The bore of the age

Posted on July 7th, 2014

More from Barchester Towers on preaching:

No one can rid himself of the preaching clergyman. He is the bore of the age, the old man whom we Sindbads cannot shake off, the nightmare that disturbs our Sunday’s rest, the incubus that overloads our religion and makes God’s service distasteful. We are not forced into church! No: but we desire more than that. We desire not to be forced to stay away. We desire, nay, we are resolute, to enjoy the comfort of public worship, but we desire also that we may do so without an amount of tedium which ordinary human nature cannot endure with patience; that we may be able to leave the house of God without that anxious longing for escape which is the common consequence of common sermons.

There is a serious point to Trollope’s humor: The preacher can do enormous damage by “overloading” and being tedious. The Word of God is a good thing, but the preacher often attenuates its power.

I do believe in the unadulterated word which you hold there in your hand; but you must pardon me if, in some things, I doubt your interpretation.

Thus, the preacher would do well to pay more attention to the great sermons of the fathers, and less to his desire to be dramatic:

The Bible is good, the prayer-book is good, nay, you yourself would be acceptable, if you would read to me some portion of those time-honoured discourses which our great divines have elaborated in the full maturity of their powers. But you must excuse me, my insufficient young lecturer, if I yawn over your imperfect sentences, your repeated phrases, your false pathos, your drawlings and denouncings, your humming and hawing, your oh-ing and ah-ing, your black gloves and your white handkerchief. To me, it all means nothing; and hours are too precious to be so wasted–if one could only avoid it.

The greatest hardship

Posted on July 6th, 2014

I’m reading Barchester Towers by Anthony Trollope. What a hoot! A parishioner at church has urged me for years to read it. I tried once but failed to stick with it. This time, I’m enjoying it thoroughly. There is a great section on inane preaching. I love this sentence:

There is, perhaps, no greater hardship at present inflicted on mankind in civilized and free countries than the necessity of listening to sermons.

Sermo Dei: Trinity 3, 2014

Posted on July 6th, 2014

How did they get lost, the sheep and the coin in today’s parables (Luke 15:1-10)? We’re not told, so we have to think about the context. What prompts Jesus to tell these stories? “Then all the tax collectors and the sinners drew near to Him to hear Him.  And the Pharisees and scribes complained, saying, ‘This Man receives sinners and eats with them.’” The complaints were about Jesus being merciful, Jesus forgiving the wrong sort of people. Jesus speaks these parables not to tell us about lost sheep, lost coins, lost sons, but to tell us something about Himself, which is to say, something about God: filled with joy at the return of His lost love.

Jesus rescues the lost sheep

The stories have as their subject not the thing lost, but the one who has lost what was valuable. Each story that Jesus tells begins with the subject. “What man of you, having a hundred sheep, if he loses one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness, and go after the one which is lost until he finds it?” The story is about a man who has lost his sheep.

Then the woman: “Or what woman, having ten silver coins, if she loses one coin, does not light a lamp, sweep the house, and search carefully until she finds it?” It’s not a story about a lost coin, it’s a story about a woman who lost a coin. Do you see the difference?


There’s a certain mystery to the stories. On the one hand, sheep and coins have value. But on the other, it is foolhardy to leave ninety-nine sheep to look for one. And it seems a terrible waste of time to spend the night searching for a lost coin. All the money was in coins at this time, I think. And Jesus usually gives us a monetary unit (like a denarius or a talent), even when it seems to have nothing to do with the story. So the omission of the value here seems deliberate. If you lost a penny, you’d move on and not waste time. What if it’s a nickel, a dime, or quarter? Still not much to bother with. A dollar coin? What if you’re in Europe and have a €2 coin? You need that, you’d look. But if you can’t find it and it’s time to go, you cut your losses and move on. What if the coin was worth a hundred dollars? A thousand? The hunt is on, you won’t stop.

But we are not told the value. Why? Value to us is relative. A rich man loses a hundred dollars, it’s no problem. A starving person loses a dollar, it’s disaster. But with God, the value is not relative. It’s all valuable. The sheep and the coin represent people, and the owner represents God. He wants the thing that is lost back. He wants His lost people back. Which means, He wants you back.

We look at people and make calculations, cold and brutal: Are you useful to me? Do I have to be nice to you because not doing so will threaten my job, my reputation, my agenda? What are you worth to me?

God doesn’t look at people this way. Every human being has value to Him, from the tiniest human being just conceived inside her mother, to the frail old man no longer in his right mind. Society discards such people and counts them worthless. To God, they are worth everything, and He will risk all, sacrifice all for their rescue.

