Archive for the ‘Vocation’ Category

Missed It by *that* Much

January 18, 2019

I was interested in an article reporting how the Pope was asserting that families – parents – have primary responsibility for the faith development of their children.  Pleased at this, I was also perplexed at the reported recommendations related to this admonition.  First of all, don’t fight in front of the kids, and secondly go ahead and breastfeed your children in church if they’re hungry.  It seemed like two odd pieces of advice, so I sought out a transcript of his sermon given on the observance of Jesus’ Baptism, and was able to find this.

First off, I agree wholeheartedly with the Pope’s basic assertion.  God created families in order to raise children in faith.  Long before the Church existed, or the priesthood, the family existed.  From the beginning, in fact.  The Church exists as a resource for parents and grandparents and aunts and uncles.  It exists in part to help the family communicate and explain the faith to children as they grow, but it cannot replace the family.

But in terms of practical advice he could have given in relation to this assertion, I can’t help but lament.  Certainly, children should not have to watch their parents fight incessantly or vehemently.  If fights are particularly heated, or if they become abusive in any way, this is something that children should not have to see and parents should receive professional help to improve upon.  Immediately.

But if parents disagree on occasion, it’s important for children to be able to observe how parents resolve conflict.  So long as it isn’t in any way abusive or excessive, parents pass on valuable skills to their children by allowing them – as they grow older and are better able to process what’s happening – to watch the parents express their disagreements and then work together towards a solution.

As for breastfeeding, this seems to have simply been a contextual comment, perhaps off-script and prompted by the noise of children around the Pope at the moment.

But to help instruct children in the faith, they have to see their parents acting in faith.  Praying as a family.  Reading Scripture together and discussing it.  Bringing the Word of God into other discussions and decision-making settings.  Faith needs to be seen not just as a theoretical thing, but as something breathed and applied.  Not just a Sunday morning thing but part of everything that the family is and does.  If kids think that you get along well and never fight, but also never see you pray, never see you reading the Bible or otherwise engaging in the life of faith at home, they’re still likely to struggle with continuing in the faith as they get older.

Parents need to live out the life of faith so that their children can see it.  Hopefully the Pope will have more to say on this topic in the future!

 

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Demon Run

December 21, 2018

I don’t know why it is, but I received another call today from someone wanting help with evil spirits.  The man on the phone was apparently going through the phone book, calling churches and asking if there was anyone there who could come out and help him with some evil spirits.

I began with asking questions.  He described a visual and aural experience, small bluish spherical things that flew through his window and into his apartment, moving to various places.  The heater vent.  The bathroom.  The closet.  Back to the heater vent.  Out the window again and then back in again.

The voices talked amongst themselves as well as to him.  They wanted to stay.  They wanted him to leave.  He told them he wouldn’t.

I asked if he felt any sense of threat or danger from these entities, and he said he didn’t.  He described multiple occurrences of both the visual and aural experiences over the course of a day or so.  They caused him no trouble at night and he was able to sleep fine.

He claimed to be a Christian, but acknowledged he hadn’t been to church in over a decade.  He was an artist, and basically just quit going.  Not through a lack of faith or belief necessarily, but, you know.  Life.

I asked him about drug and alcohol usage, and he claims that he was not under the influence of anything when these events started happening.  He indicated that he took blood pressure medication but nothing else.  He claimed no history of mental illness.

I presume that what he described was real.  It would be easy to just shrug it off, to claim that he really was under the influence, or that there was some other matter at play but that doesn’t seem necessary.  So I talked to him about what I thought his best course of action would be.

He called presuming that somebody could come out and just take care of the problem – drive the evil spirits off.  But I told him that demons aren’t  the same thing as termites.  You don’t just call up an exorcist like you do a pest  control company.  It isn’t a matter of spiritually tenting your home and then the  problem is gone – at least  for any predictable amount of time.  Hollywood and popular imagination has done a good job of assuming that evil spirits work like this.  Misreading the Bible can leave one with that impression as well.  Jesus casts out demons with authority but then again, He’s the Son of God.  While his followers are said to cast out demons their track record is decidedly more spotty.  Jesus himself in Matthew 12:43-45 indicates that evil spirits can return.

So I talked with him about going back to church.  A Roman Catholic one since that would be most familiar to him, though I also invited him to come to our worship as well.  But that he needed to start bringing himself back into line with his perceived identity as a follower of Christ.  To begin to be and do the things that Christians do – worship, pray, sing, read Scripture.  Doing this would transform him, and in transforming him would also transform his environment from one that was neutral at best into one that was filled with the Holy Spirit’s presence.  The evil spirits would leave in time because it would no longer be a comfortable place to be, filled as it would be with God’s presence and Word.

I talked for a while. He listened, and claimed to understand.  Whether he did or not I can’t tell.  I could have gone out and visited his apartment and prayed over it.  Perhaps that would have helped.  Well, perhaps it would have driven away the evil spirits for a time.  But the more important issue was not the evil spirits but this man and his relationship to his creator and redeemer.  I pray he takes my advice, and the changes that come about far exceed removing voices and visions and bring him more  firmly into the arms of his Savior, a comfort that will sustain him in all times and all situations.

St. John Wang Yi Zinzendorf the Baptist

December 17, 2018

Preach the Gospel.  Die.  Be forgotten.  ~ Nicolaus Zinzendorf

This mantra has been stuck in my head for over a year now.  While there is some doubt as to whether the words were ever written or spoken by Zinzendorf in exactly this format, the spirit of them is definitely attributed to him.  In a world that seeks immortality through works and words and the acclaim of others, the Bible calls us to obedience to the God who created us, redeemed us, and alone can grant us immortality not simply in the memories of others but in flesh and blood and spirit.

