Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Christmas Chaos

Last night as I was sitting in the 10:30 pm Christmas service at my church (which was beautiful thanks to all the people who worked so hard to make it that way!) listening to the gospel for the second time, I came to a realization. I happen to have the beginning of the Luke 2 passage that is read at pretty much every church ever, because when I was in first grade at Lutheran school, it was the job of my class to do that part of the reading in our Christmas program. I've had it memorized ever since, which makes it pretty easy not to think about what's being said.

"In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. All went to their own towns to be registered. Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David. He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child. While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn." Luke 2:1-7

What is this really saying? The ruling emperor of the people who had conquered the Jews called for a census, and so everybody had to travel to their hometown to be registered. This was a bad enough reminder that the Hebrew people were being occupied and ruled by outsiders, but then imagine the travel and disruption as thousands of people traveled to their hometowns. Businesses would have to be closed, the roads would be clogged with people, and probably bandits hoping to earn a buck on weary travelers. All the businesses open along the way would be overwhelmed by people trying to buy food or stop for the night. And here's poor Mary, probably fourteen or fifteen years old and nine months pregnant, ready to explode was being dragged on foot by her reluctant fiance marrying her despite all the whispers behind his back. This is pretty much the most chaotic scene I can even imagine.

I won't wax too poetic, because you all know this story. This is the beauty of the Incarnation: a baby and savior appearing in the midst of all our crap and chaos. I've had my family at my house for a week, and although I love them, my life feels pretty disrupted, but you know what? This is where Jesus is. Christmastime often feels hectic and chaotic or maybe just lonely and depressed. I just want you to take a second and bask in all of the craziness and exhaustion and fights and feuds and messes and grief for people not celebrating with you this year--and then think of Mary screaming in the night as she births her first extremely unexpected child, and all of the blood and guts and political chaos and family drama that Jesus was born into, and know that whatever battle you are fighting, and whatever sadness is overwhelming you, and whatever fears, frustrations, or pain is consuming you right now, Christ is with you. Christ came into the crap of his time, and Christ comes today and every day into all your crap, in order to be a savior, in order to reconcile, in order to heal, in order to transform.

Merry Christmas, friends! Remember he came for YOU!

Monday, December 9, 2013


I've been thinking about what it's like to wait for Christmas. My older brother has two daughters that are 8 and 9 and the younger one's birthday is a couple days before Christmas. While I was visiting my parents, the younger one was expressing her enthusiasm for her upcoming birthday and Christmas and all the presents she will get. It struck me that their innocent experience of waiting for Christmas is so vastly different from what it's like to wait on things now. The end of their wait will be toys and games and entertainment and a feeling of being very loved. But as adults, our lives are often filled with apprehension, fear, and uncertainty as we wait for test results, news, job callbacks. Sometimes we don't know what we're waiting for, which can be terrifying.

The Psalmist writes in chapter 27 that enemies gather around and all sorts of evil closes in, and yet concludes in verse 14 that you must: "Wait for the Lord, be strong and let your heart take courage; wait for the Lord!" Such a poetic phrase, but one much easier said than done. In Advent, we're waiting for a day, which represents the arrival of our Savior. We know when December 25th hits (it's usually the same every year) and we know what's going to happen (family, food, presents, cheesy Hallmark Channel specials), but we don't know when we're going to find out if it's cancer and what the prognosis is, and we don't know if we'll be able to take care of an aging parent and our spouse/children or if we will still have a job in a month. Even though we are assured that Christ will return and that everything will be okay, there's a lot of what if between this and that, so how do we wait constructively? How do we wait without fear? What do we hold onto?

For me, the answer is Christmas. It's not just a day, but it's a remembrance that Jesus not only came, but comes daily, Incarnate in our lives each moment through the Holy Spirit. Wait for the Lord doesn't mean 'eventually' it means 'just a second!' It means God is working in your life, and in the lives of those around you, to bring you joy when you are being swallowed by despair, even if it's just one good belly laugh. It means that Jesus is with the doctors and nurses who are overseeing your medical care even when you don't know that outcome. It means that the Lord is making God's self known to you in each moment, and especially in the dark moments. I know that when I'm most down or scared, the thing that gets me through is not 'it's going to be okay' because who even knows if it's going to be okay? It's knowing that God has promised himself present in that crap, so when I'm afraid I can fall before Jesus and weep with that fear trusting that he sees my tears, even if I don't know when or if my grief will end. It's knowing that he came once, and because he came once, he will come again and again right now, tomorrow, and for the rest of eternity. It's knowing that when Jesus shows up, things do change.

Like the Psalmist, I know that: "If my father and mother forsake me, the Lord will take me up" and "I believe that I shall see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living." Because of that, we know that even though our enemies do gather around us, and even though our hearts are heavy with sorrow and pain and anxiety, God is here. And because God is here, we know God keeps promises, and that is how we can have hope that it really will be okay in the end.

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

The Gospel According to the Muppets

It's snowing like crazy today here in Minnesota and I had to be home for the internet repair people to check out our cabling, so I took advantage of being stranded indoors to put up Christmas decorations--and you can't put up Christmas decorations without Christmas movies, in my opinion! So I popped in The Muppet Christmas Carol, and as usual it made me cry like a baby. Charles Dickens was a secular humanist, but Jim Henson was not, and his theological approach to the classic story of A Christmas Carol really shows.

This story speaks to a lot of modern issues. Ebenezer Scrooge's greed is legendary, and in the midst of our November to January national shop-a-thon, we could discuss Scrooge learning about the value of generosity or thankfulness. Maybe next year I'll write that post. Right now, however, I want to think about Tim Cratchit the lesson that Ebenezer learns from a dying boy.

Ebenezer Scrooge is no stranger to pain. After all, in the play, his mother died giving birth to him, causing his father to resent him and send him away. His only source of familial warmth was from his sister, who also died. He goes on to meet Belle, the love of his life, only to let her slip away because of his endless pursuit of financial security. Jaded and pained, Scrooge closes his heart to caring about anybody but himself and becomes the iconic bitter old man we're familiar with.

And then, miraculously, God or fate or something intervenes upon this destructive path and sends three spirits to break his heart open and show him what Christmas is really about: love. Not just the love that's exemplified by the Cratchit family, although that is certainly an important aspect of Christmas, but the kind of love that becomes incarnate in the present moment and dwells with us. He learns this by seeing the gratitude and faith of a little boy whose future is pretty unsure.

Tiny Tim Cratchit is dying, or at least he is very sick and can't afford treatment, but unlike Scrooge, whose bad experiences caused him to close his heart, Tiny Tim shows kindness even to Scrooge, who severely underpays his father, thus causing his family to suffer. In the Muppet movie, Bob Cratchit proposes a toast to Scrooge as the "founder of the feast" and Mrs. Cratchit takes exception to it and goes into a minor tirade, sarcastically toasting him despite him being "odious and badly dressed." But Tim interrupts her and toasts him earnestly, where they begin to sing what is probably the most profound song ever performed by hand puppets:

One line in this song makes it clear where Tiny Tim's kindness comes from: "I look into the eyes of love and know that I belong." Love isn't just a feeling, but something that is personified in the present, someone that gathers Tiny Tim and his family up in their sickness and poverty and pain and grief and wraps them up. In the midst of that, Tiny Tim famously prays: "God bless us, everyone!" making the source of his joy and peace clear. Scrooge had closed his heart through his suffering, but Tim opened his, because he was aware of Jesus, light of the world, walking beside him in his suffering. Where once Scrooge had lost love (shown so beautifully in the song 'When Love is Gone'), he had finally witnessed real Incarnational love in action through Tim's acknowledgement of love as a person rather than a thing, which broke him out of his own anger and greed. When Scrooge sings at the end in "When Love is Found" he's not just singing about regaining Belle or even gaining a community of friendship, but he's realized that Christmas is about love that comes to the present in order that the past might be repaired and the future might be changed for us and for all those around us!

That's what Christmas is all about! It's about a baby in a dirty, grungy stable offering hope for a future of freedom. It's about a man talking with a tax collector and dining with a hooker, transforming radically how they see themselves. It's about being forgiven when you hurt your spouse, or finding love after loss. It's about peace birthed from political unrest and revolution. Christmas is about your broken past being grieved and healed and transformed into something life giving and glorious.

I know everybody laments the consumerism of this season, but I really think it's okay. Buy your gifts. Watch them make your friends and family glow as they experience love. Because Christ's love transforms and because of that, your love transforms the world too. Just remember that the gifts aren't what the season is about--it's about a green, tender shoot coming from a dead stump. It's about the eyes of love staring into your life and recreating you each and every day.

