Tuesday, March 21, 2017

The Heart Aflame (Calvin's Emblem Redux)

Related imageRecently I was helping with a renewal event at a church here in the thriving metropolis of Cedar Rapids, and one of the speakers, knowing I was a Presbyterian pastor, asked me to talk to the gathering about the crest, or emblem, of John Calvin.  Providentially (as we say in the Reformed tradition), the Lord had prepared me to be able to speak to the dedication and passion that is expressed in this intriguing statement about John Calvin’s personal faith.
“Cor meum quasi immolatum tibi offero, Domine, prompte et sincere” were the words emblazoned over the pulpit from which Calvin preached and taught at St. Peter’s Cathedral in Geneva.  In English, “My heart as though aflame I give you, Lord, eagerly and honestly.”  It is a statement indicative of the passion Calvin has for God and for serving God.  His heart has been ignited by faith in Christ, which is why he says the heart is already aflame even as it is being offered to God.  In this we see Calvin’s view of faith as more than some kind of contractual consent between the believer and God.  Rather, Calvin understands faith to be a tangible “touch” that we experience as a fire in our inner most being!  It enlivens, indeed, it illuminates us with an experience of faith that begins and supports an ongoing growth in the fruits of the Holy Spirit, in other words, a growing healthy spiritual life.  Thus, to have faith in Christ is to enter into a most real, aware, and sensory experience of being a living, breathing human person.
One of the interesting things about Calvin’s motto is that later quotes tend to leave out the phrase, “quasi immolatum” or “as though aflame.”  Almost everyone still refers to the flaming heart pictured in the emblem, but rarely is it retained in the motto itself.  While this is probably just an innocent development in the passing down of the motto, it does raise the idea of a “cooler,” or less emotive sense of faith.  For many, their experience of Christ, church, and faith are much less than “fiery.”  For many of us, we’ve never felt that “fire in our bones,” as the prophets describe it.  When Pascal experienced the reality of God in his life, he just repeated the word, “fire, fire, fire.”  Is it possible that those words “as though aflame” have been discarded to fit the “cooled religious feelings” of Calvin’s theological descendants?  How many Reformed, Presbyterian, and congregational ministries can be called “passionate” in today’s churches?  How many Presbyterians, especially in the United States, have any sense of “fire” in their faith? 
Let me submit to you that this is the key to both our personal walk with Christ as well as our experience of being part of a church; that is, is your heart “aflame” with faith?  Is your faith in Christ something that grabs you deep within, something that makes you feel your heart beat, making you aware of the power of life coursing through your arteries and veins?  We can talk about what we should believe, and we can discuss the things we should do.  We can have a basic understanding of who Jesus is, and even have a finely honed orthodox knowledge of Christian beliefs, but it means nothing if we haven’t at some point experienced faith as a “majestic meekness” and a “sweet burning in my heart,” as Jonathan Edwards phrases it.  The writer to the Hebrews is even more descriptive of the experience of grace and faith when he says, “…let us be thankful and so worship God acceptably with reverence and awe, for our God is a consuming fire.”
So, is your faith in God like cooled off lava, having hardened into the religious impressive equivalent of polished basalt or sculpted obsidian – beautiful, but hard and cold?  Or does your faith bear with it the gift of the living God, who breathes life into your soul, causing your heart to stir with the fires of love, joy, and peace; things that lead to life – life overflowing?!   

Friday, May 6, 2016

Of Pastries And Potties

The cruel evil entity called ISIS is on the march in the Near East, Texas is experiencing deadly flooding, the world economy is on the verge of devastating collapse, refugees continue to pour into Europe and the USA from Africa and the Near East, anti-Semitism is on the rise in many places, racial prejudice is tearing apart a number of American cities, a narcissistic criminal is about to be nominated for President by the Democrats, and a narcissistic con-man is about to be nominated for president by the Republicans! So - what is our society focusing on as of critical importance right now - what are companies, states, and other corporate entities taking sides on and are willing to stake their economic and social viability and future on?

The answer: baking cakes with pro-gay messages and who can use what restroom!

Surely, this is a clear sign that American society has lost its senses, or, at least, any understanding of what truly matters and what truly doesn't matter.

Obviously, the so-called LGBT (and whatever else may be being conjured up in the moral abyss for which to claim rights) activists have decided that their agenda and desires are more important than the needs and issues that face everyone else. And they have apparently decided that since the marriage barrier has been broken and conquered, it is time to move on to better and more critical issues, such as making people who have sincere religious objections to gay marriage be forced to write pro-gay messages on cakes (it is very noteworthy that so far only Christian bakers, and not Muslim bakers, have been targeted by star-crossed same sex lovers) and making sure that any man can march into any women's restroom in the name of equality and justice (which is why I will be accompanying my 10 year old daughter into any restroom frequented by men in order to insure that justice is maintained).

