Monthly Archives: November 2013

Happy Thanksgiving

happy-thanksgiving

Here is the message from last night’s service – Collecting the Broken Pieces.

Text: Mark 8:1-9
Introduction

As I looked at the forecast on Monday, one of our staple prayers – “for seasonable weather” – came to mind. And it struck me being a very Christian prayer. It is not for Florida weather in New York, or for Fall weather to continue through Winter. It is for God’s good creation to continue to be good. Lord, for seasonable weather…for things to be as you made them to be.

Trouble in the World

Living in a fallen World – if we aren’t in denial about that fact, if we are at all sensitive to those daily and hourly cracks in creation where it is not as God made it – can sometimes pull us into a spiritual ditch. We can look at the accumulation of cracks in creation and say what a mess. How can God let this continue?
Trouble in the Text

And I think that is part of what the disciples are experiencing in the text we chose. In Mark, there are two mass feeding stories. Jesus has already fed the 5000, not too long ago. Our reading is the second, the feeding of the 4000. The audience is different. The 5000 was a Jewish context. This one is gentile with probably some Samaritans layered in.

To good Jewish boys, like the disciples, they had to be wondering – what is our messiah doing out here. Out here is the problem. Out here is nothing. “How can one feed these people, with bread, here in this desolate place?”
Looking at the cracked world can make one imaging our God is a God of scarcity. It can make us forget the abundance of good that this world, even cracked, still maintains.

Gospel in the Text

But Jesus sets them straight in two ways. First, he gives thanks. Seven loaves…he took them and gave thanks…a few small fish…he blessed them. There is a spiritual resonance…he took, and broke and gave it to them…the very word for thanks is eucharist…but he also fed from what was present.

As Luther wrote, “He also gives me clothing and shoes, food and drink…and daily provides me with all that I need to support this body and life.”

The creation, even cracked, continues with the Father’s goodness and providence…which we rightly give thanks for.
The second way that Jesus sets them straight is in the abundance. The providence and goodness of the Father are not available in small doses parceled out to specific people. The providence and goodness of God the Father is placed freely before all peoples. “He gave them to his disciples to set before the people, and they set them before the crowd…and they ate and were satisfied.”

Again spiritual overtones…God is super abundant in his means of grace. But also something very real. The church comes from all tribes and peoples and languages. The disciples daily set Christ before the nations.
The church daily picks up the pieces of this cracked world. And marvels at the abundance of grace in such broken pieces.

Conclusion

Thanksgiving invites us to see the fundamental goodness of God’s providence that cracks can’t fully obscure, and marvel at how his grace redeems the broken pieces. For things as they are, we give thanks. Amen.

Christ the King whose Throne is the Cross

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Biblical Text: Luke 23:27-43
Full Draft of Sermon

The last Sunday of the Church year (today) is often called Christ the King Sunday. The appointed reading from Luke is the crucifixion. I usually dodge preaching directly on this text. For those who have been around Holy Week at St. Mark’s, Good Friday has been our collective reading of the passion text. We let the gospel preach itself in our midst. If you can’t be moved by the text itself…what am I going to say. I couldn’t dodge it today, but today compared to Good Friday the purpose is slightly different. Good Friday is more about the lens of atonement – the cross as what buys our salvation. Christ the King is about the revelation of the God. When we say Jesus is Lord, what kind of King or Lord do we have. It is that word – King – that the text can tell us about. “There was also an inscription over him, ‘This is the King of the Jews’”. It is here, at the place of the skull, we are to see most clearly, to learn the type of King we have.

This sermon looks at the text and application to our knowledge and lives through looking at three pictures that are concluded by memorable phrases of the gospel.
1) For if they do these things when the wood is green, what will happen when it is dry.
2) The mocking contrasted with the criminal’s – “remember me when you come into your kingdom”.
3) And Jesus’ words from the cross – “today, you will be with me in paradise.”
So, what what this sermon does is invite you to ponder three pictures or three phrases.

