1 Peter 3:15

(Continued)

“…sanctify Christ as Lord in your hearts, always being ready to make a defense to everyone who asks you to give an account for the hope that is in you,…”

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The last several days my comments have focused on the disconnect created by modern secularism between the traditional language of the faith and the actual experience of people as they live within the secular culture. The task of Christian witness is challenging at this point, to say the least.  Below are some observations and suggestions as we seek to give meaningful  witness to our Christian faith in this time and place. These posts are longer than usual, so bear with me!

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IT’S A CHRISTIAN COMMUNITY, NOT A YACHT CLUB

Church life in a secular society has tended to become a largely privatized affair where witness means inviting people onto the private turf of the reservation where they must learn to absorb language and customs in specially constructed environments that are essentially alien to daily life. To consciously or unconsciously get around this, invitation to a church is often couched in terms pointing to how friendly the church is, the likability of the pastor, programs for the kids and the like. The same kind of things you might say when inviting someone to the yacht club.

What if, in response to the question, ‘Tell me about your church’,  we describe what God is doing in the congregation in baptism, the preached word, the Lord’s Supper and so forth. Many church members would actually think it odd to speak of their congregation in this way and would probably have difficulty doing so at any rate. Invitation is fine but it is not synonymous with Christian witness.

WHERE ARE THE UNIVERSAL CONNECTIONS?

A meaningful Christian witness seeks ways to speak the language of shared universal meaning that connects with the experience of people where they actually live and work. If the God we proclaim in the Christian witness does not appear to relate to the actual life and experience of every human being, it is not because God is not God and has stopped speaking. It may be because our language reflects a whittled-down god. To speak of God in terms that confine Him to the private reserves of the church, like some sort of cultic deity, would then be blasphemy. Then we do not have language that connects the Biblical God to every human being, the Lord of heaven and earth.

LANGUAGE WITH TEETH IN IT: MEANINGFUL ENGAGEMENT BUT NOT CONFORMITY

Consider this. When the early Church used the phrase ‘Jesus is Lord’, they were placing Him in deliberate competition with the Roman emperor, local rulers and the entire pantheon of pagan gods. This three-word confession touched the life of every citizen of the empire right where they lived. People in the Roman world got it. They knew exactly what the Christians were saying. They rejected it, but they understood it. The language was the language of the culture. This immediate and universal language with bite is what we aim for in Christian witness.

What language of meaning do we share in some universal fashion with all people today? For this is where the Christian witness may have some traction in speaking to our family members, neighbors, friends and business associates in ways that necessarily  give weight to our religious language.

At the same time we must be faithful to the Christian proclamation of Jesus Christ and His Gospel. For Lutheran Christians this means we seek, with integrity, to connect the language of the Cross, baptism, the Lord’s Supper, sin and salvation, law and gospel with the actual world we live in. Here are some things to think about in this regard.

RELIGION AND OUR MOST DEEPLY HELD VALUES

We might do well to re-think how we use terms like ‘religion’, words that are out there in the common culture. If we think of religion as a term that describes churchly matters it does us little good. But if we think of religion as pointing to how we value life and particularly the highest values that guide and control one’s life, the word takes on a much wider significance. For then religion may be discussed on the basis of how we actually live. Every person is continually revealing their highest values in what they do. If you could follow me around for a year and observe me, especially in moments of real crisis, you would have some sense of my life’s most important  values. We need to turn the word religion outward, away from churchly matters, so it can help us engage people at the point of their most deeply-held values. If someone says to you they are not religious, this may be a helpful way to frame the discussion.

THERE ARE NO UNBELIEVERS

This leads to another question. Is it really helpful to divide the world up into believers and unbelievers? In point of fact, every person is a believer in something or someone. Martin Luther used the word ‘trust’ and pointed out, quite rightly, that every person trusts a god, in the sense that every person looks to that from which they derive good and to which they turn for refuge in times of trouble. That god may be drugs, money, work, possessions, self, power, another person – anything will do. But belief or trust is not the exclusive property of the Christian faith or any faith. Every persons behaves, acts on the basis of what we trust.To engage people at this level of discussion is to engage them where life actually matters to them. 

