Thursday, December 11, 2014

5 More Great Movies for Exploring Faith

Several months ago I wrote a post about some of my favorite movies for exploring faith. In the months since, I've thought of several others that I think are great for raising questions related to faith. I started with five, but as I started writing the list grew to seven. I'm not saying these are "Christian movies" (or even that they are great movies), but each of them presents themes or questions that help me to think about and teach religious ideas. I hope they do the same for you.

The Hunger Games (2012, drama, PG-13): There is so much in this movie (and series) worth talking about. It raises profound questions about injustice and power. It asks honest questions about how to act ethically in a thoroughly corrupt system. (Such as, "Is it justifiable to kill when that's what's expected of you?") It challenges us to reflect on what we consider "entertainment." It explores the difference between survival and really living. The whole series reads like a modern retelling of the book of Exodus. Anyone who has not read the books or seen the movies really should.

The Secret of Kells (2009, animated, Not Rated): This beautiful animated film tells a fictional history of the creation of the Book of Kells. As the abbey of Kells fortifies itself against the advancing Northmen, a monk from Iona arrives working on an illuminated Gospel that will "turn darkness into light." Young Brendan is fascinated by Aidan's work, but his uncle, the Abbot, thinks it impractical in light of the coming Northmen. The film explores the importance of art and beauty as it relates to faith, warns against religious arrogance, and asks how people should act in the face of horror and fear. (Note: This is a great family film, but scenes of the Northmen might be scary for younger viewers.)

Signs (2002, sci-fi/thriller, PG-13) and The Village (2004, thriller, PG-13): Having two M. Night Shyamalan films on the same list might turn some people off, but I love his movies because even though their premises can sometimes feel stretched, they always make me think. Signs follows a former priest who's lost his faith following the death of his wife. A crop circle in his field starts a series of events that leads to a close encounter with aliens and possibly with God that gives a double meaning to the movie's title. It asks us whether we believe in fate and if God speaks in coincidences. The Village focuses on a small isolated community whose way of life includes appeasing mysterious creatures that live in the surrounding woods. One can easily see parallels between the village's rules and religious cults and the movie forces us to consider what lengths we'd go to in order to create a utopia -- and if such a thing is possible.

Phenomenon (1996, drama, PG): How do we deal with miracles? And do we even want them? When an average Joe mechanic suddenly develops off-the-charts mental capabilities and telekinesis, some people are amazed, but most become fearful and suspicious. Although the main character tries to use his powers for good, it's clear most people preferred him as an idiot to a miracle worker. It asks how minds and hearts are changed and explores the good and bad sides of belief and the connections between fear and wonder. As a bonus, there's a scene where John Travolta's character talks about eating an apple that I think is one of the best descriptions of the communal side of communion I know.

Mud (2012, drama, PG-13): Two boys growing up along the Mississippi River in Arkansas befriend a man named "Mud" who is hiding on an island in the river and may or may not be a liar, a fugitive, and dangerous. The movie sets up as a slow-burning crime thriller, but by the end you realize it's a movie about love: what we think love is, where we look for it, how we fail to show it, and ultimately the unexpected places we find it. This movie swam around in my heart and mind for several days after seeing it.

Departures (2008, drama, PG-13): This beautiful Japanese movie relates the story of a struggling musician who falls into a new career as a nokanshi (one who prepares the dead for burial). At times both deeply moving and laugh out loud funny, Departures asks honest questions about mortality and presents the importance and power of treating others with dignity -- even after death. A movie about finding your calling and finding holiness in simple places.

If you have some time this holiday season, I hope some of you will take time to enjoy one or two of these movies and please engage me in conversation in the comments, in person, or on facebook or twitter.

In the Gray,
Pastor Ari

“Heaven's not that far...It's growing where we are.” -Jars of Clay, "Heaven"

Thursday, December 4, 2014

These 7 Things Give Me Hope

This year during Advent, my worship planning team came up with the idea of giving gifts each week, or more accurately, naming some of the gifts God gives to us. Each week we are sending worshippers home with "gift tags" like these pictured that name a gift we get from God and then have a question or activity to connect the gift with life during the week.

This week, in response to Jesus' message "Heaven and earth may pass away, but my words will not pass away" (Mark 13:31), we made this past Sunday about "Hope." The tags we sent home said, "Each day, name one thing that gives you hope about the future." As I've considered this challenge this week, I thought I'd share my list here to encourage and hopefully spread the conversation beyond my congregation.

So here are my seven things that give me hope for the future:
  1. My Kids - I'm biased, I know, but my kids are kind, loving, creative, whip-smart, and generous.* (My daughter recently took some of her allowance to school and gave it to one of her teachers whose smart board had died the day before. The teacher returned the money with a very touching thank you card.) If my kids keep these traits, I have no fear about their own future and if there's a handful more like them in the world, the rest of us will be okay, too. (*Most of the time.)
  2. Modern Medicine - One hundred fifty years ago, we didn't know about germs and we've since destroyed small pox and vaccinated many other diseases into an afterthought. Ebola is doing awful things in Africa now, but twenty years ago we thought AIDS might end humanity and it is now manageable. Just in the time I've been a pastor, I've seen surgeries that used to hospitalize people for days or weeks turn into out-patient surgery. (I once missed visiting someone following a hip replacement because they were released within 48 hours!) Cures and treatments that were once miraculous are now commonplace and more miracles are becoming common every year.
  3. The Fact That My Elders Were Just As Uncertain About The World Their Kids Would Inherit - I recently had a conversation with a mother who confessed she had been uncertain about ever having kids because "I didn't want my kids growing up in a world like this." "But," she said, "My mother and grandmother told me they thought the same thing in their youth." I've thought this same thing, but the world has never turned out quite as bad as the previous generation has thought and has largely thrived in the past century. If their pessimism was wrong, mine probably is, too.
  4. Music - Most people who know me know that I love music. I usually have it playing in the background while I work or clean and my idea of a self-indulgent evening is to sit down with a set of headphones and listen to a favorite album from beginning to end with my eyes closed. Music gives me hope because at its best, I find it to be a transcendent experience that opens my mind and heart to visions of the world as it should be. A great song can transport me to an emotional plain that inspires and energizes me to make myself and the world around me a better place. 
  5. Surprise - I am regularly surprised in my life. I'm surprised by compliments from unexpected sources, by unsolicited help, by small and even anonymous acts of kindness, by people who share hidden passions and interests, by children that blurt out simple but powerful statements of love and truth. It gives me the sense that there is much more goodness and kindness in the world around me than is known or seen. I tend to focus on tragedies and troubles (thank you, media), but there is a great deal of uncelebrated kindness happening, too.
  6. My Spouse - She's my biggest cheerleader and best support. I'm amazed and inspired by her. To crib from Jack Nicholson in "As Good As It Gets," she makes me want to be a better person. Any future with her is worth looking forward to.
  7. My Baptism - Martin Luther once said that when the dark voices start whispering how worthless, hopeless, or sinful you are, a Christian should cry back, "But I am baptized!" As a Christian, when I feel hopeless about myself or the future, knowing that I've had God's promises poured over me -- promises that can't break, tarnish, or expire -- is a great source of hope for me.
I'd love to hear your own thoughts on where you find hope in the comments (or in person). Thanks for taking the time to read mine and may your holiday season be filled with hope. 

In the Gray,
Pastor Ari

“Author of the moment, can you tell me: do I end up happy?” -He Is We, “Happily Ever After”

Friday, November 21, 2014

Jesus Christ, Brain Scientist

Two thousand years ago, Jesus said an awful lot about helping others, being kind and generous, being more concerned about others than yourself, and to be wary of wealth because it can get in the way of our relationship with God. (Normally I'd link to some Bible verses here, but seriously, just pick any page in the four gospels and you'll probably find him talking about one of these things.)

