Category Archives: In the world

30,000 youth excited about Jesus, service, and justice — let’s not fail them

30,000 youth praising Jesus. (@laurenapollo)

30,000 youth praising Jesus. (@laurenapollo)

I was, admittedly not excited about going to this year’s ELCA Youth Gathering in Detroit. I had responsibilities that, leading up to the gathering, had been really stressful. All I could focus on was my Synod Day not being a total failure. I just wanted the gathering to be over so I could stop stressing it and get to my vacation in Cleveland. Then, Friday night, that all changed.

At the Friday night gathering at Ford field, I witnessed something amazing. I witnessed 30,000 youth repeatedly give rousing applause and standing ovations to people talking about social justice, structural evil, Jesus, and the role that young people can play in living out the kingdom in our world. I watched them sing along to praise music. I watched them dance, hug and celebrate the Word of God. As the Motown Experience finished and Rev. Steve Jerbi took the stage I wondered what would happen — 20 minutes of Motown favorites is a hard act to follow. As Rev. Jerbi talked about the heartless, racist murder of his young parishioner Darius Simmons, the crowd fell silent. Kids leaned in to his words, hanging on them, pulled in to his pain, vulnerability and passion. His sermon reached crescendo and he had the whole crowd chanting, “Jesus!” on a move of his arm. Students were standing, banging chairs in response to his call for justice, love, and compassion in this world — all rooted in our love for Jesus Christ (link embedded and you really should listen to it because it is awesome).

I heard kids talking about their joy in the service they were able to do. My cynicism over the ELCA slogan, “God’s work, our hands,” melted as I heard kids repeatedly talking about how this is how they view their lives in this world. They know they are called to be God’s hands in the world. I stood in line behind kids signing pledges and getting tattoos from Reconciling Works, our denomination’s organization that works for LGBTQ equality. I watched them carry water jugs across a conference center to learn what it is like to have to walk miles for clean water. They wandered the exhibition hall talking to all kinds of justice organizations about how they can be the change they want to see in the world. They gave away free hugs. They were so excited for Jesus it was palpable.

And then I was filled with excitement and hope. I was not watching a dying church. I was bearing witness to a church filled with life and hope, calling for Jesus and looking to do his work in the world. In these 30,000 young people lies a vision of the possibility of the kingdom on earth not yet beaten down by cynicism. It was beautiful for behold. 

They have had a mountaintop experience and they are bringing it home. 30,000 youth just spent a week being really excited about Jesus and doing God’s work in the world. We cannot let this energy die. We cannot let them walk away from church. We must find ways to take this excitement and build on it if we want all of this talk about the death of the church to be nothing more than the wringing of hands of an older generation afraid of change.

Screen Shot 2015-07-22 at 10.47.18 AMThese young people want Jesus. They want to be connected to something larger than themselves, they want community — in short, they want church.

In far too many cases, they will return to congregations in which they matter in words far more than action. They will return to congregations in which their needs are silenced. They will go back to congregations that are not interested in examining their worship services to make them more accessible to young people, but want to keep doing what they have been doing for 50 years. My colleagues in youth ministry will return to senior pastors who shut them out or see their jobs as silly or irrelevant, to repeatedly have their activities  left out of announcements. The kids will be seen as cute, encouraged to be on committees only to have their needs and desires ignored. Their excitement for church will fade and the youth gathering will be a memory of a really great time they had once. Maybe it will spur them to service or to pursue their own spirituality away from church. But if we choose to not listen to their experience, to not learn about what excited them and then act on it, this will be another generation we watch walk away from our congregations to develop their own spirituality without the support of the body of Christ. We cannot let this happen.

Colleagues in ministry, church leaders, parents, adults in the church, I implore you — listen. When they talk about how much they loved the worship services, don’t discount it or focus immediately on how your congregations can’t do that or won’t like it or how it isn’t Lutheran. Flip it. What can your congregations do to add elements of what worked for your kids into weekly worship? Were they fired up about the sermons because they related to their everyday lives in the world? Because they were powerful, fiery and passionate? How have your sermons been lately? Can you change? Did they love the music because it was upbeat? Can you occasionally retool a beloved hymn to a different beat? Can you help the youth empower themselves to create a worship band that works for your congregation, maybe once a month on a Saturday night?

Were they passionate about the social justice teachings? How can your congregation become more active in the community? How can the Bible studies they go to in church reflect this passion? Did they love the service? Can we help parents and kids find more ways to structure service into their lives?

What hooked them? How can we keep them hooked?

One of the struggles of a campus pastor is that we allow our worship services and activities to be shaped by our students — we follow their passions and help them use Lutheran theology and tradition as a guide to create worship that is meaningful to them, to have scripture studies that speak to their needs and to do service that hooks into their passions. Then they graduate and go into congregations that have little interest in truly involving them beyond the excitement of, “OMG!!! MILLENNIAL IN CHURCH!!!!” I keep reflecting on this as I see all of the excitement around what happened in Detroit. We are so proud of our youth for the work they did, the excitement they felt and the connections they made with Jesus, multiple communities and themselves. Will they come back to congregations that will build on what they experienced in Detroit, or will Detroit be an exciting one-off in their lives in the church, showing them what church could be before returning them to a church that is still firmly rooted in the 1950’s, with little interest in change and little honest interest in what youth want or need?

It’s up to us.

Let’s not fail them.

