Friday, May 15, 2020

Tonight's Weeknight Bible Study of Romans, Chapter 12

As I Went Out One Morning

Today, while preparing both for this evening's class on Romans 12 and the Sunday message, I've kept unaccountably hearing Bob Dylan's As I Went Out One Morning in my head.

The song appears on his 1967 LP, John Wesley Harding. (Dylan, who loves to riff off of and distort popular culture even as he remakes it, took the name from the Old West bad guy John Wesley Hardin. In his ode to a fictional Harding, Dylan sings of a kind of saintly Robin Hood "never known to kill an honest man.")

As I Went Out One Morning is a ballad. It has a fetching folk melody and is written in iambic pentameter, using the quatrain form. Simply put, each verse is composed of eight lines, each syllable having alternating accentuation. It fairly mimics the 1937/40 poem by W.H. Auden, As I Walked Out One Evening. Dylan's rhyme scheme is A-B-C-B-D-E-F-E for all three verses, each composed of two quatrains. It's a lyrical form that's particularly suitable to music.

But in listening to As I Went Out One Morning a few moments ago, I realized again that Dylan may have had more in mind than just creating a song or mimicking Auden.

Dylan presents us with three characters: the narrator, a damsel in chains, and Tom Paine. Paine, of course, was the famous writer whose pamphlet, Common Sense, George Washington ordered read to the suffering American troops at Valley Forge during the Revolutionary War.

According to Wikipedia, Dylan received the Thomas Paine Award from something called the National Emergency Civil Liberties Committee in 1963. When, in his acceptance speech, Dylan said that he could understand the complaints about American society that JFK assassin Lee Harvey Oswald had voiced, he was booed off the stage. The Wikipedia article suggests that As I Went Out One Morning is Dylan's response to that incident, apparently resenting what he saw as an infringement on his free speech by an organization that celebrated free speech.

That may be.

But Dylan isn't always that straightforward in what he writes and I wonder if there isn't another layer of meaning here, no matter what experience may have immediately triggered the writing of the song.

Auden's poem was spoken by three voices: that of a man; that of a woman, his love; and a clock. The poem is about the impact and inevitability of time and what it brings.

The narrator in Dylan's song is undoubtedly Dylan himself, still smarting from the controversy he created at the awards ceremony. I take "...the fairest damsel that ever did walk in chains" to be America. Dylan sees this damsel as he is out walking "to breathe the air around Tom Paine's."

Paine's Common Sense was an important and inspirational document for the American Revolution. It portrayed the Revolution as a war for liberty. Freedom would then be "the air around" Tom Paine.

But in 1775, Paine wrote another important essay in which he called for the abolition of slavery. He would become more vocal on this as time went on. The failure of the United States to see that the principle of freedom should necessarily mean the abolition of slavery embittered and angered him. The damsel in chains then is the United States, imprisoned by its failure to abide by its own founding principle.

As in 1963, America still bears the chains of its slave past. The chains still wrap us tightly with the continued existence of racial injustice.

At the end of the song, Dylan sings:
Just then Tom Paine, himself
Came running from across the field
Shouting at this lovely girl
And commanding her to yield
And as she was letting go her grip
Up Tom Paine did run,
“I’m sorry, sir,” he said to me
“I’m sorry for what she’s done”
I'm not a huge fan of Thomas Paine. He correctly enunciated the principle of liberty as foundational for the United States. But he failed to learn, as Washington, Hamilton, Jay, and others did, that liberty can't be maintained if there isn't mutual accountability. That's why after the United States tried to walk on the single leg of freedom as an operating principle under the disastrous Articles of Confederation, the Founding Generation (without Thomas Jefferson, who was in France) wrote the Constitution. That completed the American Revolution and ratified its principles, freedom and mutual accountability, the latter of which many seem to forget about today. The two together are needed to avoid the tyranny of the mob on the one hand and the tyranny of elites on the other.

But, if what I think Dylan is saying in this song is accurate, I believe that he's right. We will never breathe the air around Tom Paine's--the air of true freedom, if we don't finally and fully divest ourselves of racism. Otherwise the damsel in chains will keep imprisoning us all. Slavery and racial injustice are the things done by the damsel for which Tom Paine apologizes in the song. 

Dr. King was right when he said, "Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”

Bob Dylan - As I Went Out One Morning from Rufus Corleone on Vimeo.

