Things That Make You Go Hmmmm….

October 6, 2020

The fact so many people are afraid Amy Coney Barrett (who is, incidentally, a woman) might be a key vote in overturning Roe v. Wade and nearly 50 years of legalized abortion in America, and they’re counting on Joe Biden (who is, incidentally, a man) to stand against her (and the entire Supreme Court which is, incidentally, one third of our tripartite government structure) to ensure abortion remains “the law of the land”. And nary a cry of paternalism or patriarchal privilege on this issue….

Painfully Helpful?

October 5, 2020

For those who have a hard time thinking the Genesis account of creation and humanity being descended from one single set of parents could be true, I think this is an interesting and relevant article. Being neither a geneticist or a genealogist, it’s possible I’m not understanding it correctly. But the main gist is we’re more closely interconnected than we (and evolutionary theory) tend to think we are.

Though scientists are quick to discount that a single couple – married to each other, actually – could be the source of all our genetic linkages, if I’m understanding this correctly there’s not a scientific reason we couldn’t be, other than that it would too closely sound like Genesis and we can’t have that.

Curious and open to better explanations or applications of this article if you’ve got them!

Finding Us

October 4, 2020

The readings for this Sunday are challenging ones to hear. Isaiah 5:1-7. Matthew 21:33-46. Talk of vineyards to be sure, but more pertinently talk of failure and disappointment. Failure and disappointment on God’s part with the chosen people He called for himself. As good Christians (or perhaps just as Lutherans), our response is to read His Word and find ourselves in the stories. To apply what should be applied to our lives. To repent, watch, and be ready.

There’s a tendency to see these two stories, separated by some 700 years, as essentially the same, allowing the Old Testament reading to dictate our hearing of Jesus’ parable. Isaiah conveys God’s displeasure with his people who, instead of being a holy and obedient people are as savage and wild as those God hasn’t called into covenantal relationship with himself. He could have just skipped the whole process of tending to them and protecting them – the end result was no different. Not that God didn’t know this, of course, but rather that his people should be ashamed to presume upon the grace and protection of God as some sort of birthright when they clearly had no interest in being the sort of people He called them to be.

We can tell Jesus’ story is somewhat different. The problem isn’t the harvest – there’s definitely a harvest! – but rather the tenants, an element completely absent from the Isaiah text. So we understand Jesus not to be angry with God’s people in general or total, but more specifically with the leadership of God’s people, the chief priests and elders who should have been stewarding God’s people in preparation to receive the Messiah. Instead, they are rejecting the Messiah and in effect trying to keep the people for themselves. They wouldn’t see it this way, of course, but that doesn’t change the reality of the situation, a situation Jesus speaks to bluntly in this story. It’s clear his hearers know who He has in his crosshairs, yet their response is not repentance but a continued insistence that this man must be done away with.

So we try to fit ourselves into this. It’s easier with the Isaiah text, because who among us would deny our fruit is somewhat sour, to say the least? Who among us can pretend our fruit is perfect and sweet and exactly what God should expect from us? We stand condemned in our sin.

And we know that this isn’t the point of Jesus’ story, we understand He’s targeting the leaders of God’s people, and so we presume we must hear it as a warning to the leaders of God’s people, the ordained or commissioned or Called workers as well as to the lay employees and volunteers. Anyone with authority over God’s people in any fashion. We aren’t sure what the warning is about, but we presume Jesus intends us to hear it as a warning and be on our guard against something.

But we have a hard time defining what that is. The Messiah has come. The Son of the Master of the House has arrived and we acclaim and proclaim him. We seek to follow him, imperfectly of course but yet faithfully. Our leaders should be careful of obstructing God’s people from God’s son, perhaps with sermons that focus not on the Son but rather on social justice or other issues we presume are highest on God’s list of priorities. But this is still a stretch, still awkward.

Is there another way to hear Jesus’ story of tenants and a land owner?

Perhaps if we allow Jesus to guide us, through his quoting of Psalm 118. Go ahead and follow the link to read the psalm BUT, as you do so, read it as though Jesus is speaking the words of the psalm. Not just the one verse He quotes directly, but the entire psalm. Read it as though Jesus is speaking Psalm 118 for the first time ever, composing it on the spot, as it were. And bear in mind the context. This is Holy Week. The Holy Week. The first Holy Week. Jesus rode into town on Palm Sunday a day or maybe two ago. He’s cleared the Temple courtyards of moneychangers and animal sellers. Now He’s being pressed to defend his actions. His adversaries are gnashing their teeth, chomping at the bit to get at him and get him out of the way. Tension mounts. In just a few days Jesus will be arrested, tried, convicted, executed, buried. And just three days after that, He will be alive again.

Read Psalm 118 in that context.

Pretty wild, eh? Eerie how well the entire psalm fits not only Jesus but Jesus at this particular moment in time, on the cusp of fulfilling the fullness of his Incarnate purpose.