Learning the attributes of God is worthwhile, but they can be deceiving. It is true that God is omnipotent, omniscient, omnipresent, etc. It is also true that God is angry over sin, and that God is merciful and loving. But what these parables reveal is that God also suffers. It’s hard to think of God this way when we only think of Him as an all-powerful supreme being. He is – yet somehow, in the mystery of the divine counsel, God chose to give freedom to His creation. And His creatures, our first parents, wandered away. They became like sheep lost in the wilderness, a coin that has rolled into a gutter, covered with filth, and finally a son, who seized his inheritance and ran away, blowing the whole thing on fast cars and fast women until he was destitute.

But the father still loves his lost son, the woman still loves her lost coin, and the shepherd still loves his lost sheep. The pain of their loss grieves the father, the woman, the shepherd. Which means God feels pain, sorrow, agony, perhaps even regret. I don’t understand how to put that together with God’s omnipotence and omniscience, other than to say we have a very hard time understanding our own minds, our own selves; and we have a hard time really understanding, truly communicating, even with spouses, parents, children, people with whom we share homes and years and lives. So is it surprising that there are things we cannot grasp about the God who is beyond us immeasurably?

But what He wants us to understand is that He loves us. He made us, and wants us back home, out of the wilderness, out of the gutter, out of the pigsty.


So we miss a major point of the parables when we call them “The lost sheep, the lost coin, the lost son (prodigal son).” What happens if we call them, “The shepherd who lost a sheep, the woman who lost a coin, the father who lost a son”? Then we’re thinking about the God who lost something – the God who lost humanity to sin and death – and wants His people, His creation, the object of His love, back.

That’s why Jesus was happy to eat with tax collectors and “sinners.” They were coming back home.


So now we, who are in the position of the lost sheep, the lost coin, the lost son, we have to ask ourselves, do we really want to be back home? Or is there something out there, out in the wilderness, in the attractions of the city, that make us still yearn for the life that leads to destruction?

If you were quiet, and had a moment to sweep every distracting thing from your mind, every immediate obligation, how would you answer the question, “What do you want?” What do you really want from life? What are you pursuing?

Now look at the collect of the day that we prayed earlier. This prayer of the day changes with each Sunday or festival, and it gathers up, or “collects” the various Bible readings and Psalms into one concise prayer. That prayer is often a helpful way of seeing the theme for the day. Think about this prayer again in light of that question I just asked, “What do you really want from life?”

O God, the protector of all who trust in You, without whom nothing is strong and nothing is holy, multiply Your mercy on us that, with You as our ruler and guide, we may so pass through things temporal that we lose not the things eternal.

That’s what we should want: to “pass through things temporal” (the things of time, this world) – to pass through that in such a way “that we lose not the things eternal,” the things of God and His kingdom.

Is that what you want?

To the extent that you answer, “Not really,” that’s where you must specifically repent. Robert Farrar Capon wrote, “The church, by and large, has drugged itself into thinking that proper human behavior is the key to its relationship with God.” That’s what was going on in the introduction to today’s Gospel reading. These tax collectors and sinners had not yet demonstrated “proper human behavior.”

But that’s not repentance. It’s much deeper. Christianity is not ethics and morals. It’s never less than that, but more. The entire heart is in need of, not a remodel or update, but a radical transformation. A new heart and a new spirit. That’s the desire of the repentant.


Before we can turn, God must turn to us. When there is conflict, we sometimes have trouble looking someone in the eye. We turn our back, turn our face. In His wrath, God’s face is turned from us. “Turn Yourself to me, and have mercy on me, for I am desolate and afflicted.”

God has turned Himself toward us in the incarnation. A fleshy God, a present God, Jesus is not an abstract spirit far removed or discerned only through feelings, but He made Himself really present in the cradle of the virgin. The Shepherd searching for His sheep is a picture of what the incarnation means. The woman down on her hands and knees searching for her lost coin is a picture of the Church searching us out, and welcoming us into her embrace like a loving mother. The father welcoming home his lost son, that’s how God sees you. He’s happy you’re home. That’s what He wants. It’s what He’s always wanted: to love mankind, and give us every good gift. +INJ+

Why did pastors start pretending to be psychologists?

Posted on July 3rd, 2014

Recently we looked at the melding of psychiatry with progressivism, seeking to label those who don’t acquiesce to progressivism as unhinged fascists (“Are Conservatives Insane?”). Goldberg demonstrates that liberal theologians were quick to join this movement, transforming Christianity into therapy:

A wave of liberal theologians met the psychiatrists halfway, arguing that various neuroses were the product of social alienation and that traditional religion should reorient itself toward healing them. Psychiatry— and “relevance”— became the new standards for clergy everywhere.