And for two thousand years, we in the church have sought to follow these commands in various ways and for various reasons. Some follow Jesus' words to earn God's favor (or avoid wrath! [neither of which I endorse]), some do so as a public witness of faith, some do so because they think Jesus' words are just a wise way to live, and so on. We sometimes disagree on how best to love our neighbor or feed the poor, but most Christians take Jesus' words seriously and try in our own ways to live them out.

What's occurred to me recently is that modern science is starting to back up a lot of his words about how to live as good for happiness, good for health, and good for society.

  • Michael Norton has research that shows we can buy spending money on others. 
  • Shawn Achor says that spending time doing kind things for others, giving thanks, and meditating (prayer?) are keys to wiring our brains for happiness. 
  • Brene Brown has shown that embracing our imperfections (confessing sin, maybe?) and living with vulnerability is core to joy, love, and stronger relationships. 
  • In the documentary "Happy," several researchers say their studies show humans are happier in forgetting themselves and helping others than they are trying to make themselves happy. 
  • And there are growing studies that suggest that large amounts of wealth are linked to people being less empathetic, less ethical, and less generous (scroll just past halfway to find the studies cited), but not any happier.

I think almost any person would list having a purpose and personal happiness as core goals for their life. Ironically, this research is suggesting that the best way to find them is to stop thinking about yourself and focus on serving, loving, and giving and happiness and purpose will naturally follow. Sounds a little bit like, "Those who lose their life for my sake will find it" (Luke 9:24).

Maybe when Jesus shared all these words with us years ago, he wasn't just letting us know what God thinks of things or setting up religious standards for Christianity. Perhaps he was also giving us insight into how we are created to live, in essence saying, "You should be loving, forgiving, and generous because your brain and body is hardwired to react positively to those things."

I am not an expert in all of this science and I know this is a large leap to make, but if we are made in the image of God and God is loving, generous, and compassionate, it makes sense to me that those traits would be indelibly marked within us.

I'm excited to see what else this growing field of science might reveal to us, because for all those who've ever told me that Jesus' words about love and compassion don't work "in the real world," the real world of our brains is starting to look more like the Kingdom of God.

From the Gray,
Pastor Ari

“'Cause we are miracles wrapped up in chemicals.” -Gary Go, "Wonderful"

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

What's Coming to You...

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

It happened this past week in mid-November. Both my kids at different times asked the age-old question, “When is Christmas going to be here?” They are already anticipating the presents, decorations, and food that heralds the heralds of Christ’s birth. And who can blame them? In spite of the stress that some of us feel before Christmas, it’s still a joy and wonder to wait for what we all know is coming. 

I was reminded this morning by a devotional reading that the very name the Church gives for the weeks before Christmas — Advent — means “coming.” It is a time that we live with patience and preparation (and excitement!) for what will soon arrive. One of the things that I love about Advent is how it represents the way we are meant to live as Christians all the time. We are always looking with hope and excitement towards the future, always keeping an eye on what’s coming. 

I find this an important reminder for myself as we head into another Christmas, a new year, and another (early) winter. There are always reasons to be pessimistic about…almost everything, and this year is no different, with ISIS and Ebola causing havoc and heartbreak, Russia seemingly focused on another Cold War, domestic politics that are as partisan and bitter as most of us can ever remember, and so on. (Like, why is it this cold in November?) 

But as Christians, we are called to live in the now and the not yet. While we seek to love and serve in the present, to ease suffering and care for those in need, we also speak of the not yet, the coming Kingdom of God (or, as I like to call it, “God’s Reality”) where joy and love will prosper and suffering and trouble will end. Christmas happens just after the shortest day of the year and for generations, the Church has used the circumstance as a metaphor that once Jesus appears, light in the world increases.

In October and November of this year, I’ve preached on a lot of texts from Matthew where Jesus describes his eventual return. Many of these have images that can seem threatening and scary (Matthew is very fond of the phrase “weeping and gnashing of teeth”), but for Christians, these words carry a great promise: God doesn’t want the world to be suffering and unjust and some day Jesus is coming to fix it all. All the things that cause us fear and heartbreak — near or far, big or small — are temporary compared to the promises of God. Therefore, we look for the coming of Jesus just like we wait for the coming of Christmas: with joy and excitement. When is Christmas going to be here?

In God's Amazing Grace,
Pastor Ari

“Blah blah love and war.” -The Rescues, “Did It Really Even Matter”

Thursday, November 6, 2014

Why Laziness is Not My Problem

I've been reading through a daily devotional online called "10 Things to Abandon for Spiritual Growth." This morning's devotion was focused on laziness. "Work gives us purpose," the author wrote. While I agree with that and that laziness is not a trait to be admired, I found myself thinking that for me and many people I connect with through my congregation, the problem is not that we don't work enough, it's that we work hard at the wrong things.

I hear all the time that people are too busy or tired (often from my own mouth). Our culture celebrates and encourages hard work and often work more than we have to by not taking all our vacation days. Even our free time can feel like work as we fill it up with clubs, committees, and kids' activities.

No, I don't think laziness is a problem for as many people as my devotional's author seems to think, but I do agree that God intends for us to do work that has a purpose, and that's where I think we (or at least I) have room to grow.

Just being busy isn't the same as doing something meaningful. I find it easy to fill my time with things that keep me busy, but can then get to the end of a day thinking, "What did I actually do today?" Sometimes I legitimately waste that time, but just as often I make myself busy with activities that don't do as much for my health, my attitude, or my relationships as an alternative would. I choose poorly or fail to make a decision in the first place and end up dealing with whatever comes up.

In Matthew 6, Jesus talks about making ourselves busy with worry, but then says, "Seek first the Kingdom of God and God's righteousness." I think Jesus was partly saying, "Prioritize your life according to God's purpose for you so that you don't make yourself busy or crazy out of worry or fear."

We are made by God to have purpose in our lives, but sometimes we need to say no or not now to some things so we can be busy with things that serve that bigger purpose. I've been doing some of this myself recently because I found myself repeatedly thinking, "I'm too busy to do the things that really matter to me." As I've made a few things I care about more important, I've found myself no less busy, but feeling more satisfied and less stressed and tired.

No, I don't think laziness in general is a problem, but maybe being less lazy about setting good priorities is a good goal "for spiritual growth" (as the title of my devotion says). Then I can work harder at work that's worth doing.

“It's as crazy as it's ever been; all we have is now.” -Live, "Run to the Water"

Friday, October 24, 2014

"The Lego Movie" is a Model for Being A Christian

One of my favorite movies from this past year was "The Lego Movie." There are a lot of things to like about the movie -- a fun premise, sharp humor, great animation, a heart-warming ending, and LEGOS! -- but I was reflecting this week (watching my kids build with Legos) that the movie also offers a model for discipleship as Christians.

For those who haven't seen the movie, the basic story is that a Lego villain named Lord Business wants to make a perfect world by gluing all Legos in place forever and a simple guy named Emmett is anointed the "special" who will save the world by the Master Builders who oppose Lord Business. In the movie, the Master Builders stand for creativity, freedom, and individuality while Lord Business promotes uniformity and following the rules.

Now normally when a movie sets up a difference like that, the final message is something like: Be yourself no matter what and everything will be fine. But that's NOT what "The Lego Movie" does. Lord Business is clearly the villain, but the Master Builders' sense of freedom has problems, too. They are so individualistic (and self-important?) that they have trouble working together and in one emergency they are so bad at listening to each other that the escape craft they build doesn't work. Without giving too much away, it's only when they use their individual talents as a team that they are able to succeed.

Just when you think the movie is going to say, "Be yourself," it adds on, "...but remember that you still need others." It's this both/and that I found interesting and think is a great example of being a Christian.

