Archive for the ‘Theology’ Category

Romans 8:18-30

July 20, 2017

The Epistle lesson in Year A of the 3-year lectionary cycle in use with many Christian congregations and denominations is this section from St. Paul’s letter to the Roman Christians.  Actually, it overlaps slightly with the reading for next week, as the section is broken (atrociously!) in the lectionary cycle between verse 27 and 28.  But for this discursus, I’ll deal with what the proper section should have been – verses 18-30.

Paul has masterfully developed his theme of justification exclusively by the grace of God the Father through faith in the atoning sacrifice of God the Son, Jesus the Christ.  He’s laid out how the Old Testament clearly shows this has always been God’s way of working.  He’s discussed the role of the Law now for Christians, not as a condemning force that consigns us to death in our sins, but as the good and holy Word of God that guides and protects us as we live out our lives of faith.  He’s made it clear that the Christian life is fundamentally different than whatever life we might have led before being brought to faith in Jesus.  This may necessitate some rather major changes in how we think, speak, and act.  Paul does not preach cheap grace – whereby we keep doing what we want trusting in Jesus as our Get-out-of-hell-free card.  The Christian is able to strive towards holier living because of the indwelling presence of God the Holy Spirit within them.

But the reality is that we will never be fully freed from sin in this lifetime.  There will be a war within us every day of our lives between the sinful desires that are still part of us and the righteous and holy part of us made possible through faith in Jesus the Christ.  Yet we struggle on!  And part of that struggle, Paul mentions at the end of verse 17, is that we will suffer in this world.  Suffering is a topic Paul has already briefly mentioned back in Chapter 5:1-5, where he discussed that for the Christian, suffering is never fruitless because God who is with us and in us and for us will use periods of suffering to further define and refine our character.  While we don’t crave suffering, if and when we encounter it we do so in the knowledge that God is with us and working in and through us.

Now in Chapter 8 Paul comes back to the topic of suffering.  It might seem that we who are striving after God should somehow be protected from suffering and persecution in our faith, but this is not the case.  Suffering for the faith or because of the faith is often part of the Christian life (despite the historical anomaly that is America over the past 200 years).  How is the Christian to deal with this suffering?  Certainly in part, she should remember what Paul said back in Chapter 5 – that God is working in and through and despite our suffering and therefore we should actively look for and expect such work, not simply the elimination of our suffering.

Here in this section of Chapter 8, Paul lays out three reasons why the Christian should be able to endure suffering while still praising God.  Firstly, whatever suffering we endure is brief compared with the vista of eternity that we continually cast our gaze towards.  Our culture insists that our life is really just the timespan of life as we know it, maybe 100 years or so if you’re lucky, so you better make it count.  More accurately, our culture says that really the most important and vital part of that lifespan extends from about 16 to 30, so you need to make those years count.  Have fun!  Experiment!  Follow your bliss!  Ignore the massive damage this can do to you and those around you!  Don’t stop to think about the long term!

But the Christian seeks to maintain the Biblical perspective – our life is a gift of God that we seek to enjoy but more specifically to use as an opportunity to praise and worship him.  This life does not end at death but continues into eternity.  So if in this life we practice restraint and self-discipline, it is not a waste – it leads us towards something far better!  Likewise, if our existence here and now entails suffering, we know that it is only for a period of time.  By keeping this perspective, we have one means by which to endure the suffering in our life.

Secondly, the Christian can endure suffering is brought out in verse 26 – we do not suffer alone.  The Holy Spirit of God is always with us and doesn’t simply passively abide within us but is active in his intercessions on our behalf.

In the midst of suffering we may be bewildered, frustrated, angry.  We may be unable to focus or concentrate our thoughts, to the point where we aren’t even able to pray!  This might be a terrible thought for us – are we abandoning God because of the suffering in our lives?  Because we’re too frazzled or absorbed in our pain to pray?  By no means!  God the Holy Spirit himself is praying and interceding on our behalf.  Beyond the level of words and articulations, without our actual involvement, even.  We are never left alone, and God himself knows – because of the suffering of Jesus – how deeply suffering can affect us and disrupt our routines and abilities.  So we endure suffering knowing that God is with us and for us and within us at all times!

