Archive for November, 2014

Everyday Thankfulness

Praying HandsIt was truly a mountaintop moment. I’ll never forget seeing her rush down Concordia’s breezeway in her stunning white dress, bursting through the back doors of the worship center, and coming toward me. The day I married Melody was a day I will always cherish. But, as seems to be the way of life, you must eventually leave the mountaintop moments of life and tread into the valley of reality.

The valley of reality struck less than a week after our wedding. By then, the ceremony was ancient history, the reception had long passed, and we had returned from our brief honeymoon to the apartment we were living in at the time, littered with wedding gifts – lots of wedding gifts. Mixers, crock pots, flatware, bed linens, personal effects, and hundreds of dollars of gift cards to Target. “Okay,” Melody announced, a towering stack of cards in her hand, “It’s time to put this stuff away, but as we do, we need to write a thank you card for each of these gifts!” Each of these gifts? But there were hundreds of them! Nevertheless, gift after gift, I wrote these thank you notes, even though my hand got cramped and my tongue got dry from licking all those envelopes. I must confess that that more notes I wrote, the briefer my expressions of gratitude became. I appreciated the gifts, but the overwhelming task of writing hundreds of cards led to the underwhelming nature of my notes of thankfulness.

Sadly, like my thank you cards, many modern day expressions of gratitude are underwhelming. We do not respond adequately to, or even bother to notice, the many things for which we have to be thankful. This is what makes some words from the famed poet Ralph Waldo Emerson in a sermon he delivered on Thanksgiving Day of 1830 so striking to me: “At first, brethren, consider whether each of us has not had some reason to acknowledge the special favor of God Himself.”[1] Emerson is calling on us to reflect on our lives and find some gift from God for which we might be thankful. This kind of a call from a pastor to his people at Thanksgiving is common. And yet, the reason Emerson offers as to why we should give thanks is striking: “Twelve months are past.”

Did I hear that right? We ought to be thankful to God simply because a year has passed from one Thanksgiving to the next? Sure enough, Emerson’s first reason for thankfulness is the simple gift of time. Perhaps the simple gift of time was especially poignant to Emerson because his beloved wife Ellen lie sick in bed during this period with tuberculosis. She would die from the disease the following February. God’s gift of time with his wife, then, became suddenly precious to Emerson.

The text on which Emerson based his sermon for that Thanksgiving Day was from the Psalms: “Give thanks to the LORD, for He is good; His love endures forever” (Psalm 107:1). The Psalmist, like Emerson, references time. Except the Psalmist does not call us to give thanks for twelve months; rather, the Psalmist calls us to give thanks for “forever.” For long after our lives have passed from this earth, we will have an eternity with a God who loves us. And that should be enough to move any heart to thankfulness.

As we celebrate another Thanksgiving this week, do not let your expressions of gratitude wallow in mediocrity. Instead, make them hearty and overwhelming. For God’s gifts are hearty and overwhelming. And if you need something for which to be thankful, consider this: twelve months have passed. Not only that: eternity awaits. Give thanks to the LORD for this!

___________________________

[1] Ralph Waldo Emerson, The Complete Sermons of Ralph Waldo Emerson, vol. 3 (Columbia, Missouri: University of Missouri Press, 1991), 46.

November 24, 2014 at 5:15 am 1 comment

The Waning of Marriage

Marriage 1Right now at the church where I serve, we are in a series on marriage called “We Do.” As I see it, this series is important not only because many marriages are in trouble and in need of help, but because many marriages are not even getting started in the first place. The precipitous decline of marriage in this country is well documented. Take, for instance, the recent alarm sounded by Robert J. Samuelson of The Washington Post:

In 1960, only 12 percent of adults ages 25 to 34 had never married; by the time they were 45 to 54, the never-married share had dropped to 5 percent. Now fast forward. In 2010, 47 percent of Americans 25 to 34 had never married.[1]

Marriage rates are in a free-fall. But Samuelson’s explanation as to why marriage rates are tumbling is especially fascinating to me:

The stranglehold that marriage had on middle-class thinking and behavior began to weaken in the 1960s with birth control pills, publication of Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique — an assault on women’s traditional housecleaning and child-rearing roles — and the gradual liberalization of divorce laws.

The resulting expansion of personal choice has been breathtaking. Those liberalized divorce laws have freed millions of women and men from unsatisfying or abusive marriages. (From 1960 to 1980, the divorce rate rose nearly 150 percent; it has since reversed about half that gain.) Taboos against premarital sex and cohabitation have virtually vanished. So has the stigma of out-of-wedlock birth or, for married couples, of not having children. With more job opportunities, women flooded the labor market.

Samuelson connects the decline of marriage to the “expansion of personal choice.” In other words, the more choices a person has – from the choice of pre-marital sex to birth control to cohabitation to divorce – the lower the chance a person will choose to marry or, as the case may be, stay married.

