Saturday, April 19, 2008

Airport Epiphany

This picture is from Dec. 2005- when I was in Rome and present at the weekly papal audience.

As I write this, I am sitting in the Minneapolis-St. Paul Airport. On my way to my gate, I passed four or five nuns and sisters. That is a little unusual for me. I know a few, but I hardly ever see them. The ones I saw this morning were visible because they had habits or suits and head coverings. So I might have also passed sisters who don't have designated dress.

I'm always fascinated by nuns and sisters, especially today. As I walked behind two Dominican sisters, in their distinctive habits- I thought about why I was traveling this week. A week ago today, I received approval from the NC Lutheran Synod for ordination. This was a very big step in my vocational life and I have been pondering this all week. It burns in my heart as I walk behind women who also took their vocation seriously. Their dedication to God goes to the extent of vows of poverty, chastity and obedience and while my vocational life requires dedication- it's not to the shutting out of other life choices and options.

The reason there were so many of these women in the airport, I think, had to do with the visit of Pope Benedict XVI to America. As I walked through the airport, all the televisions were playing, live, the pope celebrating a "historic" mass in St. Patrick's Cathedral in New York. I walked past screen after screen of this well-known man offering well-known words and absorbed the images in my mind.

Beyond the fact that I couldn't take communion at St. Patrick's (very strict Catholic cathedral), I held in my heart the significance of the Mass itself and the sacrament of communion. As I found my gate, people were coming forward to receive the sacrament from the Pope and other clergy. A cantor began to sing the hymn, "I am the Bread of Life."

As his deep, resonant baritone reached the chorus, "And I will raise you up... I will raise you up... I will raise you up on the last day," chills ran up my spine. I heard those words as though they came from the mouth of Jesus, who is the One who makes that promise for us. Despite the divisions that separate us on this earth (and always will), we will be raised in Christ on the last day. There will be no hierarchies and no divisions, but the blessed Trinity and amazing grace. Oh, what a day.

In the meantime, we strive on together- praying for the work the Spirit is doing through us (including the pope) for the unity of all people.

Thursday, April 17, 2008


I haven't posted in a while because I've been on vacation following my successful approval meeting with my home synod. However, the death of Krister Stendahl, the former Bishop of Sweden, this week has moved me to write from where I am. Stendahl was a well-known and progressive Lutheran theologian whose writings transformed the way many Protestants read the writings of the apostle Paul.

When I was in college, Stendahl's Paul Among the Jews and Gentiles was the first Lutheran book I ever read. As I read it, I was moved to tears by the clarity and depth of Stendahl's writing. His ideas opened to me the possibility that there was more to the Bible than I had imagined. As I discussed the writings with my campus pastor, the conversations we had led to my eventual decision to go to seminary.

Stendahl had many interesting and provocative ideas about the Bible, Paul and religious plurality. Below is an excerpt from an article he wrote for the Harvard Divinity School Bulletin this past winter (the passage is adapted from a speech he gave in 2001). The article is Stendahl's opinion on five things the Bible is not. This excerpt is his fifth "not"- it's a bit long, but he makes some interesting points. I'm not going to offer any interpretation of my own because I believe this is a passage to ponder in your heart. (I might post another section tomorrow.)

"[The Bible is not so universal.] And here I come full circle. I said in the beginning that I read the Bible as if it was just about me. And now I say, the Bible, my beloved Bible, it is indeed my Bible. There might be other holy scriptures—and that might not be as threatening as some people think. Not to claim universality and uniqueness? I always felt that to speak about the uniqueness of Christianity or the uniqueness of Christ does more for the ego of the believer than it does for God. Has God Only One Blessing? is the wonderful title of a recent book. How can I sing my song to Jesus with abandon, without telling negative stories about others? What one religion says about another religion, what one beloved scripture claims to be over against other scriptures, comes pretty close to a breach against the commandment "Thou shall not bear false witness against your neighbor." What we say about the others is usually self-serving. We say, Is it self-serving? Oh no, it is just giving God honor. But think about it. Think about the scriptures themselves. Jesus said, "Let your light so shine before people that they see your good deeds and become Christian." That's not what it says. It says, "Let your light shine for people so that they see your good deeds and praise your father who is in heaven" (Matt. 5). Your father—so that people have a reason to be happy that there are Christians in the world, instead of getting irritated at them, if not worse. Jesus said, "You are the salt of the earth." But who wants the world to become a salt mine?

