Monday, November 30, 2009
Posted by RevFisk
Sunday, November 29, 2009
Thursday, November 26, 2009
Wednesday, November 18, 2009
This week's eNews is the first chapter of what I hope is a very worthwhile book. It begins with the same first line as Rick Warren's international best-seller, The Purpose Driven Life: “Life is not about you.”
It's a great beginning. It's true. The problem with The Purpose Driven Life is that, so far as the rest of the book is concerned, it's a lie. A purpose-driven life, as defined by Warren, is actually all about you. To be fair, he insists that you get God involved in the matter. But that, of course, is something you must do.
But life is not about you. This is the Gospel Truth. Together we're setting on a journey through what that really means, so far as the Bible is concerned. It's a relevant thing to believe. And it's quite freeing. I hope you enjoy.
Life is not about you. It's true. But if you are anything like me, then chances are you spend most of your time wishing it was. That is why you get angry whenever things don't seem fair, when they don't quite go your. When things happen against you will, it frustrates you. From all that we can see and observe, this is just what it means to be human. It is just in your nature to desire life to be about you. You want to be catered to. You want respect. You want things to go the way that you think they should. The problem, the cog in the gears, is that life is not about you.
But knowing that life is not about you doesn't seem to help. You keep trying to live as if it is, and this amounts to the greatest source of stress, frustration and despair in your life. Your dreams, your goals, your decisions and choices, every moment of your day is pursued by you and for you. But since life is not about you, it never quite works out. The meaning you chase can't be caught and put in a bottle. The hopes you set forth are built on the sinking sands of time. It's a trap and a foregone conclusion. You are more or less cursed to spend your entire life insisting that life is about you in the face of the hard reality that it is not. You keep looking for meaning in what you think and say and do. But the meaning of life is simply not there.
What About Me
Imagine trying to read the latest best-seller fiction novel by starting at the center of the book. After a few chapters you could no doubt figure out who the main characters are and what the plot is more or less about. But even if you finished the story, you will never really understand the book. You missed the beginning, the set up, the foundation. Life is the same way.
You can't understand life by starting in the middle. And you are in the middle. You are not the beginning and you were not at the beginning. Life didn't start with you. Not even your life started with you. You don't remember being in your mother's womb. Not only did real life, reality, started long before that conception, but it will also go on long after you retire to dust and the grave.
That is why questions like “Why am I here?” “What should I be doing?” and “How can I improve my life?” are not the way to find the meaning of life. They might give you a moment of reprieve here and there, an instant of inspiration, or a glimmer of fulfillment. But the answer to every one of those questions is all about you. For that reason, the answers can never be greater than yourself. The answers to these questions can never amount to anything more than vanity.
Although American culture lives and breaths and eats vanity for breakfast, the hard truth is that the definition of vanity is “meaninglessness.” Believing that the meaning of life is somewhere deep inside of you is a pretty depressing thing, when you think about it. One day you're going to die, taking all that meaning with you. Meanwhile, there's an entire cosmos out there that's going to keep going on, more or less ignoring that fact that you ever existed. If that bleak thought doesn't give you pause, nothing will. If meaninglessness is something your can get excited about before coffee in the morning, then you don't need to read this book.
But if you're tired of meaninglessness, then the answers start by recognizing your vanity for exactly what it is. Your life does have a purpose and that purpose is not about you. Real meaning goes far beyond you. Real stories start at the beginning.
The beginning of the meaning of life is that there is a God, and you are not him.
Of course, there are plenty of haughty individuals who will dispute this claim. This book isn't for them either. This book is for the vast majority of you who believe there is a God, and life as if you were him (or her, as the case may be.)
But unlike you, the real God is both all-knowing and all-powerful. Not only is he the Creator of all things, but by his very creating he also gives meaning to what he has done. He is the source, and for that reason, he is also the purpose. The heavens and the earth and all that lives in them were fixed in their places by him and for his meaning. Stars, galaxies, sun, moon, oceans, mountains, rivers, valleys, beasts, flowers, insects, fish, air, land, light, darkness, morning, night – everything that is has been handmade by the God who is actually God. He is a craftsman, and he is more than a craftsman.
