Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Keep Christ in Christmas (and on Tuesday)

The other day I was driving behind a car with a “Keep Christ is Christmas” bumper sticker.  I have seen this phrase since I was in Sunday school posted as a reminder not to get overwhelmed by thoughts of presents and stockings when we should be thinking of silent and holy nights.

                On the one hand, I approve of the phrase as a reminder of the reason that we celebrate.  On the other hand, I take issue with it just as I take issue with those who would tell me that God has been kicked out of our schools.  If God is who we say God is and Jesus is who we say Jesus is then neither of them can be kicked in or out of anything.  It is prideful to think that we or anyone else can do so by an improper seasonal greeting, overblown consumerism or a congressional vote. 

                I don’t think our challenge is to get other people to remember Christ at Christmas.  I think our challenge as the people of God is to remember Christ on Tuesday.  I don’t mean some special Tuesday of religious significance.  I mean just a run-of-the-mill Tuesday when there are errands to run, classes to take and appointments to meet on time; that Tuesday when you wanted to stay in bed and when the line at the checkout was so long and the drivers were idiots.  If you can remember Christ on Tuesday, then Christmas will be a breeze.

                More importantly, if you are able to remember Christ on Tuesday, then the people around you might have more of a reason to think on Christ at other times.  If we, the people who represent Christ to the world are loving and peaceful, compassionate and generous (values we celebrate at Christmastime) on a random Tuesday, then maybe those around us will start to listen to what we have to say about Christmas or Easter or Sunday. 

                Blessings to all of you this Christmas season.  Keep Christ in Christmas, but then keep Christ on Tuesday (and Thursday wouldn’t hurt either). 

Saturday, October 24, 2015

Faith Does Not Make Sense

This article was published in October, 2015 in the Matters of Faith column:

At the end of October, a number of Protestant churches will take some time to remember the Reformation, celebrating Reformation Sunday on the last Sunday of the month.  It was on October 31 in 1517 that Martin Luther nailed the 95 Theses to the doors of All Saints’ Church in Wittenburg, Germany, an act that challenged traditions of the Roman Catholic Church and began the movement known as the Protestant Reformation.  The summary of Luther’s thought (which he derived from Paul) which I was taught in seminary is “We are justified by grace through faith apart from works for the sake of Christ.”
              I could spend a long time unpacking that statement (and anyone who wants to unpack it with me is more than welcome to shoot me an email), but more recently I have been pondering the nature of faith.  For much of my life, I understood faith as the acceptance of a series of ideas.  If I believe the right things about God and Jesus and the Trinity, then I have faith.  If I can say the Nicene Creed without crossing my fingers, then I have faith.  Yet the more I have grown to explore the faith, through seminary and through ministry, the more difficult it becomes to say that I truly understand these ideas.
              Other Christians see faith as an acceptance of the literal truth of scripture.  If you believe the Bible is historical fact, then you have faith.  Unfortunately, this view tends to get mired in trying to defend itself against the findings of natural science, archaeology and astronomy, or simply ignores them because if any part of the Bible is questionable, the whole structure of faith is weakened. 
              Often we end up treating faith statements as statements of fact, giving them much more certainty than they can have.  We want our beliefs to be as firm as the law of gravity rather than as undefined as the fate of Schroedinger’s cat.  One of the reasons that many Christian traditions are in decline and that Christianity is in decline as a whole in the United States and Europe is that we have tried to sell the mystery of faith as empirical knowledge.  We have lost the ability to admit that we believe in a God that we do not fully understand and cannot prove.  Even God refuses to be defined, telling Moses in the book of Exodus that God will be called “I am who I am.”
We have faith in ideas that do not necessarily make sense.  Orthodox Christianity believes that Jesus was both fully human and fully divine, but leaves the how of that relationship open-ended.  So many great debates in Christian theology break down into fancy variations of “It is what it is.”  Jesus is fully human and fully divine because Jesus has to be fully human and fully divine.
              I think the fear for many Christians is that we do not want to be deemed nonsensical in a society that is supposedly shaped by rationality and critical thinking.  We want what we believe to make sense and, when those beliefs are challenged or questioned, we blame the questioner for being unable to see what is plain truth.
              So as we approach Reformation Sunday, I suggest that we Christians continue to need to reform (I’ll let representatives from other faiths speak to their own traditions).  Our reformation can continue with the admission that faith does not make sense.  We need to stop pretending that our faith story is logical or rational.  I may well get some emails on this point because it goes against some pretty long-held views.  Yet if we can do this, it might give us the humility to listen to other people’s doubts without judgment and other faiths’ stories without arrogance. 
When we stop trying to make faith rational, we can begin to see it from a different perspective.  Faith is not rational, but it is beautiful.  Faith is not an instruction manual for life but a way of being in the world.  The stories of the faith are like walking into an art museum and looking at paintings from many, different periods.  Some might be obvious representations of fruit and flowers.  Some might be complicated swirls of color and texture.  Some might be absurd pictures of images that cannot exist in reality.  Yet they are all representations of the artists’ vision and each of them can help us think about how we perceive the world around us.