Faithful obedience is not often glamorous.  Not often memorable.  Not often noteworthy.  It’s the decision to get up in the morning and do what needs to be done.  Laundry.  Cooking.  Earning a living.  Faithfulness to those around us.  Restraint.  Hardly laudable qualities in a modern culture that calls after fame and glory in 120 (or 280) character tweets or 4-second vines.

This past Sunday we considered Jesus’ words to John the Baptist – blessed is the one who is not offended by me.  John the Baptist is remembered 2000 years after his untimely death.  He remained faithful to the one who created him, the one who would redeem him.  Whether that faithfulness changed the world around him was not to be John’s concern, any more than whether or not he would ever be freed from prison.

Persecution is hardly new, and it isn’t something that I think we should seek out.  But if we attempt to be faithful, persecution is apt to find us in one way or another.  John the Baptist found this out.  Jesus knew this.  Pastor Wang Yi now lives with this reality.  While we don’t have any words known to be written personally by John the Baptist, I like to think that perhaps he might have said something similar to Pastor Wang Yi.

I pray that if I find myself in a similar situation my words will be very similar, seeking not to be remembered – so very, very, very, very few of us are, even for a short time! – but to be faithful.

A Few Statistics

October 26, 2018

Not including this post, WordPress informs me that I have made 2,791 blog entries since August 24, 2006.  In addition, I have 25 entries in various stages of preparation that I haven’t published, either because I lost interest, lost steam, or reconsidered whether I really wanted to publish it, yet didn’t want  to delete it.  I have one unpublished entry from 2017 that is counted as deleted and never published, but I could restore it and start working on it again if I wanted to.

Readership levels have fluctuated over the years.  So far in October, I’ve had visits from people in 32 different countries, though the overwhelming majority of my visitors are from the United States.  I average between 450-500 visits to my site per month.  I have 160 WordPress users that follow my blog.  Many of these I suspect don’t actually read what I write.  I often am told that people start following my blog.  When I go to check out their blog to see what they’re writing about, it’s frequently a site designed to accumulate users and followers by offering positive thinking quotes (not quite sure why they are following me!), advice to writers, etc.  A lot of blogging is now focused on gathering followers and subscribers to reach levels where you can sell advertising, and I assume they’re hoping that I’ll reciprocally follow their site.

I don’t.

Thanks to all of you who are regular or irregular readers over the years.  I hope I’m helpful in generating thought and reflection.  You may not agree with me, and I’m always open to being challenged (though it rarely happens here).  Frankly I always hoped this place would develop into a forum for discussion but that remains a hope to be fulfilled.  Some of you I know and interact with in real life on a regular basis and we discuss in person what I’ve written here.  I love that!  But feel free to post your reactions here.  My goal is civilized discourse, whether we agree or not.

Hard to believe it’s been 12 years.  It will be interesting to see how long God lets me continue!

Interpreting the News

October 25, 2018

Perhaps you’ve heard about the group of migrants headed towards the United States from Central America?  No?  Can you tell me how you are able to remain undisturbed by these sorts of tidbits?  I’m willing to invest in whatever technology you’re using!

So the local paper carried a Reuters article about the progress of the migrant caravan so far, and I’ve spent the last 20 minutes trying to interpret it.  It’s easy to just gloss over the specifics, but I decided to actually try and make sense of what the article claimed to tell me.

It tells me that first of all, the caravan numbers  in the thousandsMost of them are from Honduras.  This is the second paragraph of the article.  But in the 4th paragraph, I’m told that the caravan started with hundreds of people in the Honduran city of San Pedro Sula.  Google maps showed me that location in northwestern Honduras, close to the border with Guatemala.  Now, after passing through all of Guatemala, the caravan numbers thousands of people and yet most of them are Honduran?  I’m not sure how that makes sense, but I suppose it could actually be true.

Mexican officials, I’m told, are trying to navigate between our country’s demands that they stop the migrants, and their commitment to migrants’ rights.  First off, I think our leadership needs to cool their jets.  It’s not our job to tell Mexico (or Guatemala, or Honduras) how to enforce their borders.  Clearly, as this article demonstrates, that control is illusory at best.  If Mexico wants to let thousands of unknown people wander through their country, so be it.  They claim to be carefully processing everyone and I hope that they are – that’s the responsible thing to do.  President Trump or anyone else shouldn’t be telling them what or how to do things.

Of course, the understanding is that the only reason this is being paid attention to is that it fuels the fires for conflicts here at home over immigration.  I was  very impressed that this article characterized the two sides of our domestic debate more fairly than I typically see or hear.  One side supports legal immigration and the enforcement of federal immigration law.  The other side has some people who support abolishing ICE and [establishing] open borders.  I think that’s a reasonable  description of the sides.

Publicity of this caravan only is helpful to the latter side.  By highlighting the humanitarian crisis of these people, pressure will be put to bear on anyone who denies them entry into their country – ours or otherwise.  Those who support immigration control can use this as an example of why we need to protect our borders, but frankly, that’s an obvious assertion anyways.  I don’t know of many countries in the world – all right, any – who don’t control their borders.  I don’t know of any countries who don’t have policies about how to handle people who want to come into their country.

Except maybe Mexico and Guatemala, who seem to have some policies but are fine with disregarding them.  I’m not sure I’d agree to welcome with open arms a mob that tears down fences and demands entry on the basis of wanting a better life.  The want is valid.  The means, not so much.

Our country has policies as well, but there are people who apparently don’t like them and think we should ignore them.  I maintain that if we don’t like our immigration policies, we need to rewrite the laws rather than simply decide if we want to enforce them or not.  Doing so is actually a benefit to potential immigrants – it allows them to know what to expect if and when they reach our borders.  It’s far more humanitarian to actually establish and follow laws and procedures and policies, rather than leave it up to the whims of an official or bureaucrat as to whether they are enforced or not.

