Bearing False Witness

strawmanargument

“Over and above our own body, spouse, and temporal possessions, we still have another treasure – honor and good reputation.  We cannot do without these.  For it is intolerable to live among people in open shame and general contempt.  Therefore, God does not want the reputation, good name, and upright character of our neighbor to be taken away or diminished, just as with his money and possessions.”

~Luther’s Large Catechism, comments on the Eighth Commandment

This is a post that I have not been looking forward to writing, but it is an issue that needs to be raised.  Since coming to the seminary one problem has continued to bother me and it relates to how we, as seminarians and faculty, talk about those with whom we disagree.

Let me explain what I mean.  At several points over the past two quarters I have heard professors and students set up straw men when trying to highlight what makes Lutheran theology superior to other strains of Christianity.  More often than not the straw man is the “Evangelical”.  I’ve heard evangelicals called anti-intellectual, prone to emotionalism, shallow in their theology, self-centered in their worship practices, and overly focused on works righteousness.

Not only are these criticisms harsh, they are not true!!!  And I say this as someone who worked for an evangelical para-church ministry for six years.  I say this as someone who has attended evangelical churches, received training at evangelical conferences, and studied at an evangelical seminary.  In fact, it was the evangelical commitments to discipleship of the mind, deep theological inquiry, Christ-centered worship, and the insistence on salvation by grace through faith in Jesus Christ alone that brought me to the Lutheran Church.  I have a high regard for my evangelical brothers and sisters and, in many ways, still consider myself a part of that community.  So you can understand my personal frustration and distress when I hear members of my own church community insulting and denigrating an entire community of Christians just to score a couple of theology points.

But beyond being unfair and ungenerous, this problem matters for one other reason:  we are breaking the Eighth Commandment.  This commandment states the following:

“You shall not give false testimony against your neighbor” (Exodus 20:16).

When we set up straw men and use them to make a point, what we are really doing is judging and speaking against a community based on stereotypes.  We are claiming that those who belong to this community say, act, and believe things that, in truth, they do not.  In so doing, we are bearing false testimony against them.  And we are doing this to fellow Christians, brothers and sisters in Christ.

Not only does this damage the unity of the larger body of Christ, but it actually hinders our witness to the world.  When I was studying Islam as an undergraduate student, one of the most frequent charges against Christians by my Muslim friends was that they fought all the time about doctrine and would regularly tear each other down over religious disputes.  They said that they could not believe in a faith tradition that was marked by such division and infighting.

Furthermore, straw men not only damage the reputation of our fellow Christians, but these kinds of stereotypes actually do harm to us as well.  When we start seeing an entire community of people through the lens of a stereotype we actually hinder our own ability to build meaningful relationships with people who are different from us.  The reason is because our perception becomes our reality.

For example, if we start from the premise that evangelical Christians have weak or inaccurate theology, then we build up the impression in our own minds that we have nothing to learn from them.  In so doing, we cut ourselves off from the powerful theological insights and contributions that an entire community within the global Church is making in terms of theology and missiology.  The truth is that often my own faith is strengthened when I learn from the insights of my brothers and sisters from other branches of the Christian church.

So, if we must argue against people who have differences in opinion let’s be specific.  Rather than saying things like, “Evangelicals believe….” or “Catholics think…”, it would be more helpful to say, “When I was at a theology conference, I had a disagreement with a particular presenter on the following issue…” or “When I read        (insert specific title or author)         I disagreed with (him/her) on the following point….”.  Get specific.  Address real-life disagreements that happened between specific individuals.  Don’t paint broad strokes and don’t label an entire community.

My hope is that we would learn to disagree honestly and with integrity while still leaving the doors open for fellowship and mutual instruction. Generosity must trump polemics and addressing specific concerns goes much further than condemning entire communities.  May we build an academic environment and church culture based on respect, honest inquiry, and humble conviction.

The Inspiration Section & Placebo Jesus

buddy jesus

“For false christs and false prophets will arise and perform great sings and wonders, so as to lead astray, if possible, even the elect.”
~Matthew 24:24

This past weekend Jenny and I took the kids to one of our favorite local bookstores just to have some browsing time.  But while we were there I noticed something strange.  My favorite section, the “Religion” section, had its name changed.  Now it was no longer the “Religion” section.  It was the “Inspiration” section.  There were still some religious books there – titles by C. S. Lewis, the Dalai Lama, and Reza Aslan – but there were also countless hallmark-style books; tiny volumes with collected quotes from various religious and philosophical works that were personally affirming and encouraging.  Other titles were self-help in nature, focusing on finding inner peace, financial stability, and so forth.  All were lumped together in one section.

