Stop Complaining: A Lenten Fast

When we complain, we feed the growth of resentment within us and it begins to spread.

Today is Ash Wednesday, the beginning of a forty day period of preparation; preparation for lots of things really. In the ancient church, it was a period of preparation for those who would be baptized that year (yup, they baptized but once a year) at the great Vigil of Easter. It is a time of spiritual preparation for the holiest events of the Christian year – Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, the Vigil of Easter and the Resurrection of our Lord. It is also an annual time of deepening our preparation to live as disciples of the Crucified One, Jesus. In some ways it is similar to fast days in the Jewish faith and Ramadan for our Muslim brothers and sisters.

Lent’s three major disciplines are: prayer, acts of love, and fasting. If you have ever eaten fish on Friday during Lent, that was a fast. Given up chocolate? Fast. Eschewed dessert? Fasting. Often, these kinds of fasts are easily broken and not deeply meaningful. It seems to me that if we really want to change our lives and maybe even change the world a little bit, we could fast from other things. So, I’ll offer some in the coming weeks. First up: STOP COMPLAINING.

Complaining is a waste of emotional energy and rarely, if ever, accomplishes anything.Complaining encourages bad habits and destructive behaviors, like gossip and “evil talk” (Eph. 4:29). Complaining keeps us from the spiritual work of acceptance and constructive efforts to actually solve problems. Theologian Reinhold Niebuhr wrote a prayer that came to be called “The Serenity Prayer.” Used extensively as a prayer for those striving to heal from addiction, the prayer is really for all of us.

God, give us grace to accept with serenity
the things that cannot be changed,
Courage to change the things
which should be changed,
and the Wisdom to distinguish
the one from the other.

When we complain about our spouse, sibling, child, co-worker, or boss to others, we are simply refusing to understand and accept them as unique human beings. We are avoiding going to them to talk through a problem or discuss a latent hurt. When we complain, we feed the growth of resentment within us and it begins to spread.

When we complain about bad government, big corporations, faceless bureaucracies, we begin to build a world view that blames others for everything. That keeps us from working for solutions, addressing our part of the problem (and I guaranty we are always complicit), or accepting and understanding what we can’t control.

Niebuhr’s prayer has a little known second stanza. Accepting what we can’t change, changing what we can and knowing the difference is not an end in itself. This leads to a deeper and more abiding relationship to Christ. Niebuhr’s prayer continues:

Living one day at a time,
Enjoying one moment at a time,
Accepting hardship as a pathway to peace,
Taking, as Jesus did,
This sinful world as it is,
Not as I would have it,
Trusting that You will make all things right,
If I surrender to Your will,
So that I may be reasonably happy in this life,
And supremely happy with You forever in the next. Amen.

Fast from complaining this Lent and explore how, in Christ, you can be more accepting and more motivated to change. Blessed Lent to you.


© 2017 Timothy V. Olson. All rights reserved.

Unholy Mess

From cluttered desktops, to constantly changing calendars; from tragedies of violence and disease to dysfunctional government, life is an unholy mess. Wouldn’t it be great if God would show up with a little dazzling light from heaven and a booming voice of encouragement once in a while to assure us the unholy mess was not a hopeless reality? Maybe God does precisely that – on a regular basis. What if Holy encounters are how God guides us through the unholy mess that is life? This sermon on Transfiguration Sunday explores the way in which God appears to us as we gather, listen, are touched by Jesus and sent into the world accompanied by Christ.


I coined a new word. As I have read various news stories these last couple of weeks, I noted a move toward “downtrodding.” That would be the act of creating the “downtrodden.” Turns out it is not in the dictionary. So, I offer a new word: “downtrodding” because it seems a useful and perfectly descriptive word to describe actions people, governments and the “powers that be” engage in throughout history and around the world.

What prompted my linguistic creativity was the debates and proposed actions of both state and federal government that, to me, risk downtrodding more people; removing protections and support of the most vulnerable and downtrodden in our society; creating situations where workers struggle to earn a living. Before I continue, I know some of you are already thinking that as a pastor, I should not be addressing anything “political.” You may want to read a previous article about pastors and politics before you read on.

