Jul 3 2016

Grace is still the thing

Recently I attended a local church service and heard a sermon on sex that was bad on so many levels–structurally, logically, factually, and theologically.  (The entire experience was redeemed by the worship band having done possibly the best arrangement of “Be Thou My Vision” that I have ever heard.) And, to wrap it all up, the pastor ended with an exhortation to resist sexual sins by “exercising your holiness option.”  

Excuse me?  Then he said it again; I hadn’t mis-heard. “Exercise your holiness option.”  It was like they had a booster switch they could flip to throw them into light speed. 

So now we have another whole slough of errors.  First, I recognized that he was using the bad English definition of “holy” as meaning pure or sinless, rather than the definition of the Greek word, which essentially means “different.” It makes sense for God to say, “Be different as I am different,” rather than “Be sinless as I am sinless.”  But, the latter is the interpretation I usually hear.   

Can we choose to be sinless?  I think the vast majority of theologians would answer “no.”  We can desire to be sinless (I myself desire to be sinless, sometimes),  but if the Bible is to be believed, getting there is beyond our grasp. The two main schools of thought are that 1) we can cooperate with God to become more Godlike; and 2) our wills are bound by our sinful nature and we depend entirely on God’s grace.

Paul, as well as Jesus (read through John),  seem to lean towards the latter.  I completely reject the Calvinist doctrine of total depravity as mischaracterizing both God and humanity.  We are created in God’s image, destined for glory.  “Total depravity” doesn’t fit into that picture.  If you read through the Gospel of John, you may be struck by the fact that Jesus treats sin the same as a physical disease.  Just as our bodies are subject to failure, we are also afflicted by the disease of sin.  Not totally depraved, but afflicted and in need of grace and healing.   

Paul made it clear that sanctification (holiness to some), just as with salvation, is a product of grace. In Galatians 3:3, he asks rhetorically, “Are you so foolish? Having begun by the Spirit, are you now being perfected by the flesh?”  To the church in Corinth, he writes, “And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another. For this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit.” (2 Corinthians 3:18). Sanctification, “holiness,” theosis, or becoming more Christ-like–whichever term you prefer–is a product of grace, of God’s direct work in us. It is not a matter of “exercising the holiness option.”

Grace matters.  It is still a concept which many churches prefer to hold at arm’s length, as a church under grace tends refuses to fit in nice, neat boxes. 

A few years ago, I took what I had found to be the best teaching on grace I had ever encountered and turned it into a book, The Gospel Uncensored. I still believe this to be the best book on grace that I’ve seen.  It’s fairly short, easy to read, and directly to the point, primarily using Paul’s letter to the Galatians as the outline.  People have told me how it’s changed their lives, how it’s their favorite book, and that they periodically re-read it.  It’s that good (you can trust me, my name is on the cover).  

There is no “holiness option.” The only 2 options are self-righteousness, and grace.  I highly recommend grace. 


Feb 4 2014

More about worship

Go here for part 1.

If the main purpose of Lutheran worship is to receive God’s gifts, then it follows that Lutheran worship is Christ-centered. Just take a look at the liturgical orders of service in either of our two hymnals. Everything said and done is filled with His Word. Why? Because our focus is on Christ and His work, that’s why. The focus of Lutheran worship is on Christ, not man. Therefore, Lutheran worship is always Christocentric-Christ-centered-and never anthropocentric-man-centered.  ~A.L. Barry, as quoted by Matt Richard in part 2 of his series on Lutheran worship

The heart of worship

In my opinion, the greatest statement on worship (as well as on faith) is Peter’s statement as recorded in John 6:68:

After this many of his disciples turned back and no longer walked with him. So Jesus said to the Twelve, “Do you want to go away as well?” Simon Peter answered him, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life, and we have believed, and have come to know, that you are the Holy One of God.” (John 6:66-69, ESV)

“Where would we go? Only you have the words of life.”

Our word “worship” means to give something or someone great value or worth. Peter’s statement is really the ultimate worship statement, as he is not just saying that Jesus’ words are better than the Rabbis down the road. Peter goes so far as to say, “only you.” There are simply no other options. There’s life here, and anywhere else is death. This attitude, I think, is the true heart of worship.