The Best Construction on Everything

Good article about something new in the world. But also about something real old. The 8th (9th for you Calvinists) commandment says don’t bear false witness against your neighbor. The rub always comes when we ask who is our neighbor and what does false witness mean. Luther, like Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount, finds not just the negative force (don’t lie about your neighbor) but also a positive force (“defend him, speak well of him, and put the best construction on everything”). The Satire of Deception quote, the “quote that reveals what we all know to be true” even though it itself is fake, is the perfect negation of that positive force. I am going to put the worst meaning on my neighbors words and life and use that to beat him and leave him by the roadside. The fact that our politics have been reduced to this testifies against us.

Hear the Voice of My Cry – Prayer from 1 Tim 2:1 part 3

Prayer candlesThe third word that Paul uses in 1 Timothy 2:1 when he is urging every type of prayer is unique. Warning, I’m going be a grammar snob at this point because there really isn’t another way to do this. The word translated as intercessions is a noun. Nouns are (humming school house rock in the background): persons, places or things. My 10 year old, just butting herself into my odd little grammar place, tells me, “they’ve added ideas to that list, Dad.” [Insert Eye Roll at way uncool Father] As a noun, in all of the bible, this word is used only in 1 Timothy. So how do we get at its meaning? Our methodology to this point is broken. I’m going to follow two paths. The first path is a purely secular path and how you would get the meaning of any word. I’m going to look in a big dictionary like the Oxford English Dictionary, but something called The Greek-English Lexicon of New Testament and other early Christian Literature or BDAG for short which is an acronym of the four generations of scholars who have led the project. The big dictionaries give you meaning, but they also trace for you the various uses of the word in question so you can get a feel for the context. The second path is to jump the grammar category and see if there is a verbal form of the noun that is used in the Bible. This second path captures some of the thoughts behind our earlier use of the Psalms. Does the Holy Spirit have a peculiar definition or a specific way of using this word or closely joined words. (In English for example we use the word snorkel as a noun meaning that bent tube thing you can breathe through under water. The verb of snorkel is – He snorkeled in the Caribbean – which means the act of using the snorkel. You can think of a bunch of other similar words. Same concept in Greek. Languages are constantly innovative and amazing things, taking nouns and creating verbs and other items, like google and googling. Okay, I’ll get back on topic.)

Looking in BDAG our word intercession is found consistently in papyri (ancient paper, not the fun font to put on all our Christmas program notices) and in other Greek sources like Plato and Plutarch. When you went to the King or other ruler you brought your petitions or requests. And these are where we find it on the papyri. “Paul, a petition for a million denarii from your most exalted excellency, on behalf of your loyal subjects in need of a new bath-house.” So, over time, as the word became attached to requests from Kings (who sometimes styled themselves as God-Kings), a petition took on the character of prayer. But since it was brought by a specific person, usually the person closest or considered closest to the King you were petitioning. And it was typically brought on behalf of someone else, the petition-prayer became an intercession. Hence, another big dictionary (Louw-Nida), after examining all the words in the language occupying a similar usage, defines it as “to speak to someone on behalf of someone else – ‘to intercede, intercession.’” BDAG puts the first definition as petition or request the second definition as prayer and then qualifies that to definition 2a as intercessory prayer. The dictionaries hone us in on a specific type of prayer. In a list of what could be synonyms, the specific flavor is what distinguishes the word use.

So, does the bible use a verbal root of this same word? Why, yes it does. In two places really close Paul uses verbal versions of this word.

Romans 8:34 – Christ Jesus is the one who died– more than that, who was raised– who is at the right hand of God, who indeed is interceding for us.

Romans 8:26 – Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness. For we do not know what to pray for as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words.

The way that Paul thinks about this word is what Jesus and the Holy Spirit do for us in our weakness. Christ, performing the role of Great High Priest, intercedes for us with the Father. The Holy Spirit, when our supplications, our “Oh Crap I need this” prayers, are way off the target, and when our “quid pro quo” prayers are writing checks that can’t be cashed, The Holy Spirit intercedes for us with the words.

