Friday, December 24, 2010

The Story, the whole Story and nothing but the Story

As I sit here, with my festival service sermon finished, I fret over the emphasis on sin and brokenness. Is it a buzzkill? Shouldn't it be all warm and fuzzy? But I fret over all gospel and no discussion of why it is gospel at all. Do we ignore the reality in which we live? If the current life isn't shown to be lacking in every area that God desires, why do we even need Jesus?

Last night as I sought to refine my sermon I read through Regin Prenter's Creation and Redemption. There I read, "The unity of God and man in the incarnation means that through the man Jesus Christ, in his human death and in the restoration of his human life through the resurrection, God completes the work which he began when he created man in his own image. There God's life-giving and life-sustaining mercy reaches its culmination. This is the only way in which the unity of God and man in the incarnation has any meaning."

And while glancing over at Living Lutheran, I found Pastor Erma Wolf's post on the very same topic... sort of. There she wrote:
While this last song didn’t sound at all like a Christmas carol to my non-Lutheran friends (“But it talks about death!” they objected), it fit perfectly with our children’s programs that began, always, with the story of Adam and Eve falling into sin.

To be Lutheran meant telling the Christmas story, the WHOLE story, from the very beginning. It meant, and still means, telling the real reason for the season: that God had to act to save us from our sins, and that, in the words of another unlikely Christmas song from the South, “I Wonder as I Wander,” that “Jesus the Savior did come for to die.”

And so I sang, then and now, these words:

I was in bondage, sin, death and darkness;
God’s love was working to make me free.
Jesus my Savior himself did offer,
Jesus my Savior paid all I owe.
Therefore I’ll say again, God loves me dearly,
God loves me dearly, loves even me.

Read her whole post here.

And thus I am reminded that we must tell the whole story of what God is up to and how we ever got here in the first place.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Christmas, Community, & Meaning over at Mediation

I have started writing for/with another blog, Mediation, over at The Other Journal. Mediation is a blog that "is dedicated to fostering creative dialogue at the intersection of faith and culture by situating this general discussion within the increasingly pervasive arena of electronic media."

I am pleased to be part of the rotation over there, and it will not be stopping my writing here either. My first post "Christmas, Community & Meaning" is up now.

Gloria in excelsis Deo et in terra pax!

Monday, December 20, 2010

Charlie Brown Christmas in a Box -- Exchange it!

I was out shopping the other day, a mix of personal and charitable. I was enjoying buying German holiday treats like lebkuchen and speckulaas, and I was also picking up canned goods for our congregation's Christmas food basket ministry that we do around all the holidays for a couple of local programs. It was a good day, fun AND fulfilling at the same time. I turned the corner and entered an aisle with several non-food items, gifts and the like, when I saw the Charlie Brown Christmas Tree in a box for sale. I was stunned. I snapped a photo and sent it on to Twitter calling for folks to place it in the "Horribly ironic Christmas decoration" category.

It should not come as a surprise that the Charlie Brown Christmas special is a favorite or mine. Not only is it the only special that centers Christmas on Jesus by reading Luke 2, it also captured a dissatisfaction with the growing commercialization of Christmas forty-five years ago. Now this post is not a rant about the "true meaning of Christmas." After all, Christians themselves participate in a bevy of rituals around Christmas time, not all of which are explicitly Christ-centered. They are ways to celebrate. What motivates us to celebrate is multi-faceted. And when Christians celebrate, others join in, even if they are not as seemingly pure as ours are... whatever that could mean. Christians at any rate over the past few centuries made an effort themselves to strip Christ away so the society around us could partake in the values that we saw in Jesus, but just based on reason alone. Christianity opened the door to this way, and tried to instill values and ethics based on a Christ-less Christianity.

But I do wonder about this tree. Without a distinct understanding of Jesus and his story, I don't know if the tree makes any sense. Under orders from Lucy to get a Christmas tree for their Christmas play, "a big, shiny, aluminum tree" she barks, Charlie Brown goes, but he cannot look past the only real tree on the lot, a miserable-looking tree that is copied almost exactly in the fake tree in the box. The reality that gets overlooked, I think, in this scene is that the tree is supposed to be like that. The tree that Charlie Brown cannot take his eyes off is a miserable tree. He does pick a lousy tree. And if I were trying to sell fancy aluminum trees (Did they really makes those back in the 60's? I suppose folks will ask if we really made and sold fiber optic trees fifty years from now), I imagine that the only real trees I would have around would be the miserable and pathetic real ones with gaps in the branches and a warped trunk, so people would be motivated to buy my modern, perfect and fake trees.

The tree that Charlie Brown picks is not at all suitable for a celebration of the birth of Jesus. This tree is not at all suitable for anything, not even bearing a bulb when after being criticized by his friends for choosing such a tree, he drags the tree home and tries to place one little ornament on it. Charlie Brown's efforts are miserable. But his friends do ultimately show pity on him. They follow him and find the tree abandoned in the snow. They use the award-winning decorated doghouse of Snoopy to transform that tree into a real beauty.

My friend Phillip over at Said Another Way had commented to me a few years back that this scene is a wonderful image of the Blessed Exchange of which Luther spoke. Luther comments in a sermon:

Is not this a beautiful, glorious exchange, by which Christ, who is wholly innocent and holy, not only takes upon himself another’s sin, that is, my sin and guilt, but also clothes and adorns me, who am nothing but sin, with his own innocence and purity? And then besides dies the shameful death of the Cross for the sake of my sins, through which I have deserved death and condemnation, and grants to me his righteousness, in order that I may live with him eternally in glorious and unspeakable joy. Through this blessed exchange, in which Christ changes places with us (something the heart can grasp only in faith), and through nothing else, are we freed from sin and death and given his righteousness and life as our own.
Luther, M. (1999, c1959). Vol. 51: Luther’s works, vol. 51 : Sermons I (J. J. Pelikan, H. C. Oswald & H. T. Lehmann, Ed.). Luther’s Works (51:III-316). Philadelphia: Fortress Press.

The tree is us. We are imperfect and not at all suitable for any celebration of Jesus' birth. But we are real. We are not artificial marvels perfected by technology, which removes our blemishes. We living human beings with whom Christ trades places. I just don't know if buying a fake Charlie Brown Christmas tree fits... a perfectly reproduced fake Christmas tree. The tree can be a reminder of the Blessed Exchange, but I do think it gets missed. Instead we turn the special into a lesson about being compassionate toward one another. Not a bad thing at all. A most certain improvement over the way we are most likely to treat one another without any assistance. But how great that the compassion we show to others is firmly rooted in the compassion the Father shows us in Jesus.

We don't need to be self-righteous, as people on both sides of the "Christmas wars" are. But we can be present in the celebrations for others keeping our eyes out for a moment to share the good news present in this holiday, and at the same time looking for God's compassion to transform us, remembering that Christ has given us the gift of his very self.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Pearls Before Swine...

I check in on the guys over at the comic strip, Pearls Before Swine. I was very surprised at the comics yesterday and today... introducing Father Gus, a "real authority" on religion.

From yesterday,
Pearls Before Swine

and today.
Pearls Before Swine

I wonder what tomorrow will bring...

Monday, December 06, 2010

Saint Nicholas... emphasis on the Saint

I was awoken this morning by shouts of joy coming from my two boys, ages seven and four. They had found presents under the tree, left there by Saint Nicholas. My wife and I had instituted the celebration of this day as a way to temper the Santa Claus fever that runs rampant this time of year. December 6 is the big gift giving day in Germany, along with other countries. Gifts come from Saint Nick on this day. On Christmas day, gifts that appear come from the Christkind, the Christ-child. How successful we have been on that front still remains to be seen. But we have followed this tradition for several years now and we will continue on.

Because we have gone this route, I am always drawn to stories of Saint Nicholas, images of him, churches that bear his name and so on. Saint Nicholas is one very popular saint. Something I read a while back and cannot lay my hands on right now claimed that there were more churches named after Saint Nicholas than any other figure. In some ways, this move is surprising since very little is actually known. Most of what passes around comes from legend. But we do know a few things.

He was a bishop in Myra, a city of Lycia in Asia Minor. We know that he was at the Council of Nicea in 325. There we get the tale that he slapped the heretic Arias and was saved from any discipline because all the other bishops had experienced a vision of Mary and Jesus, where Mary pleaded for the bishops to excuse Nicholas' actions since they had been done in zeal for her son.

