Archive for November, 2016

Abortion, Absolution, and Pope Francis

francis

In a letter dated Sunday, November 20, Pope Francis announced that any woman who has had an abortion can now be forgiven for that sin by a priest.  This move toward priestly absolution for abortion began a full year ago when the pope announced a “Year of Mercy.”  Before this special year, only ecclesiastical higher ups could absolve someone of an abortion unless a particular region gave special disposition to its local priests to absolve this sin, which the Catholic Church in the United States had already done.  The pope’s announcement of a Year of Mercy gave this right to priests worldwide.  And now the pope has extended this right into perpetuity.  In his missive, the pope explained:

We have celebrated an intense Jubilee Year in which we have received the grace of mercy in abundance. Like a gusting but wholesome wind, the Lord’s goodness and mercy have swept through the entire world. Because each of us has experienced at length this loving gaze of God, we cannot remain unaffected, for it changes our lives…

Lest any obstacle arise between the request for reconciliation and God’s forgiveness, I henceforth grant to all priests, in virtue of their ministry, the faculty to absolve those who have committed the sin of procured abortion. The provision I had made in this regard, limited to the duration of the Extraordinary Holy Year, is hereby extended, notwithstanding anything to the contrary.

When the pope first announced his Year of Mercy, The New York Times ran an editorial by Jill Filipovic titled, “The Pope’s Unforgiving Message of Forgiveness on Abortion.”  In her piece, Ms. Filipovic decries the idea that those who had obtained an abortion should need forgiveness.  She writes:

Instead of treating women as adults who make their own decisions, the pope condescends to “all the women who have resorted to abortion,” saying he is “well aware of the pressure that has led them to this decision.” The threat of excommunication, at the very least, makes the church’s views on women’s rights clear. Offering forgiveness is a softer version of the same judgment: that the millions of women around the world who have abortions every year are sinners. Inviting women to feel shame and guilt for their abortions isn’t a mercy; it’s cruelty.

At issue for Ms. Filipovic is the fact that abortion would be classified as a sin at all.  For her, forgiveness for an abortion is neither needed nor desirable.  What is needed is a wholehearted endorsement and promotion of abortion itself.

The biblical position on abortion and forgiveness undermines both the Roman Catholic Church’s strange view of absolution, especially before this recent papal pronouncement, along with the secularist’s cynicism toward the sinfulness of abortion.  The secular view of abortion and forgiveness is inadequate precisely because the emotions of “shame and guilt,” contrary to Ms. Filipovic’s assertion, should be the affective outcome of any sin, including abortion.  Our sin should make us feel bad – at least if we take what God commands seriously.  Only God’s gospel can remedy our shame and guilt as it releases our sins to Christ on the cross.  Abortion cannot be excused and explained away.  It can only be forgiven.

Likewise, the Roman Catholic Church’s view on abortion and forgiveness also will not do.  The now former restriction on priestly absolution for abortion seems to have been largely meant as a threatening deterrent against particularly grievous sins, as is explained in the Baltimore Catechism:

The absolution from some sins is reserved to the pope or bishop to deter or prevent, by this special restriction, persons from committing them, either on account of the greatness of the sin itself or on account of its evil consequences.

This restriction overlooks the fact that, theologically speaking, every sin is an affront against all divine law, therefore making any sin damnable.  It also overlooks the fact that to make forgiveness difficult to obtain via a barrage of ecclesiastical red tape takes what is meant to be a gift from God and perverts it into a work of man.  This makes the forgiveness spoken of here antithetical to the gospel rather than the center of the gospel, for the gospel is never about what we do, but about what God has done for us in Jesus Christ.

So where does this leave us?  It leaves us here:  if you are a woman who has had an abortion, there is hope beyond shame, release beyond burden, and wholeness beyond brokenness.  Not because there shouldn’t be any shame, any burden, or any brokenness.  And not because you can somehow claw your way out shame, burden, and brokenness by a work, even if that work is a work of self-debasing sorrow before a bishop or a priest. No, there is hope and release and wholeness because of Jesus.  After all, He suffered death to conquer death, which means, even if a life has been lost to abortion, that life can be recovered too.  And your life can be made new.

That’s the promise abortion needs.

