Thursday, December 28, 2017

The Path of Discipleship - Wonder, Wisdom and Scripture

“The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge; fools despise wisdom and instruction” (Proverbs 1:7 NRSV).  As mentioned previously, I see the fear of the Lord as a matter of awe and reverence as opposed to quaking in your boots fright.  It is the wonder and awe at understanding that the God we worship is beyond understanding.  God is bigger than our comprehension which implies that God’s grace and God’s love are beyond our comprehension.  In this Christmas season, we celebrate that in Jesus the incomprehensible God chose to walk among us in a comprehensible way, which is itself a source of awe and wonder.

                Within Christianity we have a resource to grow in understanding and wisdom, one that is under-used in some traditions and ill-used in others: scripture.  In every congregation of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America you will find this phrase.  “This congregation accepts the canonical Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments as the inspired Word of God and the authoritative source and norm of its proclamation, faith, and life.”  Our pastors are expected to have a passion for the Bible and its study, including learning biblical Hebrew and Greek to encounter the texts in their original languages.

                In other words, the Bible is a critical book for the church, central to our self-understanding.  We call it inspired.  We call it holy.  Our worship is centered on it and informed by it.

                The Bible is an essential book for Christians and the church, but it is not a magic book.  I see the Bible as a source of divine wisdom, but we also have to approach it with the God-given wisdom to see and understand its limitations and its problems.  In our modern society, the most glaring issue is that the authors of our biblical texts, while divinely inspired, were also shaped by their time and culture.  There are a host of traditions that our current culture would call into question which the authors seem to accept as a divinely-ordained order of things:  slavery as part of the social order, women as essentially inferior to men, disease and illness as divine retribution, for example.  If we want the message to be relevant, we need to acknowledge that there are parts of Bible that get it wrong.  Even though Exodus 21 allows for a servant to declare, “I love my master” and be permanently bound to him, we should be able to declare that slavery has always been wrong.  Even though that same chapter invites a master to give his slave a wife as a gift, we should be able to declare that seeing women as property to be traded, gifted or used has always been wrong.  We can acknowledge that such ideas were socially acceptable thousands of years ago, but we should not let such passages allow us to continue to objectify people.

                The Bible was also never intended as a science textbook.  I wonder if ancient creation myths were an attempt at pre-science, trying to explain the way things are based on what was observed.  However, Genesis 1 describes life in a snow globe universe, with water outside the dome of the sky (Why is the sky blue?).  In Genesis 7:11, “the windows of the heavens were opened” as part of the great flood story (the snow globe fills with water).  These stories may well have been based on even more ancient tales, but they are metaphors, meant to express something about who God is, who we are and our relationship to one another.  Even though I don’t believe they are historical, I don’t think they should be dismissed as unimportant.  Rather, like a beautiful work of art, we should meditate on them, look at them from many angles and look for the divine spark within them.

                I understand that for some, what I am describing is a slippery slope.  If you doubt the history of one narrative, what does that say about the historicity of the story of the Exodus or the gospel stories?  First, we need to have the humility to acknowledge that we cannot prove much about the accuracy of any story in the Bible.  While later generations of believers developed traditions and commented on the stories and characters, there are very few contemporary resources that confirm the stories or characters.  One of issues with Jesus choosing common people to be his disciples is that no one was paying attention to common people.  We can confirm the existence of a Herod, Pontius Pilate or Caiaphus the high priest, all leaders at the time, but it is much harder to find records of Simon and Andrew who enter the story as common fishermen.

                We don’t need to be able to prove the history in order for the stories to be important.  We don’t need our stories to be without doubt in order to learn from them.  In fact, a modern desire for proof can keep us from embracing the meaning and importance of the stories themselves.  Jesus chooses common people not because he was trying to make the history difficult but as a way of showing that God is concerned with those whom history forgets.  The author of Genesis 1 was not trying to write a scientific paper, but rather to point to a God through whom all things have come into being, a universe created with intention and declared, “Good!”

