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.

Pope forges closer ties with Orthodox after meeting Patriarch, Ecumenical News

One of the biggest concerns we Protestants have – perhaps especially Lutherans – when a new Pope is put in place is ecumenical relationships.  The headline lifts up the Orthodox, but the article is important for Lutherans too. – Pastor Tim

Pope forges closer ties with Orthodox after meeting Patriarch, Ecumenical News.

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

What Then Shall I Say?

So, I was thinking that in this season of Lent, it is always good to pause for a little self-reflection; some confession; some opportunity to grow and assess our lives.It is kind of like a song blues musician Jonny Lang sings called “Red Light” (follow the link to hear the song)

A chance to breathe 
while sitting at a red light.
You look around 
reflecting on your life.

A chance to think
“Am I drinking too much?
Should I keep going, 
lose the life that I love?
A second glance
when coming to a red light.

So, I was thinking that some reflection on this blog might be in order. First, I have to admit that the idea that anyone – and I mean anyone – would ever think what I say or write would be of any value is a very foreign notion – especially to my Scandinavian side which is steeped in modesty bordering on self-doubt and bears at least a dash of false humility. My Irish side is far less humble, loquacious to a fault but also cynical.  So, I was thinking that I should ask – Do you find these far less than regular ponderings helpful?  Or do you find them just more “blah-blah-blah” calling for your attention from the virtual mailbox?  Do you find what I’m thinking about and sharing relevant to your life? Your faith journey?  If you do… Why?  If you don’t… what would help?

You see, I feel like this particular work of spiritual monologue is still searching for a voice.  I struggle with what to talk about, what is needed, what you might be pondering.  So, maybe you could help and share with me what keeps you awake about God, or this broken world, or believing.  What would you like to hear your pastor, any pastor, or just a guy with his own neuroses, struggles and way too much grad school write about that would help you and your journey with matters of faith and religion?

You can post a comment here or email me at tim@holytrinityankeny.org  Thanks for joining in my Lenten reflection.

Pax Christi,  Tim Olson

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