But it just got stranger as we went over to the kids section.  We were looking at some Easter themed books when my wife pulled out a beautifully illustrated book about the Easter story.  It featured Jesus, his ride into Jerusalem, his betrayal, crucifixion, and resurrection.  And yet….there was something off about the whole thing.  While the Last Supper was there, it had nothing to do with Jesus’ sacrifice.  While the trial was there, it didn’t mention why Jesus was condemned.  And when it came time for the risen Christ to issue the Great Commission, all he said to his disciples was, “Go tell people that God loves everyone.”  This is a far cry from what we find in Scripture, where Jesus tells his disciples:

All authority in heaven an on earth has been given to me.  Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you.  And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age (Matthew 28:18-20 ESV, emphasis mine).

Or

But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth (Acts 1:8 ESV, emphasis mine).

The common theme in both of these discoveries is this:  religion has become nothing more than sentimentality.  Instead of books on the various deep and complex religious traditions from around the world, we get the inspiration section filled with pseudo-religious feel good soup.  Instead of the Lord and Savior Jesus, we get universalist hippie Jesus who offers generic love and placebo discipleship.

Both instances highlight what religion in American society has become:  nothing more than a feel-good drug.  Whereas religion in general and Christianity in particular were once life-commitments and worldview shaping meta-narratives, what we have now is a society that sees religion as, at best, nothing more than something to comfort us in hard times and, at worst, irrational and dangerous.

And it would be easy to blame “the culture” for this shift.  In fact, blaming the “culture” and the secularization of America for the downfall of religious identity and conviction is a favorite pastime of conservative Christians.  But I think that beating up on this straw man is far too easy.

Rather, what I saw in the bookstore was an invitation for self-reflection.  It forced me to ask, “What have we done, as the church, to contribute to this distorted picture?”  The reality is that we, as Christians, are just as guilty of painting this picture as the broader culture.

It creeps into our marketing.  We have church signs that reflect pithy platitudes in neon lights to those passing by in their cars.  Phrases like “Son screen prevents Sin burn” or “Walmart isn’t the only saving place” or “Whoever is praying for snow, please stop” blink incessantly at the endless stream of commuters.  We have radio stations that play “positive and encouraging” music which too often sounds like a sanctified version of boy-band hits.  And we have Christian bookstores that sell the exact same children’s books as the ones I found in that local bookstore (yes…the exact same books).

It creeps into our talk.  Too often we are ready to talk about the times when God has comforted us in difficult moments or made us feel better when we were down.  But we aren’t as quick to talk about those times when God has made us feel uncomfortable or when Jesus has truly challenged us with the self-sacrifical call to discipleship.  We are too quick to credit God with giving us that job or providing us with that raise and not so quick to address the issue of tithing or his exhortation to die to oneself.  In fact, when someone actually gets honest about their struggles or doubts in following Christ, too often we in the church tell them to keep it to themselves or tone it down for fear that such “raw” confessions might offend.

We love spiritual disciplines like meditation, retreats, and journaling, but shy away from lament and fasting.  We sing songs of joy and triumph, but never cry out with songs of pain and heartache.  We love pictures of Jesus with lambs and the Empty Tomb, but no longer adorn our heads with ashes nor paint crucifixes.

The truth is that the culture sees religion as sentimentality because that is what we, in the church, have offered them.  So rather than railing against the “culture” that just doesn’t understand, I think it is time for us to get honest about the faith that we profess.

It is a faith that is hard.  It is a calling that it high.  It is a conviction that is challenging.  But it is also one that is life giving, world changing, and community transforming.  It is centered on Jesus, a man who invites us to, “deny [yourself] and take up [your] cross daily and follow me.  For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will save it” (Luke 9:23-24).  It is a Cross-shaped faith that promises death AND resurrection.

This Lenten season we are invited to see Christ as he truly is and to be invited to a faith that is shaped by his Cross.  My prayer is that instead of sentimentality, we would offer the world the Gospel of a crucified Lord and a risen Savior and that our lives would be shaped by that story and that story alone.

