A Monday Morning Culture Review

Douthat on Tebow – This is a great article and if a Lutheran who is probably more religious than spiritual can have a mysticism this is it. The Bible is a collection of stories about people told by God in which God reveals the meaning of their existence. Our lives also have an author and a meaning. And it is not usually finding the plot line that is tough, although our age along with our authors outside of the Young Adult ghetto seems to have trouble with plot. No, getting the plot is not hard, but living it is what we so often refuse. Tim Tebow seems to know the plot and live it with gusto.

Nothing discredits religion quite like the gap that often yawns between what believers profess and how they live. With Tebow, that gap seems so narrow as to be invisible. (“There’s not an ounce of artifice or phoniness or Hollywood in this kid Tebow,” ESPN’s Rick Reilly wrote last year of the quarterback’s charitable works, “and I’ve looked everywhere for it.”) He fascinates, in part, because he behaves — at least in public, and at least for now — the way one would expect more Christians to behave if their faith were really true.

But the fascination doesn’t end there. Tebow’s religion doesn’t just promise a path to personal transformation. It claims that every human life is actually a story with an Author, and that a genuinely Christian life should make that divine Authorship manifest.

The WSJ New York Culture Desk (Might be gated) on a sacred music director, organist and musics place in a congregation called to the city. A quote that ties into that same mysticism above.

“I believe that everyone is talented,” the 51-year-old Iowa native told me over lunch. “The great shame is that many, many people don’t find out what their talent is. If you do find out, it’s the greatest opportunity in the world. It comes from a spiritual point—it’s God-given. So if you connect to that, it’s your obligation to develop it

And Pop Culture Wouldn’t be complete this week without the Hunger Games. I haven’t seen much really good commentary. Douthat above works it into Tebow. Here is a clear eyed look from a religious standpoint that shouldn’t be lost. A couple of comments. 1) The first book of the trilogy is such a tight and compelling read that when I read it last summer I stayed up all night just to finish it. The 2nd/3rd are not quite as good, but I plowed through them just to see where the author was taking it all. The first book was that compelling a story to impel the reading of two more. Although by book three I was on fumes. 2) It is not that hard to read Peeta as a Christ figure, although I’d prefer to read him as Peter (i.e. church), in that the witness is never as clear and not without faults. 3) But even that is a stretch as the article is correct that God just isn’t in the Hunger Games, at least not explicitly. I talked about the book with a congregant shortly after I read it. Trying to fill in that god gap what overwhelmed me was the blood and soil conservatism of the book. The lesson seemed to be everything beyond your People and your Soil will fail. The Blood and the Soil will also fail, but they are yours. An anti-transcendent transcendence, a subsuming of self into The People, into the Land. Which eventually everything returns to the land. It is a message ultimately of the law and the failure of the law. Even the undefeated Katniss Everdeen, the girl on fire, can’t fight her way out of this. Even Katniss just ends up used. Only Peeta whose goal was love doesn’t care. In that sense the Hunger Games is perfect for this day and age that has rejected or refused to hear to gospel. When you don’t hear the gospel all you’ve got is the law, which can’t save, but still it demands its tribute. The books are a clear eyed presentation of the limits of the law and at best are a sign pointing to what is missing without ever spelling it out. As a preacher, they are a proclamation of the law without its fulfillment.

Bird Girl, Grace and the Moral Calculus

Sermon Text: Mark 10:35-45
Full Text of Sermon

We do it all the time. We weigh all kinds of stuff searching for the fair or the just. Think of Bird Girl nearby as a pretty artistic expression of the human striving after the moral calculus. Grace scrambles that. There is no fair with grace. The equation never balances when grace is in the picture. I think that is the core of what Jesus is saying is today’s text. This is not so among you – you are to be servants. Servants always get the short end of the stick. Why would Jesus say that? Because the economy of the Kingdom is grace. Most importantly the grace of the Father. And grace is an all or nothing proposition. Either Father, into you hands I commit my spirit, or its all crap.

There were a bunch of reasons I cut it short this morning, but I had a short coda/conclusion which is primarily Psalm 49. I don’t know how this psalm never jumped out at me, but it captures the either/or, at its deepest and more forlorn, grace comes in, and it doesn’t take much to unbalance the equation. If you want a little more poetic a take, read the last page of the full text.

Spiritual Practices #4 – Prayer

Ok, last time we looked at different ways that people might talk about spiritual practices, and then we honed in on the Lenten triptych of Prayer, Fasting and Almsgiving. Using the sermon on the mount we looked at Almsgiving and generalized it to acts of mercy. This time we are going to look at prayer through the lens of Matt 6:5-14 when Jesus teaches what we know as the Lord’s Prayer. Here are the past entries: Background, #1, #2, #3

First, whole books have been written about the Lord’s Prayer. I would not be surprised to find that whole books have been written about individual petitions. So, 500 words, you do the math.

