Thursday, April 2, 2020

So... How's it going?

Change is stressful.

Learning new skills is stressful.

Feeling like you're not in control of things is stressful.

Bad news is stressful.

Fear is stressful.

Any of these things, on their own, is often enough to make someone cranky, anxious, or overwhelmed. Right now, because of the new coronavirus, we are all experiencing most or all of them at the same time and together.

Chances are, you're stressed. I am too.

And that's okay. That's a normal reaction to the time we are in.

Since we are all stressed and not operating at our best: Be kind with yourself and others. Own your stress. Take a break when you need it. Let small things go as much as possible. Scream into a pillow. Take a nap. Take a walk. Again, be kind with yourself and others.

I know I'm not operating at my best, but I'm trying to not let it be an excuse to be at my worst. This won't last forever.

From the Gray,
Pastor Ari

“We’d gain a lot of ground, ‘cause we’d both give a little.” -Diamond Rio, “Meet in the Middle”

Wednesday, March 18, 2020

Yes, Virginia, God Really Loves the World

A member of my congregation texted me this week with a "HELP!!!" and a question from their child: "Is God punishing the world with COVID-19? Will God make me sick if I'm bad?" 

I know some of us may be getting questions like that (or even wondering ourselves). Below is the response I shared in case it is helpful for any other children of God out there. (The name has been changed for anonymity.)

"No, Virginia, God is not punishing the world with COVID-19. God created a complex and amazing world. Just as we don't always do what God hopes for us, the rest of creation doesn't always do what God hopes either. Sometimes it's a disease and sometimes it may be a natural disaster.

"These times are scary, especially because they feel so much bigger than us. But God ALWAYS loves us and wants what is best for us. When we are scared, we can do something. We can help God in doing good and making things better.

"We can pray. We can talk to people to help them feel better. We can make cards or letters and send them to people. We can see if we can donate something to help people. We can help the helpers so they can do their jobs well. We can find small things to do to help parents.

"God tells us that love changes the world. When times are scary, we need that love as much as ever. Keep loving and don't be afraid. God loves you."

From the Gray,
Pastor Ari

“There’s still times I fall apart and all I am left with is ‘why’s, but then your love falls like a heavy rain and my heavy heart doesn't feel the pain.” -Philip LaRue, “Chasing the Daylight”

Sunday, March 15, 2020

How to Be Church Without Going to Church (Pastoral Letter for Coronavirus)

(Note: This is adapted from the email I sent to my congregation announcing our decision to cancel worship.)

On Friday evening, my church decided that we will cancel all church events, including worship, for two weeks in response to the coronavirus. We hope to reopen on March 29, but that will depend on what happens in those two weeks.

I slept in my office during a Saturday blizzard once to ensure I wouldn't have to cancel worship, so know that canceling worship is not something I take lightly. My natural inclination is to let my Scandinavian stubbornness say, "We're not going to let a virus tell us what to do." But stubbornness and strength are not the same as wisdom. When we look at how this virus has (or has not) spread in other areas around the world, it is clear that limiting social gatherings has an impact in slowing the spread and reducing stress on hospitals. I don't want our church to be a place that increases infections. That is not "Sharing the Love of Jesus Christ with All People," as our mission states.

BUT, not meeting in person does not mean we don't have church. Church is not a building. You are the Church, dear siblings, and this is a time the world needs us more than ever. We can still "Share the Love of Jesus Christ with All People." We just need to be a little creative.

So, what are we doing?
  • I will be using our facebook page ( to share resources and ideas and avoid flooding our email boxes. (If anyone has a good sharing app, please let me know.)
  • We will be creating a plan to have worship available by streaming or online for Sunday morning. Details will be on our facebook page.
  • We will be putting together a plan for caring for our homebound and vulnerable members. If you are interested in being part of a calling team, let me know. If you or someone you know needs pastoral care, please let me know. Don't assume someone else has told me.
  • Isolation can be very hard, and the community of support we have at MLC is one of the most valued things people name. I encourage you to call or text someone from church once a day. We can maintain friendships and care for one another this way. If you can, please reach out to members you haven't seen in a while.
  • Do the same for friends and neighbors outside MLC. "You are the light of the world" -Matt. 5:14
  • We are putting together a system to care for physical needs of people, too. If you depend on food banks for food or other items, please email me and we'll connect you with someone to arrange delivery. Your request will be held in confidence by our small team.
  • If you are someone whose mental health or addiction suffers from isolation, please find someone to do regular wellness checks on you. Remember, you are loved and not alone.
  • I'm planning to have regular conversations in our facebook group so we can continue to learn and grow together. If you have ideas for distance activities we can do, please let me know.

