Saturday, March 28, 2015

The Moshing Floor by Steve Taylor and the Perfect Foil

Sun and Shield by Peter Furler

A Million Pieces by Peter Furler

It was wonderful!

Amazing Grace by Chris Tomlin

Come Away with Me by Norah Jones

"Come away with me,
"And I will write you a song."

Wonderful Tonight by Eric Clapton

For Good from Wicked

Without You from Rent

Someone to Watch Over Me by Willie Nelson

Grace by U2

Yahweh by U2

Be Still by Newsboys

Based on Psalm 46:10.

Would We Listen? (Will I Listen?)

Earlier today, I was thinking, "Wouldn't it be nice if God or someone He sends would, from time to time, pull us aside and tell us, 'These are among the best times of your whole life?'"

Would we listen?

Although I do remember well that, one special evening, I had the clear awareness that, at that moment, I was experiencing the best single night of my life, at least up to this point in my life, it's often been true that I've only realized the truth about the good eras after they've passed. I'm not nearly as thankful as I often think I am.

On the other hand, I believe that God is communicating with us all the time. But we get so busy and full of our own agendas that we usually don't take the time needed to "listen" with our hearts for His confirmations of this.

Maybe that's why God's Word tells us, "Be still and know that I am God" (Psalm 46:10)

Check out this book.

God, help me to hear Your whispers and discern the whispers that come from You by being steeped in Your Word in the Bible. In Jesus' Name I pray.

"If Either of Your Parents Smoked, Go and Get Your Heart Checked Out"

That's the ominous headline from TIME.

My father smoked Camels when I was a kid. One grandfather smoked Winstons. The other grandfather preferred stogies. I was around my dad and grandfather #1 all the time as a kid.

Additionally, I often was taken along with my dad and grandfather when they bowled, where I learned how to keep score. (This now being an entirely useless skill.) There usually was cigarette smoke wafting into my face throughout these evenings out. So, I got exposed to lots of second-hand smoke.

Except for a few cigarettes and Tiparillos (don't ask me to explain), I never smoked, one of the big risk factors for heart attacks.

Until recently, I've never been overweight. And I have tried always to exercise regularly and eat right. I also had no relevant family bad heart history.

Yet, in 2010, I had a major heart attack. My cardiologist says it had nothing to do with stress, but with a chunk of plaque that lodged the wrong way, creating a 100% blockage in left anterior descending artery. Fortunately, I was otherwise healthy enough that collateral arteries took up the slack and I wasn't killed by a blockage that the cardiologists graphically refer to as "the widow maker."

My cardiologist calls my heart attack, which resulted in the loss of 40% of my heart and the installation of a stent and later, a pacemaker/defibrillator, "a fluke."

That may be. But I can only refer to my survival as a miracle.

This article from TIME makes me wonder if the heart attack wasn't a delayed response to secondhand smoke to which I was exposed in childhood.

We'll never know this side of heaven, of course. But I think the headline gives good advice to those exposed to secondhand smoke: Get your heart checked.

Galatians 6:2, 5 (A 5 by 5 by 5 Reflection)

As some may know, I'm using the Navigators' 5x5x5 Bible Reading Plan for my daily times with God. Today's reading is Galatians, chapter 6. I've read this chapter many times. But today, something stood out: The seeming contradiction between verses 2 and 5.

Verse 2:
Bear one another’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ.
The "law of Christ," I take it, is first, Jesus' great commandment, summarizing the two tables of the Ten Commandments, that we love God with our whole beings and love our neighbors as we love ourselves.

I take it also to mean the new commandment that Jesus gave to His followers to love fellow believers as Christ has loved them, with their whole lives.

Finally, I take this "law" to encompass Jesus' great commission that all who are part of His Church make disciples.

But since Galatians 6 deals with the internal life of Christ's Church, I think Paul has in mind the first two components of what I believe he means by the "law of Christ."

The thrust of the passage is that, even in restoring those who have rebelled against Christ, being careful not to fall into temptation ourselves (v. 1), we in the Church are to bear each other's burdens.

