Daniel Goleman’s book Emotional Intelligence (1995) argued that what Goleman calls EQ is more important to successfully relating with others than IQ. Those who have a higher level of emotional intelligence often succeed in daily life and work more often than those who are incredibly smart. A farmer or a factory worker often has greater commonsense and much more attractive interpersonal skills than those that IQ tests label as geniuses.
Early in his book, Goleman describes the working of the brain. He describes the primitive (or reptilian) brain, the emotional brain, and the thinking brain. Goleman discusses the amygdala, an almond-shaped cluster of structures above the brainstem. He writes: “The amygdala can house memories and response repertoires that we enact without quite realizing why we do so because the shortcut from thalamus to amygdala completely bypasses the neocortex (thinking brain)…Thus the amygdala can trigger an emotional response before the cortical centers have fully understood what is happening” (18-19).
If you find a coiled rattlesnake in your immediate path, this shortcut provokes an adrenaline rush that helps you jump back quickly. If you are in battle or in an otherwise hostile environment, this likewise helps you to fight or, sometimes to flee. If you perceive someone or something as a threat, you may respond quickly but unwisely. So it is when we speak before we think in many conflicted situations. This is starting to sound like some people in or on the news!
St. James warns about the problem of the untamed tongue in chapter 3 of his letter. Having had a mother who never had an unspoken thought, I know what it is to be wounded by a tongue that moves faster than the brain. Mom’s favorite older sister, Kath, used to say to her: “Harriet, just because you think it, you don’t have to say it!” Sadly, Mom found that funnier as she got older and thought it was her “right,” having survived to old age, to say what was on her mind. Earlier in life when she would go too far, my father who served as her primary feedback loop, occasionally had to resort to complete silence, because he knew that anything he said could never be taken back. He had greater emotional intelligence. He listened to God’s Word.
All of us have old hurts and fears. We bring those things into our relationships, especially into our marriages. A former pastoral counselor used to say, “When you hear the phrase, ‘You always’ or ‘You never,’ the person is invariably speaking about archaic hurts which something you said or did triggered.” The worst thing we can do is to go “an eye for an eye….”
In every congregation, there are always those who cannot control their tongues. Like my Mom, if they think it, they say it. But, as Goleman points out, they aren’t really thinking. They are reacting sometimes as if to a personal threat. This is why you never want to escalate a heated argument, because, if someone is carrying a gun or some other weapon, she or he may react without thinking and hurt you. Policemen will tell you this is why they hate taking calls to domestic arguments. They don’t want to get caught in the middle of that stuff.
In our homes and in our church home, we don’t have to tolerate out-of-control tongues. We can say very clearly, before things get out of hand, “Let’s take a break and come back to this conversation when we can think more clearly.” If, however, someone keeps getting in your face, you may say, “Please back up and give me some space.” In Al-Anon they sometimes talk about “detaching with love.” This means you love someone, you pray for that person, and you are open to having a better relationship with them in the future, but you won’t tolerate their untamed tongue or their more outrageous behavior. When it’s a sibling or a grown child, you may simply have to love them and pray for them from a distance…especially when they keep stoking their resentments and rehashing old hurts to no good or healthy purpose. For instance, I learned never to continue a phone call with my alcoholic brother when he called at 3 a.m.
In His dealings with opponents and adversaries, our Lord Jesus was not always sweet and nice – as the four gospels describe. Sometimes He walked away. Sometimes He gave in to the needs of others out of compassion for them. Sometimes He said some really harsh words to those who were militantly ignorant of Who He is. Sometimes He acted angrily as when He turned over the tables of merchants in God’s Temple. And then, out of great love, He died for the sins of the whole world…even for those who considered themselves to be His enemies!
The best defense is a good offense. Pray daily. Worship weekly. Read and study the Bible. Serve at and beyond St. Matthew’s. Be in relationship to encourage spiritual growth in others. And give…generously…of time, talent, and resources. In practicing the faith, God has more space in our lives to work on our greatest weaknesses, yes, even an untamed tongue!
When we get outside of ourselves, including not giving in to our old hurts and fears, and serve others, we discover we don’t have a lot to complain about. We will realize this whenever we make a visit to a nursing home, a hospital, or a prison. We discover our lives are much better than we thought.
