Friday, December 18, 2015

Taking Time

Soundbites are fast. Sharing stories takes time.

Certainty is convenient. Nuance takes time.

Apathy is easy. Curiosity takes time.

Being outraged is simple. Working for positive change (maybe in yourself?) takes time.

Telling makes others listen to you. Conversing requires listening and thinking... and takes time.

All the things on the left tend to build walls. The things on the right tend to build relationships.

Today I'm thinking that Christmas means God took the time (nine months, then thirty years, then three days) to build a new kind of relationship with us. What do I want to build with my time?

From the Gray,
Pastor Ari

“Can't stop the spirits when they need you. This life is more than just a read through.” -Red Hot Chili Peppers, "Can't Stop"

Friday, December 11, 2015

The Bible Says Hospitality Means What?

What is hospitality?

Usually I think about hospitality as preparing a meal for my friends or (ugh) cleaning my home before company arrives. There are other thoughts that come to mind, but most of them involve sharing a common space with people I know and love.

This morning, though, I stumbled across a fact that made me rethink what hospitality should be.

The Bible talks an awful lot about hospitality, not always directly, but certainly in terms of loving each other and following the Golden Rule. There are many scenes of dinners and gatherings with guests in both testaments. Hospitality was a huge deal in the ancient Near East and poor hospitality could lead to condemnation and death.

What's fascinating is that the Greek word for hospitality, the word used in the New Testament, is philoxenia, which literally means "love of the stranger." In other words, hospitality isn't just welcoming people we already know and like, it's expecting and making space for the stranger, the other.

It is the hospitality shown when Abraham warmly greets three strangers wandering through the desert and is blessed because of it. It is the hospitality shown in the Parable of the Good Samaritan, where a religious minority stops to care for a wounded man who belongs to a group that has avoided and shunned the Samaritans.

As I pondered the root of this Greek word, it struck me just how far from this idea we often are. Rather than loving strangers, we are encouraged to fear them. Our 24-hour news cycle especially loves to bombard us with stories that are filled with scary words and images. "This person/thing hurt/poisoned/stole from someone like you! Beware!" Politicians love to throw around the idea that the other side will destroy the world if given the chance. The overall message we are fed is that anyone who has a different religion, political opinion, sexuality, age, class, or education probably shouldn't be trusted and certainly not shown hospitality (at least not a hospitality that looks like "loving a stranger").

Certainly there are reasons and times to be cautious and act wisely, but I think there is a great difference between a posture that assumes anyone that's different is likely a threat and one that assumes most people are decent and worthy of respect.

Interestingly, Jesus came as a stranger into this world, unrecognizable as God because of how he was born and where he lived. John's gospel makes note of this and that most people "did not receive him." Jesus the stranger didn't find hospitality. But those who did welcome him became "children of God." In a sense, Christianity is based entirely on hospitality: on God's willingness to love us who are estranged and our willingness to love the strange God who shows up in a manger and dies on a cross.

And then we are asked to share that same hospitality with others on earth.

In this season, many of us are preparing to practice hospitality in our homes or to be received by the hospitality of others. Perhaps this Christmas season we can pause and consider what stranger we might welcome to our tables... and our hearts. Then the angels' proclamation of "Peace on earth! Goodwill to men!" might ring a little louder and richer.

From the Gray,
Pastor Ari

“If we can reach beyond the wisdom of this age into the foolishness of God, that foolishness will save.” -Rich Mullins, "Let Mercy Lead"

Thursday, November 19, 2015

A Song to Change the World

(This first appeared as a column in my church's newsletter.)

“And Mary said, ‘My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, 
for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant.” Luke 1:46-47

In Luke’s Gospel, we are treated to one of the most beautiful moments of the Bible. As Mary visits her cousin Elizabeth to share the news of her pregnancy, she bursts into song with a glorious hymn that is known as the Magnificat. 

“The Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is God’s name.”

It is a wonderful and beloved song that has been adapted in countless songs and prayers over the years. (My personal favorite is a toss up between the version in “Holden Evening Prayer” and “The Canticle of the Turning.”) Like many familiar texts, however, it is so well known that we can sometimes forget the radical nature of its words.

“God has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.”

Mary sings in the song of God turning the world upside down, suggesting that the birth of Jesus is the start of a new order. In this new order, those with wealth and power are “cast down” and the poor, hungry, and weak are cared for by God.

“God has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly…”

In the stories we retell every year, we can see the way that Jesus began upsetting the status quo from the very beginning. Lowly shepherds are the first to hear the good news of his birth, wealthy astrologers from afar show up in a backwater town to bring gifts to this new child, and King Herod sends his army after him because he knows this child spells doom for his tyranny. As his ministry continued, Jesus continued to turn things upside down, comforting the sick and outcast and arguing with religious leaders and the powerful. Finally, he even turns death inside out on Easter weekend.

“He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy…”

For Advent this year, my church going to spend time considering this important and beautiful song that foretells Jesus’ meaning for the world. Under the theme of “Inside Out,” we’re going to look at the ways Jesus turns inside out how we view God, how we live, and even our very hearts. How do these words challenge our assumptions about ourselves and the world and push us out of our comfort zones? We will sing this song and listen for how it speaks of hope for today as well.

“Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed.”

In this busy season of shopping and planning and parties, it may be good to hear a song that reminds us what God’s love means. In a world where there is so much crazy, trouble, and heartbreak, maybe things need to be turned inside out and upside down. 

“…according to the promise God made to our ancestors, to Abraham and to his descendants forever.”

In God’s Amazing Grace,

Pastor Ari

"Wipe away all tears for the dawn draws near and the world is about to turn." -"Canticle of the Turning" (Hymn adaptation of the Magnifcat by Rory Cooney)

Friday, November 13, 2015

The Worst Ad I've Seen All Year

This advertisement is disturbing.

If you can't read the smaller version I've added to this blog, you can see the original here. In brief, Microsoft is promoting their new line of Office products by suggesting workers are wasting a lot of potential work time by being away from the office. Microsoft can enable them to work anywhere! Bathroom? Work space! Vacation? Meeting time! On a date? Email!

Just imagine being able to work every waking moment of the day, every day of the year...

Of course the sad truth is that for many people, life already feels like this. We are one of the hardest working nations on earth, but we're also one of the most stressed out, exhausted, and suffer from a variety of health problems that are probably related to the first two. We don't even take all of our vacation.

There are a variety of reasons for us to reexamine the mindset that thinks the life this Microsoft ad promotes is a good idea. But combatting overworking isn't just an economic or health issue. It's a faith issue.

I say this is a faith issue for several reasons. I think for decades or centuries, we in America came to make industriousness synonymous with being a good Christian. There are lots of reasons for this, but I put a lot of the blame at the feet of our Puritan founders. (Long story short: Puritans came to see economic success and hard work as evidence of a healthy inner-faith and therefore worked hard to "prove" their salvation.) As we've largely combined Christian and American values, for better or worse, we've come to largely assume that working hard at our jobs is both the American and Christian thing to do.

