In our day, in the time of the New Testament, God has given us Baptism, the Sacrament of the Altar, and absolution to bring Christ very close to us, so that we can have Him not only in our heart but also on our tongue, so that we can feel Him, grasp Him, and touch Him. God did all this for the sake of those shameful spirits who seek God according to their own pleasure, with their reason and their own ideas and dreams. To make it possible for us to recognize Him, God presents Himself to us perceptively and clearly in signs. But we do not accept these; nor are we concerned about the divine Word, although Christ the Lord Himself says: “The words that I say to you I do not speak on My own authority, but the Father who dwells in Me does His works” (John 14:10); again: “He who hears you hears Me” (Luke 10:16); and again: “Go into all the world and preach the Gospel to the whole creation; he who believes the Word of God and is baptized will be saved” (Mark 16:15–16). But we utterly disregard such words of the Gospel as well as absolution. Thus we perceive God not only with our hearts but also with our eyes and our hands, for He gives us a tangible and visible sign of Himself. At all times God has so governed His people that He could also be recognized visibly by them, lest they say: “If it were possible to find God, we would roam to the ends of the earth in search of Him.” If you had ears to hear, it would be needless to wander far in search of God. For He wants to come to you, plant Himself before your very eyes, press Himself into your hands, and say: “Just listen to Me and take hold of Me, give Me eye and ear; there you have Baptism and the Sacrament of the Altar. Open your mouth, let Me place My hand on your head. I give you this water which I sprinkle over your head.”
Martin Luther, LW 22:421
There is a fantastic post over at Ded Orthodox Zeppelin that should be mandatory reading for Lutherans (or our sympathizers) of any ilk. The discussion centers on man’s participation in sanctification…can’t you already hear the cries of “Pietist! Pietist!” before you even click the link?! Here’s a summary of the post:
For simplicity’s sake, I will say that justification deals with dead people. The spiritually dead cannot choose to obey God. An unregenerate man cannot regenerate himself, and what’s more, he doesn’t even want to: his will is enslaved to sin. He is passive, like a drowning-victim receiving CPR.
But in sanctification, we are not talking about dead people. We are talking about live people, converted people, born-again-through-Water-and-the-Word people. God has done something to us ontologically. He has given us hearts of flesh (cf. Ezek xxxvi, 26). To put it bluntly, we’re “saved.” Period. We cannot add to or augment our justification. To suggest otherwise is to affirm the cardinal heresy of Papism. No one here is doing that.
Because we are alive in sanctification, we are able to co-operate with the Holy Spirit. Because our wills have been freed, we are able to obey God’s commandments, which — to the New Man, at least — are not burdensome.
Go here to read the entire post. It’s lengthy but worth every minute spent on it.
It’s no secret that the HCSB is my favorite bible translation with respect to the its combination of translation equivalence with well-written English…with that in mind, however, I must admit to having a love affair with the ESV for over a decade now. It’s not that I absolutely love how it renders every verse into clear English–because sometimes it’s just plain difficult (though some of the worst passages have been markedly improved through the years). It’s not that it’s a sweeping update to the venerable and magnificent RSV–it’s a much-needed but rather minor one. It’s not even that I care about the ‘rock star’ endorsements it has garnered over the years–I had my first one pre-ordered in 2001 before anyone had ever really heard of the ESV and could care less about the endorsements (especially the neo-Calvinists, since I’m Lutheran [grin]).
So why do I love the ESV, use the it regularly, have multiple copies of multiple editions on my shelves,and suggest it to folks as a bible they should consider purchasing? Simple. Aside from being a solid translation in a field of good ones, Crossway is an awesome publisher. Seriously.
From before the first ESV was released, those involved in the project never hesitated to answer my emails and address my questions, concerns, etc. I was a lay-person then and a simple Air Force chaplain now–no one of consequence. Still they have always been responsive. Since then, Crossway has demonstrated an unparalleled loyalty to their clients–resulting in a myriad of incredible editions of the ESV that fill a lot of very specific niches even if they fail to sell zillions of copies each. Unlike any other bible publisher today, they have responded to requests for single-column bibles, heirloom quality bibles, Greek / Hebrew parallel bibles, the incredible Gospel Transformation Bible…you name it. And, in all honesty, I have most of these editions either in print or electronically. (The new Psalter that is coming out shortly looks absolutely gorgeous, in case you haven’t seen it, BTW.) You should go check out all they offer right here. These are very different page layouts taking tons of editorial time to create and produce, not merely a series of kitchy, bedazzled covers in all manner of cool colors slapped on a generic text block and cranked out as fast as possible to try to increase sales volumes.
I’ve contacted several other bible publishers through the years and asked about similar editions to those Crossway is putting out. The response has always been the same. Minimal marketability equals no support from corporate equals no luck. Nuts. I’ve always thought that was the wrong answer, and I still do. If Crossway (a non-profit) can routinely do it, you big boys can too. End of rant.
So anyway, all of this is to say simply this: Crossway, thanks for being awesome.
A loyal fan,
P.S.–they didn’t give me any free stuff to write this, just in case you were wondering if I’m a sellout!
Many are quick to label (informally) or diagnose (formally) military members struggling with the aftereffects of their service as suffering from PTSD. As a result, one of the major emphases of commanders (and consequently chaplains) is on resiliency. Resiliency, commonly understood, is the individual’s ability to ‘bounce back’ or ‘spring back’ after experiencing some traumatic experience. While resiliency is a logical approach to deal with PTSD, the current state of affairs with veteran suicides over the past several years at a sustained nearly-all-time-high leads me to believe that PTSD is not the entire problem and, therefore, resiliency training is not the complete solution.
We need to look beyond PTSD to find the real problem and right solution. My suggestion is that the root problem is not the psychological injury of traumatic stress but the moral injury suffered as a result of a never-before-seen level of lethality and efficiency in today’s combat operations. The feelings of guilt and horror suffered by today’s veterans are not primarily a reaction to traumatic stress but are the result of the primarily ethical and moral (over against psychological) problem of killing in combat. As a result of protective rules of engagement adopted to protect against IEDs, suicide bombers, etc. today’s fielded troops sometimes kill civilians who ‘broke the rules’ by approaching too closely, not yielding to shouted orders, or making gestures interpreted as threatening or hostile. Remotely piloted aircraft operators watch over potential targets from places of complete safety isolated from the combat zone, sometimes for days or weeks, before being given the order to shoot and kill an individual or group of people whose sole ‘problem’ was fitting a profile of behavior that our experts associate with terrorists.
Prior to our day, combat generally took place between uniformed armies in the field. Today’s military operations look nothing like those of the past. In a war where the enemy has no uniforms, every man, woman, and child is a potential enemy combatant and, hence, a potential target.
All too often, our soldiers come back physically wounded–sometimes beyond repair. At the same time, they often come back morally wounded–beyond the repair of PTSD-focused treatments and their amoral approach to traumatic stress.
Without exception, all our current combat operations fall outside of the bounds of what would historically be considered morally defensible according to the Just War tradition. While our citizenry seems uninformed about this reality and our politicians either live in a world of denial or vain self-interest, the reality of this moral judgement cannot and does not escape our warriors. Any combat, no matter how ‘just,’ will unavoidably result in at least some immoral actions. Today’s combat operations, however, are morally indefensible. And our soldiers, sailors, airmen, and marines–many of whom come to the military with deeply held religious convictions–cannot escape the resulting moral wounds.
Moral trauma requires moral treatment. Guilt without forgiveness continues to fester and hurt more and more over time. Left alone, time does not heal all wounds. The role of the chaplain today is more important than it has probably ever been. Healing from moral wounds comes not at the hands of a doctor, nor at the chair of the psychiatrist, but only through the words of absolution and pardon spoken by the chaplain in the name and in the stead of Christ Jesus.
(NOTE: This is a continuation of my thoughts from an earlier post.)
And they crucified him…
– Mark 15.23a (ESV)
Almighty and everlasting God, You willed that Your Son should bear for us the pains of the cross, that You might remove from us the power of the adversary: Help us to remember and give thanks for our Lord’s Passion that we may obtain remission of sin and redemption from everlasting death; through the sames, our Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
Prayer for Good Friday by Veit Dietrich (friend of Martin Luther), Evangelical Lutheran Hymnary
When you wish to go to the Lord’s Supper listen to the words spoken, and be assured that they contain the whole treasure on which you are to stand and rely, for they are really spoken to you. My body is given, my blood is shed, Christ declares. Why? Just for you to eat and drink? No; but for the remission of sins. This is what strikes you; and everything else that is done and said has no other purpose than that your sins may be forgiven. But if it is to serve for the forgiveness of sins, it must be able also to overcome death. For where sin is gone, there death is gone, and hell besides; where these are gone, all sorrow is gone and all blessedness has come.
– Martin Luther
O Lord, my heart is not lifted up;
my eyes are not raised too high;
I do not occupy myself with things
too great and too marvelous for me.
But I have calmed and quieted my soul,
like a weaned child with its mother;
like a weaned child is my soul within me.
O Israel, hope in the Lord
from this time forth and forevermore.
(Ps 131, ESV)
The most remarkable thing about the Pope is that what he is doing should not be remarkable. He is simply doing what Popes and Christians should do – care for the poor, critique inequity, interrupt injustice, surprise the world with grace, include the excluded and challenge the entitled.
– Shane Claiborne
Shane Claiborne strikes at the root of much of the clamor about Pope Francis (read the rest of his post here). Regardless of whether you agree with all of his theological positions (as a Lutheran, I honestly don’t), there is no looking past the fact that this Pope is almost daily engaging in exactly the sort of things Christ called us, as his followers, to engage in. It is a sad reflection on the state of Christianity that his actions are perceived as radical, remarkable, or anything other than ordinary. Woe to those of us on the right (vs left) side of the theological spectrum who spill much ink about all the things wrong with Pope Francis. We would do well, in Christian humility, to emulate the many things he is doing absolutely right.
It is plain that if Christ were powerless, He could not be expelling demons and despoiling idols, for the spirits would not have obeyed a powerless man. But if they are manifestly expelled by the naming of His name, it must be evident that He is not powerless. This especially true because spirits, seeing even what is unseen by men, could tell if Christ were powerless and refuse to obey Him at all. Now what unbelievers do not believe, the spirits see: namely, that He is God. Therefore, they fly and fall at His feet, saying just what they uttered when He was in body: ‘I know who You are—the Holy One of God’ (Luke 4:34), and, ‘What have You to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? I adjure You by God, do not torment me’ (Mark 5:7)
St. Athanasius, On the Incarnation, 32.4-5
Living solely by faith is a difficult way of life.
– Martin Luther
The Baptist had preached repentance, but it didn’t help. The Church has done the same for two thousand years, and it still doesn’t appear to have helped. It looks like other means are necessary to get people to listen. Shouldn’t we show others that we can do something really impressive? That’s a temptation that has pursued the Church throughout its history. Many times it’s been tempting for the Church to get politically involved or intervene in society in an effort to make an impression, create good will, gain sympathy, and win support.
–Bo Giertz, To Live With Christ
The Church is always tempted by the world to fall into the trap of relevance, felt needs, or some other buzzword to boost attendance and reach out to those around us. Much ink has been spilled and many dollars have changed hands in the name of church growth as pastors and congregations have chased after the next big thing to bring people in the door. Gun-infatuated Evangelicals in the Kentucky Southern Baptist Convention are even raffling off rifles as “a surefire way to get new people through church doors.” I wonder if the sermon title that evening was something to the tune of “Win a ‘piece’ from the Prince of Peace”?
Did we ever stop to think that being an ambassador for Christ (2 Cor 5.20) doesn’t necessitate that we behave like a perpetually-awkward teenage boy who hangs out with the older guys who tolerate him just as long as he’ll do their bidding?
If it isn’t efforts to boost numbers, Evangelicals also play the whore to the American political Right. We sell ourselves out, cheaply, in the name of conservative values, traditional family values, America’s God-fearing past, or some other righteous-sounding slogan to gain political clout and power in corrupt, worldly system. So much for rendering Caesar’s junk to Caesar.
Did it ever occur to us that being all things to all people (1 Cor 9.22) doesn’t require us to act like a desperate, ignored teenage girl who craves the affection of the jocks on the football team and thinks nothing is too slutty to gain their attention?
All these stunts are a sham, a gimmick, and a joke. They are the antithesis of everything the Church should be about. Seriously.
What did Christ give his Church to attract sinners? Word and Sacrament. Our real need is for forgiveness, so he gave us absolution in response to our confession. To satisfy the hunger of our souls, he gave us his body and blood as nourishment. It may appear that other means and methods are necessary to bring people to Christ, but this is a lie. We are the Bride of Christ. We ought to be seeking him instead of the approval of the world, because honestly, the latter only lasts as long as the girl is willing to put out or the boy is willing to do others’ dirty work.
Lord, have mercy.
God is loving to man, and loving in no small measure. For say not, ‘I have committed fornication and adultery: I have done dreadful things, and not once only, but often: will He forgive? Will He grant pardon?’
Hear what the Psalmist says: ‘How great is the multitude of Your goodness, O Lord!’
Your accumulated offenses surpass not the multitude of God’s mercies: your wounds surpass not the great Physician’s skill. Only give yourself up in faith: tell the Physician your ailment: say also, like David, ‘I said, I will confess me my sin unto the Lord,’ and the same shall be done in your case, which he says immediately, ‘And you forgave the wickedness of my heart.’
