Appropriating Identity

April 3, 2017

Freud convinced us all that our identity is primarily sexual in nature.  Today we’re being programmed to believe our identity is also a matter of citizenship.

A man drowned in our city last week.  He was trying to rescue a young girl who was caught in a rip tide – a powerful current that can prevent people from making it back to shore.  The girl survived but the man in his 30’s did not.  Initial reports said the girl was his daughter.  Later reports claimed that it wasn’t.  It was a tragic situation no matter how you look at it.

But the local paper decided to look at it as a matter of citizenship, proclaiming in the headline that an ‘immigrant’ died trying to save the girl.

The article went on to talk about how the man had come to the US looking for a better life but now was dead.  Really?  This is going to be an immigration issue?

What is this supposed to make me feel?  Am I supposed to feel worse because this was an immigrant or better?  Is this supposed to make me more pro-immigration because this man accidentally died trying to save someone else, or more anti-immigration?  What is the point in turning the story this way at all?  We all know that our nation has plenty of immigrants past and present here.  That is part of our identity as a nation, part of our strength.  The issue isn’t whether or not we have immigrants or continue to have immigrants, but rather how those people arrive here and how they assimilate.  None of which has anything with a man trying to save a life and ending up dead in the process, and it’s a disgusting attempt to politicize a loss of life.

It’s further topped by my state’s ‘glorious’ march towards taking on the Federal government on immigration issues.  Our Senate passed a bill prohibiting local authorities from cooperating with Federal authorities on matters of immigration involving detained individuals.  Since the House is controlled by the same party, it will likely pass there as well before going on to the governor (of the same political party) for signature.

Ultimately, this isn’t going to help legal or illegal immigrants in our state.  It certainly isn’t going to help immigrants gain citizenship.  It’s going to hurt pretty much everyone – even our illustrious leaders.  I hope that the Federal government makes good on threats to cut Federal funding to cities and states that openly flaunt Federal law.  I hope that the cut-off of funding is painful and teaches some important lessons and not simply the idea that you should do what the Federal government tells you.

First of all, I hope it demonstrates the futility and stupidity of simply refusing to obey the law – or demand that the law not be enforced – rather than changing the laws.  The Civil Rights movement was powerful because it challenged the law and sought to change it.  People suffered the consequences of civil disobedience in order to show that the law was wrong and needed to be changed.  But to simply ignore the law and insist that nobody enforce the law?  What does that accomplish?  What victory does that gain?

Secondly, I hope it is a wake up call to people that we rely for a lot of things on the Federal government.  I may not personally think that’s a good idea but it’s a reality.  And states either need to insist on greater autonomy and figure out ways to fund it, or quit whining and complaining and fighting against the Federal government on one hand while putting their other hand out all the time for subsidies, loans, and other forms of support.  The idea that we should get the things we want without having to play by the rules is dangerously endemic in our society at the moment – at least in certain quarters.  It is equally dangerous for our political leaders to have this mindset, for the average citizen to, and for those who come here intent on living illegally.

But before any of this happens, a lot of people are going to suffer.  People who rely on programs funded in part by the Federal government.  We’re going to be told by our political leadership that this is because Trump is a mean President who is intent on causing harm.  But that’s a lie.  The truth is that it’s happening because our political leadership isn’t willing to actually do their jobs to come up with an immigration policy that works for those who wish to abide by it, and politely but firmly tells those who refuse to abide by it to leave.  Like every other country in the world does at some level or another.

Coming up with laws that work is a good situation.  Passing resolutions defying the law of the land is ultimately a cowardly cop-out for the harder work of actually sorting through and solving problems.

 

 

Reading Ramblings – April 9, 2017

April 2, 2017

Reading Ramblings

Date: Palm Sunday – April 9, 2017

Texts: Isaiah 50:4-9a; Psalm 118:19-29; Philippians 2:5-11; John 12:12-19 and Matthew 26:1-27:66

Context: Palm Sunday has a rich and ancient tradition, accumulating a variety of names from the regions where it was observed. It is the last Sunday of Lent, but has also come to be associated specially with Holy Week, which traces the last week of Jesus’ life from his arrival in Jerusalem for the Passover to the Last Supper on Maunday Thursday, his execution on Good Friday, and his resurrection on Easter morning. To set the tone for the entire week, which encompasses multiple worship services, the entire Passion narrative is often read on Palm Sunday.

