Guilty Bystander: Confessing My Apathy

When the harvest does come; when the new life does finally produce bushels and bushels of your love, why then do I allow the crop to rot in the field while I sit idly by and wait for someone else to harvest? Or worse, why do I never leave my recliner to go into the field? God, help me.

Lord, it’s me again. Tonight, I think I have to confess that I am a guilty bystander – not an innocent bystander – a guilty one. I’m the opposite of a Good Samaritan. I’m the cast of the final episode of Seinfeld, sitting in jail because I just, well, stood by.

I see the suffering of the world; I hear the cries of injustice and suffering; I smell the stink of decay and death; I feel the coldness of a world that lacks even common decency on my skin, in my heart. And yet, with my senses all alert, I more often than not, do little or nothing about any of it.

Nobel Peace Prize Laureate, author and survivor of the Nazi death camps Elie Wiesel has said, “The opposite of love is not hate. The opposite of love is indifference.” If he is right, then perhaps one of the greatest sins against the God of love is apathy.  Hate bothers to expend the energy to turn a child of God into an object of scorn. Apathy… well, it just refuses to give a rip. I confess that this analysis – this accusation – cuts me to the bone with its sharp edged truth.

I know well that there is no room for apathy in a life of faith. Apathy is condemned in the words of I John: “How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses help?” (I John 3:17)  How does the rich man, who plainly sees Lazarus starving at his gate as plainly as he sees his own image in the mirror every morning, do nothing to love his neighbor? (Luke 16:19 ff) I understand the reality. But it about more than just understanding, isn’t it? How do I let things slide so easily?

I John calls – demands – “Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action.” And yet, I am too often unmoved by this demand; this holy, Christ-like demand. Why?

To be honest, it seems to me an overwhelming demand. There is so much suffering in the broken and busted world and frankly God, I’m busy. I can’t fit it all in. How can I solve the problems of the world with my calendar already full of things you call me to do? Well, to be honest, maybe you don’t call me to do all those other things. Maybe I use that as a little bit of an excuse. Honestly, I guess, my schedule is often full not of things you call me to do, but the things this world expects me to do; things I think I must do. The loud voices of Madison Avenue, pundits, social media and my deep desire to be accepted call me to fill my calendar. I’m really bad about saying no and making you a priority. I have to confess that while I’m busy, it is not with things that may be on your list of priorities for my life.

And yes, before you say it, Lord, you don’t ask me to solve the problem of world hunger or poverty or human trafficking. I John just points me to the one in need who is standing right in front of me. You don’t call me to solve the problem, just to be part of the solution with what you have already given me.  My apathy Lord, I confess, is sometimes due to my own lack of priorities.

So, OK, it is not that I am too busy. But it is still hard. I love the life you have given me and I really need to be a good steward of what I have, don’t I? The problems of this world are always, it seems, interruptions in the order of my day. Acting differently today than I did yesterday is a disruption and it seems to me to risk losing track of other important things. OK, I’ll be honest – we both know how we humans feel about change. As your servant, Richard Rohr has said, “The human ego prefers anything, just about anything, to falling, or changing, or dying. The ego is that part of you that loves the status quo – even when it’s not working. It attaches to past and present and fears the future.” (Falling Upward: A Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life)

Acting is one thing. But acting differently is change, and I really prefer the status quo. Respectfully, God that is a problem I have with you. You are really not a God of the status quo are you? I mean, resurrection is an ultimate stand against what was for something totally new. So I get it, but I don’t like it. How can I see the person suffering before me and not be the agent of new life and hope for them if I believe in the resurrection? Because I’m comfortable – and that is a terrible reason. For my love of the past and satisfaction with the way things are; for my resistance to change and new life, I must confess.

Lord, is it that I just don’t care? I think I do. I hope I do. I care about the things that are wrong with this world; the people who suffer. I feel pain in my soul when I see what goes on. But I still don’t do anything. Maybe it is deeper than not caring. Dare I admit to you that I’m afraid? Afraid that if I do anything, that what I do, we do – even in your name – just doesn’t matter? There. I said it.

