Friday, November 16, 2018

The Third Sacrament

(Note: This was first written for my church's winter newsletter in December 2018)

In the Lutheran church, we acknowledge two sacraments: communion and baptism. Martin Luther felt there needed to be some Biblical basis for defining a sacrament and cut back on the total of Roman Catholic sacraments. The definition he settled on had three parts: a sacrament had to a) be commanded by Jesus, b) have a physical sign, and c) have a promise of grace attached to it. 

A few practices and traditions that are important to us fail to be a full sacrament because they lack one of these three. Confession and forgiveness for instance is commanded by Jesus and has a promise of grace, but not a physical sign. Foot washing is commanded and has a physical sign, but not a promise of grace. 

Over the years of being a pastor, I’ve come to believe there is a third sacrament that should be acknowledged and celebrated in church. I believe it is a sacrament even though as far as I know it isn’t acknowledged as one in any denomination. I believe the third sacrament is us, the Church itself, the Body of Christ. 

I could spend more time explaining my thinking, but in short, I believe Jesus commands us to be together (John 14:20-21), promises us grace when we come together (Matthew 18:20), and there is a physical sign — each other. 

I share this idea with you because we are heading again towards the seasons of Advent and Christmas. In these seasons, we share presents and carols and egg nog, but at their heart is an idea closely tied to this third sacrament: incarnation or God made flesh. In this time of year, we remember the arrival of God’s son, Jesus, in human form. In taking on flesh, he became a blessing to those around him, a source of light in a time of darkness, and a sign of God’s love to those in need. 

In another time that feels full of darkness, there is comfort in this story. Our politics are a mess, natural disasters and mass shootings seem to happen weekly, wars continue to rage around the world and even allies don’t seem as trustworthy as they once did. That God took flesh to offer hope and life in a similar time is a sign of grace, but we need also remember it is not in the past. 

Jesus didn’t just come in the flesh; he comes in the flesh. And just as he did in Palestine centuries ago, he still comes to be a blessing to those around him, a source of light in a time of darkness, and a sign of God’s love to those in need. Because of the work the Holy Spirit continues to do in us, I believe we are a sacrament, a source of grace and life to each other and the world around us. 

May we know the presence of Christ this holiday season. May we see Christ take flesh in those around us and may we be open to how God takes flesh in us. May we be surprised (have “epiphanies”) about the ways God is working around us. And may God use us to be a blessing to the world around us. 

From the Gray,
Pastor Ari

"When everyone you thought you knew deserts your fight, I'll go with you." -twenty one pilots, "My Blood"

Tuesday, October 23, 2018

What is Appropriate Prayer?

For the past month, Milwaukee has been buzzing. Our local Major League team, the Brewers, was on a tear. They finished with the best record in the National League, made the playoffs for the first time in seven years, and won twelve in a row to win the NL Central title and sweep the first round of the playoffs. It has seemed like everyone was wearing Brewers gear and talking baseball in our area.

On Saturday, the Brewers hosted game 7 of the NL Championship against the LA Dodgers with a chance to go to the World Series for the first time since 1982 and the city was electric.

But they lost. No World Series. No more season. There was no joy in Mudville, for mighty Casey had struck out...

The next morning, during the late worship service at my church, the assisting minister added an impromptu petition to the prayers that was something like: "Lord, help us in our grief over our baseball team losing. We wanted to go to the World Series and it hurts. Help us get over it and look forward to next season."

In the moment, I didn't know exactly what to think about the prayer. I wondered if some would be offended by including something like a sports team in the prayers. Would some feel it wasn't appropriate for the prayers in church? Did I?

As I continued to think about it, I remembered that I myself often tell people there is no bad prayer. "Prayer," I say, "is just speaking honestly with God." I sometimes use the examples of Psalm 137 or Psalm 109, where the writers pray for God to bring suffering to their enemies. I also use them as examples of the truth that God is with us in times of pain and suffering. If those bitter songs are saved as examples of prayer in the Bible, we can be honest with our own pain, anger, or whatever we feel.