The fact that these are the issues de jour at this time in our country shows the moral and character bankruptcy of American society. We are like squirrels fighting over a crushed acorn in the middle of a traffic way, unaware that a huge semi-truck is barrelling down the road, about to crush them and the nut together.

This is seriously silly!  Seriously!

Saturday, April 30, 2016

Some Thoughts

When the Supreme Court ruled that same sex marriage was a constitutional right under the 14th amendment, the majority and minority opinions said that this should not be used to pressure or intimidate those who disagree with and do not accept same sex marriage.

All the justices made it clear that those who hold to the belief that marriage is a union between one man and one woman are not to be considered bigots, and that it is the just and good right of anyone to hold to this belief.

They also went further to say that the "right" of same sex marriage should not be used to censure or punish those who disagree through either legislation, litigation, or employment.

Also, many proponents of same sex marriage declared with great bravado that giving same sex marriage legal status would not have any substantial effect on "traditional" marriage, and would not change anything for those who practice heterosexual marriage.

Many same sex marriage proponents said that the issue of concern was only same sex marriage, and that the legal status of same sex unions would have nothing to do with polymorphous marriage or people who considered themselves transgendered.

It was also declared that the legalization of same sex marriage would have little or no real effect on American society or the daily lives of most people.

Well, so much for those thoughts!

Friday, February 26, 2016

Clever Kopp Comment

(I came across this clever comment in the Kopp Disclosure, a blog by Dr. Robert Kopp, a pastor in Illinois.  I thought those of you from all political stripes might find this amusing.)

Once upon a time there was a king who
wanted to go fishing.

He called the royal weather forecaster and
inquired as to the weather forecast for the next few hours.
The weatherman assured
him that there was no chance of rain in the coming days.

So the king went fishing with his wife, the queen.

On the way he met a farmer on his donkey. Upon seeing the king the farmer said, "Your Majesty, you should return to the palace at once because in just a short time I expect a huge amount of rain to fall in this area". The king was polite and considerate, he replied: "I hold the palace meteorologist in high regard. He is an extensively educated and experienced professional. And besides, I pay him very high wages. He gave me a very different forecast. I trust him and I will continue on my way."

So he continued on his way.
However, a short time later a torrential rain fell from the sky.
The King and Queen were totally soaked and their entourage chuckled upon seeing them in such a shameful condition.
Furious, the king returned to the palace and gave the order to fire the professional. Then he summoned the farmer and offered him the prestigious and high paying role of royal forecaster.

The farmer said, "Your Majesty, I do not know anything about forecasting. I obtain my information from my donkey. If I see my donkey's ears drooping, it means with certainty that it will rain."

So the king hired the donkey.

And thus began the practice of hiring dumb asses to work in the government and occupy its highest and most influential positions.

And the practice is unbroken to this day...
From KOPP DISCLOSURE: I've Got to Ask!

Wednesday, February 24, 2016

The Trump Temptation

I, like many, have been puzzled by the apparent success (so far) of Donald Trump as a presidential candidate.  Sure, I get it that many people are angry at the present morass that passes as a government in the United States, and there is great fear regarding the attacks on American culture by the Obama administration and the anti-Christian socialist Left.  So, I do understand the appeal the Donald has for those who just want to express their outrage and fear toward politicians who care only about their personal power and are willing to sacrifice the great American heritage for the sake of gaining approval in the great Washington insiders club. But what I don't get is the willingness of so many so called "evangelical Christians" to support Mr. Trump even though he has in the recent past and in the immediate present spoken and acted against basic Christian beliefs and practices.  As Pope Francis (with whom I disagree on many political views) declared in his trip to Mexico, there are certain attitudes and actions that can actually be considered as "not Christian" because they go against what the Church, the Bible, and our Lord Jesus the Christ teaches.

Here is a man who has personally benefitted financially by the suffering and weaknesses of others. As a major casino developer and owner, he has preyed upon the frailty of people who gamble compulsively.  He has reaped rewards by purveying many of the things that are associated with casinos and gambling, such as pornography.  His many bankruptcies, while legal, have resulted in many smaller less protected investors being ruined financially.  Sure, this may be an accepted business practice, but I have known committed Christian business persons who have risked everything financially and endured great personal hardships in order to avoid a bankruptcy that would have devastated their fellow investors.  And I haven't even yet mentioned the personal character traits of being mean and unforgiving to those Mr. Trump considers less worthy than himself, his prideful declaration that he doesn't need to ask God for forgiveness, his support for the Mengele-inspired Planned Parenthood, or his own reveling in his moral peccadilloes.  