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November 28, 2016 at 5:15 am 1 comment

The Real Truth About Fake News

news

Recently, I came across a New York Times feature piece bemoaning the increase of what are deemed “fake news sites.”  These are websites that purport to share what which is newsworthy, but regularly play fast and loose with the facts, usually to further a particular political agenda.  For instance, days before the election, a news story from The Denver Guardian received hundreds of thousands of shares on social media:  “FBI AGENT SUSPECTED IN HILLARY EMAIL LEAKS FOUND DEAD IN APPARENT MURDER-SUICIDE.”  It sounded salacious – and terrifying.  There was only only problem:  it was completely fabricated.  For starters, The Denver Guardian did not exist before this year.  Moreover, the article contained misspellings and demonstrably untrue details, such as a reference to the “Walkerville Police Department” in Maryland.  Walkersville does not have a police department.  It should also be noted that no other noted news outlets picked up this story, which, if true, would have caused a stir among at least certain corners of the media.  Still, this article was shared more than half a million times on Facebook alone.

Of course, fake news is nothing new.  Tabloids have been around for a long time and have managed to prove very profitable precisely because they are more concerned with feeding readers titillating stories than true ones.  Indeed, each year, Oxford Dictionaries names a “word of the year.”  This year’s word is “post-truth,” because it seems “to capture the English-speaking public’s mood and preoccupations…where people lived through divisive, populist upheavals that often seemed to prize passion above all else – including facts.”

This particular surge of fake news fury seems to have been fueled not only by political passion, but, at least in part, by what many perceive to be the bias of traditional news outlets.  For example, the Pulitzer Prize winning website politifact.com has been widely panned because, though it purports to check the truthfulness of what politicians say in public forums, it has been shown to rate what some politicians say – especially those who are more conservative – as “false” even though some of the statements in question could reasonably be considered as true.  In other words, a website that claims to be devoted to uncovering the truth has been shown to be, in some instances, clouding it.

Christians have long held the truth in high regard.  We do, after all, follow a man who not only claims to “tell the truth,” but actually to “be the truth.”  This is why it is so incumbent on us to watch what we say, what we write, what we teach, and, yes, what we post on social media.  We have not always been the best at the this.  For instance, have ever you heard it claimed that Christians divorce at the same rate as non-Christians? This may sound alarming.  But it shouldn’t be.  Because it’s not true.

One interesting trend in churches is that of fact-checking sermons.  Many folks will now Google a statistic that a pastor cites or a publicly available anecdote that a pastor shares to check whether or not it is true.  Can you imagine the damage done to the Christian witness if a pew-sitter finds that some of what a pastor is saying is not, in fact, true?

A willingness to be less than concerned with the truth can often be symptomatic of a deeper disease.  On the one hand, it can be symptomatic of an intellectual laziness.  With so many competing facts and figures floating around, sometimes it takes time to chase down what is accurate and what is not. Some people simply do not want to be bothered.  It’s easier to take the first thing you find and run with it.  But if you want to put in a little extra work to verify what you read, this terrific (and funny) article by Matt Masur offers some simple suggestions on how to fact check that Facebook post that raises your hackles.

A lack of concern with the truth can also be a symptom of a desperate desire to bolster a particular argument, even if that comes at the cost of the integrity of reality.  That is, whether it is posting a cagey news story on social media or citing a suspect statistic in a sermon, some people simply cannot resist the kind of “slam-dunk” affirmations these kinds of stories and statistics provide.  Unfortunately, once they are shown to be false, they can actually undermine the very argument they seek to make.

If we truly believe in whatever arguments we make, the truthful versions of these arguments ought to be persuasive enough.  If we don’t think they are, we don’t need a sensationalistic zinger to make our case.  We need different arguments.  After all, Jesus is quite clear that deceit comes from only one place – a place that is the antithesis of the kingdom of God.  The truth is enough.  So let’s stick with the truth, celebrate the truth, and traffic in the truth.

November 21, 2016 at 5:15 am Leave a comment

President-Elect Donald J. Trump

trump-obama-oval-office

Credit: Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP Photo

Whether you love him, despise him, believe in him, are distasteful of him, are worried about him, or are indifferent to him, Donald J. Trump is the President-Elect of the United States.  Regardless of which one of these categories you may occupy (or, perhaps, you’re in another category I missed), as Christians, there are a few things we are called to be during the transition from the end of Barack Obama’s presidency to the beginning of Donald Trump’s presidency.  Perhaps you already know these things, but a little reminder never hurts.

