Thursday, December 19, 2013

The Radioactive Prophet

My 3 year-old son loves the song "Radioactive" by Imagine Dragons. He wanders around the house singing it, he demands we play it on the radio regularly, and he asks to listen to it almost every night as his "bedtime song."

When I was hearing it for the 10,000th time last week (thankfully I really like the song, too), one of the lines struck me as familiar in a different way. In the buildup to the chorus, the lyrics sing "I feel it in my bones, enough to make my system blow." On this particular time, those words brought to mind Jeremiah 20:9: "God's word is inside me like a burning fire shut up in my bones. I cannot hold it in any longer" (emphasis mine).

Jeremiah was a prophet in the Old Testament who faced a lot of resistance from the powers that be (probably because he was bringing them bad news) and he speaks the words in 20:9 as part of a passage saying he wishes he could give up and go home, but God's pull on him is too strong, "enough to make his system blow."

As this thought struck me, it occurred to me that many of the lyrics in the song could be heard as the words of a prophet calling for change:
- "Welcome to the new age. Oh, I'm radioactive"
- "I raise my flag... It's a revolution, I suppose."
- "I'm waking up."
- "This is it, the apocalypse."
- There's even a reference to "the prison bus" and Jeremiah was imprisoned just before the quote in verse 9. (I know it's a stretch, but humor me.)

I don't think Imagine Dragons had Old Testament prophets in mind when they wrote the song, but I think it's a interesting way to think about following God. What if we were to imagine living in God's light as "a revolution," a "waking up" that "makes my system blow" and replaces it with something new? What if we expected the word of God to be radioactive, a force that burns inside us and contaminates and infects anyone or thing that gets close?

In my sermon this past week, I invited the church to imagine themselves as prophets, but I didn't paint it in terms of radioactivity and revolutions. Is that a terrifying or exciting idea? Certainly most of the prophets did not have beds of roses (actually none that come to mind), but they lived with a purpose and felt compelled to act and speak on behalf of God's people. What in your life gives you a burning sense of purpose and how could that be the spirit of God speaking to you in your bones?

"I'm breathing in the chemicals." -Imagine Dragons, "Radioactive"

(For more fun, try listening to Imagine Dragons' song "Demons" as a Psalm about sinfulness and imagine the line "I can't escape this now, unless you show me how" as a cry to God.)

Friday, December 6, 2013

In Gratitude to Nelson Mandela

Sometimes saints and heroes can function as a mirror that shows us our unkempt hair and smudged face and drives us to clean up the image of the person we see. Their excellence reminds us of our own imperfections, but simultaneously inspires us to work toward that excellence. I believe Nelson Mandela was such a person for much of the world, but certainly was for me.

Mandela has shown that Christian ideals such as forgiveness, loving your enemy, mercy, and compassion are not just good ideas, they are practical solutions. How often have we thought, "Sure, loving my enemy sounds good, but this is real life?" or "All that morality stuff is great for my personal life, but it doesn't work in politics or economics." What's particularly amazing to me is that Mandela at one time would have agreed. In the 1960s, he turned from non-violence and advocated violent acts as the only way to overturn the oppressive government. Love, peace, and compassion seemed an impossible path toward justice.

And yet, decades later, Mandela proved his younger self wrong.

By welcoming his opponents into his government, by refusing to seek revenge for decades of violence, and by introducing the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (by which many pro-apartheid leaders were granted amnesty in exchange for publicly confessing their crimes and listening to the testimonies of their victims), he managed to sooth much of the hatred and fear that had permeated the country for decades. In fact, one could argue that his insistence on forgiveness, peace making, and reconciliation worked better at creating a stable transition to democracy than any of the other examples we have in recent memory. (Just look at the struggles that Libya and Egypt are having today.)