We are the body of Christ, and they are our blood, renewing us and giving us the energy to walk forward into this world with the boldness to proclaim the love of God with our words and deeds.

They are our sheep begging to be fed.

They are not only our future, they are our present.

We must not let this moment pass.

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On (white) progressive fragility

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Black folk have been targets of violence in the United States since the inception of our nation. There have been times were the bursts of violence are significant enough for national attention, mass killings, lynchings, church burnings, police violence and more have exploded in ways that interrupt the national (white) consciousness only to fade as we move on to the next (less disruptive to our lives as privileged folk) moment of national attention. But the black community never gets to stop thinking about it. The black community never gets to stop being afraid, never gets to let fear entirely leave their consciousness. The white community’s ability to forget, to not mention, to not think about racism is our privilege. It is our reward for simply being born with lighter skin.

I cannot imagine what it would be like if I knew that there were groups or individuals focused entirely on killing, say, white women named Elizabeth, or Lutheran pastors, or any other group of which I am a part. While, as a woman, I experience a low-grade fear when walking alone, it is nothing compared to what my brothers and sisters of color face every day. While I know what it is like to be talked down to because I am a woman and because I am young (at least in my career field), I don’t know what it is like to know that much of the society in which I live and the culture in which I work values me less because of the color of my skin.

These past few months have once again brought violence against people of color, primarily black Americans to the forefront. We have  been having some necessary conversations about race and privilege in our world and in our church. Yet even with the media attention focusing on killing of African-Americans, even with my church body being intimately touched by the killings at Mother Emanuel AME in Charleston, we have the privilege to forget. That is privilege. And when that privilege allows a gathering of people for religious purposes to remain silent during a worship service of theoretically progressive allies, that is structural racism.

We can make excuses for our silence. We can say that it wasn’t the right time, or it wasn’t the purpose of our gathering, but if when we gather as a group to worship we reamain silent (as happened this past week at a gathering of my colleagues), we are perpetuating structural racism. Here is how one black woman described her experience of the event. 

This is hard to face. As progressive religious professionals, we want to believe we are good allies. When presented with the pain and anger of members of a community reeling in grief and anger, when confronted about our willful blindness to the pain in our midst, we get uncomfortable. We want it to not be about us, about our behavior, about our privilege. But it is.

When we, as allies, are called out for forgetting, we are called to pause. To think. To consider what it might be like in the shoes of those who are in pain, who are being terrorized, who are straight up pissed off about something that looks and feels like being ignored. Again.

As I write this, I am nervous because I want the approval of my colleagues. I want everyone to like me. I don’t want to hurt anyone by putting this out there. But I also have to say it. Because I was disturbed by our silence. I was disturbed my some of the conversations I was a part of. The longer I think of it, the more it bothers me, & the more my heart hurts. And to not say anything because I want people to like me and because none of this directly affects me is just another way I engage in white privilege.

As privileged people, we have the power. Because of our power, we are called to slow down instead of react. We are called to love, to listen, to put our pride and our own concerns aside to hear the grief and pain in the voices and lives of those who are suffering.

We shouldn’t wait to be confronted to act. We need to always be remembering the marginalized in our world and constantly asking ourselves if we are working to perpetuate or dismantle the system. If a member of our community comes to us and says dudes, you missed that, we have not done our job. 

We should never ask that someone aplogise for expressing that they are angry or hurt at being ignored or having something close to their hearts met with silence instead of prayer, lament and action. 

When we ask those suffering to calm down, to wait, to find a more appropriate time or medium to express their feelings, we diminish their grief. We tell them that they are not important enough to be heard, that their pain is not important enough for us to listen to this minute, that they must wait. That’s the pastoral equivalent of having a student show up in our office reeling in pain and fear and telling them to hold on a sec, we have a bulletin to finish editing first.
Now is the time. Now is the time to listen. Now is the time to be intentional about observing the grief and pain and fear of the marginalized. Now is always the time.

Now is the time to measure our words carefully, to examine our systems and structures and ask who we are leaving out. Not later, not when it is convenient or appropriate. Now.

When talking to a colleague about events this past week, events in my church body at a conference I attended, I used the phrase progressive fragility. I don’t know if that is a phrase, but it definitely is a thing. Those of us who consider ourselves progressive and who want to believe that we are allies and/or accomplices get really, really hurt when called out on our -isms. More often than not, we react to these moments defensively, either attacking or deflecting so that we don’t have to look at the fact that we might have just been not-so-progressive. We don’t want to admit we have failed in our ally-ship. When we react, we diminish and silence. When we react we use our implicit power to perpetuate the system. I have seen this when I have called out men who claim the title feminist yet mansplain things to me, or when people expect me to be less competent because of my age and/or gender. I have felt my face burn when a friend has pointed out to me that I just asked all the guys in the room to lift the heavy thing and when my brain points out to me that I’m being racist. But for true structural change to occur, we have to put down the defenses and listen. Really, truly, deeply listen.

When confronted with the hurt of a (marginalized) member of the community, especially a hurt that was either directly or indirectly caused by you or your organization ask yourself:

1)  Did you stop.

2) Did you breathe.

3) Are you listening?

4) Are you practicing grace, love, empathy and understanding. Be the Good Samaritan. Be Jesus encountering the woman at the well. Be the mother hen gathering in her children.