                The path of discipleship is not a path of proof but a path of trust.  The scriptures are part of the walk.  Through them the path is given shape and direction.  There is awe and wonder in our scriptural stories.  I hope every Christian takes the time to explore them with wisdom and humility.

Thursday, December 21, 2017

The Path of Discipleship - Awe is not Faith

Christian mystics such as Teresa of Avila and Catherine of Siena warned of something they called, “the consolations of prayer.”  Especially as you begin the practice of contemplative prayer, you might find intense feelings of calm, joy and well-being.  The novice practitioner assumes that these feelings are a regular part of the practice and so begins to pray with the expectation of experiencing those feelings, or consolations.  As you continue to practice, you will find that such feelings don’t happen every time or may have been the early by-product of allowing yourself to slow down and breathe deeply.  The mystics advise that to truly seek God in prayer, one must look for God beyond the consolations of prayer, enduring times where God seems distant and prayer is difficult.

                I see a similar issue in current forms of worship.  In my last post I wrote about worship that manufactures feeling, using music, lighting and other techniques to make one feel a certain way.  In many Lutheran circles, the desired feeling is often one of comfort.  We choose music and worship styles that soothe and do not challenge.  In other traditions, the goal is to inspire a sense of awe, wonder and mystery.  In both cases I have spoken with worshipers who don’t think that worship is authentic if the feeling is absent.

                There is confusion around feeling and faith.  As I wrote early on, I see a sense of awe and wonder as a virtue to be cultivated, a feeling that pulls us from naval-gazing to a connection with the glory of God, the immensity of creation, the vastness that is outside of us.  Awe is a feeling that can orient us toward God, but awe is not a relational faith in God.   As United Church of Christ pastor Lillian Daniels writes, “Any idiot can find God in a sunset.”  That is, most people have moments where they feel awe and wonder, standing at the edge of Grand Canyon, stargazing on a clear night, watching the sunset over the ocean.  These are moments that cause us to breathe deeply and forget everything else, moments that pull us beyond ourselves and the concerns of the day.  Awe is a powerful feeling, but it is also fleeting.  The sun sets and the ocean becomes dark.  The sun rises and the starlight fades.  We step away from the edge of the canyon.

Awe can push us towards faith.  Awe can strengthen and deepen existing faith.  But awe itself is not faith but a feeling.  I suspect that when someone says that she finds God in a sunset what she really means is that she experiences awe at the sunset.  Likewise, when someone tells me he finds God in nature, he really means he has a feeling of awe in nature.  It is a good feeling.  I have it too and enjoy it, but it isn’t faith.  The nature of faith is too large to cover in this post, but suffice it to say that enjoying the scent of a delicious meal is very different from sitting down and eating it.

To be clear, it is my hope that people feel awe and wonder.  I think it is a very good thing if only for the fact that it puts things into perspective.  I am an advocate for finding wonder in the everyday and the ordinary.  Yet the feeling of awe is not the endpoint but a starting place for faith.  If we can experience awe in the present moment, marveling at the miracle of each second, the complicated cycles that happen with every breath and heartbeat, we are put in a much better place to marvel at the good news that the God who is beyond our understanding wants to be in relationship with us, wants to extend the wonder of life into eternity, joins us in our humanity not as a blazing superhero (Transfiguration aside) but as one of us. 

We are also put in a much better place to marvel at the miracle that is our neighbor.  Even the neighbor you may not enjoy is a wonder to behold, a wonder of breath and heartbeat and life.  Jesus drew attention to those who were forgotten.  Jesus could have begun his ministry with the Roman leadership, the imperial court, wealth and power.  Instead he invited fisherfolk to walk with him.  He could have focused on the religious elite.  Instead he drew attention to the unclean and unworthy.  He saw each person as precious, marvelous and wonderful.  When we find wonder in the present moment, the simple miracles that happen all around us, we are walking the path with Jesus.

Friday, December 15, 2017

The Path of Discipleship - Awe and Wonder Continued

Take three deep breaths and remember that you are alive.   It’s a simple practice, variations of which can be found in several religious traditions.  That breath, that second, the infinitesimal moment of life is a gift of a gracious God.  And yet how often those moments pass without notice, our eyes fixed on screens, our minds transfixed by shiny objects while life, real life is happening all around us.