The red robe is the bishop's robe. His symbol is three bags of gold due to the story where a poor man was faced with the possibility of selling his daughters into prostitution because he was too poor to provide a dowry. Nicholas, having inherited wealth from his parents at a young age and vowing to use it to for charity, slips three bags of gold into the bedroom window of the daughters, thereby providing the necessary money for the dowry.

A 1953 work, Lives of Saints (not Butler's mind you), put together by Franciscans, speak of Nicholas being imprisoned under the persecutions of Diocletian, after being chosen to be the Bishop of Myra. He was released only after Constantine ascends the throne and establishes Christianity as a legal religion of the empire.

This same work gives a nice account of Nicholas' work in the wider world.
Nicholas was also the guardian of his people in temporal affairs. The governor had been bribed to condemn three innocent men to death. On the day fixed for their execution Nicholas stayed the hand of the executioner and released them. Then he turned tot he governor and reproved him so sternly that he repented. There happened to be present that day three imperial officers, Nepotian, Ursus, and Herpylion, on their way to duty in Phrygia. Later, after their return, they were imprisoned on false charges of treason by the prefect and an order was procured from the Emperor Constantine for their death. In their extremity, they remembered the bishop of Myra's passion for justice and prayed to God for his intercession. That night Nicholas appeared to Constantine in dream, ordering him to release the three innocent officers. The prefect had the same dream, and in the morning the two men compared their dreams, then questioned the accused officers. On learning that they had prayed for the intervention of Nicholas, Constantine freed them and sent them to the bishop with a letter asking him to pray for the peace of the world.
Lives of Saints, ed. by Fr. Joseph Vann O.F.M., 1953, p. 39
In this time where merchants are begging for our money, and airwaves are filled with vapid Christmas specials that speak about the "spirit of Christmas" in terms of universal values like peace, and giving, and family, and the like, we have the stalwart Nicholas. One of the things we must remember about universals is that they really only mean something when immersed in the concrete reality of the particular. How the particular carries the universal makes all the difference. In the Christmas specials, the universals are left open for each to carry however he or she chooses.

Nicholas' life points to the universals played out in a particular worldview. His encounter with Arias at the Council of Nicea earned him the title of Confessor. He defended orthodoxy because he understood that all of these universal values obtain their maximum value from Jesus Christ. What does "peace" mean apart from the peace offered in Jesus, true God and true human. If Arias was right, that notion of peace would mean something else. Giving and charity are rooted first in who Jesus is, as the one who is sent from the Father.

Saint Nicholas would be most surprised at what his image has become. His particular life has been turned into something else. This is a day to remember what his actual life meant. If you have kids, break out the Veggie Tales' DVD about Saint Nicholas. It is a good introduction for kids about St. Nick. And pray for the peace of Christ in all the world, giving thanks for Nicholas' example.

Wednesday, December 01, 2010

Comfortable Lives and Advent

Tonight, at our midweek Advent service, we sang the hymn "Comfort, Comfort, Now My People" which allowed us to join the prophet Isaiah who said,
Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God. 2Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that she has served her term, that her penalty is paid, that she has received from the Lord’s hand double for all her sins.
A voice cries out: “In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God. 4Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain. 5Then the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all people shall see it together, for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.” (Isaiah 40:1-5)
The time of Advent is a favorite of mine. The reflection of the coming of Jesus to usher in the fullness of the Kingdom is a great source of hope for me. But all too often, Advent is short-circuited. We turn it into just a holding pattern for Christmas. We use it as a preparatory season for Christmas and we shop and consume and buy and spend. We fill our lives with a massive amount of luxuries that make our lives comfortable. Are we able to hear the words of Isaiah in the glare of our iPads? with our earbuds cranked up? bellied up to the all-you-can eat Chinese buffet?

And believe me when I use the first person plural, I mean it... it is not just a rhetorical device. I struggle with my desires and my relatively comfortable life. My home. My blackberry. High-tech athletic gear. Video games. Means and ability to buy quality, organic, local food at the farmer's market. My attempts to rationalize greater consumption. When I face it all I have to admit, I have a very comfortable life.

Do our comfortable lives interfere with our hearing the hope in the return of Christ? Can we hear that the lives we believe are comfortable are in fact not. Is this a reason we more often than not we think about Advent as nothing more than a pre-Christmas warm up? Where is the urgency in praying "Amen! Come Lord Jesus!"?

The coming of Jesus at the end of time is not just about our eternal life. There are real and concrete realities for our us and our world. Jesus' birth, death, resurrection and return all point to a cosmic upheaval that will transform the world into a truer and deeper reality where the world and us along with it are made into the people God has always meant us to be. This Advent I would hope we are all given a glimpse of that vision, so that we might see the power sin has over us, and turn to desire God's vision for real and abiding life, rather than the vision presented to us in high-def.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Passing the Peace --Encountering the World

I read a really touching account of passing the peace over at the Christian Century. A Lutheran pastor, Cheryl Walenta, wrote of passing the peace with someone who has less than perfect personal hygeine. Here is an excerpt.

When the time comes to share the peace, I shake hands with everyone I can find, but Smokey is nowhere to be seen. Whew. My clean hands are safe. As I make my way back to my seat, however, he appears and grabs my hand before I have the chance to check whether he left the sanctuary in order to wash his hands. Smokey begins his ritual: a secret handshake so secret that no one knows how to do it. Smokey leads the way: never explaining, only teaching with his actions. He grabs my hand and pulls it toward him, then pushes my hand away, and then he twists my arm up and down until we're each supposed to snap our fingers. I guess this might look really cool if I knew what we were doing, but I don't. I just look confused. On this particular day, Smokey lifts our grasped hands high above his head, and then twirls himself underneath.

I have to laugh.

(Read the whole article, here.)

Just one more example that highlights the idea that when we pass the peace, we are not simply greeting one another and welcoming them. When we pass the peace, we think that the peace of Christ is something that can actually be shared with others. Walenta receives Christ's peace in a place she expects it least, and where she has some anxiety about going. Jesus urges us to keep awake, and be ready... so at least we might recognize him as he shares his peace.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Science Trumping Religion? Let's Talk about Sin

Over at Faith & Reason, Cathy Lynn Grossman has an excellent post raising some questions about science and religion, particularly in light of some recent conversation at the Faith Angle seminar where Elaine Howard Ecklund, a sociologist, and Barbara Bradley Hagerty, NPR religion reporter, had a conversation.

Grossman's post highlighted a few things, most notably (but not surprisingly to me), about 50% of the 1700 scientists Ecklund had surveyed were religious. Hagerty, having written a new book Fingerprints of God, highlights the findings of neurologists that call into question the authority of religious experience.

In the midst of these conversations, the sticking point I continue to come to, Grossman also lifts up. What about sin? In so many ways, genetics is looked to as the final word. Some scientists hold that because of genetics completely takes away our free will, since we are nothing more than pre-programmed responses hardwired into us. The other extreme takes genetics to be a vision of how God created us. Grossman highlights this position in connection with homosexuality. This argument is often used but supporters of gay rights or relaxed stances toward biblical authority regarding gays and lesbians.

So we are left with two options, genetic determinism (you will simply respond to the world around you as your genes dictate) or genetic creationism (your genes portray a vision of who God made you to be). Neither position takes into account the full reality we face. The first takes away the problem of sin, at least individual sin. No longer do we have to call out "The devil made me do it," but now we may excuse ourselves by calling out "My genes made me do it!" As the end of the post says, there is already some movement in our legal system that begins to allow this thinking where one offender was acquitted since as the juror said "a bad gene is a bad gene." In this case the manifestation of individual sin is removed. But I would imagine, for most people, the concept of sin is distasteful. We are after all really good for the most part, right?

The second option (and please know I have made up those labels... I don't know if they appear elsewhere) fails to discern the reality of the brokenness of our genetic makeup. I am NOT saying that homosexuality is a manifestation of brokenness, but what I am saying is that by saying homosexuality is a matter of being wired that way, we fail to distinguish why the baby born with the genetic markers for a fatal condition is not also created that way by God. In the long run, this position creates a God who gives people death sentences.

The reality to face is the presence of sin. But we must tread with caution. First I do not understand sin as an individual moral category. That is, when we start discussing sin we do not jump immediately to our transgressions. First and foremost, we must talk about the understanding of the universal brokenness that permeates creation. Sin should be seen as the primal rupture in relationships; relationships between the human being and God, human being and other humans, the human being and creation, and finally the human being and his or her self. Our individual transgressions are manifestations of these broken relationships. In a fallen world, where sin is a power that holds sway over us, we must realize that any scientific study of the world around us is a study of this fallen world. As circular as this sounds, it points to the very cold, hard reality that our genes reflect this fallenness, but maybe not the complete fallenness. Some genes, we find are necessary for life. Some genes, should we have them, will bring death. The relationship with creation, through our selves, is broken.

