Thursday, December 1, 2016

Come Quickly Lord

It seems that I’ve spent this entire year bemoaning how quickly it is moving. Every time I feel I’m ready for the events of one month, it is already over. As we are swiftly moving through November into December, though, I’m beginning to think this may not be a bad thing. As a comedian I follow recently noted, this has been a pretty terrible year. 

The comedian lamented the heartburn-inducing election cycle in the United States, the Zika scare, the Syrian crisis, Flint water crisis, violence by and against police, and the fact that David Bowie, Alan Rickman, Prince, and Muhammed Ali all died this year. With a year like that, it’s tempting to want to slip into December’s ubiquity of egg nog and carols and pretend none of this has happened. 

But this is where the Church an be important voice for all.  Not because Christmas brings holiday cheer and seasonal warm fuzzies, but because it is the story of God warning death that it’s days are numbered. 

I recently came across an uncredited quote in some old notes that offered me hope: “Evil rages in this world not because it is powerful but because it is vulnerable.” In Christmas, God pierced the power of evil by entering into our world and at Easter he blew it apart. Because of Christ coming into our world, God’s revolution of new creation has begun, and evil has been weakening ever since. Because when people love one another, when they are transformed by hope and grace, evil cannot prosper. When societies become more stable, just, and healthy, evil struggles to find a foothold. Lives are continually being changed and made new by faith and baptism, and evil cannot—will not—win.

As Christians, we live in the now and the not yet. That is the message of Advent and Christmas, where we remember the waiting and celebration of Jesus made flesh in the past, but also waiting and celebrating for God’s Kingdom to be made complete in this world in the future. We live with the faith that Jesus’ death and resurrection have given us eternal life for today, but also faith in a future of perfection. 

Evil may continue to rage and cause chaos and heartbreak as it has since time began, but we in the Church march onward through this year and the next because we trust that evil is vulnerable. Evil cannot win the day because Christ has died, Christ is risen, and Christ will come again. And so we continue to pray with the ancient church: “The Lord is coming. Come, Lord Jesus.”

From the Gray,
Pastor Ari

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

“Seasons don’t fear the reaper; nor do the sun, the wind or the rain. We can be like they are.” -Blue Oyster Cult, “Don’t Fear the Reaper”

Friday, September 16, 2016

Setting the Table of God

This past Sunday, through one of those situations that happens from time to time, my congregation found ourselves without our usual communion bread for worship. We have a wonderful team of volunteers who make homemade bread for us every week, but last week, none showed up. Thankfully, we keep a box of wafers around just in case and we pulled them out for the holy meal this day.

For anyone who isn't familiar with communion wafers, they are thin, tasteless discs about an inch in diameter that are engineered to dissolve quickly on the tongue and have a shelf life of about one hundred years. I jokingly refer to them as "crispy Christs," but for many people who grew up in the church in the twentieth century, these wafers were the norm for years.

For kids at Martin Luther Church, though, they are not.

This fact became clear during communion. Several appeared puzzled. One young person audibly said, "ugh" when I handed him the body of Christ. Another looked at it with a confused expression and then handed it to his mother.

At the time, I chuckled to myself over their honest reactions. As I thought about it later, though, I realized there was more than a "kids will be kids" truth to their reaction. They came expecting good food at communion -- and why shouldn't they? If "this is the Lord's table" (which I say every week), and our Lord is generous and loving, why shouldn't we expect good food at God's table? If the Lord's Supper is meant to be a "foretaste of the feast to come," I think fresh bread and a decent cabernet is a better representation of that feast than stale wafers and Manischewitz.

Going beyond the quality of communion, I think the same could be said about other aspects of church as well. Do we participate half-heartedly in worship? Do we allow clutter and disfunction to persist in our church? Do we serve weak coffee and stale cookies? (Seriously, why can't more churches make a decent cup of coffee?) Or do we offer our best as a community to both regulars and guests as a reflection of the great gift we've received in Christ?