But, yes, it’s sad when we sometimes have to detach with love from people with whom we wish we had healthier relationships. Yet, in the long run, God is the only One who can save and deliver us from sin, death, and evil. And only God can tame a tongue that says whatever comes to mind regardless of whom it hurts.
Finally, in Matthew 18, the Lord Jesus teaches us how to deal with someone who has sinned against us. Go privately to that person, and tell her or him your concern. If that doesn’t work, take someone with you to serve as a witness, perhaps even as a negotiator or counselor (or conversation traffic cop). If that person is creating an on-going problem in the church, and the previous steps didn’t work, sometimes the pastor and congregation council have to address and even remove that person (or small group of persons) for the good of the whole. Frankly, and blessedly, in my more than 36 years as a pastor, we have never had to do that anywhere or anytime. In retrospect, we certainly could have done that for the sake of the whole.
That last step is a very last resort. It is what happens when couples divorce, when congregations split, or when denominations slowly fall apart. Even then we still have a responsibility to pray for that person or those persons whose uncontrolled tongues or more outrageous (even cancerous) behaviors have been detrimental to the body’s health.
If you have read this far, don’t let your imagination run wild. I’m responding pastorally to some recent questions and conversations about how to deal with people with untamed tongues. Pray for them! Confront them if you must! Place them in God’s providential care!
Doug Marlette, the political cartoonist for the Charlotte Observer, used to draw a comic strip called Kudzu. The central character (and he was that!) was Brother Will B. Dunn, a Baptist preacher.
You probably didn’t know that Brother Will was modeled after the self-proclaimed apostle to the rednecks, Will Campbell.
Will Campbell’s classic, “Brother to a Dragonfly,” is a book every preacher ought to read, especially if you grew up among and were educated by the elite.
If you never listened to George Jones and Hank Williams in a honky tonk (beer joint). If you never wore cowboy boots and western shirts with snaps. If you never worked alongside the salt of the earth at low minimum wage in a hot factory or warehouse. If you think the south or the southwest was the only evil place on earth. You need to read “Brother to a Dragonfly.”
Mama and Daddy shared a love for music. Classical was their preferred musical idiom. But they also were nuts for Rodgers and Hammerstein and other great musicals, some of which they saw live on Broadway during WWII when their Army hospital ship docked in New York City. They made 14 Atlantic crossings on the USAHS Seminole carrying the wounded warriors home.
After Mama was widowed at 53, I lived at home my final year of college and drove back and forth the 30 miles or so to a small state university.
Sometimes I would sit at the piano during that 1975-1976 school year and play old sheet music. When I would play the Gershwins’ “Embraceable You,” Mama would sing along and get misty-eyed thinking about Daddy.
Despite their ups and downs, they loved each other deeply. Daddy used to say in the bad times: “Someday you will only remember the good times.” Sure enough, her only visit to see us when we moved to Kure Beach in 2004, she said at 81: “Your father turned out to be absolutely right. I only think about the good times. I still miss him so much.”
Five years ago, they were reunited today about 5 p.m. CDT.
Here’s your song again, Mama.
And they live happily everafter!
One hears the word “Nazi” tossed about rather indiscriminately these days by folks on the left. This always refers to the relatively small group of neo-Nazi white supremacists whose disgusting ideology must be repudiated by any one who claims the name Christian. One cannot read past the first chapters of Genesis to know that racism, prejudice, bigotry, or whatever label one applies to an ideology devaluing some people is wrong. The elites in politics, the academy,religion, the techno-Leviathan, media, entertainment, and whomever else, mostly on the left, are the present day arbiters of who is and is not a Nazi, racist, bigot, etc. Our current president, the father-in-law and grandfather of orthodox Jews, is frequently included in this naming.
The problem, of course, when you start pointing the obvious finger at someone else is that you ignore all those fingers pointing back at yourself. One of my old seminary profs used to say: when you are contending theologically against someone else, you need to admit, up front, you stand under the same judgment of God as your opponents! More than a few on the theological left could learn a thing or two about that, since they will always let us know who is and isn’t gracious, loving, accepting, etc. Most of them are certain Jesus isn’t a Republican, but, in their minds, He has to be a Democrat or a Socialist.
