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

Wednesday, November 23, 2005

Why Gr8ful (the Sequel)

Yes, I know I already wrote about the name of my blog. But I forgot to mention why the URL doesn't spell out Grateful but uses the silly little convention of the digit 8 to stand for the phoneme "ate"--herewith revealed for all the curious readership!
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No, it's not an attempt to be hip, like some aging skateboarder ("Sk8 Or Die!"). It comes from the fact that I like the number 8 a great deal.

When I was 8 years old, I was pretty happy--so happy, as a matter of fact, that I declared my earnest intention to never have another birthday. I wanted that life to continue forever, just the way it was.

Of course, that didn't work, not the way I planned it anyway. It was not until my relationship with Christ blossomed that I was able to recapture that sense of timeless joy. I couldn't stay 8 years old in my first birth. But when I discovered the second birth of faith, and began to claim the inheritance that was bequeathed me in my baptism, I found that I could have everything that made being 8 so much fun.

Meanwhile, in middle school, I had discovered the sign for infinity, which looks like an 8 lying on its side. (I believe it comes from the medieval concept of a snake eating its own tail.) That confirmed my attachment to arabic numeral 8, as there is a little bit of infinity in my Gr8ful orientation toward God.

So there you have it--the full revelation of the mysteries of Gr8fulChristian!

Tuesday, November 22, 2005

No Thanks

A public school in a nearby community has this message on the changeable part of its sign:
BE THANKFUL
I suppose they intended a little Thanksgiving seasonal message--but it doesn't work. Other kinds of carefully neutral "values education" statements do work: Be Honest; Be Punctual; Be Considerate. You can have the quality of Honesty within yourself, without reference to others; you can make it a practice to be punctual or considerate in general, to unspecified others; one might say, "to all whom you happen to meet."

It doesn't work that way with being thankful. It was sign language that tipped me off to this.
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In sign language, where visible movement most often pantomimes an action, there are many verbs that are "directional." For instance, you can't sign "give" without the movement flowing in a certain direction, and the direction you choose as you make the sign indicates who is the receiver of the gift. So the best English gloss for such a sign is "give-you," "give-me," "give-to-an-unspecified third party." To put it simply, sign language does not permit you to express an abstract concept of "giving," in normal usage. It is more concrete than that.

"Thank" is another such verb. The sign has to move somewhere. If it moves up toward heaven, it is "thank-God"--if it is from the signer to the person he's conversing with, it is "thank-you"--if it moves in an arc encompassing a group of people, it is "thank-y'all." This isn't just a peculiarity of sign language; it is implicit in the very concept of gratitude. Thanking implies that you are thanking someone.

When I saw the sign, I entered into an imaginary dialog with the school administrator responsible. Whom, precisely, do you mean me to thank? My parents? God? My teacher? The school district? My lucky stars? The veterans who sacrificed for the freedoms we enjoy? The founding fathers? The Indians who helped the Pilgrims through that first rough winter? And when you tell me to whom thanks is due, then my next question will be, thanks for what gift? But because of the current cultural climate, the administrator in my fantasy shakes his head vigorously at any mention of God. He's not gonna go there. He might reply that thankfulness, in general, an attitude that recognizes that we are not self-sufficient, that our successes are creditable in part to the efforts of others, is a good character trait to have in general, without specifying the donor, nor the gift.

But it doesn't wash, any more than you can get away with a computer-generated generic thank you note (Dear donor, thank you for your kind [ ]gift [ ]words [ ]assistance.). Mother's Day is to thank Mom. Teacher Appreciation Day is to thank Teacher. But a bloodless "day of thanksgiving" without reference to God?

No thanks.

Friday, November 18, 2005

(Earth-)Pigs on the Wing

There's a great post I'd like to point you to at Aardvark Alley. I like the way Pr. Snyder finds spiritual meanings in a non-news news story. Me, I just would have complained yet again, "And why is this news?!?! What a waste of time!!!" But his ruminations lift us above and redeem the time. Thank you, brother!

Just Say Yes

The Old School Confessional posted some thoughts on the "Being good is hard, so Just Give Up" attitude that shows up, like an illegitimate son at the family Christmas party, in morality and public policy discussions. He concludes,
It's harder work both to maintain civil laws and to stand against sin in the face of societal permissiveness. But it is the loving thing to do, for the sake of the citizenry and for the sake of God's people.

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He expresses some dismay that the argument was allowed to appear on public radio as a part of a debate on immigration policy. The fact that the "just give in" logic gets to weigh in on otherwise reasoned debate is a sad commentary about the morbidity of reason in the public forum. As Francis Schaeffer said, "When man declares God is dead, man (and reason) is dead too."

