Does God Play Fair?

The short answer is “no!” and we should all thank God for NOT playing fair.

The long answer: There is an objection to the evangelical gospel that is posed by religious minds and by philosophers, which runs like this (in italics): It is not fair that because Adam and Eve sinned, that sinfulness should be imputed to the whole human race. Rather, it is more fair that human beings are equipped with a will that is free to choose what is good, so that virtue is rewarded and vice is punished (in this life or the next, depending on what the raiser of the objection believes about whether God exists and whether God has promised anything). Since this is more fair, it must be self-evident. Since it is self-evident, then doctrines that cut against this are false no matter where they come from, even if it is scripture. Therefore, what we can conclude about Jesus of Nazareth which agrees with what is self-evident and fair, is that he was one of a small group of heroic people whose lives are stirring examples of the virtues that make a better world: forgiveness, generosity, courage, self-sacrifice and non-violent protest.

This is an attractive philosophy on the surface. At some levels it is intuitive. But here are some reasons why I am glad that this idea of what is fair is not God’s idea of what saves the soul.

First: The rewards for virtue are not meted out fairly by the world, in the world, or for the sake of the world, within one’s lifetime. Often the wicked prosper in their wickedness, and the poor are oppressed even when they do their best to play by the rules. The headlines are all the evidence of this we need: Golden parachutes on the one hand, retirement accounts made worthless on the other. Weapons dealers live well among the elites, while average people become collateral damage to aerial bombing, artillery shelling, terrorism, or a sick person with an assault rifle.  Drug-addicted rock stars get the priority for the liver transplants, while those whose liver problems are not connected to lifestyle choices and are on Medicaid are put on the waiting list.

Many who believe in fairness have concluded that, in order for the principle of fairness to be vindicated, one must rely on something beyond what is self-evident. This moves us beyond atheist objections and into the realm of faith and religion. There are two general intuitions regarding the vindication of fairness: One intuition is “karma,”  that a soul has multiple, even countless, opportunities to live embodied in various forms through various lifetimes, either receiving rewards for past virtues, or atoning for past vices. The soul that has been tried in the flesh might hopefully, or eventually, move toward greater enlightenment and finally escape the cycle of reincarnation by melting back into the eternal, impersonal, peaceful essence of the Universal Mind. The second intuition is that the soul lives once and then faces God in judgment, and receives its rewards or punishments based on its virtues or vices. This second intuition appears to stand closer to the evangelical faith, but should not be confused with it.

Believers in these two intuitions raise the objection to evangelicals, “why does your all-powerful evangelical God allow bad things to happen to good people?” But this objection applies just as much to a God who plays fair. Obviously the world does NOT play fair. So just how powerful is your God of fairness to make fairness effective in the world? The evangelical hope is that God’s mercy will at last and for all eternity be vindicated as righteousness when, after the flesh dies, the soul meets God; the hope of the religious humanist is also that what is ultimately fair is what will be received by each person either when they meet God or when they are reincarnated.

The genius of karma and reincarnation is that the single, current lifetime does not count for much on the grand scale of lives lived and to be lived. Justice is already meted out; that is why in your next life you will come back as a mosquito and I will come back as a rich elitist. As a rich elitist, if I am interested in making the jump out of the lives-cycle, then I might voluntarily renounce all my riches and let you, the mosquito, suck away at my elbow without swatting you. More likely though I will enjoy my luxuries and crush you without a second thought. But as a rich elite, I need have no concern to reverse the conditions of the life of a poor person in a slum. After all, they are being punished for sins in past lives, and I am being rewarded for virtues from past lives. It’s only fair.

Here is the rub: What is fair to the person who has an intuition that there is one life to live is very different from what is fair to the person who has an intuition that karma is visited on those with countless lives to live among souls that have already lived countless times. Now fairness in the universe, if self-evident as a philosophical abstraction, is not at all self-evident in its function.

So on the one hand the faith of the evangelical is tested by trials and sufferings in the world, and on the other hand the virtue of the humanist is tested. The Apostle Paul will count all his worldly gains as loss for the sake of Christ, Aristotle will conclude that virtue is its own reward. All alike will speak of crosses to bear.

Now we come to the second reason why I am glad that human intuitions of Fairness are not God’s idea of what saves:

What makes for fair can lead to despair.

One of my favorite games is Monopoly. It teaches valuable lessons. It is also premised on a myth, which is, that we all start off with the same shot at life and success; everyone begins the game in the same space with the same amount of money. This is simply not true in real life. Children are brought into circumstances over which they had no control. Some are born into privilege, many are born into poverty.

More than that, children are assembled from the genetic material of their biological parents. The environment in the womb can be determinative of advantages or challenges to be faced in life, as Fetal Alcohol Syndrome and “Crack Babies” attest. Nature and nurture are inextricably combined; now one child whose college-educated professional parents did everything right is attending a school that provides every kind of technological tool and learning enrichment, while the other attends a school that is perpetually under-performing against federal standards.