So, then, when we hear the term “Nazi” why is it so selectively applied only to those whom the left has identified? Having been taught modern European history by a passionately Jewish history professor in my undergrad days and having, then, visited Dachau right after graduation, I know what Nazis look and sound like. They aren’t just a bunch of uneducated poor white boys who say and do evil like Muslim terrorists, i.e., the not upwardly mobile who’ve done time in prisons and other schools of racial hatred. The real Nazis are the well-educated ideologues who carefully teach and pass laws that some folks don’t matter.
One of my German-born older parishioners in Austin told me the harrowing tale of her father’s stand against the Nazis. He spoke openly as a Christian and vehemently against their racial purity laws: Jews, gypsies, Jehovah’s Witnesses, homosexuals, and the disabled were and are all precious in God’s sight. So, then, his family was stripped of their citizenship and declared to be unpersons. She showed me the ancient document stamped with the swastika. Her sisters and she were young teenage girls who were, then, repeatedly sexually assaulted by the Gestapo and brown-shirted thugs. And yet, this dear woman survived with a beautiful faith and a powerful witness. She married an American who became a Lutheran pastor. On her first and only trip back to Germany to visit relatives, she died of a heart attack. I officiated at her funeral at which I shared only a somewhat sanitized version of her story.
So, then, did you hear that the pot-smoking liberal nirvana known as Oregon passed a bill requiring federally tax-funded Medicare in their state to pay for unrestricted abortions. The governor gleefully signed it into law. If your child is identified as Downs Syndrome, he can be killed in the womb at taxpayers’ expense. If your child is a girl and Mom wants a boy instead, she can be killed in the womb at taxpayers’ expense. If you are in this country illegally, guess who pays for that abortion? If you want to have the abortion in the last month of pregnancy, guess what is legal and guess who pays?
Elitists on the left are certain what a Nazi looks like. But all the mirrors in their world must be broken, because, if unborn lives don’t matter, if the disabled in the womb don’t matter, if little girl babies in the womb don’t matter…and that’s what the Oregon law by its indiscriminate, federally-funded license to abort anytime for any reason says…and you think that’s OK? Then, you sure sound like a Nazi to me.
Here’s Willie Nelson’s version of Bob Dylan’s song from 1980. I chose Willie, because, even though he smokes pot daily, you can understand the lyrics.
I received my Master of Divinity diploma on Friday night, May 29, 1981, with Walt Wangerin preaching his Ascension sermon: “Stay in the city.” Paul Manz was the organist for the service that took place at Third Baptist Church in midtown St. Louis. I was ordained on late Saturday afternoon, May 30, using the propers for the Feast of the Visitation (when Mary visits Elizabeth). Robert H. (Bob) Smith, my seminary advisor, was the preacher. The Seminex Chorus helped to lead the liturgy at St. Martin of Tours Lutheran Church in Mascoutah IL, a congregation of the Association of Evangelical Lutheran Churches (AELC). I presided at my first Eucharist on Sunday, May 31, the 7th Sunday of Easter. The pastor told me at the Saturday night supper after my ordination that I should get used to surprises in the holy ministry: “So…you’re also the preacher tomorrow.” I stayed up all night and didn’t much get to enjoy the party.
At the end of that summer 1981, I began a year of advanced chaplain (CPE) residency at Parkland Memorial Hospital (the county hospital and major regional trauma center) in Dallas and worked part-time at Good Shepherd (AELC)in Irving TX assisting my former professor, Robert John Werberig. The next summer of 1982 I began serving an LCA mission congregation on the south side of Dallas and was officially received into the LCA in May 1983. During seminary I had lived in both white and black ghettos of St. Louis. In Dallas I lived in a mixed white/Latino neighborhood and served a largely poor clientele (white, black, and Tejano) at Parkland and largely white middle class suburban congregation in Irving. My first parish was located in what had been a white-flight small town but increasingly became an ethnically diverse middle class suburb.
In the 41 years since I began seminary, I have served rich and poor, middle class and working class, rural, small-town, suburban, and major city populations. I was a seminary field worker in a small town, vicared in a town gown situation ministering mostly to college students, “chaplained” with the wounded and dying of all classes, and been pastor to folks from a wide variety of walks of life in small, mid-sized, large, and very large congregations (Missouri, AELC, LCA, and former ALC). This I learned as a chaplain: It doesn’t matter if you wear a Timex or a Rolex, dress discount or designer, drive a Mazda or a Mercedes, drink malt liquor or single malt scotch, have manacles or a manicure – you end up naked and dead. When they pull out the drawer at the morgue, some bodies just have better dental work and prettier nails.
