Archive for the ‘Theology’ Category

Weekly Devotion

September 18, 2019

Amos 8:4-7

We would never trample on the needy, would we? Or consider being unfair in a business transaction? We’d never intentionally shortchange somebody, or use rigged weights and balances? We never chafed at the blue laws that used to limit or ban certain types of business on Sunday mornings?

So we just step by Amos, pass on to other, more interesting readings. Certainly the Gospel lesson (Luke 16:1-15) or the Epistle reading (1 Timothy 2) grab our attention. Certainly these must be more relevant, either academically or practically?

Amos calls religious and political leaders of his day to account for their attitudes about materialism and wealth, attitudes that easily blind them to their moral failures and more importantly, to the identity of those they are defrauding as fellow children of Israel, fellow members of the covenant community of God. They have instead become means to other ends – personal profit or comfort. Amos can see these things more clearly because he is an outsider – from the southern kingdom of Judah God calls him to speak truth to power in the northern kingdom of Israel. Perhaps it is his otherness which allows God to speak against what everyone else just viewed as business as usual.

Personal piety can be very, very cold to those around us. As members of a culture and society driven almost entirely by profit and materialism, we need to be cautious not just to be honest in our dealings with others, but also sympathetic and empathetic with those in need and those displaced in the vast system of buying and selling. These are children of God! These are people Jesus suffered and died for! If they merit his precious blood, they deserve at least our concern, both in personal interactions and on their behalf in our society.

Dangerous Grace

September 16, 2019

Here’s a good (thought-provoking) article challenging the latent notion in most Christians that the faith is primarily about them doing good things and not doing bad things, rather than about the perfect and final act of Jesus Christ on their behalf.

Reading Ramblings – September 22, 2019

September 15, 2019

Reading Ramblings

Date: Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost – September 22, 2019

Texts: Amos 8:4-7; Psalm 113; 1 Timothy 2:1-15; Luke 16:1-15

Context: The lectionary readings pit one of the most challenging of Jesus’ parables against a strong Old Testament defense of the poor and critique of the rich who prey on them. While the reading from Amos and the psalm are straightforward enough, everything gets complicated by the Gospel lesson. Is Jesus commending dishonesty? What is He attempting to convey? The problem can in one way be solved by where we focus – do we focus on the dishonesty of the steward or do we focus on the grace and mercy of God? There are linguistic cues between this parable and the Prodigal Son parable, which is more obviously a portrait of the great mercy and grace of God. This should guide us as we try to untangle Jesus’ words for this week!

Amos 8:4-7 – The bulk of these verses comprises paraphrasings of the sayings and actions of the dishonest. These dishonest are part of God’s people, but they are abusing their brothers and sisters in covenant community for personal gain. God’s Word to these people, which is referenced in verse 4, is finally revealed in verse 7 (and continues in the following verses). While the dishonest may feel like they’re getting away with things, God will hold them accountable in his time. In between we hear the thoughts of these wicked merchants. They lament the harvest festivals and weekly Sabbaths (the day of rest) when buying and selling is forbidden. They make no money on those days! And their goal is to make money dishonestly, by rigging the weights so that the grain they are purchasing from the poor farmers is said to weigh less than it really does – reducing the price they need to pay to the farmer. Meanwhile the weight measuring out the payment is rigged so that fewer coins appear to be worth more. The farmer is cheated on both ends of the transaction! Those reduced to poverty by such wickedness will then be forced to sell themselves into slavery or servitude, settling for the most basic of payments that barely keep them alive! Surely, God watches over all of his creation and nobody will escape his judgment when they cheat the poor (or in any other sinful act, thought, or word!).

Psalm 113 – This psalm calls God’s people to praise him and his name (v.1). His name is to be blessed forever as well as all day (vs. 2-3). Why God deserves such praise and blessing is elaborated a bit in the following verses. First of all God is above all nations and rulers, all earthly powers of any kind, and his glory overshadows even the heights of the skies and heaven itself. There is, in fact, no one who can compare to God in any respect, seated as He is on high in glory and splendor to look down on all of creation. But God is not simply transcendent (vs. 4-6), greater than any other power but infinitely removed from creation. God is immanent as well, involved in the affairs of creation. And his power is exerted on behalf of those we might be inclined to pass over or ignore as unworthy or any help, or even beyond any help. God reverses their fortunes entirely! This is why God deserve praise – He does what we can not or will not do for one another.