And it transforms this from a text applying to you and me and church leadership throughout all time, into a declaration of victory against the group of men standing in front of him. Close enough for him to smell the sweat on their brows as they grit their teeth in the sunlight, aching to get rid of him and unable to do anything but pretend they’re listening just like everyone else. But they aren’t. This group of men with murder in their hearts, who refused to acknowledge John the Baptist and now refuse to acknowledge Jesus. This group of men in their fine robes and tefillin. With their tallits practically on permanent display, so convinced they’re right, so convinced they are doing the will of God in plotting murder.

We lose many interpretative options when we presume every single thing Jesus says is only for edification, only for justification and sanctification. Perhaps some of the things He says only He can say – perfectly, sinlessly, poignantly, stingingly. Perhaps sometimes all we can do is listen and give thanks to the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world through his insistence on obedience to the will of God rather than his own. Through suffering and death and blood and burial, to resurrection and ascension and victory and honor.

Reading Ramblings – October 11, 2020

October 4, 2020

Date: Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost – October 11, 2020

Texts: Isaiah 25:6-9; Psalm 23; Philippians 4:4-13; Mattew 22:1-14

Context: The verses for this Sunday emphasize the abundant grace and love and blessing of God. In a world where everything is measured out and sized up, where we try to get a steal of a deal and then turn around and get better than market price when we sell it, this abundance and this generosity is strange. It sounds wonderful and yet it might raise feelings of unease as well. Surely there must be some sort of hidden fee, surcharge, or other cost we don’t know about! Surely there is a catch! But there is no catch. This however, does not mean we can expect to appropriate the goodness and grace of God on our own terms rather than his. He gives us all, and in return we acknowledge him as the source of all good things. To think that we could give thanks to anyone or anything (including ourselves) other than God is not merely foolish it is arrogant and ultimately false. God receives the glory for all He has done, is doing, and has promised yet to do. Come and receive! Be seated at the banquet as his guest!

Isaiah 25:6-9 – A stunning and beautiful passage, a reprieve from the promises of discipline and disruption that precede and follow. After chapters of premonitions of judgment and disaster both on God’s own people of Judah as well as surrounding nations, Chapter 25 begins a section promising that despite these things, disaster will not be the final word. Rather, disaster is to be seen as part of God’s ultimate plan of reconciling all of creation to himself. And when that is accomplished, what a party it’s going to be! Will there be anything lacking? Hardly! Will there be anything to mar the beauty and joy and lavishness of that celebration? Will there ever be a moment when we realize the weekend is over and now it’s time to go back to the grind of the workweek? No. God’s grace is not just sufficient it is overabundant, and those who trust in that grace will not be disappointed in the least. Our Lord Jesus the Christ has already accomplished the victory over sin, death and Satan that make this eternal celebration possible, and now we await God the Father’s perfect timing to ensure that as many as possible will participate in his joy.

Psalm 23 – Few sections of Scripture are as widely known and deeply appreciated as the 23rd Psalm. A beautiful picture of our relationship to the loving care and guidance of our Good Shepherd, who cares for us in all aspects of our life, and leads us through the Valley of the Shadow of Death and to the eternal banquet reprised in Isaiah 25. The psalm depends not only on the goodness of the Good Shepherd, which in light of his sacrificial life, death, and resurrection cannot be doubted, but also on the obedient trust of you and I as the sheep. This psalm is not a promise of an untroubled life, but rather the assertion that we can have the peace of our Lord with us regardless of the circumstances that may whirl around us, as we focus on His voice rather than the voices of the day. This requires a daily renewal and recommitment on our part to choose his voice, his pastures, his waters, his pathways rather than run off in search of what we presume to be better options. When we do (and we will!) we can trust the shepherds rod and staff to guide us back as we repent and focus once again on his voice.

Philippians 4:4-13 – Paul concludes his letter to the Philippian Christians with an enjoinder to maintain their focus on good, rather than the difficulties either he or they face. This is not a generic call to positive thinking. Truth, honor, purity, loveliness,commendability – all these things are unthinkable for Paul outside of God and what we have received in Jesus Christ. This should be our clear understanding and articulation as well. God is the source and definition of all that is good, and therefore we give him thanks and praise whenever we recognize his creativity and beauty and goodness expressed in this world. All this focus on positive things from God should make rejoicing easy and second nature! How can we complain who have received all things in Jesus Christ? How can we who have been brought to faith by God the Holy Spirit doubt the same Spirit of God is at work in the world around us as well, and in the hearts and minds of even those most commitedly against him, seeking their conversion to his glory? This rejoicing will in turn have practical effect as we reach out with the love of Jesus Christ to those around us who might be in need, as St. Paul himself was. Nothing is impossible to those who place their faith and trust and obedience in the resurrected Son of God!

