Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Singing and Dancing into Lent

Last week, most of the Christian world started the season of Lent. It is a time thought of by many as serious, reflective, or even somber because most churches observe Lent with quieter, more restrained worship and "disciplines" such as giving up something you love, special offerings for the poor, and additional time in prayer. It's meant to be a time for focusing closely on our mortality and our need for God. (To be fair, one of my professors once said, "Lent should be sober, not somber.")

Many people love the tone of Lent and find the reflective tone to be one of the richest experiences of the church year. (I am one of them.) But I also know people who struggle with it and have had people describe Lent as "a downer." Instead of sharpening focus, the practices of Lent seem distracting or grating to them.

Therefore, it seemed like a happy coincidence to me that Seth Godin's blog on Ash Wednesday this year was about changing how we approach unfair situations, asking if we go in "kicking and screaming" or "singing and dancing."

Over the past couple years, I've started thinking about Lent more in terms of a time to strengthen my relationship with God. As I reflected on Godin's words, it struck me that I never (okay, rarely) think about giving time and attention to people I love as a "downer." Instead, strengthening my human relationships is something that leaves me fuller and happier, both during and after. Why should strengthening my relationship to God be different?

If you are one of those who find Lent a downer (or maybe just someone looking for a new way to think about Lent), let me offer you this paraphrased food for thought:
"What if, instead, we went at it with singing and dancing? What if we walked into Lent determined to learn more, do more and contribute more than anyone had ever dreamed? What if we saw this break from the normal as an opportunity to grow or to invent or to find another path? ... It seems far better than the alternative."
Whatever path is before you, may God bless yours this Lenten season.

From the Gray,
Pastor Ari

“So tame my flesh and fix my eyes; a tethered mind freed from the lies.” -Mumford and Sons, “I Will Wait”

Thursday, February 19, 2015

The Other Side of the Line in the Sand

One of the things I love about reading Seth Godin is how he often closely skirts the Gospel even though he's writing about internet and the connection economy. This week he posted a blog titled "We need to hate them more" about how many people build up a following or fan base by rallying people against the "other."
"It's tempting to enjoy the short-term rush that comes from hating the other guys. It's certainly a good way to get the crowd on its feet. But it doesn't last. ... Hating the other almost always destroys the hater." 
It reminds me of a sermon I heard once in which the preacher said, "Whenever we draw a line in the sand, Jesus will be on the other side of it." I don't remember what text she was preaching from, but there's no shortage of options. Jesus defending the adulterous woman in John 8? Jesus defending the children to his disciples? Jesus being rebuked for eating with "sinners?" Whenever someone tries to tell Jesus "That person is an outsider," Jesus' reply is always, "Then so am I."

There's no shortage of examples of people in our world who make their name by pointing fingers at the "other." They tell us that what the other thinks/says/has done/might do is too dangerous/stupid/evil/wrong for us to trust them/listen to them/work with them/be around them/allow them to live.

Whenever we draw a line in the sand, Jesus will be on the other side of it.

It's easy to play favorites; it's uncomfortable to build a bigger circle. It's easy to point fingers; it's uncomfortable to listen.

I think some discomfort is a healthy part of faith. Love takes risk. Forgiveness is hard. Admitting when we're wrong feels unnatural. Being patient and listening to other opinions seem like luxuries I don't have time for. That's why I have to work at them and pray for them.

Perhaps when Jesus said faith was a narrow road, it wasn't that any of us are walking it alone, but that it's hard for us to make room for all the people Jesus has invited to walk it with us.

From the Gray,
Pastor Ari

“Blessed are the shallow; depth they'll never find.” -Jars of Clay, "Frail"

Thursday, February 12, 2015

How to Meet the Apocalypse in Style (A Throwback Post)

(In going through some old files, I stumbled upon some old blog posts and newsletter articles from my previous positions as a pastor and seminary student. While some make me groan with embarrassment, I will occasionally post a "throwback" article from the archive. Here's one I wrote back in 2011.)

A couple weeks ago, while driving through Sussex, I saw a yard sign that said the world was ending on May 21. Since this was obviously a professionally printed sign, I was curious who was behind this revelation. 

Googling the information later, I discovered that a Christian preacher and radio host in Oakland, CA named Harold Camping had “discovered” the rapture is going to happen at 6pm on Saturday, May 21 by carefully working through Biblical math equations and checking them against historical events. His conclusions have led thousands of people to quit their jobs, sell their possessions, and/or drive around the country trying to save as many souls as possible before this Saturday. 

Given that Christians do hope and pray for the return of Jesus and that we’ve seen hundreds of such predictions come and go in the past (Anyone remember Y2K? 9/9/99?), what is a proper Christian response to news like this?  My response is “nothing.”

When I say “nothing,” though, I don’t mean that we should do nothing at all. Instead, I mean to say that we should do nothing different.  Martin Luther, when asked once what he would do if he knew the world would end tomorrow, replied, “I would plant a tree today.” His response suggests that we should always live in hope of tomorrow, always work to create life, always trust that “whether we live or we die, we are the Lord’s” (Romans 14:8). 

