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”

Saturday, March 25, 2017

Shame, Confession, and True Identity

This past Sunday, I was privileged to have a member of my church's preaching team provide the sermon. I love getting to hear others preach because it helps me hear other facets of the text and fresh perspectives that help me shape my future sermons.

In her sermon (which can be heard here until late April), Carla had a line that cast a fresh light on one of my favorite Bible passages, the woman at the well in John 4. Noting that the woman is gathering water at an unusual time of day, Carla suggested, as most commentators do, that she had been shunned by her neighbors who come in the morning. But then she asked, "Or is it her own self-doubt?"


I'd never thought of that. Shame is a powerful force for tearing us down, but it isn't always imposed from someone else. It can come from ourselves, too. Was this woman shunned by her community or did she exile herself? What little we know of her ("You've had five husbands" v. 18) means she's been widowed or abandoned five times (women didn't have legal standing to seek divorce then). She's known a lot of heartache. I'd never considered that her heartache could be causing her to isolate herself in shame. Perhaps she tells herself, "You're unlovable. They don't want to be near you. You're such a failure."


We all carry such voices around with us; little shame demons that point to our failures (actual or perceived) and our flaws (real or not). They can be rooted in minor incidents from our childhood that scarred us deeply or from repeated behaviors that we can't seem to stop doing. They can be from things we've done, things done to us, or things we've failed to do. They show up in phrases we repeat in our heads:
  • "I'll never really belong at work/in my family/with my friends/at church because I'm imperfect/stupid/different/flawed." 
  • "I'm just not cool/interesting/funny/attractive and someone's going to figure that out."
  • "If I don't keep my life balanced perfectly, I'm going to disappoint people and they'll stop liking me."
  • "If people really knew what I was like..."
Like the woman at the well, shame can lead us to avoid people, hide part or all of ourselves, or just believe that we're not that good or worthwhile.

All of this is why I love that our order of worship in the Lutheran church always begins with confession and forgiveness. Some people look at confession as a negative thing that creates shame by forcing us to think about how bad we are, but I don't.

For me, confession is confronting the shame that I carry with me and the voices that point out my flaws and then being reminded that they don't define me; that's not who I really am.

Because when I stand at the baptismal font each week during confession and splash in the "living water" that Jesus promised the woman at the well, I'm reminded that I'm a child of God, claimed by God's promise of eternal life. My shame and faults that make me feel worthless don't get the last word because I'm someone worth dying for according to Jesus.

My true identity is found in my baptism. When shame leads me to hide away, to avoid the crowds and come to the well in the middle of the day, I can remember that God's identity for me gives me a second chance. I don't need to fear living life fully or being vulnerable because the things I may feel shamed about (by others or myself) don't have to define me. God can reconcile and redeem the points of shame into empathy, wisdom, and compassion for others.

We don't need to live in shame or hide from the crowds. We don't need to listen to the negative voices tearing us down inside. The voice of Jesus says we're forgiven, loved, and adopted as children of God. That's our true identity.

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"

Friday, March 17, 2017

Addressing Mental Health in the Church

A friend shared this article from the Washington Post on facebook a few months ago and I've found myself thinking a lot about it ever since. In the essay, Charlotte Donlon writes about living with bipolar disorder, her faith, and her frustration that the church rarely addresses mental illness in meaningful ways, if at all. For me the essay cuts me in a couple different ways.

First, as a pastor, I read how the author's pastor dismisses her mental anguish in conversation and unintentionally shames her in a sermon and I cringe. I cringe because on days where I feel like less than a superhero, that's what I worry I'm doing. I am in near constant fear that I will say something that shames or hurts someone without me meaning to or that I just won't have the right words to say to help. I've learned in my ministry that there are many times where the only true answer is "I don't know." But when someone comes to me with a difficult question looking for some kind of help or hope, it rarely feels like that level of theological honesty is the right answer. Chronic illness, serious childhood diseases, and sudden deaths are all things that make me want to scream "Why God?" with everyone else.