I've seen this exemplified in the people of Living Water Lutheran Church in the days leading up to and following my wife's recent surgery. On the night before the surgery, during our Lenten midweek service, the people in attendance gathered around me (my wife was unable to attend) and prayed for her healing and for my encouragement. We received many calls, cards, and emails of encouragement, assuring us of people's prayers. On the day of the surgery, a couple from the congregation drove the hour-plus to the hospital to be with my daughter, mother-in-law, and me; they stayed all day. Someone sent us a gift card to a local restaurant. Several have brought or offered to bring meals. Some have offered to take my wife to where she needs to be, since she can't drive right now. These are the kinds of things, I believe, that Paul has in mind when he tells Christians to "bear one another's burdens." The love of Christ is seen and experienced in these acts and gestures of love, the power of Christ is demonstrated when we pray for one another.

I also have a friend who lives miles away who is wonderful about praying for people whose needs are brought to her attention. In addition, this friend is compassionate, generous, and forgiving of others, whatever their needs. All of these traits too, demonstrate the Christian bearing others' burdens.

But then we come to Galatians 6:5:
For all must carry their own loads.
I'll never forget eating lunch, more than thirty years ago, with a seminary classmate at a fast food restaurant in Columbus. We were working on a project together and we both had our Bibles open, discussing the project. A middle aged man approached us, who, it became clear, had a bee in his bonnet.

"You know," he said, "if everyone studied the Bible the way you two are, we wouldn't need welfare or charity programs for the poor. There wouldn't be any poor."

My classmate asked the guy how he'd arrived at that conclusion. He pointed to Galatians 6:5 and said, if everybody carried their own loads, everyone would be working.

I'd half-forgotten that encounter until I read this passage again this morning.

Of course, even thirty years ago, I realized that the man at the fast food restaurant was taking one passage of Scripture out of context with no regard for the total witness of Scripture on what the believer's stance toward the poor should be.

For example, throughout the Old Testament moral law, God's people were told to make provisions for the poor, the orphaned, foreigners, and the widowed. Farmers weren't to harvest their crops to the edges of their fields and if, after harvesting, they realized that parts of their fields were unharvested, they weren't to go back to harvest the rest of their crops. All of these leavings were to remain for the benefit of the poor who could glean them.

Jesus and the New Testament commends a similar concern for the poor.

Whether any of this bears relevance to government relief programs is one question. But there can be no question that what the man called "charity" programs, at least those in which Christians who have give to others who have not, is both commended and commanded by God.

So, is Paul contradicting himself in Galatians 6:2 and 6:5?

I dug a little deeper today.

In Galatians 6:2, the word translated as burdens that Paul uses in the Greek in which his letter was originally composed is baros. The word he uses in Galatians 6:5 translated as loads is phortion.

While these words can have similar meanings, there are subtle shades of difference between the two.

According to one New Testament Greek-English lexiconbaros, carries the meanings of "heaviness, weight, burden, trouble." In the context of Galatians 6, the burdens referred to are clearly those experiences in life that weigh us down, things like physical illness, relational discord, financial troubles, worry over loved ones, poverty, grief, heartbreaks, depression. The call in Galatians 6:2 is for Christians to lighten the burdens of fellow believers when they encounter these weights of life.

That same lexicon says that phortion can mean burden or load, with particular reference to the cargo being carried by a ship. It can also reference burdensome religious duties or "faults of the conscience that burden the soul."

In the context of 6:5, a different meaning emerges: the obligations we have to respond to the free gifts of God's forgiveness and new life that comes to all who believe in Christ. This "load," to be borne by every Christian is what Paul calls in Romans 12:1 our "true and proper worship" or, in other translations, "spiritual worship" or "reasonable service."

In other words, concern and care for the poor and all who are in need are among the good fruits that will spring from the life a person made new by the forgiveness and grace of Jesus Christ.

In fact, Galatians 6:5 appears to have no direct reference to work for an income, but the work of every believer as a priest and minister of the gospel

As with Jesus in His parable of the final judgement in Matthew 25:31-46, Paul isn't saying that we are saved by our good works, by shouldering some odious burdens, but that, touched and transformed by Christ, we will, almost as an involuntary Holy Spirit-created response to grace, do good works, including caring for the poor. (See Ephesians 2:8-10)

The "load" that Paul talks about in Galatians 6:5, is what Jesus also talks about when he tells those heavily laden either by the implacable demands of a dog-eat-dog world or by religious striving to be "good:
“Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.” (Matthew 11:28-30)
The light burden to which Christ refers, I think, is taking His loving lordship over our lives, believing in Him as our God and Savior.

