Friday, October 5, 2018

Improper Amputations

"[Jesus said,] 'If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life maimed than to have two hands and to go to hell, to the unquenchable fire'" (Mark 9:43).

Last Sunday, the assigned gospel lesson in the Revised Common Lectionary included this happy line along with orders to remove your feet and eyes if they cause you to sin, as well. Jesus is commanding his followers to remove sources of sin and evil in their lives, but as far as I know, no one has ever taken this passage literally and maimed themselves in the name of holiness. (Which is good!) 

But the more I thought about this passage, the more I think we carry that out in ways that may not be literal, but are still destructive and unhealthy. 

I was thinking about it while watching the news of our politicians belittling each other or calling each other unAmerican, hateful, or even evil. 

I was thinking about it in Bible study where people shared stories of being rejected or shamed by someone in the Church sometime in their past. 

I was thinking about it in conversations where people talk about unfriending loved ones or removing themselves from from a social circle because of a disagreement about politics or religion.

And I was thinking that far too often (especially in this divided age of history), we see the sources of sin and evil in our lives as other people. Jesus warns about the evils within ourselves, but instead, we attempt to amputate the people we think are problems. 

This is the very problem Jesus is addressing in this passage, which begins with his disciples saying, "There was someone healing in your name, but he wasn't one of us, so we told him to get lost." That person was different. He was a problem. We had to get rid of him. 

But Jesus says, "No." And then he talks about hands and feet and eyes as a way of saying, "Don't look for evil in other people without seeing it in yourself, too." Whenever we silence, ignore, cast off, or dehumanize others because of differences, we fail to be faithful to Jesus. Whenever we see people as bad instead of their actions or words, we are likely ignoring the faults within ourselves. 

Sadly, history is filled with examples of people attempting to cut off those they saw as a problem by silencing, alienating, or even killing them. We've seen it done to monarchies and peasants, Jews and Muslims, Catholics and Protestants, foreigners and minorities, political radicals and moderates, leftists and right wingers, communists and capitalists, and on and on... All of these efforts have involved hatred or violence and are rarely remembered as high points in human story. 

In this era of division, Jesus' words here and to love my enemies challenge me that we can disagree but not dehumanize, we can be different but not belittle.

And if we seek to reduce evil in the world, we may need to start by removing our hatred, our prejudice, and our own pointing fingers. 

From the Gray,
Pastor Ari

“Scars are souvenirs you never lose.” -Goo Goo Dolls, “Name”

Thursday, August 16, 2018

A Response to Clergy Abuse in Pennsyvania

Photo: Keith Kelly via flikr
This week, a major report was published in Pennsylvania detailing how 301 priests sexually abused at least 1000 victims in every diocese in the state. Even more damning that previous similar reports, this one detailed how priests, bishops, and other church leaders conspired to commit and cover up these crimes over decades.

There is so much about this scandal that makes me angry.

I'm angry that anyone would sexually abuse children. It's beyond awful and even worse that they knowingly covered up the crimes. It's terrible to think about the number of lives that have been forever altered by this abuse.

I'm angry that the actions of these priests besmirch my profession and the Church I love. I'm angry that MY integrity is suspect because I wear the same uniform as them. (Though these offenses are the least of the crimes they've committed.)

I'm especially angry that it seems every level of leadership so radically failed to be the Church, the Body of Christ for the sake of the world. Christians are called to be light to the world, to care for the vulnerable and serve the needy, yet church leaders took advantage of the vulnerable, served their own desires, and worked to keep it all in the dark. For years and years. Shame on them.

I'm angry that after almost twenty years of clergy abuse being reported, Roman Catholic leaders still struggle to make a sincere apology and have an earnest investigation of their records to punish and defrock anyone who committed these crimes or covered them up. Truth and justice are core to Christian principles and yet church spokespeople often seem more concerned with protecting their reputation and money. (It was reported this week that some church leaders fought to prevent this report from going public over fears it would lead to bankruptcies. Again: shame.)

And this is not an anti-Catholic rant; I have deep love and admiration for many Roman Catholic people and institutions and would use these same words were it my own denomination. My love for my Roman Catholic sisters and brothers is partly why I'm so furious. How could something with so much good be used to defend and hide evil for so long?

As a Lutheran, I believe we are "simultaneous saint and sinner," imperfect people in need of God's grace. I believe there is forgiveness for our failures, but we must confess our brokenness, bring the sin into the light to be transformed. The church should be leading the world in how to name sin, practice justice, and seek restoration, but here it followed the world's lead in practicing selfishness, abuse of power, and worship of money.

Every Christian institution should look hard at this and pledge that we will do better. We seek to be righteous, but when we fail, we must confess our sin, seek justice, and face consequences when necessary. We must side with and support victims, even when it may cost us.

As a Christian, I also believe in resurrection and that God can bring new life out of terrible events. I pray that can happen here, but before there can be resurrection, we need to make sure this past is dead and buried.