Paul’s third reason that the Christian can endure suffering is in verse 28 – we know that God works all things for good for those who love him.  This is a restatement or summary in some ways of Paul’s discussion in Romans 5:1-5.  God is at work in us constantly and pervasively, and suffering does not change this but in fact may offer unique opportunities for such divine work.

We need to be careful in our interpretation here.  Verse 28 is not saying that suffering is not real, that evil is not real, that we are simply deluded or misinformed about what goes on within and around us.  The Bible never denies the reality of suffering and persecution and evil, and we never should as well!  But if we suffer in such a way, the Christian rests assured that the suffering cannot separate us from God’s love.  It does not eclipse his goodness to us.  And if we trust in him, one day we will be able to see how He was at work in us during our suffering – upholding, shaping, molding, pruning.  Again, we don’t look for suffering, but when we encounter it, we do so knowing that God is not absent in our suffering, and therefore our suffering has actual meaning – a meaning exactly contrary to the intent of that suffering when it is imposed upon us by those antagonistic to God and to our faith in Christ.

The Christian suffers as no other person can or does suffer, because we can endure it through our faith.  We do so knowing that the suffering will only last so long, and then we will be free of it – perhaps temporarily but certainly eternally!  We endure knowing that God the Holy Spirit is within us interceding on our behalf even when we are unable to pray.  And we endure trusting that regardless of the type or source of our suffering, God is capable of working good things in and through and despite it.

All of this leads Paul to a concluding section of praise and confidence to and in God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, before he moves on to a different topic in his letter.  This is such an important thing to me as a pastor, and as I come alongside people in the midst of very real suffering.

Today I visited one of our elderly, home-bound members.  I’ve been calling on her since I arrived at this parish seven years ago.  And in that time she has transitioned from a somewhat independent and mobile woman, full of the confidence and capability that I believe marked her whole adult life, to first a homebound woman and now a woman in her upper 90’s who requires 24-hour care and is physically a shadow of her former self.  She is often confused, and sometimes bewildered.  She speaks often of how she just wants to die and go to be with God.  I’ve talked about our times together before.

I wonder why it is that God has not called her home.  But Paul’s words in Romans 8 are important to me as I minister to her, and as I imagine spectres of my own future as I talk and pray with her.  He has not abandoned or forgotten her.  And while she and I may not know his reasons and timing, we need never trust his goodness and love.  I trust He has his reasons, and one day I’ll be at least better able to understand them and see their perfection.

Good News

July 16, 2017

This morning I stopped, as usual, for my early Sunday morning tea and bagel and the final push towards finalizing preparation for worship.  This particular morning started earlier than usual.  A knock on our bedroom door roused me from sleep to discover one of our exchange students describing in confusion and distress a leak in their bathroom.

I thought that perhaps she had been doing laundry the night before.  If the loads are too big, the washer will sometimes leak water out.  It’s a nuisance but it seems a bigger nuisance than replacing or repairing the washer, and it doesn’t happen very often.  I assured her that I would take care of mopping it up.  She was still distressed, worried about how bad the situation would be by later in the morning.  A brief view of their bathroom indicates why.  It isn’t the washer that’s leaking, it’s the toilet that is overflowing.  Backed up and overflowing.  And let’s just say that the water is not clean.

I send her off to bed assuring her that I’ll take care of it.  I have no idea how, but I know it’s not her problem to handle.  She let me know the bad news and now it was my job to deal with it.  An hour or more later and I had the bathroom cleaned up and sterilized and we were awaiting a plumber to come and clear the line.  As I bought my tea and bagel I didn’t know the scope of the problem or the cost to fix it yet.  I was a tad preoccupied.

