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Monthly Archives: July 2022

Do Your Possessions Possess You?

Greed? What does that mean?

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“I’ll say to myself, ‘You have plenty of grain laid up for many years. Take life easy; eat, drink and be merry…’”

–Luke 12:19

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Physically demanding, difficult, and sometimes dangerous work. Long and odd hours – not 9-5, to say the least – but the rewards, the financial rewards I mean, are really good. 

Because of personal experience, I’ve recently become much more familiar with a number of men who are working very, very hard in order to, as they say, “make a living”…

The jobs these men do are in high demand. 

The company is always looking for good workers and even though not a whole lot of training is required — and the company will even pick up the tab for it! — not a lot of folks will do these jobs. 

…even many who realize they can never afford to be lazy… 

When the women’s movement got rolling in the 1960s and 1970s and more equal representation was sought in this or that profession, women were, strangely enough, not thinking about or looking at this kind of “blue collar” work… 

In fact, by doing this kind of work, no one is achieving high social status in the wider world by virtue of the job they hold…

And yet – that does not seem to be the main concern of any of these men. 

The men who do these jobs appreciate that the work that they do is finally understood to be valuable and will make them a decent income.  

Understandable. And yet, what is the deeper motivator for doing such a job? 

Well, some of these men will say that they have no choice: they need to do this, earn what they can, to survive in what amounts to a dog-eat-dog world. 

Others hope to work hard for 3-5 years and make a good chunk of money to get a good start in life: make some investments, save for college, maybe even buy a home…

Others will say that they do this kind of work because it is the only way they can support a family where mom is able to stay at home with the kids… Jobs that actually meet this need are definitely fewer and farther between these days, but some of these men have found an answer to this problem here…

That said, these are not the only reasons. Some of these men will admit that they subject themselves to the work they do because they like having their “toys”: the latest and greatest machines, technologies, and furnishings that can make their living space more comfortable and also allow them to participate in the leisure activities, hobbies, fun, or even thrill-seeking they enjoy. 

It seems then that some of these men at least are looking ahead – not only to the weekend or that next vacation when they can do the things they love doing – but to a time when they, having achieved a measure of security, can really enjoy their possessions and…

Take life easy; eat, drink and be merry.’”

And they, of course, are not alone.

Also those fixated on achieving elite social status in the world often love their “toys” – the “goods”, from nature or invented by us – that bring them comfort and pleasure….

And why not? Why should anyone be ashamed of any of this or even ever think twice about it?  

After all, didn’t Jesus once say to Judas, “the poor you will always have with you…”?   

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Of course, before Jesus tells us the parable we heard today about the rich fool, He first says this: 

“Watch out! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; life does not consist in an abundance of possessions.

Even if several people in America have argued that greed can be seen as a good thing – driving capitalism and finally, counter-intuitively, raising the “standard of living” for everyone as a “rising tide lifts all boats” – this is a relatively new opinion in world history. 

Most cultures throughout time have, of course, seen greed as something quite bad. 

And as regards possessions and wealth specifically, arguably the most well-known philosopher in the Western world, Plato, had a definite opinion, saying: 

“The beauty of proportionality that has led one on, because one loves it, would cause one to abhor a situation that would bring one into disproportion with everyone else… [This happens when] the impersonally sublime is internalized into personal virtue…” (Plato at the Googleplex, p. 392, 393, see Gorgias 507e-508a, Philebus 64e, and Timaeus 47b-c)

I mean, it is not just Plato. So many men and women see the basic inequality in the world – the lack of “proportionality” regarding possessions, let’s say for now – and they simply know something is wrong and want to fix it… 

How though? 

Well, there are some pretty creative ideas out there… Have you heard about “prospect research” and “wealth screening”? 

What’s that? 

Well, I’ll get to that in a minute, but for now we’ll say these are things many non-profit institutions in America, for example, do…

And what are non-profit institutions? 

There are a number of non-profit organizations in the world devoted to any number of causes – some are Christian, some are more secular, and some of them are decidedly post-Christian or against Christianity. Many of them seem good on the face of it. 

I am sure you can think about many of them, perhaps many that you have supported. The Red Cross, World Vision, Doctors Without Borders, Save the Children… 

Many of these organizations are interested in assisting those with little, who are “down and out”… lending people a hand, helping folks get a leg up, making opportunities or things more equitable, as we say today, as much as they can…

Some want certain kinds of people or groups in certain circumstances to have more opportunities to succeed, for example. 

Sometimes this means things like scholarships for hard-working individuals and sometimes this means long-term programs, “long marches through ”, that are really geared towards changing the way that society works – and that will work towards achieving more similar “outcomes” for this or that social group… 

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In any case, back to “prospect research” and “wealth screening”. What are these?

Well, let’s do “Wealth screening” first. As one site assisting non-profits puts it: 

“Wealth screening is a way that organizations assess their donors’ assets to learn how much they can give. This information informs how much your organization should request when making an ask.”

Of course, as another website puts it: 

“[j]ust because a donor has the capacity or wealth to donate to charity, it doesn’t mean they have the willingness or affinity for giving.”

This brings us to the importance of  “prospect research which: 

“…is a technique used by fundraisers, development teams, and nonprofit organizations to learn more about their donors’ personal backgrounds, past giving histories, wealth indicators, and philanthropic motivations to evaluate a prospect’s ability to give (capacity) and warmth (affinity) toward an organization.”