From the Gray,

Pastor Ari

“The past is gone, but something might be found to take its place.” -Gin Blossoms, “Hey Jealousy"

Wednesday, June 20, 2018

If Only I Had... God's Perspective

A few weeks ago, the alternative lesson from the Old Testament was from 1 Samuel 8. It's one of those stories I find funny and heart breaking at the same time.

In the story, the Israelites come to the prophet Samuel, who is the prophet of Israel at the time. They come to Samuel with a simple request: "We want a king."

Up to this point, there have been no kings or queens in Israel. A series of temporary leaders called Judges have been providing order since they left Egypt. This was because the LORD God was the king of Israel and the leaders had resisted a royal leader that would undermine God's place at the head of the nation.

Now that system of judges (as with any government) had not been perfect and especially in the recent past, the leaders had not been great. But asking for a king from Samuel was, in essence, a rejection of God.

The comedy in the story comes out when Samuel tries to talk them out of this idea. "Don't you know what a king will do?" he asks. "A king will tax you, take your sons to die in the army, take your daughters to serve in his palaces, take the best of your wealth for himself and not guarantee your well being." And the people more or less respond, "Yep, that's what we're looking for."

Reluctantly, Samuel agrees, Saul is anointed king, and most of what Samuel warned about comes true in the coming years. But it's that moment of decision that I always find interesting. Samuel is blatantly honest about what can happen if they go this way and how it won't work out the way they expect, but they don't care. They blind themselves to it and want it anyway.

They've convinced themselves that there's this one thing out there and if only they can get it, then everything will be fine.

How often do I get stuck thinking that if I just own this gadget, or have this much money, or finish this one goal, then everything will be fine and my problems will be gone? Meanwhile, the prophets are trying to warn me, "It won't be as good as you think and it won't fix all your problems." And they're always right.

The point of this story as well as the commandment against idols and Jesus' many warnings about wealth is basically this: anything, put to it's proper use in line with God's rule can be good and life giving, but when they are elevated above God as the thing we put our ultimate trust in... Well, we're bound to be let down.

We can get caught up thinking "If only..." but the truth I struggle to live into is that even IF I obtain that thing God is God and I am not and God has ordered the universe to work best in the rhythm of generosity, compassion, mercy, and love, not my desires.

God help me to keep my priorities in order.

From the Gray,
Pastor Ari

“I think I'm ready to admit that I've spent all my resistance on someone I can't resist.” -The Waiting, "Hands in the Air"

Tuesday, June 12, 2018

Let's End Suicide

(Note: I first wrote this on my facebook page.)

I've never watched Anthony Bourdain.

Until last week, I'd never heard of Kate Spade.

But I learned I have at least one thing in common with them. I have known the dark night of the soul where voices in my head have been speaking the mantra that I'm a failure and my life isn't worth continuing. There have been times my depression and anxiety were so overwhelming that stepping into nothingness has sounded like a relief. 

I thank God that in those moments I heard another voice. I thank God that I found a therapist, a psychiatrist, and a medication that have stabilized my condition so that I'm fine 99% of the time and no longer have suicidal thoughts. And today I grieve with God that Anthony and Kate and roughly 100 Americans per day did not.

Since I found a way to manage my mental health condition, I've made one of my life's goals to #endthestigma around mental health issues so that more people might find the help they need and those who don't have mental health issues can better ally with loved ones who do.

As this article suggests, the first step is recognizing this is a disease. Just as a diabetic can't will their body to create insulin or a cancer patient can't focus on the positive to heal their cancer, I cannot will my brain into balancing my serotonin levels. 

When I get the flu, people don't tell me to "get over it." They wisely suggest I sleep, see a doctor, drink fluids, etc.  When I have an episode of depression or anxiety, I have a "mental flu" and I need to care for the "infection" just as I would the flu. 

So, if you want to help someone who lives with a mental health issue, here's what I find helpful: 
-Listen without judging or trying to fix things. Unless you're a doctor, you can't fix cancer and you can't fix depression, so don't try. Just listen, empathize, and assure the person you love that you care and they aren't alone. Words like, "That sounds really tough" can feel inadequate, but go a long way to building a healthy connection.
-Tell the person it's okay to care for themselves. It isn't selfish to go to the ER when you have a broken arm and it isn't selfish to treat a mental health episode...but it sure feels that way when you're having one. Letting someone know the world won't fall apart and they will still be loved if they take time to care for themselves is important.
-Ask for guidance in helping. What you think may be helpful might not be to someone in crisis, so ask what is and don't minimize it if it seems small. Something like emptying the dishwasher for me can be a release valve that makes bigger things manageable.
-Check in regularly. When appropriate for the individual relationship, ask how they're doing and don't be afraid to name the disease. I have one friend who's very good at asking, "How's your anxiety been doing?" It helps because I know he cares and it makes it feel normal.

If you live with depression, anxiety, bi-polar, or other mental health issues, YOU ARE NOT ALONE and YOU HAVE NOTHING TO BE ASHAMED OF. There are millions of us who live with, struggle with, and manage a mental health issue. If you don't already, please take steps to care for yourself. 