The power of sin is much more universal than we might think. It is far more than just our misdeeds. So we must, I think, read Paul's words from Romans "the wages of sin is death" in the light of this cosmic power that takes root in the very fabric of our genetic makeup. We should not then place all of our hope in the genetic science around us. We can neither simply negate sin nor embrace it through genetics. As we near the season of Advent, when we hear of the cosmic struggle that will take place in the coming of Christ, where sin and brokenness finally are done away with, and the Reign of God is established, let us ponder the person of Christ. Through him will all things be perfected. Our resurrected bodies will be free of any and all brokenness. Our view of genetics then must rest in some eschatological tension between what is and what will be. Genetics does not determine our end. Christ does. Genetics does not guarantee our identity. Christ does.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Iraqi Christians -- Living in Fear, Bearing Witness to Christ

This morning I was awakened by my oldest son, who was not feeling well. He needed something from a nearby pharmacy, so I left at about 5 a.m. While I was on the way there I was able to listen to the BBC World Update on our public radio station. The BBC was running a story about Christians in Iraq. I found the story, now transcribed on the BBC site. You can read the whole story here.

The basic gist of the story though is that in the aftermath of the bombing of the Catholic cathedral in Baghdad, the Archbishop Athanasios Dawood is urging Iraqi Christians to flee. At the same time the Syriac Catholic Bishop of Baghdad, Ignatius Metti Metok is urging his flock to remain. He said,

My people say to me, 'You want us to stay after what's happened? It could happen again, and who's going to protect us?' We tell them, the Church is against emigration, we have to stay here, whatever the sacrifices, to bear witness to our faith. But people are human, and we can't stop them leaving.

I imagine that the majority of folks hear the Bishop's stance as ludicrous. Stay in harm's way rather than get the hell out of Dodge. But the bishop roots the position in the faithful witness of the Church. In the midst of fear, the Church does not turn tail, but remain present to testify to the presence of the crucified and risen one, over whom death no longer holds dominion.

Another thing to consider is what damage an Iraqi Christian exodus might do to the witness of the Church. At the end of the article, there is a brief statement that violence is not only being targeted toward Christians but also Shia Muslims. About two days after the attack at the cathedral about 90 Shia Muslims were also killed. If Iraqi Christians leave, or are even urged to leave by Iraqi Bishops and other Christian leaders, then it seems that the underlying message there is "Let the murderous Muslims take it out on their own!" I fear that the emigration would bear witness to the all too prevalent notion that Muslims are less than human and reinforce the message that this struggle is about Christians versus Muslims.

How instead might Iraqi Christians remain and live out the "Love your neighbor" command as their neighbors are experiencing violence as well? The cruciform life is lived at the intersection of loving God and neighbor. As we live with our neighbors, even those who hate us, we are called to love them and bear witness to the God who has is at work reconciling the world through Christ.

Tuesday, November 09, 2010

Grace and Modelling the Life of Christ

So once again over at Brian McLaren's blog, a link was posted to an article about Jay Bakker. Jay Bakker, if you have not heard of him is the son of the infamous Jim and Tammy Faye Baker, whose lives rocked the televangelist world when Jim confessed to an affair and then financial misappropriation in their ministry PTL. This article "God Loves Jay Bakker," chronicles Jay's life as the fall from the royalty, into addiction, to a new understanding of grace that is having him lead the charge against what some folks call "traditional" Christianity, but I think "established" Christianity might be a better word. "Established" is more reflective of what happens when Christianity gets entangled with the institutions of power in this world. To use the phrase "traditional" too easily allows us to throw far too much away, leaving us with neither the bath water nor the baby.

I heard Jay Bakker speak at National Youth Gathering in New Orleans. The venue did not suit his strengths, nor the format. He even mentioned how hard it was for him to speak for twelve minutes. I agree. Giving him a longer spot might have helped his focus. But of all the speakers there, he was one of the most Christ-centered speakers even if unfocused. The article does a nice job however of stating his position.

The problem with Christianity these days, as Bakker sees it, is not that it conflicts with our modern understanding of science—the Richard Dawkins critique—but that it conflicts with our contemporary views of morality. “The younger generation is just like, ‘This seems contradictory to people I love. Why are certain people being ostracized?’ I read about Jesus, and then I’m told that we should vote this way, but it seems like Jesus wasn’t for war. It doesn’t even seem Jesus liked war. How does ‘Blessed is the peacemaker’ become ‘Our God, our Jesus wants us to kill people?’ How does ‘Blessed are the poor’ become ‘We shouldn’t put money into tax issues that help them’?”

Bakker is certain that if Christianity actually modeled itself on the life of Christ, then these contradictions would disappear, leaving behind the most basic tenets: Jesus was resurrected, and he died for our sins. “There’s just something about the idea of grace and the life of Christ,” he says, “ that I can’t get away from.” The rest of Protestant Christianity, however, he’s basically prepared to ditch—a stance that pushes him beyond the far liberal wing of the Evangelical Christian community and into what is known as the “Emergent” ministry.

I would agree with much of what Bakker says. But I am also cautious. When we regard the life of Christ as our model, we must be on guard for the legalism that can creep in. If we fail to do what Jesus would do, some might say we fail. Of course, it does matter how one interprets Christ's life. Established Christianity might think Jesus is working to build the Kingdom through the institutions of this world. But it might not. Established Christianity might say that Jesus' aims were spiritual and we should eschew all earthly dealings. I think neither of these is accurate.

The very real question for us is not what Jesus would do, but what Jesus is doing in us now. Modeling our lives after Jesus is an issue of sanctification, not justification. It is done in response to the relationship that the crucified and risen Lord has begun in us through his initiative. We do not strive to do as Jesus did so that we might have a relationship with him. We strive to follow Jesus in the grace he has already showered upon us.

Tuesday, November 02, 2010

Politics and Religion, Not As Usual

Brian McLaren, a pastor and writer to whom I have been paying more and more attention recently (and whose phrase "pro-testify" from his book Generous Orthodoxy, I used in my sermon on Reformation Sunday) has an interesting post today on his blog. He cites a recent study that shows young people's disaffection with the church comes most notably in response to politics. The two hot button topics he lists are homosexuality and abortion. He quotes the study:

So, why this sudden jump in youthful disaffection from organized religion? The surprising answer, according to a mounting body of evidence, is politics. Very few of these new "nones" actually call themselves atheists, and many have rather conventional beliefs about God and theology. But they have been alienated from organized religion by its increasingly conservative politics.

But a majority of the Millennial generation was liberal on most social issues, and above all, on homosexuality. The fraction of twentysomethings who said that homosexual relations were "always" or "almost always" wrong plummeted from about 75% in 1990 to about 40% in 2008. (Ironically, in polling, Millennials are actually more uneasy about abortion than their parents.)

This split might seem strange that homosexuality is more accepted and abortion less so. But maybe... just maybe, there is a common thread here. That a person's a person no matter how small (to channel my inner Horton). On a day where we are faced with an even more caustic political atmosphere, maybe the younger folks are pointing to a shift in politics- and religion-as-usual.

Monday, November 01, 2010

All Saints Reflection

Chris Duckworth over at Lutheran Zephyr has a very nice reflection on All Saints' Day, All Souls' Day and the hope we have in Christ. A good paragraph is the following.

A strong belief in the soul's eternal dwelling in heavenly paradise weakens our church's expectant hope for Christ's return. If we all just go to heaven upon death, why bother believing in a second coming or a resurrection of the dead? What need is there for any other work of God? Indeed, such a view of heaven - that our life's goal is to have our souls transported to a disembodied spiritual realm - leads us to care less for our bodies and for the created world, and to shrug our shoulders at our Lord's promise to come again and remake the world, to join heaven and earth in a new creation. "Thy Kingdom come," we pray, and in the creed we confess, "We believe in the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come." But these commitments are largely disregarded by the belief in heaven as a disembodied spiritual realm and final destination for souls.

Read the whole piece here.

Friday, October 29, 2010

Youth Ministry and Gore

I have been reading (and enjoying greatly I might add) the book Relationships Unfiltered by Andrew Root, professor of youth and family at Luther Seminary. I saw an offer to be sent the book free, and I rarely pass up a free book offer, so I wrote him. In a nutshell, his book is about being truly incarnational with youth, not merely trying to influence them. Of course he points out that being incarnational means suffering with the youth since the incarnation is always connected with the crucifixion.