Sadly, the “expansion of personal choice” does not insure against the unintended and often painful consequences of personal choice. Samuelson cites Isabell Sawhill, author of Generation Unbound: Drifting into Sex and Parenthood without Marriage:

“New choices for adults,” Sawhill writes, “have not generally been helpful to the well-being of children.” Single-parent families have exploded. In 1950, they were 7 percent of families with children under 18; by 2013, they were 31 percent. Nor was the shift isolated. The share was 27 percent for whites, 34 percent for Hispanics and 62 percent for African Americans. By harming children’s emotional and intellectual development, the expansion of adult choices may have reduced society’s collective welfare.

It is not (as Sawhill repeatedly says) that all single-parent households are bad or that all two-parent families are good. But the advantage lies with the approach that can provide children more financial support and personal attention. Two low-income paychecks, or two good listeners, are better than one. With a colleague, Sawhill simulated the effect today if the marriage rates of 1970 still prevailed. The result: The child poverty rate would drop by about 20 percent — a “huge effect” compared with most government programs.

Our emancipation from marriage comes with a price – a price born by the children of those who have emancipated themselves from marriage. A higher poverty rate is the price most easily measured, but other things, such as the lack of “two listening ears” Sawhill refers to, are also among the prices our children must pay.

I am well aware, of course, that there are certain situations where a person should not get married or cannot stay married. But these situations are far fewer and farther between than our culture makes them out to be.

At the heart of our marriage-phobia is the fact that marriage calls on us to think beyond ourselves, which is not easy when we have all the freedom in the world to make decisions for ourselves. It turns out that when we are given unrestrained freedom to make decisions, we make selfish ones.

But this is where the Church has much to offer. We do, after all, worship a Savior who not only thought beyond Himself, but lived beyond Himself and died by Himself so we could be a family in God.

Ultimately, as followers of Christ, our hope is for a marriage on the Last Day when it will be sung: “Hallelujah! For our Lord God Almighty reigns. Let us rejoice and be glad and give Him glory! For the wedding of the Lamb has come, and His bride has made herself ready” (Revelation 19:6-7).

If this is what we’re preparing and hoping for, we might as well get a little practice for our marriage on the Last Day by being married in this day. And that’s why marriage is good – even if it isn’t always easy.

____________________

[1] Robert J. Samuelson, “The family deficit,” The Washington Post (10.26.2014).

November 17, 2014 at 5:15 am Leave a comment

Rocking Your Vote

BallotLast Tuesday, I went to vote in the midterm elections. Even though news outlets and political pundits like to play the part of Chicken Little every time an election cycle hits, the line at the voting booth seemed much more reasonable and relaxed.

As I listen to the rhetoric that comes with each passing election, I can’t help but be concerned – not because acerbic political rhetoric is anything new – politicians have been tearing into each other for a long time – but because the rhetoric isn’t right.

The word “politics” comes from the word polis, the Greek word for “city.” Politics has to do with how we order our communities under a set of authorities. The great Greek philosopher Aristotle spoke of the goal of politics thusly: “It comes to be for the sake of living, but it remains in existence for the sake of living well.”[1] For Aristotle, politics was a way of doing what was best for a community by ordering the community under responsible and thoughtful authorities.   The ultimate goal of politics, then, was to serve the common good. Sadly, I think many have lost sight of this goal.

In running for office, one Senate candidate said of his political opponent, “Let’s go out there and sock it to them!” The state chair of this candidate’s party went farther: “We need to crush it. We need to grab it, run with it, push their heads under over and over again until they cannot breathe anymore.”[2] Somehow, I am not sure this was the type of political goal Aristotle had in mind. Many of our politicians have become so obsessed with winning that they have forgotten their true call to work for the common good. Politicians are not be snooty sovereigns, but public servants.

As Christians in a democratic system, we have a unique privilege that is also a heavy burden. In Romans 13:1, we are called to submit ourselves to the governing authorities. But in our political system, as Micah Watson of The Gospel Coalition explains, “We are called to yield to authority, yet we also wield authority.”[3] We wield authority through our vote. My concern is that we, like the politicians for whom we are voting, have become far too concerned with using our authority to defeat and destroy the people and party with whom we disagree and have forgotten that a healthy political process is meant to have as its goal the common good. We have traded Aristotle for Machiavelli.

God has given humans limited and provisional authority in a host of different arenas (e.g., Genesis 1:26-28, Matthew 10:1, Titus 2:15). But because such authority is from God, we must use it only in accordance with God (Colossians 2:10). Jesus reminds us how we are not to use our authority:

You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be your slave. (Matthew 20:25-27)

Jesus is clear. We are to use our authority to serve others, which means, when we cast our vote, we use our authority as “We the people” not to clobber our enemy, but to love and serve our community. When you vote, what do you have in mind?

____________________________

[1] Aristotle, Politics 1.2.1252b29-30.

[2] David A. Fahrenthold, Katie Zezima & Paul Kane, “Math is forbidding for Democrats in struggle for Senate,” The Washington Post (11.3.2014).

[3] Micah Watson, “Why Christians Should Vote,” The Gospel Coalition (11.3.2014).

November 10, 2014 at 5:15 am Leave a comment

You’re A Saint!