5) Instead of thinking about what the person telling you of their hurt could have done differently, can think about what you could have done differently?

6) Have you thought about how you might be able to act differently in the future, how you can use your voice to disrupt the system, and how you can tear down the structures that perpetuate racism.

7) will you continue engaging in conversation.

I love my church. This past week I engaged in and overheard some great learning and important conversations about structural evil. I know the people with whom I was gathered want to do better, want to be allies, want to fight racism. I also participated in some really disheartening conversations and observed structural evil at work. I know many people were hurt by conversations, by social media, by snide comments and by silence. We can do better, my friends. We have to. It is our call as ministers in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, as Christians, and as humans moving in this world.

Everything is sacred.


A nation of Sodomites

The story of Sodom and Gomorrah in the book of Genesis is often cited as a story about how wrong homosexuality is, and God’s desired punishment for such “crimes.” The story has angels coming to Sodom, whom Lot welcomes into his home as honored guests. When the men in the village find out that Lot has visitors, they come to his house and demand that he send the visitors out so that the men of the village may “know” them (aka, have sex with or, in this case, rape). Lot refuses, the visitors pull him inside the house before Lot gets hurt and tell him to gather his family, for the Lord is going to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah “because the outcry against its people has become so great before the Lord, and the Lord has sent us to destroy it.” The common cultural understanding of this story is God destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah because of gay sex. It is such a common understanding that laws outlawing sex between gay men (and sometimes just anal sex in general) are referred to as anti-Sodomy laws and one of the epithets hurled at gay men is “Sodomite.”

This understanding is wrong.

God did not destroy Sodom and Gomorrah because of gay sex. That’s not what this story is about.

Lot welcomed the visitors into his home — welcome being a high cultural value of the people of God, iterated again and again throughout the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament. This is Lot’s saving grace, his display of welcome. The men of the village destroyed that welcome. They were going to violate these visitors, running counter to culture, custom and the word of God. They were going to commit violence against the stranger, being about as unwelcoming as one can be.

The book of Ezekiel (16:49) makes the sins of Sodom plain, “This was the guilt of your sister Sodom: she and her daughters had pride, excess of food, and prosperous ease, but did not aid the poor and needy.”

God did not destroy Sodom because of gay sex. God destroyed Sodom because they had everything they needed

You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means. I mean, cool, you want to criminalize not caring for the poor, be my guest!

You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.
I mean, cool, you want to criminalize not caring for the poor, be my guest!

and more and did not help those who were in need, because the people of Sodom did not welcome the stranger.

Sound familiar?

As I think of the story of Sodom and Gomorrah, I think of the new law in Indiana that allows business to deny service to members of the LGBTQ community, I think we need to redefine the word Sodomite.

Those who would not show welcome to visitors, regardless of the differences they may have: those are the Sodomites.

As I read about continued efforts to kick people out of this country because they didn’t come here legally (even those who were brought here as children, those who did not have a choice), those who would not welcome the alien as the Bible commands (Ex 22:21, Deut 10:19, Lev 19:34, Rom 12:13, Matthew 25:40), those who exhibit the sin of the men of Sodom: those are the sodomites.

Those of us who would cut benefits to the poor provided by our government, who would tell those in need to fix themselves, who would deny help to those in need (particularly those of us who live in plenty): those are the Sodomites.

The God who revealed himself to us in Jesus Christ is a God of radical welcome. In the gospels, Jesus speaks of drawing all creation to him through his death on the cross. He tells his followers that that which you did to the least of your brothers and sisters, you did to me, to love your neighbor as yourself, to love your enemy and pray for those who persecute you. Our God is a God of radical welcome and inclusion, who will turn away no one who knocks on God’s door — and God asks us to do the same. Over and over again, throughout the laws, the prophets, the gospels, and the letters. Not showing this radical welcome and love was the crime of Sodom and Gomorrah, for which the punishment was death.

It’s not about gays. People who engage in sex with those of the same gender are not sodomites.

But far too many of us are. Far too many of us are willing to kick out those who think differently, and act differently, as well as people who we feel don’t “deserve” to be here. Far too many of us ignore the plight of the poor and the marginalized to aid our own gains. Every day many of us are indifferent or even hateful as we walk past others on the street who are in great need. We keep what is ours for ourselves. We prop up structures that benefit the privileged while we ignore, shun, demean and oppress those who have little. This is Sodomy.

We are a nation of Sodomites. Our public policy is Sodomy.

If I didn’t believe in the God who will bring all people to God’s loving grace, I might wonder: what will be our fate? Will the fate of a nation that consistently refuses to welcome the stranger and care for the poor end up like Sodom and Gomorrah? If angels were to come to take those who show radical love and hospitality to safety, how many of us would be invited to go with?

What would the God of the prophets have to say to us, as we continue the ways of Sodom and Gomorrah?

Maybe something like this:

Look, you serve your own interest on your fast day and oppress all your workers.

Look, you fast only to quarrel and to fight and to strike with a wicked fist.

Such fasting as you do today will not make your voice heard on high.

Is such the fast that I choose, a day to humble onself?

It is to bow down the head like a bulrush, and to lie in sackcloth and ashes?

Will you call this a fast, a day acceptable to the Lord?

Is not this the fast that I choose:

to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free and to break every yoke?

Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house, when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin?

