Friday, February 28, 2014

LIfe news: President of Planned Parenthood says that when life begins is "not relevant"

In our world, the conclusions of science are usually the determiner of truth.  They provide the facts of life and everything else must bow before them.  Yet when it comes to abortion, all of that goes out the window.  The science is clear about when life begins.  For this reason, supporters of abortion don't want to talk about the issue.  It is therefore eye opening and staggering to hear Planned Parenthood Cecile Richards actually say that when life begins is not relevant to the discussion of abortion.  She says that the life of her children began when she delivered them.  One simply must watch this brief video and hear Richards uncomfortably seek to get around the issue.

Persecuted Church: Indonesian opposition to construction of Christian churches

Even in supposedly tolerant Muslim nations, Christians face harassment and threats of violence. In Indonesia they make the construction of a church a long and uncertain process.

Thursday, February 27, 2014

Mark's thoughts: Getting a handle on the biblical "big picture"

This morning I had a great conversation about biblical eschatology with a pastor who is near the beginning of his service in the parish.  He had a very good handle on many aspects of biblical eschatology, but didn't yet quite see how it all fits together.  I pointed him to an article I had written entitled, "Good Stuff: The Material Creation and the Christian faith."  I wrote it because it is the article I wish someone had put into my hands twenty years ago.  It takes the key elements of creation, incarnation, sacraments, resurrection/renewed creation and sets them within a salvation historical framework - the "big picture" of how God works.  If you haven't read it, take a look.

It have written a bible study based on the article's content and it is available online.  It received a very positive response in the parish. 

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Mark's thoughts: Questions and no answers at the death of our baby

Recently a blog post by Rachel Lewis entitled Why miscarriage matters when you are pro-life has been making the rounds on Facebook.  In the post Lewis reflects on the experience of miscarriage and raises some helpful questions regarding how Christians think and speak about the life that is lost.  She also speaks about actions that can support the mother.

When I hear or read about miscarriage, it is difficult not to think back to the most terrible sound that I have ever heard.  Amy had given birth to our first child Timothy.  A little over two years later she became pregnant with our second child.  There were some initial concerns about the pregnancy, and then everything seemed to be fine.  Amy was well along into her second trimester.  She had that wonderful look of a pregnant woman. 

Then while we were at my brother’s house, Amy saw troubling signs. My brother, a family practice doctor, helped us to make an appointment at an ob/gyn practice and we went that day.  The ultrasound was beginning and I knew exactly what to expect as we were about to listen to the baby’s heart.  Yet as the technician moved the instrument around Amy’s pregnant belly there was instead, a deafening silence.  There was no sound in the room except that of the ultrasound machine itself.  Between the silence and the look on the ultrasound technician’s face the situation became clear – our baby had died.

In the years since then, I have learned that miscarriages are not at all uncommon.  Many occur earlier in pregnancy than our experience, but they are each the unexpected loss of a baby.  As I read Lewis’ piece, my mind returned to a thought that has occupied it many times before when it comes to the subject of miscarriage.

We in the Lutheran Church really don’t talk about miscarriage.  Some of the reason for this is quite understandable.  The circumstances of many miscarriages do not leave a body to be buried.  More often than not it is not a public matter, but instead a very private one that few people know about.  While privacy may be something that helps some people in the grieving process, at times I wonder if this is really healthy. Miscarriage seems to be something that we often seek to avoid discussing. In part we do this in the attempt to avoid further hurting people who have experienced a terrible loss.

However, I think there is another reason why the Lutheran Church herself finds miscarriage to be a particularly uncomfortable topic.  After all, the Lutheran Church holds three beliefs very strongly.  The first is that life begins at conception.  The second is that since the Fall, all people conceived in the normal way of man are sinful, spiritually dead, and have the devil as their lord.  The third is that through Holy Baptism the Holy Spirit creates new spiritual life and gives the forgiveness of sins. Because of these beliefs, in the absence of the opportunity to administer Holy Baptism, we are left with no clear way to address the fact that this baby was alive and also a fallen, sinful individual.

