The Grateful Christian

Essays, opinions, and works-in-progress by a conservative Lutheran pastor.

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Location: West Michigan, United States

In order of importance, I am a: Husband, father, pastor, hobby programmer, writer. Thoughts are but coins. Let me not trust instead
Of Thee, their thin-worn image of Thy head.

--C.S.Lewis, The Apologist's Evening Prayer

Thursday, August 25, 2005

The Two Kingdoms

Bob Waters over at Watersblogged wrote a cool piece that combines ruminations about the myth of America as a "Christian" nation, urban legends, Australia, and the doctrine of the Two Kingdoms. Highly recommended! I share his "pet peeve" of "Christian" urban legends.

Thursday, August 18, 2005

Referendum on Truth

May our truth be clear, and our love sincere.

It should go without saying that vagueness is the opposite of clarity. Thanks to the Rev. Paul McCain for reporting important background material on the recent ELCA Assembly actions on sexuality. I was particularly interested, in my Toto role, in the way the debate unfolded. I see it as a referendum on the nature of truth, and the witness of the church.

McCain writes, "The second recommendation was to retain a policy of
pastoral care for homosexuals, with language that is vague enough to permit the possibility of blessing of same-gender unions." He goes on to demonstrate that the charge of vagueness is not his only, but came out in the assembly debate itself.

Two amendments were proposed, and defeated. The first would have made it policy to allow local congregations to 'bless' same-sex unions as they saw fit. The assembly said, No.

The second amendment attempted to say that marriage is only for a man and a woman. The assembly said, No.

The assembly seemed to like the original recommendation precisely because it was vague enough to let people operate from whatever they felt comfortable with.
I will quote Pastor McCain at length, because he says it so well:
I've already read one media report claiming that the ELCA turned down same sex blessings. I believe this is absolutely false. It is not accurate to say that the ELCA voted down same-sex blessings. What it voted against was explicit endorsement of it, but it also voted down explicit rejection of it. I believe it is most accurate to say that the ELCA has adopted for itself, as many homosexual advocates clearly understand, a policy on "pastoral care," that will make it possible for there to be same-sex blessings. In my opinion, what the ELCA is effectively a "don't ask, don't tell" situation by which one might well say, "ask me no questions, I'll tell you no lies" on this issue.

To me, this was a referendum on how you do truth, how you do theology, and sorts well with the precedents that were set earlier in the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification. The ELCA assembly has chosen to continue to sound the trumpet vaguely. They need to think carefully about what the Holy Spirit said through Paul in 1 Corinthians 14:8--If the trumpet does not sound a clear call, who will get ready for battle?

Friday, August 05, 2005

Firewall Around My Heart

This is a parable, a warning to other exegetes.

I sat down the other day for some Bible reading (not study). As I was reading, I noticed something happening: I was not opening my heart to the Word of God. My mind was getting in the way. It took the form of skepticism, not of the Word of God, but of this English translation I was using. It doesn’t matter which one it is; it happens with all of them: I find myself wondering "How close is this to the original?" Somewhere along the line, this critical faculty that I have—and it is a blessing to have it—of recognizing that translations are approximations to the Word of God (in its original inspired autographs), became for me a sort of firewall around my heart. Immediately a fantasy sprang up in my mind.

I've written it out as a first-person narrative, from the point-of-view of a commander of a military outpost.
[Click here to skip to the end of the story]

The guys from intel are supposed to be helping, but I’m starting to wonder. There’s something about spooks that breeds suspicion: it’s their job to be suspicious, but now I have a suspicion that when they run interference, they might just be interfering.

Happened again the other day. I was about to sit down with a courier. Hearing the message takes maybe 20 minutes, but I always schedule in some time afterwards for Q&A: how things are going back in HQ, what the top brass think of the job we’re doing here on our particular little front, how the war is going in general. You get lonely, and you want to pick up a little taste of home from someone who’s been there lately.

So I’m in front of the field office, inviting the courier inside while calling for refreshments, when two of the spooks materialize out of nowhere, brisk and professional in their manner. One starts waving a wand up and down the courier’s body, then frisks him, while the other is checking his papers. “Uh, sir,” he says to me
sotto voce, “we can’t certify that this man indeed comes from HQ.” I roll my eyes at the same time I’m narrowing them (let me tell you, that’s easier to say than do).

“Okay,” I say evenly. These guys have, after all, saved my butt on more than one occasion. “What do you need to be certain?”

“Voice-print analysis comparison with HQ database would be ideal, sir—”

“These are not ideal conditions, soldier. What can we do
here, in the field?”

He glanced uneasily at the courier. “We can compare his prints to our field copy of known-counter-intel operatives… backcheck his last two checkpoints with his physical description… it’ll take an hour.”

“He’s here
now. He has a message for me, I might need to know now.” I could feel my annoyance starting to show. “Are you telling me I should not discuss sensitive information with him for the first hour of our meeting?”

“That would be my advice, sir. And I would take his report under careful advisement until we can verify his credentials.”

You know that old joke about military intelligence being an oxymoron? Sometimes you gotta wonder…

So my critical reason runs interference on the verses I'm reading, because they are in an English translation. Reason is unwilling to give complete confidence to them, to give a thumbs-up to my heart to proceed. If I have the time, I can do the research myself, but that leads me to another trap: I get so absorbed in the technical challenge of evaluating the translation, which usually involves making my own translation and comparing them, that I start dealing with the Word of Yahweh only with my brain. My heart is waiting in another room, stubbing out another cigarette, checking his watch—or more likely, going about his business, figuring the sentries will page him when the selected reading has received a security clearance.

In techie terms, it’s like a firewall around my heart. It doesn’t let God touch me in a personal way, when my mind interposes these critical faculties. I began to reflect on this—what arrogant pride is hiding behind my skills, the theological mysteries of the transmission of God’s thoughts in human languages, the quick and easy answers some have found (KJV-only; blind faith in God’s care of its transmission), what the facts concerning the history of the Bible might mean for how God intends us to use it—and of course, all that time, I was not reading the Psalm. I tried to defeat the firewall, and just open myself. “God, I will assume that You are speaking to me, flawed or even inaccurate though this human translation might be. Let Your Spirit deliver Your message to reach my heart.”

But this keeps bothering me. How long have I been doing this? How does this relate to what I read in The Screwtape Letters about corrupting the persona (not acting according to one’s character), and how God intends us to listen to a sermon?

I am thankful for my exegetical training and skills. I worked hard to get them, and to keep them up. The ancient manuscripts are a treasure beyond estimation. BUT even the most useful aide must, in this situation, be told to stand down. I have to learn to trust the Spirit of the Lord for discernment, or my heart will shrivel from a famine of God’s Word.