Death and Collective Guilt

August 13, 2021

I don’t consider myself a real aficionado of Texas-style (or maybe just more traditional American) folk music. A bit too twangy. But playing pool in bars with juke boxes for most of my life you pick up a taste for a little bit of everything, and all that absorbed country music made me a bit more open to the twang than I otherwise might be. I discovered Nancy Griffith in the mid-90’s hot on the heels of the success of her Grammy-winning album Other Voices, Other Rooms. Twang notwithstanding, I fell in love with Griffith’s story-telling. Songs like Love at the Five and Dime and Gulf Coast Highway are still some of my favorite songs for the powerful stories they evoke in the small space of a song. I had the pleasure of seeing her in concert in the early 90’s and it was a wonderful experience to hear that clear voice in person.

She died today and that’s sad, as all deaths are.

I went back to listen to some of her songs this evening. They still bring a smile to my face or tug the heart strings in a way few other songs or artists do.

By chance I happened upon another of my favorite songs of hers, It’s a Hard Life. I still love the song but what caught my ear, in the midst of the rising racial tensions in our country was the last verse, a sort of confession on Griffith’s part that:

I am guilty I am war I am the root of all evil

She believed the words and the visions and promises of some great people like Walt Disney, Walter Cronkite and Martin Luther King, Jr. She believed their promises that change could come and was coming. And decades later, realizing those visions had not materialized the way she had assumed they would, for everyone rather than just specific demographics, she holds herself accountable. Though she’s not at the wheel of control, by implication she is guilty for those who are at the wheel of control, either by her support of them or her failure to stop them.

It’s a hard confession to hear after her stinging examples of prejudice that occurs in every culture and can take myriad forms. She confesses guilt that this still exists and she has personally failed to prevent it.

In the way this kind of corporate confession is currently being wielded or demanded in our country, it’s erroneous. It is misplaced. It assumes that we individually are capable of preventing people from reaching power or using power if they are not worthy of it or misuse it or fail to use it to full capacity. And it assumes at a deeper level that these things – prejudice and racism of all stripes – can actually be defeated and destroyed by our own efforts. If we just have the right leaders. The right policies. The right educational systems. The right corporate policies.

Unfortunately for Griffith and you and I and those who struggle under the oppression of real prejudice and racism, this isn’t true. Not that we don’t work towards it. Not that we can’t make improvements. But to remove these things is beyond our control. It is not in us to do so. Or more accurately, like Griffith’s confession, the sin we would stand against is present within us as well. Perhaps not in the same forms or to the same degrees, but there all the same.

And in that sense the corporate confession is appropriate. We all share in the common affliction and malady of sin. None of us is capable of removing it from ourselves let alone another person. And so we continue to struggle with sins as old as humanity. Some people are constantly amazed that a particular program or regimen failed to root out a particular sin. That is a sinful error as well, though a well intentioned one. Anything designed by a broken and sinful person is going to turn out in one way or another broken and sinful and inadequate as well.

Griffith’s bleak confession would be the last statement in her life and every life if there were not a deeper, greater hope than our own visionaries and programs. Thank God, there is.

There is only one hope for the defeat and removal of sin. One hope promised long ago in a primal garden, and one hope accomplished 2000 years ago on a cross by a man who claimed he was more than a great teacher or a great moral model, an inspirational speaker or a worker of wonders, but in fact the very Son of God. Who promised that in his voluntary and innocent death and burial, the sin within us would be overcome. All we had to do was believe this was true and who He was and what He accomplished. And for an anchor for that faith and trust He asserted He would rise from the dead after three days.

That hope and promise remain today. I pray that Griffith shared in that hope. That her disappointment in herself and others was overcome by a hope and trust in Jesus Christ. I pray it was ultimately that hope that inspired her to write and to sing and to become an inspiring voice to others and future generations.

Because I’d love to hear that clear voice in person again someday when she can sing of victory instead of defeat.

A Collection of Misinterpretations

August 11, 2021

A random assortment of interesting/frustrating news articles that caught my eye today.

