WHAT’S IT LOOK LIKE? Clark … King … Death … Life … Easter

Four weeks ago, as of last Thursday, I was headed off on a reluctant return errand to a store I generally visit only once a month because it is a fair drive from home.  I misremembered whether it was north or south that I wouldn’t be able to go directly from the eastbound freeway.  As a result, I ended up taking a much longer and (worse!) time consuming way than that drive already takes.

I’m trying not to fret and stress over such moments by turning my attention to the questions: Why am I in this place right now?  What am I supposed to be seeing?  Is there something to be learned here?

There’s something happening here

What it is ain’t exactly clear…

That day, as it turned out, the question wasn’t so much about what I needed to see as it was what I needed to hear.  Had I gone the fastest route, I might have arrived at my destination not long after The Takeaway radio program comes on the air here.  And it was the first story of that show that (apparently) I needed to hear.

That March 22nd episode started out with a report on the killing of 22-year old Stephon Clark in the backyard of his grandparents’ home in Sacramento, CA.  When I first heard the name, I thought Todd Zwillich had said “Jamar Clark,” a young man killed by police in Minneapolis several years ago.  But I quickly realized that, while the story shared some similarities with the Clark shooting here, this was yet another case of a young, unarmed black man who was killed by police.  This was the first I heard of Stephon Clark; it wouldn’t be the last.

There’s a man with a gun over there

Telling me I got to beware…

The story included the recently released bodycam recording of the incident.  It was staggering – especially the gunshots.  Had I not been on the longer route, I might have missed it … and that’s what I’m sure I needed to hear that day.  A few days later, the recording of Alton Sterling’s fatal encounter with the Baton Rouge, LA police was released … and at first, the two conflated in my mind.  The killing of Sterling happened a couple of years ago, around the same time Philando Castile was killed in Saint Paul, MN … along a stretch of road that I used to drive on a daily basis.  In the glare of this local story, the similar story from Baton Rouge was hardly noticed.

These stories – and too many more just like them – form a common pattern in which an unarmed black man is perceived as a threat in some way by a police officer (or several officers) … so the quick-thinking officer of the law makes the decision that deadly force must be used to mitigate the threat.  I’ll delve much more into in another couple weeks.  [It’s a post that’s been waiting in the wings for a local county prosecutor to decide whether or not to being charges in another similar, and yet different, local situation.  That happened shortly before the Stephon Clark story came to national attention.]  I want to stay with the unfolding of this Clark story for now…

The funeral for Stephon Clark took place one week later, on Maundy Thursday … and the results from a private autopsy the family had commissioned were made public.  Eight of the twenty rounds fired by the officers hit Clark, almost all of them entering his body from the back side.  But none of the shots were instantly fatal.  While the officers continued to assess Clark’s level of threat from a distance, he died.  Instead of rendering aid, they continued to act with suspicion and fear.

Maundy Thursday, in the Christian liturgical calendar, marks the first of the triduum, the sacred three days of commemorating the death and resurrection of Jesus.  Maundy comes from the Latin word mandatum, meaning commandment – pointing to Jesus’ command to his disciples at their last meal together, a call to “love one another as I have loved you.”  The service might include foot washing, a remembrance of how Jesus himself washed his disciples’ feet in an act of loving service that they were to emulate.  Services most definitely include communion, the sacramental and ritual meal instituted at that last supper together, which the disciples were also instructed to do “in remembrance of me.”  The events of Jesus’ life recounted on Maundy Thursday include his prayers in Gethsemane … and that his followers would be one … and then the betrayal by one of his followers, his arrest, and the start of the series of trials that would lead to his execution by the authorities the following day.

These were the stories being told inside churches as marches and demonstrations protesting the killing of Stephon Clark were taking place in the streets outside them.  Such demonstrations continued throughout the weekend … on Friday, as Christians commemorated the death of Jesus and Jews began the Passover celebration of deliverance from slavery … and on Saturday, as a few churches here and there keep vigil, waiting for the promise of resurrection … on Sunday, Easter, when even non-churchgoers might stop by to keep Easter with Mom or Grandma and maybe hear some hopeful news that death might not be the end of everything after all.

Beyond the Christian calendar, the demonstrations in Sacramento continued (almost two weeks from when I first heard) to April 4, 2018 … the 50th Anniversary of the assassination of the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in Memphis, TN … another black man who was perceived as a threat by some number of people at the time … a fact which may have been lost with the hagiography of the decades since.

Most famously, King was the key leader in the Civil Rights struggle of the early 1960s that (eventually) led to the end of Jim Crow laws, assurance of voting rights, and other protections in the 1964 Civil Rights Act.  That, however, was not the end of King’s public life and leadership.  He had become a vocal opponent of the Vietnam War.  A number of those who had agreed that the Civil Rights Act was a good thing then turned away from him when he opposed the war; they considered him un-American … and quite possibly a communist.  King was also preparing for a “poor peoples’ campaign,” to call attention to the needs of the impoverished of all races and all areas of America.

That’s what took him to Memphis … a request to support striking sanitation workers.  The strike began when two black workers were accidentally killed as they took refuge from a storm in the back of a garbage truck.  Black workers went on strike to protest low wages and unsafe working conditions.  They carried signs stating: “I Am A Man.”  And they were men – but they weren’t seen or treated as such.

And here it is now, more than four weeks since I first heard the horrifying sound of those twenty rounds being fired at Stephon Clark.  At just 22 years of age, he was still young … but he was over 18 – and that makes him a man.  But to the police officers, he wasn’t a man; he was something else.  What that something was, only they can say for certain.  However, it is certain they did not regard him as a man, someone just like any one of them.

I think it’s time we stop, children, what’s that sound

Everybody look what’s going down

This keeps happening and nothing changes.  Since I heard about the killing of Stephon Clark in Sacramento, half the country away, in Detroit, MI a 14-year old (14-year old!) was shot when he knocked on a door to ask directions.  And then there were the incidents over a weeks ago at Starbucks – the big news story of two black men at a shop in Philadelphia who were arrested when staff called the police because they had not yet bought anything.  (It turned out they were there to meet with a business associate.)  In a lesser story from the west coast, reports surfaced of a Starbucks employee in Torrance, CA not only refusing to allow a black man to use the bathroom, but also calling the police.  Same themes … different variations … they all start to blend together after a while.  And if it’s this bothersome to keep hearing these things over and over, what’s it like to live them out?

We talk about King and his legacy as if getting the Civil Rights Act passed was all that was needed to make everything right and fair and equal.  But it isn’t.  Systemic racism always seems to find a way.  Housing discrimination still happens.  Get the Voting Rights Act passed and discrimination in employment banned … but then the strategic changes in policies during the Nixon Administration accomplished the goal of targeting the Black community without seeming to specifically target anyone.  (Michelle Alexander describes this in The New Jim Crow.)  In much the same way, the push for Voter ID registration in many states purports to be aimed at preventing alleged voter fraud by impersonation, which is something that rarely happens; however, these laws do create barriers for people with low incomes (who, oftentimes, are also persons of color or culture) from voting.

The litany of examples of the lack of real progress goes on. In the weeks since the shooting of Stephon Clark, a 50-year follow-up to the Kerner Report was released.  The original report came from a commission initiated by President Lyndon Johnson, but then he tried to quash the report because it didn’t praise his actions enough.  Fifty years later, the follow-up report shows little has changed.  The economic disparities aren’t much different now than they were 50 years ago.  Most glaring, Black men born into middle class families are quite likely to do less well economically than their parents.  If that doesn’t make sense, then consider the parallel resume studies in which the exact same resume is submitted, one with a name like James and another with a name like Jamal.  James gets a call for an interview; Jamal’s resume goes to the trash.

Recent studies are also showing maternal deaths among Black women are dramatically higher than they are for white women.  (Here’s one such example.)  The exact reasons for this aren’t clear, but the outcomes are stark enough.  Preliminary findings show that there are presumptions made by medical professionals about Black women that lead to a dismissal of their physical concerns. (Here’s a talk about that.)

And all of this is coming forward in the midst of the Easter season, the celebration of the resurrection.  What does resurrection look like for the family of Stephon Clark?  What does resurrection mean for the other families who have suffered similar losses?  What does resurrection mean for the marginalized, maligned, and neglected?  What does new life out of dead ends look like in these situations? And what does it mean for those of us who profess to walk in the light of the Risen Christ?

Resurrection means new life is possible, even from dead ends.  Resurrection is about a new way of life, right here – right now.  It’s not just a promise of eternal life in peace and joy in the presence of God after our bodies have died.  Resurrection is not about some heavenly existence far removed in time and space from life in this world right now.  Resurrection is about life right here, right now.  Resurrection is about God and what God is doing.  Resurrection is proof that death and destruction and sin and evil do not have the last, final word.  God has that last, ultimate word and that word is life – life of the Reign and Realm of God, what God has always intended for the world.  That resurrection life starts right here, right now as people touched by the resurrection stop living by the old ways, which lead to destruction and death, and start living new ways, the ways of the Reign and Realm of God.

People marked by the Resurrection of Christ live differently.  That means me, and if that means you as well, then we are going to have to learn how to do things differently.  The privileged people are going to have to do the heavy lift of tearing down the very systems and structures which grant them their privileges … because those being marginalized, overlooked, excluded, oppressed by these systems will never be able to dismantle them.

Where to start?  First, acknowledge privilege exists.  The idea that we all start out essentially equal and what becomes of us, where we end up is determined solely by our own efforts is a story that isn’t true for everybody else.  Only the privileged can say that; everybody else knows that they’re behind from the start.  (They can see the backs of those in front of them.)  Stop finding fault with the victims of this system of privilege; drop the “they need to …” and the “yeah, but they should …” and the “if only they would realize …”  Just stop it.  Stop trying to talk it away; the silence creates space for listening.

And listen.  Listen to the stories, the experiences, the accounts of others who have had a different path.  You do not know them.  You do not know what their lives are like.  You cannot narrate their experiences for them.  Be open to what others have to say.  Don’t close your ears and eyes and heart, saying “I’m tired of hearing about this.”  As Jon Stewart once said, if you’re tired of hearing about it, imagine what it’s like to have to live with it.

As it happened, this past Thursday, I went out to the same destination as at the start of this post.  I took a different, better route this time … but still, I was later than I’d intended to be.  Because of the timing, I was able to hear a regular mid-day broadcast feature on MPR called “Counter Stories”.  If you need some other experiences to listen to, you can start with these.

To really listen and understand what you’re hearing, you’re going to have to check you biases.  (Here’s a couple places to do just that: Understanding Prejudice and Project Implicit.)  We all have them; it’s part of being human.  But part of being human is also that we have higher level abilities, such as self-awareness.  Learning to recognize your own internal biases helps you be aware that they are present and working on you … so you can think past them, rather than just letting the biases automatically guide your responses and behaviors.  Once you see them, you can choose differently.