– St Cyril of Jerusalem, Second Catechetical Lecture
When I feel anxious about sin and hell, I remind myself that when I have Christ, I have all that is necessary. Neither death, sin, nor the devil can hurt me. If I believe in Christ, I have fulfilled the law; it cannot accuse me. I have conquered hell; it cannot hold me. Everything the Christ has is mine. Though him, we obtain all his possessions and eternal life. Even if I am weak in faith, I still have the same treasure and the same Christ that others have. There’s no difference: we are all made perfect through faith in him, not by what we do.
– Martin Luther
The Spirit of the Lord God is on Me,
because the Lord has anointed Me
to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent Me to heal the brokenhearted,
to proclaim liberty to the captives
and freedom to the prisoners;
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor,
and the day of our God’s vengeance;
to comfort all who mourn,
to provide for those who mourn in Zion;
to give them a crown of beauty instead of ashes,
festive oil instead of mourning,
and splendid clothes instead of despair.
And they will be called righteous trees,
planted by the Lord
to glorify Him.
I greatly rejoice in the Lord,
I exult in my God;
for He has clothed me with the garments of salvation
and wrapped me in a robe of righteousness,
as a groom wears a turban
and as a bride adorns herself with her jewels.
For as the earth produces its growth,
and as a garden enables what is sown to spring up,
so the Lord God will cause righteousness and praise
to spring up before all the nations. (Isaiah 61.1-3, 10-11, HCSB)
What is this good news to the poor and brokenhearted; to the captives and imprisoned? Quit simply this: that God in Christ Jesus has clothed us ‘with the garments of salvation’ and a ‘robe of righteousness.’
This is not our doing, for we continually fall short. This is not our work, for our deeds are routinely sinful. No, instead ‘the Lord God will cause righteousness and praise to spring up’ where before our lives and works were barren and self-centered. This is God’s work of grace, freely given us on behalf and as a result of the Beloved.
In Christ our unrighteousness and sin is covered by his righteous perfection. Those sins and scars, no less real, are no more revealed and no more remembered. We are spotless, without blemish–beloved of God our Father.
How can we grasp so great a gift? Solely by faith.
But these truths are intangible and hidden, whereas the effects of my sin are tangible and ever before me! Take comfort. In the sacrament of the altar, God has–again in his mercy–given us something tangible upon which our weak faith can cling.
Hear the words of absolution.
See, touch, smell, and taste the bread and the wine.
Let all of your senses experience the promise of forgiveness in the body and blood of Christ.
Taste and see that the Lord is good.
War is messy. It is a mess of dirt, sweat, blood, gunpowder, rubble, tears, death, and destruction unparalleled by anything else that comes about by the brute force of humanity.
Those affected by war as either its practitioners or its victims get this mess on their bodies, their lives, and their souls. Shrapnel tears through them physically with just as much power as their experiences tear through them spiritually. Its scars on our bodies and souls seem permanent. Unchanging. Indelible. Those scars may heal in time, they may lighten–better but never quite forgotten, or they may remain raw and painful. The holds true for the physical scars as well as the spiritual ones.
It has become routine to treat those spiritual scars under the umbrella of PTSD instead of what they really are, moral wounds or moral trauma. Describing trauma as ‘moral’ necessitates a judgment of right or wrong, good or bad, righteous or sinful. The trouble is, our society with its steady prescription of moral relativism is unable to cope with the objectivity required by this sort of judgment. As a result, our warriors go untreated. Our soldiers, sailors, airmen, and marines are subjected to an ineffective regime of cognitive behavior therapy that might treat some of the symptoms but fails to offer a cure. As necessary as these therapies are for coping with PTSD, they focus primarily on desensitization, not complete healing. No amount of Cognitive Processing Therapy can heal a wounded soul. No number of sessions of Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing can restore a broken spirit. No dose of medication can regenerate a wounded conscious.
There is true healing for moral trauma. True restoration is possible. True hope is available.
Nearly 3,000 years ago the Prophet Isaiah declared:
I am overwhelmed with joy in the Lord my God!
For he has dressed me with the clothing of salvation
and draped me in a robe of righteousness.
I am like a bridegroom in his wedding suit
or a bride with her jewels.
(Isaiah 61.10, NLT)
Two millennia ago, the Apostle Paul wrote:
For you are all children of God through faith in Christ Jesus. And all who have been united with Christ in baptism have put on Christ, like putting on new clothes. (Gal 3.26-27, NLT)
True healing is found in Christ Jesus. In baptism, we are clothed in his righteousness, which covers us in his perfection. In him are we dressed with the ‘clothing of salvation’ and a ‘robe of righteousness’ which covers the stain, hurt, and mess of our own sin and experiences. All of them. Even war.
This prescription is not a ‘take two and call me in the morning’ sort of regimen. It is not an overnight cure free of struggle or pain. It is a long, hard road to recover from such wounds. But it is the path to true recovery and healing.
This Sunday, January 12th, the church celebrates the baptism of Christ. This event is recorded in all four Gospels, which clearly points to its importance. Matthew’s account is given as the reading for this Sunday:
Then Jesus went from Galilee to the Jordan River to be baptized by John. But John tried to talk him out of it. “I am the one who needs to be baptized by you,” he said, “so why are you coming to me?” But Jesus said, “It should be done, for we must carry out all that God requires.” So John agreed to baptize him.
After his baptism, as Jesus came up out of the water, the heavens were opened and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and settling on him. And a voice from heaven said, “This is my dearly loved Son, who brings me great joy.”
– Matthew 3.13-17 (NLT)
This passage is anything but unfamiliar to us, but what exactly does it mean? What is the point? Why was Jesus–the sinless Lamb of God–baptized? Whether one understands baptism as God’s work of grace (e.g., Lutherans, Orthodox, Catholics, Anglicans, etc.) or our own work of obedience (e.g. Baptists and other Evangelicals) makes no difference. That Jesus was baptized can be just plain confusing, especially if we get wrapped around the axle about Jesus’ baptism to ‘fulfill all righteousness’ or ‘carry out all that God requires.’
There are two facets to Jesus’ baptism for us to consider. First, he was baptized as an example for all of those who would follow him. Baptism is our visible entry to Christ’s Church. As Christ was baptized, so we also are to be baptized. As Luther pointed out:
Christ is baptized, not in order to be made righteous—for He is the Son of God and endowed with eternal righteousness so that we may be made righteous through Him—but as an example, so to speak, for us, in order that He may precede us and we may follow His example and also be baptized.
– LW 3:87
This is perhaps the more obvious reason Jesus was baptized, but it is not nearly the more important.
Jesus was also baptized not only to serve as our example, but to become one of us sinners. Clearly, Jesus did not become a sinner in actuality. He never sinned. But he became a sinner by association–in nearly every part of his life–beginning with his taking on humanity and ending with his death and resurrection. By descending into the waters of baptism, Jesus points out that he is like us, he is with us, he is us. Again, Luther:
He was entering into our stead, indeed, our person, that is, becoming a sinner for us, taking upon himself the sins which he had not committed, and wiping them out and drowning them in his holy baptism. And that he did this in accord with the will of God, the heavenly Father, who cast all our sins upon him that he might bear them and not only cleanse us from them through his baptism and make satisfaction for them on the Cross, but also clothe as in his holiness and adorn us with his innocence.
– LW 51:315
By becoming one of us, Jesus made possible what Luther called the ‘joyous exchange’–exchanging his righteousness for our ungodliness and vice versa. In his baptism, Christ takes on the sin of the world and drowns it in the waters–an act completed for us on the cross. And in return, instead of death and condemnation, which we deserve, we are clothed with the perfect righteousness of Christ.
This he did; he took the sin of the whole world upon himself; he became a curse for us, and thus redeemed from the curse all those who believe in him.
Let us joyously celebrate Christ’s baptism as we remember our own and take heart in the knowledge that in it, we are united with Christ and shall live forever. Amen.
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How do we come to know God?
- through philosophy
- through nature
- through the lens of the Old Testament
- through reason
- through religion
- through (fill in the blank)
All of the starting places are wrong, because in each of them does God is at least partly concealed. Our starting point for coming to know God must be in Christ Jesus. In him alone are the mysteries of God clearly revealed.
As the blog, The Orthodox Life points out:
Jesus should not be treated as the endpoint to our chain of reasoning about God.
Meet Him first.
Learn from Him how God thinks, behaves, and loves.
See His gentleness, see His firmness, see His compassion.
See Him healing, see Him bringing freedom, see Him weeping.
See Him humble Himself to the point of death,
stretching out his bloody arms on the wood of the cross,
for your salvation and mine,
and then confess,
“This is God.”
Please read the rest here.
After posting this quote from Bonhoeffer, I couldn’t keep it from running around in my mind:
We are so afraid of silence that we chase ourselves from one event to the next in order not to have to spend a moment alone with ourselves, in order not to have to look at ourselves in the mirror.
– Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Meditating on the Word
What was true in Bonhoeffer’s day is infinitely more true in our American society today. Walking around the office or on the street, it’s rare to spy someone who isn’t on the phone, listening to music, or talking to somebody else. At people’s houses I often notice they leave televisions on when no one is actively watching–my children are as guilty of this as anyone–leaving the TV on while doing something else. And when was the last time you drove anywhere without the radio in your vehicle?
We surround ourselves with noise, even noise just for noise’s sake.
We can’t stand silence, even for a few moments…much to our detriment.
As Bonhoeffer points out, silence often begets introspection–something we tend to avoid in our superstar-obsessed society that demands we always look and act perfect no matter how far this diverges from reality. Christians are no better than secular society here, unfortunately. Somewhere along the line even Evangelical culture became obsessed with putting on a veneer of perfection no matter our true condition. Jesus had a term for this sort of thing–’white-washed tombs.’ Looking at ourselves and our souls in the mirror is an idea we simply cannot stand, because such an exercise necessitates admitting our flaws, weaknesses, imperfections, and sin. Our culture–even our Christian subculture–will have nothing of the sort because we are consumed with showing our (apparent) perfection, (seeming) success, and (the facade) of never-ending happiness.
Silence also begets waiting–also something we dislike in our society. We wait for nothing, even though those things that are most truly satisfying are often gained through patient waiting. Waiting, especially a Christian form of waiting, can take many forms: prayer, fasting, and contemplation to name a few. As a rule, Evangelical Christians have a pretty poor track record of these sorts of disciplines. We dismiss them as ascetic, outmoded, or legalistic. Perhaps we commit an even worse foul and write them off as “Catholic” (or “Orthodox”) and then fail to give them a second thought.
Here’s a hard truth. Silence, and its subsequent introspection and waiting, forms an integral part of the biblical witness and nearly 2,000 years of Christian practice. As uncomfortable as this reality might be to our culture of the instantaneous, we are much the poorer for our neglect.
Create silence. Take fifteen minutes–or ten, or five, or even one if that’s all you can bear at first–and be silent. Be silent before the mirror of God’s law and your own introspection. Wait patiently for God. Use this time to “draw near to God, and he will draw near to you.” (Jas 4.8, ESV)
We are so afraid of silence that we chase ourselves from one event to the next in order not to have to spend a moment alone with ourselves, in order not to have to look at ourselves in the mirror.
– Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Meditating on the Word
American Christianity–especially American Evangelicalism–has a love affair with war, guns, ‘freedom,’ and the military. Christians in America are historically very supportive of our military, our various interventions around the globe, and all things pro-gun-related. This support is manifested in Evangelicals’ love for patriotic church services, their admiration and gratitude for those in the Armed Forces, their consistent support of hawkish political leaders, and their outspoken support of the NRA and other Second Amendment groups.
All this may sound great, but there’s a problem. The more I have traveled around the globe and interacted with Christians in other nations; however, the more I have consistently and sincerely been asked, “Why?”
Christians in other places around the world are not nearly so infatuated with war, guns, and violence (political or personal). In fact, many of them loathe such things and cannot fathom why American Christians believe and act like we do. They believe that war is antithetical to Christianity, that violence begets violence, and that “all who take the sword will perish by the sword” (Mt 26.52, ESV). In short, their views are much the opposite of our own.
How can this be?
I think the answer lies more in the theology of American Exceptionalism than it does in the pages of Scripture. In his famous sermon, A Model of Christian Charity, Puritan John Winthrop first proclaimed the notion that America was somehow different, unique, and under the special watch care of God. While still on the seas from England, he taught his fellow passengers:
God Almighty, in his most holy and wise providence, has so disposed of the condition of’ mankind, as in all times some must be rich, some poor; some high and eminent in power and dignity; others mean and in submission…
From this beginning, Winthrop went on to encourage his shipmates in ways they might practically take care of one another, provide for one another, and forgive one another that their great journey of faith might be a successful one. Their success was important, because the world was watching, just as Egypt was watching Moses and the Hebrews when they were taken out to the wilderness:
We must consider that we shall be as a city upon a hill. The eyes of all people are upon us. So that if we shall deal falsely with our God in this work we have undertaken, and so cause him to withdraw his present help from us, we shall be made a story and a by-word through the world. We shall open the mouths of enemies to speak evil of the ways of God, and all professors for God’s sake. We shall shame the faces of many of God’s worthy servants, and cause their prayers to be turned into curses upon us till we be consumed out of the good land whither we are a going.
Winthrop’s idea of America as occupier of a special place in the heart and plan of God runs deep in the American DNA. Jesus’ phrase about the ‘city on a hill’ has been invoked by Presidents Wilson, Kennedy, Clinton, Reagan, Bush (43), and Obama as evidence of America’s uniqueness in the world. And what is popular in the secular realm of politics is even more strongly emphasized and believed in American Evangelical churches, where American biblical heritage and our direct blessing by God are routine talking points–especially in election years.
