Blessed Are the Peacemakers?

So, I was thinking that I am not the only one out there who feels despair at the growing reality of violence around us.  I mean, enough already!  With each day more dead pile up under a barrage of senseless and even insane acts of violence.

In just the last month we have seen a shooting rampage in a Sikh place of worship in Wisconsin that left six dead at the hand of a White Supremacist – also dead.  Someone tried to burn down a mosque in Joplin, Missouri around Independence Day – perhaps to celebrate our freedom – (especially religious?)  A month later they came back and got the job done.  The members of the Islamic community in Joplin were mostly doctors and health care people who cared for the whole community in their daily life.  This all, of course, falls on the heels of the senseless attack in Aurora, Colorado where a man thought he was the Joker, and armed with enough explosives and weapons to outfit a squad, set out to kill everyone he could for reasons that will never be clear. Texas A&M is reeling from a campus shooting and as I write, two Louisiana deputies lie dead and wounded in another senseless act of aggression.  Our nation, our world, is seemingly at war.  The news stories come so fast and so frequently, I wonder how much we even notice anymore.

Hatred is a way of viewing the world, a code by which people live.  The Southern Poverty Law Center reports that there are more than 1,000 hate groups actively and openly at work in the United States that advocate violence and hatred against a whole gamut of people — yes, even people like you and me. This brand of hatred elevates intolerance, anger and cruelty to the level of blasphemy, as it often invokes God to justify the violence.  How did we get to this place?  What sowed the seeds of such destruction?  How can people become so full of hatred?

First, let me offer this — hold on to your socks, you may not like this: Anyone of us is capable of any of the things that we see in the paper. I don’t buy for a moment that these are just “bad people” who are somehow different from “the rest of us.”  Humans are capable of great good, and great evil.  We are – and I know you may be sick of hearing this – saints and sinners all at the same time.  Let’s not live under the illusion that people are basically good – we are not.  Nor under the lie that “normal people” are peace-loving and full of love – we are not.  If we were, we would have no need for the overwhelming grace of God shown in Christ to forgive us and claim us.    If we were, we would not need law to provide boundaries for bad behavior.  No, I’m not a cynic, or a pessimist, or depressed — I’m a Lutheran!  The reality of human brokenness and sin, the tremendous evil that everyday people can inflict upon one another is staggering and we must acknowledge it completely.  (Watch the 1998 movie A Simple Plan for a realistic vision of what normal, everyday, good folks are capable of doing to each other with little temptation).

The fall into hatred and blasphemy (violence and hate given a fake divine seal of approval) is a process that begins innocently.  It arises out of our natural human response to threats – anxiety.  Anxiety, poorly managed, becomes fear.  The response to a single threat starts to grow into a state of being.  We live in fear of anything and everything. Stephen King says that Americans are apocalyptic by nature. The reason why is that we’ve always had so much, so we live in deadly fear that people are going to take it away from us.”  Fear is the opposite of faith, it drives us to trust no one and nothing.  Life has now become centered on self and our pride, lust after what others have and self-justification makes protection at all cost a consideration.  That desire to protect gone awry leads to cruelty, and finally to god-sanctioned cruelty in our own minds (blasphemy).  (For an in-depth analysis of the process of sin, see Ted Peters, Sin: Radical Evil in Soul and Society).  To live afraid is to take the first step toward hatred and violence.  To ease our fears by building walls, eliminating threats, buying guns and knives, persecuting other people is not an answer, but a capitulation.  Only faith in who and whose we are can cast out fear.  

Once we begin to justify ourselves and shape the world into “us and them” we have taken another step to violence — dehumanizing others.  I heard it once said that the Holocaust began with a cruel racial joke.  Whenever we can make another person less human, we open up the possibility to treat them as an animal – or worse.  The scope of human history is littered with scapegoats.  Lynchings, shootings, terror attacks, and crucifixions – all done in the name of some higher good – are ways dealing with our fear and self-hatred.

So what do we do about all this?  The first step is to nurture our faith instead of our fears. The media, our political leaders, marketing reps are all very good at instilling fear: Fear I will get old; fear I will die, fear my kids won’t love me; fear I won’t have enough; fear that THOSE people are going to take something from me; fear that …. well, you get the point.  As a child of the living God. blessed with the presence of Christ through the power of the Spirit, nobody can take anything away from you that matters. You have nothing to fear!

