Sunday, December 23, 2012

A Christmas Greeting

So many Christmas cards display images of the Wise Men who came to worship the Baby Jesus. While I believe this to be beautiful story of Christ's redemptive gift to the entire human family (Matthew 2:1-18), I am aware that it contains within it one of the most horrific tales in the gospels--that of the deranged King Herod who, jealous of any threat to his power, orders the slaughter of defenseless children.
"A voice was heard in Ramah, wailing and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be consoled because they are no more." (Matthew 2:18)
Today, in the very midst of this most joyful season, stands  the horror of Newtown, Connecticut--and the knowledge that for so many of her citizens, touched by the tragedy of December 14th, there will be no real Christmas this year. I watched on TV last Friday morning as the citizens of that little town stood in mournful silence at 9:30 AM. I saw the drizzling rain come down upon them like tears from heaven, and I knew--as we all know--that no words will ever be adequate enough to match the profundity of sorrow which shrouds that community. Indeed, it is almost blasphemous of me even to attempt to violate the holy silence which must accompany such grief.
But yet my own selfish needs dictate that I try to make some sense of this. So I offer the following thoughts:
First, I pray that the extent of this tragedy will make us more humble and in touch with the fragility of our nature. May it make us a people more peaceful, more empathetic, and more compassionate.
Secondly, the acts of heroic sacrificial love shown by Principal Dawn Hochsprung and the other professional educators who gave their lives protecting the children of Sandy Hook Elementary School is a reminder to Christians of Christ's purpose in being born in human form--to empty himself completely and die out of love for others. On December 14th, we saw such love made real.
Finally, the compassion of people of all faiths and the ecumenical spirit which has emerged from this tragedy must remind us that there is only one God, and we are all God's children. May we learn to behave as brothers and sisters of the human family.
Yes, my dears, this is a sombre Christmas. But it is still the birth of our Lord. May his love be real in your hearts this year.
A blessed Christmas to you all, and thank you so much for your support this past year.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Now THAT'S a Sermon! (Reflections on Advent 3)

I wonder what the reaction would be if I tried to preach a message like the one John the Baptist delivers in Luke 3:7-18, the assigned gospel reading for Advent 3. How would this sound:

"You freaking bunch of snakes!! Who the hell told you you don't deserve the wrath of God that's coming? You think you're better than anyone else? Get up off your butts and start doing the work of God. Don't even pretend to tell me, 'But we're Lutherans. We're saved by grace and not by works.' Crap! God can make Lutherans out of rocks--and sometime I think he did! Start acting like you believe in something!"

Yeah. I don't think that would go over too well in my congregation. Besides, with all the nasty rhetoric from the recent election and the "fiscal cliff" debate still ringing in our ears, it's possible that no one would even pay attention to such harsh words--even if they came from the pulpit.

But I long to hear the prophetic voice of the Baptist. He's sort of the crazy uncle of the Christian faith--the eccentric guy who says the outrageous things. And these things are outrageous because, in our hearts, we all know he's speaking the truth without the candy coating to which we've grown accustomed. I mean, c'mon. Don't YOU just long to hear someone tell it like it is in a simple and direct manner?

And John's message is pretty clear. You want to know how to behave? Don't stockpile wealth when others are going hungry and unprotected. Don't game the system to your advantage. And don't bully others. It doesn't get much more plain than that.

So I'm waiting to hear a loud voice on the national scene say, "You know, I'm all for personal achievement and individual rights, but if those things are more important to us than compassion for the weak then we are NOT a moral nation. I'm all for a strong defense, but if that means backing oppressors because they're our 'friends,' than we are NOT a moral nation. And if we'd rather gear up for war than talk to our enemies, than we are NOT a moral nation."

For myself, personally, I'm all about sound doctrine. But at the end of the day the Church will be judged by what we have done or failed to do. If we take on the name of Christ, than we are called to a higher standard. If our works of charity suffer because we are trying to save the institution, then the institution is not worth saving.