Then your light shall break forth like the dawn and your healing shall spring up quicklt; your vindicator shall go before you, the glory of the Lord shall be your rear guard. Then you shall call, and the Lord will answer; you shall cry for help, and he will say, Here I am.”  ~ Isaiah 58


Who are our heroes?

A few weeks ago, I went to see Selma with my students. It is an amazing movie. Beautifully shot, well acted, excellent writing… It’s the kind of movie that, when you walk out, you are just quiet for a while, letting it all sink in. It was, at times, very difficult to watch. Selma is a reminder of how far we have come and how far we have to go, and an examination of the power of love in the struggle for justice.  This powerful film could bring about a time of soul-searching for an American. We have an ugly history when it comes to race relations, and there is still much work to be done.

I wish all of America would see this movie and be stirred into contemplation about racism, activism, and the power of love in making change. To date, Selma has made $48 million , and is currently being shown in only 566 theaters, down from a little over 800. People are not watching it on a grand scale. I imagine it is hard to watch, but moreover I imagine that people do not want to be challenged to think about race in spite of it being so very necessary RIGHT NOW to think about and talk about. But I wish more people would take the risk to be disturbed and inspired by this film.

When I was walking out of Selma, deep in thought about Dr. King’s calling out of white church leaders for their silence while black folk were being killed just for being black, I noticed another movie on multiple screens at the theater: American Sniper. American Sniper is the story of a sniper, American soldier Chris Kyle, in war and his struggles to readjust to life at home. By all accounts, it is also an excellent movie. Good acting, writing, directing. I haven’t seen it. I can’t stomach war movies. I cry and cry about man’s inhumanity to man, how we end up in war, our inability to see the other as a human being (which is necessary in war, I get it, but I don’t have to like it). I thought about going to see it so I could write this post, as I know it is dodgy to write about something I haven’t seen, but I am pretty sure I would be curled up in a ball for days on end if I did. But this isn’t about the movie, so much, as the idea of the movies, and what we value as a people.

american-sniper_612x380_1American Sniper, a movie about war, warriors, and facing violence with violence, a movie that from what I read in comments and chat rooms, leaves one with quite the strong Go America! spirit, has made over $300 million at the box office. It is still being shown in over 3,000 theaters.

And I am disturbed. Not that people want to go see what is, by all accounts, a good action flick/drama, but that so many more people would rather watch a movie about continuing war than working for peace. I am disturbed that Chris Kyle, a war sniper, can be so much bigger a hero than Dr. Martin Luther King, a man who shrewdly led a peaceful movement to grant freedom and equality to black Americans. I am disturbed that we would rather watch something that makes us tread deeper into blind and unbridled nationalism than something that leads us to examine the darker parts of American history so that we might work for a brighter future.

Who are our heroes? What is important to us as a nation? War or peace? Loving action or violent action? What kind of Christianity do we claim?

Chris Kyle was a Christian. He embraced the kind of black and white good vs. bad Christianity that seems to be everywhere today. He believed that the people he killed were evil, that Jesus would be okay with his kills. He, himself, felt like killing was no big deal. It didn’t trouble him to take a life. He believed that he was fighting evil individuals.

selmaDr. King and those who worked with him were (largely) Christian. Dr. King believed in using love to fight hate, he believed that inside every one of those racists who hurled epithets at his brothers and sisters, there was a shred of humanity, a little bit of God. He tried to appeal to a person’s better nature, to call that little bit of God out so it could take over a person and banish hate. He believed in evil, for sure, but not without a spark of hope.

We, it appears, would rather buy into the American Sniper view of the world. Everyone else is the enemy, violence wins, God would be cool with us killing. We prefer a world in which there are three kinds of people, “wolves, sheep and sheepdogs,” instead of the complex reality that there is a little of each in everyone, that we are all simultaneously sinner and saint. We would rather our heroes be strong warriors who go to battle with guns, kick ass and take names, shoot first, ask questions later, etc. than men and women who fight hate with love and patiently endure beatings without fighting back so they can reach an ultimate goal. We would rather soak in nationalistic fervor than take time to reflect on the darker parts of our history and ask question about who we are and how we can change. We would rather have black and white than gray (and we would rather a terrible movie about an abusive relationship than Selma as well, but don’t get me started on that one).

Is this who we want to be?

Moreover, for those of us who are Christians, is this who we are called to be? Those of us who follow a man who said to love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, is this who we were created to be? Our Savior and our scripture again and again command us to love above all else. Not to love until we feel threatened, then to shoot. Not to kill the evil (because God takes care of that).

I know this isn’t good foreign policy. I know war leaves little room for gray. But I also know that the revolutions that have lasted the longest and led to the most change, have been peaceful revolutions. I know that killing upon killing leads to more killing. And I know that God in Christ asks us to go against the grain and to love unto death.

And, ultimately, it’s he who is my hero and it is he who I will follow to my grave.


Jesus is the stranger

And we walk together on the road to Emmaus. Waiting to see Christ in our lives, waiting for the death and resurrection of Christ to turn our worlds upside down, to change us for the better, to change our world for the better, we walk. As we walk, we talk of the impact Jesus has had on our lives, and we wonder where is he now? What happened? Why can’t we see Jesus in our lives today – all the while, looking down at our feet, focused inward on our troubles and our confusion.  A stranger comes us to us, asks us for spare change, asks us for a blessing, asks us if we need anything and we , so caught up in our conversation, so stuck in our own heads, mumble a few words and keep walking. Jesus was there, and we missed it.

