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.


The Third Day: Dear Mr. Trump

Dear President-elect. Trump,

Grace to you and peace from him who is and who was and who is to come, and from Jesus Christ, the faithful witness, the firstborn of the dead, and the ruler of the kings of the earth. (Revelation 1:4-5)

You are in my prayers, Mr. Trump. Beginning the morning of November 9, I added you to my daily prayers as I have added every president who has served since I was ordained. I hold the Office of President of the United States of America in highest esteem and respect. As you prepare to take the solemn oath of office, I prepare to receive you as my president and to be open to your leadership. Each day will begin with your name on my lips. Some of the petitions offered for you are the same I have uttered for George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama.

  • I will pray each day that you be empowered to personally earn the trust and respect granted to the office.
  • I will pray the weight of the office not overwhelm you, but will shape you and mold you.
  • I will pray you lead this nation and its people in paths of justice and peace.
  • I will pray for you to open your heart and mind to wisdom and love of God.

Because every president’s time in office is particular to time and place in history, I will also offer prayers sensitive to the events and struggles of the world. To begin:

  • I will pray that your leadership seek to heal and unite a nation deeply divided over politics, race, the place and role of women, the wealthy and poor, and a host of other issues that cannot be ignored if we are to stay together.
  • I will pray that your desire to make our nation rise to a better expression of itself can bear fruit in ways that are healthy and good for all people.

Mr. Trump, I am sure you realize that your campaign and election delights the people who supported you. Your rhetoric and actions mobilized people who heard you saying things they always kept to themselves. I am sure you also realize that that same language and alienated many. You are now president of all the people.

I pledge that when you are able to lead us to being better people and a more vibrant nation, I will celebrate your leadership. I also pledge that if your campaign rhetoric moves toward becoming reality, I will be a most vocal and active critic and opponent. Based on my Christian faith and my holy vows, I will not support the exclusion of and discrimination against Muslims or any group based on religion. I will not support the mass deportation of aliens living in the land. I will not support or tolerate the disrespect, abuse, objectification or denigration of women. I will fight for the poor and hungry, call upon the wealthy to do and pay more and advocate for the sharing of wealth across the income spectrum in a way that is just. I will speak against the sin of racism and work to bridge the racial gap in any way I can. These are promises that rise from the Christian faith and I will stand together with many who share these commitments. I pray that you will make the same commitments so that we can share the movement of God to a future that will reflect a world of life as it is revealed in Jesus Christ.

May God bless and keep you, Mr. Trump. I will be praying for you, our nation and the reign of God to enfold us all.

In Christ,

Pastor Timothy V. Olson

© 2016 Timothy V. Olson. All rights reserved.

The Second Day: Post Election Epistle

Dear brothers and sisters in Christ,

Grace and peace to you in the name of the one who was, who is, and the one coming, the blessed Holy Trinity.

Even though I’m publishing this publicly (well, to the dozen or so people who find it), this is really a letter to the people I serve and love at Holy Trinity Lutheran Church. Since we live in Iowa, which has the first caucus in the nation, we have all been involved in/subjected to/annoyed by the presidential election process for longer than anyone. If you are like me, I was looking forward to it being over.

With the election now two days behind us, I realize that there really is no “over.” Yesterday, the range of emotions and responses to the outcome was broad; the feelings deep in the heart. Tears, cries of anger and victory, anxiety, fear, shock, confusion, even terror were all part of what folks shared with me yesterday as I listened, read, and shared in their struggles. Some of what people shared was understandable, some of it surprised me. The biggest question from both sides of this contest seemed to be, “What now?” The election is over, but we all seem to be standing looking at a Grand Canyon sized divide between so many of us. What now, indeed?

I am not an expert on much of anything. I am called to lead and love this congregation and serve the wider church. I think I know some stuff about those things. So, what does this division in the land and the change we all sense mean for us, as brothers and sisters in Christ here in this place and time? That is something I can think about.

First, “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever.” (Hebrews 13:8 NRSV) The election does not change the Lordship of Christ over the cosmos or this nation. God’s purposes can be resisted for a time; God’s justice and rule is as of yet incomplete and until its consummation evil and sin happen. However, as Martin Luther King Jr. reminded us, “The moral arc of the universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” Eventually, by gracious persistence and inescapable love, God’s will shall come to pass, no matter who the president may be. If you are excited by the prospects of the change that has taken place, God will judge the results in time. If you despair the change, God’s promises of hope are sure. God’s been around longer than the nations, the parties and the candidates. When all these have gone to dust, God will remain.