In his fifth chapter, he recounts a story about a five-year old Millie who asks the great question, "Why is it a good thing that Jesus died?" He then goes on a nice discussion of the cross and points out that it is not about torture. I suspect that in the coming Halloween weekend, there will be a number of youth who are subjected to hell houses or terrible accounts of the crucifixion in an attempt to influence them to accept Jesus as their savior. Root's following paragraphs are an excellent answer to this practice.

When talking about the crucifixion with adolescents, it's always tempting to emphasize the torture of the cross. I have sat through "cross night" camp talks in which the speaker sketches in gruesome detail where the nails were placed, how they punctured the skin, and how painful the event was, providing a kind of forensic examination of how Jesus died. This how is supposed to be so shocking and emotionally stirring that kids are supposed to (and some do) crumble with appreciation and then follow with commitment. But the how of blood and guts in the crucifixion misses the essential good news (and for that matter, intrigue) of the cross.

The power of the crucifixion is not in the blood but in the person. The power of the crucifixion is not in how it happened or how bloody it was; rather the power of the crucifixion rests in who is found on the cross. If it is only about the blood and not the person, then logically those who have suffered more bodily injuries and severe deaths than Jesus (and there are many; remember Jesus was only on the cross for a short time) could vie for the status of savior too. But the crucifixion is not a story of gore and torture. It's a story of who God is, a story about the depth and of this God's love for us and desire to be in relationship with us, to share our place. The power of the crucifixion is in the proclamation that the one who is suffering and dying in shame, pain and isolation is the fullness of God. It's the assertion that the beaten man, dying alone, is the fullness of God, that he bears the fullness of our humanity, entering completely into the horror of death, which is the destiny of us all. The crucifixion is not primarily about blood, but about a person, about relationship. The cross is about sharing our place so completely that God takes on suffering and death.
Unfiltered Relationships, pp. 80-81

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Ritual, Comfort and Starbucks

The other day I was with my middle child (the one I wrote about here) shopping in Target. I got him to go with me on my errands by promising his after-school snack would come from the snack bar there. They also have a Starbucks in this store and I got a cup of coffee. While we were sitting there enjoying our repast, I spied the sign pictured there to the left.

"Take Comfort in Rituals" it says. How interesting I thought. As a liturgically-minded pastor, I was a little surprised. In the midst of the worship wars, when we talk about worship services, ritual seems to be out. And yet here is Starbucks trying to sell ritual. And there are rituals for coffee. My morning routine is very much a ritual. And it is multi-sensory. It engages my body and my mind. And there are some mornings when I do take great comfort in that ritual. Of course, Starbucks seems to be trying to sell its VIA instant coffee line... evidently you can have instant ritual.

But there are a number of people who would decry ritual as inauthentic to the Christian experience. I get this all the time from some who assume that just because the actions are scripted, and the form almost never changes, that it becomes meaningless. Folks can just go through by rote memory and never think about it at all. I will give them that just because we go through a ritual does not make the ritual effective just by doing it. Nonetheless ritual does bring comfort.

A few months ago, I sat at the bedside of a dying member with his wife. We went through the rite of Commendation of the Dying. After we prayed the rite, the wife said, "Do you know how much comfort that liturgy brings?" For her, I think, the ritual said things that she would not have been able to put into words at that moment. But she could assent to them. She could trust in those words because she trusted in Jesus' promise to be in our midst.

A couple of years ago, a family had been assigned to acolyte our Maundy Thursday service and the mother of the acolytes did not know what to expect. I explained that we would have corporate confession and forgiveness along with personal absolution along with washing of the feet the Eucharist. Being her first service with corporate confession and personal absolution, she was astounded by the power of the absolution. She recounted to me that she FELT forgiven. The power of ritual I think is that Christ acts concretely in its midst. We don't have to guess that we are forgiven. Christ, through the voice and laying on of hands of the pastor, has told us so and touched us through it.

If we trust in Christ and his promises, we can take great comfort in rituals because they bring the gospel to life. In a post-modern age we should not be shunning ritual but embracing them all the more. They are at times mysterious and say more through physical action than we might ever realize. They speak the truth more efficiently than we ever could with words. When we extend our hands in the midst of the Sunday service and bid others "The peace of the Lord be with you," it would take us ten minutes to explain what we are doing. But by engaging in this ritual time and again, we learn deep down that the peace which comes from the Lord Jesus is something that can be extended and given to others.

I hope Starbucks is right. I hope ritual, real ritual, is on the rise. We can engage with our bodies, our minds, our whole beings, the promises of the Lord and in turn trust in him.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

U.S. Religious Knowledge Survey

A couple of weeks ago, I went to my Tuesday evening bible study after having dealt with the death of a parishioner. The bible study had diverged for a few weeks to look at early church councils, notably Nicea, Constantinople and then Chalcedon. But I had not had the time to pull stuff together for that meeting since all of the discussion of beings and essences, like and similar, Arius and Athanasius, take a fair bit of care. Not only did I not have the time that day to bring it all together, I was spent.

But I had earlier that day, found the full survey, questions and all from the U.S. Religious Knowledge Survey done by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life (executive survey: here; Full wording of questions and topline results, here). The big takeaway that the media reported was the amount that atheists knew about religions and how little some Christians knew, sometimes about their own denominations beliefs. I had been digging around to see exactly what the questions were, and what the details of the actual survey-taking were. So the others in the bible study were willing to look at the whole survey. We thought there were some very interesting things within.

It had been reported that over 3400 had taken the survey. True. 3412 respondents answered. And that is amazing since this survey appears to have been administered completely over the phone. This survey was not a trivial set of questions. Along with the 32 content questions, there were a great deal of questions about demographics and religious life. We estimated that the survey could have taken thirty to forty-five minutes to take. While over 3400 people took the survey, we wondered how many people were called and refused to take part given the length. To us this question matters, since the number reported is not just a random sampling of America, but a distribution of Americans who want to take this time to talk about religion... over the phone.

Of course this goes to the question of the reported results, specifically about religious knowledge of atheists and agnostics. Only four percent of the respondents identified themselves as atheist or agnostic. Out of 3412, then somewhere around 135 people are being lifted up here. I am sure that researchers will say that it is likely a proportionate number of Christians hung up or refused to take the survey. Could be. But if one is atheist, I wonder why they would want to take this much time talking about religion. Is this the average run of the mill atheist? Or those of a more militant stance seeking to show what they know?

I won’t dispute the general shape of the results since it is my experience that many atheists do know a good deal about religion. Most know exactly what they are denying. I do wonder though if the disparity is as great as reported. And then as I preached in my sermon the Sunday following the release of the results (which can be heard here), knowing about religion is not the same as knowing God.

Sunday, October 17, 2010


Long weeks usually mean little time for blogging. This past week was one of those weeks. But the week ended really well. I presided at my daughter's baptism this morning. A parishioner snapped a couple shots with her phone and sent them to twitter.

It was a great morning. Bright and sunny. Full of family. Most importantly however, Jesus showed up, just like he promised he would.

Friday, October 08, 2010

Halloween and the Law

A neighbor on our street always does a huge Halloween display. Among his decorations are tombstones. Despite living on the same street and seeing his makeshift graveyard for six years now, this morning I saw it in a new light. The fake headstone in the picture here caught my attention this morning. In the midst of lots of "R.I.P" stones was one front and center. "Your time will come."

Everyone expects creepy and scary decorations at Halloween. Everyone expects skulls and skeletons, zombies and mummies, blood and gore galore. And it becomes comic. Or tamed, what with the softening of the classic creature, the vampire.

But if I had set up a bunch of signs in my front yard that said, "For the wages of sin is death" people would think I am a religious zealot (ok, I am, but not the way most folks expect). My neighbor's signs however, get to proclaim the reality of the law. As fallen human creatures we will die. Spooks and spirits aside, perhaps the real reason cemeteries give people the willies is at the very basic level they simply remind us of this reality of our existence.

Monday, October 04, 2010

Saint Francis, He's Not Just For Animals Anymore

Ah, the beloved Saint Francis... someone once told me that Saint Francis was a Lutheran saint. Not, mind you, that he was a forerunner to the Lutheran tradition in Christianity, but that he was a saint every Lutheran could love. After all, he loves those little critters, and how can we get upset with that, right?

On this day when so many folks are blessing animals, as I did yesterday, that Saint Francis' legacy is much bigger than just him out there preaching to the birds. And it must be said that I have a friend who upon hearing that I am blessing animals tells me that preaching to the birds was actually a social commentary on wealthy family who were somehow connected to bird names.