But here's the good news: While we were still in our sins, God gave us Jesus. We've seen in him what complete, selfless, sacrificial love looks like. We've been promised that we would be baptized with the Holy Spirit to inspire, sustain, and grow that love in us. We truly CAN be God's people. And our dearest longing and hope is that we WILL be changed into the people who bear the fruits of repentance.

Monday, December 3, 2012

Here Come the Fig Leaves (Reflections on Advent 1)

"Look at the fig tree and all the trees; as soon as they sprout leaves you know that summer is already near. So, also, when you see these things taking place, you know that the kingdom of God is near." (Luke 21: 29-30)

This is the fifteenth Advent Season I've celebrated as pastor of Faith Lutheran Church in Philadelphia. Certainly, in the last fourteen years, I've seen a lot of things take place: There's been about a 50% turnover in the worshiping congregation. The worship space has been remodeled. A contemporary music liturgy has been added. The congregation has severed its twenty-seven year relationship with a local day school and begun to use the space previously occupied by the school for housing the homeless. Teenagers have actually hung around after they've made their confirmation and become involved in the ministry of the church. Last fall we received into membership our first openly same-gender couple who have quickly become active and well-loved members of our family. And, perhaps most significantly, the average age of our worshipers has dropped considerably. Lots of changes.

But the world is changing, too. In the same time period we've seen the "Global War on Terrorism" and the "Arab Spring." We've begun to use the phrase "Climate Change," and we've started driving hybrid cars. Everyone and their mother now carries a cell phone, and some of these devices--"Smart Phones"--do everything but walk your dog and wash your car. We've seen the rise of "Social Media," and, through facebook or Twitter, no one changes their shorts without broadcasting the event in cyberspace. We've seen a black man in the White House whose not there just to shine the president's shoes. Same-gender marriages are legal in many states, and legalized recreational marijuana has the okay of the voters in Washington and Colorado (I'm sure I'll get an "Amen!" from someone out there over that occurrence!). And just this past week the United Nations has recognized a new state called Palestine (And you just know that some TV evangelist will see that event as a herald of Armageddon!).

Yup. The signs are all there. Stuff is moving and shaking and happening at a more accelerated rate than ever. And what does Jesus tell us?

"Now when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near." (Luke 21: 28)

That's right. If we're faithful to the Gospels, we believe that every change--however catastrophic it may seem to us-- is an opportunity for God to do God's redemptive work.

Granted, there are very likely some who will look at the whirlwind of change and pray, "God, I don't know what you're doing, but I don't like it and I wish you would stop! Just put everything back the way it was, and we'll get along fine!" (Try praying that prayer and see where it gets you!)

Some of the rest of us might be praying, "God, I don't know what you're doing, but you're not doing it fast enough. How long must we wait? Hurry up, for cryin' out loud!"

The problem with both of these petitions is that they take us out of the realm of religion and into the land of superstition. Superstition is when we try to manipulate God. True religion is when we are open to letting God mold and form us in the spirit of righteousness. We can stare at the fig tree for weeks at a time, but summer will not come one minute sooner than God intends for it to come. Jesus tells us to keep awake for the things of God in the midst of all the change and confusion.

To this end, the Christian Church has for centuries blessed us with the gift of the Advent Season. While all the rest of the U.S. has fast-freighted itself into Christmas (complete with blow-up lawn Santas in the Walmart starting in September), Christians take these four weeks to pause, reflect, and look for what God is up to. And pray for the coming of God's kingdom.

Martin Luther very wisely counseled the disciples of his day in the meaning of the coming Kingdom of God:

"In fact," Luther wrote, "God's kingdom comes on its own without our prayer, but we ask in this prayer that it may also come to us. How does this come about? Whenever our heavenly Father gives us his Holy Spirit, so that through the Holy Spirit's grace we believe God's Holy Word and live godly lives here in time and hereafter in eternity." (The Small Catechism, 1536)

I think it's best, in these changing and confusing times, to remember three things as we watch for the kingdom. First, this is God's world. It's not mine. Second, I am called to journey with Jesus and grow in God's wisdom and grace. I haven't come to the end of the journey yet, and I'm far from being all grown up. Third, in the midst of all things I don't understand and  of which I cannot see the end, I am still called to love God and serve my neighbor.