We have not experienced a pandemic like this in our lifetimes. We know it is serious, but not how disruptive it will ultimately be. Hopefully we will look back and say it was not as bad as we feared. 

Whatever happens, the Gospel message of Jesus Christ is as true now as always. God promises new life and resurrection, God meets us in our places of fear and death, and God's grace is greater and more permanent than any evil in this world.

We may not be going to church for a few weeks, but we can still BE the church. You are the living stones of God's temple (1 Peter 2:5). Do not be afraid, dear Church, God is with you.

From the Gray,
Pastor Ari

“I can’t change what can’t be changed, but I’m still gonna try.” -Garrison Starr, “To Garrison, On Her 29th Birthday”

Friday, February 28, 2020

Self Improvement and Confession Kind of Suck...In A Good Way

One of the requirements of becoming a pastor in my denomination is completing a unit of CPE (or Clinical Pastoral Education), which is a fancy way of saying "pay to be a volunteer chaplain and have everything you do be picked apart." I did my CPE at Cooper Hospital in Camden, New Jersey, a level one trauma center in one of the poorest cities in America and had a supervisor who didn't cut his students any slack, Rev. Cholke.

It was stressful, it was exciting, and it was one of the best learning experiences of my life.

One day, I was sharing a written report about one of my visits with a patient where I had danced around his concerns about losing his legs. Rev. Cholke was having none of it. He interrupted me, pointed a finger in my face and said, "You're afraid of conflict. You avoid the tough questions and you can't really help people if you do that."

In that moment I was embarrassed, and ashamed, and angry. And I felt those things because he was right. I kind of knew that about myself, but he had stripped my personality naked and put it on display in front of the group. I hated that moment.

It was one of the best things someone has ever done for me.

Because of that moment, I started paying attention to my motivations. I learned to recognize when I was avoiding conflict out of fear. When I did that, I could push my fear back or lean into the stress to build up resilience. Over time, I became a better leader and a better pastor because Rev. Cholke named a problem that I needed to work on.

Tuesday, February 25, 2020

What to Do When We Don’t Know What to Do

(Note: This was first written for my church's newsletter in March 2020.)

In January, I started participating in a program supported by our local synod called the Adaptive Leadership Academy. The goal of the academy over the coming year is to develop leadership skills for situations where there isn’t an easy solution--or perhaps there isn’t a solution at all. 

I’m still early in the program and haven’t finished all of my homework for the first month, but the class has got me thinking about the leadership lessons I’ve learned from experience, wiser people, and a whole lot of trial and error. They have proven useful not just for leadership, but for life and faith growth as well. I share them here hoping they can be useful for someone else as they have for me. 

Be Kind -- Give the benefit of the doubt. You catch more flies with honey. Do unto others as you would have them do to you. However you name it, I’ve learned that treating people with kindness and dignity is the best way to move things forward.

See Every Person As Someone Jesus Loves -- I’ve mentioned this in at least one sermon, but a woman in Bible study once told me she tries to look at every person in her day and say, “This is someone Jesus loves.” I try to do this and it always makes a difference. Looking at people through the eyes of Jesus helps me to have more patience and grace and see possible actions I wouldn’t otherwise.

Participation Is More Important Than Perfection -- I can get stuck sometimes not doing something because I don’t have the perfect answer or don’t think I can do the work as well as others. I’ve learned it is usually better to just do my best with a few mistakes than to do nothing at all. People are often forgiving and are more likely to remember the effort than the mistakes. 

When in Doubt, Ask -- I can have a bad habit of not asking questions because I’m afraid of looking like I don’t know. Or I can assume I know what someone wants or needs when I don’t. I’m slowly learning to ask questions when I don’t understand so I can do what is needed and do it right the first time. 

Don't Get Defensive; Get Curious -- When there is disagreement, our natural tendency is to get defensive and prove our point, but responding with curiosity can build trust and solutions faster. I try saying, "I'm having a hard time understanding your perspective. Can you help me understand?" or "This seems really important to you. Why is that?" As a friend and colleague once said, "We need to think of curiosity as a spiritual discipline." (She's one of those wiser-than-me people.)

What Does Love Look Like in This Situation? -- Sometimes it’s being active and sometimes it’s just being quiet and listening. Asking this question when I’m not sure what to do helps me put God’s priorities in the picture and focus my options.

There are many times in life where we may not know what to do or have a perfect answer. Those moments can be scary, but I’ve found that if I work through those moments with practices like these, the destination is better than when I don’t.

Move forward. God is with you.

From the Gray,

Pastor Ari

“All these thoughts are an ocean that I’m drowning in.” -Judah & the Lion, “Over My Head”

Thursday, February 20, 2020

5 Old Testament Stories Every Christian Should Know

I recently ended a sermon series at my church that I called, "5 Old Testament Stories Every Christian Should Know." (You can listen to some of them here until March.) It was an idea that grew out of a lot of Bible studies, pastoral conversations, and personal study from the past few years. I found that I was making more connections to the Old Testament, but many people didn't have a good understanding of the stories or assumed they were unimportant because they weren't in the New Testament.