Second, the election results and the leadership in power do not change our mission or our vision one iota. We are still a congregation committed to “share God’s love” and to be the “open arms of Christ” to one another and the world. Our beliefs and values will guide our actions quite independent of the political winds of a given day or year. Certainly, Mr. Trump’s election and the swing of all the facets of government to the control of one party will change the political, social, and cultural landscape. Given the ruling party’s history on matters that impact the poor and the hungry; in light of promises to exclude other faiths and be less welcoming to the resident aliens in our midst; in response to any lack of dignity, respect, or justice that may be shown to people of color, women and those who are at the margins of our society, carrying out our mission and vision may need altered tactics, a louder voice, deeper commitment, and sleeves rolled up farther than before. That said, our identity and purpose will not be changed or deterred.

Third, we will be a place of healing and reconciliation in a land of deep divides. No matter who you voted for and how strongly you feel about the whole thing, this is a place where we will live with our differences, not just as an act of tolerance, but in love. The time for flinging insults about the candidates is past. If your candidate won, don’t gloat and have compassion for those who are confused and angry. If your candidate lost, don’t blame and respect the choice of your neighbors. It is time to move ahead. We all complain about the partisan nature of our politics like it comes from somewhere else. It comes from us. We need to change if the climate is to change and the politics is to become healthy. So, I’m saying, in the name of Jesus, when it comes to the snarky comments, the finger pointing, and smug celebrations or judgment, knock it off. That stuff doesn’t play here in the church or between us as brothers and sisters. It’s not who we are as a community. Don’t get pulled into endless social media diatribes, if you have social media relationships with people who stoke the fires of division and suck your soul dry, you can block or unfriend them for your own spiritual health.

Finally, remember this: rest in Christ, pray in the Spirit, share fellowship rooted in love. The Body of Christ has been fed to the lions, burned at the stake, persecuted and torn, but it has never been overcome. You can take that to the bank. We got this, people.

In Christ,

Pastor Tim



© 2016 Timothy V. Olson, all rights reserved.



The Day After: Post-election Faith

Grace and peace to you in the name of the blessed and Holy Trinity.

Those ancient words of greeting, invoking the Divine Name of God – Father, Son and Holy Spirit – seem especially weighty, important, even essential today. We woke this morning to more than news of a new president. Something more has happened than an election. It seems to me our divisions, our lack of unity, our mutual mistrust and disrespect of one another, all of which has been on display throughout this campaign, have now blossomed into the bitter fruit of disunity. It does not matter which party “won” the election, the result would have been the same. To me, it feels like no matter who “won,” we have all lost – lost our souls, our compassion, our direction, our hope. So, calling upon the source and grounding of love, of Divine Unity expressed in the Trinity is to reach for a lifeline only God can cast in our direction.

President Obama and Secretary Clinton have set the tone for peaceful and even hopeful transition in the midst of our divisions. They have called upon us all to give Mr. Trump his due and a chance to lead. We should listen. Mr. Trump has spoken of unity and cooperation. We should trust his words are genuine. The rituals and words of “peaceful transition” that have guided our nation since the beginning are essential.  With due respect to each of the three named and to other elected leaders who are called upon to guide us, I think we can all agree that we expect… no, demand nothing less than what is best for the whole of the nation and its people… all of them.

However, I’m not sure we can look with great hope to these leaders to unite a nation that is so broken and fragmented. We all like to think that the breeches between us are caused by leadership. This election process seems to suggest that is not the case. The leadership reflects us. We are divided, neighbor from neighbor, black from white, male from female, young from old, rich and poor, just to make a short list. The divisions in Washington reflect the divisions in our neighborhoods and our own hearts. We need another source of healing and recognition.

If we are to actually change the gridlock and hatred of this nation, you and I are going to have to change. First, every one of us must learn to reject the binary way of thinking that divides the world, artificially, into right vs. wrong, us vs. them, good vs. bad, red vs. blue, liberal vs. conservative, and so on. We all act (and all too often in the church) as if every situation and context has a right answer and a wrong answer; that, like some game played on a field, there are always winners and losers.

