Saturday, February 02, 2013

You Know You're from Ohio If...

Love this shirt I got a while back. Click on the images to enlarge and be able to read more readily.

I love my Buckeye state!

"Gut Check: A Quick Audit"

Short, provoking blog post here. (Thanks to Marie Wikle for tweeting a link to Tony Myles' post.)

"I'm gonna swandive, baby, right into the irresistible future!"

"It's not about luck,
"It's not about fate,
"He's the Fisher of men,
"I'm gonna take the bait"
(Irresistible Future by Randy Stonehill and Phil Keaggy)


4 Books I'm Really Enjoying These Days

Friday, February 01, 2013

9 Thoughts on the Angry Pastor and the Restaurant Server Who Went Viral

My buddy, Steve Sjogren, first alerted me to the image of a receipt on which a pastor refused to leave a tip because she already gave 10% to God. He suggested I might want to blog on the story.

Since then, I've learned more of the details:
A Friday night meal at Applebee’s resulted in more than either the customer or a waitress working that night bargained for after a pastor’s refusal to pay a tip was shared online.

Though the embarrassed patron has apologized for her actions, the old adage of the customer always being right may have some truth to it, as the waitress who posted photo evidence of the tip snub lost her job for doing so.

The trouble began last Friday, when Pastor Alois Bell went to the local chain restaurant with several others following a service at Truth in the World Deliverance Ministries.

When the bill came, she did not include a tip on the signed copy of her receipt. She did, however, include the reason why.

“I give God 10 [percent],” the note on the receipt read. “Why do you get 18?”

The waitress, who has been identified only as Chelsea by The Consumerist, posted a picture of the note on the popular user-powered news site Reddit, along with the caption, “My mistake sir, I’m sure Jesus will pay for my rent and groceries.”

“I originally posted the note as a lighthearted joke,” she told The Consumerist. “I thought the note was insulting, but it was also comical. I posted it to Reddit because I thought other users would find it entertaining.”

Her post instantly got the attention of other users, and eventually the news media. The popular story also got back to its source – Bell – on Wednesday, though she was less amused than others who had seen it before her. She called the Applebee’s where she had eaten to voice her frustration over the sharing of the image, which includes her signature.

Chelsea was fired by managers at the restaurant following the call, despite reportedly being a model employee before this incident...

In an interview with The Smoking Gun, Bell apologized for her actions, which she described as “lapse in [her] character and judgment,” adding that she did leave a $6 cash tip on the table for the waitress who served them that night – who was not Chelsea.

“My heart is really broken,” she was quoted as saying. “I’ve brought embarrassment to my church and ministry.”
Is billing customers 18% for tips a good policy? Probably not and probably not smart either. While many restaurant patrons are no doubt cheap, inconsiderate of the hard work done by servers and other restaurant personnel, a customer alienated because of a set charge for tips is not likely to return, meaning no business and no tips.

Was Applebee's right in firing the server? Probably. Whether it was in the company manual or not, she seems to have willfully violated the privacy of another person for what she characterizes as a lighthearted prank. It hardly seems that.

Was the pastor wrong to refuse to pay the tip and to do so invoking both God and her calling as a pastor? I feel so. I also think that she was right to apologize.

Here's a look at the receipt and Pastor Bell's note.

The entire incident evokes all sorts of thoughts and feelings from me.

1. Let's start with the anger seen in the question, "I give God 10%, why do you get 18" and in the scratches through the levied tip amount.

Anger in itself is not a sin. Jesus, God in the flesh, got angry. (More on that later.) And Ephesians 4:26 tells Christians: "Be angry but do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger."

The takeaway from that passage? If you're angry, don't use it as an excuse to assault another person, verbally or otherwise.

Instead, seek out the person with whom you're angry and, with the idea that you could be wrong, in part or in full, explain your grievance. Seek to get things resolved. (If that sounds like the way Jesus tells Christians to resolve disputes among themselves in Matthew 18:15-20, it should.)

Bell's angry note resolved nothing. In fact, it caused all kinds of problems, for her and for her server.

2. Scripture says that God loves cheerful givers who give "not reluctantly or under compulsion" (2 Corinthians 9:7). Pastor Bell's note made her seem like something other than a cheerful giver! The note comes across as saying that her offerings to God aren't given in grateful response to God for Jesus' death and resurrection, but an obligation she has to keep. "God coerces me to give 10% of my income to Him," she seems to be saying, "You can't coerce an even bigger percentage out of me."

I have to ask myself, "Do I ever unwittingly begrudge God the things I should want to give to Him simply because I know He loves me and I want to love Him back?" I hope not.

