Reading Ramblings – May 24, 2020

May 17, 2020

Reading Ramblings

Date: Seventh Sunday after Easter/Ascension Observed – May 24, 2020 – COVID-19

Texts: Acts 1:1-11; Psalm 47; Ephesians 1:15-23; Luke 24:44-53

Context: Jesus ascended to heaven 40 days after his resurrection (Acts 1:3). As such, this event never falls on a Sunday for proper observance, but rather midweek. While some congregations (ours included) offer special Ascension services, this year that won’t be happening because of the Coronavirus. I’ve opted to use the readings assigned for Ascension Day instead of the readings assigned for the Seventh Sunday of Easter. It’s easy to focus on Easter and not realize things continue to happen after Easter in regards to the resurrected Christ. A certain level of resolution is necessary to avoid errors. Jesus is not still wandering the earth physically. He left. He did so bodily, which leads us to conclude that the incarnation was not just a temporary thing but perhaps eternal. He left with a promise to return, reiterated by the angels who direct the disciples after his ascension. Theology aims to try and speak truthfully and accurately about what our Lord has told us, even if popular culture is more amenable to fuzzy generalities or statements that are less than technically accurate. Keeping our eye on the Word of God should guide us in how we talk about God and his Word and our hope as his people.

I’m also rearranging the order we move through these readings slightly, as I think Luke and then Acts work best when read in close proximity, just as they were originally circulated.

Psalm 47 – The psalm praises God as King. Not just one of many kings, but the King, the King over all the earth – a feat many kings have sought but never accomplished. He holds this power in respect to the fact He did not take or assume his rule from any other, but rules as the Creator of all things. God’s people first demanded a king in 1 Samuel 8, a path the Lord made clear through the prophet Samuel would not end well. A human king has human limits. God offered his people when He brought them out of Egypt to be not simply their king but their God. Further, God’s intention from the start of all things was to provide his people a king who was human but more than human, a king above all kings, Jesus the Christ. Mankind has always striven to provide for themselves what God originally was to humanity and will always be – King. God’s people are true to their created nature when we praise and acknowledge God the Son as King over all creation and alone worthy of the praise and glory we so easily give to others or that is commanded from us by others.

Ephesians 1:15-23 – Since I’m using the readings for Ascension Day rather than the seventh Sunday of Easter, the Epistle is not from 1 Peter but the first chapter of Ephesians. Paul rightly understands not only the reality but the symbolism of Jesus’ ascension. Just as in many coronation rights the rank is emphasized by a physical elevation over everyone else – often through a dais or a platform or stage of some sort – so Jesus’ ascension is the ultimate coronation, the ultimate declaration of power. What other potentate can hope to ascend – literally – so high as Jesus? Higher than thrones, palaces, skyscrapers, international space stations – beyond the merely physical realm completely. Jesus’ ascension not only answers the question of what happened to Jesus and where is He now after his resurrection, it demonstrates what He earned through his obedience even to death and burial. He truly is the one to rightly be acknowledged as King of Kings over all other powers. We acknowledge this in the awe that He rules in majesty and glory but also in mercy and love, desiring all of creation to be brought back into proper relationship with him through the forgiveness of God the Father. The very power that raised Jesus from the dead is the power, the God who works continually on the behalf of all creation, but most especially on behalf of all those in faith in Jesus Christ, the King of Kings.

Luke 24:44-53 – It’s unclear how closely to link Jesus’ words in 44-49 with the day of his ascension. These words could easily be associated with his initial words to them Easter evening, which is what vs. 36-43 describe. Regardless, the disciples are instructed that they are to wait further marching orders. Since this corresponds with Jesus’ words as Luke records them in Acts 1, it might be reasonable to peg these verses with the Ascension recorded in Luke. Luke and Acts are two parts of a single writing from Luke. The first details the life and ministry of Jesus of Nazareth as the Messiah. The Ascension is the natural conclusion to this portion of Luke’s writing, and bookends the Gospel with the extensive birth narrative Luke provides in Luke 1-2. So we have how Jesus arrived on the scene in fulfillment of Scripture, and we have Jesus’ departure from the scene. Both his arrival and departure are unusual – virgin birth and ascension – but both are eminently physical. Early Church heresies that sought to portray Jesus as just an illusion – a spiritual reality pretending to have a physical body. But Luke is clear from start to finish that Jesus is very, very physical (note v.42). Our savior is real, not an illusion, and so our hope and faith is grounded in reality rather than fantasy or imagination.

Acts 1:1-11 – Although titled The Book of the Acts of the Apostles, Luke indicates the topic is not so much the apostles but Jesus, still. The Gospel of Luke tells the story up through Jesus’ bodily ascension, and implies this second part remains concerned with the work of Jesus now through the Holy Spirit. It is good to note the language in Acts 1:2. Jesus remains passively obedient throughout – even his ascension is something He is obedient to. He does not ascend on his own will, but rather is taken up. His disciples are concerned with whether Israel will be restored to glory, a common understanding of the messiah’s purpose (even after three years following Jesus!). Jesus corrects their focus. They needn’t worry about the restoration of Israel – God the Father’s timeline is His business, not theirs.

Their role is to receive power (passive again, just like Jesus. Obedient, just like Jesus.). Then they are to give witness to Jesus as the one raised from the dead in vindication of his identity and work as the Messiah and the Son of God. When that should result in the restoration of Israel’s glory is not their concern. They simply share what they saw and heard and experienced during their time with Jesus. This is not a universal evangelism mandate, though it could easily be seen as that. The apostles are in a unique position to give witness to their experiences of and with Jesus. They were with him throughout his ministry more consistently than anyone else. What they could preach and teach about him is of primary importance, guided and enlightened by the Holy Spirit, something already begun by Jesus during his resurrection (Luke 24:45). Nobody else could function as witnesses the same way the apostles could.