When a watchmaker makes a watch, he sets it in place and lets it go, hopefully never to see it again. But the God who is actually God does more than just make all things, he also sustains all things. He is the one who keeps the watchmaker's watch ticking long after it has been sold. In fantastic transcendence, the God who is actually God controls everything in the universe, from nations and kings and the vast movements of history, down to the mating of goats in the fields an the most personal decisions of your own free will. Every day of your life has been written about in his book. This does not make you a robot. This makes you a creature.
Most people would prefer it if God didn't have complete control over every last inch of the cosmos. The problem with such a god is that he wouldn't really be God then. If God is a God, then he is not mere god. He is God. He is immanent (right there with you) and transcendent (over and above all things.) This is to say that he is both omnipresent (everywhere at once) and omnipotent (holding all power. A God who is actually God is as far beyond our own understanding as your thoughts are beyond the mind of a rock.
Most people would prefer that it not be this way. We'd much rather have a god then a God. A benevolent fair-godmother is much more appealing than a despotic supreme Being. It's downright terrifying to even imagine that the only reason you crawled out of bed this morning to make that coffee is because God decided not to kill you in your sleep last night. In fact, right now, you are sitting there living and breathing completely against your own will. The universe which God made is forcing air into your lungs, no matter how many times you push it back out. You can try and hold your breath as long as you like, but you won't stop God from winning that battle. You might as well try to will your heart to stop beating.
Humans don't like God being God because that means that you don't belong to yourself. Life isn't about you, and this does not make you happy. Your life is not yours, and it never was. This seems, at first glance, to be a crippling, enslaving possibility. Strangely enough, the opposite is true, but we'll get to that. For the moment, its more important to realize that trying to live as if you were in control of your life is about as delusional as a wave thinking it is free from the pull of the moon. Spending your entire life chasing as slow, dying attempt to keep your life is as much a waste of time as not eating in order to not get hungry. It's like throwing an eighty-five year long tantrum. It doesn't change the fact that no matter where you run or what you think, God is God, and you are not.
If, mostly against your will, you can swallow this much, this alone is not the answer to everything. But it opens up a whole new realm of possibilities. First and foremost, if you are not God, then who is?
If you ask around, you will find that most people believe in some kind of god. They even use a captial “G.” But if you listen carefully and compare notes, you will find quite quickly that there are as many “Gods” on the market as there are people who say they believe in “Him” or “Her” or “It” or “Not.” From what people say, it looks as if there is a God, then he-she-it is a great chameleon, the all-living Jell-o spirit, perfectly capable of fitting into any mold that you might desire. But you will also find the compelling irony that who people believe they have discovered their God or Goddess or Ungod to be almost always is a very near reflection of themselves.
“My God would never say that,” they might say. Or, “I believe God is like this,” they opine. But all of these many gods are, by definition, not God. They simply can't be. They are more like carved images of wood, created with the hands, in order to represent what we want to worship and what we want to see happen in our lives. They are gods that say more about what you want truth to be than what might actually be true. They are opinions. And the problem with gods that are only opinions is that they are not very useful Gods at all. They are just figments of your imagination, counterfeit deities, gods who are so utterly weak that “he” must cease to even be “himself” whenever you decide its time for a change.
There is an old, horrible joke about “where a gorilla sits at a party.” The groaner answer is, “where it wants to.” The God who is actually a God is much bigger than a gorilla. Rather than sitting politely in whatever view of him you feel up to espousing today, he is much more likely to reach a mighty hand out of heaven and twist you into the shape he wants you to be. You get no say at all in how he is defined. You can set no limits on what he is or can be. He is the way things are. His voice is the power to make it so. He crafter the universe for his own pleasure, and he has total claim on the governing of your life, because God is God, absolutely. And it is one of his job descriptions that he gets to define you.
Admittedly, it is a pretty bleak picture to realize that you can't know anything about God on your own. You might be able to observe nature and order in the world, and put together some kind of idea about one of those gods out there, and that god might even be good, an intelligent designer and the life. But this kind of god would still be limited to you, trapped in your own perceptions and subjectivity, unable to be bigger than your own ideas. You might as well try to catch the wind in your hand.
The good news, the part that most people who believe in their many gods forget or ignore, is that the God who is bigger than you is also more than capable of letting you know who he is. You may not be able to discover the unknowable knowledge of the hidden God, but God can reveal himself to you. You can't find God, but God can find you. This is the meaning of the word revelation. Revelation is what happens when the God who is actually God decides to give meaning to life.
