Thursday, March 30, 2017

Dare I Ask (Dare! Dare!)

Maybe you have a question about one of these topics? 
I would like to emphasize how much I appreciate questions. As a pastor, questions help me to know how people are thinking around me. They point me to information that I might have that I could share. They provide a path for me to encourage discernment by and wisdom gathering in others.

I have previously answered questions here and here. These aren't two "good" questions. They were genuine questions that people asked of me and gave me time to ponder my answer.

Recently I did "Ask a Pastor Anything" or "Pastor in the Hot Seat" with a confirmation class. The group of 11-14 year (and a couple adults) asked the following questions:

- Were there any conflicts between people who believe in religion and people who believe in science? If so, what happened?

- What is theodicy?

- Could God have said things much differently and we misunderstood his teaching or mistranslated his ideas and, therefore, some things seen negatively could've been positive? (sic)

- What happens to people when they die?

- In Revelation, God speaks through John to tell us about the "overcomers" who rule/reign with Christ for a thousand years. Who are the "overcomers"?

- Is there resurrection for everyone?

- Have Lutherans ever tried to force their religion on other people, when they're missionaries or anything? (sic)

- Where did Jesus die?

- When was the Holy Bible made?

- Why should I care about being a Christian at all? What's in it for me? Why is this important?

- When were you baptized?

- The Bible says women should remain silent in church- why, then, do we ordain women?

These are good questions. Most of them reflect the internal struggles of the asker, but almost everyone present was curious about the answer. Perhaps you, too, are curious about some of the answers.

There's another "Ask a Pastor Anything" event coming up at Lutheran Church of Hope on Wednesday evening, 4 April (6:15 pm). In the meantime, you can always put a question in the comments or email one to me ( People at the event will have the benefit of being able to ask anonymously, but I never publish names with questions if you send one via email.

Jesus never punished anyone for asking questions. God encourages our desire for knowledge and understanding. The Spirit draws us together that we might learn from each other.

Sunday, March 12, 2017

A Good Yarn about Believing

At this time four years ago, I did not know how to crochet. I was in the middle of a very dark
depression that came on about two months after V--, my youngest, was born. Each day was a effort toward my goal of "everyone alive at the end of the day". I wanted a craft to do, something that didn't involve intense focus. The only handicraft I knew at the time was cross-stitching, which is not mindless.

I had started using a knitting loom in the fall. This is a round loom with pegs around which you loop the yarn. Using a hook, you pull stitches over one another. I made a scarf for my sister and some hats. Carrying around even the small loom, though, seemed awkward. I wanted to be one of the people with a small ball of yarn and needles in my bag that I could unobtrusively pull out during a meeting.

When my mother-in-law came in June 2013 to help out while Rob went to Ft. Rucker for 13 weeks, I asked her to teach me to crochet. I knew that she knew how and that she could show me. With a hook and a ball of yarn, she showed me the stitches she knew, how to practice a chain to get tension right, adding at the end of a row to make sure the increases are correct, and how it is okay to pull out a couple rows to fix a mistake.

And, thus, a crocheter was born. I was hooked- which is a crochet pun, since that is what the crochet tool is called. In fact, I was so into crochet that I promptly went to the yarn store and crocheted a lap blanket for her before she left to go back home. In the first two months of knowing how to crochet, I made a pillow cover, a neck pillow, 10 crowns for birthday party favors, a tiny blanket for a stuffed otter, and a queen-sized blanket for my brother who moved in with us.

In the middle of my darkness, the loops and strips of yarn made me feel as though I was accomplishing something. They drew out of myself and out of my head and into a space of quieter focus and peace. I learned that crocheting during a meeting helped me to listen to others better, because it slowed down how quickly I wanted to respond.

It became easier for me to meet people because people will help a fellow crafter learn a new pattern or find a specific tool. I had a new language- hooks, gauges, swatches, stitch markers, in the round, join, increase two together, and magic circles. I had a new identity. I was a crocheter. Now, four years into that identity, my son offers my services on the playground. I've made hats for three second-graders who are not my child and I have requests for more.

This reminds me think of a book I read in 2012, so before I became a crocheter. In Christianity After Religion: The End of Church and the Birth of a New Spiritual Awakening, Diana Butler Bass writes about how the church has a framework of believe, behave, belong.