As I thought about it, I realized this prayer was speaking honestly with God. She was saying, "Sure, it's just a baseball team, but a lot of us here are hurting today. If you're with us in any suffering, please be with us in this time of pain." In a different situation, it might have been silly or frivolous, but on that morning, it was true and sincere. That, I believe is God's hope for our prayers, because when we are honest about ourselves, we can be more open to what God has to say to us.

May we all be reminded that there is no part of our lives that is beyond God and nothing that God doesn't want to hear from us. 

From the Gray,

Pastor Ari

“I’m-a say all the words inside my head.” -Imagine Dragons, “Believer”

Friday, October 5, 2018

Improper Amputations

"[Jesus said,] 'If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life maimed than to have two hands and to go to hell, to the unquenchable fire'" (Mark 9:43).

Last Sunday, the assigned gospel lesson in the Revised Common Lectionary included this happy line along with orders to remove your feet and eyes if they cause you to sin, as well. Jesus is commanding his followers to remove sources of sin and evil in their lives, but as far as I know, no one has ever taken this passage literally and maimed themselves in the name of holiness. (Which is good!) 

But the more I thought about this passage, the more I think we carry that out in ways that may not be literal, but are still destructive and unhealthy. 

I was thinking about it while watching the news of our politicians belittling each other or calling each other unAmerican, hateful, or even evil. 

I was thinking about it in Bible study where people shared stories of being rejected or shamed by someone in the Church sometime in their past. 

I was thinking about it in conversations where people talk about unfriending loved ones or removing themselves from from a social circle because of a disagreement about politics or religion.

And I was thinking that far too often (especially in this divided age of history), we see the sources of sin and evil in our lives as other people. Jesus warns about the evils within ourselves, but instead, we attempt to amputate the people we think are problems. 

This is the very problem Jesus is addressing in this passage, which begins with his disciples saying, "There was someone healing in your name, but he wasn't one of us, so we told him to get lost." That person was different. He was a problem. We had to get rid of him. 

But Jesus says, "No." And then he talks about hands and feet and eyes as a way of saying, "Don't look for evil in other people without seeing it in yourself, too." Whenever we silence, ignore, cast off, or dehumanize others because of differences, we fail to be faithful to Jesus. Whenever we see people as bad instead of their actions or words, we are likely ignoring the faults within ourselves. 

Sadly, history is filled with examples of people attempting to cut off those they saw as a problem by silencing, alienating, or even killing them. We've seen it done to monarchies and peasants, Jews and Muslims, Catholics and Protestants, foreigners and minorities, political radicals and moderates, leftists and right wingers, communists and capitalists, and on and on... All of these efforts have involved hatred or violence and are rarely remembered as high points in human story. 

In this era of division, Jesus' words here and to love my enemies challenge me that we can disagree but not dehumanize, we can be different but not belittle.

And if we seek to reduce evil in the world, we may need to start by removing our hatred, our prejudice, and our own pointing fingers. 

From the Gray,
Pastor Ari

“Scars are souvenirs you never lose.” -Goo Goo Dolls, “Name”

Thursday, August 16, 2018

A Response to Clergy Abuse in Pennsyvania

Photo: Keith Kelly via flikr
This week, a major report was published in Pennsylvania detailing how 301 priests sexually abused at least 1000 victims in every diocese in the state. Even more damning that previous similar reports, this one detailed how priests, bishops, and other church leaders conspired to commit and cover up these crimes over decades.

There is so much about this scandal that makes me angry.

I'm angry that anyone would sexually abuse children. It's beyond awful and even worse that they knowingly covered up the crimes. It's terrible to think about the number of lives that have been forever altered by this abuse.

I'm angry that the actions of these priests besmirch my profession and the Church I love. I'm angry that MY integrity is suspect because I wear the same uniform as them. (Though these offenses are the least of the crimes they've committed.)

I'm especially angry that it seems every level of leadership so radically failed to be the Church, the Body of Christ for the sake of the world. Christians are called to be light to the world, to care for the vulnerable and serve the needy, yet church leaders took advantage of the vulnerable, served their own desires, and worked to keep it all in the dark. For years and years. Shame on them.