The vision shared in the story of Jesus is a hopeful one where love is greater than hatred and hope is greater than fear.  It is a challenging vision where the poor are lifted up, the last will be first and the first will be last.  It is an absurd vision where enemies are loved, power is found in weakness and life is found in death.  The next step in our reformation may begin when we stop trying to defend a rational faith and instead embrace and live out and find life in this beautiful vision.

Monday, September 7, 2015

A Silent Retreat and Lightshow

              I have just returned from a three-day retreat at the East Mountain Retreat Center in the Berkshire Mountains of western Massachusetts.  It is a place of intentional silence.  They receive two to three retreat guests at a time as well as some occasional hikers from the Appalachian Trail, which passes about half a mile away.  The guests do not talk to one another; simply smile and nod as we pass one another along the way.  We make our own meals from what the center provides with the exception of dinner, which is provided by our host, Rev. Lois Rose.  Rev. Lois cooks a simple meal which she leaves on the stove at 6 along with a bowl for each guest.  We serve ourselves and clean up afterwards.
              We are encouraged to have a time of prayer and meditation twice every day.  There is a spacious meditation room large enough for groups but typically it is used only by one person at a time.  If it is occupied, we wait our turn, giving the space and time our neighbor needs to complete his or her prayer.  The center has meditation supplies from several different traditions, kneelers, cushions and two well-worn chairs for those who like to sit.  A Russian orthodox cross icon sits next to a seated Buddha and a Tibetan singing bowl.  The bay window one faces looks out upon forest and mountain range.  (My bedroom was in a room underneath so I woke to the same view).
              Outside of that our time is our own.  There are trails to walk.  There are books to read and puzzles to assemble.  Many people bring a journal for writing.  We are invited to explore the area and pay attention.  We have nothing that we have to do and so we are free to do anything.
              My own exploration was a little more extensive than I expected.  The first full day I walked to the top of East Mountain, walking up the trails of a nearby ski area.  Two owls flew above me as I passed by.  The expansive view of the Berkshires from the top was worth the climb, but I had noticed another trail along the way, following a brook and going further into the woods.  The trail was lightly used but passable.  Beyond the ski area, the land was all state forest land and, at one point the state had put walkways over marshy areas, but they had been pretty chewed up by 4x4 drivers.  However, since it was August the path was mostly dry.
              An adventurous impulse grew within me and I decided that I would follow this path until it ended.  I had no map, no supplies and no knowledge of the distance.  A couple of times I considered turning around but trusted I would either end up at a road or another path out of the forest.  The path was easy walking, but I walked about an hour away from the start of the path which was itself about half an hour from the retreat center.
              The path ended at a T and looking to either side I saw the white rectangular blazes of the Appalachian Trail; to the right, the path to Georgia; to the left, the path to Maine.  I headed left toward the road that would bring me back to the retreat center.  Along the way I encountered several hikers making their way south with sturdy boots and serious backpacks.  Many of them looked at me strangely but kindly.  One offered me water.  It is unusual to meet anyone on this trail with no equipment to speak of wearing a pair of not-so-serious walking shoes.  I walked another three miles on the trail until I came to Buel Lake Road and another mile home.  For the first time in a very long time, I took a nap in the afternoon (another pastime encouraged by the center).
              The nights were dark.  The rooms have electricity but there are no exterior lights to be seen.  I went to bed earlier than my habits at home since it was fully night by 9 p.m.  I slept soundly but strangely, most nights waking up for about half an hour in the middle of the night, possibly nudged by the light of the waxing moon.
The last evening, the moon rose, full and orange over the mountains.  Another guest and I greeted it with grateful silence.  Shortly after, fireworks erupted from a festival at the ski area.  We could see some of them bursting over the treetops:  greens, reds, blues and purples, flashing, spreading, disappearing into the night sky.  These also were greeted with grateful silence.

