Contentment

Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever – Hebrews 13:8

The most challenging word in this teaching is, “Keep your lives free from the love of money, and be content with what you have…” We live in a culture where everything is a commodity to be sold and consumed. We may say we don’t love money, but we sure love what it buys. When terror attacks happen, we are encouraged to fight back with our credit cards.

Contentment is dismissed in our age because it supposedly saps our ambition and stalls the economy. Discontent drives industry and capitalism. The problem is that we are consuming the resources earth provides faster than they can be replenished. Our lack of contentment and misguided love of money as a means of being happy is killing the planet and humanity in the process.

Contentment is not found in what spoils, rots, or rusts. It is found in what we already have and what is always with us. After the call to contentment, Jesus speaks: “I will never leave you or forsake you.” Instead of a new dryer, we’re told, “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever.” What more do we need?

For the sake of Jesus, drive out my discontent and fill me with the abundance of your grace. Amen.

From Christ in Our Home copyright © 2019 Augsburg Fortress. Posted by permission. No further reproduction allowed without the written permission of Augsburg Fortress. Contact copyright@157.media for permission.

Broken Church

Five hundred and two years ago, Martin Luther nailed his 95 Theses to the door of the church in Wittenberg, touching off a debate and conflict that came to be known as The Reformation. Thus ends the most predictable sentence a Lutheran pastor could type in the days leading up to Reformation Day. It would now be predictable to shout the praises of brother Martin and point to the eternal truths revealed in that historic moment. I’m not going to do that. I’m actually tired of doing that.

One could say that Luther and other reformers sensed deeply that the Church of Jesus Christ was broken. The 95 Theses were a kind of inventory of the wreckage.  You could look at the Church as an institution and find corruption and all manner of idiotic proclamations of “truth” that bore no resemblance to the gospel or the Christ who uttered it. The Church just wanted to find more ways to keep itself in power. The people were uninformed about the faith and cared little for growing as Christians. They just did what the were told to avoid the damnation they feared.

Sound familiar? We live in an age where the Church is no less broken. Maybe it is even more so. Denominations struggle to be relevant while keeping their place and power as an institution in a culture that cares not. Congregations are more concerned about “surviving,” no matter what they have to do; what they have to give away or give up, than about being the transforming body of Christ in the world. 

We are deeply concerned about “Nones” (those who answer “none” to questions about religious affiliation. In fact, a significant cause of “nones” is that so many of us Christians should say “nominal” when we answer questions about religious affiliation. We are nominal in our commitment, knowledge, engagement with faith and so exhibit no compelling evidence in our own lives that would encourage someone to become engaged in faith. We are, at best, tepid.

The truth is, that like the Church of 500 years ago, the Church of today is broken. It is in need of house cleaning, change, transformation of the kind that happened five centuries ago.

I’m no Martin Luther – nothing even close. But, as I think about it, there are a few theses I would offer if we are to address the Church’s brokenness.

  1. The use of religion as a means of keeping people out, apart, inline, under control is over, folks. We need to stop with the judgmentalism, the hate, the exclusion if we say we worship a God of Love.
  2. The notion that believing the right thing makes you “saved” must give way to living a life, each day, steeped in confession, forgiveness, and growing into Christ. 
  3. “Saved” does not mean bound for heaven when you die. It means that your life is being ever more deeply united with Christ and so becoming ever more eternal every day.
  4. Prosperity is not the same as abundance. You can’t buy love, happiness, meaning, or anything that matters. Abundance comes from union with Christ as it is found in a community of people who live like Jesus.
  5. Our insatiable consumption and rabid individualism is killing us and the planet we inhabit – faster and faster each day. We must repent and return to sustainable, communal, earth-bound habits of living at peace with all – and with ourselves.
  6. Our politicians, our teachers, our bosses, our coaches, our celebrities cannot save us. Only God has a deep enough resume for that project.
  7. God’s economy has nothing to do with capitalism, Wall Street or “return on investment.” It has everything to do with justice, all being fed, and all sharing in the peace and joy of God.
  8. Every congregation will die; every denomination and nation will disappear. Death is not a final word and all that matters is how much love happens while you’re around. Fearing death is silly.
  9. If you hate someone, you hate God.
  10. You only matter as a person as you matter in a community. So, be humble, gracious, forgiving and never assume you are the smartest person in a room or on a social media feed. That makes you a fool.

I could go on, but that is 10% of Luther’s production. We are a Broken Church, no doubt. The Good News is that, like the Reformation 500 years ago, our Lord is a broken savior. He dies on a cross and was raised from the dead so we would never fear brokenness and pain; so that we w=could walk boldly into the fierce waters of change and nor drown. 

