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

Shriveled Up

So, I was thinking, “Wow. It has been a month since I posted on this blog.  What is up with that?”  The answer is both simple and complex.  First, I have been away for two weeks teaching in the Association of Chicago Theological Schools (ACTS) Doctor of Ministry (D. Min) in Preaching Program. I am a graduate of this program and have had the privilege of being an advisor to Lutheran students in the program for about six years.  I have been a professor in the program for about five.  Each summer the students all come to Chicago for three weeks, gather at the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago, and learn about preaching.  All of the students are already experienced pastors and are seeking to grow in skills, knowledge, spiritual strength and earn a professional degree called “Doctor of Ministry.”

I continue to teach in this program because God called me to do so.  When I accepted my call to be Lead Pastor at Holy Trinity, continuing to teach was a condition of my acceptance.  As a pastor ordained into the whole ELCA, I have a call to serve not just here in Ankeny, but in the synod and across the church as I am able.  This program is an ecumenical program with students from various traditions and cultures.  They come from all over this country, Canada, England, Sweden, the Caribbean, Africa, Europe, Asia and places I know I have forgotten.  Each year I have the opportunity to help 20-30 preachers proclaim the gospel more effectively wherever they live and work.  It is an honor to have the responsibility and the opportunity.  It also leads to the second part of my reason I have not written lately – writers block!

One occupational hazard of pastoral ministry is that it is very easy to become so busy trying to feed others the spiritual food necessary for daily living that we forget or struggle to stay filled up ourselves.  My daily prayers and devotions, my personal study and Sabbath time all can help – if I manage to get them in the schedule.  There comes a time, however, when a pastor needs to get connected to the church and God’s Word in more intentional and intensive ways.  Spending two weeks listening to a couple dozen sermons, talking with other pastors, hearing the lectures of some of the best teachers the Church can offer all helps feed me.  When the pastor’s spiritual tank gets low, this pastor gets writer’s block.  When I become “spiritually dehydrated” from not taking enough of the Living Water that is the Word of God, I start to shrivel.  Like my lawn, I get stressed and stop growing.

I’m not sure this phenomenon applies just to pastors.  The psalmist says of all the faithful that their delight is in the law of the LORD, and on his law they meditate day and night. They are like trees planted by streams of water, which yield their fruit in its season, and their leaves do not wither. In all that they do, they prosper.”  (Psalm 1:2-3)  Think of this image – God’s Word keeps us spiritually hydrated and fed. It makes us “prosper” or grow into people who can handle the droughts, the winds, the stresses placed upon us.  We don’t dry up in the face of constant heat.  Instead, we keep being refreshed by God.  It seems to me that staying rooted in the deep waters of God is essential to a healthy life for all of us.

So, for me, it is writer’s block and a tired mind.  I come back from teaching with a mind and heart full of images and spiritual food I never imagined. What does the drought of the soul look like for you?  When are you not prospering, but going dormant like my grass?  Perhaps getting reconnected to the Word of God, to prayer, to the community of faith will provide some refreshment for your dry soul.  What do you think?

 

Pax Christi,

Pastor Tim

Practicing Forgiveness

So, it seems like the posting from last week that pointed out that forgiveness is a practice we undertake instead of a feeling we have for our enemies was helpful to some of you.  So, I was thinking that maybe pushing a little deeper into our struggle to forgive and reconcile might be helpful for all of us who try to follow this Jesus we call Lord.

The first habit I have that makes the practice of forgiveness hard is that I work above my pay grade.  I look around the world and I see all kinds of people who are just wrong: The neighbor who does not act like a neighbor, in my (not so) humble opinion (IMHO); the member who is not faithful enough, IMHO; the person “living in sin” and on the list goes.  Now, these folks are not hurting me directly, I just know they are sinners.  Am I to forgive them so easily?  Should we not condemn all those who, IMHO, are dishonoring God?  Probably not, that is God’s job.  They have not wronged you.  They have wronged God – IMHO. You?  Me?  We are to remove the log from our own eye, drop the rock we were about to cast and concentrate on our own sins.  You see forgiving the whole world for all the things that we choose to allow to annoy us, to get under our skin, is what God does.  And I know that it is annoying in and of itself.  Counting the sins of others is very often what enables us to focus on someone else’s problems other than our own.  Stop judging everyone and the load presented by practicing forgiveness gets much lighter.

The second habit I have is something that keeps me from answering the call to reconcile at all.  How often have you felt wronged by someone – spouse, child, friend, and co-worker – and, with arms folded and a look of righteous indignation on your face have waited for an apology?  After all, they should know what they did wrong.  After all, you deserve the apology.  And if they have not figured out what they did wrong, I’m not going to tell them!  Some obvious pouting and a little silent treatment will motivate some humble attrition, right?  Notice what Jesus says in Matthew 18:15:  “If another member of the church sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone. If the member listens to you, you have regained that one.”   

Now, wait a minute Jesus – I am supposed to go to the one who wronged me?  Yep.  I’m supposed to talk to the offender and not share my hurt with others?  Now, you are getting it.  I’m supposed to take the initiative and speak one to one?  I’m afraid so.  And worse than all that I am supposed to go with the purpose of “regaining that one.”  Yes, as I did for you.

This teaching follows the parable of the lost sheep, where Jesus leaves the 99 healthy sheep behind to look for one errant problem sheep, bringing it back to the fold.  In other words, we go not to get an apology; not to extract what is due; but to forgive and restore a relationship.  The burden here is all on the wronged party.  That just seems, well…. so unconventional; so difficult; so wrong, Jesus! 

Matthew 18 continues by telling us if we can’t regain the one by our own effort, we involve elders. If that does not work, we bring the matter to the church.  If that does not work, we are to treat the offender as “a Gentile or tax collector” – precisely the people that Jesus endlessly welcomed. As Paul says, we – the followers of Jesus – have been given the ministry of reconciliation.  To us falls the duty of peacemaker and bearer of forgiveness. (2 Cor. 5:18)

So, how do we do this?  How do we deal with all the hurts and sins committed against us? 

  1. Take an honest look at what offends you.  Just because your feelings got hurt does not mean you were sinned against.  Our hurt, anger, and resentments are all too often the product of our own making.  We choose anger way too much – when we are tired, anxious, stressed.  If we took everything said and done to us, as Luther counsels, “in the best possible light,” we would be happier people with a drastically shortened list of enemies.  So, before you run off to accost the one who hurt you, sleep on it for a while.  Pray about it for a long while. Ask yourself if the hurt was intended, if it is meaningful enough to destroy the relationship.  Be a grown up and put away the childish things like wanting to get even or hit back with words.  You’ll grow in understanding yourself.  And you may find that there was no breech to repair in the first place.
  2. Confess your own role – My mother always said of any conflict, “It takes two to tango.”  There is always a second side to every coin.  When a rift develops in a relationship, before we confront anyone with forgiveness, we need to be honest about our part in the problem.  Almost always, we will find that we are to blame as much as the other.  Celebrate your forgiveness in Christ – and now maybe you need to ask for forgiveness from another, instead of the other way round.
  3. Discard the emotions – Figure out how you go to another person and tell them, rationally and without anger that they have offended.
  4. Bring forgiveness, not a request for an apology – Your forgiveness must be genuine, not a ploy to point fingers or to evoke an apology. Forgiveness is granted whether accepted or not; and is the doorway to a renewed relationship. Truly, forgive and then forget.

What is hard about forgiveness for you?  Add your insights to the conversation.  Leave a comment, or just an Amen!

Pax Christi, Pastor Tim