(To be clear, I don't fault anyone for not knowing the Old Testament well. Many Christians, and especially ELCA Lutherans, have either deemphasized it or just focused on the violent portions.)

The five stories that I find myself using the most when I preach or teach are Creation, Abraham and Sarah, the Exodus, King David, and the Exile. Having completed the preaching series, I thought I should summarize it here for those who couldn't attend all or any of it and to have brief summary for future reference. As I mentioned in my sermons, I could not to full justice to these stories in a 15-minute sermon, so my focus was on three questions: What happened? How does it relate to Jesus and the New Testament? and Why does it matter to us today?

I was also challenged by a member of my congregation to sum up every sermon in one word to make it easy to remember. Having hopefully met his challenge, I will use those here as well.

Word: Good
When the story of creation gets discussed, it often centers around the creation-evolution debate. I think that's a red herring. The more important part of the story is that God calls this world "good," or "tōv" in Hebrew. This world is meant as a blessing for us and for all life in it. It isn't inherently evil or corrupted (which goes against some Christian denominations). To the degree it is corrupted, it's because of us. Humans reject God's good order and plan and instead shape the world in our image. Out of alignment with God, things often go badly. But as we see in this story, God creates order out of chaos. Jesus puts us back in alignment with God and orders our chaos (or sin) to become a blessing again. And it is good.

Abraham and Sarah
Word: Promise
Abraham and Sarah are given an unbelievable promise from God: follow me and I will give you a great family and bless all people through you. They do follow God, but they don't always do it well. In fact, they make some big mistakes along the way. However, God never breaks the promise. Even when the following generations also prove to be deeply and tragically human, God remains faithful and continues to renew the promise. Abraham becomes the spiritual ancestor of three world religions --Judaism, Christianity, and Islam-- and in Jesus, God fulfills the promise to bless all people, offering life to everyone, not just Abraham's blood relatives. When God makes a promise, God keeps a promise.

The Exodus
Word: Liberation
When God calls Moses to become a liberator, God says, "I know their sufferings, and I have come down to deliver them" (Exodus 4:7-8). That God sides with the Israelites, who are not powerful or important, but are oppressed and enslaved, gives us an important insight into God's character. God is keeping the promise to Abraham, but also creating a precedent of caring for the weak and freeing those who are oppressed. This God of compassion repeats this pattern throughout the Bible, especially in the person of Jesus, who saves us from the oppression of sin, drowns our spiritual enemies in baptism, and brings us into a new life where we can be God's people again. Whenever we're trapped, God works to free us.

King David
Word: Messiah
The Sunday I was scheduled to preach on David, I had to stay home sick. (Boo.) Pastor Vivian Thomas-Breitfeld did a great job filling in and naming how we are called to be tabernacles to carry God into the world like the tent of God in David's age. She also lifted up how David was a flawed king and person, but repented and was loved by God. My intent for the sermon was to name David's flaws as a king, but also how his example creates a flawed idea for those in Jesus' day and our own. One of the titles David is given is "messiah," which is not a unique title to Jesus. It literally means "anointed" and referred to someone chosen by God to defeat the enemies of God's people, build a holy kingdom, and rule with justice. David does this and becomes the example people expect from a messiah, but Jesus does it in a very different way. People expected the Messiah to defeat Rome, restore Jerusalem, and rule as king of Judea, and when Jesus refuses, he angers and confuses many. But Jesus does defeat the true enemies of God's people (sin and death), he builds a holy kingdom (a new reality built on resurrection and mercy for all people), and rules with justice as the true leader of this world. His time as messiah wasn't limited but is for all people in all time.

The Exile
Word: Homecoming
The Exile is a sad and complicated story, but it has its roots in the creation story: when humans reject God's good order, there are consequences. This time the consequence of ignoring injustice and putting their trust in wealth and military might means being crushed by Babylon and dragged off into mass imprisonment for 70 years. But God tells them before and during that time, "I will not forget you or abandon you." And after it is over, God brings them home where they belong. This mirrors the ministry of Jesus, who says we are exiled by our sin and separated from God as a consequence, but God will not forget or abandon us. Jesus comes to find us in exile and bring us home. There is no place we can go, physically or spiritually, that God will not come looking for us.

I love these stories because they aren't old stories, they are about a God who is still caring for people. They are our stories. And they are still being told.

From the Gray,
Pastor Ari

“Remember how it felt before. We still have a lot to live for.” -The Rescues, “We Are Not Alone”

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”