George Washington & Men With Chests

If you’ve ever read a good biography of George Washington you can’t walk away from it without a higher, if that is possible, appreciation of the man. Unlike Jefferson, who the more you read comes out pale in comparison to his foundational words, Washington grows. Ron Chernow has written the most recent “massive tome”, but I appreciated Richard Brookhiser’s shorter Founding Father: Rediscovering George Washington. That book’s purpose was not so much to recount the life but to understand what made it great. Washington, for the first 175 years of American History was the indispensable man. Even though Jefferson wrote the documents we quote, Washington was “first in war, first in peace, and first in the hearts of his countrymen”. And per Brookhiser, the reason is not anything inherent in the man – not a first class intellect, not a great natural general losing more than he won, given to pomposity at times with a volcanic temper – but the developed character of Washington. Washington strived to be a better person than he knew himself to be, and his country took heart at his example. He became a man for which other men would endure New York winters dreaming of Virginia summers, as Washington, childless, would dream of his “distant posterity”.

I couldn’t help but think of Washington when I read a much different understanding from New York Times editorial columnist Charles Blow. Quoting,

I would slowly learn to allow myself to follow attraction and curiosity wherever they might lead. I would grant myself latitude to explore the whole of me so that I could find the edges of me…I wasn’t moving; the same-gender attraction was. Sometimes it withdrew from me almost completely, and at others it lapped up to my knees. I wasn’t making a choice; I was subject to the tide….I would hold myself open to evolution on this point, but I would stop trying to force it. I would settle, over time, into the acceptance that my attractions, though fluid, were simply lopsided. Only with that acceptance would I truly feel free.

For Washington, character and freedom were in exercising will over oneself. For Blow, character and freedom are in being subject to the tide. For Washington, one struggled against our natural natures toward something better. For Blow, the greater good is accepting what our natures want to be.

Neither Washington nor Blow differ in their diagnosis of the human condition. Neither is actually that far from St. Paul’s lament, “I delight in the law of God in my inner being, but I see in my members another law waging war against the law of my mind and making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members. (Rom 7:22-23)” All three had an ideal in their minds to which they were not living up to. The real question is one of will. Is the proper course Washington’s – willing his recalcitrant self in line with his ideal? Or is it Blow’s – willing his ideals in line with his nature?

St. Paul’s answer accords with Washington. “For those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit set their minds on the things of the Spirit. For to set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace. For the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God, for it does not submit to God’s law; indeed, it cannot. (Rom 8:5-7 ESV)” This process is never complete until the resurrection when we will have the renewed flesh, but it is already starting now. It starts in our renewed minds and moves to a renewed will. Only in Christ can we actually be free, because only in Christ can we actually exercise our will. Collapsing our ideals to our nature is not a free choice, but a surrender of our freedom to the tides.

C.S. Lewis had an arresting image of modernity he called “men without chests”. Modernity produces lots of people with strong heads. Some who even know what is right. It also produces lots of people with strong guts. In the ancient world the guts were the seat of the emotions, so what is meant by that is lots of people with strong emotions. Some of them even right. What it fails to do is produce a Washington. It fails to produce men with chests, men who have hearts or wills that desire and put into action the best of the mind and gut while denying to bring into reality the worst.

This is what James meant when he would say “faith without works is dead (James 2:17)”. A sentiment Paul would agree with when he would say, “do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed (Rom 12:2)”. Likewise Peter, “do not be conformed to the passions of your former ignorance, but as he who called you is holy, you also be holy in all your conduct, (1 Peter 1:14-15)”. Do some cardio, workout your chest, your heart. In Christ, will to do the right.

September Newsletter – Pastor’s Corner

Book Reading I sadly came across the comic to the left after we went to press on this. It was the perfect piece to take down the pretension of the actual article.

It is August 28th when I write this which is the Saint Day of St. Augustine. One of the famous stories that Augustine tells in his confessions is of his conversion where a little childlike voice chants “tolle lege” or “Take and read”. He took it as the divine command or invitation to take up the Bible and read it. A book which the educated man had shunned for years. He opened to Romans and the rest is history.