Happy Advent!

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Trust, obedience, and the power of a widow.

In my preaching class this morning, one of my classmates gave a really nice sermon on stewardship and used the story of the widow at Zaraphath in 1 Kings 17. It's part of a larger narrative that starts out with Elijah calling down a famine on Israel as punishment for their various indiscretions, after which God speaks up and commands him to go and live off a little halfway dried up creek. Elijah obeys, but once the creek fully dries up, God sends Elijah out where he runs into a widow. He wastes no time in asking her to make him some food, to which she replies, "Hey dude, I'm gathering up sticks so that I can bake the last of my flour and oil and then die, but that's cool, I'll make you some cake." But she does it, because God has commanded her (note: she is not a Jew). Elijah reassures her that her flour and oil will not be used up as long as there is drought, and trusting this word from a random stranger in the wilderness, she obeys. Unfortunately, her son soon becomes ill and dies, and Elijah commands God to raise him. Surprisingly, God obeys.

The sermon I heard on this, and most sermons on this text, highlighted the trust piece. The widow has no reason to trust this stranger in the wilderness, but she does, and because of that trust, her oil doesn't run out, and even once her son dies, he is revived. Trust is not an unimportant theme here, but it's not the only theme. Mark Throntveit, professor of Old Testament ar Luther Sem would say this passage is actually about obedience. Elijah acts of his own accord, God commands him, he obeys. Then God commands the widow, and she obeys. And then, believe it or not, the same Hebrew word is used by Elijah when raising the widow's son from the dead. I think this text is actually about obedience and how it nourishes trust.

The preacher did a nice job of connecting the message of trust to stewardship. Rather than clinging onto our money, things, effort, etc, we are called to give those gifts to God and to others in order to serve our neighbors. But this is hard in what we hear described as "uncertain times." Most of the people I know are being slowly crushed by the weight of student debt and credit card debt. Many of us have obligations to children, parents, or financial institutions that leave us feeling very insecure. The preacher's message was that we need to trust God that the "jar of oil will not fail." In other words, God provides for us. But the reality is that there are people who don't have enough and sometimes all the trust you can muster doesn't mean you can buy health insurance or have security in your old age. While I applaud her for highlighting this word of promise, actually trusting is really hard. I found myself wanting to know, not just for my congregation, but for myself. There are areas in my life where I don't fully trust God's word to me, and I'd really like to know how!

God sent Elijah to dwell by a little wadi that was probably not spilling over its measley banks, but despite the logical conclusion that this foray into the desert might kill him, he does it. I'm not sure trust had a ton to do with it, at least at the beginning. Likewise, the widow seemed pretty sure she was going to die sooner rather than later if she fed the rest of her food to the random wadi-dwelling Hebrew fellow, but she did it anyway. She had no reason to believe his word, but she did what he and God said. In fact, I suspect that obedience might be a means toward getting to a point of trust. If the trust is never proved, how can it manifest? In other words, saying "just trust God" is not particularly helpful to people who are facing real doubts because the world has kicked the crap out of them or their future looks very uncertain. Trust isn't something that you can just flip on and off--it's something you have to practice. So I got to thinking about how to practice trust, and here are three suggestions I came up with. These are just my personal opinions on this matter, but I think there might be something here that a better theologian than I could flesh out more thoroughly.

First, look for the places where God has already demonstrated faithfulness to you. Even if you've had a life full of suffering, there are probably places where God has shown up unexpectedly. Just recently, my husband and I were doing some worrying about money. I have student debt, and we're trying to save to make sure we have money to take care of P's mom if/when she comes to this country. We bought a house in the spring and I'm still a barely-employed student. We manage, but we could be more comfortable. Not two days after another conversation about money, a friend of mine e-mailed me and asked if our little basement apartment would be available for rent, like, yesterday. She was planning to move back to town and needed a cheap place. Oh, hi, God! Thanks! That's been the story of my life. God HAS provided for both of us, maybe not everything we would want, but even in times when my family was really struggling, we always seemed to get by somehow from help from neighbors or whatever. I say this from a relatively privileged position, but weirdly, in my experience, people who have very little are people who praise God most graciously for what they do have, because they know that God is providing spiritually if not physically and God will provide for all our needs in the fullness of God's promised future.

Second, pray. I speak from my own experience here, but I find that Lutherans, and a lot of mainline/intellectual Christians highly under-utilize prayer. I'm not saying that prayer will always get you what you want, but the only way to get something is to ask for it. If you need trust, you can't just will yourself to have it, God needs to give you a way to experience that faithfulness. Some people are not good at praying. I stink at structured prayer time. But I have a friend who I describe as a spiritual powerhouse. When she prays, you can feel it, and I regularly ask this friend of mine to pray for me and my husband because prayer is powerful. It changes the pray-er and the subject of the prayer. Enlist the spiritual powerhouses in your life to pray for you, and pray for yourself. Heck, pray it for others if you don't feel comfortable praying for yourself. I don't really understand prayer, but we are told to ask, seek, and knock, and a relationship of trust is based largely on communication. So talk to God, for heaven's sake!

Finally, whatever you have been asked to trust in, don't just try to will yourself to trust in order to make the move. Do it even though you don't trust yet. Do it not because you are confident but because you are scared shitless but you've been called to it. It doesn't matter what that is. If your issue is worry about money, practice giving even if it's overwhelming. If your issue is insecurity, practice putting yourself in situations that challenge those insecurities. If your issue is fear of change, change things up and watch how God walks with you through the transition. It's only in doing it and seeing that God carried you through that you can really trust. The obedience is what brought Elijah and the widow to a place where they really could trust God and then have the audacity to demand fulfillment from God. Trust is not an easy thing, but it's really important. If we can't trust God on the small things, how on earth can we trust the greater promises for our future?

Friday, November 1, 2013

With Every Act of Love

I've rarely heard a more succinct theological statement about what we're doing when we love others. I'm a huge Jason Gray fangirl because his theology is just so damn great and he uses amazing images (and has a super inspiring personal story to boot). So listen to this song and enjoy!

P.S. Jason, if you happen upon this--you're welcome for the free promotion. Feel free to thank me with free tickets and backstage passes. ;) (I kid, I kid... kind of.)

Thursday, October 31, 2013

Why Christians need feminism

I read two articles that kind of circle around the same topic and I want to try to deal with them both here, but forgive me if I run long(er than usual). This is a complicated topic, but it basically comes down to the role of feminism in the church. The first thing I ran across is an article written by Hannah Anderson and published in Christianity Today about why Hannah does not consider herself a feminist. The other is a response to a heartbreaking letter that John Shore received from a woman whose pastor told her she should have let her rapist kill her rather than be raped because it was better to die a virgin. These are two pretty bold examples of what's wrong with how the church has traditionally thought about sexuality.

The church has had a pretty backwards view of women. Although some people blame the church for society's continuing struggle to acknowledge the autonomy and intrinsic worth of women, I think it's the other way around. Ancient societies were horribly patriarchal. The Bible is rife with examples of women being treated like property and that's really unfortunate, because I don't think the Bible was ever intended to be used as a guidebook for how to oppress women. The Bible represents this view because this was the pervasive view of the world at the time. As far as I know, every ancient society in this part of the world saw womens' worth as based on their fertility. At the time, it kind of made sense. In nomadic and agrarian societies, if you didn't have children, you didn't survive and your wealth went to nobody. Women were essentially the best way for that very rudimentary economy to work and thus became more or less a commodity. The fallacy is that the Bible somehow tries to write this understanding of women in stone. Quite the contrary is true.

Look at a well known passage in Deuteronomy 22, which talks extensively about what should happen when certain sexual laws are broken. The best known is verse 28, which says: "If a man happens to meet a virgin who is not pledged to be married and rapes her and they are discovered, he shall pay her father fifty shekels of silver. He must marry the young woman, for he has violated her. He can never divorce her as long as he lives." This sounds AWFUL. What woman wants to be married to her rapist forever? It sounds like an atrocious command! But if we can get past the gut reaction and think about it in context, reflect on what would have likely happened. A young virgin is raped by a stranger while she's out and about. Now the value placed on her by the society has been taken, and she can not be married. Her father has to take care of her forever unless a man will agree to marry her anyway, which is unlikely if people know that it happened. Either that or her father rejects her and she is forced to become a prostitute. The law is there not to punish the woman for being raped but to protect her and her family. If a man thinks he's going to get a byblow and have no consequences, he'll just rape a woman without thinking about it. If he is suddenly going to have to pay money and take on an additional person to feed and clothe and treat like a wife (not a servant) for the rest of his life, it might not be worth his while to do it at all. So not only does it protect that particular woman from a life of destitution or prostitution (and her family) but it protects women from being raped in the first place by giving rapists a consequence. It sounds backwards to us, but it's actually rather progressive. That would be like telling frat boy date rapists that if they sleep with a girl that they will have to pay her tuition and child support for the rest of her life. They might think twice, yeah?

