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Ask the Pastor

† Theological musings and answers to selected questions by a confessional Lutheran pastor.






30 January 2007

What Have You Learned, Dorothy?

A Five-and-a-half Year Reflection

Tin Man and ScarecrowThe Tin Man’s question of Dorothy near the end of The Wizard of Oz may be one of the most famous queries in the English language. Glinda the Good has just told Dorothy that she’d always held the power to go back home; however, she wouldn’t have believed Glinda.

“She had to learn it for herself,” the witch tells the Scarecrow. She needed to discover that true joy and peace were to be found in her backyard, or, as she learns to say in departing, “There’s no place like home.” The Scarecrow (“I should have thought of it”) and the Tin Man (“I should have felt it in my heart”) were unable with either superior intellect or boundless compassion to show Dorothy her way home.

Rather than as a neat, moralistic ending to a Technicolor fable, I reintroduce the question in a far different context. Rather than comparing Kansas and Oz, I invite you to consider what has changed and what lessons have been taken to heart since the terrorist airplane attacks on the United States. For more than five years, in many and various ways, we’ve been asking ourselves, each other, the FBI, the CIA, the military, and all our government officials, “What have you learned?”

9/11I originally asked this question of myself and responded to it on the first anniversary of the terrorist murders. As a believer led by God to continually examine my own heart and as one who looks about at my Church and my nation, I thought that a revised response was due — perhaps long overdue.

The Patriot Act has been in effect since 26 October 2001. After “Nine Eleven,” intelligence agencies increased their eavesdropping, including domestic spying, often drawing criticism for going beyond constitutional restrictions. We’ve blamed Iraq, fought them twice, and are now trying to establish peace and democracy in that land of tribal, ethnic, and religious turmoil. Meanwhile, the ultimate architect of the attacks remains at large.

If you’ve been paying attention, you’ve seen that almost everyone has “learned” many different things, some true and valuable, some false and worthless — even damaging. We don’t even know how much learning was lost because we misread the information before us. Top officials can’t agree on policies toward Al Qaida or Iraq. Some sources claim that Iraq had no “weapons of mass destruction” while others point to “indisputable evidence” of biochemical armament. One report may tie Hussein to the terrorists while the next completely divorces their activities.

Airport SecuritySome travelers still don’t trust the skies; many others who have resumed flying still doubt the competence of airport security guards. Granted, many of the early travel problems have been resolved. We’ve learned to arrive earlier and better prepared for security checks. However, previously easy jaunts to such friendlies as our Neighbor to the North now involve the use of passports. And because of what many consider a wrongly designed policy against racial profiling, a truly random search probably has more chance of slowing down your grandma than of actually catching a terrorist.

What else have we learned? Well, terror warning levels go up and down, tending to numb us to occasions when credible threats actually exist. While we know that some plots against American citizens or others have been discovered in time, we wonder how many more remain undetected. As for our foreign policy, it’s probably more confused than it was when I began this reflection in September of 2002.

Meanwhile, the debate over which (if any) parts of Islam should be blamed continues unabated. Is it a “religion of peace” or a “damnable lie”? Could it, in some ways, be both? Does anybody in the halls of government understand the Muslim mind set as well as do most seminary trained Lutheran pastors?

Three ReligionsMeanwhile, the Church remains in the world, even if not of it and Christians living on earth also ask themselves from time to time, “What have you learned?” Their answers vary widely. Some have “learned” that their God might not be so perfectly good or powerful, since he allowed the deaths to happen. Others have “learned” that God must have a special plan for them, since they were spared. Many have “learned” that differences among religions aren’t all that divisive, and if we cooperate more, such incidents will one day be things of the past.

Like Dorothy, people learned these things for themselves. Unlike Dorothy, what they learned won’t take them “home” to live with God forever. Oz is a fantasy land. Hollywood conjured a celluloid fable based upon a written work of fiction. In it, Dorothy and her own experiences become her teachers. In real life, we need a real Teacher. We need one absolute truth in order to find the place where we belong.