I know that I cannot live this way and still have a job and family.  Yet those three days were an experience of embodied grace.  I did not have to do anything.  I merely needed to be present.  This great gift was one that I see in line with the gospel, a gift I hope I can carry with me a little longer.  When there is nothing you have to do, you are free to do anything.

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Silence is not the Answer to Everything

I have been discussing the silence at length in my congregation.  Through this past summer, we have incorporated intentional silence in our Sunday worship, using silent, focused prayer in the place of the regular prayers of intercession.  At the same time, we have begun our parallel community, The Still, Small Voice, which is a group that is shaped by the practices of meditation and contemplation.  If you are ever in Falmouth on a Saturday, come join us at 4:00 p.m.

                I have had discussions about silence with members of my congregation, with clergy colleagues and with unsuspecting members of the public who innocently inquired about what it is that I do.  The reaction has been mixed.  For some, silence is such a foreign concept, especially in the modern church arena, that pursuing it can be relegated to that odd, niche market of the introverted mystic.  For others, silence can play a minor role in the life of the church but, especially among Lutherans who give great value to the preaching office, silence can never compare with a well-crafted sermon or a lofty hymn. 
                But then there are those who have taken part in silent practices of one form or another.  It may have been in a religious context or a stress-relief seminar, but they had the experience of allowing themselves to be still.  They are often surprised that there is a Christian tradition around silence; that to be still can be a way of seeking the presence of God and that practicing silence is part of ancient church practice.

                As much as I have come to appreciate silence and have begun to see silence as a transformative practice for the church, I feel like I should say that silence is not the answer to everything that ails us.  We live in a society that is divided over many issues and where extreme views are often the loudest voices.  We live in a culture that continues to struggle around racial equality and justice.  We live in a church that is anxious about its own decline and questions its own relevance. 

                Silence is not the answer to these problems.  Silence does not resolve conflicts.  It does not share the full breadth of the promise of the good news.  Silence in and of itself does not feed the hungry, advocate for justice or create understanding.  Intentional silence could easily devolve into liturgical naval-gazing.  The world may be going to hell around us, but at least we are calm, finding the ripe strawberry between the tiger and the cliff (as the Buddhist story goes). 

                If through the practice of silence we are able to develop calmer and more peaceful lives, this would be a good start, but only a start.  At some point we are called to break our silence, to give witness to the peace we experience; to go out and share this peace (or shalom or the good news or the reign of God) with the world around us.  We are sent to live in the presence of God just as we have sat in the presence of God in contemplation.