Okay, so the Bible does not always present the most forward thinking perspective on women. Some passages in the New Testament are especially troubling. Paul is often used to justify the submissive position of women within a marriage (though that is also a misreading in my opinion), but at the same time, Lydia hosted a whole church, Philip's daughters prophesied (preached), Prisca was a teacher, and some of the most central characters in the synoptic gospels were women. Even in the midst of a context that is not very friendly to women, we see women as valuable leaders in the church. That was the forward-pushing precedent the Bible tried to set within a very difficult context.

So what happened? Well, the Gnostic movement is kind of a big one. I don't have a source on this one except Lois Farag, a professor of early/medieval church history at Luther Seminary, but gnosticism can be traced to two big problems, one intended, the other an inadvertent result of what was labeled heresy. Gnosticism is a mystical movement which predates Christianity, but which also embraced it after its inception, and it holds that the worldly and physical should be rejected and the spiritual, otherworldly should be aspired toward. Misapplied to Paul's doctrine of the flesh/Spirit, it was really easy to say that the body is evil and leads us to evil and the soul is pure and leads us to God. There are a host of theological problems with this stance, starting with the very embodied nature of the Spirit of God from the earliest Yahwist tradition and moving into the fact that Paul was talking about flesh and spirit in a way that was never intended to split them apart but rather to talk about the two realities we inhabit fully at the same time, but the result is that the gnostics promoted this idea and it kind of stuck. Bodily things (eating, sex, etc) are evil, and an ascetic life is to be embraced in pursuit of the intellectual and spiritual things. This leads us to think of our bodies and their natural functions as sort of less, and something which need to be dominated and controlled. The other problem is that, with their emphasis on the spiritual, the Gnostic Christians often put women in leadership roles, but because they were heretical in other ways, their organizational structures were more or less rejected and so women in leadership was also rejected (and this rejection was canonized in the exclusion of women from the roles of clergy in both the Catholic and Orthodox traditions). So we have our orthodoxy rejecting the role of women at the same time that some of the ideas about bodily things being less or even dirty sneaked into our thought, and suddenly women, who are much more at the mercy to their bodily happenings (menstruation, childbirth, etc) are cemented into the very inferior role that the gospels and epistles tried so hard to reject. Crap--thanks, gnosticism!

This has played an enormously detrimental role in how we think about sex. If sex is something that we tolerate merely for the sake of procreation (because it's a lower thing), and women are kind of seen as property for a host of reasons, all of that becomes entangled and starts to congeal into some really harmful ideas about sex. Sex is lesser, women are less, women's value culturally came from their ability to procreate, therefore women's sexual lives are a dirty necessity that need to be protected at best and subjugated at worst. That's why girls like me grew up hearing from our church that if we let somebody sleep with us, we would be worthless. That's why women are shamed for daring to be sexual beings of their own right. That's why women who are raped hear horrible things like the woman in the letter linked above. That's why men still feel entitled to take sex from us. That is why we need feminism.

Contrary to what the author of the Christianity today article says, feminism isn't the acknowledgment that women are human beings. We know that. We're not cows or grasshoppers. Feminism is about fighting these myths about womanhood and sexuality that are pushed on us from everywhere. Feminism is about acknowledging that we are created with desires and hopes and fears and dreams just like men, and that we have autonomy over all of those things. It's not about not needing men, as she asserts. People were created for companionship, friendship or romance, gay or straight and everything in between. Feminism is about claiming a space for ourselves within God's kingdom where we all equally participate in bringing about God's promised future. We need it because we still tell our little girls that their value comes from whether or not they keep their knees together, and that is a lie. I'm not saying that promiscuity is a good thing. I think sex is something to be cherished between people who are deeply in love, and preferably who are or will be married to one another because it is a way to protect your hearts. But what I am saying is that regardless of your gender or sexual relationships or ability to have children, your worth comes from Jesus Christ who called you and named you a beloved child of God. And until we tell our daughters that and believe it 100% and live it, we as Christians need feminism. So I'm sorry, Hannah Anderson, but I think you are wrong, because men are still telling young women that it would be better if their life ended than for them to be raped, and that's not okay. That is why I am a Christian feminist, and that's why you should be too.

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Work in a Dark World

I was hanging out with a friend of mine recently, and for some reason we started talking about different professions. My friend started telling me about a dinner she'd had with friends of hers where they were discussing another friend who had aspired to be a lawyer and had "made it" so to speak, but hated it. They started discussing his options and how he could always transition to non-profit work, which led my friend's friends to lament how depressing non-profit work is. They were discussing at length the drawbacks to helping professions, and meanwhile my friend was sitting there thinking 'well, that's kind of what I do.' Immediately, they realized their blunder and said, "Well, that's different, you get to do baptisms and weddings and such!" But really, baptisms and weddings are a very small part of the day-in-day-out grind of real life blood and guts ministry that often involves tragedy and death and crisis. And they really didn't understand how you could be attracted to that kind of job, because it's all just so dire. While she was sitting there and listening, she had an a-ha! moment, and what she realized is that the difference between their view and hers came down to faith.

I encounter this attitude all the time, and with good reason. There's an episode of Scrubs where Dr. Cox says something like, "In the end, all of what we are doing is buying time for our patients." That's kind of depressing. I mean, all their patients do die eventually, and will probably go out suffering. Church work is no different from health care or any other helping field in that way, if you think that death really does get the last word. If that's the case, then what we do really is depressing. In the end, all our parishioners are headed for coffins (as are we) and everything we do is just entertainment between now and then, right? Well, it kind of seems that way at times, but thank God what Christians do is so much more than that, otherwise I would quit and go make boatloads of money doing something in the corporate world.

I heard a fantastic sermon today by a classmate of mine in my preaching class. He was preaching on evangelism and used, interestingly, the story of Ananais, the guy who went to minister to Saul/Paul shortly after his conversion where he had been blinded on the road to Damascus (Acts 9). You don't usually hear sermons about evangelism based on this text, but what I heard was that the thing that leads us to minister to others in the world (and by minister, I mean love, care, heal, etc) is an encounter with the risen Christ. Paul had such an experience on the road and was struck blind, and then it was the encounter Ananias had with Jesus calling him to go to Paul which is what enabled Paul to go out and become one of the most effective evangelists in Christian history. It's through an encounter with Jesus that lives our transformed. And here's the thing. If you believe that the image of God is in all creation and that Jesus is present here, by encountering people in the world, we are encountering Christ. Even in the darkest, most horrible situations, Christ is there.

That's why one of the holiest moments I have ever experienced in my life was in a hospital room where a woman was dying and her family was grieving. There was darkness there, no doubt. Those people were in gut wrenching pain, and it's hard to think about them even now. But at the same time, it was in the midst of that darkness that the light shed through reading of a Psalm, through prayer, through advocacy shone so much more brightly. The Holy Spirit shows up in and around us, and it's often in the shit that we see the sacred most clearly. And in seeing the sacred--in encountering Jesus in a hospital room or the scene of a car accident or a family dispute--we are reminded that this stuff is not the end of the story. It's a little reminder that says that the last word is always victory over death, is always joy, is always resurrection. And that's how people can fight the tide of injustice and wade waist-deep in others' grief and brokenness day in and day out. Because we know that what we're doing matters. We know that we're helping people see the reality of God's promised future, and that someday there will be a holy city here with a river that waters trees which are for the healing of the nations, where there will be no more sorrow or tears, and where the gate of the city will welcome all people by day, and that there will be no night there. That's the reality that we hope for, hold to, and trust in.

So yeah, it's hard to be a leader when it seems like the world is going to hell in a handbasket at the speed of light. But for Christians, that's not the end of the story, and we hope that by what we do, we're taking part in God's mission to put this broke-down, messed up world back together. And that's a calling worth getting excited about.

Thursday, October 17, 2013

What defines us?