Those who dismiss or blame God ignore His tender mercies, which are new every day. They dismiss the sacrifice of his own Son — the only completely innocent Person who ever lived. Yes, the people in the towers, the planes, and the Pentagon were victims. However, they were also frail, weak, sinful human beings. Like us, they rightly deserved God’s wrath and punishment for their sins. Yet even as He allowed their deaths, so the Lord also welcomed those who believed in Christ to eternal life.

Pentagon 9/11Through the death and destruction, God was neither less than good nor less than powerful. He allowed the terror yet through it still taught lessons concerning the miracles of rescue, the value of courage, and the need to be right with Him before our last hour comes. If we deny God’s justice and judgment, then we also deny Him as Savior. If we accuse God of weakness or of evil, we tell Him that we don’t want to go “home” because it, and He, aren’t good enough for us.

Those who think that God somehow “likes” them more, or that He has “special plans” for them just because they lived while others died ignore the simple fact that often the wicked prosper more than the righteous (cf. Job 21; Jeremiah 12:1). Neither Osama bin Laden nor Saddam Hussein died in the crashes and collapses. Did that mean that God favored them over the victims? And now that Hussein has been executed, does this mean that he was less favored than Osama?

Continuing with bin Laden, since he lived, did he find more divine favor by encouraging cowardly murder than did the brave passengers who died as they stormed the final plane’s cockpit? Nonsense! Those who “learn” that survival equals God’s favor (so must death mean His wrath?) learn a lie. Truly, death comes only to sinners, but it also means release from the bonds of sinful flesh for all who believe in Christ. To think that extended life means all is right with God is to believe that you are already “home” when actually you are traveling farther and farther away.

OprahAnd what do we make of those who try to downplay religious differences? They recommend praying arm in arm and heart to heart with Muslims, Jews, Sikhs, and others. They encourage Christians to stop thinking of Christ as the only salvation for sinners; indeed, they often downplay or dismiss the sinfulness that all carry. They may point to Jesus saying, “In my Father’s house are many rooms. (John 14:20)” Truly, “there’s no place like home” when home is living with God forever. However, they ignore the simple fact that there is only one Father and one home. Jesus also said, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. (John 14:6)” Therefore, those who don’t believe in Christ Jesus are traveling to the wrong eternal home.

In times of personal, familial, community, or national pain, we may try avoiding the fullness of God’s truth. His wrath over sin frightens us (as it rightly should). Despite our wishes, the unpleasant fact remains that many people, perhaps including some we dearly love, will not receive an eternal home with their Creator because they doubt, deny, or do not know His Son. But rather than minimizing the differences between false religions and Christianity, believers are empowered and encouraged to boldly and plainly speak the truth: There is no salvation apart from Christ Jesus.

Christians don’t pretend that the pain of earthly suffering and loss are the most severe hurts imaginable. Instead, believers know of hell’s reality and want no one to experience damnation because of their own inaction. We want no one to “lock herself out of the house” when Jesus stands as the Door, ready to open for all who believe in Him.

Peaceable KingdomWe now reach one final pair of important but opposing lessons that most have learned. God’s Word tells us that after our relationship with Him, loving our neighbors and exercising our concern for others is of paramount importance (Romans 13:9). Unfortunately, far too many people, including a great number of Christians, have earned advanced degrees in the field of hatred while all too few have learned God’s lesson of true charity, including love for their enemies (cf. Matthew 5:43-45).