As Christians, we live lives of hope, love, generosity toward others, and freedom from death and fear because of the actions of Jesus Christ. Why should any of that change, even if we knew for certain that the world were ending this Saturday?  

One of the trademarks of the American Evangelical movement has been a fascination with the Apocalypse and obsession with interpreting the “signs” of Revelation, Daniel, and Ezekial. Aside from the fact that Jesus himself says that “only the Father” knows when these things will happen (Matthew 24:36), my criticism of this scholarship is that it puts our energies into the wrong pursuits.  Instead of looking for meaning in the “signs” of the Bible, we should be living according to the meaning in plain words: Love God and your neighbor as yourself. Over and over, the Bible tells us that serving others is true worship to God, not figuring out a secret date.

So whether you think the world will end this Saturday, or you think this is just another bogus doomsayer, do nothing different. Live with hope, joy, and self-giving love toward others. We are the Lord’s. Those words are all the certainty that we need. Now, if you’ll excuse me, the world is ending and I need to plant a tree...

From the Gray,
Pastor Ari

“Take these chances, place them in a box until a quieter time. Lights down, you up and die.” -Dave Matthews Band, “Ants Marching”

Thursday, February 5, 2015

Grantchester: What a Fake Priest Reveals About Being Real Christians

A fictional character who seems real has me thinking about how much we play characters in our real life.

I recently started watching the PBS series Grantchester. I have a weakness for British dramas and mysteries and Grantchester is both. But what drew me to the show was a description I read that went something like "Sidney Chambers is a priest who loves God, jazz music, a good pub, and solving murder." When I read the description to my wife, she said, "It sounds like you, except for the solving murder part." (My half-joking response: "Maybe one day...")

What my wife said, however, was exactly what drew me to the show. "It sounds like you..." I've mentioned before in my blog my frustration with Hollywood typically portraying clergy as dangerous fanatics or clueless goodie-goodies. (And always men! Dear Hollywood: Women can be clergy, too!) But Grantchester was describing a priest that talks and acts like a real person. Here is a priest that actually sounds like me and most of the pastors I know.

Sidney Chambers goes to pubs, parties, and picnics. He does manual labor, has conversations where he is both compassionate and uncertain, has a complicated love life, and struggles with writing his sermons. In one conversation in episode three, he shares with a priest in training that "this job is difficult" because "most things aren't black and white; a lot of life is gray areas." While it's not a perfect show or a perfect reflection of my experiences as a pastor, it is the closest portrayal of a real life clergyperson I can think of seeing on screen. They are at least striving for authenticity.

That issue of authenticity in a fictional priest has got me thinking about authenticity in my real life job because as much as I dislike the stereotypes of pastors on tv, I know many stereotypes have some small grain of truth in them. Perhaps pastors are portrayed as defenders of spiritual certainty and moral purity because that's how we treat our jobs.

I know I often feel pressure (From myself? Culture? The Church?) to have a simple, clear answer to any situation and I can be afraid of appearing like I don't know for sure. After all, I'm supposed to be the authority on God, right? If I don't have faith all figured out, does that make me an imposter or a failure?

Despite my fears, however, I've often found that the richest and deepest conversations I've had with people have often been from sermons or Bible studies where I've risked saying, "This is hard for me to understand. I wrestle with making this fit my own life." (The most read blog article I've ever written was one where I shared my discomfort with the story of God asking Abraham to sacrifice his son.) In other words, when I've been more authentic myself, it's given permission to others to be more authentic in their faith.

And that permission giving is important because I think all of us have something in our lives where we fear authenticity. It may be related to our social group, our faith, our parenting, or our job, but I'm guessing there's at least one spot in our lives where we're afraid to do or say anything that might show we "don't know" or "don't fit in." Instead, we play stereotyped versions of ourselves, hoping we won't reveal we are imposters.

As Christians, though, we are called to be about the truth. Jesus says, "Let your 'yes' be 'yes' and your 'no' be 'no'" (Matt. 5:37) and promises "the truth will set you free" (John 8:32). God's truth doesn't set us free so we can become stereotypes, but so we can grow in the image of God. And growth is much stronger when we are able to admit the places where we need help and make ourselves vulnerable enough to create relationships that can grow with us.

I am a pastor that loves God, music, a good pub, and solving murder mysteries (on tv, at least). I don't have a perfect answer for every faith question or Bible story, but I pray that being my authentic self and inviting others to do the same will create a community where God's truth is revealed to us all.

From the Gray,
Pastor Ari

(As a side note, I don't think authenticity is the same as "letting it all hang out." I've heard of pastors swearing in the pulpit or oversharing personal details to the point of making people uncomfortable. The authenticity I'm thinking about isn't self-serving ["Here I am! Deal with it!"]; instead it creates a space where you and I can be imperfect together.)

“I stole my personality from an anonymous source.” -Hockey, “Song Away”