Now, giving our best isn't the same as being perfect, but I believe we should act as though what we are doing matters to us and furthermore, we want it to matter to those around us, too. How do we set the table of our church on Sunday and our lives during the week so that people come to expect the best of God when they gather there?

From the Gray,

Pastor Ari

“I know you’re supposed to be my steering wheel, not just my spare tire.” -Arrested Development, “Tennessee”

Thursday, July 28, 2016

What I Learned at the Grand Canyon

Last month, I found myself standing on the rim of the Grand Canyon for the first time in my life. And it taught me something about Christian stewardship.

For vacation this year, my family took an epic road trip through the Southwest that included this amazing natural wonder. It's hard to overstate the enormity of the canyon. I frequently felt as though my eyes were playing tricks on me because my brain couldn't process the scale of what was in front of me.

On my last day there, I stood looking at the canyon and reflecting on the history of turning this area into a national park. As I looked at the billions of years of history laid out in front of me, it struck me that the very idea of anyone "owning" something like this was comical. It's been at work for so much longer than any one human life (or even all human life) that to think it can be controlled is silly. All we can do is to appreciate it, protect it for the sake of all people, and pass it along to the next generation.

It was in that moment that I found a new appreciation for the Christian concept of stewardship.

Stewardship is a common word in churches, and it often gets used to mean "give money so we can pay the bills." This is not what we are meant to think, however.

Classically, the "steward" was a servant tasked with overseeing the house of a master. The steward didn't own the house or goods, but was responsible for caring for and preserving the house and goods. For Christians, we start from the assumption that "the earth is the Lord's and all that is in it" (Psalm 24:1). Everything we own, even our talents, passions, and opportunities, are all from God. We don't own them, but are tasked with caring for and using them in ways that align with the Master's vision.

It can be easy to be distracted by thinking about what we own, what we want, or what we "deserve." We can be motivated, stressed, or obsessed by these thoughts. But as I looked out at the Grand Canyon, I was aware of how small I am in the great scheme of the world. Compared to the history of God and the earth, the thought of "owning" my home, my salary, and my talents seems just as laughable as owning the Grand Canyon. I've been entrusted these things for a while, but they will pass to others at some point. Will I hoard them temporarily or steward them on behalf of their true owner? Like the Grand Canyon, all I can really do is appreciate it, steward it for the sake of all people, and pass it along to the next generation.

From the Gray,

Pastor Ari

“In a world where what we want is only what we want until it’s ours.” -Train, “Calling All Angels”

Friday, July 22, 2016

Getting Uncomfortable Can Be Good

Last Christmas, my family had the opportunity to join in a tradition outside our own experience. My daughter is in a dual-language program at her school that combines students who are native speakers of both Spanish and English so they can learn from and with each other. One of her friend's family is from Mexico and they invited us to come to their Las Posadas celebration.

Las Posadas is a religious tradition for Mexican Catholics recalling the pilgrimage of Mary and Joseph to Bethlehem and their search for housing along the way. That's about all I knew when we arrived at their house for the celebration and crammed into their crowded living room. We were handed a sheet of paper full of Spanish songs and prayers and without much warning the event began. Various people took the lead with songs and prayers, a young girl and boy dressed as Mary and Joseph moved around the room at certain times, my wife and daughter jumped in easily as they are both fluent in Spanish, and it was clear that for everyone outside my family, the happenings were familiar and meaningful.

But I was lost.

I know enough Spanish to mumble my way through something written on the page and I felt honored to have been invited to what was clearly an important family event, but I spent most of the evening confused, and maybe even uncomfortable.

Wednesday, June 8, 2016

Finding Unity in Division

This past weekend, the Greater Milwaukee Synod, which is the regional body of my denomination, met for our annual assembly in Kenosha, Wisconsin. Unlike some years, we had a full agenda of business for the three days of the assembly, including electing a new bishop and reviewing six resolutions or policy statements.

