Archive for the ‘Theology’ Category

Book Review: Environment & Arts in Catholic Worship

September 3, 2019

Environment & Art in Catholic Worship from the National Conference of Catholic Bishops, Bishops’ Committee on the Liturgy

The second of my (current) forays into Roman Catholic theological materials.  This is a short statement on art and environment in Catholic worship released in 1977.  In the wake of Vatican II, it became necessary to clarify and guide the increased freedoms available to congregations and worship leaders & planners.   What does it mean – in terms of worship environment and art – to interact as Roman Catholics with the modern world?

This is a very brief (under 50 pages, not including photos) introductory guide to considerations for  worship space and the use of art.  This includes the design of a worship space, the kinds of objects within it, artistic embellishments, etc.  As might be expected from a statement on the topic to a worldwide organization, the guide is rather thin, you might say.  It doesn’t make proclamations about what can and can’t be done, as planning a worship space in Africa is probably a lot different than planning one in Finland, as  far as aesthetics  go.  But there are underlying principles applicable to both environments.

There is a strong emphasis on the use of qualified professionals, whether in terms of planning a worship space (architects, etc.) to obtaining or creating the items that will fill that worship space (artists, design experts, etc.).  This guide attempts to reiterate the importance of doing things well, as opposed to doing things quickly or inexpensively.  Worship is a fundamentally different act than any other human act.  It is both individual and corporate, human and divine.  Holding together these various tensions requires careful thought (and prayer), and shouldn’t be plunged into without appropriate forethought.

Again, there is an emphasis on quality and authenticity,  ensuring that those items which fill a worship space are appropriate for such a space and of such a quality to bear their symbolic purposes.  If you’re in the process of designing or redesigning a worship space, or just updating artistic or liturgical elements within that  space, this is a helpful read-through.  It provides good theological reminders of both the gravitas and joy that worship embodies, and the unique attentions necessary to physical objects  in order to facilitate those things.

 

 

Book Review – Liturgy Made Simple

September 2, 2019

Liturgy Made Simple by Mark Searle

 

I recently inherited a small trove of Catholic theological books.  I was able to winnow the boxes down to about a dozen or  so books I thought might be helpful or interesting to look through, and this was the first.

If you’ve never really given much thought to why you do the things you do in worship, this is a great introductory resource to stimulate thought.  It presents the liturgy from the Roman Catholic perspective, which is not too terribly different from my own Protestant denomination’s understanding of it.  There are a few differences that someone with an alternative theological background to Roman Catholicism will pick up on.  And of course, if you aren’t already somewhat familiar with or sympathetic to the centuries-old pattern of worship and liturgical elements, this may be  confusing to you.  But it should provide a good means of thinking through certain things.

I particularly like his emphasis on the importance of authenticity.  This is a word that is getting more traction these days, particularly among younger generations.  Searle questions the propriety of changes made in the  liturgy or Sacraments in the name of convenience.  The one which particularly stood out to me was his criticism of mass-produced Holy Communion wafers.  Those terribly thin and terribly tasteless things that are, technically, a form of bread, but which bear more resemblance in all sensory forms to styrofoam than bread.

Yes, it takes time and effort to bake bread for Communion.   But I argue (having re-instituted actual baked, unleavened bread for our congregation’s Eucharist) that  it is an investment of time and energy more than worth the effort.  For the central celebration of the Christian community, how can we accept mass-produced products as somehow appropriately representative of the Body of Christ?

This is a short (under 100 pages) and easy read with questions for reflection and discussion afterwards.  It was likely used as a classroom resource for a seminary or pre-seminary program and would be ideal in that setting.  Some terms are taken for granted and not defined, but with a minimal amount of Googling, even the most contemporary-oriented, hipster pastor or worship team should be able to make use of this resource.

Reading Ramblings – September 8, 2019

September 1, 2019

Reading Ramblings

Date: Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost – September 8, 2019

Texts: Deuteronomy 30:15-20; Psalm 1; Philemon 1-21; Luke 14:25-35

Context: American Christians have grown used to the assumption that their faith is not only accepted in their culture, it is actually the guiding moral norm for our culture. As this changes, we are continually faced with drastically different definitions of normal, many of which challenge directly clear Biblical teaching. Remaining faithful to our beliefs now may well require us to stand very awkwardly apart from our culture, refusing to condone or support what it demands us to. While this is new and different for us it has by and large been the norm for most followers of Christ over the past 2000 years, to varying degrees of intensity ranging from a mild social stigmatization to arrests and even execution. We must consider carefully and seriously our faith, ensuring that our faith is not simply a complicity with our surrounding culture that negates the substance of our faith in application and makes us essentially like everyone else. We are called to be salt and light, and this will necessarily set us apart and, sometimes, make us easy targets for persecution and abuse.

