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”