Mandela would have been perfectly justified with pursuing a different route, one that demanded greater retribution from former oppressors, yet he found the strength to believe and embody the words of his compatriot, Archbishop Desmond Tutu: "Goodness is stronger than evil; love is stronger than hate; light is stronger than darkness; life is stronger than death." In so doing, Mandela managed to heal a nation set it on a path that would have seemed impossible even shortly before his release. I pray that Mandela's life may continue to challenge us to recognize that ideas such as love, mercy, and forgiveness are not just pie-in-the-sky philosophies, but are practical, real-world Gospel.

“You're possessed with a power that's bigger than the pain.” -Everclear, "Heartspark Dollarsign"

Monday, December 2, 2013

How "Frozen" Warmed My Heart

Over the Thanksgiving weekend, I went with my family to see the new Disney movie, Frozen. In most ways it is just like a typical Disney film: it's (very loosely) based on a fairy tale ("The Snow Queen"), has fun, singable music, and silly sidekick characters. Oh, and, of course, there's a princess.

There was, however, an unexpected, positive surprise in the movie for me that grew out of a typical Hollywood trope. At one point, the central character, Anna, asks Olaf, the talking snowman, "What is love?"

In many Hollywood movies, the script would then turn into some romantic Hallmark card about love being when your heart sings, butterflies in your stomach, and being unable to imagine life without your beloved. And the movie sets up well for that kind of answer with Anna developing fast and strong relationships with not one but two handsome men in the roughly 36 hours of the movie's main timeline. (Love is also something that happens at first sight, right?)

But that's not where Frozen goes. Olaf replies to Anna that love is making someone else's needs and desires more important than your own. He says it so simply that you almost miss the meaning. But to drive the point home, Olaf then does exactly what he said in an act of selfless love for Ana. (Without wanting to give it away, the ending also hinges on an act of selfless love.)

Now I love a good romantic love story as much as most people, but it was so refreshing to see love named for what it really is: choosing to put another ahead of yourself, even at the sacrifice of your own wants and needs. I've seen plenty of relationships (not just romantic) stumble over the other idea of love and wonder, "Why don't my feelings stay the same?" or "Why don't my feelings fix everything?" As Olaf correctly points out, love isn't a feeling; it's an action. And he echoes John 15:13: "Greater love has no one than this: that one lay down his life for his friends."

What's even more remarkable is that Disney seems to be on a roll with this. Selfless love was also a central lesson in Brave (along with a beautiful example of repentance) and was the course for Wreck-It Ralph becoming a hero in a scene that makes me cry every time I've seen it.

So cheers to Disney for giving a wonderful, practical description of love. It's nice to see love presented as something that is more than just wishes and kisses.

“We don’t know enough about love so we make it up.” -Jars of Clay, “The Age of Immature Mistakes”

Monday, November 25, 2013

Peace Be With You

(Note: This post was originally written for my church's newsletter.)

“O come, o come, Emmanuel, and ransom captive Israel…” -Traditional Advent Hymn

“[Jesus said,] Peace I leave with you. I do not give to you as the world gives.” -John 14:27

During Advent this year, our church will be exploring the idea of peace. It seems a fitting theme because in the build up to Christmas we often hear the message “Peace on Earth” in carols and cards echoing the message of the angels that first Christmas night. It is also a time of year where we seem to more acutely desire peace in our lives … and perhaps are more aware of where peace is lacking in our lives. 

There are many things that can steal peace from our lives: worries about the state of the world; disappointment in ourselves; injustice to ourselves or a loved one. And many of us have likely seen/imagined/lived scenarios of doing everything we can to make sure Christmas is peaceful and perfect, only to have the day disappoint.

What is this peace we hunger for this time of year? In English, we typically equate peace with an absence of something, as in we see peace where there is an absence of movement or an absence of violence. From a Biblical perspective, though, peace is something else. In much of the Bible, peace is mentioned using the Hebrew word “shalom.” Shalom expresses not an absence, but a presence, because it indicates a sense of wholeness. If I were to wish “shalom” to another person, I would be saying, “May you be fed and sheltered; may you be loved and may you rest without fear or worry.”