With this in mind, doesn’t it only make sense that American Christians would believe and act the way they do? If America is indeed specially blessed and endowed by God as rich and powerful, doesn’t that translate into enforcing our version of liberty and justice for all around the world? If America’s heritage has been enabled (dare I say guaranteed) by its indelible roots in faith, family, and guns (a la Duck Dynasty), doesn’t a faithful Christian family need that same American trinity? If America’s foreign policy is deeply influenced by Christian ethicist Richard Land and those of his ilk, who single-handedly redefined the Just War tradition to include pre-emptive wars, isn’t America’s warmongering heritage morally defensible?
No. No. No. And NO!
America is a great nation. There is nowhere I’d rather live. But we are far from perfect. American Christians, my brothers and sisters in Christ, it’s time to seriously rethink some things many of us take for granted as right, reasonable, and true. Our views on these things conflict with those of our brothers and sisters around the world. More than this, our views conflict with those taught by our Lord Jesus whom we claim to follow above all else.
Kyrie eleison. Christe eleison. Kyrie eleison.
justifiedandsinner has some remarkable thoughts on luxury, simplicity, and our idols to ring in the new year. They are hard words to read but ones we must nonetheless take to heart:
The Gospel that talks of our being freed from idolatry, as we are united with Christ, as we walk with Him. As we put things into an eternal perspective and we don’t cling to that which can be destroyed, When we realize that freed from such economic idols, we can show love to those who are our neighbors, without evaluating the economic impact on us and our family. The gospel that exchanges false gods for a God who comes to us, setting aside His riches, because of the love He has for us, who were not part of His family, but now are.
Such a detachment isn’t easy, we like being comfortable, we enjoy our flat screens and cars, we like seeing the work of hands rewarded with accomplishments and being assured that everything will be there. But now we are going back to valuing an idol more than a real God. It’s hard for me, even as I write this, to not hear it speaking to me. To find oneself detached from things, and freer to love and to care and to serve. Able to use the resources God gives us, for that which would being Him glory, as we live like Christ. It doesn’t change our work ethic, in fact, knowing we can help others may drive us to work harder, sacrificing more as we see the eternal rewards of people coming to know God’s love. It is a higher calling a higher purpose, a reason to invest ourselves in, this detachment that frees us from idols, and helps us imitate Christ as we find ourselves putting others before ourselves.
I encourage you to read the rest here.
At that time the Roman emperor, Augustus, decreed that a census should be taken throughout the Roman Empire. (This was the first census taken when Quirinius was governor of Syria.) All returned to their own ancestral towns to register for this census. And because Joseph was a descendant of King David, he had to go to Bethlehem in Judea, David’s ancient home. He traveled there from the village of Nazareth in Galilee. He took with him Mary, his fiancée, who was now obviously pregnant. And while they were there, the time came for her baby to be born. She gave birth to her first child, a son. She wrapped him snugly in strips of cloth and laid him in a manger, because there was no lodging available for them.
That night there were shepherds staying in the fields nearby, guarding their flocks of sheep. Suddenly, an angel of the Lord appeared among them, and the radiance of the Lord’s glory surrounded them. They were terrified, but the angel reassured them. “Don’t be afraid!” he said. “I bring you good news that will bring great joy to all people. The Savior – yes, the Messiah, the Lord – has been born today in Bethlehem, the city of David! And you will recognize him by this sign: You will find a baby wrapped snugly in strips of cloth, lying in a manger.” Suddenly, the angel was joined by a vast host of others – the armies of heaven – praising God and saying,
“Glory to God in highest heaven,
and peace on earth to those with whom God is pleased.”
O God, You make this most holy night to shine with the brightness of the true Light. Grant that as we have known the mysteries of that Light on earth we may also come to the fullness of His joys in heaven; through the same Jesus Christ, Your Son, our Lord, who lives and reigns with You and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.
(Lutheran Service Book)
Two high-profile events events occurring within a week of one another demonstrate an utter lack of contemporary American Christianity’s ability to grasp the whole of scripture and get beyond the culture-war-focused, civic religion that passes for authentic faith is so many conservative American congregations.
Unless you live under a rock, you are well aware of the controversial comments Duck Dynasty’s Phil Robertson made about homosexuality during a recent article for GQ magazine. He was subsequently suspended indefinitely (and potentially ‘un-suspended’ depending on what news you read). The ensuing cacophony from the left–about Robertson’s intolerance–and the right–about free speech and the left’s intolerance–has filled my news reader and my wife’s Facebook feed ever since. High-profile conservative Christians are supporting his stance for traditional values in the press. Lower-profile bloggers are echoing the same all over the blogosphere. No surprises.
My thoughts? I agree that homosexuality is sinful–you really have to do some scripture twisting to get around that. Robertson has an American right to say what he thinks about that subject or any other. Should he expect to be warmly welcomed by the masses or retained by a secular employer for saying such things? Of course not–the bible is pretty plain about that too. Why are Christians all up in arms over this? Isn’t this exactly the reaction you’d expect from a secular employer and secular media in a secular nation? If not, please explain.
A few days earlier, a US drone attack in Yemen mistook a wedding party for an al-Qaida convoy and killed 14-17 civilians while injuring almost two dozen more. These folks were all non-combatants whose lives were wrongly taken or forever affected by a US foreign policy that operates with questionable tactics and carries out military attacks in nations against whom we are not at war (see my dissertation on the subject here in case you’re not paying attention). What has been the reaction from the same very-vocal Christian masses about this event? Crickets. Nothing. Nada. Silence.
Tell me, fellow Christians, why is that? Isn’t the bible clear on its teaching about murder? Doesn’t this same sacred text that speaks against homosexuality as sinful devote a whole lot more space to issues of justice? Shouldn’t Christians be much more outraged by the death of nearly a dozen and a half people than the job prospects of one person in Louisiana? Are we so blinded by unquestioning patriotism that we fail to stand up for injustices committed by our own hands? Where is our reaction? Why the deafening stillness?
Perhaps it is our outrage over the former and shocking silence over the latter that has contributed to Christianity’s perceived irrelevance in contemporary society. Perhaps if we quit squawking ceaselessly about our token pet issues and took a strong stand against issues of greater importance, Christians might be taken a bit more seriously. Perhaps we should stop singing “Proud to be an American” in worship services and develop a faith that was rooted more firmly on Christ and not as myopic, self-centered, and blindly-nationalistic as much of our contemporary American faith.
Perhaps…no, not perhaps, with absolute certainty, Christ would be better served if we truly understood and cared about the whole of scripture and not routinely neglect matters of justice, mercy, and faithfulness.
Just my thoughts. Rant concluded.
Where reason is indignant, where our nature rebels, where our piety anxiously keeps us away: that is precisely where God loves to be. There he confounds the reason of the reasonable; there he aggravates our nature, our piety–that is where he wants to be, and no one can keep him from it. Only the humble believe him and rejoice that God is so free and so marvelous that he does wonders where people despair, that he takes what is little and lowly and makes it marvelous. And that is the wonder of all wonders, that God loves the lowly…God is not ashamed of the lowliness of human beings. God marches right in. He chooses people as his instruments and performs his wonders where one would least expect them. God is near to lowliness; he loves the lost, the neglected, the unseemly, the excluded, the weak and broken.
This single paragraph by Bonhoeffer contains so many deep truths about God, it requires reading slowly, thoughtfully, and more than once. In it, hope is born of the ashes of anguish; self-righteousness is destroyed; arrogance is dashed on the rocks of humility; and everything our culture trumpets about what we ought to be and whom we ought to honor is proven false.
Bonhoeffer’s words drip with the sweet truths of the Gospel. In the midst of our brokenness, God is for us. In the midst of our loneliness, God is with us. In the mist of our weakness, God is our strength. In the midst of our rejection, God loves us.
To the proud and self-exalted, these words are senseless. To those who ‘have it all together,’ such talk is foolishness. To the rest of us, however, these words are a balm to the soul.
Praise the Lord!
For he has heard my cry for mercy.
The Lord is my strength and shield.
I trust him with all my heart.
He helps me, and my heart is filled with joy.
I burst out in songs of thanksgiving. (Ps 28.6-7, NLT)
Part of the wonder of Advent is meditating on the mystery of our God…or perhaps I should say, our mysterious God. As much as the systematic theologians want to smooth out all the wrinkles of Scripture and theology to present us a God who is tidy, neatly-packaged, and predictable, God will have nothing of it. In reality, if we’re honest, Scripture is not so easily handled and God is not always so easily understood.
The whole revelation of the bible presents us with a God who makes a habit of acting quite differently than we might expect. God likes to choose the younger over the older, the unfortunate over the privileged, the poor over the wealthy, the unlearned over the scholar, the despised over the celebrity…again and again he does this. As Bonhoeffer points out:
God travels wonderful ways with human beings, but he does not comply with the views and opinions of people. God does not go the way that people want to prescribe for him; rather, his way is beyond all comprehension, free and self-determined beyond all proof.
Perhaps the ultimate theological curve ball God throws us is the incarnation, Christ’s taking on of humanity, deity becoming humanity. As if this weren’t enough of a theological problem, this whole business is compounded by God’s decision to be born in an out of the way village, not the cultural center of the Mediterranean. He comes as a son born to an unwed mother and lowly carpenter, not as royalty or celebrity. He is born among sleeping livestock, not in a palatial or even well-decorated nursery. God calls attention to this most incredible miracle by announcing it to shepherds, not to theologians or mega-church pastors or best-selling authors.
In other words, in the eyes of the world (and maybe quite a few of his own people) God gets it all wrong…again. Yet in actuality, in his own mysterious way, God of course gets everything exactly right. In Eugene Peterson’s words:
The wonder [of Christmas] keeps us open-eyed, expectant, alive to life that is always more than we can account for, that always exceeds our calculations, that is always beyond anything we can make.
Keep the wonder alive. Look for the unexpected. Revel in the mystery and glory of God.
Merciful God, who sent thy messengers the prophets to preach repentance and prepare the way for our salvation: Give us grace to heed their warnings and forsake our sins, that we may greet with joy the coming of Jesus Christ our Redeemer; who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.
Prayer for the Second Sunday in Advent, Book of Common Prayer
Stir up our hearts, O Lord, to make ready the way of Your only begotten Son, that by His coming we may be enabled to serve You with pure minds; through the same Jesus Christ, our Lord, who lives and reigns with You and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.
Prayer for the Second Sunday in Advent, Lutheran Service Book
Advent has no place for the satisfied, because Advent is all about waiting.
Should we find ourselves satisfied with the status quo of our faith and the world, it is more than our observance of Advent that needs examination. We ought to step back and examine our very faith itself. After all, the faith that is pleasing to God is an unsatisfied faith. It is a faith that yearns to find completion.
God blesses you who are poor,
for the Kingdom of God is yours.
God blesses you who are hungry now,
for you will be satisfied.
God blesses you weep now,
for in due time you will laugh… 1
…and on the contrary…
What sorrow awaits you who are rich,
for you have your only happiness now.
What sorrow awaits you who are faith and prosperous now,
for a time of awful hunger awaits you.
What sorry awaits you who laugh now,
for your laughing will turn to mourning and sorrow.
What sorry awaits you who are praised by the crowds,
for their ancestors also praised false prophets 2
Those who are blessed of God are those who are poor, hungry, and mournful. While we may find contentment in our physical circumstances (cf. Phil 4.11), we must never be satisfied with our spiritual condition. We must never be satisfied with the way things are in this world. We are waiting, expectantly I trust, for Christ’s return, the new heavens and new earth, and eternity in the tangible presence of God. Things are not as they should be right now. Things are not as they will ultimately be.
So we wait. Content with our physical condition but never content with our spiritual condition–always looking forward with anticipation to the realized blessings of Immanuel, God with us, at his return.
Advent can be celebrated only by those whose souls give them no peace, who know that they are poor and incomplete, and who sense something of the greatness that is supposed to come, before which they can only bow in humble timidity, waiting until he inclines himself toward us–the Holy One himself, God in the child in the manger. God is coming; the Lord Jesus is coming; Christmas is coming. Rejoice, O Christendom! 3
No matter where you live in the northern hemisphere, the routine of Autumn has set in, the weather is growing colder, and the days are growing shorter. The cycle of school is firmly in place. The hectic pace of our vocations in the midst of holidays makes causes many to put their noses to the proverbial grindstones and press forward to accomplish everything necessary before the workplace doldrums of Christmas and New Year’s weeks arrive. Even as we prepare for Christmas, many of us are so busy with self-imposed obligations that we give hardly more than a passing thought to spiritual things.
Advent won’t let us off so easy, however.
The season of Advent calls us to wake up and be aware of the presence of God in our lives and our world. 1
Instead of being consumed by the ever-increasing pace of contemporary life, we Christians are called–perhaps paradoxically–to slow down. Advent is a new beginning. It is a time to shake off the habitual rhythms of busyness and begin again a lifestyle of deliberate focus on Christ and our lives in him. This is more than a call to nostalgic simplicity of days gone by, it is a matter of spiritual life and death. For in our daily hustle and bustle, we tend to develop an unhealthy self-reliance
When [we think we can do things on our own] God becomes remote and even absent from our lives. We may go for days without any sense of God, without recourse to prayer, or without concern to hear God speak to us through his Word. 2
Such self-reliance becomes spiritually deadly in its slow, unnoticeable withdrawal from our source of life: our Triune God and the very means he has established to create, sustain, and nourish our faith, the Word and Sacrament.
Slow down. Pause. Reflect. Wonder. Listen. Re-connect. Wake up to the presence of God.