If doing what you call me to do doesn’t matter, then perhaps I must confess not my apathy, but my despair; my hopelessness. I must confess then that I have come to believe that the suffering and evil of the world is more powerful than you; that I believe in the rottenness of this world more than I believe in or trust your love. And if that is true, I’m in trouble, Lord. Because that means that what you did on the cross doesn’t matter either.

Mercy, Lord – to say that my actions don’t matter also means that I don’t matter. And that is what I fear the most – meaninglessness. I mean, you created me; you reside in the deepest part of me. How can I think I don’t matter? How can I not matter if you are part of me? And then the question comes back, How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses help?” The truth is that when I do not act in your name I evict you and you cannot abide in me. Wow. For that sin I must confess.

You once told a parable about sowing seed on different kinds of ground that made it impossible for the good news, the new life, the reign of God to take root and thrive. (Mark 4) I love that parable. It has taught me to be aware of the ways that the concerns and cares of the world; the fears of my own heart; the noise of the voices of hate and sin can lead to desolation. As I stand before you tonight, I wonder if there is not another dimension of this parable that could be added. When the harvest does come; when the new life does finally produce bushels and bushels of your love, why then do I allow the crop to rot in the field while I sit idly by and wait for someone else to harvest? Or worse, why do I never leave my recliner to go into the field? God, help me.

For my apathy, despair, and hopelessness; for my refusal to let you in to my thoughts and my actions; for my excuses and for leaving the fruits of the kingdom rotting in the field, I confess, gracious Lord. Redeem me and take root in my life; take up residence in me so that I may love as you love. Amen.


 

Copyright © 2016 Timothy V. Olson. All rights reserved. Any use of this material must be attributed to Timothy V. Olson. To reproduce this material in published format, please contact Tim.

The Hungry at Our Door

the hungry at the gate are becoming, more and more, our neighbors and folks who sit in the pew with us in worship.

The local news website We Are Iowa reported yesterday that business is booming at local food pantries. When business booms at the mall, I suppose that is a good thing overall (aside from the spiritual morass of consumerism). When business booms at the food pantries, it is disconcerting because it means there are more and more folks who just can’t make ends meet. We started our own food pantry here at Holy Trinity so folks would have one more day a week to access help. We have seen a steady increase in clients for the pantry and our assistance program.

Now, before you wonder about whether these food pantry “customers” deserve the handouts, or are “worthy” of such grace, I would point you to the sculpture of the homeless Jesus on the bench below. The only way you can tell this is Jesus is by the nail scars in his feet (hard to see in this photo). The caption says it all. Jesus stands with the poor, the hungry, the disadvantaged, and even the undeserving. I am as undeserving a character as you’ll see and I have enough to eat. So, as the meme says…

 am-worthy-poor

I expect that this trend toward busier food pantries will continue until our culture, our nation, our leaders manage to pull our collective heads out of… um… ah… the sand about the economy. Look at the way costs associated with living have grown since 1978:

inflation-comparison-growth-1975-2012

Note that food prices have grown 243% in that time period. Now look at what you and your neighbor have likely seen when it comes to paying for that food:

income trends since 1978

If you are fortunate enough to fall into the top 5% of wages, your wages have grown 52%. If you are with 90% of your neighbors and friends, your income has risen only 16%. When it comes to the growing hunger problem, as one former president liked to say, “It’s the economy, stupid.”

Today’s food pantry shopper is not always indigent, living in their car or receiving government assistance. They are, more and more, middle class moms and dads caught in a world where only a handful of folks get better off and the paycheck – which never seems to get bigger – just won’t buy the food the kids need.