If peace is about presence, then it makes sense that we proclaim peace in Advent and Christmas, which are about anticipating and celebrating the presence of Jesus, the Messiah. Jesus promised to come and “ransom” us from those things that steal peace from us—fear, selfishness, hopelessness—and so we experience peace in those places where we find the presence of the Christ. 

Ultimately, the peace we proclaim in Advent is not based on everything in our lives being right or still, but in the hope that Jesus chose to be present among us and continues to draw near to us and our world. It is a peace that the world cannot give. As the angels told the shepherds where to find Jesus that first Christmas, may we share that peace by pointing towards the places where we find Christ.

“This is my kingdom come.” -Imagine Dragons, “Demons”

Friday, November 22, 2013

Biblical Creativity

The way we learn to read the Bible is wrong.

Wait, let me go back a bit...  I was thinking this week about the topic of creativity and education. There have been many articles (like this one), speeches (like this), etc. in recent years bemoaning the loss of creativity in the American population and many place the fault at the feet of our education system. I'm not going to dive into why that is (educational theory, standardized testing, and core requirements are complex topics I can't speak to with any authority), but suffice it to say, (a) I believe creativity is an important part of education and (b) much of my own education was built on teaching facts more than encouraging creative thought. For many of my classes, the implicit idea was that every question had one correct answer and I was to memorize and regurgitate that answer on command.

What struck me this past week was that much of my Sunday school education was identical to my secular education. For every Bible story, there was one answer as to what it meant, such as "The Parable of the Good Samaritan means be nice to others." Ideas were often dealt with in absolutes like always, never, sacred, and evil.

The problem is that the more I read the Bible, the less those prove to be true. Very rarely does a text mean just one thing. Depending on my mood, my current situation in life, or what I watched on TV last night, I can often come up with many lessons from a single text. For example, I generally preach using the texts appointed by the Revised Common Lectionary, which uses the same texts every three years. I've gone back to read old sermons from three or six years ago and found I've preached radically different sermons on the same text (though still sound and meaningful). I've used Psalm 23 ("The Lord is my shepherd...") to preach comfort in grief, loving our enemies, and God's relentless pursuit of us. (Or try reading Jewish Talmud or Midrash! I read a Midrash on Genesis once where the rabbi offered dozens of ideas as to why the first letter of the Bible is bet [Hebrew for B]. Sounds strange, but it was fascinating.)

If we are taught from an early age that those possibilities are wrong, that reading the Bible is about finding short, pat answers to complicated life questions, then the Bible loses its vibrancy. This book hasn't stuck around for thousands of years because it was a well organized how-to manual; it has been important because it records stories and poems about complicated people who had complicated relationships with a complicated God and we've continued to say, "Hey! I can relate to that."

What if we treated Sunday school not as a way to get kids to memorize facts about God, but invited them to explore the stories? What if we taught kids to use the Bible to find good questions, not just answers? What if we all approached the stories asking, "Where do I fit in this story? How is this about me?" (One excellent model is Godly Play, which you can see in action here.)

The opposite result is what I saw once when I was leading a Bible study with some high schoolers and I asked them an open ended question that was something like, "What do you think Jesus meant when he said that?" I honestly don't remember the exact question I asked, but I do remember the response. After about 10 uncomfortable seconds of silence, one of the students said, "Can't you just tell us the answer?" The thing is that I wasn't looking for "the" answer. It was (meant to be) an open-ended question: "What do you think?" But the students had learned that there was one answer and their fear of being wrong was stronger than their interest in the story.

If we can't read the Bible with a supple and open mind, it becomes a solid, stale block. Like a tree, faith grows better in soft soil than in set concrete.

“As if there wasn’t anything to say about the justice and the mystery.” -Jars of Clay, “Good Monsters”

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

The Theology of Intelligent Design (But Not the One You're Thinking Of)

I saw this video online the other day and (because I'm a pastor) I immediately thought about it in terms of the church.

