Posts Tagged ‘Theology’

Reading Ramblings – December 28, 2014

December 21, 2014

Date: First Sunday in Christmas, December 28, 2014

Texts: Isaiah 61:10-62:3; Psalm 111; Galatians 4:4-7; Luke 2:22-40

Context: Now that Christmas has come, the Son of God Incarnate in the midst of creation, what else can be done but to sing and rejoice, to praise the God of Creation for his wisdom and plan? The readings today fairly burst with joy, and sweep us along with them and God’s people for centuries as we continue to celebrate the birth of our Savior.

Isaiah 61:10-62:3 – Part of this reading is a repeat from two weeks ago. The faithful servant of the Lord speaks, and in this section gives glory to God the Father for what He has done in his servant, God the Son made man. In this most unlikely of methods, the Lord inaugurates a new time in creation history, a time when the blessedness of God once again dwells in the midst of humanity, albeit a now-fallen humanity. The result of this will be the vindication of God’s people for their hope and trust in him. Those who were mocked for their faith will be shown to be faithful and truthful. The humble bride of Christ, the Church, will be lifted high and receive glory and honor.

Psalm 111 – This brief psalm calls us to praise and exalt our God. God is to be praised for who He is and what He has already done. We do not hold our praise of God in check, waiting to see if He will respond to our demands and requests. God receives praise for all that He has already accomplished. These acts are most clearly seen in the history of his people – his grace and forgiveness in the midst of sinful rebellion, his steadfastness and his trustworthiness to fulfill the promises He has made – deliverance from sin as promised to Eve, a land and descendants to Abraham. As such we can trust that He will fulfill his promise to us – that one day the Messiah will return in glory, and that we who place our faith in that resurrected Son of God will one day be blessed with eternal life. Faith and trust in this God and these works is the foundation for all sound consideration of any sort.

Galatians 4:4-7 – Paul seeks to clarify the role of the Law in history as a means of preserving God’s people, protecting them until the day that they no longer need the Law. That day has come, initiated by the incarnation of the Son of God in creation. This Son of God came into a world ruled by the Law, and took on the corporeal reality of one under the Law. Yet the Son of God was not sinful by conception (Original Sin), nor did He commit sin. He remained the truly spotless Lamb of God, the willing sacrifice of whom can and did remove the sins of the world. The Son of God’s identification with us in our humanity makes possible our adoption by God the Father, makes possible our forgiveness and amnesty through the grace of God the Father for the sake of God the Son.

This is no distant blessing, but a reality that we partake of here and now (albeit imperfectly). So real is this relationship that we can come before our heavenly Father truly as a loving Father, not an angry judge. WE enjoy the unique privilege as adopted sons and daughters to call our heavenly Father Dad, knowing that He loves us and hears us far more than even the best human father delights to hear his children call him. We have this right here and now, a pledge of the greater reality of being heirs of God through Jesus Christ – life beyond the grave, life filled with joy and perfection. Truly cause to celebrate here and now!

Luke 2:22-40 – Jesus is brought to be circumcised, as God commanded his people to do when He saved them from slavery and death under the Egyptians (Exodus 13:2, 12). Simeon and Anna confirm the strange messages of the angels and the shepherds. This child is the Messiah. Prophecies fulfilled beget new prophecies, in this case both concerning Jesus’ impact on the people of God, and Jesus’ impact on his own mother as well. Both the personal and the communal are brought out in Simeon’s prophecies.

Simeon is not necessarily indicating in vs. 29-32 that he is ready to die now. Rather, he acknowledges that God has fulfilled his promise to him (v.26). Nothing more is known of Anna, though there are traditions and legends that she was a tutor to Mary in the Temple. Both Simeon and Anna are models of faithfulness. They have remained steadfast in their service to the Lord as well as their trust in the Lord.