3. I feel that Bell mentioned being a pastor in order to give credence to her anger. The message seems to be, "As a pastor, I speak for God. Therefore it isn't just me who's mad at me, it's God too."

That might have carried weight with some people. It clearly didn't with Bell's server.

And here's a news flash for all pastors: Most people in today's society don't respect pastors. They don't regard pastors as authority figures. And most people think that the main thing churches and pastors want from them is money. Your being a pastor does not legitimize your anger! In fact, it should curb it. Not all anger is illegitimate, but its expression by pastors should be rare and thought-through.

If Pastor Bell's server wasn't a Christian, this was the lesson she took away from the pastor's scrawl: We Christians and we pastors are just as self-righteous, angry, and money-grubbing as many people say we are. From Pastor Bell's contrite response to the situation, I doubt that's the impression she wanted to leave with her server.

And I guarantee if you were a spiritually disconnected restaurant server who got dumped on like this by a customer identifying herself as a pastor, you wouldn't be very likely to wake up on Sunday morning and say to yourself, "I want the joy that pastor has. I think I'll go to church today!"

4. I'm not piling onto Pastor Bell here. She has apologized and I believe her apology. But there is a larger lesson here: If Christians or pastors want credibility for the faith we confess, we won't get it by coming across as bullies.

The gospel of Matthew says that the crowds who heard Jesus "were astounded at His teaching, for he taught them as one having authority" (Matthew 6:29). But what Jesus taught wasn't new. Or exotic. And He didn't usually push His "heft" around. Jesus was a servant. He wasn't even too proud to wash the feet of His disciples while telling all who follow Him to be servants, too (John 13:1-16). If God in the flesh served us, even dying on a cross for us, how much more should those of who bear His Name--Christians, we're called--be servants of others.

It's only in being servants, whether we're pastors or plumbers or presidents, that we Christians have any authority.

And, like Jesus, we're to only use our authority (read: the influence we earn through our servanthood) in ways that build people up, even the people we may have to criticize and to whom we may need to speak unwanted truths in love (Ephesians 4:15).

5. Is there ever a time when church leaders should get mad? If Jesus is any example to us, then we must conclude that there are times when anger and setting people straight is warranted. Like when believers who should know better turn their backs on the will of God, or treat each other hatefully, or otherwise sin unrepentantly.

But Jesus never "went off" on prostitutes or extortionist tax collectors. He never blew up on those who were known to have no relationship with God. Jesus always used kindness to lead the spiritually-disconnected to repentance and faith in Him.

On the other hand, Jesus often let some people have it, people like self-righteous Pharisees and temple money-changers who knew God's Word by heart, yet ignored it. His anger then, was aimed at the same purpose as His kindness, to call believers to repentance and faith in Him. For Jesus, anger was a tool expressing God's will and even God's love, not a display of self-indulgence.

Pastors and all Christians are better off to assume that most of the people they meet know nothing about the God revealed in Christ and do all they can to extend to them the same grace, patience, and kindness that Christ shows Christians every single day.

6. Let's assume for just a second that the 18% tip charge came at Pastor Bell out of nowhere. Was it right to just go off on the server?

The better path might have been to ask to speak to the manager about the restaurant's automatic tip policy (and still have left the server with some sort of tip).

Pastor Bell says that she did leave a $6.00 cash tip on the table after writing her note. That amounts to a 17.6% tip, almost the amount that the receipt had charged her in the first place. This tells me that she may have been trying to make a point that she didn't mind leaving tips, only having a particular amount put on her charge account.

I'm glad she left the server a tip. After all, "the laborer deserves to be paid" (1 Timothy 5:18) and most restaurant servers accept lower wages in order to be able to accept patrons' tips. It's not fair to hold a restaurant's policy you find unacceptable against a server who didn't set the policy.

7. In the Internet era, anything we say or do has the potential for going viral. In fact, our deeds can "go viral" even without the Internet, in the swirling cesspool of gossip. This is one more reason I often pray, "God, give me the right words and the right silences. Grant that everything I say, do, and am will bring you glory."

I can't tell you (and won't tell you for fear of it going viral) how often I've gotten in the way of God answering that prayer, not because God couldn't answer it, but because of my words, deeds, and thoughts, I refused to let Him answer it. In the Name of Jesus Christ, I repent for that.

8. Our actions can have unintended consequences for others. Chelsea, the Applebee's server, was, in my judgment, wrong to publish Pastor Bell's signed receipt on the Internet. But her getting fired was in part caused by Bell's ill-advised note. The server still bears responsibility for her action; no one made her send the image of the receipt out onto the Internet. But no note, no appearance on the web, no kerfluffle, no irate call from a violated customer, no firing.