1 Timothy 2:1-15 – Paul returns to his instructions to Timothy in this chapter. What is it the people of God should do? This section deals with worship, what Christians do as they gather together. While the words apply to individual or family life as well, they make the most sense in the context of larger worship. The people of god are to be praying, and their prayers are to include everyone, including their rulers. They pray their rulers do a good job of ruling, providing peace for a Godly, dignified life. This is the desire God has for all rulers, as well as the desire God has for his people in terms of how they live and how they pray. Towards this end God the Father sent the Son of God to be our mediator with God the Father, and his mercy through Jesus the Christ extends to everyone, so that we can never say that someone is beyond the grace and mercy and forgiveness of God, if they turn and seek it. Men are to be praying in a Godly fashion, and women are not to let the fashion dictates of the larger culture determine what is appropriate in Christian worship. Church is not a fashion show! Far better to be noticed and admired for good works that simply the ability to purchase costly baubles. Women are permitted and even encouraged to learn, but in humility. Women should not presume to place themselves in positions of authority over men. The rationale for this goes back to Genesis 3 and the Fall. While the natural order of man and woman in harmony was disrupted by sin, there is an order in creation, one that needn’t be exploitative or unfair, but a true difference all the same so that even women who are able to teach or lead should refrain from doing so within the Church, as a witness to the glory of God in creation. Women are saved in their own created identities, not by taking on or usurping the identity or role of men.

Luke 16:1-15 – There are a great many interpretations of this parable, but we’ll go with the one that keeps the plain sense of Jesus’ words intact and in harmony with his overall body of teaching and of Scripture as a whole. And to do so, as usual, the focus needs to be not on the steward (you and I) but rather on the rich man/master (God). It is the grace and mercy of the rich man/master towards the steward that should be first and foremost. Rather than throwing the man into jail immediately, or kicking him out of his position immediately, the rich man/master is merciful, giving the steward time to prepare for the judgment to come – a judgment already determined in terms of guilt (wastefulness) and punishment (being fired).

It is this span of time the steward relies on to prepare himself. And he prepares himself by relying on the merciful nature of his master. By cutting the amount owed by tenant farmers to the rich man, the steward ingratiates himself to the tenants, who, not knowing he has fallen out of favor, will presume he is acting on the rich man’s behalf, and perhaps has even lobbied the rich man on their behalf. Thus not only does the steward grow in the appraisal of the debtors, so does the master. The master could of course undue what the steward has done, but instead allows in his grace and mercy the stewards shrewdness to stand.

How clever and creative we can be about our temporal affairs! How carefully we study investment plans and evaluate which mutual fund or stock or bond would be best! How we compare the interest rates on our credit cards and bank accounts! We know the ins and outs of how to be wise and prudent with worldly things. How much more ought we to be diligent – not dishonest – in preparing ourselves for eternal things! And if we are willing to lie and cheat and be dishonest with mere money, a temporal possession with an arbitrarily defined value, how unsuitable are we to handle things of real, eternal value. If only we valued eternal things so highly, and set our minds and hearts on preparing to receive them!

Weekly Devotional

September 12, 2019

September 10, 2019

If anyone comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple.

– Luke 14:26 –

We’ve all wondered about this verse. How can the God who gave us all of these blessings, these wonderful people and our life itself call us to hate them? Doesn’t the Fourth Commandment call us to honor our fathers and mothers? Is Jesus contradicting himself as the Word of God?

The quick explanation is that these people can be idols. We can make them more important in our lives than God. We can allow them to sway us from living the way the Holy Spirit calls us to. We might even be tempted to forsake worship or study or other aspects of our lives in Christ in order to keep the peace at home or demonstrate love for these people.

Many Christians would be equally quick to say they would never let this happen. They would never let someone else come between themselves and God and become idols. All well and good and true, I think. Except I’m not sure we really think about how these people could become idols. We aren’t going to make gold or silver statues of them. We aren’t going to worship them. When we make them tea for breakfast or dinner at night, this is not the same as offering food to an idol or a false god. This is how we think idols look and act in themselves and in our lives.

I suspect differently.