And living differently is what resurrection life is all about.  It’s about living here and now in ways that align with the Reign and Realm of God … so others can see and be drawn to this new way of life … and others … and more … and then, in time, with more people involved, life in this world starts to look a bit more like the Reign and Realm of God.

We better stop, hey, what’s that sound?

Everybody look what’s going down…

Lyrics are from “For What It’s Worth” by Stephen Sills                          (c) Warner/Chappell Music, Inc.

Walking in the Darkness

The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light …

 

That’s where we’re headed in Advent, these words from Isaiah that we’ll read on Christmas Eve.  Advent is a journey set in the darkest weeks of the year, as the days grow shorter and shorter.  Even after the solstice, a few days before Christmas, we don’t yet see enough lengthening in daylight to hope for the end of the winter and the light to be restored.

 

The path in daylight … I won’t be seeing this in the mornings anytime soon

This time of year, when the temperature allows for being outdoors (by being within a few degrees of freezing), my morning walks take place in the dark.  There’s just a bit of a reprieve around the time change, but week or two after the switch back to Daylight Wasting Time, I’m back in the dark on my morning walks.

 

This walking in the dark has prompted me to consider what is useful in terms of light … and what is not.

 

Most useful is a full (or nearly full) moon in a cloudless sky.  It isn’t as bright as day, but the soft light is enough to see the path, to see familiar landmarks, and (likely) to be seen by others.  Unfortunately, this phase of the moon lasts for just a few days and the sky must be cloudless, which is a rare thing in Minnesota.  A cloudless sky in winter typically means the temperature is so far below freezing that every drop of moisture has frozen out of the atmosphere … which also means I am NOT walking outside.

 

The streetlights generally help.  For aesthetic considerations and a quieter neighborhood, the overall light level is low.  But the lights are directed down to the streets and walkways and the lights are close enough to see where you’re going (in most places).  However, it isn’t enough light that a pedestrian can be sure that drivers have a good chance of seeing her.  In some places, the walkway curves away from the road and drops below grade.  For that part of the path, the streetlights up by the road don’t provide enough light to see where the path goes.  Along the one major road through the neighborhood, the streetlights are on one side of the street and the sidewalk is on the other.  The lights along that area help the drivers – not the pedestrians.

 

What does not help at all is the glare from headlights of approaching cars.  Much like the streetlights, the headlights are designed and positioned in such a way as to best assist the driver behind the wheel – not those outside of the car.  Rather than illuminate the area in front of me, the glare of on-coming headlights floods the area with so much light, it washes out nearly everything between the light source and me.  It’s kind of like the inverse of “all dark” blind, but it’s a form of blindness just the same.

 

For times like these, when the on-coming glare of headlights is too much or when the streetlights are insufficient for my needs, I’m really glad to have my flashlight.  In many ways, my flashlight is the most useful light of all.  I can turn it on when I need the light and point it where I need the light to be.  I can have a focused, bright light if I need that, or a softer, more widespread light.  The flashlight also has a strobe feature, which is helpful when I need to cross streets as it is much more able to catch the attention of drivers than I am. Drivers who don’t normally yield to pedestrians do when the strobe light is flashing.

 

It’s hard to walk in the dark … where does my next step land? … what might be in the way to trip my feet? … is the path ahead level or is there a dip I cannot see? … what else is along the path that might be a hazard?  I know the path I walk very well from all the months I’ve walked it in the bright, morning light.  Even in dim light, I’m fairly sure of the way.  But if I didn’t know the path or if there were crossings or points of divergence, having light with which to see would be essential to avoid losing my way.

 

Moving through the weeks of Advent is kind of like these morning walks in the dark.  In some ways, it is a familiar path … a cycle of weeks that comes around each year … the familiar countdown rhythm that leads to the Christmas celebrations … a wheel that turns like clockwork.

 

We know the stories … the Annunciation … the mysterious, miraculous pregnancies (mostly for Mary, but also for Elizabeth) … the visions of angels who announce what God is doing … the waiting and the watching … the cry of John the Baptizer: “Prepare the way of the Lord!”  Even if these aren’t necessarily the passages read in churches and homes each week through Advent, these are the subjects of our Advent hymns.  The hymns of Advent aren’t heard much outside of churches – not like the Christmas hymns and carols that have become standards alongside more secular Christmas music that plays almost non-stop from November until year’s end in the stores and on radio stations.

 

But we don’t necessarily need these external guides to show us the way and tell us when we are in time.  We know the path we travel.  We have our routines of preparations, how to get things done, signs that the expected event of Christmas is at hand … the tree, the lights, maybe candles on a wreath … the smells of fresh pine and spices and sugar … the rustle of paper and the slicing of scissors and the whispers of tape dispensers.  Like a well-trodden path or the hands of the clock, these things tell us where we are and when we are.

 

But like walking in the dark, sometimes it is good to have a light, something to help us see.  And like my morning walks in the dark, some lights are very helpful while certain others are no help at all.

 

Least helpful to the Advent journey is the swirl and clamor and glare of the cultural Christmas celebration.  It’s all glitter and sparkle and overly bright and shiny.  There’s the whirl and swirl of activities and festivities.  There’s the endless to-do list that gets longer, not shorter, with each item accomplished … oh, don’t forget this other thing … oh, now there’s this to take care of … oh, sure, I can squeeze this in, too … on and on and on it goes.  There’s the blare of the holiday music that’s been playing for a month now … the same tunes on the radio as in the stores … the same singers with their once-new takes on old classics … maybe made worse for “fresh arrangements” or up-to-date instrumentation or auto tune.  Then there are the crowds of people everywhere, the long lines, the overtired and whining children along with their frustrated adults (who sometimes aren’t any better).  Like the glaring headlights of the approaching cars as I walk, these things wash out all the peace, the quiet, the space for contemplation and reflection … the whole point of the Advent season.

 

And just what is the point of this season we call “Advent”?  Isn’t it about getting ready for Christmas?  Doesn’t that mean all the things we’re doing to get ready for the main event are, in fact, part of the Advent season of preparation?

 

Ah … but this is where the cultural approach to Christmas is like the streetlights along the path I walk in the dark.  Yes, sometimes these things are helpful an aid support in our Advent observance as we indeed do look toward Christmas and the coming of Jesus as the baby born that holy night in a stable somewhere in the little town of Bethlehem where he was laid to sleep in a manger because there was no crib for his bed.  Like the streetlights along the walk path, the guiding lights of culture can assist our preparations.  However, like the streetlights along my walking path, sometimes the path we’re on diverges from where the lights are … and sometimes the lights are lighting another way.

 

The cultural calls to prepare for Christmas don’t help when they pressure us towards consumption of things we don’t need (gifts or food), to buy more than our means honestly can accommodate, to have unrealistic expectations of what our holiday celebrations “should” look like (the perfect tree, the perfect décor, the perfect gifts, the perfect table, the perfect everything).  Following these would-be guiding lights can only lead to disappointment because they lead us to expect more than can possibly be done or arranged or provided.

 

And even at best, when the focus is on the right thing – the birth of Jesus, the lights around us might still take us off our intended path.  If the focus is only on the baby in the manger, caroled by candlelight on Christmas Eve, celebrated in the exchange of gifts (birthday presents in Jesus’ name we give to each other), then we’re still a bit off the path.  Christmas isn’t just about a poor couple’s baby born in a barn.  It’s about God breaking into the world – how God broke into the world then … which gives us some clues as to how God might be breaking in now.

 

In the midst of all this, the practices of Advent are a lot like my trusty flashlight on those morning walks in the dark.  The practices of Advent put the light where we need it to be, to show us the path we intend to be on, to help us avoid what might trip us or cause us to stumble as we find our way through this dark and confusing time.

 

There’s no way of telling what bumps or stumps or rocks or unexpected breaks in the surface might be lurking as we make our way in through the darkness of Advent this year.  We’ve seen plenty of disasters already.  The people in Puerto Rico and Florida and Houston are still struggling to rebuild their lives that were ripped apart by hurricanes this summer.  We remember how children and teachers at Sandy Hook Elementary were brutally murdered in Advent five years ago, shattering the season for so many.  There’s no way to know what form of chaos will spin its way out of the nation’s capitol next.  Here in my area, a decision about charges in the latest high-profile shooting by a police officer could be coming any day now.

 

We can’t turn off – or even fully unplug – from the Christmas dazzle all around us (even if we want to).  We can’t prevent things in the world around us from disrupting our peace and disturbing our path.  The world keeps moving.  Life keeps happening, the good and the bad.

 

But we can steward are time, watch how we use our minutes and days and hours … choose carefully where we invest our energy.  Such discipline is like that flashlight, guiding our attention to where we need to be looking, what we need to watch for … showing us the way we intend to travel so we can take our steps accordingly.

 

I don’t have to walk in the dark on these mornings.  I have other options … places to walk inside where it’s not just warm, there’s also light.  But I choose to walk in the dark … to be outside … to connect with the physical world around me … the rhythm of the seasons … the cycles of life.

 

Observing the season of Advent is that same sort of intentional engagement.  It is choosing to walk the dark, yet familiar way.  It requires both intention and attention.  It takes effort to stay on the way … to take the time out of the rush for quiet contemplation … to sit with the small light of candles in hope and expectation that a greater light will come … to look at the coming of God in the Jesus story so we can better see the coming of God in our stories.  We won’t see these things unless we’re looking … unless we know where to look … take the time to look … and have some light by which to see.

 

Author of time, Creator of Earth and its seasons, Keeper of Eternity …

 

As our seasons cycle again into winter’s darkness

As the year of your Church moves from the end of one cycle into the advent of a new

As the calendar that has marked this year enters the final weeks and we wait for a new one to begin

 

We light this small flame

 

Turning again to your promise to come once more

Remembering how you came to us a baby in Bethlehem’s manger

Trusting your presence that has sustained us to this time

 

May the hope of your coming and the light of your presence sustain us through the darkness of winter.  As we wait for the day of your promise, may your birth in our darkness renew our hope and life as we watch and wait for your return and the coming of the Day.

Amen

WHAT IF IT DOESN’T GET BETTER?

Summer and assembly time have  passed.  Rally Day, the now traditional re-launch of regular congregational activities, has come and gone.  In many cases, some of the prompting for renewed focus on activities — and attendance — in the congregation has come from the downward trend lines that are dogging most congregations these days.  (And in many congregations, this has been the case for decades.)  Trend lines may be discouraging; however, there is something to anticipate.  With the approaching 500th Anniversary of Martin Luther’s 95 Theses going public in Wittenberg, Germany on October 31, 1517 (however it happened that those points for private debate within the church became public knowledge), there has also been encouragement to celebrate our history and, perhaps, find in that history the fresh courage and direction we need for going forward.

