Monthly Archives: September 2010

The length of days…

One of our Sunday School students (4th grader, smart kid) asked a series of questions that included the length of life of the people in Genesis. A typical answer is something like – “well, how do things work when they are new vs. when they are old? So, a earth that had just become sinful, probably works better, right? You can see the ages getting shorter as you progress into the book. All the bad stuff in the swamp leeched out, after the apple.”

Here is a NYT article
on trees that live to 4500 year because of being away from bad stuff in a harsh environment. (The bad news, why its news, is that we’ve managed to foul even the high mountain spaces up. See, fits neatly into the sin/creation groaning line of thought.) Here is a list of the “normal” lifespan of trees. A normal pine can live 450 years. These pines lived 4500 years or 10 times longer. Gee a long lived person today lives 95 years. Those people in Genesis lived 950 years. (Methuselah 989 years). Roughly 10 times longer. Ok, all you scientists can now snicker at the silly pastor. But there is a modern example of much longer life that is now being ended by the effects of sin. But I’m just a poor benighted fool.

A couple of graphs spurred by a Pew Center Survey.

The Pew Forum on Religion and Public life has a new survey out (this is the full pdf.) If you have read any of Prothero (this book is the closest on topic), the survey seems to be made to beat one of his drums – the desperate need for religious education. Of course that would help him as a religious studies professor. In one sense I completely agree with him, “Americans are both deeply religious and profoundly ignorant about religion…It is time to address our national epidemic of religious illiteracy. I have called in the past for mandatory public school courses on the Bible and the world’s religions to remedy this problem. The time for such courses is now.” But I also have a severe disagreement with the idea of public school taught religion.

Why I have a severe problem with that is told by the pull line from the Pew Study – “Atheists and Mormons know more about Christianity than Christians.” (Here is a good round-up of links.) The ha-ha is of course they do, because the smarter and the more you know, the more atheist you become. Ha-ha, aren’t we so smart. My problem is not people knowing more. I’d love it if this data wasn’t true. My problem is that teaching the Bible or religion in a public school means it must be taught as comparative religion. The very act of doing that places the learner above or superior to what is being mastered. Placing yourself superior is never the act of a disciple. There is theological distinction called magisterial vs. ministerial and it is usually applied to reason. In the public sphere, reason is magisterial. That means that reason is the ultimate arbitrator of everything. What that means is that in teaching the Bible in a modern public school, the student’s reason is magisterial over the Bible. The student and teacher are superior to the Word of God. The ministerial sense of reason is more in line with the old Catholic phrase – “reason seeking understanding.” Or Biblically “I believe, help my unbelief”. The assumption is that the rule of faith – the bible is correct. Reason is a servant or a minister in helping understand how that is true. A magisterial reason, the only type allowed in a public school, is corrosive to faith. A ministerial reason is a help to faith, but it is not possible to teach that way in a public school.

Now for the graphs I promised. The first graph either says a lot about the quality of preaching, invincible ignorance, or I just don’t know what. What it says is that the level of knowledge on the religion questions Pew asked was completely invariable with worship attendance. Now maybe its just that the people attending weekly know a whole bunch about their religion and nothing at all about anything else. Its good that as a Lutheran preacher I take worship as being a spiritual activity of the Word of God. If preachers were being graded on “knowledge acquired” we’d all be flunked based on this.

The second graph takes a look at St. Mark’s attendance. I’ve got 140 names that have been to at least 1 service in the past year. Of those 140, 44 or 31% have attended less than 10% of the Sundays this calendar year. After carving out that group, the attendance is a little more normal distributed. Roughly 12 that attend monthly, 27 that attend almost twice a month, 26 that attend a little over twice a month, 17 that are present 3 out of 4 Sundays, and 14 that are present almost every Sunday. If the Pew survey is true, the 44 know more facts about Christianity than the others, and the rest all know about the same.

Also, to those 44, you’re on my list. I want to see you next week. Its good for your soul.

Bin Frequency Cumulative %
0% – 10% 44 31.43%
11%-25% 12 40.00%
26%-50% 27 59.29%
51%-75% 26 77.86%
76%-90% 17 90.00%
90%-100% 14 100.00%

Missing the Obvious


Full Text
Texts: Luke 16:19-31 and Amos 6:1-7

Many heirs of the reformation can get tangled in a web of worry about legalism and works righteousness. But it is not works righteousness to encourage Kingdom values. And that is what Jesus is warning about. Decisions we make today solidify in eternity. Nobody sets out for hell, but we can end there anyway.

We all have a Lazarus at our gates wanting mercy. Can we see him? Can we discern who or what he is? If you can’t maybe its time to listen to Moses and the prophets.