In the desire to provide comfort, Lutherans have drawn upon cherished theological truths in order to find a way to address this problem.  The least plausible is the assertion that because the mother received the body and blood of Christ in the Sacrament of the Altar, the unborn baby also received the forgiveness it provides.  It strains the imagination to believe that this fulfills what our Lord meant when he said about the bread “take eat” and about the wine “drink of it all of you.”  Beyond this it fails to take into account what the Small Catechism says about the need for faith in the words “Given and shed for you for the forgiveness of sin.”

More plausible and more frequently heard is the suggestion that God’s Word creates faith in infants in the womb.  Now no one doubts that with God all things are possible, and as Lutherans we certainly embrace the power of God’s Word to create faith.  As those who baptize infants, we also do not reduce faith solely to intellectual activity.   

It is true that Paul writes, “So faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ” (Romans 10:17 ESV), but clearly the faith described here is one that believes in and calls upon Christ (Romans 10:8-10, 14).  In the absence of any confession of faith, we have no means of certainty about forgiveness and salvation. It is true that John the Baptist leapt in the womb in the presence of Christ and Elizabeth said: “For behold, when the sound of your greeting came to my ears, the baby in my womb leaped for joy” (Luke 1:44 ESV).  But we are also told that Elizabeth was able to say this because she “was filled with the Holy Spirit” (Luke 1:41 ESV).  In principle it reveals that infants can respond to God’s saving work, but absent direct revelation by the Holy Spirit we have no way of knowing for sure.

The certainty of Holy Baptism is in fact the very thing that is lost when a miscarriage occurs.  The Gospel is about certainty.  Where God gives forgiveness and salvation, there is no doubt.  His saving work is certain and sure because it is his work.  How do we know that the child is forgiven and saved?  He or she was baptized!  That is the very reason that during her history the Church has permitted lay people to baptize in the face of life threatening circumstances when there has been no priest or pastor present.  The gift of Holy Baptism brings the certainty of salvation and so circumstances cannot be allowed to prevent the administration of baptism.

But what are we to say when it is God who permitted the circumstances that prevented baptism?  What are we to say when faithful Christian parents never have a chance to bring their baby to Holy Baptism before death?  It is understandable that we want to provide comforting answers.  But as Lutherans we know that we can only speak where Scripture speaks and that we must be silent when Scripture is silent.  The history of Christian theology is littered with false teachings that arose out of pious speculation – the attempt to provide answers where Scripture was silent.  When repeated long enough and by teachers famous enough, this speculation becomes “true,” even though it is not.  This is “tradition” – the handing down of things – at its worst and not its biblical best.

When we learned that our baby had died, I contacted a good friend who teaches at the seminary that I had attended and shared our loss.  Naturally he provided words of comfort and encouragement.  But in his reply the words that stood out were these: “The Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord” (Job 1:21 ESV).  At the time, I was rather surprised by this.  It didn’t seem like the most comforting text to share.

Yet the more I have thought about it, the more I have realized that they were the perfect words.  At the loss of his children, Job didn’t ask questions.  He didn’t seek answers.  Instead, his words focused on the Lord. The Lord had given. The Lord had taken away.  What else was there to do but bless the Lord, because he is the Lord? 

In the face of miscarriage our questions will provide no answers – at least no Gospel answers, the kind that have no uncertainty.  Instead, we are left only with the Lord.  In this New Testament era we know the Lord to be the One who in love suffered and died for us on cross, and then rose from the dead.  This is the kind of Lord he has revealed himself to be for us and for all people.  And so long ago I realized that there is only one thing to do with this baby we lost.  I surrender my questions and my desire for answers, and instead entrust him or her to the Lord.  This little one rests in his hands. That is all I need to know.  


Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Culture news: The case against heterosexuality

Michael Hannon has written a substantial piece that considers the history of the concept "heterosexuality."  He calls into question the ability of this concept to articulate a biblical understanding of sex.  This is a thought provoking piece that raises many questions to ponder.

Commemoration of Martin Luther, Doctor and Reformer

Today we remember and give thanks for Martin Luther, Doctor and Reformer.  Martin Luther, born on November 10, 1483, in Eisleben, Germany, initially began studies leading toward a degree in law. However, after a close encounter with death, he switched to the study of theology, entered an Augustinian monastery, was ordained a priest in 1505, and received a doctorate in theology in 1512. As a professor at the newly-established University of Wittenberg, his scriptural studies led him to question many of the church's teachings and practices, especially the selling of indulgences. His refusal to back down from his convictions resulted in his excommunication in 1521. Following a period of seclusion at the Wartburg castle, Luther returned to Wittenberg, where he spent the rest of his life preaching and teaching, translating the Scriptures, and writing hymns and numerous theological treatises. He is remembered and honored for his lifelong emphasis on the biblical truth that for Christ's sake God declares us righteous by grace through faith alone. He died on February 18, 1546, while visiting the town of his birth.

