Close to the Bone

One article recently really hit my cranky bone. Way more information than a pastor should be writing.

That article was David Brooks. The truth is that I haven’t felt at home in a political party for most of my voting life. The last guy I felt completely comfortable voting for was G. H. W. Bush (Bush 41) which was also the first ballot I cast. Clinton was an opportunist and the moral example set gave cover to the worst of our natures. Bush (43) I’d liken to Old King Stephen – “a good man who did no justice”. (Less poetic but better the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle’s verdict – “he took action without judgment”.) And let’s just not talk about Obama. The lawlessness of the current resident of 1600 shocks even me. I recount my “man without a party” narrative because David Brooks laments the loss of “the traditional conservative”. The modern GOP started out as a coalition between people like me best defined by Brooks’ paragraph…

Because they were conservative, they tended to believe that power should be devolved down to the lower levels of this chain. They believed that people should lead disciplined, orderly lives, but doubted that individuals have the ability to do this alone, unaided by social custom and by God. So they were intensely interested in creating the sort of social, economic and political order that would encourage people to work hard, finish school and postpone childbearing until marriage.

…and so-called economic conservatives which are best thought of as libertarians. And Brooks is right that “The two conservative tendencies lived in tension. But together they embodied a truth that was put into words by the child psychologist John Bowlby, that life is best organized as a series of daring ventures from a secure base. ” But here is where David Brooks starts misfiring or let’s steal a phrase from getreligion, “there is a religious ghost haunting the story”.

David Brooks complains,

“In the polarized political conflict with liberalism, shrinking government has become the organizing conservative principle. Economic conservatives have the money and the institutions. They have taken control. Traditional conservatism has gone into eclipse. These days, speakers at Republican gatherings almost always use the language of market conservatism — getting government off our backs, enhancing economic freedom. Even Mitt Romney, who subscribes to a faith that knows a lot about social capital, relies exclusively on the language of market conservatism.”

Why does Romney use only market language? Why is shrinking government the organizing principle? Did anybody see what happened to Mike Huckabee in 2008?

The answer or the ghost is that “traditional conservatives” are really religious conservatives. WFB, patron saint and original forger of the coalition, was an every day mass attending Catholic. They have received help from God in ordering lives. And we as a people, we won’t hear talk about God. As a Lutheran what I would say is that we won’t hear the Law. We won’t stand for the traditional teaching of the church. A wall of separation has been erected to prevent anyone from accidentally having their feelings hurt by being implied a sinner and feeling the law. Those people and that language have been run out of polite society as just not acceptable by a corrupt and decadent elite from both parties. We can have plenty of nonsense about God and lots of dressed up language, but direct to the bone Orthodoxy; the type that you say “This is the Word of the Lord” after, none of that stuff allowed.

Brooks again,

“There are few people on the conservative side who’d be willing to raise taxes on the affluent to fund mobility programs for the working class. There are very few willing to use government to actively intervene in chaotic neighborhoods, even when 40 percent of American kids are born out of wedlock. There are very few Republicans who protest against a House Republican budget proposal that cuts domestic discretionary spending to absurdly low levels. “

The government has been doling out programs and money for decades and all the illegitimacy rate does is rise. You know what used to work? Its called the 6th commandment – “don’t commit adultery.” Who and what are exactly the programs or people that are excluded from receiving dollars? People that might accidentally say- “Hey, God says don’t screw around”. Who are the people who are declared ineligible for higher office like Huckabee in 2008? The same people who might tax a little and spend a little through government because the seventh commandment that says “don’t steal” includes the positive force of “helping your neighbor to improve and protect his possessions and income”. (Small Catechism) {Of course being conservative they’d rather see that taking place in city hall or the county seat compared to Washington.}

The fact is that the “traditional conservatives” that Brooks laments are exactly the people that are tarred and feathered the second they are in public life. And that is in both parties. They haven’t gone missing, they’ve just been forced underground.