So I watch the fig leaves sprout. Some of them seem weird and dangerous, and others seem  beautiful and longed-for. But the kingdom is coming, and the Word doesn't pass away.

Enjoy your Advent, Friends. God be with you all!

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Signs of the End? (Reflections on Pentecost 25)

I made my first visit to New York City in 1985. My girlfriend at the time wanted to see the Statue of Liberty, but we didn't have time for the harbor ferry. We decided that the best place to see Lady Liberty would be from the observation deck on the top floor of the World Trade Center. I remember my ears popping in the elevator as we rose high above the Manhattan skyline. It was like being in an airplane. I never could imagine on that bright April day, looking out from what was at that time the second tallest building on the planet, the events of September 11, 2001.

Then Jesus asked, "Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down." (Mark 13: 2)

The great temple of Jerusalem must have been the grandest thing these hick disciples from Galilee had ever seen. I'm sure they never could imagine such a magnificent structure--the symbol of their nation's relationship with Almighty God--lying in ruins. The very thought  made their blood run cold.

"Tell us, when will this be, and what will be the sign that all these things are about to be accomplished?" (Mark 13: 4)

But Jesus never gives them the straight skinny. In fact, he even admits that he doesn't know. (v. 32) He does, however, warn them that unpleasant things will be occurring. False rulers, earthquakes, war, and famine. And these are just for starters.

Shit happens.

In fact, it's been happening for a long time.

A needless war in Iraq and a seemingly endless war in Afghanistan.
2008--the whole US economy goes into the tank.
A nuclear meltdown in Japan.
Civil war in Syria. More war in Gaza. A potentially nuclear-armed Iran.
Earthquake in Haiti.
Hurricane Katrina. Hurricane Irene. Hurricane Sandy. Climate change. Rising oceans.
People actually watching Jersey Shore and The Bachelor (Certain signs of the decay of civilization!)

So what do we do? Build a bomb shelter? Head for the hills with supplies and ammunition? Wait for the Rapture?

Here's what I'm thinking: If Jesus doesn't know, then I'm not going to worry about it. I'm going to decide that my life will not be about the things that happen, but rather about how I choose to embrace them. I believe in a Lord who was both crucified and resurrected. I will look to the God of creation who holds the entire cosmos in his hands, and I will not despair. I will not surrender to fear or selfishness. As Jesus could speak words of love, hope, and forgiveness even from the agony of the cross, I will try--to the best of my puny ability--to imitate him in my circumstances. Yes, troubles will come, but he promises that these are the beginnings of the birth pangs. That is, when the pain is over, something new will be here--and it will be wonderful.

Stones crumble. The Word of God endures forever.

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

For All the Saints After Hurricane Sandy

"Jesus began to weep."
                                  (John 11:35)

"Then the Lord God will wipe away the tears from all faces, and the disgrace of his people he will take away from all the earth, for the Lord has spoken."
                                (Isaiah 25:8)

The following is from my journal dated November 2, 2012, The Feast of All Souls:

"Back at the bakery this morning after the wrath of Hurricane Sandy. It's hard for me to wrap my mind around this catastrophe as my wife and I escaped the hurricane unscathed and virtually without even notice--even though the eye of the horrible thing passed almost directly over our home! Yet, as I sit here swinishly enjoying my hazelnut coffee and cinnamon roll, thousands--no, HUNDREDS of thousands--are without electrical power or heat. Homes and neighborhoods are turning into soggy, putrid composts of detritus, scatter, and filth. Piles of decaying crap awash in bacteria were once peoples' homes. This bitch has cost over 80 human lives and counting, flooded lower Manhattan, and put Long Beach Island under water. There is nothing left on parts of the Jersey shore but sand, destruction, and emotional pain.