They witnessed to crowds (Acts 2), Jewish authorities (Acts 4), to the Gentiles (Acts 10, etc.) and to secular authorities (Acts 22-28). Their witness continues to you and I 2000 years later in the words they recorded of their witness, the Gospels. While you and I may have the opportunity to give witness to our experience with God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, our testimony will be considerably different in nature and scope than the apostles’!

Everything Is Political

May 13, 2020

I opined earlier this week about the goal of restarting church worship without polluting the effort with agendas beyond what is best for the people of God in a particular community setting.  As opposed to other religious groups who are issuing press releases and petitions and doing press conferences, I think a congregation’s leadership needs to assess what is best for their members and  make their decisions accordingly.  Quietly.  For their members, not for the public.  For their members, not in a desire for publicity and gaining members.  For their members and not for political reasons.

A reader wrote to say that in their opinion the entire COVID-19 handling is a political issue.

And I agree completely.

Politicians of all stripes and persuasions are attempting to use the COVID-19 situation for personal betterment in their careers as well as jockeying for control of and for their political parties and agendas.  I don’t believe anyone is innocent of this, and of course the media reports on this in a particular light and with particular agendas as well.  COVID-19  has been, is now, and will continue to be handled politically.  The Church should strive to recognize this and adjust her actions and check her motivations constantly, but politics will inevitably be a part of those decisions at one level or another.

Because everything is political.

This is both good and bad.

As creations of the personal God of the Judeo-Christian Bible, we are designed to be political.  Genesis 1-2 informs us we are creatures, so we are not at the top of the food chain in terms of ordering our lives.  We were designed for a particular political order, an order where we lived in harmony and obedience to the Creator’s design for ourselves and one another and the world around us.  We were designed with a need for an order, an order woven into the very fabric of creation.  Politics in this sense is not an evil or even a necessary evil.  It’s how we were created – with a need to be ruled, and an ability to determine either obedience to or rebellion against that rule.

In rebelling against this in Genesis 3, we opted against obedience and for an effort to establish our own rule.  At best, we thought we could improve upon our Creator’s design of us.  At worst, we sought to displace our Creator and supplant him and his design with our own.  We sought self-rule in the purest and most disastrous sense.  In doing so, we broke the design of the Creator and have ever since been struggling to adapt ourselves to this broken creation – and politics is no exception to that.  Perhaps it is the most primal embodiment of that struggle.  Who will rule and how will they rule?

God made it clear our replacements for his perfect rule would not be pleasant.  Creation itself would now be in rebellion as well against the stewardship  of humanity (Genesis 3:17-19).  Our very bodies would be in rebellion, leading ultimately to death (Genesis 3:16).  And though designed to be in perfect partnership with one another, that partnership was now damaged greatly by sin, resulting not in cooperation but a struggle for  dominance and control of one another (Genesis 3:16).

So everything is political, a struggle for control whether well-intentioned or blatantly self-serving.  We struggle for control  of ourselves and others on both individual and group levels.  This is true in the Church as it is in the larger culture and society.  No action, no goal, no plan can ever be claimed to be completely without sin, completely without some small trace of that primal selfishness that dominates our lives in ways large and  small.  The goal or plan might be laudable.  It might be the best possible plan, but in some way either in the plan or implementation the sin inherent in every one of us will make it’s way into and through the plan.  We must do the best we can, hopefully with the humble acknowledgement that the closer we try to adhere to the original plans of the Creator, the better off everyone will be ultimately.

But our aim is poor, since even that is affected by sin.  So it is that those claiming to act on our behalf and for  our well-being are not immune to the sins of pride and ego that lead them to apply their own policies and directives unevenly, to stray even from their self-crafted processes and mechanisms.  The temptation is almost overwhelming, and again this happens in the Church as well as in the secular realm.

So yes, I want to try and avoid other motivations as much as possible.  But of course that  won’t be perfectly possible.  That should lead me to a humility and willingness to listen to many voices.  It will also necessarily lead me to searching out my sin in the situation and repenting of it, and finally lead me to trust in that forgiveness not as a justification for doing whatever I feel like and indulging my sinfulness, but in a freedom that allows me to move forward making those adjustments to my attitude or my practices that are closer to the mark of the Creator’s plan, even if never a bullseye.

Everything is political because we are designed as political creatures.  We just  need to remember that we were not designed neutral in terms of politics.  We were designed to exist best under a particular rule, and to exercise our roles with one another in light of that particular rule.  Only by keeping that original rule in mind to the best of our ability can we hope to even hit  the edge of the target, let alone the center.

Don’t Tell Me I’m Brave

May 12, 2020

“Since it is so likely that children will meet cruel enemies, let them at least have heard of brave knights and heroic courage.  Otherwise you are making their destiny not brighter but darker. “

 ~ C. S. Lewis ~

Trying to navigate the tricky line of when and how to reopen our country for life is complicated.  As articles  such as this point out, there are widely divergent views.  As articles rarely point out, it isn’t necessarily an either or situation.  Maybe we aren’t faced only with massive loss of life due to the pandemic or total economic and political meltdown due to the pandemic.  Maybe we’re faced with both.  Maybe we’re faced with neither, but rather a  milder mixture of the two.  Only time will tell, and we have to make the best choices we can.

But in the aforementioned article I find it fascinating that fear is now cited as a reason for not opening things back up again.  People are afraid, the logic would seem to go, and pushing them to return to work is going to cause them actual pain and damage.  We’ve all been traumatized, in other words.  Shell-shocked.   PTSD.  Whatever you want to call it.  As a nation we’ve been bludgeoned into a fragile psychological condition that now needs to be tended to softly and gently through continued government payouts rather than the cold, harsh reality of economic (particularly capitalistic) mechanisms.