As a Christian, I believe that I am uniquely created, called, gifted, and set free by the Triune God.  At the same time, I believe I am called to love and serve others and have to live in community and relationship with them. Like in "The Lego Movie," I am a special and creative individual, but if I am only an individual and can't share my talents as part of a community, there can be just as much discord and trouble as oppressive uniformity.

I see both extremes expressed at times in the church. Some act as if God is Lord Business, demanding loyalty and uniformity in order to enforce a perfect world. Others see God as a Master Builder who says, "You're special and unique. You don't need anyone else." The church says neither.

Paul explains this in 1 Corinthians when he writes, "Just as a body, though one, has many parts, but all its many parts make one body, so it is with Christ... You (plural) are the body of Christ and each of you is a part of it." He explains that everyone has special gifts, but those gifts aren't meant to divide us, but unite us by seeing our talents as part of a greater whole. Or, as one pastor I know was fond of saying, "Faith is personal, but not individualistic."

Martin Luther once summed up this paradox by writing, "A Christian is a perfectly free lord of all, subject to none. A Christian is a perfectly dutiful servant of all, subject to all." Who would have thought that the heart of his message would show up in a fun kids' movie? And yet "The Lego Movie" provides a great metaphor for building up Christian disciples, brick by brick.

“I'd rather be a functioning cog in some great machinery serving something beyond me.” -Fleet Foxes, "Helplessness Blues"

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Oops, Pope Francis did it again...

The world has once again been abuzz this week with word that Pope Francis is rocking the boat in Rome. The news this time is that a conference of bishops called by the pope to have frank discussions around "family matters" has discussed creating a more welcoming message toward LGBT and divorced people and unmarried couples who are living together.

It's important to note that doctrine and policy are not being changed, but the tone and emphasis are being changed. As one Vatican spokesperson I heard discussing the conference noted, the church has always stated that every person is a child of God, but now "that's the first thing we will say."

(It should also be noted that this is pretty much in keeping with Francis's M.O. up to this point. He hasn't actually changed any Catholic doctrine; he's just changed the conversation to emphasize portions of doctrine that have often been lost in the noise. [God's love for all people, the need to act with humility, presenting an attitude of servanthood to the world, etc.])

In the days since the document was released, there has been some strong pushback and attempts to clarify what is being said, especially from more traditional bishops. At this point, it's not clear what the final word or actions may be, but I'm still excited to see Francis making the effort to have the conversation.

I don't agree with the Catholic Church on everything that constitutes a "sin," but if we spend too much time telling those outside the church about sin, then that's all they hear and any word of welcome or grace (the most important part of the message) sounds false. The message shifts to one of "you need to get your life together before you're welcome in a church" and starts to include "faults" that go beyond sin like doubts or depression. Where else in our society do we have this kind of backwards expectation? We don't say, "get yourself healthy before you go to the hospital" or "become an expert in your preferred field of study before you apply for college."

This whole topic deserves more time and nuance than I'm going to give it in this blog, but please allow me to oversimplify by saying: the message from the church should always emphasize that sin (however we define it), doubts, or personal shortcomings should never stand in the way of being welcomed in church because we are all -- Christian and non-Christian -- imperfect and we are all -- Christian and non-Christian -- still loved desperately by God.

We don't need to get our life together to come to church because being in church--or better put, being in regular relationship with God and God's community--is how we are meant to get our life together. Francis has been showing through his words and actions that if we want to be effective at changing lives, it helps to first have a genuine relationship with a person. Jesus himself demonstrated this in his ministry (see John 8 as an example). If we start with loving people as they are and seek to serve rather than preach, I think we're far more likely to see the growth of God in them (and ourselves) that we hope for.

“Change has been; change will be.” -Collective Soul, “Reunion”

Friday, October 3, 2014

Making Words Dangerous

This week, a member of my congregation sent me an email about ISIS. The email shared a couple news items about ISIS's practice of martyring Christians (including children) who refused to renounce their faith in Jesus and convert to (a narrow, twisted interpretation of) Islam. Those who aren't killed are charged a "tax" or forced to flee their homes. "It's unbelievable what others are suffering," she wrote.

I've been heartbroken by these same stories and they have reminded me of a conversation in Bible study from a couple years ago. We had been discussing the Apostle's Creed and someone had raised the question of whether it had any real meaning for most Christians anymore. A woman in the class changed the whole conversation when she said, "When I say the Creed, I think about the fact that there are people who are persecuted for being Christians around the world and my reciting it is showing solidarity with them."

I replied to the email this week by saying that since ISIS's crimes against humanity have been in the news, that conversation has been in my mind whenever I recite the Apostle's Creed in worship. For some people saying those words is dangerous and that makes them more meaningful for me. I ended the email with the only words that made sense: "Lord, have mercy, indeed."

As I ponder this more, I think about the fact that I will likely never face death because of stating my Christian faith, and the question that inevitably comes to mind is, "What can I do?" Knowing there are those who die for their words in this world, what difference can my life make?

At this point, many people might start listing off various charities and causes that are working in this arena and I encourage anyone moved by these things to pursue that angle. (I certainly have several charities I support beyond my congregation.) But even though good agencies need financial support, I also want to believe that my ability to affect good in the world extends beyond my wallet.

And so in the process of writing the past several paragraphs, my efforts to answer "What can I do?" settled on a different question: "How do I make my words dangerous?"

You see, all my thoughts about the Creed and martyrdom kept coming back to one thought -- the words we say matter. I can forget this because words are cheap these days. Many of us send thousands of texts and emails a month, watch dozens of hours of television of people talking, and read books, blogs, and sports columns daily (sometimes doing several of these at once). We are surrounded by words to the point that everything is background noise.

But our words can be meaningful--and dangerous.

The book of James in the Bible has a lot to say about our words. Most of what James says is negative ("The tongue is a restless evil..."), but he also makes the point that the tongue is powerful, comparing it to a rudder that turns a large ship. Words can affect change and challenge the status quo--for good or bad--and that can make them dangerous for anyone who uses them.

When we say things like "I love you" or "I'm sorry" or "I forgive you" we are making ourselves vulnerable because we don't always know what someone will say back. When we reply to gossip or hateful speech with the words, "I don't feel that way," we risk feeling very alone. We may never risk our lives for the Gospel, but we can risk other things that are precious to us: pride, power, status. (Although those might not always be a bad thing to lose.)

Within this world, there are people who are dying for the words they use. How will I be mindful of mine to make them meaningful? Will my words carry the dangerous vulnerability of love and mercy? In what direction will my tongue steer the ship? On the eve of St. Francis's commemoration day, I remember his words, "Lord, make me an instrument of your peace..." Amen.

(I ask that if you pray, please join me in using some of your words today to pray for innocent martyrs of all faiths.)

Speak louder than the words before you and give them meaning no one else has found.” -Ian Axel, "This is the New Year"

Thursday, September 25, 2014

What My Daughter Taught Me About Gratitude

A few nights ago, I was putting my daughter to bed when she asked me, "How much money was our house to buy?" I told her the amount, which is roughly what you would expect to pay for a "starter" home in our area.

My daughter, who thinks that ten dollars is a huge amount of money, gave me a look of awe and surprise at a number on a scale far beyond her weekly allowance. Then I watched her mind settle on a reason for this astronomical number and she smiled warmly as she said, "It must cost a lot because we have such a nice house."

I was surprised at her answer. A nice house? I don't think we live in a dump, but it wouldn't be confused for the Ritz-Carlton by anyone. And to be honest, when I'm in my house, what I tend to notice is the chips in the paint, the stains in the carpet, or the cracks in the driveway. I tend to see my house as a to-do list of things to be fixed, but I realized in that moment that my daughter saw it very differently. To her, our house is amazing and beautiful.

Lately, I've been thinking a lot about gratitude. It's been a common theme through what I've seen, heard, and read lately (I even talked about it in my sermon this past Sunday), and I've been thinking about how connected it is to other things. Gratitude makes it hard to be envious, angry, or hold grudges. It decreases worry and increases generosity. It seems to be a common theme among people I perceive to be happy most of the time (and therefore wish to emulate).

