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.

Saturday, July 13, 2013

What a pastor does.

A friend from seminary who is currently serving a congregation in North Dakota recently wrote a great post about what a pastor does. I'm still an intern, but from what I can tell his description of life for a solo pastor is spot on (he should know, he does it every day, right?). But I still encounter a lot of people who not only don't know that pastors do more than preach, but don't understand the function of a pastor in this day and age. We're seemingly irrelevant to a large section of the population. I mean, for somebody who doesn't go to church, a pastor is basically useless, right? Not quite. I think that at our best we truly have a vital role to play in modern society.

To start, let me sum up what pastors do within the church, in case you don't want to read Nathan's post. Basically, they do everything. They preside at worship, the most obvious thing, but that involves more than just standing up for an hour or two on Sundays: it involves worship planning with the musicians, researching and writing a sermon (can take 10-20 hours from start to finish depending on the preacher), and a bunch of other little detail work. That's a lot already, but they also teach Bible studies, confirmation, Sunday school, book groups, new member classes, etc etc. Some larger congregations might have staff or volunteers to do some of this, but even still there is a fair bit of education going on that the pastor is involved with. They also do visitation with shut-ins and the sick; they do pastoral care and counseling, and are available for emergencies such as sudden illness, accidents, death, domestic abuse crises, rape, etc. They attend council meetings and deal with administration tasks, which pretty much nobody likes. And there are funerals and weddings (which take up a whole weekend for a pretty small payout--and usually include several pre-marriage meetings). Suffice it to say, pastors keep pretty busy at church.

But all of that more or less seems like it is just keeping the church itself going. Why should somebody who isn't a Christian care about that? Well, for one, the church cares about justice issues. Although it is sometimes a slow starter, the church at its best can sometimes be just the force of social change that tips the balance in these issues. For example, although the Nazi party tried to use the church in order to justify the atrocities being committed, pastor and theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer (and others) spoke out boldly against the party, calling Christians to see rescuing Jews and resisting the party as part of their Christian discipleship. In more recent years, certain church bodies have been involved heavily in the gay rights/marriage equality movement and their support of GLBT people is a direct result of their Christian belief in Christ as an equalizer. And let's not forget the long, long history of caring for the poor, especially within the Catholic tradition. Are there churches who are not helpful to justice issues? Absolutely. But that makes the churches who are helpful that much more important to counter those messages. Preachers like myself and those I know make it a point to preach that the gospel of Christ is the radical love of Christ--that ALL people are recipients of love and because all people are loved and called children of God, it is part of our mission to seek out injustice and be a voice for the vulnerable.

Furthermore, pastors help motivate people to give. Church people are extremely generous, and while some of that money goes to pay for staff and other expenses, church bodies like Lutheran World Relief, Goodwill, and the Salvation Army donate millions of dollars a year to help with disaster relief, world hunger, disease control (such as providing mosquito nets to fight malaria). The Missouri Synod Lutheran Church was one of the first people on the scene after the Sandy Hook shooting providing service animals to the traumatized victims and their families, and let's not forget the thousands of mission trips that churches fund annually to sponsor hospitals overseas, build houses, and buy livestock for needy families. The congregation I'm serving recently held a campaign for Operation Starfish, hoping to raise enough money to build a house and support a family for a year (about $3500 builds the house, provides rice and beans, clothing, education, and helps fund a startup business so the family can self-sustain). The church ended up raising enough to fund two families and buy several livestock animals to help sustain the family in the future. Religious people love to give, and they give more than non-religious people.

Some people take issue with motives for helping, as if Christians give because they are afraid that the big sky monster in heaven will smite them if they don't, but theologically speaking, this is not true. Christians believe, almost universally, in salvation by grace alone--meaning we are saved by faith, not by the things we do or don't do. While some people might operate out of a fear of hell, that's really a minority and represents a misunderstanding of Christian teaching. The job of the pastor is to teach discipleship and mobilize congregations by declaring the gospel of Jesus Christ which is for everybody, and by declaring that gospel which is for the world, it puts us all on the same field. We are all brothers and sisters, from the lowliest to the greatest, and filled with the Holy Spirit, we are called and sent to live into our Christian identity by showing God's love, helping those in need, and bringing a little bit of the kingdom of God to this messed up, broken world. So do I think pastors, priests, deacons, diaconal ministers, youth ministers, and lay church leaders are important for the world? Hell yes! Until our world stops being messed up and until people stop starving to death, being affected by disasters, dying of diseases and struggling emotionally, our world needs the church, because we need God's healing. Communities of faith all over the world are in a prime position to reveal God's presence and love by acting as a force of justice and care for a world in great need.

