Archive for July, 2016

When Disagreements Arise

LCMS Convention

Credit: LCMS / Michael Scheurmann

A week ago, the church body of which I am a part, the Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod, held its triennial convention.  As with every denomination, mine has its share of disagreements and squabbles, many of which were on display at this convention.  At issue was everything from the way ecclesiastical supervision is practiced when a pastor is accused of teaching falsely to whether certain congregations can continue to be served in Word and Sacrament ministry by someone who is not an ordained pastor.

As I listened to these debates, I was reminded of how the earliest Lutherans dealt with differences among themselves and with other Christian bodies.

The Augsburg Confession is a statement of confessional standards for Lutherans worldwide.  In it, differences with the Roman Catholic Church, as well as with other nascent Protestant bodies, are outlined.  But before the drafters of the Augsburg Confession enumerated their differences with other Christians, they began with some points of agreement.  They opened their confession with a restatement of the three ecumenical creeds of the Church – the Apostles’ Creed, the Nicene Creed, and the Athanasian Creed.  This was intentional, for the confessors wanted all those who read the Augsburg Confession to understand that its drafters did not stand outside the historic Christian faith; they stood squarely and solidly in it.  From there, the confessors went on to elaborate on their agreement with the historic Christian teaching on the nature of God:

Our churches teach with common consent that the decree of the Council of Nicaea about the unity of the divine essence and the three persons is true.  It is to be believed without doubt.  God is one divine essence who is eternal, without a body, without parts, of infinite power, wisdom, and goodness…Yet there are three persons, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.[1]

The confessors began their confession of faith with a point on which all Christians could agree.  Indeed, when the Roman Catholic Church responded to the Augsburg Confession, for all the things over which they registered their disagreement, when it came to the Lutherans’ confession of the Trinity, the Catholics wrote simply, “This is to be accepted.”[2]

The confessors, of course, did not only speak of where they agreed with Rome.  They had plenty to say about where they disagreed.  But where they began, I believe, is informative for us as we seek to address disagreements among ourselves.  Celebrating our agreements first is often the best way to find resolutions to our disagreements later.

One of the things I have long appreciated about the American Evangelical movement of the last several decades is that it has been able to engage many different church bodies – from Lutherans to Methodists to Presbyterians to Baptists to non-denominational congregations – by appealing to what these bodies share in common while still being honest about where they differ.  The National Association of Evangelicals, for instance, espouses a Statement of Faith that has broad resonance with nearly any confessional, Christ-centered, Bible-based church body.  Its statement of faith includes a recognition of the Bible as God’s Word, the two natures in Christ, the return of Christ, and the necessity of the Spirit’s work in an individual’s salvation.  In crafting confessional statements like these, the Evangelical movement has been able to highlight and celebrate just how much Christians across the world hold in common.

My church body can sometimes – and sometimes unfairly – be known more for where it disagrees with itself rather than being known for what it confesses together with a unified voice.  We can sometimes be thought of more as sectarian than as confessional.  This is why when disagreements do arise among us and become hot, as they inevitably will, I pray that we would return to and remind ourselves of all that we hold in common, for there is a lot.  I also pray that, as Lutheran Christians, we would seek to find places where we can work together with other Christians on the basis of what we share even as we continue to rigorously and truthfully litigate our differences.  Indeed, one of the highlights of this past convention was an address from Ryan T. Anderson, a Catholic intellectual, on the challenges Christians face with regard to human sexuality and religious liberty.  It was a joy to see people from two theological traditions that are generally at odds with each other in Lutheranism and Catholicism come together to think through some of the important ethical and philosophical issues of our day.

Why do I so adamantly pray that we would be known for our unity rather than for our division?  Because this, finally, is not a prayer that originated with me.  It originated with Jesus.  And to pray for anything less would be to crucify other Christians for their differences with us rather than to extol Christ crucified for us (1 Corinthians 1:10-13).  To pray for anything less would be to diminish, or even to deny, the amazing unity that Christ has given His Church.

Again, do not misunderstand me:  I am not saying that we should never tend to and seek to reconcile differences, but I am saying that we should be intentionally and continually thankful for where Christ has given us unity in spite of ourselves.  And He has given us plenty.

Let’s not neglect that gift.

__________________________

[1] Concordia: The Lutheran Confessions, Second Edition, Paul T. McCain, ed. (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 2006), 31 (AC I 1-3).

[2] “The Confutation of the Augsburg Confession,” Sources and Contexts of the Book of Concord, Robert Kolb, James A. Nestingen, eds. (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2001), 107 (Confutation I).

