Archive for March, 2016

Blessed Are Those Who Mourn

Easter MorningThe women on that first Easter went to the tomb to mourn.  They went to mourn the loss of their friend.  They went to mourn the loss of, for one of the women, a family member.  They went to mourn the loss of hope.  Of course, when they arrived the tomb, they got something they had never bargained for.  They were greeted by a glorious being with an unlikely message: “Do not be afraid, for I know that you are looking for Jesus, who was crucified. He is not here; He has risen, just as He said” (Matthew 28:5-6).

It was on Easter morning that these women, to use the words of the prophet Jeremiah, had their “mourning [turned] into gladness” and received “comfort and joy instead of sorrow” (Jeremiah 31:13).

Mourning may not be pleasant, but it is needed.  In many ways, I would argue that we don’t mourn enough.  At funerals, rather than addressing the reality of death, people will often try to dull the pain of a loss by casting the service in terms of a celebration of the person who has died.  A eulogist will say something like, “This person wouldn’t have wanted us to be sad!”  Mourning, which is nothing other than the natural and inescapable response to something as heinous as death, is dismissed, downplayed, and depressed in favor of a skin-deep smile.

To make matters worse, when we are not mourning something as intense as the loss of a loved one, we can wind up jettisoning mourning altogether. We not only try to moderate our mourning, we can replace our mourning with something different entirely.

There is plenty that should command our mournfulness.  Greed, corruption, malfeasance, and general godlessness should pain us all.  Sadly, rather than mourning these things, we often trade mourning for grumbling.  This seems especially true in the political arena.  We grumble about health care.  We grumble about immigration.  We grumble about political constituencies that are not our political constituencies.  But replacing mourning with grumbling is dangerous.

The ancient Israelites were experts at grumbling.  Exodus 16:2 says, “In the desert the whole community grumbled against Moses and Aaron.”  Numbers 14:2 repeats the same refrain: “All the Israelites grumbled against Moses and Aaron, and the whole assembly said to them, ‘If only we had died in Egypt! Or in this wilderness!’”  The ancient Israelites were experts at grumbling.  But their grumbling carried with it consequences.  The Psalmist recounts the story of Israel during her wandering in the wilderness and says: “They grumbled in their tents and did not obey the LORD. So He swore to them with uplifted hand that He would make them fall in the wilderness” (Psalm 106:25-26).  The apostle Paul admonishes his readers to “not grumble, as some of [the Israelites] did – and were killed by the destroying angel” (1 Corinthians 10:10).  Clearly, God has little time or tolerance for grumbling.  Why?  Because grumbling leads nowhere good.  It leads to rebellion.  The Israelites grumbled about God and then built a golden calf in rebellion against God.  It leads to revenge.  Cain grumbled about his brother Abel’s sacrifice to God right before he killed his brother.  Grumbling leads to sin.  James puts it quite succinctly when he writes, “Don’t grumble against one another, brothers and sisters, or you will be judged” (James 5:9).

There is plenty for us, in our day, to mourn.  But sincere mourning over sin is quite different from self-righteous grumbling against sinners.  One perpetuates sin by doing little more than whining about it.  The other fights sin by asking the Lord to rescue us from it.

In a world filled with grumbling, may we remember how to mourn.  And may we also believe Christ’s promise: “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted” (Matthew 5:4).  Mourning, Jesus says, is blessed.  Grumbling, Scripture warns, is condemned.  Let’s make sure we’re doing what God blesses rather than falling prey to what He condemns.

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March 28, 2016 at 5:15 am Leave a comment

Terror Hits Brussels: How Should Christians Respond?

Brussels

It happened again.

Just four days after Paris terror suspect Salah Abdeslam was captured by Belgian law enforcement officials, two coordinated attacks – one at the airport and another on a subway – were carried out in Brussels at approximately 8 am local time.  ISIS is taking responsibility for both.

Most of the scenes on the news right now are coming from the airport attack, and the pictures are ghastly.  Physicians treating the wounded are describing severe nail injuries, indicating that the explosives were packed with materials designed to inflict maximum injury.  As of the posting of this blog, CNN is reporting the provisional death toll at 34:  14 dead at the airport with 20 people killed in the subway bombing.  We do not know whether or not the toll will rise.

At a time like this, it is always worthwhile to pause and reflect on how we, as Christians, are called to respond and react to a tragedy such as this.  Christians are, after all, in a unique position to respond and react to tragedy, for our very faith was born out of tragedy, as this Good Friday will remind us.  Our faith is rooted in “Christ and Him crucified” (1 Corinthians 2:2) – a gruesome thought if left by itself.  So here are a few things to keep in mind.

