500 Years Later, We Doth Protest Too Much!

Standard

On October 31st 1517, 500 years ago yesterday, a German Monk named Martin Luther posted 95 complaints against the Church on the door of his local Cathedral.   For a few centuries before him the church in Western Europe had been in severe moral decline.  There were certainly many who remained faithful to the gospel but there was a general sense across Western Europe that Christianity as a whole had strayed too far from its roots.  Martin Luther’s 95 complaints began the process of reforming those wrongs.  Luther and his followers were very quickly labeled, “Protesters” or “Protestants” by their critics.  It was thought that all they did was protest.  However, they called themselves Reformers because they wanted to reform the church into something resembling its earliest roots.

When I teach classes about this time in history I always end up talking about one thing Luther had that nobody before him had, namely the Printing Press.  Before Luther, someone could write something in England and someone else would write the same things in Austria or Egypt and they never would have known about each other.  It took information a long time to circulate and because it traveled so slowly, it was easy for those in authority to stop the spread of ideas before they could take off.

Then came the printing press and suddenly all it took was a month for information to circle the continent of Europe.

As I explain to my classes, the Reformation did not begin when Luther nailed his 95 complaints to a wall.  It actually started when someone took the complaints down, ran them through a Printing Press and circulated them across Europe.  Luther was one of the very first historical figures to experience the odd sensation of going viral.  In no time at all he was both famous and infamous.  Within months his name was well known but he was also being accused for heresy and treason.

As people joined his cause and started a movement, Luther’s followers gained a popular nickname by their Roman Catholic countrymen.  They called them “Protesters” or “Protestants.”  It was thought that all they did was protest.  They protest so that they can protest so that they can protest some more.  Their critics cast them as ugly, violent protesters who were lazy and uneducated.

Some of them kind of earned it.  The first generation of Protestants were more violent and more vitriolic than we are today.  Some of those who read Martin Luther’s 95 theses responded in obscene ways and the German people ending up staging a brief but violent revolution against the Roman Catholic church.  Some of them went around burning down entire towns and doing all kinds of ugly things in Luther’s name.  Luther, of course, denounced all of it but when you start protesting you give the violent a means of exercising the violence that is within them.  Some people go around looking for any and every reason to do harm and Luther unfortunately gave them one.

Now I reside in the Wesleyan-Holiness tradition and our piece of this narrative is a little bit more insane.  Twenty years after Luther posted his complaints, a hormonal king named Henry VIII decided he was going to protest his wife and he asked the Pope for permission to divorce her.  The Pope refused so Henry protested the Pope and he left the church to start his own church.  Strangely, though, Henry could never quite figure out if he was Protestant or Catholic and this created an identity crisis in England that resulted in hundreds of years of civil unrest and war.

This century of church-inspired violence led the early American forefathers to stage their own kind of protest.  Along with taxation without representation and divinely endowed monarchies, they also protested having a state sanctioned church.  Tired of the Protestant Vs. Catholic Vs. Quaker wars that had defined England, our founding fathers decided to not establish a national church.  The phrase that one of them chose to describe it is “separation of church and state.”

But after 240 years many have noted that we haven’t separated churches from the state nearly as well as we have separated churches from each other.  By not having a state sanctioned church we have given anybody permission to do what Henry VIII did.  Any dissatisfied soul can start their own Protesting Reformation and start their own church, making up their own doctrine.

I know of at least three or four churches that have had a Protestant Reformation in the last six years.  In these churches a group of people got angry about something trivial.  They didn’t like the songs.  The pastor wasn’t Republican enough or Democrat enough.  The women’s ministry stopped doing the afternoon tea social.  The denomination wasn’t firm enough on “key” convictions.  So they went to their social media and posted 95 theses for all to see and then they took their cronies and like Henry VIII started their own church.

They have staged these coups using their own version of the printing press, the internet.  In fact, historians believe that the internet is the most significant invention since the printing press.  Some of you have perhaps heard the famous quote by Eric Schmidt who said, “The Internet is the first thing that humanity has built that humanity doesn’t understand, the largest experiment in anarchy that we have ever had.”

After the printing press it took a month for ideas to circulate the globe.  After the internet it takes mere seconds.  The internet has made posting complaints and protests on walls one of the most popular things you can do.  Social media has made us all Martin Luther. Or are we Henry VIII?

The Printing Press started the Protestant movement.  The internet has completed it.  But some of us are wondering if all this has made us Protestants the very thing we have been protesting.  Many of us in fact have begun to ask ourselves, “Doth we protest too much?”