Isaiah 50:4-9a – The Lord’s Servant speaks in these verses, describing the Lord as the source of his strength and the strength He gives to others. As opposed to God’s people Israel, his servant is obedient, even through suffering and persecution. He endures these things by the Lord’s power so that He is not ashamed, not disgraced. Instead He professes his steadfast faith in his God who will vindicate him, and by whose power He can endure the transient afflictions of his adversaries. They are verses of boasting – not in the servant’s own power but in the Lord’s power who sustains him.

Psalm 118:19-29 – This is a psalm of confidence in God, assurance in the Lord’s promises. The psalm evokes entrance into Jerusalem or perhaps the Temple courtyards. The speaker is confident of being granted entrance because the Lord is the speaker’s salvation. While peers may scoff and deride, the Lord will grant victory to his faithful follower, and his adversaries will be put to shame as he becomes the foundation stone of God’s work. Surely this is something only God can accomplish – working through means and persons that the world rejects! The psalm ends in rejoicing with the approach of the Lord’s favored one. It is a moment of celebration in God’s faithfulness in his sacrificial servant. This is the Lord’s gift – the perfect and atoning sacrifice that ends all sacrifices. God is to be praised for his faithfulness to his creation, for saving his creation.

Philippians 2:5-11 – Jesus had every right to demand glory and honor from the creation He entered into. But He did not. This is to guide us, his followers, in humility with one another. We do not seek praise and glory, but rather seek to be obedient whether it is recognized and appreciated or not. Jesus was willing to maintain his humility even to the greatest of shames and insults – his public crucifixion. How much more should we be willing to bear any indignities in our lives! Jesus’ obedience resulted in his ultimate glorification, and we too look forward to being glorified in and through our Lord. But our glory and vindication is a secondary matter. The first matter is the glorification and worship of God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. This is the Biblical story – it is the story of a gracious and loving and all-powerful God who wins his creation back from rebellion and sin, that He might be properly worshiped and glorified.

John 12:12-19; Matthew 26:1-27:66 – Easily the longest reading of the Church year, the Gospel for Palm Sunday carries us from Palm Sunday to Good Friday evening. It encompasses the giddy emotional heights of Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem, to the depths of his family and followers’ despair as his dead body is laid in the tomb. It encompasses the faithfulness of his mother and inner circle who gather at the foot of his cross to hear his last words following the betrayal of his own people to death.

It’s appropriate to hear the whole sweep of the Passion narrative before focusing on individual pieces of it through the coming week. People may not make services on Thursday, Friday, Saturday, and then Easter Sunday, but they will hear the whole story on Palm Sunday. It also helps to ensure that people don’t simply skip the harder services mid-week to only hear the happy stories of Palm Sunday and Easter. Easter is necessitated by Good Friday. Resurrection can only be properly appreciated and welcomed after death. By skipping the somber tones of Maunday Thursday and Good Friday, the joy of Easter morning is muted. As Jesus himself once observed, he who is forgiven little, loves little (Luke 7:47).

So it is that Lent is necessary as the proper contextualization of Easter. We follow our Lord and his disciples through the temporary joy of Palm Sunday to the bewilderment of Maunday Thursday and the atrocity of Good Friday. We gather Saturday evening for the bridge service that leads us from the despair of Good Friday to the first proclamation of Easter victory. And Sunday morning we give thanks because the tomb is still empty, pointing the way towards our own, future empty graves.

Book Review – The Christian Calendar

March 29, 2017

I love books and reading.  I enjoy browsing through used book stores for hidden gems.  I don’t do it often, and I don’t do it for long, but it’s enjoyable.  Ever since I was a kid, this has been an inexpensive indulgence for me.  The reality is that most of what I pick up isn’t all that great.  At least historically.  I’ve become a lot more selective in what I buy now, but I still take chances now and then which occasionally pay off.

Such is the case with The Christian Calendar: A complete Guide to the Seasons of the Christian Year.   It combines two of my favorite things – history and historical illustrations and photos – and combines them in an examination of the liturgical year.  The historical illustrations are great and drawn from a variety of sources spanning nearly 2000 years.

The book focuses on the traditional Roman Catholic lectionary and liturgical cycle (a one-year cycle rather than the more contemporary three-year cycle).  Brief commentary or exegesis on the Gospel lesson is frequent, and the helpfulness of these comments varies widely.  But the artwork is beautiful, and there are frequent notes of local customs (particularly English but also Continental) associated with various Sundays in the Church year.  The book concludes with a list of saints venerated on literally every day of the year.  Most are just names and dates of death, but there are more expanded biographies included throughout.

If you enjoy liturgical history and artwork and can pick this up second-hand, I definitely recommend it.  Don’t necessarily take the exegetical work too seriously, but it’s a nice book to have in your library.