Jonah Goldberg, Liberal Fascism: The Secret History of the American Left, From Mussolini to the Politics of Meaning (Kindle Locations 4305-4307).

Even in conservative seminaries today, psychological terminology abounds. People don’t look to their pastor for absolution, but counseling. The pastor has had a smattering of courses, but is essentially untrained. This leads to psychological and spiritual disaster.

Every Christian should read John Pless’s little essay, “Your Pastor Is Not Your Therapist.”

Top Posts on Esgetology, January—June 2014

Posted on July 2nd, 2014

Here are the top new posts on Esgetology for the first half of 2014. (This does not include popular posts published before January 1, 2014.)

  1. Lutherans for Life statement on Thrivent
  2. Sermon before the March for Life
  3. Roots and Orthodoxy
  4. Baccalaureate Vespers 2014
  5. Is there a Patristic Consensus?
  6. Denying the Real Presence denies the Gospel
  7. It seems almost a miracle
  8. Sermo Dei: Ordination of Eric Phillips
  9. Heaven is not for real
  10. Sermo Dei: Transfiguration 2014

Is evolution a belief system?

Posted on July 2nd, 2014

Thomas Nagel’s worthwhile book Mind and Cosmos addresses the problems with mind and reason as products of evolution. I found his writing refreshing – the rare atheist who takes the ideas of others seriously, and is willing to consider the possibility he might be wrong. His conclusion indicates his answer to the question posed in the title.

I would be willing to bet that the present right-thinking consensus will come to seem laughable in a generation or two— though of course it may be replaced by a new consensus that is just as invalid. The human will to believe is inexhaustible. (p128)

Indeed.

Hobby Lobby Fascism

Posted on July 1st, 2014

Earlier today we looked at the collusion of progressivism with psychology to judge the opponents of liberalism as insane, or fascist. Similar tactics remain at work among the rank-and-file progressives. Yesterday’s Hobby Lobby decision was met with cries of fascism.

 

The irony is that the ruling protected a private company against an oppressive state. The fact that few see this demonstrates Goldberg’s point: if you aren’t for progressivism, you must be a fascist. This is dangerous rhetoric, for the next step is to imprison or kill the “fascists.” That may seem far fetched, But then again:

Are conservatives insane?

Posted on July 1st, 2014

In Liberal Fascism, Jonah Goldberg shows how progressivism joined psychology with Marxism and declared opponents insane:

A handful of immensely influential Marxist theorists, mostly Germans from the so-called Frankfurt School (transplanted to Columbia University beginning in the 1930s), married psychology and Marxism to provide a new vocabulary for liberalism. These theorists— led by Theodor Adorno, Max Horkheimer, Erich Fromm, and Herbert Marcuse— tried to explain why fascism had been more popular than communism in much of Europe. Borrowing from Freud and Jung, the Frankfurt School described Nazism and Fascism as forms of mass psychosis. That was plausible enough, but their analysis also held that since Marxism was objectively superior to its alternatives, the masses, the bourgeoisie, and anyone else who disagreed with them had to be, quite literally, mad.

The opponent is labeled someone who cannot change or “progress”:

It’s tempting to say these theorists merely threw a patina of pseudoscientific psychobabble over the propaganda leaflets of Stalin’s Third International. But the tactic was more sophisticated than that. The essential argument was brilliant in its simplicity. The original Marxist explanation of fascism was that it was the capitalist ruling classes’ reaction to the threat of the ascendancy of the working classes. The Frankfurt School deftly psychologized this argument. Instead of rich white men and middle-class dupes protecting their economic interests, fascism became a psychological defense mechanism against change generally. Men who cannot handle “progress” respond violently because they have “authoritarian personalities.” So, in effect, anyone who disagrees with the aims, scope, and methods of liberalism is suffering from a mental defect, commonly known as fascism. (Kindle Locations 4284-4290)

Now consider how the same tactic is used in the church. Those who hold to the traditional liturgy are termed “liturgical nazis,” refusing to change because supposedly they want parishioners to obey (“authoritarian personality”). When I went to seminary, students who demonstrated enthusiasm for conservative theology were forced to take psychological examinations designed to diagnose psychopathologies. Those who refused such indignities ended up expelled. Hopefully new leadership has improved things.

Ss. Peter and Paul, Apostles

Posted on June 30th, 2014

Peter tried to turn our Lord away from the cross. He is identified with Satan. In the moment of trial, he denies Jesus.

Paul sought a righteousness of his own. He presided over the murder of Stephen, the first martyr.

All this is good news. Because the Lord who saved Peter and Paul also saves you. For you too would like a cross-less Christianity; who wants suffering and sacrifice? You want victory immediately, success today, serenity now.

