Saturday, May 13, 2017

Guilt's Enduring Grip...

The following is an excerpt from RR Reno's section called The Public Square in the recent copy of First Things magazine - the June/ July 2017 issue. The section within the article entitled Guilt's Enduring Grip caught my attention.

You can read the piece in its entirety here.

Guilt’s Enduring Grip by RR Reno

Successful and well-trained college students, often children of prosperous parents, end up denouncing as racist, patriarchal, homophobic, and imperialist the very society that brought them to such happy circumstances. Middle-aged professionals insist that we’re ruining the planet. Global warming is sure to bring our civilization to an end, if not our species. The more advanced wring their hands and regret that Christopher Columbus ever sailed the shining sea. We’ve destroyed the indigenous people—genocide. As Wilfred McClay observes in “The Strange Persistence of Guilt” (Hedgehog Review, Spring 2017), our society risks being overwhelmed by guilt.

A sense of civilizational exhaustion is abroad in the West, and pervasive guilt is an important cause. We fear that the West doesn’t deserve to survive. It’s an attitude I sometimes sense in those who adopt the most drastic predictions of ecological catastrophe and pronounce them with a grim gleefulness. It’s as if they’re grateful that our hubris, negligence, indifference, and wanton waste will finally be punished.

McClay notes the irony of this burden of guilt. Isn’t the divine taskmaster guilt’s source? And once the secular West gets rid of God, won’t guilt melt away, allowing what Nietzsche called “a second innocence”? It hasn’t worked out that way.

Guilt persists, McClay argues, in part because of our “ceaselessly expanding capacity to comprehend and control the physical world.” This implicates us in evil. Just as my child’s well-being now depends on the human ingenuity of medical science, so does that of all children. If a child anywhere in the world starves or dies of a curable disease, humanity is at fault, and that means me. Secularism takes things out of God’s hands—and puts them in ours. What seems like freedom turns into universal responsibility. Instead of indicting God for the world’s evil, we must blame ourselves. Theodicy has given way to anthropodicy.

We have an innate desire for purity. There is a “powerful and inextinguishable need of human beings to feel morally justified, to feel themselves to be ‘right with the world.’” In a world without religious means for atonement, ersatz methods emerge. McClay points to the “extraordinary prestige of victims.” They’ve become valuable cultural assets, so much so that many morally sensitive people work very hard to ally themselves with victims. Sometimes this is a cynical way to manipulate political correctness, but more often than not, it’s a sincere effort to shed the burden of guilt.

In Christianity and Judaism (and other religions), people can atone for transgressions that give rise to guilt. In a world without God, the sources of guilt cannot be addressed. Our only option is to offload as much as possible onto others. Thus one’s status as a victim becomes precious, for a victim “can project onto another person, the victimizer or oppressor, any feelings of guilt he might harbor, and in projecting that guilt lift it from his own shoulders.” Without a workable religious mechanism for dealing with guilt, the victim cherishes his victimhood. This explains why so many embrace their identities as victims. It seems wrongheaded to many of us. Ongoing identification as a victim produces a harmful self-image that tends to reinforce one’s sense of powerlessness. But McClay shows that for those under the burden of guilt, victimhood may seem a small price to pay for a clean conscience.

Our public life is increasingly organized around grievances, assignments of collective responsibility, reparation, apology, and other ways to manage guilt. McClay points to Angela Merkel’s extraordinary decision to admit nearly one million migrants in 2015. It only made sense against the background of German guilt over the Holocaust, which continues to shape politics in that country. The same could be said about American guilt over slavery. Again, the paradox: Secularism has intensified the problem of guilt rather than diminishing it.

“The rituals of scapegoating, of public humiliation and shaming, of multiplying morally impermissible utterances and sentiments and punishing them with disproportionate severity, are visibly on the increase in our public life. They are not merely signs of intolerance or incivility, but of a deeper moral disorder,” McClay writes. Our moral economy is broken because we live “in an incoherent post-Christian moral economy that has not entirely abandoned the concept of sin but lacks the transactional power of absolution or expiation without which no moral system can be bearable.”

Too often, we think our secular culture doomed because it has become too permissive. It has been degraded by moral deregulation, and those who suffer most are the weak and vulnerable. But as McClay observes, strong strains of moral condemnation remain, much of it refracted through political categories, and a great deal of it self-imposed. Thus, the crisis may be that secular culture lacks what ­Philip Rieff called (following Nietzsche) the “tender yesses” of remission. We cannot make atonement and find forgiveness without putting sin before someone greater than ourselves.

Thursday, March 24, 2016

Absolution - So How Long Does Forgiveness Last?