In truth, the world is more complicated than binary ones and zeroes. We live in tension between opposites and find life in working out and resolving the tensions. When we buy into the binary vision, we preclude dialog and compromise, making each sins in our tidy, but fabricated universe. Talking to each other and seeking a new way out of argument is to be valued not denigrated.

Our nation can learn from recent imperatives adopted between Lutherans and Catholics, who have a long history of a binary addiction. The first move for all of us is to begin with what unites us, instead of what divides. The second move is to value dialogue and be willing to be changed by our honest conversation. Two ways placed in a binary choice equals winners and losers and no growth on either side. Two ways in dialogue invariable finds a third way that transcends either beginning positions. In the passion of Jesus Christ, the world perceived a binary choice – Jesus or the powers that be. When God raised Jesus from the dead, a radical third way appeared. That’s how God works, so that is how the universe works.

The church, it seems, is in an odd position in the face of our national disunity and rancor. By all accounts, the church is a fading tradition, pushed to the margins of culture and bearing no relevant message to the world – unless we shape our message to the culture’s binary vision. But then we just advance the disunity and division.

The church, however, has often done its best work from the margins. At the margins the church is not beholden to the powers that be, so much. It seems to me that the church at the margins of society can be two things this divided people need: a voice of one crying in the wilderness and a voice for reconciliation.

This morning, I began my daily prayer for President-elect Trump, that he be open to and guided by the Blessed Holy Trinity; that he is genuine in his commitment to unity; that the weight of the office shapes him to be an able leader. Alongside that prayer, I began to renew my prayers for the church and my own ministry to be a voice crying in the wilderness (Luke 3:4) against racism, misogyny, bigotry, violence; a voice advocating for those in need of daily bread, for respect and dignity and for peace in every neighborhood and nation. I invite you to do the same. We must demand more from our leaders, and we must train them by being more ourselves.

Second, the church must be the essential force behind reconciling us. (2nd Cor. 5:18-19) It is time for the church to finally get out of the judgment business and stop being consumed by question of heaven and hell after we die. There is pain and division right in front of us that demands the ministry of reconciliation. We must grant respect to those who differ with us, and extend a hand in solidarity based on what unites us, rather than clenching the fist over what divides. We need to watch that evil weapon, the tongue, so that if we can’t say something that builds up and makes peace, we remain silent (Ephesians 4:29 & James 3:6-8), in our speech, our writing, and our Facebook posts. We have to better than our worst and then we have to demand that from those we elect.

This week, our political leaders ended a knock-down-drag-out fight that did not unite us. Last week, Pope Francis and Bishop Younan of the Lutheran World Federation publicly put aside 500 years of division in an embrace of peace and an agreement to continue seeking reconciliation. Which vision of the world do we need?

It is time for the faithful to be a voice crying out in the wilderness, demanding that our best selves rise above division and bring justice and peace to all. It is time for the church to be a force for reconciliation. That mission starts in your home, workplace and every relationship.

In Christ, Pastor Tim


© copyright Timothy V. Olson, November 2016


Locker Room Banter


Over the last week we have all been confronted with the term, “locker room banter.” The appalling speech evidenced in a video of Donald Trump and company has created a firestorm of anger, denunciation, and distancing on one hand. On the other, attempts at explanation: This is JUST locker room banter of the sort all men use when they are just with “the guys.” It’s a “boys will be boys” excuse. In my Book, (which I’ll get to in a moment) that’s not just lame, but insulting.

As a man, I tire of childish, devolved, crude, stupid stuff like this that portrays men as horny dullards like Homer Simpson or Al Bundy. The countless men I admire and respect do not speak this way – ever. Athletes from all corners have spoken up to say, with lots of passion, that this is not what talk in their locker room sounds like. It bears no resemblance to what I talk and laugh about with “the guys” in or out of the locker room. It should not resemble your speech either, especially if you have any kind of relationship with Jesus Christ.

This kind of excuse making is dangerous. It advances the notion that words do not matter. The fact is words can give life and words can kill. The remarks in this video are death-dealing. They hurt demean and advance evil in the world. My mother used to tell me that “Sticks and stones would break my bones, but words would never hurt me.” Mom was so right about so many things. On this count however, she was wrong. Words have power.

The Book of Genesis tells us humanity is created in the image of God (Genesis 1:27). When I was a Sunday School kid, I thought that meant God had fingers, toes and a mole next to “his” nose, just like me. With maturity came the realization that being made in God’s image does not impart maleness, whiteness or any other physical characteristic or privilege.