But as Christians, we are called to do more than our jobs. Martin Luther insisted that all Christians have vocations ("vocation" literally means "calling") given to them by God. And, yes, the one that pays the bills is part of it, but Luther was also insistent that God calls us to be parents and friends and siblings and spouses and many others that may not be jobs, but are key to sharing God's love in society, practicing faith, and maintaining our own faith. Ignoring our kid's soccer game or doing work while watching a movie as a family is neglecting all the other vocations God has given us to give and receive love in our lives.

God calls us to invest in relationships. Because we have been given a restored relationship to God, we are drawn to restore relationships with others. Work has its place in our society and there will certainly be times we do need to work long hours, but it isn't all that we are. We earn a living at work; God gives us life to be shared.

From the Gray,
Pastor Ari

“Today is all you’ll ever have. Don’t close your eyes.” -Switchfoot, “This is Your Life”

Friday, November 6, 2015

What is Normal Anyway?

This morning my church hosted a network meeting of Cross+Generational ministry workers in our area. In the course of our conversation, we discussed mental illness and the difficulty many people have talking about their own or a loved one's mental illness, even though it isn't nearly as unusual as people think.

We stigmatize many issues like mental illness as not being "normal" and therefore feel uncomfortable talking about them, but perhaps the problem is our idea of "normal."

Statistically, it is more likely than not that you or someone you love has experienced mental illness, addiction, miscarriage or fertility issues, incarceration, sexual assault, or abuse. By definition, then, it isn't the person who has never dealt with any of these issues that is "normal," it's all the rest of us who have. And if that's the case then why do we so often treat all these topics as taboo or strange? Especially in church?

As I think about this further, isn't it in the Bible and Christian theology that it's normal to be broken and imperfect? That we experience troubles?

Jesus said he came not for the healthy but the sick (Mark 2:17), and he meant the sin-sick, the heartsick, the sick and tired of life, and sick to death of hiding my troubles.

If that's true, then church is where we bring our struggles and hurt to break down stigmas and taboos, not where we hide them. Then church really is for normal people, but normal doesn't mean what we thought it means.

From the Gray,
Pastor Ari

“We made an art out of neglecting what we don’t want to see.” -Jars of Clay, “Skin and Bones”

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Living With Mystery (Blog on Job, Part 3)

New Orleans churchyard in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.
(This is part three of my blog on Job. You can read part one here and part two here.)

In the book of Job, the character of Job loses all he has because of afflictions from "the Accuser" who bets God that Job will curse Him if Job suffers enough. Job spends chapters arguing with his wife and friends about the reasons for his suffering and pleading with God to answer his prayers. In the third lesson assigned for reading in the lectionary this fall, God finally answers Job.

And what an answer it is.

"Then the LORD answered Job out of the whirlwind: 'Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge? Gird up your loins like a man. I will question you, and you shall declare to me'" (Job 38:1-3). God proceeds to ask Job dozens of questions about the power of God. Can you measure the foundations of the earth or number all the clouds in the sky? Can you command the lightning or create a sea monster for fun?

God's response to Job is to put his questions in a broader context. The central tension that Job raises is “God is just” and “I am innocent.” The idea being that a just God wouldn't let an innocent person suffer. But God’s questions to Job undermine the very premise of Job’s complaint.

If you want to understand suffering, then can you first understand the complexities of the earth? Can you understand the tiny details of the galaxy and everything living in it? If not, then why do you get to decide what’s just? In this complex, crazy world, who said innocent people never face trouble? I'm God and I'm working with knowledge you can't possibly grasp.

God's questions to Job show there is a paradox we all live in. Each of us is unique and distinctly important to the world around us, but we are also largely insignificant in a world with billions of people and infinitely complex ecosystems. Therefore tragedies are both personal and massive. Disasters can hits thousands of people or cancer can infect millions and we can understand that most of the affects are random, but when they affect me or someone I love we can't help but look for a reason. 

And sometimes there isn't one. Sometimes, God suggests, there are enormous systems at play around us and we just get caught in the sweep. And if there is a reason, it is far more complicated that we can grasp. 

None of that is to say that God is unjust or uncaring, simply that the world is more chaotic and unpredictable than our reason-seeking brains would like and justice might not fit our simple definitions. Jesus himself says that the sun shines and the rain falls on the just and unjust alike (Matthew 5:45).

Martin Luther wrote that God had a visible side (deus revelatus) and a hidden side (deus absconditus). The visible side is what we can perceive and understand as humans, but most of God is hidden from us, Luther said, and the part we can see is only God's back. In Job, the writer lays the answer to much of life's suffering at the feet of the hidden God. How can we understand suffering when we cannot understand God?

On it's own, such an answer is unsatisfying. It smacks too much of the condescending adult who tut-tuts a child and says, "You just couldn't understand..." But that's why the revealed God is such an important part of this struggle.

Luther said that since we cannot know the hidden God, we must find faith in the God as God chooses to be seen by us and God chose to be revealed in Jesus Christ. Jesus makes it clear that God doesn't wish us harm and that we are loved. God is the business of promoting true life and inviting us to do the same. And in John 11, we see Jesus weeping at the tomb of his friend Lazarus, visibly disturbed by the pain death has caused. That's the revealed God: standing with us in our pain, joining us in our mourning, and promising that pain won't be the last word.

Job raises some deeply important questions that it cannot fully answer and we are still wrestling with thousands of years later. Ultimately there is mystery around suffering that we must content ourselves to dwell within for some time. We may not always understand suffering, but we are not alone when we suffer. We are not alone because the same questions are asked by millions like us. And we are not alone because God chooses to be found in suffering with us.

From the Gray,
Pastor Ari

“I want a reason for the way things have to be. I need a hand to help build up some kind of hope inside of me.” -Train, “Calling All Angels”

Thursday, October 15, 2015

When God Doesn't Answer (Blog on Job, Part 2)

(This is part two of my blog on Job. You can read part one by clicking here.)

Last week, I mentioned that two great questions get raised by Job: Why has this happened to me? and Why would God allow this? In the second text assigned for reading in the lectionary this month, Job voices his pain when those questions go unanswered by God. 

In Job 23:1-17, Job cries out that God is not answering his prayers, saying, "If I go forward, he is not there; or backward, I cannot perceive him; on the left he hides, and I cannot behold him; I turn to the right, but I cannot see him" (vv. 8-9). These verses (echoed many other places in the book) capture why so many people read and study this book. 

Job asks one of the profound questions of faith: Where is God when we suffer? And why does it so often feel like God is distant in times of pain?

These are questions that I am asked all the time. They are questions that I ask all the time. 

They are questions that deserve careful examination because they are a part of everyone's lived experience. We all are afflicted at times with loss, pain, suffering, and disease. We will all likely think things can't possibly get worse only to be proven wrong. 

Because they are so universal, they are questions that have led to much spilled ink over the millennia (including the ink originally spilled to write Job) and it would be impossible to settle them in one blog post. (Job alone spends 42 chapters trying to answer these questions and still leaves them partly unanswered.) But there are a few points we can draw from the Bible in and around Job that help shape how we ask the question today.

When God Speaks, It's Rare

When we read the Bible, it seems as though God is answering prayers and saving the day left and right. God has prophets and priests and rulers hearing God's word and doing miracles all over the place. It can lead us to wonder why God has stopped speaking and acting as much today.