Deuteronomy 30:15-20 – These verses are perhaps familiar to us, but perhaps less familiar are the first 14 verses of this chapter. If 15-20 gives us the impression that the law is something we can keep perfectly, the first 14 verses make it clear it is not. God knows full well that both the blessings and the curses of the covenant are going to come into play. God’s people will not remain faithful, but God will. Repentance will lead God’s people back home not by their own renewed obedience but by the faithful grace of God. This is the life being offered in Moses’ eloquent speech. Not a life of constant fear of the Law, but a life looking forward to the grace and goodness of God. The Law is to be taken seriously, but we will fail. God however, never fails. And so it is that God is rightly attributed as the source of life and length of days in v.20, rather than the obedience of his people.

Psalm 1 – This psalm sets the tone for the entire collection of psalms to follow. It sets forth the fundamental premise which will be explored in various ways through the rest of the psalms – the Word of God is the way of life, and all other options only lead to death. The opening two verses simply state this as a reality. The Word of God is the source of blessedness. Anyone or anything that counsels otherwise is wicked by definition. The natural effects of grounding oneself in God’s Word are a depth of strength and resilience that is not affected by the ups and downs of life. This is to be contrasted with the transience and lack of substance of the wicked, who are easily dispersed on the breeze like chaff. Chaff is an integral part of the grain plant, and seems every bit as vibrant and resilient as the grain it protects – until the harvest. At that time it is only the grain that has value, while the chaff dries up and is burned as fuel. This metaphor carries through the final two verses. On the day of judgment, the righteous will be separated from the unrighteous just as grain is separated from chaff during the threshing. It would no more be possible for the wicked to remain with the righteous during judgment than it would be for the dry, brittle chaff to remain with the grain during threshing.

Philemon – What does living by the Law of God look like? It doesn’t always look like we imagine it to. We may picture it as prohibiting us from violence or sexual misconduct, we may picture it as demanding our attendance in worship and guarding our choice of expletives. But the Word of God goes far deeper than this, and penetrates the way we do and approach everything, even our approach to economics. Paul writes to return a slave to his rightful master, and asks the master to be lenient in receiving him back. Some people are angry that Paul does not demand the master free the slave. That’s our understanding of what righteousness looks like. But freeing a slave does not alter the attitude of the master’s heart towards him. It is conceivable that freeing his slave might actually be detrimental to Onesimus – leaving him without a means of supporting himself. Rather, Paul calls both Onesimus and Philemon to a deeper application of God’s Word that demands love of neighbor, overcoming and setting aside personal issues to strive for true reconciliation. As brothers and sisters in Christ we expect to share eternity together – how can we allow anything temporal to affect how we treat one another here and now? The Kingdom of God is not simply a far off thing, but something that is lived out today – imperfectly to be sure, but just as seriously as though the King were on his earthly throne visible already!

Luke 14:25-35 – Following God’s Word, incarnate in the Son of God, Jesus the Christ, is not without cost. It would be much easier at times to do things the way the world does, to allow the world’s understanding of things to guide our own thoughts and actions. Our assumption that the life of faith will be easy and lead to the same sorts of benefits as others around us who aren’t following Christ is dangerous. There may be times when in order to be faithful we need to forego some of the goals or means taken for granted by those around us. This in turn will lead to real repercussions, whether socially or financially or even legally. We need to not only keep this in mind, we need in a very real sense to expect it. It’s easy for “great crowds” to follow Jesus as though on some extended picnic. But what happens when the Roman soldiers show up? What happens when the religious authorities kick them out of the synagogues (John 9:22)? What happens when they encounter persecution from friends and family and their community for their acceptance of Jesus (1 Thessalonians 2:14-16)?

What happens when the Biblical Word on human life contradicts what our society decides is right? What happens when our friends – or even family members! – quit associating with us because we’re narrow-minded or judgmental or unloving in our refusal to agree with everything society demands of us? Or what about refusing to lie or cheat in order to gain a financial advantage? What about refusing to raise our kids with the same standards of those around us? What about challenging school systems when they attempt to indoctrinate our children and grandchildren with ideas that are clearly contrary to Scripture? What about the need to forego a preferred vocational field because Christians aren’t allowed to follow their religious convictions?

Who can bear these things on their own!? How important it is to have brothers & sisters in Christ around us to encourage us in the midst of suffering and loss. Together we can encourage one another not to simply accept whatever society claims we must. Together we can help one another retain our saltiness, our distinctness from the world around us every bit as much as the Old Testament rules were intended to keep the Hebrews distinct from the surrounding cultures.