So, now we have a really good idea of what intercessions really means. Paul is urging Timothy, the pastor of a congregation toward intercessions. I would also assert that Paul is urging all mature Christians toward intercessions “for all people”. What follows this section is qualifications for ordained ministry. This, prayer, is what Christians would call the priesthood of all believers. I want to pause for a second and reflect on the gravity of this. You, Mr. and Mrs. And Miss and Ms. Christian, are to be like Christ and the Holy Spirit are for us. You are to make intercession for “all people” with God. With that as the context, hear these verses, let them resonate.

James 5:16 – Therefore, confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous person has great power as it is working.

1 Peter 1:9 – But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light.

Exodus 19:6 – and you shall be to me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation. These are the words that you shall speak to the people of Israel.”

You, Mr. and Mrs. and Miss and Ms. Christian, are the priests of this world. Priests make intercession. If you don’t know, haven’t heard, or have forgotten, this is a called the priesthood of all believers. It might be an inappropriate theological use, but prayer is the sacrament of the universal priesthood. And it is not just a feel-good, everybody is included, participation ribbons for everyone with a clap from the helicopter parents inclusion. St. Paul, as the first piece of advice, urges supplications, prayers, intercessions. You are to be mature enough in your faith that you are not just saying “Oh Crap, Jesus take the wheel.” Mature enough not just to be praying for ourselves and praying for our role in the kingdom, but mature enough also to be praying for others on an intercessory basis. Some that will request them and others that will not. (Pause for an Oh, Crap, and pause again for the Spirit to clean that up.)

This is not something outsourced to the pastor or the pastoral public ministry. This is the core function of the priesthood of all believers. “First of all, then, I urge…” Why? “that we might lead peaceful and quiet lives, godly and dignified. This is pleasing in the sight of God our Savior, who desires all people to be saved and come to the knowledge of the truth. (1 Tim 2:3-4)” Your intercession for the world, for all people, is both for your benefit here and now, but mostly for their benefit eternally. Problems in evangelism are always first problems of prayer among the people of God.

I will want to add some personal experiences, notes, pitfalls and the like here. I’ll do that when I continue. If you want to catch up on prior posts of this sequence.


Part 1 of this Series

Part 2 of this series

Apocalypse: Distress at the roaring of the Sea

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Biblical Text: Luke 21:5-28
Full Sermon Draft

The jumping off point for the sermon is a veteran’s tale of the end of a world (Iraq) and where he goes from there. It is a well told tale of an apocalypse of the City of Man. Based in truth or at least true emotion and experience. Told well. Strengthened by a deep bit of truth related to The Apocalypse. The apocalypse of the City of Man is always about accepting its end. And that is the deep truth; the city of man ends. The question is does your identity end with it, or does it just transfer to another city of man. It too doomed to end, just in a way yet unseen. Or do you look for your residence in the City of God?

The world’s advice is always acceptance of death. The world’s advice is the true opiate, that all of this is meaningless, a striving after the wind. But Jesus says to us: “when these things begin to take place, straighten up and raise your head, because you redemption is drawing near.” Right now the world groans. Right now the nations are in distress and perplexity because of the roaring of the seas and the waves. People faint with fear and worry about what is coming. But not you. Straighten up and raise your heads. Your redemption is near. The creation waits with eager longing for the children of God to be revealed…to be set free from its bondage to corruption (Rom 8:21).

If your hope is in the City of God, if you identity is found in Jesus Christ, the roaring of the seas are but a receding sound before that last trumpet.

Hear the Voice of My Cry – Prayer from 1 Tim 2:1 part 2

bargainingThose first prayers of our lives are often the cries of the heart, or existential terror. And Paul urges Timothy to these. The psalmists use these pleas and cries of distress over and over, and we even suggested a couple of instances where Jesus engages in these supplications. So, what about “prayers”, the second word in Paul’s list in 1 Tim 2:1?

Again, let us imagine our normal experience. After we have said the “Jesus, take the wheel” prayer, and we start to calm a little bit. When we no longer need the paper bag to regulate breathing. What are our first thoughts? If you are like me you start thinking things like, “Ok, Jesus, the car is on the road, if you just let it be true that I didn’t do any serious damage to Dad’s car, I promise I’ll make church next Sunday.” After we know we aren’t going to die immediately, we start bargaining whatever we can think of, usually whatever we think might be holy or religious or what the god(s) might like, in exchange for “just make it alright”. Now depending upon the circumstance alright might be anything from the way it was before to fix this to give me more time to anything that we are sure will make our continuing existence better.

