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George Floyd and the Limits of Law

Monday, June 01, 2020

Just when we thought that racist behavior couldn’t get any more indefensible and awful than the Ahmaud Arbery shooting, along comes the George Floyd suffocation.  The image of a uniformed police officer kneeling on the neck of a compliant Floyd who is pleading for air is among the most horrible I’ve ever seen.  I can’t bring myself to watch the video, even though I can claim no closer kinship to Floyd than being the fellow bearer of an immortal soul.

In the face of such a stark symbol of human hatred, I completely understand why black people all over the country have taken to the streets, crying for justice.  Though I cannot condone it, I even understand the behavior of those whose rage and pain has led them to loot, burn, and destroy.  Surely something must be done in response to such monstrous evil!  If there is anything in this tragedy that I don’t understand, it is how one human being can literally crush the life from another while listening to his pleas for mercy.

However, as comprehensible as the actions of the rioters are, I only can see them as fundamentally misguided.  It may be satisfying to destroy the business of some shopkeeper who had nothing to do with the Floyd killing, may well be committed to racial equality, and might even be black themselves, but doing so does nothing to advance justice for anybody.  In fact, it only makes the world more evil and less just.  People who feel like they have to do something are doing the wrong thing.

I worry too that the feeling that we have to do something is a trap for the rest of us.  In its infinite wisdom, the online mediasphere has concluded that all of us need to take a stand against systemic racism, but the problem is that there don’t seem to be any systemic solutions available.  The state of Minnesota already has laws on the books prohibiting murder.  I’m sure that the handbook for the Minneapolis police department emphasizes that officers must treat all people equally and fairly.  I’m sure they undergo sensitivity training on a regular basis. I’m sure they’ve been told that they must intervene whenever they see a fellow officer abusing someone.

And yet, one police officer killed a man who was no threat to him while three others watched.  Write the laws how you will; until the hearts of people like that change, nothing will change.  After all, if the Pharisees successfully subverted even the law of God, I am confident that those who are so minded will be able to subvert and defeat the intent of any mere human law.

This takes us, then, to Christ.  He has the power to transform the most corrupt and hateful heart if it will submit to Him.  When it comes to racism, meaningful change is possible only through the gospel, one conversion at a time.

Some say that’s not good enough.  We can’t wait for the slow work of the word; we have to take action now!  However, those apparently quick, easy solutions tend to have coercion behind them.  If others do not want to be righteous, we must make them be righteous.

Sadly, the more we use force to fight against racism, the more it will flourish.  Even now, racists across the nation are watching looting videos and nodding self-righteously, confirmed in their belief that black people are little more than animals.  If the government seeks to compel heart change, it will create martyrs for a cause unworthy of them.

The work of persuading others to God is like planting a white-oak sapling in your front yard.  Change is always slow, sometimes imperceptible.  As the years go by, the apparent lack of progress will be frustrating.  However, if we are patient and do not lose heart, it will produce the result that we desire to see.

The 50 Greatest Hymns, A-Be S

Friday, May 29, 2020

“ABIDE WITH ME”  The title and theme of this hymn come from Luke 24:29 in the KJV, which reads in part, “But they constrained him, saying, Abide with us, for it is toward evening, and the day is far spent.”  The author, Henry F. Lyte, takes this literal appeal (the two disciples were offering Jesus hospitality for the night) and transforms it into a prayer for Jesus’ presence through the metaphorical darknesses of our lives:  change, temptation, and even death.  The tune, EVENTIDE, is a masterpiece of Victorian hymnody.  It’s more difficult than most of what we sing, but it suits the mood of the lyrics perfectly. 

“ALL HAIL THE POWER OF JESUS’ NAME”  Like many hymns, this one is based on the description of Jesus in Revelation 19:12 as a monarch wearing many crowns, which symbolizes His unlimited authority.  It invites various groups to acknowledge that authority. 

"All Hail the Power of Jesus' Name" sees wider use than similar hymns, such as “Crown Him with Many Crowns” (which is arguably better lyrically), because of the tune.  CORONATION is easier to sing, uses some unusual harmony, has a great tenor line, and evokes Baroque-era absolute monarchy.  I’m a little surprised that hymnal editors, who love to attribute great hymns to great people on the basis of scant evidence, haven’t credited the tune to Handel instead of its actual composer, Oliver Holden.