Book Review: A Lutheran Primer for Preaching

August 30, 2019

A Lutheran Primer for Preaching: A Theological and Practical Approach to Sermon Writing

by Edward O. Grimenstein

 

Over the past several years I had the honor of supervising a deacon in our area who was responsible for the majority of preaching and teaching at his small parish about 30 miles from ours.  The irony is that despite him being much older than myself, I was supervising him since I am an ordained pastor and he was a trained deacon – two different roles in our polity.  As part of a process to allow him to be ordained and continue serving his small congregation, he was assigned a rigorous reading and study schedule and I assisted him in that.  One of the books he mentioned he was reading is this one, so I decided maybe I should read it as well.  Belatedly, I have.

I expected it to be a 50-60 year old book, but was pleasantly surprised it was published in 2015.  It is intended for a small group or classroom use, with questions for both in-class and out of class discussion.  Each chapter is very short (3-4 pages) and focused on one particular topic, beginning with the more abstract, theological topics and moving to more practical ones.  Grimenstein’s writing style is very accessible and easy to understand.  His theology is thoroughly Biblical.  His purpose is to guide potential (or current) preachers into doing what preaching should be – allowing people the opportunity to believe Jesus is the Christ and, by believing, have eternal life (p.49).  Considering the many other things that preaching can easily devolve into, this is a worthy goal!  At just over 100 pages this is an easy introduction or brush-up on some of the basics of preaching as Biblical Lutherans approach this sacred task.

Overall  the book is helpful, particularly if you’ve had little to no homiletical training.  There are places where Grimenstein strives to forge theological supports for the homiletical task and falls short, such as Chapter Six as he struggles to relate tangibly the Holy Spirit’s role in homiletical work.  Of course, this is difficult! I also question his assertion on page 74 that sermon preparation should “not be work” for the preacher.  I don’t know many preachers who would agree with this statement.  There are times when things come together easily and nicely and times when they don’t.  Good preparation is of course helpful but no guarantee that when it comes down to writing the sermon it will come together easily.

This is a good resource.  He takes issue (rightly so) with the move in the last 50 years of homiletics to shy away from the Bible as the primary text for sermon writing.  Whether this is a novel concept or not for you will likely depend on your theological training as well as your view of Scripture.  If it’s the authoritative, inspired Word of God there can be no other appropriate book to base Scripture on!

 

 

 

 

 

 

Weekly Devotional – August 29, 2019

August 29, 2019

I’m starting a new thing with my congregation – a weekly electronic devotional based on one of the readings of either the previous or upcoming Sunday.  This is the first one.  I trust they’ll get better :-)

Begin by reading the verses indicated below, and then continue on with the devotion.

Psalm 50:1-15

Growing up chores were a source of little enjoyment for me. By all standards expectations weren’t excessive – taking out the trash, washing up dishes (or more accurately, putting them in the dishwasher) after dinner, those sorts of things. As kids these often seem like major impositions but as adults we realize how easy we had it and how much else our parents did, and we do now!

Predictably, chores were often done hurriedly and without much attention or love. This would result in lectures about pride of work and a cheerful heart and….well, I’m sure you remember such interactions with your own parents or your own kids/grandkids! And you may also recall this resulting in slight improvements in the short-term, but not necessarily a larger-scale change of understanding.

Our relationship with God can be very similar if we begin to see his gifts to us as chores. Instead of the opportunity to gather in worship with other believers, we might feel Sunday worship to be more of an obligation, as though we’re doing God a favor with our presence. Similarly with tithing – instead of an opportunity to grow in trust of our God and to live out our belief that all we have comes from God, it’s easy to give to God grudgingly and sparingly, clutching tightly to the rest.

God does not need your worship or your money. What He wants and deserves is thanks and trust (v.15). To help show us these things He gathers us for worship each week so we might hear again how He has loved and served his people not only in the past, but you and I today as well. So that we might hear again of God’s faithfulness and look forward to the final fulfillment of his promise that our Lord Jesus will return to deliver us finally from the sin in ourselves and the world around us. He gathers us to feed us with the body and blood of his Son, that we might taste forgiveness and experience a unity with him as well as one another and all the faithful before us that strengthens us for the week ahead and changes our perspectives and feelings from the inside out.

Don’t come to church or workdays out of a feeling of obligation. Don’t tithe or sign up for clean-up duties on Sunday mornings as though you’re doing God a favor. You aren’t. But receive them as opportunities to align your hearts and minds in thankfulness and trust for who God is, what He has done, is doing now, and promises to do eternally in the future.