Advent is a season of expectant waiting. We are masters of anticipation–just look at the weeks of hype about ‘Black Friday’–but we are complete failures at waiting. In a society where everything happens immediately, we have regrettably forgotten how to wait.
Celebrating Advent means being able to wait. Waiting is an art that our impatient age has forgotten.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote those words 60 years ago. By the standards of many, 60 years seems like an eternity ago. We would consider it a given that those were much slower times than today, the sort of age that the elders among us look back fondly upon as ‘the good old days’ when the pace of life wasn’t nearly as hectic as now. If Bonhoeffer thought that people had forgotten how to wait in 1943, he would definitely be dizzied by the pace of today’s world.
Whoever does not know the austere blessedness of waiting–that is, of hopefully doing without–will never experience the full blessing of fulfillment.
Those words really hit the proverbial nail on the head, don’t they? We are rarely, if ever, fulfilled. Thoughtful Christians recognize that fact. Secular society recognizes this reality. The suggestion that waiting enables fulfillment, however, escapes us. The notion that without waiting we will never find fulfillment is completely foreign to us, but if we can remember back to a time when our wants were not immediately satiated, we know it is also completely true.
For the greatest, most profound, tenderest things in the world, we must wait.
This Advent, let us wait expectantly and patiently.
Let us re-learn the art of waiting that we might be truly fulfilled.
“Come, Lord Jesus,” we pray, “and illumine our darkness by your light.”
Almighty God, give us grace that we may cast away the works of darkness, and put upon us the armor of light, now in the time of this mortal life in which thy Son Jesus Christ came to visit us in great humility; that in the last day, when he shall come again in his glorious majesty to judge both the quick and the dead, we may rise to the life immortal; through him who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Ghost, one God, now and for ever. Amen.
Prayer for the First Sunday in Advent, Book of Common Prayer
Stir up Your power, O Lord, and come, that by Your protection we may be rescued from the threatening perils of our sins and saved by Your mighty deliverance; for You live and reign with the Father and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.
Prayer for the First Sunday in Advent, Lutheran Service Book
This is a brilliant piece that not only presents a sound scriptural argument for not engaging in the endless theological debates so prevalent on the web but also reminds of where our theology and praxis are to be primarily developed and incubated–the local parish.
A Word to Christian Internet Debaters
It is an increasing reality that many Christians, especially younger ones, are regularly engaging in theological debate (and occasionally discussion) through blogs, Facebook pages, forums, and other internet-based contexts. While there are many benefits to the internet, such as dissemination of otherwise unavailable materials, communicating with those who are far away, and gleaning from the wisdom, experience, and thoughts of others, there is much danger.
One of the dangers of the internet, thinking specifically of Christians and theology, is that there is little to no accountability placed on the individual in relation to his local church. Anyone can argue any point, pursue any theological trend, make any theological accusation, pick and choose any theological view, and all without the oversight of the elders to whom those individuals have professed to be in submission (assuming biblical church membership and leadership).
A quick glance at church websites in my area that preach topical sermon series yields a breadth of fascinating topics:
- life lessons from Jonah
- character study of Obadiah
- lessons on love from Ruth
- the power we get through conversion
- studies on family
- God’s teaching on sex
- lessons on confidence from 2 Corinthians
- and so on…
As interesting as these topics are, the Gospel is nowhere to be found in any of them.
It sounds harsh to suggest that among Evangelical churches, supposedly known for their voracious adherence to the ‘good news,’ but there is nothing here but Law. Whoa, wait, hold it! Law…Gospel…what in the world am I talking about? In a nutshell, I mean simply this:
All Scripture is either Law or Gospel. That is, either a it is God’s Law speaking to us, telling us what to do and what not to do, or it is God’s Gospel telling us what God has done for us through Jesus Christ.
The Law may be characterized as ALWAYS telling its listeners what TO DO and what NOT TO DO. The Gospel may be characterized as always telling its listeners WHAT GOD HAS DONE for them in Christ Jesus. (from Lutheran Wiktionary)
Does my accusation make sense now? These sermons, as well-intended as they all are, consist of little more than lists of do’s and don’ts. Implicit in this sort of American Evangelical preaching is the notion that if we can only live up to God’s expectations for us, he will bless us. If we don’t, he will curse us. This is not biblical Christianity, it is moralism.
More importantly, it is not the Gospel.
Now don’t get me wrong, there is a time and place for the Law in the life of every believer. It is essential for us to hear the Law and to remind us of God’s moral, ethical, and behavioral expectations. Arrogant, self-confident believers especially need to hear the Law and be reminded of our absolute dependence upon Christ. But–and this is a big but, I cannot lie–if this is the only preaching believers hear, they are missing out of the essence of the Gospel, Christ’s work for us. Unfortunately, based on the lists of sermon series at the church websites I visited, these folks are getting all Law and no Gospel.
Here’s the real problem. Those whose lives are filled with pain, marked by uncertainty, overwhelmed by guilt, or crushed by their own sinfulness need desperately to hear the Gospel. They need to be reminded of about Immanuel–that God is with us. They need to hear the ‘good news’ that God in Christ has done absolutely everything to secure our salvation. They need to know that God is for us. The last thing they need to hear is demand after demand after demand. The need to experience and rest in the unconditional love of God in Christ Jesus.
Fellow pastors, you must preach the Law…but you must also continually nourish God’s flock entrusted to your care with the Gospel.
Tragedies are all around us. It doesn’t take more than a quick glance at the news to recognize the reality of devastation and its inevitability in our own lives. In times of tragedy, one of the first words that often finds itself on our lips is, “Why?” In the moment, it is usually a cry of desperation as we try to wrap our minds around the loss we have just witnessed. After the initial shock of things, however, that question can become one of deep philosophical and theological meaning as we try to reconcile events with what we know and believe about life, humanity, and God.
This weekend, I was reading Acts 12 and noticed something fascinating. In the beginning of that chapter, we read:
About that time King Herod Agrippa began to persecute some believers in the church. He had the apostle James (John’s brother) killed with a sword. (Acts 12.1-2, NLT)
In the very next verse, Herod has Peter arrested and intends on similarly putting him to death. This time, however, the outcome is very different. Peter is miraculously rescued from his captor by an angel, resulting in his startled confession:
The Lord has sent his angel and saved me from Herod and from what the Jewish leaders had planned to do to me! (Acts 12.11, NLT)
Why did the Lord supernaturally intervene in Peter’s life but not James? Were not both apostles? Were not both deeply involved in the life of the infant church? Were not both (insert question here)?
Here’s the startling thing, for me at least. Luke neither asks nor speculates why. Nor does anyone else in his account.
Does this suggest that no one in the church asked why? I doubt it. Such a question is only natural. But, for the Christian, such a question is ultimately a distraction. Even in the midst of great suffering, pain, and sorrow, the question of why is never answered in Scripture–read Job if you don’t believe me.
And so, that question is the wrong question to ask. Instead of asking, “Why did God allow this suffering to take place?” the proper question to ask is, “What has God done about this great suffering?” The answer to that question, of course, is found in Christ.
In Christ, evil is finally conquered. In Christ, pain is completely soothed. In Christ, suffering is ultimately comforted.
Adding three children to our family through adoption has been one of the biggest blessings our family has ever enjoyed. Sound cliche? I know. It is also absolutely true. So are many of the other things you hear about adoption:
- it can take a long time
- it is an adventure of a lifetime
- the bureaucracy (especially of foreign adoptions) can be exceedingly frustrating
- it demands patience like nothing else
- it is often expensive
- it is absolutely worth it
One thing you rarely, if ever, hear about adoption is this: adoption always involves pain.
For all the blessings it brings, adoption always involves pain because it always involves loss. Loss of a parent or parents. Loss of a family, immediate and extended. Loss of relationships. Loss of a culture (in international adoptions). Loss of a heritage.
All of those losses are eventually fulfilled within the adoptive family, as children are grafted into and become part of their new family, but none of them are ever completely replaced. This is obviously most true of children who are adopted when they are old enough to have memories of their birth families. It is also true of those adopted when they are too young to remember, because somewhere there are families with voids in them.
I write this not to discourage adoption or adoptive families. On the contrary, you know what tremendous God-given gifts are present during and after the adoption process! I write this that we might be mindful of the whole reality of adoption, not just the sugar-coated version we are likely to see depicted on TV or the web.
Like so many other blessings we experience and enjoy, in adoption joy and wholeness come through brokenness and pain.
In times of trouble, may the LORD answer your cry.
May the name of the God of Jacob keep you safe from all harm.
May he send you help from his sanctuary
and strengthen you from Jerusalem.
May he remember all your gifts
and look favorably on your burnt offerings.
May he grant you your heart’s desires
and make all your plans succeed.
May we shout for joy when we hear of your victory
and raise a victory banner in the name of our God.
May the LORD answer all your prayers.
Psalm 20.1-5, NLT
All too often that is our human response to the notion that God conveys grace through means like the sacraments. Perhaps, in America, we are too steeped in a Christianity influenced heavily by a Zwinglian flavor of Reformed thought or an overly-sensationalized, Pentecostal television ministries. Perhaps, in 2013, we are too intellectually-sophisticated to believe that God would choose to work through things as mundane as water, bread, and wine.
Such struggles are not new. Tertullian wrote about the human tendency to expect God to work only in the spectacular in the second and third century. In his work, On Baptism, he wrote:
There is absolutely nothing which makes men’s minds more obdurate than the simplicity of the divine works which are visible in the act, when compared with the grandeur which is promised thereto in the effect; so that from the very fact, that with so great simplicity, without pomp, without any considerable novelty of preparation, finally, without expense, a man is dipped in water, and amid the utterance of some few words, is sprinkled, and then rises again, not much (or not at all) the cleaner, the consequent attainment of eternity is esteemed the more incredible.
Some things never change, do they? Neither our tendency toward disbelief…nor God’s condescension to lavish his grace upon us plainly and wonderfully.
To point out that the hours and days ahead are precarious for America’s political and financial systems is to point out the obvious. At times when disaster seemingly looms just around the corner, interest in politics blossoms, and nearly everyone with a keyboard and a political opinion feels the obligation to weigh in on this or that. The talking heads are droning on in their predictable choruses. The left and right are simultaneously blaming each other while taking credit for any bright spots of hope that may appear.
Christians all across America, professedly polarizing in their politics on days when nothing important appears on the political landscape, are certainly not going to be left out of the ruckus either. Some bloggers are writing about why debt ceilings are unbiblical while others are touting how give great glory to God through the political process. Others are writing how wonderful is the government shutdown while others lament it effects on families and the economy.
I can’t help but think they’re all missing the point. Entirely.
Politics and political systems are important, don’t get me wrong. As proud as Americans are of our political system, they are not an end in themselves but only a means to an end. As a result, we mustn’t trust too highly in politics or expect too much from politicians. If we do, we will be consistently disappointed.
I have no doubt our politicians will come up with a solution to avert fiscal crisis, re-open the government, and get back to business-as-usual…probably kicking the proverbial can farther into the future as politicians are wont to do.
So what’s my point? Don’t put too much trust in politicians, political parties, or politics as a whole. They have their place, but nowhere are we as Christians called to be so completely wrapped around the political axle as we tend to be in America.
Seek the Kingdom of God above all else, and [God] will give you everything you need.
– Luke 12.31 (NLT)
The Kingdom of God is not found in any political system or any nation. It is, in fact, a-political.
Some take pride in chariots, and others in horses, but we take pride in the name of Yahweh our God.
– Psalm 20.7 (HCSB)
Don’t put your ultimate trust in the wrong place–politics–ultimately it cannot save us, temporally or eternally.
So I say to you, keep asking, and it will be given to you. Keep searching, and you will find. Keep knocking, and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives, and the one who searches finds, and to the one who knocks, the door will be opened.
Jesus, the Gospel of St. Mark 11.9-11 (HCSB)
The hard part is not to ask, search, or knock. Anyone can and does do that. The hard part is to keep asking, searching, and knocking—in the midst of a world that ridicules your faith, in the midst of times that seemingly cannot get more desperate, or in the midst of a deafening quiet when it appears God will be silent for ever.
“Keep asking…keep searching…keep knocking.”
None can believe how powerful prayer is, and what it is able to effect, but those who have learned it by experience.
It is a great matter when in extreme need, to take hold on prayer.
I know, whenever I have earnestly prayed, I have been amply heard, and have obtained more than I prayed for; God, indeed, sometimes delayed, but at last he came.
Martin Luther, Table Talk
photo credit: unit25 on stock.xchng
We are not simply the final destinations in the flow of God’s gifts. Rather, we find ourselves midstream, so to speak. The gifts flow into us, and they on from us. From Christ, gifts flow to us, each one of us; from us, they flow to those in need.
– Miroslav Volf, Free of Charge
This morning in church we read Psalm 23.
There is absolutely nothing even remotely odd about that. After all, this is one of the most beloved and comforting psalms in the entire Psalter. This morning our focus was on the first part of verse six, which is traditionally rendered:
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life (Ps 23.6a, ESV)
This translation is well and good…except it is not nearly strong enough to describe God’s actions toward us. Most English bibles have followed the tradition established by the KJV and translated the Hebrew word radaph (רָדַף) as ‘followed,‘ but a quick look at the standard lexicons shows that this word is more often understood as ‘pursued.’ God’s actions here are better understood like this:
Only goodness and faithful love will pursue me all the days of my life (Ps 23.6, HCSB)
I don’t know about you, but being pursued feels a whole lot different than merely being followed. God, in his goodness and faithful love, does exactly that–he pursues us…
Relentlessly. Tirelessly. Persistently. Lovingly. Mercifully.