Pray for Brussels

When terrorists attacked Paris, I wrote, “Pray for Paris.”  The first thing we should do in an event like this is pray – always.  For the vast majority of us, there is no help we can offer Brussels physically – we are not omnipresent.  And there is no way we can thwart another attack in this beleaguered city – we are not omnipotent.  So we must entrust Brussels and its future to the One who is omnipresent and omnipotent.  We must entrust Brussels and its future to the One who can actually help.  Such is the power of prayer.  It not only offers real help to hurting people because it turns to a God who is in the business of helping hurting people, it also grows our faith when we cannot take charge of a situation like this because it teaches us to trust the One who is in charge of every situation like this.

Mourn for Brussels

The old saying goes, “Familiarity breeds contempt.”  We have become all too familiar with terror attacks.  With another one in the news this morning, although we may not be tempted to become outright contemptuous of what has happened, we may be tempted to respond to it with a mild dismissiveness.  We see.  We react with a bit of a groan.  And we move on.  I would encourage us to saunter at the scenes from Brussels for a bit.  Look at the damage done at the airport.  Look at the horrified faces of the people escaping from a bombed subway car.  And grieve.  Terror may be common nowadays, but that shouldn’t make it any less tragic in our hearts and minds.  What has happened in Brussels is worth our grief.  It is worth our sadness.  It is worth our pain.  We worship a Savior who shares in all our pain.  He never passes us by “on the other side” (Luke 10:31).  We should be willing to share in each other’s pain as well.  For when we do, we “carry each other’s burdens” (Galatians 6:2).

Hope for Brussels

Christianity may have been borne out of the tragedy of death, but it is carried forth by the glory of life.  This is what this Holy Week is all about – death on a Friday followed by life on a Sunday.  The hope we have for Brussels, then, is the hope we have for all the world – that no matter how many people terrorists may kill, they cannot win by death because “death has been swallowed up in victory” (1 Corinthians 15:54).  Christ portended our ultimate ends when, on Easter, He conquered His would-be end by walking out of His grave.  We now share in the promise that our graves will not be our ends.  Resurrection is coming.

One of my favorite Bible stories is the story of Armageddon – that great cosmic battle between good and evil at the end of days.  The reason I love it so much is not just because of who wins, but because of how the battle is fought.  The forces of evil, John says, are gathered “to the place that in Hebrew is called Armageddon. The seventh angel poured out his bowl into the air, and out of the temple came a loud voice from the throne, saying, ‘It is done’” (Revelation 16:16-17).  And that’s the end of the battle.  There are no swords drawn.  There are no bullets fired.  There are no bombs dropped.  The forces of darkness combine to bring their worst.  But they are no match for God’s simple declaration: “It is done.”  In Greek, the declaration is just one word:  gegonen.  It turns out that even just one little word, to borrow a phrase from Martin Luther, really can fell Satan and his sympathizers.

We live in a world where deranged terrorists wage twisted jihad.  But as Christians, we hope for a kingdom where battles are not won by an armed detachment, but by a divine decree: “Gegonen.”  “It is done.”

And it will be.

March 22, 2016 at 10:53 am 1 comment

Christianity, Culture, and Comparison

ChurchThere can be little doubt that Christianity is losing its place of primacy in American culture.  According to a survey conducted last year by the Pew Research Center, Americans are becoming increasingly less religious and less willing to affiliate themselves with any particular religious tradition.  As The Washington Post reports:

The “nones,” or religiously unaffiliated, include atheists, agnostics and those who say they believe in “nothing in particular.” Of those who are unaffiliated, 31 percent describe themselves as atheists or agnostics, up six points from 2007.[1]

A six-point increase of the religiously unaffiliated in eight years is not only statistically significant, it is an irreligious coup d’état.  Consider this, also from The Washington Post: “There are more religiously unaffiliated Americans (23 percent) than Catholics (21 percent) and mainline Protestants (15 percent).”

Even among those who self-identify as religious, identifying as a faith does not necessarily correlate to the practice of that faith.  One of the most striking demographic factoids of this presidential election cycle has been how evangelicals who attend church more frequently differ substantially in their candidate preferences from those who attend church less frequently.

Clearly, the religious terrain of America is experiencing tectonic shifts.  What was once America’s so-called “moral majority” is now an apprehensive minority.  So what is the way forward?

Myriads of options have been proposed and tried.  Some people want to fight the secularizing spiral of American culture while others are more amicable to bargaining with and even capitulating to it.  Still others, such as Rod Dreher, argue for a limited withdrawal from American culture, eschewing what they see as the culture’s inherently dangerous facets and foci.  In many ways, these tensions and postures toward the broader culture are nothing new, as a read through H. Richard Niebuhr’s famous book, Christ and Culture, will reveal.

As worthy of discussion as all of these options may be, in this post, I would propose that it is just as important that we look at what we should not do as it is that we look at what we should do.  Here’s why.