Being Gathered

August 27, 2019

Thanks to Lois for shooting me this article.

I can’t find a previous post I’ve done on this topic – non-religious Sunday morning gatherings.  But I’m not surprised to find that it is a difficult thing to sustain over the long haul.  Seeing Christian community as a good thing but thinking that you can take God out of it and still have the same sort of experience reveals a naivete that is almost humorous.  Then again, given our devotion to the gods of psychology, it’s hardly surprising, either.  But this idea is pretty clear at the outset of the article when church is defined primarily as people, psalms, and stained glass windows.

Of course a key difference that the author of the article as well as the people she talks to are not able to articulate and would likely reject outright even if they could is that Christian community is not a matter of choice, but rather obedience.  This is painfully easy to forget, and is likely at the heart of how many congregations go through splits and divide.

We are called together, we don’t simply decide this is what we feel like doing.  The reality is there are plenty of Sunday mornings when we’d rather sleep in or  enjoy a leisurely and casual breakfast or get a head start on the yard work.  And all of those things are fine upon occasion, but we are called to gather together in worship.  Why we gather is a matter of great debate among Christians in the past century, and perhaps accounts for why fewer and fewer Christians are attending  at all.

Traditional Christian understanding is that we are called by God to gather together, because in public worship we receive the gifts of God in his Word and Sacraments.  In the many times and places where Christianity was or is actively persecuted, this understanding of worship is very comforting and encouraging.  To gather with others who believe the same as you, to be taught the Word of God so that you can apply it to your life, to remember what matters most as opposed to what the world or your local community wants you to believe is important is crucial.  Small wonder that even under brutal, intolerant regimes, Christians still risk imprisonment or death to gather with other believers for encouragement and strength – which comes first and foremost from God himself and secondly from those you gather with.

This is important because sometimes, you may not be thrilled  with everyone you gather with.  Community is hard – a mantra of mine – and nearly always your community will have at least one person in it you don’t see eye to eye with or whose personality grates on your nerves.  That’s human nature.  So if it’s all up to me whether I put myself with that person over and over and over again, I’ll eventually quit doing it.  But if I understand that I’m called to be there, that it is an act of obedience and not simply a personal preference, then I ideally have to figure out how to deal with that person in love.

But in times where the faithful are not persecuted or a minority, it becomes easier to think of worship as something I do, as something that I offer to God.  Worship becomes almost exclusively a matter of me praising and thanking God, rather than being fed by Him, or  it becomes a time where the main focus is how I feel.  Do I feel uplifted?  Do I feel as though I’ve given adequate thanks to God?  Those are some pretty subjective questions and the law of diminishing returns seems to indicate eventually those emotional highs will become more sporadic.  At which point it’s a lot easier to just forgo the whole  thing.  If worship is a matter of what I give to God rather than what I receive from God, then the popular argument that I can worship God anywhere makes a lot more sense.

Yes, you can worship God anywhere.  You can talk to him and sing to him and think about him anywhere.  And you should!  But is that what worship is?  Is that all worship is?  And if that’s my only form of worship, at what point does my conception of God begin to slip into a God of my own understanding rather than the God of the Bible?  At what point do I slip into any number of misunderstandings or heresies about God, which could ultimately lead me to reject him completely?

Christian worship very quickly becomes more than just something that’s fun to do.  It might not be very fun at all.  But it is an essential part of the Christian life of faith, and untold numbers of people over several thousand years have known this and preferred the risk  of torture or death to giving it up completely.

Tastes and preferences change.  Very few people maintain something on a weekly basis over the course of their whole lifetime – except for worship.  It’s not surprising that something that has no basis other than personal preference is hard to sustain over the long haul.  You might really enjoy listening to U2 and love the opportunity for a communal karaoke event, but without a deeper  meaning and purpose, that music doesn’t ground you in anything deeper, doesn’t call anything from you, doesn’t demand anything from you, and can’t offer you more than a few moments of nostalgia or some other emotional fix.

 

 

 

Reading Ramblings – September 1, 2019

August 25, 2019

Reading Ramblings

Date: Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost – September 1, 2019

Texts: Proverbs 25:2-10; Psalm 131; Hebrews 13:1-17; Luke 14:1-14

Context: Humility is hardly a popular character trait in our society today. Everyone is promoted and encouraged as though they are the next Nobel Prize winner or Poet Laureate. Perhaps this contributes to skyrocketing levels of depression and suicides. Yet Scripture calls us repeatedly to humility. This is not a defeatist mindset, but rather a sober assessment of who we are. This assessment is grounded first and foremost in our relationship to our Creator, from which we should be freed from the pressure to aspire to worldly greatness. Some will attain the accolades of those around them and perhaps even from history itself, but these are very few, and whatever there is to gain is insignificant to the eternal crown of life we receive only from the grace of God the Father through God the Son.