On Friday, we spent a significant portion of the day debating one resolution in particular that proposed support of #BlackLivesMatter and their ten-point plan for improving community policing. It was a long and difficult conversation about how best to respond to the issue of racism in our country and how to be a public voice of Christ's gospel on this issue. Do we support the #BlackLivesMatter movement or craft our own statement? How do we word the resolution to be most effective? Should we amend the statement and if so how? How do we honor the voices of police officers and civic leaders who are anti-racism but don't agree with everything in the ten-point plan?

Over the course of three sessions, conversation was often emotional and personal, sometimes tense and uncomfortable. There were strong opinions on all sides and some visible frustration, as well. Finally, around 9:30 at night, discussion ended with the assembly voting to pass the statement. There was still clear layers of tension and exhaustion in the room as we stood to end our session with song and prayer.

But then a beautiful thing happened. As we began singing "Precious Lord, Take My Hand," without anyone prompting us, the entire assembly joined hands and as one body we sang: I am tired, I am weak, I am worn. Through the storm, through the night, lead me on to the light. Precious Lord, take my hand, lead me home.

I was brought to tears by that moment. Despite the fact that we had been arguing and disagreeing just minutes before, here we were, joined together as one body. In an age where we so often act and speak as though we cannot associate or respect people who have different ideas on politics or economics, here the Body of Christ was showing the opposite. In spite of our differences, at the end of the day we were not simply individuals with opinions, but, as our Presiding Bishop likes to say, we are church; we are church together. 

Even when we disagree on issues like BlackLivesMatter, the unified message that we are church together is a powerful one to share.

From the Gray,
Pastor Ari

“This is the worthwhile fight.” -Taylor Swift, “State of Grace”

Thursday, May 26, 2016

Amateurs Welcome

“This life, therefore, is not godliness but the process of becoming godly, not health but getting well, not being but becoming, not rest but exercise. We are not now what we shall be, but we are on the way. The process is not yet finished, but it is actively going on. This is not the goal but it is the right road. At present, everything does not gleam and sparkle, but everything is being cleansed.” -Martin Luther

The quote above is one of my favorites by Martin Luther and lately I’ve been thinking it’s an important one for the church today. I attended a mini-conference in April on adult education and one of the key points we discussed is that church leaders have allowed a terrible lie to persist in our churches, a lie that is undermining the health of our congregations.

That lie is what I’ll call the non-curious adult expert. What I mean by it is this: somehow most of us seem to get the idea that as Christian adults we should already know everything about our faith and aren’t much interested in going deeper with it. It’s assumed that everyone knows the major themes and characters in the Bible, can give a thumbnail sketch of Luther’s theology, and have a solid understanding of who they are in relation to God.

That is true for some, but when we assume it’s true for all, then we design classes that never touch on some of these broader themes, we create environments where questions aren’t asked because people feel they should already know the answers, and we discourage people from participating because they feel learning at church is only for kids. The lie contributes to widespread imposter syndrome in churches, which is the belief that “I don’t belong here because everyone else is an expert/knows what they’re doing/gets it and I’m going to be found out as a fraud.” 

This is why this quote from Luther is so important for us today. It points to the fact that none of us are done learning or growing. Just as we would never think of a person as being fully matured or fully educated when they finish middle school, the same is true for our spiritual lives.

I have read the Bible front to back multiple times and spent four years getting a Master’s degree in this stuff and I am still surprised at the things that I learn and come to understand in new ways as I continue on the way to “what we shall be,” as Luther put it.  As we’ve read lessons from Acts in the season of Easter this year, I’ve been reminded that the disciples themselves continue to learn and grow through the book, coming to deeper understandings of God.

The church has never been a collection of experts, but a group of God’s people learning and growing together. It should be thought of like a YMCA or gym membership; I don’t go to the Y because I have perfect health, but so that my health may continue to improve and though there may be people more fit than I am, we are all striving toward the same goal of greater health. In the church, we are all striving towards the same goal of growing in our relationship to God and helping others to do the same. 