When we do that, in Martin Luther's words, Christians become "the Holy Spirit's workshop." God goes to work on us, transforming us even without our conscious awareness. It's as though we fall into Christ's orbit and can't always see the ways in which He is changing us. The "load" is to keep living in daily repentance and renewal so that the Master Craftsman can continue to to make us over in the image of Christ.

In dispelling the seeming contradiction between Galatians 6:2 and 6:5, The Lutheran Study Bible says simply: "Those who are willing to accept personal accountability for their own actions before God (bearing their own "load"...phortion) are more willing to to bear others burdens (v.2, "burden"...baros)..."

So, Paul's message in a nutshell, seems to be: "Christians: Bear the burdens of others. Your willingness to do so is the measure of God's grace operating in your life; it's your 'load' as a believer."

Salvation is a free gift and each believer is responsible to God for how they use their salvation.

To not use the power of God living within us as Christians to help others is like being gifted with the power to make music and never singing a note or playing a tune.

Or like having the power to do medical research that might save lives, but staying away from the lab.

Or being a gifted athlete and never trying out for the team.

Just as God wants Christians to use their spiritual gifts for the mutual upbuilding of all in Christ's Church, He also wants us to use His grace to take on the ministry of caring for others.

Thursday, March 26, 2015

Depression...Male AND Female

This interesting article gives the symptomatic clues of depression in males. My guess is that not all of this is exclusive to males.

A few nights ago during studio coverage of the NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament, Charles Barkley memorably said (I'm paraphrasing), "Anyone who has a perfect bracket right now is a lying dog."

Likewise, anyone who says they've never endured what Winston Churchill called "the black dog," depression in any of its forms, is a lying dog in denying their black dogs.

There are differences, of course, between being sad or feeling blue, on the one hand, and being depressed, on the other. The latter is more severe and often, physiologically rooted. Or at least, physiologically abetted.

It's not a black mark on one's character to suffer from the black dog. Nor is it a sign of weakness. Despair is a sin chosen by the self-absorbed; it willfully refuses happiness or hope. But depression in its varied forms, is usually something that happens to us. It comes to us unbidden, like chicken pox or the flu or cancer.

Treatments depend on the severity and longevity of depressive feelings.

But it seems to me that two things are essential in dealing with all the manifestations of depression.

First, you have to acknowledge that you're sad. Don't buy your own schtick, designed, often for very good reason, to keep other people out of your "stuff." At least acknowledge to yourself that you're depressed. To survive from day to day, you may have to wear masks of affability and good humor. But it's essential that at least, to ourselves and, more importantly, to God, we admit that behind the mask is someone wrestling with sadness.

Second, lean on God. Read His Word. Read devotional material from reliable Christian authors. And, by all means, pray. God is the life-giver. He can fill us with new life when even our taste for life is gone.

If you suspect you or people who care about you suspect that you're clinically depressed, then you absolutely should see your GP as a first step toward healing.

But, these first two steps--honest acknowledgment and prayer--will often be what we need to move on with our lives.

They won't necessarily take away our melancholy, because melancholy often is rooted in experiences--the loss of a love, a defeat to our dreams, the death of a loved one, the loss of a job, the end of a friendship. There are some losses from which we never recover. The hurt is too deep. The loss is too overwhelming. And to "get over" the losses of other people from our lives fully, would be deeply disrespectful of them and of the love we shared.

But we have responsibilities to God, to our families, to those to whom we have made promises, to those for whom we care and who care for us, and to the futures in which God may have our participation planned, to forge ahead, to plod on. (You never know what God has up His gracious sleeve, by the way.)

Honesty with God and with ourselves. Reliance on and trust in the God made plain to us in Christ. This is how we go on. This is how we start to endure even when the black dog plagues us.

Hey, Want to Raise the Ebenezer?

In today's Journey Through the Bible chapters, 1 Samuel 7-9, we see the word ebenezer. It reminded me of how, almost every time we sing the hymn, Come, Thou Fount of Every Blessing, a get the question, "What is an ebenzer?"

