-eared ideas. I ache for whatever has diverted him from the channel of what we call normal and into whatever dry riverbed he’s ambling down.

I have another appointment that I’m now missing. Quick text messages to apologize. Yet this seems where I’m supposed to be at the moment, even though I look forward to my standing Friday engagement. Still, I’m apparently needed here and now with this man and his grasping for understanding and application. After an hour I beg off. I stand, move us towards the door. We’ll meet again next Tuesday, a day and time he writes in ink on the back of his hand. Hopefully it will be washed off before then. Less because I don’t want to see him again and more because I hope he’s washing himself well enough. What will kill a person quicker, unresolved mental ramblings or poor hygiene? Perhaps it’s a toss-up. A matter of how you define death.

I don’t think I’ll see him Tuesday. But it’s on my calendar just in case. Because we are bound together, he and I, this unlikely wanderer and this unlikely pastor. Bound together by a God who created both of us, redeemed us both, and offers to abide with both of us. Offers more to create a new and eternal relationship to one another. So I’ll put it on my calendar and be here just in case. Listening for the voice of God the Holy Spirit, knowing I may not realize I’ve heard it until long after it’s wandered down the railroad tracks and disappeared into the underpasses.

When the Hand that Feeds You, Bites You

July 21, 2020

Remember the giddy, pre-COVID days when Christians could argue with and insult one another over whether immigration laws should be enforced in our country or not? Such simple times, weren’t they?

But a popular argument by many Christians at the time (but not exclusively at that time) was to equate government aid with the Biblical call to charity. In other words, if government programs help people, then Christians can’t in good conscience argue against such programs and are really bound by God to support and expand them, without any clear limitations or even guidelines. Mercy is mercy, and Christians must not only sanction but actively support any allegedly merciful program, period.

But God isn’t the only one who giveth and taketh away, and certainly by comparison He’s a lot more patient and inclusive than human institutions. After all, He daily sends sunshine and rain on the just and the unjust (Matthew 5:45) – his faithful and his sworn enemies. But we’re likely to be a lot less forgiving and giving with one another. Certainly attitudes and tactics employed by a small group of people bent on recasting our national history through the largely arbitrary destruction of public property are an example of this.

But there are examples aplenty where government aid programs are shown to be what they must inevitably be at some level or another, a means of purchasing the loyalty or at least obedience of some recipients. And when recipients fail to respond in the expected ways, aid is withdrawn. Consider the situation in at least parts of China – Christians dependent on government aid are being told to remove their religious symbols from their homes and replace them with images of Chairman Mao.

Undoubtedly it might be argued that China is not the United States, and that’s true enough. But the demands are being made even of members of the Protestant, State-approved Three-Self Church. And certainly our own country has demonstrated shockingly in recent years just how quickly things once taken for granted as cast in stone can be changed and discarded. Socialism was once a pariah concept in our nation, mocked and denounced in comparison to the far greater opportunities of capitalism. Now we have avowed Socialists running for President, and Socialist ideas and agendas are actively promoted as the right future for our country. The idea that religious freedom could ever become an obstacle to State assistance shouldn’t be shocking to us.

Some level of State assistance to the needy is a good thing and I support and understand that. That doesn’t mean I think our current programs are doing the best job they could, and it doesn’t mean I don’t believe there is a great deal of waste, theft, and other forms of abusing the system that should be eliminated, potentially by recreating the whole system from scratch. But it does mean I reject the simple-minded and Biblically erroneous assertion that Christians are required by the Bible to support secular aid programs carte blanche. The Bible never allows Christians the option of outsourcing mercy and love for neighbor, and expediency is not often a Biblical metric.

Reading Ramblings – July 26, 2020

July 19, 2020

Date: Eighth Sunday after Pentecost, July 26, 2020

Texts: Deuteronomy 7:6-9; Psalm 125; Romans 8:28-39; Matthew 13:44-52

Context: See what kind of love the Father has given unto us, that we should be called children of God, and so we are. (1 John 3:1) John’s words capture so beautifully the immense love of God for his creation, and his steadfast faithfulness to bring us back to him! The readings for this week all emphasize this theme. What we need to do is be cautious, particularly as we read Romans 8, to not insert what Paul does not. Paul emphasizes those God has called, foreknew, predestined. What Paul does not say – but which many insert – is that there must therefore be those God did not foreknow, did not call, did not predestine. The existence of the former does not necessitate the existence of the latter, and a broader reading of Scripture makes this clear.