But if we look more closely, we see that many of the stories of the Bible the highlights in a long timeline, kind of like SportsCenter showing all the runs from a three hour baseball game in thirty seconds. In fact, there are long periods of silence from God within the Bible. The Israelites are enslaved in Egypt for generations; the period of Judges has years of suffering in between a few heroic battles; and there are four hundred years between the Old and New Testaments. 

God's silence seems to be the rule more than the exception for much of the Old Testament. Why that may be is hard to say, but it is clear that God does not speak out of burning bushes to every person in trouble, then or now. 

So does that mean that God just doesn't care? Does God ignore us most of the time? The Bible says "no," because...

When God Speaks, It's Hopeful

When God does speak in the Bible, it's often to offer comfort and hope. (God's response to Job doesn't really, but I'll get to that next week.) God makes it clear that he doesn't intend suffering for those who trust in God and promises that there will be a time when all we be right. Even if we don't experience justice or an end to suffering in this life, God's final word to us is hope.

In the Bible, God shows care for us in the midst of our suffering because God often sympathizes with us, joins us in our mourning, and cries over injustice in our world. Most importantly, we see God choose to physically enter our suffering and walk alongside us in the person of Jesus. Jesus seeks out those who suffer and answers their questions with himself. Rather than be indifferent, God promises to be present with us in this life.

But why then does it not always feel like God is with us in pain? Why does God feel silent?

When God Speaks, It's...To Voice Our Question? 

The Bible is filled with people and poems asking a version of Job's question. The Psalms are full of so-called songs of lament, crying for the God that feels distant. Perhaps the most famous of these is Psalm 22, which bears a great resemblance to the crucifixion of Jesus in the New Testament. In fact, the opening words of the psalm, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" are spoken by Jesus on the cross. 

And there is the great mystery and hope of this difficult question. The wrenching cry of "Where are you?" spoken by Job and the psalmists is also spoken by God the Son in his time of suffering. And the immediate answer is silence... and death.

The meaning of that moment in history is profound. Jesus shows that God hears our suffering, God comes near us in our suffering, and God experiences our suffering to the point of despair.

There are some who will say that asking the questions that Job and the Psalmists raise is a sign of weak faith or is unfair to God. They may say that we must simply trust "God's plan" and never question God. But when Jesus cries from the cross, he validates all of us who ever sit on the ash heap with Job and ask why we're there. Without offering the answer to why there is suffering to begin with, Jesus makes it okay to keep raising the question. Even without the example of Jesus, the author of Job is clear to say that Job "did not sin with his lips" (Job 2:10), meaning all of his questions did not separate him from God. 

One of the lessons of Job is that even when we get no answers, there is no sin in asking the question. Even if we get no answers, asking the question puts us in the company of Jesus. 

From the Gray,
Pastor Ari

"Cuz I, I got a question... I got a question: Where are you?" -Jars of Clay, "Silence"

Next time: Living with Mystery...

(If you are interested in exploring the question of God's presence in suffering in more detail, I strongly recommend two books. In "Where's God When It Hurts?," Philip Yancey asks this question very directly and uses Job to explore it in depth. For a fictional approach, read "Silence" by Shusaku Endo, a classic novel about Christians persecuted in the era of feudal Japan.)

Thursday, October 8, 2015

Just Who Is This God Anyway? (Blog on Job, Part 1)

One of the gifts of using a lectionary to preach is I am given four texts to choose from each week. One of the curses of using a lectionary to preach is I am given four texts to choose from each week. 

There are times the lectionary offers up too many good texts to preach on or worse, texts that I know will raise difficult questions or concerns in the minds of those who hear them, but I cannot address the questions from different texts in one sermon. This month, our lectionary offers up some important and difficult lessons from Jesus in Mark's Gospel while at the same time giving us three weeks of lessons from the Book of Job, a book that raises all sorts of (cue the heavy, baritone narration...) deep, meaningful questions. Since I can only preach one sermon on Sunday and live to tell about it, I promised my congregation that I would blog on Job as a way of exploring those questions.

The first week's lesson was Job 1:1; 2:1-10, the prologue to this epic poem in which Job is identified as a righteous, wealthy man who loses everything and spends the rest of the book trying to figure out why. It has become a favorite study for many people because it seeks to address one of the universal questions of human experience: How do we explain suffering and evil in the world? 

Before going further, it's important to note that Job is almost certainly not an historical account. Most of the book is written in poetry and it has always been grouped with Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and Song of Songs, which are all books of poetry, philosophy, and wisdom, not histories. In other words, Job is a book that is trying to explore universal truth, not historical fact.

That can be important to keep in mind because Job opens with a disturbing scene. In a conversation with God, Satan (literally, "the Accuser") asserts that Job is only righteous because he is so healthy and wealthy. If he lost everything, the Accuser suggests, he would curse You to Your face. With God's permission (really?!), the Accuser sets about causing havoc to Job's life, destroying his family and wealth and inflicting him with a painful skin disease. After causing this trouble, the Accuser never appears in the book again.

The reader is left with two questions. First, Job asks, Why has this happened to me? Second, most readers ask, Why would God allow this? The book spends chapters exploring these questions, but (spoiler alert!) never really answers them clearly. Like many works of philosophy, the book of Job seems more interested in the questions than the actual answers. Still, there is much to draw from these early chapters to make reading worth our while.

Job's Faith in God

As Job ponders why he has come to tragedy, his interactions with his wife and friends provide an important exploration of the nature of God and faith.

His wife says, "Curse God and die." God for her was only as good as the blessings he provides and like an appliance that stops working, it's time to kick this one to the curb. What good is a god if that god stops working the way you want?

In her mind, God doesn't care and is hurting them for sport. The idea of a god toying with the lives of humans would not be a strange idea in the ancient world. It was expected. If you want an example, try reading a couple other ancient epic poems — the Iliad and the Odyssey. The Greek gods in mythology are every bit as petty and selfish as humans themselves.

His friends insist that he must have done something bad. Tragedy must have a source to blame and therefore Job must have sinned in some way.  If God isn't uncaring, then God is punishing Job for some reason. He should fess up and beg for mercy.

They echo many of us who want to find some reason or meaning for the suffering we see in the world. What have I/you/they done to deserve that?

But Job refuses to go along with either opinion. Instead, he repeatedly holds up two things he knows to be true: "God is just" and "I am innocent." How those can both be true in the face of tragedy becomes the central tension of the book. Job refuses to believe that God is petty or has stopped caring for him. He trusts that even if God is responsible for his suffering, because God is just, Job's cries for justice will be heard and answered.

God is just and Job is innocent.  How the book tries to answer that tension will be dealt with in the third part of this blog series. For now, Job's faith in God's justice and concern for human life is still an important cornerstone to this book and reading the Bible in general. Some of us may take it for granted, but the idea that God is not callous or distant, but is just and compassionate, was and remains a radical suggestion that deeply affects the faith of anyone who holds it as truth like Job.

God's Faith in Job

The remaining question of why God would allow the Accuser to afflict Job is one of the most troubling in the Bible. And, frankly, there is no good answer within the pages of Job. About the best that can be said is to try chalking it up to artistic license on the part of the author who was setting the stage for the story as efficiently as possible. But even that doesn't sit too well with me.