I should probably say that I find the field of design fascinating (I blame my college roommate who was an art/design major). While I don't consider myself a design expert, what I've come to understand and appreciate is that design isn't just about what something looks like, but how someone uses and experiences the product. Good design makes someone want to use the product and feel good while using it. Some of the best design solutions may even go unnoticed because they work so intuitively that we don't even think about how to use it.

So when I watched this, I started thinking, "How could the principles of good design help improve the church?"

Now whenever I use the word "church" in the same sentence with words like "business," "marketing," or "design," I see many Christians get a panicked look in their eyes that says, "He wants to turn the church into a shopping mall! It'll be Six Flags over Jesus!" So let me be clear, I do not think Jesus is a fully customizable pick-your-own-religion kit to be sold. The Gospel challenges and changes us, not the other way around.

However, as Mark Parker says in the video, "Good design is a part of any brand realizing its full potential." And unless I missed the memo where suffering and disease all ended, then the Church has not realized its full potential. Yet it seems like many Christians are so insistent on not being a "business" that we almost take pride in our buildings being hard to navigate and our worship services being confusing for visitors.

My point in appealing to good design isn't to offer a one-size-fits-all packaged idea to "fix" any church. My point is to raise a question. Parker says that design is "creating products and services that really excite and delight the consumer." So if Jesus is the bread of life and living water that quenches all thirst, shouldn't that be shared in a way that "excites and delights"? Shouldn't that naturally be something we want to use and feel good while using?

I have often experienced faith as a beautiful, mysterious, and endlessly fascinating thing that keeps drawing me back and deeper. But I know that some find their initial experience with faith/religion/church is quite the opposite and therefore miss glimpsing the "full potential" of the Church that "excites and delights" those of us who love her. So how do we pay attention to the design of church so that it feels more like "Double Rainbow Across the Sky" and less like Dana Carvey as the Church Lady?

“Be part of the miracles you see in every hour.” -10,000 Maniacs, "These Are Days"

Friday, October 4, 2013

Why God Throws Temper Tantrums

For my personal devotions for the last couple weeks, I've been reading through the minor prophets. They're the short books with weird names at the end of the Old Testament and they have something of a reputation because the words of God recorded by these prophets sound, well, kinda mean. Really mean. Downright cranky.

In fact, God can sound so angry in these texts that one early Christian bishop named Marcion though the God of the Old Testament was a completely different God from the one Jesus described. He was later named a heretic, but to this day you can hear people talk about the "Old Testament God" like that God is somehow separate from the "New Testament" one.

A lot of the questions are understandable. After all, God threatens some pretty nasty stuff in these books (and other parts of the Hebrew Scriptures), but as I've read these prophets this time, I've come to see God in a different light.

How? Let's look at a few verses. First, in Hosea 7:13 God proclaims: "How horrible it will be for these people. ... They must be destroyed because they've rebelled against me." Angry stuff right? But look at the rest of the verse (emphasis mine): "I want to reclaim them, but they tell lies about me."

Or in Amos, God makes this threat in 2:13: "I am going to crush you as an overloaded wagon crushes a person." Later in chapter 4 there's a pretty graphic threat involving fish hooks. But both of those are followed by this verse in Amos 6:3: "My people, what have I done to you? How have I tried your patience? Answer me! I brought you out of Egypt and freed you from slavery. I sent Moses, Aaron, and Miriam to lead you."

As I read the followup verses in each case, I start to have a different image of God. As God reveals more of his thoughts, God sounds less angry and sounds ... hurt. I imagine a scene from a TV drama in which it's just been revealed that one spouse has cheated and the victim of the infidelity is sobbing and screaming, "How could you do this to me?!? After everything I gave for you? Doesn't our love mean anything to you?!? I trusted you..." And this fits because infidelity is the major complaint God has in these books.

