Thursday, July 31, 2008

Christianity in China

My children have all attended Sunday School from earliest childhood. It never occurred to me that anything would prevent this. Yet in a country like China a child is forbidden to learn about Jesus or attend any kind of Christian education prior to age 18. Obviously this tactic would work well towards subverting effective growth of the faith when you consider the lack of influence in those incredibly formative years up to age 6.

Although churches are officially allowed in China, they are also rigidly controlled. Freedom of Religion as we know it in the USA is completely missing in this communistic nation. The only "official" Protestant church in China that is sanctioned by the government is called the Three-Self Patriotic Movement. According to Wikipedia: "In 1951, a Cantonese Christian named Y. T. Wu (1893–1979) initiated the Three-Self Patriotic Movement, which promoted a strategy of 'self-governance, self-support, and self-propagation' in order to remove foreign influences from the Chinese churches and to assure the communist government that the churches would be patriotic to the newly-established People's Republic of China. The 'Three-Self' is a characteristically Chinese way of abbreviating 'self-governance, self-support, self-propagation.'"

The full nature of the Christian church in China goes far beyond this state-sanctioned organization and thousands, if not millions worship and study the scriptures underground daily. Sadly, those who dare to worship in these underground, non-state supported churches are routinely persecuted and harassed and imprisoned. As the Communist Chinese government works overtime to prepare for the upcoming Olympics, which is supposed to showcase the best of their culture for the world to see, there will certainly be increased efforts to make sure the world does not see this 'shadow land' of the true, persecuted church of Christ.
If you wish to learn more about the persecuted church in China and around the world, check out the website for The Voice of the Martyrs. You can also subscribe free to their monthly magazine.

Monday, July 28, 2008

Bible Translation Causes Trauma

For most people reading the Bible can transform and uplift the spirit. However, one man claims that certain verses in particular translations have caused him "emotional pain and mental instability," according to a recent RNS story printed in the Grand Rapids Press. Because of this trauma, Bradley Lashown Fowler of Canton, Michigan, is now seeking $60 million from Zondervan, as well as $10 million from Thomas Nelson Publishing in a lawsuit filed in federal court on July 7. The reason for his trauma? Fowler claims that the Bibles published by the above companies refer to homosexuality as a sin and therefore have made him "an outcast from his family" and have "contributed to physical discomfort and periods of demoralization, chaos, and bewilderment." He believes that "the intent of the publisher was to design a religious, sacred document to reflect an individual opinion or a group's opinion or a group's conclusion to cause him or anyone who is a homosexual to endure verbal abuse, discrimination, episodes of hate, and physical violence...including murder."

Enough of the conspiracy thinking and paranoia. Maybe the Word is simply doing what it is intended to do: convict the sinful heart and lead it to repentance. When the hammer of the law strikes a sinful heart, there is bound to be inner pain. The Old Adam does not die easily. Perhaps Fowler is feeling the effects of the Spirit's calling, rather than imagined hatred of his assumed enemies.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

God's Timing

After 21 years of ministry I continue to be amazed at God's timing. Yesterday as I was planning out my day I debated about going to a nearby city for some hospital visits. However, I realized that I was also at that point where I needed to catch up with shut-in visits. Since I had to take my daughter into work and didn't want to waste gas, I ended up deciding to visit a shut-in south of town. Well, long story short, later in the day I received a phone call from this elderly woman's daughter informing me that she had suffered a serious stroke and was non-responsive. At this point I am unsure of her longterm prognosis, but at nearly 94 years of age it does not look very promising. Still, I couldn't help but recall how I almost chose to visit someone else that day, and unaware of God's plans for this woman my travel was redirected to this child of God in need of the Sacrament for what may prove to be the last time in this life. These divine travel and plan adjustments have happened at other times throughout the years, and I have quietly learned that my ministry is not my own to direct, but is, as it always has been, in God's control. And for that I am quite thankful.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

The Gospel of the Redman

This past week while attending Boy Scout camp, I came across a book in the camp's "Trading Post" that caught my eye. I also discovered that it is featured on the site, the BSA's online store for scouting material. Entitled The Gospel of the Redman, such a book seemed both appropriate and out of place at the same time. I say "appropriate" considering the influence of American/Native Indian customs on the scouting movement (e.g. Order of the Arrow ceremony, etc.). However, it also felt highly "out of place" when I thought about the title and began to read the contents of the volume. The Boy Scouts of America, while holding up the ideals of reverence and belief in God, does not endorse any faith.

