Thursday, November 21, 2019

The World Needs Your Story

(Note: This post first appeared in my church's newsletter for December 2019.)

“The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.” -John 1:5

When I was young, I once got it in my head to make a list of all the “heroes” of the Bible who had been “perfect” so that I could study them more closely. I was disappointed to realize how hard this was. Abraham and Sarah were impatient and lied. Moses lost his temper. David? Adultery and murder. Peter? Denial. Paul? Murder again. Adam and Eve?

Over time, my disappointment transformed as I made two realizations. First was that the point is not for me to be perfect, but trust that God’s love is perfect. God’s grace shines in the darkness not because of human perfection, but because of godly persistence. God has always used imperfect people to do the things of heaven here on earth. God always seems to show up in the wrong place: in the wilderness, among the sinners, in a manger, and, above all, at the cross. 

Second, that meant that my imperfect life could be used by God, too. I didn’t need to be perfect, but faithful; not flawless, but following. The good news of the Gospel is about a god who comes to heal, help, and correct the broken people and places of this world. God takes flesh not only in Jesus at Bethlehem, but in us, too.

Our job as Christians isn’t to never make mistakes, but to allow the grace of God to heal us and then share how that healing matters with others. That is the real story of the heroes of the Bible. God reshaped their lives and the effects are an inspiration to us today. In the same way, your life, your story is important for others. 

We may not think of ourselves as heroes of faith or important people in the world, but your story of faith -- your victories and joys and doubts and struggles, and where God is in the midst of them -- are exactly the good news someone needs to hear. This Advent and Christmas, remember that God is with us not just in the Jesus in the manger, but in the Jesus who lives in you. May God use you to light the darkness.

From the Gray,
Pastor Ari

“Here in my head full of shame, you pick me up and say I look like you.” -Jars of Clay, “Sing”

Thursday, November 7, 2019

The Thing You Don't Know You're Building

Photo by Victória Kubiaki on Unsplash
"For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also." -Matthew 6:21

“You become like what you worship.” -N.T. Wright, Paul and the Faithfulness of God

"There are two wolves fighting inside all of us. The first one is evil, the second one is good... Which wolf will win? The one you feed." -Unknown (attributed to Native American teaching)

"We are forms of all the things that we love. Do you know what you are?" -Jars of Clay, "Good Monsters"

Tuesday, October 29, 2019

Finding Love in Chernobyl

This summer I binged my way through the HBO miniseries "Chernobyl," a dramatization of the nuclear plant disaster in 1986 and its aftermath.

I loved it.

There are themes and ideas in "Chernobyl" that could fill a book or a year's worth of blogs. It is a condemnation of lies.  It is a warning against fear of imperfection. It is also a celebration of the ordinary heroes of history, namely the thousands of citizens and soldiers who responded to the disaster and suffered as a result.

In the second episode, there is a scene of some of these ordinary heroes that I found profoundly moving. After the initial explosion, the leaders gather a group of plant workers and ask for three volunteers for a special task. In return they will get a permanent increase in pay and other benefits. The workers, smelling baloney, refuse to volunteer until they know what is actually happening.

After some silence, the leaders tell the truth: the reactor is still melting down and when it falls into the flooded basement, it will cause an explosion that will likely kill or contaminate millions of people. The only solution is to go into the basement and manually open the drainage pipes. The basement is so filled with radiation that anyone who enters it will die within a couple years. There's even a chance they will die in the basement.

They will likely never enjoy their additional benefits. They will not be remembered by history. They will not be thanked by the millions who never knew their lives were in danger. Their only real reward is to know that they will give their lives in order to save millions more.

Slowly, three men stand up and volunteer. They are named in the show, but I don't know if they are real names or they were made up to fill in a blank space in the pages of history. The episode ends with them walking into the dark basement to meet their fate.

Years ago, Veggie Tales in the movie "Jonah" defined compassion as "you see someone needs help and you want to help them." In John's gospel, Jesus says, "No one has greater love than this: that one lay one's life down for a friend" (John 15:13). In these few heroes forgotten to history, I saw that love and compassion personified. They voluntarily shortened their lives in order to save millions of people that didn't even know they were in danger.

Not all heroes are famous and not all love is romantic. Sometimes it is just doing what needs to be done. Sometimes God's grace can be seen in an HBO disaster movie.

