Monday, October 31, 2016

Halloween or Reformation Day

Today is Halloween and a great many kids will be on the streets looking for treats. Less well known is that this date is Reformation Day, too. It marks the anniversary of the day that began the Reformation. On this day 500 years ago, Martin Luther, a Catholic monk posted his 95 Theses on the door of the main church in his city in Germany. Or at least that's the way the day is remembered. He may or may not have actually nailed his Theses to the church door but he did write them. He was fed up with some of the corrupt practices of the Catholic Church. Remember, that was his church at the time. One of his main points of controversy was the selling of indulgences - kind of a get out of purgatory free card- in order to raise money for a new church building in Rome.  Anyway, that's the day Protestants look back to as the birth of their religion. That day changed a lot of things about religion. Luther was eventually kicked out of the church for his beliefs which were as much theological as directed at church practices. He was against the Mass, papal authority, monasteries, the whole priesthood, and many other main teachings of the Catholic church. He was for Faith Alone, Scripture Alone, Grace Alone, Jesus Alone and Glory Alone (the five "Solas" they are called). Luther taught our salvation depends upon only faith in Jesus which is by God's grace alone. So, most of the tradition and ritual of the Catholic church was not needed. Although he did not intend to start a church he did. Lutherans and Reformed Christians, following the other main reformer John Calvin, are the ones for whom this day is most important. Otherwise, I wonder if most Christians know what a Protestant is. If you are not Lutheran or a Calvinist and one runs into few of them these days, what difference does the Reformation make? Famous pastors like Rick Warren ridicule the idea of anyone calling herself a Protestant, it's like saying you are a Pilgrim. Today, there is a lot of fluidity among denominations and even among Catholics and Protestants. It is hard to believe there was a time when Lutherans and Catholics fought with each other ( I mean to death!). Luther called the Pope the anti-Christ and said the Catholic church was a temple of the devil.

Today, Pope Francis is in Sweden at an ecumenical service commemorating the beginning of the Reformation. Luther never saw that coming. I guess it is a good thing although Christians are still picking up the pieces of years of squabbling over issues of doctrine and how to do church, and how to live like a follower of Jesus.  Luther was just the first to start a church that was not Catholic but hardly the last. Luther and Calvin had some important insights into Scripture and theology but they also left a bunch of unanswered questions and a shattered Christendom and a lot of people who are confused about the truth claims of Christianity and what it means to follow Jesus.

Thursday, October 27, 2016

Strange elections

This is one of the strangest election years in my lifetime. I can't say ever because in the history of elections there have been a number of nasty ones. Elections bring out the best and worst in us. This one has seen it's share of nastiness. It has shown how divided the voters are. Some fear porous borders, Muslims, and a more liberal Supreme Court and look to Trump to fix things. Others find Trump totally unqualified, inexperienced and unfit for the highest office in the land. The race has the Christian community divided, as well, with some high profile Evangelical/ Fundamentalist Christian leaders in the Trump camp. Ironically, Trump is most notably not a model Christian candidate. Politics trumps everything else.

Fed up, some Christians say they are opting out and not voting. Others point to Romans 12 and say it is our duty as Christians not only to vote but to give our allegiance to the government. Even if Trump loses? There have been some Trump supporters calling for an armed revolt if their candidate loses. Having lived in rural NW Florida for the past few years I can testify to an appalling lack of honor or respect shown to the Obama administration. Many of Obama's detractors are in the many churches on Sunday, no doubt. That is not to say my part of the country cannot disagree with Obama. They can protest, march, write editorials, and get out the vote for Trump - all they want. It is their right. I suppose it is also their right to decorate their trucks with Obama Sucks bumper stickers, and shout out for Hillary's imprisonment or worse, and feed off the hate one another has for Obama/Clinton.

I have yet to see a Hillary campaign sign among the hundreds of Trump - Pence signs around this county in rural Florida. Not a bumper sticker either. I don't have a sign in my yard or a sticker on my car - to be honest I am a bit afraid to.

What Christians are missing here is that this is only an election. It does not mean the end of the world as we know it if the other candidate is elected. Each side may claim to know God's will but as Lincoln said we don't know whose side God is on. His purposes are not to be determined by who gets elected. In the meantime, Christians don't come out looking so good after all the harsh rhetoric and fighting.