The brief description at notes that: "Compiled from American Indian cultures, this classic work offers a glimpse of the ways, history, and philosophy of these proud peoples." This is misleading, though. "Philosophy" is much different than "religion," which is what this book is all about. Written by Earnest Thompson Seton (one of the founding members of the BSA movement) and his wife Julia in 1936, The Gospel of the Redman is a small treatise on the general spiritual beliefs of the American Indians. David C. Scott in an extended article on Seton and controversies surrounding the beginnings of the scouting movement observes:

The book describes and documents various philosophical teachings and beliefs of Native American Indians in a form that can be easily read, understood and taught in the outdoors. And it is highly spiritual and clearly states that "service to fellow man" is paramount. On page one Seton writes: "The culture of the Redman is fundamentally spiritual; his measure of success is, 'How much service have I rendered to my people?' His mode of life, his thought, his every act are given spiritual significance, approached and colored with complete realization of the spirit world.

Scott also notes that this book is used as "as a model for non-denominational Chapel services. " This is not surprising, considering Seton's universalistic approach to religion that attempts to summarize from the Indian religion what he sees as the essential common points of all faiths. After touting the endorsement of Jewish and Christian sources alike, he states in the forward that "it would seem that it (Indian spirituality) must be real religion since it is universal, basic and fundamental." (vii) At the same time, however, Seton also clearly has a bone to pick with Western Christianity, and wastes no time showing the seeming callousness of early missionaries to the Indians. For him Western culture, as a whole, is spiritually lacking, and he observes that the "culture and civilization of the Whiteman are
essentially material," while "The culture of the Redman is fundamentally spiritual" (1).

Unfortunately Seton not only errs in his universalism, but also in his blatant exaggeration of the virtues of the Native Americans as well. He states that "Their honesty is immaculate, and their purity of purpose and their observance of the rites of their religion are most uniform and remarkable" (2). As a Christian I would hardly make such a bold claim even for my own church, especially in a sinful world.

I will be forwarding my concerns about this book and its inclusion in the Scouting movement to the BSA. While I do not oppose educating on Indian spirituality in the right context, this book is clearly an apologetic for Indian religion, and therefore very inappropriate for the BSA to publicize and use. Even the religious awards used and worn by scouts are technically not officially sponsored by the BSA, but by a separate organizations. Instruction in the various faiths is left to counselors who are often not even members of scouting (e.g. the scout's minister) and is not like the regular merit badge program where the instructors must be from within the organization itself.

Saturday, July 12, 2008

God Is Not Dead Yet

In light of the recent little debate we have enjoyed on this blog regarding evolution and ID, the cover article for the July issue of Christianity Today seemed quite timely. "God Is Not Dead Yet - How Current Philosophers Argue for His Existence," the title reads, featuring a cover mimicking the old Time magazine's article: "Is God Dead?" (April 8, 1966), as seen to the right.

Author William Lane Craig indicates that the claim by the recent pate of atheist best-sellers that belief in God has become "intellectually indefensible for thinking people today," "is blissfully ignorant of the revolution that has taken place in Anglo-American philosophy. It reflects the scientism of a bygone generation rather than the contemporary intellectual scene."

Craig claims that the "cultural high point" for this "New Atheism" was actually in the mid-1960's. "Back in the 1940's and 50's, many philosophers believed that talk about God, since it is not verifiable by the five senses, it meaninglessness - actual nonsense. This verificationism finally collapased, in part because philosophers realized that verificationism itself could not be verified!"

The "turning point" Criag says, "probably came in 1967 with the publication of Alvin Plantinaga's God and Other Minds: A Study of the Rational Justification of Belief in God. In Plantinaga's train has followed a host of Christian philosophers, writing in scholarly journals and participating in professional conferences and publishing with the finest academic presses. The face of Anglo-American philosophy has been transformed as a result. Atheism, though perhaps still the dominant viewpoint at the American university, is a philosophy in retreat."

Craig also notes that this renaissance of Christian philosophy has been accompanied by a "resurgence of interest in natural theology, that branch of theology that seeks to prove God's existence apart from divine revelation."

As Craig paraphrased Mark Twain at the beginning of his article: "the news of God's demise was premature." For he notes that as they were writing his obituary, a "new generation of young philosophers was rediscovering his vitality." The church has always had an interest in defending the veracity and legitimacy of the faith to an unbelieving world, and therefore has long been active in the now rediscovered discipline of apologetics as well. Given, as I mentioned earlier, the origins debate briefly featured here, this philosophical change is good news for Christians who otherwise would be intimidated to stay in the shadows because of ridicule and fears of inadequacy.