From this perspective then, God isn't a petty rule keeper looking to zap us. God is jealous. God wants to have relationship with me and, like a lover, may react with anger when I break that trust. And while it seems strange to me at first to imagine God being so vulnerable, it ultimately makes God seem more real to me. For all the mysteries that surround the Triune God (including that Triune thing), God the jealous lover is a side I can recognize.

"You know I've been unfaithful, lovers in lines, while you're turning over tables with the rage of a jealous kind." -Jars of Clay, "Jealous Kind"

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Thank God for Difficult Words

The title to this post pretty much sums up how I'm feeling this morning as I sit and work on yet another sermon on a difficult text from the Gospel of Luke. Since the beginning of the summer, the Revised Common Lectionary, which sets the readings for most Protestant and Catholic churches each week, has been working through the middle of the Gospel of Luke and has been coughing up some doozies.

In the past few months, we've heard Jesus say, "Do you think I've come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division" and "Anyone who sets a hand to the plow and turns back is not fit for service in the Kingdom of God." He also had the stern and strange "Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple." On August 4, we had the parable of the foolish landowner, who is chastised for saving his wealth, which is bookended by this past Sunday's parable about the wicked manager who is condoned for shrewdly cheating wealth out of his employer.

Now this week we have the parable of Lazarus and the rich man, where the rich man is sent to a place of torment after death and when he pleads to Father Abraham for comfort or aid to his brothers, Abraham's response is essentially, "Too bad." God is abounding in compassion, eh?

So why do I give thanks for these passages? It's not because they are easy to understand. They're not. And they're even harder to preach on. If I'm going to help other people understand this passage, then I have to find an understanding for myself, which usually means hours of study and beating my head against the wall (which may or may not be a literal thing). These passages make me uncomfortable and challenge my way of thinking about Jesus and what it means to follow him.

And that's why I end up feeling grateful for them.

By struggling with them, I'm forced to think clearly and deeply about God and my relationship to him. The more I struggle, the more I recognize there is a lot I still am learning about life, about God, and about me, which makes me want to know more and go deeper. These stories paint a picture of a God that is much more complicated than any simple characterization like "God is love" or "God is the ultimate judge." Isn't any good relationship about growing toward a better understanding of the person you love? By wrestling with these texts like Jacob at the Jabbok (Genesis 32), I, too, end up humbled and blessed.

“I found God and He was absolutely nothing like me.” -Live, "Where Fishes Go"

Friday, September 20, 2013

A Reflection on Pope Francis's Latest Interview

I felt compelled to share some thoughts on Pope Francis's latest interview that has made waves in the past 48 hours. (If you haven't heard about the interview, you can read much of his responses as summarized by the New York Times here, or you can read the full interview from the Jesuit magazine America here. Warning: the full thing is 13 pages long. I read the summary and skimmed the full thing.)

Quick side note: I've found much of the media's response to Pope Francis very amusing. He hasn't said anything that is radically divergent from Catholic teaching and yet the response to what he says could be summarized in a headline worthy of the Onion: "Pope Gives Honest Answer to Question; World Gasps in Shock".

Anyway, the statements from his latest interview that seem to have generated the most conversation are that the church shouldn't be "obsessed" with "abortion, gay marriage, and contraception" and that the pope insists he's "never been a right-winger." Some liberals seem to take this as a symbol that the Roman Catholic Church is taking a hard turn to the left, while many conservatives seem to be slack-jawed or withholding comment.

As usual, short snippets here taken out of context make great headlines, but not good journalism. First let's understand what Pope Francis is not saying. He is not saying he supports gay marriage, abortion and contraception rights, or women's ordination. In fact, he has said repeatedly he stands by the church's current teaching on these topics. Even in this interview he says, "The teaching of the church is clear...and I am a son of the church." His "right-winger" comment is also more nuanced that it appears. He makes the comment as a way of explaining how his original "authoritarian" style of leadership lead some to believe he was "ultraconservative," but "I was never a right-winger."