If the server was going to publicize this incident, she would have done better just to post about it on Twitter without Bell's name. I know that the image of the receipt was more powerful than a tweet would have been. But the server would still have her job, while maybe sensitizing some who saw her post on Twitter to be considerate in tipping serving personnel.

9. A final thought: This receipt makes me wonder, "What are the ways in which I indulge my own anger or general sinfulness rather than stopping and asking God to control my thoughts, words, and actions?" How can I be more faithful to Christ while interacting with people in my everyday life?

Those are haunting questions, ones worth praying about.

Thursday, January 31, 2013

Long Time Users of Violent Video Games Are More Aggressive

Previous research has shown a link between extended use of violent video games and increased aggression and anger by players. But now a new study conducted at The Ohio State University confirms it:
Brad Bushman is a professor at OSU, who teaches a course in violence in the media, and recently participated in the research project on violent video games.

"Violent video games make people more and more and more aggressive over time. They have a cumulative effect," Bushman said.

In the study, Bushman had students play violent video games over three days, then had them compete against each other.

"The winner gets to blast the loser with loud noises through headphones and the noise is a mixture of noises that most people really hate," Bushman said.

What he found was that the more someone played the violent video games, the more they made their opponent want to suffer in another game.

"These games decrease helping behaviors and they decrease feelings of empathy and compassion. For others, they make people numb," Bushman said.
Read the whole thing.

Video games, Netflix, and cable and satellite TV are all convenient babysitters. But are parents who fail to set limits on their kids' consumption of these things doing them--or society--any favors? Probably not.

Vladimir Putin, Boyz II Men, and How Rumors Gain Traction on the Web


Mark Sheldon's Profile of the 2013 Reds Outfield

Very encouraging. And with Billy Hamilton percolating in the minors, the future looks bright in the outfield for the Reds.

Philips and Cozart Are a Great Middle Infield Combination for Reds!


Talk to Strangers

That's what Geoff Talbot says. I think that he's right.

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Viewing the Old Testament from a New Testament Perspective

I'm reading New Testament scholar N.T. Wright's The Last Word: Beyond the Bible Wars to a New Understanding of the Authority of Scripture.

I don't agree with everything Wright says. (After all, he says so much and, as a colleague recently quipped, Wright is such a prolific writer that he's at risk of not having a single unpublished thought.)

But The Last Word is definitely worth reading, especially for Wright's explanation of how the first Christians, proclaiming the crucified and risen Jesus, were forced to think through the continuities and discontinuities between the Old Testament and the good news about Jesus Christ that they were proclaiming in their preaching, teaching, and writings. (Those writings--the Gospels, the epistles, and others--became the New Testament, of course.)

The writers of the New Testament saw Jesus as the ultimate expression of Israel's "office" to be "a light to the nations" and the Church as having been grafted onto God's people by God's grace through faith in Christ (Romans 11). This view didn't rely simply on explicit "proof texts," but on the whole witness to God's character and intentions found in the Old Testament.

So, Wright argues that the "new covenant" God makes with the world through Jesus and given to believers today by the power of the Holy Spirit, isn't so much "new" as it is the definitive fulfillment of Israel's story. (This is perhaps the overarching theme of the Gospel of Luke and the other New Testament book written by Luke, Acts, by the way.)

After Jesus' death and resurrection and the giving of the Holy Spirit, some things about the faith practices commended in the Old Testament were no longer necessary.

As Wright would seem to say, this doesn't mean that the parts of the Old Testament we may today find strange or even alarming were "bad." Even those parts of the Old Testament we may think of as being no longer operative were inspired by the Holy Spirit and are part of God's Word.

But if you see the Old and New Testaments as the story of God's efforts to save the human race from ourselves, our sin, and death, you see that the Old Testament presents the beginning of God's efforts: After the fall of Adam and Eve, God set out on the long journey to first, create a people--the Jews--who would bear witness of Him and learn to live with His undeserved grace and often deserved chastening, all with the idea of bringing His efforts to stunning climax on the first Easter, then ushering in the moment when the Church would hit the streets (and the byways) with the news that God so loved the world, He gave His only Son so that all who believe in Him will not perish, but have eternal life with God!

