The third time’s the charm

Somehow I acquired the information that a vampire or similar undead being could only go into a dwelling place after being invited three times to enter. Some research on the internet this morning has convinced me that the three times is incorrect. That’s a shame, because the story I am about to tell would be much more interesting if it were true. As for being unable to enter without an invitation, that depends entirely on the author or scriptwriter, but it is a very common rule. Given the amount of trouble and damage these beings can accomplish, it’s only fair to limit them in some way. Of course they are accomplished at guile, deceit, and charm to get in the door when they so desire.

Garlic, silver, crosses, and other items are supposed to be effective against the undead. They do not work with telemarketers. Having your telephone number on the official “do not call” list is supposed to keep telemarketers away, but there are exceptions to that rule. Charities and political groups are exempt. Also, if you already have a relationship with a company, its telemarketers can call you to offer new or improved products.

So I was working at home one evening this week when the telephone rang. The caller was from the company that provides our television service. My family does not watch enough live TV (not counting DVDs) to get our money’s worth for that service, but it comes in combination with internet and telephone service. At any rate, this caller wanted to thank us for being good customers and was offering a special deal. A group of new channels would be added to our package at no cost for the next three months and only five dollars a month afterward. She listed the new channels she was offering and simply needed for me to say OK. Since this was a special offer for good customers, she seemed completely convinced that I’d be happy and agree to the offer.

I did not agree. I told her that we wouldn’t bother to watch those additional channels even if we had them, and I did not want to have to try to remember to cancel them after three months to avoid the higher rate. As if she had not heard me, she ran through the entire script a second time, again assuming that I was going to say OK. Again, I thanked her and told her we weren’t interested. At this point she asked what I like to watch on TV. Not mentioning the DVDs, I let her know that mostly I watched sports—especially baseball—and also kept up on local weather and news. Hearing the word “sports” she again tried to sign me up for this special offer, mentioning some sports-related part of the package. I politely declined the third time, and the conversation finally ended.

This is where I wanted to compare the telemarketer to a vampire who must be invited three times before entering the house. Since that is not the case, my analogy falls flat. Clearly, though, this telemarketer had been trained to continue the pitch until the third time she heard a “no.” That is a common sales technique and did surprise me at all.

Two nights later she called again—or, more likely, another telemarketer with the same offer and a similar voice. When she had spoken her spiel the first time, I politely replied that I had turned down that offer just the other day. In a polite voice, I added, “and to save us both time, I say again, no, and a third time, no.” My gambit succeeded: she ended the conversation very quickly and hung up.

It’s not like wearing garlic, but it works. J.

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Of sin and sickness

At one extreme we can see that we each need to take responsibility for our own lives. We all made choices, whether good or bad, and then we have to live with the consequences of those choices. If we have problems in this world, we have no one to blame but ourselves.

At the opposite extreme, we can see that we are all victims. We are shaped by things we cannot control: by DNA, by our environment, by chemicals in us or around us. When we make mistakes, and when we have problems, we deserve compassion rather than judgment.

We all land somewhere between these two extremes. Sometimes when we try to talk about responsibility, we talk past each other, addressing ourselves to the extreme position we think we are hearing rather than to what the other person is actually saying. What can be said, then, to try to find a meeting point where genuine discussion can take place, consisting more of light than of heat?

