Friday, May 16, 2008

Eustace, Aslan, and Becoming Better People

Regular readers of this blog know that I'm a fan of Our Daily Bread, the daily devotional produced by Radio Bible Class. I often will link to the web version of readings I've found particularly meaningful on a given day. But I must confess that I found today's reading a bit disconcerting.

Writer Dennis Fisher begins by recalling an incident from one book in C.S. Lewis' Chronicles of Narnia series, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader. It's an incident I myself have used to illustrate what happens to people when they submit to Christ's authority over our lives. As Fisher explains it:
In...The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, Edmund, Lucy, and their spoiled cousin Eustace are summoned to help on a quest in the Eastern Sea. Along the way, Eustace is tempted by enchanted treasure and turned into a dragon. The desperate dragon accepts the help of the great lion Aslan, king of Narnia. But Eustace can only be freed by allowing Aslan’s claws to painfully tear off the dragon’s flesh.
So far, so good. Eustace submits to painful reconstruction of his life, beginning with the destruction of the being he had become, so that the new Eustace could emerge.

Aslan, it should be pointed out, is a figure of Christ in Lewis' novels. The process that Edmund undergoes then, is a bit like the process of "daily repentance and renewal" that Martin Luther discusses in The Small Catechism. It comes as part of Luther's discussion of Baptism, which he says should be daily affirmed. "What does Baptism mean for daily living?" Luther asks, using the question-and-answer form. He answers:
It means that our sinful self, with all its evil deeds and desires, should be drowned through daily repentance [repentance is a word which, in the Hebrew means to turn back to God and in Greek means to change one's mind]; and that day after day a new self should arise to live with God in righteousness and purity forever.
The point? We can submit to the God we meet in Jesus Christ. But only God can make us new. We cannot decide to be better people or better Christians. The Christian life is about God's grace--God's charitable acceptance of sinners who turn from sin and trust in Jesus Christ as Lord of their lives--from beginning to end and beyond.

It's with this reality that Paul wrestles in Romans:
I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do. For I delight in the law of God in my inmost self, but I see in my members another law at war with the law of my mind, making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members. Wretched man that I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! So then, with my mind I am a slave to the law of God, but with my flesh I am a slave to the law of sin. (Romans 7:19, 22-25)
In Lewis' parallel universe of Narnia, Eustace was "saved" by Aslan. And each day, given his obvious natural inclinations toward being selfish, he could only be "saved" by Aslan, no matter how good his intentions.

That's why Fisher's summary sentence about Eustace's encounter with Aslan so rubbed me the wrong way. "Grateful for his deliverance, Eustace chooses to become a better boy." Aaaarrrggghhh!

This reflects a fairly common line of thinking among Christians these days. Several years ago, I read a book by a prominent evangelical pastor. I found the book helpful until I ran into a sentence that said something like, "Our salvation depends solely on God's grace. But after we're saved, everything depends on our works."

Wrong! Paul's words, the confession of a man who by the time he wrote his letter to the first-century Roman church had been a Christian for several decades, indicate that we never stop depending on God's grace. I cannot decide to be a better person. I can only, like Eustace did with Aslan, submit to the authority of God the Holy Spirit, Who, as Luther puts it elsewhere in The Small Catechism, "In this Christian church day after day [God the Holy Spirit] forgives my sins and the sins of all believers. On the last day he will raise me and all the dead and give me and all believers in Christ eternal life. This is most certainly true."

The most I can do to be saved from sin and death is let God the Son, Jesus Christ, save me.

The most I can do to maintain my relationship with God and to grow in faith and holiness is to let God the Holy Spirit have His way in my life.

Our will is an imperfect thing. We can want to be better people. But only the God to Whom Jesus teaches us to pray, "Your will be done," can make us better people. And even the most devoted of Jesus' followers will only, in this lifetime, see through a mirror dimly. But one day, by God's grace and God's grace alone, we will see God face to face.

Maybe it was unintentional. But today's Our Daily Bread devotional made it seem that we can resolve to do what only God can accomplish.

"We are Christians too"

That's the title of this post by a Jordanian Christian. I think that his surmise that most of us in the US automatically equate Arab and Muslim is accurate.

Stereotyping is a handy way to turn other human beings into cardboard cutouts, debasing their humanity. It also lets us avoid the pesky demands of actually thinking. In any case, stereotyping people is a clear violation of Jesus' command that we love our neighbors as we love ourselves. (Read here to see the command in its context.) As Christians, that's our call whether our neighbors are Muslims, Jews, atheists, Buddhists, or Christians.