Proverbs 25:2-10 – The book of Proverbs is attributed to King Solomon in the middle of his life and reign, the result of a wise king seeking to provide Godly wisdom to his people. This section has first to do with the king, who needs a court free of pandering and other foolishness (dross, v.4) which could pollute his wisdom. Rather, the king needs the best and most unselfish advisers and courtiers so that he can be guided well and the kingdom as a whole flourish. As such, people aspiring to greatness should consider the risks their ambitions might pose to others. Would they put themselves forward regardless of their lesser talents or abilities? A humble wisdom regarding our abilities is a blessing, something we should attain in part from those around us in Christ who we trust. While everyone should be encouraged to do and be their best, it is dangerous folly to encourage people to overreach their talents and abilities.

Psalm 131 – Where is our hope? Is it in ourselves or others? Or is it in God? Once again we are called in very blunt terms to be wise in assessing our abilities so we might not overreach ourselves. Ultimately, this extends to our relationship with God. The temptation to try and overreach ourselves, to answer where God has not spoken and inquire where God has not revealed himself can be overwhelming but, as with Job, fruitless. Rather than attempt to make ourselves equal with God (the primal sin of our ancestors!) we should trust in God even when we don’t understand what He is doing or why. This requires an active effort on our part – calming our aspirations or our ideas and preventing them from trespassing where they are not reliable and could be dangerous to ourselves and others.

Hebrews 13:1-17 – What we anticipate (the kingdom of God) our lives here and now should be guided by what we are destined for. The world behaves according to principles it derives for itself, but we as followers of Christ and heirs of an unshakable kingdom are to behave differently. We are to acknowledge everyone we come into contact with as created by God and redeemed in Jesus Christ, potential brothers and sisters in eternity. So we do not use one another for our own benefits but exalt and honor one another, even those who may be in difficult circumstances (the imprisoned). Furthermore, within the community of faithful we are to treat one another differently, seeking unity as well as maintaining good understanding of the Word we have been given, in order to resist dangerous false doctrines, and recognizing God has appointed leaders in order to assist us with this but whom we must take seriously our obedience to.

Luke 14:1-14 – The theme of humility established with the Old Testament and the psalm continues. The context is a Friday evening (Sabbath) dinner party where Jesus is an invited guest. But the environment is hardly hospitable – the entire occasion is organized to catch him in some false teaching or other practice they can discredit him for. Pretending to honor him, their intentions are dishonorable. As such, Jesus challenges them directly, first healing someone on the Sabbath and then confounding their efforts to criticize him before then can even articulate them. Their understanding of Sabbath would prevent them from doing good to a creature of God, though they would extend that healing indulgence to an animal rather than a person! Their doctrinal wisdom is hardly that, yet is the basis of a pride that puffs up their self-perceptions and prevents them from hearing and learning what Jesus has come to teach them.

Jesus exhorts his hearers to a humility that would enable them to see the children of God as God himself sees them, exhibiting grace and mercy to them rather than judgment. In such a situation our worldly distinctions of wealth or social equality mean nothing. Knowing who we are in Christ and what we will inherit at his return, we are free to share ourselves and our resources without expectation of repayment, in genuine love and care for one another and a frank humility that will not allow us to hold ourselves aloof or expect others to defer to our social standing. We think this is simple and that we do these things, but far more often we are influenced by societal and cultural assumptions and expectations.

Reading Ramblings – August 25, 2019

August 18, 2019

Reading Ramblings

Date: Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost – August 25, 2019

Texts: Isaiah 66:18-23; Psalm 50:1-15; Hebrews 12:4-24; Luke 13:22-30

Context: Our relationship to God is one not simply of creature to Creator – that would appear to more accurately describe the relationship between all other living species on Earth and God. Rather, human beings created in the image of God (imago dei) are invited into a personal relationship with him that makes us his children. And as children, we should expect discipline from our heavenly Father just as parents are expected to discipline their children. Once upon a time such a concept was common sense. But years of psychological theories have reduced the willingness and ability of parents to discipline their children. Remembering their own discipline experiences in their youth, they overlook the long-term character formation created in moments of transitory, unpleasant discipline, and vow not to discipline their children. In foregoing temporary unpleasantness, long-term character issues become not just possible but likely. Our readings remind us that discipline from our Creator (and therefore from our parents) is a gift, not child abuse.

