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"