First, as usual a great article from GetReligion.org (the Protestant jab aside). The press is insistent on characterizing the refusal of Sacraments to public and unrepentant members as ultimately a political ploy aimed at President Biden. That’s hardly the case. The press willingly and repeatedly ignores actually reporting on the beliefs and practices of the Catholic Church (and many other Christian denominations) in favor of straw-man caricatures that suit their intentions of disparaging organized religion (particularly Christianity – you don’t see many similar articles about Judaism or Islam) or pressuring believers to view their historic and clearly articulated faith as no longer valid or binding in our more enlightened culture.

Second up in terms of allowing our implicit and explicit biases’ to affect our interpretation of things is this little article. The presence of gender-specific articles for both men and women in a single grave becomes an argument for historical evidence of a non-binary leader – someone 1000 years ago who didn’t neatly fit our allegedly cultural sex and gender classifications.

Because, you know, that’s the only possible explanation, which just so happens to justify the latest in cultural fads.

Because nobody is ever buried with items from someone else – possibly even someone of the opposite sex. A meaningful piece of jewelry from Mom or Dad, for example. How is it that objects can or should be used to argue for a sexual orientation (or lack thereof) in a burial from a thousand years ago? Is that good science? Good archaeology? Or just a convenient way of appealing to the apparent swing of the cultural pendulum, a swing that might mean a few bones thrown in terms of grants or donations?

Ugh.

And finally, I’ve been loathe to blog further regarding Covid and our responses to it (or responses imposed on us). I’m simply so tired of it all. The rhetoric on both sides is ridiculous. But this article I found somewhat darkly amusing. Apparently there have been posts online referencing I Am Legend, a mediocre but different zombie movie. People are referencing the movie claiming the zombies in it were the result of a vaccine.

That’s not literally true, as this article points out. But that’s rather splitting hairs, I’d argue. Yes, this is just a movie. A piece of fiction. And I’d hope that most of the people posting the memes are fully aware of that and aren’t presuming to claim the movie as any sort of evidence or justification of rejecting the Covid vaccine.

However it is fair game to remind us all that even the best-intentioned efforts can have unanticipated consequences, something the critics of such memes are quick to forget. The fact that the scientific method and scientific processes and individual and collective scientists did and continue to do their best in formulating Covid vaccines does not, in and of itself, preclude the possibility of unanticipated, negative side-effects. Rare but causal side effects have already been identified in many of the vaccines, and such observations are quickly drowned out by shouted insistence that the benefits are far greater to far more people than the infrequent side-effects. That may or may not be true – we won’t know for some time, as more and more unanticipated side-effects are identified, and as the overall effectiveness of the vaccines becomes better understood.

The role of good science fiction is to contemplate not just literal science but potential side-effects or abuses of science. Great heroes and villains populate the genre for their manipulation of various aspects of science and technology or their responses to it. The genre provides a ‘safe’ zone for contemplating real issues in the context of make-believe. The original Star Trek series utilized it for these purposes, as have great authors such as Ray Bradbury and Walter Miller Jr. Even The Lord of the Rings could be (and has been) interpreted as a commentary on science and technology and industry, noting that it isn’t these things in and of themselves that are evil, but only how they are used or misused or, just as validly, accidentally developed or implemented without enough information to accurately determine longer-range consequences.

Back to School

August 10, 2021

It’s that time of year again. For so many years as a student, as a teacher, or as someone involved in campus ministry (sometimes all three at once!) my year was more defined by the ebb and flow of the American academic year. August and September always seem like starting months – more so than January.

This is a good article whether you’re a Christian student headed to school (really of any grade, adjusted for age-appropriateness of course), or the parent/grandparent/concerned friend or relative of a student.

Of course, these suggestions are all things that should already be going on in the life of every person of faith. If these habits and practices and skills haven’t already begun to be owned by the time college rolls around, it’s going to be a hard time for a student to pick them up. Although this article is aimed at Catholic students, the same ideas hold true for Christians of any stripe. Know who you are, where you’ve come from, where you’re going, who created and redeemed you, who abides with you constantly. Don’t expect to have an answer to every objection or criticism leveled at the Bible or the Church or your faith personally. But know that you’re likely to encounter objections and criticisms, or assumptions that you can continue to consider yourself a Christian if you don’t actually believe the Bible.