So, this weekend, as we remember the Reformation, lets be a broken Church, dependent on a broken savior so we can save a broken world together. Amen

copyright © 2019, Timothy V. Olson.

I Am a Racist

This post also appears in Holy Trinity Lutheran Church’s GraceNotes

I am a racist. I was born to it. So were my parents, and their parents before them. The potential for racism is woven into my humanity. The presence of racism in my life is as pervasive as the air I breathe.  

First, racism is an expression of one of the most basic forms of sin: self-justification. “Us and them” dichotomies are always about improving my standing at another’s expense. Racism is an “us and them” construct that is based on the lie that the color of your skin is constitutive of your humanity. As Merriam-Webster defines it, racism is “a belief that race is the primary determinant of human traits and capacities and that racial differences produce an inherent superiority of a particular race.”

Ta-Nehisi Coates defines it more broadly: “Racism is not merely a simplistic hatred. It is, more often, broad sympathy toward some and broader skepticism toward others.”  My capacity to be a racist (or misogynist, or elitist, or any kind of “-ist”) is grounded in my desire to divide my world into us and them for my own benefit. “Indeed, I was born guilty, a sinner when my mother conceived me.” (Psalm 51:5)

Second, I can’t escape the racism of the culture around me. An old Hasidic proverb says: “To a worm in a jar of horseradish, the whole world is horseradish.” If you live in America, racism is like the horseradish surrounding the poor worm. You just don’t know anything different. You can’t even see the sin, unless you get to the edge of the jar and can somehow look to the other side of the glass. Even then, escape is nearly impossible.

The truth of our racism as a nation is inescapable. Toni Morrison, Pulitzer Award winner, professor, poet and bestselling author, says, “In this country American means white. Everybody else has to hyphenate.” Jim Wallis, author, pastor and leader of Sojourners, in his book America’s Original Sin: Racism, White Privilege, and the Bridge to a New America states the truth in a way that always shakes me to the core: “The United States of America was established as a white society, founded upon the near genocide of another race and then the enslavement of yet another.”  Imitating Isaiah 6:5 – I am a racist, and I live among a racist people. (Isaiah 6:5)

I want to be clear. I am not a White Supremacist actively seeking the destruction of other races. Neither am I one who rationally believes any of the nonsense about how racially different people are, inferior, flawed, lazy, stupid. I have confronted racist behavior in public, in my congregations, and in my personal life. That said, I have also failed at times. I have failed to say “NO!” when I get offered something before a person of color standing in the same line. I have remained silent when someone utters the racial epithet or tells the cruel racial joke. I have been the recipient of grace and blessing when I didn’t even realize it was taken from someone who had darker skin.

Just because my best friend is black does not mean I’m not a racist. It is simply that by the grace of God (which this friend embodies) I’ve been able to transcend the sin of my people and my soul in what is a small step for humanity, but a big leap for me. Dealing with racism begins with admitting its strangling hold on our culture, our nation and my own soul. Dealing with racism starts with my own repentance – every day – as I resist and reject falling into the cultural notions about my “inherent superiority” because of my color (or lack thereof). Dealing with racism is becoming aware that telling people to “go back to where they came from” is a hurtful and historically racist thing to say and stopping myself from saying it for that very reason.

Lenny Duncan, an ELCA pastor writes in his book, Dear Church: A Love Letter from a Black Preacher to the Whitest Denomination in America, “Passivity is the new engine of systemic racism. You just have to believe that this is the way things are.”  Being an active racist who utters inflammatory words or engages in hateful, violent behavior and being a passive racist who does nothing or ignores the truth fuels the same sin and feeds the evil that still works to destroy us.

I am a racist. I am called by my faith every day to beat back the lies and evil that try to tell me I am superior to someone because of my skin color; to resist racist speech, thought, violence, injustice in my own life and the life of the world. My place is to stand with those victimized by racism and against those who perpetuate it. Of this, I am certain, because Jesus is my Lord (a Palestinian) who told me to love everyone – no matter what.

“No human race is superior; no religious faith is inferior. All collective judgments are wrong. Only racists make them”
― Elie Wiesel

Pax Christi – Tim Olson, Lead Pastor

Religion is Evil?

religionsIt has become popular to lay all of the suffering of the world at the feet of religion claiming, “It’s all you fault!” Check in with any of the various neo-atheist or “spiritual but not religious” voices you may hear and you are likely to hear this criticism laced with various degrees of vitriol. After all, it is said, the Crusades, the Inquisition, and colonial conquest were all carried out under the banner of religion. Religious fundamentalism as expressed by Branch Davidians, Jonestown, and radical jihadists have created violence and suffering in the name of God. The Church has done significant harm to individuals and whole groups of people because they were deemed inferior or unfaithful. All this is true. It is shameful.