Thanks be to God!
Ask most any Christian about the focus of worship and you are likely to receive an immediate ‘Sunday-school’ answer: “The focus of worship is God!” With those words still hanging in an imaginary comic book text bubble in the air, a follow-on question about the worship style may generate hesitation and may even spark a passionate debate, revealing a competing interest in questions about worship: we as individuals.
Our society is consumer-based. Everywhere we turn we are blasted with messages competing for our limited time and resources in an attempt to get us to choose Product A over Product B. Unfortunately, in an attempt to be ‘relevant,’ ‘missional,’ ‘exciting,’ or (insert most-recent church ‘marketing’ buzzword here) and lure the unchurched in the front doors, the church has followed suit. Almost without exception, discussions of worship style end up ultimately focusing on appeal to people. While I am not one to advocate a one-liturgy-fits-all approach to corporate worship, the way in which we have approached worship styles in the church has completely changed the focus of worship from God to us.
Responding to an email on the purpose of worship, Frederica Mathewes-Green recently wrote a powerful essay calling out this shift in emphasis from God. I encourage you to read her entire response, but one particular aspect struck a chord with me. She writes:
If, instead, we focus on attracting outsiders, it will feel to them like every other advertising pitch they encounter. The church can never compete with the world when it comes to entertainment. The world can give them more enjoyable diversions than we can, and can do it without requiring them to leave the house on Sunday morning. If we are successful in attracting people to the church on the basis of fun and entertainment, we’re guilty of false advertising, for Christ promises us nothing in this life but a cross. But if we worship with whole-hearted focus on God, they will see something they encounter nowhere else in their lives. They may not at first see Christ, but they can see that we see something, and that gives them something to think about; that’s how faith begins.
She nailed it. If the focus on our worship is us–that is what entertainment is about, after all–we will continue to fail. The world will always provide a better alternative. Not only that, but we will have sorely missed the true focus of worship in the first place: the Triune God.
Despite the pressures and external pressures to be more authentic or relevant, the Word that the pastor is given to speak is the objective certainty of a crucified and risen Savior of sinners. It does not mimic the trends of the culture or emotion or entertainment. Most importantly, the Word proclaimed by the pastor does not depend on the man behind the collar. For when a pastor wears the clerical collar of the Office into which he has been placed, his own individuality is covered in order to show Christ.
That is his vocation–to bring Christ to the people–such that when a pastor is praying with the hospitalized, communing the shut-in, comforting the bereaved or simply visiting with his flock, the collar he wears is an indication of the pure Gospel of Christ that he is given to bring. As such, his collar is white, vesting his vocal chords from where the ear is filled with the Gospel and reminding the pastor and the people of the purpose of his ordination into the Office of the Holy Ministry: to speak the word of God.
– Pr. Anthony Voltattorni, Lutheran Witness, Nov 2012
God, hear my cry;
pay attention to my prayer.
I call to You from the ends of the earth
when my heart is without strength.
Lead me to a rock that is high above me,
for You have been a refuge for me,
a strong tower in the face of the enemy.
I will live in Your tent forever
and take refuge under the shelter of Your wings
Psalm 61.1-4, HCSB
In two previous posts (here and here), I touted the excellence of the Holman Christian Standard Bible, but I would be remiss to explicitly or implicitly suggest that the translation is perfect. As a translation, it is not perfect, but it is such an excellent version that its lack of widespread acceptance and use–even in light of the cult-classic status of the ESV–absolutely baffles me. Let me now offer four unsolicited, ‘big-picture’ suggestions for improvement of this already remarkable translation. While I am working on a writeup dealing with translation recommendations of specific verses in the HCSB, I shall not get to that level of detail today. Instead, these thoughts aim to serve is a high-level critique, suitable for consumption by everyone, not just those who want to dive into the details of language translation issues.
the name: HCSB1
OK, so this is probably not fair game because no established bible translation is going to change its name after nearly a decade of publication, but I lament that the publishers chose to name this translation the HCSB for three reasons:
- “Holman” — no matter how many times anyone says, “The HCSB isn’t a Southern Baptist bible,” having Holman in the name has forever wrongly linked the SBC and the HCSB, creating a theological bias that does not exist. It would be like Concordia publishing a bible that ‘wasn’t Lutheran’ or JPS publishing an Old Testament that ‘wasn’t Jewish’…except that the HCSB really is not a baptist bible! Trust me on this, I went to Southern Seminary but am not baptist. Even though, the HCSB does not have a denominational slant to it, I think it will forever fight an uphill (losing?) battle to convince folks of this reality.
- “Christian” — kinda goes without saying that a bible will be “Christian,” no? Why bother?
- “Standard” — in my opinion, the whole idea of a “standard” English bible died with the explosion of the multitude of bible translations the English language now enjoys. The RSV was probably the last true ‘standard’ bible. Now, such a name is wishful thinking, at best.
Let this observation merely be a lesson to future English bible translation committees, not that we need one for the next 25 years or so given that we have the HCSB right now!
translation: “the name is Yahweh”
One of the banners at the top of the HCSB website proclaims, “The name is Yahweh. God gave us his personal name, which is why you’ll see it in the Holman Christian Standard Bible.” Translating the tetragrammaton (YHWH) as Yahweh instead of the traditional LORD was a bold move in bible translation, done previously to my knowledge only in the New Jerusalem Bible. It is also linguistically correct. My last post pointed out the importance and benefit of this choice.
The first edition used Yahweh a handful of times. The 2010 update upped that to about 500 times. I’d love to see the translators use it consistently across the nearly 7,000 instances of YHWH in the Old Testament. There is no good case in my mind for translating YHWH as Yahweh sometimes and as LORD other times–if anything it only muddies the waters since most readers will not recognize that the Hebrew beneath these two translations is identical. “Pastor, what’s the significance of the difference here?” Reply, “Um, eh, um…there is none.”
editions: take a risk to create loyal fans, B&H
One of my favorite things about the ESV is that Crossway isn’t afraid to take a risk on editions that the ‘experts’ shun as unprofitable. Examples of ‘risky’ editions abound, including: the ESV Journaling Bible, the ESV Wide Margin (forthcoming), the Personal Size Reference Bible / Personal Reference Bible, and a host of single-column layouts. Crossway has also partnered with Baker/Cambridge to produce some stunning editions: wide-margin, Pitt-Minion, and Clarion layouts. While I have no idea about the sales of any of these individual editions, the overall strategy has worked. ESV fans are some of the most incredibly-loyal bible version fans out there! These are all rather niche editions that are probably not big money makers–I know because I’ve corresponded with folks in the publishing departments at B&H and Tyndale in the past and received that exact answer. No projected sales = no backing from management. Pardon me, but Crossway has demonstrated the foolishness of this answer.
Here’s my question to B&H: since such customer responsiveness creates insanely-loyal customers and Crossway (another non-profit) is willing to take these risks, why not do the same with the HCSB instead of giving us a couple of very solid specialty editions (e.g., the HCSB Study Bible is an incredibly solid study bible for one) but repackaging the same few double-column, center-reference, red-letter editions over and over?2 Or how about this crazy notion, partner with Tyndale to create a parallel (facing-page, please) HCSB-NLT bible? I’ll buy a case, or ten!
editions part two: academic credibility
Another amazing thing Crossway has done with the ESV, which has created a great level of credibility in academic circles, is to partner with the United Bible Societies to create four amazing academic editions: a parallel Greek NT, a parallel Hebrew OT, and both NT and OT interlinear editions.
I would love to see the same thing done with the HCSB, especially the parallel/diglot editions.3 Looking to justify the gamble, B&H? Last I checked, the SBC had nearly 10,000 seminarians…how’s that for a great first publication run? How great would it be for this fantastic translation to be taken seriously (i.e., used regularly) in academic circles and not just SBC Sunday school materials?
Each of these ideas are mine, but I do not think I’m the only one that holds them. In fact, I’ll bet that first case of HCSB-Hebrew/Greek diglots or parallel HCSB-NLT bibles that I’m not!
1 I’m really not sure why I bothered to list this, except to point out again, in a rather tongue-in-cheek fashion that the HCSB is NOT a Baptist bible.
2 To be fair, the new text block in the most-recent HCSB reference bible is a thing of beauty. See my thoughts on it here. In addition, as I mentioned, the HCSB Study Bible is an incredible study bible that should enjoy much better sales than it currently does…I don’t have access to the sales history but it isn’t even in the Sept 13 top ten study bible list, seriously?! Especially unfathomable to me in light of the fact that the number one study bible is B&H’s KJV Study Bible.
3 I can almost see the visceral reaction of my Greek professors (one of whom is now the chairman of the HCSB translation oversight committee!) at the suggestion that we put diglots in the hands of seminary students. I’m certainly not advocating these tools be used instead of the traditional Greek NT during Greek studies, but as one who has been in the post-seminary ‘real-world’ of ministry now for nearly ten years, I freely admit that my Greek / Hebrew skills will never be to the point where I don’t need some helps to read even though I read Greek / Hebrew several times a week. A diglot is a much better tool (i.e., less of a crutch) than an interlinear.
photo credit: Creative Commons | Xosé Castro Roig
Every new bible translation adopts a particular ‘style’ or ‘feel’ to its English. For the sake of consistency, translation committees are forced during their work to make many stylistic decisions that will affect how the English will read. These decisions are compounded by the very nature of their work–translation–where a mechanical word-for-word translation of each individual word from Hebrew, Aramaic, or Greek into English would result in an almost nonsensical translation that read more like a monologue from Yoda than any form of written or spoken English.
Now, when comparing bible translations, people tend to speak of formal vs dynamic equivalence. I am not a fan of discussing bible translations in terms of equivalence because I honestly believe these comparisons are 1) misleading because no translation (bible or not) from one language to another truly presents a consistent word-for-word translation, as anyone who speaks more than one language will tell you and 2) often used pejoratively to discuss why other translations fall short of the one being touted. More than this, these comparisons are both relative (i.e., there is no standard by which to measure equivalency) and, as a result, subjective (i.e., even the most well-intended comparison is ultimately done at the whim of the individual making the rankings). There are better ways to compare and evaluate translations.
With that pet peeve in mind, let’s ask what sort of style did the Holman Christian Standard Bible adopt? Here are a few of the general, stylistic choices the HCSB made that I think are right on the money…
‘Messiah’ vs ‘Christ’
Hopefully this doesn’t burst anyone’s theological bubble, but Christ is simply a Greek translation of the Hebrew word for Messiah. In other words, they are synonyms, even though we tend not to think of them that way. We tend to think of Messiah in only Old Testament terms and Christ in only New Testament terms–wrongly creating a distinction without a difference.
How does the HCSB handle this? It does not simply translate the Greek word ‘christos’ as either Christ or Messiah, but chooses how to translate it based on the larger context with a footnote at the first use in any chapter reminding readers why. Based on the explanation in the footnote, ‘christos’ used in a Jewish context is typically translated Messiah, whereas in a Gentile context it is translated Christ. The best place to see this is the multiple speeches in the book of Acts. One could probably find specific instances that fail to abide by the general rule–I have not taken the time to look at every single occurrence–but overall the decision so translate ‘christos’ in this fashion is both a helpful and accurate choice.
Every day in the temple complex, and in various homes, they continued teaching and proclaiming the good news that Jesus is the Messiah.
– Acts 5.42, HCSB
‘Instruction’ vs ‘Law’
English translations traditionally translate the Hebrew word ‘torah’ as law. Presumably, this is done because the oldest Greek translation of the Old Testament (the Septuagint or LXX) translated it this way. The problem is that ‘law’ is not the best way to understand ‘torah,’ especially in Western society, where ‘law’ typically has a very cold, antiseptic connotation. As the Dictionary of New Testament Background points out, “The word Torah is derived from the Hebrew [word] meaning ‘to guide’ or ‘to teach’ …as in Exodus 35:34 and Leviticus 10:11. Thus the more precise meaning of the noun would be ‘teaching’ or ‘doctrine’ rather than ‘law.’”
The HCSB breaks with the traditional translation of ‘torah’ as ‘law’ and instead rightly translates it ‘instruction.’ Though non-traditional, it is a superior translation.
How happy are those whose way is blameless, who live according to the Lord’s instruction!
– Psalm 119.1, HCSB
‘Yahweh’ vs ‘LORD’
As mentioned previously, one of the innovations the HCSB translators made was to translate the Hebrew name YHWH into English as the Yahweh. Typically, English bibles translate the tetragrammaton as LORD in all caps or small caps, a tradition that goes back to the style chosen by the KJV translators over 400 years ago. The 1901 American Standard Version consistently translated YHWH as Jehovah, a translation now almost universally understood to be an incorrect rendering of the Hebrew. The 1985 Roman Catholic New Jerusalem Bible translates YHWH as Yahweh throughout the Old Testament.
Recognizing that YHWH is a proper name, the HCSB translators decided to take a non-traditional route and translate YHWH as Yahweh, though not consistently or evenly. I shall go into more detail about this inconsistency in future posts, but needless to say translating YHWH as Yahweh vs LORD is a huge and welcome change. At the very least, when we read Yahweh, we instantly recognize that we are not reading about some ancient, nameless God. At its finest, this translation style makes some passages go from nonsensical to wonderfully vivid. For example, here how Moses and Aaron’s exchange with Pharaoh in the beginning of Exodus 5 is traditionally rendered:
Afterward Moses and Aaron went and said to Pharaoh, “Thus says the Lord, the God of Israel, ‘Let my people go, that they may hold a feast to me in the wilderness. ‘” But Pharaoh said, “Who is the Lord, that I should obey his voice and let Israel go? I do not know the Lord, and moreover, I will not let Israel go.”