I don’t know that a significant historical milestone is going to change much … for us or anyone else.  The sale of indulgences, which the 95 Theses protested, is a historical relic.  The Catholic Church no longer engages in fund raising by means of selling indulgences in the ways Luther protested.  Modern Catholic theologians readily acknowledge that Luther raised some good points with his critiques.  Recent studies show that what Lutherans and other Protestants and Catholics in the pews believe is much more similar than different.  Lutheran and Catholic leaders are discussing how to heal the breach between these branches of the Christian Church.  Were it not for the larger implications where the clergy are concerned (that Lutheran pastors may marry and can be women as well as men), I suspect Luther’s excommunication would be readily rescinded.

If the past has any lessons for the present, those lessons would be in the return to scripture as the guide for faith, the recognition that the Word of God is not simply the printed text on the page but it is the Spirit of God speaking through these words that make it the living Word of God, able to impart faith and direct our living.  This would be a helpful antidote for much the “Bible-olatry” that is present these days, where the printed text on paper is regarded as an inviolate, sacred thing that is not to be questioned … as though the Bible came down from heaven, already printed in English, shrink wrapped and ready for purchase at the bookstore.  I’m not a major-league Biblical scholar, but I know first-hand that translation is messy business.  Words in any language have subtle connotations that allow for multiple readings before we even get to variations in copies and questions of later insertions.  If people of faith were to demonstrate more humility in our approach to scripture, how we read it and how we use, and if we were to let it work more on us rather than applying it to others, that would go a long way toward better engagement with the people and the culture outside our church doors most Sunday mornings.  (The so-called Nashville Statement is the opposite of what I’m describing here and a move in the wrong direction.)

It is there, in the engagement between congregations and their communities, that the struggles mapped out in our trend lines are being most keenly felt … it’s where those struggles play out in congregations.  Most of our congregations are not growing.  (This isn’t just an ELCA or even a Lutheran problem; many congregations in all Christian denominations are facing it.)  Among the relatively few congregations that are not declining, most of these are holding their own – not losing too many members, but not gaining very many members, either.   Word on the street has it that, in the synod where I live, 85% of the congregations are considered to be in decline.  I doubt that number varies too much across the synods.  More members die than are baptized, especially if we don’t count the babies who are brought for baptism in order to make Grandma happy and are rarely ever seen in a congregation again, even when time of confirmation rolls around.  More congregations close or merge than new ones are established.  For decades now, most new mission starts have failed to produce viable congregations and end up closing after just a few years.

We keep looking for some sort of magic formula or secret sauce that will turn things around for us, that will get us growing again, that will attract the new members, that will bring in the people at the margins into active membership.  There isn’t any such formula and looking for one is just a distraction from the real causes of this struggle … and the deeper assessments of our current goals and motives.  Maybe we already sense we won’t like what we find and that the hard truths we find will force us to change and so we avoid all this because what we really want is to keep things the way we like them, which is the way we’ve known and experienced.

If we are to be brutally honest, much of our congregational decision-making – what we do and how we do it – is based on keeping current members pleased so they will keep coming and keep giving.  Much as we try to gloss over naked financial realities and spiritualize things somehow, congregations require money to get things done.  Buildings require mortgage payments as well as upkeep and maintenance costs, just the same as any other house or building does.  Utility bills for electricity, phones, internet, and maybe even gas service must be paid the same as for any other household or business operation.  There are salaries to pay … pastors, office administrators, custodians, and (in many places) the musicians who give significant contributions of time to preparing things for Sunday worship.  It takes the labors of people to keep lines of communication open, make sure the building is clean and ready for use, have everything ready for Sunday services (and other events).  People should be paid for the work they do; we all expect this in our daily lives.  A congregation has a certain amount of basic operating expenses and it is reasonable to expect the members to provide financial support for the congregation’s operations.

As a result, much of our recruitment efforts are motivated by the need for member replacement, to make up for those who were lost (through death or moving away or other life transitions).  Adding members will keep the attendance numbers up and (with proper encouragement) the funding levels steady.  With effective stewardship education, perhaps giving could be increased … which would, of course, allow the congregation to do more – more of what it already does, or perhaps even more beyond its walls. If we were to strip them down to the most basic level, most of our outreach (and our in-reach) efforts are about membership recruitment and motivation.  It’s not about making disciples, which is the calling Jesus has actually given us.

We didn’t set out with the intention to become this way.  It just happened as things in our culture and society shifted and changed.  But we didn’t notice and didn’t respond until things had changed so much that nothing we did seemed to work anymore.  Now that we have noticed, we’ve been wondering why, trying to do what we’ve always done – but do it better, hoping that we can turn the tide.  But such a task is nearly as impossible as altering the tides of the ocean by our own direct efforts.

Just how did things reach this point?  Let’s review …

Coming to America as immigrants, Lutherans organized their congregations for the preservation of the culture of the old country at least as much as for the active practice of Christian faith.  The community of the congregation was a chance to gather with those who shared the language of the old home, the music and rhythms, the smells and tastes.  It was a way to connect with the homeland in the midst of a very different country.  As a result, keeping tradition has been a significant value within our congregations.

Most of our congregations did not drop their ethnic languages (German, Norwegian, Swedish, Finnish, Danish, etc.) until the war years (especially World War II).  Moving to English was a way of showing loyalty to the US and support for the war efforts.  (Placing American flags in sanctuaries was part of this demonstration as well.)  Because Germany was an aggressor nation in both World Wars, German congregations may have been swifter to let go of the old language and move to English than other ethnic groups.  But however the language shifts came about, many congregations did not make that change until most of their members were much more comfortable and fluent in the English of America than the language of the old country.

After the war years, the red scare phenomenon and the post war baby boom helped increase church membership.  The Baby Boom was the most apparent development as huge numbers of men left the military, took up civilian life, married … and had children, lots and lots of children.  Congregations soon found themselves overflowing with children who needed space for classes, places to sit in worship, and ways to be engaged in what was happening.  The sky-rocketing birth rate meant congregations didn’t have to do anything to increase their numbers; families were doing it all on their own.

Beyond the Baby Boom, an increasing interest in the public invocation of religious faith as a protection against the threat of communism also helped.  America’s roots with the pilgrim settlers from Europe who came to the New World seeking religious freedom were highlighted.  The Christian faith of these early pilgrims was expanded to include Judaism as well, primarily an act of contrition for American non-assistance when the Jewish populations in Europe faced the horrors of the Holocaust.   In the heady mix of patriotism and religious devotion as a defense against the aggressive, godless Communist menace, it was almost a civic duty to be a member of some congregation.  Whole programs developed to help congregations enroll as many of their neighbors as possible for membership, primarily out of a sense of civic obligation.

The flourishing economy of the post-war years also had a shaping impact on congregational life in the 1950s and well into the 1960s.  Standards of living rose for most workers.  Benefits such as Social Security, pensions, and home ownership were allowing more elders to leave a significant amount of wealth behind when they died, something almost unknown in previous generations.  People had money to give and they did.  Directing a portion of one’s estate to the church became a fairly common practice.

How times have changed over the following 40 to 50 years!  Wages have largely been stagnant for much of the working population for several decades now.  When households are struggling to afford the basics (rent, food, utilities, transportation needs) and provide for the children (including higher education), there’s less money available for any sort of discretionary spending, including giving to a congregation.  The modern way of death (together with our longer life spans) is depleting the assets of our elders to the point there is often little to nothing left from which to make a final bequest to a congregation.  The Baby Boom went bust and even the echo boom isn’t increasing church membership rosters.  The 1950s and 60s are gone in so many ways (not just in terms of congregational life) and it’s more than time we all accepted those times are never, ever coming back.  Things will never again be the way they used to be.

And yet, our congregations are hard-wired for cultural preservation.  Initially, preservation of the ethnic culture served as a driving force for congregations.  During World War II and the Cold War that followed, congregations readily adapted to preserving a Christian culture tailored to the patriotic needs of an America striving against the godless forces of totalitarianism and Communism.  The world and the culture around us have shifted and changed, but here we are, still trying to preserve a past culture, much as we have always done.  Part of preserving the original ethnic culture was keeping the outsiders out … and that dynamic is still present … which continues to make it hard for outsiders to enter the doors of our congregations.

Now that there are fewer and fewer of us already inside, we’re going to have to connect with others on the outside … somehow.  We’ve never done that before.  We don’t know how.  And we can’t learn to do something new when we’re trying with all our might to keep things the way they’ve always been.

So, to ask the classic question from the catechism:

What does all this mean?

It means, at a minimum, these trends are not going to get better – not any time soon, maybe not ever. We need to come to terms with that.  Congregations will be smaller in terms of members and giving will decrease with the diminishing numbers of members and as the members age.  We can no longer afford all that we used to do.  There is no “doing more with less.”  Having less to work with means we are going to have to do less or find other ways of doing things to compensate for the loss of dollars and of people.

This means some congregations may have to sell or rent out their buildings, share them with others … put them to work in some way to generate the income needed for the upkeep.  Other infrastructure of the larger church, colleges and seminaries and managerial operations (synodical offices and churchwide headquarters), will also have to shrink.  An increasing amount of the declining congregational offerings will need to stay local, to take care of business at home; this leaves less to be sent forward.  Just as physical property at the local level is going to diminish, property held at higher levels will have to be reduced.  Seminaries and colleges may need to combine, maybe with one another … maybe with similar programs in the area … maybe with other colleges and universities that do not have strong connections to a religious organization. Seminaries in particular may have to add other graduate degree programs to attract a wider range of tuition-paying students.  (Another reason for this will be described in a bit …)

We also have to become more realistic about pastors.  It is certainly preferable that congregations provide pastors with salaries commensurate with their levels of education (a master’s degree program on par with law school in terms of academic requirements).  Professionals with similar credentials have starting salaries well above $50K per year and, in many cases, approach or exceed the six-figure mark after five to ten years of experience.  This is not going to happen in most congregations.

So is that why there are now reports of a clergy shortage?  Is it because salaries aren’t high enough to attract candidates?  Perhaps the better question to ask is: Do we really have a clergy shortage?  Some interesting calculations are used to support claims of a clergy shortage.  One is to compare the number of retirees to the number of new graduates from seminaries each year … as if all retiring pastors were retiring from full-time positions that would need to be filled.  The reality is that many pastors ease into retirement, stepping down from full-time positions into part-time roles.  A number of positions come to an end with a pastor’s retirement, eliminating a possible opening for someone else to fill.  Rather than a clergy shortage, we have a clergy surplus; we have more clergy than positions for them to fill.