She talks about how the model outside of church for learning a skill follows a different pattern. In the book, Bass uses the example of a person who wants to learn to knit. This person might ask someone to teach them or join a knitting group, thus seeking to belong in order to acquire the skill. Through belonging, the person learns to behave like a knitter- buying yarn, patterns, starting projects and leaving them around, and knitting. Through belonging and behaving, the person eventually becomes to believe things about knitting and knitters- about focus, skill, planning, generosity, or artistic ability. Belong, behave, believe...

Bass says, "Relationships lead to craft, which leads to experiential belief. That is the path to becoming and being someone different. The path of transformation."(201)

For a long time, people have approached being a follower of Jesus, the Way of discipleship, in the other order... with believing first, then behaving, and, after those were correct, then one could "belong". That order makes people wary of church, wary of Christians, and wary of the God who is supposedly represented by these two groups.

When we flip the order, as a community of faith and as individuals, we offer the welcome that reveals the truths that saves, the truth that welcomes, the truth that Nicodemus sought, under the cover of night. Belonging gives a sense of safety that leads to behaviors that reflect Christ's love- the love that defined his life, death, and resurrection. The ability to be part of sharing and receiving that love and welcome builds to believing, trusting in things that are beyond our full comprehension and yet we perceive that they are true.

There is a program called "Everyone Teach Two", which involves people who know how to knit or crochet teaching two other people in their life how to do it. Teaching involves inviting the person over, having a meal, talking, having a small project started, showing stitches, and praise. What if our sense of evangelism was directed in the same way? The invitation, the welcome, the hospitality, the tolerance for questions, for mistakes, for laughter and conversation- and through belonging and behaving would come belief.

In June, I'll have been crocheting for four years. In August, it will be 30 years since my baptism. I am neither the best crocheter or the best follower of Jesus, but I feel secure in belonging in both categories. I can teach two. I belong, I behave, I believe. I believe there is enough yarn to go around and that there is even more of God's love.

Thursday, March 9, 2017

Childlike Vs. Childish

Last night, I was asked an excellent question. We read and meditated on this passage from Paul’s writing:

For we know only in part, and we prophesy only in part; but when the complete comes, the partial will come to an end. When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways. For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known. 1 Corinthians 13:9-12

Someone asked, “Why does that passage talk about children like that if Jesus said we have faith like a child?”

People were bringing even infants to him that he might touch them; and when the disciples saw it, they sternly ordered them not to do it.  But Jesus called for them and said, “Let the little children come to me, and do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs. Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.” Luke 18:15-17 

At that time the disciples came to Jesus and asked, “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” He called a child, whom he put among them, and said, “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever becomes humble like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me. Matthew 18:1-5

Great question! Why do we have a passage from the apostle Paul that seems to specifically contradict a teaching that we have from Jesus?

The first thing to remember is that Paul did not have written gospels to read, as far as we know. He taught from his memorization of what was handed down to him and from the leading of the Holy Spirit. The gospels are written accounts that are crafted, by inspiration, with literary skills like foreshadowing, plot, and theme.

Paul has his own rhetorical flourishes and themes. Where these things seem to contradict one another, we must always follow the guiding of Jesus. However, it is worth a closer look to see if a contradiction is truly present.

When Jesus speaks to his disciples regarding children and faith, it is important to remember that he commends a child-like faith, but not a childish faith. In this time period, children were blessings, but also non-entities. Families had many children in hopes that some would live and would be useful to the family business or farm. One hoped for the dowries that might come with daughters-in-law and worried about the dowries to provide for one’s own daughters. Children were not only not heard, but also barely seen.

Yet, outside of the legal realities, children were certainly valued. God describes the Divine nature as being like one who lifts an infant to the cheek (Hosea 11:4). And in Luke 11, Jesus acknowledges that parents want good things for their children. So, we can ascertain that children in a healthy family system were loved. Children in this circumstance have an awareness of their value. They ask questions, play without fear, and freely give and receive affection.

This is the childlike faith that Jesus holds out as an example to the disciples. In the gospels, people and created beings who are in the margins, which included children, perceive who Jesus is as the Christ. They do not fear him in this role, but are drawn to him. As the One who contains the Eternal Word that is Love, Jesus could certainly see and sense the fear, guilt, shame, and worry of adults. He saw them with love and commended them to a faith of healthy security, trust, and openness- like that of the children who sought out their Savior.

Paul, instead, is writing to the Corinthians who have habits that exemplify childish behavior. They do not share. They engage in grouping up and keeping some people out of the group. They make bad choices and defy others to correct them. They tell Paul, “You are not the boss of us.”