Despite the unease I feel with God's permission giving to evil, I do find a positive facet to God's interaction with the Accuser. The Accuser believes Job is a pushover, but God believes that Job will be faithful. What occurs to me is that God has faith in Job.

As a Lutheran, I was taught and I teach that there is nothing I can do to earn God's love, nor can I come to faith or God without the Holy Spirit drawing me there. I believe both of these, but I also recognize that they have at times been excuses for inaction. "Why do good if it doesn't change God's mind?" or "I don't want to appear like I'm trying to earn my way to God." 

But God's faith in Job reminds me that Jesus grants me grace and eternal life and trusts that it will change my heart to love as he loves me. In the same way, God entrusts the Church into human hands. And even though we make mistakes along the way, God has faith that, led by the Spirit, we will remain faithful even in times of strife. That God has faith in me is good news on days when it feels like I've been left on the ash heap with Job.

Next time: When God Doesn't Answer...

From the Gray,
Pastor Ari

“I’m looking for something that I didn’t notice was gone.” -Jets Overhead, “Heading for Nowhere”

Thursday, October 1, 2015

The Bible as Story

The Bible is a central thing to Christianity. We read from it every week in worship. We speak about it in sermons and quote from it in our songs and prayers. Most denominations encourage individuals to have their own copy and read it regularly. And yet I often find that in conversation and study with people, many are still asking a very basic question: What is the Bible anyway? What kind of book is this?

Many people think of the Bible as a rule book that contains God’s commands for us to follow. Certainly there are “rules” or laws in the Bible (like Leviticus, Proverbs, and James), but there are huge sections of the Bible that aren’t. Some might call it a history book. Again, parts of it are history, but there is also poetry, letters, and symbolic books (like Revelation). Some like to think of it as a book of advice for living, but as Christians we believe that God is wanting to give us eternal life, not just advice. Some call it scary or confusing and they avoid reading it at all, but hiding from it doesn’t help us grow as people of God.

As I've read, studied, and taught this great book, I’m going to propose a different image that I've come to appreciate. I think the Bible is a storybook. 

Now before you go thinking that I’m calling this holy text a children’s book, let me explain what I mean by “story.” When I use the word “story,” I don’t mean something made up. Far from it. Stories are the narratives that shape our identity and tell us who we are. They are core to who we are as individuals and communities. Let me give you two examples.

*When I was growing up, I heard a lot of stories about the ministers in my family history. One was a missionary, two served in the Upper Midwest, and one taught at seminary. Hearing about their work gave me the sense as a young person that our family answers God’s call when it comes, we are proud to be Lutheran, and we value education. Those ideas shaped how I understood myself and my family and who I’ve become.

*As Americans, we tell stories about how we conquer adversity. From the Revolution to the Depression to Pearl Harbor, whenever America has struggled or been threatened, we pull together, work hard, fight back, and almost always win. Because we tell these stories, we believe we are a great country and that we can do anything. Those beliefs then shape our actions as a people.

The Bible tells us these kinds of stories. The stories of God’s people throughout time. Stories that shape who we are as God’s people today. They tell us the truth of how people have experienced God in their lives, how God has been active in our world, and how others have tried to describe God. Since we believe that God continues to reach out to us and be active in our world, these stories define for us who we are and how we fit into God’s continuing story of loving our world. 

Therefore, the Bible's stories are also our story because we continue to have many of the same experiences that God’s people did long ago. In the song "Cover to Cover," singer Wes King puts it this way: “I’ve stood strong like Daniel; I’ve fallen like David; I’ve wandered in the desert like the Israelites; I’ve denied You like Peter: I’ve struggled like Paul; run from You like Jonah, but You loved me through it all.” When we see ourselves as part of these stories, they take new relevance to our own lives in a way that just rules or advice cannot. They shape our actions and purpose. Open the Bible. Join God’s story.

From the Gray,
Pastor Ari

"The more I read, the more I find, the more I have uncovered stories just like mine." -Wes King, "Cover to Cover"

(A version of this post first appeared in my church's newsletter in 2012. I decided to repost it as I've been reading "Shaped by the Story" by Michael Novelli, which has a similar thesis.)

Thursday, September 3, 2015

Stories That Matter

(This post was first written for my church's fall newsletter.) 

The year after I graduated college, I volunteered with my church’s youth group. Sometime around midyear, I was asked to share my testimony with the students. 

At first, I was flattered to have the chance to say something to them, but as I thought about it, I started to worry. What did I really have to share with them? I didn’t have a dramatic conversion story or miracle happen to me. I never had a major crisis of faith or heavens-ripped-open moment. I was born and raised a Lutheran and had always been active in church. In my mind, my testimony was like describing vanilla ice cream.

After some thought, I decided to tell them the story of St. Paul’s conversion in Acts 9. 

More specifically I decided to talk about Ananias. 

For those who don’t remember or never read the story, Paul was hunting and arresting Christians until he was struck blind in a vision from God near Damascus. In the city, God spoke to a Christian named Ananias and asked him to go heal Paul’s sight, like, “Go help that guy who wants to arrest you.” Ananias does and Paul’s heart is changed and he becomes perhaps the greatest evangelist the church has ever known. Meanwhile, Ananias is never heard from again.

After I read the story to my youth group, I told them, “I’ve always thought that real faith stories were like Paul: big and dramatic. They involved turning your life around or a near-death experience or helping hundreds or thousands of people. But I’m none of those things, and neither is Ananias. He was just an ordinary guy who did a good deed, but without Ananias, there would have been no Paul. We aren’t all Paul, but we can all be Ananias, trying to be faithful when called to do small things by God. And those small things are still important.”

After youth group that night, a girl named Julia came up to me and said, “Thank you. You’re my Ananias.” I don’t think that I said or did anything praiseworthy that night, but Julia helped me understand my own message, which was: Ananias’s story matters. And my story matters. And your story matters.

Martin Luther Church is a place of stories. We come together here to hear the stories of Jesus and Paul and Mary and other people in the Bible, and to hear the stories of saints and heroes of the faith, and sing stories in our hymns, but we also need to hear each other’s stories of faith. Stories of triumph and struggle, stories of kindnesses received and given, stories of Jesus showing up unexpectedly for us or near us or through us. Paul himself wrote in Romans 10:17 that “faith comes by hearing” and I can’t help but wonder if he wrote that thinking about himself blindly hearing Ananias’s words of faith on the night his life changed.

This year at Martin Luther, in Christian Formation and elsewhere, we are going to be practicing sharing those stories and listening to them and I want to challenge you to look at your own story anew. How has God shaped it? How is God shaping it now? Whose stories have mattered to you and how might your story matter to someone else?

I still don’t think my faith story is much more than vanilla ice cream, but I’ve learned two things since that youth night years ago: 1) faith grows best out of sincere and deep relationships and 2) sincere relationships grow out of sharing personal stories — even the vanilla, Ananias kind.

In God’s Amazing Grace,

Pastor Ari

“These words are my diary screaming out loud.” -Anna Nalick, “Breathe (2 AM)”

Thursday, July 23, 2015

Do Churches Get in the Way of Worshipping God?