– Exodus 5.1-2, ESV
This sounds well and good, but Pharaoh definitely would have known who the Lord was, that is who was God. In Ancient Egypt he, Pharaoh, was god! This dialogue only becomes transparent and makes sense when we recognize that what we have traditionally (and wrongly) read as LORD is actually the proper name of the God is Israel.
Later, Moses and Aaron went in and said to Pharaoh, “This is what Yahweh, the God of Israel, says: Let My people go, so that they may hold a festival for Me in the wilderness.” But Pharaoh responded, “Who is Yahweh that I should obey Him by letting Israel go? I do not know anything about Yahweh, and besides, I will not let Israel go.”
– Exodus 5.1-2, HCSB
Read with Yahweh instead of LORD, this exchange makes complete sense. Pharaoh had no idea who Yahweh was…just another god of one the nations around him, who he did not feel compelled to obey or worship.
Each of these stylistic choices goes against the grain of the traditional English bible translation begun by the venerable KJV. While we should not easily dismiss church tradition for the novel and ‘better,’ we must recognize that our knowledge of ancient languages is always improving even while our own language is always evolving…two realities that require us to not become slaves to our translation traditions, especially when there are truly better ways to render the word of God into contemporary English.
After what seems like forever, my Air Force-sponsored master’s thesis is completed, graded, and now released to the world or whomever is interested…
Title: The RPA ‘Double-Tap’: Ethical Engagement or Moral Monster
The ethical philosophy known as the Just War tradition (JWT) has governed the use and restraint of force on the battlefield for all of modern history. Its tenets are inextricably linked to International Humanitarian Law and the Law of Armed Conflict and, as a result, are both morally and legally binding on American warfighters.
Throughout the past decade, remotely-piloted aircraft (RPA) have gained great popularity on the battlefield, but their use has not gone uncriticized. Little to no literature has been produced examining the ethical implications of RPA tactics, including the tactic known as the ‘double-tap’ where one target is struck multiple times in a single attack.
This paper uses unclassified reports of every known American RPA strike since 2001 and evaluates those determined to be ‘double-taps’ against the Just War jus in bello criteria of discrimination and proportionality to determine how often these attacks violate the ethical constraints on war. The research here finds that 60 percent of the time US ‘double-tap’ attacks violate the principles of Just War and recommends either a modification of American rules of engagement to ensure future employment can be done according to these long-standing ethical and legal rules.
photo credit: Crown Copyright | UK Ministry of Defence
The ESV is the bible translation I’ve always wanted and tried to love. I had one pre-ordered back in 2001 in hopes it would be the best bible in the English language. I had high hopes that it would “fix” the quirky wording of the updated NASB, address some of the concerns raised about NIV translation choices, and be the only bible I would use or need for years to come.
I used the ESV exclusively for many years–always wanting to consider it “the one” but never quite being able to do so. On the surface there is much to love about the ESV: endorsements from every Christian ‘rock star’ preacher / teacher / professor on the scene today; a multitude of incredibly well-done layouts / editions; second-to-none marketing; and a wonderful, non-profit publisher (Crossway) that does a tremendous job printing and distributing the word1. But as far as the translation itself, I’ve never gotten over the fact that it’s ‘essentially literal’ philosophy has given us a translation that is essentially identical to the RSV on which I was raised and hardly groundbreaking at all.
While the ESV has won a lot of accolades and advocates, there have been many criticisms leveled at it too. In 2007, Dr. Mark Strauss presented a paper at ETS titled, “Why the English Standard Version Should not become the Standard English Version.” In this paper, he presented approximately two hundred specific instances where the ESV could be improved and compared the ESV rendering against a multitude of other English translations. Unfortunately, in my opinion, he failed to consistently compare any translation against his examples except the TNIV, which has never won widespread acceptance.
This week, I took Strauss’ examples and compared them against the readings in the Holman Christian Standard Bible and concluded that, while not perfect either, I can say that the HCSB is everything I hoped the ESV would be. While that sounds like a strange endorsement, my point is this: instead of continuing to call for revisions / updates / etc. to the ESV’s awkward and archaic English, those concerned should instead take a look at the HCSB, where almost none of these common objections exist.
Here are some of the specifics, based on my analysis of Strauss’ categories. In the realm of “oops translations,” the HCSB correctly translated 100% of his seven examples. The HCSB also properly rendered 77% of the 43 missed idioms on his list. With respect to 18 lexical errors Strauss pointed out, the HCSB corrected 92% of the errors present in the ESV. Surprisingly to me, of the seven exegetical errors Strauss cites, the HCSB only got 50% right…something I shall have to look more into. The final category I compared was title collocational errors, which are a grammar mistake where speakers/translators use the wrong combination of words when constructing common phrases. Here the HCSB scored a respectable 73%. I did not even bother looking over Strauss’ list of archaic or poorly-worded English, because even its advocates will not argue the reality of the ESV’s less-than-modern English. Overall, the HCSB correctly translated 78% of the ‘problems’ Strauss has with the ESV. The 2011 ESV update has still not corrected / adjusted / addressed any of the issues Strauss raised back in 2007.
While few writers present such in-depth criticisms of the ESV, many suggestions and wishes routinely crop up among bloggers and writers. One of the most common wishes is for the use of ‘slave’ instead of ‘bondservant’ throughout the New Testament. Others have argued for translating the tetragrammaton / YHWH as ‘Yahweh’ instead of the traditional ‘LORD.’ Though by no means consistent with the latter, the HCSB incorporates both of these additional suggestions.
So, over against the ESV, the HCSB corrects a multitude of translation-related problems and incorporates routinely-expressed wishes that the ESV translation committee has consistently decided against. As if that weren’t enough reason to consider the HCSB a decidedly superior English translation, think on this…The HCSB is the only major English translation to properly translate John 3:16. “For God loved the world in this way: He gave His One and Only Son, so that everyone who believes in Him will not perish but have eternal life.” This is not the KJV-influenced English rendering to which we are all accustomed. But, this verse is not about how much God loved the world (i.e., “soooo much”) but about what that loved motivated God to do for the world.
The HCSB is not without it’s faults. I’m drafting some thoughts on areas where I think the HSCB should continue to improve in future revisions–including some ideas that I think might help the translation score some much-needed traction and acceptance, which has been sorely lacking for such a great translation. With that in mind, however, I can confidently say that the HCSB…truly is everything I hoped the ESV would be…probably the best translation in the English language today.
1 Crossway’s responsiveness to customer feedback, production of some of the most wonderful editions / text layouts ever devised, and commitment to proclaim the gospel through the publishing efforts is one of the principal reasons I continue to purchase and consult the ESV…and a reason you should too!
O God, by the patient suffering of Your only-begotten Son, You have beaten down the pride of the old enemy. Now help us, we humbly pray, to imitate all that our Lord has of His goodness borne for our sake, that after His example, we may bear with patience all that is adverse to us; through Jesus Christ our Lord.
Treasury of Daily Prayer
photo credit: Creative Commons | Bert Kaufmann
It is the perversity of the world that, when we preach about forgiveness of sins by pure grace and without merit of man, it should either say we forbid good works, or else try to draw the conclusion that man may continue to live in sin and follow his own pleasure; when the fact is, we should particularly strive to live a life the very reverse of sinful, that our doctrine may draw people to good works, unto the praise and honor and glory of God. Our doctrine, rightly apprehended, does not influence to pride and vice, but to humility and obedience.
Martin Luther, House Postils, Seventh Sunday after Trinity
Many non-Lutherans mistakenly believe that Luther was soft on sanctification, and many Lutherans proudly proclaim as much (implicitly or explicitly). Both are wrong. Though lost on many contemporary, American Lutherans, Martin Luther was an outspoken champion of good works for the benefit and blessing of our neighbor. Unfortunately, in reaction to anything that even remotely smacks of Pietism, American Lutherans especially recoil at the language of “works” regardless of context.
Truth is, it is impossible that the Christian life, forever affected by the unfathomable grace of Christ Jesus, could be marked by anything but a striving for good works. Such efforts do not reflect a misguided attempt to secure the blessings of God but are the overflow of thanksgiving from a sinner whose life has been inexorably changed.
photo credit: Creative Commons | Johnny Wilson
One of my most negatively memorable times from seminary was when a well-respected professor questions the legitimacy of a student’s faith because he could neither remember the exact date of his “coming to Christ” nor could he describe it in dramatic detail like Saul’s conversion in Acts 9. This particular student was foreign and not from a tradition so highly-influenced by American revivalism as the seminary where I studied. I simultaneously felt embarrassed for the student and angry at this professor for having the audacity to question another believer’s faith because of these trivialities. I wish I had these words so eloquently prepared that day:
Some interpreters treat Saul’s experience as a model for Christian conversion, as though every person has to experience a crisis in order to become a Christian. This is misleading. Though God can and does work in people’s lives through crises, conversion is always the work of the Holy Spirit through the means of grace…Let no one question your salvation because you came to faith quietly, without some dramatic experience. What matters is trust in Jesus as the Savior, which is truly what made Saul a Christian.
The Lutheran Study Bible, note on Acts 9.3-9 (emphasis mine)
That conversion results in dramatic change to thought, word, and deed is a given. That conversion necessitates a ‘Damascus road experience’ is foreign to the Gospel.
Christ, our risen Lord, Your resurrection showed us what we will someday be and what we already are now through our Baptism into Your holy name. Give us courage to bear in our bodies Your resurrected life as we live out the fruit of Your victory over death through works of charity and mercy; for You live and reign with the Father and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.
Treasury of Daily Prayer
photo credit: Creative Commons | Vinoth Chandar
This week NASA released an image of Earth from Saturn as seen from Cassini. How’s that for putting our human self-centeredness into perspective? Feeling small?
photo credit: NASA
Obvious or not, adoption and suffering often go hand-in-hand. Infertility, miscarriage, disease, sickness, accidents, death, infidelity, grief, separation, insecurity, tragedy, heartbreak, pain, jealousy, rebellion, and loneliness are just a few of the multitude of hardships patiently and expectantly endured by many (or most) adoptive families, both children and parents. Everyone is able to understand some of them, at least empathetically, but those who have not experienced the process first-hand have a hard time recognizing the totality of difficulties faced in adoption.
It is in the pain, suffering, and sometimes evil circumstances that accompany adoption that God does some of his most marvelous work. That is why a quote I recently read from Miroslav Volf impacted me so much:
God works against evil and suffering. But God, in immense divine power and inscrutable divine wisdom, also works through evil and suffering.
Struggling with years of miscarriages and infertility definitely counts as suffering, but if my wife and I didn’t endure that suffering, I don’t know if we would have have chosen to adopt and would not have been blessed with three of the four children we have today. I cannot imagine the heartbreak of a mother leaving her infant son–himself a result of infidelity–on the steps of an orphanage in Ukraine; but if it weren’t for that grief, I would never have known and loved my older son. I would never wish for children to have to endure watching their mother live with the horrors of and finally succumb to HIV/AIDS in Ethiopia, but if it weren’t for that suffering, our younger daughter and son would not be in our family today. I certainly have not wished the many hurdles upon my family that adapting to a multi-ethnic, multi-adoptive family has brought us, but out of those struggles have come some of the most grace-created, joy-filled memories of my life.
God certainly does not will evil, suffering, pain, or loss. But in the midst of those, he is most certainly at work.
God works against evil and suffering. But God, in immense divine power and inscrutable divine wisdom, also works through evil and suffering.
- Miroslav Volf, Free of Charge
photo credit: Creative Commons | Hartwig HKD
Surely the whole world does not grasp the tiniest syllable of the statement that God is love. No human religion can hold its own in the face of the judgment, but it is solely in the blood of Christ that we have confidence on the Day of Judgment.
– Martin Luther
photo credit: Creative Commons | Raul Lieberwirth
All sorrows, all heartaches, all disappointments, all bereavements, and all heart troubles lose their bitterness in the sweetness of the Savior’s tender promise: ‘I will come again.’
– from Meditations on the Gospels
As an adoptive parent of three wonderful children from Ukraine and Ethiopia, I jumped at the chance to review an advance copy of Mother India: Life Through the Eyes of the Orphan by Word Films. After watching now several times, I can stun up the entire movie in one word: other-wordly. (OK, it’s hyphenated, but it’s still technically one word)
India is home to over 31 million orphans…read that again…31,000,000 orphans. That number is far greater than the combined total populations of the ten largest cities in the United States. Think of the entire populations of New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Houston, Philadelphia, Phoenix, San Antonio, San Diego, Dallas, and San Jose COMBINED , and then add New York in AGAIN. That is nearly 31 million. It’s unfathomable, isn’t it?
In this film, David Trotter and Shawn Scheinoha get taken in by a family of 25 orphans living in and around a train station in rural India. What they experience and share is guaranteed to break your heart. The experiences of these children, their struggles to cope with hardship, and the true family that they have developed is truly unbelievable for most Americans. As one who has traveled around the world and seen living conditions that have literally made me sick to my stomach, Mother India succeeds in giving insights into the plight of these orphans. It does much more than that, however, and this is where it truly shines…David and Shawn have told us the names and stories of just a few of India’s countless orphans.
Through this movie we come to know, not just about them, but to a little bit about them as people and their stories. This movie is an absolute must-see. But…you won’t want to watch it all. It will break your heart. It will leave you unable to continue in your own status quo knowing about the stories of these children (and the 147 million orphans world-wide who share similar lives) but content to not think about them anymore. And that, friends, is a tremendous, God-blessed burden for us to act upon!