From Genesis on, scripture reveals a God who creates, sustains, and redeems all with the utterance of a Word. Whatever flashes in God’s imagination comes to be when God speaks. The same is true for humans. We imagine possibilities and we often speak them into reality. Dow Edgerton, a brilliant teacher and preacher (and a mentor of mine), in his book, Speak to Me That I May Speak, says it this way: “The words you can say make the world you can imagine; the world you can imagine shows what lives you can lead… Speech is not only about the world; it makes the world.” That seems to me to be, at least in part, what it means to be created in the image of God.

Words have such creative – and destructive – power that scripture, over and over, warns against the dark side of words. The Ephesian congregation is warned, “Let no evil talk come out of your mouth, but only what is useful for building up.” (Eph. 4:29) James writes harsh words about the power of the tongue, saying, “no one can tame the tongue — a restless evil, full of deadly poison.” (James 3:8)  Jesus has not time at all for ill-chosen words: “…if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; if you say, ‘You fool,’ you will be liable to hell fire.” (Matthew 5:22) Wow. Words can get you hell fire?

God speaks and life happens. All too often, when humans speak the opposite result ensues. As Edgerton points out, “The power of death, wherever else it may reside, resides within the word we say.”  Julius Streicher, a prominent Nazi propagandist, was condemned to death at Nuremberg after the war. He had no “active” role in murdering any of the six million Jews lost in the holocaust. Streicher was a primary wordsmith in the building the cultural hatred that made the extermination program palatable. His words created hate and holocaust.  The holocaust began with lies and jokes about Jews, folks. Words matter.Domestic violence, racism, hate crimes are all germinated from the seeds of words spoken in hate; from the narratives passed on through lazy thought and unchallenged assumptions.

You may be thinking that we say a lot of stupid things without thought or reflection. That is true – we are “saint and sinner” all at the same time. We embrace the kingdom of death and the kingdom of God simultaneously. You may think that “throw away” words spoken without thinking don’t matter. Here’s the thing: It is our habitual, unconscious rituals, deeds, and words that reflect most what we love and who we are. James K.A. Smith, author and philosopher, makes this point in his excellent work, “You Are What You Love: The Spiritual Power of Habit.” Following Augustine, he says that it is the “rhythms and routines and rituals, enacted over and over again, that implant in you a disposition…” toward what you love, what you value most.  Those throw away lines, glib jokes, “locker room banter” with “the guys” reflect your character and what directs your life. It isn’t the book you write that reveals your heart. It is the words you use in the most mundane places and situations that expose your true self.

Speech that denigrates women is wholly unacceptable among civilized, faithful people. God created both male and female in the Divine Image. To denigrate women is to denigrate God who created. It also denigrates men, who are only half the human equation. To speak about women in the way we hear on this tape and in so many other places should make you sick. If it doesn’t, your heart has been hardened and needs redemption. Speaking about women in this manner reveals a soul that has lost touch with both compassion for anyone else and the Divine Spark within. Making women into objects reduces men to animals.

We live in a world where the communication of words that kill find new ways to be uttered every minute. Social media is often a wasteland of death-dealing speech. Words spoken in locker rooms or in secret never stay there. They hurt others, bully people and they shape the speaker’s heart for hate. Suicides happen as a result of harsh words spoken. Relationships end over words. Wars and holocausts begin with a word.

If your words bear a resemblance to what was heard on the recent Trump video, or any of the other crude, adolescent, violent speech uttered in this world, I have to say with all love, stop it. Repent of your death-dealing, self-justifying habits and grow up into the person created in the image of God you were created to be. Let your words – every last one of them – bring life to all who hear.



What Lives Matter?

When folks sport pink ribbons, and even the NFL drapes itself in pink, the message is that we care about people suffering with breast cancer and pledge to stand with them. We are essentially saying, “Breast Cancer patients, survivors and victims matter.” I know that you can find a ribbon color for lots of cancer types, but when the ribbons come out, few people angrily shout “All cancer patients matter!” in response.