Be prayerful.

The apostle Paul writes to Timothy:

I urge, then, first of all, that petitions, prayers, intercession and thanksgiving be made for all people – for kings and all those in authority, that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness. (1 Timothy 2:1-2)

Paul is clear that we, as Christians, ought to pray for our leaders.  But there is something I think we often miss in this passage.  Before Paul exhorts Timothy to pray “for kings and all those in authority,” he urges Timothy to pray “for all people.”  The category of “leaders” is a subset of the category of “people.”

Though this may seem painfully obvious, it is important to remember that our leaders are, in fact, actual people.  I say this because sometimes it can become far too easy for us to paint the leaders we don’t care for as soulless cartoonish villains, not worthy of even basic respect.

Regardless of what you think of President-Elect Trump, he is a person, made in the image of God and loved by God.  He is also a husband, a father, and a grandfather.  We should pray for him not only as a politician, but also as a person.

Be supportive.

Every person is sinful.  And yet, as Jesus puts it, even evil people “know how to give good gifts to [their] children” (Matthew 7:11).  In other words, just because no one is perfect doesn’t mean that everyone does everything wrong.  Instead, we are all mixed bags.  We do some things right and some things wrong.  We do some things that are good and some things that are evil.  Donald Trump, no doubt, will do some good things for America.  For instance, his promise to support the cause of life and minimize the scourge of abortion is vital not only to our national wellbeing, but to our human decency as well.  In cases such as this, Christians ought to graciously, thoughtfully, and humbly support that which is good and just. 

Be skeptical.

Even as sinful people can do good things for which they should be commended, they can also, obviously, do sinful things for which they must be confronted.  Christians should be willing to call sin for what it is regardless of the political party out of which it comes.  Certainly, President-Elect Trump has said some things that are not only not befitting of the office of President of the United States, but also defy basic decorum, decency, and truthfulness.  The warning of Jesus’ brother should ring in our minds: “The tongue also is a fire, a world of evil among the parts of the body. It corrupts the whole body, sets the whole course of one’s life on fire, and is itself set on fire by hell” (James 3:6).  Reckless words may be legal in a society that has enshrined free speech, but legality does not equal morality.  Christians should continue to call President-Elect Trump, and all of our public officials, to account when their behavior turns ugly.

Especially because of the rancorous nature of this year’s election cycle, I would add that we should be careful not to allow a healthy skepticism to turn into a bitter cynicism.  Skepticism is honest that sin is constantly afoot and must be confronted.  Cynicism, on the other hand, finds a certain schadenfreude in another’s sin because it can sanctimoniously condemn it and boast over it.  Skepticism is wise.  Cynicism is hateful.  Let us not fall prey to the latter.

Be faith-filled.

Our nation is deeply divided, as even the statistical outcome of this election demonstrates.  Donald Trump won in the electoral college and, hence, has secured the presidency, while Hillary Clinton bested Mr. Trump in the popular vote.  As Christians, we have a uniquely unifying message because, in the midst of a division as deep as ours, we can point to a God who made us all and to His Son who sacrificed Himself for us all.  Christ is the One who can break down what separates us.  Now is the time to share Him.

Ultimately, whether you are satisfied with the outcome of this election or fearful because of it, remember to guard your faith.  Fear can lead us to lash out in anger as we try to forcefully and artificially rectify something we think is wrong.  Satisfaction can lead to gloating and glibness as we trust in a set of comfortable circumstances that will, finally, prove to be fleeting.  Both of these reactions can lead us away from Christ rather than toward Him.  A reaction of fear can refuse to trust in the peace Christ wants to give as it stews in its own self-righteous anger.  An enshrinement of comfort can minimize the provision Christ wants of offer as it lounges in its own self-sufficiency.

Thus, what we need now as the presidency of the United States shifts parties and hands is what we have always needed and will always need:

Faith.

Do not put your trust in princes, in human beings, who cannot save.  When their spirit departs, they return to the ground; on that very day their plans come to nothing. Blessed are those whose help is the God of Jacob, whose hope is in the LORD their God. (Psalm 146:3-5)

November 14, 2016 at 5:15 am 1 comment

Who’s Afraid of Election Day?