All of which misses the main point.  If San Pedro Sula – and by extension all of Honduras – is riddled with crime, why aren’t we pressuring or helping the Hondurans to establish some sort of rule of law?  Why is there absolutely no talk of why people are fleeing Honduras, only what we should do with them if or when they reach our borders?  Isn’t  the main humanitarian crisis in Honduras then, not making it’s way through Mexico?  And if these people come from such a corrupt, crime-infested country, and if they’re willing to disregard international rules of law regarding how to enter a country, then why in the world wouldn’t we carefully screen and scrutinize them before allowing them into our country?

I’m all for being merciful and responding to the plight of others, but unfortunately this article doesn’t do any of that, and neither are either of our political parties.  Similar to the refugee and immigrant crisis Europe has faced over the last few years prompted by the civil war in Syria, the major issue shouldn’t be how to put these people into new countries and cultures, but rather how to make sure that these people don’t have to leave home in the first place.  Humanitarian efforts, or democratic efforts shouldn’t be a political football here at home.

But I digress.

The second issue is (continued from my paragraph four) the issue of migrant rights.  What rights, precisely, does someone have who comes to the border of a country and asks to be let in?  I think most people would agree that the only practical rights are the rights that the country gives them.  If I show up on the border of Canada and want to come in and live there, I should expect that they should ask me some questions.  I should expect that this may take some time.  I may not get in right away.  I may have to stay on this side of their border until they know whether or not they want to let me in.  If I’m requesting humanitarian aid, then likely the wait is better than whatever I’m facing on this side of the border.  Hopefully they’ll offer me some food or something.  Perhaps they’ll have an internment area where I can stay if my safety or health is in danger.  Politically speaking, that would be very kind and generous of them.  I’m not sure it’s a  right of mine as an immigrant that they would be ethically bound to honor, or honor beyond a certain point.

I can say as a Christian that I might be tasked with providing a  migrant with assistance.  Jesus’ exhortation to love our neighbor makes pesky business of these issues of geo-political boundaries.  I can’t not love the person standing in front of me because of their immigration status.  If they’re in front of me and I can help, I probably should.

However that does NOT mean I must support open borders or no immigration enforcement.  There is nothing in the Bible that I can see as a clear mandate to ignore the rule of law and ignore national laws and borders.  I can see lots of places in Scripture that call me to respect and honor them as much as I can while maintaining my faith and worship of God.  And it doesn’t mean that if someone is here illegally and suffering that I’m under no obligation to show love to them.  In fact, I’m pretty sure it works just the other way.  But that doesn’t mean that I have to support legislation that provides a legal support framework carte blanche for people who come to this country.  We live in a broken and sinful world and therefore need to be wise in how we do things.  That includes immigration.  Wise, but compassionate.  Firm, but loving.  Those can be hard things to manage.  Just another of those tensions we are called to live in, Biblically.

If a stranger shows up pounding at my door at 3 am and demanding help, what do I do?  First off, it’s not unreasonable to try and ensure the safety of myself and my family before I open the door.  I may choose to yell back and forth through the door with this person until I have a better idea of who they are and if they pose a threat to me.  Let’s say I open the door to talk and find out what’s going on.  What rights does this person have?  What can they demand of me?  Can they demand that I let them sleep on my couch just because it’s raining and they don’t have a place to stay?  Perhaps.  But that’s a contextual decision, not a policy.  We’ve actually opened our home to someone we only just met so they had a place to stay for the night.  It was an unusual situation in which we were pretty sure we were not going to be robbed or killed or otherwise harmed.  But it would be lunacy and irresponsibility to say that we had to make that offer to anyone who demanded it of us.

I may not let the person in my house to dry off or sleep on the couch.  Sorry, but I have responsibilities to my family to consider first.  That doesn’t mean I’m unloving.  Nor does it mean I can just slam the door on them and feel justified.  As a Christian I should still desire to be of help if I can.  Maybe it’s giving them an umbrella or a jacket.  Maybe it’s offering to pay for a hotel room.  Maybe it’s directing them to the local warming center.  Maybe it’s taking them there.  Situations vary.  Responses vary.  I’ll undoubtedly end up making a few mistakes here and there.  I desire to do good but I’m not perfect or omniscient.  Knowing that, I try to err on the side of caution without losing love for this person as a creation of God’s.

Is that not a reasonable analogy?  Explain to me how it isn’t, other than a matter of scale and degrees of separation in terms of me personally having to deal with the situation.

On the national level it gets trickier, but I think the same principles hold true.  We need to deal with people in love as much as we can, but that doesn’t mean that they get to dictate what that love is and how it looks and feels.  It’s complicated, but it’s not rocket science necessarily.  Think about how you would handle the situation in the middle of the night at your own home, and then extend those principles to the national level.  Quit screaming at each other and figure out something that works.  Act like adults instead of petulant children.  Lives are at stake here – we owe it to those truly in need to figure out how best to help them.

Then we can try to help people so that they can stay in their homes safely rather than trekking thousands of miles to a new place and being subjected to all of the dangers and inconveniences that entails.

 

 

 

Just Do It

October 25, 2018

The local paper ran an article the other day about a man engaged in aquaponics.  It’s a subject our family has been interested in but is proving to be more challenging in our particular neck of the woods because of the State of California’s rather stringent restrictions on the most common (and apparently ideal) species of fish to use (assuming you’re going to eat the fish as well) – tilapia.  The article was unremarkable overall but one line caught my eye, something to the effect that the guy being interviewed was interested in sustainable farming practices, but also wanted to change the world.

Which of course made me want to roll my eyes.  It’s as though the man and his work would be unremarkable if it weren’t for the fact that he hopes to make a global impact.  Because that’s what really matters, of course.  Changing the world.  Being that man or woman.  Otherwise, mehSo you’ve found something that interests you and is helpful to you and your family and maybe your local community?  Yawn.

Small potatoes certainly don’t sell papers.  We need something bigger, sexier, more glamorous.  Wanna change the world?  Oooohhhh!  We wanna talk with you!