To tell you the truth, it's one of those facts that I seem to lose all the time: I look it up, then forget it; then look it up again and forget it again. Knowing the meaning of the word ebenezer, of course, isn't critical for a believer's salvation. But it does seem imbecilic for we Christians, including this pastor, to sing the line in Come, Thou Font of Every Blessing about raising the ebenezer and not knowing or remembering what it is we're raising.

Kyle Butt, a guy I've never heard of, writing on a web site I'd never seen before, has an interesting and, it seems, credible explanation of the meaning of ebenezer, going back to a passage from 1 Samuel that figures in today's reading:
One of the phrases that is of particular interest comes from the song...Come, Thou Fount of Every Blessing...[The words] were written by Robert Robinson in 1758. The second verse of the song begins with these words: “Here I raise my Ebenezer.”...  
In 1 Samuel 7, the prophet Samuel and the Israelites found themselves under attack by the Philistines. Fearing for their lives, the Israelites begged Samuel to pray for them in their impending battle against the Philistines. Samuel offered a sacrifice to God and prayed for His protection. God listened to Samuel, causing the Philistines to lose the battle and retreat back to their own territory. After the Israelite victory, the Bible records: “Then Samuel took a stone and set it up between Mizpah and Shen, and called its name Ebenezer, saying, ‘Thus far the Lord has helped us’ ” (1 Samuel 7:12).  
The word Ebenezer comes from the Hebrew words ’Eben hà-ezer (eh’-ben haw-e’-zer)which simply mean “stone of help” . When Robinson wrote his lyrics, he followed the word Ebenezer with the phrase, “Here by Thy great help I’ve come.” An Ebenezer, then, is simply a monumental stone set up to signify the great help that God granted the one raising the stone. In Robinson’s poem, it figuratively meant that the writer—and all who subsequently sing the song—acknowledge God’s bountiful blessings and help in their lives.
I think it's safe to say that Robinson intended for those who might recite his poem or, later, sing its words as part of a hymn, was saying, "We raise this song of praise as a monument to God's saving grace, to the 'Fount of every blessing,' the God ultimately disclosed to us in Jesus Christ."

I hope I don't forget.

I Will by the Beatles

If You See Her, Say Hello by Bob Dylan

I love this song, taken from my favorite Dylan album, Blood on the Tracks.

In the lyrics, the narrator tries to play the tough guy, as guys often do: "If she's passing back this way, I'm not that hard to find / Tell her she can look me up if she's got the time." Of course, what he really wants to say is, "I love her. I need her. Please beg her to call me."

Harder to Believe Than Not To by Steve Taylor

I love it when artists who usually do a bit edgier rock break into a ballad. This is a great tune from a long time ago by Steve Taylor.

It speaks a simple truth: It's harder to hang on to belief in Christ, harder to strive by God's grace to truly pray, "Thy will be done," than to go with the flow and to live only for this world. I'm fortunate to have had a mentor teach me though, that enduring in faith and submission to Christ is the better way to live in the long the eternal run.

[This video, like the previous one posted, is part of a loop. Feel free to keep watching beyond the linked song.]

Magnificent by U2

"Only love, only love can leave such a mark
"But only love, only love unites our hearts"

Teach Us to Pray, Part 5

[This was shared during this evening's midweek Lenten worship service at Living Water Lutheran Church, Springboro, Ohio.]

James 1:12-16
Luke 4:1-2a
Tonight, we’re focusing on the sixth and seventh petitions of the Lord’s Prayer: “And lead us not into temptation. But deliver us from evil.”

Someone has said that the easiest thing to empirically prove about the witness of Scripture and Christian belief is the reality of sin and evil. The Bible asks us to accept as matters of faith, among other things, the existence of God, Jesus' birth to a virgin, the divinity of Jesus, Jesus’ resurrection, the true presence of Christ's body and blood "in, with, and under" the bread and wine of Holy Communion, and eternity as a reality that will be experienced by all who repent and believe in Jesus as Savior and Lord. But it requires no leap of faith for us to believe that each of us is a born sinner or that, except for the God-man Jesus, sin is endemic to the human experience. Each of us can testify to the reality of sin and evil from what we see in the headlines, in our homes, and in our own hearts.