It is important to remember Francis as one who gave up everything. He came from a wealthy family where his father was successful in dealing cloth. After spending a year as a prisoner of war suffering from disease, he returns home more reflective and devout. His conversion comes in 1207, after which he rejects his wealthy and comfortable lifestyle. He embraces poverty and the mendicant life-style in order to imitate Christ. His father, not at all pleased with his son's decision, dragged him before the bishop to have Francis renounce any claim on his father's fortune. Francis gladly did. St. Bonaventure, Francis' most prominent biographer and significant member in the development of the Franciscan order, wrote about this moment,
A true lover of poverty, Francis showed himself eager to comply; he went before the bishop without any delay or hesitating. He did not wait for any words nor did he speak any, but immediately took off his clothes and gave them back to his father. Then it was discovered that the man of God had a hairshirt next to his skin under his fine clothes. Moreover, drunk with remarkable fervor, he even took off his underwear, stripping himself completely naked before all. He said to his father: "Until now, I have called you father here on earth, but now I can say without reservation, 'Our Father who art in heaven' [Matt 6:9], since I have placed all my treasure and all my hope in him" When the bishop saw this, he was amazed at such intenser fervor in the man of God. he immediately stood up and in tears drew Francis into his arms, covering him with the mantle he was wearing, like the pious and good man he was. He bade his servants give Francis something to cover his body. They brought him a poor, cheap cloak of a farmer who worked for the bishop. Francis accepted it gratefully and with his own hand marked a cross on it with a piece of chalk, thus designating it as the covering of a crucified man and a half-naked beggar. (from "The Life of Saint Francis" by Saint Bonaventure)
Francis heard a call from God to lead a radical lifestyle in response to Christ's command. Francis's legacy is surely something for us to hear in a time of overabundant possessions (even in a time of recession).

We may also be used to hearing the prayer "Lord make me an instrument of thy peace," and the saying "Preach the gospel at all times. When necessary, use words." both attributed to Francis. And of course we may sing "All Creatures of Our God and King" which is a hymn based on Francis' "The Canticle of Brother Sun." But I found in an anthology of Christian Spirituality two beautiful prayers by Francis.

St. Francis' Prayer Before the Crucifix
Most High,
glorious God,
enlighten the darkness of my heart
and give me, Lord,
a correct faith,
a certain hope,
a perfect charity,
sense and knowledge,
so that I may carry out your bold and true command.

and an untitled prayer that comes from Francis' "A Letter to the Entire Order"
Almighty, eternal and mercifucl God,
grant us in our misery [the grace]
to do for you alone
what we know You want us to do,
and always
to desire what pleases You.

inwardly cleansed,
interiorly enlightened,
and inflamed by the fire of the Holy Spirit,
may we be able to follow
in the footsteps of Your beloved Son,
our Lord Jesus Christ.

by Your grace alone,
may we make our way to You,
Most High,
Who live and rule
in perfect Trinity and simple Unity,
and are glorified
God all-powerful
forever and ever.

Hmm... I don't know... maybe Francis was Lutheran after all. May the witness of his discipleship inspire us all to respond to our Lord's call in faithful response to the grace bestowed upon us.

(Excerpt from Bonaventure's biography, and both prayers, taken from the most excellent anthology, Invitation to Christian Spirituality, edited by John R. Tyson, pages 162-165, Oxford University Press, 1999)

Lutheran Ethics, Jonathan Rundman and Piracy (of the Musical Sort)

I received an email about the new Journal of Lutheran Ethics issue and read with great interest Jonathan Rundman's piece titled, "Thieves in the Temple: Intellectual Property, Use of Media, and the Law (Not Yet) Written on Our Hearts." Rundman deals with the all too common issue of piracy and people's disregard for what belongs to others and their livelihood. What is nice is to see is that Rundman does not hammer on the seventh commandment "You shall not steal." Instead he goes to vocation. Rundman writes,
Perhaps the Lutheran understanding of vocation might be a helpful angle. We believe that God gives everyone different gifts and skills and passions, and in following those paths we can live out a life of service. Whether you are a bus driver, computer programmer, soldier, or bishop, your daily work becomes a beautiful and holy calling. Now, it is pretty easy to see church workers, teachers, and doctors in this light, and it is clear to us that we want to honor their work. Sometimes, though, we need a reminder that musicians, camera operators, editors, electricians, and factory workers are personally impacted when we drag 300 songs over from our friend's hard drive or when we buy a bootlegged DVD on the street corner.
The digital age does make our lives easier, but also ethically murkier. It is a complicated discussion to have with folks, and I have it often dealing with copyright issues. Rundman's reflection could help us all to think about the effects of our actions on others.

Friday, October 01, 2010

Living Lutheran -- new website

The other day, I was looking at my web statistics and I kept running across this website domain, Living Lutheran. I tried to click on the link to see what it was, and the site was not really up and running. I couldn't get to the site. But this didn't surprise me since "temp" was part of the URL.

But then yesterday (I think yesterday, but it could have been before that) I tried that link again and up pops the beta site of Living Lutheran. It seems to be a good mix of stories and blogs and other resources that point to what it means to be a Lutheran living out one's faith... at least an ELCA Lutheran.

I am not a huge fan of the layout, but the content looks good. Check it out.

Thursday, September 30, 2010

Faith, What It Is and Is Not

As I ponder the upcoming texts for this Sunday, it is clear that a red thread runs through all of the texts, and it is a similar thread that will be in several lessons for the next few weeks. Faith. We talk about faith a great deal... it is central after all to the life of the believer.

In fact, doing a rudimentary search through the bible, I found that in the Hebrew Bible, the Hebrew words for faith and trust (aman and batach) appear 382 times. In the New Testament pistis (noun, "faith") and pisteuo (verb "have faith" or "believe"), are found in 444 verses. That is a fairly big number, as should be expected.

The question that remains though is what exactly IS faith? Even the disciples seem to misunderstand when they ask for their faith to be increased... as if it were some sort of magical commodity.

I turned today then to Melanchthon's Apology of the Augsburg Confession where he talks about faith and in particular justifying faith. He writes:
But that faith which justifies is not merely a knowledge of history, [not merely this, that I know the stories of Christ's birth, suffering, etc. (that even the devils know,)] but it is to assent to the promise of God, in which, for Christ's sake, the remission of sins and justification are freely offered. [It is the certainty or the certain trust in the heart, when, with my whole heart, I regard the promises of God as certain and true, through which there are offered me, without my merit, the forgiveness of sins, grace, and all salvation, through Christ the Mediator.] And that no one may suppose that it is mere knowledge, we will add further: it is to wish and to receive the offered promise of the remission of sins and of justification. [Faith is that my whole heart takes to itself this treasure. It is not my doing, not my presenting or giving, not my work or preparation, but that a heart comforts itself, and is perfectly confident with respect to this, namely, that God makes a present and gift to us, and not we to Him, that He sheds upon us every treasure of grace in Christ.]

49] And the difference between this faith and the righteousness of the Law can be easily discerned. Faith is the latreiva [divine service], which receives the benefits offered by God; the righteousness of the Law is the latreiva [divine service] which offers to God our merits. By faith God wishes to be worshiped in this way, that we receive from Him those things which He promises and offers.

50] Now, that faith signifies, not only a knowledge of the history, but such faith as assents to the promise, Paul plainly testifies when he says, Rom. 4:16: Therefore it is of faith, to the end the promise might be sure. For he judges that the promise cannot be received unless by faith. Wherefore he puts them together as things that belong to one another, and connects promise and faith. [There Paul fastens and binds together these two, thus: Wherever there is a promise faith is required, and conversely, wherever faith is required, there must be a promise.] 51] Although it will be easy to decide what faith is if we consider the Creed, where this article certainly stands: The forgiveness of sins. Therefore it is not enough to believe that Christ was born, suffered, was raised again, unless we add also this article, which is the purpose of the history: The forgiveness of sins. To this article the rest must be referred, namely, that for Christ's sake, and not for the sake of our merits, 52] forgiveness of sins is given us. For what need was there that Christ was given for our sins if for our sins our merits can make satisfaction?

53] As often, therefore, as we speak of justifying faith, we must keep in mind that these three objects concur: the promise, and that, too, gratuitous, and the merits of Christ, as the price and propitiation. The promise is received by faith; the "gratuitous" excludes our merits, and signifies that the benefit is offered only through mercy; the merits of Christ are the price, because there must be a certain propitiation for our sins. 54] Scripture frequently implores mercy; and the holy Fathers often say that we 55] are saved by mercy. As often, therefore, as mention is made of mercy, we must keep in mind that faith is there required, which receives the promise of mercy. And, again, as often as we speak of faith, we wish an object to be understood, namely, the promised mercy. 56] For faith justifies and saves, not on the ground that it is a work in itself worthy, but only because it receives the promised mercy. (from

I am drawn to that phrase in the begining of this quote that faith is "to assent to the promise of God." I think this phrase is a good place to start our thinking about what faith is and is not.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Yet we eat our morsel alone...