Yet we want to pretend to ourselves that life is fair. Or that if it is unfair elsewhere in the world, it is fair in the United States because we believe all people are “created equal.” There is indeed absolute equal dignity under the law — this is a principle that must not be abandoned — but we are closing our eyes if we tell ourselves that “created equal” has meant anything like “born into equal opportunities and privileges.”

But this is where a religious-humanist philosophy of “fairness” takes us, leading us to several common outcomes and conclusions that contribute to the despair of the soul.

1. The person of advantage who plays their hand and continues to secure advantage for oneself and one’s offspring, perpetuates the notion that life is “fair.” Somehow the trouble-makers in the bad neighborhood are getting their just desserts for their drug addictions, fornications, or whatever. To the person on the outs (especially after “three strikes”), “fairness” becomes a social barrier that saps the hope of the spirit.

2. But then there are the inspiriting stories of the over-comers who pull themselves up by their boot-straps to escape the cycles of poverty as a “self-made person.” Such a person might go on to write a book about how, if that one could do it, so can anyone. But no, bootstrap self-made success is not a true of just “anyone.” The self-made person has been networked along into success — as is true of all successful people without exception — and the “gumption” that is so highly-touted in the moral universe of fairness is as much a product of chemical reactions in the brain as it is of conscious moral choices (that is, of free will). Gumption is vital to joyful living — evangelicals appreciate gumption too — but if applied wrongly to life’s lessons, the message of gumption can provoke despair in those who do not have the same chemicals, the same networks, and the same luck.

3. Many humanists recognize the unfairness of society, and try to correct it by means of education and other programs. Generosity is a virtue after all. The advantaged person pays taxes and gets involved with different philanthropies on the adage “teach people to fish, and you feed them for a lifetime.” But in a universe of fairness, compassion fatigue sets in. Efforts at redemptive compassion in society are supposed to effect social change. When the change is slow or invisible, the philanthropist can become puzzled: “What is wrong with those people? Why aren’t they changing? There are all these resources at their fingertips to help them help themselves!” If fairness is the rule of the universe, those who fail at life despite being given all kinds of help, have no other hope.

4. The person with all the advantages who wastes them and slides into vice and sloth is the most hopeless of all in a universe where God is Absolutely Fair, since they are without any of the excuses that karma or a God of fairness might take into account.

The third reason I am glad that fairness does not define what saves the soul, is that humanist ideas of fairness would have God conform to human conventions of justice and moralism. God spoke to the prophet Isaiah saying, “My thoughts are not your thoughts, and my ways are not your ways.” To the prophet Ezekiel God said, “You say that my ways are unjust, but is it not your ways that are unjust?” King David, in Psalm 51, declares the promise, “A broken and contrite heart God will not despise.”

But when we want all things to be fair, we demand retribution, consequences, and just desserts of each other, and we expect these things from God. By most measures I am a conventional middle-class professional holding, in public anyway, to certain churchly standards of morality. But in private I struggle with many things, including a sweet tooth, and including a peevish impatience with trifles that often has me quietly muttering bad words, among other things. If God were fair about my sins I would have been dead a long time ago. And so would you.

I could excuse myself and say, “I’m not that bad. I haven’t killed anybody.” In the “fairness” philosophy we justify ourselves by putting vices on a hierarchy. Maybe I haven’t killed anybody, but has an unkind word I spoke, even long ago in my youth, scarred someone and held them back from being all they could be? I haven’t killed anybody, but I am typing this on a computer, and in the failed states of sub-Saharan Africa children are being pressed into militias to fight and kill each over control of mudlands which contain cobalt, one of the raw materials used for computer hardware. Throughout the world slave labor is harvesting cocoa and coffee beans — and chocolate and coffee are two of my favorite indulgences of my sweet tooth.

May God never be fair to me! Even when I strive to live morally according to the middle-class conventions of my American culture, I am stuck in the spiritual cesspool of my world, mostly unconscious of all the ways I contribute to injustice and suffering simply because I fill my car with gasoline and drive to the grocery store.

Where then is hope to be found? In a God who is merciful, whose rewards are given freely in grace.  Because the world is more often merciless, the mercy of God is not self-evident, it had to be revealed to the world. This revelation took place in the life of Jesus Christ, the cross on which he died, and the tomb which he left behind in his resurrection. This revelation has been deposited in the Christian New Testament, a compilation of ancient writers who faithfully recorded the testimony of eye-witnesses to Jesus and these events.

