Political – or Biblical?

As a preaching minister I have long made it a goal to avoid overt political posturing in the pulpit. One of the most egregious violations of this principle occurred while I was actually not preaching, but the offending preacher did everything in his power except name names in attempting to get the congregation to vote for one particular candidate. I do my best to avoid overt political issues for one very important reason: I believe doing so cheapens the message of the gospel. Our political system cannot be placed on a par with the message and mission of the church. In my opinion, there should be a very clear boundary separating preaching the gospel from advocating for a political party or candidate.

The question arises, however – just what constitutes political posturing and what constitutes biblical preaching? Let me explain with a simple scenario:

Let’s say one Sunday I stand and preach a sermon condemning homosexual behavior, and along with that the behavior all of the associated gender-bending issues that our culture is being inundated with today. If I were to assemble a cross section of all of the congregations of which I have been a member, I would hazard a guess that the overwhelming majority of them would compliment my lesson, tell me I was very brave, and generally not even consider whether the sermon was political or not. So, the very next Sunday I get in the pulpit and preach a “hell fire and brimstone” sermon condemning greed, covetousness, and the racial/economic discrimination that our free-market capitalism has produced in America. Without any firm numbers, I can say almost without hesitation that those very same people who were so supportive of my condemnation of sexual perversions would have a very negative reaction to my sermon on economic perversions. Whether they would actually confront me or not (and a few would), my guess is that the overwhelming majority of them would categorize a sermon condemning racial and economic discrimination as being “political,” while a sermon condemning sexual sins as being “biblical.”

Yet, from cover to cover, does the Bible have more to say about racial, social, and economic injustice, or sexual sins? Consider the teachings of Jesus – which subject occupies more of Jesus’s time and attention? This is not to say that sexual sins are never addressed – the New Testament is replete with exhortations toward sexual purity and condemnations of sexual misbehavior. I am only illustrating a point – which subject receives the majority of discussion? In my understanding the results are not even close. While either or both subjects could be addressed as political topics, it is perfectly possible, and I would say necessary, to address both as matters of biblical doctrine

Speaking only for myself here, but I think the answer to this problem lies not with our desire to re-write the Bible. Its just that, in the words that I saw on Twitter the other day, it is so much easier to confess other’s people’s sins than it is to confess our own. It is easy to condemn sexual sins because, at least for the majority of Christians, that condemnation has been a part of our vocabulary since we were little children. Greed, covetousness, avarice, racial discrimination – all of these things have been singled out as being sinful, but how does one identify a greedy person when everyone in the community is bent on buying the latest model car, the newest cell phone, the most popular makes of clothing, etc.? It is easy for “conservative” Christians to wag our finger in the face of an adulterer or practicing homosexual, but who wants to condemn covetousness while we are standing in line for the newest and greatest smart phone?

So, I will continue to maintain my aversion to preaching overtly political sermons. I refuse to preach “get out and vote” sermons just before elections, because I do not want the cross of Christ to be seen as some platform for our American political system. But – and read me careful here – faithful preachers should reserve the right to preach on every issue discussed in the pages of Scripture that has a direct bearing on the manner in which a disciple of Christ lives his or her life. That means when the text demands we preach against sexual sins, we will preach against sexual sins. And when the text demands that we preach against issues related to racial discrimination, legal justice, and economic fairness, we will preach on those issues as well.

I just pray that when I do preach on any subject, I do so with the humility of Christ (and his apostles), knowing that the first person that hears any of my sermons is the man in the mirror. Dietrich Bonhoeffer called it “theology from below,” and its a pretty good description. Let us all realize we are called to live under Scripture, not above it as its master.

Let us ascend by climbing lower.

An Easter Morning Meditation

Being a minister (preacher) and dreading Easter might sound like a kid who dreads Christmas. Who could possibly dread the biggest day of the Christian calendar? Who in his right mind would just as soon stay in bed during the day that so many others have been looking forward to for at least 40 days, if not a majority of the year? What preacher would just like to ask for a day off on the day when the pews are more likely to be filled than for any other day (except Mother’s Day, but don’t get me started on that one)?