That’s part of my fascination with what our media has done over the past two months.  You can argue about whether it was at the bequest of (some) of the political powers that be or whether it drove (some) of the political powers that be to their current stance on how to move forward.

First, yes.  People are afraid.  Some of them are terrified.  Nearly all of them are nervous.  If not for themselves than on behalf of others.  But that fear has been driven by our media and our politicians.  I’ll be lenient in granting that initially that fear might have been justified when we didn’t really know what was happening other than that a lot of people were dying in China and Italy.  But the fear went beyond that, and continues to go beyond that.  Fear is what should keep us locked in our houses.  Fear is what should keep us behind face masks.  Fear is what should keep us six feet apart from one another.  Fear is what should prompt  us to isolate not just for ourselves but out of fear we might somehow expose someone else to the virus who would be more vulnerable.

But this fear has been stoked steadily for two solid months.  Only recently have headlines in newspapers begun to mention other topics.  Still COVID-related stories are the majority of what we see and hear in the news.  Fear is natural, but people have been made afraid as well.  When fear is  all you push, don’t be surprised that people become fearful.  But also don’t then use  that fear to justify furthering policies that will only reinforce and strengthen the fear.

Now fear is not a glamorous thing.  It never has been in human history, but here’s part of the weirdness.  We’ve been made to feel as though our cowering in our houses is somehow brave.  We’re doing brave work as we lose our jobs and our businesses and fall back on unemployment and welfare.  That’s brave.

But it’s not.  It’s sad.  It might be necessary to some extent.  But  it’s not brave.  In part because very few people chose  to lose their job or their life’s work.  We were forced to stay home.  Ordered to.  Threatened with fines or imprisonment if we disobeyed.  We were shouted at through bullhorns and from helicopters over the beaches.  We were stigmatized by our fellow citizens.  This is not bravery.  At best it can be called obedience, but simply following orders is not necessarily brave in and of itself.

How can this be?

Because while we are told we are somehow brave and strong for ordering our food to go, we have also been inundated with real images and definitions of bravery.  Doctors and first responders get most of that glory.  They’re on the front lines, we’re told, fighting against the Coronavirus to keep us all safe.  That’s the definition of bravery.  It’s not an incorrect definition, either.  And that definition gets extended to a far lesser extent to those who work in essential industries.  Grocery store clerks and Amazon warehouse employees and all the other people who keep working so that those who have the ability to work at home or are already retired can order their food and groceries delivered and feel brave.  We’re told what bravery looks like, and it shows us that we ourselves have not been brave.

But we could have been.  And we could still be.

But it’s going to take the same mechanisms to change us that were used to create the fearful, nervous population we’ve become.

If the media and the politicians quit trying to paralyze us with fear and instead do what America has traditionally done – turn people loose to be heroic.  To go back to their jobs and bring their employees back.  Wear masks.  Avoid hugs and social distance.   So be it.  But be brave about it, not fearful.  America exists uniquely in history because it empowers people rather than disarms them.  You want to launch a business?  Go for it.  There’s no issues of pedigree or governmental control that should be able to stop you.  If you succeed, you might become wealthy and others might benefit from your drive and the product or service you offer.  If nobody wants what you’re offering, you’re free to change directions and try something else.

There’s the risk of failure to be sure, but the potential rewards of even moderate success are almost unheard of in massive portions of the rest of the world.  And people from all over the world still yearn and dream to  come to America to have this  freedom.  The freedom to be brave.  The freedom to succeed.  Even the freedom to fail.

Quit scaring people  into staying home while lauding the virtues of those who don’t.  Yes, they’re essential all right.  But in employing those terms you’ve just decimated the vast majority of your population with the reality they aren’t essential.  What they have to offer isn’t as good as or necessary as what doctors and nurses and policemen offer.

But this isn’t true.

Those people  are able to offer what they offer because other people offer things those people need.  Bookstores to order books to either grow in their knowledge and skill or relax and unwind and escape from the stressfulness of their career.  People who can cook great meals because doctors don’t have time to.   People who create spaces for people to relax and be together in like restaurants and coffee shops.   In myriad ways people contribute to the greater good, and to draw a  line with a magic marker that says these people are essential (whether they want to be or not) and the rest of you aren’t is just another way of instilling fear.  Destroying self-worth.  Turning people fearful.

Life is full of risks.  Full of dangers.  We have nowhere near the level of control we’d like to have, or even think we have and this is true of individuals as well as governments.  A great deal of the fear at play in our culture right now is driven by coming face-to-face with mortality, with the idea that we can die at any time and not necessarily be able to stop it.  We are mortal and frail.

That recognition leads to one of two courses.  One is fear.  Hiding and cowering and trying to protect ourselves from anything and anyone that could be dangerous.  Only to discover  that everything and everyone – even ourselves – can be dangerous, can’t be had or enjoyed without risk of harm physically or emotionally or psychologically.  Safety is an illusion because keeping yourself safe from one set of things opens you up to risk from another set of things.

The other course is to develop bravery.  Courage.  A willingness to go out and do what needs to be done, or to do what you’re able to do.  Knowing you might fail, but knowing you might also succeed.  Being rewarded for your willingness to take risks or innovate rather than simply do what other people tell you to do.

Fear is natural.  But fear can either be cultivated and nurtured or it can be weakened and sapped.  More than any previous challenges in or to our nation, this is the crossroads we stand at.  Do we remain fearful, waiting for others who are brave and strong to rescue us?  Or do we pick up our shovels or rakes or cable crimpers or bar  code scanners or measuring cups and set about rescuing ourselves and, in the process, rescuing one another as well?  Do we not only tell stories about knights facing great dangers, but encourage one another to put on their armor and mount their steeds and head out onto the field of battle for themselves?

