Thursday, May 17, 2018

The Path of Discipleship - The Stewardship of Time

We are blessed with 24 hours in a day; 60 minutes in each of those hours; 60 seconds in each of those minutes.  Each of those seconds is an opportunity to make a choice; to do something creative or do something destructive; to do something that builds us up or tears us down; to do something joyful or do something wasteful or do something that simply needs getting done.  The good news of grace is that God’s love for us is not dependent on how we use that time.  We may go into the deep depths of binge-watching a show which we will not remember in a year but from which we cannot turn away, coming up after hours of time that we can never get back, embarrassed because of missed appointments or chores left undone, and still find that God is in love with us; is waiting to see what we will do next.

                Some argue that time is an illusion, a convenient frame of reference that breaks down with careful measurement.  What we perceive as time is a trick of the light.  We look at a starry night and are seeing the past, the light from millions of years ago from stars light-years away.  Some of the stars we think we see now may have in fact exploded thousands of years in the past.  Even as I look at you across the room I am not seeing you now.  I am seeing the light that bounced off you with an infinitesimally small time delay.  I am always seeing where you just were and never exactly where you are right now.

                My Hebrew professor, Walter Michel, frequently proclaimed that “Eternity has nothing to do with time!”  As he explained it, the Hebrew word for eternity is more about a state of being than an unending timeline.  We should not worry about being bored in heaven, because life after death is more about entering an eternal present with God.  I sometimes imagine that God sees the universe like a mural in a natural history museum describing the origins of life.  As you walk by the mural, you begin at one-end with single-celled creatures that over time develop into plants and animals, life-forms becoming increasingly complex; insects fly; amphibians follow them out of the water; dinosaurs rise and rule and fall; scruffy mammals slowly inch towards life as primates; finally homo sapiens walk upright only to take their seats in office chairs.  As we walk by the mural, time passes.  Yet if we stand at the doorway of the room, we can see the whole picture, taking in species that never coexisted.  To God everything is present; every moment is this holy moment.  Christ is always crucified and always resurrected.

                With all this in the background I would suggest some different ways to measure the stewardship of time.  The common way to talk about use of time in my context is productivity.  What did you get done?  How many things did you cross off your list?  While it is true that sloth was listed as one of the seven deadly sins, there is more to life than productivity.  Constant production can turn into mere busyness, doing for the sake of doing.

                One question we might ask is : Was the use of time creative or consumptive?  This idea goes along with the “make something beautiful” theme I have been discussing.  Did the use of time create beautiful moments of lovingkindness, justice or peace?  Did the use of time point people toward the beauty that is God? 

                Or did the use of time consume other people’s work or further consume God’s creation?  Just to be clear, consumption is not a sin in and of itself.  When I read a book I am consuming the author’s creative work, but hopefully those new ideas will create something new in me or will recreate me, allowing for rest and renewal.  The issue is when there is no balance, when we are only consuming or overconsuming and rarely creating.

                Another question we might ask about the use of time is: Were you present?  Often we spend our moments analyzing the past or fearing the future.  Yet God is only found in the present and one of implications of the illusion of time is that the true you is only found in the present.  So be there.  Whatever you do, do it in that moment where God is and you are.  There is an old Zen Buddhist story about a teacher who was asked about the secret of happiness.  He replied, “When I eat my rice, I eat my rice.  When I wash my bowl, I wash my bowl.”   Pay attention to the tastes and textures of the moment.  They are gift from God.

                Finally, as the 3rd commandment (as my tradition counts it) reminds you, don’t neglect to rest.  If you can take part in restful celebration for a day each week, do it.  Sabbath is more than being somewhere Saturday evening or Sunday morning.  Sabbath is recognizing God’s wisdom that human beings are not meant to be in constant production.  It is not good or healthy.  Find Sabbath hours, Sabbath minutes or Sabbath moments.  Remind yourself to stop and breath and pay attention.  Sabbath is not a waste of time.  Sabbath is a gift of rest and refreshment.  We rest because it is good; because it is what allows us to be creative; because it is a gift.

                The stewardship of time is similar to the stewardship of money or possessions.  It is not just about religious choices, but every choice with we make about how to use our time.  Each moment is a gift; some for creating; some for resting; some for simple appreciation, taking it all in.  Each moment is a gift of our loving God.