Wright uses the analogy of a journey to explain the Bible's continuing story and how, with the unfolding of this story, some aspects, once critical to the journey, were no longer essential:
When travelers sail across a vast ocean and finally arrive on the distant shore, they leave the ship behind and continue over land, not because the ship was no good, or because their voyage had been misguided, but precisely because both ship and voyage had accomplished their purpose. During the new dry-land stage of their journey, the travelers remain--and in this illustration must never forget that they remain--the people who made that voyage in that ship.
An argument that gets made against orthodox Lutherans like me is that we are literalists about the Bible. Setting up this straw man, advocates of revisionism then set out to demolish it with all sorts of references to strange and foreboding laws from the book of Leviticus. "If you don't support everything commanded in Leviticus," they ask, "how can you be so inflexible about upholding the ten commandments as God's irrevocable will for the human race? The commandments are in the Old Testament, too, you know. Aren't you throwing out some of the Bible and keeping the parts you like?"

No, in fact, that's not what I'm doing. Nor is it what any other advocate of confessional, orthodox Lutheran Christianity that I know of, like Carl Braaten, is doing either.

First of all, speaking for myself, I'm not a Biblical literalist. I don't believe, for example, that trees, rocks, birds, or mountains actually praise God. Yet there are passages of Scripture that speak of these sorts of things. There are many different genres of literature: history, poetry, proverbs, and so on.

But I do believe, as Martin Luther put it, in paying attention to the plain sense of Scripture. For example, when the Old Testament writers repeatedly affirm that there is one God, they plainly mean it. And when the New Testament writers say that Jesus was born of a virgin, was sinless God-enfleshed, died on a cross, and rose from the dead, they plainly mean what they confess. To see these kinds of affirmations being made in Scripture is not to be a literalist, but one who takes the Scripture to mean what it means to affirm as factual.

Second, I believe in taking my cues from what the New Testament writers who, as Wright points out, while not thinking that they were composing "the New Testament," did believe that they were producing a definitive account of God's definitive self-disclosure in Jesus. They believed that some of what was in the Old Testament, while still God's Word, weren't to be carried any further in the journey of salvation.

That's why the preacher of Hebrews opens his sermon:
Long ago God spoke to our ancestors in many and various ways by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, through whom he also created the worlds. (Hebrews 1:1-2)
And John could write:
The law indeed was given through Moses; grace and truth through Jesus Christ. (John 1:17)
Jesus didn't repudiate the Old Testament. As He said, "For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished" (Matthew 5:18). But Jesus fulfilled the Old Testament, meaning that everything that God had been aiming for in calling together His people, Israel, culminates perfectly in Jesus, true God and true human, a son of Israel, the Lord of Israel, the Lord of heaven and earth.

That means that some parts of the Old Testament journey are no longer relevant. For example, it's no longer necessary to offer sacrifices for sin. Jesus is the definitive sacrifice for sin (Hebrews 9:28, 1 Peter 3:18), the Lamb of God, Who takes away the sin of the world (John 1:29).

This sacrifice is so definitive that the risen Jesus could say of Himself:
The one who believes [in Christ] and is baptized will be saved; but the one who does not believe [in Christ] will be condemned (Mark 16:16).
Unlike Wright, I believe that the New Testament, in conveying the continuities between the Old and New Testaments, between faith in the Old Testament era and faith today, allows us to discern the three types of Old Testament law that Philip Melanchthon describes in his explanation of justification  in The Apology to the Augsburg Confession:
1. sacrificial/ritual law
2. civil law
3. moral law
Since Christ is the once-for-all-time sacrifice for sin, the benefits of which are given to all who trust in Christ and His promises, Old Testament sacrificial law is no longer needed.

Since the kingdom of God isn't confined to a particular place--and, in fact, is eternal--the civil laws God gave for the operation of Israel in its promised land is also no longer needed.

But the moral law, embodied in the ten commandments and related commands sprinkled throughout the Old Testament, are still valid. They serve three purposes to us today:
1. As a hedge on our inborn impulse to self-centered behavior (original sin). God's law, the Bible says, is written on our hearts. Even those with no knowledge or respect for God have some sense of how we are to relate to others. Without the law written on human hearts, the world would be an even more tragically sinful place than it is.
2. As a mirror that allows us to see our true distance from God, a tool God can use to drive us to Christ when we learn that Christ died for sinners and gives new life to those who believe in Him.
3. As a guide for those who, knowing that they are saved from sin and death by Christ, want to express their thanks to God in their daily lives.
As I say, Wright doesn't agree with this Lutheran view of God's Old Testament law. Yet, I think its validity is revealed in how the New Testament deals with those "continuities and discontinuities" that Wright so well explains.

If only for the stimulation he may give a Christian to think about these issues, I highly recommend The Last Word.