The second step is watch our tongues.  Really.  We live in a culture that has become absolutely out of control with invective and attack.  The slightest utterance becomes cause for outrage.   James 3:8-9 says “but no one can tame the tongue – a restless evil, full of deadly poison.  With it we bless the Lord and Father, and with it we curse those who are made in the likeness of God.”  The advent of social media like Facebook and Twitter, which one might think would promote dialogue, instead offers detached ways to rant and scold, mostly about things that really don’t matter.  Dr. Jalees Rehman has written a provocative article about the way social media creates an opportunity for anonymous hatred to grow.  Now, I understand that freedom of speech is sacrosanct in our culture, but as Soren Kierkegarrd, the great Danish (Lutheran) philosopher observed: “People demand freedom of speech as a compensation for the freedom of thought which they seldom use.” We need to think before we re-actively post, perpetrate, pass on, our pontifications and platitudes. We need to love before we speak.

We must speak in ways that edify, seek understanding and graciously, tenderly, engage in dialogue.  Ephesians 4:29 says: “Let no evil talk come out of your mouths (or be typed by your fingers – my translation) but only what is useful for building up as there is need so that your words may give grace to those who hear.” Think of what change would happen if we lived by these words instead of words of hate and fear. Perhaps  Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s reminder about all things, including our language provides a stout reminder: “God’s truth judges created things out of love, and Satan’s truth judges them out of envy and hatred.”

I have watched postings between friends and colleagues turn ugly and a relationship gets threatened if not lost. I have listened to countless people chronicle the evil words that have ended marriages and family relationships. I have served in the Church, where evil talk has lead to disaster. I have studied the ways in which words, simple words, inflamed nations to genocide. I have been attacked with the words that leave scars, and hurled them myself.  Hatred begins with a word.  So, love can begin with God’s Word.  I believe this.

We can bring peace to the world in lots of ways, but choosing our words with grace and love might be the most powerful first step.

Pax Christi,  Pastor Tim

Jesus and the Church

So, I was thinking that it is time for me to take a stab at furthering the conversation about the cultural trend to “love Jesus and hate the Church.”  But, I am also thinking (and feeling very deeply in my bones) that this has been a week that has been about more important things than cultural trends.  On Monday, we laid to rest a blessed saint after a long battle with cancer.  Today, the congregation will host a visitation for a member, not long into his forties, who died from the same hated enemy, cancer.  Today, I learned that my seminary advisor, friend, mentor and teacher, Paul Fransen, died.   Death is around every corner, it seems.  It leaves a wake of grief and tears, pain and anguish.  And I realized as I looked at what death had brought to the table this week, there in the midst of it all was the Church.

In the wake of death, the Church gathered on Monday to sing, pray, serve some food and offer a presence in the midst of the grief and death.  Today, members of the Church will stand with a family as they weep and remember providing presence, food, a prayer and a kind word.  In the next week or so, the Church will gather in Columbus, Ohio to do the same thing to say good-bye to a third saint.  People, people of Christ, will do whatever they can to confront death with acts of kindness and hope.  I have witnessed this “non-violent protest” of death countless times in my ministry — every pastor does.  This is the communion of saints, the body of Christ, the Church being Jesus to those who wrestle with death.  So, with all its warts and foibles, I find it hard to hate the Church because no matter what you think, the Church and Jesus are inextricably bound together.  It would be no surprise to say that Jesus was “somehow” present in all these confrontations with death.  But it is the Church of Christ that puts His flesh and bones in the room, at the graveside, among the tears and pain.

Now, you know I am not being naive.  My last post on this subject owns the failures of the Church.  The problem is, if we take Jesus seriously we have to take Jesus’ followers seriously.  If scripture is to play a role in defining who Jesus is (and there is really not much in the way of alternative sources that are authoritative) one has to acknowledge that Jesus and the Church are deeply connected.  The Church is the “temple,” (2 Cor. 6:16); the “bride of Christ” (Rev. 21:2) and the “body of Christ” (Romans 12:5).  Now, temples can surely decay, Hosea’s bride was a harlot, and the body is at least physically capable of showing the marks of sin and death.  But this does not negate the relationship between Christ and His Church.  Jesus gathered flawed disciples around him – church.  In Matthew 6, Jesus said “wherever two or more gather in my name, I am with them.” — two or more, gathered = church.  In fact – and this is perhaps the biggest challenge – Jesus’ promise to be present with us comes in Word proclaimed and sacraments celebrated — acts of the church.