We help the hungry in our community through the HTLC Food pantry, support of DMARC and the network of food pantries they support. We help with the Love Lunch program in Ankeny that makes sure hungry kids get lunch in the summer and we work with Backpack Buddies during the school year. We support the ELCA World Hunger Appeal – one of the most efficient hunger organizations in the world – to aid, assist and advocate for people as close as Des Moines and as far away as Africa and Asia. But it looks like we are going to need to push to do more, my sisters and brothers. Especially since the hungry at the door are becoming, more and more, our neighbors and folks who sit in the pew with us in worship.

In Matthew 25, Jesus blesses those who saw him hungry and gave him food, even though they had no idea it was Jesus. They didn’t recognize him because he comes to us laying on a park bench, in a soup kitchen and at the food pantry. That we feed any who show up means we heard Jesus’ command to love. That we feed the hungry at the door means we feed Jesus himself, every single time.

A Christmas Message

The grace of God, which has appeared in the birth of Jesus the Christ, be with you always.

“Joy to the world, the Lord has come!” Christmas is about joy. You can see it in the face of a child ending the agonizing weeks of waiting in the full light of the Christmas tree. You can feel it around the table as families reunite and fond memories of past gatherings are shared. Christmas joy is experienced through the peace and rest of a break from daily efforts to make our way in the world.

As joyous as this season may be, Christmas can also be a time of grief and loneliness, pain and despair. As John Irving writes in A Prayer for Owen Meany, “Christmas is our time to be aware of what we lack, of who’s not home.” We can see be overwhelmed by how we have fallen short of our expectations for the perfect celebration – the meal is too meager, the roast too done, the gifts insufficient, the empty places at the table too many.

The incarnation of Christ is grace poured out upon humanity for the sake of broken, weary people. Saint Ambrose, a great preacher and teacher, Bishop of Milan in the 4th Century wrote in his Exposition on the Gospel of Luke:

“He was a baby and a child, so that you might be a perfect human.
He was wrapped in swaddling clothes so that you might be freed from the snares of death.
He was in a manger, so that you may be in the altar.
He was on the earth that you may be in the stars.
He had no other place in the inn, so that you may have many mansions in the heavens.
‘He, being rich, became poor for your sakes, that through his poverty you might be rich….’
He chose to lack for himself that he may abound for all.
The sobs of that appalling infancy cleanse me, those tears wash away my sins.”

Whether this Christmas brings joy or sadness, fulfillment or feelings of failure, or some bittersweet mixture of all these things, hear this: the center of the Christmas gospel is that God in Christ has invaded our space, sat down next to us to share our joy and bear our pain. Jesus is “God with us” – Immanuel. God has come to us to be incarnate in each moment of our living, each experience of joy and in every moment of suffering. Henry Wordsworth Longfellow expresses this presence of Christ in this way:

“And in despair I bowed my head;
There is no peace on earth, I said;
For hate is strong,
and mocks the song
of peace on earth, good will to men!”

“Then pealed the bells more loud and deep:
God is not dead, nor doth he sleep!
The wrong shall fail
the right prevail
with peace on earth good will to men!”

Jesus Christ was born for you and for me. That is what makes Christmas merry.

Pastor Tim

10 Things You Can’t SAY While Following Jesus – Mark Sandlin | God’s Politics Blog | Sojourners

I have a confession to make.  There are a number of things people of faith say to others that drive me insane.  Now, I know that these things are often said with every intent of caring and showing compassion.  I also know they are said because we are not sure what else to say.  (A word of advice – a listening ear is always a better – and safer – than moving lips). I came across this blog which summed up my list pretty well.  You may find it instructive, challenging, even a little annoying.  It is a good exercise in thinking through our faith and avoiding superstition. Any other things Christians say that bother you or trouble you? – Pastor Tim

10 Things You Can’t SAY While Following Jesus – Mark Sandlin | God’s Politics Blog | Sojourners.

Light in the Darkness

So, I was thinking about this passage from Isaiah, so central to the Christmas gospel:

The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness — on them light has shined. (Isaiah 9:2)   