Some Bible interpreters have questioned whether what Paul wrote in Romans 13 was intended to be a timeless truth and suggest we have to look at it carefully in the historical context of Paul's time. Nero who was a nasty emperor was in power when Paul wrote. Most certainly, Paul was imprisoned and executed under Nero's reign, feeling the sword of the state.  Many other Christians and Jews lost their lives, too. Christians were not understood well and were largely lumped together with Jews. Their vulnerable communities had experienced firsthand the "sword" of the state. With that in mind could Paul have been encouraging Christians to do nothing that would attract the government's attention to them. Live by the rules, he says. Pay what is owed them, he wrote in v 7. He goes on in  v 8 to remind the Christians in Rome of the debt of love we owe to each other in Christ. This is more important than politics, much more, and it is what the church is missing at this present time.

Monday, October 17, 2016

Faith and politics

In Brad Gregory's book, The Unintended Reformation, he argues that the Reformation laid the groundwork for the separation of church and state and the freedom of religion which has led to the increasing secularization of modern society. In our Western societies we are free to believe in whatever we want even no religious belief at all. Or we can choose to believe in yoga, as Susanna Schrobsdorff says she does in a recent Time magazine essay. She is one of the "nones" who comprise 25% of the population according to a Duke study. These are people who don't fit in a religious box or are agnostic or atheists. She says there is a smallish space in her life called faith. Which would support Gregory's thesis. Freedom of religion has come to mean freedom for no religion. Today religion is private and we argue about politics publicly.

A lot has been written about Trump's support among evangelicals in this presidential campaign. It is ironic that a person who has not lived a life based on Christian principles is so popular among conservative evangelical Christians for whom "how one lives his or her life" is so important. Even after recent disclosures of Trump's treatment of women his support remains unchanged among evangelicals and several key evangelical leaders (although some key evangelical women leaders have recently spoken out against him). Still his support among conservative evangelical Christians is several times greater than those who support Hillary. It's been a given for years now that conservative evangelicals will support the Republican party. Their faith lines up closely with the Republican party platform. There is a fear that the Democrats under Hillary Clinton will doom the America as we know it. Trump's vow to make America great again resonates.

Using Gregory's grid it may not be so hard to understand what is going on. Prior to the Reformation there was one church and it's teachings were re-enforced by the state. Essentially, the church had one voice and one way of life it taught. There were limits to what even the Pope could say and do. He was limited by church tradition and what the councils had said. Since the Reformation we have had a plethora of religions and religious teachings. Anything goes as far as what someone can say he or she believes and as long as it doesn't injure some one else it is ok. Whatever you believe it's ok to go and start a church. Even if it's a church of one. And there seem to be lots of them.

Susanna Schrobsdorff's mother was raised Catholic but after she got married she never went to church again until she was dying in her 70s. She stopped by an empty church one day and Schrobsdorff writes, "I don't know if she prayed but I do know that my mother had the certainty that she would go "home" where her parents and my sister were."

There aren't many certainties today. For many people faith is no longer certain even among evangelicals. Trump is certain and offers certainty in every speech he gives. He says he can make everything all right again. Is that faith or politics?

God's will

The Bible is not an easy book to understand. There are some hard sayings there. There was the time when Pharaoh would not let Moses and God's people leave Egypt. God sent plague after plague through Moses to try to change Pharoah's mind. The Bible says Pharoah's heart was hard so he would not let the people go and then it says God hardened Pharoah's heart. In the New Testament Jesus often spoke in parables which were hard for people to understand. Then, Jesus quoted Isaiah in the Old Testament to explain why they were so hard to get. It was because God did not want them understood  by everyone.

In Ezekiel, the prophet is pronouncing the judgement of God against Israel and Judah. In chapter 14, it seems like God deliberately deceives the people so they won't repent and turn away God's wrath.

It's an altogether too common theme in the Bible. The struggle between our will and God's will is not a fair fight. Our will if "free" comes with a warning. There is a limit to all human freedom. God did not set us free to do whatever we want with that freedom. That may not be fair and we don't like anyone impinging on our freedom.