I use the devotional guide For All the Saints, and have been using it for years... probably almost ten, ever since my grandparents gave me the four-volume set for Christmas my first or second year in seminary. Despite having gone through the volumes several times now (it is a two-year lectionary), I still come across things in it that I either skipped over or just don't remember.

Today there was a passage from Job, where Job says,
If I have withheld anything that the poor desired,
or have caused the eyes of the widow to fail,
or have eaten my morsel alone,
and the orphan has not eaten from it—
for from my youth I reared the orphan like a father,
and from my mother’s womb I guided the widow
if I have seen anyone perish for lack of clothing,
or a poor person without covering,
whose loins have not blessed me,
and who was not warmed with the fleece of my sheep;
if I have raised my hand against the orphan,
because I saw I had supporters at the gate;
then let my shoulder blade fall from my shoulder,
and let my arm be broken from its socket.
For I was in terror of calamity from God,
and I could not have faced his majesty. (Job 31:16-23, my emphasis)
In conjunction with this passage, the devotional used a poem by William Alexander, Archbishop of the Church of Ireland in the late 19th century. The poem as presented in For All The Saints used an ellipsis so I knew the poem was not complete. I managed to find only one complete version through Google. It was in a volume of The Lutheran Witness, volume 34, published by Concordia Publishing House in 1915, which appears to be a compendium of Lutheran news and devotional and catechetical material. In a section entitled simply "Job" the work republished Archbishop Alexander's entire poem.
"If I have eaten my morsel alone"--
The patriarch spoke in scorn;
What would he think of the Church,
Were he shown Heathendom, huge, forlorn,
Godless, Christless, with soul unfed,
While the Church's ailment is fullness of bread,
Eating her morsel alone?

"I am debtor alike to the Jew and the Greek,"
The mighty Apostle cried,
Traversing continents, souls to seek
For the love of the Crucified;
Centuries, centuries, since have sped;
Millions are famishing; we have bread;
But we eat our morsel alone.

Ever of them who largest dower
Shall Heaven require the more;
Ours is affluence, knowledge, power,
Ocean from shore to shore;
And East and West in our ears have said,
"Give us, give us your Living Bread";
Yet we eat our morsel alone.

"Freely, as ye have received, so give,"
He bade, who hath given us all;
how shall the soul in us longer live,
Deaf to their starving call,
For whom the Blood of the Lord was shed,
And his Body broken to give them Bread,
If we eat our morsel alone?
Some might hear this poem as meant to induce guilt. If it does it is likely only because folks recognize the reality. But at the heart of this poem, Alexander hits upon the great abundance that God has given us in the person of his Son. "Ours is affluence, knowledge, power..." not necessarily as the world measures it, but in the body and blood of Jesus, in his atoning death, we find meaning and purpose and connection with the divine life.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Lazarus, the Rich Man, and Life... but Which Life?

I find myself in an interesting position. I am not preaching this upcoming Sunday, and yet today, I led my Tuesday morning bible study on our normal weekly romp through the upcoming Sunday's gospel lesson. This gathering is really helpful for me. I have an early crack at the upcoming text every week. It is not uncommon for our encounter with the text to significantly shape how I will be preaching. But this Sunday I don't have to do it. I can drop it this week. Focus on something else. But this text, Lazarus and the Rich Man, has grabbed a hold of me. Perhaps it is just the way I have been formed these nearly seven years in the parish. Or maybe it is THIS passage. I feel guilt whenever I think about this passage since in 2001, while I was on internship, I feel like I crashed and burned on my preaching of this text. Maybe I am not sure I will ever do this text justice because of that, but I feel like I must keep on trying.

Whatever the reason though, this passage Luke 16:19-31, has stuck this week. And while it is not nearly as confusing and problematic as last week's reading, it certainly gives us some possible avenues for interpretation. Without a doubt, one avenue to explore is the whole afterlife image. Over at Working Preacher, Greg Carey opens his reflection about this passage with this line. He writes:
For example, the parable might reflect Luke's view of what happens after we die. At the moment of death, it seems Lazarus journeys to Abraham's bosom while the Rich Man descends into torment. Does death deliver us immediately to our eternal fate? Such a view would seem to contradict that expressed by Paul in 1 Thessalonians and 1 Corinthians. In those early letters, Paul regards death as, well, death. The hope for life resides only in the resurrection. (Paul may voice a different view in Philippians 1: "to live is Christ, but to die is gain.") Luke's story of the thief on the cross also suggests an immediate transition into the afterlife: "Truly I tell you: Today you will be with me in Paradise" (23:43). Moreover, does this parable teach that the wicked suffer torment in the afterlife? Few mainline preachers devote significant pulpit time to that distressing prospect.
Today I was using THE Lutheran Study Bible from CPH (I reviewed it here) and right there in midst of this passage was a special page dedicated to the question of what happens when we die. This parable (and yes, I do think it is a parable) leads a number of folks to think this way and I understand that. However given the placement of this text in the flow of Luke, it seems to make much more sense to be dealing with Jesus' continued discussion of wealth.

Clearly the parable shows that how we use (or misuse in this case) wealth matters. And in this vein, this story clearly has much to do with THIS life, not our afterlife. At the same time however, the Rich Man is clearly so malformed by his misuse of wealth that his afterlife is affected as well. How we live in this world does in fact have some bearing on our afterlife. The other example that we see in this story is the great chasm. The great chasm fixed between the two parties, the wicked and the saved, is there first Abraham says so that those on his side (the saved) cannot pass over to the other. The only way I can read that the saved might want to cross over from their bliss to the agony of the wicked is because they would wish to alleviate the suffering of those others. Those resting in the bosom of Abraham have been so formed by their life of suffering (if Lazarus is typical, and given Luke's stressing of the great reversal, such as in the Magnificat) that they would seek to alleviate any suffering of others. Only the great chasm that stands fixed between them stops the saved from carrying out their aid.

Engaging in this life, so that we are formed with the virtues of the Kingdom ahead of time, is vital for this passage. The law and prophets agree, says Jesus. And the resurrection of one in particular will also point to the Kingdom's reality and fruit bearing of followers in this world. Not that everyone will listen... but maybe we will.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Possession of the Holy Cross

Yesterday, September 14, was the Feast of the Holy Cross. This day might seem an odd day to commemorate the Cross. Why not Good Friday? Isn't that when we do the Adoration of the Cross? But the 14th of September is connected with the activity of Helena, the mother of Emperor Constantine. Early in the reign of Constantine, Helena went to Jerusalem to find the holy places of Christ's life. She destroyed the temple of Aphrodite, which had been built, so tradition said, over the tomb of Jesus. Constantine then had built the Basilica of the Holy Sepulcher on that spot. Legend tells that three wooden crosses were found on that spot during the excavation. They were immediately venerated and the cross became a more prominent symbol of Christianity. The cross was still fresh in people's minds as the symbol of death for those opposed Rome, even Christians if they refused to worship Roman gods.

The cross indeed has central place. It is the symbol of our salvation. The message of the cross foolishness to those who are perishing, wrote St. Paul, but to those who are being saved it is the power of God (1Cor 1:18). I used this passage the other night at our youth group while making ice cream. Making ice cream is actually somewhat counter intuitive. Most of the kids present kept thinking that the ice surrounding the ice cream dasher was cooling and ultimately freezing the creamy mixture within. Not so. The cold of the ice does not flow in. If that were so, we would not need the salt. So as we made the ice cream, I explained how it all worked, and that the key was to know that ice and salt need energy to enter in so that they can react. The energy in this case comes from the heat stored in the creamy liquid. The whole idea of making ice cream is to pump heat out. Cold doesn't exist, technically speaking. Energy in the form of heat flows out. Ice cream, made this way, does not go the way we think it might. God's work of redemption, rescuing his chosen people, does not go the way we think. God does not send the Son to come and conquer. Rather God sends the Son to come and die, defeating the enemies of sin, death and the devil.