This country is ridiculously divided still. It's kind of a joke that people can speak about any sort of unity as Americans. Maybe if you live in one particular slice of America that's true, but that's not been my observation. We're fundamentally split by politics, for one thing, as witnessed by the recent furlough situation. In fact, we're so busy throwing temper tantrums about the other side that we're willing to totally ignore democratic process (isn't that the point of this country?) and screw over a lot of people to do it. But it's a lot more than that, too. We're divided over issues of race even today. If you think we're in a post-race society, go walk around the wealthiest neighborhood in your city and see how many people of non-white ethnic groups you see who are not workers (lawn crews, cleaning ladies, etc). Yeah. There are tons of these divisions, but the one which has recently caught my attention is the economic divide. The weird thing is that the wealthy people in this country seem largely unaware that it even exists.

There's a little quiz going around the internet called "Do you Live in a Bubble?" The idea is to find out how insulated a life you have led compared to the average American. I scored a 50 on this test because I grew up in working class neighborhoods. My parents are doctors, but were in school until I was ten or eleven, and then were just getting their feet under them for a few more years. I've always walked a really interesting line between working class and upper-middle class for this reason. My parents are professionals, but are super down to earth who know what it's like to use food stamps and buy clothes second hand. At the same time, they were often roaming professionally in circles where people had been doctors since they were 26 and either never knew what it was like to be poor or forgot once they "made it." I recently married into a similar situation. My husband grew up in another country not particularly wealthy, although he had many opportunities that his peers did not, and eventually came to the U.S. and became a professional. My friends are pretty firmly in the lower to middle part of middle class, but his friends and colleagues generally fall on the top end of the spectrum. I sometimes feel like an anthropologist observing different social strata.

Anyway, today I was browsing facebook and somebody had posted this quiz and there was some discussion going on. I saw this little gem, which I copy here not to shame, but to point out a pretty common mentality among affluent/educated people that I think is problematic. The commenter wrote: "Exposure to the masses gave me no benefit except a dread of the pending idiocracy, and in retrospect, my happiest day was when I got into that so-called bubble in high school. Today, I'd rather consider my true community to be intellectuals across the globe than average yokels or homeboys next door. In that community being in a bubble means being ignorant about logic, science, or philosophy rather than military ranks or foul-tasting beer." Perhaps this was meant to be somewhat funny, and I do not know this person's story, but it strikes me that there's a real edge underneath this that says that it's good to be unaware of "the masses" and that those people are not of the same worth and should be shamed for their social position. Yikes.

I can see how using somewhat derogatory language toward the upper class ("bubble") might cause some defensiveness or concern about certain ideologies (I'm not a Communist, okay?), but my understanding of this quiz is that it is trying to draw attention to this huge divide between different social classes. It's not just that the higher strata doesn't understand what it's like to be poor; it doesn't understand it, and in some cases has some really harmful ideas about such people being rubes, or ignorant, or whatever. This entire class of people have become "a bunch of yokels" protecting their guns and Evangelical faith, which paints a really unfortunate picture. 

I'm guilty of a little stereotyping here too, but this comment reveals just exactly how 2/3 of this country's population has become a caricature in the minds of many, and guess who it is that's making the legislation for that majority? Hint: it's not the poor. So here we have a class of people that not only highly misunderstands this particular social class, but has negative feelings about them, and no wonder we have harmful rhetoric out there about how lazy, ignorant, and unimportant these people are. It seems like these people maybe deserve to be in this position. If they didn't want to be there, surely they would do something about it? BOOTSTRAPS BOOTSTRAPS BOOTSTRAPS! Of course it looks that way if you refuse to really acknowledge the circumstances of individuals' situations and overarching culture.

1 Corinthians really speaks to this issue. People are coming to the Lord's Supper (the big meal after worship) but the wealthy are eating good food, and the servants are eating crappy food, or no food. This is creating huge tension within the community, and now people are fighting about it. We're fighting about it too. We're shutting down the government, we're filibustering by reading Dr. Suess, we're doing anything we can to get what we want and stop the other side from getting what they want, because we've stopped seeing people as people. They're just "those servants" or "those poor people" or "those yokels." Paul, as usual, is horrified by the mess he's found in the community, and writes a beautiful argument calling for unity, saying essentially: You are all one unified body. Your squabbling is like your hand cutting off your nose to spite your face. It makes no sense. He writes in chapter 12:12, "For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. For in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body--Jews or Greeks, slaves or free--and we were all made to drink of one Spirit." What he's saying is that being different ethnically, being of different socioeconomic status, being a slave or a slave owner, being a prophecier or a tongue-speaker is not the thing that defines you. The thing that defines you is love: the love you have received, and the love you are now able to give. It is the love that radically redefined creation, that crossed boundaries, that submitted to death for the sake of his friends--that is what defines us. In other words, you might not like each other, but you're going to love each other. After all, a community filled with hate and division is not bound to last long at all.

Notice something interesting here. Paul doesn't say that in Christ you are all feet or noses. He doesn't say 'absolutely, speak in tongues, every single one of you.' He never defines what a Christian looks like, but in fact uses the metaphor of the body because it is something which functions with unity but maintains distinctiveness. Understanding and celebrating middle America is not about denigrating affluent people. The world needs entrepreneurs and doctors and lawyers and professors. It's about saying that we all have our own functions and spheres and are called to be the best damn ear, eye, toenail, or whatever that we can be without striving to be any other part of the body, but that we are still bound by something because we have all, together, been named beloved by the radical love that knows no limits.

So can we stop with the "yokel" this and "trust fund baby" that? There are gifts of being in a working class community or a rural community that the affluent don't have, believe me. Having lived in small town America for a year, I saw how much we city dwellers miss out on the kind of neighborly support that such communities give in times of trouble. And there are gifts of being affluent, too. We aren't meant to pit these things against one another, but to share wisdom, to give generously, to use our social power to the benefit of those who are oppressed (or maybe even give it up??), and to stop "biting and devouring" one another in this way. We are all one community whether we like it or not, because God loves this whole ridiculous, screwed up world, and has unified it under a new label that we all share despite the superficial divisions: beloved. Let's look at one another with God's eyes now and then, and see how the love of Christ can transform even the deepest divisions into beautiful and harmonious unity.

Thursday, August 8, 2013

Loosen up that grip a smidge

When I first moved to Minnesota, I had never been stuck in the snow before. I had occasionally had to shovel myself out in college, but I had never been legitimately stuck until one day I parked my car and came outside to find it had snowed 10 inches in one night. This Kansan was not pleased. I got in my car and started to back out of my space only to discover (native upper midwesterners will laugh) that if you spin your wheels too hard, you just get more stuck. So I had completely dug myself into my parking space and it took an experienced AAA employee to pull me out. Now that I'm an experienced Minnesotan, I've learned there's a trick: if you are stuck and start backing up only to find your wheels are spinning without you moving, you have to stop completely. The longer you spin, the more you melt the snow and lose friction, and the more stuck you'll be. It's kind of like those Chinese finger traps. Once you've entirely stopped, you can sometimes do this thing where you very, very slowly move as far forward as you can and then quickly reverse to shoot yourself out of the hole while you have traction. I don't recommend trying this if you are parked near anybody else, but it's worked for me a few times. There's an innate wisdom in this Minnesota snow-escape trick that I picked up, and that is that sometimes in order to go, you have to stop first.

This is also a well known psychological phenomenon. In problem solving, like problems of math or logic, you can essentially think yourself into a corner. You approach a problem, and the more you think about it, the more you train yourself into incorrect methods of problem solving, and the harder it is to find a new way to think about it. In this case, the best solution is to completely leave the problem, do something else, and come back to it fresh later. Often, that leads to a new approach that ends up solving the problem. This is pretty much life. Some problem occurs, and we dive into it full tilt with all our problem solving abilities drawn like a sword, but often these problems can't be solved with brute strength and we end up getting stuck and discouraged, and sometimes paralyzed by the crap that happens to us.

One of my favorite movies is The Legend of Bagger Vance. For some stupid reason it got bad reviews so it's not very well known, but it is absolutely brilliant. BRILLIANT, I TELL YOU! The gist of the movie is that Matt Damon's character, Junah, is a promising young golfer who goes off to the first World War and after witnessing his entire platoon being killed, he comes back broken. He can't function, let alone golf. He has "lost his swing." The movie uses a golf swing as a metaphor for the control we have over our life, and suggests that there is an "authentic swing" that each and every one of us is born with--a calling or vocation or path of sorts--and that is intimately tied with who we are and how we live. Junah has been to hell and he's trying so hard to get out of that hell that he's alternating between giving up and frantically, ineptly spinning his wheels. He's totally stuck. The scene below is the turning point, where Junah realizes that he can't do it on his own, and Bagger Vance, caddy/representation of the divine teaches him what he needs to do to get un-stuck. (If this scene doesn't make you cry, you have no soul.)