Matthew 22:1-14 – The vast emphasis in this parable is the goodness of God. God who provides all things and welcomes all to him. Yes, there will be those who deny him and his goodness. But this does not make his goodness and his welcome any less magnanimous or desirable! Who would turn down such an invitation in favor of slaving away at work? Who could possibly seek to turn God’s graciousness and glory to disgrace or offense? Those who insist on doing so will receive their due, tragically. But still the call goes out, and none are overlooked or not invited. Both bad and good receive invitation to the Lord’s bounty.

But as we touched on in the Old Testament reading, we receive the graciousness of God in Jesus Christ. In other words, we cannot possibly presume another source for our blessings here and eternally, nor should we arrogantly give the thanks and praise due to God to another. He provides everything, from the clothes we wear to the feast to the feast itself. To reject some portion of this in favor of our own ideas or own preferences is not simply foolish, it is arrogant and insulting. Only in giving God the glory and praise and honor appropriate are we responding as we ought to. After all, if the owner of a company decides to give her employees a massive bonus, would it make sense to send thank you notes to the CEO of another company, or to insist on receiving the bonus on our own terms rather than on the terms of their generosity?

The closing statement in this parable might seem troubling, as though God picks and chooses who He will save and refuses to save others. But it’s clear from the parable that the invitation of God – God’s choice – includes everyone from greatest to least. It is not a matter of whether all are invited. All are invited, but not all will respond in appropriate repentance and joy. As such, few in this verse should probably not be interpreted numerically, as though to say only a small number of people will be saved. Rather, in comparison to the universal invitation of God, not everyone is willing to receive from him.

COVID and Traditional Churches

September 28, 2020

There is much fear and worry in ecclesiastical circles about the lasting impacts of COVID and virtualized worship on the future of congregational ministry. This article references a prediction by leading church demographic and data purveyor Barna Group, that 20% of congregations will close. One in five congregations are at risk to close in the next 18 months, partly due to the effects of COVID.

The hand-wringing is not entirely unwarranted, but in my opinion what we’re talking about in all of this is an acceleration of a pre-existing, pre-COVID trajectory. I remember a prediction by a denominational leader years ago that just in our part of the world (US Southwest) there would be a decline of up to 50% in the number of congregations in our particular district by 2050. It might once have seemed like a far-fetched prediction, but between COVID and skyrocketing cost of living particularly in California, it hardly seems unlikely.

Christianity in America will not die. Not all individual congregations will die. There will continue to be a minority of mega-churches with thousands of active members. There will continue to be far more smaller congregations with less than 200 members. But a great number of very small congregations will close. They were going to close anyways, barring a miracle, but they’ll close sooner because of COVID. You don’t need to be a Barna researcher to puzzle that conclusion out.

Because of COVID and declining giving rates. Because of COVID and the final realization of many traditional church members of what has been the case for a while now – they don’t perceive a need for a church building and the scant programs most small congregations can barely afford. The greying of traditional mainline denominations has been noted for decades, but as long as those aging members were coming (and tithing), many doors could and would stay open. But with many older Americans frightened to go out of their homes let alone assemble at church in a group for worship, and with those fears likely to linger on quite a while after the Coronavirus is no longer a pandemic those traditional denominational congregations are going to start shutting down.

This is further accentuated by the realization of many Christians that they can tune in to live-streamed services from literally anywhere in the world. I have members who, in addition to listening or reading my weekly sermons, tune in to a German-language service from Germany. Others tune in to live-streamed services from larger congregations with a technology staff and the equipment to do live-stream well, to say nothing of a bevy of musicians and choirs and vocalists to further enhance the experience. Members of smaller congregations may find these more robust services more enjoyable and beautiful, and if their ties to their in-person churches have weakened (or were already tenuous pre-COVID), this extended time of suspended services might finally sever the habit of gathering weekly in person for a small and perhaps not-overly inspiring service, whether because of music or preaching!

Not all of this is bad, it simply is. Hard and difficult to be sure, but not necessarily terrible. It means we are in the midst of a shift in what Christian worship life looks like, a shift somewhat unprecedented since early in the Church’s history. The shift from being an underground or outlawed religion to being a state religion was massive but in what was presumed to be a positive way. The shift away from congregations prioritizing a large communal worship space will be a challenging and unpleasant one for many because we assume any decrease in size to be negative, a sign of failure. We see no strategic advantage in closing a congregation, even though we’re used to businesses making such decisions all the time. This double-standard is confusing at best.

Making a strategic decision to rework ministry is not a bad thing. It’s Biblical (Matthew 10:16). But the vast majority of the congregations referred to in Barna’s prediction will not close strategically. They’ll close because they can’t keep doing what they’ve always done any longer. They will close feeling as though they’ve somehow failed, or God has somehow failed them. And that’s both sad and wrong.

