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

Sunday, April 16, 2006

Easter Thoughts

I'm tired. I'm talked out. So if you want an excellent complete Easter meditation, I recommend you visit Ryan's excellent blog post at Wretched Of The Earth. But I can't not blog today, so I will just offer a few thoughts, based on the words of the angel to the women in Mark 16:6-7. "Stop being alarmed... go tell the disciples and Peter..."

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Stop being alarmed They had suffered lots of shocks lately, and now this: an empty tomb, an angel in white, and the natural gut-reaction: "NOW what!?!?" The angel says, Get a grip, ladies. He's not here. Jesus is risen. This is your new reality. Kill the alarms. Adjust your minds and bodies accordingly. That, of course, would take time.

Go tell Here's a message for the ten disciples that are left, and for Peter the ex-disciple wallowing in his pit of remorse. How curious that the message was about a future appointment with Jesus in Galilee; they would see Him alive this very day! Right here in Jerusalem. But the message is about Galilee, the place where Jesus first called them, the place where they spent the most time with Him. Perhaps a hint here that the whole operation is being reset, to begin a new phase. There will be a new call to follow Him, under a new set of principles, with a whole new set of understandings. Anyway. There's news. Go tell.

There's a lot we post-Pentecost Christians can do with those two words, Cancel The Alarms... Go Tell. But before we think about the alarming world we live in, with new shocks being delivered daily on 24-hour cable news channels--before we remember our place in that world, with a timeless message to deliver--we need to look at what is sandwiched in between those two words. The angel didn't say, Hey, I'm an angel, how much more proof do you need? He didn't point them at a spiritual-goosebumps vision or inner witness. What did he say? See the place where they laid Him. The angel directed their gaze at an empty stone shelf. Grave clothes, but no corpse.

Even for us post-Pentecost Christians, we are still directed to the fact, and not to any feelings or experiences. He is not in the grave. He is risen! That is the connecting link between Fear Not and Go Tell. A bare stone shelf. Revealed for us in the bare, simple words of eyewitnesses, recorded for us in what we call the New Testament. We are rooted on the bare rock of the fact of the Resurrection, and that is where faith grows, that is the launch-pad for the whole Christian faith-and-life thing.

Friday, April 14, 2006

Angel And Ram

Many hands were raised to wound Him,
None would interpose to save;

I've been thinking all day about this line from "Stricken, Smitten, And Afflicted," which we're singing today in our two Good Friday services. The reference to a hand "interposed to save" reminds me of the sign-language "sign name" for Abraham. To sign it, you mime a downward stabbing action, but block it with your other hand. This of course comes from the angel of God stopping Abraham in the act of killing his only son Isaac.

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God had commanded this sacrifice! He tested Abraham, to see if he loved God more than he loved his son. All the way up to the summit, Abraham must have wondered if God would relent at some point. God, after all, had promised descendants to Abraham; Abraham believed Him, and "it was reckoned to him as righteousness." Isaac was beginning of the fulfillment of that promise, miraculously given to this couple too old to have children. And now God was going to take it all away, and He was going to use Abraham to do it. There is a poignant discussion that takes place as they climb the mountain. It's especially heartbreaking in Hebrew, Isaac's question to his father: "Behold the fire, behold the wood, and where is the sacrifice lamb?" "God will provide the lamb, my son," was Abraham's faith-filled reply (Genesis 22:6-8).

At the last moment, the angel of the Lord called a halt to the test. The sacred text says nothing about a physically interposed hand to block the fatal downward stroke of the knife, but it's not easy in sign language to show that a voice stopped him, so the traditional sign-name for Abraham supplies a hand to make the thought visible.

The angel of the Lord intervened and averted the immediate crisis, but the danger was not past. I think Abraham didn't truly believe Isaac was spared until he lifted his eyes and saw the substitute: a ram caught in a thicket by its horns. How likely is that? God provided. The angel stopped the timer in this crisis, but it was the ram that defused it.

Lots of people have stories about certain disaster averted in impressive ways. Many of these are no doubt the work of angels. We are grateful for the work of God's angels, and the other agencies (doctors, brakes, guard rails, etc.) that He uses to turn aside danger. But the real salvation comes not through angels, but through His Son, the "Lamb Of God Who Takes Away The Sin Of The World," as John the Baptizer called Him.
Many hands were raised to wound Him,
None would interpose to save;
But the deepest stroke that pierced Him
Was the stroke that Justice gave.

He is the One who defuses the bomb of our sinfulness. The Holy God gave His only Son to satisfy His justice, but to spare the creatures He loves. God has provided!

Thursday, April 13, 2006

Different From Every Other Night

"Why is this night different from every other night?" This was the question offered by the youngest person present in the Passover ritual. It's one that we ought to be asking ourselves this Maundy Thursday. Jesus ate a Passover meal with His disciples, and said some remarkable things.

