Spiritual, not religious…exactly the wrong attitude?

This article by Mr. Charles Blow in the New York Times is an interesting article that confirms a longer running idea in kids or young adult ministry. I can remember 12 years ago when the catch phrase was mystery. Youth didn’t like “religion”, but they dug that mystery.

The opening story of the young woman going to Costa Rica for a month to lose her religion, get over hang-ups from it and reconnect as a spiritual person just screams lost. God works in a bunch of ways which we can’t limit Him, and he could meet this young woman in Costa Rica between fifth of rum, but that would seem slight. The Christian witness is that God has told us he will be in very specific places. God has promised to be present where two or three are gathered – i.e. God is present in the church. God has promised to be present in the sacraments, in baptism and the Lord’s supper. God meets us from the outside. In the proclaimed Word and in the Sacraments. God can meet us in what gets labled as spiritual today, but that is not guaranteed. There is no promise of God associated with trips to Costa Rica or in individual seeking.

Unfortunately that is way uncool – emphasizing religion (the communal gathering around a shared belief) at the expense of personal spirituality. Especially when you add the statement that the important religious institution is the congregation – the local place where the word is taught and virtue encouraged and built up. Christ is present in the gathering and the life of that community. That is where grace happens. Larger groups may be necessary as practical matters, but they are not the church. Saying to sacrifice some of you personal spiritual freedom for the good of a local community is way uncool. St. Paul would see this in speaking in tongues and say if you don’t have an interpreter – shut up. Being spiritual and on your own quest is just so much more romantic, but less likely to actually find grace.

Serving Two Masters, or the Case of the Missing Moral Leadership

This article from the WSJ is not surprising but eye opening. The jumping off point is President Obama meeting with the Dalai Lama and the Chinese response.

But China’s angry response to the news that Mr. Obama will meet with the Tibetan spiritual leader tomorrow in Washington goes straight to the point. “If the U.S. leader chooses this period to meet the Dalai Lama, that would damage trust and cooperation between our two countries,” said Zhu Weiqun, a Chinese Communist Party official at a Feb. 2 press conference. “And how would that help the United States surmount the current economic crisis?”

The background is that the US owes China a bucket-truck full of money, and China is one of the few places that has the ability to buy more of our nation’s debt. As a nation we like to support things such as religious freedom and self determination, we also like to spend more than we make. When confronted with the choice of reduced spending, or quietude on freedoms, which path does the nation choose?

The Bible and specifically the Gospel of Luke is pretty clear both what it would expect Caesar to do, and what Jesus asks us to do. Luke 16:10-13 – you can’t serve two masters. Luke 22:24-27 – gentiles and great men lord it over their people.

The lord was a patron – “the friend of the people” – and his clients were obliged to him. In the west, under the teachings of the church, that kind of vassalage, while not going away, had to be hidden. Read the quote from the Chinese official again. That kind of vassalage is coming back. He is shockingly blunt – a patron state telling a client state to look where its bread is buttered.

The message of freedom in Jesus is that we have no real Patron but the Father in heaven. Instead of serving the things of this world – serve God first. Serve the God who came to serve us. Serve the God who adopted us into his family. In the church we are all heirs and children of God. That is a much different status than a client. It recognizes the true differences between creator and creature.

You can’t serve two masters. Either it’s the hierarchy of Caesar and money or it’s the household of God. We owe Caesar and money respect, but they should not be our master. We should also not be surprised when the American Ceasar chooses to protect client relationships. If I were the Dalai Lama, I would not expect more White House visits.

Teaching the Faith

Here is an article reviewing a split perception of what “Catholic” Universities do to the faith of their Catholic charges.

The money quote…

The CARA report now suggests that Catholics at non-Catholic schools tend to fare worse as far as fidelity and practice goes. But the larger issue is that Catholic higher education simply can’t bear all the weight of passing on the faith.

Parents and families are the greatest single influence on a young person’s faith, experts note, and the deterioration of family life often leaves Catholic students religiously adrift even as dioceses, parishes and the shrinking priesthood are increasingly ill-equipped to take up the slack.

In teaching the faith there are always two components. There is the academic stuff, the faith that is believed. I bring out what in the modern world is a dirty word, the dogma or doctrines of a church. Those are the content of what a church teaches. Then there is the actual faith. Not the faith that is believed, but the faith that believes. This is most definitely taught. Most importantly that faith is taught by God through the work of the Spirit (1 Cor 12:3, John 6:45). That faith is also most clearly taught through the parents. God works through means. He can work directly, but more often in this world through his agents – in teaching faith through parents. (Prov 22:6, Deut 6:7, Eph 6:4)

This teaching is the fundamental work of a congregation. The commission in Matt 28:18-20 is to make disciples. Our congregations are the kingdom. They are the seed-bed where teaching and learning takes place. Both the academic kind, and the living kind.