When the God who is God decides to let you know who he is, there is no contradicting it. It is not a mere personal experience or opinion any more than it can be ignored. When a pure Word of unchangeable Truth breaks into our reality out of God's heaven, it is more powerful than all of our time, space and contexts put together. It is no melding or amalgamation of philosophies and world religions. When the God who is God speaks, it is Word. It is Truth. It is his Voice. And while it is not so much about you, it is most definitely for you.
Only the Beginning
This is not a book about how you can fix your life. You can't. Whether you recognize it or not, any and every attempt on your part to create, chase or discover meaning will bring you only to the feet of your own vanity. Don't feel to bad about it. We've all been there. We all are there. Hopelessness. Despair. Meaninglessness. Spending all our time trying so hard to resurrect the dead vanity of our ambitions and desires. It's ugly, but it is not all that there is.
This book is about believing not only that God can fix your life, but that he already has. That's a big promise to make early on, but its the Gospel Truth. You will never find the meaning of life on your own, searching through the dirty rags of your own life, but God will give it to you for free. This is the promise of the revelation he has made through the man Jesus Christ. There is a light shining in the darkness of this world, and despite all our attempts, the darkness has not overcome it.
(Each chapter in this book contains a tool to help you read, mark, hear and remember the truths of the Bible which we will be exploring. “The Meaning” is a catch-point the summarizes the point of what we just read. The “Verse” is a passage in the Bible that you might want to memorize to help you learn this Truth. And a “Prayer” is given for your use, that you might go to God in response to what he has revealed.)
The Meaning: There is a God, and you are not him.
Verse: “I am the LORD your God, who teaches you to profit, who leads you in the way you should go.”
Prayer: God, One and only Maker of heaven and earth, in your grace, give me a thirst for your revealed truth. Help me to accept and understand my own limitations, as well as the reality that I am not my own, but your creature. Teach me to worship you, and not the gods of my opinions. Be who you are to me, that I might believe in you. Let me see your purpose, your meaning, your life. I am in need. Be true to me. Be the God who really is God. Help me to find the freedom in knowing that I am not you. I ask this of your mercy and for Jesus' sake. Amen.
Posted by RevFisk
Sunday, November 15, 2009
Thursday, November 12, 2009
There are a number of things in the media this week that I thought might be worth dwelling on in this week's eNews. From murderous shootings within our own military to some significant votes in several states regarding versions of “homosexual” marriage, the times continue to be tumultuous. Oil prices are on the rise just as winter sets in, and while some portions of the media claim that the economy is on the rebound because the DOW is upish, others point out that unemployment numbers have not changed.
Much is going on. And I face a double difficulty in beginning to talk about it with you. It is important for pastors not to meddle in the “civil” realm too much, lest we confuse theology with politics. At the same time, the civil realm has very much crept into the world of theology over the last century. While it is the duty of the pastor to encourage God-fearing to be at peace while holding a variety of political positions (such as the conservative Lutherans during the American Revolution who were, in fact, “royalists,”) at the same time, when the state begins to tell the Church what to believe, one must speak out clearly.
For example, recent “hate-crimes” legislation has been made into law, granting and exceptional status to people of certain sexual persuasions. While we are told that this law will not prohibit the preaching against certain sins in American pulpits, the same kinds of laws put into practice in Canada, over the course of a few decades, have meant just that. Now, more recently, the debate over public healthcare has taken on a new dimension because it has become a debate over abortion “rights.” An amendment to the massive House package passed last week (submitted by a democrat) has made it so that the bill going to the Senate will not allow public funding of abortions in any way. NPR was alive with commentary about how this will be the end of reproductive rights and force private insurers to refuse abortion coverage.
What a difficult road to navigate! In the face of all this “gray” (which itself is made up of so much “black and white”) I think the most important that we remember one thing above the rest: there is Truth. And that Truth is irrevocable. Infanticide is murder. Adultery is...well...adultery. Islam is a false religion, and so is secular humanism. We must know these things. They are not options or opinions or interpretations. If there is Truth at all, then it is True.