That may include a therapist or a medication and there's no shame or weakness it that. 

It should definitely include some loving friends who know your struggle and can support you in ways that are helpful to you. I'm happy to be one of them.

And if you ever find yourself listening to the voices that say life isn't worth continuing, then find another voice. Remember MY voice telling you this: "That other voice is lying to you!" If you are religious, remember God's voice saying, "You are my beloved child. I want to create life where things seem dead." Find a voice on the National Suicide Hotline at 800-273-8255. But find help. Now. 

Your life matters to me and to more people than you realize.

From the Gray,
Pastor Ari

“Even if we can’t find heaven, I’ll walk through hell with you.” -Rachel Platten, “Stand By You”

Thursday, May 17, 2018

Flour Power

At my church, children who don't take communion yet get a blessing when they come to the table with their family. Usually I rest my hand on their head as I bless them and trace a cross on their forehead to remind them of their baptism.

As I do, there is often an unintended side effect.

That's because we also use homemade bread for communion at my church (yum!) and it has flour on it from the kneading process. So when I bless the children, they end up with a dusting of flour that my hand has picked up from the bread. They leave the table with a visible residue of God's blessing for them in their hair.

It helps me to remember that what we hold on to will leave a mark on things we touch. What am I holding on to and what kind of residue am I leaving behind me? Are my hands dirty with grime or with grace?

I hope and pray that my words and actions dust the world with blessings and I hope yours do, too.

From the Gray,
Pastor Ari

“I want the markings made on my skin to mean something to me again.” -twenty one pilots, “Doubt”

Thursday, May 10, 2018

Farming, Faith, Persistence, and Hope

"[Jesus] also said, ‘The kingdom of God is as if someone would scatter seed on the ground, and would sleep and rise night and day, and the seed would sprout and grow, he does not know how.'" -Mark 4:26-27

“We can do no great things — only small things with great love.” -Mother Teresa

I've been thinking a lot recently about what it means to be a Christian in our daily lives. How do we live in a chaotic world where so much seems to be out of our control?

So I was struck by the passage from Mark when I read it recently. Though the farmer scatters seed and tends the earth, there is still a mystery to growth. But she trusts that if she waters and cares for the field, there will be growth. There is no one grand gesture that creates growth, but sustained, patient, repeated attention to the seeds.

Jesus says that God's kingdom of grace and love acts in the same way. There is a mystery to the actions of God in this world that we cannot fully understand; we can simply trust that adding our labor will assist in the growth of new life. 

We are like farmers, tending the earth, sowing the seed, but not knowing exactly how it works, nor knowing which seeds will sprout and grow, but trusting that if we continue to seed the world with justice, tend the earth with love, and water it with generosity, a harvest of grace will come forth. 

Patience and persistence in small acts of love may not be sexy or exciting, but they are the tools of God's conquest.

From the Gray,
Pastor Ari

“Faith and guts to guide you; wander ‘til you find you.” -Jars of Clay, “Inland”

Friday, May 4, 2018

Holy Vocabulary: What is Love?

In the season of Easter, we have a weekly lesson from the letter of 1 John, a letter often known for talking about love and community. It's because of these themes that I've decided to preach on these texts for the season of Easter, but as I'm re-reading this book one of the ideas I can't get out of my head is how difficult it is to talk about love. Why? Because it comes with a lot of baggage.

Love is a word we throw around a lot in English. We use it to talk about family members and potato chips, about top 40 music and the character of God. We usually use it to mean something like "affection" or "emotional attraction" or "I agree and think this is similar to me."

If that's how we understand the word "love," it's no wonder that we stop short when Jesus says to "love your enemies" (Matt. 5:44; Luke 6:27). How can feel affection for a murderer or approve of a rapist?

But 1 John lays out how that idea of love is one dimensional and shallow. In 3:16, the author says, "We know love by this, that [Jesus] laid down his life for us, and we ought to lay down our lives for each other." In other words, love isn't just feeling good about something; we recognize it in sacrifice, in working to make someone else the best version of themselves.

Because I love my children, I don't stand by and approve of them hitting another kid; I step in and stop them, I teach them to apologize and respect others. Even if they get angry with me or the punishment or correction causes me trouble or pain. Because I love them, I want them to be better people.

So how do we love a murderer? By stopping them and providing resources for their hearts to change so they can attempt to make recompense. By working for a world that has less root causes of violence and hatred, such as bullying, prejudice, unending poverty, or untreated mental and physical health issues. By praying and working for them to become the best version of themselves, the version of themselves God has created them to be.

And in learning to love others into the best version of themselves, hopefully I am being changed into the best version of myself because God is patiently giving Godself to me for that purpose.

If we're going to understand the love God has given us and calls us to practice, we need to get past the images of Hollywood and Hallmark. Love isn't just positive emotions and giving chocolates, it's giving our lives for others as God did for us.

From the Gray,
Pastor Ari

"Sometimes love has to drive a nail into its own hand." -Chris Rice, "Sometimes Love"