I'm angry that after almost twenty years of clergy abuse being reported, Roman Catholic leaders still struggle to make a sincere apology and have an earnest investigation of their records to punish and defrock anyone who committed these crimes or covered them up. Truth and justice are core to Christian principles and yet church spokespeople often seem more concerned with protecting their reputation and money. (It was reported this week that some church leaders fought to prevent this report from going public over fears it would lead to bankruptcies. Again: shame.)

And this is not an anti-Catholic rant; I have deep love and admiration for many Roman Catholic people and institutions and would use these same words were it my own denomination. My love for my Roman Catholic sisters and brothers is partly why I'm so furious. How could something with so much good be used to defend and hide evil for so long?

As a Lutheran, I believe we are "simultaneous saint and sinner," imperfect people in need of God's grace. I believe there is forgiveness for our failures, but we must confess our brokenness, bring the sin into the light to be transformed. The church should be leading the world in how to name sin, practice justice, and seek restoration, but here it followed the world's lead in practicing selfishness, abuse of power, and worship of money.

Every Christian institution should look hard at this and pledge that we will do better. We seek to be righteous, but when we fail, we must confess our sin, seek justice, and face consequences when necessary. We must side with and support victims, even when it may cost us.

As a Christian, I also believe in resurrection and that God can bring new life out of terrible events. I pray that can happen here, but before there can be resurrection, we need to make sure this past is dead and buried.

From the Gray,

Pastor Ari

“The past is gone, but something might be found to take its place.” -Gin Blossoms, “Hey Jealousy"

Wednesday, June 20, 2018

If Only I Had... God's Perspective

A few weeks ago, the alternative lesson from the Old Testament was from 1 Samuel 8. It's one of those stories I find funny and heart breaking at the same time.

In the story, the Israelites come to the prophet Samuel, who is the prophet of Israel at the time. They come to Samuel with a simple request: "We want a king."

Up to this point, there have been no kings or queens in Israel. A series of temporary leaders called Judges have been providing order since they left Egypt. This was because the LORD God was the king of Israel and the leaders had resisted a royal leader that would undermine God's place at the head of the nation.

Now that system of judges (as with any government) had not been perfect and especially in the recent past, the leaders had not been great. But asking for a king from Samuel was, in essence, a rejection of God.

The comedy in the story comes out when Samuel tries to talk them out of this idea. "Don't you know what a king will do?" he asks. "A king will tax you, take your sons to die in the army, take your daughters to serve in his palaces, take the best of your wealth for himself and not guarantee your well being." And the people more or less respond, "Yep, that's what we're looking for."

Reluctantly, Samuel agrees, Saul is anointed king, and most of what Samuel warned about comes true in the coming years. But it's that moment of decision that I always find interesting. Samuel is blatantly honest about what can happen if they go this way and how it won't work out the way they expect, but they don't care. They blind themselves to it and want it anyway.

They've convinced themselves that there's this one thing out there and if only they can get it, then everything will be fine.

How often do I get stuck thinking that if I just own this gadget, or have this much money, or finish this one goal, then everything will be fine and my problems will be gone? Meanwhile, the prophets are trying to warn me, "It won't be as good as you think and it won't fix all your problems." And they're always right.

The point of this story as well as the commandment against idols and Jesus' many warnings about wealth is basically this: anything, put to it's proper use in line with God's rule can be good and life giving, but when they are elevated above God as the thing we put our ultimate trust in... Well, we're bound to be let down.

We can get caught up thinking "If only..." but the truth I struggle to live into is that even IF I obtain that thing God is God and I am not and God has ordered the universe to work best in the rhythm of generosity, compassion, mercy, and love, not my desires.

God help me to keep my priorities in order.

From the Gray,
Pastor Ari

“I think I'm ready to admit that I've spent all my resistance on someone I can't resist.” -The Waiting, "Hands in the Air"

Tuesday, June 12, 2018

Let's End Suicide

(Note: I first wrote this on my facebook page.)