So, finally, what are the brass tacks of how you really can find out who to ask? 

  • Use publicly available data on “wealth markers”: a person’s demographic location (and with this their estimated household income), business affiliations, club or group memberships, real estate ownership, political donations (FEC.gov), their participation in auctions, whether they serve as a foundation trustee, their stock holdings (SEC.gov), their clients, their social media profile, and their full employment history. Analyze, analyze, analyze!
  • Also, as you seek to “track each stage of the major gift cultivation, solicitation, and stewardship process” be sure to try to take into consideration their past giving as well as its recency and frequency, their giving to other organizations, their patterns of support, and the potential appeal to them of “getting a match” for any of their donations.
  • And… be winsome, wise, strategic, about how you target encounters with major prospects at things like fundraising dinners or other networking opportunities. If you can get to know their peers and friends who’d be willing to do the ask on your behalf this possibility should certainly be considered! 

One company brags of a novel solution to do this important work of targeting and tailoring donation solicitations from constituents who are wealthier: 

“[we have] proprietary techniques to screen as many as 25 different data sources to identify donor assets which are combined into a simple donor giving-potential score that can be used to drive targeting and ask levels…”  

Is this a good way to try and make the world a better place? More fair? Just a good tool for the toolbox, so to speak?

What should we think about this? 

When the book of James talks about not showing favoritism to the rich who attend one’s congregation or Jesus speaks of the overriding value of the widow’s mite, how should this impact our own thinking about matters of wealth and possessions and our approach towards others who have them?  

Whatever you feel or think – or suspect we all should feel or think! – about “prospect research” and “wealth screening”, they certainly cause me to think a lot more about my late grandfather’s massive donations to a Christian University… which was facilitated through one of these fundraisers… 

Whether one is trying to earn money or secure donations, whether one is trying to purchase possessions or seeking to distribute them more equally…

…we are certainly challenged by mammon, that is, worldly wealth, and its tests and temptations.

With many sins, they are obvious. Often however, with things like possessions and greed, the answers do not come to us so easily… they seem less than obvious! 

I just want to point out that even Jesus didn’t seem to want to get involved with personal disputes over money: 

“Teacher, tell my brother to divide the inheritance with me.”

Jesus replied, “Man, who appointed me a judge or an arbiter between you?” 

So, what does it mean to trust God regarding all of this?

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Do you question yourself regarding issues of wealth and possessions often? 

If not, why not?

Jesus isn’t going to pry or force His way in here, it seems, but that doesn’t mean that He doesn’t want us to reflect on these matters…

And yes, as we do this we should guard against envy and greed, but we should also recognize that it was not only the philosopher Plato who had these ideas about the appropriateness of men being somewhat proportionate regarding one another…

Let’s look, for example, at what Paul says to the Corinthians about giving in 2 Cor. 8:

“….since you excel in everything—in faith, in speech, in knowledge, in complete earnestness and in the love we have kindled in you—see that you also excel in this grace of giving.

I am not commanding you, but I want to test the sincerity of your love by comparing it with the earnestness of others. For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you through his poverty might become rich.

And here is my judgment about what is best for you in this matter. Last year you were the first not only to give but also to have the desire to do so. Now finish the work, so that your eager willingness to do it may be matched by your completion of it, according to your means. For if the willingness is there, the gift is acceptable according to what one has, not according to what one does not have.

Our desire is not that others might be relieved while you are hard pressed, but that there might be equality. At the present time your plenty will supply what they need, so that in turn their plenty will supply what you need. The goal is equality, as it is written: “The one who gathered much did not have too much, and the one who gathered little did not have too little…”

Paul is doing some serious fundraising here, isn’t he? And his approach sounds a bit like Plato’s here doesn’t it? 

Nevertheless, let’s not turn the Apostle Paul into a contemporary, full-blown social justice warrior just yet. 

First note that he gives us some sense of what he means by equality, equity, fairness or proportionality (all potential translations for the Greek term): he references God’s gift of manna to the Israelites in the desert, and says that when they worked to gather “[t]he one who gathered much did not have too much, and the one who gathered little did not have too little…”

Also, note that even as Paul is asking for financial help for the Jerusalem church quite vigorously and appealing to them to “put the ball in the hoop” so to speak, he is still asking, not demanding, nor, of course, forcing anything…

In like fashion, we also note that this “ask” on Paul’s part is in fact not an ongoing thing… Basically, this special need arises at one time, in particular circumstances, where out-of-the-ordinary needs have presented themselves and need to be tackled…

In a venerable book from the mid-nineteenth century, Ellicott’s Commentary for English Readers, we read:

“Christians should contribute liberally while they have the means. In the vicissitudes of life no one can tell how soon he may be unable to contribute, or may even be dependent on the charity of others himself. A change in the commercial world; losses by fire or at sea; lack of success in business; loss of health, and the failure of his plans, may soon render him unable to aid the cause of benevolence. While he is prospered he should embrace every opportunity to do good to all. Some of the most painful regrets which people ever have, arise from the reflection that when prospered they were indisposed to give to benefit others, and when their property is swept away they become unable. God often sweeps away the property which they were indisposed to contribute to aid others, and leaves them to penury and want. Too late they regret that they were not the liberal patrons of the objects of benevolence when they were able to be…

Every Christian brother should bear his due proportion….”

