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”

Tuesday, July 9, 2019

Learning to Live Together

Being a part of a community is hard.

It is, right?

Whether that community is our neighbors, co-workers, or the people we live with, getting along can be hard work. We have different opinions, different priorities, different favorites, and so on. Even in church, we don't agree on everything. We may love one another as Christians, but not always like each other as people.

Now, when we get along with the people around us, it's fantastic, but when we don't, it can be everything from stressful to destructive.

I've been thinking and reading and talking a lot recently about how to get along with other people because it seems to be a concern right now. There is a general consensus that we aren't as polite, tolerant, or open-minded as we used to be  need to be as a society.  No one likes the division we're seeing in our world right now, but no one's quite sure how to deal with it.

I don't have perfect answers, but I firmly believe that the God who told us to "love one another," "love your enemies," and forgive "seventy seven times" does not want us to live divided or suspicious. And I believe the Church has a role to play in this, helping to proclaim God's reality in our world.

To that end, I'm planning to write a series of blogs about how to live together (#howtolivetogether), sharing some of the wisdom I've been uncovering and hopefully starting some conversations or habits that move us in a new direction. In the resurrection, Jesus transformed the world and in baptism, we are transformed as well. With the Spirit's help, we can continue the work of transformation.

Standing in the Grey,
Pastor Ari

“It feels like giving in. It feels like starting over. It feels like waking up.” -Jars of Clay, “Two Hands”

Tuesday, June 25, 2019

Some Good News Out of Washington, D.C.

On June 15-22, six youth from my church travelled with another chaperone and myself to Washington, D.C. to work with CSM ( learning about urban poverty and God’s heart for the city. During the week we served at six different ministries and spent time conversing with the homeless and other residents of the city. There are dozens of stories we have from our time there that we will share with our congregation, but in the immediate aftermath, here are a few ideas we ended up discussing again and again.

Unlearning Distance -- This was CSM’s theme for the summer, based on 2 Corinthians 5:17-21. The passage includes the words we have on our bulletin every week -- “God reconciled us to himself in Christ Jesus and has given us the ministry of reconciliation” -- and we discussed how things like wealth, ethnicity, gender, and politics create divisions in our society, but God’s desire is to break down the barriers between us and build connections. In one example, we sat and talked with a homeless man in a park for an hour and a half in a conversation many kids named as one of their favorite parts of the trip. The lesson: When we break down barriers, we often find the distance is not as great as we thought.

Give Dignity, Not Just Food -- One of the stories that stuck with our students was of a CSM director who stopped to talk with a man asking for change outside a store. When he did, the man started crying and shared he was the first person all day to even acknowledge he was there. We experienced the same in people who were just as grateful for company or a smile as they were for food or clothing. One student summed up the lesson by saying, “I learned giving someone dignity is more important than giving them food.”

Start Small -- At least two of the ministries we served with didn’t start with a plan to become what they are today, or even to be a regular ministry at all. They started when a homeless man asked for a cup of coffee and when someone tried to find furniture for a neighbor. Today they are helping hundreds of thousands of people in the D.C. area. The lesson: Not everything has to be planned out in advance or start on a large scale; offer love when you can, as you can and trust the Holy Spirit to do something with it. 

These simple lessons are probably not new to many of us, but they are often forgotten in our daily activities or the rush of life, but they are profound and powerful. 2 Corinthians 5 also says that “we are ambassadors for Christ” in our lives and simple lessons like these give power to that work. 

Standing in the Gray,
Pastor Ari

“I’m an apostrophe. I’m just a symbol to remind you that there’s more to see.” -Imagine Dragons, “Whatever It Takes”

Friday, November 16, 2018

The Third Sacrament

(Note: This was first written for my church's winter newsletter in December 2018)

In the Lutheran church, we acknowledge two sacraments: communion and baptism. Martin Luther felt there needed to be some Biblical basis for defining a sacrament and cut back on the total of Roman Catholic sacraments. The definition he settled on had three parts: a sacrament had to a) be commanded by Jesus, b) have a physical sign, and c) have a promise of grace attached to it. 