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The meal was a commemoration of the Exodus, roughly two millenia earlier, the event in which several surprising things happened. YHWH, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, sent a Prophet-Savior to lead His people out of slavery. He faced off against the main superpower in the world at that time, Egypt, and whupped their ass. Moses, the Prophet-Savior that He sent them, was a murderer on the run from Egyptian justice. Ten plagues, the fighting Shekinah, the making of a way of escape where there wasn't one (through the sea)--lots of amazing and memorable things. But the most amazing was that He did it all for a lousy bunch of slaves. People who had little to commend them, except that they were descendants of Abraham. Over and over they proved themselves unworthy of His grace in choosing them. God told them to remember this night. Slaughter and roast a lamb, paint the doorposts with its blood, make your bread without yeast, eat it all ready to travel--the call to MOVE OUT! could come at any time. Remember this night. Remember this readiness for rescue, this breathless pause before the Big Event.

As I started to say: While they were remembering together, Jesus and His disciples, Jesus said some remarkable things. He whom John the Baptizer called "The Lamb Of God Who Takes Away The Sins Of The World" lounges there, eating Passover lamb with His men, and calmly announces that the unleavened bread He has just handed them is His Body. That there is a new covenant in the offing. Covenants were made with blood--the wine is passed, and He tells them it is His Blood of the New Covenant. It sounds like there is a new Rescue Operation being planned. He tells them to eat this bread/Body and drink this wine/Blood regularly, "in remembrance of Me."

We remember in two directions. We remember backwards, the past, the sacrifice of the Lamb of God on the Cross: the body pierced and torn, the blood spilled. We remember where most of his men were on that Friday--gone to ground, hiding from Roman and Sadducee justice. We remember the night before--this night!--when His most vocal supporter vehemently denied even knowing Him. We remember them snoozing in the garden of Gethsemane while He prayed in anguish and sweated blood. False, false followers! Worse than useless! Amazing. Grace.

We remember forward too. We "remember" the future. To us, the future is mapped out around His promises. He is with us to the end of the age. He commands us to carry on His business until He comes back. His return will be sudden, unexpected, and unmistakable. We have to be ready to MOVE OUT! at a moment's notice. We eat and drink His grace, the physical media of His promises, in a high state of readiness. "Eat it in haste; it is YHWH's Passover." The readiness takes the form of renouncing every shred of pride or sense of accomplishment; we are unworthy, consistent only in our inconstancy, worse than useless. Yet He enters our mouths, enters our bloodstream, unites Himself with us! Yet He is on the way to rescue such lousy followers!

Amazing!

Grace!

Wednesday, April 12, 2006

Poster Boy For Relativism


The cover of Sunday's Parade magazine made me laugh. Yes, that's Tom Cruise, with the telling quote: "Who's To Say What's Normal?"

In all fairness, the quote has to do with a watershed incident when he was a boy: he was labeled a dyslexic by a school psychiatrist. This "affront to my dignity" (his description) was the root for his much publicized disdain of psychotherapy.

Other great quotes in the Dotson Rader article:
  • "People can create their own lives...I decided that I’m going to create, for myself, who I am, not what other people say I should be. I’m entitled to that."
  • "I looked at the priesthood and said, 'This is what I’m going to do'... I was interested in spirituality, but after a year I decided being a priest was not for me."

Gospel Reductionism Alive And Well


Someone loaned me a copy of Kelly Fryer's Reclaiming The "L" Word: Renewing The Church From Its Lutheran Core. It is written by a priestess (female pastor) in the ELCA (Evangelical Lutheran Church in America). I returned it today, with this note:

Dear -------,

I finished the book today, thank you for loaning it to me. The author has many good things to say, and I am happy to see that she understands some of the unique features and benefits of the Lutheran heritage. She communicates some of the basics very well.

It is unfortunate that her Guiding Principle of "Jesus Is Lord" has not been tied to another principle: "and He speaks authoritatively in the Bible." That would have spared her from the trap she falls into with her second Guiding Principle, "Everyone Is Welcome." Because she is not ruled by the Bible, but only by the Gospel, she does not understand that His words to the woman caught in adultery "neither do I condemn you" are completed in "leave your life of sin." But then, if she were willing to be ruled by the Bible, she would have to resign from pastoral ministry!


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"Pastor" Kelly's "Everyone Is Welcome" principle led her and her church to welcome a lesbian couple (the other "L" word) into full participation and fellowship. She boasts about that. She has not adequately thought through the nature of Jesus' association with sinners, nor what His followers did about that afterward, nor the inspired record that tells us who is "in" and what it means to unite to Christ and His Body. As I was composing the thank-you note, it dawned on me that the book revealed classic "Gospel Reductionism" at work. This is the usual label for the idea that the Gospel, not the Bible, is the Word of God. The ELCA seems to have this idea as one of its foundation stones. To them, the Bible "contains" the Word of God, but expert analysis, using the historical-critical method of Bible interpretation, is needed to figure out which parts of the Bible are the Word of God, and which parts can be discarded or updated.