                One of my concerns about the church in the modern era is that our experiences of awe are often artificial.  The feeling of wonder may be real, but it has been manipulated into being from the outside.  I suspect this began a few centuries ago when Christians stepped into large cathedral sanctuaries filled with the overwhelming sounds of choirs and pipe organs.  The stained glass windows separated holy space from common space as the liturgy filled the room.  The spaces were designed to evoke wonder.  For a couple of hours, worshipers were transported from the common life of toil into an image of the Reign of God. 

                While this pattern certainly was inspiring it strengthened the understanding that divine awe and wonder should be found inside the building, not in the common spaces of life.  Meanwhile the church was learning how to manufacture wonder, a tradition that continues to this day.  I regularly receive worship supply catalogs and have noticed how in the past decades they have more and more supplies that I normally have associated with theatrical productions:  stage lights and spotlights, sound systems and headset microphones just like the motivational speakers use.  I’m not against adopting modern technology.  The stained glass window was the original PowerPoint slide.  The whole Reformation movement was founded on the innovation of the printing press.  Although the embrace has often been tentative, the church has eventually accepted new types of instrumentation and presentation.  Yet the purpose of the theater is to manipulate, to make you feel empathy for pretend characters, to make you feel excited by false battles, to make you weep at pretend death.  The more we embrace the theatrical; the more we embrace the manipulative and the more difficult we make it to find wonder outside of the stage lights and spotlights.

                My goal in writing this is not to declare some worship practices as right and some wrong, nor do I think we need to abandon grand displays of worship.  My goal is to encourage wonder as a daily virtue rather than a special occasion only found in places designed to create wonder.  The awesome aspect of the Christian story is that our God of wonders, who formed the universe with a word and knows the whereabouts of every subatomic particle, has been made known to us in ordinary humanity.  The incarnation of Jesus points to a God who makes the ordinary extraordinary and makes the common wonderful.
              If you truly pay attention to the world around us you will see that the universe itself is a constant source of wonder.  If you consider the vastness of space, the simple fact that we are something and not nothing is a source of wonder;  that we are not just dust carried along the flows of an expanding universe.   If you look through a microscope and see how a drop of pond water is filled with life; if you pick up a beach rock and consider how you are holding millions of years of history, these are opportunities for wonder.  You are discovering the wonder about which the psalmist wrote:

                “The heavens are telling the glory of God;
and the firmament proclaims his handiwork.”  (Psalm 19:1)

                In my next article, I will write about the intersection of wonder and faith.  For now, I encourage you to gaze up at the night sky and watch the transition from night to day as the sun rises.  Pay attention to the variety of life around you, life that flies and crawls and swims all around you.  There is awe and wonder right where you are, all of it praising the living God.

Thursday, December 7, 2017

The Path of Discipleship - An Introduction to Awe and Wonder

In my first post, I described how I would talk about discipleship in terms of a collection of virtues.  The traditional (and not-so-traditional) practices of discipleship encourage and grow those virtues, helping us grow as people of faith.  When I was considering where to begin, I thought about awe/wisdom/wonder as a starting point. 

The author of Proverbs writes, “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.”  Many people bristle at the first noun, “fear.”  One of the most common questions I receive about Luther’s Small Catechism is his use of that word in talking about the 10 commandments.  His definitions all begin with, “We are to fear and love God…”  Why should we have to fear God?

This question comes from the church’s more recent emphasis on the love of God in Christ.  We are always talking about love; God’s love; God loves you; for God so loved the world that he gave his only Son.  I frequently talk about the love of God from the pulpit because I believe that this love is a constant, a constant first made known to us in baptism; the constant that makes the life of discipleship possible.  Because we are sustained by the love of God in Christ, we are set free to live as disciples, to risk, to try, to fail and try again.