Because God’s mercy and grace are not self-evident but revealed, God’s mercy and grace can only be known and received by faith, that is, trust in God and in God’s revelation. This faith is as a door in my heart. Repentance unlocks the door, swings it open, and allows the Spirit of Jesus Christ to enter into me, all for the sake of his mercy.  Mercy and grace are not self-evident to the world, so believers do indeed suffer in this life, as unbelievers also suffer. Often believers suffer because of what we believe, including ridicule from those who think they would rather God be fair than God be merciful. There is another proverb of worldly wisdom that applies: Be careful what you wish for! In faith, not in wishes, the evangelical trusts that God’s mercy and grace will finally be sorted out when the soul (that lives but once) dies and encounters God.

God’s mercy and grace reaches deeper than the middle-class morality of “God is Fair” humanism can ever touch. God’s grace removes all distinctions of class and karma and vice, for “God has consigned all things to sin, that God might have mercy on everyone.” God has revealed that the rich and the poor are alike sinners, that the moralist and the depraved are alike in need of mercy. In evangelical faith, what separates the moralist from the depraved is a combination of factors beyond the reach of any soul to control. When the moralist is stripped of the achievements and benefits that accrued to their privilege, gumption, and luck, their depravity becomes more obvious. But the evangelical faith notes that moralism has its own depraved tendencies — towards hubris, gossip, factions, anger, and envy.  These sins might not be as lurid as drunkenness, carousing and fornications, but they are just as alienating of God’s presence and holiness. Sin is sin indeed, and everyone is sinful.

Praise God, who does not play fair on the sinner! Rather, God is patient, drawing us toward faith through the ways in which we are blessed as well as through the ways in which we suffer, for God is no stranger to our suffering, having in Jesus Christ suffered in the body of flesh as we do. There was nothing fair about that; it was pure mercy.

The evangelical gospel is that God in Christ dwells in one’s heart, God begins to transform the priorities of one’s life towards the priorities of God. So compassion and philanthropy and  justice are part of the witness and concern of the believing evangelical, but these ethical actions are performed as one who is trusting God’s promises, and not as one who assumes they must or can “earn” their reward.

There is nothing fair about the resurrection and eternal life. It is all grace.

Easter Sunday

Welcome to the Evangelical Covenant Church of Elgin! We believe that on the third day God raised Jesus from the dead, that for forty days he appeared to many in his new life, and that he showed himself exalted when he was raised to the right hand of God. This is our faith, and each year we celebrate the glory of Jesus’ resurrection on Easter Sunday.

Our Easter worship is 10:30 AM. Because so many are involved in the presentation on Sunday, and because Easter is a time for family and friends to gather, our normal Sunday morning programs are suspended until April 8, with adult Sunday School at 9:15, Children’s Church during the morning service, and coffee-hour fellowship afterwards.

On Easter Sunday the focus is on the worship. As it falls on the first Sunday of the month, the service will include communion. The music will include additional choir involvement and a brass quartet. What excites me the most is that the sermon this Sunday is a “team” approach, as our church is blessed with a “company of preachers.” So we will hear from Pastor Henoch, Pastor Greg, the Rev. Carol Bob (ret.), and Pastor Jonathan, each taking a portion of the text from Matthew 28:16-20.

We hope to see you on Sunday! If you are looking for a church that espouses traditional values with a generosity in spirit that comes with the firm belief that the gospel is “good news” for sinners and for the whole world, come see what the Lord has for you.

Jesus Is Alive!

2018 New Year Updates

Kids are back in school in U-46, and programs are resuming at Elgin Covenant. The list below shows January start dates for music practice, $2/Plate dinner, Kids Club, and Adult Sunday School. At the bottom of this post is an explanation of our preaching themes in 2018, “Blessed are the peace-makers.”

Wednesday, Jan. 10, evening: Redeemed Worship Team practice at 6:30, Choir at 7.

Wednesday, January 17, evening: The $2/Plate Dinner will resume at 6 PM. This is also when the January Kids Club meets.

Saturday, January 20: We have signed up to participate at Feed My Starving Children in Schaumburg.

The Adult Sunday School Schedule, Sundays 9:15 AM, Conference Room. The theme is on Prophecy and Fulfillment, especially in reference to the person of Jesus Christ, and to the People of Israel.

January 14, session meets.

January 21, session does not meet.

January 28 – March 18, session every week.

Sunday Worship: Preaching in 2018

Our main worship event every week is at 10:30, with G-3 Children’s programs (primary grades) and Confirmation class (junior high) dismissing to their rooms early in the worship service.

A Theme for 2018: Blessed are the peace-makers, for they shall be called the heirs of God (Matthew 5:9). 

Throughout 2018 we will be preaching on the theme of conflict and peace. Conflict between believers need not be avoided; often conflict can be prevented outright when the parties involved in a disagreement remember what it means to be Jesus to each other. The solution may be as simple as acting on the wisdom of Proverbs 15:1, ” A soft answer turns away wrath.”  When conflict comes, there are productive ways to resolve it, as in the system of reconciliation and accountability Jesus established in Matthew 18:15-17.  Sometimes, victory and vindication is found in the appearance of defeat, when one chooses to turn the other cheek, bear the insult, suffer the persecution, and even carry the cross, rather than pursue a cause by promoting anger, retribution, and alienation.

