Grace and the Television

Toff that I am PBS Masterpiece has been on my DVR list for a long time. So having something like Downton Abbey come along was something new. I now had someone else watching with me. I had to endure a gentle ribbing from the Parson’s Wife for my Soap Opera and Chick-Flick attachment. I’m still waiting for that “Thank-You” for forcing her to watch season 1.

I got to watch the last episode a second time as my wife missed it while out of town. I commented to her that I couldn’t think of a better ending of a story line or a more moving scene in the entire story than Daisy and William’s Father. As characters they are far away from the heat of the story, yet they stole the show in a true way.

I’m glad I wasn’t the only one who saw that. The Mockingbird commenting on Downton…

Daisy has done everything she can to stiffarm Mr. Mason. She has clung with all her strength to an understanding of love as quid pro quo, that you can’t receive love from someone who you don’t love equally first. For Daisy, love is a matter of emotional righteousness, if you will, of this feeling for that feeling, and you can hardly blame her. But it is a conception which causes her immense suffering, because ultimately, it blurs her vision. She is entirely caught up with her perception of the situation. When Daisy finally catches a glimpse of how she is perceived, by William and consequently by his father, the scales fall from her eyes. What she thought was going on and what was actually going on were two different things. Mr. Mason is not relating to Daisy on the basis of her emotional righteousness – her feelings of affection – but on the basis of his son’s. And on that basis he wants to adopt her!

This is about as uncanny an illustration of God’s grace as we could hope to find on network television. That God relates to you and me not according to feelings or attributes that we bring to the table, but those that his son brought…

Temptation…the terrible feeling of aloneness

Biblical Texts:Mark 1:8-15, Gen 22:1-18, James 1:12-18
Full Drafft of Sermon

The first Sunday in Lent. All the texts are about testing or temptation. And If you are listening it is hard to read the testing of Abraham and then read James right after it. There would seem to be a contradiction, and its about something as important as the nature of God. Does God test/tempt? James says don’t say that God does. Abraham is told by God to take Isaac. Jesus is thrown into the desert by the Spirit. Luther, he of calling James an epistle of straw, sides with James in the Catechism. “God tempts no one.”

I think that is something that gets held in tension. Its something we probably don’t see clearly right now. And the overwhelming feeling felt in the texts and often in out lives is of being alone or being abandoned. We might have to live in the tension in the difference between the words testing and temptation, or that awful dodge God allows but doesn’t cause, but the feeling of being alone can be resolved. God has been abundant in his mercy so that you are never alone. The specifics on that are in the sermon…

Financing Little Johnny…when does Rumplestilskin show up?

The headline of this WSJ article…In Vitro a Fertile Niche for Lenders

Julie Barth’s prayers were answered when a doctor in Crystal Lake, Ill., told her in vitro fertilization might get her pregnant.

But he didn’t stop there, referring her to a “fertility finance” company that lent her $5,000 at an interest rate of 7.99% to help cover the $24,000 procedure. Her daughter, Olivia, was born about a year later.

“You can’t put a price on a smile like that,” says Ms. Barth, 32 years old. She hopes to pay off her loan from Springstone Financial LLC, based in Southborough, Mass., by her daughter’s third birthday in 2014….

And what happens when a payment is missed? Does the lender foreclose on the kid? Oliver Twist? When does the federal government step in to “guarantee” these loans (like college loans) and make them un-bankruptable? But of course that is a slippery slope we’d never go down. Per the article that 7.9% rate was cheap. Ms. Barth must have really good credit.

But the Catholic church’s teaching on birth control and being human is crazy talk. (Cue the demon lighting and mood music.)

Paragraphs to Make You Think

1) Lest anyone thinks I might have been harsh in my Ash Wednesday sermon drawing analogies with the national debt and the plague of locusts in Joel. (Joel said that God was at the front of that plague. The plague was a mirror to the spiritual state of the people. Is our debt a mirror?) You can read here and here two shocking graphs. The first reports that the per-capita debt of the US is more than the per-capita debt of Greece (as well as the rest of the other PIIGS so much in the news). The second shows the share of the US debt based on budget projections by generation. A child born today owes 1.5 million dollars the day he or she is born if that national debt was allocated. Per the US Census (Fig 3) the expected lifetime earnings of a high school graduate are only $1.2 million. In other words a high school graduate owes more in federal debt today than they can expect to make in their lifetime. (Isn’t that close to a definition of slavery?) How is this not a moral issue? A Man owed 10,000 talents…(Matt 18:24)

2) From the Washington Post and a hospital internist. Teach us Lord to number our days…Psalm 90:12

With unrealistic expectations of our ability to prolong life, with death as an unfamiliar and unnatural event, and without a realistic, tactile sense of how much a worn-out elderly patient is suffering, it’s easy for patients and families to keep insisting on more tests, more medications, more procedures.

3) Why we need Lent from Catholic Mark Shea

Here’s reality: Human beings, working together with good community organizers, and following the Wisdom of the Voters and the very best that popular piety, sound civic common sense, and the best of human wisdom have, time and again, shouted “Give us Barabbas!” and chosen to crucify the innocent Son of God. It’s what we do.

