Wednesday, April 18, 2018

The Path of Discipleship - Stewardship of Creation

As I have been writing this series, my definition of stewardship has also evolved.  I mentioned in previous articles the term “created co-creator” as a definition of what it means to be human.  This is the idea that we have been brought into being to participate in the continuing action of God’s creation.  To further expand on this idea, I will say that we have been made beautiful by God in order to make something beautiful.

                This is not a new requirement that all Christians become artists or musicians, as though beauty was only confined to the art world.  It is an understanding that we have been called to make and preserve beauty in the world.  Stewardship becomes divided into two spheres of action.  In one sphere, we are actively using the gifts that God has given us to make something beautiful.  Art is beautiful.  A garden is beautiful.  A home run is beautiful.  A loving family is beautiful.  Community is beautiful.  Peace is beautiful.  Justice is beautiful.  Go make something beautiful!

                The other sphere is more about preserving the beauty that already exists.  This is where we get into environmental stewardship.  Many countries have areas that they consider so beautiful and important that they actively preserve them as national or state parks.  As much as possible, they seek to limit the impact of humanity on such areas, restricting their use, in some cases restricting the number of tourists that can enter them in a given year.  This is considered good stewardship.

                As Christians we might consider our stewardship of creation in a similar way.  What are we doing to minimize our impact on God’s good creation?  How can we help preserve the natural beauty of clean air and water?  Are the ways that we can better live in harmony with the forces of nature rather than trying to fight or control them?

                For Christianity, it comes down to understanding of a word we rarely use in other contexts, “dominion.”  According to the Genesis 1 creation myth, on the sixth day, God made human beings and gave them “dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth.”  Historically we have often treated dominion as license, acting as though God said we could do whatever we wanted with the environment.  Species can lose their habitats if it helps human beings to flourish.  Air, land and water can be polluted in the long term if human beings are helped in the short term.
                I would suggest that we need to let our understanding of dominion be shaped by the image of the human task in the Genesis 2 myth.  God puts the first human being in the garden, “to till it and keep it.”  Dominion is not power over creation but a responsibility toward creation.  We have been made beautiful in order to maintain and preserve the beautiful.

                The first task here is not to make picket signs or buy an electric car or solar panels.  The first task is consistently to remind ourselves of the beauty of creation which means going and experiencing it.  This goes back to the virtue of awe and wonder that I wrote about in December.  We need to have the experience of being overwhelmed by the beauty that is already around us.  We need to take the time to encounter the vastness of nature and wonder at the small and fascinating details.  We need to get outside, celebrating the power and the mystery, the strength and frailty that make up the living creation.  Then let the awe and wonder turn into gratitude.  Let it inspire us to care for what God has made so that each day we ask ourselves how our plans for the day help or harm the creation.  Will our next steps create, damage or destroy?  We have been made beautiful in order to make something beautiful with our lives.  We have been made beautiful to preserve the beauty that God has made.

Monday, April 16, 2018

Matters of Faith - On Earth Day

This article was published in the Cape Cod Times the weekend of April 15 as part of their Matters of Faith series.

I am the son of a biology professor.  My dad was an entomologist and I spent several summers collecting insects with him on behalf of skittish undergrads taking his courses.  They would attack the bushes with beating nets and I would try to capture what came walking, crawling or buzzing out.  His specialty was velvet ants, wingless wasps that we would track around the sand flats outside of Kalamazoo, Michigan.

                I am also a pastor in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.  Although my denomination allows for a fairly liberal view on scriptural interpretation, periodically I am asked how I can reconcile a scientific upbringing with a religious point of view.  Because conservative Christian traditions have become some of the louder religious voices in the United States, people assume that all Christians, myself included, must believe that the earth is about 6000 years old, evolutionary theory is a pile of hooey and the Bible is a reliable science textbook. 

                So that the reader starts out knowing where I am coming from, I believe none of those things.  The universe is billions of years old.  Life on earth has evolved over millions of years through a process of natural selection.  The Bible is a wonderful, inspired and important resource for faith, but written by people who knew very little about physics, astronomy, geology or biology.  Neither the author of Genesis 1 (the account of a 6-day creation) nor the author of Genesis 2-3 (the Garden of Eden story) were writing textbooks.  Instead they were divinely inspired to paint pictures and make metaphors about creation.  They were not trying to describe the making of the world in the past but trying to ascribe meaning to the world in which they lived.