For their part, Joseph and Mary are still surprised and perplexed at all the fuss. Did they regard the messages of the shepherds as hallucinations? Imaginations of their sleep-deprived minds? Were their respective angelic preparations simply dreams now? Had they rationalized away all the oddities surrounding Jesus’ birth, so that here and now, confronted by aged strangers and curious onlookers they continue to themselves be amazed?

Joseph and Mary could only do what they knew to do. They put one foot in front of the other in terms of their parenting duties. More so than any other first time parent, they relied on the customs of their community to help keep them from immobility, shock, and even despair. The boy needed to be circumcised. This happened on the eighth day. Mary would not have been in condition to travel, so they likely stayed with relatives in Bethlehem until her time of ritual impurity had passed (Leviticus 12:1-8). After this time, Mary needed to make an offering to conclude her time of ritual impurity. Regardless of the supernatural nature of the pregnancy and their dreams and visions and the birth night itself, there were ordinary, basic, predictable things to be done. Perhaps this helped to keep Joseph and Mary sane in the midst of everything else. When confronted with the inexplicable, how comforting it can be to have ordinary things and routines around us as we seek to make sense of things!

Joseph and Mary go home. They don’t seek to rearrange their lives in light of their curious son. They need family. They need community. Rather than isolate themselves in order to raise a Messiah, they enmesh themselves in the familiar in order to raise a son. The humanity of Jesus is emphasized in the humanity of his parents.

The strangeness surrounding Jesus’ birth is by no means over yet. Returning to Nazareth, Mary and Joseph likely are visited by the magi there, rather than in Bethlehem. Following that visit, they flee for their lives to Egypt for two years.

But for the time being, they do what is required. What is expected. God grants them this stability in the midst of great turmoil individually, as a couple, and now as a family. Through it all, God is praised (not Mary and Joseph!).

Art Tuesday?

November 18, 2014

Motivation has been low this week – always is when the family is away.  So for your better edification here is an article on a fascinating painting.  I strongly recommend opening up the image itself in a separate tab or browser window so you can refer back to it as you read the article (not the best article on the painting I’m sure, but it was an interesting enough start for me).

I’m a very poor student of art, knowing next to nothing about it other than a few big names and a sense of what I do and don’t personally like.  Dali’s Christian art has been a source of fascination to me, though, considering how unconventional it is.

What are some of your favorite artists and individual works, Christian or otherwise?  Maybe that would be an interesting thing to do here on a regular basis – explore how Christianity has inspired art.  Hmmm.

Ramadan Discussions

July 1, 2014

The international student who is living with us for the next eight weeks is Muslim.  A beautiful, intelligent young woman eager to engage with Americans as she works on perfecting her English language skills.  She arrived late Friday night.  When my wife told her (while I was at work on Saturday) what my job was, she was very excited at the prospect of theological conversations, and Sunday night we had our first one after the kids vacated the dinner table.

I asked her about Ramadan and her family observance of it.  She indicated that her family observed Ramadan (along with all of the other five pillars of Islam – profession of Allah as God and Mohammed as his final prophet, payment of the zakat or annual tithe, prayer five times a day, and undertaking the Hajj to Mecca, though they are still in the planning stages to fulfill this final obligation).  She then indicated that she doesn’t pray five times a day because of her schedule as a student, and that she isn’t observing Ramadan this year while she is in the United States.

I asked her about how she felt about these departures from expected Muslim behavior.  There was hesitation, a recognition that she was not following her religion as closely as she ought to.

She asked me about my weekly routine, and then asked specifically if people came to me for confession.  I indicated that they did and that this was one of the most important aspects of my job, that I could communicate to people the forgiveness they have in Jesus Christ – that God has forgiven their sins.  I then asked her if confession is a tradition in Islam and she quickly said that it is, and that the Imam is the one who hears confession.  However, she said that the Imam cannot declare forgiveness.  When he hears confession he encourages the person to pray to Allah and ask for mercy, and agrees to pray to Allah on that person’s behalf for the same.  But the Imam cannot declare that the person is forgiven, as only Allah can do this, and Allah has not indicated in the Qur’an what things he will or won’t forgive.  There is no certainty of forgiveness.