Life isn’t fair, it isn’t easy, and it isn’t safe.  What equality, what comfort, and what protection we’ve been able to create is only because of generations of men and women just like us doing what needed to be done and doing it well.  Demonstrating not just bravery and courage but also how essential they are.  Why should we wait for someone else to tell us we’re needed or not needed?  Isn’t that how great swaths of governments around the world and throughout history have operated?  Telling people what they had to do or how they had to do it instead of letting the people figure it out for themselves?  Isn’t that why people want to come here, become Americans?  So they can make those decisions for themselves?  Be free to work hard and reap the benefits of that hard work?  Fail but learn from that failure and grow stronger and wiser for their next effort?

This is the home of the brave, according to our national anthem.  It’s time we remember that.  Claim it.  And start acting like it.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Which Way Forward?

May 11, 2020

Now two months into the COVID-19 lockdown, more and more people are beginning  to recognize we can’t continue like this forever.   You can see it in lots of ways.  There’s more traffic now than there was a month ago.  Yes, people are wearing masks and social distancing and giving each other the stink eye if they get too close, but people are out more and more.  There are also more official determinations that we have sheltered in place long enough.  Articles like this one show a growing determination that things need to begin shifting back to normal.

On a personal level, I agree it’s time to start reopening things.  I have little doubt that even when things open back up more fully, people are still going to keep their distance.  Perhaps those plexiglass shields in front of cash registers will remain for weeks or months or maybe they’ll never come down.  It’s hard to gauge the psychological impact of two solid months of fear.

I totally empathize both with small business owners as well as employees who understand keenly the need to get back to work or risk losing their businesses, homes, and who knows what else.  Very simple economic realities dictate whether or not businesses can remain shuttered indefinitely and people can cling to  unemployment perpetually.  The answer is pretty clearly no.  The question is how to deal with this reality.  Do we open things back up and let  people go to work again with reasonable precautions, or do we rely on the government to continue spending our nation into a hole to demonstrate how the State is our salvation?

But my issue is the church.  This is my vocation, my profession.  How do congregations determine what to do?  When to do it?  How to do it?  It’s a difficulty congregations and pastors and church leadership has been dealing with for two months now, and there is a range of responses.

I know some pastors who have continued to lead public worship on Sunday mornings.  Sometimes more  or less as they always have.  Sometimes in multiple, smaller services.  Some have opted for virtual church, streaming their services and providing online or telephone consecration of elements for Holy Communion in peoples’ homes.  Others offer drive-by Communion.  Some offer parking lot worship where people gather in their vehicles, and either bring their own bread and wine for Holy Communion or are provided individually packaged elements when they arrive.  They tune in on their cell phones or car radios to have church together.  Some, like me, provide devotional resources and teaching and sermon materials to their parishioners through e-mail or YouTube.

It’s a mixed bag.  Hard decisions.

I want to reopen church for worship.  But why do I want  to?  That’s the question I’ve grappled with for weeks.

Although I empathize with what the pastor in the opening article is doing, I don’t want to do that.  I won’t hold a press conference.  I won’t issue a press release.  I won’t agree to a television or radio interview.  I’m not making announcements to the general public, because this is not about the general public.  This is about my congregants.  Or at least it ought to be.  Publicity shouldn’t be my motivation.

Politics shouldn’t be our motivation either.  Church is inherently an anti-political institution.  Or perhaps an trans-political or ultra-political institution.  Christian churches – whether sprawling mega-churches or tiny little places – are places where the powers of this world are described for what they are.  Transient.  Temporary.  Blessings from God for the time being at best, the worst of sinful devils for the time being at worst.  Usually somewhere in between.  They are to be respected insofar as they keep the peace, but they are not to be looked to as saviors.  Psalm 146 offers a fair assessment of the powers and institutions of this world.

So I don’t feel it’s the work of the Church to pit itself for or against a particular political party or system or set of decrees.  As an American citizen I may seek to do that and rightfully so, if unfortunately.  But as a pastor and as a congregation, I am ultimately not concerned with these things.  My concern is the Gospel and helping my parishioners remain focused on the Gospel here and now, in this world, regardless of what political party is in power or what economic system is in place.  To help them see how their identity in Christ transcends and also transforms their lives as citizens of a particular geo-political entity.

And I don’t  want fear to drive a decision.  Either the fear of losing religious liberties or the fear of possible infection and sickness and death.  As a Christian my life is not to be characterized by fear, and as the Church we are to live out this to the best of our ability.  Whether the State takes away religious liberties or gives them is ultimately irrelevant as their decrees are not what for the basis of my identity in Christ or how that identity is lived out.  Ample examples throughout history and around the world remind us that Christians don’t disappear just because religious rights are curtailed or eliminated.  We might have to change how we do things, but the faith goes on, and that faith is inherently communal and will find ways to be so.

And fear of sickness and contagion should not keep the Church from being together.  Not  if there are precautions that can be taken and common sense to be implemented.  The Church cannot keep people safe or guarantee their lives any more than the State can.  Unlike the State, the Church can and should equip people to live their lives in the joy and freedom of Christ and not in fear of sickness or death, even as we employ our God-given minds to make choices that are reasonable and prudent.  It is not in my power as a pastor to ensure  that none of my  members get the Coronavirus.  At most, I can and should take reasonable measures to ensure that if and when they gather, we are minimizing that risk.

So if my congregation is to begin meeting again, I want to be as clear as possible in my own mind that this is not a political move.  It is not a move motivated by fears either political or financial or perhaps even theological.  It is not motivated by a desire for personal or congregational attention or notoriety.

Rather, it is only and always about Christ,  and when we make a decision to start meeting again it is because life in Christ is communal.  The talk of family and brothers and sisters and a heavenly Father is not simply metaphorical – it’s real and true even if we may not always experience it as such because of sin.  Church is essential, though it might be true Church is not essential economically or to the State (although I’d argue that the Church actually is essential).  When we begin meeting again it will  be to embrace our identities in Christ once again.  To celebrate his gifts of life and health that are only that, gifts.  Gifts we did not bring into existence on our own and which ultimately remain in his sovereign hands regardless of what measures we do or don’t take to ensure or longevity.