Reading Ramblings – August 15, 2021

August 8, 2021

Date: Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost ~ August 15, 2021

Texts: Proverbs 9:1-10; Psalm 34:12-22; Ephesians 5:6-21; John 6:51-69

Context: Pastors are trained to interpret Biblical texts.  It ought to be a lifelong practice of not just personal reflection but also continued study in the art of exegesis, with reference to how others have interpreted the texts.  A combination of skills, spiritual giftings, intellectual aptitude, and practice all contribute to how a particular pastor reads a particular text or multiple texts together.  Often this is a very isolated process.  Working with others in the process is hugely beneficial but can be hard to arrange as exegesis towards sermon preparation is often assumed to be a very personal process.  This Sunday I’m preaching at another congregation and the pastor has provided a theme for the texts today, primarily based around St. Paul’s words to the Ephesians in the Epistle lesson.  The theme is one of time and making good use of time.  While verses 15-16 clearly articulate this theme, it was interesting to see how this theme of time might be linked to the other readings for today.  It’s a different process than I normally use, and it’s an interesting exercise for me!

Proverbs 9:1-10 – Several themes are recurrent through the book of Proverbs.  The overarching framing of a father passing on advice to his son is the major one.  Another is the personification of wisdom and foolishness/folly as two very different women.  Each offers themselves to the son in particular ways.  Wisdom’s offer is to share her wisdom – here further embedded in the metaphor of a feast.  Foolishness offers ease, pleasure, and ultimately destruction.  The son needs to choose judiciously which voice he listens to as the consequences can be far reaching.  In keeping with the theme of time, we are offered some advice as to how to share what wisdom we may have acquired with others.  Wasting time sharing wisdom with someone too foolish or arrogant to receive it is ultimately just that – a waste of our time.  Yet wisdom is revealed when someone else (or we ourselves) takes the wisdom of another to heart and benefits from it.  Finally, in our pluralistic age it is important to remember and affirm as followers of Christ that there is only one source of true wisdom and that is God the Creator of all things.  Any contrary wisdom is not wise at all but rather empty words, as Paul states in the Epistle reading.  We cannot hope to be truly wise apart from the God who Created us, died for us, and promises to indwell with us forever.

Psalm 34:12-22 – This psalm reads very much like a proverb!  Wisdom is not an assurance of long life and good days, but it certainly doesn’t hurt those goals!  Choosing the good rather than evil in both large and small ways leads toward a long and good life.  This is grounded in the understanding that there is a God and that God is very much present with us.  Our actions large and small do not go unnoticed.  While we rejoice in the forgiveness available in Jesus Christ through our repentance, to assume God doesn’t care about what we do is not simply ignorant but dangerous.  Little decisions and actions build and can easily lead us down roads we never would have anticipated initially, and those roads ultimately either lead towards salvation in Jesus Christ or eternal separation from the love of God.  God will deliver his faithful.  We take assurance in this when life reveals twists and turns and stumbles in the path we thought would be smooth and easy.  Our plans are not capable of delivering us from sin and death – only God is capable of that, and He has revealed his eagerness to do so in sending his Son to exchange his perfect and righteous life for our sinful and unholy ones. 

Ephesians 5:6-21 – Our time is limited.  Living in a time-obsessed culture we are told daily there are certain and definable ways to live long lives – to have as much time as possible.  What we eat, how we exercise, what habits we engage in – often these are discussed as though we are in control of how much time we have.  This is not the case.  This does not lead us towards ignoring the decisions we make as though they have no impact on us, but it does call us to remember where our ultimate faith and trust  lie – not in our own efforts individually or communally but only and always of the God who alone created, redeemed, and sanctifies us.  Those who follow Christ therefore use the time allotted to them wisely rather than foolishly, as the writer of Proverbs would agree with.  We make choices and engage in behaviors with an eye towards the eternal consequences, giving thanks to God for his wisdom and strength to strive after obedience to his good and perfect Word!