I returned to her modified devotional practices, not observing Ramadan and not praying five times daily.  I asked her again how she feels knowing that she is not fulfilling the duties she should as stated in the Qur’an.  Again, uneasiness.  She talked about how the Qur’an was given a long time ago, when people didn’t have the choices and options they do today.  People did the same thing, vocationally.  But now you could go to school or study abroad – there were so many options that made the literal fulfillment of the prescribed practices difficult.  She isn’t alone in this recognition – there have been various articles talking about how Ramadan will affect Muslim soccer players.  They must decide whether to obey the literal requirements of no food or water during daylight hours.

I asked her if she thought Allah understood how much things have changed in the last 1400 years, if he would be merciful and forgiving to her and other Muslims who found the Five Pillars of Islam difficult or impossible to observe.  She smiled and shrugged and simply said “I hope so.”

I look forward to more conversations on this topic.  Forgiveness in Jesus Christ is something it is so easy for Christians to take for granted, yet it is one of the distinctive hallmarks of the faith, something that set it apart from many other belief systems.  In other religions, we must atone ourselves for our sins through ritual or sacrifice or specific action.  All of which leaves the person wondering if it was enough.  What about sins you aren’t aware you committed?  What if you weren’t devout enough in performing your atonement work?  Will the gods still accept it?  Is forgiveness really real?

In Christianity, our forgiveness is not dependent on ourselves and what we do.  Rather, it is dependent entirely on what the Son of God has done in coming into our world as one of us and dying in our place.  His resurrection from the dead is evidence that forgiveness is available, that the curse of death for sin has been lifted.  He calls us (and enables us) to accept this, to recognize it for the life-saving reality that it is.  In that hope, however wavering at times, we have assurance and confidence that we are forgiven.  What a blessing that confidence is!

Out of Business

July 1, 2014

My disgust for the continued assumption of corporate philosophy and practice in the Church continues to grow.

A few weeks ago a colleague shared this article with me.  He’s a wonderful man and loving pastor, now retired, seeking to make sense of the sweeping changes and devastation he has witnessed since he began his ministry over 50 years ago.  Like many current and retired pastors, he looks to the latest experts and gurus to deliver verdicts that might have some meaning, that might be able to stem the tide that has emptied many traditional denominational congregations of their youth in particular, and of members in general.

The article he shared with me focuses on pastoral skills that are not actually pastoral, but much more closely identified with business leadership roles.  Framing the vision, engaging the board in planning, leading staff, managing finances, developing future leadership, being the chief communicator and supporting the board.  How often have these duties or slight variations of them been touted as part of the pastoral duty, and how often have congregational boards and councils bought into these assertions (coming as they do from gurus and experts), only to lay into their Called staff for failing in these regards?

I’ll say it again – a congregation is not a business.  The Church is not a corporation.  The pastor is not a CEO.  In our quest to find a more relevant metaphor than shepherd for the modern church, we’ve somehow settled on CEO, and I believe it is only exacerbating the demise not just of congregations but of pastoral careers.

Another article from the same website focuses on the importance of discussing performance as a congregation.  The author asserts that Jesus and Moses (as well as the author’s parents) each upbraided their followers for not performing properly.  Nowhere does the author define what he means by performance.  I see Jesus and Moses criticizing their followers for unfaithfulness and for disobedience, but is this the same thing as performance?  Is it true that “God is judging our performance”, as the author asserts in conclusion?  What does the Bible say about this?  Whose performance is it that is judged – ours, or Christ’s?