The cross marks and shapes our lives. We mark it on the newly baptized as the reminder that we are bound to the one who died on the cross so that we might live by it. The Feast of the Holy Cross is a good day to remember that our lives are to be cruciform. Luther picks this up in his treatise On the Councils and the Church, where he lists the "Possession of the Holy Cross" as the seventh mark of the church. Just as with the first "Possession of the Word of God," the mark does not mean the simple possession of the physical thing. The possession of the Word of God means the Word proclaimed. The possession of the Holy Cross means people whose lives show the reality of the cross. Luther writes,
Seventh, the holy Christian people are externally recognized by the holy possession of the sacred cross. They must endure every misfortune and persecution, all kinds of trials and evil from the devil, the world, and the flesh (as the Lord’s Prayer indicates) by inward sadness, timidity, fear, outward poverty, contempt, illness, and weakness, in order to become like their head, Christ. And the only reason they must suffer is that they steadfastly adhere to Christ and God’s word, enduring this for the sake of Christ, Matthew 5 [:11], “Blessed are you when men persecute you on my account.” They must be pious, quiet, obedient, and prepared to serve the government and everybody with life and goods, doing no one any harm. ...
But when you are condemned, cursed, reviled, slandered, and plagued because of Christ, you are sanctified. It mortifies the old Adam and teaches him patience, humility, gentleness, praise and thanks, and good cheer in suffering. That is what it means to be sanctified by the Holy Spirit and to be renewed to a new life in Christ; in that way we learn to believe in God, to trust him, to love him, and to place our hope in him, as Romans 5 [:1–5] says, “Suffering produces hope,” etc.
The Feast of the Holy Cross is the day to ponder the sacrifice of Christ, how it is so counter intuitive, and yet how its good news shapes and forms our lives.

Wednesday, September 08, 2010

Response by Religious Leaders Aided by Former Synodical Bishop, Rev. Don McCoid

ELCA News Service reported that the Rev. Don McCoid, Executive for the ELCA's Ecumenical and Inter-Religious Relations was part of the committee that drafted the statement that denounced the rising anti-Muslim rhetoric. Rev. McCoid is quoted as saying, "This was an exceptional gathering of Jewish, Muslim and Christian leaders. In the midst of so much frenzy against Muslims, these diverse religious leaders stood together in solidarity to address the prejudices and bigotry that have surfaced in the media and in politics. The right to free exercise of religion in this country is very basic."

Rev. McCoid is my former synodical bishop and someone incredibly important in my discernment and becoming a pastor. It is not a reach at all to say that if not for him I might not be a pastor today. I am pleased that he continues to play such a role in interfaith affairs. Our common humanity must be respected. Living in a pluralistic society as we do, our efforts to work for the common good will be hampered by such actions. In addition witness to the gospel of Jesus Christ cannot include hate such as the burning of another tradition's sacred text. Such an action in no way shows love for our enemy. Rather it incites them and strengthens their opposition and determination to hearing of the love of God in Christ Jesus.

The full text of the religious leaders' comments can be read here. One paragraph that I particularly like is
We are committed to building a future in which religious differences no longer lead to hostility or division between communities. Rather, we believe that such diversity can serve to enrich our public discourse about the great moral challenges that face our nation and our planet. On the basis of our shared reflection, we insist that no religion should be judged on the words or actions of those who seek to pervert it through acts of violence; that politicians and members of the media are never justified in exploiting religious differences as a wedge to advance political agendas or ideologies; that bearing false witness against the neighbor—something condemned by all three of our religious traditions—is inflicting particular harm on the followers of Islam, a world religion that has lately been mischaracterized by some as a “cult.”

The list of leaders who signed is impressive. I would local leaders will be just as vocal in their communities.

Tuesday, September 07, 2010

Hawking and God - A Necessary Challenge

It should be no surprise that as a former physicist, I am always interested in the ways that science and religion intersect and interact. So it was with great interest that Hawking's newest book The Grand Design, written with fellow physicist Leonard Mlodinow. From my preliminary understanding, the argument from M-Theory (a kin of string theory) allows that gravity and energy can spontaneously pop out of nothing, thereby taking God (according to Hawking) out of the equation.

A nice review can be read at the New York Times, "Many Kinds of Universes, and None Require God" by Dwight Garner. Garner writes:

At its core “The Grand Design” is an examination of a relatively new candidate for the “ultimate theory of everything,” something called M-theory, itself an extension of string theory, which tries to reconcile general relativity and quantum mechanics. “M-theory is not a theory in the usual sense,” the authors write. “It is a whole family of different theories.” According to M-theory, “ours is not the only universe,” the authors say. “Instead M-theory predicts that a great many universes were created out of nothing.” The image that comes to mind here, others have written about M-theory, is of a God blowing soap bubbles.

But Mr. Hawking and Mr. Mlodinow assert that “their creation does not require the intervention of some supernatural being or god. Rather, these multiple universes arise naturally from physical law. They are a prediction of science.” Many of these universes would be quite different from ours, they add, and “quite unsuitable for the existence of any form of life,” or at least any form of life remotely like ours.

So this comment and argument is certainly provocative. If energy and gravity can in fact cancel each other out, this will be a powerful argument for those who don't require God in the first place. But this would be how God puts it together. After all if God can be detected and thus proven, then faith is unnecessary. If faith is unnecessary then creation ceases to be "promise-driven, future-oriented" as R.R. Reno wrote in the introduction of commentary on Genesis, which I talked about here.

I look forward to reading this book. If for no other reason than challenges to the faith, help us sharpen our witness and proclamation.

Tuesday, August 31, 2010


The lectionary once again gives us the letter to Philemon this upcoming Sunday. I don't know how to avoid preaching on this. There will be plenty of "carry the cross"-discipleship passages, but this gem of a letter only shows up once every three years. In preparation for this Sunday then I have been reading Risto Saarinen's commentary on Philemon in the the Brazos Theological Commentary series. And to be fair Saarinen's commentary also includes the Pastoral Epistles, and Jude; the Philemon commentary is too short for its own commentary.

Saarinen gives two paragraphs that I thought were helpful in his introduction to the letter. He writes:
The purpose of Philemon is obvious: it is a letter of recommendation that should accompany Onesimus and create good will in Philemon so that he would not punish the returning slave. On the way home, such a letter may also to some extent protect the fugitive slave from imprisonment by legal authorities. Other similar letters are known; the most famous is the letter of Pliny the Younger to Sabinianus from around AD 110. In this letter, quoted in many commentaries on Philemon... Pliny appeals for a freedman who has run away and thus violated his duty of servanthood. Like Paul (Phlm. 16), Pliny pleads for a relationship of brotherly love between the servant and his master and recommends the returning servant as worthy of such love.

Although Philemon was originally composed for this practical purpose, the epistle also creates a "symbolic universe"... in which a prisoner, Paul, pleads for the release or at least for the kind treatment of another nonfree person, Onesimus. Neither Paul nor Onesimus is free, but their being Christian transcends external boundaries. In a paradoxical manner, the epistle stresses joy, love and confidence between people in chains. Christians have become prisoners "of" and "in" Jesus Christ (Phlm 9, 23). Although Philemon is a practical and occasional piece of writing, it also contains a deeper message. In the exposition, this deeper message relates to freedom, love, and gratitude as the motivational grounds Christian behavior. It is further noteworthy that Philemon is addressed not only to Philemon but to the church (vv. 2, 25)

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Pakistan, Flooding and Our Response

I knew Pakistan had terrible flooding. I just didn't know how terrible. At the Lutheran World Relief website they gave me a glimpse at how bad. They wrote, "The floods are the worst natural disaster to hit Pakistan in the last 80 years and have killed at least 1,600 people, left a million people homeless, and have affected at least 14 million." Adding that on top of the other natural disasters over the past few years, the effects are magnified even more.

The congregation I serve has had a quilting ministry for several years. A load of quilts was taken over to the warehouse in New Windsor, MD but their stores are becoming depleted. One of the quilt transporters stood up in worship the other day and made folks known of the need. And in that LWR article, we see why. LWR is looking to send "3,300 quilts, more than 13,000 health kits and 1,500 layettes in response to the flooding," while working with a local organization in Pakistan.

But LWR could use more help. How? Here are their words:

You can help get relief on the ground quickly with a cash gift to Lutheran World Relief.

“In times of emergency, cash gifts are the quickest, and most effective, way to get relief to the people who need it most,” says Trevor Knoblich, LWR’s Emergency Response Coordinator.

With those gifts, our partners on the ground can purchase food and supplies locally, when possible, reducing delivery cost, and time, and infusing vital income into local economies that desperately need it.