Perhaps the confusion rests in the definition of the Church.  If you define the church as a human institution or organization with budgets, administrative structures, policies and procedures, then we are no doubt quite far from what Jesus was talking about.  If however, you define the Church as that place, that moment, where God in Christ and the people of God come together, something much more dynamic is at work.   As Lutherans, we define the Church as follows: “(We) teach that one holy church will remain forever. The church is the assembly of the saints in which the gospel is taught purely and the sacraments are administered rightly.  And it is enough for the true unity of the church to agree concerning teaching of the gospel and the administration of the sacraments.  It is not necessary that human traditions, rites, or ceremonies instituted by human beings be alike everywhere.  As Paul says [Eph. 4:5,6]: “One faith, one baptism, on God and Father of us all…” (Augsburg Confession, Article VII)

This understanding of Church is not an effort to define structures or systems.  There is no mention of keeping the membership roles of an organization, nor is there concern for buildings or bureaucracy.  Contrary to what most of the culture thinks about the church, the church is not a thing; it is the encounter of God and people as they gather around the means of grace – the gifts of God.  Church is an event.  This definition guards against two things. First, it doesn’t reduce the church to a repository of dead propositions about God.  All too often the church is portrayed or presented as an dispenser or protector of some version of truth. Second, this view of the church mitigates an idea that the church (or its leaders) stand in the place of God.  This dynamic treatment of the Church also asserts that the Church matters because it is the place of encounter between God and people.

The encounter between God and people that is the Church drives God’s people out into the world where we we live out the Word and become a sacramental presence. Church keeps happening in every move we make. Certainly, it might be countered that while the event called church can at times change the world as it moves into the street, it is also true that this event called church can also all too easily end at the door of the building where the gathering happened having no impact at all on the world.  This is not a sign that Church does not happen, but rather is a testimony to the provisional character of the church – it is flawed, broken, simultaneously sinner and saint.  So, let’s not throw the saint out with the baptismal water.

What does this all look like?  Well, right now it looks like people who encountered Jesus in Word and sacrament in the sanctuary are at this moment in the kitchen arranging food for a grieving family – the encounter with God will continue.  Right now, it looks like death’s best effort to be the last word will meet resistance as people gather to pray and proclaim God has the last word.  Right now, it looks like the Church is being the people of Jesus.  You can’t have the savior without the saved; the redeemer without the redeemed; the Jesus without his Church.

Pax Christi,  Pastor Tim

Best Laid Plans and the Freedom of the Gospel

So, I was thinking “It is already Thursday and I still have no blog post for the week! Aargh!” Lots of things to say, no time to write.  The “blog post” note on my to do list has turned red and pops up on my screen with an annoying sound every so often.  What will people think?  That I’m lazy?  That I’m forgetful?  As my anxiety rises, I realize, once again that I have placed myself under the law of my own making.  Paul’s words ring in my head: “for we hold that a person is justified by faith apart from works prescribed by the law.” (Romans 3:28) — even when the law is a nagging task I have carved with my own fingers in a virtual tablet.  So, in Christ I am free of even my to-do list and the anxiety about what others might think — or what I might think myself.  Christ loves me even when I don;t get my work all done.

John Lennon said “Life is what happens while we are busy making plans.”  That is what happened this week.  So, by God’s grace — I’ll write to you all next week.  Amazing grace, how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me……

Pax Christi,

Pastor Tim

Rev. Meghan Johnston Aelabouni: An Open Letter To All Who Suffer From the Shooting in Aurora

The violent, incomprehensible killing spree in Aurora, Colorado will be something I address in the days ahead.  For now, here are some very wise words that I probably cannot improve upon from a pastor of the ELCA in Fort Collins:

Rev. Meghan Johnston Aelabouni: An Open Letter To All Who Suffer From the Shooting in Aurora.