Now if you are at all a pious person you’ve been told by people like me – “God isn’t a galactic vending machine”. I like that phrase so much I want to defend it just a bit before deconstructing my own pious-BS. God isn’t a galactic vending machine in the sense that we have anything to put into it. When we start bargaining it is usually with one of two things: a) we promise to be much better boys in the future or b) we appeal to everything we’ve done in the past. Call it the prodigal and the elder son or the little-boy-blue and little-jack-horner camps. And if you know the story of the prodigal (Luke 15:11-32), when the prodigal gets home to Dad and starts into his “I promise to blow the horn next time” speech, Dad cuts him off at “I have sinned, I am no longer worthy to be called you son”. Dad doesn’t let him promise anything. The Father isn’t a galactic vending machine we put anything into, but he does provide. The older son does get to do his “what a good boy am I” routine, but Dad more or less says are you sure that is the line you want to use. Right now, all the good stuff and the party is inside, and you are standing outside.

Enough defense of my older-son piety (but God, I’ve never been so immature as to bargain with you), let’s tare it down a little. God may not be a galactic vending machine, but “prayer” as Paul uses it here, and as we will see by looking at a couple of Psalms, means bargaining in a sense or exchanging wishes. The invitation is not to bargain from our strength, because we have none, but to bargain from God’s promises. The invitation is to say to God, “I need this, I need your help here, and I think you should agree because Jesus did, or because you told us to do this, or because this is who you have revealed yourself to be.” The Ur-example of this might be the man from Ur himself, Abraham. When God told him he was off to destroy Sodom, Abraham negotiated with God. You can find that story in Genesis 18:22-33, but Abraham opens up the negotiation with this bargaining chip:

Then Abraham drew near and said, “Will you indeed sweep away the righteous with the wicked? 24 Suppose there are fifty righteous within the city. Will you then sweep away the place and not spare it for the fifty righteous who are in it? 25 Far be it from you to do such a thing, to put the righteous to death with the wicked, so that the righteous fare as the wicked! Far be that from you! Shall not the Judge of all the earth do what is just?” (Gen 18:23-25 ESV)

It is not the righteous within the city that he bargains with or their righteousness. He bargains over and for them, but he bargains with the nature of God as the Almighty has revealed himself. The Judge of all the earth will do justice.

I’ve put all the uses in the Psalms of “prayer” in this file, but there are two psalms that I want to give special attention to: Psalm 86 and Psalm 90. Please take some time to read each…ok, now that you are back, Psalm 90 first. Notice the inscription: A Prayer of Moses, The Man of God. I hope you know the story of Moses. If you don’t the Biblical book of Exodus is where you go. In that background of this prayer is the Exodus event. God has delivered his people from bondage. He has explicitly promised a land flowing with milk and honey, a restoration to the promised-land of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. And he has given the law on Sinai’s height and exercised his judgment on the grumbling and wondering people of Israel. I hear that reflected in the first 11 verses. Moses acknowledges the God who has been their dwelling place and the majesty and power of that God. We know we have nothing. “You have set our iniquities before you…” So what does Moses ask for, what is he seeking? Wisdom (v12), pity (v13), satisfaction and gladness (v14-15), knowledge of God into the future (v16) and success in building (v17). I’d say those requests run our usually gambit. Everything from material success and happiness, to pity of our powerlessness, to wisdom and knowledge of God for us and our kin. Does Moses, the Man of God, offer anything for these? Does he bargain with anything Israel has? No. What he does is remind God of his promises and his steadfast love (v14). That word steadfast love is one of the key words of the OT. It is God’s Chesed, his steadfast love, his covenant faithfulness. Even when we fail, God says He is faithful to his promises. Moses’ prayer, his bargaining with God, is to live up to God’s promises. God, this is the stuff we heard when you said a land flowing with milk and honey, were we fooled? God, you promised to prosper us, yet we have been afflicted, How long? Let your work be shown to your servants.

