A Church of Mercy

(cross-posted from simplyxian.com)

Protestants, especially conservatives and/or Evangelicals, are often hesitant to champion social causes or acts of mercy…typically equating them with the ‘social gospel’ of the early 20th century and its associated liberal theology. The connection, however, is clearly unwarranted and unscriptural.  Hopefully that incorrect connection will soon fade away into memory as more and more Christians get involved in reaching out to help those in need, as Jesus did.

Richard Stearns’ Hole in Our Gospel is a powerful antidote to this kind of thinking.  If you haven’t read it, you should.  You won’t be able to put it down, and then you won’t be able to get it out of your head.  Also, Jeremy Tate has just written a wonderful post of being a Church of mercy.  While I don’t agree with his conclusion that her consistent acts of mercy show the Roman Catholic Church to be the one true church, the example set by Catholicism in this respect is definitely humbling and worthy of others’ imitation.

read: A Church of Mercy

photo courtesy of stock.xchng

Still More Luther on Prayer

Luther and Lutherans aren’t exactly known for being bold or fervent prayer warriors, which is unfortunate.  In fact, quite the opposite is true.  We are scorned by many Evangelicals for our prepared collects and carefully crafted prayers…though clearly the Holy Spirit is more glorified by extemporaneous prayers, right?  Sarcasm aside, Luther was a bold warrior in prayer, and he has much to teach us if we will only listen.  It is well known that he wrestled constantly against the Devil, but he was one also to wrestle with God in prayer…boldly.  As he says:

We should pray with confidence, knowing that God will answer our requests without delay.  It’s impossible for sincere, persistent prayer to remain unheard.  But because we don’t believe, we aren’t persistent enough and don’t experience God’s goodness and help.  So we must become more enthusiastic about faith and prayer, knowing that God is pleased when we persevere.  In fact, God ordered us to be persistent in prayer:  “Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you” (Mt 7.7).

Our prayers are answered much differently–actually, more generously–than we could ever ask or imagine (Eph 3.20).  Paul says, “In the same way…” (Rom 8.26-27).

We always ask for less than we should and don’t even think God is willing to give us what we ask for.  We don’t ask the right way.  We don’t understand that what we pray about is more important than we can comprehend.  We think small, but the Lord is great and powerful.  He expects us to ask for great things.  He wants to give them to us to demonstrate his almighty power.
(from Faith Alone: A Daily Devotional /LW 6:158)

Let our own prayers be emboldened, and “let us come boldly to the throne of our gracious God. There we will receive his mercy, and we will find grace to help us when we need it most!” (Heb 4.16 NLT).

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The New Iconoclasm

Yesterday, Father Stephen wrote a wonderfully articulate and informative piece about icons and iconoclasm.  In it, he concisely presents the Orthodox understanding of icons, the theology behind them, and a brief outline of the history of iconoclasm (“icon smashing”).  Though he doesn’t develop the point further, as it does not pertain to the thrust of his article, one line has been running around my mind since I read it.  He says:

The plain truth of the matter is that God is an icon-maker. He first made man “in His own image.” And in becoming man, the man he became is described as the “image of the invisible God” (Col. 1:15).

Throughout history, but especially since the time of the Reformation (at least in the West), people have reacted violently against icons and have worked themselves up into a frenzy at times to destroy them with great violence and rage.  This iconoclasm, Fr. Stephen writes, is “a spirit of hate and anger…[mistakenly] attributed to zeal or excused as exuberance.”  It is a sad testimony to Christian history, that brothers and sisters in Christ have reacted so violently against one another, especially in the name of piety and purity.

As unfortunate as religious iconoclasm is, my contemplation has not focused on God’s work and iconography but on God’s work and humanity.  Judaism and Christianity have always maintained that men and women (i.e. all of humanity), are wonderfully made in the image of God, the imago Dei.  In Genesis 1, we read:

Then God said, “Let us make human beings in our image, to be like us. They will reign over the fish in the sea, the birds in the sky, the livestock, all the wild animals on the earth, and the small animals that scurry along the ground.”