And it is not how I would describe my usual attitude toward my to-do list house.

But my daughter sees the house differently and she is grateful to live in "such a nice house." For a moment during bedtime, I could see it through her eyes and it reminded me of the plastic bag scene in American Beauty. I hope and pray that I can find that type of gratitude more often, even -- especially! -- for ordinary things. Then maybe I would have more moments like my daughter's wonder or like my son looking in the laundry and shouting, "Yes! My shark shirt is clean! Awesome!" I can't imagine that would be a bad place to be.

“If you wanna kiss the sky, better learn how to kneel.” -U2, “Mysterious Ways”

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Scotland, God, and You and Me

This morning, the result of the long-awaited vote on Scottish independence was announced. Given the chance to become again a separate nation, the people of Scotland voted 55-45 to remain a part of the United Kingdom.

As an anglophile who has travelled to the southern parts of UK twice and would love to vacation in Scotland someday, I was watching the vote closely. But up until today, I don't think I could have said I had a strong opinion one way or another.

Part of me was morbidly curious to see if an independent Scotland could succeed. Economically, there are some strong reasons to believe she'd be just fine, and on my first trip to London, I met a British Member of Parliament from the Scottish National Party who gave a passionate argument for independence. On the other hand, I worried about the confusion a divorce would mean for the UK and all their allies. What would it mean for neighbors on the Scotland-England border? Would Scots living in other parts of the UK suddenly need foreign work permits or likewise for other Brits in Scotland? The whole issue raised fascinating questions.

After hearing the result of the vote, however, I found myself pleased. And I realized my pleasure didn't come from any political or economic reasoning, but from a philosophical one. At a time when we hear about so much division in our world, Scotland had made a decision in favor of community.

In recent decades it seems that most movement has been in the opposite direction. Religious and ethnic groups have demanded greater separation from their former neighbors. Since 1990, at least a dozen countries have been created by larger nations breaking down along cultural lines. Just in the past month we've seen headlines about Iraq, Israel/Gaza, and Ukraine where one group of people is saying, "We can't live with you. Because you are a different religion/ethnicity, we can't share a nation with you." (And yes, I realize that is a radical oversimplification, but I do believe that thread of thought is present in all three areas.) In the United States, much of our national politics has ground to a halt because the two major political parties refuse to work with each other on big issues, pointing to their opponents' differences as faults.

What's interesting is that according to the Bible, God seems very interested in community over divisions. Early in Genesis, God says "It's not good for a human to be alone." Throughout the prophets, God says things suggesting that how we live together as a community is the greatest reflection of our religious beliefs. Jesus said an awful lot more about repairing and maintaining relationships than he did about ending them. In Matthew's Gospel especially, Jesus seems deeply concerned with answering, "How should Christians live together?"

In light of the Bible and current news, I find Scotland's vote for continued community to be a breath of fresh air. Certainly there are still issues to be ironed out and the future UK may still be different as a result of the vote, but the Scots decided that being different doesn't mean they have to be separate and community doesn't have to be built on finding a smaller group of people that agree on more things. Instead, choosing to be a community in spite of differences brings a strength all its own.

In a world (and Church) as diverse as ours, there's a lesson in that for all of us.

“I’m kind of older than I was when I rebelled without a care. So there.” -Lorde, “Team”

Monday, September 1, 2014

Old God Teaches New Tricks

(This blog post originally appeared in my church's newsletter for Fall 2014)

As we begin the autumn season, I’m reminded of a college professor I recently heard who was arguing that Labor Day is our cultural new year. His point is that in the United States, the end of summer and start of the school year mark a greater number of changes for most families than the move from December to January. Even in the church (especially in the church?), we typically function on a school year calendar of September through May for most of our activities and celebrate the end of summer with a Rally Day to kick off the “new year.”

We typically think of the start of the (Sunday) school year as the chance for students to come back and continue their learning, but as I’ve been preparing for our church’s fall activities this past month, I’ve found myself reflecting on how this cultural new year is not just for kids. Every year at confirmation, I try to make the point that confirmation is not a graduation, but an inauguration. We are not telling our young scholars, “You’ve learned all you need to know,” but “You’ve learned enough to start your adult faith journey and welcome to the continuation of your faith development.”

And yet we know from multiple studies that Biblical and religious knowledge is steadily decreasing among adults. Some point to decreasing church participation as a factor, or fewer adult classes, or poor educational materials. But I think there are two key things at the root of a lot of this. 

First is that the church has not promoted an environment of inquiry that makes it a safe place to ask questions and wonder out loud about things. Instead, many churches have promoted the sense that there are set facts about faith and you memorize ‘em, believe ‘em, and don’t challenge ‘em. (Even though Lutheranism has a strong tradition of intellectual curiosity, we’re not immune.) The second and related element is the “impostor syndrome,” the sense that everyone else in church knows the answers to the questions and so we’ll look stupid if we ask them. I see this all the time in questions that get prefaced with “I know I should know this already, but…”

Proverbs is a book in the Bible that is full of wisdom teachings and it is full of reminders to seek out learning throughout our lives: 
  • “Let the wise listen and add to their learning; and let the discerning get guidance.” -Prov. 1:5
  • “The heart of the discerning acquires knowledge and the ears of the wise seek it out.” -Prov. 18:15
  • “Get wisdom … Do not forsake wisdom and she will protect you; love her and she will watch over you.” -Prov. 4:5-6
In the spirit of Proverbs and the new school year, I want to challenge all of us to go back to school. During this fall, I’d love to see each of us pick one thing we’d like to learn about faith and pursue it. Read a book in the Bible you’ve never read, join a Bible study or discussion group, ask that faith question that’s always nagged at you, memorize the Beatitudes, study the history of ancient Israel, or read a book by Philip Yancey, C.S. Lewis, or Luther’s Small Catechism.

And then the second step is just as important: talk about what you’ve learned. I’d love to hear what people are doing (it helps me learn, too!), but be sure to talk to each other. That way, we can continue shaping our congregation into a place where it’s normal to ask questions, share ideas, and grow in faith together. And it keeps us faithful to our Cornerstones of Engaging the Bible, Building Loving Relationships, and Daily Acts of Faith.

Faith is not a destination at which we arrive; it is the journey on which we are traveling. Let’s travel together.

“You don't gotta fight, or make yourself belong, to be a revolution.” -Jars of Clay, "Revolution"

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Make Yourself Uncomfortable

I value the daily blog posts of Seth Godin because of the way they often challenge me to think outside the box and approach problems from new angles. About two weeks ago, he had this gem that has been rattling around in my brain ever since:

'Doing the best I can actually not the same as, "doing everything I can.”

When we tell people we're doing the best we can, we're actually saying, "I'm doing the best I'm comfortable doing."

As you've probably discovered, great work makes us uncomfortable.'

The italics at the end are mine because that was the part that really grabbed me. It felt like a personal challenge that rings with truth from my own personal experience. I can be safe and comfortable and do okay work, but typically the biggest accomplishments and successes of my life and career have required some difficult decisions and leaps of faith.

It just so happens that this week's Gospel lesson feels like a perfect dovetail to this blog. In Matthew 16, Jesus tells his disciples that being the Messiah will lead to his own death and then challenges them, "If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it. For what will it profit them if they gain the whole world but forfeit their life?"

Exactly what it means for us to take up our cross is a topic that could fill a book, but suffice it to say that what Jesus describes does not sound comfortable or safe. "There is great work to be done," he is telling them, "but it won't be easy."

And it's advice Jesus himself abides by. Jesus could keep teaching and healing people and the crowds would eat it up, but his end game isn't to help a few hundred people; he is there to change the world and reveal God to all people. According to Matthew's gospel, he spends his final night before crucifixion scared, worried, and literally sweating it out. Great work makes us uncomfortable...