Elie Wiesel in his haunting book Night describes in multiple places how his experience living through the Jewish Holocaust at the hands of the Nazis destroyed his faith and trust in God. Seeing the worst mankind could do to one another, and not seeing God step in to stop, to rescue, to save (at least not in the way Wiesel thought He should) meant for Wiesel that God could not exist. Not a good, loving, trustworthy God. Faced with the blackest sinfulness in mankind, Wiesel could no longer hold on to his faith in the God of the Bible. For Wiesel, apparently, the people around him and his own life were an idol he could not let go of in order to cling to God.

We do not have to be the victims of mass genocide to sympathize with him. How many of us have watched a loved one die, sometimes in great pain, and wondered where God is in that moment? A fleeting wondering. How many of us have wondered at one point or another why God continues to sustain our life when we are more than ready to leave, to be with our departed loved ones again, to finally have peace in eternal glory? Is that idle desire idolatrous?

It could be, if we allow it to grow. If we indulge it rather than returning to the Word of God in our lives and experiences, the Word that does not promise us an easy life or a painless life, but promises the eternal presence of God in and through these things. If we are unable to maintain the clear perception that the existence of sin and the sickness and death that spring from it are part of creation for now, the reason the Son of God came into creation in the first place, to rescue us and save us. If we reject the comforting words of God in favor of our pain and bitterness and indignation. Then these loved ones can become the idols that separate us from God.

Keep the gifts of God as that – gifts, not idols. And trust above all in the love of God through Jesus the Christ in those moments of suffering and loss, the assurance these pains are transitory. Dawn is coming.

In the Beginning

September 11, 2019

My denominational polity held it’s triennial national convention this past summer.  I studiously avoid these sorts of affairs, preferring to allow others more inclined and perhaps of a better temperament to go and represent our local congregations.  We had a brief report at one of our monthly pastor meetings from the guy who went on our behalf, and there wasn’t much to report.  At least, I don’t recall him mentioning this – our denomination has once again (first in 1932) affirmed the Genesis account of creation in Chapters 1 & 2 to mean a literal six-day creation process utilizing six 24-hour days.  This was based on Scripture’s use of evening and morning to indicate a single day.

To begin with, I lament the difficulty of even finding the full text of  resolution 5-09A.  The LC-MS web site has a variety of links, but none I’ve been able to find states the full text of the resolution.  This page describes the intent of the resolution, which is helpful. This page gives a sense of everything that happens on a day of convention, which is overwhelming but not what I’d hoped for.    Maybe somebody better informed (or with more time on their hands) can find the specific wording for me?


***** Edit – thanks to Doug for providing this link.  The precise wording was broadcast on Twitter during the convention, and final documentation is still pending from our Synod. *****

There was, of course, debate.

Opponents criticized the resolution for being somewhat vague, centering on the use of the word natural as an adjective for days – six of them to be precise.  If the sun (and moon) wasn’t created until the fourth day, how can we speak of 24-hour days with any certainty or preciseness?  This critique has been voiced by others critical of the LC-MS position.

I find this hostility to the resolution and the theology behind it problematic.  Yes, the sun and moon were created on the fourth day.  Does that mean that God’s use of the word day throughout the six-day creation account is incorrect?  Did He misspeak?  Did He decide it was far too complicated for Moses in 1500 BC to understand anything differently so He just said days?  Would that mean God didn’t take into account our current scientific climate and assertions about the origins of everything that directly contradict Scripture on this particular point?  Was God incapable of maintaining a consistent 24-hour cycle without the sun and moon in place yet?

I find Mike  the Geologist’s certainty to be rather fascinating.  How is  it that you “know better”?  Are you that positive that a six-day creation is “nonsense”?  You presume that current understandings or theories of human origins  are superior/more accurate/more trustworthy than the Biblical account.  Would you then argue that the resurrection is not real because everybody knows better than that now?  Is it not possible that evolutionary explanations for the universe and our planet might be flawed –  unintentionally – and subject to correction down the line?  Is there a place for that sort of humility, or should we immediately jump to mocking those who prefer to take  God’s Word in this respect just as they take God’s Word for their forgiveness and hope of life eternally in Christ?