Me.

Mind you, I am not against remembering Jesus’s resurrection. It’s just that I do it every week – on the Lord’s day. And I am not one of those cranky misfits who preaches on the resurrection on or about December 25, and on the birth of Jesus while everyone else is thinking about Easter eggs. I may be a knuckle-dragging troglodyte, but I’m not THAT obtuse.

It’s just all the hype, all the hoopla, all the build up. How many batters hit a home run in the bottom of the ninth with two outs and runners on the corners? It might happen every once in a while, but to expect it to happen every time is just ridiculous. But every year the same thing happens – everybody gets all gussied up and excited because “today we remember the resurrection of Jesus.”

I don’t remember ever forgetting it, but never mind.

It occurred to me this week as I was preparing for yet another bottom-of-the-ninth-with-two-outs plate appearance that the first witnesses of the empty tomb were anything other than what we have traditionally pictured them. We all want to picture them jumping with joy, bursting out with eleven choruses of “Up From The Grave He Arose” while clutching their Easter lilies and then scurrying off to their feast of ham and mashed potatoes. (They were Jews, so I don’t think that part happened, but never mind)

But, with the exception of Mary, I just do not see much euphoria or the passing out of chocolate covered eggs. The apostles, for the most part, were confused, disoriented, and even afraid. They knew the tomb was empty, and they were amazed and “marveled,” – but even when Jesus showed up behind locked doors they didn’t really catch on. Fear was more of the emotion of the day, far from frolicking.

We have come to transfer our feelings of euphoria and triumphalism onto the first witnesses – but if you read the gospel accounts carefully and by trying to see that first Sunday through the eyes of those first few observers, we see a very different picture. That first “Lord’s Day” was a great day of victory as seen from the perspective of heaven (and what would eventually become the view of Christians of all ages), but that first, “First Day of the Week” was actually one of confusion, anxiety, and – not to overuse a word – amazement.

So, just like a bazillion other preachers have done, and will do, I will stand and preach another resurrection lesson this morning. I just wish that for once we would come into the auditorium with a feeling of wonder, of dread, of amazement, of confusion, of doubt, and maybe even of fear. We are just far too glib, too triumphalist on this day every year. Maybe that is why our churches are so full every Easter, and are becoming so empty for the other 50 Sundays (Mother’s Day excepted, see above). People like base clearing home runs. Very few stay to cheer the crew sweeping up the popcorn.

I may be the only preacher who will admit this – but I’ll say it anyway: I just do not care for Easter Sunday.

That’s Why We Call Them “Elders”

Over the past several months I have come to appreciate certain things more deeply: health, a strong marriage, the love of a child. Our life’s circumstances can change in the blink of an eye, and very rarely for the better. All too often we lose something, or have something taken away from us, and all we have left are some memories and a bunch of questions.

In regard to the church, I have also come to realize, and appreciate, the simple wisdom of something that many take to be a relic of history, just a curiosity of a bygone era that needs to be erased as well. That “relic” is the practice of having churches overseen by a plurality of senior disciples called “elders.” For so many that is a quaint but no longer useful tradition that is more harmful than helpful. For me, it is becoming just one more example of the immeasurable wisdom of our creator God.

I am growing impatient, and even somewhat disgusted, with individuals who heap endless praise on the generation that is just now coming of age, calling them the most spiritual and mature generation to grace the face of the earth. I saw it in a comment just this past week. “This generation is just so much in love with Jesus!” the speaker said. Hidden within the comment was a dagger – no other generation in recent memory has ever loved Jesus like this group!

Oh. Spare. Me.

I was born into a generation that really loved Jesus. My parents’ generation really loved Jesus. My grandparents generation really loved Jesus. I can look back in history and identify generations whose love for Jesus makes this coming generation look like a bunch of wallowing sycophants. Spare me the generational comparisons – at least until this generation has had enough time to prove themselves.

