Sunday, December 30, 2012

Getting One Thing Straight

It seems like maybe I need to do a little clarification on the purposes of this blog.  As I say at the top, these are my personal and professional musings, of a person who happens to be very clearly in the minority in the ELCA.

Take a look at the blog - some of it's personal, some of it's professional.  Some of it is critical of the ELCA, other posts, neutral or less so. 

I want this to be a place where I can toss out my musings, as I say, and where others can engage the conversation - tell me I'm right, tell me I'm wrong, ask questions, offer your own thoughts, etc. 

But: I don't want anyone to interpret my criticism of the ELCA as a lack of "loyalty", or my continued presence in a church body with which I frequently disagree as indication of my failure to have any personal integrity/listen to God/reject heretics/etc.

I am in the ELCA because it is where God has called me to be, and to stay, and to preach and teach and administer the sacraments.  This is not a conclusion that I have come to lightly.  Long before 2009, and in its wake, I thought and prayed long and hard about where God would have me serve and worship.  I did the very - very - hard work of discerning this.  I shed many, many tears.  I read like crazy, I met with people of varying denominational and confessional stripes.  I thought, cried, and prayed some more.  And through it all, I just kept putting one foot in front of the other, right behind where God was leading me. 

And here I am.  It is not a perfect place, but neither is it the maw of hell.  Attempts to convince me otherwise, to try to convert me to...whatever, or to consign to perdition any and/or all who are in any way associated with the ELCA, are not helpful for any of us.  A very, very wise pastor who is by no means unclear on the necessity of proclaiming the law in addition to the gospel, who I have yet to see sacrifice truth for popularity or convenience, once said, "We are called to speak the truth in love.  If you cannot speak the truth in love, you are not ready to speak the truth."

I have many good friends, and plenty of acquaintances who have left the ELCA for a wide of variety of reasons.  I do not in any way begrudge them this.  The splintering of the Church is a tragedy, and all of us would do well to ponder and pray on that more often, but it also is what it is, and a good friend once reminded me that "it's not going to go back together the way it came apart". 

If the ELCA is not the place where you can, in good conscience, do these things - and for many people it is not - then by all means, get out.  Go in peace, + and go with God - wherever it is that he leads.  And then let go.  Let go of the hatred, the anger, the bitterness that you have toward the ELCA or mainline Protestants or liberals or whoever.  Remember the words of St. Paul, "Let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor and slander be put away from you, along with all malice. Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you", and St. James, "Know this, my beloved brothers: let every person be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger; for the anger of man does not produce the righteousness of God."  Let go.

And if the ELCA continues to be a place where you can worship, pray, proclaim, and live in good conscience, then please stay.  God is not yet finished with "this church".

Each one of us needs to be where God calls us to be, for whatever his purposes might be.  We need to be in a place where we can worship in peace and in good conscience.  We need to be in a place where we can focus on the main thing - the death and resurrection of Jesus as the only thing that has the power to fix this broken world, forgive sin, bring life out of death, and overcome the power of the devil.  But we cannot do that if we consistently spend our days fixating on denominational affiliation - our own or anybody else's.

Faith, hope, and love - for God and neighbor: may these gifts of God be yours in the coming year, and wherever you live denominationally or confessionally, may you keep your eyes focused firmly on Christ.

Did Christmas Really Happen?

Last week, a former seminary professor of mine wrote an article for Huffington Post whereby he claims that he doesn't "know or care if [the Christmas story] 'really happened'" and that whether it is or isn't "factually accurate" doesn't matter as to whether the general themes of the story are "trustworthy and true". 

As much as I like David Lose (heck, I even made a figgy pudding for Christmas dinner this year!) I'm sure you can guess that I have a big problem with this.

Dr. Lose uses most of his article to do some pretty basic historical and textual criticism of the varying Biblical "infancy narratives".  Luke and Matthew have basically no factual overlap, we can't really know the details because they're reported so differently, nobody else but Matthew talks about the Slaughter of the Innocents, Luke "seems not to know about" the escape to Egypt, etc, etc.  Thus, Lose tells us, the two accounts are "virtually irreconcilable", but none of this matters because 
Such stories tell us the truth, the truth about the world we live in, about our capacity for good and evil, bravery and cowardice, and about the hopes and fears and tragedies of our lives. But they don't stop there. These stories of wayward magicians, outcast shepherds, and unwed teens also confess the truth that somehow, somewhere, God is mixed up in all of this.

Okay, let's start with this: I am not opposed to historical (or other) criticism per se.  I think that knowing the geopolitical, religious, and other cultural settings at the time of the writing of various books of the Bible is interesting and helpful.  I think it's good to know how language and literature functioned in the ancient world, what the various intended audiences of the prophets, story-tellers, and letter-writers would have heard, and how they might have reacted, to the message.  I am completely fine with the idea that, particularly in the Gospels and the historical books of the OT where there are multiple accounts of the same event, it's because there were different individuals writing (or otherwise preserving) the accounts, and they had different purposes and different audiences.  I don't feel the need to harmonize the Easter stories, and I don't feel the need to get all worked up about two different creation stories.  There are things to be gained from each rendering, and it need not destroy our faith. 

That said, I think that we need to be incredibly humble when we start claiming that so-and-so "seems to know nothing about" Event A, or that he is "playing fast and loose" with the facts.  No matter how good our archaeology is, no matter how deep into history we might get, we, living 6000 miles away and 2000 years hence, will never know more about "what happened" than people who actually lived in that land, in that time, in that culture, people who knew the participants in the events, or at least, knew the people who knew them.  To suggest otherwise - that we know more about 1st century Palestinian events than people who actually lived in Palestine in the first century - is arrogant, along with just patently ridiculous.