Deuteronomy 7:6-9 – Deuteronomy is Moses’ farewell address to the people of Israel, the group he has shepherded for over 40 years since leading them out of Egypt by the power of God the Father. It has been a tumultuous relationship, to say the least. Yet the fact remains in spite of their grumblings and grousings and disobedience, God has chosen them to be his people. He is faithful to them in spite of their faithlessness, as He is working on a much grander scale, fulfilling promises that go back to their ancestors. The scandal of particularity is that God works through specific peoples and individuals. He is not democratic in how He works his plan of salvation, but the effects of that plan are extended to all people in ways we have no idea how to even begin imagining. To any who worry or are brought to knowledge of their sin, God’s work for us through the specifics of human history – culminating in the incarnation of the Son of God, Jesus of Nazareth – is extended to all who will receive it in faith and trust and repentance. God’s goodness to us is incredible in its tenacity – a sure and certain rock to cling to in the midst of our shifting and uncertain world!

Psalm 125 – How should we respond to God’s promises and steadfast faithfulness? In faith and trust as expressed in this psalm. Anchoring our trust and hope in him gives us a confidence we can’t find anywhere else in this world, or in any other person. We can trust that even when things are hard and difficult for a time, that time will pass. God acts constantly on behalf of his faithful who have only to wait and see what their Lord will do, trusting ultimately that even should they not be delivered from the present predicament at hand, they are assured God the Father’s eternal peace and joy. It is not always within our power to ensure that righteousness prevails, or to bring evil to account. But God is not so limited, and all things will be restored and set right in his perfect timing.

Romans 8:28-39 – Do we suffer now? We certainly do – and we are keenly aware of this during another round of strict restrictions associated with COVID-19. Faith in Christ is not an immunity to the struggles and difficulties of this world. But faith in Christ allows us to see these struggles and difficulties from another perspective. As part of the greater struggle of evil against the righteous rule of God, it should not be surprising that we suffer here and now. But that suffering is only for a time. Evil has been defeated in the resurrection of Jesus the Christ. So now we can be certain that whatever Satan works for our evil, God is capable of working into good on our behalf. Who has God called? Everyone (John 3:16). Who did God foreknow? Everyone (Genesis 1-2; John 1:1-5). Who has God predestined according to his good will for eternal life? Everyone (Ezekiel 33:10-11). There is nobody God has predetermined to eternal separation from him. So the call of God the Holy Spirit goes out to everyone that they might receive justification through God the Son for the eternal glory of God the Father first and foremost, but themselves as well in a lesser, fitting degree. So we are confident of God’s goodness to us – that it is both more than adequate and eternally faithful. We cling in hope to the promises of God eternally and look for his salvation as well here and now in the short term. We know that whatever we suffer now cannot cause God to lose his grip on our lives!

Matthew 13:44-52 – Often these verses are interpreted as though we are the man or the merchant, but really the verses make more sense if we see Jesus as the man and the merchant. We are the treasure buried in sin that Jesus uncovers and offers himself in exchange for. We are the pearl sought by the merchant who willingly lays down his life that he might possess this pearl of greatest price eternally. Certainly these verses speak far better to the faithfulness of God than to our own shallow, self-centered faith! Who among us can claim to have sacrificed everything for Christ? The claim seems ridiculous, though perhaps those who suffer and are martyred for the faith might come closest to deserving this interpretation.

That God should pursue us so zealously makes rejection of his grace all the more terrible. While all things are possible with God and we should always hope and pray for the salvation of all those who here and now deny his love and goodness and insist they have no need for it, we must take seriously the eternal ramifications of such rebellion.

Reading Ramblings – July 19, 2020

July 12, 2020

Date: Seventh Sunday after Pentecost, July 19, 2020 – COVID-19

Texts: Isaiah 44:6-8; Psalm 119:57-64; Romans 8:18-27; Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43

Context: As our culture becomes more pluralistic and multi-cultural, it might seem that competing claims to divine truth are all equal. Isn’t it unloving to insist on only Jesus Christ as the way to eternal life? Wouldn’t a loving God permit people to be reached through a variety of truths? Would it be more loving to tell children that 2+2= whatever they please, rather than insisting that 4 is the proper answer? Most people would understand quickly that promoting falsehoods is not helpful to people. The only difference is we are more inclined to treat spiritual claims as unprovable or worse, really not true at all, and therefore there is no need to proclaim a distinct truth in the midst of so many competing voices. God is always clear in his Word. There are no other gods than He. And in the historical eye-witnesses of the resurrection of his Son, Jesus the Christ, we have evidence lacking in any other spiritual or philosophical claim. Truth does matter, and what we profess by faith right now will one day be shown to be actually true.