There's a lot going on in this scene from a philosophical standpoint, but to my understanding the three main ideas are that suffering and that frantic wheel spinning can cause us to forget our identity, and it's only in stopping that we can return to that state that we lived in before evil hurt us and broke us. We have to let go of the burdens and the inevitable suffering in order to move forward toward becoming who and what God has called us to be. And as Bagger says, "you ain't alone in that." The reason you can lay the burdens down is because you have somebody there who's ready to pick them up for you. "Ain't a soul on this entire earth got a burden to carry he don't understand."

Whew, now that I'm done crying, let me get to what this means for us. Who you were created to be is intimately tied to where you are going, but life happens. Just like there isn't a burden on this earth that Jesus doesn't understand, there's also probably not a person on this earth that doesn't have one. Living is hard, and the suffering that happens to us drags us away from who we were named to be. The doubt and insecurity and loss and violence and failures and mistakes hurt us, and if you've ever been hurt in love or life you know that it's easy to clam up when we're hurt. I hate being vulnerable, and my first instinct when I'm hurt is to withdraw (how's that for an awesome coping skill?), and that's pretty typical. Once bitten, twice shy, right? That withdrawal and tentativeness and waiting for the other shoe to drop is exactly the "grip too tight" that the movie is talking about. It's control and protection, but ultimately, it doesn't work out. The anxiety doesn't protect you from the bad things that happen. The hard shell doesn't protect you from getting hurt in love if all you end up with is bitterness that you're alone. And so we have to make the totally counter intuitive move from being scared shitless and clinging on for dear life to letting go in order to avoid falling. What?

This is the heart of the gospel. Paul talks about his power being made perfect in weakness, and about the foolishness of the gospel. The gospel is foolishness exactly because the best place to be, the strongest place to be, is the place where we are most vulnerable. It's in letting go that you can be caught. It's in opening yourself to rejection that you can be loved. It's in dying that you can be raised. To quote a great blog post about suffering that I read earlier, "Not once have I danced around our house shouting, “Yeah suffering!”  Instead, in the midst of pain and hurt, I am actively expecting God to do something." And it's because we believe in a God of resurrection, a God who cares and is with us and acts on our behalf that we can loosen up that grip a smidge, and remember who it is that God has created and called us to be.

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Anxiety and preparation

I know all about anxiety as of late. I took a survey with P as part of our pre-marriage counseling, and though I generally think of myself as a low-stress/low-anxiety person, the survey revealed that I am actually somewhat stressed and anxious as of late. I keep having crazy wedding dreams wherein people ask me uncomfortable questions in public, or disasters of all types strike. I happen to be at a particularly uncomfortable juncture in life where I am stressed out because of where I am and also nervous and anxious about where I'm going. I'm getting married, I'm moving, I'm going to be going through the approval process (the last step before ordination in the ELCA), and I'm dragging a fair amount of student debt into my new marriage with a somewhat tenuous career field ahead. Yikes!

Avoiding anxiety is easier said than done. Luke 12 says: "Do not worry" but let's be honest here, I'm gonna. How am I going to pay my loans? Am I going to be approved? Will I be able to sustain a healthy, happy marriage? Everybody has these questions about finances and relationships and health and various commitments, and they can become overwhelming, especially when they hit all at once. The Luke text says both do not worry, yet be prepared, and I have a hard time doing both at the same time! The story then goes on to give a couple somewhat bizarre examples of "watchful slaves" as my Bible titles this section. "Blessed are those slaves whom the master finds alert when he comes" (37) and "Blessed is the slave whom his master will find at work when he arrives." (44) These seem like sort of scary images--Big Brother God is watching and if you're not hard at work when he comes, watch out! Nothing to worry about there...

Paired with this text for the week is an excerpt from Hebrews, which is a beautiful, poetic interpretation of the people of Israel's walk with God through the generations. Chapter 11 starts out: "Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things unseen." It then goes on to extol Abraham, the father of the covenant with Israel and all of his many virtues of faith. But if you hop back to Genesis and take a look at Abraham's story, it becomes apparent that his relationship with God was, shall we say, less than fully trusting. God says: "I'm going to give you and your wife Sarah a child!" So Abraham says, "That's cool, I'm going to go out and sleep with my wife's handmaiden because I don't actually believe you. Then I'm going to laugh about it." Not to mention the journey he took from his homeland wherein he let his wife be given to Pharaoh not once, but twice! Yes, he is surely a paragon of perfect trust in the Lord...

The readers of Hebrews likely knew that this poetic version of Abraham's adventure was perhaps slightly rose-colored, so the point is not that Abraham was great and perfect and faithful, but that despite Abraham being a kind of crappy person, he still walked with God and God was faithful to him not just in spite of his weakness, but perhaps because of it. Verse twelve says: "Therefore from one person, and this one as good as dead, descendants were born." This is not just a statement about Abraham's rather advanced age, but, I think, a metaphorical statement about Abraham's overall crappiness as a human being. It shows God's commitment to Abraham, and God's ability to take something that is a big fat failure and breathe life into it by its very presence. This is how faith can be evidence. That such an imperfect person can even have faith just points to the one who is the source of it.

This is how the writer of Luke can declare in one breath that we need to be unafraid and in the next tell us to be prepared. The question raised is: what does preparation look like? And the answer depends heavily on who you think God is and how God behaves. If you think that God is behaving like a monster waiting to condemn you for failure, you are going to be afraid. If you think God is there helping you only if you're toiling and laboring as hard as you can, you're going to be nervous about the arrival of the master. But if you think that God is one who is committed fully to your well-being and is showing up in order to help you, heal you, lead you to something greater, preparedness means doing your best with confidence that the God who makes old people have children and breathes life into dead bodies is going to enliven you and perfect all of your childish attempts to live.

That's pretty much the only way I can soothe myself when my head starts spinning out of control with wedding details and employment prospects and worries about my ability to successfully sustain a relationship with another human being. I start out knowing I'm not really going to do the greatest job, but I know God is going to be in the midst of my marriage helping us to forgive one another, and God is going to be in the midst of whatever happens with my candidacy committee and future call committees and financial future and all of my future. Worrying becomes pointless in the face of the knowledge of that kind of commitment to us and our well-being, because God is always here, raising up the things that our ineptness kills, healing and fixing all the broken things inside us, and promising a future based not one the current one, but on a reality we can't even begin to imagine. God's very presence is the assurance of things hoped for, showing us daily who we are and who God is.

Monday, August 5, 2013

Boxes (sermon on Luke 12:13-21)

I have boxes in my basement that I haven't opened in years. I know what's in them, more or less, because I organized them. It's not stuff that I use or particularly need, but it's stuff that I want to keep, because it represents times in my life. A volleyball uniform from 5th grade, when I actually almost felt like a normal kid; a box full of notes that my friend Cherise passed to me during our 11th grade Western Civ. class; t-shirts from college events like Relay For Life and Klondike Derby. These boxes are not my life, but they contain memories of things that remind me of my life. When I'm old, I hope to look back and pull out those notes and laugh at the silly things we thought were funny, and remember the fun we had in college. It serves the purpose of reminding me of good times. Everybody has them—I'm sure you do too, and I think there's nothing wrong with having boxes full of memories.

We live at the speed of light some days. Day to day, it can seem slow, especially if you're alone. You get up, you make food, you work or do a hobby, maybe you talk to a few people, you go to sleep again. All the while, you know that time has flown by and you are getting older. You plan for what's coming—by keeping a 401K or other savings account, by writing a will, by planning your retirement, or saving for your son or daughter's future schooling, by eating healthy or exercising. We build our barns and silos and we store up for the future, and there's nothing wrong with that either. Stuff is important. Although lilies might not need to toil, humans do, at least a little bit. We can't live on a prayer like the singer Bon Jovi suggests, at least not literally. We need food and shelter and clothing. So it's a little confusing when Jesus tells a parable about a man who is described as “foolish” who does little more than what most of us are doing—saving up, building your business, keeping your stuff safe in boxes, preparing for the future. What's wrong with that?