So God created human beings in his own image.
In the image of God he created them;
male and female he created them.  (Gen 1.26-27, NLT)
God is the original icon maker, and the original icon (image) of God is humanity.  Sadly, our society reacts toward these icons created of flesh and blood in exactly the same way as the Iconoclasts reacted against the icons created of gold and paint–with violence, hatred, and rage.   Murder, abortion, rape, verbal abuse, child abuse, domestic violence, hatred, racism, genocide, pornography, and violence / abuse of all kinds…these are the “new iconoclasm.”
The legacy of religious iconoclasm, according to Fr. Stephen, is secularization.  But what of the legacy of this “new iconoclasm”?  May God have mercy upon us…
Kyrie eleison; Christe eleison; Kyrie eleison.
Κύριε ἐλέησον, Χριστὲ ἐλέησον, Κύριε ἐλέησον.
Lord have mercy; Christ have mercy; Lord have mercy.

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Still More Luther on Prayer

For the Christian, prayer is part of what we are.  It should be more than second nature, it should be first nature…and yet, for many of us, we struggle throughout our lives trying to develop our “prayer life” to the point of our own satisfaction.  Many times, especially in times of backsliding, we often hesitate to pray, thinking that our prayers will not be heard on account of our complete lack of personal righteousness.  This line of thinking, however, is incorrect.   Our prayers are never heard because of anything inherent in us, but are heard and answered solely because of the faithfulness and mercy of God.  As Luther says, writing on Luke 18.9-14:

Some say, “I would feel better about God hearing my prayer if I were more worthy and lived a better life.”  I simply answer:  If you don’t want to pray before you feel that you are worthy or qualified, then you will never pray again.  Prayer must not be based on or depend on your personal worthiness or the quality of the prayer itself; rather, it must be based on the unchanging truth of God’s promise.  If the prayer is based on itself or on anything else besides God’s promise, then it’s a false prayer that deceives you–even if your heart is breaking with intense devotion and you are weeping drops of blood.

We pray because we are unworthy to pray.  Our prayers are heard precisely because we believe that we are unworthy.  We become worthy to pray when we risk everything on God’s faithfulness alone.

As usual, Luther totally nails this, “We become worthy to pray when we risk everything on God’s faithfulness alone.”   Yes!  Prayer is risky business, not because of our unrighteousness but because of our complete and utter dependence upon God!

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On Loving Our Neighbors

Loving our neighbors is one of the greatest challenges in both the Old and New Testaments.  Our sinful nature and selfishness make us naturally put ourselves first, in direct contradiction to the command of God.  Added to this, our contemporary American culture and its infatuation with the supremacy of the self has lessened any cultural emphasis on selflessly helping others in need.  Sadly, contemporary American Christianity is following our culture’s emphasis on the infatuation with self and has done little to sound the clarion call to love and serve our neighbors.

Historically, however, this self-centered approach is foreign to a Christ-centered understanding of Christianity (and a conservative approach to Judaism).  Writing on Galatians 5.14, Luther says:

No one should think they fully understand this command: “Love your neighbor.”  Certainly this command is very short and very easy as far as the words are concerned.  But where are the teachers and learners who actually practice this in life?  These words, “Serve one another humbly in love,” and “Love your neighbor as yourself,” are eternal words.  No one can think about, urge, and practice them enough.

Tuesday and Wednesday, I had the wonderful opportunity to head to Galveston with several other members of the Texas Air National Guard and help serve lunches at Moody Memorial UMC.  The church, together with Lighthouse Charities, has been preparing and serving lunches free of charge to anyone in town since folks were let back on the island after Ike.  Though we still have a ‘blue roof’ and much of our fence blown down in the back yard, our lives have largely returned to pre-storm normal.  Going to Galveston, however, I was reminded that a great number of people will be feeling the effects of Ike will be felt for many, many months to come.  This was my first post-Ike trip to Galveston and the devastation, though expected in my mind, was still shocking.  As resiliant as folks on the island are, it will still be a long, long time until life settles into a “new normal.”  Until then, as everyday if we will simply look around, there are countless opportunities to love and serve our neighbors…if we will only practice the words we know so well.

A new friend, Randall, going through the damage in Galveston after Ike.

 

Worthless Things

I love it when my daily lectionary readings come together and really punch me in the chest!  This morning’s Psalter reading (from BoC) and Gospel reading (from LSB) did just that…and it was awesome.