The Old Testament reading this past Sunday was from Ecclesiastes, that wonderfully perplexing philosophical book of the Bible.  Authorship is traditionally (if perhaps not accurately) attributed to an aging King Solomon,  reflecting on the meaning of life after a rather illustrious one of his own.  Specifically, the assigned reading was Ecclesiastes 5:10-20, a minor treatise on the dangers and foolishness of preoccupying ourselves with amassing wealth.  The author summarizes his conclusions in verses 18-19, which essentially say that the wisest course of action is to enjoy the simple pleasures and work of life.  Do your work and enjoy it.  If you happen to receive wealth in the process, enjoy that responsibly as well as a gift from God (as opposed to a self-made right).

It’s a beautiful passage that pairs well with the theological doctrine of vocation espoused by Martin Luther.  Since this coming Sunday is Reformation Sunday and the observance of Luther’s landmark 95 Theses, it’s an appropriate connection to make.

We were created for work.  It’s not something bad and evil that came about after the Fall of humanity into sin.  It’s not a punishment – we’re designed for it.  Sometimes that work will change the course of human history, will alter the world.  So be it.  And it isn’t wrong, per se, even to have that as a goal in mind.  Understand, of course, that both statistically and historically the odds of you having a global impact are incredibly tiny.  Negligible, perhaps.  On par with winning the lottery.  In both cases, the statistics lead some snooty people to scoff at the whole concept as ludicrous.  Yet the fact remains that regularly – despite overwhelming odds – people win the lottery.  And people do in fact have global impact even if the odds are against them.

What I object to is our current cultural obsession with this idea.  It seems to be a mantra pushed at our kids from an early age and capitalized on by schools everywhere.  Don’t just get a degree, become a leader.  Don’t just get a job, change the world.  All the schmucks at those other schools are just going to get jobs.  You’re not like them.  You’re special.  You’re going places.  You’re going to accomplish Big Things.

That’s a lot of pressure.  It’s a kind of pressure linked with perfectionism, and studies (articles here, here and here, for starters) are increasingly citing this perfectionism as a major cause for anxiety and depression in younger folks.

We all like the idea that our kids are going to grow up to change the world.  But how many of us did?  And is our own disappointment part of the reason so many parents push their kids to excel and aim for such lofty heights?

I try to encourage my children to find what they enjoy and pursue that if they can as a career or vocation.  But the main issue isn’t whether they change the world or not.  I suspect most people who changed the world didn’t set out with that goal.  They stumbled into it or it came about after the fact.  Do what’s in front of you.  Fulfill your obligations.  Support yourself or your family.  Contribute meaningfully to your community.  These are the goals we should be setting for our children, the aspirations we encourage them to attain.  By and large they won’t be able to control whether or not they change the world.  But they do have a much more sizable control over whether they can pay their bills, live within their means, and love their neighbors through the work they do and the relationships involved in that work.

You’re designed to work.  Just do it.  If you do it well and responsibly and honestly and cheerfully, you’re going to change a portion of the world anyways.

 

 

 

 

Pastoral Procrastination

October 23, 2018

It might be shocking to hear this, but pastors procrastinate.

Sometimes.

Not very often.

Just a teeny bit.

I am, at this very moment, procrastinating.  I’m not proud of it, but it’s true.  I should be making a phone call but I’m reticent to.

This past year in particular has been a year of paranormal possibilities – asserted or feared demonic activity in various people.  I have an old high school friend who makes occasional noise about me coming out to do a house blessing/exorcism on a property they own in another state.  I don’t think that will ever really come to anything, but it’s out there.  I was asked to investigate and respond to possibilities of ghosts in the home of a member late this spring.

And I was referred to a random person calling with concerns about their son who they have reason to believe is dealing with demonic possession, in addition to drug and alcohol abuse.

This is the phone call I need to make but keep putting off.

The ghost issue was pretty straightforward.  I don’t think the Bible permits us to assume that ghosts are something real.  Yes, there’s 1 Samuel 28.  But I don’t think that this is enough to assert that ghosts are real, or put more theologically, that the spirits of the dead are at liberty to be summoned for our purposes, given permission to wander for their purposes, or are otherwise left unattended, forgotten, and left to fend for themselves.  We may think we see/experience ghosts, but the only thing Biblically that matches this sort of thing would either be angels or demons.  Not the spirits of the dead, but completely different spiritual entities from us.  And of the two, only one I believe has an interest in leading us to different conclusions about their identity.

And it isn’t angels, in case you’re wondering.

While I think ghosts are pretty easy to deal with Biblically, there is confusion.  Consider this little article I found online from a Catholic web site.  In part it’s helpful.  I do believe that how we feel around something we consider to be paranormal can be a clue as to whether it is angelic or demonic.  Yes, natural causes and other explanations for sensory miscommunication should be seriously considered.  Our bodies are weird, fallible things and sometimes they hiccup and convey something to us that just isn’t real.  Not just non-corporeal, but rather actually a non-event.

The article assumes (I assume) that drugs or alcohol or other mind-altering substances aren’t at work, but that’s another major issue to consider.   When I consulted someone I consider to be well-versed in these arenas regarding the possible haunting issue this spring, that was the first question he asked – are there medications or other substances involved, and is there any history or evidence of anything we could term mental illness.  Both of these arenas are often rich grounds for misinterpreting reality.

I have no idea about the article’s reference to ‘a “soul of a saint in heaven” as a possible explanation for the incident.  Where in Scripture do we hear anything about the souls of the saints coming back to us for some reason?!?  Same with the issue of a “soul from Purgatory”.  Again, where in the world does Scripture give us that sort of idea?  And why are the lives of saints a better indication that this may be a reality not covered in Scripture?!?

The possibilities of actual demonic activity are always real.  I believe demons exist.  I believe they wish us harm, and if they can inflict that harm either in the short-term or the long-term by leading us to believe they are the souls of our dearly departed, I have no doubt they will attempt that.