Lillian Daniel, in her book Tired of Apologizing for a Church I Don’t Belong To, says this line of argument seems a little like saying that all roads are bad (and should be banned) because of the helpless creatures that fall victim to traffic. “…don’t point out roadkill and then tell me that `the road’ has it in for bunnies, deer and armadillos.” (p. 17).  Yes indeed, people have used the name of God to justify all sorts of suffering and evil. But then, people have found ways to slaughter millions in the name of not believing in God, too.

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks notes: “In the course of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries three substitutes for religion emerged as the basis for new identities. One was the nation-state. A second was the ideological system. The third was race. The first led to two world wars, the second to Stalin’s Russia, the Gulag and the KGB, and the third to the Holocaust. The cost of these three substitutes for religion was in excess of a hundred million lives.” 

The source of evil in the world is not religion, government, or any other human institution in and of themselves. It is the human element that corrupts. Our innate desire to have power over others and to justify ourselves at the expense of someone else, what the church calls “original sin,” is what corrupts. While the Crusades were taking place, St. Francis of Assisi was helping birth a reform of the church. The punishing fundamentalism of the Inquisition finally gave way to the Reformation. The struggle between good and evil does take place on the world stage. Through fundamentalism and manipulation, many co-opt the traditions of the faithful (which is religion), for evil purposes. The war, however, is rooted in every human heart. All of us are capable of great evil in the name of something. Religion is neither ultimate evil or ultimate good. The variable is that, as Luther taught, humans are simultaneously saints and sinners, good and evil, all rolled into one. So, human institutions will be the same.

To think that evil and suffering would abate if religion disappeared is to believe that something other than human will drives a great deal of the suffering of the world. I think this is naive. The appeal to science and technology as the “salvation” of humanity is to ignore that every great advance and progress humanity claims has also been co-opted to kill and destroy. Industrialization was manifest in the trenches, tanks, chemical weapons and machine guns of the First World War. Nuclear fission paved the way to Hiroshima and Nagasaki in the second

Finding our human identity as beings rooted in the source of being; releasing ourselves from the tyranny of constant comparison, self-justification and self-hate is the only way to address the evil and suffering around us. For more time than we have measured, that undertaking has been a healthy religious undertaking.

Peace to you.

 

copyright © 2019, Timothy V. Olson

 

 

 

I Don’t Believe in (G)od

I recognize that for a pastor’s blog, the title of this article might seem like click-bait. I cannot claim total innocence on that front. I can, however, say more precisely that I do not have faith in the (G)od discussed in current debates about whether God is real or not.

I have friends who are self-described atheists. They ask me to prove that God exists as an objective reality. Some measurable, mathematical, physical accounting must be made in order for God to be tangible; to be real. I understand the request. I also have friends, colleagues, and people of faith who want me to make a “case for God” because they are absolutely certain that objective arguments exist and can be made. They want me to help. I understand the desire.

Writ larger than my own world, there is the neo-atheist movement of Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens et. al. who assert that with no objective proof of God, religion is a childish means of manipulation or an ignorant means of explaining big questions. On the other side, there is the Creation Museum in Kentucky which takes on the challenge and builds an objective argument for the existence of God, offering explanations and theories that point to a creator who is an objective player in the grand scheme of the universe.tillich

My problem is that, if I am to talk about God in the most general terms (which is not really my wheel house – I’m a preacher and speak of God in particularities, mostly), I don’t believe in the God creationists and fundamentalists are sure exists. Nor do I believe in the objectively provable God that atheists demand.

Paul, preaching to the Greeks in Athens, points to the gods they seek and worship saying,  “(God) is not far from each one of us. For ‘In him we live and move and have our being’.” (Acts 17:27-28) The very fact that we are points relentlessly to a ground for that being. Paul’s roots in Hebrew scripture, which posits the name of God as the mysterious, I Am (Exodus 3:14) lead him to a God larger than objective reality.

St. Augustine said, “If you understood him, it would not be God.” Existence itself rests beyond our finite limits. Dietrich Bonhoeffer said, “A God who let us prove his existence would be an idol.” Objectifying God makes a lower case god, who is, in fact, largely about manipulation and denial as the atheists insist and as the fundamentalists forget.

In the fact of our existence and the consciousness that our existence is beyond us, Paul Tillich points to God as being: “The fact that man never is satisfied with any stage of his finite development, the fact that nothing finite can hold him, although finitude is his destiny, indicates the indissoluble relation of everything finite to being-itself.”