One thing my generation did accomplish – or shall I say destroy – was to separate our “love for Jesus” from a love for his church and those who were tasked with leading it. I was born at the tail end of the “Jesus people” generation, the ones who screamed “Jesus yes, church no” at the top of our voices. We were taught not to trust anyone over 40. What this coming generation has been able to accomplish is to lower that age down to 30. Or, maybe 20. They have taken the Boomer’s disdain for the church and raised it exponentially. I note with a genuine degree of fear that, especially within the church, the disdain for age and seniority has reached Promethean heights. The term “elder” has lost all meaningful significance.

There are just some things that cannot be obtained without the passage of time: the capacity for maturity, depth of wisdom, the skill to raise multiple children through the stormy waters of adolescence, the ability to maintain and to deepen a strong marriage, the tact and strength to deal with aging and declining parents. There is more than just a poetic reason why white hair is the crown of a life well lived.

The thought occurred to me the other day that twenty-somethings know all the answers to all the questions. Persons over the age of 65 have experienced the questions – they have seen it, felt it, heard it, lived it, cried over it, had their hearts broken over it, conquered it, been almost destroyed by it, and somehow have managed to survive it. Twenty-somethings walk with a strut. Seniors walk with a limp – for a good reason.

I am not discounting book smarts. I think I did some of my best work in the first years of my ministry. I also left behind some wrecks. And I am not suggesting that mere age is some guarantor of wisdom. There are a lot of seniors who never matured out of adolescence. The fruit of the poisonous tree of the “Me Generation” will be around for a long time.

But, as simply and as passionately as I can put it, there is a reason for 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1. ┬áThere is a wisdom and a maturity that those who have reached their sixth decade and beyond own that those who have only lived for two or two-and-a-half just cannot have. The practice of having a congregation overseen by senior disciples is not just a quaint artifact of a bygone era. It is rooted in the deepest wisdom of God. Congregations are hurting themselves – and possibly poisoning their future – by rejecting this divinely mandated practice.

There is a reason we call them elders. If we are wise, we will honor them, respect them, we will pay attention to and learn from their wisdom, and we will submit to their leadership.

The Church and the Idolization of Youth

“We have to do something to save our youth!” “We are losing too many of our youth!” “If we do not change our worship our young people will leave the church!” “We have to listen to our young people or they will not listen to us!”

On and on it goes. From what I hear the church is being strangled to death by a fear of young people leaving its membership. Preachers are hired and fired not on the basis of their wisdom and maturity, but on the basis of their attire and hair style. Churches want a “new voice” that will appeal to the younger generation. By some accounts the church is in a full blown panic over the fate of today’s youth.

It might be a shock to some, then, to discover that back in the early days of 1930-33 a young German theologian set out to address this very issue. More than just about anyone in his generation, he was acutely aware of the crisis of youth – especially in a world that was literally crumbling around their feet. His generation, and especially those younger than him, were clamoring for the church to heed their demands, to change its stodgy ways, to conform to a “new” reality. Rather than approach the problem from the cloistered cell of some ivory tower, this young pastor went to work among the poorest of the poor in his city. The young men who were placed in his care were far more familiar with violence and prostitution than the parables of Jesus. When they threatened to wreck his classroom, he would put records of “Negro spirituals” for them to listen to. When his young charges were ready for the ceremony of confirmation, he realized they had no decent clothes to wear. So he bought enough material for each to have a suit, and paid for a tailor to make them one. He was no ordinary youth minister. He did more than teach. He washed feet.

So his words carry far more weight than some ivory-tower theoretician. I share that because he prepared what have been labeled as eight “Theses on Youth Work in the Church.” It is unknown when he wrote them, but probably before 1933. I share some pertinent excerpts:

  1. Since the days of the youth movement, church youth work has often lacked that element of Christian sobriety that alone might enable it to recognize that the spirit of youth is not the Holy Spirit and that the future of the church is not youth itself but rather the Lord Jesus Christ alone. It is the task of youth not to reshape the church, but rather to listen to the word of God: it is the task of the church not to capture the youth, but to teach and proclaim the word of God.
  2. Our question is not: What is youth and what rights does it have, but rather: What is the church-community and what is the place of youth within it?
  3. . . . It is only within the church-community that one can pass judgement on the church-community.
  4. The church-community suspends the generational problem. Youth enjoy no special privilege in the church-community. . . God’s spirit in the church has nothing to do with youthful criticism of the church, the radical nature of God’s claim on human beings has nothing to do with youthful radicalism, and the commandment for sanctification nothing to do with the youthful impulse to better the world.
  5. The Bible judges youth quite soberly: Gen. 8:21; Isa. 3:5; Jer. 1:6; Eccl. 11:10; 1 Pet. 5:5; 2 Tim. 2:2 et passim.
  6. Church youth work is possible only on the basis of addressing young people concerning their baptism and with the exclusive goal of having them hear God’s word.
  7. It may well be that the youth have the right to protest against their elders. If that be the case, however, the authenticity of such protest will be demonstrated by youth’s willingness to maintain solidarity with the guilt of the church-community and to bear that burden in love, abiding in penitence before God’s word.
  8. There is no real “church association”; there is only the church. . . Every church association as such already discredits the cause of the church.

[Dietrich Bonhoeffer, “Theses on Youth Work in the Church” in Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works, Vol. 12. Berlin:1932-1933. ed. Larry Rasmussen, trans. Isabel Best and David Higgins (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2009) 515-517.]

The language is somewhat stilted, and the ecclesiology (baptism, etc) is Lutheran, but the theology is solid. I am constantly amazed that “there is nothing new under the sun” (Eccl. 1:9) and that questions that the church is asking today have been asked (and answered!) many times before. We do not have to re-invent the wheel. What we do need to do, however, is to listen to the wisdom of ages past. But before we can do that we have to have the humility to accept that people who lived before us were actually smart enough to answer the questions.

Lord, save us from the sin of idolizing our youth.

** I am indebted to the work of Andrew Root, Bonhoeffer as Youth Worker: A Theological Vision for Discipleship and Life Together (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2014) for providing an in-depth examination of Bonhoeffer and his ministry to young people. If you are interested in serving young people in an authentic way, or if you are just interested in the work of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, I highly recommend this book. I think it will change your view of how the church is to hear, and to minister, to young people.

Definitions – Baptism

One of the most frustrating parts of my job, or ministry, is the fact that I deal primarily with words. Words, and the associated concept of language (the combination of words, grammar, tone, inflection) are a slippery thing. I grew up learning that many words have both denotation (how they are defined in an authority such as a dictionary) and a connotation (how they are actually used, which might be in a ┬ávery different sense from their denotation). It takes no great skill to know that the connotative meanings of words change every generation or so, but now even the denotative meanings of words are changing. It is getting to the point that I’m not really sure what I am talking about even when I use the words that I think I know what they mean.

Since this is a blog about all things theological, let us take a word about which probably everyone has an opinion concerning what it means: baptism. In the expansive world of Christianity there are essentially two broad understandings of baptism – one sees the word applying primarily to infants, and one sees the word applying exclusively to believers in Christ. For both groups the concept of faith is critical, for the one it is the faith of the church (and primarily the parents and god-parents), for the other it is the faith of the individual which is controlling. For the first group baptism marks the security of the individual until the point he or she can voluntarily assume an individual faith (confirmation), and is a removal of the effects of original sin; for the other it is the actual moment of the profession of individual faith, and is associated with the removal of actual sin. But beyond these stark differences between these very different understandings of baptism, there is also profound differences among those who profess to be adherents to believer’s baptism. (As I am not personally associated with a group that practices infant baptism, I will refrain from commenting on any real or perceived differences in that group.)

Some adherents of believer’s (adult) baptism hold that baptism is for the purpose of the forgiveness of sin; others believe that a person’s sins are forgiven at the moment of faith. Baptism in that case is simply a formality, a physical act that demonstrates one’s willingness to be a part of a specific church. Thus, even within the camp of “believer’s baptism” there is a huge gulf – one group believes it is absolutely necessary; the other group views it as a nice gesture, but one that is not to be considered critical. Let us proceed even further. Many within the “believer’s baptism” group hold that a candidate for baptism must be baptized at the specific moment (or as close to it as possible) that a decision to be baptized is reached; others believe that a period of preparation, or “catechism,” must be observed in order to fully prepare the candidate for the waters of baptism. This catechism can be days, weeks, months or even years in length.