The following is an item written by my pastor, Pr. Kevin Martin, for a recent monthly newsletter. I thought it was a really good response to the question many have when it comes to Holy Absolution.
A church member asked me recently: “Pastor, after you pronounce absolution in the divine service, uhm… how long does… the ah, forgiveness last?” I thought that was a great question and I also thought there might be others who’ve wondered the same thing but were afraid to ask. It lasts forever! That’s the short answer. But the (only slightly) longer answer is even stranger and better…

All our sins were forgiven, all people’s everywhere for all time when Jesus died on a cross outside Jerusalem, April 6, 30 AD, 3 pm. Whether they know it or not. Whether they want to be forgiven or not. We all are and were forgiven completely on Good Friday (which we recently celebrated). Easter Sunday (while it is the larger day, festival-wise) is actually the icing on the cake, the results of what Jesus won in the darkness of that terrible Friday afternoon. But that’s what (Who!) did it: Jesus forgave the world’s sin by dying in our place that Great Friday. And the great thing about that death of His that day is that it didn’t just forgive sins people were committing then. His death reached back, the previous week, previous month, previous year, previous century, previous millennia, reached back all the way into the distant past, all the way to another garden, where Adam and Eve had just eaten an apple and had lost a great deal. That original sin was forgiven that Friday afternoon by Jesus too. And His forgiveness reached for-ward, centuries ahead, to cover over your sins and mine. It reaches forward to cover everyone’s sins who will ever live until that day when He returns in glory and there is no need for anymore forgiveness. Jesus’ death covers and forgives all sins, of all people of all times and places. Always.

So what happens at the beginning of the communion service when the pastor stands up, (after we confess that we are poor, miserable sinners) and says “As a called and ordained servant of Christ and by His authority, I forgive you all your sins.”? If Jesus won forgiveness for all of us for all time, what’s up with that? Well, it’s the Department of Redundancy Department (sort of). Jesus, through His servants, is doing the forgiving thing all over again, or more exactly applying the effects of that forgiveness like a fresh coat of paint on a peeling and cracked wall.

Why? Because we are people of little faith. Because our sins keep coming back to haunt us like Scrooge’s ghosts (only not so kind-hearted!). We keep seeing the stain re-appearing on that wall we thought we’d painted and made sparkling white. Here’s where it gets a little weird (a little sci-fi): the wall (us!) really is sparkling white. There are no cracks, no peeling paint. Jesus’ death has made us just like Him, pure and holy. But instead of just telling us we are fine, pure and clean, and demand we believe it better, because we really do see and feel the stains, the damage, and so do our neighbors, Jesus repairs the damage we perceive all over again just as He did that Friday afternoon in the 1st century in Jerusalem. Another coat of paint on the wall, another wrapping in the robes of His righteousness. The death of Christ really was the end of the world and the beginning of a new age, a new time. But faith is required to live in that new world, that new time, and when faith falters, even a little bit, so do the good effects of Jesus’ death—from our perspective at least.

So Jesus keeps fixing the unbroken wheel—the wheel of our bodies and souls, because to us it is bent and out of round, really broken, even though it was repaired perfectly even before we were born or even did the damage. We simply have trouble living into the life Christ gives, living as we truly are in Him. This is the mission of Christ He carries out through His holy, catholic, orthodox, and apostolic church: He continually continues, by the forgiveness of sin, to make us over in His image; He makes us grow up into His image, to become true human beings at Last.

Our lack of faith keeps us from seeing this, experiencing this, living this. So the forgiveness of sins in Holy Baptism, Holy Preaching, Holy Absolution, Holy Communion continually makes right all that we get wrong, really, truly, physically, eternally, spiritually, ontologically, and metaphysically. Because we need it. Because we live in a fog of unbelief that clouds everything. At His Return in Glory, we will see Him as He is and so be like Him and will never have need of any more “touch-ups”. Till then, Jesus doesn’t mind forgiving what He’s already redeemed, over and over 70 times 7, times 7 times 7 times… well, you get the picture.

So when I tell you this Sunday: “As a called and ordained servant of Christ and by His authority, I forgive you all your sins” that will last forever. Even when you walk out of church and bark at your wife, it’s already been “pre-forgiven” if you will. You’re good (and so is she, though if you tell her and show her how good and lovely she really is, life will be better for both of you, I would judge). But because you will have trouble believing that, because other sins will mount up, we’ll see each other again next week and go over it all again, until one Day, the Last and Great Day, Jesus will show up and real Life will begin in earnest…

                                        - Pr. Kevin Martin
                                          Our Savior Lutheran Church (Raleigh, NC)

Friday, March 18, 2016

CS Lewis on Longing...