The Old Testament reading for this past Sunday at my church is one of the key passages for understanding the whole Bible.

In 2 Samuel 7, King David decides that it's unfair for him to have a palace to live in when the Ark of the Covenant (which represents the presence of God) is housed in a tent and he sets his mind to build God a temple in which to live. But then God speaks through Nathan the prophet and tells David, "I don't need a house to live in. You won't build me a house, but I will build you a house." (By the way, this lesson is the Semi-continuous OT reading from the Revised Common Lectionary for you liturgy nerds.)

By saying this, God establishes David's line as the royal line for eternity. This helps seal David as one of the great heroes of the Old Testament and help legitimate the ministry of Jesus years later because he comes from "the line of David." It's powerful, awesome, God-is-generous stuff.

But just last week I was made aware that there is something more than God's kindness at work in this passage. One of the commentators in the sermon podcast I listen to mentioned that there is also a 2nd Commandment issue at play here.

For those who don't have the Ten Commandments memorized, the second commandment is "You shall make no idols or graven images." It's purpose is to remind God's people that we only worship God, not anyone or anything else.

So what do idols have to do with building a temple? The suggestion in the commentary was that God's concern was that building a temple would lead people to worship the temple instead of God, or to believe that God lives exclusively in the temple, therefore limiting their understanding of the true God (who is a bit bigger than any one building).

This made me think immediately of modern church buildings. Most congregations in North America own a building in which they worship. And with buildings comes responsibilities and maintenance. Utilities and maintenance are a large part of many church budgets. The Property Committee is often a mandatory (and sometimes powerful) presence in the congregation. Maintaining a building takes a lot of time and energy.

At the same time, many, many congregations in North America are shrinking, making maintaining buildings (especially older ones) harder to do. Many congregations make hard-fought efforts to keep their buildings working. And most of that is admirable, but after thinking about 2 Samuel 7, I also wonder: how much of that effort is for the sake of God and how much is for the sake of the building?

Because I have met people who talk about their love for their church, how long they've been there and say something like, "I can't imagine having to go to another church." As if they would have trouble finding God outside of that building? God didn't live in one building in the time of David and God doesn't do that now. And neither does the Church that bears Christ's name. I remember learning in Sunday school: church isn't a building, it's the people.

Let me be clear that I love church buildings. I don't think churches should abandon buildings. And I love architecture. A well-designed building can help point us to God.

But they cannot be God.

And that's the point and the concern of 2 Samuel 7. There are many wonderful things -- buildings, traditions, rituals -- that serve to point us toward God, but that's not the same thing as being God. If we make those sacred things equal to God, or become convinced they are the only way to know or see God, then we are breaking the second commandment. If my faith is dependent on a building, or a pastor or teacher, or a specific type of music, then what is my faith actually in?

The temple was later built by David's son, Solomon. Years later, it was destroyed. Then it was rebuilt. And it was destroyed. Since 70 CE, there has been no one temple in Jerusalem. But God hasn't disappeared. God was still active during the Exile between the two temples and has been since. We lost a great building of worship -- twice -- but it failed to kill God or the church.

Sometimes it helps me to be reminded that we can lose an awful lot without ever losing God's promises.

From the Gray,
Pastor Ari

“You take away my firm belief and graft my soul upon Your grief.” -Jars of Clay, “O My God”

Friday, July 10, 2015

What Do We Mean by Forgiveness?

In the wake of the killings at Emmanuel AME in Charleston, SC, I've had a number of conversations with people who were surprised/moved/confused/encouraged by the family members of the victims who publicly forgave the shooter just days after the tragedy. There has also been a lot of commentary in the media about their statements, with some people applauding the families and others chastising them because they believe such acts of violence or racism itself should never be forgiven. Others have made statements like "it's fine that they forgave him, but I would never forgive someone who did that."

Forgiveness is deeply tied to Christian theology. By my count, Jesus talks about forgiveness about 30 times in the Gospels. He includes forgiveness as a key part of the Lord's Prayer (Matthew 6:12), and tells his disciples to forgive others "seventy times seven" times (Matthew 18:22). He famously cries for forgiveness for those crucifying him from the cross (Luke 23:34) and we even say that the very point of Jesus' ministry and death is to forgive us from sin.

At the same time, forgiveness is often misunderstood by Christians and non-Christians alike and those misunderstandings can stand in the way of the healing and freedom that God means for forgiveness to bring. In light of Charleston, it may be helpful to define what forgiveness is and isn't.

Forgiveness is not forgetting.
We've all heard the phrase "forgive and forget." It's a nice sounding proverb, but it's poor theology. It's next to impossible for us to forget ways we've been hurt and that's usually good, because remembering past pain can help us avoid being hurt in the future. (I don't touch hot stoves because I did that once.) So while God promises to "forget" our sins (what that means exactly could be a whole column or book), that's an unrealistic standard for humans and tying the two together can lead people to think they can't forgive because they still think about the pain sometimes.

Forgiveness is not excusing the sin or crime.
This is a big one and deserves to be repeated: forgiving is not excusing the sin or crime. It's important because many people often equate forgiveness with letting someone off the hook. But no one in the courtroom in Charleston was suggesting that what Mr. Roof did didn't matter or wasn't awful and no one was suggesting he shouldn't face (severe) punishment from the legal system. The victims' families spoke eloquently about the pain and damage that was done to their lives that cannot be undone. I've tried to teach my kids (and myself) not to say "It's okay" when someone apologizes to them and instead say "I forgive you." That's because it's not "okay" to hurt someone. Sin and violence are not okay. They can be forgiven, but they should not be excused.

Forgiveness is not really even about the perpetrator.
People will sometimes say, She doesn't deserve forgiveness. or He didn't ask to be forgiven, so why should I? Often these people think that the only just response is to continue being angry or hating the other person until they've "suffered enough." Whether or not someone wants or deserves forgiveness is beside the point. A wise person once said that holding a grudge is like drinking poison hoping it will hurt someone else. Hate and anger are consuming powers and they can come to define and control us and if they do, we are in some way letting the object of our hate have control over us. This perspective assumes that forgiveness is a gift to be given to the perpetrator, but it's primarily a gift you give to yourself.

This is where we get to what I believe forgiveness actually is. The best definition I've found for forgiveness is making the decision to not let the pain you've experienced control your life anymore. Mr. Roof walked into that church hoping to spread hate and fear and chaos. When those victims' families forgave him, they were saying, You failed. You cannot make us hate. You cannot make me fear. You cannot destroy my life. Forgiveness is sometimes dismissed as a kind of weakness, but those families demonstrated that forgiveness is an act of strength and bravery.

It should also be pointed out, perhaps, that there is one more thing forgiveness is not. It is not easy. Often it takes time. Sometimes it takes a lot of time. So it's important to note that what happened in Charleston was extraordinary and powerful, but it should not be used as the expectation for all situations. To force someone to forgive before they are ready doesn't do any good. It can become a kind of victim blaming and compound the pain and alienation someone may be feeling. Forgiveness should empower a victim and therefore must be his own decision whenever he is ready to make it.

That said, when we do find the time and power to forgive, we release ourselves from a bondage that someone else put upon us. Rather than "giving in," forgiveness is an act of liberation, of new life. One might even say it's a kind of resurrection.