"The Forerunners of Christ with Saints and Martyrs" by Fra Angelico (1423)

“The Forerunners of Christ with Saints and Martyrs” by Fra Angelico (1423)

This past Friday, Melody and I dressed up our daughter Hope as an owl and, with great anticipation of the delight we were about to see in her eyes, took her out trick-or-treating. It was a fun evening. She was grinning ear to ear. But as much fun as we had during our Friday evening excursions, the day after held an especially poignant place in my heart. Saturday, according to Church tradition, was All Saints’ Day, a day on which we both remember those saints in Christ who have gone before us and celebrate how we have been made saints through Christ’s death and resurrection.  When I think about all the saints who have gone to be with the Lord in glory this past year, my heart can’t help but be warmed even while my eyes get a little misty. It’s a special time of remembrance.

A traditional prayer for All Saints’ Day encapsulates the meaning of this day well:

O almighty God, by whom we are graciously knit together as one communion and fellowship in the mystical body of Jesus Christ, our Lord, grant us so to follow Your blessed saints in all virtuous and godly living that we may come to those unspeakable joys which You have prepared for those who sincerely love You; through our Lord Jesus Christ, Your Son, who lives and reigns with You and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.  Amen!

I love this prayer for two reasons.  First, it appropriately reminds us that there is much to learn from the saints who have gone before us.  Their ways of “virtuous and godly living” ought to be celebrated by us and their insights into God’s Word and Christ’s gospel ought to be studied by us.  There is much to be said for remembering – and practicing – the ways of the saints of old.  At the same time, we must understand that we do not become saints by remembering and practicing the holy ways of these historic Christians.  Rather, we become “sainted” by being “knit together as one communion and fellowship in the mystical body of Jesus Christ.” Everyone who is a member of Christ’s body is properly called a saint, even as the apostle Paul says to the church at Corinth: “To the church of God that is in Corinth, to those sanctified by Christ Jesus, called to be saints together with all those who in every place call upon the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, both their Lord and ours” (1 Corinthians 1:2).  How are we made saints?  We are sanctified and called by Christ.  Who are the saints?  They are everyone, everywhere who calls on the name of Jesus.

It is this definition of sainthood that the Church has believed and confessed for millennia, for example, in the Apostles’ Creed when we say, “I believe in the communion of saints.”

This phrase, “the communion of saints,” carries with it two meanings. On the one hand, this phrase refers to all Christians from all times in all places, both in heaven and on earth.  Nicetas, a fourth century Serbian bishop, explains:

What is the Church but the congregation of all saints? Patriarchs, prophets, apostles, martyrs, all the just who have been, are, or shall be, are one Church because sanctified by one faith and life, marked by one Spirit, they constitute one body.  Believe, then, that in this one Church you will attain the communion of saints.[1]

On the other hand, the Greek word for “saints” in the New Testament can be either masculine, referring to people, or neuter, referring to things.  Thus, “the communion of saints” can be taken to mean “the communion of sainted, or holy, things.”  This is the way that Peter Abelard, the great twelfth century French theologian, understood this phrase.  In this case, the phrase, “the communion of sainted things,” was understood to mean the holy things of God:  His Word, baptism, and the Lord’s Supper.  The Lutheran confessors incorporate both understandings of “the communion of saints” when they write, “The Church is the congregation of saints [sainted people], in which the Gospel is rightly taught and the Sacraments are rightly administered [sainted things].”[2]  Thus, the Church is made up of the sainted people of God gathered around the sainted things of God!

But there is even more to this phrase, “the communion of saints.”  The Greek word for “communion” in the Creed is koinonia, a term that, even in secular Greek, describes not primarily communion with other human beings, but communion with God.  For example, the first century Greek philosopher Epictetus wrote of the noble man in his “poor mortal body thinking of his fellowship (koinonia) with Zeus.”[3] Even in the pagan mind, man desires to have koinonia with god, albeit with a false god.  This word koinonia was subsequently commandeered by Christians to describe communion with the true God:  “God is faithful, by whom you were called into the fellowship (koinonia) of His Son, Jesus Christ our Lord” (1 Corinthians 1:9).  We have koinonia with Christ.  The phrase, “communion of saints,” therefore, refers not only to the communion we, as Christians, have with each other, but to the communion we have with Christ.

Finally, then, to say, “I believe in the communion of saints” is to say, “I believe that I have communion with Christ and with others who are in Christ.  I believe that Christ meets me by His Word and holy gifts, cleanses me by His blood, and sanctifies me by His Holy Spirit.”  But saying all this is a mouthful.  So we simply say, “I believe in the communion of saints.”  It’s a simple phrase that means so much.  For it describes not only who we are, but who we are with.  We’re with Jesus.  And being with Jesus makes me feel like – well – a saint.

____________________

[1] Nicetas in Charles Augustus Briggs, The Fundamental Christian Faith (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1913), 193-194.

[2] AC VII 1

[3] Epictetus, Discourses 2.19.27

November 3, 2014 at 5:00 am Leave a comment


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