Mother India releases today, April 23rd! Pick up a copy here at Amazon (not an affiliate link)…you won’t be disappointed.
There is no shortcut to holiness; it must be the business of our whole lives.
- William Wilberforce
I haven’t given up blogging for Lent, but my blogging will be slowing down for the next six months as I begin my current master’s thesis. I will be researching and writing a Just War tradition (JWT) evaluation on the United States’ use of remotely piloted aircraft (RPA or “drones”). The paper will look at both the use of RPA in theory and in practice and see whether the jus in bello (justice in war) facets of JWT challenge us to make changes in either our doctrine or praxis.
My initial hunch is that, while placing a greater burden to be used ethically than traditional weapons systems, there is nothing inherently immoral about RPA. I also expect to find that our current use of RPA around the world violates the jus in bello JWT principle of discrimination more than other weapons systems. These are only my initial gut feelings, however, and I am open to whatever my research suggests.
Either way, things will be slower around here for the next few months. I still plan to post from time to time, though, so don’t abandon me completely!
We live in a society where questions of legality abound and questions of morality are all but ignored. When deciding a course of action, we have little hesitation about asking “Is it legal?” but typically fail to ask “Is it right?” A recent example comes from the leaked DOJ memo containing legal rationale for the killing of American citizens who have joined Al-Qaida or an ill-defined “associated force.” The memo outlines why, in the opinion of the DOJ and current administration, such activities are considered legal. Following its release and subsequent public outcry, Sen Lindsey Graham (at the opposite end of the political spectrum) supported the President’s position and issued a statement saying, “The process of being targeted I think is legal.”
One of the many issues in this scenario is the question of legality vs. morality. Lawmakers (like Obama [as Senator] and Graham) make laws. Lawyers (like Obama and Graham) practice law. In theory, I’m certain that most lawyers, judges, and lawmakers genuinely desire moral laws…but there is absolutely zero guarantee that what is legal according to the law is also moral (exhibit A: slavery).
Where are those asking whether such things as targeting killings (of American citizens or others) are morally right? Reading the outcomes of our judicial system, it seems that just about anything can be argued to be legal, but where are the discussions of morality? They are, in large part, nonexistent.
This is true not only in politics. As a military chaplain, one of my mandated charges is to serve as a moral and ethical adviser to the chain of command. While I have been consulted on personal ethical matters time and time again by commanders and individual airmen, I have never once been consulted on matters of morality regarding command decisions. The JAG, of course, is consulted routinely to ensure whatever course of action is legally defensible. It seems commanders can be easily removed for taking actions that are illegal, but as long as they are legal there seems to be little concern for whether or not they are ethical.
Simply because something is legal does not mean it is right. We must to be concerned with both.
It occurred to me that I needed some color around here…all the recent photos I’ve used have been black and white.
Last week, I posted a survey on languages and bible preference, which is still open by the way. (If you haven’t spent the 30 seconds necessary to complete its four questions, I would greatly appreciate it.) Soon after, I came across these thoughts on bible translation in the preface to a commentary on Romans by Fr. Lawrence Farley, a priest in the Orthodox Church in America serving at St. Herman’s Church in Surrey, British Columbia. After briefly describing the two principle approaches to translation–formal and dynamic equivalence–he writes:
The English translator is faced, it would seem, with a choice: either he can make the translation something of a rough paraphrase of the original and render it into flowing sonorous English or he can attempt to make a fairly literal, word-for-word translation from the original with the resultant English being stilted, wooden, and clumsy.
These two basic and different approaches to translation correspond to two basic and different activities in the Church. The Church needs a translation of the Scriptures for use in worship. This should be in good, grammatical, and flowing English, as elegant as possible and suited to its function in the majestic function of the Liturgy. The Church also needs a translation of the Scriptures for private study and for group Bible study. Here the elegance of its English is of lesser concern. What is of greater concern here is the bring out of all the nuances found in the original. Thus this approach will tend to sacrifice elegance for literality and, wherever possible, seek a work-for-work correspondence with the Greek. Also, because the student will want to see how the biblical authors use a particular word (especially St. Paul, who has many works included in the canon), a consistence of translation will be sought and the same Greek word will be translated, whenever possible, by the same English word or its cognate.
So, what do you think about Fr. Farley’s observations concerning the place of different translations in the life of the Church? Do you agree that we would do well to utilize a more flowing, dynamic translation for public reading and liturgy as part of worship while resorting to a more literal translation for study? It seems the desire of many (most?) of us is to find that one bible translation that is perfect (or at least suitable) for both worship and study. In the ever-changing landscape of English bible translation, this quest is as elusive as it is ultimately frustrating.
What do you think of Fr. Farley’s advice?
I’m taking a short, four-question, 30-second survey on spoken languages and bible translation preferences. I would be grateful if you’d take it and give me your inputs!
A must read article, in my opinion:
Lots to ponder and think about here. Thoughts?
- se-ri-ous: solemn, grave, somber
- sin-cere: genuine, honest, earnest
I like to joke. I like to laugh. I like to be intentionally eccentric just to draw a reaction. I like to make scandalous statements to spark conversation. I do this at home and at work. And some people simply don’t get it.
“You can’t be serious,” they chide.
To tell the truth. They’re right. By the dictionary definitions above, most of the time I am not serious. There are times and places for serious, no doubt, but most of life doesn’t fall into that space. The problem, as I see it, is that many (most?) Westerners have wrongly conflated seriousness and sincerity.
Much of the time I am not serious, but I always strive to be sincere. To use the cliche, sincerity means ‘what you see is what you get.’ Sincerity is a must in our world where facade rules–in politics, in relationships, in the workplace, in the church, etc. (More on that last one later…)
So, lighten up. Be sincere all the time, but don’t always be so bloody serious.
You have my permission.
That Jesus was born of a virgin is one of the most marvelous aspects of the miracle of the Incarnation. While not even considering objections from skeptics here, it is not uncommon to hear Christians raise the question, “Why was Jesus born of the Virgin Mary?” Answers typically revolve around the need to fulfill prophecy (cf. Isaiah 7), show God’s providential initiative, or avoid the transmission of sin*.
Reading through Justin Martyr’s Dialogue With Trypho (according to the Read the Fathers reading plan), St. Justin presents the following reason for Jesus’ virgin birth:
He became man by the Virgin, in order that the disobedience which proceeded from the serpent might receive its destruction in the same manner in which it derived its origin. For Eve, who was a virgin and undefiled, having conceived the word of the serpent, brought forth disobedience and death. But the Virgin Mary received faith and joy, when the angel Gabriel announced the good tidings to her that the Spirit of the Lord would come upon her, and the power of the Highest would overshadow her: wherefore also the Holy Thing begotten of her is the Son of God (Dialogue With Trypho, Chapter 100).
In other words, since sin entered the world through a virgin, Eve, Christ was born of the virgin Mary that sin might also be destroyed through a virgin.
His is an interesting one, to say the very least.
* This view only makes sense, of course, if sin is transmitted by male DNA or you further postulate Mary’s Immaculate Conception…neither of which is supported from Scripture or Church Tradition outside of Roman Catholicism.
The joy and celebration of Christmas is that God took on humanity and dwelt among us. Immanuel, of course, means “God with us”–as everyone familiar with the Christmas narrative in Matthew’s gospel knows. Yet, so often, it seems we let this essential mystery of our faith evaporate as soon as Christmas and Epiphany pass, the decorations are put away for another year, and we resume our post-New Year routines.
Usually, this translates into lives characterized not by walking in faith in Christ’s presence with us but by an unending series of questions addressed to him.
- God, why did you allow ____ or ____ to happen?
- God, what should I do about ____?
- God, how will you handle ____?
God does not typically answer those questions. Just ask Job. God does not usually reveal his plans to us with crystal clarity. Ask the apostles about that. As Oswald Chambers points out, “God does not tell you what He it’s going to do—He reveals to you who He is.”
To be even more succinct, God is not in the business of answering our questions. He is in the business of coming to us, dwelling with us, and giving himself to us.
He is not our instructor who promises to answer our questions that we might gain knowledge.
He is Immanuel, who has promised never to leave or forsake us, that we might gain him.
This is most certainly true and most certainly better.
When we think seriously about what it will cost others if we obey the call of Jesus, we tell God He doesn’t know what our obedience will mean. Keep to the point–He does know. Shut out every other thought and keep yourself before God in this one thing only–my utmost for His highest. I am determined to be absolutely and entirely for Him and Him alone.
A thought-provoking summary by Shane Claiborne on Christmas, Jesus, Sandy Hook, and guns:
That lesson that Jesus taught his disciple is as relevant to us, and the NRA, as it was the early movement of Christians in the first century. Violence will not rid the world of violence. You do not use swords to get rid of swords or guns to get rid of guns. There is another way.
Read it in its entirety at the Huffington Post.
We have learned from the prophets, and we hold it to be true, that punishments, and chastisements, and good rewards, are rendered according to the merit of each man’s actions. Since if it be not so, but all things happen by fate, neither is anything at all in our own power. For if it be fated that this man, e.g., be good, and this other evil, neither is the former meritorious nor the latter to be blamed. And again, unless the human race have the power of avoiding evil and choosing good by free choice, they are not accountable for their actions, of whatever kind they be. But that it is by free choice they both walk uprightly and stumble…For not like other things, as trees and quadrupeds, which cannot act by choice, did God make man: for neither would he be worthy of reward or praise did he not of himself choose the good, but were created for this end; nor, if he were evil, would he be worthy of punishment, not being evil of himself, but being able to be nothing else than what he was made.
Justin Martyr, First Apology
It is deplorable
that the gracious gifts of brass and metalworking
are used both to fashion bells and trumpets
to sing of the bountiful love and mercy of God
and to craft cartridges and artillery shells
to take the lives of those fashioned in his image.
This thought struck me in worship this morning as we sang joyfully of Christ’s advent accompanied by trumpet, French horn, and bells then soberly pleaded with God to grant comfort, peace, and hope to those affected by the shootings in Connecticut. How it made me long, more than usual, for the words of Micah to become reality.
[God] will settle disputes among many peoples
and provide arbitration for strong nations that are far away.
They will beat their swords into plows,
and their spears into pruning knives.
Nation will not take up the sword against nation,
and they will never again train for war.
But each man will sit under his grapevine and under his fig tree
with no one to frighten him.
– Micah 4.3-4 (HCSB)
Come quickly, Lord Jesus.
Neither the ends of the earth nor the kingdoms of this age are of any use to me. It is better for me to die for Jesus Christ than to rule over the ends of the earth.
The Letter of Ignatius to the Romans
Pray continually for the rest of humankind as well, that they may find God, for there is in them hope for repentance. Therefore allow them to be instructed by you, at least by your deeds. In response to their anger, be gentle; in response to their boasts, be humble in response to their slander, offer prayers; in response to their errors, be steadfast in the faith; in response to their cruelty, be civilized; do no be eager to imitate them. Let us show by our forbearance that we are their brothers and sisters, and let us be eager to be imitators of the Lord.
– The Letter of Ignatius to the Ephesians
Much could be said about these magnificent words of instruction, but nothing honestly need be said about them. They are instruction, reminder, rebuke, and encouragement enough.
It is far easier for us to point out fault in others than it is to recognize it in ourselves. One of the most pointed teachings of Jesus centers on forgiving others again and again and again.
The Peter came to Him and said, ‘Lord, how many times could my brother sin against me and I forgive him? As many as seven times?’ ‘I tell you, not as many as seven,’ Jesus said to him, ‘but seventy times seven.’
Matthew 18.21-22 (HCSB)
According to the rabbinic teaching of the day, believers were required to forgive a person three times, so in all likelihood Peter thought he was being more than generous in asking if seven times was enough. As usual, Jesus’ response blows us away–seventy times seven. “Forgive your brother as many times as he is truly repentant,” Jesus might as well have said.
This kind of love is hard. In our own strength, this kind of love is impossible.
Honestly, we don’t like the idea of forgiving someone this many times. “Enough is enough!” we’re tempted to cry out. Even though God continues to forgive our sins again and again and again, there is a part of us that hates the idea of extending this same kind of grace to others. And yet, the attitude Jesus exemplifies and demands of us is precisely the attitude that realizes that ceasing from sin–especially a long-standing one–involves much more than simply willing ourselves to stop.
There is an archaic English word used throughout the King James Version that describes God’s attitude toward our never-ending cycle of sin and repentance. The word is “long-suffering.” According to Merriam-Webster, long-suffering means “patiently enduring lasting offense or hardship.” That pretty well sums up God’s attitude of grace in the face of our sin.
Here is my 70×7 prayer:
May we be as long-suffering with the sins of others
as God is long-suffering with our own.
Therefore let us unite with those who devoutly practice peace and not with those who hypocritically wish for peace.
– 1 Clement 15.1
Let us fix our eyes on the blood of Christ and understand how precious it is to his Father, because, being poured out for our salvation, it won for the whole world the grace of repentance.
– 1 Clement 7.4
The Church Fathers are some of the richest and (especially in the West) most overlooked writings in all of Christianity. Today I discovered Read the Fathers, a website dedicated to a seven-year (gulp!) reading plan to “study a vast library of theology, history, liturgy, apologetics, biblical commentary, and devotion written in the first seven centuries of the Christian church.” Importantly, the site is built on the premise of community discussion, encouragement, and accountability.
Here’s the real treat–this seven-year journey begins today. There is a little bit of introductory material by way of background, and the first readings dive right into 1 Clement, a letter you may never have heard of but which was considered part of the canon of scripture by some in the first few centuries of the infant Church.