Psalm 86 carries the inscription: A Prayer of David. David, as Moses is the OT lawgiver and type of the prophet and priest, David is the OT type of the King. David was the man who received a covenant from God for an eternal throne. Yet that throne seems to be in danger. David acknowledges his poverty – “I am poor and needy (v1)”. It may originally sound like that bargaining from what we have – “preserve my life, for I am godly” – but that godliness is defined as simple trust. “Save your servant, who trusts in you – you are my God”. And what is that trust based on? “For you, O Lord, are good and forgiving, abounding in steadfast love to all who call upon you (v5).” Notice the steadfast love again? When we are in need of forgiveness, when we have been faithless to the covenants, you remain faithful. “There is none like you among the gods, O Lord/nor are there any works like yours (v8).” Now we should do the same as before, what does David want? Walk in God’s ways (v11), deliverance from insolent men (v14), a sign and shame on his enemies (v17). David’s bargaining with God is as with Moses a calling of God to live up to God’s promises. I thought my throne was for all generations, yet it looks like it won’t last this one, did I hear wrong? If I did, show me your ways, unite my heart to fear your name (v11).

So, what does this mean for our prayer life? There are two things I would recommend. First we authentically need stuff in the here and now. We should not be afraid or too pious to ask God for things. Moses and David’s requests were for real stuff. If you look at the rest of the psalms and how this word is used, it is often parallel to those cries and pleas. Our requests come out of that real need. Which leads to the second point, we should recognize our need. Prayer is a request or even a bargaining with God. Our authentic reaction is a good guide at least initially, but it fails us in what we offer. We are bargaining from absolute need. We pray because we have nothing in ourselves. The only thing we offer is what God has already given to us. Our bargains, our prayers of this type, should be based on God’s promise and love for us. God’s love might be shown by a Mercedes Benz, but part and parcel of both David and Moses’ prayers were requests for wisdom. Oh Lord, won’t you buy me a M-B, and help me to drive always in the narrow path. You mean the narrow path is a walking path? But the Benz has plenty of trunk room for that cross, why walk. Carry it, but how will I bring my Benz? Oh, now I get it.

One last example from the life of Jesus in John 11:38-44. Jesus prays before calling out to raise Lazarus. Lazarus has been in the tomb 4 days and he stinks. And Jesus prays. The prayer, in my hearing, is of this form. The promise to Jesus is that he is the Word of the Father, that he is the beloved, that we should listen to him. I promised them to see your Glory, and I said this so that they might believe you sent me. Lazarus, come out.

These “prayers” are things we need, with the Kingdom and the promises kept firmly in mind.

Next week we will talk about the next word in Paul’s list: “intercessions”. Just a hint, with this one we start to get out of our needs and start looking toward others.

Part 1 of this Series

Hear the Voice of My Cry – Prayer from 1 Tim 2:1 part 1

MunchScreamSomebody recently unearthed Flannery O’Connor’s prayer journal and published it. O’Connor, if you haven’t read any of her stories, is a mid-20th century writer. Some try and stuff her into a Southern Writer box, others into a Catholic Writer box, while others focus on genres of gothic or short story. As with most great artists they really stand alone. They may come from somewhere, but the vision speaks universally. She died of lupus at the age of 39, and the prayer book published is from her time at the Iowa Writer’s Workshop in her 20s. I’d hate to imagine something I wrote in my early 20’s in a personal journal being published, but that is why I’m me and she Flannery O’Connor. The New Yorker takes a look at the book here, and one sentence of the review struck me as incredibly insightful, especially as our elders have been wrestling with prayer. Quoting the article, “learning to avoid cliché and speak authentically is a predicament of both prayer and literature, and solving the problem in her prayer life allowed O’Connor to solve the same problem in her fiction.”