I think there are two good lessons for Christians in this passage to ponder. First, how often do we assume that doing the right thing should be easy? If I'm doing what God asks of me, shouldn't it go smoothly? Jesus says, "No." Following Jesus is life-giving and rewarding ("those who lose their life for my sake will find it..."), but Jesus doesn't say anything in this passage about easy or comfortable. If that seems strange, just think of marriage. Almost every couple who has been married for thirty or more years tells me that staying together takes work and learning and patience, but the struggles have made the relationship stronger and richer.

The second lesson is that we need to get more comfortable with being uncomfortable. It seems to me that many or most churches struggle with breaking out of old patterns that proving ineffective at growing disciples or engaging the world because they are afraid of trying something that might fail. There is also the prevailing issue that in practice, most churches work to keep their existing members comfortable and happy. Doing bold and important work takes risks and it will not please everyone, but in an age where religious affiliation is on the decline in the Western World, standing pat is not a success story either. And as a friend is fond of reminding me, because of God's grace, "We have permission to fail, but we don't have permission to be indifferent."

If great work makes us uncomfortable and taking up our cross and losing our lives helps us find life, then maybe I need to be more aware of my decision making. Maybe my question for making decisions shouldn't be "Does this feel comfortable?" but "Does this feel important?"

“Beloved Enemy demands my life and all I am; but then He blesses me and gives it back again.” –Wes King, "Magnificent Defeat"

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Reasons to Fight with God

A few weeks ago, the Old Testament reading for our Sunday worship was one of my favorite texts in the Bible: Jacob literally wrestling with God. (Actually, it's not entirely clear who Jacob wrestles, but the traditional interpretation is that he wrestled with God.)

I love the vividness of this story, but most importantly for the wonderful metaphors it offers us about life with God. How many of us have spent nights wrestling with questions of the future, of purpose, of self-worth, of hope? How many of us have avoided these wrestling matches, afraid of confronting God or other wild, untamed truths? How many of us have avoided wrestling matches thinking we must simply submit? Genesis 32 suggests that such wrestling matches can actually be faithful, holy activities.

Several months ago, I wrote a blog post about how troubling I find the account of Isaac's near sacrifice in Genesis 22. With Jacob's account in Genesis 32 as a lens, then perhaps that struggle with the very text of the Bible is another example of wrestling with God and can be seen as a holy activity. In preaching, in Bible study, and in conversation with other Christians, I think our grappling with the Bible is an important and faithful thing to do.

One of the defining characteristics of wrestling that makes this episode so vivid to me is that wrestling is a full body exercise. Unlike Abraham, Moses, or Job, Jacob doesn't debate God; he throws his whole body at God. Wrestling is an act of desperation, of using all you are. In that way, this can be a great metaphor for following God, too. After all, if God asks us to love with "all your heart and soul and strength" (Deut. 6:5), doesn't it stand to reason that we will at times resist with all that we are?

Tim McGraw once sang "I hope you get the chance to live like you were dying." I see echoes of that song in this passage. Instead of a blissful, peaceful stroll beside still waters, living with God is also an act of desperation and urgency. And maybe that's good news, because my life rarely feels totally peaceful or simple, so if that were the mark of perfect faith, I'm failing. But if God is present in my struggles, then maybe I'm not as off track as I might think.

In fact, one of the fascinating details of this account is the new name that Jacob is given in verse 28. God renames him "Israel," which means "struggles with God." Not only does Jacob wear this name as a badge of honor, but the Jewish people eventually use the word to name their nation. In contrast, the term "Islam" means "surrender" (as in, surrendering to God's will) and Christian means "little Christ" and we who are Christians often define ourselves as "disciples" (literally: "students") or "followers" of Jesus the Christ. But imagine daily saying, "I'm one that wrestles with God." How might that shape our faith and understanding of God?

Of course, one of the key details of Jacob's wrestling match is that he doesn't win (and his hip is knocked out of joint -- oooouuuuch!) because, hey, it is GOD that he's wrestling. But in the morning, his adversary blesses him as Jacob asks. Likewise, wrestling with God may leave us wounded and almost certainly leave us defeated, but it will also leave us blessed.

“I get up from the canvas swinging like I think I might just win.” -Jars of Clay, “After the Fight”

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Happiness and Simplicity (Addenda to Last Week's Blog)

Last week I wrote a blog article about the documentary "Tiny" and how the subjects of the film had found happiness by simplifying their lives. Since writing that blog post, I've continued to mull over the themes and ideas in the movie. And as I've continued thinking about these things, it just so happens that I've stumbled across a couple of related nuggets on the interwebs this week.

One of the inevitable questions that arises from pondering the happiness of living in what is roughly the size of a walk-in closet is "What is happiness, anyway?" I mean, this is something we all strive for and we are bombarded with advice throughout our lives about how to earn it or buy it or make it or find it, but what is happiness in the first place? Is it a state of being? An action? Is it even reasonable to believe it should be our default emotion?

An article shared by a pastor friend on facebook this week suggests we may have our assumptions about happiness all wrong. The article, titled "5 Scientific Reasons Your Idea of Happiness is Wrong," from can be found here. (Yes, I realize that isn't exactly a reputable news source, but, hey... internet.) Knowing your time is precious and attention is short (at least if you're like me), here's the Cliff's Notes version of the article: 1) for most of human history, it was assumed that happiness is like luck, meaning it just happened or it didn't, 2) you physically cannot feel happy for very long, and 3) having lots of possessions, having lots of choices, and making personal happiness a major goal in life all tend to decrease happiness.

The article's scientific advice for being happy? "[S]top worrying about being happy and instead divert your energy to nurturing the social bonds you have with other people." So stop thinking about myself and work at loving others? Why does that sound familiar? (All this reminded me of this great 10-minute TED talk by Michael Norton on "How to Buy Happiness." Hint: you can't spend it on yourself.)

The second nugget I found this week was a posting by a facebook friend who is decluttering her life through an online activity. There is a group on facebook that is challenging people to simplify their lives by going through closets and drawers and recycling, giving away, or throwing out at least one thing every day. There was a game element to it (something like electronics on Fridays or 12 things on the 12th), but I can't seem to find the official page anymore. I'm going to contact my friend for the name and I'll post it in the comments. (Or if anyone else knows what it is, please do the same.) It seemed like a happy coincidence to find that just days after writing my last blog article.

As for me, I haven't jumped whole hog onto the tiny house or trash something everyday band wagon yet, but I did take the initiative over the weekend to clean out my tupperware cabinet of mismatched or broken things. That felt like a big accomplishment and now I feel happy every time I open that cabinet. At least for a moment.

"Clap along if you know what happiness is to you." -Pharrell Williams, "Happy"

Thursday, August 7, 2014

Big Insights from Living Small: A Reflection on the Film "Tiny"

Tonight I took advantage of some free time to watch a documentary called "Tiny." The film follows a 30 year old on his quest to build a tiny house under 200 square feet and profiles several people (including couples and a family) who have built and moved into similar-sized homes. (If you're interested, it's currently streaming on Netflix.)

I've mentioned before that I'm interested in the concept of design and I've been fascinated with the way design intersects with architecture and living spaces in particular to create spaces that can be simple, beautiful and functional. Therefore, I tossed this movie into my Netflix queue as soon as I discovered it. (Have I mentioned that I also love documentaries?)

As I was watching the documentary, however, I was surprised by the comments made by the people who had moved into tiny homes. Time and again, they made comments about how happy they were living in a small space. One man talked about the freedom it gave him because he didn't need to spend so much time and money cleaning and doing maintenance on his house. Others talked about how the small space focused them into deciding what was really important for them. (Some had moved into tiny homes after the Great Recession led them to lose much of what they had or reevaluate what they wanted from life.)