We are born as a minority religion, as a religion among religions. And we are heirs to the Jewish perspective on these things: that's what I learned from the scriptures. It says, to Israel, that Israel is meant to be a light to the nations. That's what Jesus speaks about: a light to the nations. The Jews have never thought that God's hottest dream was that everybody become a Jew. They rather thought that they were called upon to be faithful and that God somehow needed that people in the total cosmos. What a humility, but we called it tribalism. From the enlightenment, everything had to be universal. But when Christianity started its universal claim, and got power, it led to the Crusades. We couldn't really think that it was not God's hottest dream that everybody be like us. So I say, no, the Bible is my Bible. This is the breast that I, as a child of God, have been nourished from. And for the little child, when the child is born that's the whole world, the mother's breast. But maturing means to recognize that other kids have sucked other mothers' breasts. That belongs to growing up.

Now this is my Bible. It was given to me as a gift, and it is full of love, for which I am deeply grateful. If I have found a doctrine, that is my doctrine. I don't need to bad-mouth all others. This is the lesson in a plural world, which is the new chapter in Christian theology for the next generations. Paul was on to that. Paul, late in his mission, had to learn to deal with plurality."

Wednesday, April 2, 2008


No one likes to think they are judgmental, but the fact is- many of us are. We think things about people we see, hear, read about or even encounter tangentially. Regrettably, people do this to us as well. Think about yourself on a really bad day- someone may have that one encounter with you, which will ever color their impression of the kind of person you are.

My sister and I sometimes use a rhyme we swiped from another source. We know (and acknowledge) that we are having a judgmental conversation, we occasionally say, "Judgy-wudgy was a bear..." This is a major corruption of the children's rhyme "Fuzzy Wuzzy", but it is useful within our conversations.

However, judgment can be a bear- one that claws at your own sense of self and personal understanding. When you actually think about what you're doing, it causes internal pain because being judgmental is probably not how you picture yourself. Similar to our discussion of the retention of sins yesterday, judgment eats away at you more that the person you're judging.

We can't always help the thoughts that come to our mind, but we can work on how we respond to them and how they control us. Say a prayer for the person you see begging. See if you can help a person struggling with a door or packages. Think before you speak to someone you know well. All of these things are good to do for other people, but also good to do for ourselves... we feel better when we do good things than when we don't.

We know that we do nothing to earn our salvation and it is the work of the Holy Spirit we are able to believe in that gift. However, sometimes when we are nice to someone else, when we turn away from the bear of judgment, we are able to behold the joy of our salvation in our hearts. The goodness we feel in our hearts is, in part, a small reflection of the love and joy God holds out for us.

Tuesday, April 1, 2008


In last week's gospel reading (John 20:19ff), we look mainly at Thomas for the meat of the text, almost missing a key theological point within that passage:

John 20:22-23: "...[Jesus] breathed on [the disciples] and said to them, 'Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.'"

This is a curious message. In one way it points to the fact that it is through the power and the work of the Holy Spirit that we are able to forgive. Building on that, it is only through the work of the Spirit that we can know we have been forgiven by God.

But what about that retention thing? Many people ignore this verse or think about it the idea that if people aren't forgiven- it somehow hurts them. However, when you aren't able to forgive someone, who is actually hurt?

Have you ever been angry about something for a long time and eventually you go to the person with whom you're upset and they're surprised at what you bring to them. Retention of sins, stewing and stewing over wrongs, hurts the stewer more than the wrong-doer. The lack of forgiveness eats at our hearts, disturbing our ability to hear words of forgiveness from God or anyone else.

Does forgiveness mean forgetting? Does forgiveness mean we have to reconcile? Not necessarily. Even when we forgive, the evidence of sin remains. That's the pain of life in this world. We may be better able to forgive something done to us from a distance (either of time or space). Even in acknowledging the humanness of someone who has sinned against us, we can acknowledge that seeing them would bring us to an occasion of sin. Sometimes forgiveness means waiting before contact.

We do well to consider what we retain and how it keeps us from moving forward. Are we retaining sins at a corporate (large body), national or international level? Are we hung up on the wrong that has been done so much that we can't get around to setting it right?

Thinking about this verse has made me remember some sins that I have been retaining. I pray for the Holy Spirit to help me in the work of forgiveness and moving forward. I pray for that for you as well.