We run into a similar thing as individuals. My attempts to obey the Law do not save me, nor do they perfect me. Oh, sure, I am a better man for trying, but that's not the point either. When I cave in and quit fighting my sinful nature, it means I've stopped thinking God's way about sin. When I complain that it's too hard to stay on the wagon, it means I've started trying to live the Christian life in the flesh. In both cases, I need a good fresh look at the Cross. That's what Christian repentance is. "Just Say No" doesn't work--we have to look at the Cross of Jesus Christ, and just say Yes. Yes, I see now that sin really is bad (and not just in a pragmatic sense, when victims can be identified). Yes, I see now that God's love is stronger than sin.

As sad and puzzling as it is that the non-rational why-fight-the-inevitable attitude is with us in the public forum, I suspect the greatest benefit to Satan is the way it undercuts the "good fight of faith" in Christians, when he infiltrates us with such worldly attitudes.

Tuesday, November 15, 2005

Dynamic Duos

Opposites, paired, in tension, fascinate me. I like to draw on the board a cross section of a road, and show a ditch on the left, and a ditch on the right. I put a car in the middle, and we talk about how safe driving means avoiding the two ditches. Usually the ditches are Despair and False Belief, when I am teaching the Lord's Prayer and Martin Luther's explanation of the Sixth Petition. But there are other opposite extremes that would fit that diagram too.
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A pastor taught a Bible study at a retreat when I was in high school where he exhorted us to steer clear of the twin dangers of excessive legalism ("the Pharisee Heresy") and excessive flexibility ("Sloppy Agape"). I have never forgotten that. It made a deep impression on me, with its simplicity and rightness.

There is a different kind of pairing. These are not extremes to steer between, but valid emphases, which seem contradictory but require us to hold them in balance. My vicarage pastor, the Rev. Paul Mueller of Sioux City Iowa, talked about Church Fellowship this way: we have on the one hand the essential unity of that Christians share in Christ, but on the other hand we have Christ's Great Commission which includes "teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you." These two poles help us to think sensibly about the different levels at which Christian fellowship happens, or should not. Francis Schaeffer pointed out in 1970, in a profound essay to Lutherans threatened by the prospect of a church split, that truth and love are both right, and they need to be held and practiced together. Other pairs come to mind: spontaneity and discipline in relationships, including our relationship with God...

Sometimes I think of them as the twin foci that determine an ellipse. In astrophysics, why are orbits elliptical, rather than circles? Is it because we live in a fallen world?

Sometimes I think of them as the two legs that are involved in the Christian "walk"--walking is accomplished by shifting balance from one leg to the other, with off-balance transitions where you are temporarily being supported by one leg.

Sometimes I think of it like two magnets in a desk toy, and an object hovers between them, suspended in the tension created by the meeting of opposite magnetic fields. Unlike ditches, which we seek to avoid, these poles are things that we a drawn to. Come to think of it, an electric motor works by the alternating power-up power-down of magnets that pull in different ways.

I don't have a nomenclature yet for the two kinds of pairs, apart from "ditches" and "poles." Your suggestions for other pair candidates, or a better vocabular for talking about this stuff, is greatly welcomed!

Monday, November 14, 2005

Small World

Bob Waters over at Watersblogged! has a post where he mentions that apparently he and I were neighbors for a brief time--about 40 years ago! It's cool to learn that Grace Lutheran Church on Karlov in Chicago played such a pivotal role in the lives of two expatriates from Chicagoland. The world marvels at such synchronicity. We just look up to the heavens, and wink, chuckling.

Friday, November 11, 2005

Got Liturgy?

It always amuses me when I hear people run down liturgical churches. Lutherans (and other liturgical worshippers) are "God's frozen chosen," right? I once heard Andrae Crouch refer to "churches so cold you could ice-skate down the aisles," although to be fair, I don't think he was talking about worship style, but theological liberalism, with attendant cold intellectualism. I think.
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Anyway, sometimes I like to challenge such folks, when they somewhat proudly announce that their church is liturgy-free. "Mind if I ask you a question?"

"Sure."

"Suppose I come to church with you next Sunday, and sit next to you. Fifteen minutes into the service, I lean over and whisper to you, 'Pssst. What will happen next?' Will you be able to tell me what we're going to do next, or will you have no idea? Do your services really follow no pattern at all?"

Almost always, they answer that of course there is a predictable sequence of events, although there may be some variety, so two or three possible patterns. I answer, "Then you have a liturgy. You just don't have one that continues a historical tradition."

It's a lot like "non-denominational" churches--they are usually Baptist in their teaching and preaching, but one could say that they fail to provide the courtesy of accurate external labeling. The attitude is more of defining themselves in terms of what they are not, rather than in revealing what they are.