From the Gray,
Pastor Ari

“And the baggage that we all carry around has this way of dragging you down.” -Bill Mallonee, “The Kidz on Drugz (or Life)”

Thursday, June 18, 2015

Good Bias

Bias is typically understood as a negative thing. Bias determines our reactions, our natural inclinations towards one option over another.

Whether we like it or not, all of us have bias.

But not all bias is bad.

For example, training ourselves in faith or discipleship is about becoming biased...towards hope and love and patience.

So when we are angry with someone, our bias changes from "I need to get even with them" to "I need to reconcile with them." When we see someone in trouble, our bias changes from "Too bad for them" to "How can I help carry your burden?"

Not all bias is bad. It's just a matter of perspective.

What's your bias?

From the Gray,
Pastor Ari

“There’s no insult like the truth.” -Charlie Peacock, “Insult Like the Truth”

Thursday, June 11, 2015

How to Build Your Eulogy

David Brooks of the New York Times recently released a new book titled "The Road to Character" in which he explores stories of people whose moral traits he admires. The seed for the book, he says, came when...
It occurred to me that there were two sets of virtues, the résumé virtues and the eulogy virtues. The résumé virtues are the skills you bring to the marketplace. The eulogy virtues are the ones that are talked about at your funeral — whether you were kind, brave, honest or faithful. 
We are masters of building our resumé virtues, Brooks says, but are largely clueless about building our eulogy virtues. So he set out on a quest to fill his "moral bucket list."

I find his distinction between resumé and eulogy virtues to be very powerful because it strikes me as a secular way of stating what Jesus mentioned several times. In Matthew, Jesus tells a crowd to "store up treasures in heaven." And in Luke, Jesus warns about the troubles that come to those who store up riches for themselves, but "are not rich toward God."

Jesus invited people into a new way of life by talking about and demonstrating a life that wasn't defined by economic or political success, but instead led people to use words like hope and light and joy and love and freedom. God's interest in our lives, he said, leads us to prioritize the eulogy virtues and puts the resumé virtues in a proper (limited) perspective.

For most of my life, I've heard people lament that we work too much, are focused on the wrong priorities, etc., but it seems to me that more people are starting to publicly do something about it. There seem to be a growing number of stories about people taking less pay for jobs with "greater meaning" or arranging their lives for more time with family. Brooks seems to be one of those. And I hope that in the coming years, more of us will, too. How powerful would it be if our world was filled with people whose lives led others to use words like hope and light and joy?

From the Gray,
Pastor Ari

“Am I a part of the cure or am I part of the disease?” -Coldplay, “Clocks”

Thursday, May 28, 2015

Love Connections

(Note: This post first appeared in my church's newsletter for Summer 2015.)

In the weeks after Easter, we had several Gospel lessons taken from the chapters of John that are known as Jesus’ “farewell discourse.” These are Jesus’ words to his disciples during the Last Supper before he is arrested and crucified and they speak again and again about the connections the disciples share. “I am the vine and you are the branches,” Jesus says. And: “Love one another as I have loved you.” Or: “May they be one as You and I are one.”

Jesus was speaking to his closest disciples when he said these things, but John recorded them, and the Church continues to teach them, because we believe they speak to all disciples, that Jesus was laying the groundwork for all believers. In saving us from sin, Jesus joins us together and calls us to be connected in love and service. (“Love the Lord your God… and your neighbor as yourself.”) As one of my mentors was fond of saying, “Faith is personal, but it isn’t individualistic.”

Our connections to others in the church are central to our identity as Christians. It’s why we made “Build Loving Relationships” one of our 5 Cornerstones at MLC (along with Engage the Bible, Grow in Worship, Give in Service, and Daily Acts of Faith). It’s something we’ve all known at some level (or heard repeated in passages like those above), but now experience and science are bearing out just how important our connections can be. 

Active members of churches frequently cite the relationships at church as key to them staying active. We know that people who feel welcomed within minutes of entering a church are much more likely to return. Similarly, the number of caring relationships new members create within six months of joining has a direct correlation on whether they remain active participants. Multiple studies show that kids who have at least five adults (other than their parents) who interact with them authentically and regularly are significantly more likely to identify as Christian and attend church in their twenties. We know that churches are one of the last places in our society where people from different economic, political, and cultural backgrounds come together on a regular basis and that those interactions often lead to healthier societies.

Just as God wants to be in a loving relationship with each of us, we have an inner need to be in loving relationships with others. The Bible tells us those two things are connected: in knowing God, we are drawn to love others and in loving others, we come to know God. 

What are ways you can build connections this summer (in the church or out of it)? Is there an old relationship that could use some attention? Is there someone you aren’t close to that you still admire or appreciate? Take the time to tell them. In conversations, try asking questions that go beyond small talk to learn what people are passionate about. Swallow your pride and tell someone, “I know I should know your name, but…” Take a chance and share something personal about yourself that not everyone knows. If you’re worried about someone, call or visit them. 

Jesus tells his disciples again and again to be connected to God and to each other. In building loving relationships, we are doing the work of God and we reflect the image of heaven on Earth from Revelation, where all the people are drawn together by Jesus, united in loving God.

In God’s Amazing Grace,

Pastor Ari

“We are listening for whispers; but we cannot hear the screams.” -Lloyd, “Listening for Whispers”

Thursday, April 16, 2015

Where to Find Grace on the Internet

It was announced last month that comic Trevor Noah would be replacing Jon Stewart as the anchor of The Daily Show later this year. The internet went abuzz discussing this South African comedian who is relatively unknown in the United States.

Then, within forty-eight hours, the internet was abuzz about Trevor Noah for different reasons. People who were trawling through his twitter account found a handful of old jokes that were deemed anti-semitic and sexist. Questions were being raised about his character and whether Comedy Central should fire him before he even starts the job.

I read the tweets. I don't find them funny and think they were in poor taste. At the same time, I don't think a few bad jokes (from someone whose job is to make thousands of jokes) are enough to judge someone's character.

Noah is just the latest example of people being haunted by their internet history. For me, the most important story in all this is a bigger picture perspective: the internet is making us a culture without grace.

There have been many examples of people being shamed by offensive comments or embarrassing photos or videos that have made it online. And because it's the internet millions of us can see them and we can instantly share our opinions (good or bad) on what we've seen. Strong emotions are most likely to make us comment or share, so most of those comments are going to be based on fear, anger, or joy. (Furthermore, most are probably going to be from fear or anger because they literally come from the instinct part of our brain that screams, "Danger! Do something!") Strong emotions tend to be like a virus, so anger and fear beget more anger and fear and before long we are all either angry at the original person or angry at the people who are angry at the person. And then we're demanding that someone be arrested or fired or fined or worse because they are clearly a terrible person...

And usually no one stops to ask, "Is this really an example of who this person is, or did we just catch them at a time of bad attitude/bad judgement/bad whatever?" Almost everything can be found on the internet. The benefit of a doubt is rarely one of them.

