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

Waiting for Peace

So, I was thinking that the last thing I wanted to see in the news today was another senseless act of violence. Unfortunately, the lead story details a shooting at a mall in Oregon.  Last week it was a woman shot to death by her NFL lover, who then turned the gun on himself. In other news, the middle east is still a cauldron of hate and violence and, lest we think violence is only a reality in far away places, the news reports that an Ankeny man will be spending the rest of his life in prison for the death of his daughter.  Just another day in paradise.

As we prepare to celebrate the birth of the “Prince of Peace” it is no wonder that atheists and people who have deep doubts about the Christian faith think we are a little out of touch with reality.  I mean, if Jesus brought peace, where the heck is it anyway?  Bono, the front man for the group U2 sings in the song “Peace on Earth” –

Jesus can you take the time
To throw a drowning man a line
Peace on Earth
To tell the ones who hear no sound
Whose sons are living in the ground
Peace on Earth

Jesus this song you wrote
The words are sticking in my throat
Peace on Earth
Hear it every Christmas time
But hope and history won’t rhyme
So what’s it worth?
This peace on Earth

It is a legitimate question. And there are legitimate answers – but not simple ones.  In the coming of Jesus, peace (and grace and love and justice) dawned, but the sunrise continues to be an agonizingly long process. In the midst of a very violent world full of very violent people (and that includes you and me) God made a declarative statement in Jesus that violence was NOT part of the reign of God, peace was the way.  God declared that justice and love would win out in the end, which makes them worthy, eternal values in the life we lead today.  Peace can happen today, if we dare to live in anticipation of the peace that began in Christ.  But that is harder than it sounds.  To live with a predisposition to violence that mirrors Christ is dangerous and divisive.

The violence around us often sparks conversations about guns. Now, I am not going to wade into a debate about the constitutional right to bear arms.  I’m not a constitutional scholar. That we can bear arms seems a given in our civil society. If you own guns, fine. Hear me clearly, I’m not telling anyone what to do when it comes to guns, knives, fists, or harsh words.  You have a constitutional right to have a gun, carry a legal knife, defend yourself and say whatever you want.  Please don’t take what I write here and find cause to yell at me about your rights. I completely acknowledge them. On the matter of peace and violence, I don’t care about constitutional arguments.

As a theologian and pastor, I know this: If “the constitution” of the reign of God says: “(God) shall judge between the nations, and shall arbitrate for many peoples; they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more. (Isaiah 2:4) then I think it is safe to say that no one in the courts of heaven will be packing heat. If swords are pounded into plowshares, I’m not sure what happens to guns. Bud vases? Hammers? Tent stakes?

For me that means that I choose to live as if the reign of God is already here in ways that make sense to me. That, not the Constitution, governs my behavior.  I do indeed have the right to say whatever I please. I am always reminded of Kierkegaard’s thought on free speech: “People demand freedom of speech as a compensation for the freedom of thought which they seldom use.”  The most difficult thing to holster is our mouths. Violence starts with harsh words. As James says: “For every species of beast and bird, of reptile and sea creature, can be tamed and has been tamed by the human species,  but no one can tame the tongue– a restless evil, full of deadly poison.” (James 3:7-8) So, living in the reign of God means I begin my path to peace by rejecting words that harm and injure. My guess is that every shooting has a harsh word in its trajectory to death. So, we holster our pie holes in the name of peace. Told you it was tough.

So, as the reign of God pertains to guns, I share the approach of Hawkeye Pierce from the TV Series M*A*S*H: “I’ll carry your books, I’ll carry a torch, I’ll carry a tune, I’ll carry on, carry over, carry forward, Cary Grant, cash and carry, carry me back to Old Virginia, I’ll even `hari-kari’ if you show me how, but I will not carry a gun!” For me, same goes for anything bigger than a pocket knife to open Amazon boxes – won’t have one.  I hope and pray that if you assault me, I will manage to keep my Irish side in check, and forget the Tae Kwon Do I practiced, and turn the other cheek. After all, I profess to follow one who could raise the dead and cure the sick, but who absorbed the violence inflicted upon him as a means of unmasking the ugly face of evil and overcoming it in God’s redemptive action. Jesus refused to participate in the violence.  He told Peter to put away the sword.  He did not unleash the awful power of God on the people who nailed him to the cross. He practiced what he preached and then had the nerve to call us to do the same.  See? Peace is tough.

I recognize that this all sounds foolish. Some have said that if we all carried guns, violence would decrease. That assumes a pretty elevated view of humanity to me.  It assumes that only “bad” people do violent things.  The truth is, unless you are Jesus, we are all bad people, capable of evil things. I know that revenge, retaliation, and fighting for honor are all part of the fabric of life, but I long for peace more than I value these things — at least I want to; I feel called to. And, it is foolish. I admit it. So did Paul: “But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong;  God chose what is low and despised in the world, things that are not, to reduce to nothing things that are,  so that no one might boast in the presence of God.” (1 Corinthians 1:27-29)

Again, I’m not telling anybody what to do with your weapons or your words.  I’m just suggesting that the reign of God has come near in Christ – and that means peace is an eternal reality, and a present possibility. So we are not hypocrites for celebrating the coming of the Prince of Peace. Christ calls his followers to work our with fear and trembling not how to live according to the rule of a violent world, committed to death.  Christ calls each of us to figure out how we become the blessed peacemakers who live in hopeful anticipation of the peaceable reign of a peace-loving God.  Then we can read the bad news in the paper with hope that it is not the only and final word. The Word (of peace) has been made flesh and dwells among us.

Pax Christi (Peace of Christ)

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