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

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

Practice Makes Perfect?

So, I was thinking about all the wonderful conversations I get to have with people about faith and other spiritual matters.  I was thinking that there are two concerns that are persistently present.  The first is a concern of global proportion.  In the face of violence and brokenness we see every day –  a shooting here, a a terror attack there; a murder on a local city street or a casualty in Afghanistan; another child dead of abuse or just starving to death – people wonder, “Why?”  Why do people take life? Why do people do such unspeakable things to others?  Why can’t we get along, be more civil, stop shouting at each other? Why can;t we even discuss our faith or politics without getting ugly?

The second concern flows from the first.  “Pastor, how can we forgive?”  Sometimes this question is applied to those aforementioned terrorists and gunmen .  Sometimes it is applied to those people, much closer, who have so deeply hurt us we cannot imagine forgiving them – ever.  The questions implied in our struggle are: Doesn’t God have a means of overcoming the evil of the world?  Isn’t love and forgiveness wasted upon those who so violently or unrepentantly do harm and wreak havoc?

The gospel of Christ does not offer an easy solution. First, we are commanded to love and pray for our enemies. (Matt. 5:44)  Second, we are commanded to forgive as we have been forgiven (The Lord’s Prayer).  The unconditional love of God shown in the death of Christ for our sin, becomes the model for how we treat others. We might long for a better way; a way that allows for a pound of flesh; we might rail at God with the shear impossibility of forgiving people who seek to damage and destroy us, but as Richard Lischer says in his book The End of Words, “We preach God’s love to those who are staggering through loveless relationships.  We preach forgiveness to injured parties who possess a moral right to say ‘Never again.’  Worst of all we preach reconciliation to those who, either consciously or unconsciously, seize upon our words for permission of continued sin.  Of them the Scripture says, ‘They crucify the Son of God afresh.’  Nowhere do you see the vulnerability of the church more clearly than when it gathers up its authority and announces the forgiveness of sins.”

The truth is that the very means by which God overcomes evil and our enemies is through the cross.  Jesus dies out of love for even the enemies who nail him to the tree of death.  In Luke’s gospel, Jesus says “Father, forgive them, they know not what the do.”  The very way that God looses us from our pain and restores the brokenness of the world is through the power of forgiveness.  Forgiveness frees us from being eaten alive by the hate.  But even more than that, it compels us to move toward those who are against us, with open hearts and hands.  It compels us to risk hurt to take the path of peace.

I must confess, and it is indeed a confession, that there are a handful of people for whom the thought of reconciliation seems impossible for me. In some way, I may carry the hurt and hate to my grave, where God will indeed heal the pain, and refine the hate out of me. Until that day, however, I will be called each day by Christ to forgive as I have been forgiven.  I will be challenged to practice forgiveness.  Forgiveness is not a feeling, it is a practice – I will try to pray for my enemies and with stuttering words utter words of forgiveness.

One strategy for helping all of us deal with the brokenness of our world and the hard time we have with forgiving others is through our prayers. So maybe we should be praying for our enemies each week as we gather.  I’m not sure this is a popular solution, or an easy pill to swallow. In fact, as I have tried this in other places, I have actually had people stop coming to church.  But, think with me….  What if each week, as the congregation prays during worship, we add a petition dedicated to one thing: praying for our enemies.  I know it doesn’t make sense, and it is going to bug me as much as it does you.  But, it seems to me that if we are going to trust God to change us and the world; if the cross truly has power to make a difference, we need to take the command to pray for enemies and forgive seriously. It is perhaps the only way the gospel addresses our world and our pain; our brokenness and our sin.  Besides, it is a command from the Lord.  Who knows, God might just use those prayers to transform our enemies and the world. Maybe God will transform us.

What do you think about forgiving enemies, letting go of hurts and hates?  What about praying each week for enemies?  Can we do that?  What will happen?

Pax Christi,

Pastor Tim

A Community Defined

So, I was thinking that last week’s blog about behavior that undermines our call to be a community of love sparked a few conversations.  I was thinking that pursuing this line of thought might be fruitful.  Last week, the focus was on the ways that unhealthy behavior and just plain mean-spirited actions can hinder our efforts to be a community of love.  But, sometimes — maybe most of the time — it isn’t necessarily bad behavior that kills our mission.  Sometimes we get confused and conflicted over what we should do because we are not all clear about who we are.  More often than not, we argue because we are in disagreement about what is most important to the life of the congregation.  We have not defined the community’s identity well enough to guide our life together.

A congregation’s identity, it’s DNA, is made up of its values, beliefs, mission, and its vision.  Tom Bandy (a smart author and guru on mission) says that a core value is a “positive, predictable behavior pattern that organizational participants can be expected to model, both spontaneously and daringly, in their daily living.” Values are how we act in a positive way.  A core belief is “a principle or conviction to which (members) can be expected to turn, immediately and spontaneously, in times of trouble, confusion, or stress.”  Beliefs establish common principles.

St. Paul, when he wrote to the Galatians (5:22-23) suggested that there were common behaviors that should guide them: “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness,gentleness, and self-control.”  He told his churches that their core beliefs were things like “justification by grace through faith” and Christ crucified.”  The naming of these behaviors and beliefs gave the community a way to discern what to do — because they new who they were.

With values and beliefs unstated decisions are based on personal preference.  With values and beliefs clearly articulated, we have some idea how to resolve the conflict and be true to our identity.  When values and beliefs are left unstated, every individual assumes their own values and beliefs are the norm.  In a congregation that worships nearly 800 people a week, that means 800 sets of values and beliefs.  Trust struggles, conflict can thrive.