My home pastor used to tell us, “If you doubt the existence of original sin, put two 2-years olds in a locked room with a single toy.” Our natural impulse is to be wrapped up in ourselves, to love ourselves but not God and not neighbor. Our inborn desire to be in control of the universe, to “be like God” is something we all share, no matter how hard we may try to hide it from others...or ourselves.

But after the Christian has prayed that God’s name will be hallowed, God’s kingdom will come, God’s will is done, God will provide our daily bread, and God will forgive us our sins as we forgive others who have sinned against us, Jesus tells us to pray for what may be the biggest miracles of all! Jesus teaches us to ask our Father to “Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.”

Think about that: Jesus is teaching us ask God to militate against our inborn impulse to do be our own gods and ask God for the power to not do all the selfish, hurtful things which, inside of us, we want to do. That the Holy Spirit actually moves us to pray for such things, let alone give us the power to mean the requests, is a miracle!

Of the sixth petition, "Lead us not into temptation," in The Small Catechism, Martin Luther writes, “God tempts no one to sin, but we ask in this prayer that God would watch over us and keep us so that the devil, the world, and our sinful self may not deceive us and draw us into false belief, despair, and other great and shameful sins. And we pray that even though we are so tempted we may still win the final victory.”

In this petition then, we do ask God for a miracle. But that’s OK; God can handle miracles!

On the First Sunday in Lent each year, we remember that Jesus, though sinless, shared the human experience of being tempted to sin. Hebrews 4:15 tells us, in Jesus, “...we do not have a high priest who is unable to empathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are—yet he did not sin.” Jesus’ successful resistance of temptation in the wilderness--along with His life-long avoidance of sin--was a miracle of God’s compassion and grace. Jesus didn’t take the easy or the selfish or the safe way out. He endured in His faithful obedience to the will of God and because Jesus endured, He can help us to endure faithfully in the face of temptation and evil.

But we can do more than endure. The God Who has shared our life experiences has also conquered our temptations, our sins, and death itself through Christ’s cross and empty tomb! Whenever we ask God to “deliver us from evil,” we express our conviction that no matter what temptations bedevil us and whatever sins we need to confess in Jesus’ Name, those who entrust themselves to Jesus can be raised above all evils.

During our lives on this earth, God will minister to those who truly seek to walk with Him, just as God the Father sent His angels to serve Jesus during His forty days of temptation in the wilderness. To pray, “Deliver us from evil” is to pray for more than the power to resist evil in this life. God will give those who ask the power to live faithfully to God. In Matthew 24:13, Jesus promises those who follow Him: “...the one who stands firm to the end will be saved.” It was no doubt with passages like this in mind that Luther wrote of the seventh petition of the Lord’s Prayer—“Deliver us from evil”: “We ask in this inclusive prayer that our heavenly Father would save us from every evil to body and soul, and [this is the much more Jesus teaches us to confidently ask for]  at the last hour would mercifully take us from the troubles of this world to Himself in heaven.”

In teaching us the sixth and seventh petitions, as is true of all the petitions of the Lord’s Prayer, Jesus invites us to trustingly live in the glory of two transcending Christian realities: Surrender and Triumph! When by faith, we surrender to Jesus Christ, the Holy Spirit makes it possible not only for us to confess our faith in Jesus’ Lordship, but also to be empowered to relate to God as “our Father,” our intimate and loving parent. We can speak honestly to God about our desires, our hopes, our requests, our troubles, and our temptations and our sins.

Pastor and author John Ortberg notes that to the world, surrender is equated with defeat. But for the Christian, surrender is the first step to life. In all twelve step programs like Alcoholics Anonymous, the first step to freedom for the addict is admitting that they have a problem too big for them to control or overcome. That too, is the first step to freedom from sin and the freedom to truly live for all of us: We must admit that sin and temptation, even blessings, gifts, good things, and life itself are too big for us to handle on our own. We need help and we need to surrender to the only One Who can provide it, our Father in heaven.

Surrender is a hard pill for us to swallow. But as Ortberg points out, when we play God, when we think that we must have things under control, take responsibility for something over which we have zero control: the outcomes of life. We need to remember that all our times, as well as our eternities, are in God’s hands. When we surrender our lives to God though, God gives us the freedom to live day by day, working, loving, and living faithfully and leaving the outcomes in the hands of God.