The mode of baptism is fervently disputed: some will argue that baptism must be full immersion in water; some will argue that a candidate who enters a baptistery and has water poured over his or her head has been baptized; and obviously those who accept infant baptism will accept a few ounces of water gently poured over the head of the infant as proper baptism. And, not to be ignored, even the wording used in the event of baptism is debated. Must it be in the name of the “Father, Son and Holy Spirit,” or will the name of Jesus suffice? Does the name of God, Jesus, of the Holy Spirit have to be mentioned at all? If the trinitarian language is used, must there be three immersions (or effusions) or is one adequate? Who is authorized to baptize? Must the ceremony be “officiated” by a priest, pastor, minister, elder or deacon? Can a female perform baptisms? What if a baptism is performed by someone who is later found to be apostate – is the legitimacy of the baptism somehow connected to the faith (and orthodoxy) of the one who performs the baptism? If so, how far back do we have to go in order to establish the legitimacy of the one doing the baptism?

All of this preceding wandering through the hermeneutical wilderness was to illustrate one simple point: asking a person whether they have been baptized is a considerable effort in futility. Only if they say “no” has there been any clarity achieved. If the answer is “yes,” then were they baptized as an infant or as a believer? Were they baptized because they had some ecstatic feeling of “oneness” with Christ, or were they baptized because they felt the crushing weight of their sin, or were they baptized in simple obedience to Christ? Were they old enough to understand the meaning of sin, or of faith in Christ? Were they immersed, or dribbled on, or just sprayed on?

As I have stated elsewhere, beyond some very basic (and I believe, scriptural) stipulations, I tread very lightly when it comes to “evaluating” or “judging” someone’s baptism. I hold that a candidate for baptism must be old enough to be considered responsible for his or her actions (and I am personally hesitant to follow the practice of baptizing pre-teens). I also understand baptism to be a full immersion (we do not just throw some dirt on someone’s forehead to “bury” them), and I expect a candidate for baptism to be able to express repentance for a real separation from God, and an adult commitment to obey and become a disciple of Christ (I don’t think anyone fully understands those concepts when they are baptized, but there must be some fundamental understanding, otherwise all we are doing is getting someone wet.) These, I aver, are the only basic requirements for baptism found in the New Testament.

It’s all very simple, and at the same time terribly complicated. After all, it all boils down to how we define baptism, right?

What Would Happen If You Disappeared?

What would happen if you disappeared? Well, not you personally, but what would happen if your Bible class, your small group study, even your congregation disappeared? Disappeared as in, poof, and you are gone – no farewell speeches, no lingering goodbyes, no last words of comfort. I am not talking about would you miss that class, small group, or congregation. Obviously I think the answer to that question is “yes.” I am asking if others in your congregation, or your community, would notice?

Would your congregation truly miss your Bible class, or would things just go on as normal, albeit with a smaller number in the record book? Would your congregation miss your small group Bible study, or would they even notice your absence? And, more critically, would your community miss your congregation if it just suddenly ceased to exist?

These are tough questions that very likely cause some discomfort. We all want to think that we are important, that we are contributing to the welfare of our congregations and our communities, that we would be missed a la George Bailey in It’s a Wonderful Life if we just were no longer around.

Another way to ask the question is this, “What is the reason your Bible class, your small group study, or your congregation, exists?” The answer to that question will be revealing. If the only answer you can come up with is to be the one, true, pure and undefiled Bible class, small group, or church congregation, then I will bet dollars against dimes that no one would even notice if you ceased to exist. (Either that, or they might rejoice.)

