Life, Death, and the Illusion of Autonomy

We are fast approaching the date of November 1st. While it is celebrated in the Christian Church as All Saints’ Day, the day will have a darker event this year for which the world wants to celebrate. It is the day that 29-year-old Brittany Maynard has chosen to end her life as opposed to suffer the effects of terminal cancer. While the news cycle has died and other stories have taken precedence in our minds, I would like to bring the story back to the forefront of our minds. If you need refreshing, here is the article.

Between when this story broke and now, I have read numerous articles that speak to the subject of suicide, physician-assisted suicide, Christian responses to suicide, etc. While many of the articles have good information, many of them miss the point. They miss the point because they start from the wrong point. Many of the articles debate whether or not her choice is the right choice. However, the distinct teaching of Christianity is that this decision does not belong to Brittany. At the risk of sounding like a raving jerk-face, let me state that again: Biblical Christianity does not give Brittany the choice to end her life in a God-pleasing way. Therefore, Christians should consider this topic with extreme care. As Christians, there are basically two responses to this story, and they both have to do with the subject of autonomy.

autonomy3

For those that are unclear:

Autonomy*

1.  the quality or state of being self-governing; especially the right of self-government

2. self-directing freedom and especially moral independence

3. a self-governing state

So, in response to this story, the Christian has two proper responses to this subject. The first response is to ask if Brittany Maynard is a Christian. If she is not a Christian and can appeal to no higher code of morality, her morality becomes subjective or, at the very most, collective. Subjective morality dictates that the idea of specific morals falls within the autonomous decision of each individual. In this case, one must tip their hat to Brittany and wish her “Bon voyage!” A collective morality would dictate that specific morals fall within the concept of “greater good” for humanity as a collective. In this case, once again, we must tip our hat to Brittany. What good is there to watching a loved-one suffer from a devastating disease? How does this benefit morality as a whole? One could very easily defend Mrs. Maynard’s position from collective morality.

However, what if Brittany Maynard is a Christian? It would follow that she believes in a deity that created her, loves her, and cares for her. She would also believe in a God who is always good. Always right. Always in control. The Bible (i.e. God’s revelation to us and the source and norm for the faith and doctrine of the historic Christian Church) is very clear that only One has the right to be in control of life and death. The One who made us. Even in the midst of this sinful world and the evils therein (i.e. cancer), God is still in control and working for His people. It may not seem fair. It may not seem right. But (here comes raving jerk-face again) that is inconsequential. What we think is fair or right does not matter. WE ARE NOT AUTONOMOUS!!!! God is. We are His creation. We do not get to pick and choose the parts of God that we like or understand. That is not how Christianity works!

And before you ask it, the question is NOT how could a good God allow this? The proper Biblical question, answer, and hope is: What is God doing through this? The answer is that God has not changed. God is working through the exact same means that He has always worked. He works through His Word to bring comfort, hope and direction to our lives. He comes to kill us with His Law and resurrect us with the Gospel. He comes in Holy Communion to cleanse of us of our sins, and strengthen us in our lives of faith. He uses His people of every time and place to provide the healing salve of comfort, the bright ray of perseverance, and the everlasting hope of a new heaven and a new earth where there is no more cancer or illness or death. The comfort of faith does not come through the hope that God will heal someone who is terminally ill. The comfort of faith comes through the promise that God will endure with us through every challenge with the same Means of His Grace that have functioned our entire lives. Life and death are not ours to control. That is not the fruit we should eat, if you will. Autonomy is only an illusion on which we, as American Christians, have gorged ourselves. God is in control. He is good. He loves us so much that there is life that awaits us beyond cancer, hospital, and grave.

All Saints' DayAs you gather with the saints of God in worship this Sunday and as you celebrate All Saints’ Day, remember the life and reunion that awaits. Partake of the means by which God gives you the strength to endure. Put your trust in Him who has the whole world in His hands.

*Definition taken from the Merriam-Webster Dictionary

O God, Forsake Me Not!

During my morning study the other day, I came across this gem. It is hymn # 730 in Lutheran Service Book.

O God, forsake me not! Your gracious presence lend me;
Lord, lead Your helpless child; Your Holy Spirit send me
That I my course may run. O be my light, my lot,
My staff, my rock, my shield – O God, forsake me not!

O God, forsake me not! Take not Your Spirit from me;
Do not permit the might Of sin to overcome me.
Increase my feeble faith, Which You alone have wrought.
O be my strength, my power – O God, forsake me not!