Think of it this way:  As we prepare worship bulletins each week we hear feedback from a wide spectrum of opinions.  On the one hand we hear “Thanks for putting all the songs in the bulletin, it really made me feel welcome and easy to worship.”  Then we hear “You’re putting too much in the bulletin and it is wasting paper.”  The first comment reflects certain values – hospitality, simplicity, welcoming.  The second reflects other values – economy and conservation.  All of these are good values, but here they come to conflict.  What do you do?  Well, it helps if we have stated what our values are before the conflict.

Another example: A congregation gets in a tiff over whether it should be involved in a local social program of some kind.  Some say, “We must do this because Christ lived and ministered among the poor.”  This reflects a core belief in the incarnation of Christ in our world.  Others say, “No, we must stay out of political and economic debates because God is not of the world.” This reflects a core belief in the transcendence of God.  Both can be rooted in Christian faith.  Conflict happens because we have not stated clearly what we believe at the core of our life together.

So, what do we do?  We define our values and beliefs.  How?  Well, on the one hand it is not really hard.  It simply takes the participation of a significant number of members in a discussion and process that seeks to discern what values and beliefs we all share.  It is a conversation rarely held, but desperately needed.

We are going to try to have such a discussion about our common values on Wednesday, June 6 at 7:00 PM.  We need you to be there!  The process will be fun and will take about two hours.  After an initial introduction, we will work in small groups.  By the end of the evening, we will have developed a good idea of what our values might be. It will work well IF YOU ARE THERE!  Please join us on 6/6 at 7

A Community of Love?

So, I was thinking that following Jesus is really not very complicated.  According to John’s Gospel, Jesus gives one command; one imperative instruction: “Love one another as I have loved you.” (John 15:12)  Now, just because something is not complicated does not mean that it is easy.  The command is clear – love each other to the point of dying for each other. And that is hard.  Honestly, in my years in the church I have learned that we rarely get anywhere close to dying for one another. Too often we struggle to manage being civil to one another, let alone loving each other.

Recently, an anonymous caller left a message on a staff member’s voice mail that was vile and accusatory.  The only identification the caller left was that they were a member of the congregation.  “Say what?” you reply.  Yes, a member of the “beloved community” left a harassing message.  I’d be shocked too if things like this didn’t happen way too often, even here at Holy Trinity Lutheran Church. Perhaps it is why, as Pastor Phil noted (and I quoted before) that many people see the church as “too judgmental, too hypocritical, and too hypercritical” and so want to have nothing to do with church or church people.

Church staffs know to expect and deal with complaints, concerns, even conflict when such is offered in a healthy, loving and productive manner.  But this behavior, and the anonymous letters and notes, the insults and demeaning gossip that happens is just evil.  It is how evil undermines the beloved community and keeps us from following the commandment of Jesus to love one another.  It does not happen all the time here and it does not eclipse the loving and Spirit-filled actions of so many disciples in this place by any stretch of the imagination.  But it does happen too often and to the detriment of all.

Paul writes to the church at Ephesus that should instruct us all and guide our behavior: Let no evil talk come out of your mouths, but only what is useful for building up, as there is need, so that your words may give grace to those who hear.  And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, with which you were marked with a seal for the day of redemption.  Put away from you all bitterness and wrath and anger and wrangling and slander, together with all malice, and be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you.(Ephesians 4:29-32)   

Luther, in his teaching on the 8th Commandment (You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor) says this commandment means: “We are to fear and love God, so that we do not tell lies about our neighbors, betray or slander them, or destroy their reputations.  Instead, we are to come to their defense, speak well of them, and interpret everything they do in the best possible light.” – (Small Catechism)

Each week as we prepare to receive the body and blood of Christ, we share the peace.  We take time to reconcile and put aside anything that separates us from one another.  If you have hurt someone or carry hate in your heart, don’t come forward until you work things out.  How can we receive Christ with a tongue that insults and lies about others?

So, what do we do about this kind of cancer in the Body of Christ in this place? Well, first you need to know that when we receive anonymous notes and letters, they go to the shredder.   No name – no attention.  Second, if you have a complaint or concern and you present it in a manner that does not conform to the two quotations above – in love, grace and in the best possible light, you will not receive a hearing.  Leave your sarcasm and anger at the door. Third, unless you are offering a solution or offering to help, don’t offer a complaint. Fourth, when you insult or accuse a member of the staff, you insult and accuse us all as a team and me as a leader.

Perhaps the biggest thing we can do is for the majority of members, who are indeed loving, committed, disciples to, in ways big and small, call others to account for unhealthy behavior.  We can also model love to one another.  Support the wonderful staff here publicly; recognize the many good things that people are doing.  When there is need for expressing concerns or disagreement, model the most loving, gracious manner possible, treating others with the respect and dignity that comes from being a child of God.  Try these:

TOP TEN THINGS YOU CAN DO TO LOVE ONE ANOTHER

  1. If the person being talked about is not present, stop talking about them.
  2. If someone starts to talk to you about another person, stop them. They should be talking to the other person, not you.
  3. Follow Luther: Interpret everything someone says and does in the best possible light.
  4. If you can’t say it to the person’s face, don’t say it at all.
  5. Before you react in anger, try to imagine the other person’s position and account for your fault in the matter.
  6. Never criticize without first complimenting.
  7. Apologize quickly; take offense very slowly.
  8. Never communicate anonymously.
  9. If you can’t say something that builds up and is constructive, stay silent.
  10. Own your feelings.  Others cannot make you feel anything.  Anger is a choice.