September is a month where we put aside the diversions of sun and fun and summer and tolle lege, pick up and read again. Some of us (child #2 David) reluctantly and other with fondness. In that vein I thought that I might put together a short list. A challenge reading list (since I can’t really assign them) for you this year. These are books or works that have greatly impacted me. They are also books which I believe are worth returning to if just to dip in and remind ourselves. What you saw in them at 12 or 22 or 32 or (sigh) 42, and probably beyond, is different. The scars and lenses change. So here are five + one.

The Small Catechism, The Large Catechism & One Confessional Work
Everyone should read the catechism at least yearly if not devotionally in prayer. Luther’s small portion, like youth, is wasted on the young. There are six parts. Take one a day for a week and ponder the answers. Peruse the synod’s questions and see just how full the biblical basis is for this foundation. Then Challenge yourself over the rest of a month to read the Larger Catechism and either the Augsburg Confession, the Formula of Concord or the Smalcald Articles. I’d challenge you to notice that even as the questions change and get stickier or more opaque, the fundamental question remains. How do we life faithfully where God has placed us? As Augustine might say how does the City of God reside within the City of Man?

The Freedom of a Christian
This is the crossing of the Rubicon work. Yes it includes an opening dedication to Leo X, but the offer reminds me of Mel Gibson’s William Wallace offer of peace to the English. Uncorking 120 proof grace and Paul’s letter to the Galatians – the inebriating joy of freedom comes through on every page. Written in German (vs. Latin) it was published and sold for pennies to the folk. And its final plea or prayer is for theodidacti – hearts taught by God as he promised. “Tolle, Lege.”

Surprised by Joy
This is C.S. Lewis’ semi-autobiography. I say semi because the main character might be Lewis, but the real main character is God. Lewis captures the constant presence of Joy in his life, even when he didn’t believe. He captures how this Joy exists mid toil and pain and still abounds and expands. And eventually he captures how this joy finds its fulfillment in the heart of God. “We are restless, until we find our rest in thee.”

Children of Men
Please don’t just watch the very bad movie. Read the P. D. James novel. We are swamped with dystopian novels and heroes from Batman to Katniss. James conjures up such a world that is all too possible, but also manages to hint at how this world actually works. We carry the treasure in jars of clay. The jars are always breaking, but life returns. And it is in the very weakness and loss that God is most fully seen. “Seek not to understand that you might believe, but believe that you might understand.”

The Aeneid
Augustine’s Confessions to scholars have always carried a striking relationship to this Latin Epic. Pious Aeneas carries Troy and the household gods to Italy stopping in Carthage with Dido, descending to the underworld, taking up his fate written on a shield, and founding the Eternal Empire. Instead of reading glory from a shield, Augustine takes and reads the scriptures. In the collapse of that eternal empire, Augustine would point to the City of God. Augustine would transform Roman piety to Christian, but it is worth understanding the original. There are two great modern English translations (Feagles and Rudin). “It was pride that changed angels into devils, it is humility that makes men as angels.” Or maybe, “the good man, though a slave, is free; the wicked, though he reigns, is a slave, and not the slave of a single man, but — what is worse — the slave of as many masters as he has vices.”

Plus One
And now for the plus one. All theology ends in doxology; all meditation turns toward prayer and praise. Pick up a poetry book. The hymnal was traditionally the layman’s book. A book full of verse. If you want a modern, try Dana Gioia. He has a good selection on his website. Your great-grandkids will be reading him. Try Litany and Planting a Sequoia for a start. Shakespeare’s sonnets are always free. Then come back to the Psalms.

“Tolle, Lege.” And do let me know if you take any of these up.

HT:Elizabeth Bruenig

Pastor’s Corner – Newsletter November 2013

banksy-new-york1I shared a piece of art criticism on Facebook recently. Unsurprisingly I got no comments. The pictures of kids or “kids say the darndest things” are guaranteed to get a few likes. Political stories or religious pieces usually get a few comments. This one, which wasn’t just signaling or positioning, but had the depth to cause thought, vanished without a blip.