I understand this is complicated – and awkward – discussion.  And I agree, this is not necessarily the difference between heaven and hell in and of itself.  But if you suspect God wasn’t fully accurate or truthful with us in one regard, it’s not a big leap to think He wasn’t in other regards.  Or in no regards, because He isn’t really there.



September 10, 2019

An interesting little piece on real estate and ministers.

I certainly admit to thinking ministers of Christ should think carefully about the decisions they make in regards to where they live – as well as most other areas of their lives as well.  This article raises some interesting questions that are not often asked (or reported on).

At some  point there was apparently an acceptable rationale justifying a 9000 square foot house for the residence of an archibishop.  Many people think that’s funny or unseemly now, but I’m curious as to the original rationale.  Was it an emphasis on the archbishop’s position and authority/influence/prestige?  And here I mean the office of archbishop, not the person who might happen to hold that office at a particular point in time.  Does real estate have a valid role to play in such a commentary?  I imagine a lot of those answers have to do with aspects of Roman Catholic theology I’m not familiar with, but I presume they exist.

It’s easy to point fingers and say that’s too ostentatious, that’s too big.  Except that those notions are acculturated in and of themselves and therefore not necessarily any better than the original assumptions behind building/buying the house.  I applaud the new archbishop’s commitment to “examine everything – including the home that I live in that the people of God provide me” in terms of Christian witness.  But I question a too-hasty, knee-jerk reaction that says any domicile over a certain size or monetary value is automatically inappropriate.

It all depends on how it is used.

There is a nod-wink later in the article to the parties hosted there.  That quote clearly seems condemning of the place and it’s at least occasional use, though the new archbishop specifically says his refusal to live there is not a condemnation of his predecessors.  Were the parties entertainment, as one might think of a wealthy person providing for amusement, or did they serve other purposes?  Does the Church necessarily need to hold meetings in a Denny’s?

Does the archbishop have a staff that supports him in his work?  Cleaners?  Secretaries?  Administrative assistants?  Do they live in the house as well?  Could the house be utilized for multiple purposes, or more appropriately perhaps, could more people live there than just the archbishop?

In other words, it’s easy to look at a price tag or a size or a zip code and pass judgment.  But judgment should take all aspects of the situation into account, both historically, for the present moment, and with an eye towards the future.  It could turn out that renting or purchasing another smaller place might in the long run by more costly than just living in the current building, especially if the current building could be thought of in terms beyond just one person’s abode.

To be certain, there are abuses of the collar and some of the other examples in the article seem to be good examples of this.  But size or cost is only one aspect of considering the appropriateness of a house – or a car, or clothing, or food – utilized by a minister of the Gospel.  Having a large space can provide other options if people are willing to explore and consider those sorts of things.  And I’d have to say if anyone is capable of doing a good job in thinking through sacred space or the use of space for the people of God, it’s probably the Roman Catholics.  I pray they have some good folks working on this situation, and that the resolution is definitely a reflection of the Church’s mandate to equip people (including clergy) to daily think through how to love God and love their neighbor.

Book Review: A Martyr’s Faith in a Faithless World

September 9, 2019

A Martyr’s Faith in a Faithless World by Rev. Bryan Wolfmueller

I ordered this thinking it was a spin on Foxe’s Book of Martyr’s, perhaps updated a bit, or some other form of martyrology.  It is not.  There are accounts of five martyrs in the book, the most recent being the third century and the oldest being the account of St. Stephen in Acts 7.  Although it is billed as a starting theological text for the curious, it is really more of a devotional.  Around the unifying theme of the parable of the sower in Matthew 13, each section begins with the account of a martyr and then contains several short devotionals or homilies.

They’re probably very good.

But I’m not very good at reading them.  It’s a default in my character, that very rarely will a devotional from someone else stir me.  I’m grateful that they exist, aware that a great many people – perhaps everyone else but me – really enjoys them and gets a lot out of them.  I don’t.

So I’m not going to evaluate this book.  The devotionals I did read (the first 4-5) were very fine.  They are theologically oriented, asking the reader to consider various theological aspects of the parable of the sower.  And it is well-grounded in Lutheran theology.   Lord knows we all need more inspiration and grounding in our lives of faith, and this may be a wonderful resource for you.

