Idio-stasis

beggar

A pundit recently said something that seemed utterly idiotic to me. I was not alone. Yet, even as an avalanche of push back mounted, he stuck to his guns. He was either totally clueless about the idiocy of his statement or unswervingly committed to never admitting a mistake. I wondered to a friend whether the continued effort was cumulative or simply expressed some kind of static state, which I called “idio-stasis.” She insisted that I had coined a phrase. So, I’m claiming it.

Idio-stasis is not an insult. It is, ultimately, a word that describes human sin and brokenness. Idio-stasis is unrepentant and widespread. Let me explain. Adam and Eve eat from the forbidden fruit. They get busted – hand in the fruit jar, if you will. They blame each other. Then they blame the snake. They stick to their refusal to accept responsibility for the fall. Idio-stasis.

Closer to home, I lost 30 pounds this last year. Over the holidays, I gained back 6. Why? Cookies. I eat the cookies. I gain the weight. Then I step on the scale and am shocked and dismayed when the number goes up. Idio-stasis.

In our politics right now, we have lots of folks who are so full of pride and arrogance; who have drunk deeply from the Kool-aid of partisanship that they can’t back down, discuss or compromise. The result is chaos. Then they act surprised. Idio-stasis.

A much more eloquent statement about what I am getting at was made bu Martin Luther King Jr. (on this, his birthday), “Nothing in all the world is more dangerous than sincere ignorance and conscientious stupidity.”

Ultimately, the spiritual struggle here is that we become disconnected from any self-awareness of our faults; we ignore the things that keep us from being who God calls us to be; we keep on doing idiotic things because to change would be to admit a mistake; to change would be to let go of our pride; to change would require confession – and that is something we – even as Christians – don’t want to undertake.  But, if we cannot confess our mistakes, faults, evil deeds and sin, we can never be forgiven and transformed by the work of the Spirit.

The most dangerous people are those who are least self-aware. They don’t know they are broken and need transformation (sincere ignorance). Just as dangerous to self and others are those too full of pride to say, “I was wrong. Forgive me.” (conscientious stupidity).  I would classify both things as “idio-stasis” – being stuck in our own idiocy and choosing to stay there.

In Ignatian spirituality, part of one’s daily practice is called “examen.” It is a practice that includes seeking the ways that your day was marked by brokenness, impatience, pride, arrogance or whatever got in the way of your relationship with God and neighbor. Once you name it, you can own it and seek transformation in Christ by the power of the Spirit. It is a way of dealing with the “idio-stasis” in all of us. Ultimately, “idio-stasis” is our rejection of humility for an arrogance that rejects change. To live in the reign of God, however, is a constant embrace of change and transformation at the hands of a gracious God.

Peace to you!

Copyright © 2019, Timothy V. Olson

Light in the Darkness

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thanksgivings and Blessings

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pax Christi,

Pastor Tim

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

God & Hurricanes

So, I was thinking that the landfall of Hurricane Sandy, a monstrous storm that is wreaking havoc on the eastern third of the nation, has no doubt yielded some theological reflection about God’s involvement and purpose.  I was, sadly, correct.  At least a couple of pronouncements have appeared revealing God’s punishment by hurricane agenda.  Thankfully, some saner heads have spoken as well.  Father James Martincontributing editor at America Magazine and the author of Between Heaven and Mirth and The Jesuit Guide to (Almost) Everything” has concisely tweeted: “If any religious leaders say tomorrow that the hurricane is God’s punishment against some group they’re idiots. God’s ways are not our ways.”

But, I was also thinking, that a simple dismissal of God’s involvement in destructive acts of nature may not provide a great deal of hope or spiritual meat on which to chew. I mean, does not the wind blow and the storm rise out of God’s creation?  Psalm 78:26 says “(God) caused the east wind to blow in the heavens, and by his power he led out the south wind.”   Does that mean that God causes hurricanes?  Or is it just the case that hurricanes just happen and God has nothing to do with the matter? A faithful answer needs some nuance.