So why talk about fear?  The confusing thing about a focus on love is that it tends to put God on equal terms with us.  We act familiar with God as a constant friend and companion.  This is a valid way to talk about God, but it limits our understanding of who God is as well as the amazing nature of that love.  When I hear the word, “fear” in a theological sense, I tend to think about it in terms of reverence or awe.  I have sat at many campfires, amazed at the beauty of light in the darkness, warmth on a cool autumn evening, transfixed by the flit and flicker.  Yet as welcoming as that fire may seem, I also know how important it is to treat it with respect, how easy it is for fire to burn out of control, how dangerous it is to get too close.

The ancient Hebrews had the understanding that “you cannot look upon the face of God and live.”  You would be consumed by the glory of God.  It wasn’t that God was waiting to strike people down, but that God was simply too awesome for simple humanity to handle.  This glory was the reason that ritual became such an essential part of worship.  Any chemist in a lab can tell you that it is best to handle dangerous materials by having protocols in place, rules that walk the fine line between risk and safety.  Rituals are the repeated actions that allow for safe approach toward the glory of God.  It’s not that I think that the church will literally be struck by lightning if we sing the Hymn of Praise before the Kyrie.  Rather, I believe that our rituals of worship continue the tradition of approaching God with a sense of respect and awe.   I also believe that we can change our rituals so long as we preserve the sense of awe out of which they grew.

A healthy sense of awe makes the love of God an amazing proposition.  The God who formed the universe, the God who embraces infinity and yet knows the spin of every quark, the God of hurricane and subtle breeze is deeply in love of with you.  The God who is boundless chooses to be bounded in relationship to you.  The God who is formless chooses to be formed in the person of Jesus so that you can be drawn into a deeper relationship with God, so that you might see an example of what it means to love, the depth of that love, and the truth in that love.

                The next couple of posts will look more deeply at developing a sense of awe, wonder and respect for God.  A fundamental  place to develop the virtue of awe and wonder is in the universe that God has made.  We look at the scriptural stories of miracles as moments of wonder, and yet we are constantly surrounded by a creation that is wonderful.  As the theologian Richard Rohr puts it, “The first Bible is the Bible of nature. It was written at least 13.8 billion years ago, at the moment that we call the Big Bang, long before the Bible of words.”  You are not wrong to feel close to God in a sunset.  You are not wrong to feel close to God in walk in the woods.  Pay attention to all the wonder that happens around you and know that God is at work.

Thursday, November 30, 2017

The Path of Discipleship - Discipleship as a Taste of Eternity

In the gospel of John, Jesus describes himself as “the Way, the Truth and the Life.”  (John 14:6) I have been thinking about that three-fold description, especially how Way, Truth and Life relate to one another.  Are they disparate items as we would write on a shopping list:  milk, butter and eggs?  Or are they intended as synonyms for a single idea?  In the story, Jesus’ description is spoken in response to Thomas’ question, “How can we know the way?”  In this case Way = Truth = Life.  Jesus is the Way that is Truth and is Life.  Jesus is the Life that is the True Way.  Jesus is the Truth that is the Way of Life.

                To be a disciple means to learn and to follow your teacher as a student.  To be a disciple is to seek to walk the path that Jesus walked.  To be a disciple is to seek to follow a way of living and being in the world which is witnessed in the life of Jesus.

                Most discussions of grace in Christ revolve around the cross and resurrection.  Certainly we should look at those moments as the ultimate act and example of grace.  Yet as we talk about living as disciples, we also can talk about Christ’s example as a gift of grace, Christ’s life (between his birth and his death) as what it means to be truly alive in this world.

                Following Jesus as the Way is a gift.  Although it can shift towards works-righteousness, one image I have found helpful is the gospel as the gift of a beautiful piano.  You wake up one morning and there is a perfect instrument in your living room.  It is a work of art, lovingly crafted and always in tune.  Every time you past by you feel gratitude for the one who has given you this gift.  And one day a visitor comes and also marvels at this piano and quietly asks you, “Do you play?”  It is a natural question.  Have you taken the time and established the disciplines (note the link to “disciple”) that will allow you to make beautiful music on this beautiful instrument.  The practice is part of the gift, part of the way of honoring and responding to the gift.  Do you play?