Isaiah 44:6-8 – Isaiah’s ministry comes in the late eigth and early seventh centuries BC. God’s people in Judea and Jerusalem are also contending with an explosion of ideas and practices from many other peoples and places, and have incorporated many of these into their religious life. They may worship God in his temple, but they may also reverence other deities in other places and times. Against this the Word of God is firm – there are no other gods. God has no equal, only far inferior pretenders to his throne. Usurpers who will one day be shown for what they are, but who even now fail spectacularly to demonstrate any real power or authority compared to God’s. God alone is the creator. God alone reveals his plans to his people and then brings them to pass. It isn’t that God’s Word doesn’t provide powerful testimony to the truth of his identity and exclusivity, but people refuse to hear and see it for what it is. We who by the Holy Spirit stand in faith must be willing to endure the mocking or criticisms of a world and culture that want to dilute and distort truth in favor of more pleasing fictions. In love, we must maintain the truth as we have received it, praying they too will receive it!

Psalm 119:57-64 – If there is one God, one source of truth, would it not make sense to pursue that truth and make it the rule and guide of your life? Our obedience is not some payment to God but really the logical outflow of faith and trust in who He has revealed himself to be. How could we reasonably think to ignore or flout his truths, as though such decisions would not place us in risk of all manner of hurts and harms in this world? How could the faithful reasonably presume his words of guidance and wisdom don’t matter, don’t apply, or become irrelevant in the shifting tides of time and culture? Rather, once the source of all wisdom is found wouldn’t we treasure what has been revealed and constantly find ways to dig further into those depths? While this may risk the bemusement or antagonism of the world such concerns are are inferior to the gain in this life and eternally from aligning ourselves with the perfect wisdom and will of God, even if our aligment is marred by our sinful inability to obey perfectly. This psalm is a beautiful picture of what our life in faith can and should look like – a life of joy rather than grudging adherence.

Romans 8:18-27 – We often think of our situation in relationship to God in the singular, personal sense. But our estrangement from God through sin and our reconciliation to him through faith in Jesus the Christ is very much a universal and communal situation. It is not just you and I who look forward to our Lord’s return, but all creation, subjected to the pains and sufferings of sin because of Adam and Eve and you and I also looks forward to freedom from this suffering. All creation will be restored in the day of our Lord’s return. All creation will be renewed or recreated in pristine, perfect condition as it enjoyed in Genesis 1-2. This is not our hope – and hope not defined as we often think of it, as a wishful thinking or optimistic uncertainty about the future. Rather, hope here means a confident awaiting of a promised event. The event is not in question, only the timing is unknown.

In the meantime we deal with the suffering of creation, but we do not deal with it alone. The very Holy Spirit of God is always with us, and even if we are too weak or broken to pray, the Holy Spirit prays with and for us. God is always working on our behalf – Father, Son and Holy Spirit – that we might be sustained in our faith and hope until the final fulfillment of all things when Jesus returns. This is God the Father’s good and perfect plan, and He will bring it to completion!

Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43 – It’s easy to presume that God should simply destroy alternate truth claims. Those who are mistaken or intentionally misleading others should be divinely and publicly judged so that people might know the truth. But perhaps it isn’t as simple as that. Perhaps the uprooting of these people would prove more dangerous to the faithful in Christ than we imagine. Perhaps there are very good reasons – protective and loving reasons – why God suffers the work of Satan to continue in creation. Perhaps it is not simply for the good of the faithful. Perhaps this also demonstrates God the Holy Spirit’s firm commitment to pursuing all people until the last possible moment, extending always the truth in Christ and the promise of eternal life. Medieval artists and theologians pictured this battle for the soul between the agents of Satan and the powers of God to be ongoing to our last breath, and I think this is a good image – far better than the image that none of this matters so long as a person is happy or comfortable on their terms.