“ALL PEOPLE THAT ON EARTH DO DWELL”  If worshipers have been singing it since 1560, it’s probably pretty good!  The lyrics are a paraphrase of Psalm 100, and it’s easily one of the top three paraphrases in our repertoire.  It’s much less clunky than psalm paraphrases usually are because the author took a very short psalm and stretched out the content to make for smoother writing. 

The tune, OLD 100TH, is even older than the lyrics.  Like many older tunes, it relies on harmony rather than rhythm to add interest, changing chords on nearly every beat.  Such tunes can be difficult to sing, but this one isn’t because of the slow tempo at which it is sung and the skill with which the harmony was written.  The good “tune math” makes it sound majestic.

“AMAZING GRACE”  This is one of those rare birds, a hymn with a mediocre tune that is sung because the lyrics are so good.  The tune, NEW BRITAIN, is an import from the Sacred Harp tradition, and it works much better with Sacred Harp-style harmony (For those of you who aren’t familiar with the Sacred Harp version, you can take a listen here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uPOo4dOuPbQ).  However, for a hymn about God’s amazing grace, NEW BRITAIN with common-practice harmony simply doesn’t sound very amazing.

The lyrics, though, are amazing.  Despite being 250 years old, they are as simple, direct, and clear as if they were written yesterday.  If I had to guess, the inspiration for the hymn came from Luke 15:32, and “I once was lost but now am found” was the first line John Newton wrote.  Anyone familiar with his life story understands immediately why he would have identified with the prodigal son, and his celebration of the grace that he believed God had extended to him is one in which we all can share.

“BE STILL, MY SOUL” is the masterwork of that gifted translator of German Lutheran hymns into English, Jane Borthwick.  The German original, Katherine von Schlegel’s “Stille, Mein Wille” is quite a bit different in meter, rhythm, and tone.  Borthwick’s translation is more thoughtful and philosophical.  As a hymn for reflection in times of sorrow, “Be Still, My Soul” is unsurpassed.

The tune to which we sing it, FINLANDIA, is much later than the text.  It originally was an orchestral tone poem by Finnish composer Jean Sibelius.  Its classical genesis is evident in its ultra-boring alto line and ultra-hard bass line.  I’m always slightly surprised when I come out on the right note on “remain”!  Good tune math helps here too.  Singing FINLANDIA congregationally is difficult but doable, and the tune is so beautiful that it’s worth doing.

How Have We Built?

Thursday, May 28, 2020

Warren Buffett is fond of saying, “You only find out who is swimming naked when the tide goes out.”  In other words, any fool can run a business successfully during a financial boom.  However, when the times aren’t so good, foolish risks will be exposed, along with the ones who took them. 

The same is true spiritually.  Indeed, this is the point that Paul is making in 1 Corinthians 3:10-15.  All of us who labor in the Lord’s church are building on the foundation that Paul, along with the other apostles and prophets, laid down.  However, not all builders in the church build with equal wisdom and skill.  Some are building for eternity; others are building without thought for the future. 

When the fires of trial come, though, the quality of each man’s work will be revealed.  Every faithful builder will endure, but the product of their labors might not.  There are preachers and elders who will inherit eternal life but won’t bring any of those they taught and shepherded with them.

I think the present distress is just such a time of trial, and it will reveal how the workers in each congregation have been building.  Most congregations in the United States are either still not assembling or resuming limited assemblies, and it remains unclear how all this will shake out.  I’ve seen brethren speculating either gloomily (“Everybody will just start watching the livestream on Sunday morning and not bother to show up!”) or rosily, (“We’ll come back better and stronger then ever!”).

In reality, I think the answer is a great big, “It depends.”  Some churches will lose many people; others will lose few to none.  A common theme in those disparate results, though, will be the quality of the teaching and leadership the congregation has received before the crisis struck.

It starts with the greatest commandment.  People who went to church pre-coronavirus because they loved the Lord with all their heart and soul and mind and strength will be back after the coronavirus has run its course.  Devotion to Christ doesn’t sit on the couch and watch YouTube if it has any other choice.  On the other hand, people who went to church Sunday mornings because they were used to going might well not be back after they’ve gotten used to not going.

So too with the commandment to love one another as Christ has loved us.  Congregations where the relationships between brethren are strong will continue to flourish because those relationships will pull everyone back.  The aftermath of the epidemic will change our society in many ways, but people still will be drawn to warmth and kindness.  On the other hand, congregations where the relationships between brethren are not warm and strong are going to suffer greatly.  If you feel lonely when you go to church, you might as well feel lonely staying home.

