Formation & The “What Do You Actually Say” file…

In Bible study this Sunday we were reading Psalm 37. One of the points of discussion was what I labeled Christian formation. Psalm 37:3-4 were the original jumping off point with the question being what comes first: delight in the Lord or receiving the desires of the heart? There is some formation of proper desires taking place. The psalmist continues occasionally with that subtle theme like Psalm 37:16 which urges us to think what is true abundance. Christians here are primarily concerned with trying to see with the eyes of faith. The psalmist doesn’t deny that it might look like the wicked prosper, but encourages new eyes. Eyes focused on the action of the Lord and not our efforts, eyes tuned to peace and the abundance of the land, eyes focused on the promise of the Kingdom and its abundance. All things that those who plot against the righteous (Psalm 37:12), or who prospers in his way (Psalm 37:7), can’t actually have because what they posses is transitory at best. Like the glory of the pastures they vanish – like smoke they vanish away. (Psalm 37:20)

Sometimes when I read things like this I usually figure it was written by the onion. A seminary, or a divinity school, is a place of formation. In fact, it is supposed to be a “seed bed”. A dean of such a school is to be about teaching things that should ground and guide for an entire career. In Lutheran thought that might be “rightly dividing law and gospel” or the felt conflict between the hidden God and the revealed God. I could see a good Baptist formation being in preaching and clean living. I could see a good presbyterian formation being in wrestling with election (God’s choosing) and elections (how to govern a session). A good Catholic formation being monastic in nature with a heavy emphasis on living a life that is being poured out sacrificially (2 Tim 4:6). Now some of those descriptions might be poor expressions for someone who is deep in those traditions, but reading this description from the new Vanderbilt Divinity Dean, I have a hard time imagining where this finds its place in the formation of pastors.

I’m a social ethicist who uses womanist ethics to do my work—meaning I look at race, gender, class, sexual orientation, and so forth to figure out what we should do to create just worldviews. When working with committees, I would break down the issue as I would a social problem, looking at the context, the history, who has been and has not been involved, how they talk about it, what we hope for, and what are the other options.

What I always want to do, both in the classroom and as an administrator, is be in conversation, give people a sense that there’s more than one way to talk about religion, and help the school move into the world in a more active and public way than it is already doing.

I would not want to put down the active role of mercy in the life of a Christian, but that calling is always derivative of the seeking and wrestling with God first. The Dean’s description sounds fine for a social work curriculum or even a non-profit MBA type curriculum. But for formation of those who theoretically have a divine call to the Word of God that is completely off. The Lord favored Mary over Martha (Luke 10:41-42). If we want to correct our churches maybe we should return to our first love (Rev 2:4). Which might include Deans who like to talk about religion in specific ways as truth (as compared to ‘more than one way’) and can parse the Greek of the Word of God as well as parsing the race, gender, class, sexual orientation and so forth.

But what do I know, call me crazy. Even within the LC-MS, the only pressure on seminary heads is for better practical training. Martha is popular…she just tends to burn out and confuse how the Kingdom actually comes. (Hint, it is not by our efforts.)

History and Divine Necessity


Biblical Text: Luke 13:22-35
Full Sermon Draft

A lot of people these days claim “history” on their side. We are urged to “be on the right side of history”. I’m convinced this is actually derived from a Martin Luther King quote.

The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.

I first heard this quote modified about 15 years ago to drop the moral universe and replace it with history (Here is an example of that substitution). In fact I was surprised (and delighted) when I looked up the actual quote and its context to find moral universe. When you look at the context, which this sermon does, King’s moral universe is very defined. Where history, especially when it is claimed as a moral imperative, is always relative to the speaker, a moral universe is rooted in a larger context. King’s larger context, as the larger quote displays, is the bible, the faith and the Words of the Lord.

And that is the bedrock of the text. The only person who history is relative to is Jesus Christ. To understand the moral universe we much decide who we say Christ is. It is necessary, it is a divine necessity that Jesus continue his course. That fox Herod has no authority to stop it. Now there are a whole lot of things that we might think the divine necessity applies to or should apply to, but none of those are what God says it does. God applies that necessity to the cross. The one who had actual complete freedom chose the cross. The action is why King’s statement is true. The entire moral universe is defined by the love of God. A love that desires to gather his children under a crucified wing.

