Friday, April 13, 2018

You Are Not Trash

Much of our North American culture is built to be thrown away.

Fast food is served in paper and plastic that's meant to be disposed after use and most groceries are sold in packaging that's thrown away after use. Most minor appliances are cheaper to replace than repair. It's expected that devices like cell phones will be replaced every 18-24 months. The average American creates about 4.4 pounds of trash per day.

It safe to say that we expect many things in our lives be temporary and quickly obsolete.

But that's not how God operates.

The Bible tells of a God that refuses to give up and throw away his people. Though they complain about God in the wilderness. Though their rejection of God leads to exile. Though they crucify Jesus. God sticks by God's promises to redeem, repair, and resurrect those in need. It strikes me that even in Revelation, the image of the new creation is not one where the earth is eliminated, but is made perfect and complete by the arrival of heaven.

There's an important lesson in that I strive to remember from time to time. You are not trash to God. God won't throw us away. God's grace isn't temporary.

The Reality of God isn't a throw away culture.

From the Gray,
Pastor Ari

"And in this day when something's worth is based on what someone would pay, it's nice to know I'm worth one Jesus to You." -Everybodyduck, "Tetelestai"

Thursday, April 5, 2018

Where To Start...

On Maundy Thursday (the Thursday before Easter), the worship service in my tradition begins with the sermon. In explaining this change, the worship reference book* says, "The relocation of the sermon enables the preacher to deal with the various aspects of the theme of Jesus' love as a background for the entire service." In other words, we start with Jesus' love because everything in this worship is about Jesus' love.

As I read that this year, it gave me two thoughts.

First, that is a good summary for Lutheran theology. Jesus' love is the background for everything. Because salvation/eternal life/reconciliation is a gift from God, God's love and grace is the beginning of and background to everything we believe and do. Nothing begins without God's love.

That led to my second thought: what if I tried to live with that thought always in mind?

  • My day begins because of Jesus' love. 
  • I will begin this email with Jesus' love. 
  • Jesus' love will be in the background of this difficult conversation. 
  • How is Jesus' love in the background of this meeting? Of this meal with loved ones?
  • I will write this blog with Jesus' love...
This week I'm playing around with what that looks like for me. How about you? How would treating Jesus' love as the beginning and background to all you do change how you speak, think, and act (or react)? 

From the Gray,
Pastor Ari

"Let's start at the very beginning, a very good place to start." -The Sound of Music, "Do Re Mi"

*(Lutheran Book of Worship: Ministers Desk Edition for anyone who cares.)

Friday, March 23, 2018

Laughter is the Best Evangelism

I don't like meetings. Unless they are short. Even then I feel like I mostly tolerate them. 

So when my church's council meeting this week went over two hours, you'd think I'd be ready to pull my hair out. But as I drove home that night, I could only think about how often we'd laughed during the meeting. 

If you've never served on a church leadership board, laughter is pretty rare. Many people (including me) have horror stories of church council that involve personal attacks, yelling, table pounding, or sometimes worse. I know some who swear they will never serve on a council again because it was such a deflating (and unholy?) experience. 

So as I reflected on our meeting, I was just pleased with how much we had laughed. About a year ago, we decided that the number of times we laugh in a meeting is the main way we would measure the success of the meeting and this one was successful. 

We also aim to laugh in Bible study and during coffee hour and Sunday school. 

Too often, religious people can take themselves and the business of the church too seriously. We think the way to be Christian is to be serious or quiet. This is especially true in my denomination, Lutheranism. I think this is partly because we have roots in parts of Europe that culturally tend to be serious (Germans and Scandinavians) and partly because we've had some controversies in our tradition (e.g. pietism) where emotions were closely tied to bad theology.  

But one of the ideas that occurred to me after my laughter filled meeting this week is that if the message of Jesus that we follow is "Good News," shouldn't we smile sometimes? Doesn't it make sense that laughter and joy would be part of being a disciple of Jesus? 

And before anyone accuses me of belittling the message of Jesus, I think laughter reinforces the Gospel. Laughter helps build community and respect. It deflates ego and selfishness if we can laugh at ourselves. It pushes away fear, which I think is the opposite of healthy faith. And if attracting more people to be followers of Jesus is one of our goals, don't most of us enjoy being with people that make us laugh?

Someone once asked me what kind of church I lead. I said, "We try to take the Gospel seriously, but not ourselves." I think that's a good goal. If we are known for love and laughter, that, to me, is success. And that's no joke.