The Christian who surrenders to the Father in faith also shares in Jesus’ triumph over temptation, sin, evil, the devil, and death. The person who asks their Father to deliver them from evil is claiming their share in Jesus’ death and resurrection. Surrender to Jesus Christ brings triumph as God sets us free to be our true selves, our best selves, our God-ordained selves!

The seventh petition brings us to the close of what Jesus taught when His disciples asked Him, "Teach us to pray." "For Thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory forever and ever" is a doxology we've added to it. I'm glad that we do. But we also usually same something more at the end of this and other prayers.

We say, Amen.

Luther says about that word: “Amen means Yes, it shall be so. We say Amen because we are certain that such petitions are pleasing to our Father in heaven and are heard by Him. For He Himself has commanded us to pray in this way and has promised to hear us.”

When we say, "Amen" in our prayers, we take Jesus up on His offer of new life to those who surrender to Him and walk in the triumph of new life for all who repent and believe in Him!

So, as we close this Lenten series on prayer, let's do something different. Let's pray, trusting that as we pray that God's will be done, what we pray for shall be so.

Lord Jesus: Teach us to pray as You have taught us and to live our lives in surrender and triumph through the power of Your death and resurrection. In Your name we pray. Amen!

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Galatians 3:24 (A 5 by 5 by 5 Reflection)

Today is a reflection day for those using the Navigators' 5 by 5 by 5 Bible Reading Plan. This morning, I read Galatians, trying to more fully glean and assimilate this tremendous section of the New Testament.

The verse on which I perched was Galatians 3:24:
Therefore the law [God's law] was our disciplinarian until Christ came, so that we might be justified by faith.
In this chapter, Paul, himself a Jew, is explaining to Gentile Christians how they could be heirs of God's promises to Abraham, the founding patriarch of the Jewish people.

He asserts here, and elsewhere, that Abraham was God's choice to found a people to save and to bring His salvation to others, was made not because Abraham obeyed God's law. (Which wasn't formally given until hundreds of years later, through Moses at Mount Sinai, anyway.)

Abraham became the heir to God's promises by believing in or trusting his life to the promises of God, however imperfectly he did so. "Abraham believed and God reckoned it to him as righteousness" (Genesis 15:6; Galatians 3:24).

God's law, holy though it is, cannot make us right with God.

We can't be made right with God by obeying the law and our inborn impulse to sin and "go our own ways." Our sinful nature makes it impossible for us to keep the law in its entirety over the course of our lifetimes or even over the course of a nanosecond.

It's true in all of our lives, as Paul demonstrates in this chapter, that  until we meet Jesus Christ, the One Who brings God's promise of a right relationship with God and with others (in other words, peace or shalom with God, with others, with God's creation, and with ourselves), the law serves to curb us from the full expression of our sinful natures.

The Bible says that God's law is written on our hearts. We're born with a sense, however imperfect or fuzzy, of right and wrong. (Read the first few chapters of C.S. Lewis' book, Mere Christianity for a fuller and intriguing exploration of this topic.) God's law is a bridle, a hedge against our sin.

And when we do sin, we offer reasons at least partly rooted in the law of God written on our hearts, to demonstrate to ourselves or others that we're justified in committing the sins we love.

The law is a whip commanding our submission until...relief, Christ comes to us and, by the power of the Holy Spirit, we believe in Him.

The law keeps our sin tamped down and teaches us the foolishness and futility of self-reliance until, like cool water to a person dying of thirst, Christ comes to us.

Christ may come to us in a Sunday School class, through the witness of a friend, in the loving service Christians render in Christ's name, or in a Bible study or a sermon, or in other ways Christ might choose.

But however He comes to us, He teaches us that we cannot be made right (made righteous or justified in taking up space in the universe) by our performance of God's rules, by doing good works, but solely by faith, simple moment to moment trust, in Christ and what He has done for us in dying on a cross and rising from the dead on the first Easter.

I am justified by my faith in Christ's perfect goodness, not by trusting my imperfect and always failed attempts to be good.

That is really good news. The best I'll read or hear about all day, every day, for all eternity.

Therefore the law [God's law] was our disciplinarian until Christ came, so that we might be justified by faith.