"Granted, not being from this part of the world myself, I have no blissful memories of summer at the Jersey shore. Nevertheless, my heart still goes to those who will miss their favorite amusement pier, boardwalk, Doo-Wop motel, ice cream parlor, shore house, or bed and breakfast. I have officiated literally hundreds of funerals during my tenure as pastor in Northeast Philly, and just about every family has some memory of their departed loved one which is connected to 'down duh shore.' It feels as if a chunk of our collective soul has been ripped out.

"And yet, here I sit: high, dry, and well fed. How did I get so lucky as to be spared from the evil force of this tempest? To be honest, Marilyn and I weren't so sure how we'd fare. The storm began Sunday night, and we watched its dreadful progress on CNN and The Weather Channel. We'd stocked up on gasoline, withdrew cash, bought food and water, and I brought my portable battery in from the car, prepared for the loss of electric power. The governor declared a state of emergency and a ban on travel, effectively locking us indoors to secure us from the 80 mile-per-hour winds and gushing rain. By Monday night, the wind from the 1,000 mile wide monster was screaming against our east-facing windows.

"Now, I have lived through the Barneveld, WI tornado of '83, the L.A. riots of '92, and the Northridge earthquake of '94, so I can sleep through just about anything. Marilyn, on the other hand, lay awake and anxious most of the night.

"In the morning, our little part of New Jersey was still outside our window. No trees down. No flooding as we are near no bodies of water. The LED digital clock on the stove said the power was still on. A call from my secretary assured me that Faith Lutheran Church had come through the night like a breathless champion. Power stayed on. The pump pumped. The basement didn't flood. The steeple--newly reinforced after Hurricane Irene--was still standing at attention, announcing to the citizens of the Millbrook neighborhood the loving sacrifice of Jesus Christ. The dead tree did not topple. We had dodged the bullet.

"I finish my coffee, and prepare for my morning's chore--taking the dog to the groomers. How strange it seems that, within a few hours drive from where I am, lives are in wreckage."

+     +     +     +
How do we mourn? Collectively, I would hope. Remembering that even Jesus wept.
We put our arms around each other and share our grief, so that the isolating shame of our pain will somehow be expunged by our honest, heroic sharing, our mutual empathy, and our compassion. And somewhere, in the love that unites us through our pain, we remember the promises of God.
And so we hope.
God be with you, my friends. Please pray for all of the victims of Hurricane Sandy, and do what you can to come to their aid.

Sunday, October 28, 2012

The Fire of the Reformation Still Burns

"Then Jesus said to the Jews who had believed in him, 'If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples; and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.'"
                                                                                                John 8:31-2

"When our Lord and Master Jesus Christ said, 'Repent,' (Matthew 4:17), he willed the entire life of believers to be one of repentance."
                                                                                               Martin Luther
                                                                                               The 95 Theses (1517)