Reading Ramblings – September 15, 2019

September 8, 2019

Reading Ramblings

Date: Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost – September 15, 2019

Texts: Ezekiel 34:11-24; Psalm 119:169-176; 1 Timothy 1:(5-11)12-17; Luke 15:1-10

Context: This week’s theme seems to be that of restoring the people of God when they go astray. This does not mean going astray in terms of apostasy or denial of the faith, necessarily, but in correcting their understandings and practices when they are still people of God. Christians are prone to false understandings and practices that don’t take them outside of the faith, but are yet inappropriate or even harmful to their brothers and sisters within the faith. Ezekiel’s message is one of judgment among the sheep, who will still have one shepherd over them but some are abusing their brothers and sisters. Likewise the two starting parables in the Gospel lesson presume that the hearers are not sinners outside the people of God but are in fact the 99 sheep and the nine coins still in possession of the shepherd and the woman – both metaphors for God. Just because we have faith in Jesus does not mean there is not a continual need for pruning by the vinedresser (John 15).

Ezekiel 34:11-24 – Ezekiel has prophesied harsh words to the people of Judah (Chapter 33), to the shepherds of Judah (34:1-10), here to be understood as likely both political and religious leadership, kings, princes, priests, and prophets, and now to the people themselves. First there are reassuring words of how the Lord will regather his scattered flock no matter how far they have been taken or wandered astray. But then there are rebukes within the flock. God can and will hold accountable his people who are careless or selfish or greedy in their relationships with others of his people. Saving faith in Jesus Christ does not justify everything we do, and God expects us to take seriously the Commandments not only to love him but to love our neighbor. Only when God sends the perfect shepherd will such sinfulness cease and will true peace be possible for all of God’s people.

Psalm 119:169-176 – The psalmist cries to the Lord for wisdom and understanding. Already within the fold of faith, there is still more to learn, more guidance necessary. We meditate on the Word of God not as those who have already been perfected by it but as those who are still being shaped and pruned by it, our ways guided and adjusted continually through our lives. We may feel it enough that we are free from major sins, but the Word of God continues to shape us for perfection in eternity. We are always to give God praise that He is not content to leave us as we are, partially finished, but to continue working on and with and in and despite us until we reach perfection in the day of our Lord’s return.

1 Timothy 1:5-17 – Verses 5-12 are optional but I think they mesh well with the remainder of the readings. Paul needs Timothy to deal with a situation where there are people in the Church – Christians – who are teaching incorrect things. Timothy is to be strong in this – charging them, demanding of the that they stop these things, speculative theologies and theories that detract from the central message of Christ crucified. The point of demanding they cease such things is that they may better express love from a pure heart and a good conscience and a sincere faith. Their current teachings undermine these things, casting doubt and division instead of building up in love. These seeming simple things – not nearly as exciting as dubious teachings and philosophies and speculations in the faith – have been the source of misguided pride as people who really don’t know what they’re talking about desire to be recognized as teachers of others. This is dangerous folly. These are not non-Christians, but they are Christians who are mistaken in their faith and must be sternly warned against it for their own good and the good of the community. The Law is necessary first and foremost to restrain the sinful and guide them in their awareness of sin and need for a Savior. The Law can never be the means by which we save ourselves or one another, even when Paul is charging Timothy to call these erroneous Christians to account by the Law of Jesus Christ.

This may sound harsh, but it’s nothing less than what Jesus did to Paul himself. Jesus crushed Paul with the knowledge of his error and sinfulness as he sought to serve God, so that Paul might rightly receive the Son of God Jesus of Nazareth. Paul was changed wholly and completely. He wasn’t just warned about one aspect of his faith as he wants Timothy to do with these people in the church, he was shown how his entire understanding and relationship with God was flawed. Paul in humility subjected himself to this correction. He is grateful for the correction as it saved him from his error and allowed God to be honored and glorified by all who saw the change in him. So we should be grateful when we are shown the error of our ways!

Luke 15:1-10 – Presumably this passage is connected to the latter half of Luke 14, so that it is in the context of great crowds that part and allow the religious leaders of the day closer access to Jesus. But even as they listen to him, they discount his teachings because of his associations with sinful people. Surely a holy man would never allow himself to be contaminated by base sinners!

