Monday, October 30, 2017

"Here I Stand"

Tomorrow, 31 October 2017, is the 500th anniversary of what is regarded as the beginning of the Protestant Reformation. This noteworthy anniversary has been talked about for months and even years already. But please consider with me the following matters.

The Courage of Martin Luther
Roland Bainton (1894-1984) was a prominent British-born American church historian. His book Here I Stand: A Life of Martin Luther was published in 1950—and sold more than a million copies. It was so well-written and informative that during my years as a seminary student it was one of the few books I bought that was not a textbook. 
According to Bainton, in 1517 on the eve of All Saints' Day, the Catholic holy day celebrated on November 1, “in accord with current practice,” Luther posted “on the door of the Castle Church [in Wittenberg, Germany] a printed placard in the Latin language consisting of ninety-five theses for debate” (p. 79).
That rather unpretentious act triggered such a reaction that it is generally regarded as the beginning of the Protestant Reformation. Posting those theses (topics) for debate was not an especially courageous act—but standing firm despite his censure by the Roman Catholic Church was.
In June 1520 Pope Leo X issued a papal bull demanding that Luther renounce 41 of his 95 theses. Luther not only refused to do that, he publicly burned that decree of the Pope. As a result, in January 1521 the Pope excommunicated Luther—which was a “big deal” for someone who had been a Catholic priest, as Luther was. 
Three months later, Luther was called to defend his beliefs before Holy Roman Emperor Charles V at the Diet of Worms (a city in Germany). It was at that trial where he was famously defiant. In response to the demand that he recant, Luther declared,
My conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and I will not recant anything, for to go against conscience is neither right nor safe, God help me. Amen.
Bainton then notes, “The earliest printed version added the words, ‘Here I stand, I cannot do otherwise’” (p. 185).  
For his courageous refusal to recant his writings, the emperor declared him an outlaw and a heretic.
The Compromise of Luther
Luther was saved from possible martyrdom by the intervention of Frederick the Wise, the German prince who was one of the most powerful men in the Holy Roman Empire. The religious-political union of Luther and Frederick was of great benefit for Luther, but not for the great number of “peasants” in the German principalities.
The writings of Luther and new Bible-derived notions of the basic equality of all people precipitated the tragic Peasant’s Revolt of 1524-1525. Luther was not unsympathetic to the plight of the peasants, but in the end he sanctioned the violent suppression of the peasants who had unwisely sought to gain more equality through violence.
By his union with the political rulers and his approval of the slaughter of the revolting peasants—as many as 100,000 were killed!—Luther compromised his courageous stand in asserting that “the just shall live by faith.” 
There was need for a more thoroughgoing radical reformation—one that would not only change the believers’ relationship to the church but also to the state.
The Reformation after Luther
There can be no doubt about the tremendous importance of the Reformation started by Luther 500 years ago. But also of great importance is the “radical reformation” started eight years later by a small group of Christians in Switzerland. 
I am looking forward to the 500th-anniversary celebration of that reformation in 2025. The courageous “here I stand” position for many of those reformers meant martyrdom.