So what is Pope Francis saying? In spite of the froth his comments have generated and in spite of the fact that I disagree with some of his Roman Catholic positions, I believe his comments are noteworthy, daring, and important for people of any belief system to listen to.

What Francis (can I call you Francis?) has said is that there are many teachings of the church and that all teachings are not created equal. As such, some teachings deserve more attention than others and some lesser teachings need to be understood in context of bigger ones. For instance, abortion and contraception are opposed by the Roman church because life is seen as a sacred gift of God that must be treated with absolute respect and only God has the right to declare when life can begin or end. Therefore the Roman church opposes abortion and contraception...and murder and powers that rob people of food or livelihood or dignity, etc. It's all from the same core teaching on sanctity of life, but all that ever seems to be communicated is "contraception is evil." I don't see contraception as an evil, but having a conversation about what it means in practice to promote the sanctity of life is a much more interesting -- and important -- conversation than the yes-it-is-no-it's-not type.

This is where I think Francis's comments are helpful to all of us. In a world where we often get caught up in disagreements that try to paint things in simple black or white and where every belief is a hill worth dying on (I'm looking at you, members of the House and Senate), he begs us all to consider: How much time do we spend discussing the big things, our core beliefs, rather than nitpicking the details? Do we even know what our most important beliefs are? I've seen many conversations in many institutions get sidetracked by debating secondary issues that end up hurting the larger mission.

Once again, Pope Francis has not said anything radical, and yet, by speaking honestly and pragmatically, he has made us think about our own belief systems and the faith of others. That is the goal of any spiritual leader.

“The role we play is so important; we are the voices of the underground.” -Ian Axel, "This is the New Year"

Thursday, September 19, 2013

Meeting Jesus for the First Time Again

As a pastor, one of the things I like to point out in the Gospels is that Jesus never sets preconditions on meeting with him, yet no one who meets Jesus stays the same. Some who meet him get healed, some get confused, and some get angry, but no one shrugs him off. Everyone is welcome to meet with Jesus and whoever does is changed. 

I think we often get this backwards in the church: we set conditions for meeting Jesus and then expect that nothing will change. 

I mean that many churches often give off vibes that say "if you want to come here, you need to dress this way, believe this, and act like us"and then participate in unquestioned rituals and pick out the pieces of the message that reinforce what we already believe. I don't think any of this is done maliciously; I think we do it because it makes us comfortable and we gravitate toward communities that are comfortable with the same ideas we have.

But Jesus in the Gospels doesn't seem to be concerned with "comfort" that maintains the status quo. He talks about a comfort that comes with the reign of God -- which is currently under construction.

What would it mean for the church if we assumed that when we gathered in Jesus' name, we would be changed? That we would leave feeling uncomfortable with the status quo? That unexpected things were to happen when gathered? What if we expected to leave confused like Nicodemus (John 3), only to return later (John 19:39) to honor the one who had challenged our thinking?

“But a dream makes noise” -Josh Joplin Group, “Undone”

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Discipleship for Amateurs, Pt. 2

Last week I wrote a blog about how we can sometimes get caught up in self-shaming for not doing faith the right way, convinced we are disappointing God or other Christians because we don't follow the code perfectly. As a follow up to that, I stumbled across this quote by Brennan Manning:

"I want neither a terrorist spirituality that keeps me in a perpetual state of fright about being in right relationship with my heavenly Father...nor a sappy spirituality that portrays God as such a benign teddy bear that there is no aberrant behavior or desire of mine that he will not condone. I want a relationship with the Abba of Jesus, who is infinitely compassionate with my brokenness and at the same time an awesome, incomprehensible, and unwieldy Mystery." Brennan Manning, Ruthless Trust: A Ragamuffin's Path to God

What Manning says here seems so common sense to me, and yet, the images of the terrorist God who rules by fear and the passive God who lets everything slide tend to be the more common ones that I see portrayed in culture. I think that's because they are easier. It's easy to imagine a one-note God that has a simple, predictable response to everything I do, but a God (or any relationship) that's in it for the long haul, warts and all, is rare. 