Jesus prefaces the prayer itself with another warning similar to that about almsgiving which I labeled getting your heart right. If you are performing a spiritual practice, but the intention is in the horizontal dimension, that is you have an audience in your neighbor, it is not really a spiritual practice. The giving of alms to be seen giving alms might still be a good thing, but it is not a spiritual practice. Jesus says you’ve already received your reward. Likewise he says before prayer, don’t do it like the hypocrites. It might be harder today to imagine a reward attached to being seen praying which might actually help with the intent. The hypocritical part is not public prayer or praying with others. Too many Lutherans especially are uncomfortable with this. And I have heard these verses as the excuse. (We are also given to more formal prayer or collective prayer, so our evangelical friends bubbling prayer lives seem, well, so extroverted.) The hypocritical part is when the emphasis in prayer is not on communion with the Father, but upon some effect here. The reward of a spiritual practice for the practitioner is seeing God. If your eyes or your heart is looking elsewhere, that just isn’t going to happen.

Jesus then attaches a second warning about prayer – empty phrases and many words. He also attaches a note of pure gospel. Just thinking off the top of my head I’ve heard a Lutheran use this as a whip against “ramble-on-prayers”. I’ve also heard a Baptist use it as a scourge against “dry-as-dust” written prayers. Empty phrases and many words can be in the eye of the beholder. I was once a parishioner in a congregation where the prayers of the church took no less than 15 minutes. Every hangnail, birthday party and brother’s-sister’s-uncle’s-college-roomate’s passing wish was brought to the congregation in prayer. And each was prayed from the heart complete with “ahs”, “ohs”, “please Lord’s” and flowery phrases. Parson’s wife could tell you how that was just so not me. I was raised in a family where if you weren’t on your death bed, there is no reason to be bothering the whole congregation with your troubles. But a great Christian lady who I got to know at that congregation, without knowing my thoughts, once shared that the prayers were just so overwhelming to her. So what does this mean?

Look at the note of pure gospel. Your Father knows what you need before you ask. Prayer is not a quid-pro-quo. If I put in 10 mins of prayer, then I will get what I need. No! You are not looking for the perfect words that will sway God to give you what you desire. The outcome of prayer does not depend upon you at all. Prayer comes from the Gospel. You Father knows what you need and is not going to deny you that because you used a contraction or said too many “ahs” or mumbled on like an idiot. Instead, be at peace. You are entering the presence of the one who wishes you Shalom. You can be at peace recognizing like Moses you are standing on holy ground or Solomon at the Temple. You can be at peace with very formal planned prayer. You can be at peace wrestling or arguing with God, think Jacob and Abraham. You can be at peace being very expressive like David dancing. The warning is about prayer as a work. Prayer is not a work. It grows out of the core of the gospel. Prayer is one of the ways Christ promises his presence with us. It is that presence that we are seeking. Everything else our Father already knows and daily and richly provides.
I’ll continue next time with the Lord’s prayer itself.

Thoughts on Observing Courage

There the 8 year old flipped and tumbled and fell – gymnasts don’t come from tall peasant stock like ours – but she got up to try it again. I had just limped my way up the sidewalk. My calf pulled in the latest reminder that my jumping days were past. And in the midst of a wince I recognized that pre-eminent virtue of youth – courage. After landing flat on her back making a 270 instead of a 360, she did it again. The gym was full of such amazing courage.

I remember some of that physical courage now sadly traded for those more mature virtues of prudence and patience (ok, I’m still working on patience). But seeing so much courage jogged me into pondering a little Aristotle, “we become brave by practicing bravery”. In our youth we have such physical strength to practice courage with this flesh, this flesh that even now is wasting away. The teacher of Ecclesiastes says something similar in a very Hebrew way, “Remember your Creator in the days of your youth, before the days of trouble come and the years approach when you will say, “I find no pleasure in them”” Now is the time of grace. Now is the time to practice.

We practice the faith, so that we might be found faithful. We endure suffering so that we might develop character. Character isn’t revealed, it’s produced. There is hope for us all. While my physical courage is no longer there as it once was – the spirit is willing but the flesh is weak – I pray that I have learned the lesson of youth and that courage has been won in practice. That ultimately I could say with St. Paul, “I eagerly expect and hope that I will in no way be ashamed, but will have sufficient courage so that now as always Christ will be exalted in my body, whether by life or by death. (Phi 1:20)”

Spiritual Practices #3

When we talk about Spiritual Practices I can think off of the top of my head of at least three different takes on this:
1) Acts of Mercy. Dr. Beck captures this very well here and here. Another way to view these might be the St. Therese’s ‘little way’. If I live a life of mercy, of seeing Christ in those I serve, I am constantly in the presence of God. Not a bad way to live life. The basis here is Matt 25:31-46 which is the scene of the last judgement.