Can any of us really imagine how exciting it must have been on that first Reformation Day, October 31, 1517, when Martin Luther had the audacious gonads to challenge the Pope and the authority of the Roman Church? With the posting of the 95 Theses on the door of the Castle Church in Wittenburg, Germany (posting on the church door was kind of the facebook of the sixteenth century), Luther drove a nail into the coffin of the Middle Ages. From that point on, Christians in Europe would be free to read and interpret the scriptures on their own. They would be free from the social and economic tyranny of the Church hierarchy, and free from the stultifying fear of their own sinfulness. I mean, how cool was that?
Luther let out the secret:
"For we hold that a person is justified by faith apart from works prescribed by the law."
                                                                                                Romans 3:28
No longer did a Christian feel the guilty need to earn God's love. This love is free, a gift, manifest in the crucified Savior, Jesus Christ. We can't even begin to guess what this revelation must have meant to those who heard it for the first time.
But sometimes, I wonder where the fire of the Reformation went. After a few centuries of state-sponsored Lutheranism in Europe the coals might not be glowing quite so brightly as they did back in 1517. Even here in the US it seems freedom from sin means freedom from religious observance of any kind. Or, we have swapped one set of dogma for another. We feel we have arrived at the correct theology, the correct liturgy, found our favorite hymns, sit in our favorite pews, and--once we get that youngest child through Confirmation class--we will be free to spend our Sunday mornings with our newspaper and coffee. After all, we are justified by our faith, not by our works.
Sometimes I think that if Luther could see how well the Reformation has succeeded, he'd spit up.
But John's gospel teaches us that we are to continue (ie: abide, pitch our tents with) Jesus' word. Luther taught that our whole lives should be constantly changing, growing, learning, and evolving as followers of the Way. It's not a destination where once we've agreed on the right doctrine we can quit searching. It's a journey of faith: constantly changing as the world changes and as we ourselves grow and mature.
Where is the fire of the Reformation? Check out a few of these very innovative churches:

As Luther himself migh've said (because he was a smart guy and he knew Latin), "Ecclesia semper reformanda est!" The Church is always reforming. And that's a blessed thought.
Keep the fire burning, my friends. Thanks for stopping by.



Monday, October 22, 2012

America the Servant (Reflections on Pentecost 21)

"So Jesus called them and said to them, 'You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their leaders lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.'"
                                                                                   Mark 10:42-45


Funny, but of all the words that have been thrown around during this American election season, "service" isn't one I've heard that frequently. I mean, whatever happened to "Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country?" In all three of the candidate debates so far there has been much mention of the middle class, jobs, and taxes. That's all well and good, but I'm waiting to be inspired. I'm waiting to be told that, recession or no recession, it's time for me to get off my self-pitying middle class butt and extend a hand of mercy to the poor and helpless.

I'm a pastor in Philadelphia. I look at North Philly and near-by Camden and I see acre after acre, block after block of desolate, wasted slumlands. I see a wide, polluted ocean of poverty, filth, neglect, and drugs. Just once I'd like to hear a government leader raise a prophetic voice and scream, "This condition is an abomination unto the Lord! It is an affront to the very notion of mercy and charity! It is unworthy of a nation with a Christian majority and unworthy of America on general principle! It is our duty to pool our talents and resources and abolish these deplorable circumstances!"

In short, it is our responsibility to be servants to each other.

How can we help? Perhaps the first step would be to embrace a vision of improved society. To serve our neighborhoods, we first have to make them safe. This means that we will need more men and women willing to serve as safeguards, and more citizens willing to bear the tax burden for police, firefighters, paramedics, etc. We will need buildings which are safe and fit for human habitation, streetlights that work, streets without potholes, and sidewalks free of garbage and hazards to those with mobility challenges. We will need servants willing to do this work.

We will need to be better servants to our children. We will need local schools which are safe, clean, and spacious. We will need to recognize the duty to serve all of our children, not just the ones who win the charter school lotteries or whose parents can afford nonpublic education. I would love it if the term "school choice" meant that we, the public, chose to make every school effective and are willing to make whatever sacrifice is necessary to bring this about. We need more young people willing to serve in the classroom, and more retired folks willing to volunteer as mentors and classroom aids.

We will need to serve our elderly by insuring there is dignity in their declining years.

In the fifty-third chapter of the book of Isaiah, the author draws a vivid picture of a servant who suffers because of the wrongdoings of others. The early church always associated this portrait with Jesus, but it is possible that the original intention was to create an image of Israel as a servant nation. Israel, whose glory had been lost to Assyria, Babylon, and a host of other client states, was still blessed by God to be a blessing to the nations. I wonder if this is an image we could cultivate in America?