A few practices and traditions that are important to us fail to be a full sacrament because they lack one of these three. Confession and forgiveness for instance is commanded by Jesus and has a promise of grace, but not a physical sign. Foot washing is commanded and has a physical sign, but not a promise of grace. 

Over the years of being a pastor, I’ve come to believe there is a third sacrament that should be acknowledged and celebrated in church. I believe it is a sacrament even though as far as I know it isn’t acknowledged as one in any denomination. I believe the third sacrament is us, the Church itself, the Body of Christ. 

I could spend more time explaining my thinking, but in short, I believe Jesus commands us to be together (John 14:20-21), promises us grace when we come together (Matthew 18:20), and there is a physical sign — each other. 

I share this idea with you because we are heading again towards the seasons of Advent and Christmas. In these seasons, we share presents and carols and egg nog, but at their heart is an idea closely tied to this third sacrament: incarnation or God made flesh. In this time of year, we remember the arrival of God’s son, Jesus, in human form. In taking on flesh, he became a blessing to those around him, a source of light in a time of darkness, and a sign of God’s love to those in need. 

In another time that feels full of darkness, there is comfort in this story. Our politics are a mess, natural disasters and mass shootings seem to happen weekly, wars continue to rage around the world and even allies don’t seem as trustworthy as they once did. That God took flesh to offer hope and life in a similar time is a sign of grace, but we need also remember it is not in the past. 

Jesus didn’t just come in the flesh; he comes in the flesh. And just as he did in Palestine centuries ago, he still comes to be a blessing to those around him, a source of light in a time of darkness, and a sign of God’s love to those in need. Because of the work the Holy Spirit continues to do in us, I believe we are a sacrament, a source of grace and life to each other and the world around us. 

May we know the presence of Christ this holiday season. May we see Christ take flesh in those around us and may we be open to how God takes flesh in us. May we be surprised (have “epiphanies”) about the ways God is working around us. And may God use us to be a blessing to the world around us. 

From the Gray,
Pastor Ari

"When everyone you thought you knew deserts your fight, I'll go with you." -twenty one pilots, "My Blood"

Tuesday, October 23, 2018

What is Appropriate Prayer?

For the past month, Milwaukee has been buzzing. Our local Major League team, the Brewers, was on a tear. They finished with the best record in the National League, made the playoffs for the first time in seven years, and won twelve in a row to win the NL Central title and sweep the first round of the playoffs. It has seemed like everyone was wearing Brewers gear and talking baseball in our area.

On Saturday, the Brewers hosted game 7 of the NL Championship against the LA Dodgers with a chance to go to the World Series for the first time since 1982 and the city was electric.

But they lost. No World Series. No more season. There was no joy in Mudville, for mighty Casey had struck out...

The next morning, during the late worship service at my church, the assisting minister added an impromptu petition to the prayers that was something like: "Lord, help us in our grief over our baseball team losing. We wanted to go to the World Series and it hurts. Help us get over it and look forward to next season."

In the moment, I didn't know exactly what to think about the prayer. I wondered if some would be offended by including something like a sports team in the prayers. Would some feel it wasn't appropriate for the prayers in church? Did I?

As I continued to think about it, I remembered that I myself often tell people there is no bad prayer. "Prayer," I say, "is just speaking honestly with God." I sometimes use the examples of Psalm 137 or Psalm 109, where the writers pray for God to bring suffering to their enemies. I also use them as examples of the truth that God is with us in times of pain and suffering. If those bitter songs are saved as examples of prayer in the Bible, we can be honest with our own pain, anger, or whatever we feel.

As I thought about it, I realized this prayer was speaking honestly with God. She was saying, "Sure, it's just a baseball team, but a lot of us here are hurting today. If you're with us in any suffering, please be with us in this time of pain." In a different situation, it might have been silly or frivolous, but on that morning, it was true and sincere. That, I believe is God's hope for our prayers, because when we are honest about ourselves, we can be more open to what God has to say to us.

May we all be reminded that there is no part of our lives that is beyond God and nothing that God doesn't want to hear from us. 

From the Gray,

Pastor Ari

“I’m-a say all the words inside my head.” -Imagine Dragons, “Believer”