The artist in question is Banksy. To many he might not be an artist but a simple public nuisance. He paints using spray paint and stencils on public walls. Recently he came to NYC for a month long “residency” cheekily making fun of vBanksy defacedarious artist-in-residence programs around the country. Thbanksy_this_is_my_new_york_accente nearby picture is one of those works. The child picking her nose as lady liberty is yes juvenile but a catchy riff for an Englishman in New York. A couple of other works from this residency are nearby with that same just fun to be here zing. The second one to the right shows that Banksy got a full NY welcome as competing NY taggers took to commenting somewhat less completely on the work.

Now if all Banksy did was work such as those he’d be a funny defacer of property. One of those guys you’d feel bad about locking up, but glad that it’s over. But Banksy also does work like this to the left. Banksy Ghetto for lifeAnd it is work like this which caused the piece that I shared on facebook. Because it is the idle rich of NYC that have time and care to chase Banksy work around the city before it is defaced or protected by someone even richer. And that is what the piece that I shared pondered. Banksy admits he is a failure. His work, originally a form of protest or a shout from the lower depths that we are still here and watching, has become popular. Rich people buy the buildings he’s painted on and hire 24 hr security until they can destroy the building to save the canvass. And he will occasionally make pieces available in galleries for handsome commissions. The picture of Mickey, Ronald and Napalm Girl nearby is an example. Again you can pick up relatively effortlessly on the theme of privilege and trivialization. This one has renewed meaning of how un-serious a people we have become.Banksy_Napalm_HR_400k In those days of division and protest an image like the naked girl running from Napalm could prick the American conscience. Recently a Pakistani family testified about Grandma killed as collateral damage of a drone strike. This strike occurred the day before the Eid – say the day before Thanksgiving or Christmas Eve. Presidential spokesman Jay Carney would respond that drones strikes are better than the alternative, which is undoubtedly true. The problem is that they are guided by intelligence. Is that grandma, or a terrorist meeting? Ask the intelligence analyst. What, he’s on vacation at Disney land? And once ordered, there are no humans on the ground to see the truth, or to call it off when the intelligence is wrong. And how often is our intelligence wrong? And this goes on in our names while we go to Disney and eat Happy Meals. Because Banksy now makes his living from selling to the very people who encourage these things, can he really critique them? Or is he a failure, a parasite on the very things he is commenting on? He doesn’t mean it. It is just prophecy as chic hucksterism. Like the boy spray-painting ghetto being watched by Jeeves holding his cans on the silver platter.

Banksy gets this, and he gets the deeper law-gospel vein that he is working in. As part of an interview granted the NY Times he comments – “There is no way around it – commercial success is a mark of failure for a graffiti artist…it is like the ancient Kings of Israel inviting a prophet to a royal dinner, Yes, come eat dinner with us and say more about this law-breaking thing and how God’s going to judge us – my guests from the next kingdom over will get a total kick out of it.” If all he was busking was the law, he’d be a hypocrite. And he knows it. “I’m a failure”. Which under the law, we are all failures. But Banksy did something else during his residency. He set up a pop-up booth in Central Park and started selling prints. What he was offering was original Banksy signed works. Works that would go for a minimum of $30,000 each in a gallery. After this they would probably go for much more. The price he put on them at the stall? $60. He released a video of each purchase including one of a mother bargaining him down to $30 to decorate her son’s bedroom. All day in central park and he made three sales. After the completion of each sale, he asks each purchaser – all who are oblivious of the hidden treasure just bought – if he can hug them.

Like this is the Kingdom of God. Finding a treasurer buried in the field, a pearl of great price under-priced at the flea market. It is hidden in plain sight. It is given away. The rich and powerful, the violent always try and bear it away, but it always upset their order. False prophets come and try and over-write it, but it just grows again. Because the Kingdom is grace. It is the hug of the Father who is just happy for you that you are alive. The owner who pays the same regardless of the work performed – regardless of your merit or lack – regardless of your cool or loser-dom. Would that we could all be such failures.