Note that Peter doesn’t say anything about himself.  He doesn’t talk about what he has to offer, and he doesn’t say anything about how being with Jesus makes him feel. In fact, given Jesus’ recent teaching topics, Peter may have even been somewhat perturbed with Jesus due to the loss of followers. This is, rather, a clear-cut statement that Peter acknowledged that only Jesus had what Peter needs to survive. As someone once put it, Peter’s statement was one of “enlightened self-interest.”

Christ-centered worship

Mr. Barry goes on to say

… Lutheran worship takes our eyes and sets them firmly on the cross of Jesus Christ, for there the Lord of the Universe suffered and died for the sins of the world. Lutheran worship points us to the Resurrected Lord who lives and reigns to all eternity, and promises us everlasting life. Christ-centered Lutheran worship lifts our hearts and minds to the things of God and helps us to understand our place in Christ’s kingdom better as His redeemed people. Yes, Lutheran worship must always be Christ-centered.

When we say Lutheran worship is Christ-centered, this is not to say that those who gather for worship are mere blocks of stone. Our worship focuses on Christ, who is present for us and with us in His Word and Sacraments. He is truly among us. We are not contemplating a far-off Christ, or meditating on abstract ideas. Lutheran worship is not like going to a self-help group or a therapy session. It is God who gathers us for worship around the gifts He gives to us through Word and Sacrament. We are worshipping the One who is very near, as close as the preaching of the Word. We are worshipping the One who is actually present under the bread and wine of Holy Communion. He promised, “I will be with you always.” In our worship service He fulfills that wonderful promise. He is living and active among us, right here, right now, where He has promised to be-in His Word and Sacraments. Therefore, it is important to say that while our focus is on Christ, His focus is always on us! Thanks be to God that this is true!

Now, I don’t mean to say that only Lutherans worship correctly, or that all Lutherans necessarily worship correctly.  I think the principles here transcend Lutheranism, although Lutheran incarnational theology is very intertwined with Lutheran thoughts on worship, and contemporary evangelicalism tends to downplay concepts such as Christ’s real presence.

One of these things is not like the other

My point, rather than to necessarily champion Lutheran worship, is to point out the differences between this philosophy of worship and other worship philosophies which are to varying degrees influenced by Calvinism and Arminianism, both of which can have a very man- and works-centered focus.

I am also not emphasizing one style over another (although I have thoughts there, too). It is entirely possibly to be involved in a very emotionally-oriented style of worship and still be aware that the whole point is to receive from Christ.

This, by the way, is what the Lutherans mean by “Christ-centered,” which is also a term used by everyone else; no one would say that their worship is not “Christ-centered.” The difference is whether or not we are looking solely to Christ as our source for righteousness and holiness as we worship.

 

 

 


Feb 2 2014

About Worship

What is worship?

As my 11 faithful readers know, I was raised Lutheran. When I was in high school, I remember having friends from more, shall we say, emotional denominations and groups, and remember hearing teachings about “worship” and “praise,” things that we didn’t have to teach about in the Lutheran church. (Seriously. Keep reading…) I remember being quite confused, trying to figure out when I was praising as opposed to worshiping, etc.

Now, years later, most of us have gotten familiar with the 20-30 minutes of singing mostly vague, repetitious, elevator-rock music that has become known as “worship” where, in a manner of speaking, we try to reimburse God for what He’s given to us. Many churches also point out that collecting the offering also falls under worship, for the same reason.

At the very least, contemporary worship is a subjective exercise, where we are kind of on the honor system as to whether we actually “entered in” to worship, or just enjoyed the music.  Many people leave feeling some amount of guilt for either not feeling anything, or not being able to conjure up the same kind of emotional energy that the people around us seem to have, not realizing that many of them share the same feelings.  It’s true.  Chances are, you are one of those guilty worshipers.

Today in the church we attended, we were exhorted to focus on “entering in” to worship and giving to God.  I tended to critique the music, being a musician. I can’t help it. But, I don’t feel guilty, because I no longer believe that worship is about my emotions, or my ability to commit and focus and ignore the really terrible-sounding acoustic guitar and very awkward rhythm used on “Why I Survey the Wondrous Cross” in an attempt to make it sound more contemporary.