  • A sin is still a sin. When any of us does what God forbids, or fails to do what God requires, God holds us responsible. He does not allow us to blame the devil, or the way our parents raised us, or television, or video games, or whatever chemicals might have been involved.
  • Sin damages creation, including people. “The wages of sin is death,” and all the other pains and sorrows that afflict people in this world are likewise the results of sin. There is no one-to-one correspondence between sin and suffering, though. Sin can be regarded as a pollution that corrupts the entire world and harms all people.
  • Life is not fair. God is just and fair, but evil is random and unfair. God limits the harm done by evil, but he permits evil to happen so people can see the difference between good and evil and prefer what is good. Moreover, if God were limited to being just and fair, the sacrifice of Jesus could not redeem and rescue sinners. God permits the injustice of evil so he can provide the greater blessings prompted by his love, his grace, and his mercy.
  • In one sense, every problem in this world is a spiritual problem. Because all problems flow from sin—from rebellion against God—the only ultimate solution for all problems is the righteousness of Christ and his redemption.
  • On the other hand, we are living in a material world. Nearly all of our problems will have a material component. In this sin-polluted world our bodies are vulnerable to accidents, injuries, diseases, allergies, poisons, and the like. In addition to the benefits of God’s grace to take away our sins, we need doctors, nurses, therapists, pharmacists, counselors, and other professionals to help us with our problems. At times we need medicines, casts, crutches, eyeglasses, hearing aids, and other material assistance to support us with our material problems.
  • Mental and emotional sicknesses, including anxiety and depression, also have material components. Among the possible causes of mental illnesses are poor nutrition, lack of sleep, lack of exercise, current stress, previous trauma, abuse, chemical imbalance, physical illness, side-affects of treatment for physical illness, guilt and shame over ongoing sins or past sins, and many more.
  • Among the appropriate responses to mental illnesses, including anxiety and depression, are a physical check-up, faith-based counseling, secular counseling, medication, and hospitalization. Because these illnesses have so many different causes, no single response deals with all cases. A medication or a faith-based counselor that restores the health of one person might be unable to help another or even harmful to another.
  • Mental illness is not a choice. While it might appear that one can address another person’s eating disorder by providing him or her with food, much more is happening inside that person than a choice not to eat. People with depression do not want to feel depressed; they want to feel better. While examples can be given of mental illnesses that began with bad choices—substance abuse and addiction, for one—the person with the illness cannot and should not be expected to fix his or her problems by his or her own strength.
  • Healthy living and good choices can reduce a person’s vulnerability to many illnesses, including mental illnesses. However, they do not guarantee perfect health. Heart disease, diabetes, cancer, or depression can all strike a person who has made good and healthy choices for a lifetime. None of these illnesses is the result of a particular sin or of committing more sins than the healthy person without that illness.

I could go on. Much more remains to be said. Perhaps this is enough, though, to begin a useful conversation. J.

Parallels of Wonder Woman and Full Metal Jacket

Last week the movie Wonder Woman was shown for free at the park downtown, and so I got to see it again. I’ve not gotten deeply involved in the superhero genre, but Wonder Woman had sufficiently good reviews for me to see it in a theater, and I enjoyed it. The story has enough depth and the characters and settings are sufficiently interesting to make me want to see it more than once. Gal Gadot’s portrayal of the title character is nicely done. I have to be cautious expressing my admiration for her, though, because I have a daughter who looks much like her—something apparent not only to her father but also to her coworkers. So I don’t want to rave overly much about the actresses appearance or talent.

During the sniper scene in the Belgian village, I began to think of Stanley Kubrick’s movie Full Metal Jacket, which also includes a sniper scene. In the last few days my mind has found many other connections between these two fine movies.

First, they are both about war. Not only do they include wars or have wars in the plot—both movies explore the meaning and significance of war. Although Full Metal Jacket does not have a figure like Ares to personify war, it demonstrates the same thought that Ares speaks to Wonder Woman: war springs from the violent tendencies embedded in human nature. The very fact that we entertain ourselves by watching movies about war underlines that point; if we were too horrified by war to watch it on the big screen, we might have a better chance to restrain it in real life.

Both movies divide neatly into a training section and a combat section. In spite of the many differences involving the training of warriors, there are similarities in the training technique. For example, in both movies the instructors demand the best of their warriors, urging them to push beyond their limits and achieve more than they thought possible.

In both movies the instructor is violently removed before the combat section begins.

Both movies have the warriors traveling to combat in a different and unfamiliar part of the world. In both cases they have to adjust to foreign situations. And in both movies they confront an enemy that is determined to win by any means possible—corrosive poisoned gas, or booby-trapped toys.

Then of course there is a sniper in each movie.

A much longer list could be made of differences between the two movies, but the similarities are far more interesting. The story of war is much the same whether it is told by Homer or by Oliver Stone. Whether our heroes are ordinary mortals or the offspring of the gods, we still see them wrestle with the senseless violence of war and destruction. The questions are easy to ask; the answers are harder to find. J.