WE ALL LIVE WITH THE MYSTERY – AND BURDEN – OF OUR EXISTENCE

Another area of life shared with all people is the sense of fate. We all experience aspects of life where we are controlled but have no control in return. And the two points in life where this is most true for all of us are birth and death. We have no choice in the matter of our birth and while we may have some say in the manner of our death we have no say in the fact of our death. Every person is continually faced with these questions; Where did I come from? Where am I going? Are we all simply fated victims of impersonal powers? Is life a meaningless accident?  Is there any basis for hope? You might be surprised at how often people have these things on their minds. How often are they on yours?

ACCOUNTABILITY AND THE HUMAN SENSE OF GUILT

Another area of our universal experience that leads to the question of God is in the awareness of our accountability. Along with this people have real sense of their insignificance in the vastness of the universe. Anyone who has ever walked through a major airport, among thousands of nameless strangers, knows what is to feel utterly insignificant. The structures of existence confront us with this. And it is the real experience of knowing we are potentially nothing, that drives us to gain some kind of foothold through power or prestige, to have our ‘five minutes of fame.’ But the very fact we seek to assert ourselves, to justify our existence, bears witness to our sense of accountability.  We all live with a sense of what we are and what we think we should be or ought to be. What does our understanding of God’s grace have to say to those who live under the relentless pressure of the ‘shoulds’ and ‘oughts’ of existence, often accompanied by a sense of failure? What does it say to you?

THIS WAY TO THE BREAD LINE

Christians are not called to form private religious clubs where we worship little cult deities, stuck in church buildings. To paraphrase Martin Luther, the only thing that sets us apart is that we have been brought into the shelter and handed the free lunch of God’s amazing grace. We are called to give faithful, hopeful and meaningful witness at those places where we are caught in life’s crucible, where people’s hurts and hopes are tangible. Christians sometimes forget that we are all, in the end, needy, hungry, homeless beggars in this life. 

 

The areas outlined above, it seems to me, are a common currency of meaning we share with those around us that give rise, quite naturally, to the question of God. And while they do not automatically lead to trust in the gracious God we know in Jesus Christ, they are points of contact where we may demonstrate some sensitivity, compassion, humility and solidarity with others around life’s most basic questions and struggles as we respond to God’s call to….

“…sanctify Christ as Lord in your hearts, always being ready to make a defense to everyone who asks you to give an account for the hope that is in you,…”

“May the peace of God that passes all understanding, keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

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1st Peter 3:15

 

(Continued from last post)

 

The disconnect between the central themes of the Church – it’s worship, liturgies, law and gospel, baptism, the Lord’s Supper, sin, salvation, etc. – and the daily experience of people has consequences. One of the more obvious of which is a shifting of the focus of the Church away from these, and the challenging communication problems they represent, to popular religion.

One popular alternative is moralism. Preachers of moralism are often greeted at the door with responses like, “Thank you for making clear what I am supposed to do to be a good Christian.” Talk about behavior is something everybody understands. There may not be any real intention to act on the preacher’s prescription but at least they heard something that is understandable. A cartoon in a magazine years ago depicted a woman coming out of church and saying to the pastor, “You make it sound so real.”  The cartoon was not meant to be funny.

Another aspect of the moralism approach is to focus on practical advice for daily living. This is especially popular today and accounts, at least in part, for the success of the mega-church phenomenon. The entrepreneurs of popular religion have found a  formula that works. Downplay the traditional language and forms of the faith and use the Bible as a book on how to do or be anything. Preaching concerns itself with financial advice, personal psychology, family therapy and a host of other topics that “make it sound so real.” One should not be too hard on those who preach such stuff. For in most cases it is the people that demand it and drive them to it. After all, if preachers don’t give me something practical, what good are they?