                As we approach Earth Day (April 22), the meaning of these ancient texts is still important.  I think that what they say about creation can inform those who take the texts literally, those who take the texts metaphorically and those who think these texts are a waste of time.  First, from Genesis 1, is the idea that the creation is fundamentally good.  Again and again, the creator looks at what is happening and sees that it is good.  That doesn’t mean that only “good” things happen in it.  There are predators and there is prey.  There are viruses, bacteria and parasites that are part of the natural order.  There are natural disasters beyond our control.  Yet watch the sunset over Buzzard’s Bay, the sky changing color minute by minute; the stars and planets becoming visible in the growing darkness; the waves coming in with the satisfying sounds of pebbles slowly grating each other into sand.  There is an unmistakable sense of good, not a moral or ethical description, just goodness, right and whole. 

                The Genesis 1 story ends with the instruction that human beings are given dominion “over every living thing.”  The Genesis 2 story broadens that image with the creator putting the first human being in the garden “to till it and keep it.”  For people of faith, neither of these images should be seen as God granting ownership of the Earth to humanity.  Rather God tasks humanity with being stewards of the Earth.  We human beings are here to help the Earth thrive.  As one of my seminary professors, Phil Hefner, put it, we are “created co-creators”, meant to preserve and celebrate the inherent goodness of the creation.

                Unfortunately, instead of a creative sense of stewardship we have approached the environment with a destructive sense of entitlement, with the idea that we should get to do whatever is best and convenient for us.  We have polluted the earth, seas and skies.  We have harvested in unsustainable ways and then wasted much of the food we have grown.  We have filled the oceans with plastics, the land with pesticides and the air with excess carbon dioxide.  As a result we have not kept the planet but are changing the planet, entering a new geological age that some are calling the Anthropocene era, where the work of human progress has permanently left a mark on the environment.

                This situation demands a call for collective repentance; repentance that is not just about feeling sorry for our actions, but seeking to change our ways as individuals and as a society.  We need to pay attention to what we consume and how much we throw away.  We need to pay attention to how much water we use and where that water drains.  We need to be mindful of ways that we can simplify our lives, doing more with less.  And finally, we need to spend more time encountering that inherent goodness, whether at the seashore, a forest walk or a starry night.   Take the time to reconnect to the planet, reminding yourself of your small role to keep, honor and preserve this holy place in the universe.  Whether as people of faith or simply as citizens of planet, we need to pay attention.

Thursday, April 12, 2018

The Path of Discipleship - Stewardship and the Body

The attitude about the human body within Christianity has long been shaped by a Greek dualism that separates the body and the soul.  In this image, the body is a troublesome cage that traps the soul until finally the soul is freed in death.  Not only is the soul imprisoned in the body but it also has deal with the limitations, urges and general nastiness that flesh is heir to.  The soul is not hungry; never uses the bathroom; never gets tired or sick; never gets sexually aroused in inappropriate places and does not weaken with age.  If only we did not have to deal with the body, then we could be pure and spiritual people.

                Because of this view, much of Christian practice and teaching has revolved around getting the body under control.  At the extremes this could include severe fasting and self-flagellation.  It is theorized that some of the great medieval mystics had shorter lives because they made themselves sick by denying themselves food, sleep and adequate clothing.  At the time this was seen as faithful living, punishing the body in order to avoid the sins of the body.

                The image of a distinct split between body and soul also gave people a concrete sense of the afterlife.  The body dies and the soul escapes, either to eternal reward or eternal punishment.  It is important to understand the most of the biblical tradition does not hold this view of what it means to be human.  In the Garden of Eden story of Genesis 2, the first person, Adam, is made when God sculpts a body out of the ground and then breathes into it.  To be human, in this image, is to be body and breath/spirit.  Without the breath, the body is just dirt.  Without the body, the breath remains with God.  In the six-day creation story of Genesis 1, human beings (with bodies) are made in the image of God.  It is not the soul or spirit that holds the image of God but the whole package.