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

The Book of Judges and a "Modest" Proposal

Reading the Old Testament book of Judges with the people of Living Water Lutheran Church in the past week has underscored an important truth articulated famously by Lord Acton: "Power corrupts. Absolute power corrupts absolutely."

The Old Testament judges started out as people without status. But God called them to exercise military and judicial authority on behalf of His people. The judges often had success. But they often forgot that their power was from God, became selfish and self-serving.

Government, in a world composed of fallen human beings, is necessary. The Bible teaches that governmental authority is God's idea, an emergency measure necessitated by the human penchant for selfishness and injustice. Christians are enjoined in the New Testament to pray for those in authority.

But what Judges makes clear is that power is a danger to the souls of those who exercised it and therefore, a danger to those over whom power is exercised.

It seems to me that in addition to terms of office, the dangers of power might be mitigated or minimized by deciding as a society that we won't elect anyone to the presidency or any other public office who wants those offices.

Those who desire power, irrespective of their party, are probably more prone to the abuse of power and a sense of entitlement than others who are more indifferent to it.

America has been and remains fortunate that we have never had a tyrant in the presidency, partly because of the genius of our constitutional system. But we have seen in the presidency of Richard Nixon how corrupting the desire for power can be.

So far as I know, only two of our presidents came to office without seeking it: George Washington and Franklin Pierce. Washington was a triumph, worthy of historian Garry Wills' assessment that Washington is the greatest political leader in world history. Pierce was a lowest common denominator choice of pols in a smoke-filled room and was a disaster.

That 50% success rate doesn't daunt me. I would much rather opt for picking people not animated by a desire for power than for those who disingenuously insist that they only want power as a means of doing good.

It's all a pipe dream, of course. But if, by this principle, we had a 50% chance of getting an even a lower-case Washington, wouldn't it be worth trying?

Monday, March 23, 2015

Please Pray for the Christians of the Nineveh Plains

Teach Us to Pray, Part 4

[This was shared during midweek Lenten worship with the people and friends of Living Water Lutheran Church, Springboro, Ohio, this past Wednesday, March 18, 2015.]

Matthew 6:12
Matthew 18:21-35
To help us think about the fifth petition of the Lord’s Prayer tonight, here’s a literal translation of Jesus’ words from Matthew 6:12, where He teaches it: “And forgive us the debts of us, as indeed we forgave the debtors of us.”

Now, I’ll grant that this literal rendering of Jesus’ words is awkward, as almost any literal translation from one language into another will be. But I do think that it helps us to understand more clearly what Jesus is saying should be part of our praying and our living as Christians. More on that why that is in a few moments.

In his book on the Lord’s Prayer, Anglican scholar N.T. Wright says that if you ask the average person today what is meant by the word “forgiveness” today, you’ll hear some version of “tolerance,” not forgiveness.

And rare is the person who actually asks for forgiveness. If they do, we suspect that they’re doing so as a formality designed to induce us to put up with their bad behavior and move on.

“I’m sorry,” one family member says sullenly to another, when forced to.

“Mistakes were made,” the politician says, with no acknowledgment of who made the mistakes.

“We accept the judgment of the NCAA,” says the basketball coach of sanctions meted against his team, with no acceptance of culpability.

“Tolerate—or put up with—me,” these apologizers seem to say, with little hint of repentance or of the intention to do things differently in the future.

Before we scale too far up on our high horses in condemnation of phony forgiveness-seekers though, we should say that often, the forgiveness we seek is of the fake variety as well. “Forgive me,” we may say, more as a stratagem for getting people off our backs than anything else. “Look, I did something wrong,” we say, in effect, “Deal with it. Tolerate it.”

But Jesus sees this business of forgiveness differently. In the way Matthew says that Jesus taught the fifth petition of the Lord’s Prayer—forgive us our trespasses as we already have forgiven those who trespass against us--we understand that Jesus views our sins as something more than endearing flaws in our personalities that we must accept in ourselves and tolerate in one another.

In the eyes of God, sin is intolerable. Failure to love God and failure to love others is not something that God tolerates. Sin does not exist in heaven.