This is both convicting and helps us to be wary of those who would use Paul’s words to in effect demand some sort of absolute equality, and hence major “leveling” of society…

It is not so much that all those who long for some kind of “socialist” or “communist” solution are evil… their impulse is exactly right in a lot of ways…

As a co-worker attempting to explain things to me this past week said, “Everything is out of balance….”

“Some are successful…. higher than other men. Of course though, compared with another, they are relatively unsuccessful….”

And sometimes the “out of balance” is out of all proportion. Recently hearing about the insanity of NFL quarterback Tom Brady making $135.00 every 30 seconds comes to mind also…

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People succumb to greed and then there always appears to be a reaction….

Where history consistently teaches us that others — many who are perhaps genuinely troubled and rightly concerned about an extreme lack of proportionality — succumb to the envy that goes hand in hand with the coveting and greed that inevitably leads to thievery… perhaps even as “governments” more akin to mafias are formed and corporate robbery is the result…. 

So, in a sense, it all comes back to coveting and greed, which the Apostle Paul reminds us is idolatry…

Luther talked about how temptation was like the birds over our heads. 

We can not prevent them from flying over us but we are able to prevent them from making nests in our hair….

But we seem to not only enjoy bird-watching, but getting as close to them as we possibly can….

And even when human nature wants to correct things related to the problems of greed…. it is like we can’t escape the circle and circular motion we are trapped in….

No, in the end, Communism is no answer…. 

It is simply that Communists underestimate the evils of human nature… 

Nevertheless, might some socialistic-kinds-of-things be possible here or there? Where people by genuine mutual consent agree to share their possessions?

I don’t see why not. At the same time, it is one thing for a mature congregation or maybe even a group of such congregations, fueled by deep and thoughtful Christian love, to somewhat pull this off — and even then, perhaps just for a season or two when it is most needed…

It is another thing to think that this can be done by unregenerate men and women without force – without cracking a whole lot of eggs to make an omelet.

All attempts at and forms of socialism have thus far degraded into this or that form of tyranny…

The word “Utopia”, coined in the early 16th century, literally means “nowhere” for a reason. 

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Solomon’s words in Ecclesiastes come to mind here as well: “This too is meaningless, a chasing after the wind…”

This could also be translated as: “this also is vanity and vexation of spirit”.

What Solomon means to say is that those who operate according to the wisdom of the world – including those who think that they can solve all the problems of disproportionality – will inevitably be frustrated, annoyed, and worried in their spirit.

But things are worse. Damnably worse. The world does not see the real extent of the problem at all.

The bigger issue, of course – and one that the world fixated on wealth, possessions and inequality often does not see – is that this is a very deep spiritual issue.

One that ultimately affects not only our communities but each and every individual as he or she stands naked before God.  

Yes – this goes straight to the heart of our relationship with God…. 

Cue Proverbs: 

Keep falsehood and lies far from me;

    give me neither poverty nor riches,

    but give me only my daily bread.

Otherwise, I may have too much and disown you

    and say, ‘Who is the Lord?’

Or I may become poor and steal,

    and so dishonor the name of my God.” (Proverbs 30:8,9)

The Bible is not always easy to understand when it comes to the matter of rich and poor, the importance of possessions, or just what it would mean for us to pursue equality… as Paul admirably does on behalf of the Jerusalem church… Even Jesus, after all, talks about some having responsibility for more cities (mansions?) in heaven than others…

Looking at things more closely, the book of James, even if it is written to a particular congregation, really does seem intent to carve up the world into two primary categories, the rich and the poor… The book of Luke also gives the impression of this as well, further indicating this distinction is important…

And even though the Bible ultimately wants to talk about the importance of spiritual poverty – being “poor in spirit” which means being rich in God’s blessing – it also more often identifies these as being associated with the materially poor and not the materially rich.

In like fashion, it is very clear about how easily we can deceive ourselves, thinking that material blessings, temporal possessions, blessings in this world, inevitably come as a result of our own personal goodness, or perhaps simply all the good that we have done in the world with the help of God’s Holy Spirit!

The beginning of the book of Revelation, for example, contains this striking line for the church in Laodicia: 

“You say, ‘I am rich; I have acquired wealth and do not need a thing.’ But you do not realize that you are wretched, pitiful, poor, blind and naked….”

Let that sink in.

One commentator, Wilson, says: “There is only one thing worse than being wretched, miserable, poor, blind, and naked, and that is to be all five of those things and add to it the sixth misery of not [realizing it].”

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Speaking of Ecclesiastes’ “This too is meaningless, a chasing after the wind…”, Martin Luther said this: 

“In short, the pious truly possess the whole world, because they enjoy it with happiness and tranquility. But the impious do not possess it even when they have it. This is the vanity which the impious possess…”  (comments at the end of chapter 2)[xii]

That is some wisdom. 

Luther is just echoing the Apostle Paul here: Christians… “even while having nothing, possess everything (cf. 2 Cor. 6:10)” (44)

“….sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; poor, yet making many rich; having nothing, and yet possessing everything…”

Money, alternatively, hides God from a man… (What Luther Says, 975), Luther says…

The world will be stubborn, caught in life’s faith-destroying riches, cares, and pleasures. Feeding the lust of the flesh, the eyes, and the pride of life….