At the root of our anxiety over shrinking Christian cultural influence is our penchant to compare.  We look at the political arena and we notice that we don’t wield the power we once did.  And we compare the influence we had to the power we have.  Or we look at demographic studies and we begin to notice that non-believers are on the increase while we’re on the decrease. And we compare the assembly of the despisers to the flock of the convinced.

Martin Luther has some great guidance when we are tempted toward comparison:

They surpass us by so many thousands, and all that we have seems to recede into nothing. But do not compare yourselves with them. No, compare yourselves with your Lord, and it will be wonderful to see how superior you will be … They would easily overcome us, but they cannot overcome that Christ who is in us.[2]

Comparing ourselves with the world as a starting place for responding to the world is dangerous business.  It can lead us to an arrogant triumphalism if the world seems to be persuaded to our side.  But it can also lead to an angry despair if the world rejects us.  It is little wonder that the apostle Paul once wrote, “We do not dare to classify or compare ourselves with some who commend themselves” (2 Corinthians 10:12).  If we are to compare ourselves with anyone or anything, it should be with the One who reminds us that even if we are a “little flock” in this age (Luke 12:32) – with little power, little influence, and little prestige – we are a “multitude that one one can count” (Revelation 7:9) in the next.

What strikes me about so many of our responses to Christianity’s diminishing cultural influence is not that they are wrong per se, but that they flow from the wrong place – they flow from anxious comparisons that grumble over Christianity’s diminishing cultural capital rather than from faith in Christ’s commandments and promises.

Perhaps it’s time to work less out of fear and more out of faith.  Perhaps it’s time to stop comparing and start trusting – not because the decline of Christianity isn’t sad, but because the victory of Christ is certain.

_________________________

[1] Sarah Pulliam Bailey, “Christianity faces sharp decline as Americans are becoming even less affiliated with religion,” The Washington Post (5.12.2015).

[2] Martin Luther, Luther’s Works, vol. 30 (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1967), 289

March 21, 2016 at 5:15 am 2 comments

Pain, Suffering, and Morality

AuschwitzI’ve been doing a fair amount of thinking lately on suffering and its effect on faith.  In one way, I can’t help but believe and even assert that there is every reason to question God in the face of great suffering.  Elie Wiesel’s gut-wrenching account of his time in a Nazi concentration camp comes to mind not only as a natural response to pain and suffering, but as a needed one:

Never shall I forget that night, the first night in camp, that turned my life into one long night seven times sealed. Never shall I forget that smoke. Never shall I forget the small faces of the children whose bodies I saw transformed into smoke under a silent sky. Never shall I forget these flames that consumed my faith forever.[1]

Elie’s description of his first night in a concentration camp should arouse in us nothing other than horror, grief, and sympathy.  Although I don’t know precisely how I would react to such an experience, I would be naïve to think that Elie’s reaction could never be my reaction.  The scene is just too jarring.  The brutality is just too disgusting.  The deaths are just too agonizing.  I too could question God.

And yet…

Some did not respond to the concentration camps the way Elie Wiesel did.  One survivor of the camps, Alex Seidenfeld, in an interview with the Associated Press, said simply, “We stayed alive.  We survived.  How could this have happened without the almighty?”[2]

Elie looked at all those who died and asked, “How can God be?”  Alex looked at all those who survived and asked, “How can God not be?”  Elie looked at all those who died and angrily shouted, “God didn’t stop this!”  Alex looked at all those who survived and declared, “But God did save some of us from this!”

The question of where God is in the face of suffering is really a question of God’s role in the midst of suffering.  Is God’s role to stop us from suffering or to save us through suffering?  In one sense, it is both.  But the first role, at least according to Scripture, doesn’t find its full expression until later, at the end of days.

Ultimately, I would argue that, even if God does not stop all suffering, it is difficult to surmise from the existence of suffering that God does not exist.  C.S. Lewis famously explains why:

My argument against God was that the universe seemed so cruel and unjust. But how had I gotten this idea of just and unjust? A man does not call a line crooked unless he has some idea of a straight line. What was I comparing this universe with when I called it unjust? … Of course I could have given up my idea of justice by saying it was nothing but a private idea of my own. But if I did that, then my argument against God collapsed too – for the argument depended on saying that the world was really unjust, not simply that it did not happen to please my private fancies. Thus in the very act of trying to prove that God did not exist – in other words, that the whole of reality was senseless – I found I was forced to assume that one part of reality – namely my idea of justice – was full of sense.[3]

C.S. Lewis puts his finger on the reality that the problem we have with suffering is that we believe and perceive that it is, in some sense, wrong.  It is unjust.  But if we reject God, we lose the privilege of saying that anything is wrong or unjust because, without God and His ordering of the universe, standards of organized morality disappear into the ether of a universe that coalesced around the free-for-all of chance.  This world and all that is in it, to borrow a phrase from the famous atheist philosopher Bertrand Russell, is nothing more than “the outcome of accidental collocations of atoms.”[4]  In this view, suffering exists in the same way that a ball that lands on black 22 on a roulette wheel exists.  It just happens to happen sometimes.  There is nothing more to be said about it, at least not morally.

