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)