 

Spiders

March 28, 2017

A beautiful thought to consider for a Tuesday.  Or any other day.  Or not.

You’re welcome.

ANF – The Epistle of Mathetes to Diognetus

March 27, 2017

After considerable delay, here is another document in ancient Christian literature and the second document included in the Ante-Nicene Fathers.

The there is no authorial identification or designation, so we don’t know who wrote it.  The traditional title is The Epistle of Mathetes to Diognetus, however mathetes simply means disciple in Greek.   The manuscript for some time was attributed to Justin Martyr, although stylistic differences have resulted in most scholars today dismissing that attribution.  Nor do we have any clear idea of the identity of Diognetus, although some propose that it is the teacher of Marcus Aurelius who we know had the same name.  Although convenient, it is at best a stretch to insist on this connection.  The date of the writing ranges from early second century (perhaps 130 AD) to sometime in the late second century, and is likely the earliest surviving example of Christian apologetics.

The letter purports to explain to Diognetus more about the Christian faith and how it differs from both Jewish belief and pagan religions.  The letter cites Christianity as a new kind of practice, arguing for a very early dating for the document.  The author also claims to be a disciple of the Apostles, which many argue means a very early dating but which could also be a description applied to Christians today.  Many scholars dismiss the last two sections as later additions.  Only one copy of this document is known to have existed, and it was destroyed in 1870.  It was first translated and published in 1592.

The author first demonstrates the futility of worshiping physical idols.  Then he moves on to dismissing Jewish religion as equally misguided.  The pagans are foolish in that they offer material things to carved images.  The Jews are silly in that they propose to offer material things to an immaterial God who has no need of them and who is indeed the source and creator of them.  The author then moves on to explain basic Christian theology, emphasizing the Gospel or the sweet exchange in which we who are dead in our sins are credited with the righteousness of the Son of the living God.

It’s a great, brief contrast of the Christian faith to other religions, emphasizing our need for and God’s provision of a Savior.

Reading Ramblings – April 2, 2017

March 26, 2017

Reading Ramblings

Date: Fifth Sunday in Lent – April 2, 2017

Texts: Ezekiel 37:1-14; Psalm 130; Romans 8:1-11; John 11:17-27, 38-53

Context: Palm Sunday is technically the last Sunday in Lent, but it has gradually been absorbed into the larger observance of Holy Week, leaving the fifth Sunday in Lent as the last. As such, the readings culminate the Lenten season of self-examination and repentance. The tone is a climactic anticipation – truly we are dead in our sins and unable to save ourselves! The Old Testament and psalm both heighten this sense of anticipation – where is our rebirth from dry bones? Must we wait on the watchtowers for the dawn? The Epistle lesson from Romans points us ahead – no, we need not wait for new life! We have new life in Christ! Here, now, today. Not perfectly of course, which leads us to doubt if we really have received new life. But Paul assures us we have. I opted for the abridged Gospel lesson, which shows us the new life – life from the dead – that Jesus is capable of giving. Lazarus being raised from the dead foreshadows our resurrection in Christ made possible through his victory over his own grave Easter morning.

Ezekiel 37:1-14 – This vision comes towards the end of a series of the Lord’s commands to Ezekiel to prophecy against various powers. Ezekiel is also commanded to prophecy in chapter 37 but the structure is markedly different from the surrounding chapters. Though the breath of God brings the reconstituted bones to life in this passage, it is not the same as the first breath of life given to Adam in Genesis 2. The interpretation of the vision is provided in vs. 11-14. We can read it symbolically, but there is good reason to also read it literally – if the bones represent the whole house of Israel, all of God’s people, then it encompasses past, present and future. This means those who have already died as well as those who still wait for the Lord’s salvation. The promises in this vision should include not just deliverance from spiritual lifelessness, or hopeless situations in general, but also deliverance from death itself in resurrection.

Psalm 130 – A psalm of hopeful waiting, a song of hope in the midst of struggle and loss. This could mean adversity but it could also mean despair over their sinful condition. The speaker is in dire circumstances, yet is hopeful that the Lord will hear and respond because the speaker is forgiven (v.4). Trusting in forgiveness, the speaker is free to wait for the Lord’s arrival and the speaker’s deliverance. The final three verses exhort the congregation of God’s people to hope in the Lord’s love and redemption, redemption enough for all of Israel and all Israel’s sins.