Arguing against a moral God in light of what is perceived to be immoral suffering, then, is an argument that collapses on itself.  You can’t argue against God using a framework that has its basis in God.  Either suffering just is, or it is somehow just wrong.  To question how there can be a good God who allows bad things assumes that, even if implicitly, there is a God and that, in some regard, He is not playing by His own rules, or at least by what we perceive to be His rules.  If this is the case, it may be fair to ask Him, “Why?”   But, as a Christian, I would propose that it might be even better to ask Him for help.  From what I hear, even if God doesn’t always stop suffering, He is quite adept at blessing people in suffering.

_____________________

[1] Elie Wiesel, Night (New York:  Hill and Wang, 2006), 33.

[2] Aron Heller, “Observant survivors keep the faith after Holocaust,” The World Post (1.26.2016).

[3] C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (New York:  Harper Collins Publishers, 1980), 38

[4] Bertrand Russell, “A Free Man’s Worship,” The Collected Papers of Bertrand Russell, vol. 12 (London: Routledge, 1985).

March 14, 2016 at 5:15 am 2 comments

Faith and Morality

Right and WrongOn this blog, I have written at length on moral issues.  I believe, quite firmly, that morality has a helpful role to play in the public square and, therefore, moral questions should be discussed and debated and moral standards should be regarded as useful and necessary for and in society.  For all my support public morality, however, there is a part of public morality that I find terrifying.  Here’s what I mean.

There can be little doubt that the experiment of societal moral relativism has failed. Throwing off the shackles of a transcendent and traditional morality for a culturally conditioned and convenient one that ultimately assumes that there is only amorality never got us Thomas Hobbes’ Epicurean dream.  It just left us Adolf Hitler’s Third Reich nightmare.  Leviathan, it turns out, wasn’t nearly as competent to do its job as Hobbes thought.

Moral relativism, then, can be quite deadly.  It does no society any good because, by definition, it is utterly individualistic.  And individuals, left to their own devices, seem to come up with awfully immoral relative moralities.  A traditional and transcendent morality is needed to order society in such a way that we do not (A) wind up killing each other, and (B) actually do some things that are helpful for each other. For these reasons, as well as for many others, public morality is needed.

But at the same time a traditional and transcendent public morality is needed, it is also terrifying.

Once a month, I teach a Bible study at a local business.  This year, I am working through the book of James when, a while back, I came to these famous words:

What good is it, my brothers, if a man claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save him? Suppose a brother or sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to him, “Go, I wish you well; keep warm and well fed,” but does nothing about his physical needs, what good is it? In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead. (James 2:14-17)

As a Lutheran, James’ trumpeting of moral works as important to faith can sometimes arouse in me an almost allergic reaction!  As an avid reader of all things Pauline, I know that works do not help faith.  Indeed, I know that works can actually be in opposition to faith:

[We] know that a person is not justified by the works of the law, but by faith in Jesus Christ. So we, too, have put our faith in Christ Jesus that we may be justified by faith in Christ and not by the works of the law, because by the works of the law no one will be justified. (Galatians 2:16)

“Faith” and “works,” Paul says, do not mix when it comes to salvation.

Of course, James’ point is not that works somehow help faith when it comes to salvation, but that faith results in works that flow from salvation.  A saving faith, James argues, is inevitably an active faith.  Indeed, James would go so far to argue that a saving faith that is not an active faith is not even faith.  To quote his brother’s words: “By their fruit you will recognize them” (Matthew 7:16).  A faith that does not result in moral works does not exist.  Such a faith is a myth that belongs on the shelf with unicorns, leprechauns, and that time your mom told you that if you swallow your gum, it will stay in your stomach for seven years.

This is why, at the same time I believe public morality is needed, I am also terrified by it.  A faith without moral works is impossible.  James says so.  Christians should not be frightened, therefore, to declare moral works as “necessary” to faith.  What is frightening, however, is that the inverse does not hold true.  Moral works may be necessary to faith, but faith is not necessary for moral works.  One can be very moral and still be very damned.  And herein lies the good and the bad of public morality.  Public morality helps others.  It may even help you.  But it doesn’t help you before God.  Only faith can help you before the Almighty.

Even as I continue to argue for the merits of public morality if for no other reason than that I’m not a big fan of the Third Reich, I will continue to serve proudly as a pastor to point people toward faith in Jesus Christ.  I like morality that comes from faith a lot better than morality that is divorced from faith.  The second morality may be nice for society, but the first receives a “well done” in eternity.

March 7, 2016 at 5:15 am Leave a comment


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