Most relationships are conditional and based upon a mutual benefit and won't survive extended rough patches. My truly good friends are the ones who can say, "You're being a jerk, but I still love you." Not ignoring or excusing my occasional douchiness, but calling me on it and then walking with me to a better version of myself. 

That's what I need from God and that's how I interpret what Paul means when he writes in Romans: "While we were still sinners, Christ died for us." I imagine the God that bothered to send us Jesus is a God that looks at me when I screw up and sighs, smiles, and says, "Let's try that again, shall we?"

(Quick note: Brennan Manning has a better grasp of God's grace than most anyone I know. While I haven't read the book quoted above, The Ragamuffin Gospel is one of the best books I've ever read and I highly recommend it.)

“I love you for who you are, girl, cuz I can see who you gonna be.” -Paul Wright, “Little Italy (She Says)”

Thursday, September 5, 2013

Discipleship for Amateurs

I recently started reading Michael Chabon's Manhood for Amateurs, a memoir in essays of Chabon's experiences with being (attempting to be?) a good father, husband, and man without the instruction manual we all desperately want for such complicated pursuits. The essays are at times funny, heart-warming, and heart-breaking, but as the title suggests, one of the common themes in the book is Chabon's sense of being an amateur or imposter, the nagging feeling that he isn't being a man the "right" way. In his opening essay he writes:

"Though I derive a sense of strength and confidence from writing and from my life as a husband and father, those pursuits are notoriously subject to endless setbacks and the steady exposure of shortcoming, weakness, and insufficiency--in particular in the raising of children. A father is a man who fails every day."

As I read the book, one of the thoughts that strikes me (other than, "Wow, I have been there, too!") is whether this is a way that we who claim a religious affiliation live our lives. Do we live with a nagging dread that we don't do faith the "right" way? That there is a specific way to be a faith-full person and if we don't follow it perfectly, we are letting God and our community down? Do we arrive at a place of worship secretly thinking, "I'm such a lousy Christian. Everyone here makes faith look so easy. What's wrong with me?" Do we judge ourselves using ideas that sound ridiculous when spoken out loud like "real men don't cry" or "God won't love me if I wear a t-shirt to church"?

Even though the Lutheran tradition teaches that Jesus is all about setting us free from having to "earn" God's love or be "good enough" to receive eternal life (grace means gift!), I have enough conversations with Christians of all stripes to know that many of us (including me at times) don't really believe that. We obsess over our failures (or what we think they are) to follow God's laws (or what we think they are) and assume we will never get it right. 

It's because of my own secret shame of not being the perfect Christian (I'm a pastor! Shouldn't I be the expert at this!) that I found Pastor Nadia Bolz-Weber's thoughts in a recent sermon very refreshing:

"A couple weeks ago I got to hear Catholic theologian James Allison talk about how we think faith is about striving – keeping parameters, calling people out for not having it right, spiritual practices, doctrinal purity… whatever – but that really faith is about relaxing. Specifically, relaxing in the way we do when we are with a friend who we know for certain is fond of us.  We don’t have to strive around them and we somehow still become our best self – funny, spontaneous, free. Allison suggests that faith is trusting so much that God is fond of us that we just fricken relax."

Relax. This passage brought to mind that maybe as Christians the most important task for us as Christians isn't TO love but to BE loved. And that can be the most difficult thing. I can handle earning love or deserving love, but just being loved, especially when I have a hard time loving myself, is really hard. To think that God can still love me and want me around when I'm not everything God expects me to be (haven't we all disappointed our parents to some degree?) is hard for me to understand, but damn it's good news. And good news is what Jesus claims to be.

