Thursday, September 28, 2017

What was the Reformation?

In some ways, it was a massive shift in world history centered in the actions of one human. The world is commemorating the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther posting his questions and propositions for debate on the university message board in Wittenberg in 1517. PBS did a special on it. Popular authors are publishing books about it. Germany is hosting the Luther Year, and tour groups the world over are arriving in Lutherstadt-Wittenberg to gawk at the door where those theses were supposedly first nailed.

But the question remains, What was the Reformation? What event are we co-memorating this year? At least in part, we commemorate Martin Luther’s spiritual quest to find a gracious God. During much of the 20th century, existential philosophers and psychologists have leaned in to this aspect of Luther, his agony over the question of his own status before God. Am I under condemnation, or under mercy?

Christians today mull this question over through various modern lenses. Many Christians ponder the implications of God’s grace as it relates primarily to eternal salvation, life after death. Their question, somewhat similar to Luther’s but also weighted different, is not How can I find a gracious God? but rather How can I be saved? Their answer is aligned with Luther’s insight. The answer is Christ. But then again, the weight of the answer differs, as for the evangelical the answer focuses on belief in or acceptance of Jesus Christ, whereas for Luther the focus was on the justification of the ungodly through God’s righteousness.

In the end, this matters quite a bit, because it changes how Christians live in the world. If Christians are focused on getting themselves or others to accept Jesus as savior, then mission looks like gaining intellectual or emotional assent to propositions about Christ and salvation among communities who previously believed other things. And the existential drive to bring such a message has eschatological urgency, because people who do not assent to the propositions will not be saved (in the hereafter).

On the other hand, if the Reformation insight is about God’s righteousness justifying the ungodly, then Christian mission has a different form. It focuses on bringing the good news revealed as it were through the restoration of humanity in Christ that humans no longer need to convince God of their own righteousness, and can pour out all their energy in love of neighbor in the world.

This second way of thinking about salvation places much of the Christian imagination back in this world rather than the distant heavens. The Reformation insight reminds us that Christianity is less a religion with practices of whatever type that satisfy a capricious god, and more a way of life in the world that heals the world, that makes salvation concrete and present here and now.

The first thesis of those 95 theses gives a sense of this. “Our Lord and Master Jesus Christ, in saying “Repent” (Matthew 4:17), wanted the entire life of the faithful to be repentance.” Luther believed, convinced by Erasmus and his translation of the Greek, that the word here for repentance referred not to the sacrament of penance, but rather meant “to come to one’s senses.” The great Lutheran insight regarding penitence was therefore twofold. First, that penance could not and should not be an economic exchange between God and humanity, with the side benefit of financially helping the church. And second, that repentance was the coming to one’s senses that freed the Christian up from concern about their standing before God that they might be completely focused instead on their neighbor and their need.

This has all kinds of implications. It’s so deep it takes a lifetime, and a whole community of people, to work out. As just one example, it probably means that any group of people who really believes this will not focus on their own security and safety, but will instead focus on the moral demand of the neighbor’s need in their vulnerability. So when an elected official justifies significantly lowering refugee admission levels and says, “The security and safety of the American people is our chief concern,” Linda Hartke, president and CEO of Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service responds, we are "profoundly disappointed that at a time of historic, never before seen need, the United States would so drastically reduce the number of refugees to whom we are able to offer protection and safety.”

Serving the neighbor’s need is not a bonus or extra item tacked on to Christian life after you get saved and accept Jesus. No, salvation looks like humanity coming to its senses, and the proper sense is one that places as the highest value love of neighbor, from the neighbor across the street to the millions of refugees across the world.