There will come a time when evil will be shown for what it is. In the meantime, we are often able to discern evil and falsehood with just a little exploration. It is not necessarily as complete a mystery all the time as some might like to imagine it or convince others. Judgment will come. Evil will be destroyed and God the Father’s absolute power and presence and goodness will be vindicated finally. Until then we don’t simply endure evil we pray that the power of evil would be frustrated and confined, and those bound up as captives to it in heart and mind would be freed from it, liberated by the good news of Jesus Christ and the offer of forgiveness freely made to all through him.

Theological Discussion?

July 9, 2020

I’m working through Eric Metaxas’ Martin Luther biography. I’ve long passed the section where Luther calls for theological debate on the matter of indulgences, often described as the “nailing” of the 95 Theses. Luther had concerns and called for theological discussion. Discussion did not ensue but rather a heavy-handed insistence by the Roman Catholic hierarchy that Luther simply do what they told him to do. The result was an unfortunate further rending of the one holy Christian and apostolic church as many congregations confess in the Nicene Creed regularly.

While Lutherans are proud of this heritage we could be better emulators of it. In light of what I posted yesterday from the Russian Orthodox Church regarding California’s surprise ban on singing and chanting in worship services, I decided to check the regional resource board for our denomination in terms of COVID-19 resources. What I found was an entire page of links. But every single link was to an outside secular source. The CDC, WHO, and various California and other state web sites regarding COVID-19 best practices and requirements.

It struck me as odd that as our region of our denominational polity struggles with not just rising case reports of Coronavirus but also secular policy that directly impacts the very nature of worship, there were no links or calls on our regional website for theological discussion on the matter. Our denomination has by and large said this is all a Romans 13 issue and the appropriate response is obedience to the dictates of the State. But rather than a simple top-down decision on this matter the body of Christ could benefit from some active discussion on the topic. I don’t necessarily disagree with our denominational stance. It’s certainly a good way of avoiding legal entanglements and negative publicity. But I’d like to think there could be some proactive theological discussion regarding worship and how singing and chanting play into it not just in terms of tradition but in terms of theology.

It’s a shame if the denomination that insisted on the freedom of the Christian in the Gospel of Jesus Christ 500 years ago is unwilling to see an ongoing necessity for both celebration and discussion. At the very least, posting some theological materials that discuss the issue and offer perspectives and exegesis to assist members and clergy and professional staff understand the nuances of our stance better would be helpful.

It just seems ironic the only thing we officially have to say on the matter isn’t something we’ve said at all – we’re simply repeating what other people are saying. People who aren’t necessarily theologically trained or even inclined. I don’t expect people outside the Church to be able to give this a lot of thought. I do have some pretty high expectations for the Church in this regard, though!

Reading Ramblings – July 12, 2020

July 5, 2020

Date: Sixth Sunday after Pentecost – July 12, 2020 – COVID-19; Euthanasia

Texts: Genesis 9:5-6; Psalm 139:1-16; 2 Corinthians 12:7-10; Matthew 5:21-26

Context: I offered my congregation the opportunity to request sermons on particular topics, Biblical passages, doctrinal stances, etc. I do this every few years. Generally I’m fascinated by the lack of response. Either the request is too unusual or people just aren’t used to thinking about what they’d like to hear a bit more about from the Bible or how to apply the Scripture to current issues and events. However, I did get one request this time around on the topic of euthanasia. So I am not using the Revised Common Lectionary Cycle A texts for this Sunday but rather a series of verses that address the foundational Biblical understanding about the sanctity of human life.

Genesis 9:5-6 – Most people think of the Fifth Commandment in regards to the sanctity of human life. And certainly that’s not a bad choice as an injunction against murder. But I prefer God’s words to Noah after the flood to provide a deeper context. In case we’re tempted to think of the Flood as a failed effort by God to restart things on a better footing, God clarifies just how holy human life is. There are many ways we can kill without violating the Fifth commandment – self-defense and capital punishment are just two Scriptural examples. But regardless of why we take a human life we need to know we will answer to God for it, and the implication here is that even in permitted circumstances we must never take human life for granted. We bear the imago dei, the image of God, and this makes human life valuable in a way incomparable in the rest of Scripture. To make ending a person’s life a matter of public policy or convenience or out of fear of suffering or the costs associated with care will one day be judged by no lower standard than God the Father himself.