Wednesday, October 25, 2017

Revelation: The Most Misused Book in the Bible

While I usually try not to make strong, dogmatic statements that cannot be empirically supported, I am quite certain that the book of Revelation is the most misunderstood and misused book in the Bible.
A Traditional View of Revelation 
Growing up in a conservative Southern Baptist church, it was not uncommon to hear sermons about the impending end of the world based on passages from Revelation, the last book of the Bible.
Especially when visiting evangelists preached “revivals” at my home church, Revelation was often used to emphasize that the end times were upon us for sure and we had better get ready for the rapidly approaching doomsday. I still remember hearing frightening sermons along those lines in 1950 or before.
Twenty years later, the final Battle of Armageddon still had not come, but Hal Lindsey wrote powerfully about the impending end times in The Late Great Planet Earth (1970), said to be the bestselling non-fiction book of the 1970s.
Especially over the past 200 years, the Bible has been used frequently to predict the imminent end of the world. The books of Ezekiel and Daniel in the Old Testament have also been used for such “prophecy,” but the main basis has been the book of Revelation.
But I have long been convinced that the traditional “dispensational” view of Revelation is wrongheaded and that the widespread way Revelation has been used among conservative Christians is erroneous. 
A New View of Revelation 
In the early 1960s, my understanding of Revelation greatly changed—and greatly improved, I believe—by reading the book Worthy is the Lamb: An Interpretation of Revelation (1951) by Ray Summers, who was one of my seminary professors.
One of the main points that I realized from reading Dr. Summers’ book is that Revelation was written for Christians at the end of the first century, not for the purpose of prophesying what was going to happen in the last half of the 20th century.
During each of my two pastorates while a seminary student, I taught Revelation over the course of many Sunday evenings, using Worthy as the Lamb as the main commentary for interpreting that difficult book of the Bible. 
Repeatedly, I reminded those in attendance that every part of Revelation was written to help/encourage the persecuted Christians at the end of the first century. Thus it is important, first of all, to see what meaning each part of the book had for them. 
To say the least, it would not have been helpful for the early Christians to learn that Revelation was predicting how Russia was going to trigger the Battle of Armageddon in the 1960s or ’70s.
A Recommended View of Revelation 
This article on Revelation was prompted by Brian Zahnd, author of the previously introduced book Sinners in the Hand of a Loving God. Three of the chapters (7~9) of that engaging book are about Revelation, and last month BZ preached a sermon at Word of Life Church where he is pastor on “What About the Book of Revelation?” (That sermon, which you can hear here, is certainly worth listening to).
BZ also agrees with my opening dogmatic statement. He writes, “The book of Revelation is easily the most misunderstood and misused book in the Bible” (p. 149).
Revelation is, truly, an important part of the Bible. It must, however, be read and interpreted wisely. If properly read and interpreted, it gives us Christians hope for the future and strength to oppose political idolatry and evil in the present.
Rather than neglect Revelation because of its misuse, we need to pay attention to its abiding message, even for us today.

Friday, October 20, 2017

What Belongs to Caesar?

Since July 1, Thinking Friend Cindy Molini has been pastor of the United Christian and Presbyterian Church in Lawson, Mo., which is about 25 miles northeast of where I live in Liberty. In response to her kind invitation, I have the privilege of preaching in her absence this Sunday (Oct. 22). 
A Trick Question for Jesus 
As I never did as a pastor but have often done over the past 10-12 years, I chose my text for Sunday’s sermon from the lectionary, deciding to use Matthew 22:15-22, the Gospel reading. In response to a trick question, that passage contains Jesus’ well-known words: 
Give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God. (CEB)
Those who were seeking to trap Jesus in order to silence him and his movement asked him: “Does the Law allow people to pay taxes to Caesar or not?” (Doesn’t this mean that the strict Jewish people wanted to follow the Torah much the same way that strict Muslims want to follow Sharīʿah?)
Answering either in the affirmative or in the negative would ignite explosive opposition. The Jews would have strongly disapproved of Jesus sanctioning the payment of the Roman taxes; the Romans would have condemned non-payment of those taxes.
So, Jesus asked for a coin that was used for paying the taxes, noted the image (Greek: eikon) on the coin, and then made the oft-quoted statement about rendering to Caesar what belongs to him and to God what belongs to God. 
A Tricky Situation for Pacifists 
Last night (Oct. 19) the symposium titled “Remembering Muted Voices: A Symposium on Resistance and Conscientious Objection in WWI” opened at the National WWI Museum and Memorial in Kansas City. (You can learn more about that event here.)
One feature at this symposium is the premier of traveling exhibit “Voices of Conscience: Peace Witness in the Great War,” developed by Kauffman Museum, affiliated with Bethel College in Kansas. 
(That exhibit will be at Rainbow Mennonite Church from Oct. 24-29; if you are or will be in the Kansas City area during that time, you are cordially invited to go see it.)
What do pacifists do when their country goes to war and able-bodied young men are expected to fight for their country? It is a tricky situation, one with no solution without censure. 
Some follow the expectations, or demands, of their country and become soldiers—often to the disappointment of or embarrassment to their pacifist families and/or churches. 
Others follow the teaching of their church—the historic “peace churches” are the Religious Society of Friends (the Quakers) that began in the 1740s and the descendants of the Swiss Anabaptists (mainly the Mennonite Church and the Church of the Brethren) dating back to 1525—and refuse military service.
The latter are the “conscientious objectors,” many of whom suffered greatly—some to death--during World War I, although most were treated with more civility in World War II and afterward.
So, What Belongs to Caesar? 
While they may not all articulate it in this way, most of those who are, or who support, conscientious objectors are also inclined to support the government (“Caesar”) by paying taxes, although some few are war-tax opponents. Nevertheless, most believe that human beings are created in the “image” of God and thus belong exclusively to God, not to Caesar.
Those who belong to God must follow the teachings of Jesus, which contain no sanction to kill. Since they believe that all people bear the image of God, there can be no justification for killing other people—even in war. 
Caesar may legitimately claim our coins, but never our allegiance and obedience to God in whose image we are made.