What if "American Exceptionalism" referred to our willingness to offer disaster relief wherever it is needed in the world? What if we exported education and encouraged cultural exchange? What if our military might was used to protect innocent victims of oppression or natural disaster? What if our foreign policy was the alleviation of hunger and disease? What if the developing world knew Americans more through the Peace Corp than through Hollywood? What if we gave up the desire to be the biggest badass in the world and decided that our greatness would lie in servanthood rather than intimidation?

Am I asking for too much? Let me know, and thanks for reading.

Monday, October 8, 2012

Jesus and Divorce (Reflections on 19 Pentecost)

"Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her; and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery."
                                                                                           (Mark 10: 11-12)

Well that sucks, doesn't it?

The biblical injunction against divorce is a pretty tough law. And, speaking as a divorced and remarried guy myself, it makes a lot of Christians feel uncomfortable--as well it should. Divorce is a messy business. If there are kids involved in a marriage, it does a number on their emotions. If lawyers get involved, it can get really costly and complicated. Divorce not only splits up families, but it splits up communities of friends. I mean, you have to ask yourself: to which member of a divorced couple will I remain loyal? And then there's the question of who gets the church in the settlement. In my experience, when a couple in the congregation splits, both partners disappear from the pews. Understandable, I guess, if you don't want to deal with those overly sympathetic stares or run the risk of being the source of coffee hour gossip.

Worst of all is the overwhelming sense of failure. There's a crushing sense of self-defeat when you look back over the wreckage of a relationship and see something which started out so beautifully and ended up so toxic.

Face it, marriage is hard, too. It's not for kids. It requires a daily effort of self-examination and confession, an endless capacity for forgiveness, and a genuine desire to understand another human being and his or her needs. I grant that you can love another person without really understanding them (Do any of us really understand or know our own parents?), but how glorious it is when you know you have truly been understood and appreciated for who you really are!

So what does Jesus say in the 10th chapter of Mark's gospel concerning divorce? I think it's key to understand that Jesus is being tested by the legal-minded Pharisees. These guys tend to be pictured as the bad guys in scripture who are trying to get Jesus jammed up at every turn. But, in fairness, let's remember that the Pharisees were really intent on being observant to God's law, a law with which they were in constant dialogue, always trying to discern which course of action was the most righteous. You can't really hate them for that. You can only get annoyed with their overbearing sense of legalism which so often became obsessed with detail at the expense of human compassion.

Jesus directs them back to their own law books. In this case, Deuteronomy 24:1-4, which indicates that a husband had the right to divorce his wife if he presented his reasons for disliking her in written form. Unfortunately, Deuteronomy does not enumerate what reasons would be construed good reasons. Remember, too, that a woman in biblical times only had identity in relationship to a man. She was either her husband's wife or her father's daughter. If she lived long enough, she might be her son's mother. Nevertheless, a single woman who was no longer a virgin faced a very difficult life in the ancient Near East. If there was no household to take her in, she became a beggar. It may have been perfectly legal for a man to cast a woman out of his house, but we have to ask if such an action was really moral.

Jesus makes his appeal not to the law book of Deuteronomy, but to the creation story of Genesis:

"But from the beginning of creation, 'God made them male and female. For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.' So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate." (Mark 10:6-9)

It is not God's will that we be alone (Gen. 2:18). We are created to exist with and for each other. If we sin against one another, we have sinned against God and ourselves. Because a thing is legal it is not necessarily right if it breeds harm or enmity. And the fair and just decision of a judge cannot erase heartache. Our failures need to be acknowledged and mourned. And such human failures can take so many forms.

I had an uncle,now, alas deceased, who would have made an excellent Pharisee. He was a staunch member of the Lutheran Layman's League and a faithful husband to my aunt for over fifty years. Unfortunately, for many of those fifty years he couldn't stand the woman. In the end, they slept in separate bedrooms and avoided each other as much as possible. But they didn't get a divorce. I wonder how much pain thy could have avoided had they been determined to do the moral thing for each other, and not just the legal thing.