                This united image complicates the “What happens when we die?” question.  But if we carefully read the scriptural story, we find that the common image is not disembodied spirits after death, but resurrection from the dead.  Jesus makes a point of showing that he has risen in body, inviting Thomas to touch him, sharing a meal with his disciples.  In Paul’s first letter to the Thessalonians, he deals with the question of Christians who had died before Christ’s return saying, “For the Lord himself, with a cry of command, with the archangel’s call and with the sound of God’s trumpet, will descend from heaven, and the dead in Christ will rise first.”  To clarify, I am not trying to explain what happens when we die, an event that is still shrouded in mystery while we live.  What I am trying to demonstrate is that the disdain for the body that has shaped much of Christian history was something that developed, and was not part of the original teaching.  We are taught to learn self-control, reigning in urges and obsessions, but we are not taught to reject the body.  Read Song of Songs and try to deny that physical pleasure is a gift of God.

                The way we treat our bodies is a reflection of our sense of stewardship.  I suggest that the body is not testing ground for the soul, a means for God to see if we give in to temptation, but is rather part of God’s gift of being alive.  It is true that bodies do embarrassing things like passing gas at inopportune times and it also true that bodies, especially older bodies, ache and tire more easily.  Yet our bodies in their many and various forms are the means through which we experience reality.  Take a moment as you read this and pay attention to everything you are experiencing right now: the feel of the fabric of the chair on which you are sitting, the low rumble of traffic or voices of songbirds.  Go outside and pay attention to the feel of a soft breeze.  Make a cup of coffee or tea and notice the comfort of a warm mug, the smell and feel of the steam, the taste of a satisfying drink.  Take a deep breath and feel the joy of letting things slow down.  All of these experiences are brought to you by the gift that is your body.

                As a gift of God you have the opportunity to care for your body, to pay attention to what goes into it, to pay attention how it feels.  And as I write this, I am realizing how easy it is to fall into the dualistic language that somehow separates the body from you, as though the body was a pet you have to keep under control.  Your body is essential to you.  Your body doesn’t need adequate sleep.  You do.  Your body doesn’t feel better when you eat better food.  You do.  Doing the things that you know keep your body in better shape: movement, rest and consuming healthy fuel, is about keeping you in the best place to experience God’s gift of life in the present, sustaining you to be God’s creative force in the world, bringing love, hope, beauty and peace into being.

                I should also mention the obvious, the mortality of the body.  No matter how well we take care of ourselves, walking ten thousand steps, stretching, doing reasonable resistance training, eating healthy food, our bodies will age.  As a man in my later forties, I am not as fast as I was when I was eighteen.  The need to look over my glasses to read a thermostat clearly reminds me that I am edging toward bifocals.  This is also part of being human.  The process of living is also the process of dying.

                Yet it is God who began the cycle of birth and death; it is God who sustains it; in our tradition, it is God who interrupts it in Jesus.  We do not know exactly what it means.  Paul speaks of the mystery in the first letter to the Corinthians when he writes, For this perishable body must put on imperishability, and this mortal body must put on immortality.”  One day our true selves will stand before God, enfleshed in immortality.

                In the meantime, enjoy the gift that is your body.  Care for it.  Move it.  Revel in it.  Eat well.  Sleep well. Breathe deeply and love the Lord. 

Saturday, April 7, 2018

The Path of Discipleship - An Introduction to Stewardship

For the next couple of months I am going to be writing about the Christian virtue that is associated with stewardship and generosity.  This can be an awkward idea to write about because often, at least in my American Lutheran tradition, we associate stewardship with money and feel uncomfortable talking about money.  There is a sense that money is too personal a topic (aka none of your business).  There is also a feeling that clergy only talk about money in order to get money.  

                As a clergyperson I can share a slightly different frustration, the uncomfortable overlap between being a faith leader and an organizational leader.  As a faith leader, I want to talk about money because Jesus talks about money and the way it affects our walk with God.  For instance, he says, “You cannot serve God and wealth.”  In that simple statement there is whole lot to unpack.  We have to talk about money as a matter of faith.  To avoid the discussion would be like a doctor who never talks about your digestive system because eventually it gets awkward. Unfortunately, money is also tied to my role as an organizational leader who is paid a salary and works with an operating budget based on the money that people give.  So there will always be some cloudiness around discussing money so long as pastors make a living from the money that is donated by the people to whom they preach. 