Jesus, the prophets, and the whole biblical story are overwhelmingly fixated on the treatment of the poor, the widow, and the resident alien. These “downtrodden” should be of central concern to the whole society. God will judge the whole of the people based on the treatment of these who are “the least” in the kingdom.

We are often led to believe that the sins that led to the destruction of Sodom are about sex. But, listen to Ezekiel’s take: “This was the guilt of your sister Sodom: she and her daughters had pride, excess of food, and prosperous ease, but did not aid the poor and needy.” (Ezekiel 16:49) Zechariah the prophet says: “Thus says the LORD of hosts: Render true judgments, show kindness and mercy to one another; do not oppress the widow, the orphan, the alien, or the poor; and do not devise evil in your hearts against one another.”(Zechariah 7:9-10)

Jesus himself announces that he has come to “bring good news to the poor.” (Luke 4:18-19). Even Mary sings that the birth of her son will bring about a capsizing of the ships of economy and power, “He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.” (Luke 1:52-53)

Recently, the state legislature in Iowa has begun a move to change collective bargaining for public employees. The selling point is that this makes labor relations in the public sector look more like the private sector; that it simply applies common sense to the ability to hire and fire. Yet, it also removes from the bargaining process everything but salaries , including health care and other benefits, that are essential to anyone who works for a living. (Most of us negotiate for all of this when we take a new job). The bill excludes (for now) “public safety” employees because they “risk their lives.” It excludes teachers, for instance (who, I would argue, also risk their lives – look at the school shootings). The push here seems to be to replicate what Wisconsin did five years ago with a promise that the move would fix many fiscal problems. That has not com to pass by most measures. In fact, workers are losing ground and economic growth is elusive. The same results in Iowa would be a case of “downtrodding” as teachers and other public employees bear the brunt of paying for “voodoo economics” (George H.W. Bush’s words for “trickle-down schemes.”)

In another move, the state legislature wishes to freeze the minimum wage at $7.25 and prohibit any municipality or county in the state from establishing a minimum wage at odds with the state’s mandate. First, the minimum wage adjusted for inflation in 1940 was $3.51 per hour (actual = $.25). In seventy-seven years, the wage has slightly more than doubled.  By contrast, a gallon of milk in 1940 was $.34. That is ten times higher today. Gas was $.18 per gallon. More than ten times more expensive today. See the problem? Downtrodding.

Second, minimum wage is not “just” about teenagers who live at home (as if it is good to teach inequity at an early age). Only 46% of minimum wage workers are 16-24. That means 54% are trying to make a living and raise families on less than $15,000 annually (less than $300 per week). 29 states and municipalities that are higher than $7.25 – including many with booming economies. The minimum wage has 10% less buying power than it did in 1968! Sound like dowtrodding, to me.

Meanwhile, those who are at the top of the economic food chain are receiving a bigger and bigger share of the economy all the time. In 2013, 165,000 Wall Street execs received bonuses totaling over $26.7 billion above and beyond salaries. All of the folks who work for minimum wage and are full-time (a rarity) earned just a little more than half that – $15.1 million. Walmart had $17 billion in net income in 2013, yet many of their workers are on assistance programs to eat and live.

There are countless myths about raising the minimum wage that fly in the face of reality and have been collected by the Department of Labor. Decisions need to be based on facts, not on perceptions, myths and closely held ideologies that keep us feeling superior to others. Excuses and rationalizations for downtrodding do not make it acceptable.

The gospel imperative is that we raise up the downtrodden, not downtrod them even more. God has declared over and over that the way we treat the poor, the prisoner, the laborer, the widow, the orphan is the test of our citizenship in the kingdom of heaven. “As you did to the least of these, you did to me,” Jesus says in Matthew 25. If we are downtrodding anyone, we are downtrodding God in Christ.

So, I have questions about these and other actions. Will the decisions made lift up the downtrodden? Will they support and liberate the poor and those who have no voice? If they don’t, we’re downtrodding. God will be very interested in our decisions.

Pax Christi.

© 2017 Timothy V. Olson. All rights reserved.


Borders, Boundaries, and Barriers

This rumination is inspired by the Super Bowl. Well, actually, a Super Bowl advertisement. Stick with me as I share the back story.