I’m no guru or expert.  I haven’t authored any books (well, nothing theologically related).  But this is dangerous quasi-theology used as PR to sell consultation services.  The sooner the Church recognizes that performance is a very different animal in Scripture, and remember that followers of Christ are called to suffer – which might mean dealing with declining numbers and radical change, the better.  Don’t get me wrong – there are Called workers out there in the Church who have no right to be where they are, who are grossly incompetent and even dangerous, and congregations need to deal with those people for the good of the individuals as well as the congregations.

But evaluating your Called staff because your congregation hasn’t significantly grown, or because they aren’t skilled in reading spreadsheets and putting together PowerPoint presentations is a dangerous departure from what Called staff should be about.  I recommend paying more attention to 1 Timothy 3 rather than the latest, greatest, and for-hire experts & gurus.  At least until those experts and gurus can demonstrate that their own performance warrants your respect.


Reading Ramblings – July 6, 2014

June 29, 2014

Date:  2014 Narrative Preaching Series #3, July 6, 2014

Texts: Genesis 7, 8:13-22; Psalm 1; Mark 6:45-52


Context: Sin pervades creation courtesy of Adam and Eve’s disobedience.  Each generation can’t imagine that mankind could become worse, more depraved, less God-fearing.  Nearly every generation is proved wrong as sin proliferates.  Perhaps if we could start with the best of the best, though, we could stem the tide of sin?  The promise of eugenics to improve humanity by controlling who lives to procreate is not a new temptation.  God shows us that this is not the solution to the problem of sin.  The problem of sin can only be solved by God stepping into creation, not by creation once again attempting to play God.


Genesis 7, 8:13-22— In the few short chapters from Genesis 3 to Genesis 7, sin proliferates.  Humanity wanders far afield from God in so many ways.  Power and violence are now sources of pride and glory.  Marriage becomes twisted into new forms.  Still the promise looms out there, expectant in the hearts of those who still strive to follow God.  Noah’s very name may be an indication (Genesis 5:28-29) his parents hoped he would be the one promised by God to Eve.  Surely, Noah grows into a man who loves God and seeks to obey him despite the sinful selfishness of the surrounding peoples.  Who better to reboot humanity?

The flood obliterates creation, destroying all peoples except for those preserved on the ark.  If there was to be a hope for mankind within mankind alone, Noah and his family evidently represent it.  But even as they exit the ark to begin the process of rebuilding, God knows better.  He knows that even within righteous Noah, sinfulness rages.  Our hope cannot simply be in good people.  Our hope has to lie elsewhere, beyond ourselves.

God also demonstrates his absolute sovereignty over all things.  Believers and unbelievers alike are all within his power, and what God ordains, no human can thwart.

Psalm 1— Obedience to God is a beautiful and wonderful thing, wherein we draw closer to our true identities and natures as we were created to be.  Obedience consists of consciously rejecting the way of the world, of selfishness and self-seeking, and seeking out the Word of God himself for guidance and instruction.  In a world that insists our self is our greatest good, the Word of God directs us to a proper context of self as a creation of God, designed to serve and love God and one another.  While these confused contexts might seem up in the air these days, evil will be shown to be what it is.  Justice will prevail.  The righteousness of God will ensure that this confusion does not last forever.

Mark 6:45-52—Water often represents chaos, the uncontrolled foundational element of all existence.  God demonstrates his authority over literal water in creation, not simply creating it but also ordering it and restraining it, ensuring that it obeys his commands.  In the Flood God demonstrates his powers by undoing some of these restraints and turning loose the waters over creation to flood and destroy and kill.  Yet when the intended purposes are accomplished, God ensures that the water recedes and returns to proper boundaries so that life might once again flourish.

Jesus’ disciples struggle to make sense of who He is.  Not long before this event, Jesus demonstrates his authority over the wind and the waters of the Sea of Galilee, commanding them to be still where moments earlier they had threatened to sink the fishing boat Jesus and his disciples traveled in. He has just finished miraculously feeding thousands of people before sending his disciples alone across the Sea of Galilee.  Who is this amazing and frightening person?  The disciples likely had much to discuss among themselves as they begin their trip.