Christian communities need to rethink not only what they need in terms of space but what the relationship of those spaces are to the community around them. The national trend towards decreasing Christian worship levels is not going to change any time soon. Which will leave more and more congregations with more and more space to take care of – space they either aren’t using themselves or are leasing out to others to use and to pay the bills no longer payable by member giving alone. All of which ultimately leads discussions of buildings and property and leases to eclipse discussions of mission and ministry. Again, it isn’t that this isn’t already happening on a wide scale, but COVID is going to accelerate it dramatically.

Not all of these changes will be for the good. Assuming digital church is somehow adequate or even good is dangerous and misguided even if it’s convenient and popular. Worship together, anchored in the ancient command of the Sabbath, is inherently a call on us away from our lives and schedules. It inherently places everything else in our lives in a subordinate role, at least nominally. Anything that upends this more than it already has been upended is ultimately not faithful or obedient, even if people like it. I’ve argued for a long time that Christian communities need to rethink their definition and expectation of the Sabbath, and that it might even be worth considering worship on a separate day of the week so the Sabbath can truly return to the day of rest and a direct consideration of the providence of God more fully.

At the root of all this is not COVID, but rather a continuing realization that many churches are unable to make the Christian faith relevant to life as a whole. They are unable to foster a Christian world-view, and instead settle on a much narrower view of the faith centered on participation in worship and weekly programming. In a world brought closer together by technology and with directly adversarial attitudes throughout educational systems, young Christians need to see how faith connects all of their life together, rather than just being something they do on Sunday mornings. If our culture was ever somewhat homogenous, it certainly isn’t now and believers of all ages need to be equipped to understand this and see how their faith in the resurrected Son of God is more than sufficient not simply to cope with the world around them but to make sense of it as well.

Yes, churches are going to close. This is sad at one level but perhaps necessary at some level. As those churches close, I pray the congregations that remain are able and willing to reconsider some aspects of what it means to be the Church in the 21st century. Not that we abandon doctrine or worship or anything like that! But perhaps the way we physically conceive the Church to be needs to be revised, and perhaps this is a good thing that can challenge the cultural perception of the Church as antiquated in everything from their carpeting to their doctrine. The Gospel always remains the Gospel and the center of Christian life and practice. We just need to be willing to trust that as we make adjustments on the periphery.

Reading Ramblings – October 4, 2020

September 27, 2020

Date: Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost – October 4, 2020

Texts: Isaiah 5:1-7; Psalm 80:7-19; Philippians 3:4b-14; Matthew 21:33-46

Context: The vineyard. A beautiful and terrible image and metaphor that runs through both the Old and New Testament, describing the relationship of God to his people, and more often than not how his people have not been who they were created and designed to be. They did not bring forth the fruit they should have. Not because they couldn’t, but because they wouldn’t. Failure is to be expected. Sin remains part and parcel of creation. But when sin becomes the rule rather than the exception, the goal rather than the missed efforts towards the goal of obedience, now the tragedy of the metaphor becomes clearer. We as God’s people today need to be mindful we are not exempt from the sins of our forefathers. The Word of God speaks to us as it has to others for thousands of years, and we would do well to heed the warnings, to give thanks for the grace of God as we continually uncover the sin at work in our lives and strive to work with the Holy Spirit to overcome it.

Isaiah 5:1-7 – Talk of vineyards has a lot of cultural familiarity in Jesus’ day. Not only were vineyards a common feature of the land of Galilee and Judea, they were well-known Scriptural parlance. As Isaiah begins his song, his hearers likely thought they knew the way it would play out. But Isaiah’s words strike a very discordant note. God’s people are not the beautiful fruit of the vine, superior to all others because of God’s love and care. Rather God’s people are themselves a disappointment a failure, of no worth to the God who planted them! Jesus’ contemporaries knew Isaiah 5 as a judgment against their ancestors, a judgment that ultimately resulted in their being uprooted from the vineyard into exile. So powerful and pervasive was that historic lesson that Judaism could rightly be described as a reaction to the Babylonian Exile, an effort to ensure the lessons of God were never forgotten. But in the process, God’s grace and forgiveness were also easily set aside. Whenever our focus becomes ourselves rather than God, even if the goal is obedience to God, we are going to veer off into either a harsh legalism or a permissiveness that are equally dangerous to our identity as children of God saved by grace through faith rather than works so that no man may boast (Ephesians 2:8-9). To save us, God is more than willing (and able) to uproot us, to prune us in ways that are unpleasant in the moment but aimed at our preservation and thriving for eternity.

Psalm 80:7-19 – The prayer and privilege of God’s people is always repentance. Recognizing our sin, we turn our eyes to our God who promises his forgiveness, and who has demonstrated his grace in countless ways large and small not simply through history but in our lives as well. We know and trust that grace is God’s default mode. The fact that God is the vineyard owner and planter in the Biblical metaphors means his default mode is love, to plant and tend and nourish. It is to these aspects of God we appeal when we are convicted of our sin, when we acknowledge our deserving of punishment and death. We appeal to his grace to replant us, restore us, and bring us to all we were intended to be, trusting in his forgiveness.