The good news is that God forgives the 10,000 talents. He has given us a lamp for learning wisdom. And while we shout Barabbas, he walked to Calvary anyway. While we were still sinners…

Ash Wednesday Meditation

Text: Joel 2:12-19

Joel is one of the 12 short little books at the end of the Old Testament. 12 so called minor prophets. And we don’t really know when he wrote. The best guess is that he is early. He is the 2nd of the 12 short prophets which are thought to be roughly chronological. But the larger historical situation might not be that important to hearing Joel’s message. The immediate event that spurs his prophecy was a plague of locusts of unusual size. One day the field are ripening, a good harvest looks probable, fair winds are blowing…and the next those winds bring uncontrollable clouds that devour what was so promising.

Fathers hide the remaining wheat from wives and children – because they need seed for the planting. The daily bread becomes not so daily. The rich and privileged bail themselves out, while the poor are left to glean after the insects.

What was probably shocking to Joel’s original listeners was that he described God as being at the forefront of that army of locusts. That the plague of locusts was a warning – a mirror – for Israel to recognize their spiritual state.

We don’t really have trouble with locust any more. Our pesticides take care of such plagues. We can’t control the weather, but if Florida freezes or Iowa floods, we can always just ship stuff in from California or Kansas or Argentina. And it is dangerous making a comparison from Israel to any modern state. The church is Israel – not the United States.

But I don’t think it is much of a stretch to look at financial contagions, foreclosures and persistent unemployment as a swarm of a kind. Some people saw the signs building – but there isn’t much you really can do. Nest eggs are guarded jealously after in hopes they “come back” like seed stock. The rich and privileged bail themselves out, while everyone else is lectured about moral hazard. And all of it swimming in a devouring cloud of 15.4 trillion in debt – almost $50K for every man, woman and child in America. $250K for my family alone – more than 5 years wages. Given the bacon I ate yesterday I might not have 5 years.

A mirror to see our spiritual state?

But the promises of God remain. Joel quotes Moses – after the golden calf episode. “Return with all you heart, with weeping and with mourning. Rend you hearts, not your garments. Return, for the Lord is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love. He relents over disaster.”

And where does God relent? Where are hearts rent? “Call a solemn assembly, gather the people, consecrate the congregation. Elders and Children and infants. The Bridegroom meets the bride there.”

The later prophets would rail against hypocritical gatherings. Israel would rend garments and not hearts. But Joel’s prophetical call is timeless because God’s work is timeless. The bridegroom still meets the bride here. God is gracious and merciful and abounding steadfast love.

The Lenten season is one of repentance. For looking in the mirror. For rending hearts. We put a very solemn note with the Ashes. An outward symbol of the examination of the heart. But like the cross, a symbol the reflects hope. Because this God is faithful. With Him there is forgiveness. Amen.

The Christ must include the Cross – Mountain to Mountain

Biblical Text: Mark 9:1-10
Full Text of Sermon

We create fancy ways of talking about the reality of suffering – like the theology of the cross. If you think words are a bloodless way, there are less attractive ways. Like gated communities, or social darwinism or government programs that can make us feel like we are doing something but really just make us feel better and insulate us from suffering. But those fancy ways of talking at least confront reality.

But at the end of the day, the best teacher is an example. Christ is the ultimate example. He left the mountain of transfiguration for mount Calvary. You don’t get the Christ without the cross. Even more important to recognize those we know personally who have lived the theology of the cross. This sermon tries to point that out. We at St. Mark’s had an example in our midst. Our organist who we memorialized Saturday. This sermon attempts to make concrete what the theology of cross looks like.

More Moral Dumbfounding

Parson’s wife and kids are out of the house for the week leaving after church today. That gives me way to much time to get into trouble (instead of using the time keeping the kids out of trouble).

First comment of trouble: Rick Santorum is too theologically literate to be elected president. And the reason behind that is not that he is wrong but that the deep thick worldview and language he uses morally dumbfounds the mainstream press. It will be very tough to be elected if every interview you give turns into a version of – “Tell me senator, why are you so weird?”

The interview by Bob Schieffer this morning (while you should have been in church, embedded above) has three or four instances: everytime Mr. Schieffer starts with “I need to ask you to explain that…” or when he say “don’t you understand that using the word could lead to…” That is moral dumbfounding. He has been hit with a moral argument so out of what he has ever considered, that he resorts to sputtering. The candidate used the correct word, the press just doesn’t think theology or religion is worth thinking about beyond gotcha stuff. You can tell the dumbfounding also in that the audience clapped after Santorum used the word theology (i.e. they understood what he was saying), but Schieffer doesn’t get it and Santorum shifts to the word “worldview”. Your theology, i.e. your worldview, shapes what you see. The real scary thing is that: a) Santorum is just expressing Catholic teaching and b) it is nothing shocking – we don’t worship gaia, abortion is evil, local control good/subsidiarity. [Which means the press is either feigning shock to try and paint Santorum as a nutcase and hence the Catholic church as beyond the pale, or they truly are ignorant of a worldview that has instructed people on the good life for 2000 years. I don’t know which is scarier.]