Anybody who has ever moved in their life understands how stuff accumulates over time. Even if you don't buy much, somehow more and more stuff ends up in your house. It breeds, or gnomes put more in with the old stuff, or something, and we hang onto it because it's familiar and safe and maybe someday it will be useful. If you've moved a bunch of times, you know that the stuff that was in boxes once often stays in boxes, and it starts to become a burden that you can't let go of. It doesn't matter that you didn't like great aunt Joan, you inherited her dishes and by God you're going to keep them! This only seems sillier when you start thinking about what will happen to your stuff after you die. You didn't even like it, and now your kids or other relatives are saddled with it. Have you asked yourself lately what purpose it serves?

The rich man in Jesus' parable was avoiding doing just that. On the surface, it seems like what he was doing was just good business. I'm sure some of you folks have even done this on your farms. You have a good year, and you need more space, so you build bigger silos or you buy some more property. There's nothing wrong with that—but ask yourself, what purpose are you serving? This is the question the man in the parable wasn't asking. His thought was only on acquiring more stuff, filling up his barns and saving his grain for the future, ignoring the fact that there were starving, struggling peasants all around him. Ignoring the fact that he could have fed his excess to others, or given his workers better wages, or taken leisure time now that he was secure in order to be with his friends and family. The purpose that the farmer's wealth was serving was an unworthy one—he shoved his excess in a barn and let it sit there, where only he could benefit and enjoy it. It was serving him, but nobody else, and in the end, it was useless even to him because his life was demanded of him.

There's a great connection between the reading in Ecclesiastes and our gospel for today. Both are asking questions about the purpose of our lives. The philosopher writes that things go on and on, generations turn and the sun rises and sets, but that basically all the work we do is vapor or a chasing after the wind, depending on your goal. If the treasure is your goal, you will be disappointed, because eventually you'll die, and as they say, you never see a hearse pulling a U-haul. Working, even living, is pointless in the end, if what you expect is to win some sort of prize for collecting the most toys. It doesn't work that way, because regardless of our differences, the one thing every human being has in common is that we all die, and all that material stuff we worked for eventually goes away. So why do we do it?

I think Jesus is saying that the man was foolish not because he saved, but because his goal was the stuff, and that goal was born from a disconnection to reality of life around him—to the reality of need around him. There's nothing wrong with the stuff—we all need it, we all have it, most of us even like it. The man was foolish because the stuff was the point for him, while Jesus is standing here telling crowds of people about a kind of abundance that is greater and eternal. Rather than just existing in the midst of a world that's constantly moving on without us, Jesus is declaring that we are deeply connected to one another and to God because of who Christ is and who we are. To focus on the things as the goal instead of utilizing God's gifts as a way to more deeply connect is beyond foolishness—it's blasphemy against the one who gave the gifts because it rejects the giver. Our lives and the things we have weren't given as an ends, but as a means to live and be supported and to support other people. To toil and worry and labor for the things that don't last is to ignore the greater gift of the love that lays down its life for its friends.

We all have boxes in the attic or the basement or the closet, filled with memories and important things, but we also have boxes filled with unimportant things, with useless things or even harmful things. We have those things inside us too—anger, resentment, worry, fear. Some things are worth keeping, but much of what we hold onto is useless baggage that we grudgingly drag from house to house, day to day, year to year. Ask yourself what purpose that stuff you are carrying around serves—if it's not serving you right now and it's not serving anybody else, maybe it's time to let it go. Jesus has called you and named you beloved, connecting you to the greater things, to the Spirit, to God, to others, so that you can be free of the stuff—so you can leave the boxes and the emotional garbage—and instead live out your calling taking only what's helpful and restful and needful, free from everything that isn't serving God's purpose.

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Shame, sin, and who we are.

NPR posted another "water is wet" article, about a study that found that shockingly, shaming overweight people does not help them lose weight. I posted this because it's a topic I'm intimately familiar with. After being diagnosed with weight related complications, I made the decision to start a weight loss program and lost about 140 lbs over two years. Much of my life prior was an exercise in suppressing rushes of shame that would come about when shopping for clothing, going to the pool, sitting in a seat, or eating a meal with others. Shame is an emotion, not a thought. I could tell myself that my slow thyroid and unfortunate genetic makeup was to blame, but that didn't stop the emotional evaluation of myself as unworthy. Those emotions are noxious and paralyzing, and ultimately useless for changing anything, because the more we feel them, the more we want to hide them until they own us. When I started losing weight, it wasn't because I thought I was worthless and irredeemable, it was because I had a huge cheerleading section telling me I was worth this effort--that who I am and what I'm called to do is too important to be hampered by poor health. Recognizing my worth is what enabled me to move.

There is an enormously obvious theological connection here. Shame is due to the inability to measure up. The allegory of creation illustrates this perfectly. When humanity fell and ate the proverbial apple, we suddenly became aware of the yardstick--the tree was that which revealed the knowledge of good and evil, and from that moment humans became painfully aware that there was a bar, and that because of our disobedience, we would never reach it. Lutherans call this "the law" and it has two functions--to teach us to live in community and to convict us. In conjunction with the gospel, this is actually a good thing, because it helps us connect to each other and points us to to the cross which redeems. But the gospel is mysterious and counter to how we usually experience the law. Without hearing the gospel, the law pretty much serves to make us aware of our failings. We feel it in our bones. When we do something that isn't 100% selfless, a voice condemns us. When we are greedy or gluttonous, a voice convicts us. When we don't measure up, a voice convicts us, and that conviction leaves us feeling alone. When I was heavy, there was a bar of beauty and self-control and whatever that told me I was bad and that was because of a personal failing which made me unlovable and unworthy.

This comes in all shapes and sizes. I use this example because it's an obvious one in my life, but there are less obvious sources of shame. To use another personal example (I'm using these because putting them out there takes away their power--yes, I am going to be a pastor and I struggle, no, I am not perfect! Nobody is!): I have always felt dumb. When you have very bright, educated parents, it's hard not to have some pretty high standards for yourself. This was exacerbated by having very bright siblings who were bright in very different, much more socially valued ways than myself (math and music, two things I do not excel at). But it can be as simple as feeling lazy. Americans have ridiculous standards for our pace of life. Or whatever. Everybody experiences it, but nobody talks about it because we are afraid we will be judged and rejected--we are afraid we will be disconnected. But in hiding in shame, we are disconnecting ourselves from a community which is, at its best, meant to support and nurture us through our weaknesses. Again, this is law taken and twisted and wrongly applied to us. It's law without gospel.

My job as a minister is to speak the gospel to people (and often to myself). The gospel is the thing that connects us by adopting us as daughters and sons of God. The gospel is the thing that declares that we are made worthy not by what we do but because of who Christ is. The gospel is that our failings are exactly where God is and wants to be, for God's "power is made perfect in weakness." (2 Cor. 12:9) The gospel adds a but where we desperately need it. I am not a size 2, but... I am fearfully and wonderfully made. I am not an energetic marathoner, but... I was given gifts of silence and calm. I am not... but God has... And because of that, our shame and pain and the ugliest things about ourselves are just a starting point, and the fact that Christ had to come for the whole world only proves that the whole world needed him--because we're all in the same boat. Suddenly our failures aren't things to hide, but things to celebrate because we are connected by our communal need, and more importantly, by the gift that the whole world has been given. There's a billboard or bumper sticker or something I've seen around that says something like: "The church is not a hotel for perfect people but a hospital for the wounded."

I think the job of the church, aside from radically declaring the gospel of Jesus Christ risen for all, is to stop pretending to be so damn perfect. We're not. I'm sure not. There are divorced people and abused people and tax dodgers and speeders and adulterers and sick people and hurt people and fearful people and anxious people, but I guarantee there are no perfect ones. If we would speak more openly about the ways we've failed maybe we could start to chip away at this insidious idea that we need to be a certain way or do certain things. We don't. We never can, never could, never did, never will. But God does. And because of that we're free, knowing how valuable we are, to live our our calls to minister to other broken people.

Friday, July 26, 2013

On perseverance

A friend and I have been having a rough year. We're in sort of weirdly parallel situations. She's in a job she kind of hates, and I'm in an isolated, rural area that is a bit challenging to my city-dwelling, intimate-friendship-needing self. Both of us are doing long distance with our significant others. Both of us have been struggling with situational depression and feelings of failure/incompetence. I think this is a pretty common experience for 20-somethings. The more I think about it, the more it seems many of my friends are either in this phase or have been in it. You're not yet at a place in your career that really makes you happy, even if you know you're working toward goals that will. It's exhausting and slightly crazy making. Even though I've learned a lot in the last couple months, I've been stuck with this overwhelming feeling of not being where I need to be to have and accomplish the things I need to feel right emotionally, but it's not like I can just stop being here because I don't want to be. This is a necessary and important step in my career, and where my friend is is also a necessary step even though it sucks a lot.