Here's a truth: I have told crass, racist, and sexist jokes in my past. I cringe to admit that publicly and even more to think I ever thought those words I spoke were funny or appropriate. I also did some stupid (though not illegal) things when I was young, I've been rude to people in public, and made other regrettable decisions in my life. However, because (1) many of those things happened before social media and (2) I've been lucky, none of that history has been saved for eternity on Facebook or Youtube.

When I'm at my worst in front of someone who knows me well, I can come back later and apologize and (usually) be forgiven; when I'm at my worst on the internet, then I can offend hundreds or thousands and I become an example of everything that's wrong with society. Among friends, my occasional stupidity can be put in the context of "the real me"; towards strangers on the internet though, many of us seem to do the opposite, assuming the "worst" is the real person and any good they show is just a cover.

As Christians, we have a highly technical term for making mistakes, saying hurtful things, and making poor decisions. We call it "being human." We also call it "sin," but the point is that we all do it. But the Bible says that "if we confess our sin, God...will forgive our sin and cleanse us from all unrighteousness" (1 John 1:9). We call that "grace," but we could also call it "second chances" or, perhaps, "the benefit of a doubt."

So, if we confess to God, we have our sins forgiven, but if we confess on the internet, we have our sins thrown in our face forever. God calls for us to love in all we do, but we call for blood when someone online offends us. God says we can change and grow in love, but the internet assumes who we used to be is who we'll always be. See where I'm going here?

Now there are certainly times when there should be just consequences for poor decisions, but justice is not the same as vengeance and everything I've read in the Bible tells me that loving others means assuming the best about them, even when they are guilty of something. I struggle to think of any examples where vengeance and hate lead to grace for either party.

Thursday, April 9, 2015

Unregulated Grace (A Throwback Post)

(Note: This was originally written for my church newsletter in Spring of 2009.)

“There needs to be more regulation.”  This is the consensus that has come from most politicians and national economists in the wake of the Wall Street mortgage meltdown in 2008.  Amid all the finger pointing and shoulder shrugging, this seems to be the one thing on which most people agree.  Over the past fifteen years or so, the argument goes, government was too soft on the business sector and gave them unprecedented freedom by deregulation.  Business then took that freedom and went crazy, making deals that were so complicated and twisted that after months of scrutiny by numerous accountants, no one seems to know how broke the major firms really are.  The cost of excessive freedom has proven costly indeed.  The solution to fixing the mess and preventing its recurrence has been a call for there to be more oversight and greater control to keep CEOs and companies from running amok with people's money.  If deregulation was the problem, then regulation is the answer.

As we move through Lent and prepare for Easter, I spend a lot of time thinking about the cross.  As Lutherans, the cross is at the heart of our theology, but is especially present during Lent and Good Friday.  As I was thinking about it recently, with the news of our economy in the back of my mind, an amazing thought struck me: God's grace is unregulated.  That's right, God's grace has no regulations.  In this time when everyone is clamoring for greater oversight and tighter controls, God continues to operate without any restrictions.  Now, this is not to say that God could be regulated or controlled, but the wonder is that God chooses to operate without any restrictions.

Think about it.  We confess that we are saved by grace alone, meaning that it is God's gift to us and that we can have no effect on God's decision to give it to us and that the promise is good into eternity.  In other words, we receive salvation without any preconditions and free from any revocation clauses.  It is completely unregulated.  God simply throws it around willy-nilly.

Think about the story of the Prodigal Son (or Expectant Father) in Luke 15. When he sees his lost son returning the father runs (runs!) to meet him, embraces him and immediately calls for a celebration.  The son doesn't even get a chance to apologize.  And the father doesn't scold him; he doesn't give a don't-do-it-again warning; he doesn't ask for an accounting of his fortunes.  The father embraces him. That is unregulated love.

But wait! We've seen where this can lead.  Without regulations, people run amok, they go beyond the bounds of common sense or decency and act solely for themselves.  That is true for banks and for grace.  Because it is unregulated, we are free to treat God's love however we wish. We are free to ignore the cross. We are free to yawn as we are told of Christ's sacrifice for us.  We are free walk away from the greatest free gift we could ever receive.  Many do.  And yet God continues to insist on a deregulated grace market and throws around the capital like a stimulus bill on crack.  Such is the scandal of grace.

However, if we have received this gift and properly appraised its value, how can we not act appropriately?  How can we not use this gift for the good of all people?  How can we not respond with generosity and joy?  What end could possibly be greater than the one God intended for us?  We're free to ignore it, but why would we?

As people continue to demand greater accountability from Wall Street and controls on the markets, there is one place where deregulation has always been the norm and always will be. God pours out his grace upon us in unregulated fashion so that we are free to live life however we want.  How will you choose to live yours?

From the Gray,
Pastor Ari

“You’d see that we should never be afraid to die.” -Muse, “Uprising”

Thursday, April 2, 2015

Please Interrupt Me!

I've mentioned before that Seth Godin has a way of getting my creative juices flowing. Last week, under the title "Active Listening," he wrote this:
The kind of listening we're trained to do in school and at work is passive listening. Sit still. Get through it. Figure out what's going to be on the test and ignore the rest. Your eyes can glaze over, but don't let it show. Try not to nod off. People are talking, and they'd like the illusion of listening to accompany that. Don't interrupt.  
Passive listening is letting the other person talk. 
I read this and thought, "Oh wow. He's describing church." Sit still. Get through it. Try not to nod off. Let the other person (pastor?) talk.  If that's not a description of the stereotypical church experience, I don't know what is. And that's what we've been trained to think it should be: observe, absorb, don't interrupt.

Then Godin goes on to offer an alternative:
Active listening, on the other hand, requires that you interrupt when you need a clarification, and it requires that you ask a truly difficult question when the speaker is finished. 
If it's worth listening to, it's worth questioning until you understand it.
That's what I wish church would be. The problem with thinking church is for passive listening is that faith isn't passive. It's disruptive. It interrupts our lives. It practically demands questioning and talking back. Read through Jesus' discourses to the crowds in the Gospels and you see the disciples interrupting and asking questions all the time.

I would love for more people to feel comfortable practicing active listening in church. Explain this part of your sermon, please. What does this hymn mean? Why do we say this in the Creed?

If it's worth listening to, it's worth questioning until you understand it. That's living faith. That's what church should be.

From the Gray,
Pastor Ari

“Which way to something better? Which way to forgiveness? Which way do I go?” -Tom Petty, “Time to Move On”

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Holy Week Devotions (A Throwback Post)

Jim LePage is one of my favorite artists.
See more of his work at
I wrote this as a booklet for a Family Faith event at my last congregation. It was (obviously) written for families with children, but could easily be adapted to be used with any age or even as personal devotions. I share it hoping it can find some more mileage after a few years in the garage. Have a blessed and meaningful Holy Week!

From the Gray,
Pastor Ari

Family Devotions For 
The Three Days of Easter

These devotions are meant to encourage family conversation about some themes of Holy Week and are designed to be used by families with children of elementary age or older.
  • What are the Three Days?  The Three Days, or Triduum (TRIJ-oo-uhm), refers to the time between Maundy Thursday and Easter Sunday.  It was on these days that Jesus was betrayed, tried, crucified, and resurrected in glory. We continue to remember and relive these events as a reminder of God's amazing gift of love for us.
  • Isn't that four days? To people today, yes, but in Jesus' time, Jewish people said a day started at sundown, not midnight.  That means that Friday started at sundown on Thursday and the Last Supper was on Friday in the minds of the early church. Hence, the three days are Friday (including Thursday night), Saturday, and Sunday.