Observing the anniversary of the Reformation, especially the 500th anniversary, is a big deal, and there are many events here in Fayetteville also. Our congregation is hosting a Reformation festival the last weekend in October. Our special guest Beth Lewis, president and CEO of 1517 Media (!) will offer a public lecture at the university Friday the 27th, Saturday night we host an Oktoberfest themed party at the church, Sunday morning we observe the Reformation anniversary in worship, and in the afternoon our organist and university faculty member Robert Mueller offers a concert of Reformation-era music. Later in November (the 9th and 10th), the university hosts its own event, Nailing Down the Reformation, with guest lecturers from all across the country.   Friday the The seismic impact of these 95 theses has been felt the world over. The Reformation was in one sense so influential that it has many meanings. 

Tuesday, September 26, 2017

Filial Correction on Account of the Propagation of Heresies #95forthe500th

It's now about 95 days until the end of 2017, the 500th anniversary of the Reformation and the 50th anniversary of Good Shepherd Lutheran Church.

Luther had 95 theses. So, I hereby commit to posting 95 things between now and the end of the year that are Reformation related.

#1: Filial Correction on Account of the Propagation of Heresies. Among other things, the Pope has been accused of spreading Lutheranism. First time such a correction has been issued since 1333.

So there you go, we're off the races.


Sunday, September 17, 2017

In (God) (We) Trust

Recently the Lieutenant Governor of Arkansas, in response to a potential lawsuit from a group of atheists, posted signs reading In God we trust in public school classrooms.

Because of course the logical thing to do when atheists challenge the law is to inflict more ideology on children. Right?

But more seriously, a few theological points are in order. First, we defend the free exercise of religion in our nation. So it's just fine if people want to put the word God lots of different places, and use it freely, as long as such practice does not impinge on the rights of others to exercise their religion.

Things get a little more tricky when you compare the two parts of the Free Exercise Clause. Because what it does is prohibit the congress from making laws establishing a religion, and then defends the free exercise of religion among the citizenry. Those are two different forms of free exercise that sometimes get conflated.

The state should not establish religion. It should defends its free exercise.

If the lieutenant governor of a state puts up signs in public schools that read, "In God we trust," that in fact does appear to establish a religion of sorts, but at about the same level as the language on our currency. The dollar bill in my pocket reads, "In God we trust." That's an odd and rather new thing for our currency to say. It's our official national motto, adopted in 1956, replacing "E puribus unum."

Since I like Latin, I guess I prefer the old motto. But I also can't blame the lieutenant governor for defending the use of the national motto, even if I might quibble with his claim that it is part of our "history and heritage."

But all of this does beg the question. What "God" do we trust? And who are "we"?

Martin Luther famously stated in the Large Catechism, "That upon which you set your heart and put your trust is properly your god." If we take this as true, then our national motto is basically a tautology. It's a statement that is true by necessity or by virtue of its logical form.

In one sense, it is actually like saying nothing at all, like say "we trust in that which we trust." Or, it's like just putting the name alone up there at the top of the currency, "GOD."

Which of course is also true. One of those things upon which we set our heart and put our trust is money.

But when somebody says, "In God we trust," when a community says it, they mean something by it, even if the Supreme Court has concluded that the statement on official documents is essentially devoid of religious content (something they have to claim because otherwise the government's use of such motto would ipso facto be a violation of the Free Exercise Clause). 

What people actually mean by the phrase is something more gestural. They mean, "We are patriots." They mean, "We historically have been religious." They mean, "We feel good about the us that such a religious sentiment devoid of religious content implies."

And they defend the use of it not because of God, but because of that other word, "We." The use of "God" in the sentence defines more narrowly the "we" that is "us." It's a way of subtly stating, "We are the people, but not all of the people are the people." It's a way of violating the beating heart of E pluribus unum, modifying it ever so slightly but just the more drastically for all that, because it becomes, "Out of the many, excluding a few, one." 

As a Christian, I have no doubt some who use the word "God" really have a specific deity in mind when they say it, but the use of it by our nation in these contexts, though interesting and in fact full of meaning, is in the end not the god in which I place my trust. 

The Christian God is another God, and far more tremendous. The God of Israel. The Father of Jesus. The living Spirit. The Name, Hashem. I Am Who I Am. 

The God I know is not easily collapsed into a general deity recognizable by other traditions.