But claims of a shortage are made to increase seminary enrollment. Seminaries need more tuition-paying students to sustain their current operations.  Claims of a shortage are far more about the financial needs of the seminaries that the needs of the church at large.  Yes – one of the proofs offered for the alleged shortage of pastors is the number of “first call” openings that go unfilled because there aren’t enough new seminary graduates to fill them all.  But how many of these openings are deemed suitable for first call because that is the only level at which the congregation can support a full-time pastor’s salary?  “Because it’s all the congregation can afford” is not a suitable reason to consider any opening to be appropriate for a newly ordained pastor.  Most of these congregations would be better served by experienced pastors who can help them work through the anxieties provoked by the disturbing trends lines that are beyond anyone’s control.

Since we’re facing a future in which many congregations will not be able to pay the salary expected for a professional with a master’s degree and several years of experience, pastors will have to be bi-vocational.  They may draw some salary from the congregations they serve, but they will also need some form of regular employment, separate from the congregation, to provide a significant portion of their income.  This necessity also offers seminaries a path to growth: education for this type of bi-vocational work will also require courses and degree programs beyond the traditional Master of Divinity. Seminaries can find ways to offer these additional opportunities.

It’s not necessarily a negative for congregational life, either.  It could be a benefit.  Instead of being the full-time, “professional” Christian operating out of the church building, the pastor will be more like the people of the congregation, sharing the same struggles to live as a follower of Jesus in the midst of normal daily life.  Pastors would not just talk about this in theory; they would practice it and live it out as role models.

And that might just turn out to be a very good thing … it could lead congregations back into the work of becoming disciples, students of Jesus … followers who help others follow the way of life he taught … which is what we’re really supposed to be doing

AFTER EASTER … AFTER ANSELM …

Because Easter fell rather late this year, the commemoration of the theologian Anselm of Canterbury on April 21st falls within the first week of Easter.  Maybe it’s because these events are so close this year … Maybe it’s because I spent Lent reading Walter Wangerin Jr.’s The Book of Sorrows … Maybe it’s because of yet another Easter with more people in church than on a typical Sunday … I don’t know.  However, it seems to me that, since we have so many people present on Easter Sunday – the day to tell the Church’s best story in the most beautiful ways we can find – and yet those people do not return the following week or any other weeks (aside from maybe Mother’s Day or Christmas Eve), maybe we’re telling it wrong … and Anselm may be a part of it.

Anselm was Bishop of Canterbury in the first century of the second millennium, dying on this date in 1109.  He is most remembered even to this day for his theological writings.  Philosophy students may still read his proofs for the existence of God.  Theology students still read his explanation of what is called the Satisfaction Theory of Atonement.  For the average American Christian, this is likely the most familiar theory of atonement (how human beings are made right with God through the death and resurrection of Christ).  The briefest popular summary of this theory might be “He [meaning Jesus] paid a debt he did not owe because we owed a debt we could not pay.”

It is a rather concise statement of Anselm’s Cur Deus Homo (or Why the God-Man).  Anselm’s argument works within the feudal system of his time.  The local lord was sovereign and the serfs were beholden to and completely dependent upon their lord. (If you weren’t the former, you were unquestionably the latter.)  In a similar way to that of serfs toward their lord, people owe God the Creator every thought of their minds, every work of their body, and every inclination of their hearts.  Failure to do this incurs a debt to God.  And since people owe God everything they have to begin with, they have nothing extra with which they might make up such a debt.  As a human being, Jesus also owed all to God as any other human being does … and because he lived perfectly, he did not incur any debts of his own.  Furthermore, through his generosity and divine right (being also fully God as well as fully human), he extends this perfection as payment of debts to Christians.

Within the feudal context of Anselm’s time, this makes a great deal of sense.  But when it becomes unmoored from its context, this theory can become distorted and even damaging.  The closest we in America have ever experienced to the feudal system of medieval Europe was the plantation system in the time of slavery.  Do we really want to use that as the basis for an example of how things should work?

Detached from the context in which it arose, Anselm’s theory has been distorted to the point of perversion.  Much has been made of the blood of Jesus being shed to wash away sins … of God’s wrath at human sinfulness being poured out on the innocent Jesus on the cross … as if the only thing God can do with anger is vent on someone.  Feminist theologians aren’t the only one making the point that this comes across as divine child abuse.

Truth be told, the Christian faith has never settled on a single theory of atonement.  There have been several prominent ones in the history of theology, each with some valid points.  But none has ever been hailed as the definitive statement.  Even in Anselm’s own era, there were critics of his theory.  Most notable among them was Peter Abelard who asked, if the problem were one of justice – that a debt owed must be paid, then how is the greatest injustice the world has known – the execution of a truly innocent man as a criminal – a just solution?

Abelard’s own theory was based on love … that Christ’s death and resurrection was an act of great (and even divine) love intended to motivate Christians to be more loving.  Of course, this also begs the question: Then why aren’t we more loving?  Why are we so often unloving and judgmental?

Abelard may not have had the definitive answer either.  But we need a better explanation than the current formula of Anselm run amok.  Any explanation of what Jesus Christ accomplished in his death and resurrection that even hints at divine child abuse is simply not going to work in our modern context – nor should it.  Although this isn’t exactly what Anselm was describing in his theory, it is how the theory has devolved in our modern context.

Easter is the big day in the Church.  Yeah, a lot of people think it’s Christmas.  But as John Irving wrote in A Prayer for Owen Meany: Anyone can be sentimental about the Nativity; any fool can feel like a Christian at Christmas.  But Easter is the main event; if you don’t believe in the resurrection, you’re not a believer.”  Easter is the main event – and people do turn out for it.

Yes, it’s possible they show up for the trappings and the pageantry … the pastels and the hats, the flowers and the joy, the egg hunts and kids in cute clothes.  It’s entirely possible these elements are the draw.  But for whatever reason, people are in the pews and it is the congregation’s biggest chance to really tell the biggest and the best of all stories.  Is that what we’re really doing?  And if we are, just what story are we telling?

Do we tell the devolved American version of Anselm’s satisfaction theory?  If not (and there are plenty of reasons not to!), then what do we tell?  Do we try to keep it as benign and inoffensive as possible so as not to upset anyone there, especially the visitors or occasional attenders?  Just what does resurrection mean for the crucified Jesus – and for us who profess to be followers of this crucified and risen Jesus today?

Like I said earlier, I spent Lent reading The Book of Sorrows by Walter Wangerin, Jr.  It’s a sequel to his best-selling and National Book Award Winning beast fable The Book of the Dun Cow.  However, as the title might suggest, the sequel is more difficult to read than the original.  The second book is more painful and sad; it’s darker in tone and more disturbing.  But perhaps for that very reason, it is also more profound.  Both books are beast fables.  Like those of Aesop or Chaucer (in some of his Canterbury Tales), they are morality tales … what is right and good? … what is wrong and evil?  … how does one know? … how is one to choose? … what ought we do?  These aren’t really parables and certainly not allegories.  But the fantastical setting makes it possible to look at our world and its ways from a different angle, thus seeing things we might have missed before.

Although the evil Wyrm was defeated in his bid for freedom and contained once again at the close of the first book, the second book opens with Wyrm attempting a new strategy to defeat the animals who are his Keepers so he can run loose throughout the cosmos.  Rather than a direct attack as before, he tries something more subtle.  By allowing himself to be killed, he decays into a myriad of tiny worms.  Eventually Wyrm succeeds in luring Chauntecleer, the rooster who leads the community of Keepers, to his rotting corpse.  Chauntecleer is content to remain in the depths and eventually die beside the bones of the beloved companion who defeated Wyrm at the conclusion of the first book.  However, Chauntecleer is moved to leave this abyss by the antics of one of his most loyal followers, a Weasel.  As Chauntecleer pursues the Weasel, he lashes the Stag he is riding with a spur, sending the Stag into a frenzy … and in his frenzy, the Stag tramples an animal mother and one of her babies.

Thus Chauntecleer returns to his community, infected with the little worms who persuade him to refuse the love of his friends and even his wife, persuading him that their words are false … that the only truth in life is that all who are cut then cut back – at least as much, if not more.  The tragedies and broken relationships escalate, until finally the bereaved animal father comes to Chauntecleer.  The Rooster expects this other ,whom he wronged so horrifically, to strike back at him and even attacks this poor father in order to provoke the counter attack.

But none comes.  Instead, the sorrowful father absorbs the Rooster’s blows.  Rather than striking back, he acknowledges the ways he failed his family.  He tells Chauntecleer that he forgives him and offers a message from the Dun Cow (identified in the first book as a messenger from God to help and comfort the animal Keepers).  The message is one of love, of understanding, and forgiveness.  In the face of such unbreakable love, Chauntecleer is finally freed from the influence of the remnants of Wyrm and does what he must to root out the evil from himself, purging it from the community.

Perhaps this points toward the real truth of what the crucifixion and resurrection mean.  Love is stronger than hate and anger.  God does not require the anger to be vented in order to let it go; God can simply let go of the anger.  God can – and does – choose love and rejects anger (understandable and justifiable though such anger might be).  There is no requirement that a debt be paid or wrongs be righted or anger be assuaged somehow.  God simply chooses love in the face of hate, chooses life in the face of death because God can.

Back in seminary, in the second semester of systematic theology, in which we focused on Jesus Christ and the second article of the creed, we often pondered the question “What got Jesus killed?”  There are actually a number of answers, but one of the most provocative is because that’s what sin does – it kills things.  Perhaps literally in some ways, perhaps more figuratively in many others, those acts we might regard as sin, as missing the actual intention, as being not quite what we wanted to do or be in a situation, as falling short of what we (or others) expected us to be and to do … these kinds of things do real damage to others, to relationships, to ourselves.  That’s what sin does; it kills things.  And since Jesus came into the world to deal with the problem of sin, then, sooner or later, sin would kill Jesus.

Of course, where there is some form of killing or damage, there is some form of death (even if not in the most concrete, literal, actual sense).  The resurrection then is the negation of death.  Death is undone.  God’s decree is that life shall be the final word, not death.  Forgiveness is the choice not to repay in kind the wrong done, to allow the possibility of restored relationship.  Anger isn’t undone through venting; anger is undone by love.

This is good news – that life can be different, that we can be different … that death need not have the final word because God has the final word and that final word is life.  By offering love instead of hate or anger, by undoing death itself, Jesus shows a different way of life … and calls any who will to follow and do likewise.