Bruce was the executive director of the Greater Dallas Community of Churches that paid our chaplain resident stipends at Parkland. His background was some stripe of liberal protestant, which, by his own admission, didn’t care what you believed as long as you did what Bruce considered to be the right thing. The Holy Scriptures, the creeds, and church confessions didn’t matter at all to Bruce. In short, Bruce ought never to have been ordained as a Christian pastor. He should have been a lay person who did social ministry as a vocation. Nothing wrong with that. He was a kind man. Classically, he might well have been kind of like a deacon in Acts 7, but, if you remember, Stephen was stoned to death for preaching the Good News of God’s Son Jesus, crucified and raised bodily from the dead. Bruce’s gospel was the social gospel.
A lot of guys went to seminary in the 1960s to avoid being drafted for Vietnam. Some of them ended up being bishops, some seminary professors, some agency heads, and some denominational executives. A lot of those guys (and later gals from the same era) ended up sounding a lot like Bruce, not really caring much about reading Scripture through anything other than Marxist lens and always trying to create, by their own reason and efforts, the kingdom of God on earth. Where the old Augustana (Swedish) Synod and the old Missouri Synod had both preached the real Gospel and been in the forefront of meeting human need among other than typically northern European middle class Lutherans, many of the folks that followed traded the preaching of the Gospel of Jesus Christ crucified for sinners, with its scandal of particularity, for the social gospel of American liberal protestantism. In other words, when you no longer believe what the Scriptures, the Creeds, and the Lutheran Confessions teach, you end up, like Bruce, with a group of post-Christian people who just want to do what they believe to be the right thing. Such folks shouldn’t be pastors. And…in the long run…only God will judge their efforts!
On any given weekend at St. Matthew’s, we gather as a local Lutheran family within the larger Body of Christ. Yes, we are mostly white, but we are hardly a monolith even within that “white-ness.” We are also African American, Latino, Middle Eastern, ethnically Jewish, and a mixed bag of ethnicity. In my strange case, I am German, Sicilian (which turns out in our family to be largely Albanian), and Cherokee. One of these days, I will be able to spend money on the DNA testing and will probably be even more surprised by my ethnic background given that the Zumwalts came to America from the Bern Canton (Switzerland) before the Revolutionary War. Regardless of race, class, or sex, our Lord has a clear command: “Go, make disciples of all ethnic groups by baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the +Son, and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all I have commanded you…and, lo, I am with you always to the end of the age” (Matthew 28:19-20).
I learned to sing as a little one: “Red and yellow, black and white, they are precious in His sight. Jesus loves the little children of the world.” Every person on earth is made in God’s image. Every person is one for whom Christ died and, thus, is more precious, lovable, and valuable than God’s own life!
Yes, it does matter that we teach that, preach that, and practice that, not as some kind of liberal protestant mantra that replaces the scandal of particularity that true Lutherans know to be the Gospel. You see, Bruce wasn’t wrong about serving our neighbor in need, and, in Dallas County, most of the poor were white not black or brown. Serving our neighbor is simply part and parcel of what it means to be children of God. Yet, it does matter what we preach, teach, and confess as Lutheran Christians. We Lutheran pastors promise to do that on the day of ordination, although some apparently crossed their fingers.
Yes, Martin Luther wrote his terrible pamphlet, “On the Jews and their lies,” which the Nazi propagandists used on Kristallnacht, the night of broken glass that took place on Luther’s birthday. We Lutherans repudiated those words at the 1993 Churchwide Assembly in Kansas City. We should have done so much sooner! But, let’s also remember, the Nazis were pagans and demonic, not Christians. Most of the German Lutherans had been taught to obey the authority of the state, and far too many didn’t obey God rather than evil men. Far too many German Catholics were more afraid of Soviet communism than of National Socialism (Nazi is short for that), and far too many of both Lutherans and Catholics were silent in the face of evil. If their pastors had been preaching Bible 101, more would have said no to the Nazis.