So I pray for all those pastors who wrestle with this issue, an issue that is not nearly as neatly and simply defined by government mandate as the State – or the Church – might be inclined to believe.  And I pray for the people of God around the world who must navigate this together as well, and pray they can be in open discussion and prayer with their religious leaders to try and find the best path forward for them, in their context.

Reading Ramblings – May 17, 2020

May 10, 2020

Reading Ramblings

Date: Sixth Sunday of Easter – May 17, 2020 – COVID-19

Texts: Acts 17:16-31; Psalm 66:8-20; 1 Peter 3:13-22; John 14:15-21

Context: The common themes in the readings this week is a little harder to discern at first glance (or second!). But what strikes me is that the first three readings make sense only in light of the Gospel reading. Without the promise of God the Holy Spirit with us until Jesus takes us home, how – or even why – would we be willing to share the Gospel when ridiculed (Acts) or praise God even when He tests us (Psalm) or again, or be willing to suffer for no reason? What could possibly enable us to do such counterintuitive things if not for the very presence of God with us? Surely we can’t hope to complete any trial God sets before us unless God is with us to sustain us and enable us! And surely we can’t hope our meager words can convey the depths of spiritual truth unless it is the Word made flesh guiding us through the Holy Spirit! And surely nobody would be willing to suffer disrepute or even legal threats unless they were assured that not only is God real but God will accompany in and through all things?

Acts 17:16-31 – Some Christians are inclined to read this passage and take from it a burden of guilt. Here’s Paul, fearlessly sharing the Gospel with perfect strangers! That’s what I should be doing, and God must be so disappointed in me that I haven’t! I’ve failed so many times, had so many opportunities! Surely this passage is meant to spur me to more resolve in the future! But what’s interesting is how this passage begins. It begins not with Paul or a resolution on his part, it starts with Paul being provoked. The Greek term here can mean stirred or spurred on. In other words, Paul doesn’t decide to evangelize on his own as his Christian duty. Rather, the Holy Spirit provokes Paul to the point he can’t keep silent. God is not just leading Paul but driving him to engage the Greeks. Not in anger but out of love. Not in derision of their pagan beliefs but in an earnest effort to engage them through their own culture and understanding, the very idols around them become more than empty tributes to non-existent gods, but by the power of God the Holy Spirit they become tools for Paul to engage the Greeks to share the Gospel. If there is a lesson to take from this it is that God the Holy Spirit will make it clear to us when we are to speak, and will provide us with the words and examples to do so!

Psalm 66:8-20 – Many Christians are nervous of evangelizing to friends or family or strangers. It might be much easier just to give God thanks for who He is and what He does, both in our lives as well as in history and the world around us. Very few people will take offense at you describing a way God has delivered you from difficulties, and even from praising and thanking him for this in their presence! Our mantras of tolerance and diversity give us that permission more easily than we suspect, even if it isn’t the sort of thing that tolerance and diversity ultimately want to hear! Being in the Word of God and resting in his power and presence allows us to see our lives through the Holy Spirit. Coincidences are transformed into examples of God’s presence, love and care. Even our losses and sorrows become opportunities to give thanks and praise to God for carrying us through difficult times, and instill greater faith and confidence that He will do so in the future. Living out our lives of faith in this fashion is simply a witness to the God who created, redeemed and sanctifies us. It allows us to witness without the pressure of somehow being responsible for instilling faith in another person (which is never our duty!). Rather, in bearing witness we allow others to see not just us and who we are in our faith, but the God in whom our faith is both sourced and completed.

1 Peter 3:13-22 – Mysteriously, our reading today skips over the section providing guidance to husbands and wives in how to be with each other in Christ! But thematically the assigned reading does fit in better. Faith in Jesus as the resurrected Son of God will sometimes incur suffering. The early Church knew this as tensions continued within the larger Jewish community of which they were one subset, until those ties were finally severed. Religious and political persecution of Christians has continued steadily through the world for 2000 years, regardless of the relative calm we have enjoyed as Americans for nearly 250 years. Is suffering evidence of God’s disapproval or judgment or lack of care or concern? Hardly! Rather we are exhorted to faithful trust in our God despite human sin and persecution. We are to conduct ourselves by his rules rather than what is reasonable according to our own ways of thinking and doing. There is more at stake than preserving our lives or goods – what is at stake is the witness we give to our God. Is He only a god of convenience and prosperity, or does He remain the good and loving God even when we are mistreated? Our conduct during persecution becomes a testimony and witness to the living God!

John 14:15-21 – We continue in Jesus’ Last Supper discourse with his disciples, trying to prepare them to handle the events already starting to unfold which will lead to his arrest and execution. He has assured them their separation will only be for a time (14:1-14), though how well they understand this is highly debatable. He shifts to describing that in the meantime, they are not orphaned or left alone. Far from it! They will have the very Holy Spirit of God – the very Spirit Moses wished was with all people (Numbers 11:29)! The coming traumatic events will trigger further fulfillment of Scripture as the Holy Spirit comes in power (Joel 2:28), something the apostles will only understand fully after Jesus’ resurrection and ascension (Acts 2:17).

We are not in this alone! Not in any aspect of our lives, least of all during difficult times and situations. God is with us! As such, the Holy Spirit may direct us as He directed Paul in Athens, equipping us to give a bold witness in a moment of opportunity. Or the Holy Spirit may lead us to praise and thanksgiving of God not just in a Sunday morning prayer but in every aspect of how we live our lives, transforming us into witnesses of our God’s power and presence. And even in the midst of persecution, the Holy Spirit will be with the people of God to empower them and give them the right words with which to answer their accusers.