Our Lord tells us plainly that hatred of another equates to murder on our part. How many murders stained the hearts of nearly every American — Christian or unbeliever — who was alive and aware as the planes crashed into the towers? How many of these remain unconfessed and unforgiven? How many deaths have been desired or cheered as fighting continues in Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere? Crude jokes and other attempts at dehumanization of those who hate us similarly are held against us as charges of fratricide. Therefore, as we reflect on the lessons of 9/11 and beyond, it does us good to remember the extent of the Fifth Commandment’s scope and application, particularly as summarized in this excerpt from the Large Catechism:

The entire sum of what it means not to kill is to be impressed most explicitly upon the simple-minded. In the first place, that we harm no one, first, with our hand or by deed. Then, that we do not employ our tongue to instigate or counsel thereto. Further, that we neither use nor assent to any kind of means or methods whereby any one may be injured. And finally, that the heart be not ill disposed toward any one, nor from anger and hatred wish him ill, so that body and soul may be innocent in regard to every one, but especially those who wish you evil or inflict such upon you. For to do evil to one who wishes and does you good is not human, but diabolical.

Feed the HungrySecondly, under this commandment not only he is guilty who does evil to his neighbor, but he also who can do him good, prevent, resist evil, defend and save him, so that no bodily harm or hurt happen to him, and yet does not do it. If, therefore, you send away one that is naked when you could clothe him, you have caused him to freeze to death; if you see one suffer hunger and do not give him food, you have caused him to starve. So also, if you see any one innocently sentenced to death or in like distress, and do not save him, although you know ways and means to do so, you have killed him....

Therefore it is God’s ultimate purpose that we suffer harm to befall no man, but show him all good and love; and, as we have said, it is specially directed toward those who are our enemies. For to do good to our friends is but an ordinary heathen virtue, as Christ says (Matthew 5:46).

Here we have again the Word of God whereby He would encourage and urge us to true noble and sublime works, as gentleness, patience, and, in short, love and kindness to our enemies, and would ever remind us to reflect upon the First Commandment, that He is our God, that is, that He will help, assist, and protect us, in order that He may thus quench the desire of revenge in us.

This we ought to practise and inculcate, and we would have our hands full doing good works.

The Prodigal SonGod grant us forgiveness for any bloodguilt we own on account of our hateful thoughts and feelings toward Arabs, Iraqis, Mohammedans, and others with whom we struggle. May He then also lead us on charitable paths, that we finally might learn to love our enemies as ourselves in thought, word, and deed. Pray that He would lead us to avoid delighting in a wicked enemy’s death and rather join Him in the desire that the evildoer would “turn from his way and live. (Ezekiel 33:11)” Then we also may share the joy of “the angels of God over one sinner who repents. (Luke 15:10)”

What have we learned? Not enough, that’s for sure. Yet our loving God never stops teaching, confronting, accusing, loving, and forgiving us. Everything that He does in the believer’s life is for the purpose of bringing that believer home or that others might learn of Him through the Christian’s speech and actions.

Our trip home is much more difficult, yet much simpler than Dorothy’s. It is simple because we don’t have to learn the route for ourselves; the Holy Spirit teaches and guides us. We don’t have to do anything, not even click our heels together and say, “There’s no place like home”; Jesus has already done everything for us and for our salvation. He will return on the Last Day, call us from our graves, and personally escort us to our eternal home.

Weimar Altar PieceYet the trip is also much more difficult because while Dorothy got back home in one piece, God insists that our sinfulness be torn away, crushed by His Law, drowned in Baptism, and cleansed by Christ’s blood. Our pilgrimage may include mockery, perhaps even martyrdom. But we know that the truly difficult struggle to lead us homeward is already complete: It belonged to Christ.

Our Lord came to earth already knowing the Way home; indeed, He was and is that Way. Yet when Satan tempted Him to take the easy route, to go back home without sorrow, suffering, and death, Jesus rejected that path. He didn’t click His heels and disappear. Instead, He spread His arms, poured out His blood, and called sinners to live in a palace he prepared for us.

What have you, a child of God and believer in Christ, learned? There is no place like home, and as the hymn says, “Heaven is my fatherland; heaven is my home.”

Explanation of the Fifth Commandment from the Large Catechism quoted from the public domain text at The Book of Concord online.

Scripture quoted from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version™, © 2001 by Crossway Bibles.

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Walter Snyder is the pastor of Holy Cross Lutheran Church, Emma, Missouri and coauthor of the book What Do Lutherans Believe.

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