The Heron

“Woven into our lives is the very fire from the stars and genes from the sea creatures, and everyone, utterly everyone, is kin in the radiant tapestry of being.”

“Just walk down to the end of the parking lot and you’ll see the path toward the lake. Follow the grass path around the lake. They keep it closely mowed… mostly. You’ll be fine.” These were my directions to find a place to walk while at the abbey for a couple of days. So, I followed my nose to the end of the parking lot. There was the well mown path that headed to the water. I was on my way, on a beautiful morning.

As I rounded the first curve of the lake, I was absorbed in my own thoughts on a solitary exercise. When I looked up, I found I was not alone. There, maybe fifty yards ahead, was a heron standing at the water’s edge (Great Blue Heron, perhaps – but I’m no ornithologist). The majestic, graceful creature stood looking in my direction, then began to walk up toward the path. As I got closer, the heron took flight – effortless, powerful. As the long neck and head stretched forward and the long legs trailed, I could, for just a second, see the prehistoric ancestors of this bird – pterodactyl and such. The great creature landed on the path farther down the line. As I approached again, it winged its way onto a stout tree nearby. Then again, to the water’s edge at a place where the path was less visible – and I was unsure where it turned. The heron, my companion, flew off into the trees ahead. I followed. There I found the  neatly mowed path once again.

“Woven into our lives is the very fire from the stars and genes from the sea creatures, and everyone, utterly everyone, is kin in the radiant tapestry of being.”

Lots of folks might see God in this encounter. Many would conclude that the Heron had been sent to guide me – its presence would be all about me. I don’t buy that for a minute.  More likely, it was fleeing my presence. I had probably interrupted its breakfast. Too often we think that creature and creation are all here for us. We’re terrible narcissists in that way. We don’t see that the Heron exists all on its own, with its own communion with God. It would have been there had I explored the path or not. We need to be careful seeing every butterfly and bird; every tree and sunrise as a message from God just for us. In the same way, we need to see that the resources of creation are more than consumable resources out here for me and you to use.

The gift this beggar received from this beautiful creature was in the transformation of my solitary, self-absorbed walk into a journey with something; dare I say, with someone? The One who created us both? From the moment that bird flew off, I was unable to be alone. The little white and purple flowers were all around. A hawk crossed the path ahead of me. A big green bug in the path and dozens of other creatures were all around. These creatures, made and beloved of God, are not pests, weeds, interlopers or guests in my world. We are, as St. Francis would say, brothers and sisters. Maybe, if we humans would see this more clearly, we would stop, or at least slow, our drive to be the most invasive, viral species to bring death to the planet.

Perhaps this is what theologian Elizabeth A. Johnson is getting at when she says, “Woven into our lives is the very fire from the stars and genes from the sea creatures, and everyone, utterly everyone, is kin in the radiant tapestry of being.”(1) We are called to love God with our whole being and called to love our neighbor as ourselves. Who is our neighbor? Certainly, as the Good Samaritan story tells us, it is anyone in need. Perhaps any-thing in need. On that day, my neighbor was a heron – and hundreds of God’s creations too numerous to count. It is so every day, if we will look, listen and be aware of the neighborhood of life. That is this Beggar’s Take.

© 2018 – Timothy V. Olson. All rights reserved
(1) Johnson, Elizabeth A., Ask the Beasts: Darwin and the God of Love (Bloomsbury Continuum) Kindle Edition

Malcontents for Jesus

The news this morning heralded a new high in lows. A lone gunman had broken the U.S. record for a single killing spree: 58 dead, more than 500 wounded. As if I am watching some distorted, despicable, dystopian game, I wonder how long it will be before the record is broken again. There is something deeply wrong with the world.

We are more divided than ever along lines drawn by race, gender, sexuality, political party. Hate and vitriol control even the most mundane conversations. Social media, which was to bring people together, instead tears us apart. There is something deeply wrong with the world.

processional cross

The normal response to something being broken is to “fix it.” So, most discussions about the problems of the world jump to fixing this or that problem, then it will all be well. A little more data, some innovative thinking and we’ll be good to go. Like a car with a bad starter, it just needs a new part. Unfortunately, we are one part of the whole system known as “the world.” We are so enmeshed with what is causing the suffering we can’t just “fix it,” because fixing “it” means fixing us, and we can’t even see the problem clearly.

There is an old Hasidic saying that says, “To a worm in a jar of horseradish, the whole world is horseradish.” The worm doesn’t know anything but horseradish, so what is to change? Our world is shaped by violence, hate, judgment, competition, a sense of scarcity, greed and a hundred other things that are not just around us, but in us. The cross of Christ is the ultimate unveiling of the world’s foolishness. The ways of the world murdered God! God gave love, and the world (we) hung love on a tree to die.