Our hands are not clean in America. Slavery was objective moral evil, as it was and still is today when practiced by some Muslims. The indiscriminate slaughter of my American Indian ancestors was also objective moral evil. The legal murder of over 56 million unborn American children is also objective moral evil, but you will never hear many on the left admit that. And our ELCA Health Benefits Plan pays for abortions even though this is participation in objective moral evil! And the founder of Planned Parenthood, Margaret Sanger, was no friend to other than white ethnic groups or the disabled, but you will rarely hear anyone on the left admit that, either. The level of selective moral outrage is, oh, so high!
When you believe, teach, and confess the Christian faith as truly Lutheran Christians, you do what a small faithful minority of German Lutherans like Dietrich Bonhoeffer did. You don’t preach the social gospel. You obey God rather than men, because all people are created in God’s image and all people are ones for whom Christ died and still need to be baptized with water in the name of the Father, the +Son, and the Holy Spirit. Thus endeth the sermon.
“I don’t feel like getting up, Dad.” I hear that almost every morning. It is usually accompanied by, “I am so tired.” To which Dad replies, “Yes, that’s what happens when you drag your feet going to sleep each night.” Logical consequences to choices made. Occasionally, I say, “Your job is going to school.” Later on, I will probably add, “And your grades are your pay check.” Virtue must be taught. Vocation must be named and identified.
Because my daughter has a good sense of humor, I added a new tactic to morning wake-up last year. I pulled up a YouTube of a song dating from my adolescence: Loudon Wainwright III’s “Dead Skunk in the Middle of the Road.” That elicited giggles the first few times. Then I added Harry Nilsson’s, “Lime in the Coconut.” When your Dad is 63, you get a different selection of songs, but, hey, it was all new to my daughter. On really slow days, the third selection is Edwin Hawkins’ glorious “O Happy Day.” And when she’s up on her feet, I may add REO Speedwagon’s “Roll with the Changes” to get the blood really pumping! For gripier days, I occasionally may add Joe Dolce’s “Shut Uppa You Face,” which only makes Mom laugh. I tell you the woman is a saint. I mean it.
Well, as I said, virtue must be taught, while vocation must be named and identified. The only vocation that survives death is Child of God, which is the Father’s gift in Holy Baptism for His Son Jesus’ sake (“You are my beloved Son with whom I am well pleased”). Before that, the first vocation is that of son or daughter, already from the moment of conception, but clearly identified by the 20th week of pregnancy. The vocation of son or daughter may be accompanied by the vocation of sibling and includes such related vocations as grandchild, niece or nephew, cousin, etc. Other vocations are named and identified along the way such as citizen, neighbor, North Carolinian, Wilmingtonian, Lelander, Islander, etc. With vocation comes relationships, roles, and responsibilities.
Vocation must be identified and named. One of the tasks of our growing up years is figuring out our native gifts (musical, athletic, intellectual, problem-solver, etc.) and then beginning to hone and develop them. One of the tasks of late adolescence and early adulthood is to figure out with whom not to end up. As I often say to young folks, the happiest people in the world are those who make a living doing what they love to do and doing what comes naturally to them. The unhappiest people have decided they will trade their lives (work and/or marriage) for a large pay check, but that makes one a practitioner of the world’s second oldest profession. They are so unhappy, because they know this!
Virtue must be taught from the earliest age. We teach our young ones to get up and go to school, because that is presently their most time-consuming calling. We teach them to study, because that is a necessary virtue to becoming a good student. This is their better “you” as opposed to the old Adam or Eve (the old sinner) who wants to do nothing useful.
When you join a congregation, you become a member of a particular family within the larger Body of Christ. One of the things successful marketers get wrong about Christianity is the sense that you don’t “join” or become a “member.” Every body has members. Every body’s members are joined to each other. You see that on ultrasound scans as the particular members of the body become visible, such as the clearly visible ten tiny fingers and ten tiny toes by the tenth week of life in the womb.
So…you have gifts God has given you, and He has created you for good works that you might walk in them (see Ephesians 2:10). You are your better you when you virtuously get out of your chair or pew and exercise your gifts for your fellow members. God needs teachers of children, altar guild workers, ushers for worship, those who carry the cross, singers in the choir, readers of lessons, servers of the Blessed Sacrament, workers behind the scenes serving in the office or maintaining the property.