Leaven & Lenten Practice (March 2013 Newsletter Pastor’s Corner)

leaven iconThis articles owes a debt to an article in Touchstone – Dylan Pahman’s The Yeast We Can Do. Unfortunately right now it is behind the paywall. You could always subscribe.

He told them another parable. “The kingdom of heaven is like leaven that a woman took and hid in three measures of flour, till it was all leavened.”Matthew 13:33
Jesus said to them, “Watch and beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and Sadducees.”Matthew 16:6

Yeast or leaven must be one of the most powerful metaphors in the bible. It is used both as a parable for the Kingdom itself, and for the forces that oppose the kingdom. If I were the disciples I might have asked Jesus to stop and tell us which. You can’t have it both ways. Nevertheless, I think there is a common thread in both cases that Jesus was calling to the disciples’ attention. It only takes a small amount of something compared to yeast to make or ruin the entire creation.

Passover, the Jewish festival that Holy Week fulfilled, contains an interesting additional law and practice. The Jews were commanded to eat unleavened bread. We know this from Exodus with the comment that it is bread made in haste. But the standing law given for Passover for succeeding generations was that for seven days they should eat unleavened bread, and on the first remove all leaven from the house. Anyone caught eating leavened bread would not just be ceremonially unclean for the Passover, but would be “cut off from Israel”. (Exodus 12:15) The old housewives’ tale is that this is the origin of “spring cleaning”. The Rabbis, thinking like Eve in the garden and observing the severity of the penalty, have erected even higher walls. To avoid even the slightest possibility of owning leaven under their roof, some Jews will sell their household for a day to a trusted agent buying it back after the Passover. The law always encourages following the letter and not the spirit.

Coming into Christianity, the ritual laws were no longer binding. The Passover week became Holy Week. The Christian’s preparation became the 40 days of lent. And the historic practices of lent were: prayer, fasting and almsgiving. One of the Desert Fathers, Evagrios, made the connection between good leaven and bad leaven. Reflecting on 1 John 2:16 – “For all that is in the world– the desires of the flesh and the desires of the eyes and pride of life– is not from the Father but is from the world” – he called out gluttony, avarice and pride as the “frontline demons”. These were the bad yeast to watch for. When simple gluttony held sway, it would not be long before lust would follow. The person given to greed is easily swayed by wrath and envy. Whatever you might think of Evagrios’ progression of sin built around the seven deadly sins, the metaphor of leaven makes sense. It is certainly easier to laugh off a small indulgence. It is a lifetime of laughing off small indulgences that builds to greater sins and ruin of the entire life. A lifetime of disrespecting the Word is built upon that Sunday where sleeping in just felt better. A deathbed of terror and not knowing what to say is constructed from a lifetime of neglecting even our bedtime prayers.

Looking at the Sermon on the Mount and specifically Matthew 6, Evagrious countered that bad leaven with what he put forward as the good. Jesus there recommends direct almsgiving in private where the Father issues the reward. He follows that with the teaching of the Lord’s Prayer which in Matthew he precedes with “go into you private closet”. Like yeast, you don’t see this working publically. And following that prayer, Jesus issues the expectation to fast. Also in secret, adding “when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face”. The Lenten practices of almsgiving, prayer and fasting are connected as the small things that counteract those frontline demons of avarice, pride and gluttony. The greedy are called to give it away, the prideful to bend the knee in prayer, the gluttonous to fast for a time.

The Church Fathers were much more comfortable than most Lutheran ministers with directing works. But truth be told, so was Jesus. And there is definitely a way that these things can be made into a new law. When almsgiving, prayer and fasting would become the outward magic that we never let touch our hearts, we are being as pharisaical as selling our possessions for a day. These things become the metaphor for the Kingdom when we allow them to work on us, when that Spirit kneads into our heart the message of the gospel. Because we have received mercy, we are able to be merciful. Because Christ is our mediator, we can call God our Father. Because we have the promise of the Kingdom and the New Jerusalem, this world and its kingdoms’ glory can be turned away. Our abundance and our food comes not from mere bread.