Romans 8:1-11 – Paul speaks the reality that the incarnation, death, resurrection, ascension, and promised return of the Son of God creates in those who trust in him. The condemnation of the Law against the sin in us is removed. We could not set ourselves free – only God could, and He has. In faith, we are recreated so that we desire the things of God, not simply what we want for ourselves. The problem is that we are only too well aware that we do still have sinful and selfish impulses, and these get the better of us often. It would be tempting to think that the new life we are promised in Christ is either a false promise, or we have not actually received it. But Paul assures us this is not the case. The Spirit of God dwells within those who profess faith in Jesus Christ. How can this be? Because only by the Spirit’s power can such a confession be made. The transformation is not simply begun but actually completed by Christ. Only in our resurrection or his return in glory will this be made obvious at last, though. This is our hope – that we will be freed from our sinful natures just as we will be physically raised from the dead. Ezekiel’s vision is a reality in Christ, and the cries of the psalmist are answered in the Easter dawn.

John 11:17-27, 38-53 Jesus exercises power over death itself, commanding a man who has been dead for four days to come out of his tomb. Jesus’ power is total – over the elements, over demons, and over death itself. Technically Lazarus is raised from the dead as opposed to resurrected. Lazarus eventually does die again, but in resurrection we will never die again, just as Jesus cannot die again. Death is the one enemy we are powerless against. While we race to figure out how to tweak our genetic code to eliminate death, we are promised eternal life through faith in the resurrected Son of God.

The community of faith is in the business of removing burial clothes. Together we remind one another that we are alive, not dead. As such we are to put off the habits and practices of the dead and live like the living. It wouldn’t be appropriate for Lazarus to continue to wear his burial wrappings. Now that he is alive again his community surrounds him to free him from the inappropriate wrappings and lead him to more appropriate attire. Christian community does this in leading others to conduct themselves like the new creations they have been made in Christ. Biblical injunctions to Godly living are not the means towards life, but the logical behavior of the living. Our behavior has no power to save in and of itself, but through faith, our obedience to God’s revealed way of living glorifies him and benefits those around us. Our actions cannot earn us God’s approval, as they are only appropriate – we don’t congratulate or praise the living for breathing or eating, because those are just the natural behaviors of someone who is alive.

The readings this week point us towards the approaching Holy Week. Jesus takes our death on himself, becoming dry bones so that we might receive the breath of life from God the Holy Spirit. We celebrate with Lazarus in anticipation of Jesus’ own glorious resurrection on Easter morning, and anticipating our own resurrection when our Lord returns.

Good Riddance

March 23, 2017

Thanks to Ken for this article on recent developments among Presbyterians here in the United States.  A traditional and hugely successful (in terms of numbers, books, congregations and ministries planted, and 5000 worshiping members in his current church – which may or may not be the best definition of successful) pastor and theologian has been rejected from an award after being awarded it because he dares to hold to the Bible and thus the traditional teachings and standards of the Christian church that deny we get to remake God into whomever we desire him to be in order to justify our redefined peccadillos of the day.

Tim Keller is a well known author and pastor who happens to teach and confess what the Church has taught and confessed for nearly 2000 years – human sexuality and gender are created by God, who alone gets to define how they are expressed and interacted with.  This if course is not the most vocal definition of things today, and those who oppose the Biblical stance on these issues in favor of radical reinterpretation that legitimizes what the Bible calls sinful demanded Princeton Theological Seminary rescind the award.

Amazing when a few letters and e-mails and phone calls can ride rough-shot over the Bible and centuries of teaching and confession derived from it.  It calls into question not so much Mr. Keller’s orthodoxy, as who determines the arc and trajectory of the institutions that train people like Mr. Keller.  What are theological seminaries committed to – the long-standing confession of the Bible and clear Biblical witness or the preferences of the students it hopes to attract to the program.

When I went to seminary, the buzz-word was theological formation.  I’m not sure this was ever really explained fully, but the basic assumption was that whatever I thought I knew as I entered the program, the intent of the program was to shape and shape me, rather than visa versa.  I could take or leave the program, I couldn’t demand the program accommodate my personal theological preferences.  It amazes me that other programs – theological or otherwise – around the country have so much trouble explaining this to their students.  I assume this has to do more with economics than anything.  For a school to survive it needs students.  To entice students you make it appealing to the students.  If the students demand something, you have to take it seriously or else your institution or your faculty are at risk of disappearing (at least that’s the assumption).  It is predicated on the relatively recent idea that students get to determine what an institution is, rather than students selecting an institution of higher learning (or a business to work for, or whatever) for what they want the institution to teach and define about them.  The authority is completely reversed.  The students get to lecture the institution.