We sang a hymn new to the hymnbook and modern this morning that captures this mystery. It is paired with a pretty melancholy tune in the Lutheran Service Book, but no one would say that the combination is anything other than a tough contemplative song. For a people who might be more used to the modern praise song with snappy riffs, happy cords and simple refrains, In Silent Pain the Eternal Son (LSB 432), might just be the antithesis. What is really captured by it is the fact that the most glorious sight in the universe is a set of scars…that a body derelict and still on a cross is the definition of necessity and love.

1. In silent pain the_eternal Son
Hangs derelict and still;
In darkened day His work is done,
Fulfilled, His Father’s will.
Uplifted for the world to see
He hangs in strangest victory,
For in His body on the tree
He carries all our ill.

2. He died that we might die to sin
And live for righteousness;
The earth is stained to make us clean
And bring us into peace.
For peace He came and met its cost;
He gave Himself to save the lost;
He loved us to the uttermost
And paid for our release.

3. For strife He came, to bring a sword,
The truth to end all lies;
To rule in us, our patient Lord,
Until all evil dies:
For in His hand He holds the stars,
His voice shall speak to end our wars,
And those who love Him see His scars
And look into His eyes.

Paragraph to Ponder; Lament and Studying the Psalms

We’ve been studying the Psalms and one of the things that you can’t avoid is lament in both directions. There is the lament of the faithful calling on God to be faithful like Psalm 27:7-10. There is lament of God for his people like Psalm 81:11-16. It is from reflection on passages like these and the way that primarily OT characters sometimes go after God that my spiritual advice has often been “God’s a big guy, he can take it”. That was usually quickly followed by something like “just be ready to be silenced from the whirlwind” (Job 40:6). Following Bonhoeffer’s little book on the Psalms we’ve been presenting the Psalms as two things: 1) the prayers of Christ himself and 2) the Lord’s Prayer in different form. It is that second category that is meaningful here. For what is the Lord’s prayer if not a study in Lament. Your kingdom come (because we certainly don’t see it much now). Your will be done (because the bad guys seem to have free reign). Lead us not into temptation (because it certainly feels like you are a capricious God). Deliver us from evil (because our enemies surround us to devour our flesh). Like the psalms, lament leads the way to two things: 1) reaffirming the Lordship of God and 2) our faith in his promises. Psalm 27 referenced earlier ends with such a raw declaration of resurrection and faith, Psalm 27:13-14. When God laments he closes with reiteration of his promises, Psalm 81:16.

Wesley Hill, quoting a review by Lauren Winner, touches on some of these points in the paragraph to ponder…

An important theme in Rittgers’ account is the intensely biblical nature of Lutheran suffering. Protestants, far from assuming that suffering was always a direct divine punishment for sin, offered a range of explanations for suffering. (The recognition that suffering ultimately emerges from sin, Rittgers notes, is not the same as the claim that every instance of suffering is a punishment for a person’s individual sinful act.) Protestants could articulate many different explanations for suffering because the Bible “contains … explanations for suffering that have nothing to do with punishment.” Job imagines suffering as a test of one’s devotion to God; the Psalms, Proverbs, and other texts explore suffering’s capacity to refine one’s faith; the New Testament suggests that suffering can be a means of identifying with Christ. Laypeople heard these themes expounded in the pulpit and encountered them in books about proper Christian suffering; they also copied down or memorized consoling words of Scripture, so that in a time of trial they would have biblical words to help them persevere.

Yet one important biblical response to suffering did not find a place among Luther’s heirs: lament. The psalms, in particular, contain illustration after illustration of God’s faithful people calling God to account because their suffering defied not just explanation but indeed God’s covenantal promises. This tradition did not find a place in a “premodern consolation literature” that consistently advised men and women to “accept their suffering patiently and make no protest against the workings of divine providence.” Rittgers intriguingly suggests that this loss of lament may have had profound consequences, among them contributing to the “gradual disenchantment of the world …. Perhaps in the (very) long run, the insistence of the Western churches that human beings must face suffering without the possibility of lament has worked to undermine the plausibility of Christian faith.”