John 6:51-69 – The world focuses us on the here and now.  We are convinced through repetition that really, this life is all we have.  We cling to it at all costs, literally.  But Jesus’ words call us to the stark remembrance that our life here and now is only part of the story.  Ultimately apparently a very small part.  It occupies our attention at the risk of eclipsing the larger picture we are promised.  That may well be the essence of Paul’s description of the days as evil.  They blind and distract us to the reality these days are finite and limited.  But in Jesus we are promised eternity.  He brings us not just an improvement in the quality of our lives here and now, but rather eternal life.  As diligently as many people focus on what they eat and put into their bodies, followers of Jesus are to literally receive him into their bodies.  Lutherans would be quick to assert this is Sacramental language.  Jesus is not calling us to cannibalism but rather to trust in his promise that as we eat the bread and wine of Holy Communion, we are taking into ourselves his body and blood, and it is this union in faith and reality that lead us to eternal life, that prepare us and assure us for our bodily resurrection and entrance into eternal life in the presence of one another and our Creator, Redeemer and Sanctifier God. 

There are no other means towards this end. Science is working diligently on unraveling the mystery of our mortality and aging in an effort to slow or even eliminate these realities.  Genetic studies so far have determined that there is nothing in our DNA that indicates we have to die.  There is no gene for death that could simply be switched off.  At our most central identity, we are programmed for life, not death!  But it is life with God.  Life as his creatures in full acknowledgement and worship and obedience to their Creator.  Jesus promises us life, but not on our terms.  They are his terms because He is the means by which we access it.  Knowing this eternal timeframe should better inform how we spend the time we have here and now, prior to our death or his return!

Pool Hall – Break & Run Billiards ~ Racine, WI

July 28, 2021

It was a beautiful afternoon and evening. We had some time to kill and decided to go for a nice drive. And of course, while wandering down the Wisconsin coast of Lake Michigan it’s good to have a goal in mind. And with me, goals often coincide with pocket billiards when no other weightier or more enjoyable options present themselves.

There were two pool halls to the south of us about 30 minutes I wanted to check out. The first was Outbreak Billiards in Racine. Had I been alone, I probably would have gone in and checked it out. No website, but their photos on Google maps indicate a place with some semblance of family friendliness. Besides, it was still light outside – hardly anybody gets killed in pool halls until after dark, right? But, she felt a little uncomfortable going in and I felt a little uncomfortable leaving her out in the car to go in and shoot a couple of games just to say I’ve played there.

So we moved on, and wound up at Break & Run Billiards on the south side of Racine. Located in a shabby strip mall it’s not much to look at from the outside. On the inside, however, I was pleasantly surprised. A few Diamond tables with the felt in good condition. Both 9-foot tables as well as a few bar boxes. The bartender was congenial and helped round up a t-shirt for me, though unfortunately it was only big enough for my wife.

As a side note, my wife now has a budding collection of pool hall t-shirts from places that don’t have my size. I don’t really feel like I’m buying her gifts when she ends up with them, because I really wanted them for myself. But she doesn’t seem to mind wearing them around the house and as long as she doesn’t throw them out I suppose it’s fine. Frustrating, but fine.

I shot for about an hour. Very quiet before the after-dark crowd showed up, but a nice spot to shoot. Definitely worth stopping by if you’re in the area. It looks like the kind of place where shooters are likely to hang out, especially given the dearth of other options in the area as a whole.

Pool Hall – Cue Club of Wisconsin

July 27, 2021

With a name like the Cue Club of Wisconsin, I have big expectations.

Not named after a person. Or even a city. This place claims to be the place to shoot pool for an entire state. That’s a lot to shoulder for a pool hall. I had to check it out.

Their web site heavily features their food, which is pretty decent by bar standards. I had to try their Friday fish lunch and it was definitely acceptable as far as fried fish goes. Their website next highlights their indoor bocce ball courts, and true enough, there are two long strips of artificial turf down the center of the main room where they apparently play bocce ball. There are only a few pictures of the actual pool tables. You know. Because it’s the Cue Club of Wisconsin, after all. They do have a few tables.

Olhausens, primarily. A few nice 9-foot Diamonds. There aren’t many pictures of the tables on the web site and some of them seem to be outdated, from before the installation of the bocce courts.

But don’t misunderstand. There are also dartboards. A shuffleboard. Cornhole accoutrements. There is far more to this place than billiards. I’ll leave it to you to decide if that’s a good thing or not.