Jesus addresses these probably unvoiced criticisms head on. He has come to seek the lost, the overlooked, the forgotten, the neglected, the discarded. The implication is He did not come for those already following the Word of God (even if they are applying it improperly!). Rather, He has come for those the Pharisees and scribes have no interest in. They are secure in their own purity, and do not care whether the broken and sinful are healed and brought into the kingdom or not. So it is necessary for Jesus to do this, to extend grace and mercy where only judgment, condemnation and derision are received from the religious leadership.

We might wonder if the Pharisees are really in the Kingdom of God or not, but Jesus’ parables make it sound as though they are. They are like 99 sheep in a pasture, safe and sound and gathered together. They are like nine coins held in the nervous hand of a woman. Jesus has not come to find them, because they are already found. But He has come so that all might be included, so that the lost sheep is not left behind and so the lost coin might be found. Only when everyone who is to be in the Kingdom is safely home can there be a true and complete celebration.

Once again, the clear teaching here is that saving faith does not equate to perfect righteousness particularly towards one another. There is always the sinfulness that excludes passively if not actively, that grumbles when those we deem less deserving are given attention we think better spent on ourselves, like fat, sleek sheep who shove others aside.


September 6, 2019

I like honesty.

I say that fully admitting that I am incapable of it.  That in the entire history of the human race there have only been three people perfectly capable of it and two of them threw that ability away pretty much right out of the starting gate.  None of the rest of us can be perfectly, absolutely honest all of the time.  But we can try, and trying makes all the difference sometimes.

And for me the hallmark of honesty is the willingness, the humility to admit that you might be wrong.  That you might be deceived yourself or trying to deceive others.  If there is that humility there is room for discussion.  Room to really hear other people and really be heard by others.  If there isn’t that humility, there is no discussion and ultimately there can’t be growth.

I like intellectual honesty, grappling with reality as we know it and experience it and trying to make sense of it.  I’m reading Justin Martyr’s First Apology, and I love his willingness to tackle the prejudices and ideas of his day head on with the assumption that truth can be found and honesty will lead to that truth.  He wasn’t afraid to present a demand for honesty to the Roman Emperor himself and all those who claimed or desired to be purveyors of intellectual honesty.  Justin was convinced that Christianity and the Bible could fare well in that sort of encounter.

But we have to recognize that in these confrontations Christianity is a threat to other people.  It threatens what they know or believe, or what they prefer to know or believe.  It threatens these things by insisting that there is an objective truth and reality that can be known and that knowing is life-changing.  Not simply an intellectual assent to a propositional statement but something that penetrates to the very heart and spirit of us to transform us.  To bring life from death.  So it’s a threat.

This morning I met with a young man in an addiction recovery program.  We’ve been meeting for three weeks  or so now, each week, as part of the program’s option to provide clients with a spiritual mentor.  While I don’t like the title, I’m willing to spend time with guys who want to search out the spiritual aspect of their recovery and lives further.  More honestly.

After several weeks of running around in philosophical circles about what can or can’t be known, as he was preparing to get out of my car today he said I think I want Christianity to be untrue, or I want to convince myself it isn’t a reasonable option because it would challenge my identity, and I don’t know what I’ll have to give up if I accept it as true.


A recognition that  the call to follow Christ is a call to self-denial.  A call to transformation.  A call to allow God to use us as He chooses rather than as we prefer.  A call to fully acknowledge the depth of our depravity and brokenness, that we might better praise and exalt the God who delivers us up and out of these things.

The Gospel reading for Sunday is Luke 14:25-35.

Jesus clearly does not understand our influencer social media culture.  Here he is with thousands of people following him and hanging on his every word.  Imagine how rich he could have become with a few well-placed product placements!  But instead, Jesus’ response is to turn around and challenge those people.  Do you really want to follow me?  Because following me is going to cost you everything.  Are you willing to give it all up?  Are you willing – more accurately – to live as though it isn’t yours in the first place? 

I think many Christians think this sacrifice comes when they enter the faith, which for many means as an infant.  I think many Christians presume there won’t be any further sacrifices demanded of them.  That they are entitled to live the rest of their lives more or less like the larger culture.