That "Presidential Grub" is Resilient Stuff

Ann Althouse makes it plain that she thinks departing Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was shooting less than straight when she said that isn't presently inclined to run for the presidency in 2016. Althouse asked her readers to "assess the degree of [baloney]" (my translation) in Clinton's statement.

But I don't think one can assess Clinton too much blame for being disingenuous about her White House ambitions.

For one thing, even in this era of "it's campaign time all the time," it's not "nice" to admit wanting to be President when crews are still cleaning up after the most recent Inauguration, even though those who run without craving the office like cocaine are dismissed for lacking "fire in the belly."

On top of that she's got people still fanning the flames of her presidential ambition addiction. It doesn't need much encouragement.

Nor would the ambitions of anyone under the age of 80 who has ever had the presidency clearly in their sights, within reasonable reach. (Sometimes it doesn't even need to have been in "reasonable reach." Remember Harold Stassen?) Lincoln once observed, “No man knows, when that Presidential grub gets to gnawing at him, just how deep in it will get until he has tried it."

I'm guessing, no woman knows either.

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Sometimes It's About Being at the Right Place at the Right Time

This observation by NPR political guy Ken Rudin made me chuckle:
It took John Kerry 25 years to become Massachusetts' senior senator. It took Elizabeth Warren 3 weeks.

No Excuse for Boredom

As you can imagine, I got a particular charge out of reading this post by my son over on Facebook today. I still believe that there's no excuse for boredom.
My dad always told me that "only the boring are bored." Such thoughts have been confirmed by a lyric from a song by "They Might Be Giants Song" which declares, "Now it's over, I'm dead, and I haven't Done anything that I want / Or, I'm still alive and there's nothing I want to do." Then I recently saw this:
My dad always told me that "only the boring are bored."  Such thoughts have been confirmed by a lyric from a song by "They Might Be Giants Song" which declares, "Now it's over, I'm dead, and I haven't Done anything that I want / Or, I'm still alive and there's nothing I want to do."  Then I recently saw this:

When Sin Happens

Sin happens any time we use a gift from God in the wrong way, at the wrong time, for the wrong reason, or with the wrong person.

Sin is like opening a gift meant for someone else (things like their life, their property, sexual intimacy God has reserved for their spouse) and taking its contents for ourselves.

Lose Myself

In the absence of a video for the song, Lose Myself, from TobyMac's LP, Eye on It, here's one created by a fan. Great song!

"[Jesus] called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it." (Mark 8:34-35)

Monday, January 28, 2013

Leadership Lessons from Lincoln

Mark Roberts writes: "I find it fascinating the extent to which Lincoln’s leadership of our nation was directly related to his leadership of himself."

The same was true of Washington and Eisenhower. You will not long lead others if you cannot lead yourself. And, I would add, you're not likely to be able to lead yourself for positive, worthy ends unless you're following Christ.

There Are No Hopeless Cases

God can give new life and fresh starts to anyone.


The Islamists presumably want to go back to some pristine Islamic past. So why would they set ablaze manuscripts from that past? In the end, I suppose, all radical political -ists have no ideology or religion other than their two deities: nihilism and winning.

Ever Hear of a Country Trying to Hurt Its Image Abroad?

This made me chuckle.

"The Most Important Aspect of Leadership"

What is it? Check out this post by John Schroeder, inspired a piece written by Mark Roberts.

I've been reading the blogs of these two men for a long while now and had the privilege of spending time with them at the first GodBlogCon in 2005.

5 Things God Wants You to Know About Sex, Plus 1 He Wants You to Know About Forgiveness

"You can get a large audience together for a strip-tease act--that is, to watch a girl undress onstage," C.S. Lewis, friend of J.R.R. Tolkien and creator of The Chronicles of Narnia, wrote.

"Now suppose," Lewis went on, "you come to a country where you could fill a theatre by simply bringing a covered plate on to the stage and then slowly lifting the cover so as to let every one see, just before the lights went out, that it contained a mutton chop or a bit of bacon, would you not think that in that country something had gone wrong with the appetite for food? And would not anyone who had grown up in a different world think there was something equally [strange]* about the state of the sex instinct among us?"

That question, written for a series of radio talks the English writer gave on the BBC that later became Mere Christianity, speaks with equal power to us today when, if anything, the obsession with things sexual has only increased.

I think it's time to consider what God has to say about sex. So, just to introduce this subject, I'm going to arbitrarily present you with 5 things God wants you to know about sex. (Plus 1 thing God wants you to know about forgiveness.)

Here we go...