Isaiah 66:18-23 – The people of God are always apt to adopt an exclusionary attitude towards those outside the faith. But God’s intention and desire is that all might be saved, and to that end works unceasingly towards reaching all nations and peoples with his Good News of Jesus the Christ. Our apathy must always bear correction from our Creator, a reality which is unpleasant as it forces us out of our comfortable routines to question seriously how to follow God the Holy Spirit’s promptings. It is God the Father’s good pleasure that everyone – not just Hebrews – receive the Good News of Jesus Christ and turn to him in faith and trust. As they do, they become full co-heirs with God’s existing faithful, not just second-rate newcomers. We must continually check our own hearts and the hearts of our faith community to ensure we are not allowing ourselves to become indifferent to God’s plans, both for ourselves and in the lives of those who have yet to hear of him.

Psalm 50:1-15 – The Lord’s discipline will come to all of Creation, either as a refining fire that purifies, or as the fire of destruction. God’s faithful should expect that they will feel the refining fire, and we are dangerously mistaken if we presume even our acts of worship and obedience to be completely free from sin and error. We seek always to worship God in fullness and truth, acknowledging that the sin within us keeps us from doing even this correctly, and further acknowledging that we are prone to going through the motions, or enshrining practices we consider pleasing to God that may well not be. What God desires is the sacrifice of our hearts and minds and wills not in mindlessness but in active, searching, joyful obedience to his will and Word. We should not presume that our tithe checks or our estate planning are what satisfies God – He who created and owns all things has no personal need for our assets, whether firstfruits or leftovers. But He desires our day be day leaning on him as both our wisdom and strength as true acts of worship and adoration.

Hebrews 12:4-24 – The Lord’s discipline will be, by definition, undesired and unpleasant. Whatever contradicts our willfullness we seek to avoid. And whatever pain or discomfort we might experience we presume to be solely from Satan. But God chastises and disciplines those He loves. We are to see this discipline as good, then, shaping us for eternity and beginning the process of burning away the dross and impurities from our lives. It will not be easy or pleasant, necessarily. Therefore we must strengthen ourselves and those around us for God’s discipline, that we might bear up under it not in cursing and confusion but in continued trust and reliance on the one who sustains all Creation. What we are being prepared for is nothing less than the presence of the Holy One, the Creator, Redeemer and Sanctifier of all things. We are being prepared for communion not only with the saints who have gone before us but with angels and all the hosts of heaven. Are we ready for such a union? Hardly! Therefore rather than speculate on the nature or source of the burdens and struggles in our lives, we continue to bear up under them as faithful children promised the kingdom of God, and knowing that even the work of Satan in attacks against us can be used by God the Holy Spirit to make us that much closer to readiness for our eternal glory in Christ.

Luke 13:22-30 – In direct contradiction of our cultural mantra today that everyone is essentially good, Jesus makes it clear this is not the case by a long shot. Our random and inconsistent and selfish acts of kindness to others are hardly the holiness and righteousness our Lord created us for! Moreover, Jesus makes it plain that not even all those who consider them to be his people are actually his people! Some of those who think they are followers of Christ are in fact not, and will be denied entrance to eternity. Simply having your name on the membership roster at church does not make you a follower of Christ. Relying exclusively on the grace of your baptism when the entire rest of your life has been lived in denial or ignorance of that baptism does not automatically include you in the redeemed.

Does Jesus seek here to rattle our faith? Of course not. But He does intend that we should consider our faith soberly and seriously, and we should be active – striving – in our lives of faith to take seriously the Word of God as it guides and directs. The life of faith is never one of rest and satisfaction. While we don’t live in fear and anxiety, neither do we reach a place where we ‘retire’ from an active faith, assuming that all we’ve done already is enough to sustain our faith in Christ. It is not simply the young who can wander away from the faith through spiritual apathy – it happens to the elderly as well!

Each day, each week should be a celebration of Christ’s work on our behalf and the Holy Spirit’s continued work within us. Each day and week should include times of self-examination. Are we apathetic or anemic? Do we prefer our little creature comforts over the Word of God and his Sacraments? Do we assume that we’re good enough, and no longer need these things, or that God doesn’t really provide them to us for good reason? These are dangerous paths to wander down. Our works do not save us, but how we prioritize our time and money and thoughts goes a long way towards showing us what really matters in our lives.