At which point, the institution is already irrelevant and has for all practical purposes already disappeared.  I suspect Mr. Keller does what he does not for academic prestige or awards.  I have little doubt this snub will not change his theology or practice.  And as such, he demonstrates greater permanency than Princeton and it’s 200+ year tradition of education.  That’s commendable for Mr. Keller, but so sad for Princeton.  I hope what results from this are future generations of theologians questioning if they really want to attend an institution that allows students to dictate what it teaches, where the students insist on being the smartest and wisest people in the room.

Fear or Life

March 22, 2017

In a few weeks we depart on an epic family vacation that has taken us almost four years to plan and save for.  It is the culmination of persistence and hard work and great blessing as well as a particular approach to education and life.

But in the past few weeks there have been multiple reports of terrorist attacks throughout Europe.  Paris.  Dusseldorf.  London.  Not all places that we plan to visit, but reminders that there are dangers to this type of education for our children and for ourselves.  I don’t believe that the world is a fundamentally more dangerous place today than it has been in times past.  But our ability to know instantaneously what is happening across the globe certainly affects our way of looking at the world and the people in it.

On a regular basis people in town here die on a particular highway just outside of town.  I don’t drive it often but there are times that I do and I think about the fact that it is a notoriously dangerous stretch of road.  Sometimes I opt to take the longer way around, but sometimes I don’t.  Life is full of risks and dangers.  Ones close to home somehow seem less ominous than those far away, where we’ll be guests and visitors rather than locals and residents.

Our children have to learn to balance fear and life.  They have to learn to make the best decisions possible given the available data.  They have to recognize that there are no guarantees of a happily-ever-after.  Every day there are people just like us who become statistics out of no fault of their own.  It is not what I wish for myself or my children or those people, but it is a reality of this broken, sin-infested world.  We have to learn to handle the statistics and the fear they create if we hope to live.

I believe that ultimately, this means that we have to learn to look death in the face and acknowledge it.  We are taught to avoid thinking about death, regularly coddled and swaddled in assurances that if we just do the right things, good things will follow and bad things will stay away.  But this isn’t necessarily true.  Certainly we can and should make good decisions.  But sometimes those decisions don’t protect us from the variable, the random, the unknown, the unpredictable.  And those things can kill.

It’s possible to be run down by a terrorist in a foreign city just by being at the wrong place at the wrong time.  I also know people who get hit by distracted drivers right here in town.  These things happen.  I have to acknowledge that this is a possibility and then determine whether or not to get out of bed in the morning, or drive on the freeway, or fly across an ocean, or find my way through lands where I don’t speak the language.  I have to decide whether those things are important enough to my wife and children to expose them as well.  And I have to be able to live with my decision, whether we return from an amazing, life-altering but fundamentally safe trip, or whether some or all of us never return.

I can face death and reality through my faith that death has been defeated by the God who created everything.  I rest that faith on the historically accurate material contained in the Bible.  It tells me some things that are hard to believe.  But it also tells me other things that plenty of people assumed weren’t true or real, only to be proved wrong.  Incredulity is not a reliable means of determining truth.  I trust the accounts of people 2000 years ago who saw a dead man raised to life and then raised to heaven with the promise to return.  I trust that my life and my children are not accidents of chance and time, that we have meaning and purpose beyond mindlessly perpetuating genetic code, and that our lives don’t end in a plane crash or a terrorist’s explosion.  We don’t go out looking for these things.  We try to avoid them.  But we recognize that if they should find us, we are together in the hands of the God who brought us into existence and has promised to sustain us for eternity.

So we’ll keep finalizing plans.  We’ll keep assembling the final elements for our trip.  Shoes and jackets and fleeces all crammed into carry-on luggage to sustain us on an adventure that will require us to face down death.  That is the adventure that every single one of us is on, ultimately.  Not a matter of if but when and how.  I’m ready.  I’ll do my best to make sure my children are ready.  And I’m always prepared and willing to talk to anyone – even you – who want to be ready as well.

Tax Dollars at Work

March 21, 2017

I’m a proponent of small government and allowing people to govern themselves as much as possible at the local level.  I’m continually amazed at what our Federal government does.  I’m not saying whether this is good or bad – I’m sure that there are defensible reasons for it as well as arguments against it.  But it is surprising.

It Bears Repeating

March 20, 2017

As we get closer to Easter, the number of articles, television specials and other commentaries on the Bible and Jesus are likely to snowball.  Very few of them will be faithful, helpful, or accurate.

This essay is an old one and came out around Christmas rather than Easter, but the points are salient and need to be reiterated over and over and over again.  Because the false assertions never let up.