Collect of the Day:
O God, our refuge and our strength, You raised up Your servant Martin Luther to reform and renew Your Church in the light of Your living Word, Jesus Christ, our Lord.  Defend and purify the Church in our own day, and grant that we may boldly proclaim Christ’s faithfulness unto death and His vindicating resurrection, which You made known to Your servant Martin through Jesus Christ, our Savior, who lives and reigns with You and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.

Sunday, February 16, 2014

Sermon for Septuagesima

                                                                                                            1 Cor 9:24-10:5

            On Tuesday this past week I turned forty four.  Forty four itself is no big deal.  It’s still closer to forty than it is to fifty. Admittedly, turning forty was something that was far more notable.  There was a sense that when I turned forty, I really couldn’t consider myself “young” anymore.  I certainly wasn’t “old,” but at forty years with a wife, four kids, two dogs and a job there was no doubt that I had settled into full blown adulthood.
            The fact that I was now certainly an adult, and no longer a young man didn’t really bother me all that much.  The factors I just mentioned are all good things.  Life married to Amy is way better than being single.  The kids are a great blessing … even if they are also a lot of work.  I always wanted a dog.  And my job is far more than a job. I have a vocation that I love doing and a great place to do it.
            Instead, turning forty proved to be a major downer for another reason.  All the years previously, I was able to eat as much as I wanted of whatever I wanted.  I could do this and nothing changed.  Between Thanksgiving and New Year’s Day I would indulge in all of the wonderful holiday eating.  I might gain a few pounds.  But after New Year’s Day I returned to my normal pattern of eating and everything went back to normal – anything I might have gained just disappeared.
            However, almost like clockwork, I turned forty and everything changed.  Once I had turned forty, in the month after New Year’s Day I realized that the extra weight wasn’t just disappearing like it always had in the past. The ugly realization dawned on me that for the first time in my life, I was actually going to have to start watch what I eat.
            I was going to have to watch what I eat, and I was going to have to exercise.  In the past I had run just to stay in shape and because it made me feel good. But now, I actually needed to do it.  And I have to confess, recently I haven’t been very disciplined about that.  I was running in the fall with the intention that when the winter arrived I would run on our treadmill on days when it was too cold to run outside.  However I got sick with a cold.  I stopped running … and never started back up again.  And so when it warms up, I am determined to get going again.  And once I get going, I will be disciplined and stay with it.
            In our text this morning St. Paul talks about the discipline needed in running.  He does this in order to teach about the Christian life – about the need to be disciplined in the face of a sinful world. During these three Sundays of Pre-Lent, we are making the transition into the season of Lent.  There we will focus on repentance and the struggle against sin.  This morning, our text helps us to begin to think about this.
            Our Epistle lesson this morning drops us right into the middle of a discussion that covers chapters eight through ten in First Corinthians.  Paul is addressing a situation that was part of the ancient Greco-Roman world.  Most likely, you assume that every day you are going to eat meat in at least one of your meals. If you want meat you go to the grocery store and there you can find a basically unlimited supply. Or you can just go to any fast food place or restaurant.
            Things were very different in the first century world.  There, people ate very little meat.  It was expensive and it wasn’t available everywhere when you lived in a urban setting like Corinth.  If you wanted meat – and everyone needed to eat some – there was one regular source. There was a regular supply of meat produced by the sacrificing of animals at pagan temples.  The animal’s throat was slit, the blood sprayed on the altar, and then it was also caught in a vessel to be poured on the altar.  Then the dead animal was prepared.  The bones and fat were burned on the altar as an offering to the god or goddess, while the meat went to the priest and the person making the sacrifice.
            Now we are talking about hundreds of animals being slaughtered at multiple temples each day.  This produced a surplus of meat.  Some was eaten on the temple grounds, in areas that were set aside for this purpose.  The rest was sold in the market place.
            The problem was that some Christians at Corinth were going to the temples in order to eat.  They weren’t sacrificing to the false gods.  But they were eating in a religious setting directly connected to paganism.  They were doing this because they thought they had everything figured out and that they had it made. From Paul’s letter we learn that they said things like, “All of us possess knowledge.” This knowledge was the fact that “an idol has no real existence,” and “there is no God but one.” These Christians said that since they knew the true God and knew that pagan gods were false gods, they were free to eat at the temples.  They could do so because they had this knowledge.  And in addition, they were baptized Christians who received the Sacrament of the Altar. They were protected. What could a false god do to them?
