Saturday, December 31, 2016

Thoughts at the end of a year. . .

This has been some year.  2016 will be put to rest with some relief by those who could not have predicted how this political season would end and yet 2017 will not begin without the same anxiety over things we could not only control, we could not predict.  Therein lies the rub.  Since the Fall, man has sought to control events and predict history and has done a pitiful job at both, all the while succeeding in distorting the Divine Image placed in man in creation, losing life to death, and living within the captivity of sin.  All because we were not content to be creatures, leaving control and future to God, and insisted upon usurping from Him what we could never possess.

While all of this might be clear enough to good Lutherans who hear solid Law/Gospel sermons on Sunday mornings, they are not at all obvious to the world around us, devoid of the guidance of the Spirit to bring wisdom to fools.  Yet even the secular world is not without its own evidence of our desire to control and predict history and our dismal track record at doing both.  Lacking any clear and universally accepted system of ethics and moral truths to bind us together, our culture has increasingly sought out authority, certainty, and power in the ability to predict and control the future.  For a long time we have rejected history and tradition as a quaint enterprise but one not thoroughly relevant to our present wants or desires (history is bunk).  So without moral compass to guide us or an appreciation of the past to warn us, we have more and more found confidence and comfort in polling that predicts what we want to know and allows us the illusion of using the present to shape and control that future.  Certainly this was the case with the election surprise and the polls and pundits who insisted it could not possibly happen.

Without an objective truth that survives the changes and chances of this mortal age, we seek our certainty in the objectivity of what people think and what they say they will do.  A whole industry has been born of our desire to know what we want to know and absent solid facts, we have increasingly turned to statistics to measure what is both reasonable and right.  I grew up when commercials on TV insisted that doctors recommend L&M cigarettes while Camels insisted more doctors smoked Camels than any other brand.  Under the guise of a “scientific inquiry,” statistics have been used to give credibility to what is not credible at all.  The final effect is to give to statistics the character of truth, unassailable truth, and the legitimacy of reason to which only fools might argue.

The use of polls is merely another use of statistics. Just as our fascination with statistics has invented a whole new industry to feed our appetite for numbers, so have we created a polling industry to survey people and come up with objective and unassailable truths grounded upon "public opinion.”  Now to be sure, I am not at all suggesting that there is merely a problem of reliability.  I presume that those who do these polls are reliable and their results reliable.  The real question here is not reliability but usefulness.  Polls may have proven to be reliable in producing certain results but the questions after the last election have more to do with who was polled, whether the people polled were honest, and whether the results were at all useful when extrapolated to the nation heading to the ballot box.  But even having failed so miserable in allowing us to predict or control the outcome of an election, I do not mean to suggest that we will ever give up on polling (another form of statistics).  We will try to figure out why they did not work and we will continue to pursue these because, quite honestly, the secular world does not have many other options left.

Even while America had no theological unity to bind our national union, we remained united in other doctrinal tenets that sufficed.  We shared an appreciation for freedom and our duty to preserve it -- even when this freedom allowed some to do what we despised.  We shared a sense of personal responsibility that bore real fruit in terms of productivity and the rising tide that floated American households to a wider level of consumerism never before known.  We shared a commitment to invention and to the work ethic to bring to market these products we produced.   Now we face a time in which the boundaries of freedom are being tested like never before, when personal responsibility has been replaced with victimhood, when we cannot find jobs for or products for people to produce in the US, and when we have transformed schools into therapeutic centers for social engineering rather than centers for learning.  Our lack of theological unity and the tearing of the fabric of our social and cultural unity leave us only statistics and polls (what people think and how many people think it) as the basis for our common identity.

It might be an opportune time for the Church to enter again and bring us together around the revealed truths of Christianity -- except that religion itself is increasingly banished not only from the public square but as a force for anything we seem to call good.  Technology is wonderful but it cannot fill our need for God.  Statistics are wonderful but they cannot produce a clear conscience.  Polls are wonderful but they cannot end the reign of death.  At the very time when bold Christian faith and witness is most needed, we are under duress to merely survive.  It is easy to develop a shrinking attitude and leave the job of truth to statistics and polling, to a morality of minimums, and to an ethical identity born of whim, desire, and self-centeredness.  Now is not the time for us to shrink from our convictions or our confessions.  The times call for nothing less that the most vigorous defense of Christian faith and its most vibrant expression in worship, witness, and service. 

What is wrong is our desire to predict and control things to erase all risk and make life safe.  But life is not safe.  Sin has corrupted desire and death has cast its long, dark shadow over all things living.  We need to know our Creator now more than ever and we can only know Him through the Savior whom He has sent and by the Spirit to breaks through the barriers of a sinful and skeptical heart.  Statistics may not be wrong but they cannot heal.  Polls may attempt to predict on the basis of what people whisper anonymously to those who listen but they cannot rescue us from ourselves.  In 2016 and in 2017 we share a common need to be reconnected to the source of our lives, to the Divine Word that has rescued us from our ill-conceived efforts to predict and control history, and to the Spirit who can give us identity, purpose, and hope.

As you close your eyes in 2016 and awaken a year later in 2017, know this.  Despite what statistics say and polls reveal, God so loved the world that He gave His only-begotten Son that whosoever believeth in Him should not perish but have everlasting life.

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