Eugene Peterson, in his book, A Long Obedience in the Same Direction, says that the first step in becoming a disciple who follows Jesus Christ is to wake up and realize that “the world” that shapes us and causes us so much pain is broken. We have broken it and we are clueless as to how to fix it. He says:

“The first step toward God is a step away from the lies of the world. It is a renunciation of the lies we have been told about ourselves and our neighbors and our universe.”

Discipleship begins when we turn away from the lies of the world and toward the life-giving promises of God in Christ. This is the classic definition of repentance – to turn away from the wrong way to the right way. We need to be malcontents in this world – unsatisfied with the way things are and committed to what can be in Christ. We renounce the world to embrace Christ.

This turning can hurt, at first. It means we leave behind what we know – like the rich man to whom Jesus said “sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.” (Mark 10:21) The man couldn’t do it. His wealth was too important to him. But, it was that piece of the world that kept him from God’s reign.

In his book, The Cost of Discipleship, Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote this:

“Grace is costly because it calls us to follow, and it is grace because it calls us to follow Jesus Christ. It is costly because it costs a man his life, and it is grace because it gives a man the only true life.”

The thing is, once we make the turn, we come to see that all it really cost us is our captivity to the violent, death-dealing lies of the world. What it grants is life in Christ, the reign of God, the peaceable kingdom. As the cross reveals the deathly nature of the world, the resurrection of Jesus reveals that the way of Christ is the only way to life, in this moment and in all future moments. How do you know this for sure? God has raised only Christ from the dead. Caesar, Washington, Lincoln, Rockefeller and everyone else is still dead. So, who are you going to follow? Me? I’m a malcontent for Jesus.

 

copyright © Timothy V. Olson, 2017

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

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

Life in the Blender: Changing the Church in a Changing World

So, I was thinking that one of the biggest causes of anxiety and fear today (at least for me – but I don’t think I’m alone) is the pace and depth of change. Change to every aspect of life happens at a dizzying pace.  The changes are not minor adjustments, they are huge shifts in the way we think, work, eat, spend, and yes – worship & believe.  It is as if somebody stuffed the world as we know it in a blender and pressed the highest speed — and left it there!

Think about just a few things: In 1900 there were less than 10,000 cars in the US.  We send 247 billion emails every single day. 20 years ago most of us didn’t know what email was. The youngest among us believe that email is a dinosaur and use it less and less. I got my first cellphone in 1996. In 2000 there were 93 million cell phones. Ten years later it was 293 million. I typed my first term papers in college on a portable typewriter.  Then I moved to a “PC” – which is now obsolete, replaced by my smartphone and tablet.  In 1970, nearly 90% of the American population was “white.”  In 2008, less than 75% were “white.”  By 2050 it will be closer to 50%.  College educations and home ownership, two foundations of middle-class stability, are in serious decline.

Welcome to life in the blender. Change is the agenda for every day in the world around us. It is an exhausting way of life.  It is then very natural and expected that we will come to church hoping to avoid the whirling blades of change. After all, as the Bible declares, Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever. (Hebrews 13:8) The world can change, but leave the church alone, we might declare.  Unfortunately, Jesus also says: “See, I am making all things new.” (Rev. 21:5) 

So, the reality is that church has to go in the blender too. There is no way to insulate ourselves from the change, or somehow just wish it would go away. Consider just a few facts: The fastest growing group in the religious landscape are “nones” – those who claim or desire no religious affiliation. The growth in the ranks of “nones” comes from previous church members. We often think that when someone leaves our congregation they go somewhere else.  The fact is that up to 90% just leave and go nowhere. In 1980, most of your neighbors went to church on Sunday morning. You are a serious minority when you pull out of the drive and head to church today. 25-40% of Christian congregations will not exist in the next decade or two.  Of the 4-5 generations that could inhabit the church today, we are losing (or have lost) 3.5. Studies show that when young people disappear after confirmation or high school graduation, they do not often return when they start raising families.  Welcome to the church in the blender.

I know by now you are saying “Thanks for completely ruining my day.” That is not my intent.  The fact is that the church, and the world, have been through the blender before and God has always made some tasty dish out of the mixture. Change is not evil, nor is it the enemy, it just is what it is.  How we respond is the challenge is the crucial issue.  Sadly, while everything in the world has changed, the reaction of the church has been to make its mission to stay the same, which makes us irrelevant.

Over the next several weeks, we are moving into the 5th and final section of Foundations – the course on the Christian faith that meets every Wednesday evening.  In this module, called Our Calling, we will look at the changes that we face and examine how we answer God’s call to change both as a congregation and as individual disciples.  We will work to discern where we are going and what God is calling us to do.  If you have been curious, frustrated, angered, worried about the changes around us and in the church, come and join us.  If you would like to be part of the discussion about how we respond to the changes in this world as a congregation, come and join us.  We meet at 6 PM on Wednesday in the sanctuary.

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