Phillippians 3:4b-14 – The tension of the Christian life is resting in the identity assured to us by God in our baptism, our identity as his children and inheritors of the Kingdom of Heaven. This by his grace and mercy in Jesus Christ, not because our own efforts at righteousness are ever adequate. But at the same time we srive earnestly for obedience. Aware of who we are in Christ, and who we will be in eternity, we strive to make our lives here and now more consistent with that identity. We take sin seriously, not because God can’t or won’t forgive, but because sin has power to draw us away from the love of God in Jesus Christ. Sin distracts from who and what we are, and the mature in Christ realize this (to continue on to verse 15).

Matthew 21:33-46 – Jesus reapproaches the vineyard motif. His listeners likely presumed he would commend their obedience, the lessons they learned from the Babylonian exile. They likely presumed their obsession with obedience to the Law would exempt them from divine critique. How surprised they must have been to hear judgment! How surprised they must have been to be told they were ignoring the will of the vineyard owner still! That they were facing judgment just like their ancestors were! That they might once again lose the vineyard, and more perplexing, that it might be given to others!

Who else could possibly produce better fruits than the people God himself chose, planted, nurtured, cultivated? The thought must have sounded preposterous! And insulting. And Jesus’ educated listeners understood all too well who the parable was aimed at, and the implications Jesus intended them to take from it.

These parables retain power and pertinence to God’s people today, warning against our complacency that too easily presumes God’s will is our will, and that there is no discipline left for us. The Jewish people had the Word of God as well and still felt his judgment and pruning. If we presume the Gospel exempts us from similar pruning, we are likely dangerously mistaken, and potentially in for just as big a shock as God’s people 2000 years ago.

We turn repeatedly in repentance to the Lord of the vineyard. Not simply for sins long past that we hash over again and again, but in vigilance against sins of routine and tradition. Humanity has not changed so very much in 2000 years, and we are still prone to the same sorts of errors and laxness as those before us.

Lord preserve your church and people from anything or anyone that would cause us to look away from the owner of the Vineyard or his heir for our hope and comfort!

Mobs and Justice

September 25, 2020

Once again there are mobs floating around major cities in our country demanding justice after the decision of a grand jury not to indict any of the police officers involved in the tragic shooting death of Breonna Taylor. The range of these protests is typically broad, from peaceful protests to more violent protests. The Los Angeles Times reported about two cars that “plowed” through protestors, implying guilt on the part of the drivers, though when you actually read the article it’s far from clear that’s necessarily the best characterization of what happened.

First off, a reminder that protests which block traffic are illegal, though some states allow protestors to block streets if they obtain a permit in advance. But a mob of people arbitrarily deciding to block traffic is in itself an illegal act – pretty much all the time as far as my limited Internet research shows. I’m happy to be proved wrong with appropriate links in the comments section. This document from the ACLU indicates as much. Blocking traffic is in itself illegal, an irony somehow lost in the shuffle of cries for justice, which clearly then are cries for justice in certain situations rather than others, problematic in the least. And needless to say, attacking vehicles and their drivers is very, very illegal, very much against the idea of justice the protestors claim to be demanding. At least one of the vehicles in the LA Times article received extensive damage from protestors who were angered it didn’t want to stop. The car that struck one of the protestors is also said to have damage on it, damage the driver claims was inflicted on the vehicle first and which caused the driver to try and escape the crowd.

Complicated stuff at best, though the headlines certainly wouldn’t lead the casual reader to that conclusion. I don’t think they intend to, frankly.

The cry for justice in this situation is also problematic. The death of anyone is a tragedy, and certainly the death of someone in their own home at the hands of public agents of any kind is additionally odious and should call for investigation. However, investigation actually did happen. The cries and protests for justice come after a grand jury determined no criminal charges were appropriate against the officers involved for Taylor’s death. The officers weren’t cleared of wrong doing by an internal investigation but by a grand jury. A grand jury is a means for determining possible offenses in a situation and lodging official charges to be pursued in a court of law. A grand jury is made up of private citizens, similar to the jury in a court case. They are assembled and tasked with determining to the best of their ability whether a crime has or hasn’t been committed.

So the crowds blocking roads and attacking motorists in a demand for justice are ignoring the fact that justice has already been applied. Typically 16-23 people are assembled for a grand jury and a majority of them must agree a crime was committed and indicate which law was broken. So the majority of the people on the grand jury for this case determined the police officers did not violate a law.

That doesn’t mean Taylor’s death isn’t tragic. It doesn’t mean that perhaps the existing laws might need to change, and already there is discussion towards that end regarding the serving of no-knock warrants, where police can enter a home without prior notification or warning. Of course there are also reasons why such warrants exist, such as protecting officers from a coordinated, deadly response to their ringing of the doorbell or knocking on the door. In this particular case the man they were looking for – an ex-boyfriend’s of Taylor – was not there. Yet her current boyfriend was there, and he was armed, and he opened fire on officers first.