2) Evangelical Counsels. This is a very old Catholic understanding and the basis of monasticism getting its start from Matt 19:21 in what Jesus says to the Rich Young Man. The RYM says he has kept the commandments. Jesus says if he wants to be perfect go sell everything. The counsel taken by the monastics is a life of poverty, chastity and obedience. These are not placed on everyone in Catholic teaching. In Lutheran teaching these are dangerous. The Augsburg Confession in Article 27 on Monastic Vows gives the Lutheran warning and rejection. But, you might hear people putting these forward.

3) Prayer, Fasting, Almsgiving. This is what I’m going to concentrate on. As we’ve developed this it comes from Matt 6 and the sermon on the mount. At this point in the sermon on the mount we’ve been told we are part of the Kingdom in the beatitudes and then we’ve heard the law in its amplified form. Each one of those should send up back to that first beatitude – blessed are the poor. But what is the way forward, or how do we persevere in the sanctified life?

Matt 6:1-4 Jesus talks about almsgiving or charity to the needy. One comment here – you can probably view this in a large sense as a practice of mercy. All of the items in that last judgement scene could be read into the care for the needy which goes above and beyond simple duty. Jesus issues a warning – “beware of practicing your righteousness before others”. First we can take from that warning that he expects us to practice righteousness. Second that righteousness can be practiced in giving to the needy – acts of mercy. The warning assumes a positive.

The warning itself talks about the attitude of our heart. If we are doing the acts of mercy to be seen doing the acts of mercy – we’ve already received the reward. The core of a Spiritual Practice is that it is something that connects us to God; it is in the vertical dimension. For acts of mercy to be communion with God we need to see Christ in those we serve. If our gaze is away from Christ or attempting to see something other than Christ present, we have lost the Spiritual Communion of the practice. Not that the act isn’t a worthy act, but the attitude of the heart is off for a Spiritual Practice.

If the attitude is correct, “your Father who sees in secret will reward you”. The reward is simply the presence of God. In doing these acts out of love for God we are acting in Christ – we are living out of the Gospel. We are persevering, and it is God’s presence that enables that perseverance. We are persevering because this is a fulfilling of the law, a fulfilling of how God intended His people to live.

In the next post I’ll look at Matt 6:5-14 which is Jesus on prayer as a Spiritual Practice.

The Problem of Evil, or Not…

Here is David Brooks echoing our Thursday Morning Bible Study.

I said something like “I never really had that much of a problem with evil, I believe in original sin.” Here is Mr. Brook’s explaining it in light of SSGT. Bales. And catch the last paragraph. That daily struggle, think the series on Spiritual Practices. Which I’ll have #3 tomorrow. Until then, David Brooks.

According to this view, most people are naturally good, because nature is good. The monstrosities of the world are caused by the few people (like Hitler or Idi Amin) who are fundamentally warped and evil.

This worldview gives us an easy conscience, because we don’t have to contemplate the evil in ourselves. But when somebody who seems mostly good does something completely awful, we’re rendered mute or confused….

In centuries past most people would have been less shocked by the homicidal eruptions of formerly good men. That’s because people in those centuries grew up with a worldview that put sinfulness at the center of the human personality…

According to this older worldview, Robert Bales, like all of us, is a mixture of virtue and depravity. His job is to struggle daily to strengthen the good and resist the evil, policing small transgressions to prevent larger ones. If he didn’t do that, and if he was swept up in a whirlwind, then even a formerly good man is capable of monstrous acts that shock the soul and sear the brain.

Avoiding the Anonymous God

Biblical Text: JOhn 3:14-21
Full Text of Sermon

Defeated by John again. A little honesty, I’m pretty sure this was a muddled mess. Why oh why when Ephesians 2:1-10 was sitting right there, ripe for the preaching…but no, I have to pick John. Lured in by the same trap of an idea that looked ripe. There is always an idea with John. The problem is the there is always more than one idea from John. And Saturday afternoon, while 15 seeds are beating 2 seeds, you are trying to edit things down and put some structure on the mess. And Sunday morning you are just in prayer – “God this one is a stupendous mess, I know it is all you anyway, but this one is going to have to be ex nihilo – cause I’ve got nothing.”