But in the case of the procrastinated phone call, there are so many issues to sort through, both to define what’s going on and then to deal with it.  A person with mental illness needs good professional help as well as theological support and prayer.  A person who is not willing to attempt recovery from drugs and alcohol is not in a condition where some sort of intercession is likely.  And of course, if there is demonic activity, then those other issues are going to remain unresolved in an effort to protect their work and presence.

So I procrastinate.  I’m sorry for that, truly.  I say this to the man who’s son is suffering.  I don’t know that I can help the son, given all of the above issues.  But I can and will pray and show love to his father as he tries to help and love his son.  It’s a hard situation, but one that deserves more  than procrastination.

Slavery Is Bad – Unless It’s Good

October 8, 2018

The basic idea of feminism as I understand it:

Is that women and men are equal, but women haven’t been treated as equal.  They won’t be fully equal until they are emancipated from the economic and social constraints that have bound them through the years.  One of these constraints is the fact that, unfortunately, they are the bearers of children and, unfortunately, children need their mothers.  We don’t have a solution for that yet, but  we’re working on it.  In the meantime, women should be encouraged to work just like men work, and should be freed from the penalties of being out of the workplace to take care of their children until the children are old enough to be shipped off to early childhood care or preschool.  Motherhood and the constraints of child-bearing are part of the slavery imposed on women (by men, no doubt), but should be fought against and equalized in every way possible until  we figure out how to make men have babies.

So to free women from the slavery we allege child-bearing and child-rearing to be, our solution is to impose that exact slavery, the very slavery we are trying to free women from, on men.  We will force men to do what women have traditionally done but don’t want to do any more.   

In the name of equality.

There are undoubtedly spectrums and nuances to this and varying degrees of agreement and support.  But this is what gets published.

Literally.

The Wall Street Journal ran an essay a couple of weeks ago advocating for mandatory maternity leave for men, and arguing that this would ultimately be a good thing for the family.  They literally quote an executive:  “Bias plays such a clear role, we decided we are going to say, ‘It’s not an option.  You [men] have to take time off.'”

So in the interest of freeing women from a perceived form of slavery, the answer is to impose that same slavery on men and call it a good thing rather than a bad thing.  I understand the goal – the goal is that men and women are equally employed across all sectors earning equal amounts of money.  That all sounds rather fascinating and good – in and of itself.

What this article does not address at all – similar to a recent Time article on this topic in Sweden, is what’s best for the baby/child, and even what may be most desirable by the woman/mother.   The baby/child/family is treated ultimately as a secondary concern to personal vocational advancement.  The assumption is made that neither mother or father are really all that crucial to raising a healthy child – physically or emotionally (and of course we won’t even acknowledge the spiritual component).  Family is a distant second (or maybe even third) consideration.  What matters most of all is work.  Earning money.  Nothing is said about why or towards what end.  Earning money is the Holy Grail of feminism.  If you earn the same amount as a man, you’re finally equal.  No other metric will do.

I don’t consider it accidental that since the institutionalization of dual-income families the mental and emotional health of children seems to have declined precipitously.  Depression rates are apparently skyrocketing, and while some might chalk that up to better diagnoses, perhaps we also  should think about other more fundamental reasons why kids might be more depressed these days.  Factor in bullying by peers that no longer is restricted to school hours but can go on non-stop, 24/7 through the use of technology, and children seem to face a far more  hostile landscape than in previous generations.

Of course we can make all of this sound selfless.  After all, mom and dad are spending all their time and effort at work to make life better for you, Junior.  To ensure that you get the toys you want, live in the right school district, can attend the best universities, and in turn get the best jobs that will continue this cycle.

But what if kids really don’t need all of that?  What if kids really need their moms and dads?  What if emotional security and health begins with this rather than with school counselors and therapists and psychiatrists?   What if we’re killing ourselves for the wrong things, and equality is found in something other than a paycheck?  What if we  prioritized the family as the most important thing, and acknowledged men and women’s equally important and necessary and even unique roles in the family instead of treating them as interchangeable parts on an assembly line?

Radical thinking by today’s standards.  Just the sort of backwards, chauvinistic and misogynistic thinking to be expected of a man, I’m sure some might say.  But I’m willing to stand with what the Bible says – which is that our equality and value doesn’t come from what we do, but simply from the fact that we are.  That an employer or a paycheck doesn’t determine our worth, but rather the fact that God created us in the first place.

Of course this has a lot of implications on topics like abortion, euthanasia, family life, gender roles, and all manner of different things that certain groups in our society have decided they can arbitrarily change.  Even by natural selection and evolutionary standards though, the idea that we can arbitrarily redefine all of these evolved traits and characteristics is illogical.  Some might even call it arrogant.  But I guess if you decide you’re smarter than hundreds of thousands of years of evolution, you can make that argument.  I’m just not so sure you should trust that conclusion.

What makes you valuable?  Who makes you equal?  Nobody in this world – including yourself.  We dicker and fight about external means of  making people equal but I don’t know anyone who feels internally like they measure up, like they’re as good as everyone else or sometimes anyone else.  Those doubts and fears won’t be addressed by laws and business practices or more money in a paycheck.  Those issues can only be solved by God.  The God who created us equal in the first place, and who is re-establishing that equality through the voluntary death and resurrection of his Son.  Who insists that switching one form of slavery for another is no solution, and that nothing less than truly being free in Him will substitute.

I pray to be man enough to value and esteem a woman not because of her job or whether she earns more or less or the same as I do.  Just as I shouldn’t value or esteem her based on her looks.  But rather only on the fact that she is.  That God the Father created her, God the Son died for her, and God the Holy Spirit seeks to lead her back into a proper relationship with him that will reorder every other relationship in her life, including the one with herself.

Of course, I pray to be man enough to value and esteem a man for just the very same reason.  That sounds a lot more like equality than mandatory paternity leave does.