                Silence is an excellent preparation for this journey.  It allows for a rebooting of our minds so that we can look at world with renewed perspective.  In silence we learn to listen, so we can actually be in dialogue with another rather than simply talking over one another.  In silence we learn compassion, to be aware of God’s immeasurable love for all people which might send us to carry out that love in word and action.  Silence teaches us to be patient, so that we can respond mindfully to what ails our lives rather than living from gut-reaction to gut-reaction.

                Yet none of this matters if we fail to get beyond the silence.  In the gospel stories, Jesus sometimes went by himself to pray and invited his followers to pray in secret.  He did not remain in retreat, nor did he favor being in retreat over being in the world.  Jesus went by himself to pray so that he could return to his ministry to and for the world. 

Silence is not the answer to everything, but it is a place to begin our answers.  Find God in silence and accompany God into the complexities of life.  Listen for God in silence and then be part of God’s answer to a hurting world.

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

On Silence

On Silence 
(This article first appeared in the Matters of Faith column of the Cape Cod Times on August, 15, 2015)

                I am going to start this article with a plug so I can get it out of the way rather than try to subtly sneak it at the end.  Recently, my congregation (Christ Lutheran Church of Falmouth) received a grant from the Calvin Institute of Worship in Grand Rapids, Michigan to work on a project around the use of silence in worship.  Our project is a new community we call The Still, Small Voice.  We have been gathering at 4:00 p.m. every Saturday to spend time in intentional silence, a mix of the Christian traditions of silent contemplation and meditation on scripture.  Anyone from any tradition is welcome to join us for this experiment.
                The reason our project involves silence is in part due to my own journey with silence, the tale of an introvert in an often extroverted profession; the story of a musician who became tired of noise.  I have been a pastor for seventeen years, a period of general decline in my Lutheran tradition as well as many other established traditions.  As we have looked to turn things around, it often feels like we are trying to compete for who can put on the best show;  who can get the best musicians; who has the best sound system; who can install the technology to make a lasting visual impact.  It is like we decided that the best way to deal with a culture overstimulated by screens was to create a worship service that was more stimulating and more expressive than what was cued up on Netflix in the omnipresent devices in our parishioners’ pockets. 
                I encountered worship services that were big and exciting, some that bordered on the manipulative, constantly reminding me of how much I was enjoying myself.  I knew that God was present there.  I knew that people around me were genuinely moved by this worship.   Yet I could also see that I was not the only one walking away from the experience drained rather than inspired, seeking some time in quiet, time in meditation or a prayerful walk.
                Our culture treats silence as something to be avoided.  Silences are often described as awkward.  On the radio or television, silence is called dead air.  I have been in churches in several traditions where, outside of the occasional moment of silence, quiet is a sign of a missed cue, a lost place or a faulty sound system.  Silence is the discomfort of a dusty parlor where everything is breakable and nothing can be played with.
                So let me be an advocate for silence.  Let me share some of its value.  Silence is not empty, but amazingly deep.  Silence need not be uncomfortable, but can be extremely calming.  Silence is not the absence of sound, but is that space where sound begins; thought begins; self begins.
                This may be why we often avoid silence.  When you take away the distractions and the noise; when you turn off the screens and unplug the headphones, you are bound to encounter yourself.  You are bound to encounter the worries and anxieties that replay in the background of your mind as well as guilt over past actions, anger over current offenses and possibly, some shame around thoughts you would rather not admit.  You may discover that your thoughts are not as deep as you would like, spending too much time on what’s for dinner and speculating about Game of Thrones.  You may discover that your thoughts are embarrassingly primal (which can relate both to dinner and Game of Thrones.)
           Saint Teresa of Avila, one of the great Christian voices on silence, believed that encountering one’s self in silence was the beginning of a journey to a deep encounter with the divine.  In The Interior Castle she wrote, “If we neither possess nor strive to obtain this peace at home, we shall never find it abroad.”  If we constantly look outside ourselves for inspiration, for comfort, for completeness, we will always be chasing what seems out of reach. 
            Yet like Dorothy and her friends in Oz, we already have a brain, a heart and courage.  We are already at home.  We are already complete because God is with us.  It is easy to forget this reality when we are constantly distracted, told by other voices that we are not enough; don’t have enough; need to be more than we are.  Another Christian voice for silence, the 13th century German priest known as Meister Eckhart described our situation saying, “God is at home; it we who have gone out for a walk.”
             Silence can be a way back home.  It can be a way to reboot the system and rediscover ourselves.  Silence teaches us to listen and pay attention.  It leads us to respond rather than react.  It reminds us that peace is already with us.
             I invite and encourage you to find some space for silence.  It doesn’t need to be long hours of meditation with candle and incense.  It can be as simple as a few minutes with phone silenced and computer logged off.  A few deep breaths with eyes closed can be a start.  Take time for silence in the midst of busy days.  Remember who you are and remind yourself that God is with you.