2018 marks 100 years since the end of World War I. This cataclysm set in motion the geo-political history of revolutions, colonial withdrawal and post-colonial instability, arms races, the widening gap between industrialized wealth and the poverty of developing nations, and the resulting conflicts that have occurred over the past hundred years. World War I — how it began, how it was conducted, how it ended, and its aftermath — is a case study in all the worst ways to handle conflict. Sadly, a large number of combatants  from Ireland to Russia were Christian, at least nominally. Many had been baptized into their national churches or into their homeland’s tolerated, non-conforming churches,  or as in the case of Americans, were thoroughly encultured Christians even though no one church was  an official part of government.

World War I was devastating not only in lives lost, but also in faith lost. The godless horrors of mechanized warfare increased, for many, skepticism towards the Christian faith and its claims of an all-powerful, all-present, all-loving God. In turn, the appeal of secular gospels and ideologies increased.

While we will not be focussed on the details of World War I, that event serves as a back-drop to remind us of what is at stake when Christians become opposed to one another in terms of ideology or self-interest.  We are called to remember what the belligerents too quickly forgot one hundred years ago: That our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the deceiving spirits of the world’s darkness who want nothing more than to see the Church implode. The war that concerns us is spiritual, and so are our weapons, and so are our victories.

Getting 2018 Started

2017 was a landmark year at Elgin Covenant Church as we celebrated 500 years of the Reformation. This was followed by a blessed Christmas season of worship and special events that kept our hearts warm during a cold snap.

January 7 is still in the midst of school vacation in Elgin public schools district U-46, as kids don’t return to class until Wednesday the 10th. It is also the Sunday which celebrates Epiphany and the baptism of Jesus. We at Elgin Covenant will have our monthly communion service at 10:30, with Children’s Sunday School dismissing during the service. Other programs will resume after the start of the school year: stay tuned for pending announcements on the  $2/Plate Wednesday Dinner, choir rehearsals and anthems, and monthly midweek Kids Clubs.

Adult Sunday School will resume on January 14 at 9:15, on the topic of Prophecy and Fulfillment.

Christmas at Elgin Covenant 2017

Our calendar for the Advent and Christmas Seasons wrap up an exciting 2017 which had Elgin Covenant commemorating and celebrating the launch of the Protestant Reformation 500 years ago. The birth of Jesus the Christ of God and of Israel, in very nature God wrapped in very human flesh, occurred over 2000 years ago but is marked every year by hundreds of millions of Christians around the world. At the Evangelical  Covenant Church here in Elgin, Illinois, we observe Christmas in ways that most traditional American families would find “typical,” but always with a joyful spirit to keep the events fresh and exciting for all ages. Part of what is “typical” is that each church, much like each family, contributes its own “wrinkles” to the traditional pattern. We hope you can join us for our Christmas celebrations as we celebrate how our Triune God gave himself to the world as the greatest gift of all, wrapped in flesh and delivered in Bethlehem in Israel’s Promised Land over two thousand years ago. All events listed here take place at 1565 Larkin Avenue unless specifically noted otherwise.

December 2, 2017, 9-11 Am: Santa Lucia Breakfast Coffee open house. A long-standing tradition which honors the congregation’s Scandinavian roots, this event features continental breakfast treats and the best coffee of the year. Admission is free, a donation basket is available at the end of the buffet.

December 3, 10:30 AM. First Sunday of Advent. Communion for the month of December will be served.

December 3, 4-6 PM: Taste of Christmas family gingerbread-house decorating. Pizza dinner. $10.

December 10, 10:30 AM: Second Advent Sunday. A benevolence offering will be taken. We support three community ministries: Elgin Salvation Army, Elgin Interfaith Food Pantry, and Wayside Elgin Ministry to the Homeless.

December 10, 5 PM: Night of Christmas Music. Refreshments will follow.

December 17, 10:30 AM. Third Advent Sunday, the Choir and Family Ministries Program.

December 24, 10:30 AM. Fourth Advent Sunday.

December 24, 7 PM. Christmas Eve candlelight service. A special offering for the sponsorship of our World Vision Congo Child will be taken.

December 25, 6 AM: Christmas Morning, Julotta service. Also hearkening to the church’s Scandinavian roots, this English-language service is open to all. A breakfast follows as the group gathers at Randall Pancake House.

December 31, 10:30 AM. Christmastide.

December 31, 6 PM. New Year’s Eve Potluck, then worship around 7, then dessert and games fellowship until ???

We look forward to seeing you!