Maundy Thursday: We Need Food to Live
  • Take turns describing your idea of a perfect meal.  What would you eat? Who would you invite? Where would you eat?
  • Read Luke 22:7-30. 
  • Jesus and his disciples are eating the Passover meal of lamb, matzoh bread, and wine right before he died.  Jesus takes the bread and wine and calls them his body and blood.  (This is why we have communion in church!) By doing this, Jesus tells us that he is like food: we need him to survive. And because Jesus died for us, we will eat at the great feast in heaven, too, which will have the best food ever. 
  • Fun note: It's true that you are what you eat. When we take communion or pray or help others or tell people we love them, we become more like Jesus and God's love spreads in the world.
  • Pray:  Jesus, thank you for giving us food to make us strong, especially...(name some favorite foods). We know we need you like we need food and we know you'll always love us. Help us be more like you and to feed other people who are hungry, too. Amen. 

Good Friday: Don't Be Afraid
  • Take turns describing a time that you felt scared.  What happened? Why were you scared? How did you get over your fear?
  • Read John 20:19-23.
  • Today is the day we remember that Jesus died on the cross for us. When Jesus died, his friends, the disciples, were very scared because Jesus was gone and because they thought some people might hurt them, too.  After Jesus rose from the dead, he came to them and told them that death would never really win again. Because God has given us the Holy Spirit in baptism, we don't have to be afraid. God loves us and will always watch over us.
  • Fun note: In the Bible, angels greet people by saying, “Don't be afraid.” God is with us; we don't need to fear anything.
  • Pray: Jesus, sometimes we get scared like your disciples were. Help us to trust you and know that we don't need to be afraid because you will always be with us.  Thank you for loving us so much that you died on the cross.  Amen.

Holy Saturday: Love That Never Ends
  • Take turns describing a time you did something bad. What did you do? Did you hurt someone's feelings? Were you punished? How did you feel?
  • Read Romans 8:31-39.
  • At the Easter Vigil on this night, we read eight stories that talk about how God loves us no matter what and how God will never, ever give up on helping us see how much he loves us.  Sometimes we do bad things or make other people sad, but God will always forgive us and Jesus proves that there is nothing we can ever, ever do that will make God love us less. God will always chase after us and bring us home.
  • Take time to tell each other why you love each other in your family.
  • Pray: Jesus, thank you that you will always love us no matter what. Thank you for all the people we love and for all the people who love us. Thank you for all the ways you care for us. You are awesome! Amen.

“Since Love is lord of heaven and earth, how can I keep from singing?” -"How Can I Keep from Singing" (Traditional Hymn)

Thursday, March 26, 2015

How Psalm 139 Answers Our Deepest Fear

I was at a conference this week for some continuing education and the devotion one morning was based on Psalm 139. Psalm 139 is a well known and beloved poem that speaks of the depth of God's knowledge of us (You have searched me and know me. You knit me together in my mother's womb.) and the impossibility of escaping God (Where can I flee from your presence?).

The presenter asked us a reflection question about what these verses mean to us, but I couldn't help thinking about a different question: Why do people love this Psalm so much? Why do I? There seems to be something universally appealing about this passage and after a minute or so of not paying attention to what was actually going on, I thought, "It's about being known."

I think being understood by another person is one of our deepest held needs and conversely, not being known is one of our deepest fears. We are social creatures at heart and thrive on having at least one person who knows our dreams, gets our humor, loves our quirks, and can even see us at our worst and wants to stay with us until we're better. To be known is to be loved.

And yet many of us can feel lonely or isolated when we feel like we're misunderstood or insignificant compared to others or the vast flood of information in our daily lives. Why should anyone care about me?

Psalm 139 puts into the light one of our deepest fears and offers an answer because it speaks of an intimate relationship with God. It says that God knows us better than any person every could because we cannot escape or hide from God's sight. And yet, this God still wants to be close to us.  We are not unknown, unseen, or forgotten because God created us and knows us completely.

Thursday, March 12, 2015

A Few Thoughts on Science and Religion

"Science takes things apart to see how they work. Religion puts things together to see what they mean."

I recently stumbled upon this quote in a book I was reading. The quote is originally by Rabbi Jonathan Sacks and was used by Anglican bishop N. T. Wright in his book "Surprised by Scripture." It was the kind of quote that struck me as deeply profound. (It also struck me as the kind of quote that's best not being over analyzed, but I'm going to share some of my thoughts anyway.)

I don't know how Rabbi Sacks originally meant the quote, but Bishop Wright used it in the context of debunking the so-called science vs. religion debate. In his argument, Wright sees scientific inquiry and religious inquiry as complementary and not competing ideas. He notes that our brains are known to have a logical/objective right side and a left side that processes art, emotions, and creativity. He places religious thought in the left hemisphere, but, he says, we've so overvalued logic and rationality in the past 300 years that we assume religion needs to function like science.

For those who may not feel comfortable with treating religion differently, consider this. Could you scientifically measure my love for my family? Could you objectively prove that Van Gogh's "Starry Night" is beautiful or Beethoven's Ninth Symphony is emotionally moving? Why would you even want to? They are experiences and understanding that operate differently than logical objectivity.

Religious knowledge isn't meant to be reduced to simple "facts" or mathematical proofs. (Even though a lot of religious education operates as if it can, but that's a topic for another time.) Instead, religious meaning often comes from paradoxes and juxtapositions of ideas and events that seem contradictory:

  • We can point to a cross, an instrument of execution, and call it a source of life. (Paul noted in 1 Corinthians that is is "foolishness" and "a stumbling block" to those outside the faith.) 
  • We can read Luther's paradoxical words, "A Christian is a perfectly free lord of all, subject to none. A Christian is a perfectly dutiful servant of all, subject to all." and see it as making perfect sense. 
  • We can describe God as being both just and merciful and Jesus as fully human and fully divine and not feel it's ironic.  
  • We place promise next to suffering, proclaim hope at a funeral, and say that the Kingdom of God is both here and on its way.

Religion looks at answering questions that cannot be easily solved by scientific analysis (Why am I here? Where does beauty or suffering come from? What is love?) but are still absolutely central to our world and lives. Science and religion, understanding and meaning aren't opposites on a pole; they are complementary ways of seeking truth and should, in fact, reinforce each other. As a personal example, learning the complexities of the atom or my body make me feel an awe that is identical to my sense of worship (a religious experience) and studying the questions of meaning lead me to wonder how we can more efficiently feed and heal people (questions for science).

I would hope that in the near future that we can see that learning "how things work" and "what they mean" are more valuable and beautiful when they are integrated than when they are treated as opposites.

From the Gray,
Pastor Ari

P.S. Here's a link to a related blog post on faith and science by David Lose, who I count as one of my digital spiritual guides. There's a brief video by a Lutheran astronomer that captures my hope for integration well.

“It’s not the world that I am changing; I do this so the world will know that it cannot change me.” –Garth Brooks, "The Change"