In short, it is highly likely that a President Trump would be a far more virulent enemy of the Christian faith than President Obama has ever been.  Obama is simply misguided, whereas Mr. Trump is intently dismissive! For him any religion is just a pawn to be used to advance his goals, which consist primarily of self aggrandizement and amassing as much power over others as he can.

Now, in saying all this (and I am sure it sounds a bit harsh), I am not trying to make Mr. Trump out to be an evil man, or to say he is self-consciously trying to become a tyrannical enemy of the Church. I personally like him and find him very entertaining.  I have read about some of the very kind things he has done for others, and he is reported to be a very attentive and loving father. That is all commendable, but up to this point it is clear that he is not advancing a Christian friendly view of people and the world.  

It is clear that he is willing to say whatever to anyone to feed upon their fears for his own personal benefit, a practice well in line with his approach to business in general.  He is not a self-reflective man.  He ignores Socrates' admonition to "know thyself,"  and I suspect he rarely ponders the questions of what is right or wrong, and good or evil. His identity, intentions, and actions are all about one thing and one thing only: to "make the deal." (I am afraid that Mr. Trump would be quite lost in a conversation with Augustine regarding the eudaimonistic virtues of the the greatest good, with Kant regarding the deontological nuances of personal motives, or with Mill regarding the utilitarian consequences of our actions.)

First of all, even Christians are still human.  As the reformer Martin Luther rightly declares, all Christians are simultaneously saint and sinner. So, it is quite intrinsically human to sacrifice personal character and beliefs in order to gain personal security and to strike back at someone or something that has hurt you, or who threatens to do so.  It seems that many Christians are doing just that.  They rightfully fear for the safety of this country given the threats in our world today and the Obama administration's weak response to them.  They are angry at those on the political and social Left who are attacking the traditional values and cultural heritage of America, even to the point of seeking to silence evangelical, orthodox, and Catholic Christians (and political conservatives) with repressive social and legal maneuvering.  

Many Americans are extremely upset with the dishonesty and corruption of the Democrat party, and the supercilious selling out and hypocrisy of the Republicans.  Our government no longer serves the people, but seeks to subjugate everyone for the benefit of a select few. There is in all of us a primal desire to strike back, and Mr. Trump is telling us that he will do this for us. He riles the politically correct, stripping them of their smug veneer and revealing their Orwellian desire to dominate others.  He promises that Christians will be protected from their adversaries so Christians can have a safe space in our society.  He angers those who have up to this point appeared immune to having to give account for their agendas and opinions.  These things are very attractive to people who feel powerless before the onslaught of despotic liberal policies and the mocking self-righteous fascism of the so-called social progressives. Mr. Trump knows this, and he knows exactly how to use it.

Secondly, many "evangelical" Christians are succumbing to the temptation that their brothers and sisters on the liberal religious Left and in the fundamentalist Right 
have been doing for so long (a temptation, I might add, common to Christians since the days of the Emperor Constantine in the fourth century). As the devil tried to make a deal with Jesus to get him to bow down to the devil just once in order to reclaim the world for God, so Christians are being tempted to set aside biblical principles and values in order to gain vindication and respect in our society.  There is nothing wrong with seeking these things, but God's way calls us to be faithful to God's will expressed through the living Word, Jesus the Christ; and the written Word, the Bible; even at the expense of our own security and satisfaction. 

When the devil tried to tempt Jesus, Jesus chose to trust that God's way of self-sacrifice would ultimately be the way that God would bring true security and true vindication. The devil offers the illusion of an easier and more immediate way, but it is a lie. If Jesus had bowed to the devil, then the world the devil promised would have been lost, not redeemed. If Christians (or any group, for that matter) place their trust in a person who is so manifestly devoid of regard for God, is this not in a real and substantial sense bowing our knee to the devil and hoping this will somehow bring about the things promised by God?

(I am not saying only a faithful Christian can be supported as a candidate for president.  As the reformer Martin Luther aptly stated, it is better to be governed by "a wise Turk" rather than a foolish Christian.)

Yes, there are many threats and dangers facing Christians in the world today, and yes, American society is becoming very hostile to any who would dare name the Name of Jesus and seek to be his faithful disciple.  However, any candidate who courts the votes of Christians and is not seeking to live by God's will, is not willing to admit their need for God's grace, and who shows no repentance (or even remorse) for their failings in life, is not a candidate who will seek the good and welfare of Christians when they become the President of the United States. 