July 25, 2016 at 5:15 am Leave a comment

Nice, Turkey, and Baton Rouge

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Baton Rouge police block Airline Highway after a sniper kills three and wounds three officers.  Credit: AP Photo/Max Becherer

Death is grimly efficient.

In Genesis 3, Adam and Eve eat from the fruit of a tree about which God had said, “You must not eat…for when you eat from it you will certainly die” (Genesis 2:17).  By Genesis 4, death has already had its way as Cain kills his brother Abel.

That didn’t take long.

The grim efficiency of death has loomed large over these past few days.  First, word came from Nice, France last Thursday that 84 people had been killed when a terrorist drove a large, white paneled truck at high speeds into a crowd of revelers who were celebrating Bastille Day.  Then, on Saturday, we learned that around 290 people were killed in a failed coup against the president of Turkey, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who has now arrested over 6,000 people and has vowed to root out what he calls the “virus” that is plaguing his country.  Then, yesterday, tragedy hit Baton Rouge as three police officers were killed and three others were injured when a sniper ambushed and shot at the officers who had responded to a report of trouble near the Hammond Aire Plaza shopping center.

Three stories of death in nearly as many days.  And these come on the heels of another week before this last week that was also packed with three stories stories of death from Saint Paul, from Dallas, and, again, from Baton Rouge.  Yes, death is grimly efficient.

These are terrible times.  There was a time when weeks like these – with so many major stories of unrest and death – were nearly unthinkable.  But in the summer of 2016, weeks like these are becoming all too predictable.  Indeed, I can sometimes struggle with how to process all of these types of tragedies precisely because there are so many of these types of tragedies.

In processing this week’s worth of carnage, I would point to what I have already pointed to in the past.  After the tragedies in Baton Rouge, Saint Paul, and Dallas, I pointed people to the importance of being empathetic with those who grieve, of receiving Christ’s peace in the midst of unrest, and, most importantly, of remembering that death does not have the last word.  Christ does.

As I look back on this week of tragedies, all of these reminders still hold.  And yet, I wish I didn’t have to remind people of these reminders – again.

Even though I feel a little overwhelmed by so much death in such a short period of time, I am not particularly surprised by it.  After all, death, as Genesis 3 and 4 teach us, is indeed grimly efficient.  It works fast and it works tenaciously.  And it has no intention of giving up on its prey.

What is most striking to me about Abel’s death in Genesis 4 is that even though God condemned Adam and Eve to death because of their transgression against His command, it was their son, Abel, who first suffered under the fruit of their sin.  It who their son, who, ostensibly, did nothing particularly wrong who dies.  Indeed, the reason Abel’s brother Cain kills him is because he did something right.  He made an offering that was pleasing to God.  Cain became jealous of that offering and murdered him.

The first death in history, then, was that of an apparently innocent person.  This is why, when God finds out what Cain has done to his brother, He is furious and asks Cain, “What have you done?” which, interestingly, is the same question God asks Eve when she eats from His forbidden fruit.  God continues by answering His own question: “Listen! Your brother’s blood cries out to Me from the ground” (Genesis 4:10).

Ever since that moment, the blood that cries out to God has been getting deeper and deeper as death has been spreading farther and wider.  Nice, Turkey, and Baton Rouge have now added their blood to Abel’s.

Finally, there is only one way to stem the flow of death and blood. The preacher of Hebrews explains:

You have come to God, the Judge of all, to the spirits of the righteous made perfect, to Jesus the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel. (Hebrews 12:23-24)

Just like Abel, there was a man who was not only ostensibly innocent, He was actually innocent.  Just like Abel, this was a man who did what was pleasing in God’s sight.  And just like Abel, this was a man who had His blood spilled by those who were jealous of Him.  But Jesus’ blood, the preacher of Hebrews says, is better than Abel’s blood.  Why?  Because Jesus’ blood did what Abel’s blood could not.  Instead of just crying out, as did Abel’s blood, Jesus’ blood saved us.  By His blood, Jesus solved the problem of Abel’s blood…and Nice’s blood…and Turkey’s blood…and Baton Rouge’s blood.  For by His blood, Jesus said to death’s grim efficiency: “Your reign will end.  My blood will overtake all the blood that cries with a blood that can save all.”

In a week that has seen far too much blood and far too many tears, Jesus’ blood is the blood that we need.  For Jesus’ blood is the only blood that doesn’t wound our souls as we mourn loss; it mends our souls as we yearn for salvation.