I've never watched Anthony Bourdain.

Until last week, I'd never heard of Kate Spade.

But I learned I have at least one thing in common with them. I have known the dark night of the soul where voices in my head have been speaking the mantra that I'm a failure and my life isn't worth continuing. There have been times my depression and anxiety were so overwhelming that stepping into nothingness has sounded like a relief. 

I thank God that in those moments I heard another voice. I thank God that I found a therapist, a psychiatrist, and a medication that have stabilized my condition so that I'm fine 99% of the time and no longer have suicidal thoughts. And today I grieve with God that Anthony and Kate and roughly 100 Americans per day did not.

Since I found a way to manage my mental health condition, I've made one of my life's goals to #endthestigma around mental health issues so that more people might find the help they need and those who don't have mental health issues can better ally with loved ones who do.

As this article suggests, the first step is recognizing this is a disease. Just as a diabetic can't will their body to create insulin or a cancer patient can't focus on the positive to heal their cancer, I cannot will my brain into balancing my serotonin levels. 

When I get the flu, people don't tell me to "get over it." They wisely suggest I sleep, see a doctor, drink fluids, etc.  When I have an episode of depression or anxiety, I have a "mental flu" and I need to care for the "infection" just as I would the flu. 

So, if you want to help someone who lives with a mental health issue, here's what I find helpful: 
-Listen without judging or trying to fix things. Unless you're a doctor, you can't fix cancer and you can't fix depression, so don't try. Just listen, empathize, and assure the person you love that you care and they aren't alone. Words like, "That sounds really tough" can feel inadequate, but go a long way to building a healthy connection.
-Tell the person it's okay to care for themselves. It isn't selfish to go to the ER when you have a broken arm and it isn't selfish to treat a mental health episode...but it sure feels that way when you're having one. Letting someone know the world won't fall apart and they will still be loved if they take time to care for themselves is important.
-Ask for guidance in helping. What you think may be helpful might not be to someone in crisis, so ask what is and don't minimize it if it seems small. Something like emptying the dishwasher for me can be a release valve that makes bigger things manageable.
-Check in regularly. When appropriate for the individual relationship, ask how they're doing and don't be afraid to name the disease. I have one friend who's very good at asking, "How's your anxiety been doing?" It helps because I know he cares and it makes it feel normal.

If you live with depression, anxiety, bi-polar, or other mental health issues, YOU ARE NOT ALONE and YOU HAVE NOTHING TO BE ASHAMED OF. There are millions of us who live with, struggle with, and manage a mental health issue. If you don't already, please take steps to care for yourself. 

That may include a therapist or a medication and there's no shame or weakness it that. 

It should definitely include some loving friends who know your struggle and can support you in ways that are helpful to you. I'm happy to be one of them.

And if you ever find yourself listening to the voices that say life isn't worth continuing, then find another voice. Remember MY voice telling you this: "That other voice is lying to you!" If you are religious, remember God's voice saying, "You are my beloved child. I want to create life where things seem dead." Find a voice on the National Suicide Hotline at 800-273-8255. But find help. Now. 

Your life matters to me and to more people than you realize.

From the Gray,
Pastor Ari

“Even if we can’t find heaven, I’ll walk through hell with you.” -Rachel Platten, “Stand By You”

Thursday, May 17, 2018

Flour Power

At my church, children who don't take communion yet get a blessing when they come to the table with their family. Usually I rest my hand on their head as I bless them and trace a cross on their forehead to remind them of their baptism.

As I do, there is often an unintended side effect.

That's because we also use homemade bread for communion at my church (yum!) and it has flour on it from the kneading process. So when I bless the children, they end up with a dusting of flour that my hand has picked up from the bread. They leave the table with a visible residue of God's blessing for them in their hair.

It helps me to remember that what we hold on to will leave a mark on things we touch. What am I holding on to and what kind of residue am I leaving behind me? Are my hands dirty with grime or with grace?

I hope and pray that my words and actions dust the world with blessings and I hope yours do, too.