To be sure, literature did function differently in the ancient world than it does today.  Dr. Lose is completely correct in stating, "Luke - and Matthew, Mark, and John for that matter - are playing for bigger stakes than mere historical accuracy. They are trying to share their faith far more than they are trying to establish the facts."

And what of it?  We still do this today, after all.  Anybody who has preached a sermon can tell you that there are details of the story they've chosen not to deal with (you can't preach on everything, all in one sermon), there are theological minutiae that they've skirted around, or linguistic ambiguities they haven't engaged, for the purpose of the sermon at hand.  And so long as we aren't twisting the text to make it say what we want, in contradiction to what it in fact says, or making things up out of whole cloth, I don't think there's anything wrong with this.  Depending on how good of a preacher you are, you've got people's attention for somewhere between 10 and 45 minutes - there's no way you're going to be able to say it all.  Heck, we even do this in the movies!  Does anyone think that Lincoln is 100% factually accurate in every last detail?  Of course not.  But it, and your average Sunday sermon, are on the whole, reasonably close to "factually accurate".  Which is the task of the preacher, and the documentary-ish filmmaker. 

So why then are we Christians so afraid to extend that same charity to the Biblical authors?  Do Luke and Matthew share different details of Jesus' conception, birth, and infancy?  Yes.  Do all four gospel writers share different - even contradicting - details of his trial, death, and resurrection?  Yes.  Does that mean that, on the whole, they are not reasonably close to "factually accurate"?  Of course not.  When two honest-and-sincere witnesses share differing accounts of a car accident we do not impugn and denigrate their motives, throw up our hands, and declare that we'll never know, and it doesn't even really matter if the accident itself happened, all we need to know is that some people are hurting right now.

"Did it really happen?" matters because Christianity (and Judaism, for that matter) is a religion based on claims that God actually, factually, concretely intervened in the long, sorry history of this world, and further claims that the consequence of this intervention is that the long, sorry history of this world and the people in it have been redeemed, and that one day, the "final intervention" will take place, and the whole entire thing will be completely recreated. 

If we find that the Gospel writers are playing "fast and loose" with the facts of this intervention, then those of us who have placed our trust in the God we believe has intervened in this way, are placing our entire salvation at stake.  Because once we declare that the Gospel writers are the sort of people who manipulate historical facts to the point that they no longer recognizably represent the event (regardless of the reason why), then everything they wrote about - up to and including the Resurrection - is up for grabs.  And as St. Paul writes, if Jesus Christ was not raised from the dead then our faith is in vain and we are most of all to be pitied.  

To be fair, I don't think David Lose, in this article, is denying the historicity of the Nativity.  I think he's attempting to reach out and make Christianity slightly more palatable and accessible to the average 21st-century skeptic.  But I just don't think anything is gained by this strategy.  Christianity is offensive, for any number of reasons, not the least of which is because it asks us to believe things, that, to put it mildly, boggle the mind.  It asks us to suspend disbelief, and trust the promises.  And how are we to know what those promises are, and that they are real, if they weren't, at some point, in some particular situation, given to us?  Whether it's from the top of a mountain or the back room of the Temple or in a field by night, somewhere along the line it had to actually happen.  Backing down from the authority or reliability of the canon in an attempt to "win over skeptics" is not doing them - or the faith - any favors. 

Thus, I'm frustrated, in part, because I think this particular article could have been written with all the info explaining that Matthew/Luke/John were writing to different audiences, Matthew is taking great pains to set the infancy narrative in the context of Jewish history, Luke is concerned with geopolitical history, and John's prologue focuses on cosmic history.  This of course means that stories and details will be somewhat different, but as Christians who affirm that the Scriptures are inspired by the Holy Spirit, we believe that, all things considered, the birth of Christ happened basically in the fashion in which it's described, and while there are many parts of the story that are "hard to believe", we nevertheless find it harder to believe that God is a liar whose word cannot be trusted.  Therefore, dear skeptic, because we believe that God chose to intervene in history in this way, at that time, in that place, because we believe that Jesus is Immanuel, God-with-us, we also believe that God is just as present at a Slaughter of the Innocents in Newtown, CT, as he was in Bethlehem; we believe that the young Jesus whose parents spirited him away to Egypt and who knows what it is to hide from crazy murderers was lovingly, graciously, really present in closets and bathrooms with young children attempting to escape the crazy murderer of their own day. 

Bottom line: if we are going to do evangelism and apologetics, let us do them well.  To "apologize" in the classic sense, is to defend - as in, "defend the faith", not "defend our inability/lack of desire to believe."  The historic, orthodox, traditional Christian faith tells us, in the words of the Apostles Creed, that Jesus was "conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit, and born of the Virgin Mary."  Let us not shrink from this scandalous nature of our faith, nor water it down - for when we alter the message because we can't bear it, are we not counted among the company of the rich young ruler, or no-longer-disciples of John 6? And that, Christians, is a place I don't want to be...

PS: One final point on the topic of historical criticism - it is so strange to me that Biblical scholars feel totally free to deny the historicity of, say, the Slaughter of the Innocents, an event which is attested to by the Gospel of Matthew, the Gospel of James, and Macrobius, and which has been observed by the Church as a liturgical feast since 485 AD, and yet, also feel free to unequivocally affirm the existence of "Q". (This is not about David Lose in particular - I have no idea about his personal opinion on Q, I'm speaking of scholars in general here.)

Sunday, December 23, 2012

Life Update

It's 9:00 on December 23rd, and I'm bored, so I thought I'd update all 6 of you on life in South Dakota...