Never acknowledging the truth of God…

We are all so very poor…. And God wants us to know this…. 

To be poor in spirit….

This past week, not a few days ago, I was on the job and noticed someone had affixed a sticker to the back of a road sign we were driving past….

“You honor me with your lips, but your heart is far from me….” — Jesus

That was familiar, to be sure. But Jesus had said this to who? I couldn’t remember….

The Pharisees, after all, did not honor Him with their lips.

As such, the statement on the sticker seemed more relevant to those who did honor Him with their lips at least… Feeling particularly aware of my shortcomings at that moment, I certainly was feeling convicted!

But who else did he speak this to, actually, in the Scriptures? I was ashamed — convicted here also! — that I could not remember the context of this verse… the verse itself had, I guess has… been far from me….

Truly, how little I know God’s word! How little I know Him….

And then I remembered: I thought this was a quote from Isaiah, and that Jesus had indeed quoted it to the Pharisees to show them that just as their hearts were far from Him, so it was in Isaiah’s day with His Father, whose voice was in fact His also!

As I found out later on, I wasn’t exactly right — in Matthew 15, Jesus was in fact confronting the Pharisees about nullifying God’s commands in favor of their own traditions, interestingly, traditions that were to their financial advantage! — but the primary point is that when one is hid in Christ some of His word is hidden in our hearts as well and hence here God’s Holy Spirit had both convicted me and comforted me — by bringing His word to remembrance, within the span of about five minutes….

Speaking of which, our time on earth is short….

The man in our parable did not have anything like this full experience… 

His heart was set on worldly things. Rejecting God’s work, he did not attend to the matters of his soul, spiritual matters…. 

Other matters, he foolishly thought, were more urgent….

My brothers and sisters, do you hear? Can you see? The end draws near! The Lord approaches!

The time is now.

In James 4 we read: 

“Now listen, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we will go to this or that city, spend a year there, carry on business and make money.” Why, you do not even know what will happen tomorrow. What is your life? You are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes. Instead, you ought to say, “If it is the Lord’s will, we will live and do this or that.” As it is, you boast in your arrogant schemes. All such boasting is evil….”

Indeed. And to Whom can we go? 

Worry not, fear not, distrust not… For one’s life does not consist in the abundance of one’s possessions, but the One who possesses you, who is your very life!!!

For as we heard in Colossians 3:

“Since, then, you have been raised with Christ, set your hearts on things above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things. For you died, and your life is now hidden with Christ in God. When Christ, who is your life, appears, then you also will appear with him in glory.”

Amen

 
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Posted by on July 31, 2022 in Uncategorized

 

Walk Worthy, Saints of Christ!

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“…that you may live a life worthy of the Lord and please him in every way…”

–Colossians 1:10

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How does a person know they are living a life worthy of the Lord? 

Is this the same question as asking “How do I know that I am saved, that is, that I am at peace with God and will live with Him forever when I die?” 

Well, it could be the exact same question….

Which might appear to connect with the question that we hear from the lawyer in the Gospel reading, Gospel reading this morningright? “Teacher…what must I do to inherit eternal life?”

Jesus says the lawyer is right with his answer: love the Lord with all your heart, soul, strength and mind and love your neighbor as yourself…

The lawyer then asks, “Who is my neighbor?”

And here, frankly, he likely had part of our Old Testament reading in mind! In Leviticus 19:17 and 18, we read: 

“Do not hate a fellow Israelite in your heart. Rebuke your neighbor frankly so you will not share in their guilt.

“‘Do not seek revenge or bear a grudge against anyone among your people, but love your neighbor as yourself. I am the Lord.

Jesus, however, doesn’t directly answer the man’s question about who his neighbor is. 

Instead, He tells this lawyer a parable that is perhaps more famous than any other Jesus shared!

You know it well, right?  

A man takes the dangerous path from Jerusalem to Jericho, and falls among robbers, who leave him naked and half-dead.  

A man of the upper classes, a priest, then sees his plight and yet passes him by… 

There has been much speculation regarding the reasons why the priest may have acted in this way, but it’s probably safe to say helping the man would have been terribly, terribly inconvenient for him to say the very least!

And then, in like fashion, a Levite passes the man by as well! Even if it would have almost certainly been less of an inconvenience for him, he nevertheless passes by too… 

Well, the man was half-dead and naked after all… And without being able to identify someone by accent or clothing, one would not have even been able to tell if this was a fellow Israelite who needed assistance!

Finally, as I am guessing the vast majority of us, growing up in the church, learned as children… that there actually is one who is sensible!

There is one who does the good thing, the right thing, the humane and even obvious thing that probably most all of us as children believed should have been done!: the Samaritan (the least likely person!) helps the man.  

Just like God in the Old Testament is said to bind up the wounds of His stricken people, this Samaritan cleans and softens the half-dead man’s wounds with oil, disinfects them with wine, and then binds them up! He puts the man on his own animal and brings him to an inn, where he continues to care for him at his own expense…

And then we hear Jesus speak: 

“Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?

The expert in the law replied, “The one who had mercy on him.

Jesus tells him, “Go and do likewise.”

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So to the Jews who, generally speaking, hated the Samaritans – and to the Jews, many of whom did not believe that one should give to the ungodly or help sinners (see Sirach 12:1-7) – Jesus told this striking story of the Good Samaritan… 

Who is my neighbor? In one sense, the answer is indeed “Everyone!” 