As he handed me my bagel and tea, the owner said something, and in my early morning fog and the fumes of bleach clinging to me and my increasing problems with hearing, it took me a few seconds after walking away to process.  Go out and save some lives, he had said.

It might be the world’s most succinct pep talk, and I appreciated his statement since I know he doesn’t probably share my faith (he’s someone who considers himself very spiritual but not religious).  As I put the cream and sugar in my tea, the thought that came into my head quickly was that I wasn’t going to be saving lives today.  Not because there aren’t lives to be saved, but because that’s not my job.

It’s God’s job to save lives, and that’s what He has done in Jesus.  Fixed what we can’t.  Opened a way for anyone who wants to be reconciled to the God who created them but whom they have been in rebellion against (whether actively or passively, consciously or unconsciously) since before they were born.  It’s not my job to save lives in the spiritual sense – I don’t have that power in me.

But I am blessed to be the bearer not of bad news like our poor student in the wee hours of this morning, but rather the proclaimer of good news.  What amazingly good news!  In a world that markets and manufactures despair and vitriol, that constantly seeks an angle for exploitation and manipulation, what a blessing to be able to share unmitigated good news.  There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ! (Romans 8:1, and part of the Epistle lesson I am preaching on this morning).  Whatever else may go wrong in my life, from toilets exploding to unforeseen health issues and struggles in relationship, at least I know that I am no longer condemned by God for my sin!  What a relief!  How simple everything else seems when I remind myself of this glorious message of promise and hope!

Perspective

July 10, 2017

I struggle for proper perspective.  What is the best use of the limited time, resources, and talents which God has entrusted to me?  How do I balance personal enjoyments with the larger picture of what really matters in life and eternity?

Preach the Gospel.  Die.  Be forgotten.

This quote by 17th century Christian Nicolaus Zinzendorf really caught my eye when I first encountered it through Facebook a week or so ago.  It summarizes what my job as a Christian and a pastor is.  But it flies in the face of the culture that affects me daily, a culture of narcissism, where 15 minutes of fame is no longer adequate and insatiable social media technology holds the promise of enduring fame/notoriety.  Along with the accolades and likes and followers and money that we associate with such popularity.

None of this lasts.  We all know it.  Or perhaps what we hope is the fame lasts even after we’re gone.  That we’ll still be the talk of the town, a relevant meme, an inspiring memory even after our death.  Fame becomes a form of immortality.  Unable to conquer death on our own, we seek to at cheat it the only way we can – by hoping our memory lives on after us.

Zinzendorf spoke to missionaries – men and women committing their entire selves to the perpetual sharing of the Gospel.  It wasn’t glorious work.  It never has been and never will be, although we certainly have found ways to make segments of American Christianity more resemble a popularity contest or an American Idol show or a TED presentation.  But what matters isn’t temporary glory.  The stakes are far higher than that, and God’s people need to bear this in mind daily.

I’m not called to pursue fame.  I wasn’t ordained in order to boast about the number of friends I have on Facebook or how many people follow this blog.  I sought – and was granted – the title of minister of religion so that people’s lives might be changed.  And getting a late official start in this vocation, I don’t have the luxury of time to indulge in things that might make me feel better about myself.  Pursuing a doctoral degree.  Writing a book.  Perfecting my 8-ball game.

I hope that it’s not laziness, though.  This gut-feeling that what matters aren’t the letters after or before my name.  The continual struggle of feeling inadequate.  I could spend more time and money to try and work through those issues, but in the meantime I lose precious space and time to actually share the Gospel with people who need to hear it.  Perhaps this is the thorn in my flesh (or at least one of them!) as St. Paul understood (2 Corinthians 12:1-10), whereby our sinful ambitions and the attitudes of the world are set on their head so that we end up only boasting in Christ.

And in doing so, we receive that which we sought on so many other terms and through so many other means and institutions.  We receive eternal life, and the promise that we will never be forgotten.  That we will be known throughout all eternity through the grace and forgiveness of God in which we placed our faith and trust.