The road is, in fact, narrow. Not because God’s grace is limited, but because our sinfulness is so deadly real and serious that it continually strives to lead us away from that narrow road into fields of poppies (or worse yet, flying monkeys!) that ultimately prove to be dangerous and even fatal. Together, the people of God set our eyes on the promised new Jerusalem and the Word of God that alone can lead us through the sinfulness of this world and the sinfulness of our own heart by the power of the death and resurrection of the Son of God to life everlasting.

Clashing Worlds

August 15, 2019

She is very young.

In the language of today, which must constantly judge and categorize, she would undoubtedly be called privileged.  Sheltered.  But that is to some extent the condition of the young.  And here she is on the other side of the ocean from her home, interning in the court system in our town for a few weeks as part of her course of study in law in her home country.

She arrived home harried, which is not uncommon, but also agitated.  Today I went someplace I never want to go again.  I guessed where she had been before she revealed it – the jail.

Not as an inmate, but as an observer.  Her first time in a jail, and the first time is always overwhelming in one fashion or another.  It was terrible, she said.  It’s easy to know what the law says and know that if I break the law I could go to jail.  But people think they won’t get caught, won’t go to jail, and if they do, it won’t be that bad.  But it’s bad.  It’s terrible.  

I think back over my many years ministering in jails.   Yes, it’s bad.  But what you learn over time is that there are worse places.  That for some, three squares a day and a bed and a shower and a lot of regiment are just what they need.  Far better than the uncertainty of addiction or crime.  But that first time, well, the first time you simply know it’s terrible.

And by extension, you know the people there are terrible.

Why else would they be there, right?  For all the media talk about misjustice and injustice and all manner of very serious and very real issues, the vast majority of the people behind bars are there for very sound, real, good reasons.  Most of them will admit this to a greater or lesser extent.

It’s easy to see only the crime and not the person.  Probably as easy as seeing the person without seeing the crime.  And of course there is a tension between the two, a relationship to be acknowledged, a dance that must be completed and hopefully not repeated.

She gathers her dinner plate.  Mostaccioli and salad and toasted garlic cheese bread.  We’re eating out back on the patio tonight.  It’s cooler than inside and we have three extra guests tonight.  Three women, at least one if not all three who were at some point or other – perhaps very recently – in jail.

Repeatedly.

Addiction does that.

But they are gathered for dinner at our house tonight because for the time being they are working very hard to beat the odds and their addictions in hopes of a life free from jail in the future.  You wouldn’t know it to look at them.  A statuesque blonde.  A young Hispanic woman with beautiful long straight hair, though she looks with admiration at the naturally curly hair of my wife and daughter.  All three of them laughing and carrying on together like girls and women do together, enjoying food and the cool evening air.

I wonder what she would say if she knew.  Knew that but for a glitch of timing she might have met these ladies in jail, in that terrible place with terrible people who have done terrible things to themselves and others.  Her  disgust and disdain are palpable, but she’s happily engaged speaking in another language with one of our resident guests.  She doesn’t know.

I pray that as she enters the field of law she will be able to walk the difficult tightrope of never forgetting the law but also never forgetting the people.  That she will remember that ultimately our hope is not merely punitive but restorative, and that her faith – however perfunctory it may or may not be – will guide her to give  both thanks and praise to the Creator.  The God who created her in her youthful inexperience, as well as the people in the jails and prisons of our world.  People who perhaps need to be there, but hopefully don’t have to be there forever.  I pray that she never loses hope that lessons can be learned, debts to society can be repaid, lives restored, and glory given not to the magistrates or parole boards or wardens but to the God who alone has the power and will to restore life from death, hope from ashes.

And I pray that if she can be sustained on that tightrope, she won’t be adverse to sitting down with people she may have been required to put in jail at one point or another, in anticipation of an eternal feast where our places are guaranteed not by the purity of our lives but by the grace of our Creator through his Incarnate Son, who pays the penalty for our sin that we might be set free.

Reading Ramblings – August 18, 2019

August 11, 2019

Reading Ramblings

Date: Tenth Sunday after Pentecost, August 18, 2019

Texts: Jeremiah 23:16-29; Psalm 119:81-88; Hebrews 11:17-12:3; Luke 12:49-56

Context: There’s a scene in C.S. Lewis’ The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe early on as the children – minus Edward – are given hospitality by an old beaver couple. Here the children learn a bit about Aslan and some of their misunderstanding is dispelled. Aslan is not a person, but a lion. Understandably this causes some fear, verbalized by the oldest girl, Susan, who asks if Aslan is safe. Mr. Beaver’s response is direct – Safe? Who said anything about safe? ‘Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good. He’s the King, I tell you. The readings for this week immediately made me think of this exchange. How often we wish (or assume!) that God is safe and tame, at our beck and call. How often we wish God were an oversize cat, one who doesn’t always do what we want but this makes him endearing to us, knowing eventually he will come ’round when it’s dinner time. Instead, the image of God as a lion is far more accurate. And while this reality should ultimately be far more comforting, it is not without a strong disconcerting streak as well. Our attempts to domesticate God only do violence to ourselves.