This leads to my second point, religion as private experience. What matters is what religion means to me. And it doesn’t matter too much what it is.This has great appeal to our egalitarian sense as Americans. And the beauty of it is that no one can argue with you. Your private religion can mean anything you want it to mean. The flip side of this of this privatization of religion, of course, is that it is very difficult to relate your meaning to someone else. If no one can refute it, neither can they share it. The content of the private experience of religion can be very close to orthodox Christian faith. At the same time it can be an expression of these other factors as well.

A third area in which we can see the disconnect between the language of the Church and daily life is in the tendency to speak of God only in relation to things that cannot be otherwise explained by reason. Two people are in car accident. One dies, the other lives. Two people go into the hospital with cancer. One dies, one goes home cancer-free. The survivors claim it was a miracle. Wherever the human factor can be excluded we have room for God language. Or, if religion is not for us, we may want to talk about ghosts, aliens or bigfoot.

The point is that religious language today is not required or necessary for an interpretation of our life or our culture. For many it is an option, even a very important option, but it is still an option. Religion occupies a place in life almost like a hobby. It is the kind of thing one drops if reduced to the essentials or if there is something better to do.

All of this is reflective of that secular self-understanding that was yesterday’s topic. And this secular-self understanding is in the guts of the modern world. We all share in its’ axioms to one degree or another. The challenge facing the orthodox Christian and the orthodox Christian community is to avoid the traps of reducing the Christian message to moralism, religious privatization and the relegation of our language to cover only that which is beyond explanation, while allowing the great themes of the faith to speak of God in Christ in ways that confront, challenge and illumine the actual world in which we find ourselves. That’s what we’ll take up in tomorrow’s blog.

 

“May the peace of God that passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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1 Peter 3:15

“…but sanctify Christ as Lord in your hearts, always being ready to make a defense to everyone who asks you to give an account for the hope that is in you,…”

 

 

 

Several years ago Linda and I were in Venice, Italy on a Sunday morning and decided to attend worship in the church of Santa Maria della Salute pictured above. When we entered the sanctuary for the principle service of the week, the nave, the main seating area of the church, was empty. A few rows of chairs had been placed in the chancel or altar area of the church beyond the arch in the center of the picture and that is where 30 or 40 of us gathered.

This scene is played out in hundreds of church buildings all over Europe, increasingly in other parts of the world and in the United States. What has happened that could create such a disconnect between the people who invested themselves and their communities to such an extent that buildings such as these could be raised at enormous cost and great effort, and the people of today?

The short answer is that secularism has resulted in this disconnect. And this disconnect is most clearly seen and felt in the failure of the traditional language of the Church to speak to the experience of people today.  The hypothesis of God is simply not needed by millions of people today in order to inhabit the institutions and roles of society. This secular self-understanding is quite at odds with much of the Church’s language and it is so difficult to deal with because it embodies axioms we do not even bother to question.  They are in the cultural air we breathe. And if you take a deep breath, in Venice, Italy or in Orange County, California, this is what you get:

First, life is the product of blind forces and blind chance. Natural forces are without mind and without purpose. Nothing is necessary. Everything is accidental. It is not hard to see how this cultural axiom conflicts profoundly with the Sunday morning confession, “I believe in God the Father, Creator of heaven and earth.” For six and and one half days a week we have to compartmentalize this belief in a Creator and then, on Sunday, confess one.

Second, you only go around once. This life is all you have. The good life is here and this is the only place you will find it. Massive amounts of wealth are deployed in the attempt to hang on to life for all we are worth. Death is the ultimate tragedy so we deny it as much as possible.  People don’t die, they ‘pass’. The dead are made to appear as if they are ‘sleeping’ or if that is too much we simply cremate the remains. Out of sight. out of mind.