Reading Ramblings – July 16, 2017

July 9, 2017

Reading Ramblings

 

Date: Sixth Sunday after Pentecost – July 16, 2017

Texts: Isaiah 55:10-13; Psalm 65:1-13; Romans 8:1-17; Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23

 

Context: I’ve opted to include the first 11 verses of Romans 8 with this week’s reading.  I think they provide good context to the moral exhortation of vs. 12-17, which are the officially assigned verses.  I think all of the verses this week emphasize the reliability of God in terms of his Word.  It isn’t difficult to say something, and all of us have had experiences where expectations that were set through others’ words were not met.  You and I fail to keep our word, regardless of how hard we try.  Being finite, there are limitations to what we can do and accomplish and sometimes those limitations are much closer and realer than we expected.  But for God who is eternal and all-powerful, his Word is trustworthy.  There is no set of external conditions that can foil God’s intentions.  And God does not contradict, lie, or change his mind.  Therefore, we can and should trust what He tells us!

 

Isaiah 55:10-13 – In the preceding verses God has painted a beautiful picture for his people.  Now He assures them that what He intends, He accomplishes.  We needn’t doubt.  These promises are for us.  Not simply here and now (and perhaps not here and now), but certainly in the larger, eternal sense.  We strut and fret for our limited spans upon this mortal stage, convinced all-too easily that what we do or don’t experience here and now is what is most important.  But God’s promises are not restricted to the here and now.  We will know peace and joy, and therefore we wait anxiously for God to bring this about.  First as hope in our heart that sustains us when present circumstances are unpleasant, and then finally and completely when our Lord returns.

 

Psalm 65:1-13 – This psalm praises God for what He does for his people.  We come to him and prayer and He responds!  He brings us forgiveness for our sins – our greatest and most primal need (vs.1-4).  He demonstrates his righteousness and power through creation itself which demonstrates these attributes daily (vs.5-8).  God provides for his creation so that we are blessed.  He gives us everything we need to survive (vs.9-13).  If there is want and need, it is not because God’s provision is inadequate but because our distribution and use of these gifts is sinful and broken, necessitating repentance and receiving the forgiveness that the psalm began with.  There is never lack of a reason to praise God so long as we have breath and hold fast to his promises.

 

Romans 8:1-17 – Having just dealt with the reality of ongoing sin in the Christian life, Paul returns to first of all assure us that despite our sin, we are indeed in Christ and therefore forgiven.  It isn’t our behavior that has necessarily changed (certainly not completely!).  Rather, it is our identity.  We are no longer selling ourselves into the slavery of sin.  At the very least/beginning, there is now a conflict, a disquiet and unease that we did not know before as sin prowls our hearts and minds and bodies.  We know what right is.  And we want to do it!  All this is possible only through God the Holy Spirit dwelling within us.  If our identity has not changed to people who are now in Christ, then no amount of good works will ever make any difference.  Paul answers a common assertion today – it is not what we do that makes us good.  It is who we are, and whose we are, that makes us good.  As such, we begin or continue the fight against sin.  It is not who we are any more, so how can we not find it abhorrent and seek to weaken its hold on our lives?  How can we, who have been bought from slavery to Satan by the Son of God’s blood, desire anything more than to live lives of gratitude and joy as defined by our obedience?  We are no longer enemies of God, no longer rebels, but beloved children who can come to our heavenly Father knowing that we are loved above all creation, and therefore can expect our Father’s love now and for all eternity, to our benefit and his glory.

Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23 – The Word of God is the active power of God.  He who spoke creation into existence declares us his children by his Word.  His Word creates our new identity in his Son, Jesus.  Without God’s Word, no life is possible, let alone growth.  His Word carries life within it, is itself life and power and vibrancy.

 

How is it then that if God desires  all should be saved (Ezekiel 33:11) that apparently all will not be saved?  It is not a matter of God’s Word, but rather of our receptivity to it.  We continue the careful balancing of divine power and authority with the ability to reject the Word of God.