Thursday, May 10, 2018

The Path of Discipleship - Why We Give as We Do

In this article, I am going to reflect on the different ways that Christians give, specifically to the church.  I know in past articles I have focused on the idea that stewardship is more than giving money to a church, but is reflected in all of the choices of what we do with what we have.  Our Christian stewardship of money impacts what we spend on ourselves, what we save, and what we give away including what we give to a congregation.  Many of us learned about giving by observing our parents or family and so many congregations have a learned culture of giving.

                For Lutherans as well as for many traditional American congregations, giving is shaped by a model found in the book of Acts.  Now the whole group of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one claimed private ownership of any possessions, but everything they owned was held in common…There was not a needy person among them, for as many as owned lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold.  They laid it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to each as any had need.”( Acts 4:32;34-45)  This is not exactly how the church is living.  Very few Christian communities of any size adopt a radical, communal lifestyle.  But congregations have been imprinted with the idea of the church as a community, responsible for one another, caring for one another and, importantly, sharing what they have in a fair way.

                This is even more marked in congregations of Scandinavian heritage that may come with a cultural worldview known today in Swedish as jantelagen, a disdain for sticking out or seeming more important than others.  In many congregations, what developed was an ethic of equality, so giving was about people determining their fair share of congregation’s expenses.  In some cases, this led to a system of dues, where every member paid a weekly or annual fee.  In other cases, it simply led to a culture where over time people figured the least amount (the fair share) that an average person should have to give.  This is also why many of these congregations have a heritage of barely covering their expenses each year, because most budgets are planned to let the congregation just get by.  Giving is tied to the congregational budget.  If expenses are lower, giving tends to be lower as well.

                I would argue that the fair share model that still shapes giving in many mainline congregations no longer works and hasn’t been working for at least my twenty years of ministry.  It may have worked well in immigrant communities where family incomes were at similar levels for most of the congregation and costs were relatively low.  As costs have increased and income levels have diversified, a standard fair share will be an easy burden for some and a heavy burden for others.

                Other communities, especially those of Evangelical or Fundamentalist persuasion, tend to focus more on the individual’s personal responsibility for faith.  Thus giving also is about a personal choice and personal discipline.  They are not asking, “What is my fair share for this community?” but “How is God asking me, personally, to give?”  The most common answer to that question is a tithe.  The tithe (or tenth) is a concept that appears primarily in Hebrew scripture.  According to the Book of Numbers, the Levite priesthood is supported by tithes from the rest of the tribes of Israel (Numbers 18:21).  Leviticus defines the tithe of a herd or flocks as “every tenth animal that passes under the shepherd’s staff.”  (Leviticus 27:32).  The frequency of tithing is unclear.  At times, people offer a tithe for a special occasion or dedication to God.  The whole nation was supposed to tithe at least once a year at the harvest. 

                The tithe is not mentioned much in the New Testament.  Jesus critiques the Pharisees for being very careful with their tithing, even tithing their spices, while neglecting to live with justice and mercy.  This absence may be because between the writing of Leviticus and the New Testament, the economy had shifted from a purely agrarian economy to a money-based economy.  When everyone is giving produce and livestock, the tithing system works.  When everyone is giving money, the tithing system works.  In Jesus’ time, some were still giving agrarian gifts and some were giving money.  The definition of a tithe was probably a bit muddy in that context.

                Today most people seem to have moved away from the original concept of tithing, a tenth of one’s holdings, to a more practical concept, a tenth of one’s income.  This makes sense because most of us don’t receive our income in one batch at a harvest but spaced throughout the year.  So those who tithe, donate 10% from their regular income (normally pre-tax).  Tithers see a number of benefits to this practice.  It forces you to control your money and, for many, leads to working within a budget.  It directly answers the, “How much should I give?” question.  In communities with a variety of income levels, it allows for a fair way to talk about giving.