O God, forsake me not! Lord, hear my supplication!
In every evil hour Help me resist temptation;
And when the prince of hell My good conscience seeks to blot,
Be then not far from me – O God, forsake me not!

O God, forsake me not! Lord, I am Yours forever.
O keep me strong in faith That I may leave You never.
Grant me a blessed end When my good fight is fought;
Help me in life and death – O God, forsake me not!

It occurred to me that we often pray this prayer corporately in worship and individually in private. It might come in different forms with different words, but our prayer remains the same. For the Christian, a life without God in your corner is a life that is full of fear and trepidation. So our prayer is often, “God, help me”, or “God, don’t forget about me”, or “God, be with me”, or simply, “GOD!!!!” Many times, our prayers are simply one-word exclamations because we do not know what to say.

I have, often, preached that God holds true to His promises to never leave or forsake His people. I have, often, pointed to the date of baptism and the Lord’s Supper as places where we see the presence of God in our lives. His washing us. His feeding us. However, it occurred to me that the Word is a vital weapon of the Christian that oft goes overlooked. We know about the Scriptures. We know the accounts of the Scriptures. But there are many times when we fail to see the Scriptures containing the wisdom and the power of God. For this is precisely what the Gospel message contains (Romans 1:16). It is the confidence that God has not forsaken us. He is here for us in time and eternity with His Holy Word. It is a Word that, at its center, conveys the salvation of God’s people through Jesus. It is a Word that saves. It is a Word that encourages. It is a Word that teaches. It is a Word that endures.

May the Word of God always be the power of God’s salvation in your life. May you read it. May you cherish it. Always.

3 Easy Ways to Make Sure Your Life Doesn’t Stink

Throughout every age of my life (against the counsel of my parents), I have always been looking ahead to the next venture. Each and every age has brought with it a pining for the greener pastures of maturity, more freedom, more knowledge, and more experience. But as the years and decades have been torn of the calendar, I find that those elusive pastures of greener grass change and morph, much like a mirage of an oasis in the desert. Right when you think you have achieved the perfect life, you look around and find that there are brown and bare spots in this pasture also. They are just called by different names. What were once the bare spots of lack of freedom, immaturity, and relationship issues are now the bare spots of responsibility, financial issues, and sleepless nights because your child refuses to sleep through the night and you just want those teeth to come in because you need some sleep!!! Then, one day, you trade those bare spots for patches of wasted time, the longing for how things used to be, and the ever-crushing want for that little baby to be in your arms again. Each age of life has reminders that life can really stink. But I have a sure-fire three ways to make sure that this does not happen to you. If you follow the following three recommendations, I can promise you that your life will not stink.

1) Do not ever read an article that promises 3, 4, 5, or even 25 ways to be happy. They are false claims, and they make you look precisely where you should not be looking. You’re right! The title was a gimmick. I do not have the key to happiness in 3 easy steps. I do not have it because it does not exist. Anyone who tells you differently is selling something. The sooner that you realize that this world is sinful and fallen, the sooner it is that you will realize that you are sinful and fallen. Once this crushing blow to your ego has taken place, you will be ready to turn to the place where you should have been looking the whole time.

2) Life in light of the cross of Christ reveals that happiness is not the goal.. Happiness is not promised anywhere in Scripture. Joy is promised, but joy is not happiness. Joy comes in the midst of pain and suffering. Joy comes from knowing that your Savior has died for all of your sins. He has forgiven you, and you are now able to forgive others. Christ’s forgiveness gives you the strength to begin to forgive the unfaithful significant-other, the annoying children, and the spouse who squeezes from the middle of the toothpaste tube. The comfort and hope that comes from Jesus’ resurrection gives you the hope that sustains in the midst of illness, loss, hurt, pain, anxiety and depression. This life is NOT all that there is. Life is so much more than happiness.

3) While I don’t have 3 easy steps to make sure that your life doesn’t stink, I do have three places where God has promised to be for you. These three places bring joy in the midst of all the dead grass in the pasture of life.

First, your baptism. Baptism now saves you according to 1 Peter. It is the washing and renewal of the Holy Spirit according to Paul’s letter to Titus. It is the place where Christ seals you. Washes you to death, so that you might arise to new life in Him according to Romans 6. Your baptism is the daily promise that you are who Christ says you are. You are His child. Pure and holy.

Second, the Word. The pages of Scripture are full of accounts where God has remained faithful to His promises for His people. It is THE place where we learn about our Savior, and God’s mercy. It is written so that we might know that Jesus is the one who was promised and that by believing, we will have life in His name. Read it. Study it. Memorize it. Keep it close to your heart. For the one who meditates on the Law of the Lord is like a tree that is planted next to a stream (Check out Psalm 1).