I’ll be honest when I look at our modern day Protestant movement I don’t see much of the gospel.  Instead I think that our protests have made us the very opposite of that which we claim to protest.

By protesting we have rejected Christian charity for secular hatred.

We have also rejected the peace of Christ for the wars of the principalities and powers.

We have rejected the unifying power of the cross for the divisive rhetoric of useless doctrines.

We have rejected the justification that comes from God for the self-righteousness that comes from thinking I am right all the time.

We have rejected Scripture’s repeated and clarion call to “be quiet,” “be still,” (Psalm 46:10) “be quick to listen, slow to speak,” (James 1:18) and to “live quiet lives among the pagans.” (1 Thessalonians 4:11)

In sum, we have rejected the Spirit’s quiet wisdom and guidance to chart our own noisy path to destruction.

The Protestants doth protest too much and after 500 years I think maybe it’s time to end the protestant part of our movement.  It is time for us to stop protesting and stop complaining.  It’s time for us to shut our big mouths and stop our quick fingers from typing.  After 500 years it’s time to do what Scripture commands, “Be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to become angry.”  (James 1:19).

As Protestants we doth protest too much.

But We Doth Reform Too Little!

But Martin Luther’s followers called themselves by another name, that is Reformers.  The title “reformer” signified a hope that both drove their protests but was much deeper than protest.  The word “Reformer” hinted at the deep and abiding conviction that the church and the world could be better.  They would tell you that they were not just protesting to protest.  Their goal was not a never ending protest but they protested because they believed that all of us could do better.  More than that, we could be better.  We could work harder and think longer and study the scriptures more diligently.  They believed that we could love the poor and that we didn’t need to tolerate systems in government or church that oppressed them.

They started the Protestant Reformation not because they were self-conceited but because they were hopeful for a better world and a better church.  Not all of them were angry just to be angry.  They were angry because they believed in a better world and in a heavenly kingdom that was and is still coming.

By the way, their hope was rooted in the Scriptures.  They believed in the kind of church that the Apostle Paul describes in Romans 12-15.  They believed that we could have a church which is for all people, not just for the rich and powerful.  They believed in a church which welcomed outsiders free of charge instead of making them buy indulgences to be among the in-crowd.  They believed in a church devoid of arrogance and pride but instead built on the humble love of God given to us through the Holy Spirit.  They believed in a church which is not led by hypocrites who tell the everyday people to do something while they do the opposite in private.  They believed there could be a clergy class defined by the fruits of the spirit instead of their opposite.

They were not just hoping to protest those things.  They were hoping to reform them.  And we have now spent 500 years working towards those goals.

In sum, we do protest too much but after 500 years we have not reformed nearly as much.

We need to stop the protests but keep up the reformations.

For us every Sunday is reformation Sunday.  Every Sunday we gather around the Scriptures and the table and ask God to reform us.  Every month our board meets and we do reformation meetings.  We talk about how to continue reforming our local congregation so that it can better resemble the love of Christ to this sinful world.  Every bible study we use the Scriptures to hold each other accountable to the Reformation process.  Every time I meet with someone over coffee or breakfast or dinner, I am hopeful for a Reformation.

In conclusion, over the last summer God gave me a wonderful verse.  I was revisiting Philippians and I was enlivened by Paul’s admission:

Not that I have already obtained it or have already become perfect, but I press on so that I may lay hold of that for which also I was laid hold of by Christ Jesus. 13 Brethren, I do not regard myself as having laid hold of it yet; but one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and reaching forward to what lies ahead, 14 I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.

After 500 year, us protesting reformers have not laid hold of that for which we are laid hold of.  We have not attained to the perfection to which we were called.  But for 500 years now we have pressed on and I hope for 500 more years we will continue to press on toward the goal.

Advertisements

Becoming Silent to Save the Silent Generation

Standard

I am the pastor of a small church in a small, rural town.  This means the “young people” in my congregation are 60 years old.  The middle aged are in their 70’s and we have a few older types in their late 80’s and early 90’s.

One of the older members (mid 80s) loves talking about how “those young people” are destroying society.  According to her, they are all lazy.  Not one of them knows how to sew or cook (“They don’t even teach that at college any more!!”).  Instead they just sit around and watch TV all day and microwave their ready made dinners.

At first I was grossly offended, thinking of myself as one of “those young people” but over time I realized that when she said “young people” she meant “everybody younger than her” and everybody younger than her is, well, everybody.