A Comment Regarding the Shooting Tragedy in Texas

On all Saints Sunday, 2017, 26 martyrs for Jesus Christ entered into glory. Having attended their small Baptist Church in Texas and, because of their presence there,  fallen to a murderer, a troubled young man who became an instrument of evil, they are now in the communion of the saints, never to suffer again.  For their loved ones left behind, for whom faith is still lived in a curtain of uncertainty, who are suffering the aftermath of this mayhem caused by evil, “Thoughts and prayers” is a very empty consolation. This post is NOT intended to minister to those whose grief is now raw for the sake of loved ones who are victims of violence. To those close to situations and walking alongside the grieving, different expressions of presence, consolation and patience are needed. This post is written by and intended only for those who are several degrees removed from the event, but who feel visceral responses of anger and disgust at this uncurbed epidemic of mass murder through fire-arms.
We clamor for people to “do something.” For some the solution is to disarm everyone, which means we clamor for Congress to do something, and for others the solution is to arm everyone. so we clamor for regular folks to go out and get their conceal and carry permits.
In whichever way a believer in Jesus may be convinced on that social-political question, we must all admit and confess that evil is real, evil actively seeks to do harm, and evil finds a way to do harm no matter the precautions taken by society. The alternative is a society that is itself evil for being repressive. To believers Jesus also gives the warning that in the midst of such persecutions as these “love of many will grow cold.” To encourage us to keep our love for God, our neighbors and our enemies (those who would harm us) warm and engaged, I have two comments on the politics of guns, followed by two comments on Christian witness.

On the Politics

1. My first comment regards the Constitution of the United States and its second amendment. Those who oppose guns think the problem is with the amendment. Those who are advocates seem not to give equal weight to both sides of the statement, which reads, “A well-regulated militia, being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms, shall not be infringed.” Thus the point of the Second Amendment is to promote security by regulating the militia — that is, the great mass of armed citizens who are NOT professional soldiers but who DO bear arms. The purpose of this regulation of fire-arms owners is to promote the common defense and guard against tyranny. Thus an interpretation of the Second Amendment that makes society less safe and secure is a poor one. Yet that is our condition in society today.
Guns are rampant and available, with no discipline or accountability to a public militia.
It would thus be in keeping with the spirit and the letter of the Second Amendment to require criminal background checks, mental fitness examinations, courses in usage and safety, and oaths of loyalty to the US Constitution. This can and should be done right away, while local jurisdictions should begin to consider again establishing public militia — probably the state, although militias might also be raised at county levels.  Thus gun-owners could be required to report twice a year at a militia station for continuing education units. By excluding from these restrictions weapons that are designed and marketed for hunting/sport, these regulations could cover every fire-arm sold which is designed for anti-personnel and is marketed for personal and home defense. All of this together would be a means of improved domestic security through an established public militia, while upholding and safe-guarding all parts of the Second Amendment.
2. Those who suppose that wide-spread conceal-and carry or holstered fire-arms would be a deterrent to the deranged mass murderer need to consider America’s own past. Many frontier towns began to pass ordinances during the Wild West days because it became apparent that easy access to holstered weapons promoted rather than deterred gun violence. Many times those who advocated for these local laws requiring guns to be turned in at the town limits, were the churches.
I applaud the courage of the two men who engaged the shooter outside the church at their earliest opportunity. Perhaps other lives were saved, it is still early in the developing narrative to know. It is one thing to post on how things should be,  but that in no way implies a criticism for those who acted in the power they had in the circumstances that now pertain.
Two comments on Christian witness:
1. Some pastors are advocating armed security at their churches. I disagree. The historical witness of the church is non-violence and sanctuary. If that means we become as sheep to be slaughtered — then we continue to fulfill the New Testament picture of faith.
2. We mourn with those who mourn, we continue to shine the light of gospel and grace into a world that hates the light because its deeds are evil.  Too much of the testimony of the Church is stained in the blood that Christians have drawn from others in the advance of the Church’s causes. There have been plenty of occasions where the testimony of believers has been of martyrdom and meekness, and these are the occasions to which the ethics of Jesus and of the New Testament describe. In the meantime our assertive witness to a holy and merciful God should continue unabated, in the attitude of Paul that to live is Christ and to die is gain, and that whether we live or die we belong not to ourselves but to Christ.

Celebrating Five Hundred Years of Reformation

Starting October 1 Elgin Covenant is ramping up our commemoration of the Protestant Reformation with special events and guests. You are welcome, and please bring your friends! To the question: Why are we celebrating the Reformation? See below.

October, every Sunday, 9:15: Adult Sunday School Class, “The Ongoing Need for Reformation Among Protestants and Evangelicals.”

October, every Sunday, 10:30: Worship and Preaching Series on “Grace Alone.” Each message stands alone on that morning’s scripture text, and texts are chosen that have played an important role crafting the beliefs of leaders in the Protestant movement.