In one sense I understand the point being made. Protestants, learning the theology of the cross, were often preached to skip right to the consolation. The Gospel is consolation. But taken so easily as the review suggests was done, is missing the core of Luther’s insight. Law and Gospel is a tension. We can take consolation in the promises of God now. We can even take consolation in the visible sacraments and those brief moments – like the transfiguration – when the glory breaks through the veil. But, all things are not yet brought to completion. The devil, is still the power and principality of this realm. We are still burdened by our frail flesh which works against us. The theology of the cross is a learning to bear it and learning where that strength comes from. The reformation might have made an intellectual jump, but the emotional learning lags behind. Or maybe better is that we each come to our own understanding of the one truth. Lament, in its biblical forms points the way. The feelings are true. The Psalmist does not deny them. Jesus tells us to pray them. Instead of the the effect that the review highlights, “the gradual disenchantment of the world”, the way of the cross is toward trust in the promises. Lament’s resolution is not in immediate divine action, nor is it in abandonment of the expectation of divine action in favor of our own action. The purpose of lament is to stir belief. My God, why have you forsaken me to be met with the response into your hands I commit my spirit. Belief that God has acted ultimately. I believe that I shall look upon the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living (Psalm 27:13). And belief that allows us to walk the way here. To love our enemies.

W. H. Auden’s Birthday

Thanks to Dr. Jacobs for calling this out. He has all the links. I ran across Auden in a Senior elective in High School called W.B.Yeats and the Irish Tradition. That was a great course, but one of the best poems was Auden and I remember frustrating the teacher as we deviated from the syllabus to explore him a little more. This was the initial linking poem, In Memory of W.B.Yeats, which is one of the best poem ever written. And can you imagine taking this course by Auden? for 2 credits?

He disappeared in the dead of winter:
The brooks were frozen, the airports almost deserted,
And snow disfigured the public statues;
The mercury sank in the mouth of the dying day.
What instruments we have agree
The day of his death was a dark cold day….

With the farming of a verse
Make a vineyard of the curse,
Sing of human unsuccess
In a rapture of distress;

In the deserts of the heart
Let the healing fountain start,
In the prison of his days
Teach the free man how to praise.

In Marriage a Reflection of Christ and the Church

goats_butting_heads“No one ever asks how did you two stay together? Everyone always asks how did you two meet?”

That is an insightful comment coming near the end of this likewise insightful article.

A further snippet…

And an enduring marriage lacks an obvious narrative structure. There is no climax, no decisive action. Even if an unfaithful spouse vows never to see the lover again, there may be other potential lovers in the future, and there’s still a fractured marriage to repair. A wedding is a climax; so is a divorce. How do you tell a story that’s all aftermath—all epilogue?

That’s relying upon the classic definition of a comedy as a play that ends with a wedding (cross reference your Riverside Shakespeare, compare and contrast Romeo and Juliet and Twelfth Night. Extra-credit, what is Henry V?)

One of the images of the end of the world in scripture is the marriage feast of the bridegroom and the bride. (Extra credit, what kind of story is being told and why should that effect our demeanor?) The end of the fallen world’s story is a wedding. But what is interesting is that while the church is the bride and Christ the bridegroom (if we wanted to be more exact including the OT better we would say the bridegroom is messiah and the bride the people of God), the interactions of God and his people are described in marriage terms. St. Paul says in Ephesians 5:32 that the marriage, the epilogue, is the image of Christ and the church. There exists in this world already a proleptic, an out of time order, relationship. And the core truth of that relationship is covenant faithfulness.