I’m also just going to blatantly rip off one of the best bible studies I’ve ever had the chance to attend. Pastor Rob Foote from Trinity in Ithaca led it on 1 Tim 2:1. “First of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for all people…” Notice those four words that Paul is urging. It might just be every word for prayer that Paul can think up, and in the context of a letter to young Timothy that could be the intent. “Timothy, my boy, stop writing to me and start praying.” But what I’m going to argue is that Paul’s sequence helps us who are learning to pray like it helped Flannery. Paying attention to the differences of the words and the order helps us to speak authentically to God. And in speaking authentically we grow in faith and understanding.

To accomplish this will require a little deconstruction first. Let me describe something and you tell me if it resonates. Piety is not a highly valued trait in our culture. You are more likely to get chided for being one of those Jesus Freaks than you are for being clueless coming before the throne of God, so our prayer life is rather haphazard and unstructured. At the same time we’ve all heard and remember bits and pieces of sermons or bible studies or confirmation classes on prayer. And in high pious form they all tended to urge giving thanks to God first, right? So a moment comes in our life when we feel the need to pray. And let’s be blunt, this is usually right after we have royally messed something up and right before what we have messed up becomes public knowledge. You could also reduce that to it is usually a moment of stark terror. And all you want to scream is “God, fix this!” And then you remember, oh, I’m supposed to give thanks first. Give thanks for what? I need this fixed, now! But if I don’t give thanks, then God won’t hear my scream of terror. And it snowballs into fight between “Pious-BS” and “I need this!”. And do you know what never actually happens? Prayer. We collapse in a fetal position, spiritually and sometimes literally, of guilt over not praying right and more guilt over messing up and terror at the hell to come. If any of that sounds familiar, I think Paul’s words might help.

The methodology I’m going to use is relatively simple. I’m going to let scripture interpret scripture, and I’m going to do this by letting the Psalms, the prayerbook of the bible define each of Paul’s request words. Now if you are a stickler you could be screaming right now how are you letting Hebrew poems define Greek words we are talking about in English? I’ll give a very simplistic reply. The same guy, the Holy Spirit, wrote it all. I could limit myself to the New Testament, or Paul’s letters, or just the book of 1 Timothy, but my intuition is that if you are talking about prayers go to how the prayer-book of the bible uses the words. If the Holy Spirit can’t work in different languages, or if you have a problem with verbal inspiration, your problem is not prayer, which is part of the life of faith. You have a problem at a much more fundamental level – God’s description of how he has worked and continues to work in this world. In Paul’s framework some intercession is required.

So, on to the first word, supplications. Such a pious sounding word, right? Slightly archaic, check. More than 3 syllables, check. Give a hint of control or at least educated vocabulary, check. And all of those checks I believe work against the true intent of this word. A bloodless way of saying this word might be our true felt needs. Paul is urging taking to God our true felt needs. But let us look at how the translators of the Psalms used this word or where they applied it. In all the bible the word is used in 71 verses. It is used 27 times in the psalms. The first appearance is Psalm 5:2 – “Give attention to the sound of my cry…” Supplication is the word “cry”. This sounds an awful lot like that stark moment of Terror. “Oh God, listen up if you are there…” Psalm 6:9 is the next place. Psalm 6 gets labeled as a prayer for recovery from illness or in my ESV – Deliver my life. I’d encourage you to read the entire Psalm, it is short, but this is stark existential terror. At the end of which the psalmist says, “The Lord has heard my plea.” The supplication is plea, which in the context is that deep anxious cry, “Oh God, just get me through this surgery…” So, just to save some words, I’m going to give you the rest of the verses in an attached file, Prayer Verse Reference File. But, I’m going to point out one other use, Psalm 142:2. “I pour out my complaint before him; I tell my trouble before him.” The psalm is for delivery from persecution. The translators chose to translate this “complaint”. The rest of the uses are similar – plea, cry, sometimes generic prayer, complaint, one time affliction. The picture in the psalms of this word is that existential prayer in that moment of terror.

Contrary to the pious-BS memory, God does not despise our cries of terror. The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom. I don’t want to move on to how God answers our cries, at least not yet. For now I just want to let it stand that Paul urges us first to such “supplications”. We don’t need to clean these things up first. The ultimate example of this might actually be from the life of Christ, both in the Garden of Gethsemane (“take this cup from me”) and on the cross (“My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?). Finding our authentic prayer usually starts from the authentic moment of terror.