Our baptism is a life-long process, not a one-time event. So we need to strive to create a culture in which questions and curiosity are normal, where learning and growth is expected, and where we embrace our amateur status as we work out our faith for the long haul.

In God’s Amazing Grace,
Pastor Ari

(This article first appeared in my church's summer 2016 newsletter.)

“Don’t forget to bring encouragement. Yeah, we’re all just beginners.” -Bill Mallonee, “Bank”

Friday, May 20, 2016

Habits We Are Proud to Have

Over the years, I've made many pastoral visits with people who have advanced dementia or Alzheimers. Most of them are largely unaware of what's going on around them and many struggle to communicate at all. However, there have been several occasions when as soon as I start speaking the Lord's prayer, the person will begin speaking along with me. It's clear that the language is so familiar that they know it even if they can't communicate on a conscious level.

Their example makes me think about my own habitual actions. I can make coffee in the morning when I'm half-asleep (thank goodness). I buckle my seatbelt every time I get in a car without thinking about it. These habits start as conscious actions, but repeated often enough become muscle memory (literal or figurative).

Any action repeated often enough can become a mindless habit...good or bad. You see, I also drive pretty aggressively because years of driving in Philadelphia turned that into a habit. (Good thing I buckle that seatbelt.) I'm not sure that's a habit I want.

Are the actions I'm taking now going to build habits that reflect the fruits of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22-23) or will they show impatience, frustration, or apathy?

What actions are you practicing repeatedly? Are they the kind you want to be habits? Are they the kind you want people to remember when are to old to remember yourself?

From the Gray,
Pastor Ari

"This is your life. Are you who you want to be?" -Switchfoot, "This is Your Life"

Thursday, March 3, 2016

Opening Our Eyes to the Well

“The angel of God called to Hagar from heaven and said to her, ‘What is the matter, Hagar? Do not be afraid; God has heard the boy crying as he lies there.’ Then God opened her eyes and she saw a well of water. So she went and filled the skin with water and gave the boy a drink.” (Genesis 21: 17, 19)

I am part of a monthly coaching group with four other pastors. The first week of every month, we join a conference call and share encouragements, insights, and ideas for strengthening ourselves and our ministries. In one of our sessions, we were asked to share a Bible passage that was important to our ministry. Several “classic” texts were mentioned before one of the pastors named the story of Hagar as her favorite.

Now, Hagar is kind of a sad story and certainly not one I’d ever considered for inspirational material. Hagar is a servant woman who is used by Abraham so he can father a child, Ishmael. Later on, after Sarah gives birth to Isaac, Hagar and Ishmael are cast off to fend for themselves in the desert. After running out of water, Ishmael is on the verge of death and Hagar cries out in sadness for her son. 

Like I said, it’s a sad story, but it’s this point in the story that my colleague named as the meaningful one for her. When Hagar cries, God hears her and then “opened her eyes and she saw a well of water” (Genesis 21:19). “The miracle,” my colleague said, “wasn’t that God created a source of water, it was that God opened Hagar’s eyes to the well that was already there.”

There are many desert places that we will confront in ministry and in our lives. It’s easy to want a miracle to get us out of those places, but big, flashy miracles are rare. Perhaps the miracles we should be looking for are like Hagar’s, where God opens our eyes to something that was already in front of us. 

I know I’ve experienced this recently as I was confronting a desert time in my life. I was overwhelmed with worry and stress and looking for a magic bullet. I didn’t find that magic bullet, but I was amazed to find the resources I had in friends and acquaintances who provided advice, references, and wisdom from their own experience. 

There are always challenges that will arise in ministry and life. As we confront them, may God open our eyes to the wells of hope that may be around us. 

In God’s Amazing Grace,

Pastor Ari

“Carry me; your love is wider than my need could ever be.” -Jars of Clay, "River Constantine"