Notice we are not promised deliverance or exemption from persecution. We are simply not to fear it, trusting as we do in the God who is not only with us in this very moment, but preceded us in our Savior and promises to bring us to him. Everything else in this world will fall apart, there is nothing we have the power to hold on to. Not our rights or freedoms, not our health or long life. As we’ve been shown in the past few weeks everything can be changed in practically a moment’s notice, with the decree of a State official or the arrival of an invisible contagion.

But our lives in Christ can never be taken away from us by any external power, and God the Father will never change his mind in his love for us through Jesus Christ. So we are bold. Bold to live. Bold to love. Bold to witness. Not for our own glory or our own agendas, but only and always in response to the love of God continually poured out into us.

The Earliest Popes

May 7, 2020

Raised a Lutheran, I have an uneasy relationship to the doctrine of apostolic succession.  This doctrine of the Roman Catholic church claims that the line of Popes extendes backwards in history in unbroken succession all the way to the Apostles.  Therefore, each Pope carries the same apostolic authority as the apostles themselves.

The difficulties Lutherans have with this are several-fold.  First of all, nothing in Scripture defines, mandates, or gives greater value to any  sort of apostolic succession.  While the New Testament makes reference to several types of offices within the Church it does not provide a template for how people are placed into these positions.

Secondly, even if apostolic succession could be said to have any sort of ideal value, the abuses of the papal succession through history demonstrate the objective value of this succession to be severely compromised.  The Western Great Schism, when two popes were simultaneously installed and claimed exclusive authority in the 14th century comes to mind.

Thirdly, on a more pertinent basis to Lutherans, if apostolic succession were somehow Biblically required, we don’t meet that criteria since we have broken off from  the Roman Catholic Church.  This would also apply to every other Christian group outside of the Roman Catholic Church (and to be clear, the Roman Catholics are  not the only ones who maintain a form of apostolic succession but they’re easily the biggest, most obvious group).

Personally, it seemed sketchy to me that we knew who the immediate successors of St. Peter and the other apostles were, since I had never studied this historically.

Well, as I’m currently working my way through Irenaeus’ Against Heresies, low and behold here is where that list is most clearly articulated.  In Book III, Chapter III.3, Irenaeus lists the popes  in power up until his lifetime  (this information is also published in the Annuaria Pontifico, a yearly publication of the Roman Catholic Church that details all officials in the Holy See.  Publication of this began in the early 18th century though, and therefore  relies on other writers and historians – such as Irenaeus – for information on the ancient Church:

  • Linus– Irenaeus claims this is the same Linus mentioned in 2 Timothy 4:21, the only place he is mentioned in Scripture.  Tertullian makes the claim Clement succeeded the apostles but this is not as well testified to as Linus.  Linus is said to have presided over the Church from somewhere between 64 and 79 AD, though the dates are fuzzy.  While there are a variety of traditions regarding Linus’ rule, few if any of these can be verified.  He is claimed to be the first Roman pope, hailing from Tuscany, and likely designated by Peter and/or Paul before their executions in Rome.
  • Anacletus – Historical documents make mention both of an Anacletus as well as a Cletus and it is uncertain if these were one in the same person.  Little is known of Anacletus, he is not mentioned in Scripture, and he is said to have ruled from the death of Linus until his death in roughly 91AD.
  • Clement – Although Tertullian and later writers claim Clement directly succeeded the apostles the better historical attestation is that he was third in succession.  This is the first pope we have much definite historical data for.  He is presumed by many to be the same Clement mentioned by St. Paul in Philippians 4:3.  We have one writing of his that is widely presumed to be authentic – a letter to the church in Corinth.  Other writings are attributed to  him but are also widely disputed.  It is interesting that in relying on the history provided in the translation of these Church Fathers, Clement is presumed to be the successor to the apostles.
  • Evaristus– Not mentioned in Scripture and no historical data about him other than he was fourth in succession after the apostles and died in roughly 107AD.
  • Alexander– Not mentioned in the Bible and other data about him is uncertain.  he is said to have ruled about 10 years, until about 116 AD.  Some believe the site of his martyrdom and burial (traditionally ascribed  as a martyr’s death of decapitation) was discovered by archaeologists in 1855, but this is also disputed.
  • Sixtus– (also spelled Xystus in several ancient documents) He ruled for roughly 10 years until 127AD.
  • Telephorus– Irenaeus indicates he was “gloriously martyred” but we have little other information than this.  He is believed to have ruled until 136AD.
  • Hyginus – Said to have ruled until about 142AD.  Little reliably is known about him but he is said to be of Greek birth.
  • Pius– Said to have ruled from roughly 140AD to 154AD.  Heresies that began to bubble up during the rule of Hyginus continue and expand during Pius’ rule.  This includes Valentinius, Cerdon, and Marcion, all Gnostic teachers who attempted to legitimize their mythologies through metaphorical interpretations of certain verses and details of Scripture, and against whom Ireneaus directed his best known work.
  • Anicetus – He followed Pius and ruled until about 168AD.  Anicetus is said to have debated the proper date to celebrate Easter with St. Polycarp, who  knew St. John personally.  Pope Anicetus maintained the practice in Rome of always celebrating Easter on a Sunday, since the first Easter fell on a Sunday.  St. Polycarp followed the tradition of celebrating Easter on 14th of Nisan, regardless of what day of the week it was, since that was the date of Jesus’ resurrection.  Neither was able to convince the other and both parted amicably and followed their respective traditions, though this issue would continue to be a source of contention between the Western and Eastern churches.
  • Soter – He follows Pius and ruled until 175AD.  Little else is reliably known about him.
  • Eleutherius – Is said to have followed Soter and ruled until about 189AD.  During this time the heresy of the Montanists continued to spread.  Montanus claimed prophetic powers along with two women, Maximilla and Prisca/Priscilla.  They claimed the ability to be mouthpieces of God, not simply speaking in his name but channeling his words as though possessed by Father, Son, or Holy Spirit.  This sect was eventually condemned by the larger church for this emphasis on continued prophetic revelations, moreso than for any particular false doctrine, at least  according to the earliest available (and not entirely reliable)records.