 

Matthew positions this discourse following several disparate reactions to Jesus’ preaching and teaching in Chapter 12.  Jesus is followed by crowds (12:15) that include both admirers and detractors.  Some think that Jesus is diabolically motivated and empowered.  Others demand further proofs and evidences that they might be convinced about what He says.  And presuming that 12:46-49 is referring to the same event as Mark 3 (likely given the demonic accusations in both passages as well as reference to a familial delegation), then his own family thinks that He’s crazy.  Why such varied responses to the Word?

 

Different soil conditions.  But note that while the soil conditions vary, the sower does not adjust himself to take this into account.  Seed is scattered.  It is scattered widely and generously.  Promising soil might turn out to be problematic.  Soil that looks inadequate might result in growth.  The sower sows – he or she is not a soil analyst.  That is God’s job alone!

 

But with the right conditions, the Word of God does what the Word of God has always done – it creates life.  Not just temporarily and not just barely, but eternally and abundantly!

 

 

This week I dealt with several questions about both the origins of the Old and New Testament as well as the necessity of accepting the Old Testament entirely – including difficult things such as a world-wide flood or people living to amazingly old ages.  It struck me (in retrospect), that to the seeker or the skeptic, the claims of Scripture seem fantastical, and no more verifiable than any other allegedly sacred scripture.  Why should someone take seriously the Bible rather than the Qu’ran or the Vedas or the Book of Mormon?

 

It’s all wrapped up in Jesus.  It isn’t necessary (and perhaps it is impossible!) to convince someone of the historicity of Adam and Eve or the Flood or Methuselah.  But it is much easier to bring them to the Gospels and introduce them to Jesus.  It is much easier to walk them through the Gospels and ask them whether they read more like the mythologies of the Greeks or like eye-witness testimony and description.  It is much simpler to confront them with the Resurrection.  This is the first decision that needs to be reached – who is Jesus?  Is Jesus who He said He was, or was He a charlatan or a lunatic? That decision hinges on whether the Resurrection is a reality attested to by historically reliable witnesses and documentation.  If you come to the conclusion that – as unlikely as it sounds – Jesus did indeed rise from the grave after three days, then you need to take seriously everything He said.  And Jesus repeatedly and consistently quoted the Old Testament as truth and treated it as such.

 

You have no such test for the Qu’ran or the Book of Mormon or the Vedas or any other sacred text.  No such obviously historical and considerable event as the Resurrection.  Every other Scripture says trust me.  The Bible says trust Jesus, based on the fact that He predicted his death and resurrection and both things happened.

Mercy Killing?

June 30, 2017

The Western world grapples with the fear of suffering.  Not simply our own, actual suffering, but the suffering of others and our own hypothetical suffering.  The idea of having to suffer offends our sensibilities.  There is no purpose to it.  And so we demand that we have the option to opt-out of suffering and along with that we demand the right to opt other people out of their suffering so that we don’t have to suffer along with them.

We term this mercy.

Here is what mercy now can look like.  Parents of a child born with congenital health issues for which there is no cure or treatment are being told that the government has decided to end their child’s life – in the best interest of the child.  Despite the fact that the parents do not want their child to die.  Despite the fact that there is experimental treatment available out of the country that could change the conditions for which the child is being sentenced to death.  Not only this, but now that their appeals for out-of-country treatment have been denied, the parents are also being denied the right to have their own child die in their own home, rather than in a hospital.

I’m still trying to see where the mercy is involved in all of this.  Perhaps because I don’t suspect that mercy is really what is being demonstrated.  Efficiency.  Expediency.  A rigorous attention to detail, the rule of law.  Bureaucratic policy.  But not mercy.

This is happening in Great Britain.  The country, as one observer notes, that fought against the Nazi’s and their insistence that some lives (other people, more specifically) were not worth living and therefore the government could decide to end those lives.  This is where we end up without a moral compass or baseline, without anything that limits our ability or tendency to define and redefine even such beautiful words as mercy until they mean the very opposite of why we find them beautiful.