I was reading the text for this Sunday which is Luke 11:1-13 where the disciples ask Jesus how to pray and he teaches them the Lord's prayer, and then he gives them a little story about a man who persistently pesters his neighbor to get out of bed and give him some bread for a guest. The man doesn't want to, but the neighbor is so persistent that finally he gives up and the man gets what he needs. "So I say to you, Ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you. For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened." (Luke 11:9-10)

My Greek is a little rusty, but if I remember correctly, the tense that's used is a 2nd plural active imperative. In other words, it implies continuous action. Rather than "ask" it's saying something more like "keep on asking, keep on seeking, keep on knocking." Remember when you were a kid and you would ask your parents something and they'd say no, which really meant "ask me 637 more times" to you? I think of this as the same idea. Maybe it's because I'm in a pessimistic mood, but to me this says that sometimes you will ask 637 times and nothing will change, but you have to keep on anyway: keep on asking for the right thing to open up, keep on scouring the internet for jobs, keep on sending your resume/CV to two thousand different companies knowing that the answer might still be silence. Because sometimes the answer God gives us is silence, and the really horrible thing we are trudging through right now is exactly the sewer that we need to crawl through to come out clean on the other side.

The other day I was visiting a guy in my congregation at his store, and somebody came in and dropped off a book called Jesus Today by Sarah Young. I guess she just gave them out. Because I was sitting there talking to this guy, the lady went back out and got another copy for me. I'd never heard of the author, but I have been leafing through the devotions in the book in the mornings and on Wednesday one honestly hit me so hard I started crying. It said, "My control over your life places you in humbling circumstances. You feel held down, held back, and powerless to change things. Although this is an uncomfortable position, it is actually a good place to be. Your discomfort awakens you from the slumber of routine and reminds you that I am in charge of your life." I don't often identify with theology that says that all this crap happens for a reason, but I think sometimes that's true. It hurt to read because that's exactly how I have felt: stuck and powerless. My prayers for something to change seemed to go unanswered for a long time, and often my weeks are just a slow slog through molasses that result in only another week of molasses hiking. This and the Luke text gave me a couple ideas that I'm toying with.

First, I realized that God is always there. Christians profess faith in a God who is both with us and ahead of us, both present in our suffering and drawing us to a renewed future. Your suffering does not mean you are alone or at the end, but that you haven't yet come into the fullness of God's intended future. You always have the promise that you will come to that future, even if you have no friggin' idea what it looks like. Second, sometimes that metaphorical sewer is exactly where you are supposed to be, not because God wants us to suffer, but because growth can be painful. Sometimes it's only through really uncomfortable experiences that you gain the most; it's like lifting weights. You know it's good for you but that doesn't stop that deep tissue ache from feeling like you were beaten with a meat tenderizer. To put it another way (getting back to our scat metaphor): sometimes you need the fertilizer to grow. The last thing it says to me is that keeping on is an exercise in trust. Sometimes you are asking and seeking and knocking and it seems like nothing is happening, but you're told to keep on doing it. Why? I think maybe because it is a tangible way for you to say "I expect that you are going to answer me, God" or "I expect that something will change." It affirms your faith even in the midst of your doubt. Sometimes when you can't see the answer or the change, all you can do is keep pounding down the damn door, and that single-mindedness sustains you when nothing else can. That persistence and frustration isn't just a means to an end, it's an end in itself: it's a way for us to profess our faith and that makes it an act of worship and trust, which ultimately I think is helpful.

The bottom line is that crap stinks. It just does. There is no easy way around the crappy parts in life, and face it, sometimes even the crappy parts don't lead to a happy ending, at least from our perspective. The point is that perseverance is about knowing that God is with you even as you just set your face and keep on going, and that your present experience is not your ultimate experience because God is both present and ahead, helping you navigate whatever awful sewer you're trapped in right now so that you can continue on knowing God is in front of you with a hose and a towel and some clean clothes when you get to the other side.

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

What I believe...

My theology is probably pretty clear from my posts, but I wanted to make a relatively concise statement just so you know where I stand in case you were wondering. I'll also mention theologians I like.

I believe in the universality of the gospel--that is to say the gospel is for everyone. There is no such thing as people who are predestined and people who are not--there are only people who are living fully in the resurrection of Jesus today and people who are not. I believe that heaven is not a place with angel choruses and white clouds and hell is not a place with fire and brimstone. I believe that the difference between heaven and hell is a moment in time, and that we all live in hell even as we are transformed into new creations (until Jesus comes again). We live in the "now and not yet" paradox. Hell is suffering, evil, hatred, violence, and all the things that are not rooted in the encompassing and radical love of Jesus Christ. Heaven is a state of being in which we live in the present earth with hope for what it will be someday. The kingdom of God is here and now and to come. This paradox is hard to explain and understand, but what it means for me is that even though I'm very much present in a suffering world, experiencing it myself, that I know Jesus is also present now and can restore, will restore, and is currently restoring it.

I believe in the literal resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, and the literal resurrection of the body. I do not think this resurrection is reserved for people who profess that Jesus is alive, but that this resurrection is something that happens to all of creation without us doing anything to make it happen. The difference between a Christian and a non-Christian is the experience of resurrection right here, right now, each and every day, and non-Christians can live into that and Christians can be not living in it. I believe suffering, pain, illness, and death are the place in which Jesus most profoundly enters into our lives, and being a Christian is about recognizing that entry and then going out and revealing that to others by being the face of Jesus in the midst of a dark world. That is ministry, and that is the ministry that each and every Christian is called to. If you are not showing the radical, life changing love of Jesus Christ, you're not doing it right. Christianity is not about a ticket to heaven, but about living in heaven right here, right now, so that we have the strength to hope for the kingdom which is not yet here.

I believe that the Bible is the inspired Word of God which was written by humans and reveals and points to Jesus Christ. I believe that God has been and is revealed in many different ways and is evident in many traditions, beliefs, and philosophies. I believe that what God wants if for all to be saved and come to the knowledge of the truth (1 Tim 4:2) and that God gets what God wants. As Rob Bell says: "Our eschatology shapes our ethic." Because of that, I think it's very important for us to think about how are beliefs work for us right now, not only after we die.

 My theology evolved over a long period of time. I am a Christian first, but I belong to the Lutheran tradition which professes salvation by grace. My universalist bent, if you want to call it that, is based on my reading of the book of Galatians and Luke. Here are a few theologians who have inspired me:

Martin Luther
Karl Barth
William James
Martin Luther King Jr.
Gerhard Forde
Rob Bell

I recommend:

A More Radical Gospel by Forde
Love Wins by Rob Bell
On Christian Liberty by Martin Luther

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Messy justice and other problems of a broken world

"Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here! All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation: that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting people’s sins against them. And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation. We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us." -2 Corinthians 5:17-20

I've been seeing a lot of posts around the internet on the Zimmerman trial, also known as the Trayvon Martin case. People are pretty heated about this, and with good reason. A series of unfortunate circumstances led to the death of a young man, and that is a tragedy. I don't know if Zimmerman was intentionally profiling and I don't know if Martin was up to no good, but I do know that a child is dead and that is something worth grieving. My prayers go out to his family.

I don't feel qualified to offer any in depth legal analysis of this case, because I don't know the law particularly well and I certainly don't know all the details of the case. I know what has been released by the media and the pictures that have been painted by sources who undoubtedly both have biases. But I do think that given the information we do have, there was no way a jury could have convicted Zimmerman beyond reasonable doubt, because he was unfortunately the only witness. In this country, people on trial are considered innocent until proven guilty, and that's something we should probably be thankful for.

Certainly "justice" was carried out by the law, but as the demonstrations and lengthy post-verdict discussions indicate, this type of justice left something to be desired from most of us. After all, a person died! And the man who perpetrated the act walked away without any tangible consequences (at least so far). Regardless of your feelings on the matter, I think this is an icky trial. Should he have been aquitted? Probably so. My opinion is that while his error was grave, it was still mostly poor judgment at the start that led to the necessity of self defense. Stupid, but not intentional. If we were convicted for acts of stupidity, most of us would be in jail now for something or the other. And yet a person is dead. Should acts of stupidity which lead to the deaths of others, unintentional or not, be punished? The law thinks so in some cases, and not in others. It's about as clear as mud.