Paul’s great argument toward the behavior that comes with love- being loved and showing love- is a direct hit against childishness and a push toward childlike faith. Be adults, he is arguing. Stop with petty jealousies and score keeping. Don’t show off. Don’t be rude. Stop pretending you have a secret club in Jesus’ name- that’s offensive. God is the boss of you and God sees what you’re doing. And God knows you can do better!

Paul is exactly speaking against the kind of childish behavior for which loving parents correct their children, so that they will learn to leave those things behind. Regrettably, as with the Corinthians, many of us do not leave that behavior behind and adopt a more adult way of reasoning and showing love to our neighbors. However, God was not done with the church at Corinth, which is why Paul kept writing them, and God is not done with us. The Spirit still moves.

So, when we compare these two passages, it is a difference between embracing a childlike faith and rejecting childishness in faith (and faith community). This was an excellent question and an excellent thing for us to work toward on our way to Easter resurrection celebration.

Wednesday, March 1, 2017

Guilt, Shame, and Ashes to Go

One of the struggles with Lent (and with being human) is that, in Western conversation and in spoken and written English, we have conflated guilt and shame. They are not the same. Furthermore, making them interchangeable does real spiritual and psychic harm to individuals and communities.

Regardless of official definition (denotation), the common understanding of shame (connotation) is to be embarrassed or regretful of who you are. This stems from being told or believing that bad choices or personal struggles are rooted in being a bad person. This isn't even a question of being human and, thus, prone to mistakes. In common parlance, shame is rooted, fundamentally, in being a bad person of little to no redeeming value.

When we hear people saying that people aren't "ashamed" anymore, what is usually meant is either 1)  people "like that" used to not be visible in society and I would prefer for that to be the case again OR 2) they should feel guilty for their choices or actions. 

Guilt is different from shame and has a different function. Guilt is feeling bad about actions or choices. Guilt is not rooted in who you are as a person, but in the fact that you have done things that are not in keeping with who you are (or whose you are). Guilt is the feeling that arises out of regret or remorse. Often guilt makes us double-down on a choice, reiterating that we were correct in our actions- even though we doubt that ourselves. Negative choices can stem from fear, longing, grief, and frustration. We have few communal outlets for acknowledging these realities and, thus, they continue to be motivators toward negative actions, which feed guilt.

Guilt that we do not release can become shame.

Adam and Eve felt guilty because of their disobedience. The guilt grew beyond their ability to hold it in their hearts with the truth that God had made them and walked and talked with them. They then doubted who they were in that relationship and their value. In the resulting shame, they covered themselves and hid.

Ashes to Go is a Lenten practice that is embraced enthusiastically by some Christians and less so by others. Critics rightly note that Ash Wednesday seems like a poor day in the church year for evangelism, especially when Christians don't do a great job of talking about death, sin, and guilt on the other 364 days in of faithful living. True, true, true. The Church is the place where we learn to live and die in Jesus Christ. We model ourselves on his faithfulness.

When I go out, in the COLD, on Ash Wednesday to distribute ashes, I'm not thinking about evangelism in the classical, fundamentalist Christian sense. I'm not there in my robe, hoping someone will ask me about Christ, so that I can pray the "Sinner's Prayer" with them.

What I hope is that someone who has been shamed by the church will see me and feel courageous enough to challenge me on that, so that I might offer an apology and regret for the actions that caused shame. I hope that someone will refuse the ashes, but ask for prayer. I hope that someone will say can I talk with you after this and that I will buy them lunch and listen to their story. I hope that someone will bow their head to receive ashes and that I will pray for them and we will both feel the power of the Spirit in that moment. I hope that I will be able to give information about how to get rental assistance, medical help, spiritual care, or assurance of God's love. This is my evangel- the good news of Christ that I carry into the town square and beyond.

The reality of Ashes to Go isn't that we shouldn't be out, attempting to counter shame and relieve guilt, on this day, but that it shouldn't be the only day that we do it. 

The Divine Being overflows with love for creation. We are part of that creation. Becoming rooted in that truth does not allow the weed of shame to take hold and choke out the grace of that knowledge.

Guilt has a performative function of helping us see how we have strayed from loving God, loving our neighbors, and loving ourselves. Releasing guilt sometimes requires hard work of confessing to God or to one another, reparative work, or learning new information toward a change of heart. Lent is a good time to work on releasing guilt so that we have clearer vision to celebrate the joy of resurrection at Easter.