Third, the Supper. No, not the roast that you have in the oven. The Lord’s Supper… the Eucharist… Holy Communion. This is the one place that Jesus has promised to be with you. Seriously, His body and blood with you… for you. Much like baptism, the Lord’s Supper is not effective because of you. It is not effective because of the pastor giving it to you. It is effective because Christ says it is. It is the strength and nourishment that you need when your soul feels like it has been rocked to the core with doubt, hurt, or anxiety. It is the place where forgiveness for others starts. In the Supper, Christ gives strength for your life in Him. And when you find that your life is in Christ every step of the way, there is joy. Joy in the midst of sadness, suffering, and loss. Eat. Drink. Live.

While these things do not promise happiness, Christ promises joy through His presence in His gifts. Christ promises to sustain you. He promises to forgive you. He promises to never leave you. So stop reading the lists. Remember your baptism. Read your Bible. Receive the Sacrament. May God bless you in this endeavor!

Even the Dogs…

In his one of his accounts about his journeys entitled, North by Northeast, Walter Cronkite recalls the following incident:

Sailing back down the Mystic River in Connecticut and following the channel’s tricky turns through an expanse of shallow water, I am reminded of the time a boatload of young people sped past us here, its occupants shouting and waving their arms. I waved back a cheery greeting and my wife said, “Do you know what they were shouting?” “Why, it was ‘Hello, Walter,'” I replied. “No,” she said. “They were shouting, “Low water, Low water.'” Such are the pitfalls of fame’s egotism.

I seriously doubt that Walter Cronkite is alone in his egotism. We want to see ourselves as the ones who matter. We want to see stores, holidays, laws, celebrations, and even schools cater to our needs, our preferences, and our ideas of social equality and equity. Is this not what leads to 95% of our disagreements? We want to be included. We want life to be about us. Pride, hubris, arrogance, narcissism, haughtiness, self-importance, or whatever term you might choose to identify it, has led to a general pining for inclusiveness amongst our society. We want everyone to be bidding us a warm welcome and calling us by name. We want to be included in all of the good things, and protected from all of the bad things. We want to rid ourselves of any possible reason that someone might want to exclude us. The idea of someone being excluded from some benefit on the basis of nationality, race, gender, age, or even sexuality offends our senses… it stirs up dissension in the ranks… it causes protests, riots, and many other hateful things. This might be why this account of Jesus and the Canaanite woman seems to ruffle our feathers a little. For people who fancy themselves as disciples of Jesus, we might find this passage a little offensive. So, we might be liable to try to defend Jesus. We may want to run to His side and explain his motives. We might try really hard to show that Jesus is not really saying what He is saying. Just in case you weren’t paying attention, Listen to the passage again. You can even follow along in your bulletins if you like.

And Jesus went away from there and withdrew to the district of Tyre and Sidon.

A little bit of explanation is helpful here. Jesus had just been in the area of Gennesaret. When He had arrived there, the people started bringing all the sick and diseased to Jesus, as was the case most of the places that He went. While He was healing people, some scribes and Pharisees came from Jerusalem to ask Him why His disciples did not wash their hands when they ate. Now, Gennesaret was roughly 75 miles from Jerusalem. That’s a long way to travel by foot just to ask a question about cleanliness. But, cleanliness was important to the Jews. It was important for their laws. Cleanliness was next to godliness as the saying goes. So Jesus explains to them that cleanliness comes from the inside of a man. It doesn’t have to do with what you put into your body. Evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false witness, slander are what defile a person. But to eat with unwashed hands does not mean anything. It’s all about perspective. So after this encounter, Jesus leaves the area and heads out of the “comfort” of Israel towards the pagan cities of Tyre and Sidon. These places were definitely NOT clean in the Jewish sense of the word.

And behold, a Canaanite woman from that region came out and was crying, “Have mercy on me, O Lord, Son of David; my daughter is severely oppressed by a demon.” But he did not answer her a word.

 So, in this pagan place, a seemingly pagan woman interrupts the disciples and Jesus on their getaway. AND she wants something. They always want something from Jesus. They want to be healed. They want their family members to be healed. They want something to eat. People always want something from Jesus. He has just traveled the almost 100 miles to the region, and here is another charity case. But obviously this doesn’t mean a whole lot to Jesus. He doesn’t even answer her. But she is persistent.

And his disciples came and begged him, saying, “Send her away, for she is crying out after us.” He answered, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.”