But to dismiss the commitment of others who confess Jesus Christ as Lord of their lives because they belong to a different ethnic group or because many members of that ethnic group profess a different religion is at the least, misinformed. Sometimes, it's hateful, certainly a sorrow to Christ.

Now, in fact, I must confess that I too have made the same automatic connection between Arab and Muslim, for which I ask God and my Arab sisters and brothers to grant me forgiveness.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

What's Important?


Please Pray for Pastor Jeff's Mother

Pastor Jeff is one of my favorite bloggers. He writes here and here about his mother's surgery. Please pray for her.


Carol McGonagle, a member of Saint Matthew, posted this video of daughter Katie, who solos, and the rest of an Ohio University a cappella ensemble, the Tempo Tantrums. It appeared on Carol's blog, which I recommend highly. Katie has a beautiful voice!

A Look at This Sunday's Bible Lessons (May 18, 2008)

This Sunday's Bible Lessons:
Genesis 1:1-2:4a
Psalm 8
2 Corinthians 13:11-13
Matthew 28:16-20

The Prayer of the Day:
Almighty Creator and ever-living God: we worship your glory, eternal Three-in-One, and we praise your power, majestic One-in-Three. Keep us steadfast in this faith, defend us in all adversity, and bring us at last into your presence, where you live in endless joy and love, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.

A Few Comments:
1. The First Sunday after Pentecost is always Holy Trinity Sunday on the Church calendar. It comes one week after the Festival of the Holy Spirit, the third great festival of the Church Year, which is what Pentecost, celebrated last Sunday, is. (The other two great festivals are Christmas and Easter.)

2. Of all the doctrines of the faith, that of the Trinity, the belief that there is one God of all the universe Who has revealed Himself as three Persons, is maybe the most difficult teaching of the Church. But, while the term "trinity" is never used in the Old or New Testaments, I believe that the reality of the Three-in-One God is affirmed repeatedly on its pages. See here.

3. Of course, one unifying theme of the Bible lessons for this week is the Trinity. But another is how God imposes order on chaos to create peace. The first lesson is the first account of creation found in Genesis. There, a wind from God, the word wind being ruach, which also means breath or spirit, moves over a storm to bring life into being. (For more on ruach and its New Testament equivalent, pneuma, see here and here.) (By the way, the prologue to the Gospel of John affirms that the Son, second member of the Trinity, was present not just at the beginning, but before the beginning.)

The second lesson is from Paul's second letter to the rancorous church in the Greek city of Corinth, a congregation that tried his patience and whose un-Christian behavior might cause outside observers--in those days or today--to doubt whether the Gospel of Jesus Christ was just a bunch of hooey. The members of the Corinthian church, with their acceptance of incest, spiritual pride, and material selfishness certainly didn't look like the new creation Paul claimed thet were by virtue of their baptisms and their confessions of Christ.

Yet, Paul knew that life with Christ is a journey. No Christian is perfect. All struggle with their own temptations and sins. All fall short of the glory of God. All are saved not by their capacity for moral performance, but by what Christ did for them on the cross and from the empty tomb and by their faith in Him.

Paul is praying here that the God Who imposed order on primordial chaos in Genesis 1, will impose order on the Corinthian Christians, so that the chaos unleashed by their sins, often against one another, will be conquered and they can live in the peace of God.

Notice that the order in which Paul names the members of the Trinity. He starts with the grace of God the Son, Jesus. We Lutherans are sometimes called "Second Person Unitarians," a good-humored reproach for our focus on Jesus, often at the expense of the Father and the Holy Spirit. There's some validity to the criticism and yet, Paul's formulation of the Trinity here shows us that the key to understanding the nature and will of God is to see Him revealed in Jesus Christ.

The psalm is, as my son Philip described it aptly yesterday during a weekly lectionary study we attend with ELCA clergy, "a reverie." I like this designation even better than scholar Klaus Westermann's apt description of it as a "creation psalm," a category he seems to have invented largely for this psalm, although he claims to find other examples of the genre within other psalms.

Be that as it may, it's difficult, as my colleague, Pastor Rick Hinger noted during that same study, to theologize on the basis of this psalm. It's an expression of wonder and awe at the work of the Creator Who deigns to reach out to His children.