Running: Going awesome.  Just finished Week 2 in Couch-to-5K.  I decided to do two of each weekly plan, rather than pushing it super hard.  I'm getting a lot of flak from the Couch-to-5K Facebook page, who are basically all telling just to keep moving, but a) I'm a serious couch potato, and b) running with a prosthesis means that I'm already expending 2x the energy of the "normal" runner...also, since I don't have a "running" leg (the carbon fiber blades you see Oscar Pistorius and his gang run with), that doesn't help the situation at all.  So I'm taking it a little slow, but it's winter in SD, and 18 weeks instead of 9 still barely gets me to the 5K season up here...  Anyways, it feels great.  I've had to hit the treadmill the last couple weeks, since it's been solid ice on the sidewalks around town.  I can figure out how to handle the cold, but I'm not too keen on the prospect of falling flat on my face...  For some reason my shin splints and general knee pain are worse on the treadmill (???) than on the concrete...who's ready for the ice to melt?  Also, this week was Day 1 of TOM, and holy cow did I get nailed...Tuesday was my first day of Week 2 - it was tough, but I made it through. Thursday was my 2nd day of Week 2, and Day 1 of AF, and criminy I thought I was going to die.  I seriously only made it about 75% through the workout - I just had no energy.  Which was strange because was one of those months where I actually felt reasonably decent, as opposed to some months where it's 4:00 pm before I can even think about getting up off the couch...  So, TMI for all y'all, but then I ran again this afternoon after church (had Anytime Fitness all to myself  = awesome), made it through and it felt great.  Again, a tough workout, but a good one.  Yay!

Church: Pretty good, all things considered. We have lots of work too, mainly involving a shift in focus from survival/maintenance mode to growth/outreach mode.  The real issue, I think, is that there's a belief (or a want-to-believe) that this is basically the 1940s, everybody pretty much goes to church, and the way to grow the church is to have a pastor that makes people want to come to this church instead of the church down the street.  Don't get me wrong - I think this is probably the situation that a lot of churches are finding themselves in, and so we're not alone.  But I'm excited about the task ahead, which is preaching the idea that we're not in a Christian, or even a post-Christian era.  I'm starting to think that we're really in a pre-Christian era - people haven't heard the story and rejected it, they've never heard it in the first place.  The way to grow the church is not "be the coolest church around", but preach God's love and mercy and salvation, and have members that are on fire and ready to tell the good news - not that their church is cool, but that Jesus is infinitely amazing and is the only thing that has the power to resurrect the dead - whatever "dead" looks like in your life.  It's a huge mental shift for people who aren't used to thinking along those lines, and it'll come with time, I believe, so I'm not particularly frustrated or concerned - it was a huge mental shift for me the first time I encountered this approach to ministry.  The good news, though, is that the people are awesome.  It's just a really great congregation, that loves, and that has so many gifts, and is just waiting to burst forth, so let's go.

Confirmation: I just love teaching confirmation.  It was my favorite part of internship, it's my favorite part of ordained ministry.  These kids are just fantastic - I love giving them freedom to ask lots of questions.  Sometimes they're on topic, and sometimes not-so-much, but they get me and I get them.  We're having fun, and they seem to be learning.  What I want them to get out of confirmation is not to be perfect-little-Lutherans, but faithful, growing Christians who get it.  We're tossing out the memorize-every-word-of-the-Small-Catechism in favor of memorizing the Creed, the Lord's Prayer, and the Ten Commandments + 3 Bible verses that they choose.  I want them to have a faith that is meaningful to them.  So this year we're doing a little freelance-ish Youth Alpha and the Small Catechism (the whole thing, not just what I'm making them memorize).  This summer at camp, we'll do worship (why do we structure worship the way we do?), and next year they'll do a Bible overview - The Story, maybe, or something similar.   They're just really fantastic kids who are trying to get it, and learning how to think about and talk about God, and it's so much fun to watch!

Life in a Small Town: It's alright.  I like my town - it's actually a really good size - small enough to feel cozy, but big enough to have a grocery store and gym and Wal-Mart and furniture store and several churches and some fast food...The congregation has been pretty welcoming - I went to my grandparents' for Thanksgiving, but I'm having Christmas Eve dinner with a couple from the call committee.  The ladies made me a quilt for my installation today, which is absolutely gorgeous, and I just love to pieces.  But I'd also be lying if I said that I'm not lonely.  There really aren't many people here who are my age, and the ones who are, are all married-with-kids.  Most nights I come home and chill in front of the TV or Netflix.  I just don't have much in the way of friends, which is why I drive to Sioux Falls on a fairly regular basis to see friends from school, or just find random things to do - like Christmas at the Capitol.  Honestly, it's really hard to be single.  I can "offer it up" all I want, or try to see it as part of "suffering for the Kingdom" or whatever, but it still just really stings doing Christmas completely alone.  And it's harder having all my married friends say, "Of course it's sad that you can't see your parents, but you just start your own traditions!"  Well...that's easy to say if you come home from Christmas Eve worship and your wife and kids are there.  Or if the "new tradition" is that you put off opening presents until after Christmas Day worship that Mommy has to preach at.  When your holidays are you, and only you, it's just really, really hard, and I know hardly anyone who understands that.  My "new tradition" is Netflix, Campbell's Chunky Soup, and leftover Christmas cookies - or whatever.  I know a lot of people have it a lot harder than I do - relatives who have died or who live so far away as to be un-travelable-to or such broken relationships that they don't even really want to go home.  And it's true, I'm much better off than that...  But honestly, I'd rather argue about whose family we're going to see for Christmas this year, than be totally alone.  I'm also really struggling with being the pastor and the pastor's wife, but that's for another post...  Pray for me, please, if you're so inclined...

Going to Church: For everyone who has an excuse about why they can't come to church that really boils down to "I just didn't want to put in the effort to get there because it's not that important to me" - one of the ladies in the nursing home here just weaned herself off oxygen so that she could take the senior transit bus to church on Sundays.  I ♥ this. 