I was able to stop in twice – once on a Friday afternoon when there wasn’t much of anyone there except the lunch rush, which was fair. I tried to get a game going with one guy but he was on his way out. C’est la vie. I stopped again Sunday night and there were even fewer people there. In fact, they closed early, and in consideration of this, gifted me with a free drink coupon for the next time I stop by. Not sure when that will be – probably a couple of years from now at the least. But the thought was nice. I was also able to purchase a t-shirt that’s very nice looking.

This is definitely a worthwhile place to shoot. I’m not sure what it’s like when they have darts and cornhole and bocce ball all going at the same time. I assume they have pool leagues as well. But it’s definitely the only real pool hall in the area and worth checking out if you have the time.

Book Review: Indonesia, Etc.

July 26, 2021

Indonesia, Etc.: Exploring the Improbably Nation by Elizabeth Pisani

If you (like me) don’t know anything about Indonesia, this is a good introduction to not just the history but the region and culture. Pisani has spent many years in Indonesia and is articulate and entertaining as she chronicles her 13-month intentional re-exploring of the island nation in the early 2000’s in preparation for this book. Her experience in the country began in the 1980’s as a writer for Reuters and continued with a stint as an epidemiologist working with sex workers in Indonesia.

It’s also clear from reading this book she has an incredibly adventurous spirit, a willingness to embrace a philosophy of “just say yes” and actually follow through on it. This affords her amazing opportunities to be with everyday people and experience what their lives are like, albeit at a cost of personal privation and with an endurance that is truly remarkable.

Pisani isn’t shy about sharing her opinions, and only with further exploration will I know how much to trust her political observations and historical interpretations. Admittedly, writing about these topics even in passing is a dangerous activity as the truth is elusive as well as oftentimes deliberately hidden or rewritten to suit the preferences of those in power.

One of the great resources of this book is her bibliography of other books, films, and websites on Indonesia. She doesn’t claim it’s comprehensive but it’s helpful for those (like me) who intend to study further. Further, there’s a website with more up-to-date observations as well as the ability to access the e-book as well as some photos (which are not part of the print book).

Reading Ramblings – August 1, 2021

July 25, 2021

Date: Tenth Sunday after Pentecost ~ August 1, 2021

Texts: Exodus 16:2-15; Psalm 145:10-21; Ephesians 4:1-16; John 6:22-35

Context: In 2012 I noted how switching the Gospel readings to John 6 for the next three weeks provided a more in-depth reflection on the feeding of the 5000 we read a few weeks ago in Mark. While I still find it odd to take this sudden swerve out of Mark and focus for so long on this piece of Jesus’ life and ministry, it does have advantages. What, after all, were the disciples supposed to make of Jesus’ feeding of the 5000, which Mark indicates they didn’t understand? For that matter, what are we? Jesus’ teaching then in John 6 is very helpful here, moving us beyond a momentary obsession with the miraculous or the delicious and focusing our sight where it needs to be, on the eternal which is present in Jesus. Of course God has a long history of providing food for his people, so we have the reading from Exodus 2. The psalm takes up this reality and calls us to continue passing the story of God’s provision down to the next generations. Ephesians reminds us God continues to feed us as He raises up servants and pours his gifts upon them to call them to service – apostles, prophets, evangelists, shepherds, teachers.

Exodus 16:2-15 – It might be easy for Christians today, much-divorced from our Jewish roots and often dull and ignorant of the Old Testament of our own Bible to miss what the crowds (and certainly Jesus’ disciples!) should not have – in miraculously providing bread and meat to thousands of people, Jesus was echoing the gifts of God in bread and meat to his Old Testament people. Further, this leads us to consider once again how Jesus is the embodiment of all God’s people, and as such is also a retelling of God’s relationship with his people. God provided for the Israelites as He led them towards the land He prepared for them to settle in and care for, where their needs would be provided for from the land which was God’s means for blessing them. Now Jesus feeds the people, providing for them as He leads them to himself, the living Promised Land who will be the means of God’s grace and forgiveness which will, in turn, allow his people to return to our eternal Promised Land in the City of God. We should give thanks daily for the First Article gifts of God the Father in sustaining us both physically (bread and meat) as well as spiritually (Word and Sacrament).