From the Gray,
Pastor Ari

“You're a danger, like love and radiation.” -All Star United, “Love and Radiation”

Friday, October 25, 2019

You Can’t Be Negative When Saying, “Thank You”

(Note: This was first written for my church newsletter in November 2019.)

“Rejoice always, pray continually, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.” -1 Thessalonians 5:16-18 (emphasis mine)

As I mentioned in my newsletter column last month, I’ve been spending a lot of time talking with people and thinking about how to counteract the negativity, fear, and division we are seeing in our world today. I’ve also been looking for simple “life hacks,” or easy daily practices, to help in concrete ways. If the opposite of faith is fear, then overcoming this negativity is a spiritual exercise.

As we head into the month of November, the most celebrated holiday of this month can be one of those life hacks: thanksgiving. 

A quote that has always stuck with me comes from The Apology of Justin Martyr, in which Justin, one of the earliest church leaders, writes, “Christians are people who are always giving thanks.” When we are giving thanks, it is nearly impossible to be afraid or angry. When we are grateful, it almost automatically turns our eyes to God who is the source of every good thing. 

I know many people in recent years who have started a thankfulness journal in November, writing down or sharing a different thing every day for which they are thankful. By doing this on a regular basis, we actually train our brains to look for good things around us and focus less on negative things. (There’s even brain science to back this up, but I don’t have a reference for you.)

So I’m planning to do the same this year, sharing every day something for which I’m grateful and invite you to join me. I’ll be sharing on facebook, where you can share with me, or tell me in person whenever I may see you. (For an added challenge, join me in taking no freebies. Whatever the first five things that come to mind right now are can’t be used.)

May thanksgiving become a natural way of life for us all and a tool for us to Share the Love of Jesus Christ with All People. And as we do, know that I give thanks for you, my siblings in Christ, for your faith and witness. 

In God’s Amazing Grace,
Pastor Ari

P.S. I found a great blog with Biblical memes about gratitude you can share or use for inspiration. You can find it here.

"And I am thankful that I'm incapable of doing any good on my own." -Caedmon's Call, "Thankful"

Thursday, August 8, 2019

The Cry of the Prophet: A Response to the El Paso and Dayton Shootings

"O Lord, how long shall I cry for help, and you will not listen? Or cry to you 'Violence!' and you will not save? Why do you make me see wrongdoing and look at trouble? Destruction and violence are before me; strife and contention arise. So the law becomes slack and justice never prevails." -Habakkuk 1:2-4a

"Lament" by Jeffery.
This past weekend, our nation was once again rocked with news of mass shootings. This time they were only 13 hours apart in El Paso, Texas and Dayton, Ohio. As of this writing, there are 31 people dead and 50 injured, not counting the people killed and injured a week before at a Walmart in Mississippi or a festival in Gilroy, California or the dozens of others this year alone.

Mass shootings are a crime that always grab my attention, partly because one of the first took place a few miles from my home in Oregon. And whenever there is a national tragedy, I feel compelled to offer a pastoral word in sermon or letter to my congregation.

I've done this after the Sikh temple shooting in Oak Creek, WI...

and the Newtown shooting...

and the Boston bombing...

and the Charleston shooting...

and the Ferguson protests...

and the Charlottesville violence...

and... and...

This week, however, I found that I didn't know what to say. I've spent the past four days staring at my screen at a loss for words.

How many times can you say, "God weeps with us" and "Jesus is making the world better" before they just feel hollow and cliché?

How can I proclaim hope when it seems that nothing ever changes?

It was in the midst of this that I stumbled upon Habakkuk and found the words I needed. Habakkuk is one of the Minor Prophets in the Hebrew Scriptures (or Old Testament) and I mean minor. It is about a page and half long in most Bibles and it is not a favorite for pastors to preach or teach because it is a lament. But that is why it is perfect for me this week.

Habakkuk is a prophet crying out to God about how violent and corrupt and terrible the world is. "Destruction and violence are before me... and justice never prevails," he says in his opening words. He's basically writing a letter to God to say, "Dude! What the hell?"

It is a type of writing that is actually pretty common in the Bible. Lamentations, Ecclesiastes, portions of the prophets and MANY of the Psalms (e.g. Psalms 13 and 130) have a similar theme and they hold a great lesson for us: we can be honest and frank with God. Sometimes we find the strength to say or do the right thing, but sometimes we just need to scream or cry or fall apart and God knows that.