October 1, 10:30 AM, Communion service for October. In the Covenant Church we practice “open” communion. You do not have to be a member of this congregation or this tradition, we only ask that you be believe that the Lord Jesus Christ is your savior from sins and that you desire to live your life for him.

October 8, 5 PM: Soup Supper and a Movie, A Man Named Martin. Admission and supper are FREE.(CVLI license information is available in the office.)

October 22, 5 PM: Soup Supper and a Movie, Luther. Admission and supper are FREE.(CVLI license information is available in the office.)

October 29, 10:30 AM. Guest Choir, the German American Singers and Guest Quartet, the Alpine Brass. This special service order will feature special music presentations and four anthems, including a joint rendition of the Reformation Hymn, A Mighty Fortress is Our God.

October 31, Reformation Vigil, 8 PM – 9 PM

With trick-or-treat over by that time according to local ordinance, people are encouraged to gather for hymns, prayer, communion, and a presentation of one of Luther’s written homilies, “On Indulgences and Grace,” his sermon for lay-people based on his 95 Theses.

We hope you can join us for some or all of these events. Centenary celebrations only come once per century!

Why Celebrate the Reformation?

Many Protestants are not treating the five century mark of the Reformation as an occasion to celebrate, for a number of valid reasons that will differ according to each congregation or denomination. Indeed, there has been no denomination-wide program for a Reformation emphasis this year in the Evangelical Covenant. The reasons this is “muted” in various places are varied:

1. Some groups that rose out of the Radical Reformation, such as Anabaptists, do not see themselves as “Protestant” in the same way. The Swiss Reformer. Ulrich Zwingli, whose movement was one out of which early radical reformers emerged, was at work independently of Luther, so that the Wittenberg Door event on Oct. 31, 1517 does not carry the weight of a narrative of origins for Anabaptist groups.

2. Some Protestants identify with origins that precede Luther. John Wycliffe in England and Jan Hus in Bohemia (now the Czech Republic) each preceded Luther by more than a century. Moravian Churches own the heritage of Hus, while the English Reformation does not trace itself particularly through Luther’s thought.

3. Perhaps the most important reason is that many, including direct theological and institutional heirs of Martin Luther’s efforts, are embarrassed that the Protestant Reformation was the occasion of schism and violence within the Church. This included wars among European princes who used denominational affinities as an excuse for campaigns of conquest and the oppression of segments of their own population. In the early 1600′s, for example, Catholics, Lutherans and Reformed tore at each other for thirty years, with the German states providing most of the battlefields. Anabaptists were almost universally persecuted; toleration was rare and fickle.

4. Embarrassed by the violence on the one hand, many do not see the point in revisiting old misunderstandings and out-dated causes on the other. In the twenty-first century, sixty years after Vatican II began and marked a turning point for the warming of ecumenical relations, and after a succession of popes that have displayed integrity and humility and been more reflective of the global Catholic community, to be trumpeting the themes of the Reformation is seen by some as downright obnoxious.

There may be other reasons that others have; these are the reasons of which I am aware that many either have little enthusiasm to celebrate the Reformation or even disapprove of its being celebrated. In the best tradition of the Evangelical Covenant let me quote the Apostle Paul, “Let each one be convinced in their own mind.”

As October advances it is quite likely that more will be heard from various leaders in the global Church who, even though they are marking the Reformation, do so with sensitivity to the points of view expressed above, and will emphasize their regret for the schisms and especially the tragedies of violence that resulted.

The Reasons to Celebrate

The reasons I, Pastor Jonathan, choose to celebrate the Reformation and the Protestant movement’s narrative of origins, are as follows:

1. Celebrating Faith: Others before Luther had indeed recovered important features of the gospel of God’s grace on the sinner, the importance of scripture as revelation, and the importance of the laity to the Church. Starting in late 1517, however, there was a convergence that led to a deeper and more complete recovery of the “faith once given to the Saints,” that is, of the redemptive life with God by grace alone through faith alone which was the teaching of Christ carried forward by his apostles.

2. Celebrating God’s Word: The emerging Protestant groups used the new technology of movable type presses to democratize the Christian faith, taking it back from a clergy elite and putting the Word of God into the words, and the hands, of common people. Translation into the languages of the world continues apace through missionary outfits like Wycliffe. This organization is named for the proto-Reformer who lived over a century before Luther, but this organization could in no way have gotten going and been sustained without a much broader movement than what Wycliffe had inspired.

3. Celebrating Positive Change: Although many of the initial reactions of the Roman Catholic hierarchy were unproductive (e.g. they excluded Protestants from the Council of Trent in order to retrench untenable doctrines, went to war on Protestant princes, etc.) other reactions have proven to be a positive leavening of the faith and integrity in the Catholic Church elite over time. Vatican II in c.1960 is impossible without having the Protestant movement in view.