Don’t say, “But, Father, I don’t feel like getting up…I am so tired!”
Come on, don’t be a “Dead Skunk in the Middle of the Road.” There is no Hall of Fame for Living Christians! https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Uu5hzc2Mei4
Our last house in Texas was located on previously undeveloped ranch land which included dramatic canyons descending to the Colorado River. My first house in that neighborhood had a small balcony off the 2nd floor master bedroom overlooking this gorgeous area. At night you could hear coyotes howling. I did have to dispatch two of my first neighbors, rather large diamond-back rattlesnakes, who weren’t pleased I had moved into their habitat. I was not unhappy to sell that house after developers later built behind it encroaching further into a previously dedicated nature area.
So the second smaller house in that neighborhood was located on a cul-de-sac. Three large 100-year-old live oaks (one for each person of the Holy Trinity, I used to say) were its best feature. I still regret not taking a six-inch strand of early Texas barb wire that the tree had grown around.
When I was a young boy, our house backed up to pastures owned by Mr. Atkins, the local soil conservation agent. His house was located on the main north-south state highway perpendicular to our street. Mr. Atkins “ran” a few head of cattle in his pasture along with a gentle gelding named Tony and a fierce shetland pony named Cookie. Not much to his liking, a group of us boys played regularly in his pastures, swapping Bois d’Arc (horse) apples for bareback rides on Tony, and learning basic lessons. One was running barefoot through cow patties will teach you in a hurry about the difference between dry and semi-dry. The second and major lesson was: “Boy, don’t try to straddle a barb wire fence.”
Sometimes you forget along the way the lessons you learn as a boy. Life puts you up against barb wire fences from time to time, and, if you must cross that fence, you better not try to straddle it. I was reminded of this when dealing with a nasty group of people who could pummel you to death with the “love of God.” There is no one quite so blindly lacking in self-awareness as one who has acquired power to “right the old hurts” of childhood while insisting, in the name of God’s love, everyone in her/his way is a hater. It is easier to negotiate with a diamond-back rattler than with angry people with power. More than a few French folks found this out while waiting for the guillotine blade to drop.
When I was twenty, I met Carl, a regional denomination leader, who tried to “straddle the barb wire fence.” He got caught, as it were, because he didn’t know which side of the fence he wanted to be on. Folks on either side of the fence kept telling him to make a choice. With that memory in mind, I eventually decided in 2004 I would rather be on the side of the fence with the great cloud of witnesses who passed along to us the orthodox Christian faith than to be in the company of smiling, power-mad angry people out to clobber folks on the other side with the so-called love of God. They’re vicious folks!
Our congregation had its own barb wire encounter back in 2010, and most of us stuck with the traditional Christian faith as it has been practiced by previous generations of Lutherans. I see another barb wire fence coming in the next few years, and I won’t straddle that fence. I know how it ends up.
Hermeneutics is the art of interpretation. It is a term derived from the name of the Greek messenger of the gods, Hermes (in the Roman pantheon, Mercury). Hermeneutics helps you figure out the message from God in Holy Scripture.
You might think hermeneutics is as simple as figuring out the literal meaning of the text, but then you would be missing that translation is already an exercise in hermeneutics. In my youth, the Living Bible was one man’s paraphrase of Scripture based upon his own theology. More recently, Eugene Peterson’s The Message was also a much better paraphrase based upon Peterson’s knowledge of Hebrew and Greek, but it still reflected Peterson’s own interpretation of how you might put the author’s thoughts in everyday language. A lot of guys liked reading The Message, because Peterson spoke in down-to-earth guy talk, but it was still Peterson’s informed interpretation.
If you have taken a Bible course or two at a college or university level, your instructor or professor has his or her own interpretive lens through which he or she reads the text. Like the introduction to most Bible translations, if you read or listen closely, the teacher is telling you how he or she reads Scripture. More often than not, your teacher has placed him- or herself as the center of all.
No one comes to the Holy Scriptures as a blank slate. All of us bring our own biases, experiences, and intellectual history with us. The key is always to understand with what lenses you are looking at the text of Scripture. Many of us have not examined our biases honestly. For many scholars, their training and research are so geared to the academy, that they fail to see how their own personal hurts, ambition, or bondage to ideas like progress and novelty affect their reading of texts to the point of obscuring the text rather than to aiding others to understand it. The Bible is the Church’s book and not the academy’s!