And then one woman in Olympia, Washington, made a comment that really brought out the spiritual theme that was running (unintentionally?) through the whole movie when she said that our culture doesn't give us many opportunities to practice humility and gratitude, but building a tiny house from scratch did. She had to learn to ask for help in building and to live with less, which made her more aware of what she did have.

Humility? Gratitude? Freedom? Is this a documentary on architecture or spirituality?

Our culture is built largely upon consumption and collection. The more we own/possess/control, the more successful and enviable we are perceived to be. Many of us shake our heads at this fact, but we all participate in it in some way.

Watching the movie made me think back to my first tiny apartment and how I thought if I just had a second bedroom I'd be happy. My second apartment had two bedrooms and I wished I had a dishwasher. My third apartment had a dishwasher and I wished it had a laundry room. And so on.

I like to believe that I live fairly simply, but I was amazed at the joy and satisfaction demonstrated by these people who had given up much of what my younger self thought would make my life perfect precisely because they'd given them up.

As I watched "Tiny," I couldn't help but think of a quote attributed to St. Augustine: "From what you own, set aside what you need to survive. The rest belongs to God." As I watched these people happily live in 200 square feet, it made me question exactly what it is I "need to survive." I can sit in my living room and see more things than I'd like to admit that I don't use, need, or even want any more. And if humility, gratitude, and joy (as expressed by these tiny home owners) are indeed spiritual fruits, then does having less space to live paradoxically make more space for God?

“If I die before I learn to speak, can money pay for all the days I lived awake but half asleep?” -Primitive Radio Gods, “Standing Outside a Broken Phone Booth with Money in my Hand”

Thursday, July 31, 2014

St. Paul's #1 Reason to Read the Bible

In Romans 15:4, Paul writes: "Everything that was written in the past was written to teach us, so that through the endurance taught in the Scriptures and the encouragement they provide we might have hope."

I've seen the Bible treated as something to be memorized and recited, as a history book, or as a self-help book or rule book for living (and to be fair, all of these can be found in scripture and have value). There are many who talk about Bible codes to interpret the future or discover the secrets of the universe. But for Paul, the goal is not secret knowledge or personal success, but hope. The scriptures teach us about "endurance" and "encouragement" so that "we might have hope." Hope in the God who has been present and faithful for all those who have struggled with faith and love before us.

In other words, the stories of God's people have been preserved and shared so that we can read ourselves in them and say, "Hey, I'm not the first person to face troubles/have doubts/face backlash for trying to do the right thing/make mistakes." And through that realization, we might find hope for ourselves in the same God who loved them.

I sometimes think of hope as a fluffy, squishy, Hallmark card kind of idea, but for Paul it's bedrock to being a follower of Jesus and core to understanding the Bible. (He uses the word 49 times in his letters, more often than "prayer" or "worship.") Hope enables faith, faith inspires love, and love generates hope.

I've heard and thought about the Bible in various contexts as a love story, a history book, an instruction manual, and a work of literature. Paul insists on another one: source of hope.

“Opened the door, knew what was me; I finally realized: parachute over me.” -Guster, “Parachute”

Thursday, June 26, 2014

I Don't Like Genesis 22

I've been dreading this coming Sunday for over a month.

You see, this coming Sunday, the lectionary my church uses has appointed Genesis 22:1-14 as the Old Testament reading. And Genesis 22 is one of my least favorite parts of the Bible: the (near) sacrifice of Isaac.

This is the type of text that I usually preach on because there are elements to it that I just can't let pass without some kind of commentary. But the elements that make this passage so difficult also make it hard for me to shape into a decent sermon*. So after much thought I decided to wrestle with it here instead.

For those who are not familiar with the story, God chooses to "test" Abraham by asking him to sacrifice his only remaining son, Isaac, who was a miracle child and meant to start a great "nation" of people. (Abraham's semi-legitimate son, Ishmael, was already sent off in another troubling episode.) Abraham obeys and gets so far as placing his bound child on the altar and raising the knife to slay him when God steps in and stops him.

I'm bothered by the text because of the connections it holds with two problems that are sadly still relevant today: child abuse and violence in the name of God.  When we continue to see children abused and exploited and when suicide bombings, apartheid, and KKK lynchings backed by religious beliefs are current or in recent memory, it's troubling to read a story of God promoting this type of behavior and a person of God who is willing to do both -- and is commended for it.

There are many explanations of this text that seek to ease some of the tension in it:
  • God had invested a lot in Abraham in making him the father of promise and needed to know that he would be faithful regardless of the task.
  • Abraham's Schwarzenegger-esque words to his servant--"We'll be back"--suggest he expected that God wouldn't actually make him sacrifice Isaac and both would return.
  • God was using this episode to condemn child sacrifice (which was practiced by many of Israel's neighboring religions) and show Abraham how his God was different from other gods.
  • Isaac was likely a teenager and Abraham was over 100 years old and couldn't have over-powered Isaac. Therefore, Isaac wasn't a victim, but a willing participant. (In fact many early church leaders used this story as a foretelling of Christ, who also willingly carried the wood to be used for his execution up a hill expecting to lose his life.)
But none of those explanations answer the biggest problem I have with the story: Why did God feel the need to test Abraham? Was God feeling cranky? Was it morbid curiosity? Shouldn't God have already known whether Abraham was faithful? (Abraham had already left his family and home and moved hundreds of miles at God's request.) 

I want to believe that Abraham got the message wrong. I want to believe that between the time the events happened and they were written down, the detail of God testing Abraham was added by the scribes. But I believe that the hard parts of the Bible can't just be brushed off because they're hard or we don't like them. We have to deal with them.

But we don't have to deal with them in a vacuum.

One of the parts of Lutheranism that I love is how we read scripture and one of the key parts of how we do that is the premise that "scripture interprets scripture." Martin Luther, who was often arguing the meaning of scripture with his opponents, knew there were parts of the Bible that didn't seem to agree with each other and so insisted that difficult or confusing texts be read in the context of the whole Bible and especially in the context of the words of Jesus.

In that light, Genesis 22 is easier to swallow. Elsewhere, God clearly condemns child sacrifice (Lev. 18:21; Deut. 18:10), God speaks through Hosea to say "I desire mercy, not sacrifice," and Jesus says "Blessed are the peacemakers" and "Let the little children come to me, for the Kingdom of Heaven belongs to them." Regardless of whether God tested Abraham or why, I look for solace in the fact that in the end, God's true nature won out. God stayed the execution and kept Abraham from killing his son. That is some good news in an otherwise difficult text.

I still feel very uncomfortable with this text, but faith, like life, is rarely simple and God, if the Bible is any indication, is quite complicated. I sincerely pray often to know and understand God better, but Abraham knew God well and that didn't seem to make his life any simpler either. Just one more troubling thing to wrestle with.

“I’m not sure if anybody understands.” -Fun., “Some Nights”

*To me, a sermon is the Living Word of God encountering human reality and creating new life. That sounds kind of vague and fluffy, I'm sure, but what I mean by it is that a sermon is not the same as a lecture. A lecture passes along information; a sermon creates an encounter with God's law and gospel. Every attempt I made with Genesis 22 felt like a lecture.

Thursday, June 12, 2014

Healthy Fear

One of the intriguing aspects of the Bible (at least to me) is the repeated command to "fear the Lord." It's an idea that appears at least one hundred times in places like Psalm 2:11 ("Serve the Lord with fear") or Proverbs 9:10 ("Fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom").

It's something I've been asked about many times over the years from kids and adults: "If God loves me, why should I be afraid?" And over the years, I've given pretty standard theological answers about being in awe of God's majesty and God's right to revoke mercy at anytime and blah blah blah...

Because while I don't think my answers were wrong, they left me unsatisfied and I've usually felt there has to be a better explanation to use. Then a couple months ago, I thought of one while listening to someone else preaching (on a completely unrelated topic).