Sunday, October 15, 2017

In Praise of Pascal

Many years ago I made a list of the top ten modern (since 1500) theologians and/or philosophers by whom my thinking had been most influenced. The first name on that chronological list was, and remains, Blaise Pascal. That French genius, who died 355 years ago in 1662, was a man whose ideas are certainly praiseworthy still.
Pascal’s Precocity 
There is no question that Pascal (b. 1623) was a precocious child. He reputedly discovered for himself the first 32 of Euclid’s propositions while still a boy, and as a teenager he invented the first calculating machine.
In his twenties, Pascal confirmed the existence of the vacuum and instigated the development of calculus. His expertise as a physicist is such that “pascal” became the name for “a unit of pressure in the meter-kilogram-second system equivalent to one newton per square meter.”
Later, “Pascal” became the name for “a structured computer programming language developed from Algol and designed to process both numerical and textual data.”
There is no question that Pascal from an early age excelled as a mathematician, physicist, and inventor. However, it is because of his deep religious experience and then because of his keen thinking as a Christian philosopher that I find him most worthy of praise.
Pascal’s Profundity 
Pascal’s great contribution as a Christian thinker came after a profound religious experience in November 1654, when he was 31 years old. At that time he wrote, and then carried with him until the time of his death, the following testimony of that mystic experience:
"God of Abraham, God of Isaac, God of Jacob," not of philosophers and scholars.
Certainty, certainty, heartfelt, joy, peace.
God of Jesus Christ. . . .
Joy, joy, joy, tears of joy.
Following that “night of fire,” Pascal abandoned his pursuit of science until just before his death and decided to write a book for the vindication of the Christian faith. But, alas, he died at the young age of 39 before the book was published and even before his copious notes were organized.   

By 1670, though, Pascal’s thoughts were published, without much organization, under the name Pensées—and the book is still published in various translations and editions, including more than one on Kindle. 
While some of Blaise’s thoughts may seem a little blasé, many are quite profound. Of particular import are these contentions:
The heart has its reasons of which reason knows nothing: . . . (423)
It is the heart which perceives God and not the reason. That is what faith is: God perceived by the heart, not by the reason. (424)
(Pascal’s quoted words are all from A.J. Krailsheimer’s 1966 translation of Pensées.) 
Pascal’s Paradoxicality  

It is particularly Pascal’s dual emphasis on opposites that I have found most helpful. For example, concerning reason: 
If we submit everything to reason our religion will be left with nothing mysterious or supernatural. If we offend the principles of reason our religion will be absurd and ridiculous. (273)
Pascal’s paradoxical view of human nature is of great significance. “Man is only a reed, but he is a thinking reed.” (200)
He repeatedly wrote about both the wretchedness and the greatness of humans.
Pascal also averred, “There are only two kinds of men: the righteous who think they are sinners and the sinners who think they are righteous.” (562)
Wikipedia interestingly, and correctly, summarizes Pascal’s paradoxicality in these words: “In the Pensées, Pascal surveys several philosophical paradoxes: infinity and nothing, faith and reason, soul and matter, death and life, meaning and vanity—seemingly arriving at no definitive conclusions besides humility, ignorance, and grace.”
Many of Pascal’s “thoughts” are praiseworthy and unquestionably worth thinking about—perhaps especially in the present day.