                I hope this cloudiness might start to become clearer when I maintain that I am not talking about money, but about stewardship.  Just a warning, there will be an article on money and stewardship.  Our finances are a piece of our stewardship, but not the whole pie. 

                Stewardship is a discipline that is much broader than we have taken it to be.  It is reflected in our attitude and care of our bodies, our possessions, our minds and God’s good creation.  The idea of being a steward is the idea of being entrusted with something on behalf of someone else.  The things we have are not our own, we are God’s stewards, caring for what belongs to God, which means that our minds, our bodies and our possessions belong to God. 

                In a grace-centered tradition, stewardship always begins with God.  Some traditions start with law, talking about things like tithing and God’s expectations.  I would rather start with God’s generosity as both the model and the reason for our stewardship.  One of the most important things about the creation myth in Genesis 1 is what it doesn’t give, a reason for the creation.  God isn’t looking for slaves to serve God.  God isn’t looking for power or self-esteem.  God isn’t looking for praise or honor.  God simply creates because God is creative and what God makes is good.  God chooses to make the creation.  It is not an accidental birthing of the universe, but a divine decision.

                This implies that every living thing is in some way part of that divine decision.  You are, literally, God’s gift to you.  You are also, potentially, God’s gift to the planet and God’s gift to the community around you.   You are an ongoing part of God’s good creation story, wonderfully made with gifts and abilities that are meant to help the planet thrive and build up the human family.

                Everything that we do as stewards, as with everything we do with any aspect of discipleship, is in response to God’s generosity, both in the initial stories of creation and the story of re-creation and redemption found in Jesus.  Jesus is our model for what being a steward means.  He shares his food.  He shares his time.  He shares his very life on the cross.  He shares himself, becoming part of God’s blueprint for a continuing creative act.  And through Jesus we have also been brought into that blueprint, each called to become what my theology professor Phil Hefner called “created co-creators.”  To be a steward is a sacred responsibility.  To be a steward is a divine gift.  To be a steward is a step on the path of discipleship.

Thursday, March 22, 2018

The Path of Discipleship - Sabbath - Letting Go of Time

We are well past the era of the blue laws.  I know folks who still grumble at the thought of stores being open on Sunday and sports practices and games that conflict with Christian worship.   There are still a few vestigial rules here and there, mostly around liquor sales on Sunday morning.  We in the church may fuss about it, but do we really want to admit that one the impulses for church attendance was that people had nothing better to do?  That our real impulse for closing stores is simply to narrow the options of Sunday morning?

                At the same time, I think that we in the church need to rediscover and redevelop the meaning of Sabbath.  We have come to equate Sabbath with worship, that to observe the Sabbath is to go to church.  Yet the Sabbath has more to do with lifestyle and rhythm than a fixed day or a holy hour.  In recent years I have spoken to families in the effort to involve them more deeply in the life of the community and frequently I hear that one reason for not attending worship is that Sunday morning is the only time they feel they have as a family.  Sunday is the day they can sleep in together; enjoy a slow breakfast and long conversation together.  And more and more I am torn between my hope that such families might make their way into worship once again and my hope that such families can have that sacred time together, that time to slow down and simply “be” together.  I don’t want church attendance to be one more thing that they are obligated to do, a piece of inconvenient clutter in an already cluttered schedule.

                And now we are back at things, back with Meister Eckhart and his reminder that “To be full of things is to be empty of God.”  Our schedules are full of things.  Some of them are necessary.  Some of them are good and life-fulfilling.  Some of them are busywork and some of them are clutter. 

                At its heart, Sabbath is essentially time to step away from things.  It is time to breathe and rejoice is the essential act of being alive.  For the contemplative, it time set aside to dwell with God, neither asking for help nor moving toward praise.  Sabbath is time simply spent being with God.