Friday, July 10, 2015

Introducing The Still, Small Voice

“No music?”  This was one of the first reactions as I described our project to people at the Calvin Worship Institute Colloquium in Grand Rapids, Michigan.  Our congregation received a one-year grant to experiment in gathering a community around contemplative practices, silent contemplation and meditation on scripture.  As part of the grant we attended the colloquium with groups that represented about 70 different projects around worship.
                I was talking to worship and music professionals, who have experienced church mostly with those two categories strongly intertwined.  I have been to many services where music ministry eclipses the preaching ministry in the hearts of the gathered people.  I have been to services where silence means no one talks over the sound of the solo piano with sustaining pedal fully engaged.  I have been to services where silence meant a mistake had been made, someone missed a cue or the sound system had failed. 
                Now we are trying to establish a practice where silence is central.  We are tapping into ancient practices that span Christian traditions as well as connect to many other faith traditions.  There has always been a value given to seeking the divine in silence, though it has never been at the forefront of Christian practice.  As The Still, Small Voice begins gathering this week, it will be interesting to see if contemplation can sustain a community.
                While I talked with other groups at the worship conference, people were intrigued by the idea of quiet worship.  They were used to putting so much time and effort into music ministries, inspirational drama, preaching and newer trends in embracing technology that the idea that one could worship without any of it was a surprise.  My thought is that people are already coming into our churches overstimulated.  Many have been staring at screens all week and answering the beeps and blips of emails, text-messages and phone calls.  While some will find a release in stimulating worship with high production values, others need a place where they can step away and retreat for an hour.

The Still, Small Voice is seeking to be that place.  We will explore worship at very basic level, using silence as the backdrop for an encounter with God.  We will explore scripture at a deep level, allowing the words to percolate in our imaginations.  We will explore community at a simple level, letting shared silence draw us together.  The Still, Small Voice will gather on Saturday afternoons at 4:00 p.m. beginning on July 11, 2015.  If you are in Falmouth and long for stillness and peace, come join us and listen for God.

Monday, June 22, 2015

The Sunday after Charleston

What follows is my sermon from Sunday, June 22, the Sunday after a white man walked into Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina, sat for an hour in a Bible study, and then began shooting those in attendance, all of whom were African-American.  According to witnesses at the time, he told the group that he was there "to shoot black people."  Kyrie Eleison.