From the Gray,

Pastor Ari

“Everything in me hopes to be the one you wanted me to be.” -3 Doors Down, “When I’m Gone”

Friday, August 18, 2017

A Question for Anti-Semitic Christians

Throughout the Old Testament, God makes promises to the Jewish people. At least 17 times God or God's prophets speak of "everlasting covenants" made to God's people to protect them, love them, be with them, and be their God. God specifically tells David in 2 Samuel 7 that his kingdom will be "made sure forever before Me" and God will not take away God's "steadfast love" from David's descendants (that is, the Jewish people). God chose the descendants of Abraham and David to be God's people forever.  

As a Christian, I believe that Jesus came and amended that promise so that all the world might be adopted into God's people. But that original promise was never erased. Even though I may disagree with my Jewish neighbors on who Jesus was, we remain part of the same religious family tree and share the "everlasting covenants" of Abraham and Sarah and David. Even in the New Testament, St. Paul says explicitly, "Has God rejected His people [the Jews]? By no means!" (Romans 11:1).

If you are someone who believes that Jews are evil, or enemies of Christians, or a threat to civilization, or need to be opposed in the name of God, then my question is simple. If God has abandoned the "everlasting covenants" of the Old Testament, then what's to keep God from abandoning the promises made in Jesus Christ? What does your scorn of the Jewish people say about God's eternal nature?

How can you trust a God who has reneged on promises to the Jewish people to uphold promises made to Christians? Either God is trustworthy or God is not.  

I will put my trust in the God of welcome and reconciliation (2 Cor. 5). I believe yours is a liar.

From the Gray, 
Pastor Ari

“If our hearts have turned to stone, there is hope; we know the rocks will cry out.” -Jars of Clay, “Shelter”

Friday, April 21, 2017

Not of This World?

For Easter Sunday this year, one of the texts we read was Colossians 3:1-4. In this brief passage, the author writes:
So if you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth, for you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God.
 There's a lot to like in this passage and being joined to Christ's death and resurrection is very fitting to the themes of Easter. But there's also a problem with reading this passage out of context or too literally.

When the author commands his readers to "Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth," I cringe a little bit because there has long been a thread of Christian thought that suggests we can ignore much of what happens in this life or to this earth because all that really matters is "getting to heaven." Some Christians try to disengage from "the world" by creating bubbles around themselves or avoiding larger social or political issues. I've even heard some Christians say we shouldn't bother with environmentalism because "God's going to destroy this world, anyway."

The problem is that the Bible starts with a story about how much God loves the world God creates and the creatures in it and goes on to say that God cares very much about how we live together in society, about the creation God shaped, and about what we do with our time here on earth. Even in Colossians 1:20, the author says, "God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of the cross" (emphasis added).

When the author says to "set your minds on things that are above," he isn't saying "ignore this life and this world because only heaven matters." Instead, he's using it as a metaphor to say, "look at your life through the lens of Christ, not through the lens of this world; shape your life as it fits to the example of Christ."

The author even goes on to explain this in the following verses by giving examples of what life in this world looks like for followers of Christ. "Put to death," he says, "anger, wrath, malice, [and] slander" and instead "clothe yourselves" with compassion, kindness, humility, and love.

Jesus himself spoke of the Kingdom of Heaven as not something far away or in the future, but something happening here and now: "The Kingdom of God has come near" (Mark 1:15). Jesus didn't die and rise so we could ignore this world; he did so so that we could be freed to truly live in it by seeing it. Let us set our minds on things above by living deeply in the world today.

From the Gray,
Pastor Ari

"Who do you think you are? Did you figure out the date? What do you hope to do while you sit around and wait, wait, wait?" -Newsboys, "Lights Out"

Friday, April 7, 2017

Norse Gods and the God of Easter

My daughter and I recently finished reading "Norse Mythology" by Neil Gaiman, which retells the old myths in ways that a great storyteller like Gaiman can. Being part Norwegian, my daughter and I both love these stories that reflect the fears and dreams of our ancestors.

But I also think about how flawed these gods are. Much like their Greek counterparts, the gods of these ancient myths are often selfish, vain, hotheaded, violent, deceptive, or just foolish. In other words, they are very human... except with more power to cause trouble.

All of these old stories are one of the reasons I continue to believe in the God of the Bible, and especially the one found in Jesus Christ.

Unlike the gods of ancient mythology, the God I find in the Bible very unhuman. To be sure, God has many human characteristics. God gets angry, jealous, and impatient at time. God weeps with sadness. But the God of the Bible is different in that this God isn't motivated by selfishness or human ego. Just the opposite. The overarching story of the Bible is of a God who persistently tries to reconcile with creation, who reaches out to help and serve. In fact, almost every time God is angry, jealous, or weeping, it isn't because he's childish; it's because humans don't accept or understand the love he's trying to share with them.