I don’t hear the protestors talking much about that. Clearly, this is a more complicated situation than some people would like it to be. Some details don’t contribute to a story of an innocent young woman shot to death in her own home by reckless and uncaring agents of the State. Apparently the majority of the grand jury realized this as they explored the facts of the case.

So what is justice then? If the due process of the law is inadequate, what do the protestors suggest as an alternative? Is it a matter of mob justice, so to speak, where if enough people scream and yell and threaten and destroy property, they determine the appropriate verdict in a trial? Is this justice? Do what we demand or we destroy things?

Grand juries have been around for over 800 years and are part of a cherished and celebrated legal process and set of protections against mob justice or the arbitrary whims of power. They’re intended to provide as much assurance as possible that a crime really has – or hasn’t – been committed, regardless of which persons or powers demand an outcome to suit their own preferences or interests. Against this what do the protestors suggest as an alternative?

Deadly force is deadly serious, without a doubt. That’s something police officers are trained to recognize and to which they are at least theoretically held accountable. They are also responsible for performing dangerous work like serving warrants on premises or for people that are known to be dangerous and capable of killing them. That’s a lot of pressure to be under, even for professionals, and something the law seeks to take into account. I also assume the man who fired on those police officers when they entered the home understands that deadly force is deadly serious, and if you’re going to pull a gun and start shooting immediately rather than waiting to assess the situation a bit better, I’m going to go out on a limb and say you’re probably more comfortable with deadly force than the average person. Cries for justice ought to reasonably include why this man opened fire immediately.

Bad things happen. Sometimes bad things happen because of bad people, and in those situations the bad people should be held accountable. But not all bad things are matters of injustice or a matter of bad people. This is something that should be – and is – evident regardless of your ethnicity. Yet even ethnic minorities are denounced and vilified if they question or disagree with the mob justice mindset that insists on a particular verdict. Do the mobs have all the details and information the grand jury did? Is their shouting and blocking traffic a superior insight into the happenings of that fateful day? Does their anger somehow trump whatever facts are available?

Should it? Is that how we want verdicts reached – by whoever screams the loudest or makes the most intimidating threats?

Are the protestors demanding an end to grand juries? Are they demanding that police be disbanded? Are they demanding an end to no-knock warrants? Are they demanding a particular charge and conviction of murder in this particular case? Are they demanding other things not specific to this case but part of a larger agenda of change? And how will they respond if a larger or more vocal or more violent group of protestors shows up and demands just the opposite? Who decides who is right? Is it just a matter of starting to shoot and stab each other and see who is left at the end of the exchange? Or do we rather place our faith in a good albeit imperfect system of law, knowing that sometimes injustices will go unpunished, but that far more often than not justice will be done, and can be relied on to be done without protests and threats and violence?

If the laws need to be changed then work for change. But that change involves not simply making demands under threat of violence but wrestling with the difficult realities of a sinful and broken world where many bad people exist, and where most of them probably don’t wear a badge. If you want to agitate for change then know what it is you’re agitating for as well as what you’re agitating against. Because tragedy happens every single day. This doesn’t make it less tragic. But compounding tragedy with riots and threats of violence does make it more tragic, especially if you don’t really understand what it is you’re asking for or protesting against.

COVID Coping

September 25, 2020

We’re all trying to figure out how to get through this season of COVID. With restrictions on where you can go and what you can do and who you can be with, people are getting a bit stir crazy and I’m no exception. I’ve admitted to being not the smartest guy on the block this summer, an admission some would argue was far overdue and hardly limited to this summer. But as a closing foray into stupidity, last night I took the Paqui One-Chip Challenge.

I’d like to defend myself somewhat. I haven’t eaten Tide Pods or overindulged on cinnamon. I haven’t poured ice water over my head. I’ve never been much of a joiner, and taken more pride than probably reasonable in going against the flow. I’m fairly discerning usually when it comes to common sense. But apparently not always.

Because another source of pride throughout my life has been an affinity for spicy food. The hotter the better. And the more other people back off and avoid it, the more inclined I am to try it. So when I saw a YouTube video for the One-Chip Challenge, I immediately started Googling to see where they could be purchased locally. Just a few hours later I had two small bags of their chips and one of the casket-shaped One-Chip Challenge boxes.

I tried the bag of Fiery Chili Limon chips for lunch. It claims to be Super Hot!, but it was disappointing. I mean, there was some heat to it, but I ate the small bag without the need for water – let alone bread or milk. I make much hotter pico de gallo and while these chips were somewhat respectable by mass produced chip standards, they certainly didn’t live up to the hype.

So when my kids found the box at dinner they naturally assumed I should do it. Right then. And really, why put it off?