I was recently reading an article by Eva Kor, who is a survivor of the Holocaust.  In 2014 she went to the Auschwitz concentration camp where she had been sent as a child with her twin sister.  While she was there, she was approached by a group of German students.  Germany has worked hard to make sure that the history of the Holocaust would not be forgotten.  Some of the students, meeting a survivor, began to cry, still feeling guilt over the actions of decades past.
                She said to them, “Why do you feel guilty? Have you done anything wrong? You weren't even around back then. Now you are feeling guilty and wasting your wonderful energy on something that doesn't help anyone. Instead of that, if you really want to do something for me or other Holocaust survivors, then take every opportunity you can to do the small acts of kindness, to make your world just a little bit better than it was before. Guilt will never empower you to do that. Your action doesn't have to be expensive or big. If you see a piece of litter, pick it up and throw it in the trash can. Maybe that won't save the world, but you have made that little corner of the world better and you can build on that. Or if you see a person who is kind of withdrawn and doesn't seem to have any friends, go up and talk to them. Try to become a friend, even for a short time. Be aware of your world and try to make it better." 
                This morning I was going to preach using the image of Jesus calming the waters to talk a little bit about how I came to the place of putting more focus on silence and seeking peace through the gospel.  I’m going to save that story for another week though some of what I feel called to say applies to my thinking about the killings in Charleston.  A young, white man (a member of the ELCA) walks into the historically black church, Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church.  He sits in a Bible study for about an hour and then starts shooting, leaving nine people dead.  According to some witnesses, before he started shooting he told the group that he was there to shoot black people.
                How can we respond to such a story?  The hatred that is present in this form of racism gets beyond me.  It is the product of many things, probably some mental instability that allows a person to cross the line from racist attitude to violence.  Also the many teachers who are out there willing to give lessons in racial superiority and hatred.  Also a culture which, while it for the most part denounces overt racism, quietly tolerates more subtle forms of racism, the assumptions that create a school to prison pipeline in minority communities, the easy use of racial profiling, or just the simple double standard. 
                And somewhere at the root of it all is fear.  It is the fear that I cannot lift you up without being pulled down myself.  It is the fear that if your lot in life improves my lot in life will get worse.  It is the fear of losing control, of becoming an outsider, of having to look at the world from a different point of view. 
                Anyone who works with fear, stress and anxiety can tell you that when you are afraid, it is not a good time to make important life decisions.  Our brains are not wired that way.  When we are afraid, we become extremely focused on whatever it is that we are afraid of, whatever it is that we see as a threat.  This is a great tool when you are trying to run away from a wild animal.  It is not particularly helpful when you are afraid of an idea or of a stereotype.  In fact, it becomes quite dangerous because people who are afraid are not rational.  People who are panicking will often do or say whatever they need to in order to get away from what they see as a threat. 
                This is where the image of Jesus standing in the midst of storm and saying, “Peace.  Be still,” is powerful.  Jesus stands in the midst of the chaos and confusion and tells everyone to calm down.  That “Peace.  Be still,” wasn’t just for the winds whipping around; it was also for the disciples who were in a panic.  When it was over, Jesus asked them, “Why were you afraid?  Don’t you have faith?”  But in panic faith was replaced with fear and belief replaced with the reality of a sinking boat.
I also think that this is where silence and stillness can be helpful for the church.  In our society we want swift reactions, a powerful reaction to a powerful offense.  Silence forces us to slow down, to think, listen and respond rather than react.  As the families of the victims stood before Dylann Roof and offered words of forgiveness rather than hate and revenge, we saw a response and not a reaction.  Now I think there is a place for candlelight vigils and civil protests that often follow in the wake of tragedy, but sometimes when these types of event are held, you will hear people saying they are attending so they can “get past” the tragedy.  But maybe we aren’t supposed to get past the tragedy, maybe we are supposed to live with it awhile.  Maybe we as a community of faith of mostly white people are not supposed to get past but to live with Charleston, with Baltimore, with Cleveland, with New York, with Ferguson.  Maybe we need to spend some time thinking about what these events mean for us in our context.  What do they point to about the society in which we live and the assumptions we make about the way things should be?
And we also need to think about how we will respond.  And again I mean how can we respond with faith rather than react with fear and anger.  That response can and should take the form of acts of solidarity like vigils and connecting to the victims of tragedy.  It can and should take the form of advocacy like letters to our leaders or formal protests of injustice. 
Yet, in addition, I would also encourage you to consider the thoughts of Eva Kor, with which this sermon began.  There is a lot in the world that we cannot control.  Where we have the most control is the 4 foot bubble of personal space that surrounds us, that space we psychologically claim as our own wherever we go.  First, seek to make that space a space of kindness and calm.  Seek to make that space a space of love and peace.  Seek to make that space a space of equality where people are treated fairly.  Seek to make that space a space where Jesus says, “Peace.  Be still.”