                The main critiques of the practice of tithing are not so much with the practice but how it is presented.  Tithing can fall into an empty legalism, determining who is faithful by what they give, rediscovering the law-based faith of the biblical Pharisees.  It can lead to “magic”/transactional/prosperity thinking with leaders proclaiming that those who tithe faithfully will be blessed with more.  If you give, then you will get.  At an extreme, giving is not about honoring God or serving God, but manipulating God to get more.

                Tithing is simply a model for giving, a scriptural model that has been modified to work in a changing economy.  It is certainly a faithful way to give and a simple way to think about giving.  The good news of grace is that God’s love is not dependent on what we give or how we give.  The freedom of the gospel is that we can find other models and experiment with how to give. 

                An alternative way to think about giving might be to use Jesus’ teaching from the Sermon on the Mount.  Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” (Matthew 6:21)  How you spend is a reflection of your priorities.  You pay taxes if it is a priority to be a good citizen.  You pay a mortgage or rent because housing is important.  You buy food because you need food.  You also spend money on things you don’t need, entertaining yourself, treating yourself.  How does what you give away to churches and charities fit into that scheme?  Based on your personal spending, that is, where your treasure goes, where is your heart?  What are your priorities?  Does your congregation look like a priority in your spending?  Does the kingdom of God, where the hungry are fed and the needy are cared for, look like a priority? 

                This article is an invitation to think more deeply about giving and explore different models of giving, using the freedom we have as disciples.   You can explore tithing.  Figure out what 10% would be and ask yourself how it feel to give that amount; perhaps try it for a few months.  You can explore priority giving.  How would it feel to match what you spend on yourself for entertainment with what you give away?  Again, try it for a month or two.  Challenge yourself to be generous.  Deepen your understanding of what it means to be a steward.  Let your life be a reflection of our God who is eternally generous.

Thursday, May 3, 2018

The Path of Discipleship - Stewardship and Money

A common mistake we make as the church is in identifying the stewardship of money with donating to a congregation.  All too often, when the pastor gives “the stewardship sermon”, it is a sermon about why you should give more to the religious organization, a sermon on supporting the mission of the community and the life of the congregation.  When money is in short supply, we might hear that we need to be better stewards.
                And we do need to be better stewards, but that can only happen when we understand the breadth of stewardship.  When I talk about the stewardship of money, I am talking about every decision that you make about money.  What you choose to give to a congregation is one of those decisions, but it is not the only decision that matters.

                If you find a five-dollar-bill as you are going about your day, there are a number of choices that you can make.  You might see if the original owner is nearby.  You might spend it on something you need.  You might spend it something you don’t need.  You might buy a gift for someone else.  You might give it to someone else.  You might place it in next offering plate that you see.  You might stuff it in the back of your sock drawer.  You can probably think of many more choices, but all of them are acts of stewardship.  You have a resource and you are deciding what will be done with that resource.

                Money is a resource, a means of transacting business, a means of attributing worth to an item or service.  If our economy ran on rocks, I would be writing a stewardship and rocks article.  But our economy is based on money and, laying aside all the cultural taboos and personal secrecy around money, it becomes another resource among many.  For Christians, money becomes another tool with which to do the work of the kingdom of God, a means to continue God’s work of creation and make something beautiful.  We need not fear money as an evil, but we also must not turn into something more than it is.  The amount of money we have or lack says nothing about our intrinsic value to God or to one another.  Money is a thing.  Some have more.  Some have less.  All are called to be stewards.

                One way of stewarding your money is by paying greater attention to how it is spent.  How much do you spend on food?  How much on entertainment?  How much on housing?  Is it dripping away like a leaky faucet of impulse buys and automatic payments?  This isn’t about good spending or bad spending but noticing spending habits.  Are there places you could spend less?  How would it feel to give away more?  Are you funding what is truly important to you?  Investing in your priorities?

                Jesus says in the Sermon on the Mount, “Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”  How we spend can be a sign of our true priorities.  So I will end with a challenge.  Take a few minutes to think about something that matters to you and relates to God’s work in the world.  Maybe it is a mission  of a congregation: taking care of those experience hunger or homelessness.  Maybe it is a scientist looking for a cure to a disease or seeking a deeper understanding of the universe .  Maybe it is an environmentalist looking to preserve an ecosystem or species.  Think about the possibility that you might contribute to that work even in a small way.  My challenge to you is to let your treasure go where you feel your heart is leading, and let your heart and intention be where your treasure is.