Monday, July 8, 2013

What Christianity is not

I debated writing this up because I hesitate to put personal information out in a public blog like this one, or mention people that I interact with lest I accidentally piss them off. But I have been thinking about this for several weeks, and after reading an article this morning about evangelicals who are not really who you think they are, I decided that I could use this as what those of us in education would call a "teaching moment." I apologize for the longwindedness here, but I have a lot of thoughts on this topic.

I was having dinner with my fiance and some of his colleagues and their significant others. My fiance is a scientist and though he himself is a pretty spiritual person, a lot of the people in academia are not, and not only that, seem to hold some sort of innate hostility toward religion. My theory is that liberal academics perceive that there is some sort of correlation between religion and right-wing politics and since people in academia tend to be on the liberal side of things, religion turns out to be something that stands against everything they believe in. Either that or they just think religious people are rubes that believe in some invisible puppetmaster and question our sanity and/or intelligence. Okay, fine. So because of all that, I find that I'm a bit of an anomaly within that crowd. I'm not only religious and not shy about it, but I'm training to be a religious leader. While most people could get away without letting their religion slip (at least for a time), as soon as somebody asks me what I do, I'm faced with an awkward silence and either a sudden topic change or some really, uh, interesting questions that often reveal the asker's ignorance more than anything else. (I say that not as an insult, just as a statement of fact: people who don't grow up with religion don't really "get it" a lot of the time and ask questions that seem kind of silly and/or insulting to me.)

So back to dinner. Because I'm kind of an anomaly among this crowd, usually it doesn't take long before curious not religious people start asking me questions. Sometimes these are like "so what's it like to do a funeral?" but sometimes you get a question that's so bizarre it leaves you a little flabbergasted. One of P's colleagues at this dinner turned to me after it came out that I was born in Canada and asked me if Canadians believe in evolution. I was so stunned that I don't really remember what I said except something like 'well, I don't speak for all Canadians but I'm pretty sure they do.' One of P's other colleagues (also not religious) jumped in after that and started telling us about this offensive street preacher that showed up on campus and how several groups, including the Society for Free Thinkers (an atheist group), the GLBT campus group, and the Lutheran Campus Ministry came out to counter-protest him. Bless his heart for what he was trying to do, which was, I think, to let the first colleague know that, hey, not all Christians are like that street preacher.

I couldn't decide if I should be insulted or not. Maybe it was a coincidence that he happened to bring up evolution, but the more I thought about it, the more annoyed I got. Anybody who has spoken to me for 30 seconds knows that I'm pretty damn liberal. I'm also a scientist. I have a friggin' master's in cognitive psychology--you don't get through 6 years of higher education in a science field without some understanding of evolutionary biology. So I thought at first he was just poking fun of religious people in general, but then I thought maybe he actually thought that I don't believe in evolution, which is ridiculous. As I was pissing and moaning to P after dinner, it occurred to me that while it was probably intended as a little poke at my religion/profession, it annoyed me not because he was making fun of my religion, because Lutherans are big fans of humor at our own expense (Lake Woebegone, anyone?), but because it was a poke that was so based in misunderstanding that it made me feel stupid for being friends with somebody who so fundamentally does not get what I believe.

So rather than being annoyed, I started thinking about writing this, and so here we are. I want to write about a few basic assumptions in order to promote some understanding. I make it a part of my profession to understand other people and where they are coming from, so I would hope that others would be interested in the same.