Despite our desire for an encounter with Jesus, our longing for him in our lives, we miss out on him a lot. We look for him, sure, but we look for him in the expected places. We look for Jesus in prayer, we (sometimes) look for him in church or in the faces of those we love. Rarely do we look for him as we walk down the street, our heads stuck in the future or in the past, in our troubles or in our phones. Most of us pass through our days unaware that we have encountered Jesus, even though we have a deep longing for him. We are just so trained to look in certain places but not others and have such difficulty being here in this place in this moment that Jesus comes by and we don’t see him, don’t notice him, he is just another stranger on the road to work, to play, on the road home.

This is a problem. You see, when we don’t look for Jesus everywhere, when we aren’t expecting to be surprised by Jesus in strange and unusual places, we see Jesus less and less. Because Jesus is rarely found where Jesus is supposed to be. While he can be found in the synagogue, he can also be found talking to women shunned by society, by a well at the hottest time of the day. He can be found having dinner with people no one likes, the sinners, the prostitutes, murderers and the tax collectors – not the pastor and the church council. Jesus appears, again and again, with and within the stranger. We are called to look for him there. When we don’t – when we forget that this is where Jesus lives, we forget about the importance of the stranger, the necessity of loving the stranger, the foreigner, the sinner, and those on the margins. When we forget to look for Jesus in the face of the stranger, we miss Jesus, and we forget about the value of each and every single human life.

bring-back-our-girls

What happens when we forget to look for Jesus everywhere? Some news clippings about Jesus from the last week. Where has he been?

Jesus lost his ride to work last week. He is trying to piece together some way to get to his job, trying to figure out how he can keep supporting his family without a car.  Jesus might lose his job because he can’t get to work anymore. That or he will spend 2 hours bussing each way, losing valuable time with his family, easing the stress on his partner and helping his kids with their homework. We were so busy making sure we didn’t have to spend an extra $60 on our car tabs, we missed seeing Jesus in all of those people who rely on public transportation to get to work, to get to the doctor, to get groceries – to get anywhere.

Jesus was kidnapped last week. Kidnapped and sold as a child bride in Nigeria. Jesus is gone, we don’t know where. No one is looking for him because no one expects Jesus to be found in a group of Nigerian schoolgirls. Nigerian schoolgirls, apparently, are not terrible important in our world.  They are black, they are female, they are poor. A trifecta of things that make someone unimportant. These girls are important to their parents, to the handful of activists working to get this story out, to people in their villages and girls afraid of facing the same fate, but not to many other people, as is evidenced by the amount of time it took for Western news outlets to start picking up this story and the lack of offers of international assistance. These girls were missing for almost two weeks before most of us started hearing about it. Now they are gone. Jesus has been kidnapped, and we missed it.

Jesus was tortured last week. He sat in an execution chair, chemicals pumped into his veins (or his skin, rather, as the drugs didn’t make it into his veins). He writhed and tried to speak, seized and foamed at the mouth. Jesus was there, but no one saw him. Because no one would think to look for Jesus alive in the heart of a murderer. Jesus was tortured and, collectively, we just look away.

When we forget to see Jesus in the stranger, we allow people to die of hunger, of starvation, of neglect. We allow our brothers and sisters, our fellow travelers on this road, to fall to the wayside and die. What is it that Jesus said? When you do this to the least of these, you do this to me.

Our faith, at its heart, is a story of love. God created us, very good. God made covenants with us our of God’s infinite love for us. God came to earth to show us how to love one another and how to be in relationship with God. God died a painful death so that we might have life.

Again and again, God extols us to love one another.

In our reading from Peter today, we are told that the fruit of our faith, the result of obeying the truth, is love. If we are obedient to God, it will show because we will love one another fervently. Love is the fruit of faith.

And we want to be obedient, we really do! But there is just so much out there that is so shiny and distracting. Our phones. Our relationships, so fraught with drama that we often cause, our work, our desire for money, for things, for power and success. We are even distracted by replaying our pasts over and over again in our heads or by living in the future, never the present. Plus, love takes energy, and, more than that, it takes vulnerability. Who wants that? When we are vulnerable, when we invite others into our hearts and our lives we put ourselves in the position of possibly getting hurt. So we distract ourselves with things that we somehow believe will never let us down. Cause I have certainly never been let down by any of my stuff. Wait… that’s so not true.

For God so loved the world… our faith is a story of love.

To love and to be loved, you have to show up. You have to pay attention. You have to allow yourself to be loved and allow space for love to happen, to create space for interaction, to expect the unexpected, to expect love.

The two men walking along the road did not expect love. They were not looking for Jesus; they were too caught up in their lives to see love standing there in front of them. They were too busy with their own thoughts of who they thought Jesus should be and where they would find him to see him standing right in front of them.

Just like most of us.

But then something changed. They may not have recognized Jesus, but they remembered their faith. They remembered the importance of love and of showing love through hospitality. They invited the stranger inside, into their homes and their lives. They offered him a meal. It was in that act, the breaking of bread together, the act of allowing him to bless them (an act of vulnerability and love) that their eyes were opened and they saw Jesus, right there in front of them. He had been there the whole time.