First, I think we can say that God does not “cause” hurricanes in the same way that I cause my teeth to get brushed in the morning.  Simple cause and effect thinking is a bit to simple to describe the workings of God.  God does not choose to send a hurricane any more than God gives someone cancer or causes a plane to crash.  God is not a button-pushing computer operator or a string-tugging puppet master.  The psalmist (and many other biblical writers) talk about God causing wind to blow poetically, applying human characteristics to describe something that is divine.  If we push the language too far we have understated the divine nature of a God who we can’t explain so easily.  Job learns about this in his argument with God.  After accusing and arguing God of causing his disastrous life for no reason, God speaks to Job out of a whirlwind (nothing human about this) saying, “Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge?  Gird up your loins like a man, I will question you, and you shall declare to me.  Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth? Tell me, if you have understanding.” (Job 38:1-4)  Well, Job couldn’t answer and neither can we.

When we see a hurricane with such devastation approach, we can absolutely say that this is part of God’s creation.  In the mystery and grandeur of God’s providence (the creation and on-going sustaining of life), hurricanes and earthquakes, and even disease and tragedy can occur.  That is not the same as saying that God causes it to happen as some kind of divine temper tantrum.   If rain can fall, hurricanes can happen.  We can even cry out like Job and ask “Why would you let this happen?” You’ll likely get the same answer Job received, or just silence.

If we understate the divinity of God, we ask questions that have no answers or we make wild claims about a God who acts with fury and revenge as motives – just like us.  However, we can also underestimate the humanity of God.  When we do this we look in the hurricane for God in the wrong places.  The better question is, “Where is God in this?”  For that we have some answer.  The central revelation of God for us is Jesus Christ crucified.  The cross tells us unequivocally that God is with us in the midst of suffering as our partner, our companion, our Lord.  So, instead of thinking about some far off being throwing a thunderbolt at New York City (that is Thor, not God in Christ) I imagine that Christ is in that mess wearing a firefighters coat, or shivering in a now unheated flat with a fearful mother and her kids.  God is with us:  that is one of the central claims of our faith.  We do not proclaim God is against us (See Romans 8:31-39).

So, does this mean that Hurricane Sandy is not an act of divine judgment?  It depends upon what you mean by judgment.  If you mean God has conjured up a terrible storm to punish people who disagree with me about certain moral, political. economic or environmental issues.  Then, no way. God cannot be controlled by our causes and we should always be careful about claiming God is on my side over against somebody else. The next natural disaster might destroy your house.  Then what?  If however, you have some sense that this awful storm seems to drive you to your knees to pray; or to acknowledge the power of God and your powerlessness, then maybe some judgment is happening.  An event like this seems to me to have a real capacity to announce what we Lutherans, among others, call “the Law.”  By this I mean the way the Word of God can remind us of our finitude, our limits as human beings when we stand against the storm.  We humans can get full of ourselves.  We can go for long periods thinking that we are in control and we have a plan for everything; that we are hot stuff.  A storm like this comes up and reminds us that we are not in control and we are actually, quite small. It can remind us that life is fragile and that we all will die.  That is the Law.

But the only purpose of the Law is to open us up to receive the good news – the gospel. Faced with our own limits, God comes as one who somehow does sustain life even in the midst of fatal storms.  In the midst of death, God comes as the firstborn of the resurrection, announcing life.  In the midst of human suffering, God is with us.  Through the Spirit, God will bring — has already started in fact – to manifest signs of new life after the clouds depart.  It will come in the form of rescue and relief workers; shipments of needed supplies.  It will come in the form of financial help to clean up, rise up, build up once again.  You can begin that process through Lutheran Disaster Relief, who is already at work. That is what God does in the middle of a disaster through the work of the Spirit.

That’s just what I was thinking today about God & hurricanes.

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