Joy. Longing. Restlessness. Yearning. Desire. Heaven-sick. Sehnsucht.

CS Lewis writes in the Pilgrim's Regress: “[T]he longing for that unnameable something, the desire for which pierces us like a rapier at the smell of a bonfire, the sound of wild ducks flying overhead, the title of, The Well at the World’s End, the opening lines of Kubla Khan, the morning cobwebs in late summer, or the noise of falling waves.”  This is sehnsucht.

Further, CS Lewis writes in The Weight of Glory about "this desire for our own far-off country… the secret we cannot hide and cannot tell. We cannot tell it because it is a desire for something that has never actually appeared in our experience…Our commonest expedient is to call it Beauty and behave as if that had settled the matter." Lewis argues that what we call nostalgia or romanticism is rather a deep yearning, or longing, for “our own far off country.” Upon reflecting on 1 Corinthians 13:12, Christians believe explains the future reconciliation of all things in Christ as a getting beyond what St. Paul called “looking through a glass darkly.” At that future point, St. Paul states, “I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.” Lewis believes, however, that our lives are already haunted by this longing and desire. As a new creation we yearn to possess that reality here and now.

The first is itself the memory of a memory. As I stood beside a flowering currant bush on a summer day there suddenly arose in me without warning, and as if from a depth not of years but of centuries, the memory of that earlier morning at the Old House when my brother had brought his toy garden into the nursery. It is difficult to find words strong enough for the sensation which came over me; Milton’s “enormous bliss” of Eden (giving the full, ancient meaning to “enormous”) comes somewhere near it. It was a sensation, of course, of desire, but desire for what? Not, certainly, for a biscuit tin filled with moss, nor even (though that came into it) for my own past… And before I knew what I desired, the desire itself was gone, the whole glimpse withdrawn, the world turned commonplace again, or only stirred by a longing for the longing that had just ceased. It had taken only a moment of time; and in a certain sense everything else that had ever happened to me was insignificant in comparison. - CS Lewis (Surprised By Joy)

More from Lewis.  The following is Psyche talking with her sister, Orual, in Till We Have Faces:

"Ah, Psyche," I said. "Have I made you so little happy as that?" "No, no, no," she said. "You don't understand. . . It was when I was the happiest that I longed most. . . Somewhere else there must be more of it. Everything seemed to be saying, Psyche, come! But I couldn't (not yet) come and I didn't know where I was to come to . . . I felt like a bird in a cage when the other birds of its kind are flying home.

Here's a song I'd like to leave you with. Andrew Peterson does a masterful job of appealing to this idea of sehnsucht, of longing and yearning, in the following song.  A song I'd heartily recommend.

Don't You Want To Thank Someone

Can't you feel it in your bones
Something isn't right here
Something that you've always known
But you don't know why

'Cause every time the sun goes down
We face another night here
Waiting for the world to spin around
Just to survive

But when you see the morning sun
Burning through a silver mist
Don't you want to thank someone?
Don't you want to thank someone for this?

Don't you ever wonder why
In spite of all that's wrong here
There's still so much that goes so right
And beauty abounds?

'Cause sometimes when you walk outside
The air is full of song here
The thunder rolls and the baby sighs
And the rain comes down

And when you see the spring has come
And it warms you like a mother's kiss
Don't you want to thank someone?
Don't you want to thank someone for this?

I used to be a little boy
As golden as a sunrise
Breaking over Illinois
When the corn was tall

Yeah, but every little boy grows up
And he's haunted by the heart that died
Longing for the world that was
Before the Fall

Oh, but then forgiveness comes
A grace that I cannot resist
And I just want to thank someone
I just want to thank someone for this

Now I can see the world is charged
It's glimmering with promises
Written in a script of stars
Dripping from prophets' lips

But still, my thirst is never slaked
I am hounded by a restlessness
Eaten by this endless ache
But still I will give thanks for this

'Cause I can see it in the seas of wheat
I can feel it when the horses run
It's howling in the snowy peaks
It's blazing in the midnight sun

Just behind a veil of wind
A million angels waiting in the wings
A swirling storm of cherubim
Making ready for the Reckoning

Oh, how long, how long?
Oh, sing on, sing on

And when the world is new again
And the children of the King
Are ancient in their youth again
Maybe it's a better thing
A better thing

To be more than merely innocent
But to be broken then redeemed by love
Maybe this old world is bent
But it's waking up
And I'm waking up

'Cause I can hear the voice of one
He's crying in the wilderness
"Make ready for the Kingdom Come"
Don't you want to thank someone for this?

