Learning to Laugh from Luther

This little essay first appeared as the 2nd place essay in the 2016 Gritsch Writing Contest: http://www.ericwgritsch.org/archives/archive_2016_essay_2nd_place

In a sense, crisis consumes every moment in the life of those who belong to the Christian church.  Between Jesus Christ’s resurrection and His coming again in glory, our Lord continually calls us and we must respond.  But, we also live within the World and within history, and so, different moments in history present unique opportunities for us as church people to respond to the call of Jesus Christ.  As church demographics dance and politics continue to divide, we who reside in the United States find ourselves at a crisis point.  And while many potential points lie before us, all of the paths involve the same basic decision: will we take ourselves seriously or will we live with humor?

     The path of taking ourselves seriously and of getting down to the hard work of living out the gospel is a well-trod path.  It is a path that church people in the United States have trod for much of our history.  On this path, we must hear the words of the Gospel and renounce!  We must discard our possessions, work for our neighbor and bring about the kingdom of God.  When we take ourselves seriously, we work for our neighbor to “help and befriend him in every bodily need”1  and to “help him improve and protect his property and business.”2  This well-trod path of the American church is a path of great results. It is the path of Martin Luther King, Jr. marching on Washington, Desmond Tutu resisting Apartheid.  However, it is also a dangerous path.  It is a dangerous path because taking ourselves seriously can quickly become taking ourselves too seriously.  If we walk the well-trod path without a keen knowledge of our pride and sin, we will walk straight past the narrow gate.  Distracted by our burdens, we may forget why we walk and for whom we walk.

          Path number two, on the other hand, is a path that few in the United States have dared to wander down, because it is not a serious, hard-working path. Path number two is the path of humor and irony. It is a path that grabs hold of “the biblical sense of life as a mean meantime before the Last Day.”Even more, it Is a path that realizes that “a Christian man is righteous and a sinner at the same time, holy and profane, an enemy of God and a child of God.”If we church people wander down this path, we will, perhaps for the first time, be able to look at the works of our hands and laugh. We will laugh because we realize that all of our hard work, all of our striving has been at cross-purposes both with God and with ourselves. We will laugh because we will realize how ridiculous it is that Jesus Christ saved us miserable sinners. We will laugh because we will realize that when we thought we were striding triumphantly forward, we were hopping the wrong way with our shoes tied together.  The humorous path is the path of the church people who understand the irony that when the church thinks it is doing its best work, it often forgets its Lord.

     The humorous path is a path of humility, of joy, but it’s also a frightening path. It’s a frightening path because when you walk on it, you look at yourself and realize that your life and work does not look holy. You realize that your life and your work looks comical and normal, and you worry that God will not accept it. 

However,  as faithful Christians on this path, we can “smile about adversaries”And “laugh at them because the anticipated joy of a future without sin, evil, and Death outweighs all earthly anxiety.”5  In short, the paths that stand before the Churches are the paths that stand before each individual Christian.  As church people wandering in the ways of our Lord Jesus Christ, we live our days in tension. It is the tension of walking in the light of the cross and in the humor of the human condition.  Above all, it is the freedom of walking as a redeemed child of God.5


Martin Luther, “The Small Catechism”, on Book Of Concord: The Confessions Of The Lutheran Church accessed 10/9/2016
Ibid
3 Eric W. Gritsch, The Wit Of Martin Luther (Minneapolis, Augsburg Fortress 2006), 77.
4 Martin Luther, Lectures On Galatians 1535: Chapters 1-4 (Saint Louis:: Concordia Publishing House, 1963), 232.
 5 Gritsch, 77.

Building the Perfect Pastor: Thoughts from Capon II

dog-capon-obit-blog427Though it may come as a surprise to some who know me, the two authors that have made the greatest contribution to my identity as a pastor are not, denomination-wise, Lutherans. They are an Episcopal priest, Robert Farrar Capon, and a Presbyterian pastor, Eugene Peterson. In this (infrequently) recurring feature, I will lay out some of the insights that I’ve learned from the two of them, as I endeavor to build the perfect pastor, or at least the perfect job description. You can find the first installment here.

While not as punny as his first pastoral criteria, Capon’s second musing on the requirements for pastoral ministry is no less topsy-turvy. He writes that, in addition to being faithful, the pastor must be wise. But, despite Capon’s credentials as a professor of New Testament Greek, he binds no intellectual or experiential requirements to the wisdom of pastorhood. Instead, like Paul, he points out that true pastoral wisdom is realizing the paradox that your hands are empty and full at the same time. The wise pastor is the pastor who realizes that “the world is already drowning in its efforts at life; it does not need lifeguards who swim to it carrying the barbells of their own moral and spiritual efforts.” The wise pastor’s hands lie empty because the wise pastor refuses to carry any of the self-help and character improvement that burdens the wisdom of the world. And yet, though empty of wordly wisdom, God has filled the wise pastor’s hands with foolishness, the folly of the cross that is wiser than human wisdom (1 Cor 1.25). “Preachers are to come honestly emptyhanded to the world, because anyone who comes bearing more than the folly of the kerygma -of the preaching of the word of the cross” has completely missed the boat. The paradox of pastoral ministry is that it relies not on worldy wisdom, power, or social adeptness, but on the stumbling-block foolishness of a crucified, carpenter King.