I would love to hear Mr. Trump declare his faith in Christ through repentance for his sins and to demonstrate a humble resolve to grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. So far, though, he has defiantly flaunted only rancor and hubris, with a Saul Alinsky arrow for any who question or cross him.   Indeed, Mr. Trump in his present form is simply a right wing version of Barack Obama, a ruthless demagogue who has no regard for America, Christianity, and the Constitution. Like the present man in the White House, Mr. Donald Trump will govern with the aristocratic mindset that America's founders sought to leave behind in Europe, and whose subsequent waves of immigrants risked all to escape. This is definitely not a good deal!

Wednesday, November 4, 2015


Like many large American protestant churches, the church I presently attend has what would be labelled a contemporary style of worship. We have the obligatory praise band with a worship leader who is an excellent singer and musician. During most songs, the congregation stands, and there is freedom to move around, and even dance, if one is so disposed at the moment.  The lead pastor (no one dare say the words "senior pastor" or "head of staff" into today's ultra-egalitarian cultural regimen) delivers excellent and edifying sermons in these services, and the church is a serving church that supports and is involved in many wonderful missions. So this is a very, very good evangelical church!

But... as I was standing in worship recently, singing one of the current popular praise songs, I became aware that most of the men were not singing.  In fact, most of them were fairly stationary as they politely stood, and here and there some were raising their hands. Of course, a few were much more expressive, but almost all of them were not singing! In fact, many of the women, even though they tended to be more expressive in moving around, also were not singing.  Even I, a veteran pastor who has developed and presided over many worship services (traditional, contemporary, and "blended"), only sang certain songs, forgoing many of the ones with more involved cadences.

Now what I was observing is a phenomenon that many have noted who study and comment on the current trends in American worship: that men (and many women as well) tend to not sing in a typical contemporary service where a praise band leads while people read the words of songs as they are projected onto a large screen.  Many worship services today are dominated by musicians who more than lead people in worship, they essentially worship on their behalf. Worship in many cases has become the "work of the professionals" rather than the "work of the people," as is the meaning of the Latin word "liturgia" and its English derivative, "liturgy." As I reflected on this (yes, I did this during the service, even during the sermon) it occurred to me how similar these dynamics are to the old medieval Mass prior to the time of the Reformation.

In the medieval Mass, the congregants did not participate very much in what was happening. As the priest "celebrated" (which usually meant repeating the words in a rote manner), he alone drank from the Cup during the Eucharist.  The people were permitted to receive only the Bread. However, even this was avoided by most medieval worshippers because they were so fearful of handling it improperly. They thought only a trained and specially consecrated priest could do it correctly and worthily. (Just prior to the Reformation, many people took the Bread only once a year out of fear of mishandling the Sacrament.) Even singing was reserved for special choirs or trained musicians, causing congregational singing to disappear entirely from medieval worship until John Hus reintroduced it (with guitar, by the way) at Bethlehem Chapel (in Prague in the first decade of the 1400's). Clearly, worship was primarily the province of the special and the specialised.  Mere ordinary people simply were expected to observe the performance with subservience, awe, and respect.

It appears that in contemporary worship much of the medieval divide between the congregation and worship leaders has re-emerged.  Just as the priest and other specially authorized liturgists were the only ones "celebrating" while everyone else just watched, so today the congregation is gathered as a compliant audience for the performers who sing and make melody.  I have many times heard ministers associated with contemporary worship styles use the word "stage" or "platform" for the front (or center in some cases) area of the sanctuary.  Even the word "sanctuary" has been replaced in many churches with the term "auditorium."  Now, I enjoy a good contemporary service as much as anyone, and most of the churches I have served as pastor have "contemporized" their worship styles, but perhaps this approach carries with it an inherent danger of discouraging people from feeling like they are truly a part of what is happening in worship.

This makes me wonder if one of the reasons that traditional worship is so fiercely held onto by some congregations is not just because of a fear of change (although that is the reason many times), but because people feel more involved when congregational singing is centered in the congregation itself rather than a select group of musicians.  When the words are clear, the melodies are simple, and there is theological substance, then worship truly can be "the work of the people."  In most contemporary services there is a growing trend to sing two or three of the old hymns.  Even with some alterations or additions to the words, people old and young generally will sing these without hesitation and with deep emotional investment (even when the person is otherwise unfamiliar with the hymn).  They are worshipping from within, sharing a spiritual moment with those around them, and participating with the worship leaders rather than just being led by them.  There is a real sense that together we are in the presence of God!