Thursday, April 26, 2018

The Path of Discipleship - Stewardship and the Mind

As I mentioned in a previous article, the split between the body and mind (or body and soul) that has defined the church’s understanding of human life is a false division that comes out of Greek philosophy.  More and more, neuroscience points to the connection between body and mind.  For instance, what people experience as feeling stress is the body reacting to the mind at work. You think about unpaid bills or an impossible to-do list, especially thinking about the possible consequences of failing to pay those bills or finish that list, and the body reacts by preparing for a “fight or flight” type response.  The heart rate increases.  The digestive system slows down.  Several hormones, such as cortisol, begin to course through the body.  Yet the threat is not real.  We are imagining what could happen and that is enough to put this physical process in motion.

                Nevertheless, I want to spend a little time writing about stewardship of the mind (or perhaps stewardship of the brain) as a separate category of stewardship.  On the one hand, many of the things that are good for the body are good for the brain.  Exercise, rest and a healthy diet help the brain function as a part of the body.  Stewardship of the body is a part of stewardship of the mind.

                We also know that the brain is far more complex and needs its own attention as a gift from God.  The brain is that wonderful creation that processes all of the information that our body encounters.  It is the container of our memories and the center of learning.  It is in many ways the center of our self.  It can also be the source of many problems.  What we call worry is a recurring thought, replaying itself in our synapses.  In various mental illnesses, the brain misfires and misbehaves.  Then there are the issues we associate with aging, where connections come more slowly or even begin to break down.  Names escape us and memories are fleeting.

                Each mind is unique, a part of what makes you a unique individual.  We process the world differently.  We respond to stimuli differently.  For instance, most people have some kind of emotional reaction to music, that impulse to tap your feet and clap along, leading to talk of music as a universal language.  But it is now estimated that 3-5% of the population, myself included, have a condition known as “music specific anhedonia.”  It is not that we can’t understand music.  It just doesn’t make much of an impact.  For me, music can be a helpful distraction to drown out other noise, but I don’t miss it if it is not playing.  This can be especially difficult in worship settings where music is a fundamental part of how people encounter the divine.  Those who can’t imagine worship without music are not wrong for their love of music, nor are those who find little power in music wrong for that reaction.  It is simply a reflection of the unique nature of our minds.

                I suppose that is part of what draws me to contemplative prayer, encountering God is silence.  One of the initial aspects of working with silence is becoming aware of how your brain is generating a constant background of thought.  Zen Buddhists refer to this as “monkey mind.”  When you stop and pay attention you realize that there are many loosely connected thoughts buzzing around in your brain.  You think about what you should be doing.  You wonder about choices you made in the past.  You think about what you are going to do in the future.  You wonder how long you have been sitting there in silence and how much longer you should.  You wonder about the dog that is barking in the distance.  Does it see a deer?  Are there deer in this forest?  I haven’t seen a deer here but I did all the time when I was in Michigan.  Michigan is a great state with nice beaches.  At night time, you can look across Lake Michigan and see a haze of lights from Milwaukee and other places in Wisconsin.  Wisconsin has good cheese…Monkey mind.

                I have found mindfulness, meditation and contemplative prayer to be essential practices for the stewardship of my own mind.  They are practices that allow the mind to settle.  You learn to notice your thoughts and, importantly, let go of recurring or unwanted thoughts.  You become aware that thoughts are like cars driving by your house.  Unless you go out and stop them, they pass by, their noise fading into nothing.  These practices take time and some level of discipline.  The benefits are not immediate, but build with regular practice.

                The other aspect of mental stewardship I would encourage is learning.  We live in an age where there are amazing resources for learning.  Yet many adults leave learning to the young.  Often there is an attitude that if something doesn’t further one’s career or earn money, it isn’t worth the time.  Why learn to play the piano when you are not going to be a professional musician?  Why learn a language if you aren’t going to travel somewhere soon?  Why study a science if you are not a professional scientist?  Why study the Bible when all you need is Psalm 23 and John 3:16?  Learn for the joy of learning, for the “Aha!” moments and the instances of “I never did that before.” 