With all this, and so much more, fighting for our attention, I've decided that I'm going to redirect the coarse of the Enews a little bit in the coming weeks to help us get back to this root of Truth.. You might remember that when I first arrived at St. John I passed out a couple of handouts following the services. I think I called it the omniPRESSent, or some such. What it actually consisted of was the first few chapters in a book I had been working on while in Seminary. This book was something of a response to another book which you might have heard of, Rick Warren's The Purpose-Driven Life.
I was first given a copy of The Purpose-Driven Life in the summer after my first year at Seminary. I was still very young theologically, and very impressionable. But even at that very naïve stage in my life, I didn't get more than five pages into Warren's book before I was compelled to find a pencil and beginning crossing out lines and words, writing in the margins, and exhibiting a growing disgust for the fast and loose way he quoted the Bible.
I don't want to spend this time going into a full critique of the PPD. That work has been done quite well in other places, and I'd be happy to point you to them if you're interested. Rather, as I came to be heartily disturbed by the vast success of a book that claimed to be Christianity in a nutshell but was rather a self-help book full of misinterpreted Christian words and Bible quotes, I began to believe it was necessary to have a book that did what Warren was claiming to do, but did it right.
I probably finished three-quarters of that book by the end of my vicarage year. After two years of working on it (while also staying on top of a graduate-level educational marathon), I eventually ran out of steam, and the book fell to the back burner.
But my thought is, now that I'm writing a short essay once a week for the benefit of our congregation, why not go back to that material and give it another look? This doesn't mean that every week I'll necessarily do so. There may be other things which come up which I feel I must write to you about. But, at the same time, even in a week with as many wide and varied happenings as this one, what could be better than to continue our focus and grounding on the central truths of the faith?
All that being said, I've now managed to take up the space of the eNewsletter by talking about writing, rather than writing. So, if you're excited, then good! But you'll just have to wait till next Thursday for the first bite.
Posted by RevFisk
Sunday, November 08, 2009
Tuesday, November 03, 2009
Last week I made you aware that the final proposals of the “Blue Ribbon Task Force on Synodical Structuring and Governance” had been released under the guidance of our Synodical President, Pastor Gerald Kieschnick. I also let you know that it is our hope to have our elected delegates to next summers Synodical convention report on these proposals after their pre-convention caucus, some time early next year. After that it had been my intention to move on and not pay the matter too much heed, trusting in others who are my betters to spend some time analyzing and discussing what has been proposed.
Little did I know how disturbed I was going to be later in the week when one of these men, Pastor Klemet Preus (son of Dr. Robert Preus of blessed memory,) would publish a brief blog post calling to light what is without question the most profound change being put forward.
In every congregational constitution in the Missouri Synod, and in our synodical constitution as well, there is one article which is generally referred to as the “unalterable” article. It is an article which which is nearly impossible to change without enormous consent and/or good reason. The stated purpose of this article is to set forth, in no uncertain terms, our “confession.” That is, it is the article which states what we intend to believe, teach and confess. It might have seemed strange then that the BRTFSSG (the Task Force) as early as last spring had stated that one of its goals was to “clarify” that article. In their final report they have at last proposed what that means. We do well to pay close attention because what has been proposed may, in fact, change what we, as the Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod, believe.
First, here in italics is what the current “Article II” of the LC-MS states; (our constitution at St. John is identical):
“The Synod and every member of the Synod, accepts without reservation:
1. The Scriptures of the Old and the New Testament as the written Word of God and the only rule and norm of faith and of practice;
2. All the Symbolical Books of the Evangelical Lutheran Church as a true and unadulterated statement and exposition of the Word of God, to wit: the three Ecumenical Creeds (the Apostles’ Creed, the Nicene Creed, the Athanasian Creed), the Unaltered Augsburg Confession, the Apology of the Augsburg Confession, the Smalcald Articles, the Large Catechism of Luther, the Small Catechism of Luther, and the Formula of Concord.”
It might not be the most flashy statement in the world, but it gets its point across. The Lutherans in the Missouri Synod believe that the Bible (all of it) is the final Word on any matter. We then state that we believe the Book of Concord (all of it) is what we believe this Word says. The Task Force wants to change this without changing it, sort of. This might be well intentioned, or it might not. I don't know. What I do know is that what appears on the surface to be a very small change could amount to a tremendous betrayal in the future.