For those interested in reading Capon’s thoughts in their original context, you can find them in: Kingdom, Grace, Judgement: Paradox, Outrage, and Vindication in the Parables of Jesus. Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2002, 243-245. Check back soon for part 3.

Know Thyself: Socrates and Lutherans

This is finally part 2 of what will be a 3 part series on the relationship of Socrates (and broadly speaking “philosophy”) to Lutheran theology. Part 1 can be found here.

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When I started this (small) project a month or so ago, I was very enthused about it. Now, not quite so much, but I still think it’s important and so feel obligated to write a few words on the topic.

Though I have characterized this as a post on Socrates and on philosophy, it’s really a post on that subdivision of philosophy called ethics. To be forthright, ethics is a subdivision of philosophy that I abhor and try to not think about. But, in our present climate religious and social it’s come to the forefront again, because questions of justice continue to dominate the discussion. Questions of justice inevitably become questions of ethics, i.e. “What is the right thing to do?”

This is where Socrates comes in, and where I find it very important to know how he thought of ethics because it’s a view that continues to percolate beneath a lot of our discussions of justice.

To overly simplify, but also to get at the heart of the matter, for Socrates, ethics is a matter of knowledge. If a person knows the realities of a situation, they will be able to know the right thing to do, and they will do it. For Socrates, unjust action always comes about on account of ignorance. Thus, his life work was to show people their ignorance and be extension, stop their unjust actions.

In many ways, our modern discourse follows this same premise: People act unjustly because they have a skewed perspective on the world based on faulty information. The way to correct their actions is thus a problem of information. If enough correct information is provided, reasonable people will change their actions.

As you may have guessed by now, I’m going to make the claim next time that Lutheran theology sees the problem (and people) in a fundamentally different manner. Be sure to check back in ten days or so, when I (finally) draw this series to a close.

Socrates Walks into a Wall

This is the first in a 3 part series on the relationship between Socrates and Lutheran theology.

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Tell me, Socrates, are you in earnest, or only in jest? For if you are in earnest, and what you say is true, is not the whole of human life turned upside down; and are we not doing, as would appear, in everything the opposite of what we ought to be doing? – Callicles, Plato’s Gorgias, 481

Even though I spend a lot of time reading things that others may find boring (trout taxonomy, comparative Latin and Greek grammar, etc.), there’s one subject for which I have a hard time mustering any enthusiasm: philosophy. Admittedly, philosophy is a very broad category, and so more specifically, it’s the philosophical classics that bore me to tears: Aristotle, Kant, Hume, etc. That said, I am 27 episodes into a series of podcasts called The History of Philosophy Without any Gapsa medium that I find more palatable. 27 episodes puts me squarely in the realm of Plato, and it’s gotten me thinking about a question that intrigued no less a Lutheran than Søren Kierkegaard. The question is: What’s the difference between Socrates and Jesus? Now, I’ll come back to that question in the next couple of posts, but for today, I’d like to highlight the one dialogue of Plato that I think every pastor needs to read.

The dialogue is Plato’s Gorgias. And most of it is as boring as his others. But, at line 481, Socrates encounters an opponent that stonewalls him: Callicles. Socrates is trying to convince Callicles that people ought to pursue virtue. Callicles, on the other hand, counters that virtue is simply a convention; might ought to make right. The substance of their argument is food for thought, but even more so, it’s the way that Callicles argues against Socrates ethics that elevates it into the required reading category. Callicles denies all common ground between Socrates’ “virtue” and his “might makes right.” Every time that Socrates tries to get a chain of logic going that will force Callicles into admitting the need for virtue, Callicles bursts it by denying Socrates terms. In the end, Callicles finally grows frustrated and refuses to continue, and so Socrates is left talking to himself (for a long period of time).

The take away for pastors (and Christians in general) is getting rid of the illusion that ethics are A) self-evident and B) founded on logic upon which all people will agree. Callicles shows that Socrates is only persuasive if he can get people to agree with him on foundational principles. But an opponent who denies those principles can’t be corralled. In the same way, pastors need to realize that many of the things that they hold to be moral and ethical “no-brainers” are not founded on self-evident or irrefutably logical principles. Christianity is not simply the best ethical system that all people will agree with once it’s adequately explained. There’s something more going on here. What that something is, I will explore in the next couple of posts.