Fear 10.0

First published in GraceNotes of Holy Trinity Lutheran Church http://gracenotes-htlc.com/2019/11/20/fear-10-0

With more than a nod to C.S. Lewis and his Screwtape Letters, I offer this message I intercepted from the IT Department in Hell (you think you get weird stuff in your social media). If you know what the enemy is up to, it can help:

“To all demonic administrators and lowly minions of evil:

Please be advised that we are currently upgrading the anxiety/fear/terror software in your human subjects to version 10.0. (Frankly, we’ve been at this so long we don’t know what iteration this really is…). Added to the operating system are new applications related to the coming 2020 election. These improvements enhance the hate level for those with opposing views and the despair level regarding future outcomes. If we continue to make good progress dividing people into imaginary little binary groups (one of our greatest inventions) they will fall apart. We grudgingly must say “glorious evil work” to those who have so successfully turned their subjects in high places to replace any dangerous commitment to the common good and the rule of law with farcical attacks, conspiracy theories and childish conduct. Bravo.

Of course, this just builds on the underlying sub-routines that steer your subjects from thinking for the common good, replacing that creator-driven design flaw by aggrandizing the way the world revolves around their “individual” identity. The me-centric matrix has been a brilliant addition and we merely deepen its hold on the false reality algorithm built in the basic operating system where community is the basis of identity.

Remember, if we can effectively frame every decision around “the self,” civility, civil loyalty, and democracy itself will eventually collapse. (I think you will find that our master and lord of darkness is delighted at the progress on this front in recent events. We claim the credit, but must admit, sometimes the human species does our work for us). Our progress toward a system that completely negates all sense of concern about the subject’s neighbor is ongoing.

Some of you have pretended wisdom and dared to ask questions about what you see as growth of the human “community” surrounding the deliciously disastrous degradation of creation. You fail to see that the negation of any sense of neighbor extends to all creations and creatures of the Enemy. If your subject will not raise a finger to help the human next door, certainly, they will not care about a tree. Besides, because they are being reprogrammed to think only of themselves, they will be so overwhelmed by the scope of environmental damage they will retreat to watch TV about it, at most. They can only address the problems they face on a global scale communally. If you are doing your job as demons, that won’t happen! Just tell them its hopeless to recycle, or that the facts of the matter are a conspiracy. 

You need not worry (though by mentioning this, we revel in knowing you now are) about many of the foundational processes running in your patients. Replacing the divine enemy’s reality of abundance for all creation with the insidious lie about never having enough will continue to result in panic, poor choices, greed, heaps of fear and the delightful erosion of the soul to a bite size morsel. You will note we have expanded the anxiety and terror related to scarcity to time itself. You should be seeing increasing devotion of time in all manner of activities that fill the days of your subject beyond carrying capacity. The successful rejection of the sabbath nonsense provided by the creator, has led to the fear that your subjects are failures unless they are busy, productive, active, or whatever, every waking moment. In fact, success is now being seen at eroding sleep time with activity which overloads the subject’s ability to ward off our attacks. That subjects are able to pass this on to their spawn is gratifying. All for now. Keep up the evil work.

May you all burn in the fires that await the fearful,

Wormwood – Director of Human Sin Software

Fear is the opposite of faith. Not doubt. Not hate. Fear. It seems to me that with each passing day there is more and more that frightens us into lives full of despair and hate; that lack meaning and struggle to find peace. We have everything, but we’re empty.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, in one of his marvelous sermons said this:

Fear is, somehow or other, the archen­emy itself. It crouches in people’s hearts. It hollows out their insides, until their resistance and strength are spent and they suddenly break down. Fear secretly gnaws and eats away at all the ties that bind a person to God and to others, and when in a time of need that person reaches for those ties and clings to them, they break and the individual sinks back into himself or herself, helpless and despairing, while hell rejoices… Fear takes away a person’s humanity. This is not what the creature made by God looks like—this per­son belongs to the devil, this enslaved, broken-down, sick creature. https://politicaltheology.com/overcoming-fear-sermon-dietrich-bonhoeffer/

The Bible tells us to not fear or not be afraid 655 times, by my count. The antidote to fear is the absolute declaration that “neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Romans 8:38-39)

Fear is the soil in which sin and evil grow. The bully on the playground (or the halls of government) act out of fear. The narcissist acts out of fear that they don’t matter. The greedy are afraid the barns are not big enough. On it goes. When fear has stripped away our humanity, we lose empathy, compassion, and we lash out is hate. Our nation; our world; our city; our lives are filled with fear. And none of that has to be. Christ is the truth that sets us free from fear.

Think of the 5-10 things you fear most. Write them down. Now ask yourself what Christ, through the power of the Spirit living in you has to say about these things. I think it will begin with the assurance of the savior – Do not fear.

“Those who are still afraid of men have no fear of God, and those who have fear of God have ceased to be afraid of men. All preachers of the gospel will do well to recollect this saying daily.” ― Dietrich Bonhoeffer

Pax Christi – Pastor Tim Olson

Copyright 2019 Holy Trinity Lutheran Church

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

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

 

 

Grace Has Appeared…

On this Festival of the Nativity of Our Lord, we remember that “grace has appeared bringing salvation to all.” (Titus 2:11). That “we are” instead of “are not” introduces the question of God as the ground of being for all things. Once we ask that question, the next is whether being is just one random thing after another or whether being is somehow benevolent. In Christ, “grace has appeared” to tell us that the ground of our being and existence is bent toward benevolence. love, and life. Blessed Incarnation to all.

Jesus, Fig Trees, and the End of the World

It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas. The season Advent, however, seems to throw a wet blanket on all the jingling bells and decked halls. Scripture readings (Luke 21) turn to images of the end of the world and collapse of heaven and earth. Not very festive, it seems. That makes the preacher a bit of a buzz kill until we see that Jesus proclaimed a word of great hope in the midst of the destruction and death of this world. The fig tree puts forth leaves declaring summer is at hand and a harvest is on the way. Jesus is that fig tree, and our salvation is at hand.

Advent 1 – Holy Trinity Lutheran Church – December 2, 2018

Me? A Saint?

Paul and Timothy, servants of Christ Jesus, To all the saints in Christ Jesus at Philippi, together with the overseers and deacons… (Philippians 1:1 NRSV)

Paul addresses his letter to the “all the saints” in Philippi. As the letter unfolds, it is clear that not everyone is well-behaved or “saintly” in this congregation. In fact, he seems to suggest some people should know their place and be humble when he mentions the “bishops and deacons” after everyone else. It also becomes clear that he is not speaking just to some of the “good folks” at Philippi and ignoring the bad ones. Paul’s address is for everyone, equally.

So, what have they done to deserve such an accolade? After all, “saint” is reserved for special people, right? “Saint” must refer to those who exhibit godliness and righteousness in a special was and give the rest of us an example.  According to my Greek lexicon, the word Paul uses, which is regularly translated as “saint,” means, on the one hand  “to be holy, morally upright, pure.” That’s a high bar I’m not sure I ever clear. But the word also means, “to be set apart to or by God, consecrated.”  It is the word used to identify the covenant people of Israel – all of them.

Paul was talking to all of the Philippians. Paul is talking to you. Martin Luther taught that we humans are, in Latin, “simul justus et peccator.” That means we are saint and sinner, simultaneously, often not knowing which. We have been set apart for God, consecrated to be a holy presence in the world. And we screw up just as much as anyone else. Through God’s mercy and grace, we always get invited to get up, turn back to the way of Christ, and be saints.