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Friday, October 23, 2009

God's hands

Okay, this one might get a little difficult. Not because the concept is hard, but because we don't usually think this way. This theology of the right hand / left hand of God is one of Lutheranism's unique contributions to the world. Most churches don't believe this, or at least they don't express it in quite the same way.

What am I talking about? Martin Luther in reading the Bible came to the conclusion that there are two very different ways that God works in the world.

First is God's right hand. God's "right hand" work is to proclaim the good news of Jesus Christ and his death and resurrection for sinners, saving them from separation from God, bringing them into a life-giving relationship with God through Jesus. Proclaiming this good news happens in two components, "law" and "gospel." Law is the proclamation of our sin. This proclamation convicts us, condemns us, sentences us to death. This is not law as a guideline for behavior, like "you have to eat your broccoli before you can have ice cream" or "you must drive no more than 55 mph". No, this is the law that says, "You must be perfect as your Father in heaven is perfect." When we hear this law we are cut to the heart because we cannot keep it. Then the good news -- that Jesus Christ died for sinners, for those who cannot keep the law. As we hear the word of Jesus' death and resurrection, we can receive the gift of new life. We are transformed, made new, re-created. This is God's "right hand" work, to restore his broken creation to wholeness. So a preacher might be involved in God's right hand work as she preaches a sermon that convicts hearers of sin and extends the promise of the cross to them. Or a policeman might be involved in God's right hand work as he shares his faith over lunch with a coworker. But if the preacher is embroiled in discussion of administrative detail in a committee meeting, or the policeman is writing speeding tickets, they are no longer directly involved in God's right hand work.

So we move on to God's left hand. God's left hand is God's hidden work, his indirect work. This is the work God does to keep basic order in the world, to create safe and stable societies. According to the Bible, God's left hand work provides a context for his right hand work to take place. So what does God's left hand work look like? It is frustrating and difficult at best. God institutes governments that are imperfect, but that function to keep order. So even Adolph Hitler had structures in place that kept basic order, reduced crime, etc. I'm not saying God approved of Hitler, but God uses whatever government is in place to provide basic protection for people. This is the job of civil structures, of God's left hand. So, as C.S. Lewis said, the whole reason for government is so that a man can go down to the pub in the evening and have a game of darts and a pint, or a married couple can sit home in the quiet evening and eat supper together. It is the space and safety for these basic activities of life that tell us if a government is functioning as it properly should.

Now ... hang on ... here's where it gets a little dicey. What about the church? In the church we have an odd mixture of the right hand and the left hand. We have sermons and we have committee meetings. But even that is not quite fine tuned enough. Take a look at the offering during the worship service. On one level, this is obviously "left hand" stuff. The church needs to pay salaries, bills, mortgage, and give something for the good of the world beyond its walls. Left hand, right? But as I sit in the row and the plate comes down, this offering plate speaks a word of death to me. The Spirit uses this yawning, empty plate which demands my generosity to bring my greed to death. And as I surrender my tithe into the plate and pass it to my neighbor, the Spirit moves in my heart to bring new life to me. It is the gospel in action. So the offering is a good example, perhaps, of both left hand and right hand at once.

How does this all apply to the homosexuality debate and the ELCA?

One of our real problems in this is that we have not thought well about the left hand and right hand in relation to our decision making. For example, one of the arguments for changing the ELCA's policies was that we don't want to be discriminating against anyone. I agree, but let's be clear -- discrimination is left-hand talk. There's no such thing as discrimination under the right hand of God because in relation to the good news of Jesus we all deserve death and are saved by his sacrifice as a free gift. Under God's left hand, concerned with keeping order in society, it is entirely appropriate to talk about discrimination. We want an orderly society where all people have basic rights, where all people feel basically safe. Discrimination threatens that good order, so we minimize it or eliminate it if we are able, recognizing that our systems of civil order are imperfect. So under the left hand I may advocate for equal rights for all people regardless of race, creed, religion, or sexual orientation. But under the right hand I may recognize that God's word says certain behaviors are sinful, and I may yearn for the sinner (even if -- especially if -- it's me!) to come to the end of themselves and surrender to Jesus at the cross.

So it is possible to push for same-sex partner life insurance benefits AND to maintain that biblically speaking, homosexuality is sin.

Confused yet?

Let's make it worse. For some individuals -- theoretically speaking here -- a Lutheran might even be in favor of their state passing a law allowing same-sex civil unions in order to encourage good order -- long-term stable relationships -- in society, but at the same time that person may reject the idea of blessing those same-sex unions in the church because this says in effect, "God approves of what you're doing." A person can be in favor of good order on the left hand and also take a hard line on what constitutes sin, biblically speaking, on the right hand. In fact, this is a strong Lutheran position!

Of course, Lutherans (along with other Christians) are going to disagree about the best ways to achieve good order. There's nothing new about that. There are purely civil reasons for rejecting same-sex unions in society. But if we begin to say, "We are all saved by God's grace, so we should accept all behaviors as legitimate" -- that is sloppy thinking that confuses the left hand and the right hand of God's work. This kind of sloppy thinking is everywhere in today's debate. Another example is, "I've got a friend who is gay and he's such a nice guy, we should definitely let him be a pastor." This also confuses the left and right hands of God. We've taken a person who contributes to good order -- a nice guy -- and we have used that left hand criteria as a reason to ordain him to proclaim repentance and forgiveness in Christ without considering what the Bible has to say about the issues of repentance and forgiveness in the life of the proclaimer.

Take this one step further. Some people in this debate have said that it is unfair for preachers to be held to a higher standard -- that since we are all saved by God's grace anyway, preachers shouldn't be held more accountable. But the preacher's most critical function is to publicly enter into the right hand work of God -- the proclamation of the cross. It is absolutely critical that the preacher knows his or her own sin, has been convicted and has come to a place of repentance and forgiveness, so that they can authentically proclaim what it is to surrender to Jesus. When we lower or eliminate the standards for preachers, we water down the proclamation of the gospel. If we soften the law, the gospel gets weak. This is not in any way saying that the preacher must be perfect -- exactly the opposite! But the preacher MUST recognize their own sin and repent before God in order to proclaim the good news of Jesus.

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