One the one hand there are two big tempting fallacies: 1) history is one long decline, the past was more righteous and 2) to let the law overwhelm the gospel. They both reinforce the other. We never live up to the law. And if we become too disappointed in that, everything looks bad in comparison to the heroic saints who have gone on to their reward. I walked the line here. I’m sure some would say I walked over the line and then some. But this parable is the end of Jesus’ two chapters of parables of how the kingdom works and his great warning for those who don’t get with the program. It is the law in service to the gospel. The law is suppose to show us our sin, and chase us to the Word for grace.

From a very this worldly practical standpoint, we become what we practice. We are creatures of habit. If we practice virtue, it becomes easier. (Never easy, its a fallen world.) If we practice telling ourselves and our kids that the Word of God is meaningless, then we quickly find that we can’t hear it at all. And when you can’t hear the Word, you miss the Lazarus sitting at your gate. Luke 15-16 is a very this worldly section. Its about how the Kingdom works right now. What you choose hardens. Gates become chasms. We are all being forced into the Kingdom, the question is which side of the gate/chasm?

Veggie Tales Premiere – Its a Meaningful Life

Tonight – 6:30 PM
At St. Mark’s

Projector, Popcorn and Bob & Larry.

If you get it, you get it. If you don’t, don’t worry about it. See you there….

Sanctification or Becoming Civilized

Having two of my own this article on raising boys who read struck a nerve, and yes I have to admit that I fail the Wii test. We have one. The eldest boy plays all the time, and youngest boy watches eldest boy. And yes, there is no way a book will ever compete with the Wii. (Although I will give us credit, we did make them take the summer off of Wii).

The larger argument is one of how do we produce civilized people. Up until Freud, everybody everywhere realized that being and raising the people we’d like to be was tough and necessary. Socrates – “virtue is its own reward”; Aristotle – “We are not studying in order to know what virtue is, but to become good.”; Confucius – “The gentleman understands what is moral. The small man understands what is profitable.” Proverbs – “Their purpose is to teach people to live disciplined and successful lives, to help them do what is right, just and fair.” Sometime after Freud all this instruction in virtue was barbaric repression.

Freud was partially right, it is a repression. Luther would call it the “daily drowning of the old Adam such that the new man might come forth” in his small catechism explanation to baptism. The entire world is not wrong. Virtue, otherwise known as the law, is good and right. Which society would you rather live in? One where all boys grow up on Grand Theft Auto X or grow up on Treasure Island or Swiss Family Robinson? Which one would be more just? The process of civilization is tough. Especially for many of this generation who are themselves little more than barbarians having not been instructed in virtue as a child.

The world (outside of Freud) is not wrong on virtue, but it only has half the story. The struggle of virtue is not one we can win on our own. The Christian understanding is called sanctification. God has placed His Holy Spirit in us to will and to do that which is good (Phil 2:13). As we grow in faith, as we grow as free humans no longer bound to sin and satan, we practice virtue. Sanctification is the process of becoming what God intend – of becoming a fully free human being.

It would be nice if the larger culture would at least return to the secular notion of virtue. But my guess is that is too hard to fill 500 TV stations with content. But the culture’s abandonment of virtue, doesn’t give us leave to abandon our duty. It does mean we have to be more intentional about it. It does mean making choices that will mark us and our children out from the barbarian hoard.

A Virtue of a Necessity

Most organizations or institutions do not make changes until they just stop functioning. Somewhere in a vague past the complexity and size that an institution had built up actually helped. Then it stops. But the institution can’t even think about operating in another way. That is the way we’ve always done things – even though it isn’t. And a big part of it is that the institution made promises, promises they can’t keep anymore. And instead of admitting that and going into triage mode – finding what can be done – they keep the external dead husk of a structure while killing everything in it with 10% cut after 10% cut. And that can go on forever – until it just stops or until someone with the leadership and guts comes along to change it.

Parochially, the Eastern District and the LCMS has been in that situation for years. Taking a look at the budget is sad tale of woe of zombie programs and structure that just won’t die. All the while strangling things that might work. A tale of hospice instead of triage. A tale of care-taking instead of healing.

This NY times article and this bishop’s letter on the same thing – the NYC catholic schools – would seem to signal a change in that institution. It seems that Archbishop Timothy Dolan wants to be a leader. (The hospice image is his.) He’s picked a couple of interesting fights. First he’s picked a fight with “American Individualism”.