Theologians have called what we read in the Bible predestination. It's been defined in many ways by various theologians but basically it means God calls the shots that matter. The great Reformed theologian John Calvin called it double predestination. God elects some people to be saved and others to be damned. He went further than the Bible does but he was not alone in his thinking. Many other theologians disagreed with Calvinism. One group of theologians absolutely disagreed with Calvin and said God will not violate our free will. If we choose not to believe in God it is our choice, at least. God respects that choice. Other theologians following Karl Barth said predestination was God's decision in Jesus Christ. So, all people are elected to salvation through Jesus. There was no double predestination.

Predestination is a thick woods to get lost in. In the difference between God's will and ours is a huge gap in understanding. It is a mystery but we can say something about it. Given all we know about human choices I hope humans do not get the final say about things that matter. Given all we know about God, I am more than ok with God's will be done. God has given humans enough freedom to show how much of a mess we can make of things. In Christ, God became totally engaged with our history - fallen and finite as it is. God is with us in our history of messes and mistakes. God's goal in our history is not done yet. That makes me hopeful for our world. God is not done with the good work he began in me either. That makes me hopeful for me. May God's will be done.

Friday, October 7, 2016


Saturday, October 7, 2016 at about 3 pm Hurricane Matthew is bearing down on Jacksonville, FL. For days the Governor, Mayor and several officials have warned of catastrophic conditions. They have ordered evacuations. The local news is broadcasting non - stop updating conditions. Some trees are down as well as power lines. Power is out all over. Storm surges flood the coast and record rainfall causes flash floods. Damage assessments have not begun. While no detail of the storm is being overlooked and no warning left unsaid, reports of damage in Haiti are coming online. 900 dead and still counting more, villages destroyed by muddy water. No resources of food, water, basic health care on scene. Power is usually out. It's a story when it comes on. No surprise that Haiti suffers, it is a common story. Earthquakes, cholera, storms, corrupt leadership are a way of life in Haiti. Here we have plenty of warning with utility trucks and bottled water pre-positioned for areas of need. We might miss a day at the beach and Walmart is boarded up for the weekend. The interstate is jammed with cars heading west. Facebook is full of the latest adventures in the storm. The adventure in Haiti is finding sources of money for relief efforts. A hurricane in one place is a major inconvenience while in another place some one's home and garden is washed away and their life hangs by a thread again. It's hard to figure where God is in all this. It's not hard to figure what God wants me to do.

Finding God's Word

At a large soup kitchen in an Episcopal Church in the Chelsea neighborhood of New York about 950 homeless people are fed every day of the week not counting the weekend. One of the women who helps serve the meals was asked about her motivation for serving in this way. She said that it was because Jesus said to feed the hungry. It was as simple as that. In Matthew 25, she said, Jesus said "as you have done this to the least of these you have done it unto me." Feeding the hungry is pretty basic in Scripture no matter what your method of interpretation is.

On April 16 in 1208 Francis and two other men wondered what God's will was for them. They went to the parish priest in their town of Assisi and asked for his help. He took his altar missal in hand since he did not have a copy of the whole Bible nearby. The three men prayed with the priest then he took the Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ and opened it three times. Reading the passage he opened to in Latin he explained to the men what it said. The first time he opened the missal to the Gospel for Wednesday in the week of the fifth Sunday of Pentecost. It was Mark 10:17-21 which said, "Go, sell all you have and give to the poor and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me." The second time the priest opened the missal at Luke 9: 1-6, which said, "and take nothing for your journey, no staff, nor bag, nor bread, nor money: and do not  have two tunics." The third time the priest opened the missal he found this: "If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me." Francis committed these texts to memory and they became the guide for his life. God had revealed to him what he was supposed to do.

At the time of Reformation the main leaders all agreed that they rejected the teachings, rituals, and practises of the Roman Catholic Church. They did not wholly agree with each other about what God's word said. In 1529, the main leaders met at Marburg to iron out their differences. They agreed on fourteen out of fifteen disputed points of theology. They could not agree on the meaning and practise of the Lord's Supper. That sticking point has divided the Church ever since. The divided Church has fought about many other things to this day.

There are many people who see the divisions and differences in the Church as an indication that the Church doesn't speak with a single voice. No one knows for sure what the Church teaches. It depends on which one you go to. And God's word gets lost in the chaos of conflicting voices.

It's not that complicated. Is it?