Anyway, what I was attempting to make real and meaningful was two points:
1) You can’t take John 3:16 without John 3:14-15. The ground of John 3:16 is the cross. Otherwise you end up with an anonymous loving god who looks somewhat sad or pathetic. {Akin to saying, God loves you you mutts, now earn it. An amazingly bad evangelism method and very bad theology.}
2) When you ground John 3:16 in the context, you have a strong proclamation of the sovereignty of God and the doctrine of election. That should make John 3:16 all the more meaningful for believers as it has nothing to do with our reaction. God’s love is on the basis of God. And God will make it so. The believer’s works are good because they are in God (John 3:21). If no one believed, He would still have taken the cross. In John the cross is not an atonement act but THE SIGN, the revelation and act of God.

Spring has Sprung!

I’ve been lax about posting the last couple of weeks, but we’ve been having a lot of fun at the preschool! We spent two weeks learning about our five senses. We went on a listening walk, identified sounds in nature, guessed foods by their smells, did texture explorations and texture painting, and had a blindfolded taste test! The kids did a great job learning which body part is responsible for each of our senses.

For the past week, we’ve been learning about Spring! We read some books about seeds and flowers, “planted” our own garden in the dramatic play center, and made hand print tulips and coffee filter flowers.

Today, we took a break from our Spring theme to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day! The kids had tons of fun listening to Irish music and doing a jig, eating cupcakes with green frosting, and making St. Patrick’s Day Shakers. We had a big surprise when we came back into our room after visiting Mindy, only to find that a leprechaun had ransacked the place! Luckily, he left a trail of clues that we could follow to find his hidden treasure… some chocolate coins in the Pastor’s office!

Next week, we’ll be finishing up our Spring theme. It will be especially fun, since each child will get a chance to plant their own seeds in a baggie and watch them grow over the coming weeks.

Happy Spring!

Spiritual Practices #2

The posts on the law and on the spiritual practices in some odd ways merge at this point. What we’ve developed out of our look at the law is the recognition that the moral law is the best representation of the sanctified life. It can’t save. After the cross it doesn’t condemn either. But the law has not been done away with. It has been fulfilled in Christ. The life we life in Christ is one of fulfilling the law. And Christ’s summary of the law is: You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. (Matt 22:37-39)

This sanctified life retains its cruciform shape. Because God first loved us we are able to love our neighbor. And it is the love of God in our life that continues to form us and enable us to live lives of service. If all you are doing is attempting to love the neighbor, without a strong basis in the love of God to renew yourself, that love will grow cold. I’m convinced that is what we see today in many neighborhoods. How many neighborhoods today actually are neighborly? We work and we get home and dig in. We erect fences and hedges. We screen in porches. We insulate ourselves. We do that because we know that coming into contact places burdens…burdens of love. And when you are not rooted in the vertical dimension of love for God who is the very source of love, those burdens of love for our neighbor become too great.

The very basic spiritual practices are to make diligent use of the means of grace – word and sacrament, i.e. make it to church. The devil will try all kinds of things to separate you from this most basic lifeline because this is where God’s grace is abundantly present. This is where God himself is present. If our adversary can get you to make less diligent use – the seed just might fall on thorny ground. The cares and worries of this world will look very great compared to something as unnatural as getting out of our carefully constructed and comfortable bubbles. Yes, I’m a minister, of course I’m going to say that. Discount the heck out of it. It still stands – go to church intentionally and with a good mind. Remember the Sabbath Day and keep it holy. Which Luther explains simply as not despising preaching and the word, but holding it sacred and gladly hear and learn it.

That is the basic spiritual practice. You can’t substitute for the assembly of the body of Christ.

The next post – I promise – will start to look at Matt 6, Lenten spiritual practices and the ways we can grow or sustain a gentle piety or loving the Lord with all our heart, soul and mind.

What I tried to say Sunday…but better.

Link to Edward Oakes, S.J. – The Zeal Christ Requires. This is a quote from the middle of the article that gets at the key points…

But bishops were under no psychological compulsion to move abusive priests from parish to parish, from therapist to therapist. Yet they did; and I cannot help but think they did so because they colluded in a culture that values compassion over zeal. For true zeal would have led them to drive out such crimes from their dioceses. And this is the real danger for Christians today, a casual attitude toward our religion, a lassitude that lives out that famous line often attributed to Edmund Burke: For evil to thrive, all that is necessary is that good men do nothing.

The reason good Christians do nothing is because of this casual attitude toward sin. Zeal is really a function of one’s outrage at sin, just as anger is a natural reaction to injustice. Of course anger is also dangerous, since we are far more willing to be outraged at injustices to ourselves than to others. The same with zeal, which becomes fanaticism when we are more outraged at others’ sins than our own. But a refusal to acknowledge sin at all, in either ourselves or others, has led to the crisis the Church faces today. For without a sense of sin, we end up with the situation described so well by H. Richard Niebuhr as early as 1937: “A God without wrath brought men without sin into a kingdom without judgment through the ministrations of a Christ without a cross.” Without zeal, Christianity becomes a hollow shell of itself.