Because racism and hate often don’t start with a grand gesture (they may get there, but they don’t start there).  They start with small life lessons, small injustices, small acts of fear.  And perhaps they will be ended with the help of large actions; those are the ones that history will remember, but they will truly be ended by many small acts of kindness, courage, compassion and reconciliation.  May God inspire us to look at the chaos of racism, injustice and hate and hear the words of Jesus, “Peace.  Be still.”  May God inspire us to be the people who can carry this peace with us and share it in a hurting world.

Thursday, April 23, 2015

God Does Not Play Battleship

This post is an expansion of an idea that was part of my Easter sermon this year.  I began by noting how often people speak about looking for a divine plan in their lives.  Everything happens for a reason and all of it is leading in the direction of God’s will.  Periodically I see ads for sites like Christian Mingle which promises to “Find God’s match for you.”  Have they discovered the divine algorithm that will lead to perfect pairings?  Is there a pi-type constant or an E=mc2 for romance?

                People find comfort in the idea of a divine plan working in the background of their lives, that they are doing what they are supposed to do and being where they are supposed to be.  It can be frightening to face life as a series of random collisions, intersections and choices without a clear destination.  There must be a plan; there must be a purpose.  If only we could figure what it could be.

                Several times, Albert Einstein was quoted as saying, “God does not play dice with the world.”  While I agree with his sentiment (and realize that it is a much more knowledgeable sentiment than my own) I would also add that, “God does not play Battleship with the world.”  I’m sure many of you played the game as children.  Each player has a 10x10 grid on which to place 5 ships of different sizes.  Then you take turns naming coordinates:  B5 – miss, C10 – miss, H7 – hit.  The player who sinks all the opponent’s boats first wins.

                It is as if people view life as a game of Battleship with God hiding the correct path.  We call out our coordinates: learn a trade – miss; take an art class – miss; learn to salsa dance – hit!  We hope that we are somewhere close to what to God intends but never know for certain if we should have taken the right turn at Albuquerque (miss!)
    In the past, if someone came to my office asking for advice about finding God’s special purpose for his or her life, I would talk around the issue.  In part, I knew that this was sacred territory and this person probably had a good deal invested in the idea that there was a plan just for him or her.  I also had to deal with the fact that as a Lutheran pastor we talk about a sense of call and many pastors will talk about being drawn to ministry, being called as a young person but only following the call after some misadventures. 

Yet at the same time, I find little in scripture or tradition (or experience for that matter) that points to the idea that everyone has a unique calling or destiny.  Certainly some of the big names, like Moses or David or Mary, get called to specific roles in the story.  Yet for the most part everyone else gets instruction in how to one might live.  What does the Lord require of you but to do justice, love kindness and walk humbly with your God? (Micah 6:8)  In everything do to others as you would have them do to you. (Matthew 7:12)  Do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own. (Matthew 6:34)

I believe that the ideals of Christianity might discourage or preclude certain life decisions.  If it hurts others; if it takes advantage of others; if it denies the basic humanity of others, you probably shouldn’t do it.  Find another career path for the Walter White in you.

Over time I have come to realize that there is a plan for each of us, but it won’t tell you where to work or whom to marry.  It is a plan we hear every year as we listen to the gospel story and experience the path toward the cross and the joy of resurrection.  In this story is God’s plan that sets us free from a Battleship life, fearing that our decisions might pull us from some preordained proper direction or that our mistakes can never be undone.  Instead, God’s plan for each of us was to set us free. 