Jesus has removed all limits as to who the neighbor could be, is….

And what about how Jesus transforms the Golden Rule here as well? 

While at this point in history Hinduism, Buddhism, Confucianism and Taoism had all basically said, “Don’t do to others what you don’t want them to do to you….” 

Jesus, of course, says that the whole of the law and the prophets isdo unto others as you would have them do unto you…” 

So there you have it, right? 

If you want to be sure that you will inherit eternal life… 

If you want to be sure that you are at peace with God and will know His grace and kindness when you die…. 

If you want to know that you are living a life worthy of the Lord… then take this parable to heart!

“…be radical and proactive and energetic in doing good to others…” as one man puts it!

Don’t worry about who the neighbor is that you are required to take care of – be concerned about being a good neighbor, a merciful neighbor… and keep on doing that!

Don’t just thank God that you are at least enlightened here… you know, far more advanced than small-minded and racially-insensitive folks like that lawyer and the audience of the parable — but don’t be proud about this of course!

With an eye towards heaven, do good to your neighbor, do more good, and then do some more!

Perhaps you might want to consider giving something to anyone who looks like they might be in some kind of distress… 

I live in the Twin Cities area, and I confess that I, cynical to the core, have gotten quite used to ignoring beggars and panhandlers… maybe you could be different though! 

I mean, I know lots of reasons that that might actually be a really bad idea — after all, I really have rarely taken any action here and I have my reasons! — but some of the kids in the congregation today might be a bit confused about just why we shouldn’t double our efforts here… 

Or think of creative ways that really could be helpful to those who need us!

So, are you thinking you can’t pull this off? 

Then let me encourage you with the example of Mother Teresa…

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Do you know about Mother Teresa? 

Let me tell you a bit about this woman, and the man who introduced her to the world, Malcolm Muggeridge, by way of some quotes from a short article from a Roman Catholic source: 

“Mother Teresa of Calcutta is one of the best-known saints today. Even before she was canonized [by the Roman Catholic Church] in 2016, in life she was sometimes referred to as the “saint of the gutters,” because of her work among the poorest of the poor [ – the “untouchables”! – ] in the slums of Calcutta.

But relatively few people know the person who made Mother Teresa so well-known.

In 1971, British writer Malcolm Muggeridge published Something Beautiful for God, a book about Mother Teresa and the work of the Missionaries of Charity. Muggeridge had been an atheist earlier in life but eventually became Christian. He was so impressed by Mother Teresa’s witness that he became Catholic in 1982, at age 79.

…Muggeridge was educated at Cambridge and began his career as a teacher in Egypt in the late 1920s. Shifting into journalism, he worked for newspapers around the world. Marrying Katherine Dobbs in 1927, he had an idealistic view of communism, and when the couple moved to Moscow in 1932, they felt that they would live out the rest of their life there.

But Muggeridge became disillusioned with communism. He and Gareth Jones, the Welsh journalist, were the only two to report on Stalin’s forced famine in Ukraine in 1932. Muggeridge’s reports, however, were heavily censored by the Manchester Guardian, his employer.”

Now, skipping ahead in the piece, more on the woman he helped make famous….

“Something Beautiful for God was based on a film Muggeridge had made for the BBC about Mother Teresa’s work in India. He related how during filming, one scene was taken in a “dark, cavernous building where the Sisters bring the dying from the streets outside.” The scene was “expected to be unusable because of the poor light,” he wrote.

“Actually, to the astonishment of all concerned, it came out bathed in an exquisite luminosity,” Muggeridge said. “Some of Mother Teresa’s light had got into it.”

Toward the end of his life, Muggeridge reflected on meeting Mother Teresa. In his 1988 book Confessions of a Twentieth-Century Pilgrim, he wrote

When I first set eyes on her, … I at once realized that I was in the presence of someone of unique quality. This was not due to … her shrewdness and quick understanding, though these are very marked; nor even to her manifest piety and true humility and ready laughter. There is a phrase in one of the psalms that always, for me, evokes her presence: “the beauty of holiness” — that special beauty, amounting to a kind of pervasive luminosity generated by a life dedicated wholly to loving God and His creation. This, I imagine, is what the halos in medieval paintings of saints were intended to convey….”

One of the few things I agree with the recent Pope on is his contention that we live, in his words, in “the throwaway society”. 

As one put it, Mother Teresa certainly did pick up the throwaways and brought them within the folds of Christ’s love….

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I remember well the words one of my own spiritual mentors shared with me: 

When we learn how to die, we learn how to live. 

When I think of the sacrifices someone like Mother Teresa made – the little deaths she seemingly endured in this world – that phrase takes on increased weight for me. 

I remember one of her actions particularly well. In the 1990’s she was involved in some convention about the well-being of children in Washington D.C., also attended by President Bill Clinton. When the topic of abortion came up, Mother Teresa looked everyone earnestly in the eye, and said, “Give them all to me”.

She could have taken care of a bunch of them, given the support she had gained for her work of compassion…

When I think of the Parable of the Good Samaritan, it is difficult for me – in spite of the late famous atheist Christopher Hitchens’ attempts to destroy her reputation – to not think of Mother Teresa…

Since I mentioned Hitchens here, I’ll just say that I read his awful book on Mother Theresa, The Missionary Position and so perhaps I should say a bit more. 