What President Trump is doing

Mainstream media now reports that the White House staff is piecing together scraps of paper that President Trump has shredded by hand. United States law requires the preservation of these papers, even though the President has acted to destroy them. I hope that the staff has consulted with professionals from the National Archives about these scraps of paper. If they are using transparent tape to reassemble the scraps, the long-term damage to those papers will be far greater than if they just took each set of scraps and stored them in an envelope or file folder.

Mainstream media reports situations like this to try to create and promote the idea that Donald Trump is unworthy to remain President. Like the Democratic party (who, ironically, just telephoned and asked me for one hundred dollars to reverse the course of Trump’s administration while I was typing the previous paragraph), many members of the mainstream media are not willing to accept the decision made by American voters in November 2016. I did not vote for Trump in the primaries or the general election that year, and if he was up for reelection this year I would not vote for him. But he is President—he deserves respect from all citizens, including those who report the news. Trump is, in fact, doing an admirable job of playing to the dark side of the mainstream media. Responding to him, the media sounds shrill, petty, and obsessive. They are helping the President keep the support of those who elected him—Nixon’s silent majority, the Reagan Democrats, the voters who usually tilt “blue” when casting their votes but will swing toward a conservative who seems to understand and relate to common Americans.

Donald Trump’s success is neither as a businessman nor as a politician, but as an entertainer. Years ago he discovered how to build a popular image of himself and keep it in front of the American people. A businessman in the White House would strive to maintain a calm and orderly atmosphere and present it as such to the public. Trump knows that the people really want drama and excitement. He provides it. His legendary ego and bluster are all part of an act that he performs for the American people, and his supporters love him for it.

In 2020, Trump will be able to campaign with the statement that he kept every promise he made the voters in 2016, or that at least he tried. Where promises have not been kept, Trump can blame Congress and the courts, and Trump’s supporters will trumpet his honesty and reliability as a man of his word. On issue after issue—from immigration to tariffs—Trump has held to his word and allowed others to take the blame for derailing his actions. When he is wrong, Trump does not need to admit it. He can blame his opponents for blocking his plans, and then he can turn to another issue.

Dealing with leaders of other nations, Trump has kept his promise to put the United States first. He has taken risks that no other leader would take, and he has prevailed. His strategy of brinksmanship plays well to his political base. While the mainstream media threatens that Armageddon is just around the corner, Donald Trump has continued to chart his own course and achieve his goals.

Theodore Roosevelt’s foreign policy was summarized by this adage: Speak softly and carry a big stick. Donald Trump speaks loudly, but it works for him. It gets him votes. It keeps everyone’s attention. It makes it unlikely that the Democratic party will find a candidate who can defeat Trump when he runs for reelection in 2020. J.

When God closes a door…

…somewhere he opens a window. Postulant Maria, in The Sound of Music, claimed to have learned that adage from the Reverend Mother. I suspect that the line is a quip created by the scriptwriters Howard Lindsay and Russel Crouse. The original proverb promises that when God closes one door, he opens another. Although that saying is not taken from the Bible, it is inferred by a reading of Acts 16:6-10 and II Corinthians 2:12-13.

About a year ago, a certain job became open, and the person who told me about the opening also said that he would recommend me for the position. He assured me that I am perfect for the job. The process is lengthy; a self-study had to be completed before the committee in charge of finding a new worker could gather nominations and try to find the best match. Around the end of December they published seven names that had been recommended to them and promised to gather biographical data and other suggestions from the parent organization.

Meanwhile I had all this time to learn more about the job and its location: to see what houses are for sale in the area, to check out stores and restaurants, to read about the community and its history, and get a sense of what people do there for fun. The Internet makes such research ridiculously easy.

At the end of March the committee had received requested information from the parent organization and promised to winnow the list to the most promising candidates, contact them, and arrange for interviews. Every time the phone rang in April and May my heart jumped, thinking, “This might be them.” Finally this week the committee published the three finalists they have selected for the position. My name was not on the list.