July 18, 2016 at 5:15 am 2 comments

More on Baton Rouge, Saint Paul, and Dallas

Let’s try a little thought experiment.

Imagine you’re a police officer in Baton Rouge.  You’ve been called to a convenience store where a 37-year-old man named Alton Sterling has been reported to have recently threatened another man with a gun.  You approach Mr. Sterling and pin him to the ground when someone shouts, “He’s got a gun!  Gun!”  Fear takes over.  Shots are fired.  And Alton Sterling lies dead.

Now imagine you’re a police officer in Saint Paul, Minnesota.  You pull over a vehicle that has a broken taillight.  The man inside, Philando Castile, dutifully explains that he has a concealed carry permit and has a firearm in the vehicle.  When Mr. Castile reaches for his license and registration, however, you think he’s reaching for his gun.  Fear takes over.  Four shots are fired.  And Mr. Castile dies in front of his girlfriend and four-year-old daughter.

Finally, imagine you’re a 25-year-old black man named Micah Xavier Johnson who has watched other black men be shot and killed in altercations with the police under suspicious circumstances time and time again.  You see protest after protest against these shootings by Black Lives Matter, but in your mind, these protests do not equate to real action.  After the tragedies in Baton Rouge and St. Paul unfold, you seize on these moments to exact revenge.  At a protest in Dallas, you, with anger coursing through your veins, aim your arsenal of firearms at twelve officers, killing five of them, only to finally be taken down yourself by law enforcement officials.

Are you still with me?

Now, let’s do a little math.

Fear + Anger = Eight People Dead

At this point, I need to include some caveats.

First, don’t misunderstand the intent of my thought experiment.  I am not trying to exonerate bad behavior by asking us to imagine ourselves in each of these men’s shoes – by asking us to empathize with them.  Empathy never tries to excuse sin, but it does try to understand people because, when we understand people better, we can understand what leads to a week like the one we just experienced better and, hopefully, take steps to prevent another week like this one from happening again – ever.

Second, the facts in all these cases are still unfolding.  When 49 people were shot and killed by a terrorist at an Orlando nightclub, I offered an encouragement on this blog for people to patiently wait for the facts rather than jumping to conclusions about the shooter’s motives.  The same caution applies here.  It could be that one or both of these officers in Baton Rouge were animated by naked racial animus and shot and killed one or both of these men in cold blood.  If this were the case, the equation above would still hold, albeit on the anger side rather than on the fear side.  It could also be that, as more facts surface, one or both of these officers were not animated by fear, but by a legitimate concern for self-defense.  Turning to Dallas, it could be that Mr. Johnson was clinically insane and not in his right mind when he carried out these horrific attacks.  If this were the case, what he did still could not be excused, and his anger and hatred would still loom large, but it might be understood a little differently.  Carefully sorting through the facts – and being patient enough to do so – is incredibly important in tragedies like these.

Third, I am not a law enforcement official.  I know some law enforcement officials, and I have nothing but the utmost respect and love for them.  Honestly, if I had to walk in their shoes, I’m not sure that the altercations with Mr. Sterling and Mr. Castile would have gone down any differently.  I can imagine myself becoming very frightened very quickly.  The fact that so many law enforcement officials keep their cool when tensions are high is a testimony to the character and competence of so many of these men and women.

Fourth, I am not a black man.  I have heard enough stories of incipient and systemic racism against black men, however, that my heart breaks.  I would not want to live under a cloud of such constant suspicion.  I would not want to have to teach my son the lessons of what little slights, sideways glances, and clinched purses could mean.  If I had to endure that day after day, I would be angry too.  And if someone was to needlessly take the life of someone that I loved, I can’t say I wouldn’t be tempted to exact an eye for an eye.  The fact that so many African-Americans keep their protests peaceful and focused on change rather than turning them into opportunities for revenge is a testimony to the character and compassion of so many of these men and women.

What has happened this week, then, is not an indictment of the masses, but the fruits of a few.

But…

Even though what happened this week was not by our hands, this is not to say it couldn’t have been by our hands.  Remember the equation?

Fear + Anger = Eight People Dead

Have you let fear take over your heart any time this week?  How about anger?  Is anything from the way you manage money to the way you treat your family to the friends you avoid to the grudges you hold to the politics you have that is driven by fear or anger? The results of your fear and anger may not be eight dead, but are the results in any way good?  Let’s adjust the equation a little bit.

Fear + Anger = Plenty That Is Not Good

Is this true of you?