Frankly the most impressive thing initially was that this company found a way to keep their chips intact! The small bag of chips was not a bunch of crumbs as is often the case with chips. Almost all of the chips were intact, which was impressive in and of itself. And the One-Chip Challenge was even better insulated to ensure I found it intact. This year’s challenge uses a blue-corn tortilla chip covered in their signature blend of ground chili spices, utilizing the Carolina Reaper chili, the Scorpion Chili, and Sichuan peppercorn. The chip looks black and it’s covered in this black spice. The challenge says you have to eat the entire chip, so I broke it in two and ate it.

Initially it wasn’t terribly impressive. But, as chilis sometimes do, the impact grew over time. Still, it wasn’t really all that painful initially. Eventually it was the sides of my tongue that took the brunt of the burning. The rest of my mouth was relatively unaffected. Or perhaps completely numbed. I’ve longed to take spicy challenges for years, but this is the closest I’ve ever come to actually doing one. Beyond the growing burning on my tongue were other physical reactions I’ve watched in other people but never experienced myself. I began perspiring. My eyes started watering and my nose started running. My hands were shaking and my legs were a bit weak. There was a jumbled sense to my thinking, as my brain rapidly occupied itself almost completely with what was going on in my body and how unhappy it was with it.

The challenge grants different levels of recognition depending on how long you can hold out before eating or drinking something after eating the chip. My goal was to last at least five minutes – the lowest level of Featherweight. It’s what I had seen the host do on the YouTube video, and since we had guests for dinner I didn’t feel like drawing it out indefinitely. And, honestly, it hurt. So the glass of milk I had my kids bring me in advance went down pretty quickly but only provided moderate relief. As with the water after. Ice cubes were more effective at numbing my tongue and easing the pain. And with homemade apple crisp with ice cream for dessert, I found the frozen dairy was most effective in helping neutralize and disperse the oils binding the burning to my tongue. Within 15 minutes or so I was feeling mostly back to normal.

I could feel it in my stomach, as the packaging said I would, but it wasn’t anything bad. Until about 30 minutes later. I was sidelined severely by a terrible burning sensation in my stomach that left me almost completely incapacitated for about 10 minutes. Some cold water eventually helped to ease the pain, and within another 15 minutes or so I was fine again. I panicked a little, thinking perhaps the spices had eaten through my stomach or aggravated an ulcer I didn’t know I had. But a few years ago I had a similar (though far less intense) pain from a particularly powerful chili pepper I ate, so I figured it was basically the same reaction this time and it would pass before long.

Blessedly, it did. I was able to sleep without any other side effects and, other than a slight tenderness in my stomach today, I appear to be fine.

This challenge is not for the faint of heart. Visit the web site to see different reactions from customers. I have a good tolerance for heat and rarely find something uncomfortable, but this certainly was. Paqui doesn’t indicate what heat level the chip is, but the Carolina Reaper chili clocks in at 1.5 million on the Scoville scale (a typical jalapeno clocks in at 2500-10,000). So it’s a serious heat!

I’m glad I did it. That being said I feel no need to do it again. And I’ll probably let the small bag of Paqui Haunted Ghost Pepper chips lie untouched for a little while. I know it won’t be anywhere near what the One-Chip Challenge felt like, but still. I’ve had enough heat for the time being.

Blogging Curiosities

September 24, 2020

I’ve been at this for nearly 15 years, blogging on a regular basis. I never expected it would be a success by any sort of commercial or industrial metric. I never expected to earn revenue from it (and I don’t). I hoped to have some conversations with people, and that has happened.

I have a small following of regular readers (that I know about). A couple of dozen folks from past and present congregations. A little more than 250 followers through WordPress, but I don’t think about that much as I know many of them followed me in the hopes of building their own sites towards commercial viability. I generally get a couple of dozen visits per day, with fluctuation in both directions. Since moving my site to WordPress six years ago, my visitors and views have gradually increased each year. There are at least a few people who read, and that makes me happy.

But it’s interesting to me that yesterday I had double my usual number of visitors. I could pat my back for saying something people found interesting enough to share with friends, but that’s generally not my modus operandi. Rather, I find it curious that some of my visits yesterday came from China, and that yesterday’s post mentioned the conviction of a prominent Chinese opposition figure. I didn’t say much about it, just referenced it in passing. But it makes me wonder just how far-reaching the tentacles of geo-political monitoring go. Did I appear on some sort of Chinese radar for mentioning a related news story? Perhaps. Is that disturbing? Perhaps? Should it be more disturbing? Probably. But I’ll leave it at the curiosity level instead.

Grace and Judgment

September 23, 2020

In traditional seminary/theological education, there are four main fields of study:

  • Historical theology studies the history of God’s people and the Christian faith
  • Exegetical theology deals with the study of Scripture, and includes learning Hebrew and Greek towards this end
  • Systematic theology encompasses and studies Christian doctrine
  • Practical theology explores the Christian life and the application of doctrine and tradition to the lives of people here and now and includes the role of preaching

Although I enjoy the logical aspects of systematic theology, even in seminary I understood that doctrine is all well and good but essentially useless if it can’t be applied. To know there is a truth has little value unless that truth is connected in some way to daily life or certain situations. I trust the quadratic equation is true – but it is of little value to me personally as I’ve had no need to know or use it in my life. I’m glad others can and do, and I know that must benefit me in very tangible ways, but my thoroughgoing ignorance of that means I ascribe little practical, personal value to this undoubtedly crucial truth.