Now, I'm not suggesting that all praise bands be "dis-banded" (sorry, I couldn't resist the cheap pun) and that we fill worship with just tired old hymns accompanied only by poorly played organs just because they are better known or easier to sing.  But I am saying that it is important that music be used to enable people to be participants and doers of worship rather than extraneous appendages.  Contemporary music can be just as effective in evoking personal involvement and investment as any old time Gospel song if the worship leaders are consciously committed to being servants of God and the people. Expertise and excellence in all the aspects of worship are good when used to enhance the experience of worship, but are quite deadening when trying to impress everyone.   Leaders of worship in any style need to be conscious of leading people into an encounter with the living God.  

Well, next Sunday I will be back at the fine, faithful church that inspired this friendly rant about contemporary music. Again I'll be taking my place as an easily distracted worshipper with the fallible yet forgiven people of God.  I know the music will be good.  I will enjoy singing both the old and the new, and hopefully I can allow the Spirit to keep my mind focused on more meaningful topics, such as the love, grace, and truth of Jesus the Christ.  And this time, maybe I actually will listen to the sermon.

Sunday, August 2, 2015


It seems that Christians in the United States and Western Europe are entering an uncomfortable era of disfavor in society. This is something new and daunting for us in the so-called "First World," but is something that Christians in the rest of the world are quite used to and familiar with. While this is troubling, and, like many other believers, I have fears of how this may become expressed in not just hatred, but outright persecution of those who name the Name of Christ, it is probably something that will make the church stronger and more truly authentic in living out the Gospel of Jesus. After all, when one has lots of enemies, there are more than ample opportunities to love them. 

Soren Kierkegaard, the great Danish philospher and follower of Jesus, remarked that the best way to destroy the Christian faith was for it to be favored by society. Well, we have experienced this "attack" of being favored over the past years in American society, and the result has been as Kierkegaard predicted: a weak and insincere Christianity that literally lusts after the affections of the prevailing culture. Like barnacles attaching to a ship's hull, we see many Christian groups today going the directions mandated by our society. Rather than being a church of the Word, we have become a church of the world. (This is true of not only the "liberal" church, but also the conservatives and evangelicals as well.) 

In the new context of disfavor, there is one very good discovery that is occuring. The Gospel message of Jesus being God in human flesh, living among us, teaching and modeling God's intentions for humans, then dying on the Cross for our sins, and being raised from the dead by God on the third day is becoming fresh and new again. For the believer, the amazing power of God is becoming clearer to see. For the nonbeliever, the incredible foolishness of such claims are seen in stark relief to the supposed wisdom of secular sensibilities and modern "group-think" rationalities. Kierkegaard encapsulated this point in his writing, A Sickness Unto Death.
Imagine the mightiest Emperor that ever lived; and imagine some poor peasant, who would think himself fortunate if he could but once catch a glimpse of the Emperor, and would tell his children and grandchildren of this as the most important event of his life. Suppose that the Emperor were to send for this man, who had not supposed that the Emperor knew of his existence, and informed him that he wished to have him as a son-in-law. In all probability, the peasant, instead of being delighted, would be offended, since he would suppose that this could mean only that the Emperor wanted to make a fool of him!
And now for Christianity! Christianity teaches that every man, say an ordinary man who would be quite proud of having once in his life talked with the King of Denmark, can talk with God any moment he wishes, and is sure to be heard by Him, that for this man's sake God came into the world to suffer and die. If anything would stun a man, surely it is this. Whoever has not the humble courage to believe it, must surely be offended by it.
While the Gospel was considered polite and acceptable by our society, the true nature of its claims were obscured, even hidden from believer and nonbeliever alike.  But now its truth jumps out like a lion springing from the brush.  We must deal with these audacious claims, as Kierkegaard so aptly states.  Most people will be offended, and see Christian belief as absurd, even dangerous. But for those with "humble courage," it is beautiful and life-giving, and is more important than having the approval and favor of the world.   
So, there may be some rough times ahead for Christians in the United States and Europe.  But now we will discover and share what Christians in the rest of the world have known for some time now: that the Gospel is a sweet aroma that smells like death to those who reject Christ, but has the pleasant smell of life to those who follow him. (II Corinthians 2:15-16*)  In these days, people will no longer follow Jesus because it is good for their reputation or business contacts, but will only follow because they are sincere in their belief that this is true and that they are called by God to live out this truth despite disfavor and rejection. (II Corinthians 2:17*)

*For we are to God the pleasing aroma of Christ among those who are being saved and those who are perishing.  To one we are an aroma that brings death: to the other, an aroma that brings life.  And who is equal to such a task?  Unlike so many, we do not peddle the word of God for profit.  On the contrary, in Christ we speak before God with sincerity, as those sent from God.