This reminds me a little of the movie Les Miserables where two types of justice are represented by the main character, Javert and Valjean, the former representing justice according the letter of the law and the latter representing justice based on the needs of the neighbor, a theme which closely echoes the contentious relationship between the religious leaders in Jerusalem at the time of Jesus and Christ himself. Valjean breaks the law in order to steal a loaf of bread for his sister's family and is imprisoned for years because of it. After he is freed, he can't find work and begins to fall back into desperation, but thanks to a kindly priest he is given mercy and a second chance. With that, he decides to change his identity and become a successful businessman, but when Javert discovers that Valjean has thrown off his identity as a prisoner, he begins a relentless pursuit to convict him under the law. Meanwhile, Valjean takes in a dying prostitute, demonstrating once again his interest in compassion over the letter of the law. We see two types of justice here--one that is straightforward and unmerciful, and one which looks into the hearts of people and sees that the world is not black and white. The point is that there's a difference between justice as we define it and justice as God defines it. That is exactly what Jesus was trying to tell the pharisees as he went about doing awful, heretical things like healing people on the Sabbath and dining with hookers and thieves.

So how to apply this to the current case? Well, we can't. The bottom line is that we are imperfectly trying to apply laws in order to approximate some kind of justice that is punitive and attempts to defer sinfulness in a sinful world. It doesn't work well because situations aren't easy. Stupidity is involved, bias/racism is involved, character issues are involved, and a black and white justice system is applied to these very complicated situations. There was no justice done here, and I think a conviction would not have been entirely just either. Our world is messy! But what we have in the wake of this trial is the knowledge that while our justice fails and has to be applied in ways that sometimes leave us dissatisfied, God's justice is that of love and mercy wherein parents are comforted and communities show love and young men are raised from the dead.

I think it's okay to be angry at this decision, but I think it's better to be angry that this happened at all, and that we live in a broken world. The solution to that anger isn't retribution, but to respond in ways which foster God's justice by protecting the vulnerable through legislative changes, and bringing awareness to the public that racism didn't end in 1963, and raising those in power to show compassion for the less privileged rather than suspicion. It's not a straight forward solution, but it's not a straight forward problem either. And of course, our other response should be to know that however tragic this situation was, and however tragic our world is (because these situations are not new, and there will be more), that God is here in the muck and mess and brokenness, and is calling us to be a part of restoration and reconciliation.

Monday, July 15, 2013

My call story (e.g. why I'm studying to be a pastor).

One of the questions that I inevitably get asked by people outside the church is "what made you decide to be a pastor?" I always laugh a little at this, and it's not that it's a bad question--it's actually a perfectly reasonable one--but the idea of being a pastor by choice is one that makes me laugh because it was most definitely not my first choice for my life but it's where I ended up. Instead we clergy folks usually ask about call stories, so I'm going to tell you mine.

My parents have been religious through my whole life, but weren't always that way. They grew up in religious households but promptly rebelled at some point during their young adulthood. They had their fun, and by the time they got back to church they needed it. Subsequently, they ended up in some pretty conservative places, which were good places to help nurture what I think of as baby Christians, but weren't well suited to people like my parents as they began to grow and live. It kind of blows my mind to think about it, but they were around the age I am now when this journey began for them! I was born in the infancy of their newly discovered Christianity, and as such, as they grew and questioned, I got to journey along with them. We started out in Kenneth Copeland's church when I was an infant, and attended a Vineyard church (a sort of fundacostal type of church, and yes I just made up that word, fundamentalist + pentacostal). They wanted us in Christian education, so when we began Lutheran school, we moved to the Missouri Synod Lutheran Church, which despite all its faults really knows how to teach children to love and serve God. I memorized chapters of the Bible, and most of Luther's Small Catechism by the time I was in 5th grade. We left that church after a while to attend a new school, which was a Berean church (a sort of Anabaptist tradition), though the Lutheran theology had stuck quite well. We attended there for a while, moved to an inner city LMCS church, and then eventually my parents ended up in the Evangelical Lutheran Church when I was in college after a falling out with the LCMS.

Because of our education and active church lives, faith was always extremely important. It wasn't just something we did on Sunday, but something that we lived daily. My mom prayed for our safety every time we got in the car. My dad presided at Communion at dinner some evenings. We talked openly about God and discussed theology at length on long car rides. We lived our faith by being active at church. I watched my parents and learned to live my faith by their example, as they tithed their meager income and despite being poor themselves, served food to homeless people at a local soup kitchen. My faith wasn't something I just learned about, but something that I experienced daily. It was impressed upon us early that faith was identity and a way of life.

When I got to college, I did the normal thing where I quit going to church for a while, but my faith continued to be central in my life. I found myself journaling about theological topics often, having conversations about God with friends and strangers (I had some noteworthy debates with my Catholic friend Debrah, which I loved!), and I became even more involved in service when I joined Alpha Phi Omega. But I was a scientist at heart, and although I started out as a bio-pre-med major, I fell in love with psychology and graduated with honors with a bachelor of science and was accepted to a doctoral program at Kansas State University. Faith and science were never in contention, but I had also never felt particularly called to ordained ministry. I considered deaconess training for a while, but decided that the concept of a "deaconess" pissed me off too much to do it. I started my program at KSU, but within about 16 hours I realized I had made a horrible mistake. I hated the town, I didn't identify strongly with anybody in my largely secular department (though there were a few people who I could be myself with, mostly my office mate and my eventual advisor). I joined the Lutheran Campus Ministry in order to connect with people of faith, and that was a big help. There I met a friend, Adele, who was actually an Orthodox Jew at the time, but loved theological discourse. We started to meet for coffee and theology, and I started to think maybe I should find a different profession. Professorhood was not for me.

In the summer between the two years of my master's degree (which I did stick out to the end), I had the chance to go with my church to Tanzania where we built an eye clinic for the people of Mwanza with International Health Partners. I had been pondering my profession for a while, and had a conversation with one of our leaders, who also happened to work for the bishop's office, and confided in her that I was starting to feel some kind of call to ministry but had no idea what that would look like. I wanted to help people, I wanted to share the love of Jesus with the world, and utilize my skills like being a compassionate listener and good writer. She nodded and smiled knowingly, and wished me luck in my discernment process. I returned to KSU in the fall and one day while having coffee again with Adele, she looked at me seriously and said: "Gwen, you would make a great pastor." I told her not to even joke about that! What a horrible thing to say! Being a pastor is a terrible job where you are underpaid and undervalued, stretched thin emotionally, expected to be on call all the time, and expected to be in a very public role under the scrutiny of an entire congregation (or town!). I laughed it off, but it was like her words had gone into my head and could not stop bouncing around. Begrudgingly, I admitted maybe I was called to SOME kind of ministry work, and applied for the Master of New Testament program at Luther Seminary. But the more I thought about it, the more I felt a sense of dread: I thought maybe God was calling me to be a friggin' pastor! After a lot of thought and prayer and tears, I realized this was true, and had to change my program of study from MA to M.Div. It felt like some sort of bell of doom had tolled.

To be a pastor in the ELCA, you have to go through a process called candidacy, so I initiated that process. It involved interviews, a psych eval, and more interviews, but in April of 2010 I dove in and got the ball rolling even as I was writing my master's thesis. By June I was looking for apartments. I moved up to the Twin Cities on July 1st for summer Greek. I never wanted to be a pastor. I still think it's one of the hardest jobs you can have, and that it's extremely trying, especially for a somewhat odd introvert like myself. But the more I do it, the more I realize that's exactly where God wants me. Ordained ministry will use every single gift God has given me, and will continue to push and stretch me to grow into who I am called to be (and it has already changed me and led me to amazing people and experiences). I didn't "decide" to be a pastor, but regardless of my feelings on the matter, I am. And hard as it is, I can't imagine doing anything else at this point. I get to stand up in front of a congregation and declare to them that they are loved and worthy and called to new life for the sake of their neighbor. I get to spit on sin and death by preaching Christ risen, and I get to walk with people through births and illnesses and divorces and addiction and marriage and growth and even death and declare hope in their deepest despair. This isn't the life I would have chosen; this is even better than what I could have ever imagined on my own, and that is what Jesus is all about: leading us into an incredible new future that we could never have imagined. So I'm glad I'm here. I'm going to keep doing this until God tells me to do something else.