4. Celebrating People: The movement that led directly to the expansion of literacy, of democracy, and of modern liberal convictions that accord high value to the individual’s conscience, ought to be lifted up and celebrated in the twenty-first century. All of that got rolling when the monk named Martin tacked a list of arguments onto the door of a church on October 31, 1517.

Wherever you may be, I hope you can join Evangelical Covenant in Celebrating Faith, Celebrating God’s Word, Celebrating Change, and Celebrating People, if not in spirit, than in prayer. May this Centenary celebration bring glory to God, and declare the assurance of grace to repenting hearts.

Parking 2017-2018 NOW OPEN

Larkin High School students and U-46 employees are invited to make use of our church parking lot, as we are located across the grass ditch near the west (auditorium) exit. The entrance to the parking lot is from Jane Drive. A fixed donation for the whole year ($90) or each semester ($50 each) reserves your spot. All money raised goes directly into the maintenance and repairs of the parking lot, none of it is transferred to the general ministry of the church. To download the application please go to the student parking tab where you will find links to the materials. Applications for 2017-2018 will open July 10 with updated links. Some priority will be given to those who had used the lot last year, however there are plenty of spaces available.

Programs Continue in Summer 2017

At Elgin Covenant the Sunday worship and events schedule is remaining the same through the summer, with worship, learning and fellowship events for all ages, and the same year-round worship start-time of 10:30 AM.

Summer means that some programs are on hiatus, but others keep humming along. We will miss the choir and our Wednesday evening fellowship dinners until they resume in the fall. Obviously with school out our Wednesday morning donut-and-hot beverage that we provide for Larkin High School students on their way to school will wait until the school year resumes. But though some of our energies are diverting to things appropriate for the summer, some patterns will remain unchanged. Most of all, our Sunday morning scheduled is remaining in place and unchanged.

Our church will continue to meet at 10:30 on Sunday morning, the same as all year-round. In addition our G-3 Kids will continue to meet, adjourning to the classrooms during the sermon, our adult Sunday School will continue to meet at 9:15 (starting June 11), and our fellowship hour of snacks and refreshments will continue after worship.

Some of the summer’s unique opportunities are: Summer camps, which are pulling several of our kids ages 7 to 13 to either Covenant Point in Upper Michigan, or to Covenant Harbor in Lake Geneva just across the Wisconsin border. These are award-winning camping opportunities, you can explore their websites at covenantharbor.org. Those kids in town will be participating in three mission field-trips. The first is at Feed My Starving Children in Schaumburg on June 10. Two more local opportunities are being scheduled with ministries in the Elgin Community.

Memorial Day Observance

The following, a reflection by Pastor Jonathan Wilson of this church, connects themes from 500 Years of Reformation to the 100th Anniversary of the entry of the United States into World War I. It would be an appropriate resource on November 11 as well. It concludes with a prayer.

One Hundred Years: World War I and the Reformation

Dr. Jonathan M. Wilson, Pastor, Evangelical Covenant Church of Elgin, IL[1]

 2017 marks the 500th Jubilee Anniversary of the Reformation. This is also the first time that there is a truly global and truly ecumenical effort among Christians to mark the moment. The 400th Anniversary, in 1917, might have been so marked, for many Protestant groups in the western world had learned, on the mission fields in Africa and Asia, to see beyond their differences. In 1910 there was a gathering in Edinburgh, Scotland, in a world congress of the Christian faith. Sadly, the West’s imperial and political powers did not catch this vision; indeed, the Great Powers were in the midst of an arms race. Tensions erupted and by August 1914 the European powers, with their colonial proxies, were enveloped in what history now remembers as World War I. The United States entered this conflict one hundred years ago, in 1917. On this Memorial Day week-end when we honor America’s war dead, it is time for a sober reflection on this one-century mark of the First World War.

 

The American poet Alan Seeger, serving during World War I, wrote these lines:

I have a rendezvous with death

at some disputed barricade;

When spring comes back with rustling shade,

and apple-blossoms fill the air.[2]

On May 28, 1917, General John “Black Jack” Pershing, a veteran of the United States Cavalry, embarked for Europe in command of the American Expeditionary Force. Six weeks earlier Congress had acted on the request of President Woodrow Wilson to declare war on Germany in retaliation for its policy of unrestricted submarine warfare. It was almost another year, in the spring of 1918, before American ground forces saw major action, with over 53,000 meeting their rendezvous with death in a little over seven months. The involvement of the United States broke the stalemate. American manpower, fire-power and industrial power overmatched that of the German Empire, which was exhausted by four years of attrition on its western front.