The Gospel according to Mark begins with the erasure of a border; the shattering of a boundary; the breaking of a barrier. As Jesus comes up out of the water at his baptism, Mark tells us that  Jesus sees the “heavens torn apart.” (Mark 1:10) The word here is intended to speak of a rather violent tearing. Ancient people believed that the sky was a dome that separated heaven from earth and that if it was breached, divine presence would spill into the world, which was a dangerous thing. Coming too close to the presence of God could lead to destruction. (Remember the scene in “Raiders of the Lost Ark” when the Ark is opened and all heaven breaks loose?) The rent heavens mean God is loose and among us – perhaps to our peril.

At the end of the gospel, Mark tells us that when Jesus breathed his last breath on the cross, another boundary between God and humanity was destroyed. Mark says, “And the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom.” (Mark 15:38) Behind that curtain was the “holy of holies” – the presence of God. Only the high priest could enter pass behind the curtain at appointed times without being under the penalty of death. It kept the holy and the unholy apart, separated by a fixed wall of fabric. Jesus’s death destroyed that barrier. God is loose in the world. Holy and unholy are hopelessly mixed up. The Divine Parent has decided to move in with the kids.

In between those two bookends of broken boundaries, the ministry of Jesus leaves the landscape littered with kicked over fences, transgressed boundaries, toppled over tables and walls. He touches lepers, welcome sinners, eats with the unclean, travels to Gentile country and interacts with demons. Every story is a new way for Jesus to tear down the walls that divide heaven and earth, and human from human. Even stuffing him in a tomb does not work. God destroys the unassailable boundary, the immovable wall between life and death in the resurrection.

So, there I sit, watching the Super Bowl and an ad comes on that features a little girl and her mother on a journey. The ad ends without resolution and refers me to see the rest online. Apparently, the network was unwilling to sell the airtime for the whole message. Here is the ad in full…

Did you see the Jesus figure in that ad? (I am NOT saying that 84 Lumber meant to place a Jesus figure in the ad – but, with Mark’s image of Jesus playing in my head, I’m free to make connections – it is what I do!) The lone man in the truck who labored through the night is Jesus (yes, let the darkness, the wood, the carpenter images play as well). Salvation happens when the mother and daughter walk through to the future they sought – the reunion with family, the hope of a new day. This add touched me because it declared the gospel (good news) in a time when we’re all full of anxiety over the news about walls and boundaries and people who look, live or worship differently than we do.

The ad touched me more personally too. My grandfather came here from Sweden – twice – seeking the life of promise that America seemed to offer. The other strands of my family were all immigrants from Norway and Ireland. They also heard cries of “America first” from the immigrants who preceded them.  One of the prevailing values I learned growing up; one of the values from which my patriotism grew, is summed up in the poem inscribed at the Statue of Liberty. It reads “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.” This value for welcome, for sharing, for opportunity freely given is America at its best.

Now, I am painfully aware that this poem does not speak to the experience of all too many. Native people were, at best, conquered, subjugated, and contained. At our worst, they were subjected to genocide as their food was slaughtered, disease spread, and outright massacres occurred. Then there are the huddled masses on slave ships who found no opportunity, but instead were enslaved, dehumanized, and murdered. At America’s worst, we have committed genocide, slavery, murder and violence. Whenever we catalog, classify, and color code human beings – even in the name of economic growth or national security – we move in the direction of death and away from the kingdom of God.

At our best, we act in ways that resonate with the boundary breaking, border crossing, barrier bashing messiah, named Jesus. And before we argue that one must take care to protect oneself, remember he died for others instead of seeking self-preservation. That is what love does.

Building walls and keeping out the “wrong” people is in the news a lot lately. I’m not sure I can find much in Jesus life, death, and resurrection that advocate for such. I can however find that if we classify people, Jesus will mix our system up. If we catalog folks, he will – in the acts of his followers – laugh at the catalog. If we color code people, he will show up in the vast array of colors we disdain. If we build a wall, he will most assuredly sneak in at night and put in a door. He did, after all say, “I am the gate….” (John 10:9).

As far as this “timid” prophet is concerned, we’re always better off to embrace our best selves instead of our worst because our best self is found in Christ.

Pax Christi.


© 2017 Timothy V. Olson. All rights reserved.