Her attitude is indicative of the deep frustration the Silent Generation has with everybody younger than them and every cultural development since 1960.  Although their lives have born witness to America’s rise to global dominance and they experienced the greatest economic prosperity the world has known, they are still a very bitter and hurting group of people, something Fox News has learned to market and use to make incredible amounts of money, but little actual “news.”

Still this generation experienced an amazing amount of comfort.  They worked 40 hour weeks for livable wages in strong institutions.  They were the first to have access to an ever growing industry of health care.  In fact if they were born just 20 years earlier they would all have passed away all ready.  As it is they are still alive and physically active.  They also were the first to buy easiness and comfort in the form of microwaves, televisions, personal computers and cell phones.

And yet, quite ironically, as a generation they are struggling with depression.

As comfortable as the world has become during their lives, it has also changed drastically and not always for the better.  They bought their televisions to watch “Leave it to Beaver” and “I Love Lucy.”  Now they turn on the TV and channel surf for hours trying to find something “wholesome,” only to be disgusted by the likes of “The Walking Dead” and “American Horror Story” and “Sons of Anarchy.” 1

The microwaves made cooking easy but it also made their children incredibly obese and, coupled with the cordless phones, gave many of them cancer.  Buying a car in their teens was a rite of passage.  Now their grandchildren and great grandchildren won’t buy cars and many won’t get driver’s licenses because of things like “pollution” and “high gas prices.”

They also spent their lives working for institutions that are crumbling around them, whether they be billion dollar corporations, local plants and mills, mom and pop shops or even Christian congregations.

More than that their children (late Baby Boomers and early Gen Xers) have mostly rebelled against their values.  After all it is their children who are watching “The Walking Dead,” microwaving all their meals and championing the anti pollution causes.  It is also the Baby Boomers who are in power while most of the institutions collapse.

Hence my wonderful congregant’s consistent complaints about “those young people.”  She grew up in an idealistic world but somehow couldn’t sell the idealism to her children and grandchildren and their friends.  And now as their eyesight dims and their hearing fades and their bones begin to crack, the Silent Generation finds it difficult to stay optimistic.

My first exposure to Christians in the Silent Generation was actually through my wife.  She worked in a once great women’s ministry that was founded in 1935 and over the 20th century netted millions of dollars and just as many members.  But currently this ministry is struggling to stay afloat and reinvent itself for the new world.  The average age of my wife’s coworkers was 62 and the work environment tended towards toxic.  The average conversation centered around “the hostile, evil, liberal culture” and “those young people who are destroying everything.”

As my wife and I reflected on the bitterness and rage of these older women, I realized that underlying all that frustration was a deep sadness.

They grew up in a simple world that made sense.  If you worked hard you made money.  If you saved you earned.  There were only two super powers on the world stage and the enemy had a face and a name.  Their values were absolute and most people agreed with them, even though they couldn’t sell them to their children.

All of that has now changed and change implies loss as much as it does gain.

Therefore the Silent Generation is a generation in mourning.

They are currently in deep despair because they just don’t understand what has become of their utopia.  In light of this, I have found it is not my job to argue with them or defend “those young people.”   It is not my duty to rage against the world they called a utopia (although as I have argued elsewhere, it was anything but).  It is not my right to try to defend the values and decisions of their children and grandchildren.  It is not even my responsibility to tell them to “get over it” and accept this brand new world, even though doing so is in certainly in their best interests.  It isn’t even beneficial to use high brow academic words (like “post enlightenment” and “paradigm shift”) to articulate for them what has happened.  Those words mean nothing to them and I found that when they do understand them they just get angrier.

Instead as with all pastoral care to the grieving it is simply my job to be silent for the silent generation.  I endeavor to be slow to speak and quick to listen.  And I hope to listen in ways that will help them process and articulate their emotions and fears and frustrations.

The stages of grief come into play here as well.  As a generation they got stuck at the anger stage, though some are still bargaining and others are just plain depressed.  As their pastors and counselors we should be helping them negotiate their way to acceptance and to hope.  I have been able to pull this off with a precious few and the results have been magnanimous.  Instead of getting together to lament the world that was and rage against the world that is, they get together to work towards a better world to be.

Certainly keeping them hopeful is no easy task, especially as their bodies and minds begin to fail.  But I am optimistic that careful attention to their grief can free them to enjoy the last few years of their lives as they head to eternity.