These are the men indicated first by Ireneaus as succeeding the apostles themselves in leadership of the church based in Rome.  There are other sources and lists of the earliest popes often with conflicting or alternate dates, but these sources are deemed less reliable due to their later origins and our inability to determine what their information was based on.

New Neighbors

May 6, 2020

Beyond our human neighbors we have many wildlife neighbors in and around our house and yard.  While our dogs have managed – by scent and noise, I’m sure – to deter the possums and raccoons that used to feel comfortable moving through our property, they’ve been replaced by other critters.  Mostly gophers and/or groundhogs.  They’ve made a patchwork of our front yard as well as the hill that comprises the majority of our backyard.  Taking a live-and-let-live approach, I don’t get out there with the usual means of combating such neighbors (poison pellets deposited into their burrows where other critters won’t happen upon them).  They proliferate.  They’re cute, even if they’re lousy  landscape designers.

But we noticed a different critter on our hill earlier this week.

IMG-0966

If our research is corrected, this is a black-footed ferret.  This North American native species was at one point considered extinct, but now is listed as endangered (although that listing is not at the State level  but apparently the Federal level?).  We aren’t sure if these are wild ferrets, or escaped domestic ferrets.  They certainly act wild, and there are at least five of them we’ve seen on our hill.  Since these ferrets are generally rather solitary, we assume (hope?) they’re a family.

They live on groundhogs and prairie dogs so hopefully that means we’ll be having fewer gopher and groundhog neighbors in the future!  The ferrets are cuter anyways as well!

Metrics I

May 6, 2020

On the mornings I stop for coffee and a bagel at my favorite coffee shop, I pass by a nearly invisible church.  You’d never know it was there, really.  The signage for the personal training business is better situated.  But in the past few weeks a new sign for the church has gone up.  A large photo  of the husband and wife pastor team.  Sharply dressed in a homey atmosphere, brilliant white smiles.  Photogenic.  And if that wasn’t enough, the biggest lettering on the sign focuses on how many YouTube subscribers they have and how many millions of times their online  content has been viewed.

What’s your metric?

Everybody has metrics for what they consider success to look like.  Dollars, zip codes, assets.  A corner office, an invitation to join the Board of Directors.  Perhaps finally publishing that book or being invited to the first of several speaking gigs.

Pastors are no exception.  Maybe it’s moving up the hierarchy to  serve in capacities beyond a simple local parish.  Maybe it’s impressive growth figures for your congregation.  An impressive building project.  A large staff to oversee, a diverse budget supporting all sorts of projects and ministries.  The unspoken but obvious awe and respect of your peers who struggle in their small parishes and envy the comfort and success you’ve achieved.

Of course, none of that holds a candle to the apostles, if anyone really even thinks in terms of envying them anymore.  Their career path was hardly enviable and their retirement packages were, well, substandard by our enlightened standards.  No apparent families, no kids to pass the family legacy down to and through.  If anyone could have benefited from a career coach it would have been these guys.  Then again, I guess they did have a career coach.  But his advice to take up their crosses and follow him is disturbing at best.

But we’re safely distanced from the apostles so it’s not as though we really need to compare ourselves to them.  We read their words 2000 years later and are largely insulated from many of the implications they carry with them.  Easy to listen and nod along in agreement and never realize we’re acting in the complete opposite direction.  Heck, pastors can even preach on those very words one moment and seem to have completely forgotten them by the time the weekly meetings roll around.  We love our apostles safely in heaven and distanced from us for the time being.

Imagine those in the early Church though.  Those privileged to know and listen to and speak with the apostles!  We often talk in awe-filled tones about how amazing that would have been, and certainly it would have.  But it would have really screwed up the metrics of those converts to the faith, those who first heard and received the Good News of Jesus as the Son of God risen from the dead.  How do you advance career-wise when you’re competing directly with the apostles?

Among many other sins, the Church is guilty of the personal pride and ambition of her members all too often, both lay and ordained.  And in recent decades that ambition and pride has overturned centuries and centuries of Biblical exegesis and practice.  Oh, the terms for it are noble enough – equality sounds pretty darn Biblical, doesn’t it?  Until you actually read the Bible  and realize our privileged  egalitarian ideas of equality are rarely found in those pages.  God is rather doggedly determined to do things his way, oftentimes through an individual or a small group of people rather than a representative democracy or a congregational meeting or even a church Board of Directors.

But for all those who struggle with metrics in the Church, Stephen is a fascinating story in Acts 6 and 7.  We read this week about Stephen’s execution at the hands of a frenzied mob of self-righteous people with decidedly different metrics than Stephen.  We applaud his boldness.  We applaud his willingness to speak truth to power, demonstrating all those coveted leadership principles the Church (and our larger culture) fawns over these days.

But Stephen’s story starts earlier.  And it starts with Stephen being selected to be a waiter.

Yeah, that’s right.  Go back and read the opening section of Acts 6.  Same guy.  Stephen is selected with six other nameless people (sure, their names are written down right there, but how many of those names do you know?).  The apostles had work they were uniquely qualified for.  They knew Jesus.  Better than anyone than perhaps his own family.  They were needed to teach and preach the growing Church what Jesus said and did.  To bear witness.  It was important work.

But so was feeding the widows.  So important that all the disciples convened all the rest of the core of the Church to address the issue.  To select Stephen and the others to handle this important task so the apostles could dedicate themselves to their important tasks.  Different tasks.  Both important.  Both needing to get done.  Requiring different people to do them.