                A number of the gospel stories revolve around Jesus challenging the legalistic concept of Sabbath that had developed in the first century.  He healed non-life-threatening illnesses on the Sabbath.  He allowed his disciples to pick grain and eat when they were hungry on the Sabbath.  He told the people, “The Sabbath was made for humanity; not humanity for the Sabbath.” (Mark 2:27)  Sabbath is meant as a gift, and when it ceases to be a gift but becomes an obligation, it ceases to be Sabbath.

                Human beings need rest.  We are not made to be productive all the time.  God knows this, but we forget.  We become convinced that we are measured by the things we get done and things we experience.  We stress about leaving a mark on the world and are envious of those who are proclaimed to be successful.  The good news that Jesus brings to us is that we are already enough in the eyes of God.  As we enter the next section in the Easter season, talking about stewardship, I will write a bit about how we might use time in more faithful ways, but that won’t change the fact that you are already enough by being you, loved in the sight of God.

                I encourage you to develop some Sabbath practices and these can range from small to large.  You can spend time in retreat, disconnected from the world for a few days.  You can seek to observe a full-day weekly Sabbath, where you refrain from work and, as much as possible, refrain from obligating others to work on your behalf.  You can build a Sabbath-hour in your day, a time to put productivity aside and simply rest or enjoy God’s creation.  You can take Sabbath-breaks, 5-minutes of quiet or, one of my favorites, three deep breaths to remind you of who and where you are.

                All of these practices can be Sabbath: a time to let go of time; a time to brush up against eternity.  May you rediscover the freedom and blessing of Sabbath rest.

Thursday, March 15, 2018

The Path of Discipleship - Self-Control and Grace

The apostle Paul lists self-control as one of the fruits of Spirit (Galatians 5:22-23).  As we deepen our lives in faith, self-control can be one of the byproducts.  Those who participate in efforts such as the “Get Rid of It” challenge are practicing a discipline of disconnecting from “things.”  As we learn to let go of the “things” of life, they cease to have control over us, our thoughts, our attention and our time.  We learn to say, “No” or “Not now” or at least “Not yet,” and in doing so we gain self-control.

                The process seems great in theory and yet many people have trouble with self-control.  As Paul wrote to the Romans, “I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.” (Romans 7:15)  How many times have you tried to start a new habit or avoid an old one?  How many times have you said, “This is the last time…”?  And yet there you are with another donut or another cigarette or streaming another episode.  There you are letting life slip by or doing the very things that are supposed to make life shorter.  There you are pretending (as we all often pretend) that God is not there, or if God is there, God doesn’t really matter.

                Yet often it is not a conscious choice, choosing things over God.  Things just seem to have a way of crowding the divine out of our minds.  There is some pretty strong biology that goes into this as well.  Most of the things we get obsessed about stimulate or over-stimulate the pleasure centers of our brains.  Part of the reason that people are drawn to fast food is that there is still a primitive part of us that sees the advantage of a meal with high levels of sugar and fat (cheap calories) with high levels of salt (easy electrolytes).  We are only about 10000 years from life on the savannah, where such a meal would be a prize. 

                And then there are the whole slew of things that are simple distractions from unpleasant tasks.  Why do your taxes when “Game of Thrones” is about to start?  I’ll do this after one more video, one more dog-shaming meme.  It’s not that any of these are necessarily bad in and of themselves.  I like a good dog-shaming picture as much as the next guy:  
He knew not what he did.

It is when we cannot stop, when time slips away as we sit there in a pixelated daze, when we cede control to the device in front us, that distraction becomes more problematic. 

                There are all sorts of strategies for developing good habits and controlling bad ones.  Sites like Habitica and SuperBetter try to gamify the work.  There are also plenty of tracking apps to help the process.  Recently, I have found it helpful to keep a journal tracking the time between lapses and simply trying to add an hour the next time.  I have always had a weakness for sweets.  So if I eat a cookie and then eat another 12 hours later, the next time I will try to wait 13 hours.  It’s not perfect, but I find once the gap is large enough, the thoughts are less obsessive and the time added gets longer.

                The process is not perfect because I am perfectly human and I live in a world with easy access to sweet treats.  For all the effort and for all the good intentions, sometimes I stumble.  Sometimes I want to scrap the whole process.  Sometimes I just need to start over.

