Sunday, March 1, 2015

The problem with moral progress. . .

We want to believe that things are getting better.  It is often more than we can bear to admit that at best things are the same and at worst they are in decline.  We are ever hopeful that the Christian life will become easier, that doubts will disappear from believing, that we will be able to look back and see the moral improvement in our character and lives, and that are becoming more righteous and holy.  There is nothing wrong with this hope but there is something terribly wrong when we pin our faith to it.  We want to believe that we getting better -- day by day in some small way -- and this is too often what we use to prove that the Bible is true, that Jesus is real, that we are Christians, and that God is good.  It is a terrible trap and leaves us without refuge when the truth of sins, lies, enemies, doubts, and fears can no longer be masked.

I don't know about you  but I see little moral progress in my life.  My heart knows the pain of sins so familiar to me that they are like family and of the strangeness of holiness -- even though my mind knows this is what I should desire.  My life bears the marks of my failures and my failings in ways I cannot hide or ignore.  There are preachers and churches who presume such moral improvement and I wish I saw it but I don't.  Sin is my addiction and I am like an alcoholic but one drink away from losing sobriety.  This is why daily repentance is so important.  I know who I was, God knows who I will be, and every day He must convince me of who I am -- forgiven, born anew, raised from death to life by the merits and mercies of Jesus Christ alone.

Christianity is not a luxury for me.  It is a necessity.  My shame would drive me completely to despair were it not for the value God has placed upon my life.  I look in the mirror and my conscience tells me I am worthless.  I look into the water of the baptismal font and God declares me worth the priceless blood of Christ shed to cleanse me from my sin.  I look at the world and I feel defeated already.  I look at the cross and I see the victory that no one and nothing can steal from me.  I am undone except for Christ.

Hope for me is not some imagined progress toward holiness but the God who should be but is not put off by my sin, who became sin for me, that I might wear His righteousness as my new clothing.  I am not saying that there is not moral improvement or progress but only God sees and knows it.  And that is how it must be.  We would so quickly abandon the scandal of the cross in exchange for a feeble good work we want to trumpet before those around us and show off to God.  So it must be that while God can look and not see the darkness of my heart, I must see it so that I do not depart from Jesus Christ.  On the cross He has extended His arms in suffering to carry my wounds and on the wounds of His back He bears the full weight of my disobedience.  Jesus does not add something to my life -- He IS my life.

Some are comforted by the fact that they love Jesus.  I wish I loved Him.  Truth be told my heart is fickle and shallow.  I know I love myself but the Spirit has to teach me to love Jesus.  Like the sons of Zebedee I can hear the words of the cross and then ask God to make me happy and give me what I want -- and fail to see any disconnect between them.  Jesus tells me the truth always -- even when I would be content with the lies I want to hear.  So I come on Sunday morning -- not to beat my chest and tell the folks to do like I do because I have gotten the hang of it all.  No, I come on Sunday morning to pray, "God, have mercy upon me, a sinner."  And the Lord lifts my eyes from me to Him, from sins to the cross, from death to life, and from the joy of the moment to the everlasting joy of the resurrection to eternal life.  Lamb of God, I come.... I come... Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world, have mercy on me... grant me Your peace.

Saturday, February 28, 2015

A legacy of political correctness that is hard to shake. . .

One of the richest legacies of the modern movement for politically correct ideology and conversation is that dogma is not worth conflict, that difference does not mean right or wrong, and that heresy is too strong a word for those who reject parts of Scripture and the Christian faith.  Even in the Church we see this lasting influence of politically correct thinking -- even within conservative churches where doctrine is still believed, confessed, and taught.  I think of two of many examples:  Rome and St. Louis (the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod for those who might have missed the identification).

Playing out in Rome today is the idea that relationships are more important than doctrines.  So there are those who say that sincere people should be given a place at the Table of the Lord even though they were divorced or divorced and remarried or cohabiting.  There are also those who think that marriage might be a benefit for the gay and lesbian Christians and that an ordered disorder is better than a disordered one.  In addition, we have witnessed no less than Francis enter the fray of the debate of science and Scripture with respect to creation and a shrug of the shoulders over the rejection of the Biblical word as mere symbolism or mythology.  Finally, the Roman Catholic Church is struggling today over the idea of truth itself, more than mere loyalty to an individual or an institution.  The witness of popes praying at mosques and non-Christian religious folks being invited to days of prayer in Christian sanctuaries raises the inevitable question of whether the truth of Christ is for all and over all or merely one version among many coequal truths.