Thursday, November 10, 2005

A Paradigm for Corporate Worship Styles

There has been a lot written and said about the different styles of worship that churches are using today. Sometimes the dialogue has been rather heated, earning the debate the moniker "worship wars." I can't think of a more unfortunate characterization.

I like to think in terms of "throne room" worship 'versus' "living room" worship. 'Versus' is in single quotes, because I feel that they are not antagonistic, but complementary.
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When we worship, we gather in the presence of the Great King. The courtiers, and the supplicants, have an easy time knowing how to behave in His presence. They don't have a choice. The protocols laid upon them are defined by the clear role they have.

Things are a little more confusing for the younger members of the Royal Family, the little princes and princesses. After all, that man with on the big chair is their father! But He's also the King. So they have to learn that sometimes it is appropriate for them to bow low with downcast eyes and address Him thus: "Dread Sovereign, I seek an audience." At other times, it's more appropriate for them to run up to Him, clamber up into His lap, and say, "Hi Daddy! Read me a story?" Part of the burden of being a prince or a princess is learning how to know when it's a throne room, and when it's a family room.

Since Christians are both supplicant subjects, and beloved children, either role can be the setting in which we worship. One uses dignity to emphasize the awesomeness of God's majesty; the other uses homeyness to emphasize the winsomeness of His love. Christians ought to have a regular experience of both, since we relate to Him on both levels.

Personally, I prefer corporate worship on Sundays to be Throne Room worship, with Living Room worship being used in other settings--say, Advent Midweek services, or retreats, outdoor services, youth group around the campfire, etc. But I think there are churches that want to major in one or the other, so they ought to figure out which theme is going to be dominant in their church, and make that style the basic regular pattern of corporate worship that becomes a part of their corporate culture. Whatever you decide, decide to do it well.

What doesn't work, in my opinion, is bastardized combinations of the two. I'm afraid much of what is often called "blended worship" is neither fish nor fowl, an awkward attempt at compromise which sacrifices the best of both styles and leaves everyone frustrated.

Most important of all is charity toward those churches and leaders who choose to do something different from what you feel most natural doing! Liturgies will pass away, but Love lasts forever. The first-century world looked at Christians, and they didn't say, "See how dedicated they are to correct worship forms!" They said, "See how they love one another!"

Monday, November 07, 2005

I'd Like To Thank The Aacademy...


The Grateful Christian has received a kudo! Pastor Snyder over at Aardvark Alley has graciously bestowed the coveted Aardie (which is also an acronym: "Aardvark Award for Raillery, Doctrine, or Intellect in Exposition") which you see at right, for my post From Status To Feelings. I don't know what to say! Garsh! Umm. Should I speculate that this might be the bellwether for a new movement, a Lutheran return to self-flagellation? (See the first paragraph in his explanation of the Golden Aardvark Aaward.) Could I make a profound theological observation based on Grouch Marx's "I wouldn't belong to any club that would have me?"

Maybe I should just say: Thanks!

Saturday, November 05, 2005

Death By Formula

Saw the DVD of Star Wars III: Revenge of the Sith last night. When it was over, my wife and I just shook our heads and wondered why it left us empty and cold. Was it poor casting choices? Or was acting just not a priority? Or is it just us?
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In all fairness, it might be us. We are both keenly aware of the way our tastes in films have changed with the production values over the years. Often I pass over a video rental just because it was made more than ten years ago. We've seen enough of those to know that we will probably find it slow and plodding. We realize that when Star Wars first came out it was awesome to us, because we were so ready for something like that: sci-fi with the heart of a Western. Nobility and heroism were refreshing in an era that elevated the anti-hero. The special effects were dazzling, but they provided a backdrop for the characters, brought their world to life, so they could show their stuff. The Gestalt was correctly constructed: the characters, and their stories, were Figure, and the gizmos and critters were Ground.