From the Gray,
Pastor Ari

“I want the markings made on my skin to mean something to me again.” -twenty one pilots, “Doubt”

Thursday, May 10, 2018

Farming, Faith, Persistence, and Hope

"[Jesus] also said, ‘The kingdom of God is as if someone would scatter seed on the ground, and would sleep and rise night and day, and the seed would sprout and grow, he does not know how.'" -Mark 4:26-27

“We can do no great things — only small things with great love.” -Mother Teresa

I've been thinking a lot recently about what it means to be a Christian in our daily lives. How do we live in a chaotic world where so much seems to be out of our control?

So I was struck by the passage from Mark when I read it recently. Though the farmer scatters seed and tends the earth, there is still a mystery to growth. But she trusts that if she waters and cares for the field, there will be growth. There is no one grand gesture that creates growth, but sustained, patient, repeated attention to the seeds.

Jesus says that God's kingdom of grace and love acts in the same way. There is a mystery to the actions of God in this world that we cannot fully understand; we can simply trust that adding our labor will assist in the growth of new life. 

We are like farmers, tending the earth, sowing the seed, but not knowing exactly how it works, nor knowing which seeds will sprout and grow, but trusting that if we continue to seed the world with justice, tend the earth with love, and water it with generosity, a harvest of grace will come forth. 

Patience and persistence in small acts of love may not be sexy or exciting, but they are the tools of God's conquest.

From the Gray,
Pastor Ari

“Faith and guts to guide you; wander ‘til you find you.” -Jars of Clay, “Inland”

Friday, May 4, 2018

Holy Vocabulary: What is Love?

In the season of Easter, we have a weekly lesson from the letter of 1 John, a letter often known for talking about love and community. It's because of these themes that I've decided to preach on these texts for the season of Easter, but as I'm re-reading this book one of the ideas I can't get out of my head is how difficult it is to talk about love. Why? Because it comes with a lot of baggage.

Love is a word we throw around a lot in English. We use it to talk about family members and potato chips, about top 40 music and the character of God. We usually use it to mean something like "affection" or "emotional attraction" or "I agree and think this is similar to me."

If that's how we understand the word "love," it's no wonder that we stop short when Jesus says to "love your enemies" (Matt. 5:44; Luke 6:27). How can feel affection for a murderer or approve of a rapist?

But 1 John lays out how that idea of love is one dimensional and shallow. In 3:16, the author says, "We know love by this, that [Jesus] laid down his life for us, and we ought to lay down our lives for each other." In other words, love isn't just feeling good about something; we recognize it in sacrifice, in working to make someone else the best version of themselves.

Because I love my children, I don't stand by and approve of them hitting another kid; I step in and stop them, I teach them to apologize and respect others. Even if they get angry with me or the punishment or correction causes me trouble or pain. Because I love them, I want them to be better people.

So how do we love a murderer? By stopping them and providing resources for their hearts to change so they can attempt to make recompense. By working for a world that has less root causes of violence and hatred, such as bullying, prejudice, unending poverty, or untreated mental and physical health issues. By praying and working for them to become the best version of themselves, the version of themselves God has created them to be.

And in learning to love others into the best version of themselves, hopefully I am being changed into the best version of myself because God is patiently giving Godself to me for that purpose.

If we're going to understand the love God has given us and calls us to practice, we need to get past the images of Hollywood and Hallmark. Love isn't just positive emotions and giving chocolates, it's giving our lives for others as God did for us.

From the Gray,
Pastor Ari

"Sometimes love has to drive a nail into its own hand." -Chris Rice, "Sometimes Love"

Friday, April 13, 2018

You Are Not Trash

Much of our North American culture is built to be thrown away.

Fast food is served in paper and plastic that's meant to be disposed after use and most groceries are sold in packaging that's thrown away after use. Most minor appliances are cheaper to replace than repair. It's expected that devices like cell phones will be replaced every 18-24 months. The average American creates about 4.4 pounds of trash per day.

It safe to say that we expect many things in our lives be temporary and quickly obsolete.

But that's not how God operates.