Reflection: Five Months @ The Sem

timothytitus

Lord God, You have called Your servants to ventures of which we cannot see the ending, by paths as yet untrodden, through perils unknown.  Give us faith to go out with good courage, not knowing where we go but only that Your hand is leading us and Your love supporting us; through Jesus Christ, Your Son, our Lord, who lives and reigns with You and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.  Amen.
~Collect 193, LSB

With nearly two quarters behind us, I thought I would take some time to pause and reflect on what this experience has taught me thus far. As you may have guessed from my earlier posts, being at Concordia has been a cross-cultural experience. Unlike many of my fellow students I was not raised in the Lutheran church. There is a lot about this little subculture that is foreign to me. To be honest, the first month was brutal. Not only did I feel like an outsider, but I ran head first into many of the uglier stereotypes that I had about the LCMS. I heard more derogatory comments about evangelicals, women in leadership, non-liturgical styles of worship, and minorities in my first couple of weeks than I had heard in the last several years. By mid-quarter I was flirting with depression and wondering what I was doing here. To say that I was angry with God for calling us here would have been an understatement.

So what changed? Why am I still here? A couple of things. First, great faculty. There have been several professors who have opened their doors to me and let me talk, vent, and (yes) cry. These conversations have helped me see that while every denomination has its dark side, there is also lots of hope, especially when the leaders themselves are modeling the kind of pastoral care that they hope to pass on to their students.

Second, I realized that I am not the only one. As I’ve talked with other students I realized that many of the things that I have been struggling with are the same issues that they are facing. Having friends to talk, pray, and laugh with has changed how I approach the campus and, quite honestly, I now look forward to going to class.

Third, a deeper sense of calling. As hard as being here has been, I am more convinced than ever that this calling to leadership in ministry is exactly what God has created me for. I’m a theology nerd with the heartbeat of an evangelist and a passion to preach and teach the Word of God. I desperately desire to see people who are far from God come to know Jesus and to see those who are following Jesus continue to grow as disciples and missionaries. That has not changed since I have been here. Rather the desire to be a part of that mission has grown and sharpened.

Finally, my family. What would I do without my wife and kids? The kids remind me of how fun and goofy life is and Jenny is always present as my friend, confidante, and fellow missionary. Or marriage has grown stronger as we’ve been on this journey together and I’m so grateful for her love and friendship.

All this gives me hope and reminds me that, even in difficult seasons of life, God is still at work.

So thank you all for your prayers, your support, and your love. We couldn’t do this without you and we look forward to sharing more stories about our adventures in the weeks and months ahead. Thanks again and Good bless.

Reflection: Five Months @ The Sem

With nearly two quarters behind us, I thought I would take some time to pause and reflect on what this experience has taught me thus far. As you may have guessed from my earlier posts, being at Concordia has been a cross-cultural experience. Unlike many of my fellow students I was not raised in the Lutheran church. There is a lot about this little subculture that is foreign to me. To be honest, the first month was brutal. Not only did I feel like an outsider, but I ran head first into many of the uglier stereotypes that I had about the LCMS. I heard more derogatory comments about evangelicals, women in leadership, non-liturgical styles of worship, and minorities in my first couple of weeks than I had heard in the last several years. By mid-quarter I was flirting with depression and wondering what I was doing here. To say that I was angry with God for calling us here would have been an understatement.

So what changed? Why am I still here? A couple of things. First, great faculty. There have been several professors who have opened their doors to me and let me talk, vent, and (yes) cry. These conversations have helped me see that while every denomination has its dark side, there is also lots of hope, especially when the leaders themselves are modeling the kind of pastoral care that they hope to pass on to their students.

Second, I realized that I am not the only one. As I’ve talked with other students I realized that many of the things that I have been struggling with are the same issues that they are facing. Having friends to talk, pray, and laugh with has changed how I approach the campus and, quite honestly, I now look forward to going to class.

Third, a deeper sense of calling. As hard as being here has been, I am more convinced than ever that this calling to leadership in ministry is exactly what God has created me for. I’m a theology nerd with the heartbeat of an evangelist and a passion to preach and teach the Word of God. I desperately desire to see people who are far from God come to know Jesus and to see those who are following Jesus continue to grow as disciples and missionaries. That has not changed since I have been here. Rather the desire to be a part of that mission has grown and sharpened.