[According to Wikipedia, Dylan has performed this song only once since he recorded. For a guy who performs constantly, that's remarkable.]

Who's Wise?

In starting my review of Romans 12, which we'll be covering during our weeknight Bible study over on Facebook tonight, one part of one verse really struck me. It comes in verse 16. Paul says: "Never be wise in your own sight."

I think it's probably true that the moment we think we're wise, we're not.

Biblical Christian faith does not value self-sufficiency. God calls us into a community of shalom, of peace with God, with others, and with God's creation born of faith in the crucified and risen Jesus Christ.

And if we consult with only ourselves over our decisions and attitudes in life, we create a self-confirming feedback loop in which we assure ourselves that what we want to do or believe is right because it's what we want to do or believe. This is a prescription for being unwise.

That's why listening is so important for Christians.

First and foremost, we're to listen to God. Not our hearts. ("The heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure. Who can understand it?" says Jeremiah 17:9) Not our thoughts. (There is a way that seems right to a man, but its end is the way to death," we read in Proverbs 14:12, ESV). Not our preferences. (When Jesus asked God the Father that the cup of suffering He was to "drink" in His suffering and crucifixion, He also prayed, "...not my will, but yours be done." [Luke 22:42]) We need to listen to God, through His Word.

Second, we need to listen to committed disciples of Jesus Who also listen to God and will pray with us and for us.

Third, we need to listen to the wisdom of others, whatever their backgrounds, who have acquired expertise and experience from which we can benefit. All true wisdom originates with God, even when the person imparting it doesn't themselves believe in God. "For the LORD gives wisdom; from his mouth come knowledge and understanding. (Proverbs 2:6)

Above all, we should confidently ask God the Father in Jesus' name for wisdom. James 1:15 says, "If any of you lacks wisdom, you should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to you."

The longer I live, the less confident I am in my own wisdom, in my own capacity to discern truth or make the right decisions. But the longer I live in relationship with Christ, the more I tune into God the Father through Jesus, God the Son, the more confident I am of the decisions and attitudes God commends me to adopt. I more deeply appreciate Jesus' words to His disciples (including me) in John 15:5: "I am the vine; you are the branches...apart from me you can do nothing." I gain a deeper confidence knowing that I have asked for God's wisdom through Christ, assured like the apostle Paul that "I can do all this through [Christ] who gives me strength." (Philippians 4:13)

Just a few thoughts.

Tuesday, May 12, 2020

Tonight's Weeknight Bible Study of Romans 9

Due to technical issues, we weren't able to do the weeknight Bible study on Monday evening. But we met this evening. I hope you find it helpful. God bless you. Living Water Lutheran Church

Sunday, May 10, 2020

Christ's Assurance in Uncertain Times

Below you'll find, first, the entire online worship service from Living Water Lutheran Church of Centerville, Ohio. Then, the text of today's message. God bless you.

John 14:1-14
We're now some weeks into the need for sheltering-in-place and social distancing because of the coronavirus. Even as some businesses start to re-open, we know, especially those with children and those who, like me, are in multiple at-risk categories, that the new normal under which we've been living will continue for some time to come.

We may find that discouraging, even when we understand the wisdom my nephew posted on Facebook this past week, “For the record, the virus doesn’t just go away because you’re tired of being inside.” 

My Catechism students tell me when we gather each week on Zoom, “I miss my friends.” 

And people who fully understand why we can’t go about our lives as usual still wonder when there will be testing, contact tracing, and a vaccine, things that will allow them to go to work again. 

One pastor said this past week, “I’m tired of giving sermons into a computer camera.”

To all of us, Jesus says today, “Do not let your hearts be troubled. You believe in God; believe also in me.” (John 14:1) 

Now, if this is all that Jesus had to tell us, we might dismiss these as hollow words. But Jesus gives us substantial reasons for why our hearts need not be troubled, why we can believe in Him in any and all circumstances, even when we face death itself. In fact, in today’s gospel lesson, John 14:1-14, Jesus gives us four good reasons for why our discouragement should give way to hope and confidence that can only come to those who believe in Him.

Jesus’ words today come from His farewell discourse, spoken to His disciples--His followers--on the night before He was betrayed and arrested, the day before He would offer up His sinless life as the perfect sacrifice for human sin. 