And when, in the words of 2 Corinthians 5:21 “God made him [Jesus] who had no sin to be sin for us,” Jesus felt the full weight of sin’s horror and consequences. In Matthew 27:46, Jesus cries out from the cross: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

God can’t bear the sight of sin, even when the bearer of our sin is the Son Jesus.

Sin brings alienation between God and us.

Our sin, even the sin we think of as trivial and meaningless, is intolerable to God.

The magnitude of all the sin of the human race which the sinless Savior bore is so immense that, at His death, Matthew 27:51 tells us “the earth shook and the rocks were split.” Creation convulsed with grief.

God grieves over our sin because, as Paul says in Romans 6:23, “the wages of sin is death.”

If you and I are to live with God for eternity, we dare not see our sin as something that God, the world, or we ourselves must tolerate.

Jesus says that our sin is a debt we owe to God.

God gives us life and we overdraw our accounts by misusing that gift. That’s what sin is: A misuse of the free gift of life.

When we do that—whether by using God’s Name for something other than prayer, praise, and thanksgiving; or, taking or craving things that don’t belong to us; or, engaging in shady practices with money; or, withholding help from the poor; or, failing to work for justice; or, in any other way, failing to love God and love neighbor, the gulf between God and us grows larger. We add to what one of our Lenten hymns calls, “the debt of love I owe.”

And this is why Jesus’ crucifixion is the most important event in all of human history…why it can be the most important event for our personal histories--past, present, and future.

On the cross, Jesus pays our debt for sin with His life. 1 Corinthians 6:20 reminds Christians: “you were bought at a price.”

But, as the Lord’s Prayer teaches us, on this side of the grave, we still live on earth and not in heaven. Our habits and our inclinations all pull us toward racking up more debt, toward letting sin be at home in our lives. Jeremiah 17:9 says, “The heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure. Who can understand it?”

This is why confession of sin should be a regular part of our praying.

And this brings us back to the strange verb tenses uses in the fifth petition of His prayer. He says: “And forgive [present tense, now] us the debts of us, as indeed we forgave [past tense, already done it] the debtors of us.”

“Lord,” Jesus teaches us to pray, “Please forgive the debt of love I owe, just as I have already forgiven the debt owed to me by others.”

We dare not ask God for forgiveness in Christ’s name unless we have already willingly let go of our grudges against others who have sinned against us! This is a daunting, even frightening, thought for me, to be honest.

We know that we human beings aren’t equipped with the divine capacity for totally forgetting the wrongs have done to us. God can say, “For I will forgive their wickedness and will remember their sins no more.” [Hebrews 8:12] But we have memories for the wrongs done to us.

Maybe God equips us with memories that remember sin, not so that we can keep grudges, but to avoid future hurt from people who would otherwise chronically sin against us or do us harm. If someone chronically abuses us, physically, emotionally, or spiritually, our memories can signal us to love them and understand them, but also to stay away from them, just as the memory of other pain reminds us to stay out of harm's way.

Yet even when we can’t forget, we can forgive.

We can release people from the debts of love they owe to us and so, free ourselves to live.

We can forgive and when we do, a wall that would otherwise block God’s forgiveness of us from our lives is torn down.

The king in Jesus’ parable, read just a moment ago, was perfectly willing to forgive the massive debt of the slave, just as God is willing to forgive our sin. God is the one most offended and hurt by human sin; it’s the lives He gives us that are being misused when we sin and it's the people He created in His image against whom we sin who are being hurt.

Imagine the cumulative debt each of us owes to God.

Yet, for the sake of Jesus, God is willing to forgive our debts.

But, as with the king in the parable, God will not forgive our massive debts unless we are willing to forgive those who have hurt us.

This is one of the hardest of all the petitions in the Lord’s Prayer. It’s tempting not to forgive others. Withholding forgiveness, keeping track of people’s sins against us, makes us feel powerful, better than others.

But God doesn’t want us to think we’re better than any other human being created in His image; God wants us all to be children of God.

He wants us to lay aside everything that might prevent His life-giving forgiveness from penetrating into our lives!

It boils down to this: Jesus says that we can’t grab hold of God’s grace if we insist on keeping hold of our grudges.

Grace or grudges.

Forgiveness or separation from God.

Life or death.

Those are our daily choices.

May we learn to truly pray, “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.”