How have we built?  Have we taught our people to love God and love one another?  Have we presented every other commandment as depending on those?  Or instead, have we wasted our time on feel-good fluff and trivia?  The stakes for having gotten this right are already high.  The stakes for getting it right in the future are even higher.      

Don't Be an Antipas!

Wednesday, May 27, 2020

The ruler had a lot of respect for God’s prophet.  He believed that the prophet was a righteous and holy man.  He enjoyed listening to his preaching, and he protected him from harm.  After the prophet’s death, the ruler even thought it possible that God might raise him from the dead.

This sounds like a heartwarming story of faith, but in reality, it is anything but.  The ruler in question was Herod Antipas, and the prophet was John the Baptist.  Though all the above was true, it also was true that Antipas gave the orders for both John’s arrest and his execution. 

How do we get from Paragraph 1 to Paragraph 2?  How does such a heartwarming story take such a nightmarish turn?  The answer lies in the moral weakness of Antipas.  Ultimately, his respect and even affection for John were overwhelmed by his flawed character. 

These character flaws manifested in Antipas’ life in three main ways.  First, though he was entertained by John, he refused to repent in obedience to the truth.  John told him that his marriage was unlawful.  That certainly made Antipas’ wife, Herodias, murderously angry, but it did not lead Antipas to put her away. 

Second, Antipas loved worldly pleasure.  The climactic event of the story took place when Herodias’ daughter danced for the king and his guests.  Though Mark does not discuss the dance in detail, when we learn that Antipas was willing to surrender half his kingdom in exchange, we don’t have any trouble inferring what kind of a dance it was.  The ordinarily shrewd Antipas (Jesus called him a fox, after all) was so inflamed by lust for his own stepdaughter that he made an impulsive, foolish pledge.

Third, Antipas cared more about the good opinion of others than he did about righteousness.  He ordered John’s arrest because of pressure from his unlawful wife.  Then, when Herodias’ daughter stunned him by asking for John’s head, he was unwilling to appear foolish in front of her and his guests.  He was so very, very sorry about it, but he immediately dispatched the executioner who dispatched John. 

There are Jezebels in the world, strong-minded people who determinedly pursue evil.  However, there are more Antipases.  They mean well.  They really, really do!  However, they shy away from the pain of repentance, they enjoy the passing pleasures of sin, and they care about what their worldly friends think. 

Such people often give us hope.  They seem receptive to the gospel.  They will talk to us about Jesus for as long as we are willing to keep bringing Him up.  However, when the time comes for them to change, they change the subject instead. 

Antipases often are likeable.  Indeed, we may know the temptation to be an Antipas ourselves.  However, we must remember that Antipases don’t inherit the kingdom of God.  When the chips are down, they don’t do the right thing.  They do the wrong thing.  Acutely aware of the pain that godliness will bring, they turn a blind eye to the much greater pain that inevitably will accompany lawlessness.

Nobody should be an Antipas.  It’s just not worth it.

Love, the Greatest Commandment

Tuesday, May 26, 2020

This year, our congregational theme has been “Living for Jesus”.  As a result, much of our preaching and teaching has been focused on the Lord.  I think that’s extremely valuable and important.  After all, how can we live for Jesus if we don’t know who Jesus is? 

This morning, though, I’d like to take a slightly different tack.  I want to focus on the “living” part rather than the “Jesus” part.  We can’t live for Jesus without knowing who Jesus is, but we can’t live for Him if we don’t know what His expectations are for us either.

As Clay observed last week, though, meeting those expectations can’t merely be a matter of outward form.  The Pharisees were masters of check-the-box religion, but the Lord condemned them harshly because of their inward failings.  They were willing to offer God 10 percent even of the herbs from their gardens, but what God really wanted was 100 percent of their hearts.

The same is true for us today.  If our religion doesn’t come from the heart, it’s worthless.  I’d like to preach this morning, then, in response to another one of those sermon requests.  Let’s spend some time contemplating love, the greatest commandment.

We need to begin this study by defining WHAT LOVE IS.  In this regard, consider Paul’s words in Romans 13:8-10.  To some, it might seem surprising that we need to begin this study with a definition.  After all, even small children know what love is and tell their mothers “I love you!”, right? 