For us Lutherans, the go-to in terms of systematics study is a guy by the name of Franz/Francis Pieper. He wrote the current definitive text used by Lutherans in studying systematic theology. I can number on one hand the number of times I’ve needed to look at his 3-volume (I don’t have the fourth volume which is an index of the previous three) Christian Dogmatics, but it’s a handy resource on those occasions where I need to talk about a complicated topic

One such topic which has arisen in several quarters recently is the relationship of salvation and grace to the issue of final judgment. It makes people nervous to know that we will stand before Christ for judgment, and it also seems a bit odd, since we know we are forgiven in Christ already through faith in his death and resurrection on our behalf. And granted, it’s not a pleasant idea to know our dirty laundry might be aired before all creation. Couldn’t we just sweep that under the rug, since it’s all forgiven in Christ anyways?

I tend to address this topic with the assertions that yes, we are forgiven. Yes, we will participate in Judgment Day along with the rest of creation. And even if all our bad deeds are on display, it will only be for an instant, and only to glorify God whose forgiveness is so immense, his grace so abundant, that the worst of our sins in thought, word or deed are nothing compared to the immeasurable sacrifice of the Son of God on our behalf. But I decided to do a little brush-up with Pieper on the specifics.

The issue of judgment comes, perhaps fittingly, at the end of his last volume (Volume III) starting on page 539 in case you want to follow along at home. He lays out the following basic tenets of the faith:

  • Judgment is linked to the return of Christ (Matthew 25:31)
  • All persons will be subject to judgment – including “men, pious and wicked, dead and living, and besides mankind also the evil angels” (Revelation 20:12; 2 Corinthians 5:10; Romans 14:10; Acts 10:42; 2 Peter 2:4)
  • The norm of judgment will be the works of men (2 Corinthians 5:10). In other words, our eternal fate is determined by our works, but not necessarily in the way we tend to think about these things. It isn’t as though (as with Islam), all our good deeds are piled on one side of a cosmic scale and all our bad deeds on the other side and our good deeds need to outweigh our bad deeds to merit eternal joy. Rather, good deeds is a technical term/concept, defined first and foremost in terms of our relationship to God and in particular to God the Son. Only in right relationship to God can anything we think, say or do be considered good. Apart from proper relationship to God, good does not exist, by definition. Oh, there’s the ‘good’ we define in terms of our relationships to one another, but even those definitions can’t ultimately be separated from their source in God, otherwise they’re arbitrary fads or fashions and can’t really be said to be good in any substantive way. Whatever we know of good, we know because of God. Whether we accept that or not makes a great deal of difference!
  • Consequently, using Matthew 25 as a basis, believers will be judged, but only their good deeds will be considered, since their bad deeds are indeed forgiven and forgotten (Malachi 7:19). In Jesus’ story in Matthew 25, only the good deeds of the people of God are mentioned, not their bad deeds.

Thus sayeth Pieper.

There are those who would argue and say that’s not much of a judgment, and therefore the bad deeds of God’s people must also be mentioned. Pieper doesn’t see this as reasonable, but rather the improper conclusion of trying to hold together two Scriptural teachings – 1) all people (including believers) will be judged, and 2) believers are not judged. How do we hold together these seemingly contradictory statements?

Pieper harmonizes these two statements with the use of another Lutheran theological/systematic idea – Law and Gospel. The Word of God is either Law or Gospel, either condemning us of our sin or freeing us from our sin through the grace and forgiveness of God. Therefore, in condemning us of our sin the Bible reminds us that all will be judged. This should spur in us a serious assessment of ourselves, a daily acknowledgement of our sinfulness, and a daily seeking of refuge in the Gospel of Jesus Christ. As this happens, we are no longer under the judgment of God and the Gospel must immediately be spoken, assuring us our sins are indeed forgiven and forgotten in Christ and won’t ever be held against us or even brought up on Judgment Day, again citing Matthew 25 as evidence.

I’m not all together certain Matthew 25 can be relied on exclusively as the clinching argument in this matter, but I’m willing to roll with it until I encounter a compelling alternative argument. For the believer in Jesus the Christ, we are to have peace, trusting in his forgiveness. However that exactly plays out on Judgment Day is a matter of technicalities – we know the end result is our being welcomed into the presence of God eternally. Towards that end we must continue to take sin seriously, never making the mistake of ceasing to recognize it or acknowledge it as such. Not because we won’t be forgiven, but because eventually our sin could cause us to reject God because we love our sin too much.