First of all, Christianity is not a monolith. There are three major branches of Christianity in the world: Roman Catholic, Protestant, and Orthodox. I'm not that familiar with Orthodox Christianity, but I can say that for Catholics and Protestants, there is no real consensus of belief. Talk to a room full of Catholics about theology and you're bound to get a lot of different answers. Talk to a room full of Protestants and you could get 3-5 answers from each person. The reason being Protestant Christianity is HUGELY splintered. It all started in around 1517 with the Protestant Reformation. After the Lutheran church split off from the Catholic church, the church had more splits than a gymnastics team. There are at least four different types of Lutherans (I'm ELCA, in case you were wondering), Calvinists, which turned into Reformed and Presbyterians, and the Methodists, Baptists (Southern and General Baptist Conference), free churches, non-denominational, Anglicans/Episcopalians, Disciples of Christ, UCC, and Mennonites to name just a few. Every one of those denominations believes slightly different things, and within each of those denominations you will get the whole gamut among individuals. Some think that the Bible is literal and some think it is purely metaphorical. Some people believe in infant baptism and some think you need to be an adult who is submerged. Some people think gay people are going to hell and some ordain them (and/or don't believe in a literal hell). Although most denominations profess some sort of creed, people's interpretations vary quite a lot even within one particular parish. Asking if all of Canada believes in evolution is as ridiculous as asking if all black people like fried chicken. It's kind of insulting. How should I know? I don't know all black people and probably some of them do and some of them don't. I also don't know all Canadians, or all Christians.

Second, holding a particular religious belief does not mean that you ascribe to a particular scientific outlook or political ideology. I thought I had made this pretty clear to this person, but I do actually think evolution is a thing, and also am all for gay rights, access to safe abortion services and birth control, and entitlements. I'm not a Republican. More power to you if you are, but I'm not. The thing is, although some individual congregations may put a strong emphasis on promoting "Christian" values in politics, in general even if a congregation holds a particular official stance, that does not mean all the members hold that view. When I was in middle school I started to disagree with some of the things that my Missouri Synod Lutheran church stated as a public stance. If a stupid 15 year old can find it in herself to disagree with a church body based on her personal ethics, I'm pretty sure that an adult can do the same. The reason I could stay in that congregation despite my disagreement is that I believed then and still believe now that you don't have to all think the same thing in order to believe that Jesus loves the world. Jesus loving the world means for some people promoting really hateful things, like the Westboro Baptist Church. For most of us, it means something else, and that "something else" varies quite a lot from person to person.

Third, church isn't just a place where people go to have their beliefs reinforced and blindly swallow whatever the preacher says. Sometimes you go there in order to be challenged, or to question, or to get told a truth that might be kind of painful or frustrating. When I preach, I think a lot about the congregation and what types of people are sitting there. Right now I'm preaching to a predominately white congregation full of farmers and small towners who tend to be pretty comfortable with who they are and what the church is like. Often when I preach, I challenge people to think like a person who is not like them, to challenge their assumptions about who they are and why they come to church, and to push them to ask hard questions. Do I rub some people the wrong way? Probably so. But I also get to challenge people to think about their faith, and that's kind of my job. If people are coming and I'm just telling them what they want to hear I think I'm failing. But if I'm letting God work through me to tell them what they need instead, that's ministry. It's not about indoctrinating, but about challenge and growth and question and helping people figure out who they are supposed to be. And not too surprisingly, who they are meant to be varies greatly from person to person. We are all individuals making up the body of Christ: fingers and toes, eyes, ears, belly buttons, butts (we all know butts), livers, etc. As diverse as one part of your body is from the next is how diverse the church is.

Generalizations and assumptions are harmful. That's how wars are started and how two parties can be shouting so loudly at each other that they're not getting anything done. So why not set the tone by trying genuinely to understand? When you ask me "Do Christians believe X" you are asking the wrong questions. What you should be asking is "What do you believe?" "What do you teach?" "Who are you?" "What is your role as a minister?" That is going to be different for every minister, for every Christian, and for every person. In order to have constructive conversation, we need to understand each other, and that doesn't happen by making broad generalizations and assumptions. If you really want to know what I'm all about, I'm happy to tell you if you'll ask me sincerely. You don't have to agree with me, but at least try to put aside your presuppositions for a second to ask the question. I think this is generally good life advice, don't you?

Next time I think I'll write about what a pastor does for the people who think we only work one day a week...