You see, no one who meets to study the Bible or to form a small group Bible study, or even to form a Christian church congregation does so with the express purpose of being a wrong-headed, corrupt, run-of-the-mill, pure vanilla Bible study, small group or church. Every Bible class proclaims fidelity to the text. Every small group believes itself to be special. Every congregation makes a claim to be the church, or at the very least a vital part of the entire church. Nobody intentionally promotes obscurity and inferiority. So, if your only claim to fame, or for existence, is that you are somehow special, join the list of every other special group or church. To paraphrase one of my favorite lines in Fiddler on the Roof, “a rabbi who praises himself has a congregation of one.” You will not have much of an influence.

I suggest that if you want your Bible class, small group study, and especially your congregation, to have any kind of meaning in this world, you had better have more purpose for its existence than just being different, or more special, or more unique, or some other qualifying adjective. Virtually every survey and study over the past 10 years has documented how members are leaving Christian churches by the hundreds. People are simply fed up with endless arguments over subjects that have about as much meaning as the number of angels that can dance on the head of a pin. Unchurched people, and dis-enthused former members, are seeking for a Christianity that has a pulse – that is vital and real and meaningful. Doctrine does matter – it matters a lot* – but only if it can be embodied, if it becomes an incarnational truth.

Have you noticed that at the end of the first, and arguably the definitive, sermon in the gospel of Matthew, Jesus stated that only the person who does the will of my Father will enter the Kingdom of Heaven? (Matthew 7:21-23) The sermon that has been “spiritualized” to death is one of the most definitive statements that stresses concrete obedience as opposed to mere consent.

Ask your preacher. Ask your elders. Ask your deacons. Ask your Bible school teacher. Demand an answer from yourself. If your group disappeared today, would anyone notice tomorrow?

*Studies have shown that those congregations and groups that are managing to grow in this climate of shrinking churches are those congregations and groups that have clearly demarcated doctrines and beliefs. Those doctrines might be Calvinistic or Arminian, charismatic or fundamentalist, but those doctrines must translate into changed lives and meaningful ministry. People are NOT doctrine-phobic as some might believe, but they are discerning when it comes to identifying doctrines that matter, and those that are just used to separate those who say shibboleth from those who say sibboleth.

A Mind-Bending, Spirit-Shaking 60 Days

The last 60+ days of my life have been anything but normal. Even now, as I sit after pondering for many days what I would write, I still find the words elusive. I once thought I knew many things. Now, I wonder if I will ever even understand the questions.

This journey started on August 14. On that afternoon my wife was diagnosed with cancer. As with so many who hear that diagnosis, our world was shattered. Four days later, on the 18th, while trying to restore some semblance of normalcy, and while ice skating with my daughter, I fell and broke (shattered?) my femur (large bone in my thigh). Surgery the next day. Thirteen days in the hospital. A week in re-hab. Meanwhile my wife had to begin her chemo treatments without me.

It’s funny how quickly, and with such violence, a life of plans and goals can be shattered. Literally.

Now we live from day to day, sometimes from hour to hour, our future punctuated with doctor visits, scans and tests, physical therapy, and the looming appointment of yet another surgery and hospital stay.

There is a personally ironic and even pernicious twist to this story. The sermon text that I had selected for August 20 [selected before the 14th, by the way] was 2 Corinthians 12:10, “For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong.” It was a sermon I never got to preach. It was a sermon I don’t know if I will ever be able to preach.

I was going to wax poetic about the paradox in Paul’s language. I was going to revel in the assurance of God’s presence in the time of trouble. I was going to speak as only a fool would, not knowing the depth of the mistakes I was making.

Like I said, I thought I knew a lot about many things. I lost my father due to cancer 27 years ago. My mother is a 27 year survivor of cancer. A close family member was murdered. The father of a very close childhood friend committed suicide. I’ve lived a lot of life and have preached a lot of sermons.

But, somehow I’ve changed. I do not enter the pulpit now like I used to. I don’t read the text now like I used to. I cannot quantify the change, nor adequately describe it. But this world is just – different now.

In many ways I’m the same me as I always was – a snarky, ironic if not sarcastic, self-impressed, knuckle-dragging troglodyte. I guess some things are just too deep to root out. But now I see things a little differently, and hopefully much more clearly.

I still want to ascend by climbing lower – I hope I just know a little bit more about what that means now than I did 60 days ago.