Now not all the fault is on a secret cabal. The gospel has a consistent external enemy. But it has had an internal enemy as well, recently best described by Brooks co-worker Ross Douthat in Bad Religion. If we don’t take our own religion seriously, why would anyone outside? This takes so many forms its not even funny. Let’s just say when you are willing to change the name of God to something silly, or are willing to ignore clear scripture because of the passions of the day, I wouldn’t take you seriously either.

Law and Gospel, sin and absolution, is serious. You don’t like the thought of Hell, we’ll do away with it and everybody gets a free pass, is not serious. The theology of the cross is serious. Your best life now is not serious.

So, David Brooks, are you willing to say that serious religious people deserve to be heard, or are you lamenting something but not willing to accept the answer?

Romney, Mormonism and Christians

Luther in one of his more famous quotes (and very shocking for the time) said, “I’d rather be ruled by a wise Turk than a foolish Christian.”

I’ve read two stories about Mr. Romney lately that were surprising. The first from Megan McArdle’s Atlantic blog (by a guest writer).

[O]ur family had out-grown our small home, so we found a larger one and put the word out that we would appreciate any help in loading and unloading our rented moving truck. Among those who showed up that morning was Mitt Romney, now the governor of Massachusetts, who had just completed his unsuccessful campaign for the U.S. Senate in Massachusetts. Mitt had a broken collarbone, but for two hours traipsed between our home and the truck, carrying out whatever he could manage with his one good arm.

The second from the NYT through Rod Dreher.

Nearly two decades ago, Randy and Janna Sorensen approached Mr. Romney, then a church official, for help: unable to have a baby on their own, they wanted to adopt but could not do so through the church, which did not facilitate adoptions for mothers who worked outside the home.

Devastated, they told Mr. Romney that the rule was unjust and that they needed two incomes to live in Boston. Mr. Romney helped, but not by challenging church authorities. He took a calculator to the Sorensen household budget and showed how with a few sacrifices, Ms. Sorensen could quit her job. Their children are now grown, and Mr. Sorensen said they were so grateful that they had considered naming a child Mitt. (The church has since relaxed its prohibition on adoption for women who work outside the home.)

What both of those stories tell me, and let’s be clear these are not from right-wing sources seeking to put a halo on Mr. Romney, what they tell me is about something at the core of the man. For a guy who seems to be open the the charge of “there is no there, there”, both of those stories tell me there is a significant there, there. Think about that first one for a second. Mormonism isn’t exactly a big thing in Massachusetts. This article says that Mitt’s stake (what mormon’s might call a circuit or a district in lutheran speak) was about 1000 members all told. Those 1000 members would have been distributed over 5 – 10 individual congregations. So, Mr. Romney’s own congregation was probably similar in size or maybe a little bigger than St. Mark’s. It was not a mega-church outpost. The sitting governor of your state, who has broken a collarbone and just lost a senate campaign, shows up to move furniture. That is an outrageous use of time from a utilitarian standpoint. Then Gov. Romney could probably have paid a couple of college kids to do it and still been dollars ahead. Heck, he could have sent a couple of intern staffers. But, he saw something about his church community that it was more valuable to express community by his own person showing up.

The second story is about how Mr. Romney approached what my be labeled as a typical “feelings” story. Church doctrine said something: families are important enough to have in a quaint term a homemaker. The church would not place a child into a home that did not have one. That doctrine created a conflict with a felt need. The parishoner had a felt need to adopt a child. Anyone who has been part of at least mainline churches in the last 30 years knows that when a doctrine meets a felt need, the doctrine collapses like a house of cards. What do we need to honor these dusty rules for, people are hurting!