 

 

Book Review: The Daniel Dilemma

October 1, 2018

The Daniel Dilemma: How to Stand Firm and Love Well in a Culture of Compromise

by Chris Hodges

As a Lutheran, I’m a bit cursed.

That may have conjured a variety of thoughts for you, but I had a specific application in mind.  It comes to a basic difference in how to read Scripture.  Is it a story about us, an exhortation and encouragement and threat to constantly do better, live more faithfully, be more deserving of God’s grace and love, or is it a story about God and how good and faithful and persistent He is despite our constant rebelliousness, disinterest and apathy?

There are two caveats I need to acknowledge.  First off, I think most intelligent or mature Christians would be likely to say it’s the latter.  Lutherans aren’t unique in this.  Secondly, once everyone says this, many Christians (including a good number of Lutherans) proceed to gobble up books and instructions that place the emphasis squarely on what we should be doing, rather than emphasizing God’s grace.

To be fair, you aren’t going to sell many books by telling people to just focus on how loving and gracious and good God is to us and allow that to percolate through you and work itself out in a life of faith.  I just did it in one sentence.  Even by Twitter standards that’s pretty short.

On the other hand, you can write endless books interpreting Scripture as one long warning or encouragement to faithfulness, promising any number of fascinating rewards, from personal health and fitness to national renewal.  And since we all like good stuff, these books are constantly churned out.  Whereas the Bible – which tells us we’ve already gotten the good stuff in Jesus the Christ, the Son of God incarnate who lives and dies and rises again to convey his forgiveness and perfection to us – is, well, just one book.  And copyrighting it can be very complicated, I’m guessing.

It isn’t that we shouldn’t think about how to live our lives as Christians.  It isn’t, Lord knows, that we couldn’t be doing a better job of it.  But most books focus exclusively on this – what we call sanctification, the process of becoming more and more the holy and righteous person we will be on the day of Jesus’ return.  Most books pay lip service at best to the actual Gospel – that Jesus has done all of this for us already, and while this will certainly transform us in surprising ways, we are actually free.  Free to live out our lives in joyful response to God’s goodness.  Free to love others sacrificially.

Books that focus almost exclusively on our life of faith and almost not at all on God’s grace in Christ tend to enslave people though.  They give the impression – often well-intentioned or not intended at all – that if we don’t do better, God is probably going to love us less and we’ll miss out on all the cool stuff He wants to give us or do through us.

That’s a heavy load.

Lutherans balk at that load.  That’s not the Gospel, we say.  That’s transforming the grace and love of God into a work we have to earn, we say.  That’s not freedom, it’s just more chains and slavery, we complain.

The challenge is that there is a lot of room to talk about the life of Christian faith and our response to God’s love.  Lutherans may sometimes miss this or not talk about this out of fear that people will hear the Gospel being turned into Law, freedom into enslavement.  So it’s tricky.

Enter this book.

It’s a predictably engaging and affable book by a pastor of a huge church in the Southeastern US.  While I’m not personally familiar with him, I assume he’s earnest, kind, faithful and honest.  That these traits have enabled him to be very successful as a pastor and now also as an author and probably speaker.  So be it.  None of those things really matter to me, since I’m not his parishioner or in the same ministerial circles to be a brother pastor to/with him.  All I have is his book.

And his book is a lot of Law.

It’s not that, as the Law, it’s bad or wrong.  It’s just that it’s the Law.  And while he undoubtedly mentioned Jesus and love and grace and forgiveness a lot in the 250 or so pages, the much greater bulk of the book is aimed at trying to get Christians to actually live the way the Bible describes or prescribes.  He often uses italics at the end of chapters to drive his point home.

  • Have a good attitude.
  • Don’t wait until you have a breakdown.  Do it now.
  • The scales are waiting.
  • Don’t wait.  Don’t put it off.  Do it now.
  • The choice is yours.
  • Do what God wants, not what people want.

I get it.  You’re reading his book.  He has your attention for a few moments, and he wants to drive home the urgency of his message and he wants you to begin changing your life right now.  All well and good.  I’d argue it’s all well and good for a pastor to say to his congregation, whom he has a relationship with and a means of being in contact and follow-up with.  It’s a lot harder in a book.  In a book, it’s just a lot of pressure.  Failure to do these things, it is implied, is failing God.  And failing God either results in a less joyful life, or possibly eternal damnation.  Also true.  But again, a lot of pressure on the random reader who may have no other connection to Christian community or teaching.

The book allegedly utilizes the story of Daniel in the Biblical book of Daniel to provide insights into Christian living in a foreign culture.  Frankly, his use of Daniel is rather thin, and he goes long stretches without referencing him at all.  He utilizes a broad cross-section of Scripture otherwise along the way.  And his conclusions – none of which in and of themselves are bad – are appropriate in any context, not just in a culture that insists on compromise in belief and behavior.  Christians are to live out their lives of faith regardless of the particular cultural setting they find themselves in, just as they would live out their faith in essentially the same way regardless of whether they lived in Hawaii or Antarctica.

Throughout, he utilizes the Bible primarily to show us how we should be faithful.  Again, this is fine to a point.  But at other points it really seems to stretch this way of reading Scripture.

The most challenging, for me, came early on, in Part 1, starting around page 40.  Here Hodges relates Daniel 1:15-19, which describes how Daniel and a few other promising prisoners of war are put on the fast track to upward mobility in a foreign culture and government.  Part of the benefits of this are that they get the best of everything.  In fact, they eat the same stuff the king does.  Sounds like a great benefit, right?

Not if you have some very specific dietary restrictions.  Which the Israelites did (and faithful Jews today still do).  So Daniel’s response to this generosity is to ask – politely – permission to follow a diet more faithful to their faith, and if the results aren’t good enough in terms of their health and appearance, they’ll switch over to the king’s food.  At the end of the trial period, Daniel and his buddies who eat the alternate diet are stronger and better looking than any of the people eating from the king’s table.  So much so that the diets for all of the trainees are changed over to vegetables and water, just like Daniel and his buddies.