Finally, my family. What would I do without my wife and kids? The kids remind me of how fun and goofy life is and Jenny is always present as my friend, confidante, and fellow missionary. Or marriage has grown stronger as we’ve been on this journey together and I’m so grateful for her love and friendship.

All this gives me hope and reminds me that, even in difficult seasons of life, God is still at work.

So thank you all for your prayers, your support, and your love. We couldn’t do this without you and we look forward to sharing more stories about our adventures in the weeks and months ahead. Thanks again and Good bless.

Advent Reflection: Happy St. Nicholas Day

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One of the things that Jenny and I have struggled with is how to help our kids understand all of the noise and commotion around Santa Claus.  Before having kids we both agreed that we wanted Christmas to be about one person:  Jesus.  As such, we made the decision to not introduce our kids to the concept of Santa.  However, with so much attention directed toward Santa Claus and gifts during the Christmas season we knew that this would be a difficult task.  So, we decided that it would be better to introduce them to some of the original stories behind the Christmas icon.  And this led us to St. Nicholas.

Today, December 6th, is honored as St. Nicholas Day in many Orthodox and Catholic traditions.  While there are many strange legends and stories about who St. Nicholas was, a couple of details continue to crop up.  First and foremost, Nicholas was the bishop of Myra, a city in modern day Turkey, in the 4th century.  He was the son of wealthy parents who died when he was still a boy.  He was then raised by his uncle who was also a devout Christian.  He was one of the bishops to respond to the Emperor Constantine’s invitation to attend the Council of Nicaea, where he was a staunch defender of Christian orthodoxy over and against the popular Arian heresy.

But what stands out most are all of the stories of Nicholas’s generosity.  He was apparently a man who loved the people of Myra and would often give to the needy out of his own wealth.  He faithfully ministered to his people during a time of great famine, finding ways of securing food for his diocese and ensuring the planting of new crops.  What is clear from Nicholas’s life was that he was a man thoroughly shaped by the selfless love and example of Christ.  This is why he has so often been associated with the Christmas season.  He stands as an example of a person who points us back to the ultimate gift-giver:  God Himself.

This is why we celebrate St. Nicholas Day.  Rather than celebrate a marketing scheme dreamed up by the Coca-Cola company, we honor a man who points us back to Jesus.  We tell our kids that St. Nicholas prepares us for the gift of Jesus on Christmas.  He reminds us that God is a God of generosity.  And he shows us how the gift of Christ can truly transform not only our lives but the lives of those around us as we share the Gospel in both word and deed.

Happy St. Nicholas Day.

*If you’re looking for a great way to share the story of St. Nicholas with your own kids, we would direct you to the following book:  St. Nicholas (CPH).  You can also go to the St. Nicholas Center website for more details and stories about St. Nicholas.

Advent Reflection: Mary, God’s Untouchable Servant

*What follows is a re-print of an article that I wrote for RELEVANT Magazine‘s website in honor of the Advent season.

(c) Jyoti Sahi; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

I wasn’t raised in a religious household. In fact, my family didn’t start attending church until I was a freshman in high school. As a result, my exposure to the Christmas story was limited to what I saw in paintings, statues and holiday stamps. I’d seen many pictures of the Virgin Mary and the Christ child, but these images always struck me as a bit odd and otherworldly. Here was Mary, this mature, peaceful woman in immaculate robes, holding a very adult-looking Jesus with a tiny, restrained half-smile on her lips—like the Mona Lisa dressed in religious garb. These pictures shaped my view of Mary as someone wholly unrelateable and distant, an obscure figure only revered in Catholic circles with very little relevance to me, a young, evangelical Protestant.

But then, several years ago, I encountered a very different kind of painting. It was an image created by the Indian artist Jyoti Sahi entitled Dalit Madonna. In it, Sahi depicts the Virgin Mary as a dalit, cradling the baby Jesus, with deep love and affection in her eyes as she looks down upon her infant child. Her hands and feet are dirty and calloused. And yet, the love this mother shows for her baby envelops her and the child in warm light. I was immediately taken by the beauty of this painting and the touching intimacy it depicts.