The thing is, though, that our definitions of love don’t necessarily line up with God’s definition.  God is love, and He never is deceived about what truly is loving.  That’s not true for us, though.  We are prone to being deceived by others and even deceiving ourselves.  As a result, we may sincerely believe that our conduct is loving when in God’s eyes, it isn’t loving at all.  Indeed, people have done great evil in the name of loving God and loving their neighbor.

We think we know what love is, but we don’t.  In order to help us, then, God gave us His definition of love.  That’s really what the Bible is.  Every commandment in the law of Christ is an expression of love, either for God or for our neighbor. 

Sometimes, people get this wrong.  They say, “My heart is filled with love, so getting all those tiny things right in God’s law doesn’t matter.”  That’s exactly backwards.  Our hearts are not so good that we get to sit in judgment on the word of God and decide which parts are important for us to keep.  Instead, we must allow God’s word to sit in judgment on our hearts, to highlight all the places where we fall short of His perfect love. 

Indeed, the more difficult, even outrageous, we find God’s commandments, the more important this becomes.  I know people who have serious problems with the Bible’s condemnation of the practice of homosexuality.  However, their outrage doesn’t highlight a problem with the Bible.  It highlights a problem with them.  God’s word is perfect.  We aren’t.  We need to be humble before it and live accordingly.

Second, we must understand WHY LOVE MATTERS.  Here, let’s consider the encounter between Jesus and the scribe in Matthew 22:34-40.  A lot of the time, we think that calling love the greatest commandment was a new teaching from Jesus.  It wasn’t.  In fact, whenever we see somebody in the gospels asking Jesus what the greatest commandment is, it’s because they know the right answer and are checking to see whether He does.  

Jesus calling love the greatest commandment in v. 38, then, isn’t the new, intriguing part.  Instead, it is when He reveals in v. 40 that all the Law and the Prophets depend on love.  Some translations here say that on love hang all the Law and the Prophets, and I think that highlights the function that love serves. 

Imagine, then, that love is like a peg or a hook on a wall, and you’ve got a bunch of things hanging from that peg—depending from it, if you will.  If you remove that hook, if you take out that peg, all of those things are going to fall to the floor in a heap. 

If you take the animating principle of love out of God’s law, the same thing is going to happen.  Yes, every commandment was handed down to us as part of God’s definition of love, but it is equally important that we use those commandments as ways to express our love for God and others.   If we forget about love, our failure will ruin our obedience.

In fact, this is exactly what happened to the Pharisees.  They thought they were keeping the Law, but they forgot about love, and as a result, rather than expressing love, their selective Law-keeping expressed self-righteousness, hypocrisy, and hard-hearted contempt for others.  The same thing can happen to us.  A Christian without love is nothing more than a Pharisee.

Finally, let’s examine WHAT LOVE LOOKS LIKE.  Look at 1 Corinthians 13:4-7.  This is a familiar passage.  Clay read it during his sermon last week.  It’s commonly used during weddings.  Everybody thinks it’s so poetic and beautiful and heartwarming and all the rest of that stuff.  The thing is, though, that we only can take it so lightly when we don’t think about what it’s actually saying and how it applies to us.  Once we start thinking that way, rather than being beautiful and heartwarming, this is a text that becomes painful and humbling.

To illustrate this, let’s spend a few moments considering the coronavirus edition of 1 Corinthians 13.  Over the past six weeks or so, many of us have found ourselves spending more time with our families—our loved ones—than we ever have before.  During that time, how have we honored God’s ideal of love?

Love is patient.  Over the past six weeks, have we always been patient, even when one of our kids wakes up on the mouthy side of the bed one morning?  Love is kind.  Have we always been kind to our spouses, even when we’ve been tripping over each other for the past six weeks? 

Love is not arrogant.  Have we been arrogant?  Have we demanded things from our families that we have no right to expect?  Love is not rude.  Are we ever rude to our loved ones?  Love is not self-seeking.  Do we ever, just for the tiniest little moment, get fed up with serving our families and start wondering when someone is going to do for us instead?

Love is not irritable.  Are we?  Do we sometimes wake up on the wrong side of the bed ourselves and make sure everybody knows about it?  Love does not keep a record of wrongs.  Do we?  Have we spent our quarantine making a little list of everybody’s shortcomings and failings, until finally we blow our stack about them?

I could go on, but I think that makes my point.  Is there any Christian here who is willing to testify that they’ve been perfectly loving during isolation?  I don’t know about the rest of you, but I can’t make that claim.  When it comes to love, all of us have got a lot of repenting to do, and a long way to go before we become like Jesus.

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