To get a sense of Hitchens’ overall posture here, in a debate with Dinesh D’Souza where D’Souza suggested that Mother Theresa did what she did for others out of love for God, Hitchens was disgusted by this. 

As one commenter who enjoyed Hitchen’s arguments and antics put it: “My favorite part [of the debate] was Hitchens standing the[re] with his drink in his hand snorting dismissive[ly] into the microphone while D’Souza was talking about Mother Theresa’s “love of Christ” for the suffering.” 

Hitchen’s argument was similar to Satan’s in the book of Job, even if Satan, unlike Hitchens, would not technically be an atheist. 

Satan told God that Job only served Him because He blessed him on earth.

Hitchens said that Mother Theresa only did good because she believed God – who Hitchens did not believe in – would reward her in the life to come. 

No, contra such ultimately childish argumentation such as Hitchen’s, one might say that Mother Theresa walked worthy indeed! – perhaps, it seems, even getting close to fulfilling that which Christ commanded the young lawyer in our Gospel reading to do… 

Her life, in fact, is in part a salutary refutation of the Belgian humanist and euthanasia doctor Jan Berheim, who spoke of “a philosophy of taking control of one’s own existence and improving the objective conditions for happiness. There is an arrow of evolution”, he said, “that goes toward ever more reducing of suffering and maximizing of enjoyment….” 

For Jan, this is all about us avoiding suffering, inconveniences, and increasingly exercising control over our own life and death….

No, again, contra such ultimately childish argumentation, one is hard-pressed to look at the writings, pictures, and films of Mother Teresa interacting with the poor of India and to think that she didn’t know that doing good – particularly by helping others with their most basic of needs and even entering into suffering with them – was certainly in one sense its own reward… 

And I personally admire her for what she said about the unborn who she was told were unwanted — and hence were slated for elimination, abortion… —  in a major public forum.

This woman called Mother, with the multitudinous resources she had been given by those wanting to support her good work at her disposal, looked her challengers in the eye (which I  believe included the American President) and said to all “Give them all to me…”

So she radiated joy, compassion, and conviction….

On the other hand, we do also hear about her struggles….

In her diaries, this indeed saintly woman of Calcutta India cries out: 

“I want God with all the power of my soul — and yet between us there is terrible separation.”  

Elsewhere, Mother Teresa wrote: 

“I want to love him as he has not been loved, and yet there is that separation, that terrible emptiness, that feeling of absence of God.”

Or even: 

“I feel just that terrible pain of loss, of God not wanting me, of God not being God, of God not really existing.”

Evidently, this kind of thing is not unknown among certain heroes of the church.  

Another Catholic man named “St. John of the Cross described [this dark night of the soul that] many saints have experienced – [seemingly] a form of suffering exemplified by Christ himself, when he cried out on the cross…” 

As one writer puts it: “In the striking words of [G.K.] Chesterton, this was when God himself seemed for an instant to be an atheist: ‘My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?’”

It certainly makes one wonder. 

About the book of Job and beyond….

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Why was Mother Teresa haunted by such thoughts? 

Why was someone who seemingly devoted the whole of her existence to the work of the Lord apparently so unsure of where she stood?

Even if many Lutherans would likely insist that this was because Mother Teresa was relying on her own works to be saved I do not know for sure – and indeed, knowing even the horrible suffering and angst our own Lord knew when He suffered on the cross for our own sins I would not venture to answer such a question rashly or definitively… – but I do know what a good Lutheran preacher would have said to her in her distress…

Riffing off of today’s Colossians reading, something like: 

“… [H]e has rescued you  from the dominion of darkness and brought you into the kingdom of the Son he loves, in whom you have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.

This forgiveness is for you too. Christ forgives you all of your sins. Do not trust your feelings, but His word of peace to you…You are His… He will never abandon you. ” 

And these words would not just be for Mother Teresa…. 

Because she, for example – and not a lot of you other folks! – deserved it (while you do not)!

Of course not! None of us, not even Mother Teresa, deserve such a gift, even as He is eager to give it to us.

And to follow-up a bit more, maybe if we were given the chance to comfort Mother Teresa with the sweet suave of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, we could have also talked about this question: 

How does a person know they are living a life worthy of the Lord? 

And, again, is this the same question as asking “How do I know that I am saved, that is, that I am at peace with God and will live with Him forever when I die?” 

The answer is that it could be the exact same question, but it doesn’t have to be. 

Because, of course, the Apostle Paul is in our Epistle reading encouraging we who are saved to walk worthy of the Lord… He is writing from the assumption that the Colossians already know forgiveness, life, and salvation in Jesus Christ! That they are secure in Him…

As an organization that two of my younger boys are involved with puts it the following way, explaining Colossians 1:10: 

“This struggle to walk worthy isn’t what saves us from God’s judgment – He’s already demonstrated His love toward us in providing a means of salvation through His grace – but we are called to live a life which demonstrates gratitude towards Him and shares His good news boldly with those who don’t have salvation (Ephesians 6:19; Mark 16:15; Rom 10:13-17).

So the ideals that we hold as our standard for “walking worthy” stem from learning all about God through His word. Walking worthy of those instructions comes from a proper sense of gratitude for His love, grace and mercy which has been demonstrated to us in the most precious of ways: the sacrifice of His only son on our behalf to save us from our sins…” (Trail life website)

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Back to the parable, which, on the face of it, might seem to suggest to us that our salvation is ultimately by our works, that it is our “walking worthy” that earns us eternal life and rescues us from God’s judgment!