1. God invented the sexes. Genesis 1:26-27 tells that the trinitarian God (one God in three Persons: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit) had a conversation with Himself in which He said, "Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness...So God created humankind in His image...male and female He created them."

2. God invented sexual intimacy for marriage between a wife and her husband.

Sexual intimacy is the way these two different but complementary bearers of Gods image seal the oneness of their marriage.

In Genesis 2:24, we're told: "Therefore a man leaves his father and his mother and clings to his wife, and they become one flesh."

Many centuries later, when God came into the world in the person of Jesus Christ, He underscored God's intent that sexual intimacy was to be an act between a man and a woman who are married. He said, "Have you not read [in Genesis] that the one who made them at the beginning [God] 'made them male and female,' and said, 'For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh'?" (Matthew 19:4-5)

3. God invented sexual intimacy as a means by which husbands and wives physically affirm their oneness, give each other pleasure, and, sometimes, produce children.

In the Old Testament, a woman named Sarah, long after she'd gone through menopause, hears God tell her husband Abraham that she will give birth to a son, who will become the ancestor of many nations. Sarah laughs and asks, "After I have grown old, and my husband is old, shall I have pleasure?" (Genesis 18:12)

I once asked a Hebrew scholar of the Old Testament, a Lutheran who received his doctorate from Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, and he confirmed that, in the original Hebrew in which Sarah's words are rendered in the Old Testament, the pleasure to which Sarah referred included the pleasure of intimacy with her husband and the physical pleasure to which such intimacy can lead, as well as the pleasure of bearing a child.

By the way, Sarah did again enjoy pleasure with her husband, both in their sexual intimacy and in the birth of their son, Isaac.

4. People who engage in sexual intimacy outside of marriage are stealing a blessing from God that He intended only for a husband and a wife who, before witnesses, declare in the presence of God, to build their lives on Him.

God views every act of sexual intimacy apart from the marriage bed of a husband and wife as theft, in much the same way that He regards murder as stealing a life that He has given or every use of His Name for anything other than prayer, praise, or thanksgiving to Him as a theft of His good name. The New Testament calls sex outside of marriage fornication and sees it as a violation of the Sixth Commandment, "You shall not commit adultery."

Like all the sins enumerated in the Ten Commandments, God's moral law, the punishment for violation of this command as a sin, is eternal separation from God.

Sexual intimacy is like fireworks: Great when set off at the right times; worthless and even dangerous when used under other conditions.

5. Living together is not an option for those who want to follow the God we know in Jesus Christ into forgiveness for sin and everlasting life with God.

"I see so much divorce or I've been hurt before," people planning on moving in with someone tell me. "Moving in together helps us to learn if we're compatible."

That's about the dumbest thing I have to hear people tell me as a pastor!

Living together will give you no idea about how compatible your prospective marriage will be or how long it will last. In fact, data I've run across from time to time reveals that married couples who started out living together have higher divorce rates than those who wait to take up residence together after they've said, "I do."***

There's a simple reason for that: When you're shacking up, there's always a net.

Until you commit yourself publicly, under God, with a dedication to building your marriage on God, you can always bug out.

Getting married is a bit like what my friends and I would do when we were kids. We'd find a good place to play ball and some scaredy-cat would say, "I don't think we can play there." That's when one of us would take all the balls, bats, and ball gloves we had and fling them far over the fence. Now, we were either going to see things out by climbing over the fence and playing ball on the lot or just leave everything behind.

Of course, couples should spend time getting to know one another before saying, "I do." But sexual intimacy is a gift God wants to be reserved for the married.

It's only after you've committed yourself in marriage to the other person that you are all-in. No amount of "playing house" will simulate marriage.

And why would you want to accept anything less than marriage anyway? When God wants to give you a Porsche, why would you settle for a Gremlin?

6. BONUS POINT: God can forgive any sin. If you've already had sex outside of marriage, God is willing to forgive the sin of any who want to turn away from (what the Bible calls repent) for a sin and turn to the God we meet in Jesus Christ. (Turning to Christ, repenting, by the way, is a continuous struggle even for the most seasoned Christians I have known, including me.)

If you're already living with someone in a sexual relationship, I urge you to move away from one another now, even if you're engaged to be married.

It will help you to see that sexual intimacy isn't just something you do to punctuate a night out or a night with seemingly nothing else to do. You will be restoring sexual intimacy to its proper place as total giving of a husband to a wife and of a wife to a husband that God intended it to be, no holding back.