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed

According to a recent documentary, for all the talk about academic freedom in the world of the large American university system, it would seem that it extends only as far as the system defines it - especially with regards to the subject of origins and science. Noted speechwriter Ben Stein stars as host of the film Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed. Dr. Angus Menuge, professor of philosophy at CUW, highlights the film in an article included in the Concordia University - Wisconsin magazine Concordian, including some seemingly revealing details about the expulsion of talented scientists who apparently were ‘expelled‘ from their positions for mentioning the theory of Intelligent Design:

“In the current climate, even when academicians have a relevant doctorate and a track-record of peer-reviewed publication, their careers suffer if they argue that the scientific evidence points to an intelligent source involved in the creation of the world.

In 1992, Dean Kenyon, a biology professor at San Francisco State University, was barred from teaching introductory biology classes after he shared his misgivings about evolutionary theory with his students. William Dembski was removed from his position as Directory of the Michael Polanyi Center at Baylor University in 2000 after making his pro-design views know. In 2003, Nancy Bryson was dismissed from Mississippi University for Women immediately after she gave a lecture on scientific criticisms of chemical and biological evolution to a group of honors students. Three years ago Caroline Crocker, a cell biologist at George Mason University, was forced to leave after discussing problems with Darwinian theory and mentioning the alternative of Intelligent Design. More recently, Guillermo Gonzalez, a brilliant astronomer at Iowa State University and author of 68 peer-reviewed science articles and a college-level text book on astronomy from Cambridge University Press, was denied tenure after publishing the book, The Privileged Planet, in which he argues that our solar system is ‘fine-tuned’ for intelligent life and ideal for scientific investigation.”

Expelled has been, to say the least, a controversial film, widely criticized from various sources. There is debate on the veracity of the film’s claims, especially the one’s mentioned above with regard to the expulsion of university professors. Wikipedia has a rather extensive article detailing the reactions to the film.

It is beyond my ability to adequately judge the content of this film and its claims (for one thing I have yet to even view it), and I realize that on any side of an issue there can be a tendency to exaggerate evidence to make a point. That being said, I can’t but wonder, though, just how open the scientific community really is when it comes to discussing theories such as Intelligent Design (ID). From the commentary I have read thus far, the point made again and again from those opposed to ID is the complaint of religion masquerading as science. ID is simply not accepted in any way as a scientific theory by those supportive of evolution as the prime explanation of origins. Therefore, if ID was discussed in a secular university classroom, the immediate reaction would be: You are discussing religion in a science class!

As long as serious academic discussion is closed to consideration of ID as a real scientific theory, science is still held captive to its own philosophical presuppositions. Labeling it as religion is presupposing that any supposed evidence that may point toward an intelligent cause is mere religious wishful thinking, and not a valid conclusion based on what was examined. Even if the claims of Expelled are less than fully truthful, it appears that the secular scientific community is closed and resistive to any real discussion on a theory that goes against the gospel of evolution. What do they have to lose by opening the door? Are they fearful that the masses will suddenly find faith and turn to God and plunge the academic world into a dark age of superstition? Hardly.

Monday, July 7, 2008

The Purpose and Meaning of Synodical Structures

In following a thread on the ALPB site I read a comment by Pastor Weedon on the purpose and role of the Synod that caused me to pause and think. He wrote:

"The difficulty, as I see it, is that in these parts we were always told that we contribute to Synod to support work together that we can't do alone so well: training pastors and missionaries; training teachers; providing published materials. Now, the problem with this argument became apparent some years back: the Synod doesn't give funds for those things anymore. The seminaries and colleges are on their own; the missionaries raise their own money; CPH gives money TO the Synod. So what ARE we giving the money for? That's the challenge. I think the tightened financial times for Synod can only be healthy. We've got a bloated bureaucracy at the top, and it can be pared down - especially in this age of the internet! Time to do some serious rethinking."

A debate has raged for some time now within LCMS circles, at least, on the overall purpose, direction and meaning of the synodical structure. One of those debates regards the fundamental question of whether "Synod" is "church" is the technical sense of the term, or whether it is just a political structure or man-made affiliation of churches. Dr. Marquart, as I remember it, believed that Synod was Church. Others disagree. Those who disagree see the true church only in the manifestation of the local congregation. Thus, synodical officers are simply corporate bureaucrats. And the practice of the Eucharist at large synodical gatherings is simply inappropriate if it is not directly hosted by a local congregation. I struggle with this. Did Paul view the churches of Asia only individually, or collectively? Were letters, such as the one written to the church in Corinth, written only to one local congregation, or was this a letter written to several under the title of the "church of Corinth"? The same with Rome, for we know that in the early church there were several churches in the greater Roman metropolis.