Not at all! 

It does us well to remember that we are told that the lawyer both wanted to test Jesus and to justify himself

That is, of course, rather important. 

God does not want us to merit the Kingdom, after all, but to inherit it… because of His cross and resurrection…. by grace, through faith…  for good works. 

And so Jesus turns things around and tests this lawyer. 

We can’t miss two points about this Gospel reading. 

First of all, as Matt Perman puts it: 

“…the point of the [Bible] in teaching the Golden Rule was not simply, or even mainly, to point the way to right behavior [much less tell us how we could do good the right way or enough to be saved]. It was first of all to say: “Look, you don’t live this way. None of you. And that’s a big deal. Israel went into exile for this. So you need a savior. You need to be rescued from your sins, from your hypocrisy in treating others the way you precisely would not want to be treated if you were in their position.”

Second, we can’t miss the true point of the Good Samaritan parable – and I would like to think that even as there are many millions of Christians trapped in a Roman Catholic doctrinal system that would teach them otherwise – most any other Christian who has access to the Gospels would be able to see this too…

That is, Who, ultimately, is the Neighbor? 

Who is the Good Samaritan? 

Who is the One who comes to not snuff out the smoldering wickick and break the bruised reed? 

Who is the One who comes not to tie heavy burdens on our back but to remove them, and to invite us to work with Him in joy and not weariness or fear? 

Who is the one who right after this parable in the book of Luke extols not the one who is busy trying to serve Him, but the one who is sitting, resting, at His feet? 

Remember Mary and Martha? 

Yes, this grace is for you, for me, for all!

Whether we are Mother Theresa, Malcolm Muggeridge, Christopher Hitchens, Jan Berheim, or worse – we must see that our need, the need of us all save none, is for Jesus Christ, the Good Samaritan who binds up the wounds of those maimed and robbed by the devil, and who, as God’s True Lamb, takes away the sin of the world!

Be healed, breath easy, be blessed and rest!

And then, indeed….

Walk worthy in the salvation that is yours in Christ Jesus! 

Amen.

With footnotes: https://docs.google.com/document/d/15nCIf_S8cnxRuLF5TQzjPhLLK_XhRXu4-47hzoIkApk/edit?usp=sharing

 
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Posted by on July 10, 2022 in Uncategorized

 

Confessions of a Steven Paulson Fanboy

First of all, I know a lot of folks who know what I have written about Steven Paulson in the past probably just snorted out their coffee.

That said, it is all true. Read on if you doubt… 

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So, yesterday, I finally stopped re-tweeting this tweet every day: 

About time!

It is true that I have written many things criticizing Steven Paulson (do a search for Paulson on my blog). At the same time, it is also true, to say the least, that I am sympathetic with some of his emphases. 

For example, when 1517’s Caleb Keith tweeted this out a couple years ago: 

…we had a good exchange about it, publicly (check it out!) and privately. Even as I felt led to attack Steve Paulson two weeks later (info about this here), leading to Caleb blocking me, before that we had this private exchange about his tweet: 

Me: “Re: your tweet, that is the way I try to preach (I’m vicaring…now) — it comes out in my sermons more than my blogposts, because there I am always thinking more about the kind of thing you are saying in your tweet. If I get good material from commentaries to inspire me, I want it to be applied very personally right to each person, finally when it comes to announcing God’s forgiveness, absolution, peace.”

Caleb: “….I think this a rather important distinction in Lutheran preaching as Nestingen puts it you “hand over the goods” it’s not just about exhaling the text or pointing out there is law and Gospel but wielding them. It is in this way that we can say preaching delivers the promise of Christ like Baptism and Communion. Anyways glad to hear that the proclamation permeates your own thinking when it comes to delivering Christ and his promises to people. Though I know you have more reservations about Forde and Paulson than I do, this is at the heart of what they present.” 

Me: “Caleb — I have far more reservations about those men than you do, largely b/c of the concerns Montgomery expresses in the new [issue from] Lutheran Concerns [this]. Those views can’t not affect their views of law, which also will affect [their] view of gospel. As regards their powerful personal preaching, there are men who are vs. them who also do this very well as well (see Weedon, Petersen, others) That means, in my view, orthodox Lutheranism needs to up its game, with more sanctification, more existential and penetrating preaching, and the the richest gospel possible…. Pax.”

So this is one of the emphases of Steve Paulson that I agree with. I also believe, with him and Oswald Bayer, that Luther’s confrontation with Cardinal Cajetan was an absolutely critical moment in the Reformation. In addition to this, as I already mentioned, I have another bit to confess here: I have alluded to this before, but what is very hard about my opposition to Steve Paulson is that there is a bit of a love-hate thing going on here with me and his teaching. 

Now, I know Paulson’s teaching and style hold no appeal to many folks, even many highly intellectual folks. They find him confusing, even uninteresting, and ultimately not worth listening to. I, on the other hand, am drawn to it like a moth to the flames. Paulson is highly educated, knows his historical theology inside and out, is highly creative and sensitive to human nature, skewers contemporary philosophical outlooks (and ancient ones as needed), deftly alludes to and addresses our current cultural moment, and uses intense rhetoric which is clearly backed up with intense conviction and thought. In my mind, there is basically nothing not to like. 