            In addressing this problem, Paul uses two different approaches.  The first is to emphasize that the Corinthian Christian needed to think about how this action would impact other Christians.       Some would not understand things in this way. They too would eat at pagan temples, but for them this would be a return to paganism.  Paul objects: “And so by your knowledge this weak person is destroyed, the brother for whom Christ died. Thus, sinning against your brothers and wounding their conscience when it is weak, you sin against Christ. Therefore, if food makes my brother stumble, I will never eat meat, lest I make my brother stumble.” Paul says that Christians need to put the welfare of others before themselves.
            Paul’s second point is that while pagan gods are not the true God, that doesn’t mean that there is nothing present in paganism.  Instead, there are demonic forces at work – and Christians are not to have anything to do with them.  What’s more the mere reception of baptism and the Lord’s Supper was not some kind of magic protection for those who chose to be involved with these things.
            In our text Paul uses the children of Israel in the Old Testament as an example of how mere possession of God’s gifts did not protect those who willingly disobeyed Yahweh.  He says, “For I do not want you to be unaware, brothers, that our fathers were all under the cloud, and all passed through the sea, and all were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea, and all ate the same spiritual food, and all drank the same spiritual drink.”  But then he immediately adds, “Nevertheless, with most of them God was not pleased, for they were overthrown in the wilderness.”  Israelite involvement with paganism and its accompanying immorality had lead to their destruction.  The same thing would happen to the Corinthians if they kept frequenting the temple of pagan gods.
            Paul’s point in the midst of all this is that as we live in a sinful world, Christians can’t just do whatever they want. There are real threats out there and we need to be disciplined as we face them.  In our text Paul uses the metaphor of running and athletics in order to explain this. This would have been very natural for Corinthians since Corinth hosted the Isthmian Games – athletic contests that were part of a series of games in Greece that included the Olympic Games.  He writes: “Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one receives the prize? So run that you may obtain it. Every athlete exercises self-control in all things. They do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable. So I do not run aimlessly; I do not box as one beating the air. But I discipline my body and keep it under control, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified.”
            So the obvious question raised by our text is this: How’s your running going?  Are you living in a way that sees sin for what it is and seeks to avoid it?  Do you live as someone who recognizes that the devil is always on the prowl, seeking to work every angle in our culture to separate you from Christ? In the music you listen to, the things you watch, the things you read are you choosing to immerse yourself in a worldview opposed to God?
            Earlier in this letter Paul reminded the Corinthians about what they had been and what God had made them to be.  He did this so that they would now live as what God had made them.  He wrote, “Or do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: neither the sexually immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor men who practice homosexuality, nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God. And such were some of you. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God.”
            Like the Corinthians, you were washed, sanctified and justified in your baptism.  Those same things are true whenever after stumbling you return in repentance and faith to God’s promise about what he did in your baptism.  This same forgiveness is present when your hear Holy Absolution and when you believe in the Gospel – the fact that Jesus Christ died on the cross and rose from the dead in order to take away your sins.
            You live as people who each week in the Sacrament of the Altar eat and drink the body and blood of Jesus Christ, given and shed for you on the cross.  Shortly after our text, Paul goes on to say in questions that assume a positive answer: “The cup of blessing that we bless, is it not a participation in the blood of Christ? The bread that we break, is it not a participation in the body of Christ?”  Through this food each week Christ nourishes the new man in you.
            Through his Word and his Sacrament our Lord feeds you so that you are able to run, and to run well.  This running does require discipline as you seek to avoid sin and to live in ways that show faith toward God and love towards your neighbor.  Yet you run knowing that it is the Lord through his Spirit who gives you strength.  It is he who sustains you so that you can press on in the faith and take hold of the imperishable wreath of resurrection and eternal life.