This coming week is Holy Week, when we will retell the central story of the Christian church: that God loved humanity so much that God put aside his power and became human, not to cause mischief or trouble, but to heal our separation, to serve others, to willingly be humiliated and receive the brunt of our human condition (fear, anger, hatred, violence), die and be resurrected so that the negative parts of us might be overcome and no longer poison us. This is not how most humans would act. This is not a story we find in most ancient mythologies.

And that's why I find it believable.

If I were to make up a story about God and the universe, it wouldn't be a story about a powerful being seeking weakness and service or asking me to sacrifice and turn the other cheek and love my enemies. If I were to make up a god, it would act a lot like me and/or reinforce my natural inclinations to seek vengeance and be self-centered.

But the God of Easter asks me to die with him so I might be raised again. The God of Easter asks me to live with faith, hope, love, compassion, and generosity, not strength or wealth. The God of Easter has made himself vulnerable for my benefit so I might be vulnerable for the sake of others.

I couldn't make this story up. So I trust in it and I try to live it.

From the Gray,
Pastor Ari

“Not much of this makes sense to me.” -Guster, “Happy Frappy”

Friday, March 31, 2017

Healing Political Divisions

"Lots of raw emotions across our country today. I've struggled all day with how to speak pastorally. But I keep coming back to a few things. To all my sisters and brothers:

"If you are happy about yesterday's election,
-Love your neighbor and be kind
-Pray for your leaders to be wise and just
-Act with justice in all you do
-Do unto others as you would have them do unto you
-Remember your baptism is your true identity and that God is greater than any leader or government

"If you are heartbroken about the election,
-Love your neighbor and be kind
-Pray for your leaders to be wise and just
-Act with justice in all you do
-Do unto others as you would have them do unto you
-Remember your baptism is your true identity and that God is greater than any leader or government"

I wrote these words on my Facebook page the day after the presidential election in November. In the months since, I've had conversations with people who are excited, scared, angry, and cautiously optimistic/pessimistic about the election of Donald Trump as president and what it will mean for our country.

There is a rolling debate about politics in this country, but one thing I've found most people agree on is this election has brought to light some deep divisions within our country. These divisions are at least partly connected to class, race, education, and geography, but they are deeper than many people realized and they highlight a great deal of isolation from people outside our own political bubbles. I've seen a statistic in a couple places that fewer than 50% of major party voters know someone who voted for the other major candidate.

I think we need to be careful of ever adopting a specific political party's platform as "Christian." History is full of examples of the church hitching its wagon to political parties or movements and the results are almost never good for disciples of Jesus. (As I noted above, no leader or government can ever be the perfect representative of God.)

I do, however, believe faith has a lot to say about how we make political decisions and especially with how we conduct ourselves in the realm of politics. Since Jesus speaks of loving our neighbor (Luke 10:25-37) and the danger of acting with anger or calling people "fools" (Matthew 5:21-24) (a much tamer word than we often hear in debates), I find it troubling how easily we dismiss people we disagree with as idiots, refuse to listen to other points of view, or consider political opposites as enemies instead of fellow citizens. These problems are both created by and reinforce a sense that politics is an all or nothing game and it's more important to be right than it is to be collaborative, kind, or curious. Even if people are political "enemies," aren't we called to love our enemies instead of demeaning or destroying them?

My congregation has adopted 2 Corinthians 5 as our core text for our ministry, which reads in part: "All this is from God, who reconciled us to Godself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation... Therefore we are ambassadors of Christ, as though God were making God's appeal through us." I've thought about this text a lot since the election. In essence, because God has healed the division between us and God, we are given the ministry of healing relationships in the world. We are given the ministry of reconciliation, not division. If I am to be a Christian in the realm of politics, I need to consider whether my actions are sowing division or reconciliation.

So I've been trying to seek out views that are different from mine. I look for op-eds and news sources with different political and ethnic backgrounds. I try to engage in conversation with people who may disagree with me and to maintain a curiosity about where they're coming from. When I get angry or defensive, I try to think about how I can build a relationship instead of a division.

Now, to be clear, I have strong opinions on many subjects and I'm not promoting a bland relativism. I get angry and happy about items in the news. I think we can (and should) be passionate and active in political causes. But we can be passionate and respectful at the same time. If we are going to heal our divisions and function as one society, we need to find a way to do this again.

If we look through the New Testament, we see that there were many places where Christians had disagreements with society around them and within the church itself. Divisions are nothing new. Now as then, Christians can be an example to the world of how to disagree and be loving, how to practice reconciliation and community in the midst of diversity.

I'm trying to remind myself daily that being an ambassador for Christ is probably better understood as winning hearts than winning arguments.

From the Gray,
Pastor Ari

“Maybe we don’t want to live in a world where our innocence is so short.” -Silverchair, “Anthem for the Year 2000”