Psalm 145:10-21 – In our hyper-individualized American culture even the communal experience in faith becomes more oriented towards ourselves. What has God done for me? How do I feel about my relationship with God? The antidote to this spiritual navel-gazing is the firm reminder that God is the Creator in ongoing relationship with his creation. As such, our individual experiences are contextualized against the larger story of God’s work of redemption. We are not each an individual story or beginning, but rather part of the one story of God with one In the beginning and one conclusion as foreshadowed in Revelation. Even when we cannot find the strength or joy to praise God for what is happening in our lives at the moment, we are able to give him thanks and praise for all He has done not only for us but for his creation as a whole and his covenant people. It is this larger context that gives us a realistic hope for the future. Passing through an airport recently I noticed a large brightly lit sign with a picture of someone with arms upraised at the exit of a tunnel, a blinding brightness of sunlight and green enveloping this person who, presumably, had recently been encased in darkness. The caption simply encouraged people to hold on because things will get better. But on what basis can such a claim be made? Simple, naive or even foolish optimism? This is not the case for the people of God! We are called to hope, and that hope is real and true. That hope has a basis – in our own lives as well as in the lives of God’s people through history – and it also has a firm promise to sustain it. For those in Christ, truly things will get better, even if they are wonderful at the moment.

Ephesians 4:1-16 – Having prayed the Ephesians would be strengthened in power and rooted and grounded in love (3:14-19) Paul encourages and exhorts them to live as those who have indeed received these blessings. This is not a generic or vague call to being “good”, but Paul is very specific and detailed about what this should look like. Humility, gentleness and patience are to characterize their loving interactions with one another as believers. Their goal should be to maintain unity in peace through God the Holy Spirit who dwells in their midst. They who have been united in one confession of faith and one baptism are to live out this reality of unity in their daily dealings with one another. We who have been graced in Christ with all good things are to press on in this life towards our eternal life to come. This will anchor us against the shifting tides and sands around us of culture and contemporary concerns. Our groundedness in Christ should be an anchor against being tossed about, and in the larger context this may imply tossed about against each other in conflict or anything unbecoming brothers and sisters in Christ.

John 6:22-35 – The crowds who were fed miraculously by Jesus are quite hard-working when it comes to figuring out where He now was! He didn’t get into the boat with his disciples, so presumably they searched and inquired about the region where He was the night before. But to no avail! So when boats came who could take them farther afield, they jumped on board and headed for the place Jesus used as a home base for his ministry – Capernaum. Their sleuthing pays off and they find Jesus, at which point are they embarrassed when they find him? Is their eagerness and endeavoring suddenly awkward to them, so that they try to engage Jesus in preliminary small talk? Or are they genuinely curious as to how He could come so far so quickly without a boat? Are they probing for more miraculous signs to be entertained by?

Regardless, Jesus is not in the mood for small talk. He calls out the crowd for their motivation – full stomachs rather than spiritually enlightened minds. Like his disciples they didn’t understand why Jesus had fed them – perhaps they too missed the connection with God’s feeding of his people in the wilderness in Exodus? Hardly surprising if so! But if they’re going to work that hard just hoping for another free lunch, how much better that they apply themselves to things that matter, to eternal life and the Son of Man who alone can provide it to them!

They miss this last point – eternal life is the gift given by the Son of Man. Who is able and willing to do so because of God the Father’s intentions through him. Instead, they pick up on the idea of work. You think we’re hard working? Just tell us what to do and we’ll do it! We’ll work for that eternal life! We’ll work for God! But that’s not the point either, otherwise Jesus might have commanded them to bake bread instead of miraculously providing it to them! They have nothing to contribute, however. The work of God is entirely the free gift of God’s love. They can either receive it (believe) or ignore or reject it.

Note the crowd clearly understands what Jesus is getting at – they know He’s calling them to faith and belief in him. The only reasonable context and setting for this is in terms of being the Messiah. If that’s what Jesus is getting at, they want to see his credentials. Ironically they bring up the manna God provided the Israelites as an example of what they want to see from Jesus, completely missing that this is exactly what He did the night before!