I thought about the fact that we consider cold feet on a wedding day completely normal. Is it because we think the beloved will suddenly turn into a monster and eat us? No. It’s because we recognize the enormity of the moment. We recognize that this event/relationship/emotion will change us; we recognize that we can’t predict what this will mean for our lives.

Because I love/am loved, I may do things or live in ways I didn't think I would or could or should. Because I love/am loved, I must consider the needs and wishes of my beloved and not just my own. Because I love/am loved, I am entrusting a huge part of myself to someone I can't control, making myself vulnerable, and risking being hurt. And that's scary. Love is scary.

And we think it's normal to feel fear in that place.

God, God's love, and the relationship God offers to us are no different. They will change us. We cannot predict what God will mean for our lives or where faith may lead us. It is an enormous moment whenever we grasp the full breadth of God's intention for us. Of course we would be afraid. It would be foolish not to be afraid in that moment.

*     *     *

One of the best pieces of advice I received from someone in my preaching education was that the biochemical process in the brain for fear and excitement are almost identical. So when you feel anxious about public speaking, tell yourself, "I'm not scared; I'm excited to talk to these people." It repurposes the adrenaline to fuel you instead of feeding anxiety. (It has been helpful for me before many a sermon.) Sometimes I've even used this to help calm grooms and brides before a wedding.

At its best, I think that is what the "fear of God" is meant to do. It's fear that doesn't cripple or hinder us (that kind of fear is trouble), but instead it feeds anticipation and fuels us to go deeper in our relationship to God. It's the feeling of standing at the altar, overwhelmed at what is happening, but also giddy to see what's next. 

To fear God doesn't mean someone doesn't understand God's love for her, but just the opposite. God is big. God will change us. God will make us vulnerable and out of our own control. So be afraid... and be excited. 

“Faith makes everybody scared. It's the unknown, the don't know, that keeps me hanging on.” -Lifehouse, "Unknown"

Friday, June 6, 2014

Which Came First: The Reason or the Change?

One of the blogs I subscribe to is by Seth Godin. Godin writes daily on the emerging information and internet economy and I love to read his posts because he is concise and I can read most of them in under a minute (a skill I wish I had for my own writings). More importantly, he has a unique perspective on the modern world that often gets my own creative juices going for myself and my job. 

This morning's post was a prime example. The last line stopped my coffee mug half way to my mouth: It turns out, humans don't use explanations to make change happen. They change, and then try to explain it.

Though Godin certainly didn't intend it in the context of church, his quote immediately brought up all kinds of thoughts about Christian education, evangelism, and church culture. I think this quote captures part of what has been wrong with Christianity's approach to presenting itself for the past five hundred years or so. Starting with the Reformation and increasing through the Enlightenment, the Great Awakenings, and into the recent past, it seems that the Church (at least Western Protestantism), has come to believe that the key to evangelism is making a rational defense of faith. If I can make a logical proof of God/Jesus/faith, then people will come flocking to church. Many writings, sermons, and Sunday school lessons are built around that basic idea.

If Godin is correct, that kind of thinking is largely false. A logical argument may get the ball rolling in someone's mind or reinforce a change that was already underway, but it rarely is the whole of a person's life changing. 

I've attended church my whole life and when I think back, I realize that it wasn't the lessons I learned in Sunday school that "convinced" me about God as much as it was love my teachers had for me; it wasn't the logic in the sermons as much as the songs and rituals of worship echoing in my ears and heart. It was moments of supreme fellowship, beauty, truth/insight, and wonder that opened me up, turned me around, or overwhelmed my heart in ways that I didn't have language for in the moment. It was afterwards that I was able to use the vocabulary I had learned in Sunday school or Bible study to explain the change. I didn't get explained into a relationship with God, I found myself in relationship with God and then explained it.

A helpful contrast to the "Western" emphasis on explaining and logic can be found in the Orthodox church. An Orthodox worship service, with its elaborate rituals and traditions, is meant to give participants an experience of heaven, inviting people into the activities of God and being changed through the process. I'm a liturgy geek, so I know I'm biased, but I find a worship service that gives me an experience of God to be much meatier than one that just tells me about God. To be fair, Classic Catholic and Protestant worship was built around similar intentions to an Orthodox service, but the centrality of the sermon in most people's minds today demonstrates the shift that has happened culturally. (My tribe of Christians, Lutherans, also tends to be suspicious of anything that sounds too "emotional" because of some theological battles we had almost 400 years ago.)

Humans don't use explanations to make change happen. They change, and then try to explain it. If Godin is right, then the church doesn't need a perfect argument to "prove" God to the world. Instead, the church is a place where we promote and practice change (personal, social, mental, spiritual) and then help people find the language to explain it when it happens.

“Change this something normal into something beautiful.” -Jars of Clay, “Something Beautiful”

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Don't Just Do Something, Sit There!

(Note: A version of this article first appeared in the summer 2014 newsletter for my church.)

“Be still and know that I am God.” -Psalm 46:10

“Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God. On it you shall not do any work.” -Exodus 20:8-10a

OK, quick. What is the meaning of the 4th Commandment listed above? 

If you said, “We should go to church,” then you answered the same way as almost every confirmation student I’ve ever asked that question. You would also only be partly correct. 

Most people (including Martin Luther in the Small Catechism) latch on to the phrase “keep it holy” and immediately think about religious services on Sunday. And while there’s nothing wrong with that, it’s not a complete understanding of the commandment for a couple reasons. 

First of all, the Sabbath day is technically Saturday, not Sunday. The Jewish holy day begins at sundown on Friday and goes to sundown Saturday. Christians moved their holy day to Sunday because it was the day of resurrection. Therefore, some may quibble that keeping Sabbath and attending Sunday worship are not the same thing.

But the bigger issue is that focusing solely on attending worship misses the rest of the commandment: you shall do no work. The word sabbath (or “shabbat”) in Hebrew literally means “to rest.” Two reasons are given to rest. In Exodus 20, the author references the story of creation and says we should rest because God rested on the seventh day of creation. In Deuteronomy 5, the author points to the Hebrews recent slavery in Egypt and basically argues, “You know what it’s like to be overworked, so take time to rest and don’t overwork yourselves, your servants, or your animals.”

I think this command to rest (in addition to spending time with God) is an important one for us today. Much of our identity as residents of the Western World and as Americans is tied up in working hard and being productive. And on it’s own that’s good, but taken to the extreme, we can start to think we need to work hard all the time or always be doing something. (I have a friend that likes to quip, “We’re not human beings in America; we’re human do-ings.”) It seems that sometimes even our “recreation” activities can be exhausting. 

Remembering this side to the 4th Commandment can be important for us, because just like the other commandments, this commandment is meant by God for good. Just as we have better lives when we don’t lie, steal, or kill each other, we have better lives when we take time to rest. Taking time to rest increases our creativity, makes us more present to our loved ones, helps to improve humor, patience, and gratitude, and can even make us more productive when we return to our work. 

(It should probably be noted that rest doesn’t have to mean doing nothing at all, but taking a break from our normal labors for something that lets us recharge and refocus. I’m reminded of the stories of 19th century Americans who would spend all Sunday sitting still in high back chairs, which doesn’t strike me as either holy or restful.)

As we begin the summer season, I pray that we will all take Sabbath time in these coming months (in whatever form that looks like for you). May we remember God’s command for us to rest and God’s concern for our health and well-being. And may we continue to learn that sometimes doing God’s will may mean doing less. 