At any rate, the more immediate question raised by Weedon is very timely, especially as congregations consider how to appropriate their giving in light of a tighter economy. Why exactly do we give to Synod if it no longer directly supports many of the ministries it once did? Is the structure in need of some serious pruning? His point bears more thinking: "I think the tightened financial times for Synod can only be healthy. We've got a bloated bureaucracy at the top, and it can be pared down - especially in this age of the internet! Time to do some serious rethinking." What are your thoughts?

Friday, July 4, 2008

The American Revolution and Romans 13

As we celebrate once more the founding of our great nation, a question comes to mind as to its origin. The question concerns not the historical details, per se, but rather the theological justification. Lutherans have long held that the apostolic directives of Romans 13 require proper respect and obedience to the governing authorities, even if that authority is seen as morally suspect. The escape clause, as it were, is the other apostolic directive in Acts that reminds the church of the greater responsibility to obey God rather than man when the one attempts to restrict the other, especially the freedom to proclaim the Gospel.

I have often wondered, in light of the above, how a Lutheran would reason through the right to engage in revolutionary activity against a governing authority that did not seem, at the time, to be restricting the church's right to proclaim the Gospel. For those interested in a brief article by stellar Lutheran theologian that explores the dynamics of this question, you are encouraged to read Dr. John Warwick Montgomery's online article The Revolution: Christian In Spite of Itself (1996) which was excerpted from Christians in the Public Square, provided by the original Issues, Etc.

At the end of the article Montgomery writes:
"Were the American revolutionaries correct and the loyalists wrong? To the casual observer, it may appear very doubtful that in an age of increasing Parliamentarianism George III really offered a serious threat to English liberties, and taxation without representation seems a considerable distance from that abridgment of free decision-making which would imperil the Gospel. Likewise, the belief of many colonial pastors that the potential establishment of the bishopric in America would unify church and state so as to eliminate free expression religiously and politically (cf. Carl Bridenbaugh's Mitre and Sceptre) perhaps appears to be little more than a typical example of escalation-theory among the clergy. However, we of the twentieth century have-or should have-a perspective on totalitarianism that the eighteenth century itself lacked, and we can now see how fragile a flower liberty is and how readily its abridgment in one respect can lead to its destruction in general.

The American revolutionaries, whatever the theoretical justification they personally offered for their action and however unbiblical the beliefs of some of them were, did in fact choose to preserve the scriptural ideal of liberty and became the chief torchbearers of that ideal in the modern world. As so often happens in a fallen creation, to opt for one teaching of Scripture is to run afoul of another, and our revolutionary forefathers can well be criticized for the ease with which they glossed over the obligations of Romans 13 in choosing the "liberty wherewith Christ hath made us free." But their dilemma is the dilemma of every person in a fallen world, and-looking back on their decision from a 200-year vantage point-it is difficult to believe that they erred in creating a nation dedicated to the principle of individual freedom, where decisions for Christ could take place without fear or favor."

What do you think of Montgomery's reasoning? Is it right to even judge their decisions from our historical vantage point? Admittedly, it is difficult to be critical of their actions in light of the questions one would raise to a person's patriotic loyalties. I am very supportive of my country and have often appealed to Romans 13 for obedience and respect to the current government. It is for that reason I still wonder now how such thinking would have worked in in the 18th century.

On March 29 of last year I wrote a blog article "To What Degree Must We Obey?" in which I included a paper I had put together entitled "Romans 13 and Submission to the Governing Authorities." It can be accessed here if you care to read more.

Thursday, July 3, 2008

A Letter from my Father

My wife ran across a letter from my father the other day as we were cleaning out the garage. He passed away in September of 1988, and it is dated March 18 of that year. Despite the fact that 20 years have now passed, it still feels like yesterday. The point of sharing what follows is a reflection on how ones priorities and thinking change over the years with regard to ministry and time.

I arrived at my first parish, Grace Lutheran Church of Baldwin, Michigan, in August of 1987, fresh out of seminary. A month later I had to fly to Denver for my wedding. Naturally, after being away so soon and following a brief honeymoon, I felt that I should settle down and stay in the area for a while.