What Mr. Romney did was: a) uphold the doctrine as both good and proper, and b) put himself on the line to show how it might be followed and actually help one’s life. Folding the doctrine was the easy way out. Mr. Romney himself was not going to change it immediately to help his person. It would have been very easy to agree with the felt need, write a stern note about how it should be changed, commiserate with the parishoner about the heartless church and point her to secular sources. But instead of painting himself as the emotional good guy, Mr. Romney did the hard thing. He taught and built and sustained a mature relationship.

I say this completely as a Lutheran minister. While I think the Mormon doctrine is a dangerous Christian heresy, the most attractive thing about Mr. Romney is his Mormonism and how he lives it. The wisdom shown in those two stories is deep. Luther’s quote I started with is a shocking application of the Two-Kingdom’s theology. What is needed in the kingdom of the left, the political kingdom of the here and now, is not necessarily piety but wisdom. Not that piety is bad, but one can be a pious fool. That person should be kept far away from the sword of government. (As was said of King Steven – “a good man who did no justice”.) The Mr. Romney in those two vignettes would easily qualify as a wise Turk.

Interesting Political Factoid

I’m always hesitant to post something outright political, but this is fascinating. Daily Beast has compiled every candidate’s (including Obama) top 5 contributors and the amount.

For the most part they are corporations. And while I’m sure quid pro quo could be lurking under some of it, my guess is more that a candidate’s voting history and “stands on the issues” attract the support. In other words I doubt there is a whole lot of I’ll give you a big contribution if you change your stance, but think its more this guy supports what I like so I’ll support him. Or even just I know this gal personally (i.e. Rick Santorum and Michelle Bachmann).

But here is the real fascinating part…what does it say that the top 3 contributors to Ron Paul are not corporations but US Army personnel, US Air Force personnel and then US Navy personnel? If his foreign policy ideas are “insane” or “going to wreck the country”, would these people be his biggest financial support? This is one of those cases where who you are attracting to yourself is revealing of character. Both of the nation and of the candidate.

An Innocent Question…

I’m a pastor, I’m allowed at times to be a a slight moralistic scold, right? Well here is the question to my good readers in Iowa who will be caucusing soon.

Mr. Romney is supposed to be a “flip-flopper” or a questionable “RINO”, right? But Mr. Romney has two fewer wives and two fewer religions than the man leading the polls right now. (Unless you say the other guy’s religion has also been consistently about worshiping the world historical figure that he is.) Who has stood athwart history yelling stop more consistently by means of his life? If that Mormon thing is causing problems, there is a good Roman Catholic on the stage who could fill in that analogy as well. Got a big family too. By their fruits you shall know them…

Just an innocent question.

Mormons, cults and other things…

This question came up in Bible Study Sunday. Is mormonism a cult? It’s coming up because of Mitt Romney and Rick Perry’s pastor. (Knowing how programmed things are at that stage, let me just say that I’d be surprised if Rick Perry didn’t know what that guy was going to say. While I think religious beliefs do and should have a signaling and governing influence, I am not as comfortable with them being tools in a political campaign. Other than the simple statement, “I attend such and such a church” and leaving people to make up their own minds, calling a religion a cult as a scare tactic through an intermediary seems somewhat iffy at best.)

Back to the question. The first thing when the epithet cult gets used is that the functional definition of cult is usually how many people subscribe to the belief. Small number – cult. Larger number – not cult. Cult is a bad word to use in these situations. Why that is the case is because the underlying thought behind a cult is that they believe they are the only ones who have the full truth. That would apply to almost every church body. Rome certainly holds that the fullness of revelation resides on in Rome. The LCMS has only half jokingly been called a cult because of just that profession amongst many. Even the Anglican church would say the via media is the better way. In other words, cult is a word with little meaning beyond – “That guy’s religion is strange.” It says more about the person using it than about who it is applied to.

A better question is: to what extent can mormonism be called Christian? And from my experience (and not just mine as the links show) this is changing and highly subjective. Here is Dr. Mouw from the Fuller Seminary. Here is Scot McKnight. If I could find the link even Richard Neuhaus – Catholic Priest and former LCMS Pastor – addressed this in First Things a few years ago before he passed away.