                Following Jesus as the Way is salvation.  This is not to say that discipleship is a way of earning that salvation.  This is not an if-then situation as we proclaim Jesus has already done everything necessary for salvation.  In one of our old offertory songs before Holy Communion we sang asking that God would give us “a foretaste of the feast to come.”  The communion meal became a way of experiencing the promise of eternity, if only for a moment.  Likewise, the life of discipleship offers such a foretaste.  In my first post in this series, I suggested the disciple cultivates certain virtues in our lives: awe, peace, love, gratitude, compassion and faithfulness.  As we embody these virtues we are already living with one foot in eternal life.

                Following Jesus as the Way is shalom.  The Hebrew word is offered as a greeting and often translated as “peace.”  Yet it means much more, pointing toward wholeness and completeness.  When all the disparate pieces of a jigsaw are gathered and organized in their places, the puzzle has shalom.  When a football flies from the quarterback in a perfect spiral, arcing above the players and falling into the waiting arms of the receiver, the play has shalom.  When the sun sets over Buzzards Bay and the sky is filled with yellows and oranges and those watching are moved to silent wonder, the moment has shalom.  Again in John’s gospel, when Jesus says, “I came that they might have life and have it abundantly” (John 10:10) he is talking about shalom.  Real life, abundant life is complete life.  The path of discipleship leads us step by step, growing in shalom, but more importantly, the path itself is shalom.

Friday, November 24, 2017

The Path of Discipleship - Why Discipleship Matters

As many members of my congregation know, I am fascinated by silence and encountering God in silence.  I am by nature an introvert, finding rest and recharge in solitude.  The hardest part of any Sunday morning is not the worship or the preaching, but the fellowship time that follows.  In many ways, this move toward silent practice has been a natural progression, my own response to leading small congregations in a time of decline.  As congregations see more and more open space among the pews and as the occupants of those pews become greyer, anxiety grows.  A pastor who was trained primarily to teach and preach and lead worship  is asked to deal with financial shortfalls, tasked with growing attractive youth programs as well as occasionally trimming church hedges due to a lack of able volunteers.

                It was sitting in silent prayer that taught me not to take on the anxiety of others.  It was what the mystics called mental prayer that reestablished my connection with the solidity of God’s grace.  I rediscovered that God loved me and I could love God simply by doing nothing but being.  My identity was not found in establishing a mega-church or pretending to be Pastor Happy McSmiley, who loves everybody and whom everybody loves.  My identity is grounded on the platform of God’s grace and the greatest gift I can give to any congregation, in growth or decline, is to show others that they are already standing on the solidity of that grace.  This also means that the greatest gift that congregations can give is to introduce people to Jesus, the one who walks on water and invites everybody to step out of the boat and join him.  People can find yard sales and spaghetti suppers anywhere, but the church is the place where we can encounter Jesus in Word, in sacrament and in community.

                And this is why discipleship matters, not because it makes God happy (remember, God is already infinitely happy with you), but because it reminds us of where we are and who we are in God; because it helps us share God’s love, hope and joy with the world around us. 

                Another influence in my understanding of discipleship in the past few years has been sitting in meditation with a local, Zen Buddhist sangha.  I know that in sharing this, some purists will bristle, wondering about my loyalty to the Christian faith.  What would Herr Luther say?  I don’t agree with everything that Buddhism proclaims, but the understanding of the relationship to faith and life is helpful.  In the Buddhist tradition as I have experienced it, life itself is practice.  We are always growing.  We grow as we practice and we practice to grow.  There is no goal to attain.  There are no boxes to check off.  The purpose of life is to practice and it is when we practice that we are truly alive.

                As I have come to understand it, the life that Jesus lived, the span between the birth and the death that the Apostles’ Creed glosses over, is also a gift of God’s grace.  His life, walking with his students, sharing bread, healing the sick, loving the rejected, is a model for what it means to be truly alive.  When Jesus, in the gospel of John says, “I came that they may have life and have it abundantly, “ (John 10:10) he was not talking about some future heaven.  He was talking about our lives here and now as a reflection of that heaven.  When we are walking the path of Christ, when we are practicing our faith, both in private acts of devotion and public acts of mercy and love, eternal life begins now.

