When most of us think about spiritual things, we think of self-improvement, or happiness, or success. Faith should lead to joy and glory. Religion should help us avoid the “bad things” in life. The scriptural witness however, doesn’t support these notions. Instead, Jesus invites Peter to follow to the cross. Peter doesn’t want to go. Psalm 22 begins with the words, “My God, my God; why have you forsaken me?” – the dying words of Jesus. The psalm answers this lament by pivoting to praise and the promises of God from this heart-wrenching lament.  In the midst of our suffering, we don’t reject God, but embrace God all the more.


copyright © Timothy V. Olson, 2018

Disaster in Oklahoma and the Presence of God

So, I was thinking that not to speak in the face of the devastation of the most recent disaster in Oklahoma is well, unthinkable.  What I share here is in part, some of a letter shared with the congregation – so pardon any redundancy.

The pictures of the devastation wrought by the huge and protracted tornado are heart breaking and even beyond comprehension.  The fact that our own area has listened to sirens warning us of the possibility of similar threats over the last two days brings the destruction closer to home, even if only in our imaginations. “What if….?” What if I were the one trying to imagine where my house used to be.  What if this town was being featured on the news feed.  We might even utter “Thank God it was not here” knowing immediately that our thanks is not really gratitude, but relief.  The images and the possibility of such an event happening means that fear becomes a companion in times like this.

Reminds me of a story you may know:

One day he got into a boat with his disciples, and he said to them, “Let us go across to the other side of the lake.” So they put out,  and while they were sailing he fell asleep. A windstorm swept down on the lake, and the boat was filling with water, and they were in danger.  They went to him and woke him up, shouting, “Master, Master, we are perishing!” And he woke up and rebuked the wind and the raging waves; they ceased, and there was a calm.  He said to them, “Where is your faith?” They were afraid and amazed, and said to one another, “Who then is this, that he commands even the winds and the water, and they obey him?” (Luke 8:22-25)
Who is this Jesus; this sleeping presence and stiller of storms?  None other than the God who over and over says to us, “Do not be afraid.” But letting go of the fear can be hard.  Especially when we wonder if it isn’t precisely this God who somehow allows, or even causes these disasters and storms.

I am thinking that soon, if not already, some morally upright, emotionally uptight, self-proclaimed proclaimer of “truth” will announce that this disaster was God’s punishment for something or another.  Listen: No matter what anyone tells you, the God revealed in Jesus Christ and worshiped as the Holy Trinity does NOT punish people with tornadoes — or disease, or earthquake, or any other such thing.  This God does not have a “plan” that called for a tornado to strike Oklahoma yesterday to serve some mysterious purpose.  It is true that tornadoes and earthquakes and such all happen within the order of creation, within the providence of the God who orders all things.  But that does not mean God points a divine magic wand to conjure up the tragedies of life.  They happen as part of the natural course of things. Tornadoes happen because rain falls; cancer happens because cells grow and sometimes, do so out of control. The God I have met in Jesus Christ does not inflict such things, but bears them instead.  You see?
So, where is God in this disaster?  Look at the cross — God is on the cross, suffering, bearing the brokenness and crying out for mercy. Look to the devastation itself to find God in Oklahoma. God is in the rubble, in the cries of the broken and grieving.  The God of the cross is present in the one who races into the rubble to find the person wailing for help and in that very wail.  God is already working to bring new life and resurrection from this disaster – and every other incidence of suffering, pain, grief that happens this day – even if it never makes the news.  God is with you as you tremble with fear and draw your kids close. God is with the people and working through the people.

God be with all who weep and mourn and clean-up today and in all the days ahead. God be with us as we battle fear and seek faith.

Pax Christi,

Pastor Tim Olson

Giving Thanks

So, I was thinking that giving thanks is harder than it sounds. Now that does not mean I don’t favor giving thanks.  With G.K. Chesterton, I am well aware that at the least “When it comes to life the critical thing is whether you take things for granted or take them with gratitude.”  It is too easy to live each day taking the “daily bread” God showers upon us for granted. Gratitude is the antidote for slipping into a sense of entitlement.

But, I maintain that giving thanks is hard. The difficulty is partly cultural. It is not lost on me that the day named for the practice of giving thanks has become but a prelude to the “Black Friday” that follows. We try to give thanks for a few hours, but by midnight we will have turned from gratitude to anxiety over what we need to get and what we do not yet possess. After all, there are only so many shopping days to find the things that will make everyone happy – for a day or two.

Black Friday rises from our preoccupation with tomorrow without remembrance of the past and attentiveness to the present. Worry about the future, anxiety over what is not yet, is the seed of sin and all matter of evil. As C.S. Lewis, has the demon Screwtape say in one of my favorite books,  The Screwtape Letters, “Gratitude looks to the Past and love to the Present; fear, avarice, lust, and ambition look ahead.”  If you can get us to fret over tomorrow, we are undone.  If we can give thanks, we have an antidote. Is it a coincidence that Madison Avenue wants us to zoom by the gratitude and love of the past and present so we can worry about Christmas as soon as possible?  I think not. 😉 

Giving thanks can also be hard because I find that saying, “Thanks be to God for the table full of food” is such a short distance from “Thank God I’m not starving like those who have nothing.”  Giving thanks for abundance when so many suffer scarcity tweaks my conscience.  It darkens my festive demeanor – and it should. Abundance, from a biblical perspective, is from God and for all, not just the privileged few. I’m not sure that gratitude means giving thanks for my personal affluence. Justice makes giving thanks hard.

But what makes giving thanks the hardest for me is that I have heard people throughout my life give thanks in circumstances I do not understand. When I heard someone say “I give thanks for my cancer” the first time, I was dumbstruck. Since then, I have come to understand a little more fully what they mean. The discipline (and yes it is this, not a feeling or a thought) of giving thanks is something we must apply to everything in life – even our pain and suffering.  This is hard. Henri Nouwen, one of the wisest spiritual teachers of the last century says: “Grateful people are those who can celebrate even the pains of life because they trust that when harvest time comes the fruit will show that the pruning was not punishment but purification.”  Can we say thank you for our pain and brokenness? Perhaps only by knowing that this is precisely where Christ meets us.  But it is still hard.

As difficult as it may be, gratitude is an absolute necessity in our world.  Without it, contentment is impossible and we are a very discontent lot. Gratitude that leads us to contentment makes us less afraid of the future. Gratitude that leads to contentment opens our hearts so we can share our bounty and help provide abundance for others. Gratitude that leads to contentment acknowledges the pain in our lives, giving God a chance to transform our teas to joy.  Gratitude that leads to contentment lasts more than a day and it changes the world.  Happy Thanksgiving to all.

Pastor Tim