“I’ve got blood on these hands that hold on to the truth that I am a priest and a prince in the Kingdom of God.” -Andrew Peterson, “Fool With a Fancy Guitar”

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Strength Enough to Have Enough

Philippians 4:13 -- "I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me" -- is one of the more popular verses in Christian circles. It's an easy-to-understand, bumper-sticker-ready, spiritual-pep-talk kind of verse. "Set your sights high, because if Christ is with you, no task is too difficult!" 

At least that's what I thought, until I was reading the full passage today and when I connected that verse with the verses immediately before it, I had a light bulb that was just like Inigo Montoya's words to Vizzini: "I do not think it means what you think it means."

So here's the full passage, and consider that Paul is writing this from prison: "I rejoiced greatly in the Lord that at last you renewed your concern for me. Indeed, you were concerned, but you had no opportunity to show it. I am not saying this because I am in need, for I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances. I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. I can do all this through Christ who gives me strength" (Philippians 4:10-13)

Paul isn't saying he can conquer the Roman Empire single-handedly or perform a miraculous healing (though I don't put anything beyond the power of God). Paul is specifically saying that Christ gives him the power to be content. At peace. Joyful. To find comfort in having enough

I know being content is something I struggle with often (usually in the realm of wanting some home improvements or a more reliable car), so this insight really hit home for me. This verse is still a good reminder to find strength in God for difficult tasks, but being content at all times? That would be a welcome miracle indeed.

"It's just enough to be strong in the broken places." -Jars of Clay, "Faith Enough"

Thursday, August 15, 2013

Good News or No News?

Note: This post was originally written for my church's newsletter. 

“There is no longer Jew or Gentile, slave or free, male and female. For you are all one in Christ Jesus.” -Galatians 3:28

As I sit to write this column, the church-wide assembly of our national church body, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA), has elected a new presiding bishop: Bishop Elizabeth Eaton. Bishop Eaton has the distinction of being the first woman presiding bishop for the ELCA (or any of the denominations that merged into the ELCA).  Roughly two months ago, the Southwest California Synod of the ELCA elected Rev. R. Guy Erwin to be their local bishop, making him the first openly gay and first Native American bishop in the ELCA. 

Much has been made of both of these “firsts” in the media, but what strikes me is that the “history making” aspects of both elections were only side notes to those who voted and were elected. After all, neither was elected because of their “minority” status, but because they are qualified and wise spiritual leaders who speak eloquently and passionately about God’s church. As one person said simply of Bishop Erwin’s election, “He was the best candidate.” 

On one hand, these elections should not be news because of course there are qualified candidates for this ministry who happen to be women or LGBT just as some happen to be straight, white men. On the other hand, they show that we as the church are still struggling to live out Paul’s words in Galatians above that it is Christ’s claim to us that matters more than our claim to a gender, ethnic, or other identity. We are Christians first and foremost. 

This is not a new struggle. In Paul’s day, there were heated arguments about whether uncircumcised Greeks could be Christian (Galatians 2), whether wealthy socialites were more Christian than slaves (1 Corinthians 11-13), and even whether a Christian who sins could still be part of the church (1 John 2). Given the chance, humans will always look for ways to create hierarchy, while God continues to practice radical welcome and grace.

As the church and the world continues to struggle with our sinful tendency to divide and focus on differences, the fact that our congregation has chosen to declare that we are welcoming to all people is a powerful witness. We should be proud of the fact that we have chosen to take a stand for inclusion. We feel convicted by the Spirit to say that being a diverse church strengthens our faith as we all learn and grow together.

Until the day where these elections are not newsworthy, we should be proud to say, “Yes, my church elects woman bishops and gay bishops, because we believe that God calls all people to new life and God uses every person God calls to do God’s work -- even me and you.”

“We are the beautiful letdown, the painfully uncool; the church of the dropouts, the losers, the sinners, the failures, and the fools.” -Switchfoot, “The Beautiful Letdown”