Hodges highlights this as an example of great faith on the part of Daniel and his buddies.  It’s an example of Daniel seizing an opportunity to test his faith, and being proved faithful in it.  It almost sounds as though Daniel’s faith was the cause of the turnout of the experiment.

First, I’d argue that rather than being an epic issue of faith, this is first and foremost an issue of training and therefore preference.  Having presumably been raised on a kosher diet and warnings against food prepared by outsiders who might not keep kosher or who might dedicate their foods to false gods, this would be the natural response for Daniel.  If you visited Vietnam (as I had the chance to a few years ago) and had the opportunity to eat dog, perhaps you would pass on this.  Our American culture finds that very inappropriate and disgusting.  Of course you’d ask for something else.

Secondly, if it is an act of heroic faith on Daniel’s part, it is God who gets the glory for both strengthening Daniel to stand firm in his faith and then blessing the outcome to vindicate Daniel’s faithfulness.  But these aspects are not mentioned at all.  The whole story becomes a moral model and encouragement for you and I to follow.  The emphasis is on Daniel, and therefore on you and I, rather than on God the Holy Spirit who is both the source of our faith and the promised presence of God with us in faith.

The rest of the book follows pretty much the same line.

Again, it isn’t that we all don’t need reminders and encouragements to deepen our faith.  But a book like this ultimately gives the impression that this is primarily our responsibility.  Biblically and anecdotally, I’d argue this is a false impression.  St. Paul sometimes has to clarify what behaviors are and aren’t appropriate for Christians, but he also clearly understands that whatever good there is in him to pursue those appropriate behaviors is not himself but rather Christ working in and through him.  This distinction is largely lost or ignored in this book.

Based on the title of his book, I think the best chapter in the whole book is the last one.  Ironically, it’s the chapter he begins with I hope you haven’t started with this chapter.  Yet this chapter reflects a more appropriate emphasis on the grace of God the Holy Spirit at work, and our chief tool in terms of prayer.  I wish more of this had permeated the rest of the book!

I read this because it sounded like an appropriate book for our times.  What I found was neither very deep exploration of Daniel and other of God’s people who lived in challenging times, nor anything very particular to challenging times.  If you proclaim Jesus as your Lord and Savior, live like it.  But remember even as you do this that it’s not really you doing it – once again it is God giving you the will and the strength and the power for you to put into use.  As such, you don’t get the glory when you succeed, or the right to look down on others who struggle more than you do.  And on the flip side, when you fail you rely on grace and forgiveness as an encouragement to get up and try again.

And in all of this, seek to live out the Reader’s Digest version of the Commandments – Love God, and Love Your Neighbor.  Whether they like you or not, whether they agree with you or not, and whether you really want to or not.

I think that last line was the sequel to my earlier book in this blog.  I’m on a roll.

 

 

 

 

Women’s Roles in the Church

September 27, 2018

The idea has been brought up in the last nine months that perhaps our congregation should have women Elders.  Our denomination traditionally has fought against this practice, although it is technically permissible through the careful wording of language in a congregation’s Constitution (which must be vetted and accepted by our polity in order for a congregation to be truly affiliated with the denomination.  So, as a pretty traditional and conservative Church body, we stand with the predominant Christian practice of the last nearly 2000 years and do not generally permit women Elders, and never women pastors.

There are exceptions, of course, to allowing women to be Elders and interestingly enough our two closest daughter congregations both allow it.  This is one of the reason some of my parishioners are asking about it.  Other reasons include some people growing up in other denominations that allow women pastors and Elders.  And of course our cultural climate for the last 50 years has really stressed that if women are to be considered equal to men, they must do identical things to men.  This is  not an option for strident feminists.  A woman should get a college education and join the workforce and stay in the workforce.  The maternal instinct should be shunted to the side as much as possible, and certainly a woman who truly upholds the equality of women should never opt to be a stay-at-home mom.  Equality requires that we be identical, our culture says, and our parishioners are hearing this message loud and clear and internalizing it.

So it was that I received a short note asking me why I didn’t think women were worthy to be Elders and bringing up two New Testament women who some think were not just Elders but perhaps even pastors – Priscilla  and Phoebe.  After clarifying that this is not an issue of worthiness or capability, but rather a matter of maintaining God’s Word to us that our value and worth is contingent not on what we do or don’t do but rather on the fact that God the Father created us, God the Son died for us, and God the Holy Spirit seeks after every last one of us, here is my quick treatment of Priscilla and Phoebe.