Christ with Peter and Paul

When you were baptized, when you were confirmed, you were asked, “Do you renounce the devil?” “Yes!” you said – but his works and his ways you have often embraced: admiring the images he sets before you, consenting to his words of despair and urges for glory and revenge. If Jesus said to St. Peter, “Get behind Me, Satan!”, what would He say to you?

In how many moments of trial have you backed away from being, saying, doing what a disciple of Jesus is, says, and does?

And if you have contributed much, volunteered much, sacrificed much, prayed much, come to the Lord’s church many times, how often have you taken pride in a righteousness of your own, that you are not like other men?

And if you have done all those good things, still you would never equal a fraction of the deeds of Peter or Paul.


But all this is good news. For the holy apostles Peter and Paul are saved in the same way we are. “For while we were yet sinners,” St. Paul said, “Christ died for us.” Well did Paul know this, for he was among those Pharisees most opposed to Jesus.

And yet there was something about Jesus that fascinated him. And also Peter. Who leaves his business behind to follow a preacher? But this was no preacher. Peter confessed who Jesus is: “You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God.”

What Peter had not yet learned was that the Christ, the Messiah, must die. And that His disciples must also die. Meaning you and I have to die.

I am not speaking about the death of our bodies, which we all must undergo. For the disciple of Jesus, there is a death that precedes the death of the body. It is a dying we must do each day, although we are not very good at it, and fight against it.

Peter and Paul had to each, in their own way, fight against their ambition, their pride. Each were leaders of men. Each had worked hard, and seen success in life. They wanted more. They knew lust and desire, pride and folly. Filled with competitive zeal, the way of the cross was to them foolishness, a stumbling block.

Their flesh, their desires, their natural mind – it all had to die. And that is their message to you and me, who are filled with pride and self-righteousness, hearts of anger and contempt and lust and despair. That heart, that mind, that life, that lie must die. So Paul, rhetorically asking the baptized if they should keep on sinning, replies, “Certainly not! How shall we who died to sin live any longer in it? Or do you not know that as many of us as were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into His death?” (Rom. 6.2f). Daily we die, drowning all sins and evil desires again in continual remembrance, “I am baptized.”

Likewise Peter calls us to the death of submission. In his first epistle, he tells wives to submit to their husbands, husbands to dwell with their wives with understanding, giving them honor; he tells everyone to be compassionate to each other, to obey the law, submit to the elders of the church, while the elders serve the church with gentleness. While different terms are used, throughout Peter’s writing he calls us to death: the death of passion, death of self-desire and self-centeredness, as each person dies by submitting to one another out of love, and especially submitting in meekness according to our vocations, our callings.

Die to sin, Paul preaches; die to self, Peter preaches; die in Christ, they both proclaim to us. The message of Peter and of Paul is the same: the one, holy, catholic and apostolic preaching, a preaching of death in Christ.


What comes of this death? “If we died with Christ, we believe that we shall also live with Him,” says Paul, “knowing that Christ, having been raised from the dead, dies no more. Death no longer has dominion over him” (Rom. 6).

Isn’t it interesting that, while we know that Peter and Paul were both martyred in Rome, we are not given an account of their death? Stephen, the first martyr, has his death described in Scripture, both to show how he died like Jesus, praying for his murderers, and to introduce Paul, who was overseeing the killing. James, the brother of John, is described as simply being put to death “with the sword” (Acts 12:2). But beyond that, the martyrs and martyrdoms recede so far into the background that we must look outside of the Scriptures for details. Why?

Because in the documents comprising the New Testament, there is one death that matters: the death of Jesus. Jesus is not the first in a line of martyrs. The death of Jesus is the death that makes sense of all other deaths. The death of Jesus is the death that makes sense of your own coming death. The death of Jesus is the death by which we learn to die now, die to our rage and spite, die to our foolish pride and selfish desires, die to our need to be right, to succeed and be known and prosper.

The Holy Apostles Peter and Paul show us how to die, by receding into the background and showing us the One who died for them and us. The Apostles are not averse to showing us their own sins and failures. All the more does it highlight the depth of Christ’s forgiveness, as they call us to join them in their confession.

So we confess just like St. Peter: Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the Living God. Living. To the death of Jesus we are called, in the death of Peter and Paul. But it is a death that leads to life, a cross that culminates in resurrection. These are the words that begin the funeral liturgy: “For if we have been united together in the likeness of [Christ’s] death, certainly we also shall be in the likeness of His resurrection.” That’s where death leads: resurrection. That’s what Peter and Paul ended up living for. That’s what Peter and Paul ended up dying for. That’s what awaits you: resurrection. So be gentle and kind, and bear your cross. Quit worrying about everything else. Comparatively, it’s not very important. +INJ+