Fear and anger are part of the human condition and are devastatingly etched into the annals of human history.  One needs to look no further than the night before Jesus’ death.  When Judas betrays Jesus into the hands of the religious leaders, Peter goes from being so angry at what is about to beset his Master that he cuts off the ear of a man in the mob that has come to arrest Jesus to being so fearful at what is transpiring with his Master that, just hours later, when a servant girl asks him if he knows Jesus, he denies his Savior and friend.  Fear and anger coalesce into one necrotic night.

The truth is this: there’s plenty of fear and anger to go around – among the masses and, if we’re brutally honest, in our hearts.  The equation holds true for us all.

So, on the heels of a terribly tragic week, let me conclude with two gentle reminders:

“Do not be afraid” (Luke 12:32).

And…

“Refrain from anger and turn from wrath” (Psalm 37:8).

Think on these things.

July 11, 2016 at 5:15 am 1 comment

A Week of Tragedy: Baton Rouge, Saint Paul, and Dallas

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This has been a terribly tragic week.  Today, three cities are in mourning:  Baton Rouge, Saint Paul, and now, overnight, Dallas.

In Baton Rouge, 37-year-old Alton Sterling was shot to death while being pinned to the ground by law enforcement officials.  In Saint Paul, Philando Castile was shot and killed by an officer after being pulled over for a broken taillight.  In both of these cases, there are questions over whether or not police officers used excessive force.  Then, last night in Dallas, when protesters gathered to decry what happened in Baton Rouge and Saint Paul, five officers were shot and killed, with an additional seven officers shot and wounded, by a sniper who was enraged by the shootings in Baton Rouge and Saint Paul.  It is the largest single loss of first responder lives since September 11, 2001.

As events continue to unfold, here are some things to keep in mind.

Grieve with those who grieve.

To all of the families who have lost loved ones this week in these tragedies, we should offer our condolences.  We should hold them up in prayer.  Losing loved ones are occasions for tears.  Empathy should be the hallmark of every Christian because it so closely reflects the incarnation.  In Christ, God came into our pain.  He experienced our pain.  He walked through our pain.  This is why the preacher of Hebrews can say that, in Christ, “we do not have a high priest who is unable to empathize” (Hebrews 4:15).  For us to withhold empathy denies us the opportunity to show the world who we are by our love.  “Mourn with those who mourn” (Romans 12:15).

Receive Christ’s peace.

When a week spirals into tragedy like this one has, we can be tempted to respond either with fear or with anger, or with both.  I’ll have more on these responses Monday on my blog.  For right now, suffice it to say that these responses are not helpful.  When the world is troubling, rather than responding with fear and anger, it is better to receive the peace that only Christ can give.

The night before Jesus goes to His death on a cross, He knows His disciples will respond both with anger (cf. John 18:10) and with fear (cf. John 18:15-18, 25-26).  But Jesus wants His disciples to receive His peace.  So He says to them, “Peace I leave with you; My peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid” (John 14:27).  God’s peace is stronger than human tragedy.

Trust that tragedy does not have the last word.

It was Dr. Martin Luther King, echoing the words of the nineteenth century abolitionist Theodore Parker, who said, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”  How a moral arc can bend toward things like justice and righteousness and goodness can be tough to see after a week like this.  Yet, what is good has not been lost.

Jesus tells the story of a widow who comes to a judge, begging him to grant her justice against someone who has wronged her.  The judge, who apparently is not at all concerned with justice, continually diminishes and dismisses her concerns until he finally decides to grant her what she wants, simply because she won’t leave him alone.  This widow’s quest for what is good overcomes this judge’s careless embrace of what is wrong.  Jesus concludes His story by pointing to God: “Will not God bring about justice for His chosen ones, who cry out to Him day and night? Will He keep putting them off? I tell you, He will see that they get justice, and quickly” (Luke 18:7-8).

Jesus promises that in a world where plenty is wrong, God is a just judge who will eventually make things right.  God will not put us off in our tears, in our hurt, and in our devastation.  And although God’s conception of a justice that comes “quickly” may not fit our conception of a justice that comes “quickly,” we can rest assured that God’s final defeat of all that is wrong will have its say on the Last Day.  Not only that, God’s defeat of all that is wrong has already had its say in Christ, who triumphed over sin and death by the cross (cf. Colossians 2:15).  In a week that has been full of tragedy, this is something in which we can take deep comfort and by which we can hold out great hope.

Terrible tragedy will not have the final say.  Jesus will.