“The monsoon season is not yet over,” remarks Joanne Fairley, LWR’s Regional Director for Asia and the Middle East. “For Mehr Nisar, and her son, who have been through so much already, your gifts — and the food, shelter and water they bring — really does represent hope in their darkest hour. Please give what you can.”

LWR is accepting donations to the “Pakistan Floods” fund online at, by phone at 800.597.5972 begin_of_the_skype_highlighting 800.597.5972 end_of_the_skype_highlighting or by mail at PO Box 17061, Baltimore, MD 21298-9832. You can also help by donating quilts, kits and layettes to LWR to send around the world in times of emergency. To find out how to donate, visit

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Pedalling Pell-mell Through the Rain

Yesterday I was helping hand out lemonade on the campus of West
Virginia University at the Lutheran Campus Ministry. Mid-afternoon it
started to threaten rain. We called it a day, and after a brief
meeting, I headed home.

Which was fine, except that in the morning, knowing that traffic
downtown would be horrendous, I rode my bike circumventing most roads
by using the newly repaved rail trail.. A bright, sunny morning became
a dark, downpour in the afternoon.

But I knew that there were worse things than riding through the rain.
So off I headed, out the door. I hadn't ridden more than fifty feet
though when my sunglasses not only became spotted with drops but
fogged up as well. So there I was riding through not insignificant
traffic to get to the trail, getting absolutely soaked and barely able
to see.

Once on the trail though, it wasn't any better, at least as far as
vision was concerned. Traffic was much better. But I still had to
make allowance for runners, walkers and other bikers as we travelled
on the rain-soaked trail together. After a while I realized that it
was futile trying to pedal as fast as possible to stay as dry as
possible. I was already soaked clean through. So I slowed a little
and tried to alternate between wearing glasses and not. That was a
losing effort as well. With the glasses the copious rain drops
blocked my vision. Without my glasses I couldn't see because they were
my glasses, not just my sunglasses.

With the water pouring of me in rivers, I of course reflect on
baptismal imagery. I can't help it. It's conditioned response I
suppose. Water? Baptism! But so be it.

I strive to walk wet, soaked in the waters of baptism daily. Yet here
I was completely soaked and unable to see as clearly as when I was
dry. I wonder if our baptismal life isn't similar.

Knowing that we are children of God, trusting the promise made in
baptism, doesn't guarantee any clearer vision at least as far as the
path of our life is concerned. Certainty is not the issue, trust is.
We trust that the one we follow leads us through all uncertainty. And
there is plenty I cannot see or know in this life of faith. I think
sometimes it is clearer when NOT engaged in the life of faith, I
follow my own path, chasing my own desires, very little guesswork.
Too likely though, this leads to the ultimate death of my self.

This baptismal life is not entirely clear as we discern where our Lord
calls us. What is right here and now might not be right later. There
are certainly norms. I am not saying that we are called to just any
life. After all, yesterday, despite being hard to see at places, I
did know that there was a path. If I had veered off the trail, I
would have known quickly to turn around and get back on. But we don't
always know what's coming. Pedalling pell-mell through the rain
reminds me of the trust that we're called to daily as we walk wet.

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Thursday, August 12, 2010

From the midst of vacation...

I have been at home on vacation since Sunday... the ever popular stay-cation. I have been trying to get some home improvement projects finished. To some extent I have been succesful. In other ways, I have not.

I have also been unplugged and therefore not posting, but that is fodder for another post sometime.

I know that there are some who would look at this time and speak of sabbath. But I don't know if I would go there. Not every vacation is sabbath... in fact I might go and say no vacations are sabbaths. I always find it interesting that Luther in his Large Catechism makes the bold claim that the commandment, "Remember the Sabbath and keep it holy" is technically not a commandment that Christians are required to keep. (Read Luther's third commandment explanation here) But it is good to have a day to gather and attend to God's Word in the midst of worship. Luther points out that the resting does not make the day holy, rather the opposite, the hallowing makes it restful (and no jokes about the pastor putting everyone to sleep during the sermon!).

I wonder how do you "keep sabbath?"

Thursday, August 05, 2010

"Have no fear, little flock..."

In preparing for this upcoming Sunday's reading where Jesus calms his hearers with those beautiful words, "Have no fear little flock," I was pondering both David Lose's exegesis over at Working Preacher where he talks about promise. Lose writes:
But Jesus does not simply hold out faith as a model and goal, much less as a standard by which to judge us. Rather, Jesus creates faith by announcing a promise: Like a parent loves her children deeply and desperately and wants all good things for them, so also is it God's good pleasure to give God's children the kingdom. Promises create a shared expectation about the future and bind together the giver and receiver of the promise in that shared anticipation. Promises create relationship. Promises create hope. Promises create faith. All of our instruction about the Christian life - whether about prayer, money, watchfulness, care of neighbor, and more - are therefore anchored in the gospel promise that it is, indeed, God's good pleasure to give us the kingdom. Remembering - indeed, exalting in - this promise enables us not only to have faith, but to answer Peter's question: is Jesus saying this to us or to everyone? Yes!
My mind turned to a short book by Robert Jenson that I found at some used book sale (almost surely at a seminary book sale, if so then almost certainly at LTSS, but maybe not... I seriously cannot remember where I find all of my used books). In this book, Jenson works to talk about the story of God and help make the promise that God is making in the midst of that story. Primarily then it is a promise rooted in who this Jesus is and what the Kingdom has to do with it all. Since Jesus' words this week specifically point to the promise that it is the Father's good pleasure to give us the Kingdom, I have found Jenson's ideas to be particularly helpful, especially in conjunction with Lose's reflection. Promise does indeed change things. More importantly, Jesus' promise changes things, transforms lives by God's action. Particularly when Jesus' promise of God's pleasure in giving us the Kingdom is followed up with some rather difficult imperatives "Sell your possessions. Give alms. Be ready." The promise, as always is key.
We regulate our relations with our fellows by what they have been; if a teenager is hooked on dope, we do not encourage our children to make him a friend. Jesus did the opposite: he brought his fellows into his life not in terms of what they had been, but of what they would be. And not in terms of what it could be predicted they would be, on the basis of a "little bit of good in everyone" or of what he planned to reform them to, but in terms of what they could be only by God's miracle. He enacted God's future as his brothers' own present.
Jesus' own miracles hit here.... Jesus performed miracles as signs, as non-verbal parables. They were signs of the overcoming of all alienation of human life from itself, including those alienations we clumsily call "physical." As acted-out signs, the miracles were also instances of the immediacy of the Kingdom. Jesus did not, for example, merely promise to the leper, a permanent outsider because of repulsive and contagious skin disease... that in God's Kingdom he would be accepted; he then and there made the leper so.
In that he interpreted his fellow's lives by God's future rather than by their own pasts, Jesus interpreted his own life by that same future. The outcome of his own life would be the fulfillment 0r failure of the promise he brought. And in that he promised the Kingdom to all comers, he bet his life on the final overcoming of all religious and social distinctions. In that he called publicans and sinners to be his brothers at table, his table became a table of publicans and sinners (and he seems to have acquired a reputation for as a glutton and a drinker)....
Moreover, his interpretation of his own life in terms of the promise he had for his fellows was total. He retained no escape lines back into respectability, or even into an inner secure position with God; "My God,"he would finally say, "why have you forsaken me?" The community in and by which he interpreted his life for himself and before his Father, was the brotherhood of the unconditionally promised fulfillment, the brotherhood of the oppressed, the declasse, and the wicked. He so appropriated the persons and circumstances of his life that if the promise of the Kingdom failed, his life would have no value; and that if the promise did not bring hope for the publicans, neither could there be hope for him.
...And therefore Jesus interpreted his own words and miracle as the present anticipation of the future Kingdom. "If I am casting out devils by God's power, then his Kingdom has reached you." This did not mean that the Kingdom had "started," or that a little of it was there from which more would "grow." The kingdom was present with Jesus as promise, as word and meaningful action; and as the unconditional promise which abolished all space of controllable between itself and its fulfillment.
(Robert Jenson, Story and Promise, pp. 39-41)
When Jesus stands before his hearers and utters those words "Have no fear, it is the Father's good pleasure to give you the Kingdom," Jesus is the reality of that promise. As such he relates to us in the fulfillment of that promise, in the reality of the Kingdom.

It does then create some immediacy for our hearers on Sunday to think about the fact that the Father's good pleasure is not just rooted in the life everlasting, but in the here and now for Jesus still comes to us and for us. Jesus, as Shepherd King, is not at all divisible from the Kingdom which is at hand. We can see the promise and the fulfillment together. And as Lose points out, the promise creates faith and hope, which transform us and our world.