The history of Christian biblical interpretation is already evident in the way the New Testament writers read what Christians call the Old Testament (the Hebrew Bible or Greek Septuagint). The organization of the canon of the Old Testament by the early Church is already an interpretation of its message. The use of Old Testament texts by all the New Testament writers is already an interpretation through the lens of the death and resurrection of God’s Incarnate Son Jesus. He is the enfleshed Word of God, already present in the first verses of Genesis, Whom the early Church later calls the Second Person of the Holy Trinity. His innocent suffering and death for sinners and His bodily resurrection from the dead on the third day are the heart of the Christian kerygma (proclamation). The outpouring of the Holy Spirit, the Third Person of the Holy Trinity, from the God whom Jesus calls Father and through His Son Jesus is essential to the metanarrative (the grand over-arching story) as Christians understand the Bible.
Media darlings from the academic world routinely present themselves as better scholars, more learned, and even more honest than those who are self-consciously passing along the Christian faith as summarized by the Nicene Creed (and, for some, also the Apostles’ and Athanasian creeds). For those from a non-creedal background: the creeds are hermeneutical keys to reading the Scriptures! These are basic statements of what must be said to pass along rightly the Christian faith to the next generation.
The history of the Christian Church also impacts how one reads the Scriptures. For Roman Catholics, the teaching office of the Church, as represented by the Pope and his bishops, is the only reliable interpreter of Scripture. For the Orthodox East, the witness of the Orthodox fathers (bishops and theologians) is the key to reading Scripture in the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church. The East does not agree that the Bishop of Rome has greater authority than the union of Orthodox hierarchs, hence the Great Schism of the 11th century. They say Rome created the problem at that time, and Rome must mend the breach. Both the Pope and the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople excommunicated the other. They have only been praying together again since the 1960s!
In this 500th year of the Lutheran (and not Protestant) Reformation, many are paying lip service or attention to Martin Luther’s contribution to (or further destruction of) Church unity. Many people, including pastors, who call themselves Lutherans have no real understanding of what it means to read the Scriptures like Martin Luther. If one picks up his somewhat drunken ramblings recorded by somewhat drunken students in “Table Talks,” one may well be disgusted by some of Luther’s more scatalogical remarks. If reading a sermon, a commentary, or a treatise by Luther, one needs to know who is Luther’s intended conversation partner or perhaps target. When arguing with Rome, he increasingly sounds like a total protestant. When arguing with the left wing of the Reformation, he is most definitely a son of the Roman Church. The Lutheran Reformers know the Church’s tradition.
Self-consciously Lutheran pastors and lay people read the Holy Scriptures, as Luther did, through the lens of the death and resurrection of God’s beloved Son Jesus. Luther’s question, “Was treibt Christum,” (what urges or necessitates Christ) famously (or infamously) becomes the hermeneutical key to Scripture. If one can read a text in such a way that it implies one can save oneself from sin, death, and the power of the evil one, then one has just wasted the death of God’s Son (a sub-Christian reading of the text). This, of course, lies at the heart of Luther’s argument against the sale of indulgences to build St. Peter’s Basilica, not because he was opposed to a new basilica, but because the implication was that forgiveness had to be purchased with money. Many a protestant televangelist today is another John Tetzel selling forgiveness for a new private jet or a bigger TV worship center. Don’t waste Jesus’ death!
Luther’s young associate Philip Melanchthon, author of the Augsburg Confession and its defense (the Apology), systematizes this key to say that all of Scripture may be divided either into law or promise, God’s No or God’s Yes. In Jesus Christ, God says “No” to sin, death, and the devil, but God says “Yes” to sinners, both Jews and Gentiles. This does not mean that real Lutherans are antinomians (although some who call themselves Lutherans most certainly are). Neither reason or good works are proscribed, as some Lutheran detractors slanderously maintain. Rather reason and good works are captive to God’s Word and, as such, are unable to save. Only God’s Incarnate Son saves. Reason is subject to the mind of Christ, the Living Word of God, and good works are the way we give God thanks.