For those of you unfamiliar with the term dalit, it referes to a group of people in India more commonly known as “untouchables.” Some Westerners have mistakenly called the dalits the lowest caste in Hinduism. However, this is an inaccurate assessment, for the dalits have traditionally been viewed as living outside the proper caste system. They serve in labor industries deemed too defiled or unclean to be attended to by proper Hindus.

Fortunately, there have been many movements within India to eradicate this discrimination, including efforts by the late Mahatma Gandhi, who was a great friend and advocate of many untouchables. However, dalits are still looked down upon in more rural settings, and social stigma continues to be attached to the term.

As I reflected more on Sahi’s painting, I could not help but think what it would have been like for the historical Mary, giving birth to her son in first-century Judea. In the Bible, we read that Mary was approached by the angel Gabriel before her official marriage to Joseph and told she would bear a son who would be called “the Son of the Most High.” What’s more, “The Lord God will give him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever; his kingdom will never end” (Luke 1:32-33).

On the one hand, this was the most exciting news Mary could have heard. After all, the Messiah was believed to be the heir to the throne of David, the greatest king in the history of the Israel. Many of the Israelites in Mary’s day, living under Roman occupation, hoped the Messiah would come and free them from the political oppression of foreign rulers and usher in an era of prosperity and peace. No doubt, Mary believed much the same thing and desired to see a day of freedom for her people.

However, Mary also knew that to accept the angel’s message was to accept a social stigma. You see, she was already betrothed to Joseph. This meant that they were legally husband and wife with the exception of sexual relations. We know from Matthew’s account that Joseph was well aware the child to be born was not his (see Matthew 1:18-19). As such, Mary would have been labeled an adulterer. As some people are labeled dalits in certain parts of the world, so Mary would have been labeled sotah, the ancient Hebrew word for “adulteress.”

In his book The Real Mary, Scot McKnight writes about the dangers Mary would have faced as a woman with an illegitimate child. He reminds us that, if she were openly accused of adultery by Joseph, Mary would have faced death by stoning. Yet even if Joseph did not bring charges against her, she would have been stripped half-naked and forced to stand in the center of her village to endure the verbal ridicule and scorn of her neighbors and former friends. Likewise, Mary would have known what would be at stake for her child.

McKnight highlights the realities Mary would have faced:

“She knew villagers would taunt and ostracize her son. He’d hear the accusation that he was an illegitimate child and he would be prohibited from special assemblies (Deut. 23:2). She knew as well that Joseph’s reputation as an observant Jew would have been called into question … She knew that he was legally required to divorce her. And one more connection for Mary was that he could leave her stranded with the Messiah-to-be without a father.”

All of this is affirmed by the biblical text. Christ, at one point, is mocked as “the son of Mary” (Mark 6:3), a clear reference to His lack of a legitimate father.

Mary was faced with a difficult decision. Like the dalits of India, she would become an outcast, an untouchable, one whom people would regard as disobedient to God and a traitor to the acceptable standards of behavior set out in “proper” society. However, not to receive this message would have been to turn away an invitation from God to participate in His plans for the world. What would she choose?

“‘I am the Lord’s servant,’ Mary answered. ‘May it be to me according to your word’” (Luke 1:38).

Mary chose to obey God. In the face of certain rejection and a difficult life ahead for her and her child, Mary knew God and knew He would provide for them. Furthermore, she was faithful because of what was at stake. Though she could not anticipate just what kind of life Jesus would lead, she knew the Messiah would bring the salvation promised by God. She desired, more than anything, to see this salvation brought into the world and was full of faith that God would act through Him to that end.

As we approach the Christmas holiday, let us not forget the faithfulness of Mary and what she was willing to risk. In her story, we are reminded that following Christ often leads to persecution and rejection by the world. Sometimes the price we pay for obedience is rejection. We must ask ourselves, What are we willing to surrender to God? Are we willing to be used for His purposes in the world? Are we willing to trust Him to provide for us when the rest of the world may turn its back? Mary models for us what obedience in the face of rejection looks like.

I also see in this story an invitation to re-examine how we approach the untouchables in our midst. The truth of Mary’s story is that God often works through the outcasts and the marginalized. And yet, as Christians, we often miss this.

Whether we face rejection for following Christ or are seeking to care for the outcast and unseen in our midst, it is important to remember Mary’s story: the story of her faithfulness, the story of God’s untouchable servant.