                For example, there is some debate about the need for seminary students to study the original Hebrew and Greek of the Bible.  Professional scholars have produced excellent translations.  In many ways pastoral ministry has been shifting from a scholarly model to a service-oriented model.  Some argue that the study is not worth the time.  Yet I still remember the moment when I was walking by a synagogue in Chicago and I realized I knew the meaning of what had previously been, for lack of a better phrase, Hebrew squiggles.  I was and am by no means an expert in biblical Hebrew, but I remember the sense that a new part of the world had opened up to me, new connections were being made.  These moments shape the mind and keep the mind in shape.

                Your brain is a gift and, as with all the gifts of God, you are encouraged to enjoy that gift but also to care for it.  Use your mind to that for which it was made, to make something beautiful, continuing God’s process of creation.  Be still.  Pay attention.  Be engaged.  Learn something new.  Be creative.  Make something beautiful.

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.

Thursday, March 1, 2018

The Path of Discipleship - Why Less Is More

This week I wanted to reflect a little on ideas that have come out of the “Get Rid of It” challenge.  I have led this project in two congregations and heard similar themes as the process goes on.  One theme is the simple power of making a decision.  Often we hold onto things because we cannot decide what to do with them.  Looking through closets and bookshelves is a bit like a geologist looking at layers of sediment.  We can see the authors that have fascinated and entertained us at one time or another.  I have a collection of Hemingway novels and E.B. White essays all stemming from an 8th grade English teacher who thought early exposure to what he considered good writing would refine my style. 

We can see the classes we took and the hobbies we tried over the years.  Letting go of such things can represent a failure of will and follow-through.  I was going to be a great artist until I ran out of time but I promised myself I would get back to it.  I once knew calculus and Latin and still have the textbooks to prove it.  Letting go of them means admitting that the knowledge was transitory.   My personal translation of Virgil remains unfinished and physics much past F=m*a remains beyond my grasp.

The process of letting go is a process of admitting that who you were is no longer who you are.  When I was a child I dreamed of great things and great achievements.  I could be an astronaut.  I could be famous, maybe the president.  I could be an Olympic champion.  As I grew older, the dreams changed and the goals changed.  I could be a musician.  I could be a scientist.  I could be an author.  None of these were bad dreams.  Perhaps some were deluded by a lack of knowledge, but none were inappropriate for that moment in my life.  Yet I look at the presidency today and wonder, “Who in their right mind would want that?”  I have met former athletes, now senior citizens, who in old age deal with the damage to their bodies from the youthful pursuit of excellence.  I am content now to try to keep myself in decent shape, but no longer hold Olympic dreams.  The person I was may shape the present, but I am not longer the person I was.

By removing some things, we give ourselves permission to move forward to the next dream and next passion.  We can acknowledge that most dreams and most passions are transitory.  It is all right to enjoy a hobby for a little while and it is all right to move on to something else.  It is all right to change, to explore, to backtrack.  Change is the nature of life.

In many versions of contemplative prayer and meditation, one of the goals is to acknowledge that thoughts are not permanent.  They are an ethereal sparking of connected neurons flickering in the background of consciousness until that moment we pay attention to them.  Then somehow they gain solidity and move into the foreground.  Contemplative prayer challenges us allow them to flow in the background, to bubble up and fade away.  One thought rises as another subsides.

Similar images can be used for the things in our lives, the physical possessions, the scheduled priorities.  What if we learn to loosen our grip on them, to give them less attention?  What if we learn that things are just things?  Could we live with less?  Could we share more?  Could we open more physical space around us?  Could we open more time in our lives?  Could we better handle the changes that are a natural part of life?

Like it or not, we change.  The world changes.  The things we own also change.  Cars dent and paints fade.  The new shirt becomes the stained shirt.  The enthralling mystery book loses its appeal when you find out whodunit. 

The good news is that God’s love is constant when the world is not.  God’s love surrounded the person you were.  It surrounds the person you are.  God’s love will surround and sustain the person you will be.  The path of discipleship is that path that reminds us of this truth, a path explained well by those words of Meister Eckhart that are shaping this Lenten season.  “To be full of things is to be empty of God.  To be empty of things is to be full of God.”