Let him in. He is walking along side of us on the road of life in the face of so many strangers. Pick up your head, pull your mind out of your phone, out of your worries, out of your present and your past and look for Jesus everywhere you go. Open your heart to the possibility that he might be in the homeless person on the corner you pass every day, yet don’t know his name. To the possibility that he might be the undocumented immigrant living down the street or the young child bride taken from her family half a world away or an inmate on death row. What you find might surprise you. What you find might just be love – the fruit of our faith and our salvation.

Amen


And the light breaks through the darkness… Christmas Eve 2013

For Christmas Eve this year, I was privileged to preach at my home congregation, Trinity Lutheran Church in Lakewood, Ohio. The people of Trinity were some of my main teachers in the faith (alongside family and the staff at Camp Mowana in Mansfield, Ohio). I am both proud and blessed to have been raised in that community. They are shining Christ’s light into the darkness.

Tonight’s reading from Isaiah speaks of light and darkness.  Image

Darkness and light.

Darkness and light. We are a people of the light, yet we spend so much of our lives wandering in the darkness.

This is the human condition. Some of us experience more of one than the other, some of us are better at seeing the light in the darkness, some of us are not so good at finding the light.  But still, we search. We grope. We cry out for the light. Like the generations before us, we crave light.

Sometimes, the darkness is our own doing – we become focused too much on our own needs, break relationships, indulge our desires to the point of illness that we cannot escape. We close out the light. Sometimes the darkness is something in us we cannot control, at least not without difficulty – mental illness, a physical illness, a darkness we fight with all our might but still seem to have difficulty finding the light. Other times, the darkness is imposed on us on a personal or structural level – abuse, relationships broken by the other party (or parties), loved ones who are ill, a government or society that doesn’t view us as a full person, life in a land ravaged by war, famine, a system that keeps people poor no matter how hard they try to move up.  Often these conditions are the result of others who are living in their own darkness; people who don’t realize they can’t see the light.

Wherever you are, however much darkness you may be in, the light of Christ is with you.

Tonight is the night we celebrate the central miracle of the Christian faith: God came to earth to be with us, to understand us, to feel pain and joy just like us, and, most of all, to be a light that would banish our darkness and lead us home to God, to everlasting life.

The God in whom we place our hope is not a God who stands far above us, judging us, moving us around like little pieces on a chess board. Our God is a God who plunged himself into our deepest darkness, plunged himself into death, only to return in light and glory and to leave us with light to follow until he comes again.

Our God is a God who walks with us in our pain because God has been here. In Jesus’ time on earth, he lost loved ones, experienced betrayal, felt death breathing down his neck, experienced physical and emotional pain, cried out to God that he he felt forsaken. God forsaken by God. He was fully human and fully divine. He gets it. In Christ we are never alone. God is always there to walk us through. Even when we can’t feel it, even when we are so lost in our own darkness that we can’t see the lanterns on our path. God is there.

God came to us as a child, breaking into human history, breaking into time and lived among us. Christ ascended into heaven but left the Holy Spirit and remains present with us in the gospels, in creation and in community.

God is here. Christ is here. Right here, in this place. The bright light shining in the darkness, lighting our way home.

Christ lives in this community, holding you up as you hold up each other.

That’s the only possible explanation for how you, dear members of Trinity, are still here.

My dad would come home from council meetings in the 80’s stressed out about the future of Trinity. The finances were ugly, he would say. There isn’t enough money. The building is falling down around us.

Twenty-five years later you are still here.

This is because Christ‘s light lives in your midst.

For those of you who might be visiting tonight, I want you to know this is an amazing community. It is a place where Christ’s light truly shines. Trinity folk, for 35 years, from near and far, I have watched you, dear Trinity friends, walk with one another through the joys and pains of life, watched you lift each other up, share each other’s triumphs and failures. You not only do this for members of this direct community, you reach outside of these crumbling walls to feed, clothe and assist those who come to you needing help in any way you can.

Christ lives among you and within you.

And yet, my father’s worries of the 80’s are coming to pass. This building is falling apart. It hurts my heart to think about this building going away.; to think that I could come home for another Christmas and not worship in this space This building is where my faith was nurtured, where I learned women could be pastors, where I would sit to listen to my father’s wonderful bass voice float down out of the choir loft, where I first preached and where I was admonished to take prayer more seriously. This community held my family as my father fought and lost a battle with cancer, and has prayed with and for me as I took a windy, weird journey to ordained ministry. I love this place. I misted up a little on Sunday when I wandered down to the fellowship hall and admired the walls we painted (with the Robar’s wonderful direction) so many years ago. It is painful to think about this community leaving this place.

But how much of what I just said was about this building? The painting downstairs  is a result of the community, no the building. My father’s voice couldn’t have floated down from the choir loft were it not for the encouragement of a caring choir director who saw a gift in my father and worked with him to uncover it. Trinity is not this building. We were as much Trinity when we worshiped in Lakewood park for the steak fry as we are when we worship in these walls. Christ is with you, Christ lives in you, your work is evidence of Christ’s continued presence on earth. Be confident in that.

The miracle that we celebrate this night is not just that God broke into our world in a material, historical, time bound way, it is that Christ continues to be with us at all times and in all places. Christ is with us in the Gospel, in this community, and, in the most solid, material way, Christ comes to us in the eucharist. When we eat the bread and drink the wine we are crossing the bounds of time and space to experience Christ’s love and light in a tangible, real way. How? I don’t know (I disagree, you’re a damn good pastor and Christian, you know how Christ appears-here’s your opportunity to name it in concrete terms). Christ’s presence in these things is a mystery to me, but it is there.