SIGNS OF THE TIMES: Cycles … Advent … Elections …”The Second Coming”

lav-pillar-2Irish poet William Butler Yeats wrote “The Second Coming” in 1919, during the aftermath of World War I. American history books don’t attend to this, but “the war to end all wars” was not only a profound social-political crisis for Europe; it was a spiritual and theological one as well. Throughout the whole conflict, the front line only moved a mile or so in either direction. The techniques of trench warfare unleashed a number of horrors that prompted many to ask how good, Christian men of enlightened, modern nations could do such hellacious things to one another. Yeats ponders this sense that world has been so profoundly shaken that what has been can no longer be and what may yet be cannot be imagined …

images-5Turning and turning in the widening gyre

The falcon cannot hear the falconer…

 

The gyre refers to the ancient concept of the wheel of time. Life cycles through the wheel of time. The task of life is to stay on the wheel and move with the cycles. But what if the wheel spins off center? In such times of profound dislocation, it feels as though the wheel has lost its center, spinning and whirling off course and out of control. A falcon that cannot hear the call of the falconer has lost the point of reference for directions, the guide to the way home. Likewise, in a time of such profound dislocation, any sense of rootedness or grounding seems lost.

images-6Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold …

While a number of lines from the poem have been quoted in some form or used as titles, this may be the best known line from the poem. When people have been asking “Can the center hold?”, this is what the question refers to … because if the center of a spinning wheel does not hold, everything flies apart. Think about swinging and object tied to a string around and around; what happens if you suddenly let go or the object becomes free of the string? It flies off in some direction – and may do a fair amount of damage if it hits something.

Can the center hold? That has been a question in our national, and even local, political life for some time now. Once upon a time, I’ve heard (as I was too young to observe such things at the time), the Republican Speaker of the House and the Democratic Senate Majority Leader would travel by taxicab together to speaking events, discussing along the way the points each would raise at the event. Then afterwards, they would get into the same taxicab and go out for a drink together. Could you imagine such a thing happening today?

When President George H. W. Bush failed to win a second term in 1992, even if Senator Bob Dole had dared to think it, he would never have stated publicly to anyone that the top priority for Republicans would be to make Bill Clinton a one-term president, as Senator Mitch McConnell said in the aftermath of Barack Obama’s victory in 2008.

Maybe some of it had to do with the ending of the Fairness Doctrine in the Reagan Era, which allowed the rise of voices like Rush Limbaugh and others of what came to be conservative talk radio and eventually gave rise to Fox News. Maybe some of it has to do with fighting between moderates and conservatives in the Republican Party with neither willing to become separate in the way that the Green Party led to the separation of the ultra-liberals from the less extreme elements of the Democratic Party. Maybe some of it has to do with Newt Gingrich and the “Contract with America” during the mid-term election in 1994, raising up new Republican members of congress to oppose Clinton’s agenda. Maybe some of it has to do with the rising profile of the Green Party, which drew voters from the Democrats in 2000 and caused the party to appeal more to the far left in efforts to garner more votes.

488px-2000prescountymap2Whatever the reason, studies show that where there was once a fair amount of overlap between the Republicans and Democrats in terms of policies in the 1960s and 70s (when Republican Senator Bob Dole helped author the Food Stamps program), there now is little – if any – overlap between the two. Each seems more interested in opposing the other rather than seeking common ground where policies can be built to the benefit of people in this country. The center is gone. Each side views everything – and everyone – in black-or-white terms. Either you’re a liberal or a conservative. If you don’t agree with my position, then you must be on the opposite side. If you’re not conservative or liberal enough, then you’re an apostate. There’s no place in either sphere for moderates or the less-than pure.

Neither Bob Dole nor Tom Daschle would have dared delay a vote on a Supreme Court nomination by Bill Clinton or George W. Bush by citing a need to defer to the next president (or the next election) as Mitch McConnell did this year in defiance of clear constitutional directives and all precedent. But McConnell’s purely partisan maneuver met with nothing but approval from conservatives (despite their avowed devotion to the Constitution).

Is there any center left to hold? It seems not. Everything is put in terms of “us versus them” in a zero-sum, winner-take-all battle. When George W. Bush narrowly lost the popular vote to Al Gore but won just enough of the Electoral College vote in 2000, he recognized he did not have a majority or any sort of mandate. He understood the frustrations with the election outcome and recognized the need for deliberate outreach to build connections and find some common ground.   Despite the similar outcome in this year’s election, the President-elect and his party speak of a mandate that they clearly (by any objective measure) do not have. They won and so all those who wanted someone else in office must now come to agree with the winners.

The divides were so distinct in the recent election … rural is “red”, urban is “blue” … the oldest generation skews strongly one way, the youngest one is as strongly the opposite … college–educated voters head in one direction, the non-college-educated in the other … it’s “elites” verses the “real people” and never the twain shaIl meet because neither (we are told) can possibly understand the other. The respective worlds are too far apart. Where is a middle way? Where is some center point where common ground can be found? It appears there is none to be had. And if the center is lost, then things, of necessity, fall apart.

imagestw71gql6Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,

The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere

The ceremony of innocence is drowned;

The best lack all conviction, while the worst

Are full of passionate intensity.

This is a reflection of what we have just been through … “the best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity.”

untitled-5Many critiques have been made of Hillary Clinton over the years. Most were over-exaggerated at best and dishonest at the worst. However, one that is true is that she seemed to lack core convictions. Every policy was carefully thought out in advance … and just as carefully vetted and nuanced to appeal to as many while offending as few as possible. Her slowness to respond until she’s tested the wind and the waters gives the perception that she lacks any solid convictions. Although she is most authentic when she talks about her faith and the impact it’s had on her life, she’s always been reluctant to speak of it. That’s unfortunate because it is the source of the actual convictions she has.

Passionate intensity fueled both the rise in prominence of Bernie Sanders as well as Donald Trump and the other major contenders in the Republican contest this year (Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio). For Bernie, at least, that intensity is consistent with who he has always been, the causes he has always pressed for.   The passionate intensity is an expression of who he is and what he does. For President-elect Trump, that passionate intensity was useful in winning the election. Now that he has accomplished his goal, he has little interest in things that aroused such passionate intensity in his supporters: building a wall tens of feet high all along the southern border … pursuing a criminal investigation of Hillary Clinton (despite the fact that numerous investigations over the years have found nothing with which to charge her) … bringing back waterboarding “and worse” for captured terror suspects… completely repealing the Affordable Care Act. All of these have fallen to the backburner or have been significantly modified for the incoming Trump administration, no doubt to the disappointment of all those who voted for him because they shared the passionate intensity he voiced on these issues.

160118134132-donald-trump-nigel-parry-large-169Donald Trump is yet to be sworn in as the next president and his proposed cabinet is only beginning to take shape. However, despite the promises of bringing in top-tier, high caliber, “the best” people for positions, his selections so far are well below those promises. Jeff Sessions, who was unable to garner enough votes from a Republican majority for a federal judiciary appointment, as Attorney General … Ben Carson, a retired neurosurgeon who has done no development of housing stock or businesses, is being considered for Housing and Urban Development … Nicky Haley, governor from a small state with little international connection or experience (other than being the daughter of immigrants), for UN Ambassador … Betsy DeVos, an opponent of public education with a demonstrated determination to advance an agenda rather than cultivate public policies (the most recent evidence of which is her sudden reversal of her prior support for the Common Core), for Secretary of Education … these are not the brightest and the best that Trump was promising.

All indications, so far, are that Jeb Bush was correct in his assessment of Trump as a “chaos candidate” who will “be a chaos president.” But when things are falling apart, chaos is a given. Anarchy, too, is a form of chaos. Our nation is now 240 years old; the US Constitution a little more than a decade less at 227 years. Nothing lasts forever. All things eventually come to an end. Chaos and even some anarchy may be a necessary part of the undoing and remaking part. But remaking into what?

imagesqj79u5wySurely some revelation is at hand;

Surely the Second Coming is at hand.

The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out

When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi

Troubles my sight: somewhere in sands of the desert

A shape with lion body and the head of a man,

A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,

Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it

Reel shadows of the indignant desert birds.

Longing for the Second Coming, for Jesus to return and finally make everything right, the poet describes the Sphinx of the Egyptian desert, animated by the spirit of the world. This is no answer from God, but rather an expression of the earth itself. It is animated just like the Sphinx of myth, which never gave answers, only questions posed in riddles. However, this one does not even pose a question. Is the world itself indifferent to the chaos of the present? The reeling shadows of the desert birds echo the lost falcon of the first line and drive home the point that there is no clear answer, no stable center to return to, no way back to what once was. But if this is the present, then what of the future? The poet reaches back beyond the present to the far past …

imagesv0ra2oreThe darkness drops again; but now I know

That twenty centuries of stony sleep

Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,

And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,

Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

This is the only revelation to be had: twenty centuries (or two thousand years) … a rocking cradle … and a beast slouching to Bethlehem, waiting for a birth. A birth … Bethlehem … the time of the early 20th Century – all these indicate the poet is pointing toward Jesus. Rough beast might call to mind the donkey that carried Mary on her journey to Bethlehem where her promised son, the Savior, would be born. But if it’s the rough beast itself waiting to be born … then where does that point?

Advent 1We journey into Advent in each new liturgical year by passing through Christ the King Sunday that ends the previous year. During 2017, those that follow the liturgical patterns from antiquity, closed out the third of the three annual cycles, the one that centers on the Gospel of Luke. For Christ the King Sunday this year, we read a passage from Luke’s account of the crucifixion in which Jesus is very roughed up – beaten, bleeding, starving, exhausted. Nailed to the cross, he could be described as beastly-looking.

In the revelatory language of the Bible, the term beast often refers to a nation or a ruler or a power of some kind. But words such as rough or slouching aren’t used to describe their appearance or movement. While the poet is suggesting some kind of emerging power, he doesn’t seem to mean the traditional kind. Perhaps he has in mind the “scapegoat,” the other animal used in the annual atonement ritual of the ancient Israelites. Two goats were chosen. One was slaughtered as a sacrificial offering. The other, however, had the sins of the people placed upon it by the hands of the priest. Then it was driven out into the wilderness, to Azazel, to carry away the sins of the people. The exact mechanism was never clear, nor was it clear what happened to the goat after the duty was fulfilled. Perhaps Yeats’ rough beast is the scapegoat, having fulfilled its mission, slouching back to the people who sent it out.

Were we to ask the poet which of these it is, though, he would likely say, “Yes.” Poets and their poems can be that way, I’ve heard. But Yeats was an Irish Protestant and the last part of the poem is rich with layered Biblical imagery … as is the turn towards seeking a revelation that comes before this. It feels like the end of the world, but is it? Could the long-anticipated second coming finally be at hand? Maybe … but rather than point forward, the poem reaches back toward Bethlehem, where Christ the Savior was born. If you’re looking for some sort of revelation, the poem seems to suggests, Jesus is all you’re getting.