My father, on the other hand, had been admitted to the Veteran's Hospital in Milwaukee soon after I took my call, and although he would never be able to return home again, he still hoped for that possibility. Only 65 years old, his disabilities seemed far beyond his age. Naturally, both my mother and father were adjusting to the new changes of life without me near (they in mid-Wisconsin, me in Michigan). Looking back now, I wonder if I should have taken more time to be with them.

Dad writes:
"Your mother tells me that she hasn't seen you since you were married [September 1987]. I haven't seen you since you were ordained at the church [June 21, 1987] and I was sick in bed. I think that is the last time you were at home. Now your mother tells me that your vacation time isn't until in August. That's a long time away yet.

I'm getting along the best I can which doesn't mean much. Not having anything to do is what gets me down. I get weak spells and I think that's got something to do with my blood pressure and I have to lay down and rest. I do have an appointment at the G.I. Lab on the 25th of April so I don't think I'll be going anywhere before then. I haven't heard a thing from the social worker. Every time I ask I get the same old answers. You are not ready yet or we are working on it and we will let you know so I don't have any idea of when I will be leaving this place if I ever do. My morale gets gets pretty low here. It can't go no where else but down and there is no one here to try and boost your morale up. The mail is the only thing I have do look forward to.

Your mother was telling me how busy you are. If you like it Donald then you don't mind keeping yourself busy...."

Dad was never critical of my commitment to church and ministry. He understood. Yet I still wonder now if a trip sooner than August wouldn't have been in order. I had a small parish then and they would have understood. Hearing his sadness all these years later I regret that I didn't take that moment and go. I was faced with a similar dilemma here in this church soon after I arrived. My father-in-law was facing serious surgery in Denver and we need to be there. The leaders of my church never hesitated to encourage me. They knew the importance of family.

The demands of church and family often conflict, and choosing one over the other is a tough call. Learning balance takes time, and 21 years have brought difficult but valuable lessons for this pastor. For any readers out there who are just going into the ministry, do not forget your responsibilities to your family. Remember that sometimes the requirements of ministry can wait for you to tend to your equally important call as father, husband, or son. Looking back I realize that some moments were lost that cannot be reclaimed. Perhaps passing on these thoughts can redeem a bit of that.

[Note: The picture to the right is captioned by my mother: "Dad - 3/30/88 - His corner of the world." It sits on my desk at the church.]

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Baptists that Use the Liturgy

As Lutherans continue to jettison the beautiful liturgy, evangelicals pick up this discarded treasure along the way and discover the gem we so willingly lost. Some apparently found it a while back - even the Baptists, a seemingly anti-creedal/ anti-liturgical church if there ever was one. In one of the letters to the editor in the July 2008 issue of Christianity Today, one reader writes a familiar lament often heard by confessional Lutherans:

"Raised in a dully affiliated Southern Baptist/American Baptist church that followed the liturgy, I have searched ever since for Protestant churches steeped in this tradition as I've moved around the country. Along the way, I've tried to return to my Baptist roots more than once, but have repeatedly experienced worship services that not only lack any liturgical elements, but also have a carnival-like atmosphere in which the focus is more on the people than on God. Just to cite one obvious example: Why do so many Bible churches set aside no time for formal Scripture readings as part of the service, rather than as a mere segue into the pastor's sermon? While emphasizing our personal relationship with God, some churches neglect God's power and mystery evoked by the liturgy, which Galli described so well."

Now the only thing we need to do for this poor soul is to find him a good Lutheran church. His letter is signed from Milford, Virginia. Anyone want to look up J. Steven Moore and invite him to church?

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

The Limits of Dial-Up

Recently the good news was announced that Issues, Etc. was back. When it departed I shared the grief that a good, solid Lutheran program was no more. Still, my grief was tempered by the fact that my only connection was the journal I received in the mail (which was excellent, BTW.) You see, I am not in St. Louis, and ---I have dial-up. All those You-Tube tack-ons that people include in their blogs go unnoticed by me, because by the time they load I have added yet one more gray hair to my beard. Unless I was willing to pay the rather steep rates demanded by satellite (which I am not), the only hope is that someone will put a tower out here in the hinterlands with a strong enough signal that I can actually enjoy high-speed (or upgrade the existing ones.)

It's funny how the word "dial-up" used to refer to a phone with a real dial that you turned with your finger to make a call. How times have changed. (If you are too young to remember one of these ancient artifacts, there's a picture to the right of one I used even into my adult years - Imagine that!)

At any rate, if you are one of the few that hasn't heard of the resurrection of Issues, and you have the internet technology to enjoy it, go here. Then tell me how wonderful it is so I can drool on my keyboard.