Psalm 8 then, is maybe the perfect psalm for Holy Trinity Sunday. At least, it strikes the right tone, acknowledging that, while we aren't expected to check our brains in the baptismal font and while there is much we can question and know about God and reality, God, the great big God revealed as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, is mystery more to be savored than explained.

The Gospel lesson contains what is called the Great Commission, the orders of the risen and soon-to-ascend Jesus Christ for His followers. They're to make disciples--literally students of Christ--of all nations, teach them to observe His commands, and baptize in the Name of the Triune (Three-in-One) God.

4. N.T. Wright shows how this oft-quoted passage from the Gospel of Matthew also hits on the theme of God as the bringer of peace and order to our chaotic lives:
Despite what many people today suppose, it is basic to the most elementary New Testament faith that Jesus is already ruling the whole world. That is one of the most important results of his resurrection; it is part of the meaning of messiahship, which his new life after the crucifixion has made plain.

People get very puzzled by the claim that Jesus is already ruling the world, until they see what is in fact being said. The claim is not that the world is already completely as Jesus intends it to be. The claim is that he is working to take from where it was--under the rule not only of death but of corruption, greed, and every kind of wickedness--to bring it, by slow means and quick, under the rule of his life-giving love. And how is he doing this? Here is the shock: through us, his followers. The project only goes forward insofar as Jesus' agents, the people he has commissioned, are taking it forward.
5. The most intriguing commentary on this passage I've read is from Brian Stoffregen. See it here. Pay special attention to his comments on the co-existence of worship and doubt.

All Christians wrestle with doubt, at least about some things and at some points in their lives. But it is our willingness to believe in the Triune God, not some internal capacity for certainty, that God can turn into faith.

[Each week, I present some thoughts on the Bible lessons for the succeeding Sunday. In doing so, I hope to help the people of the congregation I serve, Saint Matthew Lutheran Church in Logan, to prepare for worship. And because, we will almost always use the appointed lessons for the Church Year, I also hope that these thoughts can help others prepare for worship too.]

No Politics from the Pulpit...or From Preachers

Two really intelligent people I've gotten to know over on Facebook, supporters of Senator Hillary Clinton, have assumed that because of some of what I've written about Clinton's fading prospects for the presidency that I'm a supporter of Senator Barack Obama.

The fact is that while I am intensely interested in politics, I've come to believe it's morally wrong for pastors to get involved in partisan politicking.

As I've said many times, God is not a Republican, God is not a Democrat, and God is not an American.

It's impossible to draw a straight line between one's faith and a political party or a political candidate. Attempts to do so, it seems to me, result in putting God in a box and making idols of ideologies or political figures. God is bigger than all of politics and preachers who get involved in politics--something I did four years ago when, concerned about the funding of public education in Ohio, I ran for the state House of Representatives, an effort I now regret--risk sending the wrong signals about God and the message of the Gospel.

Politics is an abiding interest of mine, as is history. I majored in Social Studies at Ohio State, worked as volunteer coordinator for a 1976 congressional campaign, and worked for the Ohio House of Representatives. As an avocation, as one always interested in history, current events, and the political process, I do write about politics from those vantage points.

But unless the voice of Scripture is, to my satisfaction, unambiguous, I never advocate policy positions here. And certainly never do so from the pulpit. I never endorse candidates. And so long as I am under call as a pastor of Christ's Church, I never will.

By the way, it's my view that pastors who get into endorsing political candidates or policy positions from the pulpit are doing a great disservice to our Lord. We all sin and are imperfect, of course. But I hope that, absent the kinds of clear Scriptural imperatives I've mentioned, all pastors will refrain from political activism.

Here are links to a few past discussions of these and related matters...

A Pledge I Wish Every Christian Leader Would Make
Jesus is Not a Republican. Jesus is Also Not a Democrat.
Who is the 'Values Voter'?
"Do religious ideas undermine democratic discourse?"
Dr. Dobson, Stop Playing This Dangerous Game!
Politics Endorsed by a Church? I Don't Think So!
Why Separation of Church and State is Best for the Church and Its Cause
Iraq, the Church, and 'Christian' Political Commentary

Sunday, May 11, 2008

What Does the Holy Spirit Do for Us?

[This was shared during worship with the people of Saint Matthew Lutheran Church earlier today.]