The Bible tells of a God that refuses to give up and throw away his people. Though they complain about God in the wilderness. Though their rejection of God leads to exile. Though they crucify Jesus. God sticks by God's promises to redeem, repair, and resurrect those in need. It strikes me that even in Revelation, the image of the new creation is not one where the earth is eliminated, but is made perfect and complete by the arrival of heaven.

There's an important lesson in that I strive to remember from time to time. You are not trash to God. God won't throw us away. God's grace isn't temporary.

The Reality of God isn't a throw away culture.

From the Gray,
Pastor Ari

"And in this day when something's worth is based on what someone would pay, it's nice to know I'm worth one Jesus to You." -Everybodyduck, "Tetelestai"

Thursday, April 5, 2018

Where To Start...

On Maundy Thursday (the Thursday before Easter), the worship service in my tradition begins with the sermon. In explaining this change, the worship reference book* says, "The relocation of the sermon enables the preacher to deal with the various aspects of the theme of Jesus' love as a background for the entire service." In other words, we start with Jesus' love because everything in this worship is about Jesus' love.

As I read that this year, it gave me two thoughts.

First, that is a good summary for Lutheran theology. Jesus' love is the background for everything. Because salvation/eternal life/reconciliation is a gift from God, God's love and grace is the beginning of and background to everything we believe and do. Nothing begins without God's love.

That led to my second thought: what if I tried to live with that thought always in mind?

  • My day begins because of Jesus' love. 
  • I will begin this email with Jesus' love. 
  • Jesus' love will be in the background of this difficult conversation. 
  • How is Jesus' love in the background of this meeting? Of this meal with loved ones?
  • I will write this blog with Jesus' love...
This week I'm playing around with what that looks like for me. How about you? How would treating Jesus' love as the beginning and background to all you do change how you speak, think, and act (or react)? 

From the Gray,
Pastor Ari

"Let's start at the very beginning, a very good place to start." -The Sound of Music, "Do Re Mi"

*(Lutheran Book of Worship: Ministers Desk Edition for anyone who cares.)

Friday, March 23, 2018

Laughter is the Best Evangelism

I don't like meetings. Unless they are short. Even then I feel like I mostly tolerate them. 

So when my church's council meeting this week went over two hours, you'd think I'd be ready to pull my hair out. But as I drove home that night, I could only think about how often we'd laughed during the meeting. 

If you've never served on a church leadership board, laughter is pretty rare. Many people (including me) have horror stories of church council that involve personal attacks, yelling, table pounding, or sometimes worse. I know some who swear they will never serve on a council again because it was such a deflating (and unholy?) experience. 

So as I reflected on our meeting, I was just pleased with how much we had laughed. About a year ago, we decided that the number of times we laugh in a meeting is the main way we would measure the success of the meeting and this one was successful. 

We also aim to laugh in Bible study and during coffee hour and Sunday school. 

Too often, religious people can take themselves and the business of the church too seriously. We think the way to be Christian is to be serious or quiet. This is especially true in my denomination, Lutheranism. I think this is partly because we have roots in parts of Europe that culturally tend to be serious (Germans and Scandinavians) and partly because we've had some controversies in our tradition (e.g. pietism) where emotions were closely tied to bad theology.  

But one of the ideas that occurred to me after my laughter filled meeting this week is that if the message of Jesus that we follow is "Good News," shouldn't we smile sometimes? Doesn't it make sense that laughter and joy would be part of being a disciple of Jesus? 

And before anyone accuses me of belittling the message of Jesus, I think laughter reinforces the Gospel. Laughter helps build community and respect. It deflates ego and selfishness if we can laugh at ourselves. It pushes away fear, which I think is the opposite of healthy faith. And if attracting more people to be followers of Jesus is one of our goals, don't most of us enjoy being with people that make us laugh?

Someone once asked me what kind of church I lead. I said, "We try to take the Gospel seriously, but not ourselves." I think that's a good goal. If we are known for love and laughter, that, to me, is success. And that's no joke.

From the Gray,

Pastor Ari

“Everything in me hopes to be the one you wanted me to be.” -3 Doors Down, “When I’m Gone”