This redefinition is evil.  It is evil because it reduces humanity to a matter of expediency and personal preferences, carefully sanitized in legalese and policy-speak.  It is evil because it holds the dictates of a human being or institution as ultimate and final, without recognizing that such beings and institutions are inherently unable to provide a single, permanent baseline from which to operate.  So the decisions made today may be completely opposite the decisions that would have been made 50 years ago, or the decisions that might be made 50 years hence.

We (Christians) are being inculcated to sympathy with this evil.  I find the seeds of it even in myself, despite being older and less prone to direct means of subversion and brain-washing (like schools).  We are being wooed towards sympathy because of our own fears and hopes and wishes.

Yesterday I visited one of our long-time members who is homebound.  She has been homebound for the past seven years, by and large.  Over those years I have brought her Communion and led us in simple worship together.  She is an amazing woman.  Her mind is sharp, her will is formidable, she is articulate, cultured, and refined, and she has a zest for life that would be admirable in a person a quarter her age.

When I saw her two weeks ago she was having a good day.  We shared Communion and prayer.  I could see much of her through her condition.  When I went yesterday, however, it was a bad day, and I could see so very, very little of the woman she is.  She was fearful, her words slurred and at times indecipherable.  Her fear was palpable and audible, her weakness striking.  She didn’t know who I was, or who the woman caring for her was, or where she was.  She begged to go home while sitting in her own living room of 50 years.

I left asking God why He didn’t take her yet.  She has been ready to go for years.  Her faith is strong, but her mind and body have been subverted and twisted by time.  What point is there in having her linger, I wondered.  I even flirted with the thought that perhaps God was being unkind to her in this.  She deserves to die.  It would be a blessing to her.  It would be merciful.

Merciful to whom, I suddenly thought.  Perhaps it would be merciful to me, so that I didn’t need to keep going to see her.  Merciful to me so that I wasn’t made uncomfortable by her condition and deterioration, fearful that I might one day be in her place.  Merciful to me in that I wouldn’t have to accommodate myself to her limitations, and that I could leave feeling happy and care-free, to go about my daily routine and duties, rather than struggling with mortality and the damnable reality of sin and death that lurks within my own frame.

She is still herself.  She isn’t less herself, or less of a human being, than she was two years ago or twenty years ago or eighty years ago.  She is entitled to all the same love and care and concern.  Is it harder to be with her?  Yes.  Which is perhaps why it is all the more important to be with her.  To come to grips with the effects of sin in our lives.  To seek to love her consistently and care for her consistently, rather than simply deciding that at some arbitrary point or in some arbitrary state of mind or body, she is no longer herself, no longer deserving of the life that God himself has given and sustained her in.  Perhaps part of the blessing of suffering is that we learn to see past and through these things, both in ourselves and others.

She is not defined by her dementia.  She is not defined by her physical frailty.  She is not defined by her suffering, and neither she nor I have the right to redefine her as such and cease to see her for what she is.  Beautiful.  Alive by the grace and wisdom of God.  And therefore an opportunity to love and practice mercy with in the truest and best sense of that word, rather than the senseless way our culture wants to redefine it.  Perhaps as I continue to care for her in this way, it will better prepare me to care for others in similar conditions, and will further prepare me – inasmuch as may be possible – for me to endure that condition should it become my own one day.

Mercy, like hope, isn’t necessarily expedient.   But we are in a dangerous place without either.

 

Problems with Slaves

June 26, 2017

It’s amazing how much difficulty people have with the idea of being slaves.

I don’t like slavery either – certainly not in the human sense of one person completely owning or controlling another person.  Even under the best possible circumstances it still strikes me as inherently unhealthy, though I would argue that some people who are technically free but wage-slaves or otherwise overwhelmed by powers and authorities in their lives are worse off than a slave with a good master would be.