Jesus knows they’re missing the point, in part because they assume Moses is who provided the manna, and Jesus is equating himself to Moses and therefore needs to prove his case. But Jesus isn’t comparing himself to Moses at all. Moses didn’t provide the manna, God did! And Jesus provided bread for them last night, showing himself to be God who has come down from heaven to give not just bread but life to the world.

This time, however, God is not merely providing bread. The most important food God is giving to his people is not mere manna, but Jesus himself, the Son of God come down from heaven. Simple bread is impressive but it doesn’t last. But what Jesus gives to them in himself will last forever. Jesus is the essential thing they need more than daily bread itself, and when Jesus gives himself up to be broken on their behalf, they will be filled to the fullest forever.

Reading Ramblings – July 25, 2021

July 18, 2021

Date: Ninth Sunday after Pentecost ~ July 25, 2021

Texts: Genesis 9:8-17; Psalm 136:1-9; Ephesians 3:14-21; Mark 6:45-66

Context: God is the Creator of all things.  This means God is master of all things.  There is nothing that happens without God’s either direct will (the Flood) or permission (Job).  This is how we are to see everything that happens in this world and in our lives, acknowledging God’s presence and power and wisdom, trusting that He will work all things for good, even if it must be in spite of and through the sin and brokenness and pain and suffering our sin inflicts on ourselves, one another, and the rest of creation.  To say we trust in God is one thing.  To fall back on that trust when our own plans and preferences have come to nothing is quite another.  Elie Wiesel, who survived the Nazi Holocaust, talks in his book Night about how he lost faith in God during that time, because he could not reconcile the suffering and death all around him with a good and loving God.  Wiesel could not imagine that God could use even this blackest sin as ultimately a demonstration of his power, wisdom, glory, and love.  We must resolve ourselves through daily meditation and prayer on our baptismal grace, so that if and when we are faced with similar catastrophe, we might stand faithful in the gifts of our loving God, even if it means the end of our lives.

Genesis 9:8-17 – Noah and his family have just witnessed the destruction of human and animal life on the planet by the floodwaters unleashed by God.  Now they are called to place their trust in God’s promise to never again do such a thing.  Noah’s life prior to the flood was marked with obedience to God, so that he was deemed by God to be righteous (6:9).  Now Noah and his family had to decide if they would continue to be obedient to God, trusting his promise of mercy and grace just as much as they trusted his message to them of coming destruction and short-term instruction (6:9-22).  Like Noah we are called to trust God in all things, even when things don’t seem to be working out in a way we would consider pleasing to God.  Faith is not just a feeling, it is a decision as well, an insistence on persisting in a certain way of thinking or living even when alternate options are more desirable or even appear to be safer or better by worldly standards.  Noah serves as a powerful example to us when things are difficult to remain anchored in the promises of the God who also brought us every blessing we have ever experienced, and promised us eternally more in his perfect will and timing, through faith in the sacrifice of his Incarnate Son, Jesus the Christ.

Psalm 136:1-9 – These verses are what the insistence of faith I just referred to looks like.  We give thanks to God in all situations, insisting that God truly is good and loving and holds all power over all things and situations.  This requires we admit that we are not gods ourselves, and that it was not our understanding that made the heavens or spread the earth above the waters.  God alone has that perspective on time and creation, and God alone is able to know what is best and how to work in and with and through and despite our flawed and sinful natures to bring about his greatest glory.  There is nothing subjective in these verses – the power and glory of God and therefore the just and proper recipient of praise is based in creation, not in our subjective experience of that creation in an incredibly finite time and place.  We are called here, in a sense, to acknowledge our finite experience of creation, and perhaps to ponder briefly the absurdity that we should find God at fault for a particular event or sequence of events considering how limited our field of vision is!  We are called to trust that the eternal Creator of the finite and limited truly does love us and intend the best for us even if our particular moment of time is not what we would want for ourselves or others. 