Third, the language of absolutes is to be avoided. We must speak in the terms of relativism, opinions, climates, attitudes, feelings. No one is right.  It is the height of folly to make claims for absolute truth. Religion is privatized.  I just happen to be what I am by accident, because of the historical circumstances of my birth, etc.  In such a climate we are really quite unhappy with anything but pragmatic and temporary solutions. No one size fits all, please.

Fourth, you and I are on our own in the world. We make our own meaning. I’ll do it on my own if I can, in community with others if I must, but meaning is self-created.

With this cultural oxygen passing through our lungs, no wonder it’s easier to find people to serve as church treasurer or on the property committee than lead Bible studies. I can balance the checkbook and change a light bulb but how do I speak the language of God in such an environment?

For many today the churches are perceived as peripheral and irrelevant, where language speaks about a cult deity around whom a few people gather but not a God that necessarily must lead to the use of religious language that speaks meaningfully to all aspects of daily life.

 

(To be Continued)

 

“May the peace of God that passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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2 Timothy 2:15

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“Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a workman who has no need to be ashamed, rightly handling the word of truth.”

Large elements of our society have decided that generalizations and categorizing are heresies of the first order. God forbid that anyone or anything be lumped together in some broad, sweeping statement. Everyone and every thing is unique, beyond categorization. Really?

There is a book in my library which deals with Classical art. But the period of Classical art does not exist except in someone’s mind. Classical art is a category that is imposed on historical persons, sculptures, paintings, architecture and so forth. Classical art is a category because enough people have studied certain similarities and groupings have agreed upon the term. So, art and architectural historians generalize using the term ‘Classical’.

It is absurd to say we cannot generalize. We have to generalize and categorize. It is absolutely essential to human life.

I was standing in line at the grocery store the other day and standing in front of me was a man. There is no other person on earth who is exactly who he is but I looked at him and knew immediately he was a man and not a dog. I know he was a man because I have seen enough men and enough dogs to know the difference. I have some general categories with which to work and therefore I was able to conclude, with an extremely high degree of probability, that he was a man and not a dog.

The real issue is not that we categorize or generalize. The question is whether we do it well or badly. This brings me to the subject of today’s post; Christian doctrine.

There is a widespread impatience and weariness today (notice, I’m generalizing) with respect to doctrine. I have heard television preachers, for example, say with pride to large masses of approving listeners that they do not preach doctrine. They only preach the Bible. At which point they launch into sermons that are laced with doctrinal statements. This is dishonest, of course. It is impossible to speak of the faith without speaking doctrinally. This is simply an example of handling doctrine badly, of not “rightly handling the word of truth.”

There are three components of faith: knowledge, assent and trust. All three are important but must be handled with some care or we end up in the ditch. One ditch is to say that faith is only knowledge and assent. Certain sentences or propositions are laid out and if you agree you have faith.

Another ditch is to say that you just have faith. Down with doctrine! But faith in what? The Great Pumpkin? The Tooth Fairy? To claim faith without knowledge or assent is to begin faith within your own experience. And that can mean anything.

Christian faith or trust is based upon doctrine, that body of knowledge which the Church uses to give shape and content to trust, to faith. It is simply not enough to say that you have faith in Jesus. Which Jesus do you mean? The Jesus of David Koresh or Jim Jones or the Mormons?

The words we use to gather up the faith and hand it over are not the faith. Even our most important words, the Bible, out of which all doctrine is drawn, are not the faith.  I do not have faith in the two natures of Christ. I have faith in Jesus Christ, True God and True Man. I turn to the Bible, itself a collection of inspired, doctrinal confessions, to give content to Jesus, true God and True Man..

As the Church reflects upon the God of the Bible it categorizes the Bible’s witness into generalized statements regarding God the Father, Jesus, the Holy Spirit, sin, creation, the people of God, salvation and numerous other aspects of the faith. Christians do not always agree on these generalizations but they are important, necessary and essential.

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“May the peace of Christ that passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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