But even in the theological sense, as Paul speaks of in Romans 6, the language makes me itchy.  Am I really a slave?  Am I really as bad off as that?  Am I truly destined to be owned and controlled either by sin and death and an enemy older than myself, Satan, or controlled by the grace and forgiveness and new life to be found in Jesus the Christ?  Multiple people in conversations after worship and otherwise expressed their distaste or outright disagreement with Paul’s terminology.  I sympathize, to a point.

But, I didn’t call myself into this world.  I didn’t create me.  Much of my life is the result of things and people beyond my control.  I don’t know when and how I will die.  I am far from free in any meaningful sense of the word.  Yet I cling to the illusion of power and control.  Even were I not a theist and were inclined towards natural selection and other explanations for my existence, I wouldn’t be any better off.  In such a system I am merely the slave and product of my genes, produced with the sole purpose of perpetuating my particular brand of DNA and genetic markers, manipulated by the illusion of emotions and perceptions of meaning and greater purpose all for that singular end.

Paul is clear.  Either we are a slave to Satan or we are a slave to Christ.  There is no third option.  We are not free agents – moral or otherwise – free to determine our identity and destiny out of a plethora of options.  It is a reality only distasteful insofaras I insist on myself being more than a creature, more than a being driven by either my genes or my enemies or my Savior.  But there is such freedom in recognizing that Christ is my Lord.  In the relief of knowing what I was saved from, and the hope and promise of what I am now and will one day be.  My Creator has obligated himself towards me as my Redeemer and Sanctifier, assuring me that my worth is far beyond my salary or retirement or social standing.  Worth enough, in fact, to sacrifice the Son of God for, so that I might be saved, delivered from being a slave of death to being a slave of life.

Comfort

June 25, 2017

I don’t wear my clerical very often, depending on your definition of often.  In general, I wear it no more than a few hours a week, on Sunday mornings.  While I’ve gotten far more comfortable with wearing it publicly, I don’t see that it offers the same blessings to those around me that it might have a few decades ago.  As the tragic hero Malcom Reynolds of Firefly/Serenity observed, in post-modern, post-Christian culture, “Men of God make everyone feel guilty and judged.”

My Sunday morning ritual is to pick up a bagel and tea for the final morning preparations before worship.  Which means that I arrive at the coffee shop in my clerical.  I’ve been going there for years.  They know my face and they know my order.  They know my profession.  But that has been the stimulus for startling few conversations about faith or God over the years.  The owner once confided to me when his daughter passed away, but hasn’t mentioned it since.  He talks with the language and nuances of vague Eastern philosophies, so I’m fairly certain he’s not Christian.

This morning I was placing my usual order.  They know what it is as I walk in and are already starting to get it ready.  The one hiccup is the new computerized system they use to log orders and record payment.  The particular type of tea I always order is singularly difficult for them to find in their.  Every.  Time.  Maybe I’m the only one who orders it.  Given the somewhat silly name of Jasmine Fancy Black, perhaps others are too embarrassed to order it.

This morning it came out that the reason nobody can ever find it in the system is that it is mislabeled.  Instead of Jasmine Fancy Black, it has to be searched for as Black Jasmine Fancy, a state of affairs created by the owner himself who mislabeled it in the system.  Finally we all understood why this was always such a problem!  He proffered mock apologies for his role in the confusion.  He’s only human.  We shouldn’t hold a simple mistake against him.  Then he glances at me and says “God will forgive me, right?”

What do you say in that situation?  To a person who very likely doesn’t believe in forgiveness or God in any Biblical sense of the words?  He was just kidding, but instantly I felt like I couldn’t just laugh it off with equally vague assurances and commendations of God’s unilateral forgiveness.  I responded with “Quite possibly!”, which caught him off guard.  He laughed and responded with partially feigned surprise “Possibly?!”