July 8, 2016 at 10:07 am 3 comments

Texas, Abortion, and the Terrible Triumph of the Human Will

Supreme Court Texas Abortion Case

Credit: Associated Press

A front page for the The New York Times caught my eye during a layover at the Phoenix airport last week.  Its headline read, “Justices Overturn Texas Abortion Limits.”  Last week, the Supreme Court ruled against a Texas law that required abortion clinics to have hospital admitting privileges in order to continue operating.  The Justices ruled that this and other standards in the law placed an “undue burden” on the ability to obtain an abortion.

Along with the headline, there was an infographic with this caption: “The Supreme Court Drifts to the Left.”  Sadly, this is the way the abortion debate is often now cast:  conservative versus liberal, right versus left.  But there is far more at stake in this case than just political or ideological points.  What is at stake in this case is human lives.

Yes, the lives of the babies lost to abortion are at stake.  But so are the lives of the women who suffer through the loss of a child to abortion.  Abortion can change profoundly the lives of the women who endure it – and not necessarily for the better.  Indeed, some studies have shown that women can suffer under a crushing weight of hidden hurt and regret after obtaining an abortion.

Yet, regardless of its mental, physical, emotional, and spiritual tolls, many in our society continue to fight for the widest possible access to abortion and, as the Supreme Court ruling symptomizes, raising any concerns about the way the abortion industry operates is regularly met with little more than scorn and skepticism.  The right to abortion, in this view, is sovereign.

The problem, however, with making the right to abortion sovereign is that it makes physical reality subservient to the human will.  The physical reality of life in utero becomes becomes dependent on a person’s choice.  To borrow a quip from 2004 presidential candidate Wesley Clark: it means that “life begins with the mother’s decision.”

Except that it doesn’t.  Life begins in spite of a person’s choice.  But life, tragically, can be ended by a person’s choice.  To try to make the physical reality of life subservient to the human will is to deny that physical reality really matters at all.  But the denial of physical reality in light of human decision seems to be en vogue – not only with babies in wombs, but with people in their lives.

Several weeks ago on this blog, I wrote about the connection between transgenderism and Platonism.  Just like Platonism sees that which is non-corporeal as more important and, in some sense, more real than the physical, transgenderism gives preference to a non-corporeal inner identification over a person’s physical biological sex.  Sherif Girgis made a similar observation about the relationship of the physical to the internal in an article for First Things:

The body doesn’t matter…Since I am not my body, I might have been born in the wrong one. Because the real me is internal, my sexual identity is just what I sense it to be. The same goes for other valuable aspects of my identity. My essence is what I say and feel that it is…

On the old view, you could know important things about me unmediated, by knowing something about my body or our shared nature. And our interdependence as persons was as inescapable as our physical incompleteness and need: as male and female, infants and infirm. But if the real me lies within, only I know what I am. You have to take my word for it; I can learn nothing about myself from our communion. And if I emerge only when autonomy does – if I come into the world already thinking and feeling and choosing – it’s easy to overlook our interdependence. I feel free to strike out on my own, and to satisfy my desires less encumbered by others’ needs.[1]

Girgis’ final line is key.  If we are fundamentally defined by our internal wills rather than by our physical bodies, our wills must be held as sovereign and defining.  Anything and anyone that would encroach on our wills – even a baby growing inside of us – must be put it in its place.

In this way, everything from same-sex marriage to transgenderism to abortion is of one piece.  It privileges the human will over everything else.  I can choose who I want to marry without any regard for a created complementarianism.  I can choose my gender quite apart from what are, in most cases, very clear biological markers.  And I can choose to keep a baby inside of me or to rid myself of it.

I understand and am sensitive to the fact that, in each of these cases, there are strong stirrings that can lead to difficult decisions.  The stirring of affection for someone of the same-sex can lead to a same-sex marriage.  The stirring toward the lifestyles of the opposite gender can lead a person to live as transgender.  And the stirring of fear over what it takes to raise a child can lead to an abortion.  But even when these stirrings are strong, I think it is worth it to at least ask the question of whether or not it is wise to make human stirrings so defining that they can eclipse and even try to deny actual physical states of being.

According to the Supreme Court, the stirring of a person’s choice in pregnancy is defining.  And if anything – even a raising of medical standards for abortion clinics in Texas – impedes that choice, choice must have its way.  So it will.  And with deadly results.

_________________________

[1] Sherif Girgis, “Obergefell and the New Gnosticism,” First Things (6.28.2016).

July 4, 2016 at 5:00 am 1 comment


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