When I was a chaplain in a cancer hospital my days were spent with folks who suffered from much more than the physical presence of the rogue cells named “cancerous” (hence, the reason for a chaplain). Cancer inflicts damage in emotional and spiritual ways that can erode a person’s identity. If you always thought of yourself as strong or vital, having a part of you removed or suffering the eroding side effects of chemo or radiation can make you doubt that image of yourself. Cancer can take away the livelihood that defined you and eat away at the relationships that shaped your existence. What does “I’m an accountant mean when you can’t work?” What does “I’m a mom or dad” mean when you are too weak to hold your kid?  The disease can call into question the value of one’s life; one’s person hood.


As a chaplain, or any caring partner in cancer’s journey, you have to find ways to say, “You matter.” As a chaplain, there is an implied theological tag that attaches itself to a statement about what and who matters. The infinitive “to God” gets added reflexively when we say to one in pain, “You matter.”

The same is true whenever pain and suffering grips a life. A person who has suffered abuse and lives with an inner voice that constantly says, “You deserved what you received” needs to hear words of hope; a counter message that says, “You matter (to God and so, me) and don’t deserve to be hit or bullied.” When I meet with a divorced person who is sure that their mistakes have led them on some inevitable path to hell, I must find a way to say “You matter (to God, and so, to me). When a kid flunks a test and is sure that college is now off the table as a potential future, I have to find a way to say “You matter (to God, and so, to me) even if you flunk a test.”

I have often thought that we should all be more concerned about and advocate for the elderly in our society. Pushed to the margins, ignored, “stored” in nursing homes, often the victims of fraud and abuse to a greater degree than most, we need to pay attention and serve them better. Perhaps we could start a movement that proclaims, “Gray lives matter.” I doubt that such a movement would be met with a belligerent response like, “All ages matter.” Even though, obviously they do.

In the waters of baptism, we baptize an individual into the whole body of Christ. We pronounce the act of divine grace to the person receiving the water, and the message is clear: “You matter, to God and so, to us.” Baptism done with the words “Everyone matters” would fall flat and be drained of meaning. At my baptism, even though I was too young to fathom them, the words were “Timothy, I baptize you…” It is that personal assurance that gives hope and faith. It is the same when we receive the Lord’s Supper. We each hear “The body of Christ, given for you (your name implied here).” The meaning is clear – you matter. You, you broken, sinful, hypocrite who has made a mess of things; You, you shattered, struggling human wearing the threat of death and suffering like a sweater; You matter.

Finding a way to say “You matter (to God, and so to me)” is about the person, or people standing before you who feel diminished; who have had the imago Dei (image of God) that resides in them attacked; robbed; questioned. It is about loving your neighbor, because God loved them first – and that means they matter, cosmically, not just politically or ideologically.

Today, if you want to whip up dissent and misunderstanding, even hatred and violence, all you have to do is say “Black lives matter.” First, the response was, “All lives matter.” While true, I suppose, this misses the mark of showing compassion, care and love that the slogan is supposed to communicate, even demand. It seems to me that “All lives matter” is really just a way of saying “you don’t deserve anymore than I do.” Which is absolutely contrary to the gospel of Christ, who taught us to be servants of all and that the last shall be first, first shall be last. It also misses addressing the pain and inhumanity that is underneath the statement. Now, I see that groups are shouting “White lives matter” as a protest. This hate-filled response (complete with Nazi flags) is just evil. Besides, in this country, white lives have pretty much always mattered – especially if you were “red. brown, black or yellow.”

The point of saying “Black lives matter” is to address the pain of a whole community who is routinely shoved to the margins of society and endures violence and other evils ever day. To say “Black lives matter” is to embrace people who hurt and to tell them “you matter (to God and so, to me) in the midst of that pain. If you have any black friends, colleagues, brothers and sisters in Christ; if you have even read a smattering of the volumes of material that chronicle racial hatred and racism in this country, you know that your fellow human beings who have far less pale skin than you do, suffer for that reason alone. Now, if you don’t believe that, I have to say, with all love, find some black friends and ask them to take you to school; read a book, literally for God’s sake, because you are living in denial.

I will continue to say “Black lives matter” as long as the pain exists and the problem persists. I will continue to say “Black lives matter” as long as there is any one who thinks they don’t. I will say it because I believe that when you are in pain, you need to hear, “your life matters (to God and so, to me.)” I will say it, because it is important and really – seriously – it is the least (smallest, easiest) thing I can do for people made by God who matter. I will say (and act correspondingly) “Black lives matter” because, well, they do. That is just the truth.