                As the church redefines itself in new era, our viability will not be found in getting our worship just so.  It will be found in walking the path of Christ together, practicing together, and living now in eternal life together.

Friday, November 17, 2017

The Path of Discipleship - A Different Way

By way of introduction, I am a Lutheran pastor writing in a time of change, where the structures that once held the church fast are no longer secure.  Fewer people feel called to worship and fewer people feel guilty about not attending.  I have had a number of conversations with parents of my children’s friends who have no real frame of reference for what a pastor does, what a church is and what worship is for. 

                More importantly, I have talked with many, good, church-going folks who are ill-equipped to talk about the nature of Christian life beyond Sunday morning.  This is not to say that these people are not carrying out acts of discipleship outside of Sunday morning, but that they often do not see acts of kindness, acts of service and acts of love as a reflection of Christian life.  It is hard to talk about the path when you don’t know that you are walking on it. 

                I am writing about discipleship as a Lutheran for Lutherans but I suspect that my ideas and experiences may be found in many “mainline” traditions of Christianity.  As a Lutheran, I am compelled to start with grace.  Too often, discipleship is stamped with a seal of works-righteousness, doing things to earn forgiveness or, in some circles, doing things to make God happy (or avoid making God sad).  So let me start by saying that God is already immensely happy with you and deeply in love with you.  The next time you walk into the sanctuary and look at the cross, or the next time you put on a piece of cross-shaped jewelry, remember that this is ultimately a sign of God’s love for you in Christ.  The cross and resurrection have already happened which mean that God is already in love with you.  The mistakes we have made; the sins for which we cannot forgive ourselves, amount to throwing a snowball at the sun.

                This is the platform of grace on which the life of discipleship happens.  When you recognize that this platform is solid, it changes the nature of being a disciple.  It is not about making God happy or sad, angry or loving, it is instead about changing who we are in relationship to God.  It is about finding a deeper union with God by paying attention: to God, to our neighbor, to God’s universe.

                I will also suggest that the path of discipleship is more about addition than avoidance, more about growing in virtue than avoiding this or that vice.   Some might consider this an invitation to lawlessness or hypocrisy.  Isn’t the common criticism of the church that too many Christians worship on Sunday and act like jerks the rest of the week?  My suggestion is that this kind of two-faced living is again a reflection of a poor education in the meaning of the Christian life.  In Lutheran theology, it is also a reflection of the idea of being saint and sinner at the same time.  We are saints because we are standing on the solid platform of grace, not be because we walk on it perfectly.

                In this series of articles, my thesis will be that an intentional focus on virtue can help us break our fascination with vice.  I grew up with donuts.  In fact, donuts were one of the incentives that brought me to church every Sunday.  Every time I drive near a donut shop, even as a middle-aged man, there is a child that sets off an alarm in my head reminding me of the joy of a good donut.  But when one becomes a middle-aged man, the doctors frown at donut consumption with threats of diabetes and other dire consequences.

The solution to my donut-issue was not to avoid donuts.  That effort just made the child shout louder and jab harder at my psyche.  The solution (and I admit is not a final solution) has been much more about eating more fruits and vegetables than eating fewer donuts.  It is not that donuts are unattractive, but they are less interesting with a belly full of broccoli. 

There are many ways one can talk about virtue and many ways to break it down.  As I prepared to start writing I found myself grouping various scriptural virtues that seem to relate.  My discussion of discipleship will use the following groups of virtues:

1.        Wonder/Awe/Wisdom
2.       Love/Forgiveness
3.       Contentment/Peace/Humility/Self-Control
4.       Gratitude/Generosity/Joy
5.       Compassion/Justice
6.       Loyalty/Faithfulness

I will discuss how these are related as well as some of the practices that are associated with each virtue (and there is some overlap.  For instance, good worship could be seen as connecting to all of these virtues).  My hope is that, rather than being a to-do list of holiness, these articles can offer suggestions for ways to grow becauseI believe this path of discipleship is more about growth than perfection.  We will stumble.  We will fail ourselves.  We will have days when we could have been better.  Yet we stumble on that platform of solid grace, sustained in our inconsistency by the constant love of a constant God.