I fear as well an attitude that the support of our Catholic schools is only the duty of the parents who have children there. In this view, a parish without a school has no obligation at all to support other Catholic schools, and a parish blessed with a school might offer a “subsidy” to the school, but shifts the major burden of upkeep to the “school families,” who then are looked upon as “demanding drains” on the rest of the parish.

Such a view, of course, is, simply put, “non-Catholic.” As our tradition, Church teaching, canon law and cherished Catholic practice remind us, support of Catholic schools is a duty of the entire Church, even if you may not have a child now in one, or belong to a parish without one.

There are concentric rings of responsibility. Luther put the catechism to the head of the household by which he meant the father. But he also meant the heads of larger houses including the princes as the heads of the household of state when he wrote in 1524 a treatise “To the Councilmen of all Cities in Germany that they Establish and Maintain Christian Schools.” Luther would agree with the Archbishop.

The second fight he picks is over the role Bishops and Clergy. Stop the whining, stop the “good enough for church work”, stop the narcissism and pious sad face – and do your real job. Building hope. And it starts with competence in the job placed before you.

Finally, I fear a subtle buy-in into what I call the hospice mentality. Some bishops, priests, pastoral leaders, and Catholic faithful now sigh and say, “Well, we sure love our schools, and they have served us well, but, sadly, their day is over, and twilight is here. So, the best we can do is make their passing comfortable, and hold their hand while they slowly pass into grateful memory.”

Malarkey! We need to move from hospice to hope.

And we can’t do business as usual. To stand back and watch our schools struggle and scrape will only result in an “academic Darwinism”—where only the few fit survive—and a slow shrinking and gradual disappearance.

So, what do we do? We do what those before us have done. We renew passion, face reality and boldly plan for the future. We recover our dare and quit whining.

Pathways to Excellence calls for ongoing improvement internally, with realistic attention to quality teachers and principals, improvement of math and science scores, reassertion of Catholic identity and aggressive marketing.

Nobody wants to dedicate a life (especially a celibate live) to living in a hospice. In 2009 protestant seminaries had 20,835 M.Div students while catholic had 2,170 – an order of magnitude difference. It is nice to see someone with the leadership mantle appearing to use it.

Kingdom Values


Full Text

The unjust manager is a confusing parable primarily because is isn’t a parable in the Sunday School “an earthly story with a heavenly meaning” way. It is more an argument from lessor to greater. Jesus is teaching his disciples, look at the people of the world (this generation). They know how it works and they know what to do to get what they want. The manager wanted a cushy existence and he did what was necessary. Why don’t the children of light act that way? Starting with Jesus Christ there is a new generation. The old one is passing away. Why don’t the children of the light act with Kingdom values and goals?

And that is a practical holiness or sanctification question. Know which generation you are part of and act appropriately, act shrewdly according to its rules. And the rules of the Kingdom? The King wants to call sinners. The king wants the banquet hall to be full. Are our lives, both personally and as a congregation aligned around Kingdom values. If we can’t be trusted in little – this stuff which is passing away – how will we be trusted with the greater?

The core of Lutheran preaching is Law and Gospel. Jokingly it is to make you feel really really bad and then make you feel really really good. It is also supposed to be a little thing called scriptural. And by that I mean taking its general outline and shape from the text. Instead of using the text as a pretext to talk about what you want, the text itself is proclaimed anew to a new generation. This text is very law centered. There is a first use of the law (civil) is the parable itself. Look at how the world works. That is law. And unsurprising in a fallen world, law leads to unrighteousness. There is the third use of the law (a rule for life), Jesus’ exhortation about being faithful in little. That third use can also be a second use (a mirror to show us our sins). How one hears that depends upon how one thinks of themselves. The gospel is less evident.

This sermon takes the whole structure of Jesus’ argument to be the gospel. This unrighteous generation is passing away. With Christ the new one starts. That is the gospel. The proclamation of a new order directed as the poor, the blind, the lame, the prisoners. If you are part of that new generation, if you are part of the kingdom, how then should we live?

The Spirit/Saint of the Age

That title is from the philosopher Hegel and it shows up in all kinds of quackery from the Age of Aquarius to Gestalt to whatever movement someone else is pushing. It is a hardy perennial. Probably because we like finding patterns in things and we are social creatures – “it is not good for the man to be alone.”

In seminary a layman from the congregation I was assigned to asked me about the revelations about Mother Theresa. The revelations were her years long feelings of the absence of God. I eventually had two answers. The first was based on experience. Per her report Mother Theresa had a very strong encounter/appearance of the risen Christ. If just based on Peter’s reaction on the mount of transfiguration, many things in the everyday world would seem like God is absent after such an experience. That is one of the dangers of direct revelation, and one the reasons that the church has never based doctrine on any form of continuing revelation. It is personal. My second reaction was very Lutheran. Reading the book that was the basis of the question, it rubbed me that her father-confessors never really seemed to offer absolution. They just encouraged her further in her saintly vocation. The Lutheran in me just want to scream, its grace. She gets this better than you do. She offers it everyday, but nobody is reminding her.