Jeremiah 23:16-29 – Speaking the Word of God is different than any other kind of speech, and it is correspondingly tempting to set aside God’s Word in favor of words that are easier to hear, easier to swallow. Words that don’t rock the boat and don’t push people for more than they want to hear. But such talk, while attractive to both the speaker and the hearer, is unfaithful. God is at war with evil in this world and within ourselves and offers no quarter. We are never to presume that God’s intention is our mere comfort. We are part of his purposes, not the other way around. And while we can and should always trust that God’s purposes are perfect and holy and always for our ultimate good, it may well be that we must deal with a great deal of discomfort and temporary unhappiness. In the meantime, the one who speaks God’s Word must seek to do so faithfully, properly distinguishing between the Word of God and the speaker’s ideas so that the hearers can distinguish the two and ensure that God’s Word always takes precedence in their lives.

Psalm 119:81-88 – Despite it being the most prominent psalm (in terms of length), this is the first time we’ve drawn from it in this liturgical year. It is an acrostic, with a separate eight-line section for each of the letters of the Hebrew alphabet. This section is the letter kaph, which corresponds roughly to our K in terms of a hard C sound. If you look at these verses in Hebrew, you’ll see that each verse starts with this letter. This section poses a situation of longing for God’s response and deliverance. The speaker is in a difficult position and is being persecuted by others. This is not a life of comfort and ease! But it is a life of faith and trust in God. So the speaker can call to God and ask for his help and wonder aloud when that help will arrive. Though the temptation to forsake God’s Word and way in favor of tactics that are not righteous but could help is real, the speaker commits himself to God’s Word and way; they alone can be trusted! The section ends without resolution, but remains steadfast in anticipation of the Lord’s help.

Hebrews 11:17-12:3 – The list of faithful Biblical examples continues from last week. Each called upon to respond in faith to the promises of others as well as God. None of them protected from the harsh realities of being sinful people in a sinful world, but each being called to place their faith and trust in the God who created all things and is restoring and redeeming all things. Each of them, like us, received part of what they were promised, but awaited the full completion of those promises, something attained ultimately and only through Jesus Christ. We are not exceptional in being called to live by faith, but we are blessed with a cloud of witnesses who have gone before us to both show what faithfulness looks like, and to affirm that God is faithful to his promises.

Luke 12:49-56 – Once again we are confronted with words that contradict any image of Jesus as weak or pacifistic or otherwise too timid to raise a commotion. He understands perfectly the nature of his ministry. His ministry is the focusing of God’s wrath against sin and evil – focused in on Jesus himself as He takes on our sin and evil into himself. This is the fire of God the Father’s judgment that falls first and fully on Jesus, so that all of humanity might be spared in faithfulness. Those who will not receive this gift in faith, however, will feel that judgment fire themselves. Those who accept the gift in faith will also feel the fire of God, but not as a destructive, judgmental fire but as a refining flame that gradually purifies us through our lives in anticipation of our complete and perfect purification when our Lord returns.

Jesus has been baptized in water already, but anticipates his baptism on the cross, his ministry framed in water and in blood just as water and blood pour from his pierced heart, and how John asserts that it is water and blood that testify to Jesus’ work and person (1 John 5:6-8). As he awaits this final consummation of his incarnate work, he is under anticipation as well as dread.

All of this to offer us hope, but not peace. He comes to defeat evil but evil will continue in the throes of death after Jesus’ ascension and until his return. Jesus’ perfect sacrificial act will be the centerpoint of all created history, dividing those who believe from those who don’t and creating continual conflict that will penetrate to the most intimate of settings – the home and family. Jesus does not desire this, but our sinfulness makes it inevitable. Jesus has no illusions about how this will play out in some situations.

Verses 54-56 are linked with the following verses logically (but tragically not in the lectionary!). As Jesus journeys with his disciples and the crowds, he reminds them they are on a journey as well, quite literally a journey to appear before a judge. If that is the case, the reality that we as creatures will one day stand before the Creator, it should be obvious that we should be preparing for this encounter, and recognizing the signs it is getting closer. Jesus’ ministry in word and power should be an obvious sign to them that something is afoot, that the kingdom of God is at hand and therefore their encounter with the judge is fast approaching!