I also think he sounds like a pretty decent human being – someone who realizes that actions speak louder than words, and that those who only speak of love sound like clanging gongs. 

And yet, at the same time, to my mind, all of this makes him all the more dangerous… not to the world, but to the word.

Why? Well, I’ve made my case quite fulsomely in the past, and even if I have had doubts about the vigor with which I made that case, I continue to believe that everything that I wrote is needed. 

If you are not familiar with what I have written, start here (probably the best thing I’ve written). 

All this said, I will confess that when Paulson is speaking about Christ and the forgiveness, life, and salvation that He brings, the man truly speaks to me. I can’t help wanting to be wrong about him. I can’t help wanting to be wrong about him about everything I have said. I have lost no number of online acquaintances and even friends because of my vigorous challenging of Paulson’s statements and the statements of others like him (like Gerhard Forde and other relatively “conservative” Lutheran scholars who fudge here and there on more classical views). Part of me wishes that I had no knowledge of the words he wrote in his 2011 book, Lutheran Theology, where he stated that Christ committed his own personal sin… (see here for more ; again, a follow-up, when doubt came…).

For if he had not written that book that said such things about Christ’s cry of dereliction, I would have had no concerns about the way he talks about things in the following talks:

 

And:

https://www.1517.org/podcasts/outlawgod/good-friday

Finally, after listening, re-listening, reflecting and praying, I don’t find anything objectionable in these talks, and must in the end say that they seem very edifying and encouraging and even helpful to me.

And yet, he also wrote the things he did in his 2011 book.

And he has never taken them back… nor tried to explain them in anything other than a superficial way (see his comments to Pastor Donofrio, prompted by my challenges, here). 

1517 doesn’t say anything definitive about this either. Not long ago, a man who follows me on Twitter gave me permission to share what 1517 told him. Here is what he said: 

“I submitted a question from [1517’s] contact form on their website…

1517’s response:

Note they can’t do a simple “we disagree with X-point”. I really am not a fan of a guy like Soren Kierkegaard, but one really appreciates his “Either/Or” here… a bit of clarity and simplicity please! Or Luther for that matter: he talks about asserting, and how Christians can’t not assert, but 1517 runs from that here, when I believe it’s needed the most.

We are left with the “he likes to challenge us” approach. And the “we didn’t publish this”…  

I have to ultimately agree with a fellow layperson, who put it this way: “For Paulson to claim that Jesus on the cross thought ‘I committed sin’ is not what Paul says in Corinthians. Jesus becoming sin is not the same as Jesus sinning. That isn’t difficult to differentiate.”

I guess he underestimates theological academics though. 

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Now, all of this said, I have nevertheless continued to think that Paulson is often untreated unfairly by some of his critics! 

For example, when David Scaer, in a recent CTQ book review article said that:

…I remembered hearing a couple prominent theologians saying that Paulson denied the atonement, and actually got upset!

Even if the atonement does not play the same exact role in Paulson’s theological approach as it might in some other Lutherans, why would that be bad? Someone like David Scaer, I thought, could appreciate this! After all, he appreciated Robert Preus recognizing the value of his own “from below” approach regarding Christology compared with his own “from above” approach! Why couldn’t other theologians put the best construction on Dr. Paulson’s theology here, simply saying that Paulson and Forde are not necessarily the same? Why could they not see that Paulson did not deny the atonement and that it actually played an important role in his theology – even if where it was located in his theology was different? Paulson, after all, is not wrong to want to highlight the critical nature of proclamation: how the spoken word is central to all of life, here and in the life to come! 

Yes, I knew that other prominent theologians I have heard have also said that Paulson, like Gerhard Forde before him, in the end actually denied the atonement. I, however, had read a lot of Paulson and listened to a lot of Paulson and had never detected this….

Then, however, a Paulson fan on Twitter put out a statement from his book The Outlaw God that I appeared to have missed, or at least not thought of sufficiently….

(https://twitter.com/PsBruceFlanagan/status/1526482798122455040)

To this I asked: 

“So did Jesus take our well-deserved punishment or not?

I think that offends even more… God does not disregard the law when He forgives sins. If He were disregarding the law, there would be nothing to forgive.”

The man replied “That’s why he discards it because all the sin is on Him and forgiven, no more accusation, sweet silence and freedom,” I said all of the following, in that last part finally remembering how I had ended probably my best article challenging Paulson: 

And so this tweet that I have been re-tweeting for the past year now takes on new significance for me… And I am thinking that I need to listen even more carefully, and that theologians like Dr. David Scaer can see better than I can what is really going on.

Finally, I need to confess that my continuing to listen to (and even enjoy listening to!) Dr. Paulson probably is not helping matters at all… So, after reading old commentators on Romans 16:17 this morning, I am realizing it is probably best if I avoid listening to or reading anything that Steven Paulson says.

I do think that heavier hitters need to tackle this though – that is, Paulson on the atonement… I am hoping that they will get in the fight, because I think its best if I now sit this one out.

FIN

*Interestingly, the first part of this tweet, regarding how people are not offended by the idea of God “expect[ing] us to fulfill the law with the help of grace” is something I happened to tweet about yesterday as well: 

 
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Posted by on July 4, 2022 in Uncategorized