Playing out in Lutheranism today is the question of doctrinal integrity.  Some in Missouri believe that the fuss over doctrine and life is much ado about nothing -- that we already possess a greater measure of doctrinal unity than nearly all Protestant churches and that this ought to be enough.  Others are insisting that there are many things that could and ought to be ditched in favor of the higher and nobler goal of winning people for Jesus -- such things as sacramental identity, the liturgy, and the music of worship.  Hidden underneath it all is the idea that such things are not worthy the fight and the consequences of fighting over them are worse than the diversity that may test the limits of unity and order. 

On the other hand, when the ELCA adopted its opening to gay and lesbian clergy and marriage in 2009, it began with a conscience clause the appeared to allow congregations and clergy to dissent from this decision.  Now, almost six years later, it appears that in the ELCA you can deny the Virgin Birth of Jesus, doubt the physical resurrection of Jesus, disagree with the historicity of and the historical integrity of the Biblical accounts for just about everything but you may not disagree with the GLBT decisions of the ELCA.

The question remains:  what is so important it is worth fighting for?  What doctrinal truth, what practices reflect that truth, and what diversity from the confessional position of the church transcends the boundaries of unity?  Is the witness of Scripture clear or muddled?  Can we be certain enough of our faith to disapprove of that which contradicts that faith?  What deviation from the confessional position of the church breaks that confession and fractures our unity at the altar rail?

Obviously I am not going to solve those questions here.  Let me say, however, that the reason we fight is not because we are narrow minded, controlling, obsessive, etc...  The reason we fight is because we take the Scriptures, our Confessions, and our life together seriously -- so seriously, in fact, that we risk being misunderstood by the world around us when we dispute, contest, and even refute false teaching and unfaithful practice.  What is at work here is not some idyllic desire for lock step uniformity or some deluded idea of a pristine, golden age without dispute.  No, what we face is the very integrity of the faith we confess and the salvation in which we hope.  Our unity is not formed by common speculation but by common conviction -- Scripture teaches, catholic tradition affirms, our confessions declare, and we act in accord with them.

Missourians may seem to be a culture of infighting to those outside us.  Rome may appear to be a few old, angry, white haired men resisting modernity to those outside her.  Such a stereotype is convenient but inaccurate.  Of course there are those who simply cannot tolerate any diversity and who would insist that everything is church dividing.  Just as there are those who believe nothing is so important we should fight over it.  But every age and every generation has been tested and tried and now it is time for us to come down on the side of Scripture, catholic tradition, evangelical confession, and faithful practice.  The risk of losing the faith is worth it.  Certainty in what we believe, confess, and teach is worth it.  Integrity of confession and life together are worth it. Here we stand.

Friday, February 27, 2015

Some things are just not funny. . .

I have been tempted to comment and then thought better of it but in the end decided that something should be said. 

First Things recorded that the “Director of Civil and Human Rights” for the United Methodist Church, Bill Mefford, posted a picture to Twitter yesterday mocking the pro-life marchers. Mefford, who works for the church’s lobby arm, the General Board of Church and Society, ridiculed the marchers by posting a picture of himself standing before them with a sign saying “I march for sandwiches.”

Paul Stallsworth, himself a UMC pastor, wrote in First Things of his own sorrow over that sign.  You can read him here. . .

While we adamantly disagree with the pro-choice position, the worst thing of all in this debate that has divided America since 1973 is that we trivialize either position or the debate as a whole.  Surely the stakes of this issue are too high to allow us to mock what has caused hurt, consternation, division, and passion to several generations of Americans.  Mr. Mefford may have thought he was being cute, even witty.  In the end he showed himself to be the joke.  I hope and pray that all sides in this debate are serious about the issues, serious about the consequences, and serious about the stakes of our choice as a nation to permit the life of children in the womb to be ended at the will of the mother.  Whether you are pro-choice or pro-life, this is not funny, not in the least, and not at all. 

Thursday, February 26, 2015

Good Lent. . .

Okay it is a good week into Lent. . . How is your Lent going?  I draw your attention to an article by George Wiegel in First Things about the journey part of keeping Lent.  I would also remind you of the article I penned for the great Seminary publication, For the Life of the World, on keeping a "good" Lent.

In addition to what we omit, Lent is also distinguished by what we add.  With those words I tried to draw attention to the fact that Lent is not merely about self-denial, about the giving up of favorite activities or foods.  It is about the addition of a focus and perspective.  We refocus ourselves and the worship of Sunday morning (and Wednesday evening) to the cross.  We refocus ourselves and our lives around the call to repentance -- the daily repentance in which the Holy Spirit works in us to meet our Lord at the foot of the cross, to leave behind there the sins, guilt, shame, and despair for which He died, and to rise up the creatures of His making in baptism.  We refocus ourselves toward the goal of our earthly lives and the outcome of our faith, the resurrection and eternal life to which all things in this present moment point.  We refocus ourselves on the good works that contribute nothing at all to our salvation but demonstrate the Spirit's life within us and mark us as God's own in the world.  We refocus ourselves on the Gospel -- that the Son of Man must be betrayed into the hands of sinners, suffer and die upon the cross, and on the third day rise again and that the forgiveness of sins be preached in His name from this place and time for all times and to the ends of the earth.