On the Other Hand: I'm working on some awesome Christmas cooking/baking projects this year, which I will definitely post pics of when I am done...

Merry Christmas, everyone - remember that the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not, can not, will not overcome it!

Monday, December 10, 2012

Thoughts from an alum

Given the news coming out of Luther Seminary today, I thought I'd offer my reflections.  A couple of things I write here are suggestions of actions I believe would be helpful; some are simply my thoughts, feelings, and reactions.  Other people may disagree with my suggestions, or feel, think, and react differently.  That is fine.  Also, please note: I am a very recent alum.  I am not an HR guru, a finance person, or a higher ed administrator.  I am not a current student, nor a an old-timer with a degree from LNTS.  I'm a first-call pastor at a smallish congregation in a small Midwestern town.  So, here goes.
  • I like Rick Bliese.  From his rosy Santa Claus cheeks to his "dad jeans", by all accounts, he is a good, caring person who loves Jesus and the students, faculty, and staff at Luther.  He has personally been very supportive to me during my time at seminary and in candidacy, and I feel bad that this is what eventually "had" to happen.
  • We need to be in prayer for him and his family - obviously this is a huge, and hugely negative, transition for them, down to the fact that they live in seminary housing and so will need to find a new place to live.
  • The seminary is going to have to find a way to start handling pastoral care for students.  I'm aware Luther just hired a new campus pastor - I know nothing about her except that she's supposedly good.  I hope she is, although she has no institutional memory at this point, and in times of major upheaval such as this, that can be somewhat limiting.  Others are going to have to step up.  Students on campus are literally (yes) dying for someone to care for them.  Administration is generally available to meet one-on-one, or hold a "forum" in the chapel for people to (sort of) air their concerns.  But very few individuals offer one-on-one prayers, or hugs-and-tears.  Students feel trampled-upon at frequent intervals, and the sense, I believe, is that even when policies, decisions, transitions, whatever are "good" or "right", they are handled in a way that communicates that students aren't all that important.  Just like churches that want to grow need to start asking, "If I were a visitor, how would I react to this?", Luther staff/administration needs to start asking, "If I were a student, how would I react to this?"  
  • I feel lied to.  For years, we have heard from President Bliese and others that, "Look, the economy [and the 2009 decisions] have been rough on everybody.  We're struggling, but we're making good decisions, and we're going to be okay.  We're certainly in better shape than the others."  I'm not sure whether Luther is "struggling, and not going to be okay", or whether the other 7 are already 6-feet-under, as it were.
  • This raises huge vocational questions.  What are any of us doing as pastors in the ELCA, receiving graduate education from her seminaries, when they are all barely - barely - keeping their heads above water? What is the long-term survivability of the ELCA?  And if the answer is "not much", then why are we all dragging ourselves through the torture that is candidacy?  
  • It also raises huge vocational reminders: I don't believe (or at least, I haven't heard anything that would make me think) Rick Bliese is guilty of true illegalities: fraud or embezzlement or such.  Apparently he asked forgiveness today for "poor fiscal leadership".  Mismanagement and poor leadership are not illegal, but they are sinful.  As pastors/youth leaders/professors/etc, we need to be aware that our own mismanagement and poor stewardship of what we've been given (not necessarily, or only, money) is just as sinful in the eyes of Our Lord as embezzlement. 
  • I love Luther, and I thoroughly enjoyed my time there.  (Well, most days...)  I love the faculty and staff, the administration, my fellow students.  I learned a lot of really awesome facts and ideas there, and I grew tremendously.  But I have a ton of educational debt, as do most of my fellow students.  The cafeteria is barely open anymore.  Contracts prevent students from purchasing the bookstore. And yet, certain individuals and departments spend ridiculous amounts of seminary funds on high-end coffee and cookies every day of the week.  There are flat-screen TVs in every corner of Northwestern and the OCC.  NW and OCC have both recently undergone major asthetic remodels, while the dorms and apartments battle bedbugs and mold year-round.  I understand that fundraising is not as simple as "write us a check, please, and make it out to 'cash'".  I understand that donors want to earmark their money for things that they might not realize aren't totally the top priority.  But the administration needs to realize that students notice these things, and fair or not, find statements about "concern for rising student debt" to sound rather platitudinous against the backdrop of a flatscreen TV  hanging on the wall in the lunchline. 
  • "Where there is no vision, the people perish."  Look, this isn't about Rick Bliese.  It's not really even about the economy, or about 2009 decisions that torqued off rich old ladies, or spending money on frivolities instead of necessities.  It's about the fact that much of the ELCA and many of her associated enterprises - Luther Seminary among them - has taken its eye off the ball.  We are told that we are to be missional - but missional about what?  A vast cohort of students, faculty, and staff (and therefore pastors, bishops, and synod staff) get more worked up about personal pronouns for God than personal relationships with God.  We are taught that to "want people to come to church on Sunday morning" indicates a lack of understanding that God works outside the church.  We are taught that the Church, and Word & Sacrament, are nice, you know, but so are justice and advocacy.  I spent more time in seminary learning about "family systems" than I did sacramental theology.  No, for realz.  I was assigned more papers about why we shouldn't evangelize, than about how and why we should.  I recognize that this is a huge indictment of the entire system, and I want to be clear that I do not, by any means, include anyone and everyone who is part of the system in this.  There remain many, many good and faithful students, faculty, staff, pastors, bishops, and synod staff.  But donors (and your average layperson trying to decide whether to venture out into the cold to go to church on Sunday, for that matter) don't get excited about advocacy for advocacy's sake, or "training students to reflect a baptismal approach to missionality blah blah blah", or even "buy your own hymnal!"  You know what's exciting?  Jesus.  Jesus is exciting because He forgives sins - our own, and everybody else's.  He is exciting because by the power of the resurrection, he transforms lives in the here and now.  He is exciting because he is constantly creating us anew, he promises us eternal life, he has already begun to set this upside-down world right-side-up again and one day he's going to finish the job, there's gonna be a new heaven and a new earth, where everything is going to be fixed, and how awesome is that going to be? Tell little old ladies that we're training pastors to reach out to the world around us and share the everlasting love of Jesus Christ.  Tell them that with passion, and conviction, like it's the best thing you've ever heard about (because it is - even better than sliced bread) and they'll start writing checks.  Tell them you've got students who are slogging through the economy just like the rest of us, but who are so in love with Jesus that they'd be here no matter what, come hell or high water, bedbugs or mold, learning how to spread the Good News in the 21st century just like Paul did in the 1st, and people will be fired up.   
So there you've got it - just some honest first impressions from the recent grad. Feel free to chime in with your own, or tell me I'm totally wrong.  But something's gotta be done, that's all I know.  And remember to pray for Rick Bliese.  