Acts 2:1-21
Today brings us to the third great festival of the Church Year. There’s Christmas, then Easter, and now Pentecost. Of course, Christmas and Easter get all the attention. Churches are filled for celebrations of Jesus’ birth and His resurrection from the dead. But unless young people are being confirmed on Pentecost, something that’s scheduled to happen both next year and the year after here at Saint Matthew, attendance is rarely higher on Pentecost Sunday than it is on most other Sundays of the year.

In the secular media, magazines and cable channels seem to always use Christmas and Easter as occasions for specials claiming that they’ve found “the real Jesus.” There’ll be no special Pentecost programming on CNN or the Discovery Channel tonight.

Maybe that’s because the Holy Spirit, the One Whose coming fifty days after Jesus rose from the dead Pentecost celebrates, doesn’t really call attention to Himself. He’s been called the “shy member of the Trinity,” the the third Person of the Three-in-One God—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—Who seems always to be in the background. Cartoonists may show God the Father as a white-bearded old man. And Jesus has been the focal point of endless artistic renderings for the past two-thousand years. But the Spirit has always been tough to portray.

Though the Scriptures insist that the Spirit has a personality—Jesus calls Him a Counselor, a Comforter, an Advocate, for example, it’s been hard for artists to find ways to portray Him.

The Holy Spirit is sometimes shown as a dove. That’s because Luke’s Gospel, for example, tells us that when Jesus was baptized, the Spirit came to Him in the bodily form of a dove, a bird that the ancient Jews thought was pure, without bile.

Sometimes the Spirit is shown as fire. This is appropriate not only because in our first lesson for today, the Holy Spirit rested on 120 praying followers of Jesus like tongues of fire, but also because of some properties that fire shares with the Holy Spirit. Fire enlightens, destroys, and purifies. So does the Spirit of God, depending on our needs at the time.

And sometimes, the Spirit is seen as wind. This too, is appropriate. The word translated as spirit from the Old Testament Hebrew is ruach, a word that also means wind or breath. It’s God’s ruach—wind or spirit—that moves over the waters in Genesis to create the world. It’s also God’s ruach that God breathes into dust to make the first human being. In the Greek of the New Testament, the word pneuma has the same multiple meanings as ruach. Pneuma can also mean wind, breath, or spirit. But the problem with trying to picture something like wind or breath is that, as Jesus told Nicodemus, you may hear the sound of it—and on the first Pentecost, the Spirit must have sounded like a freight train filling the house where the first disciples had been praying--but you can’t really see it. You can only see the evidence of it.

Maybe the Spirit’s shyness and His insusceptibility to being pictured are why we attach so little importance to Pentecost.

Maybe too, it’s easier to understand what Jesus does for us than it is to understand what the Spirit does for us. At Christmas, we easily understand that Jesus, God the Son, took on the burden of being human. At Easter, we understand that after dying on a cross for us, Christ rose to give life to all who turn from sin and follow Him. But what exactly does the Holy Spirit do for us?

A lot of things, really, if we will let Him do them for us. I want to talk about two things the Spirit does for us today, as seen in our first lesson, which comes from Acts 2.

First, the Holy Spirit gives us the courage to live past our fears. Before the events recounted in our lesson, 120 followers of Jesus had gathered in room to, just as Jesus had ordered them to do, wait and pray for the power of God to come upon them. When the Spirit came upon them “like the rush of a violent wind,” they did something they probably couldn’t have imagined doing moments before: They hit the hostile streets of Jerusalem, moving out among some of the very crowds who, just a few weeks before, had cried for Jesus’ death. They told anyone who would about God's mighty deeds and conveying the message that all who call on the Name of the Lord will be saved.

The Spirit gives courage to people who pray. Years ago, Ann and I knew a woman who was the mother of three children. Once, there had been four. The oldest child died at the age of two. After that tragic death, the woman had taken solace in two things: being a super-mom to her second child, another girl, and in using God as a lucky charm.

When she wasn’t doting on her daughter, watching her like a hawk, she was immersed in church activities, intent on warding off anything bad that might happen to the child. One day, the woman turned her head for an instant and when she turned back, the little girl was gone. The mother looked everywhere. When she finally found her, the little one was at the bottom of their pool. She had been there for some time.

Terrified, the woman, who had gone to a waiting area once her child had been transported to a hospital emergency room, screamed out to God. Then, panting between her shrieks of terror, she heard, in her mind, a message that must have come from the Holy Spirit: “You shall have no other gods before Me.”