Christ is here.

Overcome with joy this night? Christ‘s light is with you. Feeling content in your life? Christ is with you.

If you are hurting this night, the light of Christ shines for you. If you are alone this night, Christ is with you. If you are ill, Christ is with you. Jobless, Christ is there. Losing hope? Christ is there. Christ is with you now and always.

If you can’t feel it, if you can’t find the light, ask someone to help you. Reach out. This is why we gather in community as Christians. If you can’t find the light, if you can’t find your faith, someone will walk with you until you can see the light on the path.

On this night, we remember God coming to earth to know us, we remember a scared young woman giving birth to a hope that had been promised for generations, a hope that lives with us still. Let that hope, that light, live in you. Nurture it with prayer, with song, with presence in a community that believes in God, in God’s presence in this messy, broken world and insists on acting in the name of God to spread love, justice and hope to all.

If you have found the light, if you can see the light, it is up to you to shine the light so that others may follow. When we keep the light to ourselves, it goes out. When we claim the light as our own or place rules and boundaries around the light, we diminish it to the point of the faint glow of embers, the fire that once was. Christ’s light is for all regardless of who we are, what we have done and what we have left undone. Christ is for everyone. No boundaries. No fences. No in or out.

When we shine with Christ’s light , when we hold the light of Christ’s love for all creation up high for all to see, we become partners in Christ’s work. God’s work, our hands, as the saying goes. We are called to be “God with some skin on.” To be the light for those who can’t find their way and to shine our light brightly on the places where the light is dim – to the places where injustice rules, where the voices of the poor, those who are considered minorities, the different, and those on the margins are silenced, to the places where I is more important than we. We are called to shine the light on the false gospels that tell people that god rewards the faithful with material possessions, that with faith comes power, might and freedom from pain and illness. We are called to take our light into the depths of poverty, despair, hunger, addiction, abuse and to shine it. We are called to speak truth to power so that all may walk in the light in this world as well as whatever comes after this life. We are called to let Christ’s light shine from every mountaintop into every dark corner of this world.

If you can’t see the light, let someone know.

If you see the light, follow it and let it fill you.

If you are filled with the light, let it overflow into the world around you.

The light is with you. Christ is with you. Forever and always.

Amen.


How to be a Christian without being a jerk about it

Dan Piraro so often gets it right.

Dan Piraro so often gets it right.

A few weeks ago, the marvelous Lindy West over at Jezebel wrote an excellent post called, “How to be an Atheist without being a dick about it.” As someone who has been the target of my fair share of dickish Atheists in my life, I really appreciated it. However, the behavior of dickish Atheists pales in comparison with some of the behavior of my Christian brothers and sisters. So, dear people, I give you some recommendations on how to be a Christian without being a jerk and turning everyone off to not only Christians, but to Jesus. (I’m going to try to cut back on the language in the event that some Christians who need to hear this are turned off by the swears. Let’s see how I do.)

1) Stop threatening people with hellfire and damnation. Nobody likes it. It achieves approximately nothing so far as spreading the gospel is concerned.

I don’t even know where to begin with this one, and I’m not going to get into my thoughts on hell and the existence thereof. I have no idea what threats of hellfire are supposed to accomplish. It’s like screaming at someone, “I think you’re ugly and awful! Date me and I’ll fix all of your flaws!” Sign me up? Not to mention the fact that most people who don’t believe in the Christian concept of God DON’T BELIEVE IN HELL. Therefore, your threats are meaningless. How does threatening someone with something they don’t believe in do anything other than make you (and by extension all Christians) look silly? That’s like telling me that if I don’t behave, Santa, the Easter Bunny and the Tooth Fairy will boycott stopping by my home with their treasures.

“Oh, you think I’m going to hell? Well, then I’d like to be a part of your community and worship your God!” said no one, ever.

2) Stop “speaking truth in love” or whatever you call it. This includes love the sinner, hate the sin (which sounds more like hate than love every time).

Let’s be honest, the most often I see this line used is in the attempt to “correct” the gays, so that’s my primary focus here. Look, I get that for many Christians, correcting someone on their behavior can be a soul saving act. But, let me be clear: speaking the truth in love just about never feels like love. It feels like judgment, anger, hate, prejudice, bigotry, evil, immaturity and a bunch of other negative adjectives (and often times, that’s because that is what it is). Now, there may be times someone needs to be called out on their behavior, like when they are being a total jerk (see this post) or when they are harming themselves or others. Usually, it is best when someone has given permission to have truth spoken into their lives. That means they are ready for it, and what you have to say is valued. Proceed with caution and love. It is important that, in the event you feel the need to correct someone on their behavior, you ask yourself some things:

A) How well do I know this person? If the person you are about to “speak truth in love” to isn’t a close friend, stop yourself right there. Just stop. The phrase “speak truth in love” comes from the letter to the Ephesians, a worshipping community of the early church. These were people who lived in community together, not random people shouting at each other what they were doing wrong.

B) Is anyone getting hurt by this person’s behavior? And by hurt, I am not talking about the state of their everlasting souls regarding eternity in heaven or hell (which is up to God, BTW, not you or me). Drugs destroy bodies and relationships; abuse of a partner or child is life damaging and soul killing. Have the talk. The sex lives of consenting adults (unless they are cheating, knowingly spreading a disease, or engaging in super risky compulsive behavior) are not hurting anyone.