During these last two months, I was also recruited for a similar position closer to home. The biggest problem with this position is that they are not able to offer both a full-time salary and health insurance. They are seeking someone who is willing to work two jobs, and since I am currently working three jobs, they thought I might be willing to make the change. After I learned that my name was not on the first list, I agreed at least to talk with the men who strongly want me to take this part-time position.

Here is where it gets complicated. The parent organization for the one position I had hoped to be offered and the parent organization for the one position I have been offered are in parallel branches of the same larger entity. During a half-hour conversation about the part-time position, I was able to ask if my information had been requested from the head of the other branch. The answer was no. So, apparently, the branch head declined to obtain up-to-date information about me for the committee that was seeking to fill a position. It may have been a clerical error or something more sinister; the head of my branch knows nothing about me that would disqualify me for such a job, which is why he is trying so hard to persuade me to take the part-time position.

This part-time position is located an hour’s drive from where I live. I told them that the commute would be a problem. They hoped that I would keep the full-time job I have (with its health insurance and other benefits) and drive that hour once or twice a week to fulfill my part-time duties. I replied that I thought, in order to do my job well, I would need to live in the community. (I am performing a similar job while driving half an hour each way once or twice a week, and I think that is too great a distance.) Eventually, I placed before them something like Gideon’s fleece. If a full-time job can be found for me in or near the community, I am willing to move there and take both jobs, but the full-time job would have to be something comparable to the one I have now. I had already checked. There are no such openings in the area. But they are using what connections they have to check again.

As I see it, if the Lord wants me to take this part-time job, he will provide the full-time job nearby. Otherwise, he has a different plan for me and for that position. That different plan may involve me staying where I am for many more years. It may involve another opening at yet another place. It might even happen that the three finalists chosen at the first place I mentioned will all prove unsatisfactory or will all be unwilling to take the position. Wishing for such a thing to happen is having faith by virtue of the absurd (as Soren Kierkegaard would say). Yet, more than twenty years ago, I was offered a job after a similar committee had selected two finalists and then found itself to be dissatisfied with both.

Meanwhile, I accept with resignation (Kierkegaard again) that the door is closed. I continue to trust the Lord’s planning. And when I find the window he has opened, I will jump through and run as fast as I can. J.

 

Holy Communion (part four)

The Bible says: “Let a person examine himself, then, and so eat of the bread and drink of the cup” (I Corinthians 11:28).

Luther explains: “Who receives this Sacrament worthily? Fasting and bodily preparation are certainly fine outward training. But that person is truly worthy and well prepared who has faith in these words: ‘Given and shed for you for the forgiveness of sins.’ But anyone who does not believe these words or doubts them is unworthy and unprepared, for the words ‘for you’ require all hearts to believe.”

Salvageable adds: Many traditions have become attached to the celebration of Holy Communion. Some Christians eat no food before going to church and receiving the Sacrament, so that they break their fast with the Lord’s body and blood. Some wear their best clothing to church on Sunday, and they do other physical things to prepare for the Sacrament.

Luther calls those actions “fine outward training,” but he says that the most important preparation is faith. Someone who does not believe that Jesus is Lord should not receive the Sacrament. Someone who does not believe that his death on the cross brings forgiveness of sins should not receive the Sacrament. Someone who does not want to be forgiven because he or she loves a sin more than he or she loves the Savior should not receive the Sacrament.

But we do not receive the Lord’s Supper because we are good enough for it. We receive the Lord’s Supper because we are not good enough for God. We do not receive the Lord’s Supper because we have risen above our sins. We receive the Lord’s Supper because we need forgiveness for our sins.

Moreover, we need a share in the Lord’s victory over sin and evil. None of us is personally responsible for all the evil in the world. The devil remains a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour. The sinful world around us tries to drag us down to its level. The sin within each of us agrees with the devil and with the sinful world. God limits the power of evil, but he permits evil to exist. He permits his people to suffer the consequences of evil around us, even though we have been forgiven all our sins. God then strengthens us for our life on this battlefield. With his Holy Supper he equips us to battle the devil, the sinful world, and our sinful flesh. With his Holy Supper he shares the victory he has won—for where there is forgiveness of sin, there is also life and salvation.