Almost everyone is blessed with the physical capacity for a sex life. But just as you should only eat food when you're hungry or use God's Name when you're speaking to Him, for Him, or about Him,  sexual intimacy is only for people in marriages between husbands and wives. Any other use of this precious gift is dissing the God Who created the gift. My guess is that you don't want to do that.

*Lewis's original word here was queer. But he used the term in 1952, long before it became commonplace to use it for anything other than an adjective for strange.

**Probably not uncoincidentally, the explosion of our culture-wide sexual-obsessions has been accompanied by a similar almost grotesquely pornographic interest in food, if shows like The United States of Bacon on the Food Channel, of which my wife and I caught about five minutes the other night before being so grossed out, we turned off the TV. What was a farfetched absurdity to Lewis in 1952--lust for food--is a craving obsession in 2013, it seems.

***I couldn't care less about marriage licenses, by the way. As an added service to couples whose weddings I perform, I fill out the state paperwork. But frankly, I think the state ought to get completely out of the marriage business. So, my arguments in favor of marriage have nothing to do with the often and rightly dismissed, "piece of paper." When I talk about marriage here hasn't got a thing to do with any piece of paper!

Sunday, January 27, 2013

What Is 'Justification'? (Augsburg Confession, Part 4)

Have you ever had to prove yourself to somebody?

Maybe it was a teacher or a coach.

Or the relative you disappointed, the woman you were trying to woo, or the man you loved.

Maybe it was an old boss or the person you wanted to be your new boss.

When you want to prove yourself to someone, you work hard at it. You put in more effort, extra hours, all for the sake of winning over a person whose approval or disapproval stands between who you are and who you want to become.

In fact, it seems like much of our lives can be spent, in one way or another, doing things to justify our existences, doing things to prove our value. That fact about our lives is either going to make the message of today’s sermon deeply upsetting or the most freeing word you’ve ever heard! Here's a preview of what's to follow: You don't have a thing to prove!

In the sermon series in which we're involved now we’re considering the question, “What is a Lutheran Christian?” To find the answer, we’re looking at one of the basic statements of faith produced by the Lutheran movement, The Augsburg Confession, written by Martin Luther’s colleague, Philipp Melanchthon back in 1530.

Today, we look at what both the New Testament and Article 4 of the Confession call, “justification.” Luther said that on this article, the Church “stands or falls.” Lutherans have always believed that justification is “the chief article of our faith.” Justification is at the center of Biblical Christianity.

So, what is justification? Two weeks ago, we talked about Article 2 of the Confession, the one dealing with original sin. We said that original sin is the lack of trust in God and love for others with which we are born. Like David in Psalm 51:5, we all, if we’re honest, can say, “Indeed, I was born guilty, a sinner when my mother conceived me.”

The Greek New Testament words for guilty, justify, justification, and even righteousness are borrowed from the language used about criminal justice. Think about how a legal system works: A person is accused of a crime. A judge or a jury will either find him or her innocent or guilty. Justice, a word that sounds like justify, is done. A person convicted of a crime is guilty. A person found not guilty is acquitted; they’re justified in the eyes of the court; they’re innocent, right in the eyes of law, just as being righteous is to be right in the eyes of God.

But what hope do we have if we’re born guilty? If we come into this world alienated from God and have an irresistible orientation to violating the will of God for human beings as revealed in the Ten Commandments, what hope do we possibly have as we stand before God, the righteous judge?

The world, including most of its religions, answers those questions by saying that we need to get busy to win over God in the same ways we try to win over the people of this world: work, work, work.

But the problem with that answer is that from the moment you were conceived, you inherited a debt for sin to God so big that it makes the national debt look like chump change. Even if you had a million lifetimes to make things right by being a nice person, you still couldn’t pay off the debt you owe to God for your sin.

Our position is stated well in Isaiah 64:6: “...we are all like an unclean thing. And all our righteousnesses [all our violations of God’s holiness] are like filthy rags. We all fade as a leaf and our iniquities [our sins], like the wind, have taken us away.”

To the charge of sin, it must be said, each one of us is guilty. And the Bible makes it clear that there is nothing we can do to expunge sin from our souls and that God will not tolerate any particle of sin in His presence. There’s nothing we can do to prove ourselves worthy of salvation.