Although Jesus knows with perfect foresight the suffering that awaits Him, His thoughts are not about Himself but about the disciples who will soon watch Him die. He wants to comfort them. 

He wants to comfort you today too. 

So, Jesus gives us here four assurances that will allow us to live with untroubled hearts as we believe in Him.

Jesus’ first assurance is in verses 2-3: “My Father’s house has many rooms; if that were not so, would I have told you that I am going there to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me that you also may be where I am.”

The believer in Jesus lives with the daily assurance that no matter what, even beyond death itself, there is a place prepared for us. Whether it’s in the midst of a lethal pandemic here or in the perfect face-to-face fellowship with God that we will one day enjoy in eternity, Jesus has a place for us. Our place is with Him

He has a place for us now when we come to His table, when He speaks His life-giving Word to us, when we pray to the Father in His name. 

And Jesus will have a place for us when we die and, like Jesus before us, the Father raises us up to live with Him forever. Jesus has a place for us and it’s with Him. That’s His first assurance to us today.

Jesus’ second assurance for us today is in verses 4-6 of our lesson: “‘You know the way to the place where I am going.’ Thomas said to him, ‘Lord, we don’t know where you are going, so how can we know the way?’ Jesus answered, ‘I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.’”

Here, Jesus assures us that if we know Him, we will always know the way to go, even when we feel lost or discouraged. We go to Jesus

That’s because Jesus is the way to God. Jesus is the way to a life filled with the forgiveness, love, and presence of the God Who made us and has the destiny of the universe in His hands. 

Life in this imperfect world presents its detours; Martin Luther talks about, “false belief, despair, and other great and shameful sins…” But when Jesus is our way, we have the way through sin, death, and darkness to God Himself. Jesus is the only way to the salvation, eternal life, and wholeness that God alone can give.

Jesus’ third assurance comes in verses 7-11: “‘If you really know me, you will know my Father as well. From now on, you do know him and have seen him.’ Philip said, ‘Lord, show us the Father and that will be enough for us.’ Jesus answered: ‘Don’t you know me, Philip, even after I have been among you such a long time? Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, “Show us the Father”? Don’t you believe that I am in the Father, and that the Father is in me? The words I say to you I do not speak on my own authority. Rather, it is the Father, living in me, who is doing his work. Believe me when I say that I am in the Father and the Father is in me; or at least believe on the evidence of the works themselves.’”

Jesus says in John 10:30, “I and the Father are one.” When you know Jesus, you know the true God Whose love for us destroys the power of sin, death, futility, doubt, and discouragement over our lives and lifts us up to life with God.

Jesus’ fourth assurance comes in verses 12-14: “Very truly I tell you, whoever believes in me will do the works I have been doing, and they will do even greater things than these, because I am going to the Father. And I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son. You may ask me for anything in my name, and I will do it.”

Jesus tells us that when we believe in Him, trust in Him, He will do His work through us. Because from His place at the right side of the Father, He can dispatch His Holy Spirit to work in all the billions of baptized Christians who seek to serve God and to serve others in His name, Jesus does greater things now than He did while He walked on earth. 

On top of that, every Christian can pray in Jesus’ name, meaning that we pray according to His will and His character, and see His divine love and power unleashed in the lives of those for whom we pray.

It’s amazing to witness what God can do when we trust in Christ. This past week, I’d just completed one of the midweek Facebook Live Bible studies. I was sure that it had gone horribly. I was sure it had been a total disaster. Then I read some of the comments people sent. “Tonight was a very comforting way to end my day!” one person wrote. “Thanks for tonight. Had a few hours of ‘woe is me’ today but feeling good now,” said another. “So reassuring,” wrote another. To the extent that those comments were true, it had nothing to do with me and everything to do with the Lord Who promises to do great things through those who trust in Him.

So, you and I as baptized believers can live each day with confidence, hope, and assurance because of the crucified and risen Jesus. Because of Him, as we turn from sin and turn to Him in trust we know that we have a place with Him, that He is the Way to the Father, that He is the Truth on Whom our lives can be built, and that He gives us a life with the Father that reflects the glory of God Himself. That includes times like these of a pandemic, sheltering in place, and social distancing. Jesus tells us today, “Do not let your hearts be troubled. You believe in God; believe also in me.” 

This week, may He help us live with untroubled hearts as we trust in Him: the Way, the Truth, and the Life. Amen