Ephesians 3:14-21 – To best appreciate the beauty of Paul’s words here, we should also include v.13 in the reading.  The Ephesians are concerned for Paul because of his struggles and suffering.  This suffering might include the riot at Ephesus that might easily have cost Paul and his companions their lives (Acts 19).  It might include Paul’s words to the Ephesian elders in Acts 20 about how they would never see him again.  But perhaps most likely this suffering is Paul’s arrest in Jerusalem in Chapters 21 and following.  Yet despite this suffering, Paul bows his knees in prayer not regarding himself but on behalf of the Ephesians (and all the other Christians he has nurtured).  Paul no doubt is unhappy about his suffering, but also can recognize there is a larger picture at play, in which his suffering is in fact for the glory of the Ephesians and Christians down to you and I today.  That is not a perspective possible not only with a god, but without the God of Scripture who is the loving Father seeking constantly after all of his wayward and rebellious sheep. 

Mark 6:45-66 – The final words are instructive here.  The disciples are astounded by Jesus walking across the water to them and calming the raging winds.  This is because they didn’t understand what Jesus had done in the feeding of the 5000 because their hearts were hardened.  I don’t interpret that to mean God the Holy Spirit was hardening their hearts, but rather their hearts were hardened by their own ideas and assumptions and interpretations.  They could not yet acknowledge that Jesus might be the promised Messiah.  They were still working to explain his incredible actions by some other means.  Jesus in his loving patience continues to demonstrate his power and authority to them, leading their hearts to eventually soften so that Peter can proclaim him the Messiah (Mark 8:27-29).  But they aren’t there yet.  It isn’t that they aren’t seeing miraculous things, but that they can’t accept those events for what they are and interpret them properly.

So still today people misunderstand (or just miss) God’s workings in the world around us.  They presume that just because a surgery or a medicine healed a serious illness or injury it wasn’t God at work – as though God was not the provider of the skill and wisdom and ingredients!  Many (Christians, even!) are more apt to talk about coincidence than they are to daily remind themselves God is not absent, sleeping, or silent.  When we remind ourselves daily that God is the source of all things in creation, we are better able to see his hand in all things, even when mediated by human involvement.  All of this should be towards the glory of God, and our thankful and faithful hearts that not only appreciate his love here and now, but actively look towards the return of his Son and our Lord to usher in an eternity of joy together.

Friday & Worship

July 16, 2021

Parts of the Roman Catholic world are abuzz today over a declaration issued by Pope Francis. The Pope issued a mortu propio, essentially a directive directly from himself as the Pope, without necessary consultation with other Church leadership or authority. These are apparently issued relatively infrequently (the first in the 15th century) and can have profound impact on Church practice.

This one – entitled TRADITIONIS CUSTODES, essentially curtails the use of the Traditional Latin Mass (TLM), also referred to as the Tridentine Mass. This was the form of worship the Roman Catholic Church made use of almost exclusively for nearly 400 years – up until the reforms of Vatican II. In issuing this pronouncement, Pope Francis appears to be making it more difficult, though not completely impossible, for parishes to offer TLM, encouraging them instead to move towards worship in the vernacular.

From my denomination’s perspective, this would be the equivalent of the Synodical President effectively banning a particular form of worship. Pope Francis’ directive requires local bishops to make determination of whether or not TLM is necessary or appropriate within their jurisdiction, the equivalent of making every individual congregation in our denomination get special permission from their District President to celebrate a particular form of worship. One can imagine the challenges in this rather easily, from the logistical perspective to say the least. And if your bishop doesn’t wish to see TLM observed? I guess you’re out of luck.

Our denomination has struggled for years over the issue of worship, so this isn’t exactly a foreign subject. Thus far at least there have been no definitive pronouncements on the topic of traditional vs. contemporary worship, though more than a few would have done so if given the opportunity or they thought they could get away with it without splintering our denomination.

The Pope’s orders are effective immediately, and allow for no period of consideration, questioning and the like. For those attached to TLM (and apparently there are many) this is a particularly brutal, insensitive and rash decision. I can empathize with them. I hurt for those whose desired form of worship has now been made more elusive or even unavailable. And I pray this will not be a wedge between the faithful and the Church. While I’m not Roman Catholic, anything that drives people away from the communion of the saints is a bad thing, even if it originates from within the Church. I pray those who are hurt and angry will – by the grace of God – be granted peace and the ability to forgive these decisions they vehemently disagree with, and that their faith might in the process grow rather than diminish.