We’ll continue this tomorrow…

Resurrection Certainty

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Biblical Text: Luke 20:27-40
Full Sermon Draft

The first part of this sermon is a little snarky-er than usual. Sometimes you read something that just makes you want to say “well, what did you come out to see(Luke 7:24)”. Or in most cases it is more akin to desiring to say something like – well, I can’t refute your experience, and a bunch of people are harmonizing with you, but c’mon, grow-up, actually crack a book, or stop beating up on straw-men and turn to the real sources.” Beating up on American Mega-Church culture and feeling burned by what is obviously a 10K gold earring destined to turn your lobes green as if it were Augustine, Aquinas, Luther, Calvin or even Wesley shouldn’t be taken seriously.

But we are reaping the 30 years of that culture in the American church, so we have to. 30 years of shininess distracting from the deep wells. 30 years of assuming the gospel. 30 years of emotionalism (what the reformers called enthusiasm). And we have a bad hang-over or have trouble walking a single block, let alone picking up the breastplate of righteousness, because we are so out of shape. So we have to take it seriously. But that makes me snarky.

After getting that out of my system, the answer is the same as always. Ad fontes, returning to the sources, listening to the voice of Jesus. And the first word that needs to be heard is the gospel proclamation of the resurrection. Can these bones live? Absolutely. Because He is the resurrection. This is what Jesus does.

Unknown Unknowns

Don Rumsfeld, former Secretary of Defense and CEO of a few corporations, was a fountain of aphorisms. He collected some of them in a book called Rumsfeld’s Rules. Without commenting on the ego it takes to essentially cast yourself as Solomon, the rules can capture snippets of wisdom – sometimes true and others just conventional. One of the aphorisms Sec. Rumsfeld used to use is best captured in a two by two.

Known Knowns = Data/Facts
Unknown Knowns = Deep assumptions that happen to be true
Known Unknowns = The questions that you are consciously aware of
Unknown Unknowns = Oh Sh*t, or things that you might have in the first category falsely

Part of the homespun wisdom constantly refining that last category: by good questions moving unknown unknowns into known unknowns, by identifying assumptions and making unknown unknowns into unknown knowns, and by confirming what you believe are facts.

This pops into my mind typically when I am forced to pay attention to that last refinement, the checking of facts. This happens for me in two big situations: first when reading accounts of arguments between long vanished “sides” and second when reading stridently LCMS writers. Jesus interacting with Pharisees and Sadducees is an example of the first, or reading Bultmann. You know that these conflicts or personages were deeply important – the Red vs. Blue of the day – but you struggle sometimes to see what the conflict was about. With Jesus it is usually easier because the gospel writers usually tell you like “the Sadducees didn’t believe in the resurrection (Luke 20:27)”. But with Bultmann, who is perfectly capable of preaching the gospel and has deep exegetical insight, all of sudden he throws out a line like “The mythical eschatology is untenable for the simple reason that the parousia of Christ never took place as the New Testament expected.” And hence launches his entire program of “demythologization” which seeks to save the Christ of faith from the Christ of myth and the Christ of history. Without rehashing the entire early 20th century, one is tempted to say, “um, well, not that big a deal, some of our unknown knowns turned out to be a little too unknown and we need to refine them or make them more conscious, not throw out the entire New Testament”. But throwing out the New Testament is what many did and we live with that action today. Given Bultmann’s intelligence and general level-ness elsewhere, there must have been something more earth shaking. Likewise I get queasy when I read some of the the pious exactitude of fellow LCMS’ers. Not that I think they are wrong, but their approach to theology, like Bultmann’s certainty that the New Testament had to be completely sifted, puts me in mind of unknown unknowns. I start asking questions like which doctrine or teaching that I currently would assent to is most likely to be wrong?