This is the advent movement – looking backward and forward at the same time. It’s a preparation to celebrate the birth of Christ and at the same time a reminder to prepare for Christ to come again. It’s a reminder that the promised deliverer came in obscurity to a poor family in a backwater village rather than among the powerful in their castles. It is a reminder that way Jesus lived and taught is the way things are to be when the world returns to God’s intentions. It is a reminder that Jesus died and rose to bring the world as God dreams it into the world that is today. We who would be followers of this Jesus are called to do the same, to work for the same dream.

IMG_0081So where does that leave us as 2016 winds down and 2017 approaches with a mixed bag of hope and fear, promises and risks … when for some it already seems the like the end of the world is possible (much like Yeats in his poem) and for others it may seem things are finally turning the right direction (illusory though that sense may be)?

Nothing in the world (or even the world itself) can last forever. Things change … sometimes slowly, other times rapidly, but always moving and shifting. Any person, any structure, any system we might want to use as a focus of stability will, sooner or later, shift or change or disappoint or fail. If it is time for things to come apart, we’d be foolish to fight against that. Falling apart, chaos, upheaval and destruction are necessary parts of re-making. It is that re-making that is a better focus for our energies and efforts.

But what shall we use as a guide? Perhaps, as the poet suggests, we might slouch … stumble … stagger back to Bethlehem, see what is born there, and try once more to learn.

AN INVOCATION

In some traditions, there is a custom known as “St. Martin’s Advent” or Celtic Advent by which the season begins November 16th so as to be 40 days before Christmas, balancing the season of Lent, which is 40 days before Easter (not counting Sundays). It is with a view to that tradition that I offer this invocation. The basis is the old Celtic spiritual practice of invoking a blessing on daily tasks from striking a spark to light a lamp or relight the fire at the break of day to smooring the fire and laying down to sleep at night. The rest is my embroidery ….

Trio 7I light this light; I begin this day in the Name of Three:

The Three in One, the One in Three

The Holy, Life-Giving Trinity

Blessed be for eternity. Amen

 

Praise be God; we have a light.

Thanks be to God for the light that God gives …

 

The Creator spoke and there was light

Come, Holy Creator, and speak into my darkness, chaos and despair

Bring forth

+    green-pilar-1Order and Peace

+    Serenity and Purpose

+    Joy and Structure

+    And maybe even beauty

In my darkness, in my chaos, Holy Creator, let there be light.

 

Jesus Christ is the light of the world

Come, Holy Christ, and shine your light in the darkness and chaos of life in this world.

Call through the cacophony and show me the way

lav-pillar-2+    Show me the way of life that I might live and move and be

+    Show me the way of love that I might be loved and learn to love

+    Show me the way of light that I may be in the light as you are in the light

In my darkness, in my chaos, Holy Christ, be my light.

 

The Holy Spirit is the light within me

Come, Holy Spirit, Light Divine, and kindle your fire within me.

Votive 1+    Refine what is true

+    Purge what is dross

+    Guide me and lead me in all truth

You are the light and life of all creation; be light and life to me

In my darkness, in my chaos, Holy Spirit, give me light.

 

I light this light; I begin this day in the name of Three:

+    The Father who created me in love

+     The Son who redeemed me in love

+     The Holy Spirit who guides me in friendship and affectiontea-lt-3

The Three in One, the One in Three

Blessed be for eternity. Amen

Good Tidings, Dear People — One More Time

I’m indebted to pastor & author Walter Wangerin, Jr.  for the title line (which also appears in the text) as well as for the indentifier “the fear-not angel.”  I also want to acknowledge my mom for the theological insight she gave me twenty-some years ago…

Nativity - GR 1We’re here tonight because it’s Christmas Eve … because this is just what we do. It’s tradition, after all. And like all traditions, it’s not about any one thing; it’s the whole constellation of things. It’s the memories that are wrapped around the specifics like Silent Night will soon be wrapped around our little candles. It’s the togetherness of family – the memories of being children … then adults … then parents with our little ones. It’s a touchpoint as the year winds down – a night to watch and ponder. It’s a moment of stillness and peace amid the frenzy that is our cultural holiday celebration, a time to relax between all the preparations and tomorrow’s gifting and feasting. And it’s a story.

143897fbdf2d8499b1953c50e78e9628We are here tonight for the story … so often-told we know it by heart … perhaps best told by the child’s voice of Linus in A Charlie Brown Christmas, reciting a part of that story straight out of the good ol’ King James Version. It’s the story we sing in our beloved hymns tonight – the reason why those hymns are beloved. It’s a story of a wondrous baby, stars and angels with a few other characters tossed in like Mary and Joseph and the shepherds out in their fields. So long as Jesus is lovingly tucked into that manger-bed and the angels sing their glorias, then, at least for this night, all is truly right and beautiful in the world.

untitled (2)We need that tonight as much as ever we did – and maybe even more – because so much is not right in this world. Where to start? We’ve seen pictures this year of other little babies washed up on shorelines half a world away. We’ve heard the stories from their devastated parents of the terrible risks they’d taken to find a place of safety after being driven from their homes by war and mayhem.

09-04-2015Refugees_FYROMWe know the violence that drives such desperate choices. We’ve experienced the terror such violence produces as it spilled into Paris, France and San Bernardino, California. We ponder the toll this violence takes on families here in our country as our service men and women continue to serve in these war-torn lands, as we add up the loss of lives and the battle damage that never fully heals. We wonder if our military efforts are helping or hurting. Would more troops help or should we just get out?

Military action elsewhere isn’t the only source of violence that haunts us. We’ve seen a number of mass shootings here in our land this year. images (3)One of the most shocking was the slaying of nine people in the sanctuary of “Mother” Emmanuel Church in Charleston, South Carolina. The young man did it to act out his racist perspectives, citing the slaying of Trayvon Martin by George Zimmerman as his wake-up call.

Touching on that subject, we are becoming more aware of the number of people of color, mostly young males, almost always unarmed, who have been killed by police or died while in police custody. We’ve seen it happen recently here in the untitled (3)Twin Cities and yesterday’s Black Lives Matter demonstrations have sought to raise awareness of the struggles people of color face when it comes to matters of justice and equality. A seemingly endless litany of demographic statistics around income, education, housing, you-name-it shows these inequalities are not simply a matter of perception.

Tonight, in our city of Saint Paul, families are doubled up with others or sleeping in cars or huddled anywhere they can be out of the elements for the night. The shelters are full and there is no room to be had. ChristmasTreeRents keep rising and housing that’s affordable to low-wage earners is harder and harder to come by. Supposedly our economy has recovered from the recession, but most of us aren’t feeling it.

I know … this is supposed to be a happy, joyous time and I’m really not trying to deprive you of that happiness and joy or to depress you. But this is the situation that surrounds us as we gather tonight to tell that story of Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem. And if that story doesn’t speak into these times in which we live, to the world we know, then it won’t mean much of anything.

So let me tell you another story – a true story. As stories go, it’s neither unique nor unusual. It could have happened five years ago or fifty years ago; it could have happened almost anywhere.

WIN_20151227_181315A new grandmother was watching as her own daughter cradled the new little baby boy who had made the daughter into a mother and the mother into a grandmother. “You know,” the grandmother remarked to her daughter, “watching you with him I wonder if this was what it was like to see Mary with Jesus.” “Mom!” the daughter protested, “I’m sure Baby Jesus never pulled his mother’s hair or kicked her when she was trying to feed him.” But the grandmother smiled back with a wry, knowing smile that seems to come with being a grandmother. “I wouldn’t be too sure about that,” she said; “I think he just might have.”

Yes, Jesus just might have done those things. Sure, he was quiet that first night – worn out from the process of being born as any other newborn is … for a while. But he probably wasn’t quiet the next night or for many more after that. As he grew, he was probably as rambunctious as any other toddler … and got into as much trouble as your average growing boy. We know there was some consternation on Mary and Joseph’s part when Jesus up and decided all on his own to stay back in Jerusalem after Passover and not tell anyone his plans.

No, Jesus wasn’t a perfect angel baby. Jesus was a human baby who was born as all of us are, who grew as all of us do, who experienced human life in all of its complexity and messiness. That’s the whole point of the incarnation. God was rolling up the holy sleeves and plunging wholeheartedly into human existence and all that life in this world involves. Jesus didn’t come because we finally got it all together or fixed ourselves up enough that all we needed was a slightly better model of perfection. God broke into the world in Jesus because it’s a mess, because our lives in this world are a mess.

Tea Lt 3So let me tell you another story … one that might be a bit different in the telling, but familiar nonetheless. It did happen a long time ago, but within a span of years we can reckon. It did not take place in some galaxy far, far away but in an area we still map today. In the days of the Roman Empire, when Augustus ruled as emperor and decreed a census, and so the whims and the demands of the empire set people moving about.

That’s why Joseph had to travel south, from his home in Nazareth to a city called Bethlehem, because his ancestral roots ran there. But over the many years between the time of David the Shepherd Boy who became king and the time of Joseph and Mary and Augustus and Quirinius in neighboring Syria, Joseph’s people had been moved about by exile and return and other needs. Hence, it wasn’t just Joseph; a lot of people were having to move about to satisfy the demands of the empire.

Joseph had to leave his home and he took his very pregnant wife with him. Why? Who knows! Maybe he didn’t want to miss the baby’s birth. Maybe he wasn’t sure how long it would take him to return from Bethlehem (especially if he spent all the little money he had for that initial trip). Maybe Mary having her baby away from their hometown would blunt the counting of the months between their hurried-up wedding and the birth of her child and allow the local gossip chain to settle down.

imagesA3F5A19LIn any case, Joseph took Mary with him to Bethlehem and there she gave birth to her baby. Like any mother, she wrapped him tight in what cloth she had to keep him snug and warm. Then she laid him in an animal’s feed box for a bassinet because there was no shelter for them, except with the animals. No one took any notice. People such as these don’t really matter in the overall scheme of things.

imagesA07EVF73Now somewhere outside of town, there were some working stiffs up on the night shift. It was to them that the angel of God appeared as the stars overhead seemed to explode into a myriad of heavenly beings. This messenger of God said to them: Don’t be afraid; I have good news that brings great joy – first to you and then to everyone else. To you a Savior has been born in Bethlehem. This is the messiah, the one sent by God to put the world to rights. You’ll find the baby wrapped up like any other, but this one is lying in a feed box. Then the angels sang their glorias and the working stiffs went to see. And when they had seen, they told everyone they met about what they’d seen, what they’d heard. Maybe a few listened … maybe.