Probably the second comment of trouble is a personal story on the prenatal testing dumbfounding. Ethan, our 2+ year old was conceived when Ellen was 38. For the earlier two children, we had prenatal doctor’s appointments including sonograms, but nobody ever suggested prenatal testing. With our third child, the doctor suggested an amniocentesis. Why? Santorum is 100% correct. In the worldview (i.e. theology) of the elite left a child that might not be able to complete a master degree is unworthy to be born and should be aborted. I’ve have heard the stories of parents who had the testing and the pressure that was applied to abort afterward. One was dropped from the doctor’s practice when they refused. We chose not to have the testing because it would not give us anything we were not committed to anyway. The elite left (as distinct from say the union left or the social-welfare left) has a theology which is centered on the sexual revolution. It is those sexual ethics that continue to destroy the American working class. If you say anything that contradicts the core of that theology you will pay for it in bad press.

Lions and Tigers and Bears, Oh My!

Today, we finished up our Zoo Animals theme at the preschool. We had a great couple of weeks learning about our ferocious friends! We painted stripes on zebras, finger painted spots on giraffes, and sang Raffi’s “Going to the Zoo.” The children especially liked playing with their own “zoo” in the sand table and singing and moving along with a special version of “If You’re Happy and You Know It” featuring zoo animals! Pastor Mark also taught us about Noah’s Ark; imagine fitting all those animals in one boat! We finished off our theme today by having the children bring in their favorite stuffed zoo animal and doing a zoo animal show-and-tell.

Of course, earlier this week we took a break to learn about Valentine’s Day. We talked about love: who we love and how much God loves us! The children also made Valentines for their families. As you can see, Valentine’s Day was a big hit!

Next week is Winter Break, but when the children return, we’ll start learning about the Five Senses!


Slight Momentary Diversions

Our organist, Dennis Hein, passed away this week from cancer. He was 64. The service is Saturday at 11 AM.

I’ve always had trouble turning off my brain. It is a cliche now, but a computer keeps cycling those giga-hertz even when 99% of them are spent running a screen saver and idling. When there are those things that come along that say “I’m going to take 100% of your cycles” and you can’t think of anything else, from hard experience that is where I tend to crash. Making sure there are slight momentary diversions is what re-introduces you to life. The daily routine prevents the crash.

This David Brooks article was fascinating. He might not like this, but Brooks is a top flight public theologian. I have a tough time thinking of anyone else who applies theology as deeply and as simply. From the article on the problem of Jeremy Lin:

The odds are that Lin will never figure it out because the two moral universes are not reconcilable. Our best teacher on these matters is Joseph Soloveitchik, the great Jewish theologian. In his essays “The Lonely Man of Faith” and “Majesty and Humility” he argues that people have two natures. First, there is “Adam the First,” the part of us that creates, discovers, competes and is involved in building the world. Then, there is “Adam the Second,” the spiritual individual who is awed and humbled by the universe as a spectator and a worshipper.

Soloveitchik plays off the text that humans are products of God’s breath and the dust of the earth, and these two natures have different moral qualities, which he calls the morality of majesty and the morality of humility. They exist in creative tension with each other and the religious person shuttles between them, feeling lonely and slightly out of place in both experiences.

Not to dispute that Rabbi Soloveitchik is a great teacher (he is), but those ideas are a little older than that. (I’m wondering if David Brooks is playing to his audience in the NYT?) St. Paul stated those thoughts in 1 Corinthians 15:47 and elsewhere. The Gospel according to Luke is at great pains to portray Jesus as the second Adam. And Luther’s Heidelberg disputation talks about the theologian of glory and the theologian of the cross. The morality of the athlete is that of glory. The morality that saves is that of the cross. The life of the disciple is running the race under the cross.

Sentence to Ponder

What is needed in our churches is not more education but more embodied practices that can shape our affections and behavior along with our attitudes. The virtues I focus on in Unclean involve the practices of welcome and hospitality, what Miroslav Volf calls “the will to embrace.”

That is from this interview with Dr. Beck who also writes here. Unlcean is one of his books that is one of the best works I’ve read in a long time.

Thinking of the last post, this might be a more concrete example of listening to the Spirit. This is one of the discussions that a member and I get into quite often about how do you instruct in the faith. Do you start with the head and push toward the heart (standard Lutheran methodology) or do you start with the heart and push to the head (standard pentecostal). And that is probably the polarity – extreme head Lutheran to extreme heart pentecostal – with other tribes falling in along that spectrum. Presbyterians real close to Lutherans. Methodists closer to the pentecostals. Catholics blow this up because you have both – Franciscans and Dominicans. An embodied practice, a taking action on a virtue, is a combination of both. Listening to the Spirit today might mean less outright upfront doctrine and more lets do a VBS in the city (hope and charity), or the protestant equivalent of adoration of the host – a lenten prayer vigil (faith, fortitude and patience). Could one congregation maintain a prayer vigil for 40 days around the clock? What might be heard by the congregation in prayer?