Psalm 139:1-16 – Modern understandings of the human being as more or less a machine are dangerously superficial. Whether it is assumptions that medicines affect and work in all people equally or the lie that life begins at some arbitrary point after conception or that life ceases to have value and dignity once it is old or beleaguered with disease is to miss the relational aspect of human beings to our Creator. We are known, through and through. Not simply the byproduct of psychological pressures or genetic tweaking we are custom creations to such a degree that it is not without exaggeration but with too little serious pondering that we are unique in all of creation history. Never another person like us. Created and placed into history. That we might dismiss such a creation as no longer worth preserving based on arbitrarily and shifting criteria is terrifying. Likewise to the one who faces severe challenges in disease or health, the knowledge that they are created and never abandoned should be a light of hope in the darkest of conditions or diagnoses.

2 Corinthians 12:7-10 – What is the thorn of which Paul speaks? Nobody is certain as Paul never defines it himself. Theories emerge and recede based on issues prevalent at the time. Whether a physical injury or disorder or an emotional or psychological trauma, the important thing is that Paul is well aware of the thorn’s presence and desires it gone and prays for it to be removed. Yet he also accepts God’s good and gracious will, unpleasant as it is. Some argue there is no sense or purpose in suffering, and that if suffering is all someone has to look forward to, they should have the option available to them (or to their physicians or family) to end their life prematurely. While we are not required to take every conceivable step to save or preserve life, never should we aim at death as our goal. The God who created us is always present and able to work in and through even our suffering to his glory and our sanctification.

Matthew 5:21-26 – Murder is not so simple as the taking of another life, or our own. Rather, murder is committed when we dismiss any other person, when we reduce them to an inconvenience or an irritation and see them as anything less than a creature of God the Father’s who God the Son died to save so that God the Holy Spirit might establish them in faith and trust of this reality for God’s eternal praise and their eternal blessing. I have seen no accounts where authorizing or legalizing euthanasia leads to a higher view of human life. Rather, once the door opens more and more people in more and more circumstances are deemed eligible for termination, even if they do not want it for themselves. The best of alleged intentions – reduction of human suffering – opens the door to all manner of other sinful motivations. The notion that existence should be without suffering of any kind is a curious one, given the prevalence of suffering in one form or another through almost the entire span of a human lifetime. Sources of suffering might change, but so also do coping mechanisms and the experience of our God’s presence with us in powerful ways. To determine that no such coping and no such divine revelation can (or even should) occur is to destroy hope at a practical level and deny the hope clearly promised in the empty grave of Jesus the Christ.

Covering the Bases

July 2, 2020

As I continue to work slowly through a book on improving my preaching, the next chapter deals with different ways a speaker/preacher connects with the people they are speaking to.

Ethos listeners prioritize the relationship between the speaker and the hearer. If there is a strong connection with the speaker the message will be heard better. Likewise (though not explicitly stated in the book) if the relationship is strained or not good between the speaker and the listener, the listener is going to have a harder time connecting with what is being said. Sometimes this is referred to as an issue of integrity or character on the part of the speaker or the hearer’s perception of their integrity or character. Reaching people who react well based on ethos involves reminding them of this shared relationship. Speaking about we and us as opposed to them or you. Referencing personal stories or the impact of the sermon topic or verses on you personally.

Logos listeners focus on the cerebral or intellectual content of a sermon. They want to be presented with ideas to chew on and mull over or be challenged by. They’re most engaged when learning something new, and sermons that include a focus on information sit well with this group.

Pathos listeners react on the emotional level. They love real-life stories or anecdotes, but they also are most attentive when they are part of the sermon, and can connect what is being preached to their lives.

Ideally every sermon should have some of each aspect in it to best reach as many of your hearers as possible. And that seems reasonable. I can certainly confirm that people who are not in a good relationship with me have a harder time hearing what I say in the sermon, and are more apt to take things the wrong way (or at least in a way I wasn’t intending). Likewise I believe a good preacher should be teaching in a sermon. Not like I would teach a Bible study class, but there should be elements where I’m sharing what I’ve learned rather than just rehashing what I’ve heard all my life from others. The familiar can be comforting but if that’s all I give, people get bored. Or at least I get bored! And I’ve seen firsthand how a good story can really draw people into the sermon.

I like to think my sermons involve all three of these ways of preaching, though certainly the balance will vary from week to week. I also find myself hearing St. Paul in his first letter to the church in Corinth emphasizing how we should also be careful not to be too calculated in how we speak the Word of God. Ultimately the power in a sermon is God’s Word and the Holy Spirit at work in that Word. While I want to be a good and effective preacher I also realize I can only control this to a certain extent, and there are limitations to my abilities so that I shouldn’t rely on them.