What God did some two thousand years ago, God could do again. God broke into this world then and God can break into it now. After all, you really didn’t think God went through all that coming in Jesus just to leave us all on our again, did you? Of course not! In the incarnation, by coming to us in Jesus, God has demonstrated a dedication to this world that God made and continues to love. Trio 10In Jesus’ living and teaching, in his dying and his rising, God acted to put the world back on a course toward the dream God has had for this world and life in it from the moment of creation.  God is still at work in this world to bring that dream to life in the here and now. You just need to know where to look.

What does the story tell you? It wasn’t to the big names like Augustus or Quirinius and their wives that Jesus was born. Instead, the holy child was born to a peasant couple whose names would otherwise have been completely lost to history if not for this story. It wasn’t in the halls of power in the palace or the temple where the messengers of God sang the glorious good news. It was to no-name laborers out in the fields, outside of town and society. If you want to see what God is doing, look there … among the forgotten, neglected, and rejected, those at the margins and on the outside. There you will find Emmanuel, God with us – for God has come to us.

So sing your glad songs. Gather around the table; eat the bread and drink the wine. Take the real presence of Christ into your own flesh and bones. Light your candles and sing the sweet song. Then blow that small flame in – not out, in – into you, God’s love now made flesh in you. untitled (2)Then go out like the shepherds and tell all you meet what you’ve heard, what you’ve seen. Go out as fear-not angels, singing out the good news of great joy which is for all the people, for you and everyone else. Christ is born. God is with us.

Good tidings, dear people, one more time. Amen.

A Prayer for Peace

Trio 7A Prayer for Peace…

… On the occasion of the 2015 National Vigil to #EndGunViolence

Lutheran Church of the Redeemer, Saint Paul, Minnesota

December 9, 2015

 

O Lord our God, maker of all things… Hear your children as we pray by the many names with which we cry out to you. Though we and this world in which we live may be broken, frightened, despairing, you do not abandon us to the threatening darkness. Down through the ages, time and time again, with the varied voices, your prophets have insisted that your ways are marked by compassion and love, mercy and peace. Stir us up in this time and place, O God, that we may declare your message in this time and place, your holy calling to turn from the ways of violence and fear, to choose the way live and do those things that make for peace … for salaam … for shalom … for your vision of live. The peace you call us to – to live for and to work for – is more than an absence of violent actions. It is life for all – IMG_0098life in which all would dwell in safety and security, life where there is enough for all and no one is left neglected or in need, life without fear. Give us your power to live in that shalom, that salaam, that peace. Grant us to the courage to say boldly in these troubled times that there is a better way. Fill us with hope and courage to walk from this place in this way of peace. Hear us as we pray and grant us your life and your peace. Amen.

Mid-Lent Check Up

LCR Cross 3Shout aloud, do not hold back! Lift up your voice like a trumpet! Announce to my people their rebellion …

 

Perhaps Lent started for you with these words from Isaiah (Chapter 58) back on Ash Wednesday; perhaps with other words declaring a fast – or something like it. Fasting generally means abstaining from food, but in modern times the concept of a fast has been transformed into giving up some treat, indulgence, luxury, something that one could make do without during the season of Lent. It might be chocolate. It might be desserts or other treats. These days, some might choose to fast from social media (like Facebook) or perhaps all media or TV or something. It’s a way to break a bad habit (or cultivate a new, better one) … kind of like those New Year’s Resolutions from a couple months ago.

 

As my pastor asked in his sermon earlier this month: How’s that going for you?

 

Fasting was originally about purification and self-denial, going without food in order to demonstrate dedication and determination (because it requires willpower to do this) or as a process of purification that might be linked to remorse for mistakes and misdeeds (because one is too distressed to be able to eat) or as a way to join with those who regularly must go without necessities of life such as food (because voluntary participation can raise awareness of this reality for some).

 

Fasting in places where food is regularly available can be an option, a choice. The food is there, but one chooses not to eat it. However, in areas where there is one growing season that is six months or less, fasting has not been an option, historically speaking. Until the development of modern food preservation techniques and rapid transportation methods, the only way to make the stored food stuffs last until more food was grown was to ration it, stretch things to make that food last until spring was in full bloom. Hence, the late winter/early spring season of Lent required some fasting in order to make the food last until more food would become available.

 

That was then; this is now. Still, the concept of fasting as part of Lent persists … but to what end? Give up chocolate for six weeks so you can enjoy a basket stuffed with it come Easter? Give up eating once a week to drop some pounds for shorts and swimsuit season after Easter? Do something to show what a good, faithful person you are? What are we expecting from a time of fasting now?

 

LCR Cross 1It’s not really a new question …

Why do we fast, but you do not see?

Why humble ourselves, but you take no notice?

 

Maybe we’re looking for something in our fasting or maybe we’re just doing it simply because it’s the thing to do and we never bother with the why.   We do it and, when it’s done, we move on. The end.

 

But what might God be looking for when God’s people engage in fasting?

Look, you serve your own interest on your fast day, and oppress all your workers.

Look, you fast only to quarrel and to fight and to strike with a wicked fist.

Such fasting as you do today will not make your voice to be heard on high.

 

I’ve never seen anyone come to fisticuffs over the Easter breakfast nor have I ever heard any church legend of such a thing. But the larger point seems to be that everyone returns to the same old, same old after the fast. No one has changed as a result … so nothing about the usual way of life changes either. Things continue on just as before: quarreling, disagreeing, fighting with others to have one’s own way, taking advantage of those you can.

 

Do we look to the fasting or the giving-up or the taking-on of some practice for the six weeks of Lent with a “Let’s do this and get it over with so we can move on” attitude? Or are we looking for some deeper, lasting, more permanent change? After all, six weeks in plenty of time to break a bad habit or cultivate a new one. Are we looking at Lent as a time to make changes in ourselves?

 

LCR Cross 4Maybe we are; maybe we aren’t. But using this reading from Isaiah as an entry point into Lent suggests that God is looking at the practice of fasting to see lasting change come about …

Is not this the fast that I choose:

     to loose the bonds of injustice

     to undo the thongs of the yoke,

     to let the oppressed go free and to break every yoke?

Is it not to share your bread with the hungry and to bring the homeless poor into your house;

when you see the naked, to cover them and not to hide yourself from your own kin?

 

If what we’re doing isn’t making some lasting change in us … in how we see and act in the world … in how we understand ourselves and God … in how we respond and participate in what God is up to in the world, then we may as well not bother with Lent.

 

thCAT2OBU4The observance of Lent has its roots not so much in necessary fasting to stretch out the stored food as in a time of preparation for baptism. Candidates for baptism would undergo a period of instruction and training in the practices of Christian faith leading up to their baptism as part of the Easter Vigil service. As we tend to do when we have intense experiences, we want to revisit those times, to try to recapture and re-experience what happened then. Lenten practices are rooted in that desire to recapture the experience of transformation and rebirth that is baptism. Even though baptism is no longer reserved for the Vigil of Easter and the concept of intentional preparation for baptism (the catechumenate) has been all but lost and even the possibility of explaining to parents just what baptism is about can be nearly impossible to come by, the observance of Lent still persists. It’s supposed to change us as baptism does. We should come out of Lent into Easter as different people than we were going into this.

 

That is, after all, the idea behind the word repent. Today it seems to mean saying “I’m sorry” … often with an “oops, I did it again” attitude and a promise to at least try to do things differently in the future. The original concept of repentance (metanoia, in the classic Greek) goes much deeper. It involves deep and complete transformation not just in behavior but in thinking as well and even feelings. Repentance means change down to the very core of one’s being. It’s a deep change … the kind of deep change we can’t do for ourselves. Something greater than us has to come in and do it for us.

 

And that’s what baptism is about, too. It’s about dying to the old, self-focused way of life and about being raised up with the resurrected life of Christ as the directing power in one’s daily life. Hence, with a focus on repentance that is transformation, Lent continues to be focused on baptism and the transformative nature of that sacrament.

 

Once more in Lent, we trace that baptismal journey through the wilderness, recalling the promises of God and how God has kept those promises, following Jesus into that death which encompasses all other deaths. This is the death we re-enact time and again in baptism, going into and under the water to drown and die so that we are raised up as new people, fresh creations, with the life of the Risen Christ alive and active in us. That new life in us changes how we live in relation to the world…

 

LCR Cross 2Then your light shall break forth like the dawn, and your healing shall spring up quickly …

Then you shall call, and the Lord will answer; you shall cry for help, and God will say, Here I am.

If you remove the yoke from among you, the pointing of your finger, the speaking of evil,

If you offer your food to the hungry and satisfy the needs of the afflicted,

Then your light shall rise in the darkness and your gloom be like the noonday.

The Lord will guide you continually, and satisfy your needs in parched places, and make your bones strong; and you will be like a watered garden, like a spring of water, whose waters never fail.

Your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt; you shall raise up the foundations of many generations; you shall be called the repairer of the breach, the restorer of streets to live in…

 

The point isn’t a self-improvement program to make us better people. Nor is the point to impress God with how good we can be, to do something that merits a favor from God in return. This isn’t some quid pro quo arrangement that starts with us. It’s about God’s invitation to be the people of God and to be about the ways of God and we live and move in the world.

 

Like the sacrament of baptism, it starts with God … with God’s gracious invitation to be part of a people who are in a relationship with God … a relationship that is lived out in the midst of this world.

 

untitledPreacher and author Frederick Buechner sums it up beautifully:

     What is both Good and New about the Good News is the wild claim that Jesus did not simply tells us that God loves us even in our wickedness and folly and wants us to love each other the same way and to love Him too, but that … God will actually bring about this unprecedented transformation of our hearts Himself.

     What is both Good and New about the Good News is that mad insistence that Jesus lives on among us not just as another haunting memory but as the outlandish, holy, and invisible power of God working not just through the sacraments but in countless hidden ways to make even slobs like us loving and whole beyond anything we could conceivably pull off by ourselves.

     untitled (2)Thus the Gospel is not only Good and New but, if you take it seriously, a Holy Terror. Jesus never claimed that the process of being changed from a slob into a human being was going to be a Sunday-School picnic. On the contrary. Child-birth may occasionally be painless, but rebirth never. Part of what it means to be a slob is to hang on for dear life to our slobbery.

(From Beyond Words, by Frederick Buechner

 

Lent is a time for giving up … for letting go … relaxing our grip even just a little on what Buechner refers to as “our slobbery.” Whatever might help you do that, do it … whatever might open up a crack just a little for the new life, do it … because Lent isn’t a self-improvement process. Lent is a journey to new birth and fresh creation, a makeover from the outside in that goes inside out.

 

There’s still a few weeks left to go – and those final three days of journeying deep into the mystery of death, resurrection, and life again. Keep pressing forward on that journey and be made new.