Two bits of foundational theology. The church is an element of belief. We confess it in the creed. We believe in one, holy, catholic and apostolic church. That church transcends time, language, race and nation. Until the final fulfillment we will never see it in its entirety. The definition that the Lutheran Confessions put on the church is that you see it – “where the gospel is preached and the sacraments are administered”. That can happen in a variety of settings. There are places it is more likely to happen, but you can’t rule it out. God could make stones to cry out. He just usually uses more normal means. Like the LCMS or Rome.

So in that mentality you can ask to what extent is Mormonism Christian? What I would say is this – the more you understand of Mormon doctrine the less Christian it is. If you understand what their extra scriptures really say about God & Jesus you would have to question any baptisms performed. We baptize into the Trinity – Father, Son and Spirit – but they do not share that. Given the average congregational member’s understanding of church doctrine, it is far from clear how many Mormons would have that more in depth understanding. I’m pretty sure that you might hear more about the cross and Jesus on a typical Sunday morning at a Mormon outpost that at Joel Osteen’s place or any of his imitators. C.F.W. Walther has a wonder phrase for this – “felicitous inconsistency”. The official doctrine might say one thing, but the individual just hears Jesus.

I’ve put in a venn diagram somewhere close. It is not to scale and there is a slight dig in it, but it probably captures my thoughts. Now if you find yourself in an “unorthodox body” and know that, you probably want to move to a more consistent place, but today, given the spread of teaching and the variability of doctrine from place to place there are more felicitous inconsistencies than ever. At least that is my prayer. We can officially say that official Mormon doctrine is not Christian. Not even close. But there are probably many Christians within that church. And like the biblical story of Joseph we were studying in Bible Study – God blessed Egypt for the sake of Israel (Potiphar for the sake of Joseph). That just might be the case for many in the LDS.

Theological Dumbfounding

I’m hesitant to paste in anything directly political, but Congresswoman Bachmann is (or was) a Lutheran and from about the 15:00 mark everything is religious in nature.

To me this is an example of pure theological dumbfounding. Just listening to David Gregory ask the questions the “I can’t believe this crazy woman” or “I don’t even know where to start” or “This person scares me” vibe of them is interesting. The 18:00 – 18:40 mark is the perfect encapsulation of not understanding. Gregory doesn’t get it, and Bachmann knows it. Gregory can’t believe that anybody thinks that God helps them make decisions or “calls” them to do certain things. [Just like he can’t imagine a wife asking a husband about a career choice and then actually acting on the advice.] It horrifies him that a President might pray to come to an important decision. Bachmann sees the dumbfounding and just answers “that is my experience”; there was no way she could explain it. It is a pure conflict of worldviews. (And only Bachmann is aware of it.)

In that core encapsulation, notice Gregory’s definition or allowed playing field of religion – it can give “personal” comfort or warm fuzzies…but God or religion absolutely can’t be taken seriously by serious people in the public square. The same dumbfounding happens earlier in regards to authority. Gregory is dumbfounded that this crazy congresswoman might think that the American people might know more than Bill Gross, the Treasury Secretary and any other number of “technocratic experts”. Bachmann doesn’t accept or doesn’t accept the narrow and limited view of authority that Gregory operates with. God, small business owners, regular people, representative government – all of it is just crazy talk. And it leaves him dumbfounded. (Here is my private bet, the more Bachmann gets interviews like this, the higher her numbers will go and the more dumbfounded the Gregorys of the world will get.)

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The law in my members…

Full Text

I’ve done two things in this sermon that I don’t usually like doing. I’m not sure either of them really worked, but I had reasons for them. Also, the Thursday Bible study got a preview of this sermon subject. I’m pretty sure it played better there. I’m also pretty sure the reason is just time.