Worship, Lutheran-style

As providence would have it, this morning I read a great reminder about worship on the blog of a Lutheran pastor I’m Facebook friends with, entitled “”  The title aptly spells out the difference between the above-described contemporary concept of worship and Lutheran worship.  We are not talking about differences of style, such as singing choruses over hymns and liturgy, or the use of guitars and drums as opposed to organs and choirs.  I happen to think liturgy is quite important and useful, but that’s not what I’m talking about here.

The difference between the 2 philosophies of worship are striking; in fact, they are direct opposites. In contemporary worship, as with much of contemporary evangelical theology, the key is what we do for God, or do to become more spiritual, or holy, or whatever. On the other hand, Lutheran worship simply where we make ourselves available to receive from God, through the truth in the liturgy, the hymns, the Scriptures (which are read for their own sake, not as preaching texts), the sermon, and Communion. It’s not about our giving—in fact, the thought is quite ludicrous—worship is about receiving.

If we’re emotional, it’s because we are the recipients of grace, forgiveness, healing, love, and acceptance. There’s nothing for us to feel guilty about, because our performance is of no consequence. We are free to enjoy the music (the Episcopal church I like to attend has an amazing music program), even if we forget to listen to the words.  We are reminded that we are God’s—not because we “have decided to follow Jesus”—but because He chose us.

Our part, as worshipers, is to be there to receive. As the author of the article states, “The purpose of worship, therefore, is to be gathered by God around His gifts.”  He goes on to quote from the Lutheran Worship book:

Our Lord speaks and we listen. His Word bestows what it says. Faith that is born from what is heard acknowledges  the gifts, received with eager thankfulness and praise.  Saying back to Him what he has said to us, we repeat what is most true and sure…  The rhythm of our worship is from him to us, and then from us back to him. He gives his gifts, and together we receive and extol them. We build one another up as we speak to one another in psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs (Lutheran Worship, p. 6).

Whether or not we worship “Lutheran-style,” I believe that worship has nothing to do with our emotions (they simply are what they are) or our efforts (which are of no benefit) or how “holy” we are. Worship is not our “job” or “where we give back to God.” Worship is simply to be gathered around God and to receive his gifts.

I am looking forward to parts 2-7 of the article on the Lutheran understanding of worship, and will possibly post more here on the series.

 

 


Jan 13 2014

Review: Pastrix


It’s been quite a while since I’ve done any kind of book review, but this one warrants a bit of attention because it is—and it isn’t—what I expected.

Trendy and hip

Anymore, I tend to avoid books that belong in the trendy, hip, postmodern category. Been there, done that. I’ve had enough of disenfranchised, “progressive” or Bono-esque Christians who think their calling is to offend, shock, or stretch the limits of theology. So, when I first heard mention of Pastrix, I thought, “oh, Anne Lamott with tattoos,” and didn’t give the book another thought.

Except, that I knew the person who designed the cover, which is totally awesome. I remember sending JuLee a Facebook message that I’d probably buy the book just for the cover. But, I didn’t, at least right away. I have too many “spiritual” books laying around that I’ve never read.

But, as weeks went by, I kept seeing Nadia’s name pop up, and then found a video of one of her messages. It was probably one of the most grace-filled sermons I’d heard in a long time. Then I listened to a couple of more of her sermons, and found her to have a very tenacious hold on grace, which I am attracted to. So, I broke down and bought the book.

The Review

On one hand, it’s not a great book. I mean, she’s not a C.S. Lewis, and you’re not going to be impressed with either her prose or her theological brilliance (I’d say the same thing about my own book). But, Pastrix is not that kind of book.  It’s also not a typical autobiography, although it is intensely personal and autobiographical. It’s also not an angry rant against traditional evangelical attitudes, or a treatise on gay rights, or an attempt to change anything. Neither is it an attempt at self-justification, the way so many memoirs are.

It is, according to it’s book flap, a spiritual memoir. I would describe it as a confession—of a sinner who is being saved by grace, an admitted misanthrope who was called to pastor “her people” as well as a bunch of people she couldn’t relate to at all.  The book is filled with her past and present failings, and her constant discovery that grace is both challenging and essential, and that life is a process of death and resurrection.