So if we are angry about the state of the world, God can take it; if we need to cry over senseless deaths, God will listen; if we can't figure out how to move forward because we feel lost, God is patient; if we can't do or offer anything positive because we just feel empty and overwhelmed, God understands.

Habakkuk eventually hears from God ends his letter with a word of hope: "Though the fig tree does not blossom, and no fruit is on the vines...yet I will rejoice in the Lord; I will exult in the God of my salvation" (3:17-18).

Hopefully tomorrow I will rejoice in the Lord, too, but today I'm angry and sad. And that's okay because it puts me in the company of God's saints through the ages.

Come quickly, Lord.

Standing in the Gray,

Pastor Ari

“But you don't get thick skin without being burnt.” -twentyone pilots, “The Hype"

(Even pastors need to hear the Gospel from others. Thank you to those who spoke to me this week.)

Tuesday, July 23, 2019

The Holiest Thing We'll Ever See

The Christian author C.S. Lewis once wrote: “Next to the Blessed Sacrament itself, your neighbor is the holiest object presented to your senses.” 

By Blessed Sacrament, Lewis meant the bread and wine of communion, and it's probably not surprising he would consider that the holiest thing we will ever see. What may be surprising is the second part of that statement; that after communion, the holiest thing we'll ever see or touch is another human being.

That's right: sloppy, dirty, imperfect human beings are holy. Your co-worker who can't pick up after herself is holy. That whiny child in the store is holy. The jerk who just cut you off in traffic and almost caused an accident is holy.

Humans are holy because we're created in God's image, because Jesus considered us precious enough to live and die for our benefit, because, like the bread and wine of communion, God's presence can somehow become real in us.

We humans do not always live up to that holiness or show it on the outside. When I say "Jesus loves you" to that jerk in traffic it's usually sarcastic instead of a statement of fact, but I have found that when I can take Lewis's words seriously, it makes a difference in how I treat people. When I think, "God loves this person" I can find a little more patience, a little more understanding, and find myself a little less frustrated or angry.

If we can more frequently find the faith to believe that one of the holiest things we'll ever be close to another human being, perhaps we can see the Holy Spirit breathe a little more peace into this world. And that would be blessed indeed.

Standing in the Gray,
Pastor Ari

“You're everywhere to me; when I catch my breath, it's you I breathe.” -Michelle Branch, "Everywhere"

Tuesday, July 16, 2019

A Question That Can Help Us Live Together

I was reading a book about communication this spring that included a chapter that encouraged being direct about our desires and needs. (This is not always an easy thing for Midwesterners or Lutherans, since both groups have a tendency to avoid conflict, but that's a topic for another blog post.)

In the midst of proposing being direct, the book raised an inevitable question: How can be we direct and assertive with about being rude or bullying? One of the suggestions that was offered struck me as very simple and profound. Before speaking, ask yourself one question:

Is this vital or preference?

In other words, is this something that is necessary to address because it may cause harm? Or is it something that's really about my personal preference? If it's the second option, it's probably better to let it go or at least start the conversation with "This may not be important, but I'd prefer..."

Is this vital or preference?

As I think about it, there are times I can get upset when the reason is "I don't like this" instead of "this is a problem." But I think it can be easy to confuse the two because so many things in life are tuned to my preferences. When I can program my car to know exactly where to put my seat when I climb in and I can get almost anything I want delivered to my house in 24 hours, it's hard to remember that what I want isn't the most important thing all the time.  But if we all live thinking that way, we're going to create friction...probably a lot.

Is this vital or preference?

In Lutheranism, we have a word for this. Martin Luther referred to things that were preference as "adiaphora." Literally Latin for "undifferentiated things," adiaphora basically means, "things that aren't life or death issues." In church, that God loves us and transformed the world in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ is vital; whether we serve donuts or danish during coffee hour is adiaphora. Knowing the difference is important to making decisions and keeping the peace.

It's a small thing, but asking "Is this vital or preference?" could be a tool for smoothing relationships, avoiding unnecessary conflict, and learning how to live together. And making the world healthier, happier, and safer for everyone IS vital.

Standing in the Gray,
Pastor Ari

“Hit the wall, have to crawl; even if we lose it all, we're ok.” -The Rescues, “We’re OK”