From the Holy Spirit, Who, Jesus says, convicts us of our sin and convinces us that Christ can forgive our sin and lead us down better paths, this woman learned that her “faith” had really been superstition, a ploy to be in control of a world not in our control. She had been worshiping her child. She needed to let go, letting God be God and letting both her daughter and her to be children of God.

Miraculously, the child survived and grew up to be a brilliant young woman back when Ann and I knew her. But, whether the daughter has survived or not, from the Holy Spirit, the mother knew that God had given her the courage to live past her fears. The Holy Spirit does that for us.

The Holy Spirit also gives us a reason for living. Often, elderly people will ask me, “Why hasn’t God taken me yet? What am I still doing here?”

Sadly, these questions often come from people who have been hard workers their entire lives but who are no longer able to do the things they formerly could. I try to remind these elderly Christians that they (and all of us) are human beings, not human doings.

They (and we) have value not because of what we do, but because of who we are. When we stand before the judgment seat of God in eternity, God won’t ask us, “How many pies did you bake? How much money did you make? How often did you clean your house, stay late at the plant or the office?” Instead, God will ask, “Were you a believer in the Lord Jesus? Were you a repentant sinner? Were you a grateful disciple?” All baptized Christians are given the gift of the Holy Spirit Who reminds us that by grace, God accepts us we are and by that grace, God gives us a reason for living no matter what our abilities.

The first followers of Christ must have wondered after Jesus ascended into heaven why they were still around. In Jesus, they’d glimpsed eternity and they wanted to be with Him. But here they were, stuck on a planet filled with people who would rather worship themselves, or possessions, or power, or prominence, rather than the God Who made them and died and rose for them. They were stuck living a life in which they would have to struggle and possibly suffer. But when the Holy Spirit came, He gave Jesus’ praying followers a reason for living this as fully as they could. In short, the Holy Spirit game them a vocation.

All followers of Jesus have the same vocation, whatever jobs they do, even if they can no longer do a scrap of work. A village in southern Italy learned this in the waning days of World War 2. The German soldiers who had occupied their community after re-installing Benito Mussolini as the Fascist dictator of Italy, retreated in the face of the Allied military forces. But as the Germans fell back, their artillery shattered a statue of Christ that had once stood in the village square. The local priest told the men of the village to search for the arms, legs, and head of the statue of Christ. In the meantime, the women would prepare a village feast. At dusk, in despair, the men approached the priest. “Padre,” one of them said, “we have tried to put the statue back together. But there are no hands for Jesus. They are in pieces.” “Children,” the priest replied, “don’t you realize? You are His hands?”

You are the hands of Christ. That is your vocation. That is your reason for living. And, as was true of the first followers of Christ, the Spirit will give you the capacity to fulfill your vocation, to be Christ’s hands, whether you’re two or one-hundred, whether you're strong enough to run a marathon or on your death bed.

Some of you have heard me speak before of our friends Sig and Chris. They came to this country from Germany in the early-1960s. Sig was an engineer and Christ was a pediatric intensive care nurse. But above all, they were ambassadors for Christ! When Sig died several years ago, he was a patient at a hospital in Cincinnati. His room was a holy place, bathed in prayer, filled with the presence of the Holy Spirit. When Sig would occasionally regain some semblance of consciousness, he would ask that Scripture or writings by his favorite writer, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, be read to him. People who weren't even believers wanted to be in that room, so palpable was the presence of God. Even as he lay dying, you see, Sig had a reason for living. He had a vocation.

The Holy Spirit doesn’t get a lot of attention. Maybe in some ways, He doesn’t want it. He’s like the quiet saint content with a ministry of praying for others, or of giving an anonymous offering so that a child can go to church camp, or of being the choir member who never sings a solo, or of carting the food offerings to the local food bank. The Spirit takes a backseat in the Trinity, content with supporting Jesus as He speaks to us, content with supporting us as we call out to Jesus, follow Him, and share Him with others. The Spirit never calls attention to Himself. But He showers us with gifts, including the courage to live past our fears and a reason for living, a vocation of pointing others to Christ, serving them in Jesus’ Name and inviting others to follow Christ, a vocation that lasts our whole lives.

Today, I not only wish all of our moms a happy Mother’s Day, but I wish to all of you, a very happy Pentecost! May you keep in prayerful contact with the Holy Spirit so that you will have the courage to live past your fears and a reason for living life every day you remain on this earth. Amen