"I am heading for a time of quiet, when my restlessness has past and I can lie down on my blanket and release my fists at last." -Paul Simon, "Quiet"

Thursday, May 22, 2014

This Treasure in Jars of Clay

Roughly a month ago, a headline came across my facebook feed that immediately caught my attention: "Dan Haseltine, Front-man of Christian Band Jars of Clay, Takes to Twitter to Support Gay Marriage." I've been a huge fan of Jars of Clay since their debut album twenty years ago. I listen to them almost daily and quote them in sermons and blogs frequently. So the headline surprised me because I'd never heard Dan or any member of the band say anything in favor of gay marriage. As I dug deeper into the story, I came to realize that it was more complicated than the headline would suggest.

Dan had taken to Twitter with some questions that indicated he was wrestling with the Church's traditional stance on gay marriage. Many people interpreted his comments as a defense of gay marriage and a twitter firestorm erupted with many people attacking and condemning Dan and the whole band for being apostates and heretics. Dan wrote a blog article seeking to clarify his statements, which was humble and honest. (It's a great read if you want to understand what happened.) In short, he said he wasn't coming out in favor of gay marriage, but was instead publicly and honestly wrestling with the issue and wondering if there isn't a different way for Christians to approach the issue other than the well-worn trenches already established. Unfortunately, even with the explanation, many people were upset with his comments and the fact that he would wrestle with the issue at all and many nasty things were said by those attacking and defending Dan (though the band constantly spoke with and asked for grace and decorum).

Because Jars is my favorite band, because their music has been so influential on my faith and ministry over twenty years, because I deeply respect the members of the band, and because I know what it's like to have my faith on public display and occasionally misspeak in ways that upset people, the controversy touched me personally and it's taken almost a month for me to come to the point of being able to write about it. As I've followed the controversy and backlash for the past month and peeled away the layers of my own emotions, I've found my thoughts coming to rest around three perspectives.

A Historical Perspective

One thing that strikes me as troubling is the way that honest inquiry on the part of Dan was shot down as unChristian, unGodly, unholy. I saw one comment on twitter that said Dan should take this up with his pastor, not discuss it publicly. Many others took a variation on the classic "The Bible says it; I believe it; that settles it" to say there's nothing to discuss and anyone who wrestles with applying scripture to daily life is a heretic and apostate.

I'm saddened by how it seems that many in the Church are unwilling to even discuss difficult topics and prefer to stake a flag and lob stones at anyone that disagrees with them. The church has continuously wrestled with difficult topics from the time of Christ. I can understand why many in the Church read the Biblical witness and conclude that homosexuality is a sin (I don't), but to speak as though church doctrine has always been a settled matter ignores the historical arguments the Church had over the divinity/humanity of Jesus, circumcision, inclusion of gentiles, Gnosticism, Pelagianism, Arianism, the Great Schism, the real presence in communion, infant/adult baptism, infallibility of the Pope, sacraments, everything related to the Reformation, divorce, abolition/slavery, women's ordination, and on and on. 

From the moment Jesus ascended into heaven and left the Gospel in the hands of human beings, the Church has always wrestled with what we believe and understand about God and the Bible and how they impact our lives in our current age. Wrestling honestly with an issue like homosexuality and gay marriage isn't unChristian; it's the definition of a living faith.

A Cultural Perspective

The fact that the story took off in the first place is in large part because some mainstream media misread Dan's tweets and started posting articles with titles like the one above. As Dan explained in his blog, he was asking questions, not stating positions, but the media seemed to make a leap that since he wasn't openly hostile towards LGBT people, he must be in favor of marriage equality. At the same time, many Christians made comments that took the opposite position, saying if he didn't clearly condemn homosexuality and gay marriage, his position was no different than being in favor of it.

This raises a couple questions in my mind that bear consideration: 1) What does it say that it's considered newsworthy when a Christian doesn't openly attack our LGBT neighbors? 2) What does it say that we can't seem to recognize a middle ground where people are "undecided" or looking for a new way to examine a taut issue? 2b) If everything is simply black and white, then where do we find room for learning, listening, creativity, compromise, or wonder?

A Theological Perspective

I once heard a friend say that the church has classically operated under the model expecting new disciples/members to first Believe (what we believe) and then Behave (do what we do) before they Belong (you are one of us). That is certainly the pattern I see in many of the negative comments directed at Dan and Jars of Clay: because you don't Believe exactly what I believe and won't Behave and say things the way I think is correct, then I won't listen to your music and you aren't Christian (you don't Belong).

But when I look at how Jesus acted with people, he used a different order. Usually he told people they Belonged (you are healed; you are forgiven; follow me), then they Believed (Jesus is a prophet/the messiah/the Son of God), and then Jesus told them to Behave (go and sin no more; go and do likewise; go in peace).

I wonder if the church wouldn't be better off if we focused on building loving relationships more than scrutinizing each other's theological nuances. After all, it was through being in relationship with Jesus that the Twelve became disciples. They belonged before they behaved. The old hymn doesn't say "they will know we are Christians by our doctrinal purity." It says we will be known by our love, an idea that comes straight from the mouth of Jesus (John 13:35).

Conclusion: A Personal Perspective

When I was twenty years old, I began to wrestle honestly and publicly with my religious beliefs around homosexuality. I had been taught and believed that it was a sin, but my justifications for my position felt inadequate the more I thought about them. I spent almost two years reading, studying, and seeking counsel from people I respected. I am grateful for the fact that through it all, those in my life who fell on both sides of the issue walked with me, gave me space to ponder and question, and, above all, demonstrated through their actions that I belonged regardless of where I landed.

I pray for Dan and for all people that wrestle with difficult issues that they would be loved and supported as I was. Beyond that, I pray that the Church may become known as a place where such questions are expected and people can disagree yet still belong to one another in Christ.

The Bible verse that Jars of Clay takes their name from is 2 Corinthians 4:7, which reads "We have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us." In other words, the treasure of God's all-surpassing love and grace is greater than the fragile, earthen vessels of our lives. Such hope has held the Church together through centuries of disagreements and it will for centuries to come.

“To grip the rose unfearful is to meet the thorn.” –Jars of Clay, "No One Loves Me Like You"

Thursday, April 24, 2014

The Wounded Christ

(Note: This post first appeared in my church's newsletter.)

As we approach another Easter, there is one detail in the story of the resurrection that always fascinates me and yet, I’ve never read anything about it in commentaries or heard a sermon about it. It’s a detail that doesn’t always show up in the readings for church until the week after Easter, when we read about Thomas the Confessor (instead of the Doubter, but that’s for another column).

The detail that always fascinates me is that Jesus is still wounded.

I’d think that the God that can restart Jesus’ heart and lungs after two days could stitch up the holes in his hands, feet, and side. After all, throughout the Gospels, God’s power cures leprosy, heals blindness, and makes legs walk again. So why does Jesus still carry wounds?

In the Gospel accounts, the wounds function partly as identification. Jesus greets the bewildered disciples and says, “Put your hands in my side and touch my hands.” (John 20:20, for example) But wouldn’t scars have worked just as well? (Note he says “IN my side,” not “here’s the scar.”) And surely they would have recognized him without that, right?

I’m not sure why the power of God would have chosen to leave Jesus wounded, but I’ve come to develop my own meaning for them. As I read the story now, I reflect on the way in which even after resurrection and new life, we carry scars and wounds. Even though God gives us new life in Christ, being baptized or saved or redeemed or resurrected (or whatever word you prefer) doesn’t make us perfect. Though God imbues us with holiness, we still carry reminders of frailty. 

And that holds true for all of the resurrection moments in our lives, all of the second chances and new beginnings that we experience. Whenever we greet a new start, we carry our old wounds with us. It’s an image for which I’m grateful because it reminds me that I’m human, simultaneously sinner and saint, as Martin Luther would put it, and those scars connect me with others in their lives. As Train sang in their song “Bruises,” “These bruises make for better conversation… You’re not alone in how you’ve been. Everybody loses; we’ve all got bruises.” Even Jesus.

“Yes and I will run the distance, if you’ll please, please excuse my crutch.” -Vigilantes of Love, “Resplendent”