But after reading this there seems to be a third answer. Mother Theresa represents the misgivings of the age.

…[Atheists] experience of God’s absence is a truthful experience, shared also by believers. Faith is not a denial of all this: it is a patient endurance of the ambiguity of the world and the experience of God’s absence….

Now not all believers feel that absence. Many live in a wonderful everyday relationship with Christ. And we shouldn’t privilege one over the other. Not all parts of the body are eyes or feet. But especially Lutherans should be able talk about that absence. Luther called it the hidden God. No matter what you did the hidden God disapproved and hid His face from you. Luther’s answer was the revealed God. The Word of God. When the hidden God was too much, you looked to the cross, to the God revealed in Jesus Christ. You let God fight with God. You let Christ handle the tensions that we have now been justified but not yet glorified.

That post continues with this phrase, “patience with others is love, patience with self is hope, patience with God is faith.” We are saved by grace through faith. In a very impatient age, it seems right that the saint of the age had the patience to keep faithful for years at a time while feeling an absence.

Genesis, theology, evolution and modernity

Last week’s Sunday School and Bible class was basically Genesis 1 & 2. These also came up in the Thursday bible study. When your great hope is resurrection or re-creation, your understanding of the original creation becomes important. Also when as a protestant you rest on biblical authority, how you interpret is important. And the tendency when the core is attacked is to push back hard – to have scientists who say theology and religion is a bunch of junk, and on the other side to have religionists who say that science just doesn’t know what its talking about. Think Daniel Dennet and Ken Hamm. Both groups want to say choose, and if you don’t then well you just aren’t a real scientist or christian.

Tim Keller is the founding Pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian in Manhattan. This paper is the best thing I have ever read on this subject. If you have ever had any questions, doubts or thoughts, go read it! It is a perfect piece of pastoral theology. An informed layman or woman can read it and understand it, but it does not back away from serious questions or from positing serious answers.

To the person looking for mathematical certainty, you’re never going to find it. What Keller does best is step back from the shouting and apply some simple reason.

A Chaplain and and Atheist go…

This story was the original. This is a letter to the WSJ concerning it.

It is a great mutt & Jeff or odd couple story. A military chaplain who “preaches about divine protection…rejects evolution and believes the earth to be 6000 years old. He carries a large KJV bible with him into a combat zone…” and his specialist assistant who “totes writings of Richard Dawkins…and is a full blown athiest”. The military’s thoughts on the matter, “They don’t have to be religious, they just need to be able to shoot straight.” The combat chaplains assistant is the gun that they don’t carry.

The letter is from Chaplain Wainwright who writes, “it became apparent that the problem with the chaplain and the religious programs specialist has nothing to do with faith or lack thereof but with teamwork and leadership. After two tours of Iraq, three IED hits, mortar attacks and other sundry excitement, I attribute my survivability and sanity both to my faith and to the technical and tactical expertise of my chaplain assistants and the other non-commissioned officers whose guidance and example kept me alive.”

The military, because the stakes are so high and immediate, is often an intensification of everyday life. Everyone who practices a faith strikes a balance between faith and understanding. You could say that even the atheist does that with the balance being anything I don’t understand I don’t believe.

In some ways I’m the odd ball. I’m a Chaplain Wainwright type guy. Let’s get competence and good practices as a base. To me faith doesn’t make up for stupidity, nor does it cover lunacy. Now God might save you from that bullet, God might bless your completely nuts program, but you stand a better chance of that happening by planning for it. That odd ball nature extends into the basis of faith. I believe, but that belief is not just something ungrounded. Read John 14:8-11. “Or at least believe because of the work you have seen me do.” Our faith is based on something solid. And yes I know that everybody and his brother has published a book debunking the gospels. Guess what, if you are being fair, the gospels hold up. There was a guy named Jesus. He actually did perform miracles. And they nailed him to a cross. The crowds that had followed him were all dispersed. But three days later, he was back. The tomb was empty and he appeared to a bunch of fishermen. Fishermen and a former zealot named Saul who got a special appearance traveled the known world telling just that story. This Jesus came back. That is the work I’ve seen him do.

If I needed complete understanding of something to believe it, I’d never drive a car let alone ride an airplane or type this message on a computer. In the words of an old hymn, “proofs I see sufficient of it, ’tis the true and faithful word.”