It was with idealism that Wilson saw the dawn of the American Century and the nation’s involvement on the world stage. He hoped, by America’s involvement, to become a broker of peace and reconciliation, to see a new world order established on the rule of law in a League of Nations. Nevertheless, though Congress applauded his request to declare war, in private he stated: “My message today was a message of death for our young men. How strange it seems to applaud that.” It is said that the President began to weep.[3]

Early on, optimism swelled all sides of the battle and every home front. God’s providence was seen in the provocation of the contest; once the pecking order of global interests and imperialism was resolved the project of advancing Christian civilization could continue to its glorious conclusion. On the other end of it, once they dusted themselves off and shook hands and redrew the world’s maps, there awaited a world-wide millennium of peace. For the drafted and the recruited and the American public that supported them, the American cause was to make the world safe for democracy. This is a worthy cause to motivate patriotic zeal. Alas, that which rallies the soldiers in the rank-and-file is often a spin put on motives much more banal among the elites, motives tinged not with idealism but with avarice.

What occurred was mechanized slaughter on a scale never before seen in western civilization. The edifice of Christendom had been founded on civic duty, optimism, imperialism, and idealisms related to manifest destiny and the White Man’s burden. This edifice sank in the slog of mud-filled trenches, it was battered to ruins by heavy artillery, it was drowned in the tears of comrades and family. Faith was shattered in many, in others a new and virulent nationalism grew like a poisonous thorn-bush from out of Europe’s mud.  World War One unmasked the lies that tied the church to the power of the state in a triumphant march of progress. The Church of Jesus Christ stands true and forever because his Word stands true, though every person be a liar. Christendom, however, meaning everything that makes being a Christian convenient and lawful and acceptable in the world, has never recovered from World War I. At the end of it the world was not safer for democracy, it was instead a fertile seed-bed for the most virulent totalitarianisms the world had ever seen, under dictators who steered the world to the brink of extinction a little more than just twenty years later.

World War II is inextricably linked to the outcomes of World War I: the holocaust has its precedent in the genocide of millions of ethnic Armenians at the hands of the Ottoman Turks – a crime which Turkey has yet to own and repent. The Cold War’s cause is in the manner of World War II’s end, and radical Jihadism has its roots in the deals struck and arms traded during the Cold War. The legacies that continue to cast their shadow over us and our emerging generations: the global economy and exploitation, ethnic conflict, ideological radicalism, these are the legacies of World War I. Yet the miserable lessons of a hundred years of hate refuse to be learned by a manifestly sinful human race who repeat these mistakes generation after generation.

Still, among many Christians, 2017 marks the first real opportunity for cooperative, global commemoration of the Reformation. Those in charge of “official” observances see 2017 as a means of owning the sins of the Church, and of telling the world that Jesus wants us all to get along, because after all, the stakes are too high to risk perpetuating the cycles of violence. These are the dominant themes for the commemorations in the ecumenical setting. These themes are true in part, but not where they connect with and foster notions of human optimism and the belief that peace has its foundation in some other truth than Jesus Christ, King in Heaven and Lord of all creation.

The commemoration of 500 Years of Reformation, and 100 years since America’s entry into World War I, should bring together two themes in our hearts: First, that repentance is the whole life of the Christian. Second, that we must not forget, but must continue to lay the wreaths on the graves and at the monuments for the war dead, those who paid the price for the propaganda and idealism and nationalism and imperialism that drove them on to the battlefield in causes which the verdict of history now, rightly, condemns.

No longer should Christians wave the banners of partisan, alienating slogans; let us lead the way in repentance, in meekness, in humility. Jesus Christ has ascended and is enthroned as the right hand of power. Before him alone we must bow as our highest allegiance, repenting of all others, of every flag and every ideology that would pull us into vain causes and endless cycles of godless violence.  The stakes are too high to forego what must be our whole life as Christians.

Memorial Day 2017 Prayer

Lord God, we gather before you thankful that in this land, by your providence, we continue in freedom to worship you. We honor at this time those who served faithfully and gave their all, even their lives, that we might continue secure in the blessings of liberty. In honor of them help us to remember human vanity and sin, help us to be discerning, that we the people would not allow for our sons and daughters to be sent into harm’s way for causes that are superfluous, doubtful, or a shame to our consciences. For as King David refused to drink for himself and his own refreshment the water brought to him from behind enemy lines by valiant men, but instead offered it as a libation to you, so let us not forget that the courage of our soldiers

and sailors is not for us to exploit, but to deploy only in causes that are just and true in the wisdom you give us to discern the right. Help us always to recall our debt of gratitude to those who serve and have served. In Jesus’ name, amen.



[1]This article is original with the author who takes sole responsibility for its point of view. The author may be consulted for a short bibliography of influential resources that shaped his perspective. The resource for quotes and citations included in this commemoration is Daniel Levy, “World War I: The Great War and the American Century,” LIFE, vol. 17 no. 6, (March 17 2017).

[2]Quoted in Levy, “World War I: The Great War and the American Century,” 25.

[3]Levy, 29.