So what's the bottom line? We are called into relationship. We are sinful, so we mess it up. So we ask for forgiveness, and we try to do better.

Thanks for visiting, my friends. God bless you.

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Getting Out of Our Own Way (Reflections on Pentecost 18)

September 30th is the Feast of Saint Jerome, so I thought I'd give a shout-out to the old boy and publish his picture with this post. We'll get back to him in a little bit.

The gospel text in the Revised Common Lectionary for Pentecost 18 is Mark 9:38-50. In this pericope, the Apostle John, doubtless feeling very proud of himself, tells Jesus that he and his buddies have caught some guy casting out demons in Jesus' name, and they have stopped this enterprising exorcist because he wasn't a member of their group.

Can't you just picture Jesus receiving this news? I imagine him slamming a palm against his own forehead in frustration and letting out a Homer Simpson-esque "DOH!"

He looks at John and says (not in so many words), "Dude. The guy was casting out demons! That's actually a good thing, don't you think? Why do you go and stop him? If he's using my name, he's got to have at least some kind of faith in me and my mission. Don't you think we should be encouraging that sort of thing?"

John turns a little red in the face. Being one of the chosen twelve disciples, he kind of liked feeling special. He looks down at his feet. "Oops. Sorry, Boss. My bad."

Jesus just shakes his head and sighs.

From the very first, it seems, the Christian Church has had a special talent for screwing things up. We have the most beautiful message to give to the world, and yet we keep putting stumbling blocks in our own way. Once upon a time, in my parish, a very pious lady--president of the congregational council no less--took me to task for allowing a catechism student to serve as communion assistant and pronounce the words, "The blood of Christ is shed for you." She told me she didn't think a child should be doing that. As if a twelve-year-old is somehow not qualified to proclaim the sacrifice of Christ!

And yet, through the centuries we have caused so many "little ones" to stumble. We've told so many that they are not good enough:

"You're too poorly dressed for this church." "You're a different race and you're not from around here." " You're gay." "You're a lesbian." "You're divorced." "You're married to a divorced person." "You've had an abortion." "Your worship style is too ritualistic and formal--it's obvious you don't have the Holy Spirit." "Your worship style is too frenetic and free-wheeling--it's obvious you have no piety." "You're covered in tattoos and body piercings--ya freak!" "You're homeless." "You have illegitimate babies." "You're overweight and your momma dresses you funny." " Your mentally challenged." "You're mentally ill." "You're an addict." "You're a jail-bird." "You're just TOO YOUNG!"

And sometimes, those of us who are "good enough" are stumbling blocks:

We've molested children. We've covered up for those who have molested children. We've cheated on our spouses. We've stolen from the church. We've preached rigid intolerance. We've shown our bad tempers. We've had our mental breakdowns. We've taken scripture out of context and preached our own agenda. We've been too human.

And sometimes, we trip over our own policy. We make "personal salvation" our only goal and never discuss things that matter like divorce, abortion, poverty, homelessness, war, bullying, substance abuse, mental illness, sexual abuse, or immigration.

But in the end, our job is to proclaim Jesus--in all his love and forgiveness--any way we can. And if something gets in the way of that proclamation, we need to throw it out. I love my high church liturgy, but if it becomes too arcane for someone new to the teachings of Christ, then I have to be prepared to get rid of it. No stumbling blocks to wholeness in Christ. If all I do is try to save my idea of Christianity, then I'm working for myself and not for Christ.

When the majority of Christians in the Roman Empire spoke Latin rather than Greek, dear old St. Jerome translated the Bible into their language--their common, every day language so they could understand it. When Latin was a dead tongue, Martin Luther translated scripture into the vernacular and urged others to do the same. When classical organ music ceased to move a new generation, God was praised in folk tunes and in rock 'n' roll. If need be, we'll go to hip-hop if that will reach people with the message.

As ambassadors for Christ, we sometimes need to learn how to get out of our own way. We better throw out our prejudices and preconceptions, or we'll drown trying to save them.