Here is the proposal. The new constitution will divide Article II into two parts. The first part will be the “Confession of Faith,” and the second part will be the “Confessional Basis.” Everything that we have so far confessed (the Bible and the Book of Concord) is included in the “Confessional Basis” section, but the actual confession proposed is significantly shorter, as follows in italics:
"The Synod, and every member of the Synod, believes, teaches and confesses without reservation that Jesus Christ, the second person of the Triune God, alone is the savior of the world, and that only through faith in Him is there forgiveness of sins, eternal life and salvation (John 3:16-18; I John 2:2; Acts 4:12)."
True enough. What discerning Christian would question it? I don't want to question it. What I want to draw your attention to is the fine detail between what it means to have a “confession” and what it means to have a “confessional basis.” This is where the rubber hits the road.
In the 1970's, when historical criticism was making inroads into the LC-MS through St. Louis Seminary, those “in the know” were believing and teaching that the Bible had errors in it. In this sense, they could not longer refer to the Bible as the Word of God. But, not wanting to appear unfaithful, and knowing that simply saying “The Bible is wrong” would never go over well, they got around their doubts by stating that the Bible “contains” God's Word. Using that little distinction, those “in the know” could get around the issue without ever having to come clean.
I will not be so bold as to say that the same move is being plied here, but it is tremendously important that we recognize that intended or not, the current wording will allow any pastor or congregation in the Synod to deny almost everything that we have thus far believed, while publicly saying that they believe just as we do. So long as they believe that “Jesus is their Savior,” they could justify their own rejection of infant baptism or denial of Christ's real presence in the Holy Supper. It is a very similar thing to what the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) has done in their constitution, listing the Bible as an “authoritative source and norm,” and the Confessions as “valid interpretations.” In fact, one might even argue that the ELCA's wording is stronger than our new wording would be.
I am writing this to you because it is looking like next summer's convention might turn into a real dog fight, and, if it is, I don't want you to be caught unawares. There are many people in the ELCA who woke up this past year and said, “Where did our Church go? How did we get to this point, where we are ordaining active homosexual clergy?” That happened because little by little their confession was being chipped away at, relegating the Scriptures to nothing more than a “confessional basis.” Now, for them, it's too late. It's not for you. This is still your Church body, and you still can make your voice heard.
The truth of the matter is that, no matter what changes may or may not be needed in our synodical structure, Article II of our constitution is not one of them. It has stood the test of time and was made “unalterable” for a reason. This is the article that safeguards you and me together, so that we may know that we are working with a Church body that believes what we believe. We don't just believe Jesus is our savior, but that he was sent by the Father and born of the virgin Mary. He has called us by the Word which he sent in the power of the Holy Spirit. We receive this salvation not by works, but by grace, through faith. These promises are given us in baptism and with the body and blood of our Lord, in order to strengthen us for the Last Day when Christ will raise us and all believers from the dead. Our steadfast confession goes on and on about these matters, and for good reason. These are the Truths of God's Holy Word. And how blessed we are to be a Church that boldly has said, “We believe it!” It is my prayer we do not accidentally set such a great heritage aside.
That then, is the real purpose of this weeks eNews: if you haven't yet, please begin praying for our Missouri Synod. Pray for our leaders, that they would use good discernment. Pray for our delegates, that they will not vote for changes that are not needed. Pray for our pastors, that they can continue to serve in good conscience. And pray for your children, that the Lutheran Church may be strong in the future so that they too have places to hear the Gospel and receive the Sacraments for the forgiveness of their sins.
Pray that the Lord would keep us steadfast in his Word. And don't be afraid to get involved, dig deeper, and do more than take my word for it. You can begin by reading more of what Pastor Preus observed, or you can read our Synod's first President, Dr. C.F.W. Walther wrote about why we adhere to our confessions, or (if you're gutsy,) you could read the document itself.
I am always available to talk with you about this or any other issue. I don't intend to be a downer in the middle of your week! It's my plan to keep the focus of the eNewsletters on theological musings and proclamation about who Jesus is and what he has done for us. But I do consider part of my task to keep you informed on all the issues that affect you as a congregation. In the past, the Missouri Synod has been a church body known both for its conservative stance and its empowered laity. We must pray that God so preserves us thus in his mercy.
Posted by RevFisk