Friday, November 3, 2017

The Reformation - 500 Years Later

The following article appeared in the Cape Cod Times, "Matters of Faith" column on the weekend of October 29, 2017.

I was asked to write this column in celebration of the 500th anniversary of the Reformation because I am a Lutheran pastor and the beginning of the Reformation movement is measured by the actions of Martin Luther.  According to the traditional story, on October 31, 1517, the Augustinian friar posted his 95 Theses on the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg, Germany.  He was hoping to begin a debate on the question of the sale and abuse of indulgences, a means which the Roman Catholic Church offered the faithful to reduce the amount of one’s punishment for sin.  In Luther’s time, the sale of indulgences was being used to fund the rebuilding of Saint Peter’s Basilica in Rome.
                Luther believed that, based on scripture, the grace of God could not be bought, sold or earned and that, by sparking a discussion, the Roman Catholic Church would reform from the inside.  Instead, his actions led to his excommunication from the Roman church and the beginnings of myriad Protestant traditions.  If you are part of a Christian church that is something other than Roman Catholic or some form of Eastern Orthodox, you can likely trace your religious heritage back to Martin Luther.
                For Lutherans, it is tempting to turn this 500th anniversary into a time for hero worship and nostalgia.  Thousands of Lutheran congregations around the world will belt out “A Mighty Fortress is Our God” (the Reformation theme song) in many different forms.  Thousands of study groups will open dusty copies of Luther’s Small Catechism (the Reformation handbook) with their repetitive query, “What does this mean?”  In the United States, congregations that were once much larger will listen to the praises of grey-haired choirs and think about how it used to be.
                This is the challenge of a tradition begun in protest.  A great deal of energy went into the reforming movement.  A great deal of conflict shaped it and grew out of it.  Many of the different Christian denominations we see today stem from divisions (sometimes angry divisions) that spread from that original 1517 moment.  The 100th anniversary of the Reformation in 1617 was a year shy of the beginning of the Thirty Years War, a war which began as a conflict between Catholic and Protestant states and led to the death of millions throughout Europe. 
                Eventually the dust settled and congregations founded in protest wanted something more than the insecurity of reform.  We wanted comfort.  We wanted certainty.  We wanted the church to be formed and finished; a constant; a snapshot that preserved ages past.   We wanted organ music and four-part hymnody, the good old songs we used to sing.  The church became more about culture, heritage and local practice than transformative ideas, more about being comforted than being stirred.
In so doing we seem to have lost the connection to some of the fundamental ideas of the Reformation.  We have lost the sense of the priesthood of all believers and have given authority and ministry back to the professional clergy.  We have lost the sense of humility that comes from a “both/and” understanding of faith described as simul justus es peccator, justified and sinner at the same time.  We have lost the sense of radical grace, that the loving grace of God has set us free to serve all neighbors lovingly.  As Luther wrote in his treatise The Freedom of a Christian in 1520, “A Christian is a perfectly free lord of all, subject to none.  A Christian is a perfectly dutiful servant of all, subject to all.”  
                 The Reformation impulse, which might push churches of Protestant heritage to a broader understanding of faith and a wider sense of neighbor, has become yet another means for separation, enclaves of faith often segregated by race, class, generation or heritage.  We have a much easier defining ourselves by who we are not than who we are.  It is not unusual to find Lutherans who know little of their tradition other than being “not Catholic and not Baptist.”  We have become yet another means for people to define who belongs and who doesn’t, who is inside and who is outside, the good and the bad.
                In short, the work of reform is unfinished.  We need to go back to the ideas that began the movement and not rely on the traditions that developed around it.  For many Lutherans (again, speaking from my own tradition), we need to rediscover that our faith is sparked by ideas of a gracious God rather than coffee consumption and Scandinavian sweaters.  It is also important to keep in mind that not everything about the Reformation is good.  The Reformation grew out of a culture that was sexist, anti-Semitic and assumed that social classes, including peasant and slave, were ordained by God.  We need to reexamine the basic ideas of grace, faith and service to the neighbor, and think about them in light of what we have learned about our universe, our society, our minds and our bodies in the past five centuries. 