Wow! This is where we, as Americans, start to get a little bit uncomfortable. I mean, yeah, we understand that Jesus would be a little ticked that every time He tries to get away for a little R&R people interrupt Him. The disciples even seem to know what’s going on here. They just want Jesus to get on with it so they rid themselves of the presence of this woman. “Send her away. Give her what she wants!!” is the connotation of their words here. But Jesus remarks that He has not come for this woman. She’s not part of Israel. She’s a Canaanite. But this is a little exclusive. Isn’t it? Only sent for the lost sheep of the house of Israel? That seems a little cold. I mean we can understand if He doesn’t want to do anything because He is tired. But to exclude this woman on the basis of nationality? Religious preference? That’s not very… well… nice.

But she came and knelt before him, saying, “Lord, help me.” And he answered, “It is not right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.”

And here is where we really get uncomfortable. This poor woman is begging… on her knees in the dirt of the road… “Lord, help me.” The disciples had seen this before. Jesus always has compassion when this happens. He always ends up helping. The man with a withered hand, the men with demons, the woman bleeding, the paralytic, the centurion’s servant and the crowd that followed, the leper, they all get healed. Surely, Jesus is just stringing this woman along.

But then His response, “it is not right to give the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.” Jesus does not only ignore her initial request. Ignore the disciples’ request to give her what she wants to get rid of her. But now He calls her a dog? At best, she is some sort of household pet who is way down on the list of those who get fed. At the worst, she is an unclean scavenger of dead prey and garbage. Either description seems kind of harsh for this poor woman with a demon-possessed child. But in a strange turn of events, the woman actually consents to this description.

She said, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters ‘table.”

Dog-Begging-for-Food

Wait… What??? Is she really begging for a crumb from the master’s table? Did she really agree with Jesus’ assessment of her? She’s ok with being a dog? That’s not how this is supposed to work! She’s supposed to march herself right into the office of her lawyer, bring Jesus up on charges of discrimination. She’s supposed to march in the streets with signs that say, “Health and Wellness for All!” She’s supposed to lead campaign after campaign to try and change the public’s perception of CWDD’s (Canaanite Women with Demon-possessed Daughters). That’s what we would do, isn’t it? But she doesn’t. She continues to beg and plead with Jesus. “Even the dogs get to eat when the scraps fall from the masters table.”

Then Jesus answered her, “O woman, great is your faith! Be it done for you as you desire.” And her daughter was healed instantly.

HA!!! We knew it! We knew it was coming! We knew it was coming. We knew Jesus would heal her! We knew He was just kidding! We knew that He didn’t mean to call her a dog! He didn’t mean to say that He only came for Israel! He was just stringing her along. HA HA HA HA HA! We knew He wasn’t serious. Wait… He wasn’t serious? Then, why did He do that? That was actually kind of cruel. Why did He put that poor woman through that? To teach her a lesson? To teach the disciples? To teach us? That was really cruel. Pretending He wasn’t going to heal her was no bueno… not cool! Jesus actually comes off looking even more like a…. well… a jerk.

Until you take off your American hats and set them to the side for a minute. Let’s quit rushing to judgments or trying to explain Jesus’ actions. Let’s just listen to His Words. Let’s look at the passage just one more time.

And Jesus went away from there and withdrew to the district of Tyre and Sidon. And behold, a Canaanite woman from that region came out and was crying, “Have mercy on me, O Lord, Son of David; my daughter is severely oppressed by a demon.” But he did not answer her a word. And his disciples came and begged him, saying, “Send her away, for she is crying out after us.” He answered, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” But she came and knelt before him, saying, “Lord, help me.” And he answered, “It is not right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.” She said, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters ‘table.” Then Jesus answered her, “O woman, great is your faith! Be it done for you as you desire.” And her daughter was healed instantly.

Whenever we read a passage, we always want to identify with someone in the passage. I think that betrays us a little here when we read this account. We want to identify ourselves with the disciples. We are God’s people. We’re in, if you will. We’re not outsiders. Our church is almost 175 years old. Our families have sat in these pews for generations… a certain pew as a matter of fact. Many of us went to Lutheran schools, were confirmed, and have been faithful attenders for most of our lives. We give our offerings. We sing the hymns. We go to the potlucks, the servant events, the meetings. We are the disciples.