                And the good news is that this whole process is undergirded by the grace of God.  It turns out that God doesn’t love me less because I eat a cookie.  It turns out that God doesn’t love me less because I make a mistake.  It turns out that God will continue to love me as I stumble over the path of discipleship, that God has made space for me even as I struggle to make space for God; that God remains with me as I struggle, as I give up, as I start over.  Remember that the path of discipleship itself is a gift, even the struggles on that path.  We walk together following Jesus, the one who loves us when we stand still and loves us as we stumble and loves us as we walk.

Friday, March 9, 2018

The Path of Discipleship - Organization as a Spiritual Discipline

I have always struggled with organization.  No matter how hard I try, my workspace eventually falls victim to entropy, devolving into a number of piles of papers and books.  The piles are not random but fall in categories.  This one is full of administrative documents.  That one is a stack for sermon preparation.  I currently work in a congregation that has minimal administrative support, so I am the one who sorts the mail each day, routing bills to the bookkeeper, checks to the counters and the huge monthly catalog of cleaning supplies to the property group mail slot.  But then a day comes when there is no time for sorting; another stack forms, papers waiting to disperse.

                I will be careful in talking about organization not only because I struggle with it but also because effective organization is subjective.  One mind looks at a busy table and sees clutter.  Another mind looks at the same table and sees connections.  One person can find nothing without a careful filing system.  Another can pull a necessary paper directly from the stacks without pause.

                This will not be an article about a particular system of organization, instead it will focus on organization as a form of spiritual discipline.  The idea is that as our lives and spaces become more organized we are able to open up more room to pay attention to God.  Think about a schedule, how you spend your time.   A common reason that people will cite for staying away from worship or other forms of spiritual practice is a lack of time.  There are so many things that have to be done, so many tasks and projects.  Yet if you were to break down the time available in sixteen waking hours, how much time could be recovered if we could just remove some unintentional clutter? 

Here I am making an important distinction between the intentional and the unintentional.  For instance, social media can be a great way to connect with friends and family.  I know of clergy who build Facebook time into their schedule as a way to connect with members of their congregation.  Yet social media can also be a deep rabbit hole of lost time, a trance of clicking and liking, only to wake realizing that after two hours you don’t really care about the fish tacos Larry in accounting had last night.  With intention, it is a helpful tool.  With a lack of intention, it becomes a waste of time.

The call to worship at the beginning of Zen meditation is, “Great is the meaning of birth and death.  Awake, awake each one.  Do not waste this life.”  Jesus is remembered several times saying simply, “Keep awake!”  The first step in seeing organization as a spiritual discipline is realizing that organization is about paying attention to the moment, treating it as holy, being stewards of the time and space we have been given by God.  It turns out that there is an hour or two a week for worship if we choose it.  It turns out that there is ample time sit with God, ample time to admire God’s good creation, ample time to show kindness, if we choose to have it which means intentionally choosing not to lose it.

The same can be said for the assorted stuff that piles up on desks and coffee tables, in basements and storage units.  Many of us have more space than we expect when we choose to remove things we don’t need, when we  stop treating “things” like treasure and start treating “things” like the stewards we are supposed to be: to be used, to be shared, to be disposed of or passed on when appropriate.

A discipline develops when we create a regular time to organize and sort.  It doesn’t have to be long, maybe 10 minutes at the beginning of the day and 10 minutes at the end, time to plan and time to evaluate.  Time to do the cleanup that Mrs. Brenner told me to do in first grade, “Putting things away is part of the play.”  Yet again, this is not just cleaning up, but rather it is creating time and space for the holy in our lives, and as such it becomes holy work.

I should add a final disclaimer, a reminder of the nature of grace, that the love of God is not dependent on a clean house, an organized desk or a well-executed action plan.  You will make plans, and life will happen in spite of them.  You will make space and the law of entropy will fill it.  The goal is not perfection, but intention.  As with all spiritual practices, we seek time and space to be turned toward God, remembering that God is already turned toward us in love.  I invite you try a discipline of organization, intentionally creating space and time to dwell in the love of God.