We naturally ask the sparkly and hot questions – “How did you meet?” – hoping for the cute and emotionally fulfilling “meet cute” story of romantic comedy. You can’t read the biblical stories of meeting at a well (Moses, Jacob, Jesus – Gen 29:1ff, Exo 2:15ff, John 4:5ff) and say that God ignores that, but that is not the question. Jesus turns from the meet cute repartee with the Samaritan woman to the deeper concern – “Go call your husband” (John 4:16). The hour is coming when that relationship between God and his people will be in truth. And the truth is found in faithfulness. We know true love not by pixie dust and cute story but by living the epilogue. The story that survives the fire is that answer to “how did you stay together”? By Grace. Tell me a story full of grace.

First Use of the Law – Great Example

Curb JumpingThe three uses of the law is catechism 101. The first use is the curb or the civil use of the law. What that used to mean was simply that the vices contained in the 2nd tablet of the law (murder, adultery, theft, false testimony, covetousness of all kinds) would find a suitable expression in civil law. Civil society can’t thrive where these things are allowed. As Paul would say the state is present to carry out wrath on the wrong-doer (Rom 13:4). They are there for the good, and the good is defined as being the judge applying the curb to the worst of our sinful nature. The state does not or should not get involved in mandating the positive force of the law (i.e. when Jesus says hating you brother is murder, that does not say that the state should carry out punishment on hate. Loving your brother is the positive force of don’t murder. The state is the curb to prevent actual murder.)

This is Rod Dreher on the Dutch experiment with legalized prostitution.

The Dutch government hoped to play the role of the honourable pimp, taking its share in the proceeds of prostitution through taxation. But only 5 per cent of the women registered for tax, because no one wants to be known as a whore — however legal it may be. Illegality has simply taken a new form, with an increase in trafficking, unlicensed brothels and pimping; with policing completely out of the picture, it was easier to break the laws that remained. To pimp out women from non-EU countries, desperate for a new life, remains illegal. But it’s never been easier…Legalisation has not been emancipation. It has instead resulted in the appalling, inhuman, degrading treatment of women, because it declares the buying and selling of human flesh acceptable.

Now, if the good Dutch had actually been paying attention in Catechism, even in those Calvinistic Reformed churches, this would have been a “no brainer”. But, our post-modern world says all is interpretation. So, we can’t and shouldn’t legislate morality. Which is utter hocum and not what our all encomassing and progressive states do anyway. Will you ever get rid of prostitution? No, it is the worlds oldest profession for a reason. But the purpose of the state is a curb. When you ignore the basic purpose and instead try and legislate morality of the positive what you end up with is an appalling mess. By legislating good works (say hate speech codes, or in the sexual realm handing out birth control and advertising for “safe sex”) but ignoring actual vice the state has abdicated what has actually been given to it. And the populace, staring with the poorest and most vulnerable, pay the price.

The law of God is good and wise. We can’t keep it, but it has not been set aside, only fulfilled in Christ.

Postmodern Ditches & The Narrow Way


Biblical Text: Luke 4:1-13
Full Sermon Draft

The first Sunday in Lent brings the temptation of Jesus as the text. The text is usually turned into a moral lesson about knowing your bible. And there is some of that here. But as I worked through the text and the various inputs this week, that fit less and less easily. Especially given Luke’s text. The temptations come in a slightly different order here, and the Devil and Jesus flip-flop words. Jesus goes from “it is written” to “it is said” when the devil picks up quoting scripture. This is no sword drill bible quoting one-up-man-ship.

The postmodern world tells us that everything is interpretation. There are authoritative interpretations made so by power. There are deviant or subversive interpretations. But, there are no facts; there is no truth. In the first two temptations Jesus clearly refutes that as he both takes as true and binding the Word of God and refutes a power and authority’s ability to assert interpretation against fact. In the third temptation Jesus turns to the opposite problem. Instead of thinking that everything is interpretation, its opposite is often a too great a certainty. When the devil starts quoting scripture the temptation is to put a very precise interpretation on a poetic verse.

Applied to the modern church or would you have both the church that has abandoned the law because they hunger after the approval of the world, and you have the church that is uncomfortable with faith and hope and mystery. The narrow way lies between the two ditches. Letting the secret things be God’s, but claiming surely those things that have been revealed. Deuteronomy 29:29

This is an attempt to preach the text by connecting roots of post-modernism with how we see it playing out in events today. As such, as David Foster Wallace would once quip, I’m attempting to point out the water to the fish (what’s water?). It is preaching directly at a space that is probably never in questioned. As such it might have zoomed right past.