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

The Deplorable Persistence of Racism

In spite of having an article ready to post this morning, I felt compelled to write this piece yesterday, the day after VP Pence’s theatrical protest of the protesters at Sunday’s NFL game in Indianapolis. 
Trump’s/Pence’s Protest 
As has been in the news so much, too much, in the past weeks, the President has made some players in the National Football League (NFL) the target of repeated criticism. It all started back on Sept. 22 when DJT spoke at a rally in Alabama for Senate primary candidate Luther Strange. 
At a loss for appropriate words, as is often the case, at that rally DJT publicly called some NFL players SOBs. That was his depiction of those who have knelt rather than standing and saluting the flag during the singing of the national anthem.
From the next day on, DJT has persistently tweeted criticism of the protesting players, NFL owners, and the NFL in general for permitting such protests. 
DJT approved (or ordered?) Pence’s “political stunt,” as some have characterized it, of walking out of the stadium when (according to this article) on Oct. 8 for “the second week in a row, the 49ers had more than 20 players kneeling during the national anthem with their hands over their hearts.” 
(It has been reported that the cost of the Veep’s trip to Indianapolis for his brief appearance at the game cost us U.S. taxpayers around $200,000.) 
The NFL Player’s Protest
At most of you know, the protest of the NFL players was initiated last year by Colin Kaepernick, the then quarterback of the San Francisco 49ers. During his team’s last preseason games, Kaepernick sat and later kneeled during the singing of the national anthem. 
Actually, Nate Boyer, a U.S. Army veteran convinced Colin Kaepernick to kneel, rather than sit, while protesting police brutality during the national anthem, and Kaepernick has clearly said that he has “great respect for the men and women that have fought for this country.”
In a post-game interview on Aug. 26 last year, however, Kaepernick said,
I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color. To me, this is bigger than football and it would be selfish on my part to look the other way. There are bodies in the street and people getting paid leave and getting away with murder.
The protest against racism of mostly black NFL players has greatly escalated this year after the President’s public remarks and persistent tweets.
Racism’s Persistence
Not only are DJT’s tweets persistent, the prevalence of racism seems to be quite persistent also.
Last Sunday when I was checking Yahoo! Sports online to see how the Colts-49ers game turned out, I began to read comment after comment in support of Trump/Pence and in criticism of the protesting NFL players.
Sadly, there were dozens of comments dissing the protesters before I saw one that mentioned the point of the ongoing protest of the black players: the persistence of racism.
I couldn’t help but wonder if many of those who wrote were not in the batch of “deplorables” that Hillary so famously/infamously mentioned last year. For example, here are a couple of the racist comments I happened to see:
“Blacks destroy their neighborhoods, why not their workplace?”
“No more NFL games for me. I'll just go skiing instead. There aren't any black skiers or blacks within 199 miles of a ski area.”
The nation continues to face real and perplexing problems. Kneeling during the national anthem isn’t one of those problems. Racism is. When are DJT and the VP going to deal seriously with that problem?

Thursday, October 5, 2017

Why Study the Bible?

For the first time in a long time, on Sept. 24 I attended a Sunday School class in a Southern Baptist church. That experience was the springboard for the question posed above.
Questioning Bible Study
June and I spent the last weekend in September in southwest Missouri. On Sunday morning we attended a very lively Baptist church in a rural area several miles south of Springfield. 
The study material used for the class we attended was the “Explore the Bible” quarterly produced by LifeWay, the publishing company known from 1891 to 1998 as the Southern Baptist Sunday School Board.
Exodus and Leviticus are being explored during this fall quarter; the Sept. 24 lesson was on Exodus 14:13-28. In the class we attended, the King James Version was the translation used, although LifeWay also offers two other translations.
By the end of the class, attended by 12-15 older adults, I began to wonder about the purpose of it all. There was almost no attempt, either by the teacher or the quarterly, to make the class any more than a study of the events found in the Bible passage.
After returning home, I was able to buy a digital copy of that Sunday School quarterly online. Here are a couple of statements in it indicating what readers might learn from study of Ex. 14:13-28. (i) “God delivers His people, providing a way of escape.” (ii) “Believers demonstrate faith in God by obediently following His directions.”
Bible Study Questions
In listening to the Sunday School teacher, who was quite articulate in his lecture about the Bible passage, there were several questions that I would like to have raised. I did not have any chance to do that—and it probably would not have been appropriate to have done so as a visitor.
Here are some of my questions: If the Church is God’s people today, will God provide us a way of escape from our “enemies” similar to that provided to the Israelites whom Moses led to and through the Red Sea?
Since God did not tell the Israelites to build up armed forces and fight against the Egyptians militarily, why do so many U.S. Christians seem to think they should be supporters of massive armed forces now?
Then, what are God’s directions to believers today? Is God directing Christians in the U.S. to support the current President? My guess is that probably 80% or so of the people in the church I attended on Sept 24 voted for and continue to support DJT, even though (or because?) he threatens to unleash “fire and fury” upon North Korea and to “totally destroy” that country. Is that God’s will?
So, why study the Bible to learn about the past without considering or discussing what lessons there might be for the present?
Of course it is much easier, and far less controversial, for a teacher or a quarterly to deal with information about the past than to struggle with present-day implications of the Bible passage being studied.
Purpose of Bible Study
There is, certainly, some value in studying the Bible for understanding its content in historical context. Shouldn’t the primary purpose of a Sunday School class, though, be seeking to understand the meaning and challenge of the Bible for us in our context today?
But who is willing to engage in the hard work of that kind of Bible study? And to what extent would our interpretation be shaped by our political views rather than the latter being shaped by the Bible?
Still, we surely need to study/explore the Bible with the intent of finding it a lamp to our feet and a light to our paths.