Yet the God I know, in their very Trinitarian specificity, leaves me quite open to and respectful of the God others know by other names, or no name at all. 

Somehow, strangely, the specific God I've met in Christ makes me far more comfortable with atheists than those who defend national deism. And oddly resistant to general deism when it's inflicted on (my/our) children.

I trust this God enough to not worry overly much about demanding where the Name is printed or posted, and love that God enough to attempt defending the right of my neighbor to not name that God at all.

Thursday, September 14, 2017

Now that Martin Luther was on PBS, what should I read?

It's the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, and you want to read something to honor the occasion. Since there are as many books about Martin Luther as about Jesus, where do you even start? You can start with the PBS special if you prefer to watch the Reformation on television.

But the Reformation really was a textual revolution, so I highly recommend reading about it.

Here's a short list of solid reads. Of the making of books about Luther there is no end, but some really are better than others.

The Sturdy Biography: Read it if you want a comprehensive, fresh, and reliable look at the Reformer.

Post-colonial Luther: Reading Luther from the Margins

Brand Luther: Read if you want a unique take on Luther as a giant of social media and publishing

Fierce Luther: The Furious, Embattled Man Engaged in Spiritual Warfare

Katharina: Looking at Katharina and Martin as a couple leading the Reformation

The Graphic Novel Luther

In his own words: If you want to read one short but powerful text of Luther's

Tuesday, September 05, 2017

The Gospel of Matthew

A little bit of geek with your gospel this week. Please bear with me.

We follow the Revised Common Lectionary in our congregation and denomination. This is a three-year schedule of readings for Sunday worship. Over the course of three years, the congregation hears a lot (but not all) of the Bible, with a special focus on the gospels.

Year A is Matthew, year B is Mark, year C is Luke. John is mixed in over all three years. Often the lessons are connected to the season. Christmas lessons for Christmas. Easter lessons for Easter.

Then, from early summer until the beginning of the new church year (Advent), the lessons are typically straight through the middle section of the gospel for the year. In other words, if you worship through the summer and fall in our congregation, you make your way slowly from about Matthew 5 (the Sermon on the Mount) all the way to Matthew 22.

This slow engagement with one gospel. If you commit to it, it does something. You become familiar with the particular way the gospel-writer offers the story of Jesus.

There is real pleasure in it. As one of my favorite commentators on the gospels says, "There is sheer delight in rummaging around in the thoughts and words of God... it is exhilarating to be called to 'echo' God's words out into the larger world" (Frederick Dale Bruner).

When you attend closely to one gospel, you start to notice its unique characteristics. With Matthew, you might notice, for example, that it is written more directly for a Jewish audience than some of the other gospels. You might notice it uses a "kingdom of heaven" instead of "kingdom of God," likely out of respect for the Jewish tradition of not using the name of God. You might notice that Matthew is especially interested in telling the story of Jesus as fulfillment of the prophets, with as many as 130 Old Testament quotes and allusions in it. It's the only gospel that has the wise men.

Also of importance for this week, Matthew is the only gospel where Jesus speaks explicitly about "the church" (Matthew 16:18 and 18:17).

Think of it this way. All your friends have met someone. Each of them comes to you separately and tells you about this amazing person they've met. Undoubtedly, their descriptions will differ, because each of them has a unique way of perceiving the world. And yet, if they all met the same person, that person will emerge in their multiple tellings, and in fact your perception of that person will be all the richer because all your friends described them.

This is what it is like to read the gospels. Each year, we sit and hear one of our friends tell us the story of Jesus. Then the next year we hear another perspective. Over time, we gain a deeper and fuller understanding of the one we follow.

The Silence (and Silencing) of the Clergy

According to my letter of call, my congregation called me to preach and teach. I guess this means I have to commit to saying things within hearing distance of others. 

Additionally, my letter indicates I'm called to do traditional pastor-like stuff: sacraments, worship, pastoral care, encourage others to ministry, etc. 