This hopeful proclamation from the prophet Isaiah is part of the Christmas message. Light overcomes darkness.  To tell the truth, things have seemed pretty dark to me since Christmas preparations went into full swing weeks ago – around Halloween, I think.  On the surface, people are talking about looking forward to the holiday.  Underneath, however, I sense an all too frequent dread or stress.  I don’t think it has anything to do with the annual “war on Christmas.”  You know – Happy Holidays, instead of Merry Christmas (even though the English origin of the word “holiday” is holy-day”); kicking the crèche out of the town square; banning religious songs at the school choir concert.  I don’t really buy this kind of war on Christmas as a real issue.

That said, I do think something dark and destructive has been happening to Christmas.  Maybe it is a war of sorts.  It has shaped Christmas into a rather hideous creation.  It has involved us all in a systematic erasure of the meaning of the birth of Jesus Christ.  We still call it Christmas, but maybe it should be called “Consumerist-mas” – the “Feast of the great Consumption.”  There is little Christ left in its observance.  We go on a binge dedicated to dark excess instead of bowing before the Light of the World.  Jesus came bring us the light of freedom, yet the post-holiday credit card debt will shroud us in a kind of slavery for the next two Christmases. Jesus came to give us peace, but we end up doubling our antidepressants because our stress over the perfect holiday has plunged us deeper into a dark hole.  The real focus of the season is how much money was spent and made, not how light has entered our darkness.

I don’t mean to be a buzz-kill or the Grinch.  But, I’m afraid were missing Jesus in the midst of all the jingle bells. I fear we have lost our minds, our hearts and our souls.  We live in a world where benefits are cut to millions who are poor and will have no holiday. At the same time the TV encourages us all to buy diamonds and a Lexus for our loved ones so they know we love them.  We force the least powerful and poorest working folks to work all day on Thanksgiving so we can all get an early start on our excess. That just does not sound like it has anything to do with Jesus to me. You see, my fear is that the Grinch didn’t steal Christmas – consumerism did, and we all helped.  I fear that the true power of God’s incarnation is completely negated by wrapping the manger in foil paper and selling it for $39.95.

Advent is the first act of resistance against this dark progression of commercialism.  The holly jolly world of retail Christmas plays on our desire for instant gratification. Advent makes us wait, a spiritual discipline we may despise, but is essential to our maturation in faith.  Faith is about joy, but also about enduring the darkness as we await the real light.  The strings of bulbs on our houses only decorate the darkness and since they burn out, don’t bear the true light of Christ.

Amidst all our celebrating, spending, preparation and panic, Christ will come. Of this I have no doubt.  Notice however, that the only ones who noticed God breaking into our humanity were shepherds, who had nothing but the silent night.  Maybe if we get a grip on our holiday, Christ will get a grip on us. Christ came to a manger, not the mall.  May Christ come to you whether a new blender does or not.

Thanksgivings and Blessings

So, I was thinking my first order of business in this blog post is to say “Thank you!”  I asked for input about whether this was a helpful resource in your faith journey and your answers were gracious, affirming and informative.  Just what I needed to know as I think about what to think about in the days and weeks ahead!

Some of the feedback encouraged me to keep thinking as I have been.  So, I will continue to look around the headlines and the culture and see where faith seems to have something to say.  Some of you had some ideas for specific topics and I will work hard to come up with meaningful thought about these things.  A couple of you offered that you wanted to hear more about biblical insights, perhaps from the weekly lessons.  That makes me think that maybe a separate blog about the lessons might be helpful — weigh in on this if you think it an interesting project.

So, I was also thinking that this is Holy Week – the holiest time of the Christian year in many ways. It is a time like no other to ponder what Christ means to us in our daily lives.  It is a time to intensify our worship pattern as we gather on Maundy Thursday, Good Friday and for the Vigil on Saturday at 7 PM to walk with our Lord as he loves us with every drop of life and beyond.