A Christian is truly prepared for the Sacrament when that Christian knows that he or she is a sinner needing a Savior and when that Christian knows that Jesus is the Savior he or she needs. Knowing our need for forgiveness, we approach the Table of the Lord, prepared to receive his body and blood, and with them forgiveness, life, and salvation. Thanks be to God for this precious gift! Amen.

Holy Communion (part three)

The Bible says: “For as often as you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes” (I Corinthians 11:26).

Luther explains, “How can bodily eating and drinking do such great things? Certainly not just eating and drinking do these things, but the words written here: ‘Given and shed for you for the forgiveness of sins.’ These words, along with the eating and drinking, are the main thing in the Sacrament. Whoever believes these words has exactly what they say: ‘forgiveness of sins.’”

Salvageable adds: Christians are saved by grace through faith. Faith is not something we do for God; faith is something God does in us. Faith is a relationship that trusts God’s promises. Without God’s grace, our faith would be pointless. Without faith, God’s grace does not reach us and we remain in our sins.

Our faith comes to us through the Word of God. Whether that Word is spoken as an absolution or read from the Bible, whether it is accompanied by water in Holy Baptism or by eating and drinking in Holy Communion, this Word creates faith and strengthens faith. These ways of delivering the Word of God are the gifts of the Holy Spirit by which he enlightens us and brings us into Christ’s kingdom.

A mental illness called anorexia causes a person to deny himself or herself of nutrition needed for the body. This disease is devastating toward the person who suffers from it, and his or her condition is agonizing for family and friends to see. We take spiritual anorexia far more lightly. A person says, “I’m a Christian—I believe in God. But I don’t have time to read the Bible or pray or go to church. God understands. I don’t need church to be a Christian.”

Luther wrote about such a person this way: “But what should you do if you are not aware of this need and have no hunger and thirst for the Sacrament? To such a person no better advice can be given than this: first, he should touch his body to see if he still has flesh and blood. Then he should believe what the Scriptures say of it… Second, he should look around to see whether he is still in the world, and remember that there will be no lack of sin and trouble, as the Scriptures say… Third, he will certainly have the devil also around him, who with his lying and murdering day and night will let him have no peace, within our without, as the Scriptures picture him….”

Because we sin often, we need forgiveness often. We eat and drink at the Lord’s Table, receiving his body and his blood from the cross for the forgiveness of our sins. The Ten Commandments tell us why we need forgiveness. The Apostles’ Creed expresses our faith in the forgiveness of sins. In the Lord’s Prayer, we ask for forgiveness and promise to share forgiveness. The Christian Church is all about forgiveness, and the Sacrament of Holy Communion is likewise all about forgiveness. J.

Holy Communion (part two)

The Bible says: “The cup of blessing that we bless, is it not a participation in the blood of Christ? The bread that we break, is it not a participation in the body of Christ?” (I Corinthians 10:16)

Luther explains: “What is the benefit of this eating and drinking? These words, ‘Given and shed for you for the forgiveness of sins,’ show us that in the Sacrament forgiveness of sins, life, and salvation are given us through these words. For where there is forgiveness of sins, there is also life and salvation.”

Salvageable adds:  If the bread were merely a reminder of Christ’s body and the wine a reminder of Christ’s blood, then eating and drinking the Lord’s Supper would be something we do for Jesus, a way to show that we remember him. Indeed, many Protestant Christians focus on the words, “Do this in remembrance of me,” and they consider the Lord’s Supper a work they do for Jesus. Luther and Lutherans focus on the words, “Given and shed for you for the forgiveness of sins.” They focus also on Paul’s word, “participation”—also translated as communication, fellowship, or communion. We participate with people, not with pictures. We have fellowship with people, not with reminders. In Holy Communion, our link is to Jesus himself, not to reminders of what Jesus did.