The young woman putting the bagel in the toaster responded “You have to ask him for forgiveness,” a very salient insight from an unexpected quarter since I don’t assume that she’s Christian either.  But it was encouraging that she understood the basic concept – there is forgiveness in God, but that forgiveness has to be received.  It has to be recognized as not just appropriate and desirable but actually necessary.  Until the moment of actual guilt and actual repentance, forgiveness is a nice theory, an intellectual construct.  But it is not actually received.

It isn’t forgiveness that is uncertain.  That’s an objective reality created by the incarnation, death, resurrection, ascension and promised return of the Son of God, Jesus of Nazareth.  But whether that forgiveness becomes mine or not, that’s the subjective part.  Will I receive it?  Will I recognize my need for it?

Universal (Catholic) Wisdom

June 22, 2017

A great article which I would argue encompasses all those who consider themselves Christians, not simply Catholics.  These are problems endemic throughout American Christianity (yes, even among conservative Lutherans!), and they are dangerous to people eternally as well as here and now.  How many of these are you guilty of?

 

Testing the Boundaries

June 12, 2017

Here is a great article about an important judicial case that you probably never heard about until now (at least I hadn’t).

Attempts to undo religious liberty via workplace laws will continue and intensify.  But so far, those efforts are not succeeding – at least in the case of clearly confessional religious bodies.  For smaller churches unaffiliated with a broader denomination or historic church I’m guessing the vulnerability is greater.

I really like how the article stresses that while accusers in such cases often try to portray the actions of a congregation who terminates an employee as unloving or hateful, this is deliberate misrepresentation.  Terminating someone for violating the fundamental tenets of faith is not a hateful act.  At it’s heart, it should ultimately be a call to repentance, a firm reminder that God has spoken through his Word and we need to be careful when we violate it and expect to be commended.  This is, in the best application, another form of church discipline intended to call someone back to repentance and the forgiveness and grace of God, rather than allowing them to live with the potentially damning misunderstanding that what they do is approvable by God, regardless of what society says.

It’s an unfortunate situation for both the congregation and the individual involved, but it is not likely to be the last such situation, or the last such lawsuit.  It will be fascinating to see how long the courts side with churches on this issue.

Making Choices

June 10, 2017

Sunday mornings have really changed since I was a kid.  There were no school activities and no sports activities on Sunday mornings.  Maybe Saturday, but not Sunday.  But today it’s no big deal to have sports groups out on Sunday mornings practicing and competing.  Many parents make the decision that this is best for their kids.  Many Christian parents seem to make this decision for their families as well, lamenting that they can’t be in worship but claiming that this is really what is best for their kids.  They have such an ability, we can’t deny them the opportunity to do what they really love, some might argue.  It sounds compelling.

I’ve repeatedly stated that it’s going to become more difficult – already is more difficult – for Christians to live out their beliefs in our culture.  Options for professions and careers are going to become more limited.  It has become harder for Christians to live out their lives and their beliefs, and that isn’t going to change.  That’s not just true for bakers or farmers or government employees.  It can even be true for soccer players.

This week it was reported that one of the members of the US women’s national soccer team would be dropping out of the team during a Scandinavian tour this year.  No explanation was given beyond “personal reasons”.  Both the men’s and women’s US teams indicated that they would wear rainbow jerseys in celebration and support of gay pride this month.  Jaelene Hinkle withdrew from the team though she had been on it since 2015.  Speculation is that she has withdrawn because of Christian objection to being used as a public support for homosexuality.

There are lots of times – and they will only continue to grow in frequency – when parents and grandparents will be tempted to set aside their beliefs for what they consider to be the good of their family.  This young woman – if speculation is correct – is a beautiful example of refusing to do that.  By all means encourage your kids and grandkids and family to pursue things that they love and enjoy, but to do so at the expense of their Christian faith, of demonstrating to them what is truly most important about life and existence is foolish and dangerous.  Equipping our kids and grandkids to make difficult decisions like this one should be the primary goal of every Christian family.

More and more frequently, they’re going to be faced with these sorts of choices.  The least we can do is model for them how to make them.