Thursday, November 29, 2012

New Plan

So, as I learned on internship, to blog is to do.  Writing it down helps hold me accountable - in part because it means I have friends reading this who hold me accountable.

And I've decided that the next thing I want to do is take up running.  I've avoided it for so long because, really?  Who wants to do that?  But I want to build more activity in my life, and I want to live abundantly, and so I'm doing things that scare me, that challenge me, that I have believed for too long I can't do.

After my amputation in the 6th grade, my parents told me that it didn't matter, I could do anything I wanted.  And mostly I did.  I still played outside and ran around with my friends and played softball and biked (that one was hard) and hiked Civil War battlefields.  My freshman year of high school I played first base for the freshman team, but really should have been playing JV.

Then we moved.

At my new school, softball tryouts were rough.  We had an awesome team, like Olympic-trial-quality, practically.  My inability (or, more accurately, never having learned how) to "slide" meant I was never in a million years going to make the team.  Then I thought I'd play rec league - and ended up with a coach who hated being stuck with the lame kid and made me play catcher - which I a) hated, and b) really struggled with because of lack of ankle mobility.  But he was convinced that having me behind the plate was where I could do the least damage, and so there I stayed.  I stuck out the season, but quit playing after that.

Since then, I've slowly and surely downgraded my physical activity.  Sure, I did a 5K on internship, and that was awesome.  And this spring I spent lots of time playing catch with friends or against the Bockman wall.  But on the whole, I'm not much of an exerciser.  I've let my disability judge-y coaches determine what I could do.

But no longer.  I'm going to run.  I want to run.  I'm falling back into my isolated-self, Netflix-and-ice-cream bad habits from internship, and I definitely don't want to go there again.  That was a scary, depressing time, and I'd rather not have it back, especially for an indeterminate amount of time.  So I'm starting slow.  I'm doing Cool Running's Couch to 5K, and slowly building up my fitness level.  I don't so much care about time or distance.  This is about me, and doing something that for too long I've believed I couldn't do.

The other attitude adjustment that is helping me, and taking the pressure off so that I can have fun with movement and activity, is adopting a practice called Health At Every Size.  I'm going to have a lot more to say about this, but right now there's this: My whole life, I've been told that I'm fat and that I need to be dedicating all my efforts to weight loss.  I believed that lie for so long, but then I stumbled upon the fantastic Ragen Chastain.  She was the first person in my life to ever challenge that meme.  The first person to point out that if my cholesterol, blood pressure, and blood glucose all indicate health, then it really shouldn't matter what I weigh.  The first one to say, "right now, your eyes are reading this webpage, your fingers are scrolling the mouse, your heart is beating, your lungs are breathing, etc..., so why do you hate your body so much?"  This summer, I spent two whole days reading her entire blog straight through, and it was like a light switch for me.  It truly has taken all the pressure off to live up to anyone's expectations but my own, and God's.  And God says, "I want to you live abundantly".

Which is a great segue into my final point on taking up running - what's been holding me back from movement has been other people telling me that I can't do it, and the belief that if it doesn't impact the scale, then it was worthless.  But as I wrote last spring about my Holy Spirit class, God has been doing some awesome work to free me from the lies, to remind me that no one can harm me, that God, and not anybody else, says who I am and what I'm worth.  This running thing is part of that, I think.  And it feels so, so good to be free.

So here we go - Couch-to-5K in 2 months.

God is good, indeed. 

Monday, November 19, 2012

"I believe in God...

...but I don't go to church.  I just, I absolutely believe in God, I just don't think you have to go to church to believe in God."

...said the grieving son as we met at the funeral home.  His mother had just passed away in a town several hours from mine, but the family was returning to bury her remains next to those of her late husband.  I had never met the family before that day.

The husband assured that they were Lutheran (apparently getting married in a Lutheran church building qualifies one to be Lutheran these days) and that he and his wife had gotten baptized "after the wedding".  Deceased mom apparently never felt the need to have her children baptized, despite telling them stories about how her mother had read her Bible stories at bedtime.

So, "we believe in God, we're just not really church-going people, you know?  I don't think you have to go to church to believe in God."

I nodded non-judgmentally and pressed the conversation further, "Tell me more about your mom," I said, as I suppressed my eye-rolling.

After a few more minutes with the family, I returned home to work on a memorial service/homily for this woman and her family who "believe in God, but don't need to go to church."  And the more I thought about it, the more frustrated I became.  "If you don't need the church," I thought, "then why do you need me, a representative of the church?  Why don't you just do your own funeral?"

And then I remembered a seminary professor who once told me that the purpose of the church is to teach us how to die.  At the time, I didn't really understand her point, but I think I'm beginning to get it.