Every anniversary is an opportunity for renewal.  It is my hope this 500th anniversary will be a moment to rediscover and share the love of a gracious God and our calling to share that love through acts of kindness, compassion, justice and peace.  

Monday, July 3, 2017

Reflections on the Fourth of July

This post was written for the July 1, Matters of Faith column in the Cape Cod Times:

I am the pastor at Christ Lutheran Church in Falmouth and was invited to write a column on the meaning of the Fourth of July from a faith-based perspective.   As the deadline approached I found myself experiencing some trepidation, looking for reasons to step away from writing.  I have encountered clergy for whom writing this article would be a fairly simple task, who would write about America as President Reagan’s “City on a hill,” the New Jerusalem founded on Christian values.  If only we could get back to the vision of the nation’s Founders then all would be well.
                But I write as a Lutheran pastor who, due to the history of my tradition, is wary of the unquestioning overlap of faith and patriotism.  In the 1500s, Martin Luther wrote some very important theological works that have shaped Protestant traditions to this day.  He also wrote some terrible, offensive and tragic works of anti-Judaism which have plagued the Lutheran church to this day, works that were used by the Nazi government and supported by some of the German churches to legitimize what started as legal discrimination of Jews and ended in the Holocaust.  In 1994, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America publicly rejected Luther’s anti-Semitic writings and the attitudes that are found in them.  Yet their use continues to be an example of how national pride and religious belief can be a dangerous mix.
                Faith and patriotism need not be mutually exclusive but do need to be held in some tension.  As a citizen and person of faith, I can genuinely say, “God bless America.”  But sometimes my Christian faith, which includes an instruction from Jesus saying, “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Matthew 5:44) and values the care of the widow, the orphan, the alien and the poor (Zechariah 7:10), may lead me to question the actions and attitudes of the government.  Sometimes people of faith need to be the prophetic voice challenging the government, as they were in the civil rights era.  Sometimes people of faith need to work alongside the government, as happened in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.  Sometimes people of faith work as leaders within the government, allowing their beliefs to shape their decisions but, hopefully, governing in ways that do not exclude or deny the beliefs of others. 
                As a person of faith and a religious leader, I am thankful to live in the United States, a country that allows for a variety of beliefs.  I am thankful to those who risked their lives and gave their lives not so that we would be a Christian nation, but that we might be a nation where Christians can be authentically Christian and Jews can be authentically Jewish and Muslims can be authentically Muslim and atheists can be authentically atheist.  I am thankful to the Founders of the nation who could not imagine the diversity of race, thought and creed (and, let’s face it, probably wouldn’t want to imagine that diversity) which their experiment in governing would generate.
                Unfortunately, it seems that we are working very hard to shield ourselves from encountering difference.   Both left and right are following newsfeeds and cable news channels that tell us what we already want to hear.  We are sitting in the safety of unchallenged opinions.  Even within the government, both sides of aisle have gone from disagreement with respect to avoiding eye contact. 
So I would like to suggest that one of the most patriotic things that you can do around this upcoming Fourth of July celebration is to talk to someone who is different from you.  Talk to someone from a different country and find out how her American life has been.  Talk to someone of a different color, or sexual orientation, or of a different generation than you and learn his story. Talk to someone with a different faith (or no faith at all), not with the goal of converting her but with the hope of growing in understanding.  Talk to someone from a different political party without trying to prove them wrong but trying to see his perspective.  I find that I grow in self-awareness not by encountering people just like me but in experiencing and being challenged by difference.
And again I suggest that this is a patriotic action, because we live in an America where beliefs and traditions can coexist; where our historic failures have been the result of seeking to control, dismiss or remove those who are different from the “acceptable” norm; where our greatest moments have been shaped by embracing the gifts and challenges of diversity.  America is great when American hearts and minds are open.  May your Independence Day celebrations be joyful and may God bless America.