Head on over to readthefathers.org and subscribe to the readings by whatever means works best for you!
photo credit: Creative Commons | fusion-of-horizons
For many evangelical Christians, these matters are simple: Israel is God’s side and therefore should be our side, and this about good versus bad, light versus darkness. Anything less than a ringing endorsement of all Israeli policies is seen as an affront to the living God. This position is largely determined by eschatological convictions (beliefs about the end of the world), in which Israel (as a modern nation-state) exists as a fulfillment of prophecy. For some evangelicals, if you send money to an organization that wants to bring Jews from around the world to Israel then you are less likely to get cancer or speeding tickets, or more likely to get a promotion at work.
I have many suspicions about this entire project for many reasons, but I’d start with this simple premise…(continue)
This is the most well-reasoned, theologically astute essay I’ve read on Israel, the Church and (American) politics in a long time. I encourage you to read it all.
Suffering is inevitable. Pain is unavoidable. Life, quite often, hurts.
The litany of the agonies and struggles Christians face is no different than those of the rest of the world:
- substance abuse
- work problems
- suicidal thoughts
- eating disorders
- body image / self-image
- relationship problems
- and on and on…
Contrary to what we sometimes hear or want to believe, the promise of Christ to his followers is not that we are immune or exempt from these. The promise of God is that we do not face any hardship alone…
Do not fear, for I have redeemed you;
I have called you by your name; you are Mine.
I will be with you
when you pass through the waters,
and when you pass through the rivers,
they will not overwhelm you.
You will not be scorched
when you walk through the fire,
and the flame will not burn you.
Isaiah 43.1b-2 (HCSB)
Read those words again. “When” you face difficult, painful times…and they will come, it is certain…God says, “I will be with you.” We would doubtless all love to avoid pain, I know I do. The idea that we can do this, however, is both unrealistic and unbiblical. When we cry out to Christ he may calm the storm–he has done it before and we will continue to pray that he does it again. Whether or not the storm subsides is not the real point.
In the midst of suffering, God is there.
In the midst of pain, Christ is found.
In the midst of hurting, you are not alone.
The greatest single cause of atheism in the world today is Christians: who acknowledge Jesus with their lips, walk out the door, and deny Him by their lifestyle. That is what an unbelieving world simply finds unbelievable.
– Brennan Manning
(h/t: Chris Marlow)
The great evangelical disaster is that evangelicalism has become synonymous with Republicanism rather than the gospel of Jesus Christ.
– Rachel Held Evans (read more)
Rachel’s post is right on target with respect to the wearying drone of Evangelicals who equate “conservative” and “Evangelical” with “Republican” rather than anything to do with theology or the Scripture. Both the political right and left have long since abandoned any sort of Judeo-Christian ethic in their legislation. If you don’t believe me, then you aren’t reading past their platforms to anything they’ve actually voted for.
Sadly, the president of my seminary alma mater is the loudest voice in the room recently on this subject.
When will American Christians figure out that Christianity has everything to do with Christ and nothing to do with politics?
One of the most common popular objections to the existence of God has to do with the existence of suffering (or more broadly, evil) in the world. If your God is so good, the objection goes, how could he possibly allow such suffering to exist or continue? After my wife’s recent trip to minister in the slums of Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, several internet readers have asked exactly the same question regarding the poverty, hardship, and suffering she witnessed there.
In all seriousness, I’d like to turn the question around a bit and ask it this way:
Is poverty God’s problem or ours?
If we step back and look at the problem of poverty, I think we will find the problem is not with God but with us. Looking through the Old Testament, there are numerous provisions in the Torah concerned with providing for the poor, widowed, orphans, and foreigners in Israel. Perhaps the best summary comes to us from the lips of Moses in Deuteronomy, where we read:
If there is a poor person among you, one of your brothers within any of your gates in the land the Lord your God is giving you, you must not be hardhearted or tightfisted toward your poor brother. Instead, you are to open your hand to him and freely loan him enough for whatever need he has. Be careful that there isn’t this wicked thought in your heart, ‘The seventh year, the year of canceling debts, is near,’ and you are stingy toward your poor brother and give him nothing. He will cry out to the Lord against you, and you will be guilty. Give to him, and don’t have a stingy heart y when you give, and because of this the Lord your God will bless you in all your work and in everything you do. For there will never cease to be poor people in the land; that is why I am commanding you, ‘You must willingly open your hand to your afflicted and poor brother in your land.’
Deuteronomy 15.7-11 (HCSB)
Time and time again, the Prophets indicted Israel for their lack of compassion against the poor in the land. Amos is especially critical of the wealthy among Israel for continuing to stockpile their wealth at the expense of caring for the poor. Over and over, the prophets pointed to the root of the problem. It was neither the existence of poverty nor a lack of resources. The problem was a land filled with people who simply cared more for themselves than they did for their neighbors.
In the New Testament, Jesus echoed Moses’ words and reminds us, “You will always have the poor with you” (Matthew 26.4, HCSB). Again, the problem presented is neither the existence of poverty nor a scarcity of resources but a problem of the heart. As many writers–most notably Richard Stearns–have pointed out, American Christians alone possess the wealth to virtually eliminate poverty in the world for the poorest of the poor. We have the resources to provide clean water and basic health care to the entire population of the world.
The problem is not God.
The problem is not poverty.
The problem is not resources.
The problem is that we do not care enough to act.
We can all see God in exceptional things, but it requires the growth of spiritual discipline to see God in every detail.
– Oswald Chambers
The trouble with you and me and the rest of humanity is not that we lack self-confidence (as we’re told by the world) but that we have far too much self-importance. The thought of being just another of the roughly one hundred billion people to have ever graced this planet offends us—whether we realize it or not.
Anonymous, Embracing Obscurity
I have been a student of Christian theology my entire adult life. I have tested the waters or swum in many diverse Christian traditions from Orthodoxy, Presbyterianism/Congregationalism, Lutheranism, and Methodism/Wesleyanism. I have well-worn, dog-eared, note-filled theology books from all those great traditions on my bookshelves. Here’s the thing none of the most staunch devotees will typically admit:
In an effort to create ‘systems’ that are logical and comprehensible to man, all of these systems have nearly insurmountable problems.
So, do we throw our hands up and walk away, cynical of any systematic approaches to Christianity? Do we take upon ourselves the impossible position of “no creed but the bible” or something similar? No and no.
Here is what we must do…
Above all, we must recognize the difficulty in studying our infinite and wonderful God and approach our studies and those of others with the utmost humility. We must be aware the difficulties in our own theological paradigms and be charitable in our discussions with those who hold differing views. We must realize (to paraphrase Roger Olsen) that we ultimate decide on a theological system (consciously or not) because we can more easily live with its problems than we can with those of another system. Finally, we must be aware the r considerable common ground with share with other orthodox Christians and admit that that which unites us is far greater than that which divides us.
photo credt: Creative Commons | Mark Grapengater
I have to learn that the aim in life is God’s, not mine. God is using me from His great personal standpoint, and all He asks of me is that I trust Him, and never say—‘Lord, this gives me such heartache.’ To talk in that way makes me a clog. When I stop telling God what I want, He can catch me up for what He wants without let or hindrance. He can crumple me up or exalt me, He can do anything He chooses. He simply asks me to have implicit faith in Himself and in His goodness. Self-pity is of the devil; if I go off on that line I cannot be used by God for His purpose in the world.
– Oswald Chambers
photo credit: Creative Commons | Leland Francisco
Temptations are granted to reveal our hidden passions, to be combated against, and thus heal our soul. They are also a sample of divine mercy. For this reason trust in God and ask for His help, in order to strengthen you in your fight. Hope in God never leads to despair. Temptations bring humility. God knows the resistance of each of us, and grants temptations according to the measure of our strength. However, we must make sure to be vigilant and careful, that we do not put ourselves into temptation.
Trust in God the Good, the Mighty, the Living, and He will lead you into rest. After the trial follows spiritual joy. The Lord monitors those who endure trials and tribulations for His love. Therefore do not become despondent and do not flinch.
– St. Nektarios of Aegina (via Mystagogy)
Temptations reveal our desires and are an opportunity to receive the grace of God in Christ. How rarely do we view temptation this way! Instinctively we all recognize the former, and in our mislead zeal to put on the veneer of perfection and demonstrate to others how much we ‘have it together’ this is a large measure of what frightens us so much about temptation. “What if others find out what I really struggle with and what I’m really like?”
Let us not forget the latter, more important point. Temptations are an opportunity to receive the grace and mercy of Christ to strengthen and sustain us in their midst. They are opportunities, not to show how strong or mature we are, but to experience and demonstrate our utter dependence upon God.
photo credit: Creative Commons | Behrooz Nobakht
Steadfast God, we strive to believe but pray for help in our unbelief! Move close to us on those days when we do not feel your presence. We claim your promise that you will be with us to the end. Strengthen our faith. Amen.
–Moravian Daily Texts for Oct 18, 2012
If anyone comes to Me and does not hate his own father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters–yes, and even his own life–he cannot be My disciple. Whoever does not bear his own cross and come after Me cannot be My disciple.
Luke 14.25-27, HCSB
Though it is the experience of countless Christians throughout history and even around the world today, the church in America despises this passage and others like it. We simply refuse to believe it. “Surely Jesus doesn’t mean this literally,” we argue. “Obviously we have to read this in light of Jesus’ day and find the meaning that applies to us today,” we piously assert. “Some people are probably called to these sacrifices, but most of us aren’t, ” we confidently suggest. Each of these are statements I heard in church yesterday while discussing this passage.
This is where we come face to face with a dangerous reality. We do have to give up everything we have to follow Jesus. We do have to love him in a way that makes our closest relationships in this world look like hate. And it is entirely possible that he will tell us to sell everything we have and give it to the poor. But we don’t want to believe it. We are afraid of what it might mean for our lives. So we rationalize these passages away.
As part of our avoidance of the implications of Jesus’ words, we have neutered the cross–in both its terror and its power. We describe ailments or relationship difficulties or financial hardships as our ‘crosses.’ Though such talk sounds pious, it is pure drivel. It is the consequence, Bonhoeffer states, of a Christianity that has “ceased to be serious about discipleship…[and has] watered down the gospel into emotional uplift which makes no costly demands” (The Cost of Discipleship). This is not true discipleship. This is not true Christianity. This is not the gospel.
The cross is laid on every Christian. The first Christ-suffering which every man must experience is the call to abandon the attachments of this world. It is that dying of the old man which is the result of his encounter with Christ…When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.
– The Cost of Discipleship
Have we ever truly encountered this Jesus, or are we deluding ourselves with an imaginary Christ of our own construction? Have we died to our infatuation with the glitter of this world, or are we so consumed that we fail to even recognize our addiction? Are we content merely with crosses of gold, which pass for some semblance of righteous adornment, or do we cling to the true cross of Christ, which kills and makes us truly alive?
photo credit: Creative Commons | Christopher Brown via Compfight
Lord , who can dwell in Your tent? Who can live on Your holy mountain? The one who lives honestly, practices righteousness, and acknowledges the truth in his heart — who does not slander with his tongue, who does not harm his friend or discredit his neighbor, who despises the one rejected by the Lord but honors those who fear the Lord , who keeps his word whatever the cost, who does not lend his money at interest or take a bribe against the innocent — the one who does these things will never be moved.
– Psalm 15.1-5 (HCSB)
photo credit: Creative Commons Natesh Ramasamy via Compfight
Once in a while a book comes along that you don’t want to keep reading but just can’t stand put down–the kind of book that cuts to the core of the problems facing the church and points out what a life seized by Christ looks like. My list of books in this category is short: Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s The Cost of Discipleship, Richard Stearns’ The Hole in Our Gospel, David Platt’s Radical…and most recently, Embracing Obscurity.
From the opening pages, this anonymous work rightly calls our over-inflated egos on the carpet and points out the delusional drunkenness of our sinful pride:
We’re all intoxicated with a desire to be known, recognized, appreciated, and respected. We crave to be a “somebody” and do notable things, to achieve our dreams and gain the admiration of others. To be something–anything–other than nothing.
The trouble with you and me and rest of humanity is not that we lack self-confidence (as we’re told by the world) but that we have far too much self-importance. The thought of being just another of the roughly one hundred billion people to have ever graced this planet offends us–whether we realize it or not.
Encouraging, right? It should be. It should be very encouraging that, as anonymous and obscure as we truly are, we are loved by an omnipotent and eternal God who, in the ultimate act of humble obscurity, took on humanity to dwell among us and die a criminal’s death (Phil 2.6-8). Here, in Christ, is our true significance, and here we find the strength to subdue our pride and embrace obscurity that God might be magnified in our lives.
After showing us where our true significance lies, the author spends the rest of this powerful work encouraging us to follow Christ by embracing servanthood, suffering, and the mystery (from the world’s point of view) of the Christian lifestyle that is so counter to our culture. Most importantly, we are reminded, we have a finite amount of time in order to glorify God in our earthly lives:
You will die. Maybe today; maybe fifty years from now. How will you spend the seconds, hours, days, and years you have left? Will you waste your time loving the things of this world, worrying about your star rating, and focusing on your success? Or will you invest the remainder of your life “seeking after the glory and honor and immortality that God offers”? Will you take on the disposition of Christ, submitting to God’s will, loving justice and mercy, serving selflessly and loving fully? Will you walk worthy of the glorious gospel–even if no one ever knows your name?
I am not overstating when I say that this book has the potential to send you off in a direction you never thought you would go. It’s message is uncomfortable. It is unsettling. And it is absolutely necessary.