Wednesday, April 18, 2007

For Whom Does the Bell Toll?

As many churches and schools plan memorials for the the Virginia Tech slaughter, some want to include the tolling of a bell, once for each victim killed.

They are faced with the question, how many times should they toll the bell - 32 or 33?

It’s a tough question - one that is generating a lot of discussion (and emotion.)

For me, there are two right answers.

One is technically and theologically correct. The other is the right thing to do.

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

The Children's Sermon

I’ve never been a big fan of the so-called “children’s sermon” in public worship. I trust the motives are good, whatever they may be. But these little vignettes make me uncomfortable. I feel like I am a party to an intrusion into a sacred space - the gentle faith of a child. And I’m always fearful that the sermonizer will moralize (which they often do).

The low point for me (maybe the high point for everyone else) is that moment in the message where the sermonizer poses a question and invariably some four-year old answers in a way that causes the entire congregation to burst out laughing.

Now, God knows I’m all in favor of laughter and joy in church. The Gospel is a party. But more often than not, I don’t think the four-year old is trying to be either funny or joyful. He is dead serious. And normally his answer is more honest than funny. We adults just happen to find such honesty hilarious, especially in church.

Kids will say the darndest things (like the truth, for instance.)

And I can’t help myself. I laugh too.

But it makes me uncomfortable.

Monday, April 16, 2007

Misproclaimed Absolution

In two different Lutheran churches I attended last Sunday and this Sunday, the pastor “misproclaimed” the absolution (the announcement of the the forgiveness of sins) by using his own creative wording. I’m beginning to wonder how widespread this practice might be, and whether it is intentional or accidental.

After the public confession, rather than personally announcing the forgiveness of sins to the congregation (in the first and second person, i.e. “I forgive you your sins” or even the second person passive "your sins are forgiven"), the pastor used third-person grammar in a more generic statement about God (i.e. God is merciful to man, blah, blah, blah).

I know God is merciful. But is he merciful to me?

Unless God forgives my sins, he is a God no different from the god of Islam - who also is said to be merciful, is he not?

I realize this may sound nitpicky. And I don’t consider myself liturgically legalistic, by any means. But I can appreciate why some churches insist on precise liturgical language - at least in the case of the absolution, because it is the one event in the public service where, if the pastor doesn't mess it up, you cannot avoid hearing the Gospel. Even if the entire rest of the service is filled with legalism (i.e. the praise songs, the sermon, the prayers, the announcements - yes, especially the announcements!) the forgiveness of my sins is (or ought to be) pure Gospel.

“I announce the grace of God to all of you and by the command of my Lord Jesus Christ I forgive you all your sins in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.”

Saturday, April 14, 2007

The Opiate of the Masses

One of Luther’s most startling claims was that what seemed to us to be so good and holy was actually sin and evil in the sight of God.

How are we to understand such a claim?

He was speaking of our religious and spiritual efforts - all of which is as filthy rags to God.

But if this is true, what is the point of obedience, morality, Bible study, prayer, meditation, worship, church attendance, sacrifice, the doing of good deeds, the refraining from evil? Are all such things just ways we delude ourselves into thinking we are satisfying God or getting closer to him? Is religion itself void of any true meaning and purpose? Is it just the “opiate of the masses”, as Karl Marx suggested?

In a word, yes.

Religion is an addiction that temporarily makes us feel good, but is ultimately self-destructive - harmful to ourselves and to others. It is, as the atheists claim, the primary cause of the greatest of evil in the history of man.

Thank God we can be free from religion!

The Christ of Christmas, Good Friday and Easter has destroyed the need for religion, thus setting us free from its control. We now know that God is already satisfied with us and closer than we can imagine - all without any of our religion. So religion (and all that is practiced in its name) really has no point - at least not insofar as God is concerned. Religion is the waging of a war that is already won.

Freed from this burden, we can live in peace - not judging ourselves or others. We can approach life as it comes, love ourselves, our family, our friends and even our enemies, meditate if we wish, converse with God at will, worship under no obligation, listen to the preaching of the Gospel and read the Holy Bible as often or as little as we find necessary, pursue a happy, productive and satisfying life in our vocation, recognize what is good and do it, recognize what is evil and shun it, love, learn, sing, dance, play and work - never alone or afraid, for God is always with us.

Life without religion is life worth living.

Saturday, April 7, 2007

Were You There?

"Were you there when they crucified my Lord?"
African American Spiritual

Since reading Gerhard Forde (...and Paul) (...and a little bit of quantum physics), the question in this song has new meaning for me.

Paul writes in Galatians “I have been crucified with Christ” The same thought is expressed in Romans (“We were therefore buried with him”) and Colossians (“having been buried with him”). Metaphorical expressions? Or were we really there -physically, metaphysically, spiritually, mystically, or some other way our adverbs can’t fully explain?

If we do not take Paul’s wording as mere metaphor, the answer to the song’s question is a resounding “Yes, we were there!” All mankind was there. Somehow, mysteriously (to us), the incarnation of Jesus put God in communion with humanity in such a way that he made it possible for us to be with him in his death. This is how our sin-filled nature was vanquished, and also how we received a righteous new life in the resurrection.

Forde calls this “getting caught in the act.” We participated in the crucifixion. On the one hand, we were there to crucify Jesus. On the other hand, we were also there being crucified with him. Impossible? Makes no sense?

While Einstein scratched the surface on the relativity of time, quantum physics is just now beginning to understand how matter can be in two different places at once. Beyond that, the scientific study of consciousness (including consciousness that transcends time and space) opens up possibilities that heretofore seemed far-fetched. Perhaps science itself will eventually be capable of substantiating our presence with Jesus at the cross. One day every knee will bow - even the knee of science.

In the meantime, faith is all we have.

And faith tells me, "We were there."

Monday, April 2, 2007

Giving Back to God?

Every now and then I hear the phrase “giving back to God.” Normally it is in the context of the passing of the plate, or some other church-related offering. In that context (or any other for that matter), it strikes me as an odd phrase.

First, I don’t believe I have anything that God doesn’t already own. So “giving to God” seems like a weird idea in itself. But the notion of “giving back” makes it even weirder. Did God give me something and now wants it back? That doesn’t sound like God.

Ok, maybe what is actually meant is this: God has given me so much, not just my money and other material blessings but also life and salvation, including his one and only Son who died on the cross for me. In return, the very least I can do is drop a few dollars in the collection plate. This, it seems to me, is the most ludicrous and grotesque idea imaginable.

The way I figure it, when Jesus died on the cross, he removed all my debts and obligations. I now owe him nothing! I'm sorry if that sounds radical, but I think that’s the way he wants it. There’s nothing I am obligated to give him, and there is nothing I can give him. We both have everything. I have everything in Jesus. And Jesus got everything he wanted when he reconciled me (and the whole world) to himself. Anything further we might do for each other is just for fun.

In the meantime, there are people and organizations who need my gifts.

So I give to my local church, some para-church groups, some charities and (on occasion) to individuals in need.

But I never give to God.

And I certainly never give back to God.