That’s just the way things would stay in all of our lives were it not for something that God does for us because He loves us. That something is called justification. So, what is justification? Please pull out the buff and brown editions of The Augsburg Confession you’ll find in the pew racks and turn to Article IV, Justification. It says:
Our churches teach that people cannot be justified before God by their own strength, merits, or works. People are freely justified for Christ’s sake, through faith, when they believe that they are received into favor and that their sins are forgiven for Christ’s sake. By His death, Christ made satisfaction for our sins. God counts this faith for righteousness in His sight...
Think of what that means: The Judge cast aside His robes, then volunteered to take our sentence--the eternity of separation from God we deserve--on Himself. The Bible says that the wages of sin is death, but Jesus, totally innocent God and man, took those wages and paid for our sins in full on the cross. The guilty can do nothing to make themselves acceptable to God. But God does all that for us through Christ. The apostle Paul explains it this way in Romans 3:22-26 (I’m starting at the end of verse 22):
For there is no difference; for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, being justified freely by His grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus Whom God set forth as a propitiation [Propitiation is an act designed to gain favor.] by His blood, through faith, to demonstrate His righteousness, because in His forbearance [in God’s patience] God has passed over the sins that were previously committed, to demonstrate at the present time [pay attention here, please] that He might be [both] just [that means, just in condemning us for sin] AND the justifier [the one who renders the verdict of  innocent] of the [person] who has faith” [in Jesus Christ!]
We are born slaves to sin, inheritors of death without hope of protection from our rightful condemnation and hell. But through His shed blood on the cross, Jesus redeemed or bought out of slavery to sin and death everyone who believes in Jesus. This is the greatest miracle God has ever done: The very Judge Who convicts us, justifies us by dying on the cross for us!

So, here’s a little test for you, just five questions, each with a single one-word answer. Feel free, Lutherans, to say the answers out loud. Ready?

What must you to become worthy of being in God's presence?


What must you do to prove yourself worthy of heaven?


What can you do to get the forgiveness of sin?


What can you to earn everlasting life with God?


What can you do to get God’s presence and help with you through the uncertainties of this life?


You can do nothing to gain all these blessings because, in Jesus Christ, God has already done everything you need to receive them!

“Now wait a minute!” I can imagine someone saying. “It says we have to believe in Jesus. Isn’t faith something we have to do in order to be saved?”

We ask this because it violates our arrogant pride to take something for nothing, even from God.

It sticks in our craws to have to admit that, like every other ordinary human being in history, we’re garden variety sinners, in need of God’s forgiveness.

It gives our sense of self-sufficiency--the idea that we can be good enough and strong enough on our own steam--a firm smackdown from the God Who made us and has the final say over our lives!

But the fact is that even the faith to believe that Jesus Christ gives me forgiveness and eternal life is a gift I can do nothing to receive, or earn, or deserve. Turn please, to Ephesians 2:8. It says: “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God...”

Even the faith we need to receive the justification that God gives through Christ is a gift.

You can not manufacure faith.

You can’t earn faith.

You can’t steal faith.

You can’t even inherit faith from your parents by being a dutiful pew-occupying Lutheran.

Faith in Jesus Christ is a personal gift God gives to us one person at a time.

Faith can only come to you when you stop “doing,” put down your dukes, and let God give you the faith that in Jesus Christ, God declares you justified, righteous, right with God. Innocent despite all the evidence to the contrary. 

So, what about good works?

What about giving food to the CHAP food bank; money for the world hunger efforts of Lutheran World Relief, funneled through the ELCA; health kits for the ministry of Lutheran World Federation; the prayers we offer for the missionaries of the World Missionary Prayer League; our sponsorship the little Ethiopian girl, Toiba Seid, through World Vision; and the things we do for southern Ohio through Lutheran Social Services?

Don’t our good works count for something?

Good works have a place in the life of a Christian. They’re a way of telling God, “Thank You” for the free gifts of faith, justification, and new life we receive through Jesus.

But our good works won't make us any more loved by God than we were when stubbornly refused to repent for our sins. Our good works won't make us any more redeemed than we were the hour we first believed. We’ll talk about the place of good works in Christians’ lives later in this series.

But for now, this morning, this week, let this simple truth soak into your hearts again:  

There’s nothing you must do to be justified by God.

There’s nothing you can do to be justified by God.

It is Jesus Christ Who has proven your value and your worth for all eternity. You were worth His death on the cross.

It is Jesus Christ Who justifies sinners.

Not you.

Not me.

Not our works.

Not being nice.

Christ has done it all.

Christ alone.

Thanks be to God! Amen

[This was prepared to be shared during both worship celebrations with the people of Saint Matthew Lutheran Church in Logan, Ohio, where God has granted me the undeserved privilege of being pastor.]

[Although anything cringe-worthy, misinformed, or otherwise embarrassing to the cause of Christ in this sermon is solely attributable to moments when I wasn't paying attention to God's guiding, I did find D.J Lura's approach Article 4 of the Confession extremely helpful!]