Anybody can (I didn't say should, just can) baptize.  No stained-glass windows?  Well, a lot of modern churches these days are terribly ugly anyway - get married in a botanical garden if "beautiful setting" is that important to you.  But death?  That's different.  Even people - families - who don't want a funeral "in church", want a pastor to do the funeral home service or graveside committal.  And I suppose that's something in our spirits that cries out for hope, for promises, for someone to tell them, in the face of "the end", that this isn't really the end. I suppose it's something crying out to hear that, although they've forgotten God, God hasn't forgotten them.  And fortunately, we have a God that does that.


It proves that "I believe in God, but I don't need the church" is a complete lie.  Even if the person saying it isn't aware that it's a lie.  Because as a representative of the church, I can offer up prayers about God's merciful arms.  I can strip any semblance of theological sophistication from a homily.  I can pray the Lord's Prayer on my own, and coach the proper response to intercessory prayers.  I can read very basic, very simple, very common Scripture passages - but in the end, I don't know if this family has any idea at all what I'm talking about.

Because the prayers, the liturgy, the language, the Scriptures, the rites, the rituals all "belong", in a sense, to the Church.  Even if the ancient wording is "translated" out of "King James English" and into something more vernacular, it still presumes a familiarity with the faith, with the promises of Christ, with the images of Scripture.

And so, leaving the Holy Spirit out of it for just a moment (we'll get right back to that), it's hard to know what to say.  Because the Church created the rituals - selected the Scriptures, wrote the prayers - for individuals who belong to the Church, who hold to the hope of eternal life promised by Jesus Christ. And it isn't so much that God isn't - or can't be - merciful to those outside the faith.  And none of us knows for sure the state of anyone's heart at the moment of death.  But to do a service, and preach the essentials of the faith - for a group of people thoroughly uninterested in it every other day of their lives - is a nigh-unto-impossible task.

(And yes, who knows but that the pastor in this situation might be there for such a time as this - perhaps the Holy Spirit will indeed use this time of loss and despair to bring a grieving family to himself.  And we should always hold out such hope, trusting that God works as he sees fit, and in his mysterious timing.  We have a big, big God.  But that's not really my point.)

My point is that, for anyone who says, "I believe in God, but I don't need to go to church," the answer is, "Well, actually, yes, yes you do."  Because the Church teaches us how to die.  She teaches us how to die ourselves, and she teaches us how to handle the death of a loved one.  We have prayers and Scriptures and rituals and rites for just this occasion.  But if you don't ever participate in the life of the Church, they will be meaningless (although not powerless) in the face of The Last Enemy.

"Christ loved the Church, giving himself up for her."

But if you and your loved ones have consciously declared that you don't need the Church, then how is the Church to explain her Lover and his promises in your hour of need?

**And yet we proclaim them all the more - we know not what seed will be planted, and while we give no illusion for false hope, we continually announce the good news of Jesus Christ for all who have ears to hear.

But you need the Church.

Friday, November 9, 2012

Preview of This Week's Sermon

By request...try not to throw tomatoes, please!

RCL texts this week are:
So, welcome to church, we’re here to talk about money! :)  I’m sure if there are any visitors out there today, you’re like, “See, this is why I don’t come to church.”  And you’re probably not alone…the sense I get is that nobody really likes talking about money – ever.  There are like, no conversations relating to money that aren’t at least a little awkward – questions from who is buying dinner to how much your new neighbors paid for their house to a businessman giving his customer the bill…  I don’t know anyone who enjoys opening a credit card bill or pulling up their online banking website or figuring out “how much money” to spend on what people at Christmastime.  I don’t know a single person – whether he is destitute and living on the streets, or the richest person in the world, or anywhere in between – I don’t know a single person for whom money is a stress-free subject.  Do you?  No?  Okay…

So, I apologize for making everyone – myself included – a little anxious and uncomfortable today.  But take heart – we’re all anxious and uncomfortable together, it’s not just you. :)  And here’s the other thing – and why I wanted to tackle this today.  The church, in many places, has gotten into the unfortunate habit of only talking about money when the church is asking for money.  We often get trapped in the cycle of saying, ick, money, awkward, but hey, we need a new roof, or a new Sunday School wing or to pay the electric bill, and besides, there are starving children in Africa, so, time to fork it over – God says be good stewards, after all.  And then we all feel guilty, and nobody wants to say, look, I barely managed to pay rent this month, or hey, maybe if the confirmation class would remember to turn out the lights when they leave or…whatever.  Am I right?  

But that’s a really bad habit to get into – first, because one of the things that we believe as Christians is that God cares about and wants to be a part of every aspect of our lives – money included.  And like it or not, money is a huge part of our life.  Take a minute and think about the last day when you did not in any way interact with money – you didn’t pay any bill, go to the coffee shop or grocery store, give your kids allowance, shop online, buy gas, go to the ATM, transfer funds from savings to checking, cash a paycheck, find a five dollar bill in the pocket of your winter coat, anything.  When was the last time you had a day like that?  And if you can think of a day like that, can you think of a whole week?  

So if God cares about us, and every part of our lives, then surely he cares about money, yes?  And second, as Christians, we believe that God gave us the Bible because it is, at its most basic level, information that He wants us to have.  And the Bible, it turns out, talks about money a lot.  Depending on how you define “talking about money”, I’ve seen figures that say anywhere from 800 to 2300 verses about money – wealth, debt, saving, budgeting, etc.  So if the Bible isn’t shy about talking about money, we in the church shouldn’t be either, right?  Besides, most of us know that when we ignore the subject for too long in our own lives – if we never look at bank statements, for example – that’s when things start to fall apart.