At the same time, I resonate strongly with Donlon's essay because it's my own story, too. I've lived with depression for my entire adult life and shortly before I first read this essay, I was also diagnosed with a generalized anxiety disorder. I have more family members and friends that live with mental health issues than I can count on one hand and I know they are not uncommon in the faith communities that I've served. And yet, there is still a stigma around mental health.

Many churches do awesome work around feeding programs, addiction recovery, poverty assistance, and even healthcare, but it's interesting to me how almost all those programs are directed externally. Meanwhile, internally, few churches in my experience foster an environment that normalizes things like mental health, divorce, addiction, autism, and other issues that are, in fact, normal for most people. Instead, many of us put on masks and pretend to be what we think is "normal" and think we're the only ones faking it.

I don't have any answers for fixing this, certainly not on a grand scale, but I am a big fan of Brené Brown's work that says risking vulnerability and honesty is the root of joy and wholeheartedness and I know Jesus said "the truth will set you free" (John 8:32). So I hope that being vulnerable and honest about my own struggles with mental health might start to normalize it for others.

So...

I have anxiety and depression. I'm medicated for it now and it's helped me a lot. Most of the time I'm fine, but like arthritis or diabetes, it can flare up at times and I can't function at 100% when it does. I'm not ashamed about living with anxiety and depression. In fact, sometimes I think of them as my super powers because I know they are closely connected to my drive to be my best and my creativity.

And I know I'm not alone. And if you're like me, then neither are you.

I pray this is something we can talk about more and I pray that the gift of God's grace gives us the confidence to make being normal... well...
normal.

From the Gray,
Pastor Ari

P.S. If you struggle with depression or think about hurting yourself, please get some professional help. If you can't, have a friend help you. Take it from me: things can get better.


“There’s one more thing I want to say: Our brains are sick, but that’s okay.” -twenty one pilots, “Fake You Out”


Thursday, February 23, 2017

A Single Point of Failure

"If you have a single leader, you have a single point of failure.” 

In January, my pastoral coach shared this quote through our Facebook conversation group. I’ve thought back to this quote many times since then as it speaks of the way I’ve been trying to adapt as a leader in recent years. 

Coming out of seminary, I had a bit of hero complex. Like recent graduates of almost any school, with a head full of fresh knowledge and eagerness to put it to use, I often thought I needed to provide the answers to every problem. I acted as if I needed to be involved in every decision. 

The dark side to that was I was constantly making decisions that were little more than good guesses. No one can be an expert in everything and no one has infinite attention to devote to the many things that happen in a church, but the models for leadership I’d seen in my life and my training in seminary suggested that’s what I was supposed to be. Be strong, be decisive, don’t show weakness. 

The darker side was that I was always scared of being wrong, of being revealed to be a fraud. I lived with the constant stress of believing that the well being of a congregation rested almost entirely on my shoulders and if I tripped up, the shame would surely kill me.

Thankfully, wise and loving people, humbling mistakes, and the undeserved grace I received after the mistakes, all taught me how stupid I was being. I am not called to be a savior. That’s Jesus’ job. 

In hindsight, when I push aside Jesus from his place as savior, I am sinning (one definition of sin is not acknowledging God’s proper place in your life) and “the wages of sin is death” (Romans 6:23). I was killing good ministry by wearing myself out. I was killing good ministry because I couldn’t give proper attention to everything and I don’t always have the best perspective on something. I was killing good ministry by sidelining people who were experienced and passionate about areas I wasn’t. 

Even though I would talk about delegation and sharing responsibility, I couldn’t seem to do it myself… not until my failures piled up enough to convince me I had no other options. 

Sometimes I’m a slow learner. 

But I’ve slowly learned that sharing responsibility creates for better outcomes. I’ve learned that asking questions is often more important than having answers. I’ve learned that risking the vulnerability of saying “I don’t know” leads to deeper trust. I’ve learned that being honest about myself is more faithful than being perfect. I’ve learned that mistakes create space for grace to be practiced, and where there is grace, there is God.

From the Gray,

Pastor Ari

“I’ve just returned from a war that was lost. The only foe I had was me.” -Josh Joplin Group, “Human”


(Note: This article also appeared in my church's newsletter in Spring 2017.)