U.S. Citizens Head To The Polls To Vote In Presidential Election

Credit: Darren McCollester / Getty Images

Tomorrow is the big day.  Tomorrow, we the people turn out to vote for the next President of the United States.  Though literally thousands of other politicians will be on the ballots that are cast tomorrow, the presidential election is the one that looms largest in the minds and hearts of most people.  Indeed, I’ve heard it repeated over and over again throughout the course of this political season that “this is the most important presidential election of our lifetimes.”  I honestly do not know whether or not it is.  I do know that Walter Mondale told a crowd in 1984, “This is the most important election of our lives.”  I would argue that history has probably proven him wrong.  And history, eventually, may prove today’s claim about the importance of this election wrong – or, perhaps, right.  We’ll just have to wait and see.

But whether or not voters and pundits prove to be historically correct in their estimation of the weightiness of this election, I do know that the immediate perceived importance of this election is enormous and is engendering deep fear in the minds and hearts of many.  I have had conversation after conversation with people who are scared of what has happened and what will happen to our political system and to our nation.

This past weekend, I listened to a sermon on the topic of this year’s election.  The pastor who preached this sermon argued forcefully, powerfully, and, at times, eloquently for what he believed about this election and even for whom he believed we, as Christians, should vote in this election.  But what struck me most about this pastor’s sermon was its closing.  He ended by talking about two fears that he has for the future of this nation.  First, he explained his fear that there may be too many of “them” and too few of “us.”  He sees postmodern secularism winning over the masses and driving Christianity to the fringes and he is worried that there is nothing we can do politically to beat it back.  Second, he expressed his worry that we may simply be too late to make any difference.  He thinks too many Christians have been too silent for too long, and now a day of reckoning has come.

Politically, this pastor seemed very knowledgeable.  Theologically, however, if I can be so bold to say this, as I listened to his sermon, I became more and more convinced that he missed something very important.  Here’s why I say that.

First, if anyone thinks that there are too many of “them” and too few of “us,” I would encourage that person to read the story of Gideon.  When God takes the army Gideon has mustered to fight the Midianites and reduces it in force from 32,000 men to 300 men – a reduction of over 99 percent – it looks like there is no way Gideon and his tiny army can defeat the massive army of a whole tribe of people.  But God specializes in doing great things when there are too many of “them” and too few of “us.”  God made a whole nation out of one man Abraham.  God redeemed a whole people from slavery through one man Moses.  God changed the whole course of human history through twelve men He deemed “apostles.”  And God brought salvation to our whole world in one man He calls His Son.  God can do a lot with a little.

Second, if anyone thinks it is simply too late, I would point that person to the story of Jesus’ friend Lazarus.  When Jesus learns that His friend has fallen ill, rather than rushing to see him, He waits for him to die.  Why?  Because, as Jesus says to Martha, He is “the resurrection and the life” (John 11:25).  Even death is not too late for Jesus because He can snatch life from the jaws of death.  When the hour on our clock strikes eleven and we begin to struggle and scramble, Jesus can bring forth a new dawn that we never saw coming.

What struck me most about this pastor’s sermon is that although he issued a clear call to his congregation to get out and vote, he never explicitly reminded his congregation to have faith – to trust in the One who holds everything from your house to the White House in His hands.

Politics has a bias toward action.  Legislation gets passed when deals get made.  Public officials are elected when votes are cast.  Social change can be engineered when Supreme Court verdicts are rendered.  Action is important to politics.  But as Christians, we must remember that the centerpiece of who we are is not in what we do, but in whom we believe.  “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved” (Acts 16:31).  Faith is the centerpiece of our life in Christ.

I think it’s this that gets to the root of our fear.  Because if we get so stuck on the action of our vote and the action of our legislators and the action of some guy or gal who sits in an office that is shaped like an oval that we forget that our hope is nothing that we have done, are doing, will do, or can do, then we’ve missed what’s most important.  Because we’ve missed Jesus.  And you don’t get Jesus by action.  You only get Jesus through faith.  There’s a reason the Psalmist says, “When I am afraid, I put my trust in You” (Psalm 56:3).

So, if you are afraid of the outcome of this election and the future of this country, go ahead and vote, but don’t expect your vote to calm your fears.  Because your fears cannot be calmed by electoral majority.  Your fears can only be calmed by a Savior who died for you and me.

Trust in Him.

 

November 7, 2016 at 5:15 am 3 comments


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