So, have I convinced you?  Can we talk a little bit about money now without being too amped up?  Alright, here we go… 

First thing to be aware of is this: poverty and wealth are not, in and of themselves, good or bad.  Your bank account, on the basis of numbers alone, does not represent a moral value.  Being poor, or being rich, is not inherently better, or inherently worse.  In the Bible, there are stories about rich people and poor people whose prayers are answered, whose faith is held up as an example to others, who give generously to God and other people.  There are also stories about rich people and poor people who turn away from God, and who do not follow or believe in Jesus, and who are miserly and stingy.  So…from the perspective of sheer moral value, the playing field is level.

So, what does God care about, then, in relationship to money?  There are three main things – and I’ll mention the first briefly, and then talk a little more about the last two.  First, God cares about how you get the money you do have – whether you are rich or poor, are you obtaining the money you have through fraud or dishonesty?  If you’re a rich business owner, are you overworking and underpaying your employees, so that you’ll have more money for yourself?  Are you charging customers more than the goods or services you provide are worth?  That’s stealing.  If you’re poor, did the five dollars you have to your name come from pickpocketing someone on the bus?  No matter how much you need the money, it’s still stealing. 

Second and third – and I mention these together because they are very closely linked – what do you believe about the money you have, and what do you do with the money you have?  (And let me warn you here – the answers aren’t as straightforward as you think!)  

When we say the Apostles Creed in worship every Sunday, we start with the first section – “I believe in God the Father almighty, Creator of heaven and earth.”  What does this mean, though?  Martin Luther explains it this way in the Small Catechism: I believe that God has made me and all creatures; that He has given me my body and soul, eyes, ears, and all my limbs, my reason, and all my senses, and still preserves them; in addition thereto, clothing and shoes, meat and drink, house and homestead, spouse and children, fields, cattle, and all my goods; that He provides me richly and daily with all that I need to support this body and life, protects me from all danger, and guards me and preserves me from all evil; and all this out of pure, fatherly, divine goodness and mercy, without any merit or worthiness in me; for all of which I owe it to Him to thank, praise, serve, and obey Him.” 

Yikes, that's a lot.

A little more simply stated is the Lord’s Prayer, when we pray “give us this day our daily bread,” which has a similar meaning as the first part of the Creed: Daily bread is “everything that belongs to the support and wants of the body, such as meat, drink, clothing, shoes, house, homestead, field, cattle, money, goods, a pious spouse, pious children, pious servants, good government, good weather, peace, health, discipline, honor, good friends, faithful neighbors, and the like."  And we know, even as we pray this prayer, that “God gives daily bread, even without our prayer; but we pray in this petition that He would lead us to know it, and to receive our daily bread with thanksgiving.”

So let me ask you a tough question – is this your attitude towards your money and all of the things that money buys?  Do you believe that “I worked for it, I earned it, it’s mine!”  Or do you believe that, yes, you work hard, and you are honest and wise and make good decisions about your money and property, but that, ultimately, what you have comes from God? 

Because what we believe – what we know, our attitude toward – what we have changes how we act.  Think about how you treat dandelions growing in your yard, versus dandelions that your child picked from the yard and brought inside to give you.  

What we believe about what we have changes what we do with what we have.  And the inverse is also true: what we do with what we have reflects what we believe about what we have.  And that’s what this morning’s gospel reading from Mark is getting at.  Sometimes this story is explained as “aaaand, that’s why you should give all your money to church, look at that poor widow, she did it, so should you.”  But this story is not about draining your bank account for the Kingdom.  In fact, if you are down to your last dollar, please don’t put it in the offering plate this morning.  Let us know if that’s your situation, so that the church can help you.  No, this story is more about is “do we believe that all that we have comes from God, and do we trust God to somehow or another provide us with everything that we need?”  

This is Jesus’ point – while it is good that rich people contributed large sums of money, that action says little about their understanding of God, or of their wealth.  They were doing what they knew they were supposed to do, and that is all. (And yes, we should do what we know we’re supposed to do – Jesus isn’t condemning acting out of duty or obligation – notice that he doesn’t say that what the rich people were doing was wrong.)  What he is saying is that the widow, although she gave very little, demonstrated her trust that even what very little she had came from God, and her trust that God would continue to provide for her.  

And that’s what I really want you to take away from this – God can be trusted to provide.  Because this sermon isn’t about trying to guilt you into giving more money to this, that, or the other thing.  The point of this sermon is to remind you that what we do with what we have reflects what we believe about what we have.   

And what I want to promise you – what I desperately hope you believe – is that God can be trusted to provide.  In the Old Testament reading today, the widow trusted what Elijah said – that God would provide, and the flour, and the oil would not run out.  The New Testament reading, from the letter to the Hebrews, says that God can be trusted to provide for our salvation – that’s what Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross was – God’s way of providing for our greatest need – for our sins to be forgiven and thereby reconnected to God.  That’s what Psalm 146 says – blessed are those who have the Lord as their hope, because he does provide – He is the Maker of heaven and earth, the sea, and everything in them— he remains faithful forever.  He upholds the cause of the oppressed and gives food to the hungry.  The Lord sets prisoners free, the Lord gives sight to the blind, the Lord lifts up those who are bowed down, the Lord loves the righteous.  The Lord watches over the foreigner and sustains the fatherless and the widow.  

God can be trusted to provide. 

If you’re sitting here today, and you are in a state of material and financial comfort – if you have enough or more than enough to live on, then you know that God has provided for you.  If, on the other hand, you’re sitting here today, and like the widow in the gospel story are down to your last two coins, then God has also provided for you.  He has brought you to this church today full of people who love Him and who love you and care about you and are ready to help you.

To all of us – no matter our financial situation – God can be trusted to provide.  He has provided for our salvation, he has and will continue to provide for our daily bread.

So there was a sermon about money for you – that wasn’t so bad, now was it?  Just remember: what we do with what we have reflects what we believe about what we have – and what we believe is that God can provide, God does provide, and God will provide – for all of our needs.