So at the risk of being misunderstood, let me say it again.  Good Lent.

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

The rotting foundation of Europe. . .

It has been said by others before and said better than I can say it.  Europe has a rotting foundation.  The whole of the culture, erudition, arts, and tradition of Europe has faded and beneath its great tourist facade lies its decaying structure of faith and values.  The once noble Christian character that fueled learning, the cause of women, the end to slavery, and caused the fine arts to flourish has been replaced by skepticism, boredom, and immorality.  Some places have been slower to manifest the decline than others and some places are precursors of the future for the rest of the West -- should we fail to heed its warning.

I write this with a great deal of sadness.  And for the example of what will be without repentance, a renewal of the faith, and a resurgence of the Christian piety and life, I point you to Belgium.  Yes, Belgium.  As one writer had dubbed it: Belgistan.  You take an affluent, self-centered, morally adrift and bored people accustomed to ease, entertainment, socialism, and faith left to the very fringes of life, and you end up with modern day Belgium.  It is a country that has been ripe for the pickings of Islam.

Brussels was imagined as one of the great cities of Europe, like London, Paris.  The European Union thrust Belgium to new found prominence with the national governmental agencies of the Common Market and the primacy of banking and finance.  What should have been a rebirth became a fatal illness.

Belgium doesn’t only hold the record for jihadists in Europe, it is also the European country with the highest suicide rate. The most notorious suicide is the Nobel Prize laureate in Medicine, Christian de Duve, who, two years ago, killed himself in front of his four children.

Six suicides a day. With a suicide rate estimated at more than 20 per 100,000 inhabitants, Belgium breaks all records in Western Europe. The world average is 14.5 per 100,000 inhabitants. Suicide is indeed the first cause of mortality among Belgians between 25-44 and the second leading cause, after vehicle accidents, between 15-24.  The tragic statistic would grow if we counted the thousands of deaths that occur under the law of euthanasia, with six deaths per day. Belgium is also the site of the first “supermarket of death.”
Belgium is a country dominated by nihilism, where Islam is already the first religion. In the schools of the capital of Europe, the teaching of the Muslim religion has exceeded that of students of Catholic faith. A full 43 percent is studying Islam, and the same figure stood at 41.4 in high schools; 27.9 percent are following courses of “secular morality” (atheism), and only 23.3 percent opted for studies in the Catholic faith.  Already today, in Brussels, one in three people is Muslim, the most common name is Mohammed, and by 2035 it will be a city with a Muslim majority.

The great moments of life, such as baptisms, weddings and funerals in Belgium are no longer tied to Christianity, this in a country whose symbols have long been the cathedral of Antwerp, the dog of St. Hubert and the University of Leuven (founded by Pope Martin V).  In Brussels today only 7.2 percent of marriages are Catholic, only 14.8 percent of children are baptized, and there only 22.6 percent of funerals were Catholic. Read more here. . .

The end of Catholicism and Christianity in Belgium is being overseen by some of the most liberal bishops in the Roman Catholic hierarchy and, sadly, Francis is known to favor at least one of them, the fellow likely to become the primate of the Roman Catholic Church in Belgium.

I write this only to show that people are spiritually hungry but the empty faith of liberal Christianity has little or nothing to offer.  In contrast, Islam does have something to offer -- conviction and obedience.  These are the very things that liberal and social Christianity have forgotten most of all.  We surrender our conviction to our feelings and the Scriptures to modern social trend.  We give up certainty over a wishful thinking that is powerless to grasp us from the abyss of our despair.  And then we give up obedience to the god of our feelings and desires so that nothing is really wrong except self-denial in any form.  The culture of me thrives only because it allows us to ignore our despair, it distracts us from the hopelessness so many feel in the midst of all that modern life has to offer, and it keeps us secure in our skepticism and doubt of anything objectively true -- until it all comes crashing down on us.  Then we are left with the struggle to find hope.  Islam does not offer much in terms of hope but it does offer order, conviction, and obedience.

If Christianity is to offer anything, it has to be a vibrant Christianity, replete with conviction and confidence, and strong enough to call us not only to repentance but to the obedience of faith.  During our time, we must not surrender the vital church of our ancestors to the spiritual and material decadence of the day or the rotting foundation of the West will only be hastened toward its final demise.  God will not surrender His Church to the gates of hell.  Neither should we.