The shocking thing…

There are a number of things in the book that many of what I refer to as “shiny, happy people” Christians will find shocking. Nadia swears like a sailor, has a very colorful past, and uses a few colorful phrases that I don’t even understand. She doesn’t edit her language for the book.  At first, you might think the “f” word is inserted throughout the text on purpose, and in spite of the fact that I believe this is her “native” language, it does seem at times self-aware. But, some of that is possibly due to an editor striving to find a balance between honesty and readability. But that’s not what I think is shocking.

There are also a number of stories about a number of people who fall into the “non-straight” categories, and the fact that Nadia’s church, the House for All Sinners and Saints, is, according to their website, “queer-inclusive.” But that also is not the most shocking thing in the book.

What is perhaps the most shocking thing is that Bolz-Weber is, of all things, a Lutheran. I mean, when’s the last time a Lutheran had a best-selling Christian book? And who would expect a tattooed, foul-mouthed ex-comedian to have such a respect for the Eucharist or baptism or the Liturgical Calendar?  She is, at the same time, both liberal and traditional.

One of the things that struck me was her talking about following the Lectionary, which is essentially a preaching schedule that prescribes what texts to preach from on any given Sunday.  She expresses concern about what would happen should she ever stray from this schedule, and allow herself to preach  on any topic she wishes, as well as her concern to stay true to the text. I could only wish that evangelical pastors could follow this example. It is clear that she does not take her role as pastor lightly, and if anything, is something of a reluctant pastor, knowing that she, on her own, is inadequate.

I imagine, for some evangelicals, the fact that she’s Lutheran will just confirm the fact that she’s not really a Christian (believe me, I’ve heard some wacko stuff through the years, being of Lutheran extraction myself).  But, she understands the gospel, and it comes through time and again. Perhaps, being someone who has admittedly been “forgiven much,” she has a much batter grasp on grace than some of us. It’s no coincidence that she has a tattoo of Mary Magdalene on her arm.

Personal reflection

I expected the book to have a certain amount of self-righteousness due her church’s acceptance of sinners of all stripes, because these kind of books often do. But, there is none of that to be found. Bolz-Weber owns up to her self-righteous tendencies, and calls sin sin, taking an extremely humble attitude, and constantly looks to Jesus as savior, healer and redeemer. I found myself having to admit that at times, my own belief in grace fell somewhat short, and I was challenged to reexamine myself. But, it’s an interesting book in that it never lets you walk away feeling anything less than loved, forgiven, and in the process of being saved.

The message of the book is not to build up Nadia Bolz-Weber in any way. Where some authors take the “this is just who I am” approach to justify who they are, Bolz-Weber never falls into that trap. She knows she is inadequate, so clings strongly to the Cross and the Empty Tomb. The message that comes through loud and clear is that the Gospel is dangerous, that it will confront you and change you. That, in the words of another friend of mine, the Gospel accepts you as you are, but it won’t let you stay the way you are.

As I mentioned in a previous post, I am challenging myself to reexamine some things, and this book was quite helpful in that regard, as it identified and challenged the “boundaries” of grace. This personal challenge, by the way, is not a response to current events or issues, but from actually reading the Gospels. As I’ve stated in the past, when I read the Gospels as a whole, rather than in bite-size chunks, I tend to come away more “liberal,” with a much bigger picture of grace. I noticed, for one thing, that when Jesus says,”Go and sin no more,” he doesn’t identify which sin. I try never to be presumptuous in interpreting Scripture, but it’s funny how easily we fill in certain blanks.

I am not saying I agree with everything in the book

I don’t want to give the impression that I agree with everything in the book.  She makes some statements that make me go, “Now, hold on a minute…”  I’m guessing everyone could find at least one of those in the book, and some people obviously more than others.  But, why bother to read a book that you already agree with?  That’s kind of a waste of time.

Pastrix, perhaps, is not a book for everyone. I can think of many people I wouldn’t give the book to, for a number of reasons. But, if you think you understand grace—or want to—and dare to be challenged, this may be a great book for you.

Click here to read or listen to some of her sermons.