Jesus said, “Do this in remembrance of me,” wanting us to remember him every time we eat and drink the Sacrament. Otherwise, we are just going through the motions of religion. God hates seeing his people going through the motions of religion. He disparaged the sacrifices offered in the Old Testament, even though he had commanded those sacrifices. He spoke bitterly about those sacrifices because his people were going through the motions of religion without faith in God and his promises. Likewise, Jesus wants people to eat and drink the sacrament thinking about him, believing his promises, and claiming what he offers—namely, the forgiveness of sins.

Even though we are Christians, we sin often. We need forgiveness often. We repent daily, renewing the relationship established with God through Holy Baptism. We confess often, hearing the absolution and being assured that all our sins are forgiven. We receive Holy Communion often, coming as close to Jesus as is possible before the new creation, since he says that his body and his blood are truly present when we eat and drink at his Table.

“Where there is forgiveness of sins,” Luther says, “there is also life and salvation.” The three come as a package. We cannot have eternal life without the forgiveness of our sins. We cannot be rescued from sin and from all our enemies without the forgiveness of our sins. But when our sins are forgiven, eternal life is guaranteed to us and we share Christ’s victory over all our enemies.

Holy Communion (part one)

The Bible says: “The Lord Jesus Christ, on the night when He was betrayed, took bread, and when He had given thanks, He broke it, and said, ‘This is my body which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me.’ In the same way also He took the cup after supper, saying, ‘This cup is the New Testament in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me’” (I Corinthians 11:23-25; see also Matthew 26: 26-28, Mark 14: 22-24, and Luke 22: 19-20).

Luther explains: “What is the Sacrament of the Altar? It is the true body and blood of our Lord Jesus Christ under the bread and wine, instituted by Christ Himself for us Christians to eat and to drink.”

The question of Holy Communion (or the Lord’s Supper) divides Lutherans from other Protestants, even as it divided Martin Luther and Ulrich Zwingli during the course of the Reformation, keeping them from cooperating in their resistance to Rome. When Zwingli said that the bread represents the body of Christ and the wine represents his blood, Luther pointed to the words of the Bible and insisted, “’Is’ means ‘is’!”

Lutherans do not believe that the bread changes into Christ’s body or that the wine changes into Christ’s blood. They believe that Christ’s body is present with the bread and that his blood is present with the wine. The Real Presence of Christ in the Sacrament can be compared to the mystery of Christ’s two natures. As Jesus is completely God and completely human at the same time, so the bread in the Sacrament is completely bread and still completely Christ’s body; the wine is completely wine and still completely Christ’s blood.

Jesus instituted this Sacrament during a Passover dinner. In the Passover dinner, God’s people remembered the lamb that was killed in Egypt, its blood painted on their houses, so they would be spared death and rescued from slavery. John the Baptist identified Jesus as “the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.” Part of the Passover meal was bread made without yeast, a picture of a life without sin. Jesus took that bread and said, “This is my body, given for you.” He took the cup of thanksgiving (the third of four cups served during the Passover meal, the one after supper) and said, “This cup is the New Testament in my blood.” Holy Communion replaces the Passover meal from which it was taken. The Sacrament is celebrated, not once a year like the Passover meal, but often when God’s people gather in the name of Jesus.

Because Jesus is human, he can give us his true body and his true blood. Because Jesus is God, he can keep on giving and never run out. When he appears in glory, he will be missing none of his body and none of his blood, even after feeding his body and blood to his people over many centuries. Yet the body and blood from his crucifixion are truly present whenever his Sacrament is observed. Even unbelievers who mistakenly eat and drink the Sacrament receive his body and his blood, but because they do not believe, they encounter a Judge rather than a Savior.

Human flesh is not kosher; it is not among the meats permitted in the Law of Moses for God’s people to eat. Even animal blood is forbidden; meat is not kosher until all the blood has been removed. Why, then, does Jesus give Christians his body to eat and his blood to drink? He does so because of the New Testament, which unites Christians with Christ in a special way. The metaphor of eating and drinking appears in many parts of the Bible to describe a believer’s relationship with God. In Holy Communion, the metaphor becomes reality, for as Luther said, “’Is means ‘is’!”