These last three Star Wars films have been missing some of that. In no particular order, here are some of my beefs:
  • Assigning a naturalistic explanation for The Force. Yeah, I know, we pastors like to grouse about the New Age religion that was so blatant in the first set, but it was consistent with the cultural milieu of the world that was created, to have the Jedi be a religion. Now they sound like technicians, comparing scans and going "How many mitichlorians (sp?) did you count?" First time I heard that I said to myself, "Did he mean mitochodria?" Got me thinking about Madeleine L'Engel and what she did with mitochondria in one of her stories, so I missed the rest of the dialogue in that scene.
  • General lackluster acting. I think it was poor casting. Liam Neeson was a good choice for a Jedi--he just exudes nobility--but there wasn't a single Jedi in Revenge that I could look up to. I like Samuel L. Jackson as an actor, but the Mace Windu role never clicked for him. Ewan McGregor has the look, as far as what a young Alec Guinness might be appearance-wise, but his acting in Revenge was truly awful. He had a great opportunity when he viewed the security holotapes of the slaughter at the Jedi temple, but he blew it big time. Natalie Portman can act--be sure to catch her in The Professional--but she sure didn't this time. The only acting we saw was Palpatine, and Yoda. Yes, Yoda. The muppet was a better actor than almost all the living ones.
  • Formula-itis. Suspension of disbelief is itself interrupted when you can say, "Oh, I see, Jar-Jar fills the Threepio slot in this film." Or the fact that everything is getting faster, busier, because that impressed people in the first films: blast doors that slam incredibly fast, war vehicles that unaccountably walk on legs (in an age that can make anything fly)--I get the feeling that they felt they had to continue those trends. The little background droids that scoot around--it would have been more realistic to have a few that just tootled around, instead of screaming around corners at ever-more frenetic speeds. There was no stillness in Revenge--busy backgrounds (Coruscant air traffic out the window) detracted from every dialogue where character could have been developed. (Contrast that with the glorious scenes between Arwen Evenstar and Aragorn in The Lord of the Rings, set as they were in silent forests, so you could hear a catch in the throat, or study the furrow in a brow.) I had the feeling that the production staff had all been forced to go to seminars that indoctrinated them into The Entertainment Requirements Of Generation X As A Target Audience. (Yes, Gen X--remember when they started working on this film.) And the weird need to incorporate later characters into the prequels--I dunno, they lost me when Threepio turned out to be the hobby creation of young Anakin, and now Chewbacca knew Obi-Wan in earlier days? R2D2 was in on the whole thing, from the beginning? It's just too much.
In the end, I think it was formula that was the death of the bright and shining brainchild of a young visionary, George Lucas. The Garden curse--thorns and thistles growing up alongside the wheat--applies to artistic work as well, doesn't it.

Tuesday, November 01, 2005

From Status To Feelings

(Part of an ongoing project about the stealthy replacement of Christian meanings with worldly counterfeits.) One of the things I love about Pride & Prejudice, and all "period" pieces, is the peek into what it was like when social class was a dominant fact in the lives of Europeans. (If you are the type of person who feels an irresistable knee-jerk desire to remind me that our society is not yet egalitarian, please stop reading and surf away, because you won't like this blog.)

Back in the day, you were born into a class, and it defined your life in several important ways. It was sometimes resented, but mostly it was accepted as a part of the natural order of things. Aristocracy and peasantry seemed to mirror on earth the hierarchies of the heavenly spheres.

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What was useful about class, for the valid mission of the true (i.e., invisible) Church, was that it gave us a structure for thinking/talking about the low status of man vis-a-vis the high status of God. Our experiences with lords helped us to understand what it means to address God as Lord. Interesting bit of trivia: in Pidgin (as used in Papua New Guinea), the word for "Lord" is Bikpela ("Big Fella").

The ills of such rigid social stratification are a thing of the past, and good riddance. I would not call them back. I do not complain about the drabness of our egalitarianism, just the tendency for it to normalize coarseness and dumb-down nobility as an anachronistic ideal. But that is not my real beef here.

What bothers me is that where we still use the vocabulary of class comparisons, the content of those words has been replaced. What once meant status, now means feelings. For example, the confession of sin we use in our liturgy says this:
I, a poor, miserable sinner, confess unto Thee all my sins and iniquities with which I have ever offended Thee.
Poor meant I have no money. Miserable meant I have no status in Your eyes--I am a peasant. I have reason to believe that modern participants use this time-honored confession with very different content. Today, poor means either "I'm a victim (poor me!)" or else "I'm not very good at being good." Miserable, of course, now means "I feel just awful about it." Words that once described the objective, outward fact of one's social standing before God, have come to describe the subjective, psychological "fact" of how I feel.

I know this because a visitor (an ex-Lutheran) wrote me a note during the service, objecting to being asked to describe himself as miserable. "I do not feel miserable, and I don't see why I should," he said, "since the blood of Jesus washed away my sins. I am joyful, not miserable!"

Church lingo, like all lingo, suffers from institutional ossification, but what bothers me is the way subjective feelings have quietly replaced objective truth on every level. The church down the street has on its sign, HUMBLE YOURSELF TO BE EXALTED. I wonder how many passers-by know that "humble" is not an attitude of self-deprecation, but a statement of objective value? Or that "exalted" isn't an ecstatic feeling, but a matter of social status and honor?

In a "classless" society, how do we teach people to abase themselves as they approach God in His awesome majesty? In a society where everyone is equally "important," how do we teach real humility? We despise our bosses, we dishonor our judges, we heap You Da Man!s on the goofiest and lowest among us.