Let me just say I’m not talking about anything that gets close to a creed or anything that would be included in “mere orthodoxy”. I’m talking more about differences between major trunks of the church. Today, serious Baptists, Reformed, Lutherans and Catholics can all look at each other and acknowledge separated brethren. That listing is more or less on a sacramental scale. Somewhere between the m and the e of Reformed you cross over to Christ being real in the sacrament from it just being a nice memorial meal. You could list them Baptist, Catholic, Arminian, Lutheran and Calvinist (splitting the Reformed) and that would roughly be the spectrum of teaching in regards to election and free will with the split coming somewhere between the h and the e of Lutheran. And you could continue this exercise say with ecclesiology: Lutheran, Baptist, Reformed, Catholic. This takes some explaining. Lutherans have no official doctrine of church politics. Some of us are congregational while others have archbishops. Moving along that spectrum the more sure each tradition is of its ecclesiology. Notice that none of those things actually touch the apostle’s creed yet they separate us.

So, if you were asking me where am I most likely wrong – I’d answer somewhere in my ecclesiology. For 500 years post the reformation we have elevated all kinds of doctrines over church unity. The older I get, or the more thought I put into it, the less reason I come to for separation beyond the historic creeds. Does that mean these things are unimportant? No. What it means is that I’m more inclined to put the best construction on people’s beliefs. My fellow strident LCMS’ers would say that difference in these things would betray a difference in the gospel. I’d say that we see through a glass darkly. I’d also add that there are ways to be less wrong, ways that we can refine our unknown unknowns. Cutting off the sacramental presence of Christ is a greater wrong. You are breathing with one lung. But you are still breathing. And we can still confess Father, Son and Holy Spirit. We could still confess that the Holy Spirit spoke by the Prophets and Christ rose according to the Scriptures. We could still confess the basis of our unity – Jesus Christ is Lord. Call me a less wrong theologian, part of a pilgrim band all on the road to being much less wrong when Christ returns and in a twinkle of an eye there are no more unknowns. (That’s assuming my justification by grace in the blood of Christ received by faith is a known known – which it is. I have a sure hope.)

Ruminations

I usually try and write something at least every other day, but this week it just didn’t really make it to print.

Things tended to come as short intuitive blips, but of the sort that even investing 2000 words, you knew you could illustrate the point, but it wouldn’t make a difference.

For example, take the Casino amendment I commented on prior to the election. Predictably it passed although I was heartened that(just)over 50% of the people in our voting vicinity realized the problem. The libertine wave in America is just too strong. I quickly wrote my underlying intuition as: the libertine wave in America is all about bondage, but not in the way you are thinking. American liberty was traditionally about life and the pursuit of happiness which was tightly bound to the virtuous life. As late as Mr. Smith goes to Washington or almost any Jimmy Stuart movie, it is about the happiness that comes from being a moral or virtuous person, even when the virtue leads to apparent worldly loss. Yes, Hollywood would tack on happy endings mitigating the message, but those happy endings were reflections of the Christian afterlife. The Hollywood equivalent of paying your kid 10% a month interest on their bank account to encourage savings. But gambling, pot, abortion and any of the other “liberties” that we are consistently creating or voting ourselves are not about the life of virtue. They are about hiding from the hard path. They are about wallowing in our propensity to messing things up. We are demanding the liberty to engage in vice and not be called on it. And vice is always about slavery. Anyone who commits sin is a slave to sin (John 8:34). We as a nation still have money to spend. We are not yet looking at pig’s food thinking that looks good. And our “friends” (i.e. our government) is busy enabling our squalor.

Likewise, Mollie Hemingway captured what I think is a defining number. The GOP VA governor candidate Ken Cuccinelli won married women by 8 pts, but lost unmarried by 42 pts. He actually did better with married women than married men. You can either have a culture that encourages virtue, which will have a high number of those married women and their husbands, or you will have a culture that enables vice. You have a culture of liberty, or you have a libertine culture. A libertine culture need two things: 1) someone to help pay for the effects of such a lifestyle and 2) someone to tell you it is ok to keep the party going and quiet dissenting voices.

It isn’t the gospel. The gospel is the proclamation that regardless of your success or failure at pursuing virtue, Jesus Christ has granted you the victory. You don’t earn it, you receive it. But virtue is still important. And the toughest part is that as a Christian you are called to it, even when the world around is going in the opposite direction. You are salt and light. You are light even when the world prefers darkness.