First the time issue. Most of my sermons are 10 – 12 minutes or roughly 1400 words. This one was a little longer at almost 1700 words. It is really hard to talk about the theology of the cross and the reality of the law in the Christian’s life in 12 minutes. On Thursday, we explored it for about 90 minutes in two way communication with a 1200 word itself supporting story we read. We really only stopped because we were just exhausted, or at least I was exhausted and they were exhausted of hearing my voice. It it that kind off topic. Another reason why every christian should be engaged in some regular group study. This could be a really bad analogy, but worship is the cardio workout. It is the base of any healthy regimen. Those group studies are the weights. That is where growth in spiritual muscle happens.

The two different things.

1) While I do use political examples from time to time, I try to be balanced. Those examples today were not. I think this goes to a fundamental and dangerous direction in our American political body. A small c conservative – of which there are very few in politics at any level – understands Romans 7. The human creature is fundamentally flawed. In Paul’s words, in my flesh I serve the law of sin. And, that sin in my own members is very strong and devious. The older American political order understood this and was reticent to pass any sweeping law or sweep away traditional ways of doing things. Laws, because of the human creature, invite corruption. Sweeping laws invite sweeping corruption. We are that corrupt and we are not that smart to see it all beforehand. When the law is kept small and local, the stakes are not as big. But that is the not the society that we have structured today where everything is big. And where the law gets big, corruption proliferates. According to Paul that is the very function of the law – to show how sinful we are.

2) The second thing was that I ended the sermon on what was probably a cliffhanger. Romans 7 naturally leads to Romans 8. Romans 7 is a true description of the role of the law, but it is not the complete picture. There is something else that supplies power and fights the law of sin in my members. And it doesn’t come from me. In myself, I can’t win. But I am not alone. That is the Romans 8 story continuation. I chose to stay textual and have a two part sermon. Those who were present on July 3rd probably will be present the next week. Preaching through Romans is more like watching Lost or any story drama. Missing an episode might leave you scratching your head. The gospels seem to be more episodic, or more like Law & Order. I think that is because Romans is essentially a long argument and not a collection of stories telling one larger happening.

Public Confession

Most people see that word Confession and think the Roman Catholic rite of penance or those booths with a little sliding door to talk through. Lutherans have what is most likely an archaic definition. Confession is to publicly profess one’s beliefs; to lay out before people this is what I believe. At St. Mark’s we weekly confess one of the historic creeds. That is the core of our catholicity. As LCMS Lutherans we hold to the Book of Concord as our fuller confessional document. Within that book is something called the Augsburg Confession. Lutherans of all stripes like to claim that one. And that one is something special. It was written by Philip Melanchthon. Philip was Luther’s right hand man, but he was also a layman. Also Philip was not the person who publicly confessed it. Those were an important group other laymen. The top of the list was John the Duke and Elector of Saxony, but it also included the senate of Reutlingen (town Burghers). They did this at an imperial meeting before the Emperor Charles V who in no way wanted to hear it. The Augsburg is unique in its simplicity and lay-lead nature.

This was brought to mind after reading this and watching the video below.

I don’t quite know how 25% of the nation think Mr. Obama is a muslim. I’m more staggered at this quote, “Fewer than half of Democrats and African-Americans, core components of Obama’s political base, correctly identified Obama as Christian.” And I wonder what drives that. In a darker mood I’d posture that it is becoming tougher to be a religious person on the political left, and those on the left have a hard time seeing Mr. Obama as a Christian. If that is true, that is not a good for the faith. As Cardinal Wolsey would quip, “would I had served my God as well as my King, He would not have given me up in my gray hairs.” A Christian party usually ends up serving the party and smearing Christ.

It is not the Augsburg Confession and this is not 1530, but in its way, this is a public confession. [Highly personal, not overtly doctrinal and slips into generic God, but he is a politician who needs votes at a prayer breakfast. It is clearly informed by mainstream American Protestantism in its words and emphasis and cadence. It goes beyond simple civic religion just by using the word Lord. It has the basics – sin/forgiveness, a personal God, a continued walk of discipleship.]