Once again Jesus demonstrates his authority as the Son of God, displaying his power over creation.  Who can control the waves and wind?  Whose voice must they obey?  And who is capable of suspending the properties of creation, allowing things to happen that otherwise could not?  Who is it that can walk across water as though on dry land?  Surely only the creator and master of creation could do such things.  The sight of Jesus walking across the water is undoubtedly far more disturbing to his disciples than his absence.

Jesus is aware of their concerns, just as He was aware that their boat was not making much headway against the wind.  Once again wind is portrayed in opposition to Jesus’ disciples.  Could there be spiritual forces at play here, trying to keep Jesus and his followers from their destination?  We shouldn’t rule out this interpretation though Scripture is not explicit.  This is the second time that the disciples struggle with the natural elements when commanded by Jesus to sail.  This is the second time that Jesus’ authority over the elements is demonstrated.

But whether natural or supernatural in their source, the winds once again must obey the Word through which they were created.  Jesus calms his disciples, and then calms the winds.  His mastery over both humans and nature is absolute. While humanity is often at the mercy of nature, God is not.  Both humanity and creation are created to acknowledge the power and presence of the God who created them.  Humanity that embraced sin with Adam and Eve is in need of someone greater to rescue it.  Jesus has demonstrated his willingness and ability to resist temptation, demonstrating that He is the one promised to Eve (not Noah!).  He is the one who can not simply restore creation, but recreate it from the inside out.


Unity is Hard

June 27, 2014

Tonight and for the next few days, our family will undergo a ritual that we have repeated more than a dozen times in the last year.  We will welcome a stranger into our family and home.  We’ve never met this person.  We know nothing about her beyond her age, her country of origin, and that she’s coming to Santa Barbara to improve her English and learn about American culture.  We don’t know anything about her family, her background, her experiences, her education, her hopes, her dreams.  Perhaps more pertinent, we don’t know anything about her personal characteristics, whether she’s tidy or messy, fresh or stinky, grumpy or cheerful, a morning person or a night person, how well she shares, whether she likes dogs, or children, or much of anything else.

Yet for the next two months, she becomes part of our family.  She has to learn to adapt to us.  We have to learn to adapt to her.  We are committed to working out misunderstandings, clarifying confusion, giving the benefit of the doubt, smiling, being patient, trying to listen more than speak, and otherwise to love this young woman as her family-away-from-home, which is what we are.

In a little over a year of doing this, with people from literally all over the world, we have only had one situation that wasn’t pleasant.  We’ve had no shortage of goofs and mistakes and misunderstandings.  We’ve been stretched in dealing with privileged teens and pampered pubescents.  We’ve learned that you can survive the callouses that form from biting your tongue.  It isn’t lethal.  And only once – and not by our initiation – was a student reassigned because it just wasn’t a good fit.

I’m not bragging, but I’m proud of that track record.  It has taught our family a lot.  A lot that I wish my larger church body (not my particular congregation!) would learn.

I spent the day planning for a conference in the fall that pastors from our region are all supposed to attend.  Only about half of them do.  Some don’t because of logistical reasons – their parishes can’t afford to cover their travel expenses, things like that.  Others don’t because they dislike gathering together as clergy.  I’m an introvert, I get that to large extent.  Conferences are painful and awkward for me as well.  But I go, because it’s important to be there.  Not necessarily important for me, though that could easily be debated.  But important all the same.  Important to my congregation as a tangible reminder that we are not some sort of renegade group out here in paradise.  Important to my brothers in the ministry as a sign of support and encouragement, even if they have no idea who I am and we never exchange a single word.  Important to remind me that I’m not the Lutheran Lone Ranger.

But unity is hard.  Not all of the guys who gather for this conference see eye to eye on all matters.  Some of them disagree pretty firmly on aspects of ministry and worship and Christian life.  For some guys, these differences are reasons to skip the conference all together.  It is their passive or active judgment on all the people that don’t agree with them.  Some of these guys don’t come because they don’t want to take Holy Communion with their brothers they disagree with.