In the gospel story, Jesus offers us a way to approach the path of life, wherever that path may take us, a way that is shaped by compassion, peace and love.  It doesn’t tell us where to go but rather how to be along the way.  Be loving.  Be joyful.  Be at peace.  Be free and know that God is with you through it all.

Thursday, April 16, 2015

The Living Proof of Easter

Note:  This entry appeared in the Matters of Faith column of the Cape Cod Times the Saturday before Easter, 2015.

For the past few years, I’ve noticed that in the weeks before Easter the magazine racks in the grocery stores will have a number of Jesus-related covers and articles.  This year, CNN is running a series entitled Finding Jesus: Faith, Fact and Forgery.  The major theme of most of these articles and shows is about discovering the historical Jesus.  What can scholars tell us about Jesus and his world?  Can there be proof of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth?
                This is where things get tricky.  Many Christians look to the Bible as proof of Jesus’ story.  Yet the gospel texts are documents shaped by faith rather than impartial historical accounts.   As the Christian movement grew, and as the first generation of Christians began to pass away, a more uniform way of telling the story was needed.  But this did not happen in the immediate aftermath of the death and resurrection.  It is commonly believed that the gospel of Mark, probably the earliest gospel text, was written about three decades after the events it describes.  The growth of historical Jesus articles reflects the hope that the Jesus story can be confirmed by outside evidence.  If only a non-Christian contemporary of Jesus had told the story or if only the shroud of Turin could be 100% authenticated then we would know that the story of Jesus and all it implies is true.
                The reality is that there are not a great many references to Jesus in the historical record, especially by anyone who could be considered his contemporary.  The Roman historian Tacitus makes mention of his execution in a brief description of the Christian movement .  The Jewish historian Flavius Josephus also talks briefly about Jesus, his trial and death.  Yet there are no records outside of the gospel texts that talk about going to a party where water was turned to wine, seeing some guy walking on water or Jesus himself, raised from death.  Most modern scholars agree that there is enough evidence to say that there was a Jesus of Nazareth in the first century of the common era; that he was crucified by Pontius Pilate and died.  The rest of the gospel stories; teaching, miracles and resurrection, live in the realm of faith.  We cannot prove them but are challenged to live as though they were true.
                Perhaps someday someone will come up with irrevocable proof of the gospel story and it may well change the world as we know it, but until that time there will be no proof of the resurrection that you will read in an historical Jesus article or see on a television screen.  The proof of the resurrection is not to be found in ancient documents but rather in lives that are lived in response to that resurrection.
                To those of you who are atheist or agnostic who have read this far to see what kind of drivel pastors are writing these days, you have every right to call Christianity into question because we have bungled this up in a big way.  We Christians have confused faith with religious practice or memorized knowledge.  We have used our faith to segregate rather than unify.  We have used the good news as a bludgeon rather than a gift of love.  While there are many stories of Christians doing great good in the name of faith (e.g. St. Francis of Assisi, Dorothy Day, and Martin Luther King, Jr.), there are just as many if not more stories of crusades, inquisitions, cover-ups and general hypocrisy. 
So to those of you who are Christians reading this on the cusp of Easter, realize that you are the living proof of the resurrection.  If the resurrection is about being set free from guilt and shame, are we living lives that set others free and offer forgiveness?  If the resurrection is about abundant life, are we living lives of generosity that feed the hungry, shelter the homeless and give companionship to the lonely?  If the resurrection is about the reign of God coming near, are we living as ambassadors of a reign that is shaped by peace, justice, love and life?
Easter Sunday is a beautiful Sunday for the church.  The crowds come out.  Trumpets sound.  The scent of lilies overpowers.  Yet none of these is proof of a stone rolled away and an empty tomb. The proof of the resurrection happens as the crowds leave the trumpets and the lilies behind.  It happens as we go back and live the resurrection in our Monday-morning lives, our relationships and our community.  If you believe, then you are also called to be the living proof of Easter.