Our faith, our families, our congregations, and our society might seem very brittle because we have not kneaded that lump of dough. We’ve let the leaven of the Kingdom sit on the surface. We’ve foresworn the spiritual practices in our lives. As James says, “be doers of the Word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves. For if anyone is a hearer of the word and not a doer, he is like a man who looks intently at his natural face in the mirror. For he looks at himself and goes away and at once forgets what he was like.” (James 1:22-24) Jesus might put it somewhat differently, “some seed fell on hard packed ground where it was quickly devoured”. (Luke 8:5) Working the leaven through the dough, preparing the soil, changing the hard heart is not magic. It is like leaven. It starts small, and then works throughout the dough.

February Pastor’s Corner – Fat Tuesday and Ash Wednesday

pancakes and ashesThere is an old word that has fallen into disuse. That word is exhort. As I type this, it has fallen into such disuse that Microsoft is questioning my grammar. It would accept exhorted in the past tense, but questions the present tense use of that verb. Our grandfathers and grandmothers exhorted, but we no longer exhort; at least according the Microsoft Word.

Another Word does use exhort. I imagine that it has fallen into disuse because it carries the connotation that there is an objective moral standard. Coaches do not exhort, they coach, because while sports do have an objective standard (scoreboard!) that standard is not a moral one. Politicians, preachers, generals and teachers would be your standard exhorters. And while it might have a negative connotation in our lawless age, exhortation in the bible is used always as a positive.

Peter at Pentecost, with the sermon that brought in 3000 souls: “And with many other words he bore witness and continued to exhort them, saying, “Save yourselves from this crooked generation.” (Act 2:40 ESV)

Paul writing to the Thessalonians, “we sent Timothy, our brother and God’s coworker in the gospel of Christ, to establish and exhort you in your faith.” (1Th 3:2 ESV)

That same Paul to Timothy giving him his charge, “preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with complete patience and teaching.” (2Ti 4:2 ESV) And giving the same charge to Titus, “Declare these things; exhort and rebuke with all authority. Let no one disregard you.” (Tit 2:15 ESV)

The writer of the Hebrews to all Christians, “But exhort one another every day, as long as it is called “today,” that none of you may be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin.” (Heb 3:13 ESV)

And Peter at a later date, “So I exhort the elders among you, as a fellow elder and a witness of the sufferings of Christ” (1Pe 5:1 ESV)

I have an exhortation for you today. I am a hoarder of numbers and statistics. I keep all kinds of things. Numbers don’t tell everything, but I do believe a couple of things about them. First, if you don’t have any numbers, you probably don’t really care about it. In the business world we use to say “if it isn’t measured it isn’t real”. That saying captures the ditch on the other side of the road. What happens there is that only the number is real and hence if you can fake it easier, “who cares, we made the number”. At a certain point of complexity it is easier to “game the system” or to “rob Peter to pay Paul”. The number wasn’t meant to drive either of those activities, but that is what the law encourages, a spiritless conformity. Instead what the numbers help you do is paint a picture. Blood pressure, body temperature and blood oxygen level paint a very simple picture of the health of a body for a doctor. I want to share some numbers from last year with you.

On Fat Tuesday, the day before Ash Wednesday and the start of the penitential season of Lent, we served 12 pounds of bacon. We as a congregation ate our way through a 10 pound bag of pancake batter. We ate at least three quarts of Mrs. Butterworth’s. When you are making pancakes at the same time it is hard getting an exact count, but I think we had around 60 people come to our little pancake carnival. This is healthy, maybe not the food, but the gathering. The following morning for imposition of ashes we had roughly 12. We made the minyan, but the numbers paint a picture.
As a society, as a people, we love the carnival. We might even be at the point where we claim carnival as a right. We’ve got to fight for our right to party used to be ironic. But the somber registers of a penitential call are quickly put out of mind. Even suggesting the need for something as bloodless as personal reflection, as compared to the full throated call of Repent, the Kingdom is near, is beat back with cries of anti-fun bigot, puritan, Pharisee and the ever popular “look at the log in your own eye”. Yes, the devil can quote scripture to full effect.