The article ends with what is essentially a prayer. “Viewed from that perspective, perhaps Catholic colleges should be praised for providing young Catholics a sanctuary and incubator for at least some of the tenets of their faith until, let us hope, these men and women help birth a wider Catholic culture to better support their own children.” That culture the author is praying for only comes from the faith that believes. We don’t built monuments and institutions, as important as it is, to doctrines or things we firmly grasp. We build them to the transcendent Christ – the author and perfecter of our faith (i.e. the one who lived it perfectly). And how was that exactly. He feared, loved and trusted God the Father above all things. Enough to carry the cross and commit his spirit. The living Faith of Jesus.

Who’s standing next to you?

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…The real epiphany is not that God is the creator or that his Word is active and has power, but that He is right here with us. That God comes to be with us. And he says stop being afraid. Even if we didn’t get confused about God having authority or his Word being active – those things could frighten us. They frightened Simon when he realized who was there and active. Ask a muslim – is Allah a nice guy? Doesn’t matter. Allah is Allah, Allah does what he wills. Which could include casting us away. Jesus Christ, comes and preaches, and heals and eats with sinners. Sinners like Simon Peter who recognized God and asked him to leave afraid of what was next. Sinners like us who have trouble counting up all the ways we fall short every day. And God, standing right next to you says stop being afraid, I’ve got a job for you….

Who’s standing next to you? It makes a difference…

Bible Translation and situation

I probably should not add this, but I’m going to write it anyway. Read Luke 5:1-11 in your favorite translation. When I was translating the lessons for the week what I see is a very funny moving to a very serious situation. I want to focus on Luke 5:5, Simon’s answer to Jesus.

Jesus has commandeered Simon’s boat to continue teaching. Simon has worked all night and got nothing. He’s cleaned the nets and just wants to go home. This itinerant preacher gets in his boat and starts making requests. Peter obviously complies, but then when Jesus is done teaching he turns to Peter and tells him to go back out to sea. Peter has just finished cleaning up and wants to go home.

My translation would be something like – “Chief, although we worked this whole night and nobody caught nothing, now at your word, I will let down the nets.” Reading the situation and the language his reply is sharp sarcasm. The ESV translates it as – “Master, we toiled all night and took nothing! But at your word I will let down the nets. (Luk 5:5 ESV) ” If you are giving it a close read, you might catch it. But c’mon man, that is pure Biblish. You can see the Jesus as Washington crossing the Delaware with his hand out and a golden halo with Peter rowing the boat and gazing doe eyed at Jesus. And that is boring.

The change in this story is in Peter. He goes from this sarcastic put upon peasant calling Jesus “chief” to a man scared for his existence at his encounter with God and grabbing at Jesus’ feet and calling him Lord. A purely literal translation like the ESV misses that. Unless you are going to read the Bible very closely, everything comes off as this pious gauzy picture. These people were real. They had real lives and wants and emotions. And those real people met a real Christ. It is that real encounter with the living Christ that the Word causes.

Do yourself a favor and get a translation that lets you read God’s Word. The danger of swallowing bad theology from the translator is much less than the danger of never opening the word because you think it is boring or just pious stories.

Masculine Virtues in Religion?

This is from Rod Dreher and takes its jumping off point from an evangelical church that is holding mixed martial arts (MMA) viewing/fight nights. The Fight Club for Jesus title is kind of funny, but the larger point is not just to ridicule the impulse. Rod takes the efforts as good faith actions to address a perception.

The Lutheran emphasis is law and gospel. Law is the requirements of God that we can’t keep. Gospel is what God does for us in Jesus. We will even talk about active and passive righteousness. Active Righteousness is the outward keeping of the law, but that active righteousness does not earn you anything. Salvation, justification or absolution is a gift. We receive it passively through faith in Christ. Passive will never make anyone’s list of masculine virtues.

Yet Christ ordered us to pick up our cross and follow him. That is an odd mixture of active and passive. You get nailed to a cross. (Mel Gibson’s line in his current flick – you need to choose if you are the one on the cross or the one pounding the nails – comes to mind.) Yet especially in the Gospel of Luke which we are reading this year – Jesus set his face toward Jerusalem (Luke 9:51). Jesus chose the cross. He put himself on the cross. And he tells Christians to do the same.