Tuesday, September 18, 2012

On Insults and Offense

Wow, it's been a long time since I've written...and I've missed it...and I'm bored now, so here goes. 

This post has been rolling around in my head for several days, and it's time to finally put it to paper...or cyberspace...or whatever...

Right now in the Middle East there's all these protests and attacks on U.S. and other western embassies, which nobody likes, save for the protestors, I'm sure.  (And even then, probably only the extroverts among them.  The introverts are probably all "Ok, we made our point, can we go home now?"  But I digress...)

What, precisely, it is that triggered this all of a sudden is still somewhat a matter of debate, although the fact that it started on September 11 is somewhat of a clue.  However, some are claiming that there is a video (produced by an American) floating around on YouTube that is somehow offensive to Muslims or Mohammed or some such thing, and this is stoking the fires of the so-called "Arab Street".  Well, maybe yes, and maybe no.  Apparently this video has been up for months (I haven't seen it, and I'm not really interested in taking the time to look for it), only recently acquired subtitles, etc, so the argument that it "caused" these protests seems kind of lame.  The most we can probably say is that if it somehow made its way into notice by those inclined to protest, then it doesn't appear to have been, um, helpful...with regard to the overall situation. 

But nevertheless...I saw a clip on the news the other day of a protestor holding a sign that read "Death is better than insulting Allah".  That's what triggered this here post.  Because my first thought, my first feeling, was one of pity.  "What a small, small god, you have", I wanted to say.  I feel so bad that this person feels it is his duty to protect God from insult - that he would rather die than see anyone say anything bad about his God.

Not that it's bad to reverence or respect God.  Not that we want to actually attempt to insult or offend him, or that we ought not feel bad when we or others do.  There's a reason we take care to handle the elements of Holy Communion with care.  There's a reason we pay attention to the language we use to describe God, and the will, actions, and character we ascribe to him.  And not that martyrdom - when it comes to us, not when we intentionally bring it upon ourselves - is a dishonorable death.  By no means!

But "Death is better than insulting Allah" seems to suggest a god who is too weak to handle insults, who must be protected from offense.  And seeing that sign made me so, so glad that I have a God who is big enough to handle insults and offense.  I have a God who has taken on every insult, and every offense.  I have a God who has been insulted and offended, abused and mocked, scorned and spat upon, ignored and harassed, stripped naked, dragged through the streets, and killed.  I have a God who took all of that, and then overtook all of it.  I have a God who used all of that abuse that I - and every other person - have heaped upon him for my benefit.
1 Who has believed our message
    and to whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed?
He grew up before him like a tender shoot,
    and like a root out of dry ground.
He had no beauty or majesty to attract us to him,
    nothing in his appearance that we should desire him.
He was despised and rejected by mankind,
    a man of suffering, and familiar with pain.
Like one from whom people hide their faces
    he was despised, and we held him in low esteem.

Surely he took up our pain
    and bore our suffering,
yet we considered him punished by God,
    stricken by him, and afflicted.
But he was pierced for our transgressions,
    he was crushed for our iniquities;
the punishment that brought us peace was on him,
    and by his wounds we are healed.
We all, like sheep, have gone astray,
    each of us has turned to our own way;
and the Lord has laid on him
    the iniquity of us all.
He was oppressed and afflicted,
    yet he did not open his mouth;
he was led like a lamb to the slaughter,
    and as a sheep before its shearers is silent,
    so he did not open his mouth.
By oppression and judgment he was taken away.
    Yet who of his generation protested?
For he was cut off from the land of the living;
    for the transgression of my people he was punished.
He was assigned a grave with the wicked,
    and with the rich in his death,
though he had done no violence,
    nor was any deceit in his mouth.
10 Yet it was the Lord’s will to crush him and cause him to suffer,
    and though the Lord makes his life an offering for sin,
he will see his offspring and prolong his days,
    and the will of the Lord will prosper in his hand.
11 After he has suffered,
    he will see the light of life and be satisfied;
by his knowledge my righteous servant will justify many,
    and he will bear their iniquities.
12 Therefore I will give him a portion among the great,
    and he will divide the spoils with the strong,
because he poured out his life unto death,
    and was numbered with the transgressors.
For he bore the sin of many,
    and made intercession for the transgressors.  ~ Isaiah 53:1-12
I am just so glad, so thankful, that I have a God who takes all the insults and offense and scorn the world has to offer, and instead of getting angry, simply says, "Yep, give it to me.  I'll take it, because I'm big enough to handle it.  In fact, I'm big enough to transform it.  I can take everything, up to and including death itself and turn it into life."

The picture I have of this in my head is of the big strong daddy willingly taking a pummeling by the tiny fists of an angry child, a child who is sad and mad and tired and upset and frustrated, a child who has a dad loving enough to stand there and take it until the kid burns himself out and collapses in tears into his daddy's arms. 

I have a God who doesn't need me to defend his honor with shouting and violence - he only needs me to tell the world how much he loves everyone. And how much he loves us is this: that "God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses [our insults and offenses and abuses against him and against other people], made us alive together with Christ - by grace you have been saved."  (Ephesians 2:4-5)

And that's something worth shouting about. 

Friday, August 3, 2012

Isaiah 49:8

Thus says the Lord:
     "In a time of favor, I have answered you..."

I trust you, God, but sometimes I wonder - what on earth are you up to? 

Expectation meets hope and longing finds joy...

Tonight is a "time of favor," God, however long that time may be, I am grateful.  You are God.  You're crazy sometimes, and I'm tempted to think, sometimes, that I am more organized, or a better long-range planner than you, but tonight I am simply blessed that you are God, my God, and you have answered me, in whatever this time of favor is.