The reawakened contemplative tradition is reconnecting with this understanding of God through the teaching of people like Father Richard Rohr, who says, “This utterly grounds our deeper notion of God as Being itself, rather than God as a Being, alone and apart.”

David Bentley Hart is a professor of the Philosophy of Religion, and an astute (if not sometimes a little arrogant) voice for this classic understanding of God. He asks this question of those who demand – on both sides of the question – an objective proof of God. How, after all, could the existence or nonexistence of some particular finite being among other beings provide an ultimate answer to the mystery of existence as such?” ― David Bentley Hart, The Experience of God: Being, Consciousness, Bliss

As to what this has to do with Jesus Christ, well, that is a word for another day. I will say that this deeper, non-objective understanding of God leads to an encounter with Jesus Christ that is far beyond what the materialism and objective world can offer. That Christ is the incarnation not of some objective force within creation, but of the ground of being itself — well, that is ultimate good news.

Let me leave you with a quotation from Hart which summarizes what I’m getting at much better than I can manage: “God so understood is not something posed over against the universe, in addition to it, nor is he the universe itself. He is not a “being,” at least not in the way that a tree, a shoemaker, or a god is a being; he is not one more object in the inventory of things that are, or any sort of discrete object at all. Rather, all things that exist receive their being continuously from him, who is the infinite wellspring of all that is, in whom (to use the language of the Christian scriptures) all things live and move and have their being.”
― David Bentley Hart, The Experience of God: Being, Consciousness, Bliss

Pax Christi, Tim Olson

 

copyright © 2019 Timothy V. Olson

 

 

Idio-stasis

beggar

A pundit recently said something that seemed utterly idiotic to me. I was not alone. Yet, even as an avalanche of push back mounted, he stuck to his guns. He was either totally clueless about the idiocy of his statement or unswervingly committed to never admitting a mistake. I wondered to a friend whether the continued effort was cumulative or simply expressed some kind of static state, which I called “idio-stasis.” She insisted that I had coined a phrase. So, I’m claiming it.

Idio-stasis is not an insult. It is, ultimately, a word that describes human sin and brokenness. Idio-stasis is unrepentant and widespread. Let me explain. Adam and Eve eat from the forbidden fruit. They get busted – hand in the fruit jar, if you will. They blame each other. Then they blame the snake. They stick to their refusal to accept responsibility for the fall. Idio-stasis.

Closer to home, I lost 30 pounds this last year. Over the holidays, I gained back 6. Why? Cookies. I eat the cookies. I gain the weight. Then I step on the scale and am shocked and dismayed when the number goes up. Idio-stasis.

In our politics right now, we have lots of folks who are so full of pride and arrogance; who have drunk deeply from the Kool-aid of partisanship that they can’t back down, discuss or compromise. The result is chaos. Then they act surprised. Idio-stasis.

A much more eloquent statement about what I am getting at was made bu Martin Luther King Jr. (on this, his birthday), “Nothing in all the world is more dangerous than sincere ignorance and conscientious stupidity.”

Ultimately, the spiritual struggle here is that we become disconnected from any self-awareness of our faults; we ignore the things that keep us from being who God calls us to be; we keep on doing idiotic things because to change would be to admit a mistake; to change would be to let go of our pride; to change would require confession – and that is something we – even as Christians – don’t want to undertake.  But, if we cannot confess our mistakes, faults, evil deeds and sin, we can never be forgiven and transformed by the work of the Spirit.

The most dangerous people are those who are least self-aware. They don’t know they are broken and need transformation (sincere ignorance). Just as dangerous to self and others are those too full of pride to say, “I was wrong. Forgive me.” (conscientious stupidity).  I would classify both things as “idio-stasis” – being stuck in our own idiocy and choosing to stay there.

In Ignatian spirituality, part of one’s daily practice is called “examen.” It is a practice that includes seeking the ways that your day was marked by brokenness, impatience, pride, arrogance or whatever got in the way of your relationship with God and neighbor. Once you name it, you can own it and seek transformation in Christ by the power of the Spirit. It is a way of dealing with the “idio-stasis” in all of us. Ultimately, “idio-stasis” is our rejection of humility for an arrogance that rejects change. To live in the reign of God, however, is a constant embrace of change and transformation at the hands of a gracious God.

Peace to you!

Copyright © 2019, Timothy V. Olson

I Love You. You Are Mine.

logo let your light shine square

God’s word to the people of Judah who are facing the collapse of everything they hold dear and the chaos and suffering of life is: I love you, you are mine. (Isaiah 43)

This pronouncement is made over us as we are baptized, giving us an identity and purpose that transcends all the other attempts to make us fear and doubt ourselves in this world. When the government is shutdown, the economy uncertain and even the church seems to be fading, God still proclaims this essential truth.