The world would like to tell us that religion is for wimps – all that talk about compassion and love and what-not. But scratch below the surface. The call of Christ is to be a full person. Don’t be conformed to the easy road of callousness and the whims of your body and mind. Instead, with the intervention of the Spirit, bend and shape yourself in the proper ways. Pick-up your cross and follow. Justification is passive, but the Christian life, especially in this world, is active. I don’t know if MMA for Jesus is really bending our wills in the proper direction, but recovering that dare I say it Wesleyan sense of active struggle for holiness is important. We co-operate in our sanctification and it is a daily activity. I am that sinful a person. The laws of God are good. Jesus came to fulfill them, not to abolish them. By fulfilling them he secured my salvation, but that doesn’t mean we can ignore them. They are still the task before us.

As an add on as part of the numbers that we track, I look at the male/female ratio in our worship. There are many different puts and takes, especially in an active and growing but smaller congregation a couple of people can make a big difference in the percentages. I’m not really sure what to make of this type of statistic if anything should be. Any thoughts?

Active Attendance Attendance
14586 Roster 2010 2009
Male 50.1% 44% 53.0% 45.4%
Female 49.9% 56% 47.0% 54.6%

Inspiring leadership

I’m Lutheran – I believe teach and confess this. But I also like to think or lay claim to the title catholic – as in the one holy, catholic and apostolic church.

This article from the Wall Street Journal on Catholic schools had one of the most hopeful sentences I’d read in a long time.

Tim Busch has an answer to the epidemic of closing Catholic schools. And it has nothing to do with vouchers…”We can’t wait for vouchers, and we can’t look to the old model of relying on our pastors and bishops to come up with the money and answers,” says Mr. Busch. “If we want Catholic schools for our children and our society, we have to adopt new models that let us compete.”

That is a sign of hope and renewal. And if the stodgy institutions can’t adapt or move fast enough, well, its too important to wait. As a minister, I would pray that we could provide some of the leadership. If we can’t or won’t, don’t just sit there. The gospel is too important to be locked up in old wineskins.

Synagogue and House – Responses to the authority of Jesus

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The gospels present everyone as recognizing the authority of Jesus. They all knew he was different. What they didn’t all do is react the same way. Luke portrays a difference in the Synagogue resposne and the response of people gathered in the house.

Our society places a high worth on work and money. So high that we have been willing to destroy or at least seriously lame our communities and social stuctures. We work 12 hour days away from where we live. When we return we don’t have the energy to do anything. So we make up words like quality time. Leaders are divorced from those ruled. Children from parents, neighbors from neighbors, family from family. All of this in the name of making a living.

If we are being honest, unless the peak oil scenarios are right and we are all forced closer to home by just being energy poor, this isn’t going to change any time soon.

Being the church will mean operating within those constraints. It also means pointing out the consequences of certain decisions. The distinctions that Luke calls out in the responses of two groups to Jesus are paradigmatic. The synagogue sits in wonder and makes reports, but fundamentally does nothing. Way too many of our churches are really synagogues. The houses respond in service and bringing all the wounded to
A world divorced and divorcing itself from community creates a lot of wounded. The house has the cure. It may look like many of the churches are dying, but that is how God works. Things die, so that he can take the glory in bringing them back. The real choice for churches is do they want to rise, do they want to act like the house, or are they content being the synagogue and burying the dead?

Two things you might not associate…

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This Sunday there were two things going on. In our community, we had a baptism. In the larger world – the disaster in Haiti. We might not link such things, but the biblical answer is actually very close. The Bible talks about Baptism as being a dying and a rising. In Baptism we are burried with Christ so that we will also rise with Him.

There are some common refrains when looking at disasters – what did they do (a la Pat Robertson), why would god allow this (the agony of theodicy), or just how do I avoid them. Jesus is pretty clear in Luke 13:1-5. Sorry Pat Robertson, but disasters are not special judgement. That does not mean we don’t deserve them. Jesus’ answer is that it is only grace theat the whole world doesn’t get them. The entire world is that sinful. That response really answers the second – why would God allow if he was good? The answer is that a non-loving and graceful God would have destroyed everything long ago. Both of those answers are heavy on the law. They are good and true, but hard words for sinners.

The gospel is the answer to the last question – how to I avoid disaster? In this world, you really can’t. It is a fallen world that is groaning under that curse. But God came to share it with us and to redeem it. We pass through the disaster. In baptism, God pulls us through the disaster.
Putting on eternal eyes, this world is one big Haiti to God. It is one big disaster operation. And Baptism is the rescue operation. The hopeless, poor and defeated of this world, find the cure in the waters of Baptism. We die to this world, but we rise to the next through the promises of Baptism.