Then, as if the preaching and teaching weren't enough, it indicates I'm supposed to speak for justice in behalf of the poor and oppressed, and equip my congregation for witness and service, and guide the people of God in proclaiming God's love through word and deed.

I fully recognize there is a lot of action in there, lots of loving, ministering, sacramenting, etc. But you know, that letter of call is a lot about speaking and words! My words. The words of those in my congregation. The church is really a word-house. Words make a difference. A seriously huge difference, so much so that the Savior of the world is also referred to in our tradition as the Word.

Given that reality, it's always amazed me how silent clergy are, and how much the church (writ large) attempts to silence clergy.

The silencing of clergy happens for a lot of reasons, but a very high profile example is the resignation of Robert Wright Lee from his parish ministry after he spoke out against racism at the MTV Video Music Awards. His congregation and denomination had the opportunity to stand behind him and celebrate him proclaiming the right words in a venue where a LOT of people would hear. Instead, although some supported him, what really won out was a desire to avoid conflict rather than support the truth. He writes in his resignation letter:
I regret that speaking out has caused concern and pain to my church. For this is I offer my heartfelt apology. I understand that my views could be considered to be controversial. I never sought this sort of attention. But, I do believe in God’s role in calling out for positive social change for the good of all. 
We are all called by God to speak out against hate and evil in all its many forms. There are so many good things going on with this congregation and I do not want my fight to detract from the mission. If the recent media attention causes concern with my church, I reluctantly offer my resignation.
A couple of comments. First, if you are speaking out about the right things at the right time, there will always be concern and pain. People get concerned really fast. And change and truth both involve pain. There's no reason to apologize for that, let alone resign.

Second, many clergy leave their churches in the middle of conflict, thinking their departure will reduce such conflict. But that's like saying that drinking a bunch of booze can heal your depression. It won't. It just delays having to deal with the depression. So too leaving your church won't heal the conflict, it will just delay the congregation dealing with it, because the local institution gets to scapegoat you rather than deal with the truth you've proclaimed.

I do wish more clergy would stay through conflict, and say more things that cause conflict. It would be good.

I also understand how hard that can be. Those of us who make our living doing this thing have to pay the bills like anyone else. We don't want to yank our kids out of schools they like, or lose our health coverage. It's hard to say true things because the consequences can be significant.

But we are not alone in having to deal with this. Many people in many professions also get pressure not to speak out. Colin Kaepernick as a prominent example. Many business people are told, "Don't get too political." There are risks to speaking out in many professions, and in daily life.

I think clergy are unique in one way: It's in their call to speak up on behalf of the poor and oppressed. It's written into our call documents or contract with our congregations. It's all over the Bible. All kinds of people tried to silence the apostles (read Acts), tried to silence Jesus (read the gospels), and the prophets (start with the stories of Moses and then read the rest of the Old Testament). Clergy should probably know something really simple but hard: it's well nigh impossible to speak up, and therefore we must do so. 

And when we do speak, all the systems around us will use all the tools at their disposal to try and silence us. They'll withhold their giving. They'll leave the church. They'll say you aren't being pastoral. They'll call the bishop. They'll say you're supposed to just hunker down and focus on them.

All of those are good forms of pushback against inappropriate forms of speaking out. But they are not healthy pushback against the pastor legitimately performing the functions of their call.

I do not think clergy are professionally unique compared to other professionals or general humanity, but I do think they inhabit a specific moral space that both a) requires them to proclaim in ways not everyone is required to, and b) receive unique pressure from the group of people who support or follow them. Groups know how to manipulate and put pressure on their leaders, in any organization, but the way clergy are positioned in congregations may make them uniquely vulnerable to such pressure.

I imagine it is going to get even harder for clergy to speak up, and I imagine people are going to push even harder on them to remain silent. I find it inspiring and wonderful that so many of my colleagues speak up and proclaim loudly in spite of the pressure. That's a miracle. God must be involved.

But if clergy are going to do their jobs, they're going to say a lot, and a lot of it will be hard but true. That's just the way God is.