Blessed Foolishness

“Selling Jesus” is hard because he and his message swim against cultural currents and turn one’s vision of the world upside down. Perhaps if we are honest about just how fragmented and insane the world around us really is, a little foolishness can be seen as just what the doctor ordered. Here is a sermon on the on the “Beatitudes” from The Gospel according to Matthew. The beatitudes are the eight blessings Jesus announces to his disciples. Sermon for January 28-29, 2017 Blessed are the Foolish


Carrots, Sticks and Being Beloved

The baptism of Jesus is first of all, perplexing. Why does Jesus need this act of repentance? The baptism of Jesus is an “epiphany” – it reveals God to us. But, it also reveals something else. It shows us what it means to be human, to be beloved, to be the children of God. This sermon speaks to the questions and points to the humanity of the Baptism of Our Lord.


Thank Small

house-finch-2I have a breakfast companion these days. After my wife has gone off to work and my son has returned from the night shift and headed off to sleep, I eat something and sip my coffee in the quiet, looking out the window onto the backyard. That is where I encounter my breakfast companion with some regularity. She is a house finch who eats at the feeder that hangs from the deck. Her meal is solitary, kind of like me. Unlike many other finches, she does not gather with others, nudging and jostling each other for a moment at the perch. I noticed her the first time with surprise, because I was close to the window and she should have seen me and flown away. As I stood and observed, I noticed that this little finch was missing her right eye. That’s why she was undaunted by my presence.

That day, and now several other days after, we have eaten together, separated by the glass. Our solitary meal has become breakfast for two, at least in my mind. I imagine that the eye was lost to another bird. They do fight fiercely over food, even at my backyard feeders. Or maybe it is some disease of which I am clueless. Her solitude may be an inner scar made by the fear of losing the other eye. An instinct to avoid more hurt and damage, I assume. I get that. We all have scars that direct our habits and hearts.

Far from “crippled” by the scars however, my little one-eyed companion seems to relish the seeds I leave -just like other finches; she hops and dances… and sings, like they all do. The little one-eyed finch brings me joy. I give thanks for this little creature, a sign of God’s grace and resilience in a dark, cruel, and ever more terrifying world. I’d like to think that in some bird-like way, my little breakfast mate gives thanks for me a little too… well, at least for the feeder and food that allows a one-eyed, solitary finch to dine in the morning.

Tomorrow is Thanksgiving Day. Most of us will engage in giving thanks for big turkeys, big tables, big food, big gatherings. We will give thanks for all our success and piles of possessions. Tomorrow is about “giving thanks” for the big stuff: food, family, jobs, prosperity, health… the list gets long. This year, however, my little finch friend has taught me to “thank small.” There was a time in my life I would never have noticed a one-eyed finch. There was time in my life feeding little finches seemed senseless, never crossed my mind. In a world that moves 11 million miles an hour, that fills my eyes and ears with fears and diatribes and problems and information from every direction, I am often overwhelmed by a world so big I can’t take it in.   Paul says, “Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you. (1 Thessalonians 5:16-18). This is hard to do in a world where anger, fear, and division drive us and what we’re really thankful for is that we’re simply better off than others; that at least for today, we haven’t lost it all.

It occurs to me that to learn to “give thanks in all circumstances,” requires not one big holiday, but a habit of “thanking small.” I need to first notice more, pay attention to the small things – like one-eyed finches. I need to give thanks for what is right in front of my face and all around me – all the time. I need to give thanks for everything, no matter what it is, because God placed it here. I need to do it “in all circumstances,” not just one day a year. My breakfast friend also reminds me that I need to give thanks even when I lose an eye and live lonely. In the pain and suffering, I need to learn to give thanks. Then, and only then can I properly give thanks for the bounty on my table.

This year our meal and gathering on Thursday will be intentionally simple and small. Less fuss and more Sabbath rest are the order of the day. As Paul instructs, “Rejoice… pray… give thanks” will be the agenda. We’ll give thanks for the joys and the pain of life and try to concentrate on little things. Thank small. And with any luck, after we set the table and fill the feeders, my little one-eyed breakfast finch friend will join us and provide a little music.

In Christ,

Pastor Tim


© 2016 Timothy V. Olson. All rights reserved.