What the Christian faith exhorts, what the watchman on the wall exhorts, is and always has been the same:

Keep a close watch on yourself and on the teaching. Persist in this, for by so doing you will save both yourself and your hearers. (1Ti 4:16 ESV)

Brothers, if anyone is caught in any transgression, you who are spiritual should restore him in a spirit of gentleness. Keep watch on yourself, lest you too be tempted. (Gal 6:1 ESV)

Watch yourselves, so that you may not lose what we have worked for, but may win a full reward. (2Jo 1:8 ESV)

But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, 23 gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law. (Gal 5:22 ESV)

Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. (Phi 4:8 ESV)

So, this exhortation is one about priorities and necessary rhythms. It is not a call to skip the pancakes. But it is a call to remember the ashes the next morning (or evening as well this year). To truly feast requires a fast. To receive the gospel in its sweetness requires the sour scouring of the law. The way to Easter passes through Calvary.

Dec 2012 Pastors Corner – Hymns We Sing – Advent Meditation

The season of advent is my favorite. I don’t think there is a clunker in the hymnbook for the entire season, and it contains my very favorites. If you asked me why, I’d say look at the names down at the bottom. For example LSB 332 – Savior of the Nations, Come, which I hope to hear the kids sing on the 16th. Originally written in Latin by Ambrose, bishop of Milan, teacher of the faith to Augustine. Translated into German by Martin Luther. The English translator is not a name you’d recognize, but when you find out the other hymns he wrote or translated, he did his part. Just paging through the names: Paul Gerhardt, Charles Wesley, Catherine Winkworth as translator again and again, Charles Coffin, Latin (i.e. old enough to have been sung and cherished and translated for at least 1500 years). The rest of the world rushed on to Christmas. It still rushes on to Christmas. The decorations were in the stores before Halloween this year. I saw the Corona lighted palm tree on Oct 28th during a football game. The best that the church has nurtured through the ages have pondered and written about Advent. Ricky Bobby liked the little baby Jesus. An unknown Basque writer held off and pondered that pregnant time, when the great and glorious Angel Gabriel from Heaven Came and praised the lowly maiden Mary, most highly favored lady.

Why has Advent called to the best or at least brought out their best work? Again, I am making a wild guess, but Advent is the time on the calendar that speaks most to our actual felt situation. Christmas and Easter and Ascension have happened, but we didn’t see them in the same way. As Jesus once said to his disciples, “For truly, I say to you, many prophets and righteous people longed to see what you see, and did not see it, and to hear what you hear, and did not hear it. (Mat 13:17 ESV).” We are more like ancient Israel. Like Israel, by the rivers of Babylon, we ponder Zion. O Come, O Come, Emmanuel and ransom captive Israel. The Christian is a sojourner, a stranger in a strange land, one whose citizenship is in a different kingdom. We long to sing the coronation hymn and proclaim to the City Lift Up Your Head, You Mighty Gates, the King of Glory waits. In the midst of the birth pains, the wars and rumors of war, we hear Isaiah, What Hope An Eden Prophesied, Where tame live with the wild. The lamb and lion side by side, led by a little child. When we look around and all seems lost, On Jordan’s Bank a Baptist’s Cry, announces that the Lord Is nigh. Hark the Glad Sound. A Thrilling voice sounding and filling hearts with hope. Make straight the way.

Advent is not unsure of the fulfillment, but it feels pulled by both the now and the not yet. It employs all the metaphors we have. Like Mary, it put the hopes and fears of all the years in its heart and ponders them. That is what I’d encourage you to do this December, this Advent. Don’t rush on to the child at the manger, the Christ child has surely come, but ponder the coming – the ways and byways and means Christ enters in and makes our sad divisions cease. Are you prepared? O Lord, How Shall I Meet You, and welcome you aright? Those are the questions of Advent.