I am, each year, reminded of an ancient part of the observance of Good Friday called the “Solemn Reproaches.”        Each reproach begins with the voice of our Lord – “O my people, O my Church, what more could I have done for you? Answer me.”  Then the prayer proclaims some of the many ways God has blessed us and loved us.  And the people say, “Holy God, holy and mighty, holy and immortal, have mercy on us.”  It is all we really can say in response to the question.  God blesses. We rebel.  God blesses, we forget. God blesses.

Let me leave you with two of the Solemn Reproaches that stick with me:

O my people, O my Church, what more could I have done for you? Answer me.  I opened the waters to lead you to the promised land, but you opened my side with a spear; I washed your feet as a sign of my love, but you have prepared a cross for your Savior.

O my people, O my Church, what more could I have done for you? Answer me.  I lifted you up to the heights, but you lifted me high on a cross; I raised you from death and prepared for you the tree of life, but you have prepared a cross for your Savior.

Holy God, holy and mighty, holy and immortal, have mercy on us.

May the God who loves you enough to do all these things bless you with grace and mercy this week, and all the days of your life.

Pax Christi,

Pastor Tim

The Church is Dead. Long Live the Church

So, I was thinking that the Church is dead. If not totally dead, it is as Miracle Max from The Princess Bride would say at least “mostly dead” or in very critical condition.  I know you probably don’t read a pastor’s blog expecting to hear this kind of thing.  You were perhaps hoping for something a little more uplifting. Sorry. The vital signs are, it seems weak.

When it comes to belonging to a church, the fastest growing group of people in our culture simply don’t.  5% of the population said they were “unaffiliated” in 1972.  Today it is 16%.  People are not choosing other churches, mega churches, new churches or old churches; they are not picking more conservative or more liberal churches, when they leave one church, they are not going to something “better” – they are choosing to do away with church completely. They are often called “nones” because they check “none” on surveys about religious affiliation   This is happening to every single segment of the Christian Church – Protestant, Evangelical, Roman Catholic — it across the board.

More facts: 70% of mainline Protestant households have no children; 91% of those same congregations are white (unlike our society).  The median age of people in church is steadily and quickly rising (averaging over 62 years).  Congregations are getting smaller and smaller on the whole. Only 27% of “members” actually worship each week.  Only 7% of Christians have actually read the whole Bible.

The truth is that things have changed in every aspect of our world – economic, political, cultural and yes, religious.  The Church that we all remember from our youth is dead, mostly. Think back to the way things used to be:

¨The Way Things Were
  • You were born into the faith and stayed in your tradition
  • Faith was a way of believing, so you learned beliefs first – memorized, understood.
  • Christian faith was expected of most everyone
  • Institutions played an important part in our lives
  • Authority was given to those who had studied – experts
  • Keeping the faith = Keeping the traditions
Look at how things have changed:
¨The Way Things Are
  • People seek spiritual connections and religious life on their own.
  • Faith is a way of living – doctrines and “truth” are understood to be negotiable or dialogic.  So, spirituality is about living daily
  • Christian faith is no longer a cultural norm
  • Institutions/Denominations have lost their power and are fading
  • Seminary training and official teachers are suspect
  • Keeping the faith = living with integrity
The Church, as we remember it, even as we long for it, is dead, mostly.  But that is not “bad news.”  God is faithful and the Spirit is always moving.  We have the challenge and blessing to be living in an age when the Spirit is rewriting, re-imaging what it means to be the Church.  To be part of that means we will need to wander in the wilderness (sounds familiar) we’ll have to change our attitudes (not the first time), We will have to live our faith in a way we have not for some time (likely a refreshing change).  We will have to adapt the way we engage in mission to the reality of our world.
The great news is that God gives life to the Church in every age.  The Church may suffer many deaths, but God is in the resurrection business.  So what do you think about the death, and the life of the Church today… and tomorrow?
Pax Christi,
Pastor Tim