But Jesus’ words directly contradict this.  Because if we’re going to be honest about who we are as fallen and sinful creatures, we have to embrace a humility, a recognition that we might be wrong on any given matter and therefore open to being guided.  Open to growth and learning.  Conviction is fine – I’m convinced of the truth of the Bible and the real identity of Jesus of Nazareth as the incarnate Son of God who defeated the powers of sin, death, and Satan on my behalf through his death and resurrection.  Being humble and listening doesn’t mean everything is up for grabs.  But it should mean I’m listening.  That I’m willing to engage in the discussion like Justin Martyr or Josh this morning.  And that I’m understanding that this may lead to changes in me personal.  How I like to think of myself.  The things I enjoy.  Even some of my convictions.

It may, in fact, lead not to the general approval of the people around me but to my death.  Don’t think Jesus’ use of the cross is metaphorical or symbolic.  His hearers knew all too well what the cross meant, as did Jesus.  And we are called to that level of humility, if necessary.  To being branded a criminal when we are not, as Justin Martyr insisted.  On being convicted by an unfair double-standard, as Justin pointed out.  To suffering and dying in acceptance not of the truth as stated by our world, but as defined by God, as Justin ultimately was willing to do.

Sometimes I think Christians are more willing to embrace and affirm the idea of martyrdom rather than be open to the possibility of the Holy Spirit changing their opinions about things here and now, in the safety of their own routines and lives.  Then again, theoretical martyrdom is far more romantic and exotic than the unpleasant business of dealing with other people.

I pray for honesty.  For the blinders to be revealed and removed whenever and wherever necessary from my eyes.  I pray that knowing full well it might be highly uncomfortable.  And so when I pray for that kind of honesty and engagement for and from others, it hopefully isn’t under the assumption that I’ll get what I want that way.  But Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ. (Ephesians 4:15)

Borrowing the Words

September 4, 2019

We sat last night in a bar watching a pool tournament.  Neither of us were playing – he because he didn’t qualify, myself because I ended the season near the top of my division and therefore will be playing in an all-stars tournament next week.  We were there to watch, to relax, to cheer on friends and team mates.  He’s a good ol’ boy from Oklahoma and Georgia, with some additional stops  around the world courtesy a decade in the Army.  He talked a lot about that decade last night.

But as things sometimes do, the conversation took a right turn into theology.  He’s in upper management for a major national retail chain and he knows what I do.  But as part of his sharing of his story, we suddenly had the covers pulled of the theology that underpins everything we do and who we are.  I’m not religious, he began, I just believe in being a good person.

Theological conversations with an intoxicated person are always a landmine.  They’re often very fruitful in the moment, but if the person remembers it later, they might be upset about something or other.  The honesty that alcohol can lead some people to is sometimes a difficult thing to handle after the fact.

And if you tell me that if I don’t believe in God then I’m going to hell, then f*** you.  Said more as a general statement than directly to me.  But still.

I’m just going to be a good person and that’s it.  Some people need to be afraid of hell to be a good person.  Others don’t.

It sounds like a compelling argument.  Until you try to start figuring out what terms like good mean.  Clearly, when he was telling me about a younger sister’s abusive boyfriend years ago, he felt what that guy did to her was badEvilWicked.  As opposed to how my buddy attempts to live his life.  GoodUpstanding.

But outside of some transcendent center, some unchanging baseline, those words are pointless.  At best, they can attempt to capture some general level of consensus in the moment about what is appropriate or inappropriate.  At worst, they’re purely subjective labels  without any inherent meaning beyond what I choose to give to them.  So abusing a girlfriend is good to one person, but not to me.  Who is right?  Who gets to decide?  Me?  The abuser?  On what basis?  Majority opinion?  Which majority?

I pointed out to my buddy that when he starts tossing around words like good and evil, he’s borrowing the vocabulary of religion.  He was willing to acknowledge that.  But it’s a pretty important point.  People like the idea of relative morality on the one hand, but not on the other.  Relative morality says that 200 years  ago, slavery was just fine.  Yet there are still people trying to get reparations for the  slavery of their ancestors way back then.  On what basis, though, if not a transcendent definition of good and bad that can be applied in a unilateral fashion across time and geography?

The conversation ended shortly after.   I doubt he’ll remember any of it, and that’s fine.  I learned a little more about him and where he comes from, and maybe the Holy Spirit will use that knowledge at some point in the future in our interactions.  Or maybe he’ll remember the point he conceded last night, and it will nag at him and maybe spawn another conversation down the road.  Time will tell, but I hope  so.