Priscilla – Our knowledge of Priscilla comes from four places:  Acts 18, Romans 16:3, 1 Corinthians 16:19, and 2 Timothy 4:19.  These passages tell us she was married to a man named Aquila who were Jews and tentmakers like St. Paul, had been expelled with other Jews in Rome likely in association with the Emperor Claudius sometime between 41 and 54 AD (probably 51-52 based on the reference to the proconsul Gallio).  These events are referenced as well by several Roman historians.  They are Paul’s travel companions from Corinth (where he meets them in their exile) to Syria.  They remain in Ephesus while Paul continues his travels, and it is in Ephesus where they meet Apollos and expounded or proclaimed to him the Christian faith more fully.  They are also in Rome and are referred to by Paul as co-laborers or co-workers in Christ.  They are said to host a church in their home in Corinth.
What do we learn from this?  Aquila and Priscilla are valued and trusted friends and co-workers with St. Paul.  Together they are credited with laboring on behalf of Christ, including the further education of Apollos.  Priscilla is not singled out in any of these things, but is treated as a partner with Aquila.  The reference to them as co-workers in Romans 16:3 is not a theological or church term, but a common expression of someone working together.  It doesn’t mean that they were necessarily doing the same things, but that they worked together.  Paul makes it very clear that there are many ways to serve Christ in the church (1 Corinthians 12), and not all of them are the role of Elder or Pastor.  The fact that Aquila and Priscilla serve Christ does not mean they are doing the same things Paul is doing.  And the fact that they host a church in their home does *not* necessitate that they were the leaders of that church.  Paul nowhere makes that assertion, and I most frequently hear that interpretation of the texts by people who already have made up their mind that women ought to be pastors or Elders/leaders in the Church and go off looking for texts to support their point of view.  An objective reading of the verses about Priscilla do not, I believe, lend themselves to this interpretation.  Particularly when we recognize that nowhere else in Scripture are women understood to serve in official capacities within the priesthood or Church, and that Paul specifically cautions against this elsewhere.
Phoebe – She has only one mention in Scripture – Romans 16:1-2, where Paul greets her as a deacon in the Church and a sister in Christ.  He instructs the Roman Christians to receive her and to be of whatever assistance to her they can.  Some scholars presume that she might be the person carrying Paul’s letter to the or perhaps even reading it to them.  Once again, he clearly has respect and appreciation for her and her work on his behalf and Christ’s.  But once again, there is nothing specific in what Paul says about her or  her work that would lead us to assume – again especially in light of Paul’s other words on the topic of women in leadership – that she is a pastor or an Elder.  Deacon is a Greek term typically interpreted as servant.  Because of Paul’s usage of the word, it has come to have a more specific, Church meaning as some sort of professional Church worker.  I assume this is why some translations don’t use the word deacon in Romans 16:1 – to avoid some of the confusion that has evolved regarding the word vs. the church function.  The question then hinges on how Paul uses the word deacon, and whether we can or should interpret this to be strictly or even primarily any sort of pastoral or spiritual oversight role.
Paul uses the word deacon in six places:
  • Romans 16:1 – in reference to Phoebe without further clarification
  • Philippians 1:1 – mentioned along with the overseers of the congregation, implying perhaps that deacons – while serving an important role – are not the leaders/overseers of the church –
  • 1 Timothy 3:1-12 – Paul lays out the qualifications for overseers as well as deacons, indicating fairly clearly that their duties were not the same.  The qualifications of a good deacon are considerably fewer in number and scope than the qualifications to be an overseer.
Once again, a straightforward reading of these verses would not lead us to think deacons were the same as overseers/pastors/Elders, but rather serve another function within the Church that bears mentioning along with overseers/pastors/elders.  Again, most arguments that Phoebe was essentially a pastor or elder are made by people who seem to have their minds made up on the subject already, and who are also blatantly ignoring Paul’s other teachings on this topic (most notably, 1 Timothy 3:12).  Towards that end, there are a few other references that are often brought up such as Euodia and Syntyche in Philippians 4:2-3.  They are also acknowledged and praised and thanked by Paul as co-workers working closely with him in his ministry, but not said to be doing the same things he is.  Also frequently mentioned is Galatians 3:28.  But it is clear contextually that Paul doesn’t mean that these differences don’t exist.  There clearly are still men and women, still Jews and non-Jews, still those who are enslaved and those who are free.  His argument has to do with the freedom we have in Christ as opposed to the constraints often endured culturally or societally.
The argument that women were leaders in the early Church requires a backwards reading of today’s ideas of equality and feminism into Scripture.  The argument today is that equality means doing the same things – and this is never the Scriptural definition of equality.  The argument today is that if women are not doing the same thing as men, it is tantamount to oppression by men and a betrayal of their gender by women, neither of which is Biblical (or frankly even logical!) in the least.
Biblically, our value and worth come from the fact that we are creations of God the Father and bear his  image, not what we do.
For 2000 years the Church has tried to give witness to this Biblical truth.  We are created equal but different.  Oftentimes that message has been confused or warped by sinfulness.  It has certainly been used inappropriately as a tool for oppression or suppression of women by men.  But the fact that we misuse it sinfully sometimes does not deny the essential truth behind it.  Frankly, our misuse of it only further heightens the validity of the situation.  In Genesis 3 God tells Eve that part of the effects of sin in her life and the life of her gender will be a constant struggle with men for control, and that more often than not, women will lose that struggle.
It has nothing to do with ability.  Men and women are equal before God, and have equal and intrinsic value and worth.  They have different giftings and abilities as well.  I  know women who would be far better pastors than some guys I know!  But that doesn’t mean we are free to arbitrarily define or redefine Biblical reality.  Even if we don’t understand the reason, we are to remain faithful to God’s Word to the best of our ability.  Women voluntarily recognize this authority and submit to it – it is not a means for men to exert control over women.
The LC-MS acknowledges that, despite 2000 years of church history, sometimes congregations feel compelled to make women Elders.  We tend to resist this as the Elders traditionally carry authority similar to the Pastor, and so confusion can be started.  If women can be Elders, why not Pastors?  So the LC-MS has discouraged the use of women Elders.  Yes, there are LC-MS congregations (locally!) who have women Elders, and loopholes exist Synodically that allow this.  Does that mean we should do it?  The fact that a loophole exists does not mean that it must or even should be taken.  The larger question is how does our congregation sees herself in 2000 years of Christian history and practice, and what are the overwhelming arguments put forth that women should be Elders here?  Is it simply a matter of convenience?  Is that an adequate argument against a pretty strong and consistent Scriptural argument against such a practice?  Should we go ahead and permit women Pastors as well?  The LC-MS draws a very firm line on this one!  But if women are up helping distribute Communion, isn’t that similar to being a pastor?  The questions continue and flow out from there.
So, it is not a matter of capability or  worth, but an attempt to hear what God’s Word says.  There are some who will abuse God’s Word to make women inferior to men.  They are sinful and wrong who do this.  Women are every bit equal to men, but that very equality requires that women be women and men be men, rather than attempting to take on one another’s roles.