At the end of the day (Sunday?) I hope people have heard the Word of God applied to their lives in a concrete way. I’m experienced enough to know this can happen when I personally think my sermon stunk. And it can not happen when I think my sermon was a home run. I resonate well with those masters of the preaching craft who insist that if the sermon stinks, it’s my fault. But if the sermon is really good, then God gets the praise and glory. That’s how it should be, not as an excuse for me to neglect my duties or be shoddy in my preparation, but as a means of keeping my humbled and my community focused on what is important – Christ crucified.

Utopias & Sin

July 1, 2020

Not surprising, the latest experiment in radical re-imagining of city life has come to an end. The Capitol Hill Occupation Protest (CHOP) that took over six blocks of downtown Seattle was dismantled by order of the Mayor because of crime and violence in the area. Turns out that without police around to encourage people to behave, some people tend not to behave and ruin things for everyone else. People being, after all, people.

I am naturally skeptical of such efforts. In part because of a historical awareness that such efforts rarely are effective or very long-lived. Partly because as a citizen, I understand cause and effect in these sorts of things. The kind of cause and effect not typically mentioned in news reports that, at least these days, tend to be rather sympathetic to such experiments and efforts. Little details like how much it’s going to cost to clean up the debris and detritus from CHOP. How much relocating the police force for several weeks cost. Because these things all have costs, and I’m pretty sure that the very few people who actually benefited in any material or spiritual way from this experiment won’t be required to pay the cost, and rather the cost will be borne by all the city taxpayers. Just as the radical decision by a few people was foisted upon others in the CHOP area who may not have been so thrilled with either the underlying motivations, the execution, or the results in violence and fear.

Even the best intentioned of protestors here fail to take into account the common problem of all utopian visions – human sinfulness. People seem blind to the reality that we are broken through and through. Every one of us. And as such, our good intentions and efforts to love our neighbor as ourselves will be imperfect at best. Abject failures at worst, particularly when you factor in the reality that some people have no intention of loving their neighbor as themselves, and that even when that’s a common goal, there are widely divergent views on what such love looks like.

We are not going to create a Utopian society on our own. We don’t have it in us. And it isn’t just a matter of some deficiency which we can fill. That’s a common assumption in Utopian experiments, that our deficiencies can be compensated for through education or force or drugs or whatever. Sin is more than just a missing of the mark, as Aquinas defined it in the 13th century. His definition is helpful but fails to take into account that our aim can be somewhat improved, to be certain, but never perfected. Not by ourselves or any system we create for ourselves.

So you can kick out the police because you’re convinced that system is corrupt and you’re better off without them. But what you find is that whatever system you replace them with – or whatever lack of systems you replace them with – is going to be just as corrupt and problematic. It may take a little time for that to become evident or it might be obvious pretty much immediately, as with CHOP. Changing systems only goes so far, and often times it’s more damaging a process (or more expensive) than working for change and reform within existing systems.

My Biblical Christian worldview is able to explain this, whereas protesters and those working for change at any level seem to continually be shocked and surprised their efforts are short-lived or inadequate. I believe this is the root cause of so much anger and fear today – people no longer have a mechanism for explaining why some people do very, very bad things. By secular human understandings of things, such issues should be largely preventable through proper education, financial incentives, psychological retooling or psychiatric chemical (prescription or otherwise) rebalancing and controlling who has children or doesn’t have children. Genetic modifications will soon be added to this arsenal of tools.

But the problem is much deeper than these things and the psychological constructs they’re based on. They may each be helpful to some degree (as well as potentially or actually very dangerous) but they only scratch the surface. The real issue is much deeper and can’t be ferreted out of us. And so, though we should always work towards improvement both individually and communally, we won’t ever reach Utopia on our own efforts. And if we continue to deny or ignore the depth of the problem, we’ll continue to have generations of people unable to cope with the world around them, lost in a permanent haze of fear and uncertainty that at times can become paralyzing.

The Bible nails our human condition. And it does offer the cure, and the reality that this cure is external to us and not something we can control. We can only accept and receive it not just for what it is but who it is, the Son of God Jesus the Christ. I know this will continue to be an increasingly less desirable answer for a growing percentage of our population, but the reality is that it’s the most accurate diagnosis of our continued problems.

Maybe the Biblical solution is something more people should consider.