Love Jesus, Hate the Church

So, I was thinking that the Church is taking a beating these days.  There seems to be a movement that proclaims “I love Jesus and hate the church!”  You can find books and websites with that phrase.  Newsweek ran an article by Andrew Sullivan recently that placed this phrase on the cover.  Perhaps there is no better summation of this movement than the viral video that circulated recently called “Why I Hate Religion but Love Jesus.”  There have certainly been responses to this notion:  Some very reactive and unhelpful; some really thoughtful – like one from Pastor Nadia Bolz-Weber, an ELCA pastor who has a blog called “The Sarcastic Lutheran.”

So, I was thinking that I might leave this whole conversation to others who are smarter than I.  But, then I was thinking that seemed a cop out.  So, I invite you to ponder this movement in spirituality; this current in attitude about religion; this notion of a “church-less” Jesus with me. I do want to hear what you think!  So, comment!

The first thing that needs to be acknowledged (following Pastor Nadia’s lead) is that the millions of people who find “Love Jesus, but hate the Church” a meaningful creed have legitimate complaints.  One does not need to point to distant historical sins of the Church – the horrors of the Inquisitions; the violence of the Crusades; the persecution of the Jews, the Thirty Years War – to find ways in which the Church has failed miserably to be the Body of Christ.  When the news is full of stories about clergy sexually abusing children; “church” people picketing at the graves of fallen soldiers; TV evangelists selling snake oil, and then literally caught with their pants down or beating their daughter, you don’t even have to belong to a church to conclude that the Church is often its own worst enemy; that our creeds and deeds are out of sync. 

When people spend time in pretty much any local congregation and see the fights over trivial matters – like flavored coffee, carpet color; when they show up and feel unwelcomed, unnoticed, or worse, “unfit” to be part of the community; when people find the people in the church to be less human than the ones outside, the Church has to admit that we deserve pretty much every bit of the bad rap we get. We are, all too often, NOT the body of Christ; NOT the Temple of the Holy Spirit; NOT the witnesses to the good news of God in Christ (all biblical definitions of the Church).

And yet, the Church has also, if we are fair, not only wreaked havoc on the planet.  Here in the Des Moines area all the major hospitals and health systems are rooted in the Christian witness of the Lutheran, Methodist, and Roman Catholic traditions of healing. Missionaries around the world don’t just bring Bibles.  They bring education, medical care, agricultural guidance, and much more. I believe that for every person who has felt abandoned or unwelcomed by the Church, there are two stories of people with the opposite experience.

Martin Luther taught that as followers of Jesus we are, simultaneously, saints and sinners. We manifest, simultaneously, the blessing of the good news and the brokenness of humanity.  We are, simultaneously, Christ’s hands and feet and the nails driven in each.   That is who we are – as individuals, and as the Church.  Luther said that the Church could be known as “magna peccatrix” – the greatest of sinners. It is not just the communion of saints, but the collection of sinners.  The Church’s witness is not that “we are right, and you are wrong.”  It is not that the Church is some infallible moral community with some claim to holy superiority.  Instead, our witness is to the redemption of Christ in a host of sinful, broken people. Christ came to reconcile and redeem a broken people, broken communities, and a whole broken creation by accepting us as broken.

Is the Church is full of hypocrites? Absolutely.  Is the Church often judgmental, hypercritical, holier than thou, and just plain wrong?  You bet.  Why? Because it is made up of the hypocritical, hypercritical, judgmental, holier than thou, just plain wrong people Jesus loves to death. The sinners and saints who make up the communion of sinners and saints that is the Church do the right things for the wrong reasons; the wrong things for the right reasons; we mess up individually and as a community.  For us to hate the Church because it is broken is to hate ourselves – because we ARE broken, every last one of us.  For us to hate the Church because her creeds do not match her deeds is to deny that the same is true of me as an individual. 

The beauty and overwhelming good news of grace is that God in Christ loves you apart from your works and good deeds; apart from your denial that you are really OK; apart from anything about you.  God in Christ loves the Church in the same way.  That is the miracle of grace – for each of us, and for all of us.  The Church is a broken bunch of people who gather to celebrate our redemption, even when we have fallen far short of the glory of God.

To hate the Church for its failures and brokenness is to either deny our own sin.  The miracle of grace is that God in Christ loves you in spite of you. God in Christ loves the Church, in spite of itself.  To love Jesus surely has something to do with loving what Jesus loves – and Jesus loves all that is broken and that includes even a really messed up thing called the Church.  What do you think?

Next: No Church, No Jesus.  Know Jesus, Know Church

Pax Christi,

Pastor Tim