Many Christian folks find self-consciously Lutheran Christians to be aggravating in the extreme. We point always to the death of God’s Beloved Son as the heart of the Christian message and the key to reading Scripture. Holy Baptism saves, because we are baptized into Jesus’ death and resurrection. Holy Communion offers forgiveness of sins, eternal life, and salvation, because we receive Jesus’ true Body and most Precious Blood in the Host and the Cup. In both instances, we trust God’s Promise is true!
We Lutherans will always point to the death of God’s Son Jesus and explain you waste His death if you suppose you can cooperate in any way with God. We are, unlike many if not most Christians, monergists not synergists. We believe God’s Holy Spirit does the work of saving always through the Gospel, which includes bringing those born dead in our trespasses (everyone) from death to life by joining us to the death and resurrection of God’s Son in Baptism; by creating trust in us through God’s promise of forgiveness, life, and salvation; by keeping us united to Jesus through Word and Sacraments; and by promising to raise us and all the dead and give to us and all believers in Christ eternal life in resurrected bodies. It’s all God’s Work if we say “Yes.” It’s nobody’s fault but our own if we say “No!”
Forty-two years ago on August 8, my father, 62, died at about 9:50 p.m. (CDT). He drowned in his own lung fluid after a nasty fight against large cell lung cancer.When he was diagnosed, he was given two months to live without treatment and six months with if he went to M.D. Anderson Cancer Research Hospital in Houston. After the fact, my mother, widowed at 53, said she wished they had not sought treatment but had opted for a final romantic cruise. They had met and fallen in love on an army hospital ship during World War II. After they secretly married on Christmas Eve home leave, my brother was conceived in Dad’s quarters while his roommate was on duty. Dad was chief radio operator on the ship. Mom outranked him as an Army nurse. Sarge was nine years her senior, but she was a first lieutenant.
Five years ago on August 17, my mother, 90, died about 5 p.m. (CDT) at a state veterans’ home in our small town in Texas. She never married again, although she, briefly, had a suitor when she went to her 50th high school reunion in Moorestown NJ. The romance was short-lived, because Mama wouldn’t leave kids and grandkids in Texas and didn’t want to face harsh winters after so many years in Texas. She was worried what her kids thought. I told her the living should keep on living, and, if she thought he was a good man, I would be happy for her. As Barney Fife used to say, Mom nipped it in the bud, and I often wondered if she regretted her decision. She said wistfully, from time to time, that it would have been nice to have had someone with whom she could have gone out for supper and dancing. Instead Mom attended greatly to grandchildren and even great-grandchildren until Alzheimer’s stole her last years.
Dad occasionally said, when particularly exasperated, all Mama and he had in common were four kids and a bunch of bills. It wasn’t true. They loved God. They loved music. They loved the wonders of God’s creation and were generous in their care for others. But Dad was an upstanding drunk, which means he was well thought of in our community and never missed a day of work, and Mom was an enabler of his alcoholism and even more of my brother’s. Only after my brother died in May 1992 at age 46 did Mom finally listen to my urging that she go to Alanon.The meetings helped give her some peace, but she never got to a healthy place. She enabled the alcoholism that continues to plague more generations of our family. Even the day of her funeral turned into a commercial for the family disease. Father Bill, the retired Episcopal priest who co-officiated her funeral, just shook his head at the debacle.
On the day of Mama’s funeral, our Lord’s lovely promise to make all things new was read from Revelation 21:1-7. Biblically-illiterate and hugely dysfunctional relatives covered their ears, because, in their minds, any words from the last book in the grand metanarrative of Scripture were too horrible to hear. Ironically, they at one time thought a song based on the same text, Eric Clapton’s “No More Tears in Heaven,” was sadly beautiful. Context is everything, and they missed our Lord’s amazing promise.
In the resurrection on the last day, there will be no more alcoholism, no more cancer, no more Alzheimer’s, no more bitterness, no more tears, no more dying. The former things will have passed away, and our Lord will make all things new. That is the promise given by our Baptism into His death and resurrection. We are indeed marked with His cross, and nothing can separate us from His love.
Mama and Daddy looked so happy holding their firstborn. I always love to look at old pictures as just a hint of what they will look like on that day when, they and all the baptized dead, are raised in imperishable bodies to praise the one true God (Father, Son, & Holy Spirit) forever.