Hallelujah! Hallelujah!
Hallelujah! Hallelujah!
Come back soon
Come back soon

By His grace, may we all follow the sound of the megaphone that rousing a deaf world back to childlike longings for Him and for our home.

And this world is truly bent, but I pray we are waking up...

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Jayber Crow and some theology...

I've been reading Wendell Berry's Jayber Crow - and really enjoying it.  Here's an excerpt from the book I thought I'd share...

I definitely recommend picking up this book.  It is not necessarily theological in nature (as the following excerpt might lead you to believe), but is a book not to be missed.

“I took to studying the ones of my teachers who were also preachers, and also the preachers who came to speak in chapel and at various exercises. In most of them I saw the old division of body and soul that I had known at The Good Shepherd. The same rift ran through everything at Pigeonville College; the only difference was that I was able to see it more clearly, and to wonder at it. Everything bad was laid on the body, and everything good was credited to the soul. It scared me a little when I realized that I saw it the other way around. If the soul and body really were divided, then it seemed to me that all the worst sins—hatred and anger and self-righteousness and even greed and lust—came from the soul. But these preachers I’m talking about all thought that the soul could do no wrong, but always had its face washed and its pants on and was in agony over having to associate with the flesh and the world. And yet these same people believed in the resurrection of the body…

…there is a big difference between the old tribespeople’s coldhearted ferocity against their enemies and Jesus’ preaching forgiveness and of love for your enemies. And there is a big difference again between Jesus’ unqualified command, “Love your enemies,” and Paul the Apostle’s, “If it be possible, as much as lieth in you, live peaceably with all men,” which amounts to permission not to live peaceably with all men. And what about the verse in the same chapter saying that we should do good to our enemy, “for in doing so thou shalt heap coals of fire on his head?” Where did Jesus ever see doing good as a form of revenge? I saw the Bible as pretty much slanting upward until it got to Jesus, who forgave even the ones who were killing Him, and then slanting down again when it got to St. Paul. I was truly moved by the stories of Jesus in the Gospels. I could imagine them. The Nativity in the Gospel of Luke and the Resurrection in the Gospel of John I could just shut my eyes and see. I could imagine everything until I got to the letters of Paul…

“…If we are to understand the Bible as literally true, why are we permitted to hate our enemies? If Jesus meant what He said when He said we should love our enemies, how can Christians go to war? Why, since He told us to pray in secret, do we continue to pray
in public? Is an insincere or vain public prayer not a violation of the third commandment? And what about our bodies that always seem to come off so badly in every contest with our soul? Did Jesus put on our flesh so that we might despise it?

But the worst day of all was when it hit me that Jesus’ own most fervent prayer was refused: “Father, if thou be willing, remove this cup from me: nevertheless not my will but thine, be done.” I must have read that verse or heard it a hundred times before without seeing or hearing. Maybe I didn’t want to see it. But then one day I saw it. It just knocked me in the head. This, I thought, is what is meant by, “thy will be done” in the Lord’s Prayer, which I had prayed time and again without thinking about it. It means there’s a good possibility that you won’t get what you pray for. It means that in spite of your prayers you are going to suffer. It means you may be crucified.”

Friday, July 31, 2015

Tullian and the (ongoing) Sanctification Debate...

   There’s a debate that has been raging in the world of Evangelical Christendom (the more “conservative” American Churches) concerning “sanctification” or the good works that result from our life in Christ. It started with mega-church pastor Tim Keller’s website “The Gospel Coalition” which has a number of influential Reformed pastors contributing. Most of them were from the Presbyterian Church in America, the conservative branch of the Presbyterian Church (the PCA is to the Presbyterian Church USA roughly what the Missouri Synod is to the ELCA). But a whole range of Reformed and then Lutheran and then non-denom and other pastors and theologians joined in the debate and it has consumed a lot of attention in the blogosphere especially among LCMS pastors. The debate has often been acrimonious and has caused a lot of contention.

   Basically, the debate is about how good the lives of faithful Christians should be, morally speaking, how much conscious effort we can or should devote to improving our conduct, how much we can measure our faith by our “sanctification”, what role faith plays in this, and above all, how much pastors, in their preaching, should exhort us to strive for good works, and how much preaching should simply focus on what God has done for us in Christ Jesus. Essentially the pronomians (“for the law”, Keller and others) advocate active, robust exhortation to good works, strong “third use of the law” (the law as good guide for Christian living) after a clear proclamation of justification by faith. Tullian Tchividjian (Billy Graham’s grandson and a prominent evangelical mega-church pastor from Florida and guest speaker at our Concordia Seminary in St. Louis recently) advocated a more passive, faith-based approach to sanctification, emphasizing the chief use of the law is to show our sin and drive us to find mercy in Christ by faith alone, emphasizing that God loves us as we are because our sins are always already covered entirely by the blood of Christ. This position was critiqued by pronomians as “soft antinomianism” (being against the law).