And yet, how did we start this morning’s service? “Almighty God, merciful Father, I a poor miserable sinner confess unto You all my sins and iniquities with which I have ever offended You and justly deserve your temporal and eternal punishment.” Does that sound like someone that is in? Does that sound like God’s elect? People ridden with sins to numerous to list. Not according to the world! But according to Christ? Yes! Of course, that is what it sounds like. It sounds like the words told to you later, “Almighty God, in His mercy has given His Son to die for you and for His sake forgives you all your sins. As a called and ordained servant of the Word, I announce the grace of God to you. And in the stead and by the command of my Lord Jesus Christ, I forgive you all of your sins.”

When Jesus tells the disciples that He only came for the lost people of Israel… When Jesus tells the woman that it is not right to take scraps from the children and give them to the dogs, He is not calling the woman a dog or saying she is not good enough because of her nationality. He is changing the definition of Israel and the definition of the children sitting at the master’s table. HE HEALS THE WOMAN”S DAUGHTER! HE FEEDS HER AND RESCUES HER! Her faith has made her part of the kingdom. Even though she is sinful and fallen, and so not the right “kind” of person, her faith makes her pleas acceptable. Faith is the key ingredient in salvation.

It’s not about pews. It’s not about offering envelopes. Its not even about being German. Its always about Christ. His death for your sins. His grace given in your Baptisms. His strength and forgiveness given in His Supper. His calling you out of darkness and into His marvelous light. Yes, we might be dogs. But Christ makes even the dogs to be children of God. Amen.

The Christian and the World: Silencing the Cacophony of Voices

SHUT UP!!! JUST SHUT UP!!! I AM TIRED OF HEARING IT!!!!

This was my inner monologue as I perused social media last night. As I read article after article about the recent death of Robin Williams, my agitation was at a pretty high level. The reason for agitation was the dialogue that I was witnessing across the Twitterverse, FaceNation, and the interwebs. It went something like this (these are paraphrases, of course):

So sad to hear of the passing of Robin Williams.

 

I hope shines light upon the need to care for those who suffer from depression.

 

So sad that we lost one of the great actors.

 

Why are we focusing so much on this one man? People die everyday without the fanfare.

 

As a Christian, I appreciate the talent of Robin Williams, and I pray that He looked to Jesus in His final moments.

 

We lose our minds over the loss of a comedian, and we are silent while many Christians are killed for their faith in Iraq. #MessedUpPriorities

 

As Christians, why should we care so much about a man who killed himself and showed no evidence of faith in his life?

 

How dare all of you self-righteous haters cast derision at such a beautiful soul?

And it went on. And on. And on. And on. And on. I was dangerously close to having my head explode right there on the couch. That would be a horrible mess for my wife to clean up, so I had pity on her. I put down my phone. I did dishes. I went for a walk. I pondered.

I found myself conflicted. Did I mourn the loss of Robin Williams? I really did. As an avid observer of pop-culture, many of his movies were very close to my heart as I grew up, came of age, and continued into adulthood. I owe part of  my love of literature and writing to Dead Poet’s Society. I owe part of my compassion for the lost to Good Will Hunting. And even though it was an extreme aberration of theology, I owe part of my imagining of heaven to the cinematic masterpiece, What Dreams May Come. This says nothing of Good Morning Vietnam, Mrs. Doubtfire, The Fisher King, or Hook. So… did I mourn the loss of Robin Williams? Do I still have the picture of Aladdin hugging Genie as my Facebook cover photo? Do I hope against hope that he had some faith at his death so I can have the hope of seeing him again one day? Yes. Yes. And yes.

However, was his death tragic? Yes. Was it abominable? Yes. Is suicide sinful? Yes. Does it damn him to hell for eternity? No. Does it bring up the topic of suicide, depression and mental illness? Yes. Do we need to have those discussions, and do we need to be careful how we portray suicide in a culture that is fascinated with freedom through death? Yes. And OF COURSE, we need to be concerned about the Christians being martyred in Iraq and other places. However, it is still ok to mourn the loss of a person who had such an impact on pop-culture… EVEN and ESPECIALLY if there was not faith present. He becomes one for whom we should truly mourn.

So, if you feel yourself conflicted, as I did.

Mourn the loss of Robin Williams. Thank the Lord for the talent and joy that he brought to people while he was alive. These are good things. Say a prayer for his family and friends that they might find hope in Christ amidst their loss.

Continue to pray for those who are persecuted in the world. Continue to pray for those who are struggling with addiction and depression.

Continue to pray that God’s will would be done in the world and that all people would be saved and come to a knowledge of the truth.

May God grant you the peace that transcends all human understanding… the peace that causes you to turn off your phones, shut your computers, and silence the cacophony of voices that surround us.