In Psalm 119, I read:

Turn my eyes from looking at worthless things;
and give me life in your ways.  (Ps 119.37, ESV)

That line was enough to get and keep me thinking about the worthless things of the world that so often entice us away from what is truly important.  Surely we could all provide a litany of these sorts of things that almost continually threaten to pull our attention away from Christ and his kingdom.  Quite honestly, I was driven to repentance over all the times that I wander, pursuing these worthless things instead of clinging to Christ–and pleaded with God for grace to focus more on him than the world.

Then in Matthew, I read:

Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil.  And after fasting forty days and forty nights, he was hungry.  And the tempter came and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.”  But he answered, “It is written,

“‘Man shall not live by bread alone,
but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.’”

Then the devil took him to the holy city and set him on the pinnacle of the temple and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down, for it is written,

“‘He will command his angels concerning you,’

and

“‘On their hands they will bear you up,
lest you strike your foot against a stone.’”

Jesus said to him, “Again it is written, ‘You shall not put the Lord your God to the test.’” Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their glory.  And he said to him, “All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.”  Then Jesus said to him, “Be gone, Satan! For it is written,

“‘You shall worship the Lord your God
and him only shall you serve.’”

Then the devil left him, and behold, angels came and were ministering to him. (Mt 4.1-11, ESV)

No sooner was my prayer uttered than it was answered in this account from the life of Christ!  Here he faced temptation to chase after what are clearly ‘worthless things’:

  • Necessary (but mundane) necessities over which Christ has taught us not to worry
  • Spectacular and miraculous manifestations, which can actually be sinful tests of God
  • Personal glory and honor, which clearly is wrong when sought out, esp. through sinful means

To beat the temptations of these worthless things, Jesus relied continually on the Word of God to focus on the revealed will of God.

Sure, it’s simple.  Sure, we’ve heard this countless times.  Sure, we know these things to be true…

…and yet, like all the blessings of the God in Christ Jesus, we cannot hear these words too often.  Thanks be to God for his grace!

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Luther on Crying Out to God

In my little corner of the world, there has been much talk recently about calling on God for help in times of trouble.  While many want God to come to their rescue at a moment’s notice, few seem willing to struggle and wrestle in prayer…instead praying haphazardly or ‘as if you’re shouting into the wind.’  “In this case,” Luther says, “it would be better not to pray at all.”  Instead, teaching on Psalm 118, Luther says:

You must learn to call on the Lord.  Don’t sit all alone or lie on the couch, shaking your head and letting your thoughts torture you.  Don’t worry about how to get out of your situation or brood about your terrible life, how miserable you feel, and what a bad person you are.  Instead, say, “Get a grip on yourself, you lazy bum!  Fall on your knees, and raise your hands and eyes toward heaven.  Read a psalm.  Say the Lord’s Prayer, and tearfully tell God what you need.”  This passage [Ps 118.5] teaches us to call on him.  Similarly, David said, “I pour out my complaint before him; before him I tell my trouble” (Ps 142.2).  God wants you to tell him your troubles.  He doesn’t want you to keep them to yourself.  He doesn’t want you to struggle with them all alone and torture yourself.  Doing this will only multiply your troubles.

God knows you will be too weak to overcome your troubles by yourself.  He wants you to grow strong in him.  Then he will be the one who receives the glory.  Out of difficult experiences emerge true Christians.  Without troubles, people talk a lot about faith and the Spirit but don’t really know what these things are or what they’re saying.
(from Faith Alone: A Daily Devotional / LW 14:60)

The point is quite simply this:  In his great mercy, through Christ Jesus, God has provided us:

  • An ear for our complaints
  • Companionship in times of loneliness
  • Strength in times of weakness
  • Perseverance in times of impatience
  • Help when we are overwhelmed
  • Growth in times of struggle
  • Relief in times of inundation

That said, as earthly fathers often restrain themselves from helping their children until asked in order to teach their children trust, reliance, and hope, so our Heavenly Father teaches us to cry out to him in our time of need.  And he will answer us through reassurance from his Word, a gentle word from others, physical aid from others, the peace that surpasses understanding (Phil 4.7), or another means.  Even if he delays, we may continue to hope, knowing that “out of difficult experiences emerge true Christians.”

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