   The debate reached a new level of shrill last month when Tchividjian abruptly resigned as Senior Pastor of Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church in Ft. Lauderdale (D. James Kennedy’s old church) admitting that both he and his wife had been guilty of adultery. He was kicked out of Keller’s Gospel Coalition network [a few months prior] and there was much “See! I told you! I told you being soft on the law would lead to mischief like this!” type of posts.

   Really, this debate about just how good we should be as Christians, morally, and how important that is to our faith and salvation has raged in the LCMS for decades. My own view is that, like most of the debates that come out of Reformed Calvinism, the terms are poorly framed so that both sides are failing to do justice to what the Scriptures actually teach. Luther framed questions about faith and good works, free will and sanctification in subtly, but importantly different ways than did Jean Calvin, though they often used the same terminology in an outwardly similar fashion. Lutherans have often been sucked into silly arguments about things like limited atonement, or total depravity (I say “anyone who believes in total depravity can’t be all bad”!), predestination, and assurance of salvation by accepting Calvinist debate terms. There is a thoroughgoing rationalism in all of Calvinism that is antithetical to Christian faith in the Word. Luther grasped that the revelation of Christ is ultimately wrapped in Mystery and paradox and that reason simply cannot grasp the deep things of God, like how the finite is capable of the infinite when God took on our flesh in Jesus Christ.

  I’m concerned that a Reformed rationalism has spilled into our church’s theology and practice. Personally, I think both Keller and Tchividjian are off-base, though, if pressed I’d say Tchividjian is a bit closer to getting it than Keller, despite his recent bad press. The problem with both sides in the debate is they want to take something that is essentially a Mystery and put it into rationally comprehensible and “programmable” terms so that 1, 2, 3 we can live holier lives by just following the right spiritual formulas, or alternatively 1, 2, 3 be able to forget about holy living entirely!

   When we think it’s our work and effort to try to “live more holy” we have separated ourselves from Christ and the power of His death and resurrection and are trusting to some degree in ourselves. When we think “I don’t have to worry about being good, I just need to believe in Jesus” we are mirroring the very same move—focusing on ourselves rather than on Christ Jesus. If you’re working at being holy, it’s too much about you. If you insist you don’t have to be holy, because you have faith, it’s again, too much about you!

   St. Paul says that when we were baptized we “put on Christ”. When you take this very, very literally a third alternative to the sanctification debate appears. Living a Christian life is not like an exercise program, nor is faith like a “free pass” to let you off participating in Christ’s holiness already in this life. Putting on Christ is like dressing up as your favorite super-hero when you were a kid. Mom didn’t have to tell you “Go out and spend 45 minutes pretending to be Batman. It will do you good.” No, when you had a spare hour or so, you’d pretend to be Batman because Batman is way cool, and you want to be like that yourself! And in the playing and the pretending, in the focusing on your hero’s traits and exploits, a little bit of his form of life starts to shape yours.

   Sanctification is not a program. It’s like a child’s game. It’s pretending to be something we know we’re not (yet, at least!)—Christ Jesus our Lord. He’s authorized us to play this game by our Baptism into His Name, and it is the best game in town. The more you take in His Word and Sacraments, the more you think on Him, “put Him on”—imaginatively at first, then spiritually, and finally, really and for keeps when He returns (or when we die, whichever comes first). The key to the game is focusing on Jesus and forgetting about ourselves and whether we’re good enough or just how good we have to be anyway to get to heaven. Like little children, if you really love your hero, you will emulate Him, and the more people try to stop you, the more fervently you’ll play the game. (One of my favorite quotes is from Luther who said “Even if God sends me to hell, I will still love Him and even in hell I’ll worship and praise him.” Which is awesome! Even if Batman won’t let me in the Bat-Cave I’m still having him for my hero.

   One of C.S. Lewis’ last books was “Till We Have Faces”. In the book, an ugly but well-intentioned queen of an ancient kingdom both loves her beautiful sister and is very jealous of her. She considers her own face so ugly, she wears a veil all the time to hide it. In putting on a mask though, the features of that mask eventually shape her in unexpected ways. I can’t think of a better book on the Christian life actually and the role that faith and love for Christ actually play in our earthly lives.

-Pastor Kevin Martin
 Our Savior Lutheran Church (Raleigh, NC)
 (permission granted)