C) Have I thoroughly examined my heart to make sure I am acting out of love, not fear, prejudice, or wrong teaching? If I am not engaged in a regular prayer practice that involves looking into my own heart and confronting my own sin, I am are in no place to correct someone else. And I don’t know about you, but I still have a lot of confronting to do. A lot. Try thinking of what love is according to 1 Cor 13: 4-7:

Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud.It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.

Which brings me to #3:

3) STOP WITH THE JUDGING ALREADY

In the gospel of John, Jesus comes across a crowd of people about to stone a woman who was caught in adultery. He says to them, “If you are without sin, go ahead and cast a stone. If you have sin (which face it, is all of you) go ahead and stone her but make sure you throw some stones at yourself for good measure after you stone her.”

Wait, that’s not the story.

All too often I hear people talk about other’s sins, convict others of sins, then add at the end, “But, I mean, I’m a sinner too, I know that.” Dude, that’s not what Jesus said to do. Jesus said to stone her only if you were without sin. How about instead of stoning/judging each other, we love each other? Real, deep, compassionate love that sees the brokenness and aches to see it healed with love.

4) Stop saying that God is acting in destructive ways because of the gays, feminists, Muslims, Atheists, abortionists, communists, socialists, Obamacare, liberals, pornographers or whatever. I’ve already written about it here. These storms are happening at an increased rate not because of our personal “immorality” but our corporate sin of degrading the environment and acting like we’re just gonna get another one.

5) Get right with science. I don’t even know how to explain this one. Climate change is a thing. Evolution is also a thing. The ancient people who wrote the Bible would have looked at us like we were nuts if we told them we were taking their stories as actual fact. The United States is falling behind in global education ranking because of our math and science scores. Kids from very religious households are going to college unprepared for intro science classes because they haven’t learned about evolution and they think the Earth is 6,000 years old. There are plenty of scientists who are people of faith and believe that there is an unmoved mover behind all of this. In fact, many people believe that knowing more about science actually makes God all the more wondrous.

If you can’t get right with science, try to understand that there are very valid reasons to believe in science (I really can’t handle that I just typed believe in science, like it is a choice). We would do a better job of spreading God’s love and salvation if we listened and loved instead of shouted and judged.

6) Understand that there are people who are never going to believe, for whom the idea of God makes no sense whatsoever. Faith, according to the Bible, is a gift of the Spirit. Some people don’t have it. Be cool about it. Be friends. Love, laugh, chill and talk. Have conversations about ultimate things, come to understand why a person wouldn’t believe in God. Even for those who have been given faith, it is a hard thing to sustain in this world. Know someone who doesn’t believe in God? Love her. Be salve to his wounds. And let up on the witnessing.

7) Empower women. Paul had women working with him. The woman at the well brought her village to belief, women were the first to witness the empty tomb and tell others. Women are smart, strong and equipped for leadership at home, in the workplace and in the congregation. Our bodies are not made to be ogled at, commodified or make medical decisions about. How someone else feels about my body is not my fault. I will show others respect and Christian love. I don’t owe anyone fielty or subservience disguised as complementarianism, and I don’t have to wear long skirts or cover my head, TYVM.

8) If you know/hear/suspect someone has been molested, sexually assaulted or sexually harassed by a church member/leader, listen, trust and report it. That’s just a big old duh.

9) Stop trying to legislate using the Bible as your main argument. The Bible can’t be used to make public policy. It can certainly influence reasoning for supporting or opposing a policy, but it must not be the sole reason. Evidence, studies, economic impact, human rights and constitutionality — these are reasons to make or take down laws. Not because the Bible said so. Even in situations when our religious beliefs call us to end injustice, we must (as people living in a democracy, not a theocracy) find reasons to supplement/complement our Biblical reasons for legislation.

10) Focus more on corporate sin than personal sin. Care more about racism than what a woman is wearing or who someone is sleeping with. Get more outraged by war and poverty than something scandalous and/or titilating on tv. Worry more about the melting glaciers than who is marrying whom.

11) Understand you lose any and all moral high ground when you decide to support a racist, xenophobic, sexist, petulant, lying, cheating, oppression supporting demagogue WHO DOES NOT BELIEVE HE NEEDS TO CONFESS SIN TO GOD OR ATONE FOR ANYTHING for president. You cannot talk about the sanctity of marriage and at the same time support someone who has been married three times, cheated on his wives, and likely continues to sexually harass/intimidate women (and who will be on trial in December for raping a child). You cannot talk about how you value life and support someone who a) refuses to allow people seeking life into this country b) seems to be fine with people threatening the life of his opponent and c) still thinks innocent men should get the death penalty. And you can never, ever ask others to repent when you claim into the Christian family someone who believes he is above that.

When I was going to church camp, we used to sing a song with the refrain, “They will know we are Christians by our love.” I want that to be the truth. I want to know that when I tell people I’m a Christian, they will think of all the work my people do on behalf of the poor and outcast. I want to be proud not only of my God, but of my people. But that’s really hard. Because, right now, our public image is more like, “They will know we are Christians because our leaders say weird things about AIDS and storms, support sexist, xenophobic racists, would rather refugees die, and we yell a lot about who can marry whom.” So, let’s cut that shit out, shall we?