Tolerable Sins – A Strange Valentine

This is Pastor Saltzman with a piece that I think we miss a word for. It is worth a read.

Three thoughts:
1) The only word I can come up with is a lament. It is a recognition of a deep problem that has no readily apparent solution. In the season of Lent, laments are not bad things to ponder. A lament reminds us of our fallen nature and our deep reliance upon God. In something so fundamental and necessary, we muck things up.

2) Tolerance is a word that goes along with the therapeutic culture and mentality. We manage things. We accept things. We tolerate things. And if we just do that day after day, we can project an image of health and well-being. There are times and places for therapy. But Christianity at its core is anti-therapeutic. It declares things like: “I am the Lord your God who brought you out of Egypt.” Or like, “I am the way, the truth and the life.” God doesn’t manage things. He forgives. He settles.

3) God help the church that actually believes its doctrine in a public way. If you had a church that lamented and proclaimed…it doesn’t take long for somebody to say something like “that is just your interpretation” or “doctrine is just a bunch of fusty rules” or “how hate filled are you” or “who are you to judge me”. Tolerance is just easier. Like 10,000 maniac’s once sang, “give them what they want, so their eyes are fat and lazy…”

Isaiah 6:9-10 And he said, “Go, and say to this people: “‘Keep on hearing, but do not understand; keep on seeing, but do not perceive.’ 10 Make the heart of this people dull, and their ears heavy, and blind their eyes; lest they see with their eyes, and hear with their ears, and understand with their hearts, and turn and be healed.”

Have Some Respect for Yourself

I’m not naive about such things, but ask yourself – can you see George Washington, Abe Lincoln or Calvin Coolidge getting rewarded like this reported by Dana Milbank of the Washington Post (no GOP hack source there)…

Lew, who was White House chief of staff while Obama’s campaign was pummeling Romney over his pay and taxes, received a $945,000 bonus in January 2009 after a brief tenure at Citigroup — just as the bank announced huge losses and took a taxpayer bailout. Lew also invested $56,000 in a Citigroup venture-capital fund registered in the Cayman Islands — registered in the very building, in fact, that Obama labeled “the largest tax scam in the world.”

We used to have a series of words for such “bonuses”: graft, payback, bribes, corruption. The reward used to be a 6×9′ cell or at least retirement to private life.

The loopy signature man’s reward? The seat of Alexander Hamilton. Of course that was recently held by Tim Geithner, famous for not paying his income tax, so like the dollar, that seat might not be worth as much as it once was.

And Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.), an outspoken foe of offshore tax havens, helped Lew defend himself…

Just a quick check, stuff like this actually seems important to God. Look at Deuteronomy 25:15. The promise of the land is attached to using honest weights in economic matters.
(Leviticus 19:36) Use honest scales and honest weights, an honest ephah and an honest hin. I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of Egypt.
(Deuteronomy 25:13) Do not have two differing weights in your bag–one heavy, one light.
(Deuteronomy 25:15) You must have accurate and honest weights and measures, so that you may live long in the land the LORD your God is giving you.
(Proverbs 11:1) The LORD abhors dishonest scales, but accurate weights are his delight.
(Proverbs 16:11) Honest scales and balances are from the LORD; all the weights in the bag are of his making.
(Proverbs 20:10) Differing weights and differing measures– the LORD detests them both.
(Proverbs 20:23) The LORD detests differing weights, and dishonest scales do not please him.
(Micah 6:11) Shall I acquit a man with dishonest scales, with a bag of false weights?

They think we are stupid. And as far as I can tell they are right. But getting better would require having a moral space to stand on, and being willing to use it. Since they’ve convinced everyone the the Scriptures are fusty old things, Christian orthodoxy is hate, and that they have the higher enlightened morality, this is what we get. Nero fiddled while Rome burned and then he blamed the Christians.