I've been thinking a lot lately about 1973; specifically, what some of us in the Lutheran Church--Missouri Synod (LC-MS) call "The Battle of New Orleans": the synodical convention that eventually led to a mass walkout at one of our seminaries, and a number of churches splitting off to form "The Association of Evangelical Lutheran Churches." This AELC later was absorbed in the multi-merger which produced the ELCA. At the heart of the battle was a debate over the use of the historical-critical method in our seminaries.

I'll be posting more about the Battle of New Orleans in the coming months. But for now, I lament the fact that without the whole Scriptures as the inerrant, inspired norma normans ("norming norm"), the Lutheran principle of sola Scriptura--Scripture alone--becomes meaningless. As a popular exposition of Lutheran principles, "Pastor" Fryer's book does many things well; but without sola Scriptura, the "L" word she reclaims winds up being "Liberal."

Tuesday, April 04, 2006

Frankenstein: Preliminaries

[a progress report on a project started here]

One of the things that has been interesting to me is the distance between Mary Shelley's story and the popular conceptions of it. This is at the heart of General Semantics, levels of abstraction: on one level there's the story; then there are "words about the words": critics' summaries, digests of the story, movies and plays, literary allusions, etc., etc. I'll work at this backwards, from the higher levels of abstraction, down to the story itself.

Like most folks, I grew up thinking this was a story about a creature (named Frankenstein) coming to life and terrorizing people. That's the popular conception: horror story.

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Eventually I got a little education, and learned that Frankenstein is actually the name of the scientist who created him. (Apparently the creature doesn't have a name.) Later, with a little more education, I was taught that the real monster of the story is not the creature, but the mad scientist. This is the more enlightened conception, the one (I think) most educated people have: cautionary tale about scientific ambition out of control.

Somewhere near here, it branches off; and we have Frankenstein-as-Myth. In this branching, roughly on the same level, the focus is not on scientist and his activity, but the fact that his creation gets away from him, and eventually poses a danger to him. This too is a cautionary tale, but not about the danger of ambition ("man should not dare to play God"). This caution is "man's discoveries and inventions sometimes get out of hand, and turn on him, to bite him in the butt." The warning is not about the impropriety of the effort, but on the peril that he might get more than he bargained for; "don't forget about the Law of Unintended Consequences." This is the background idea for much of Michael Crichton's fiction (scientist crosses a boundary and gets velociraptors), and it was prominent in some of Frank Herbert's fiction too (especially in The Jesus Incident). One of the things that gives Frankenstein-as-Myth so much staying power is the irony of it: the creator is destroyed by his creature.

This branch reaches up to the popular level too; "I've created a monster!" is a common way people express dismay about something that has gotten away from their control. Although they may be thinking of the cheesy films that cast it into the horror-story category, they aren't really saying "I'm in a horror story," but "I've lost control of my (project/rumor/child/mistress/business/etc)."

Down at the root level, the story itself, I find that while it was crafted to amaze and horrify, it isn't really a horror story. Nor is the second level of interpretation adequate, in either variation. Frankenstein-as-Myth is certainly not what this story is about; I doubt the author would even get that modern idea, since the Industrial Revolution hadn't happened yet, unleashing so many examples of technology-gone-wild as to make the notion commonplace. Frankenstein's obsession, the driving ambition to create life, is prominent, but I never get the sense that Shelley is saying "man must remain in his place and not play God." In fact, Frankenstein's genius, fueled by a fever of ambition, is successful. His efforts are rewarded; he does create life. That doesn't seem to be the problem.

So what is the problem? This is what was bothering me during my first reading of the book. Where did Frankenstein go wrong? My second reading leads me to conclude that Frankenstein's sin was not arrogance in making the attempt, nor plain bad luck that what he attempted proved too much for him to handle. His sin is that, having created life, he immediately abandoned it. The creature he brought to life is capable not only of great strength, but of great intelligence and sensitivity as well. If Dr. Frankenstein had nurtured, guided, and loved the creature, it would have been a noble, gentle giant, despite its hideous outward appearance. The visage problem could have been solved. We would have had another story like The Frog Prince or Beauty And The Beast, a story of a true and pure love overcoming the unhappy accidents of external wretchedness. But we don't have that story. We have a story of misery, revenge, and mutual hatred and destruction. I don't think Mary Shelley simply wanted to horrify. I think this story is a charge against God: that human misery, and human cruelty, are alike due to some failure on His part. If this is how life is to be, it was unjust and irresponsible of Him to make us in the first place. He abandoned us, or cursed us, or somehow failed in the duties of a creator toward his creature.

[more to follow]