UPDATE: Anyone who might doubt my darker mood statement, or go the other way and think that crediting the words as confession should read this from a Georgetown prof.

Raging Christ-fest? While the president thankfully steers clear of “Christian Nation” rhetoric, there was simply too much of Obama the Christian yesterday…Such a nation, one would hope, would be led by a person who understands that this type of rhetoric can be deeply troubling to those who don’t believe in Christ. Just as it may offend those Christians who believe that Christ’s teachings tend to become distorted when they are mouthed by the worldly powers that be.

The Content of Hope or More on MTD (Moralistic Therapeutic Deism)

Elizabeth Edwards died yesterday. From what I know she died of breast cancer and left two younger children in her philandering husband’s care. She lived her first 50 years in private and a very public final 11. And those last 11 include a book called Saving Graces and final good-bye that included the word faith. It is said we don’t speak ill of the dead, but Elizabeth Edwards is a perfect example of MTD or a faith I wouldn’t bother with.

This link is a round-up of the coverage from Get Religion asking about the specifics of Mrs. Edwards graces and faith.

Here is the key quote…

Asked by Beth Corbin of Americans United for Separation of Church and State to explain how her faith beliefs inform her politics, Elizabeth Edwards gave an extraordinarily radical answer: She doesn’t believe in salvation, at least not in the standard Christian understanding of it, and she said as much:
“I have, I think, somewhat of an odd version of God. I do not have an intervening God. I don’t think I can pray to him — or her — to cure me of cancer.” After the words “or her,” Mrs. Edwards gave a little laugh, indicating she knew she had waded into water perhaps a bit deeper than the audience had anticipated. Then she continued:
“I appreciate other people’s prayers for that [a cure for her cancer], but I believe that we are given a set of guidelines, and that we are obligated to live our lives with a view to those guidelines. And I don’t that believe we should live our lives that way for some promise of eternal life, but because that’s what’s right. We should do those things because that’s what’s right.”

“We are given a set of guidelines…that’s what’s right.” – Moralistic
“It is hard not to wish for us all the peace that comes with that acceptance.” – Therapeutic (5 stages of grief)
“I do not have an intervening God.” – Deism

“I have been sustained throughout my life by three saving graces — my family, my friends, and a faith in the power of resilience and hope.”

To which I say Hope in what!?! What hope does any of that give you? “If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins…if in Christ we have hope for this life only, we are of all people most to be pitied.” – 1 Cor 15:17-19

Don’t give me any schmaltzy warm glow hope and faith and grace. I want the real thing. Because when that warm fuzzy meets a giant monster that still swallows 100% of the people I know, the light dies. “But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of them that slept…so also in Christ shall all be made alive.” – 1 Cor 15:20-22 I believe in the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come. That is the content of my hope.

There are things to admire about Elizabeth Edwards, but her theology is not on that list.

Joseph Bottom has been Listening to the Lectionary…

Here is an essay by the above mentioned Joseph Bottom at First Things. Warning, it is deep and political and not a simple read. Truly about First Things as an American.

We come across these hard sayings like, “I’ve not come to bring peace but division (Luke 12:51)” or the refrain “the first will be last and the last first (Luke 13:30)”, and they shake us a bit. All political orders are built on the law. And the law is good. We understand the law. The law gives us sure ground to stand upon. But when the perfect comes, the partial will pass away (1 Cor 13:10). And the perfect has come in Jesus Christ. The perfect is the gospel of grace. Just like those sayings, the gospel is counter-intuitive. That’s why it needs repeating. It is also why any institution or political order, as good as the law is, must make room for something other than itself. It is very hard for any institution or order to admit to another sovereign. Primarily because we make them up, and we aren’t too good at it ourselves.