 

Toward a New Pentecost

Trio 10Pentecost has come … and gone … at least the festival day, the celebration of the momentous day millennia ago regarded as the birth of the Church … the very public launch of the Christian movement … when the first followers of Jesus began the work of carrying on what he began among them. Observing this festival is supposed to launch the church today into a fresh season of growth over the following “Sundays of Pentecost” or “Ordinary Time” that’s supposed to be anything but ordinary. Yes, that’s “supposed to.” But six weeks in, how are we doing?

Some weeks ago, on the Day of Pentecost, we read once again of the coming of Spirit, as told in the Book of Acts, with the rush of a mighty wind and flames of fire for each one. Maybe we heard words spoken in other language to capture some of the wonder of that ancient story, how those who heard understood what was said, even though they all spoke different languages. Maybe we paused to wonder how it worked that day in Jerusalem centuries ago. Did each person hear his native language, no matter the speaker’s language? Or did each of the disciples speak in a language he – or she (there were women in that assembly!) – didn’t know, and the hearers gathered round the speaker whose words they recognized? We’ll never know.

IMG_0097Even now, we still might marvel at how 3,000 members joined “the Church” that very day … and wish such a thing could happen in our own time. Many congregations’ numbers continue to decline. Some of the reasons we know: People die. Some move away for all kinds of reasons. Families aren’t connected to the church like they used to be. Grandma’s children may still be attending as middle aged adults, but her young adult grandchildren probably aren’t. “They’ll be back for the wedding,” we assure ourselves … and they might be, if the venue suits their taste and situational needs (location, size, etc.). “Once they settle down and have children, they’ll come regularly like we did.” But they don’t; that hasn’t been happening for some time now. If great-grandma and grandma press hard enough, the baby will likely be baptized. But it’s more about peace in the family and just the way we do things … not so much about pledging this tender new life to a specific way of life that we ourselves are joined to … because maybe we’re not.

Yet another blog post (or article) is floating around out there about signs of a declining church … another piece describing what needs to change in churches to stop this decline. But time and again, it’s really about institutional survival … finding ways to cultivate sufficient adherents who are appreciative enough to give the money and the time it takes to keep things going. Granted, the ways in which things are done needs to change to keep pace with the sensibilities and trends of the younger generations. They cannot be expected to do it the exactly the same way previous generations did. But the end goal in all these discussions and descriptions is the numbers. Get those numbers back up – the numbers of people attending … the number of dollars given … the number of dollars in the budget for staff and for the buildings. It’s about the bottom line – keeping the church going pretty much as we have known it: a building with a group of people who gather there to worship and have their spiritual needs met by properly trained and educated spiritual leaders. But preservation of the status quo is hardly the message one can draw forth from Jesus’ life and death and resurrection, the way he gave it all away.

Just what was the resurrection, what Peter and others testified to on the Day of Pentecost and all the days after that, all about anyway?

Votive 1Too often, in recent times, Jesus’ resurrection seems to be mostly a sort of proof that life goes on even after death. The early imaginings of heaven were as a place above the earth, above the clouds, out of sight but not completely disconnected from earth. Such images find their roots in the account of Jesus’ ascension, in the theophanies of clouds and fire from the Book of Exodus, in the various mountain top experiences in Biblical stories … with perhaps a bit of Mount Olympus, the mythical home of the Greek gods, mixed in as well. Before the advent of aviation and then modern astronomy with far-seeing telescopes and satellites, heavenly life just above the clouds would be easy enough to imagine. But as airplanes took us up above the clouds … as telescopes and rockets and satellites expanded our awareness of the vast universe, the ancient poetic image of the dome of the sky was shattered – quite literally. After discovering just how vast the universe is, a heaven above and beyond the reaches of physical space seemed impossibly far away. Aided and abetted by the enduring sense of a sharp distinction between physical bodies and immortal spiritual souls (which was acquired from pre-Christian Greek Gnosticism), the common understanding of heaven gradually shifted into a purely spiritual existence completely removed from anything on earth. In popular practice, Christian faith and practice became very much about making it to a disembodied heaven after death. To fall short of heaven could mean eternal damnation to the tortures of hell … or much time for purification in the limbo of purgatory.

To be honest, such a vision of eternal existence in a remote, detached, purely spiritual state of bliss as the promised of reward after death has indeed functioned, as Karl Marx (in)famously termed it, “the opiate of the masses.” It’s been used to lull people into accepting situations and conditions they would naturally find unacceptable and even revolting. IMG_0111But through promises of rewards in the hereafter proportionate to the suffering endured here, teachers in the Church over the centuries have numbed people to their real pain and struggles and suffering and problems in their lives, urging them to inaction. Christian life was framed along the lines: “Yes, life may be difficult, hard, even painful – but when you get to heaven, all good things will be yours then. Keep your focus there. Ignore the unpleasantness of the here and now. After all, this is just temporary; heaven is forever. It’ll all be better then. Just wait in faith and hope.”

Is this really all that Jesus lived and taught, suffered and died, rose from the grave to breathe the Spirit into his first followers for – all this just to promise a blissful eternity in heaven … eventually?

The particularly American experience of Christianity has been largely shaped by pietism, a movement focused on personal engagement with religious faith. Over the years, this personal focus has played well with emergence of hyper-individuality in American culture. Now, in popular expression and practice, Christian faith is a matter having Jesus as a personal savior, making a public profession that one is a sinner and accepts the atoning work of Jesus’ death, and in so doing is then saved from the fiery punishment of hell for eternal life in heaven. The vision of heaven is just as personal—a place of eternal bliss with all the people you love, all the good things the world has to offer, endless rest and relaxation.

Tea Lt 3I am well aware that not all American Christians subscribe to this singular personal acceptance of Christ as the sine qua non (without which, none) of authentic Christian faith. This is certainly not my belief, my understanding of Christianity. But I’m also aware that my voice seems a marginal minority within the broad sweep of American culture.

Following from this intensely personalized expression of faith, American churches developed into places where congregants could have their personally felt spiritual needs met.

  • “Here is where I go to get reassurance for my faith, to be reminded that I am indeed a good person … that God does love me … that I will have eternal life after death in an endless paradise, freed from all earthly concerns.“
  • “Here is where the style of worship appeals to me, the hymns express my faith in both words and style of music. What happens in this place speaks to me and moves me.”
  • “Here is where God’s word is taught to me in ways that I understand and (mostly) agree with (since even I might need a little correction from time to time). But if something strays too far from what I am already convinced of, the pastor/teacher is wrong and I must find another church – if she or he doesn’t.”
  • “When my needs aren’t met, when I don’t agree completely with all that happens in a particular congregation, then I no longer belong to that one. I might just avoid the parts I don’t like or agree with … I might need to find a different congregation that is a better fit for my needs and beliefs … or I might just stay away all together, since God loves me anyway and I know I’ll make it to heaven, which is all that really matters.”

Trio 7In a very real way, the struggles most congregations are facing are the results of a long history of bad teaching and poor faith formation. Rather than look around and blame the cultural shifts that seem to have left us high and dry, we would do better to look deep into Christian faith and practice in order to reclaim what has always been present to give meaning and purpose to everything we do. We would do well to heed the ancient Biblical calls to repent – to undergo a complete change, not only in our actions and behaviors, but in our ways of thinking and even our feelings … to return again to God’s calling and purpose for our collective, communal life.

Too often, the message heard from the members of our faith communities (and maybe within many faith communities) has not been the message that Peter boldly preached on the Day of Pentecost. His use of words from the prophet Joel speaks to the coming of the Day of the Lord with dramatic signs, such as what the observers outside the place where the apostles had gathered were experiencing. But this coming of the Day of the Lord is not the fulfillment of some fluffy, cloud-drenched happy-ever-after removed from anything on earth. The Day of the Lord, in its coming, would turn the world upside down. Those who had used their power and abused their authority by actions contrary to the ways of God would find themselves displaced by the divine mandate. Those who had suffered under the abuses of the powerful and privileged would find their situations altered by that same divine mandate. The wrongs done to them would be righted and their lives would be restored to wholeness.

To those on the bottom of the overall scheme of things, the coming of the Day of the Lord would be a welcome event indeed. To those at the top … not so much. And where are we now – really?

Lav Pillar 6Let’s look beyond the exciting drama of Pentecost at events that followed. Do we really think Peter was repeatedly imprisoned, occasionally threatened with execution, and (at least according to tradition) finally executed in Rome for preaching about a blissful life after death similar to that enjoyed by the mythical gods of Olympus? Do we think Paul encountered all the problems he did – run out of town sometimes … imprisoned other times … eventually executed (in Rome, by tradition) – for teaching and writing about the primacy of the eternal soul and the irrelevance of life in this world?   Did Jesus die and rise again just to show that the soul lives on after death? (If you really think so, go back and read your Bibles again.)

Jesus was ultimately arrested by the religious leaders for claiming the ways of God were broader than they imagined, that there was place within the Reign of God for sinners and outcasts and outsiders (types of people who still struggle to find a welcome and place in many congregations), that God’s will was different than they had construed it in order to serve their own purposes. When the religious leaders turned Jesus over to Pilate for a state execution, they accused him of treason against Caesar, the divine emperor because he claimed there was another kingdom, another Reign … another way.

Paul, Peter, all the others martyred through the years were rejected, harassed, threatened, and killed because they insisted Jesus was Lord … which meant that Caesar or any other lesser power-figure was not … that God’s rule would guide their actions within the world, and eventually, ultimately reshape the world as Joel and the ancient prophets foretold. It meant the powerful would be put down and the ones they exercised power over would be freed and lifted up. Not something those with the power of life and death cared to hear… and it isn’t a message we, to the extent we have privilege and power, care to hear either. (And there’s a long tragic history of the Church in its power not wanting to hear any more than anyone else.)

untitled (2)ELCA Presiding Bishop Elizabeth Eaton is fond of asking the question: What if the main thing about our churches were that we really believe the resurrection is true? I think she’s pointing beyond the sense of historicity (that it actually happened) to the truth revealed in it: that Jesus’ resurrection ushered in the Reign and Realm of God, that the promised Day of the Lord has begun, that the Spirit of God is loose in the world – at work in the world and in God’s people within the world, that God is already in the process of making all things new and we, named as followers of Christ and empowered by the Spirit, are part of moving things towards that vision of the new heaven and the new earth … which is the eternal future we have actually been promised.

Lamp 3Maybe there’s the way back to the vigor of the Day of Pentecost, a way to revive the life in our congregations … a return to that message that God is at work in the world. The world as we know it does not have to be this way. We who are named as Christians are called and empowered to walk in the ways that Jesus has shown us – not for our own benefit (whether here and now or in the hereafter) but for the purposes of God in making the world more as God always intended it to be. It’s not about building up the numbers, the budget, the physical plant. It’s about doing the work of God in this time and place … those kinds of things that Jesus did, the way of life he showed us.

That might be something to get excited about …