Brothers that are ordained in the same denomination they are.  Brothers who have taken the same ministerial vows that they have.  Because they disagree, they have decided that they cannot Commune together.  They are stating that they are not in unity with the rest of us, or at least those who disagree with them.

I have my opinions and ideas and preferences like anyone else.  But I try to bear in mind at all times that the odds that I’m wrong about something are frighteningly high.  A Masters in theology doesn’t make you theologically bulletproof.  It makes you just sharp enough to be dangerous.  To yourself, your congregation, and your colleagues.

But unity is what we affirm in our ministerial vows.  Unity is what we are called to not just in Christ but by Christ (John 17).  I may not agree with everything a colleague of mine does.  But is he still a brother in Christ?  And is there nothing that I can learn from him?  Nothing he can learn from me?  Isn’t it going to be awfully awkward in heaven to be around people that you refuse to speak to here and now?  Brothers and sisters in the faith?

Unity is hard.  It takes a lot of work.  A lot of tongues bitten.  A lot of grace rather than judgment.  It has to be prized in and of itself, as something to be striven for and achieved to at least a limited degree.  The harder you work at it, the more you realize that it can be done.  It isn’t the end of the world to have a heated disagreement with somebody and not change their mind.  And it certainly doesn’t hurt to sit down around a table with them a while later and share a meal, whether chips & salsa or Holy Communion.  It in fact is very helpful, very necessary, very important.

I need the opportunity to learn how to stay in unity with someone I don’t agree with – who I may not even like!  And I need brothers in the faith who will do the same with me.  Not because it’s always fun and easy, but because it can be done, should be done, and must be done.

Burial Beliefs

June 24, 2014

This past Saturday I presented a talk at our church on planning for your memorial.  Pretty perky sounding topic, eh?  It’s appropriate for an older congregation like mine, but the topic is eminently pertinent to everyone.  I tried to make this clear by simply emphasizing the obvious – barring a divine return, we’re all going to die.  No ifs, ands, or buts.  We don’t know how or when, but keeping this rather important fact in mind throughout life is a really, really, really good idea.  We’re not to obsess over it, but we dare not forget or ignore it the way our culture would prefer us to.

I touched briefly on the topic of cremation vs. burial, indicating that there is no strong Biblical endorsement of any particular funerary practice.  What matters is that we treat the body as a gift of God, a gift that foreshadows the body we will once again enjoy when we are raised from the dead on the day of Jesus’ return.  As such, the rationale behind the decision on how to deal with our dead body is probably more important than the particular decision reached.  In short I don’t see a problem with burial or cremation.  But I alluded to the fact that there are evolving burial practices that I do have a problem with.  

Then an acquaintance on Facebook posted this link.  Red flag statement?  “Bios urn transforms death into life through nature.”

Now, let’s not be silly here.  There are plenty of folks whose bodies have disintegrated over time, become part of the soil and undoubtedly absorbed into the local flora and fauna.  From dust we have come and to dust we will return – it’s not just an Ash Wednesday mantra, it’s reality.  However, it’s a side effect.  From dust we have come, but dust is not what we were originally destined to return to.  And the life that comes through death for the Christian has nothing to do with becoming part of a tree or a shrub or an animal or some other Lion King sort of circle-of-life silliness.  Our hope for life is linked to the life of Jesus of Nazareth, the life He demonstrated to hundreds of people after he was executed and buried.  He is our hope for life, and any other source of hope is a pretty dismal alternative.  

That being said I don’t take issue with wanting to be environmentally friendly.  Embalming and all the other things we do to put off the natural decay of the body strike me as highly unnatural.  Pumping dead bodies and therefore eventually the ground with toxic chemicals makes no sense to me.  But the reasonable alternative is not the hope that our dearly departed will now be a tree.