We aren’t told Stephen’s response to this arrangement, but it appears he did his job well and faithfully.  I don’t know what his metrics were.  Maybe he was just one of those two-dimensional Bible figures without any real issues or personality or dreams or hopes.  Maybe he’d always wanted to be a waiter.  Maybe he had hoped for more.  He certainly seemed capable of more, filled with wisdom and faith and the Holy Spirit as he was (vs. 3-6).  Installed in his capacity as waiter by none other than the disciples of Jesus and the leaders of the Church.  And certainly as he waited tables and ensured the widows were cared for (because nobody else wanted to do it), the Holy Spirit was working through him mightily.  Very similarly, in fact, to how the Holy Spirit  was working through the apostles themselves (compare Acts 6:8 with Acts 2:43).

Yet Stephen never seemed to push for a promotion.  Maybe he never got the chance.  Maybe Stephen’s story would have read a bit differently if it had played out over a longer period of time.  Maybe his martyrdom was a gift, keeping him from succumbing  to societal pressures and definitions of success and ultimately risking his faith and the unity of the Church in a quest for advancement.  With demands to be recognized as greater than just a waiter.  Maybe this is a Biblical example of a great quote from arguably the best of the Batman movies – The Dark KnightEither you die a hero or you live long enough to see yourself become the villain.  

A dark thought, but a cautionary one.  We all have metrics.  Whether those metrics align with the Word and promises of the God who created us  and redeemed us and sanctifies us is another matter.  Satan offered Adam and Eve a different metric.  Rather than simply being obedient to God as his creations, they could be like God.  They could maximize their potential.  They could activate their leadership qualities for the good of creation.  They could be all that they could be.  The could just do it.

Metrics are not neutral and we need to question their sources.  Ambition is not necessarily a bad thing.  But we need to ensure we don’t sacrifice the Word of God on the altar of ambition or metrics or even equality.  Even those things that seem inherently good and better – a big church rather than a small one, a large financial endowment rather than scrambling to pay the bills each month, a powerful presence in the community rather than the obscurity of sharing space with a personal trainer – even these things can ultimately prove not just complicated but divisive and even destructive.

And for a culture insistent that equality is defined on our terms, Stephen is a challenging anecdotal call for a pause and a more cautious scrutiny of both our terms and our motives.  Stephen the waiter.  Stephen called by God the Holy Spirit into this role.  Stephen used powerfully even as just a waiter.  Stephen who is one of the best known New Testament figures despite never being promoted  to the upper echelons of church ministry.  Stephen who lived and died serving God as God led him to, and you and I still reading about him 2000 years later.  Even as Iacocca and Welch, as well as Graham, Swindoll, Driscoll, fade or begin to fade into obscurity.

It isn’t the YouTube hits or the subscribers.  It isn’t the District or Synodical positions whether paid or unpaid.  It isn’t ordination or not ordination.  It’s something being and doing what God the Holy Spirit leads you to be and do.  To identify your personal metrics and compare them to Biblical ones.  To pray to be all God has equipped and called you to be without reaching beyond what’s either safe for you or best for the people of God.

Good advice as I take my bagel and coffee back to my office and struggle to post second-rate videos to YouTube to try and help my people through a confusing and isolating  time.  Good advice to all God’s people in all their varied capacities.

Courage and Diplomacy

May 5, 2020

Every normal man must be tempted, at times, to spit on his hands, hoist the black flag, and begin slitting throats.

~ H.L. Mencken ~

Strong convictions are good things.  Making our way through life is easier in some respects if we have firm convictions to guide us in decision-making and, if necessary, strengthen us when facing opposition for those decisions.  Modern concepts that relegate convictions to the garbage heap of relativity or, worse yet, criminalize them will ultimately be shown to be the lunacy they are.  But that may take some time, and in the meantime quite a few convictions as well as those who hold them may get burnt at the proverbial stake.

Convictions are good but there are times when regardless of how convinced we are of a proper course of action for ourselves it is only reasonable or polite to acknowledge others may be convicted to act otherwise.  Theology is one arena where this is true, and where there are no shortages of charred stumps  of past stakes and new young growth ready to pile  kindling around.   The tricky thing is that sometimes we strike the match with our words, casting aspersions or derision upon courses of action we have not opted to take.  Feeling strongly about something is one thing, knowing when – and how – to speak about it is another.  Several times in the past year I’ve been described as diplomatic.  I take it as a compliment though some  would surely consider it an insult.

The current COVID-19  situation has all of us up in the air without sure footing in how to navigate things.  And while it’s great that some people take the lead in blazing a trail, what that can sometimes do is disparage what others do.  Particularly if you actually disparage what others are doing.  Like, out loud.

Pastors in particular are grappling with how to do their work for their people when they aren’t allowed to gather with their people, or when their people don’t want to gather with them out of worry.  Hard stuff, and stuff nobody in our current generation of pastors has had to deal with.  Others in other generations have, but they’ve entered glory now and can rest without the angst of knowing how to care for God’s people and preach the Gospel and administer the Sacraments in a pandemic.

So in the meantime, pastors, choose your path the best you can.  Seek good counsel where and when you can find it.  Don’t be afraid to follow the path you have chosen, but also remain open to input or other factors that might cause you to change your mind and your path.  But be very, very cautious about what you say and how you say it about your fellow pastors.  You might agree with them or not.  They might be doing things similarly to you or differently.  But if you’re going to talk or write out loud, recognize that your words can easily become a stumbling block (1 Corinthians 8:9) as well as an offense (1 Corinthians 10:32).

Advice to myself and others out there, whether we think we need it or not.

 

 

Good News?

May 4, 2020

Readership of this blog has increased since March, and is higher than it has been on a sustained level for the last year.  I blame that mostly on people with a lot more spare time on their hands and an  apparent scarcity of quality reading material.  This site included!