So what's keeping YOU from being who God wants you to be? A grudge? A prejudice? An addiction? Your guilt? Your comfort zone? A dysfunctional relationship? Your ego?

Think about it. And be at peace with yourself.

Thanks for reading.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

An Open Letter to Mari-beth

Dear Mari-beth,

I am so sorry to learn of the death from cancer of your friend Beth. You said on facebook that Beth was a wife and a mom, and that you "can't understand why God would be taking her away."

That "why" is an awful tough question. It goes to the heart of our human-ness. Why do we have to lose people we love? Why do we have to die? Our ability to ask this "why" is what makes us human beings. Strange, isn't it, that we'd often rather deal with anything else in the world but this awesome question.

I was thinking about you and Beth and this "why" as I was looking at the gospel lesson for 17 Pentecost:

"...he was teaching his disciples, saying to them, 'The Son of Man is to be betrayed into human hands, and they will kill him, and three days after being killed, he will rise again.' But they did not understand what he was saying and were afraid to ask him." (Matthew 9:31-32)

Yup. They didn't understand that he had to die, and they were afraid of the very question.

Remember in school when the teachers used to say, "The only silly question is the one you don't ask?" And yet, as kids, we sometimes failed to ask the important question because asking might make us look stupid. We thought we had more to lose by the act of questioning than we had to gain by actually knowing the answer. Now, as adults, we do the same thing. We don't ask "Why did Jesus have to die?" or "Why do I have to die?" "Why does the person I care for so much have to die?"

What I love about this bible story is that Jesus' disciples are so desperately avoiding the questions of death and immortality that they focus instead on a vain and trivial argument over their own self worth (Matt. 9:33-34). Maybe the question of death scares them so much that, in defense, they have to start boasting about their own accomplishments in order to make themselves feel less helpless.

I think the reason why important questions about God, life, and suffering go unasked is because we fear that the answers--or the very lack of answers--will lead us to unbelief. We fear we'll have to toss away a comforting Sunday School faith. We fear betraying the beliefs of our ancestors. We fear we'll lose the warmth of the baby Jesus in his mother's arms and the sweet glow of a sunny Easter morning. In short, we fear losing a part of ourselves should we reach into the black hole of such questions and come up empty handed.

But you, MB, aren't afraid to ask--in fact, you even ask  on facebook!

So I offer you the same--probably inadequate--answer I always give. We hurt because we can never say "I love you" without risking loss. Life and people are precious because they are, in this realm at least, perishable commodities. We could avoid pain if we just didn't care about anyone, but that would be a very empty existence.

You'll miss Beth, but you will never forget her courage in the face of sickness. You'll worry about her husband and children, but you'll acknowledge that they will have a much different and much deeper relationship now--even if that relationship is forged in grief. You'll be angry about the unfairness of it all, but you'll be more compassionate and more aware, too.

For me, I take solace in the notion that the God who is our very existence is not just jerking us around, but is giving us constant opportunities to choose love.

Thanks for putting it all out there, MB. Please know that Marilyn and I, as well as your whole Faith family, will keep you in our prayers as you miss your friend.

Monday, September 10, 2012


Iconic. I seem to be hearing that word a lot in the media lately. I guess it's the new favorite expression. Michael Jackson is referred to as a pop icon. Commentators on the Republican National Convention call Clint Eastwood an iconic figure. Hucksters on home shopping television dub NFL logos iconic. Even the illustrious Oprah Winfrey has self-applied the term, claiming her popular TV talk show contained "those iconic moments."

But what does the word mean? The New World Dictionary defines an icon as "an image, figure, or representation," and, secondarily, notes its ecclesiastical usage as "an image or picture of Jesus, Mary, a saint, etc. venerated as sacred."

Venerated as sacred. You see, that's the part that gets me. By this definition, THIS would be an icon:

File:Spas vsederzhitel sinay.jpg

THIS, in contrast, is NOT an icon:

Why? Because dear old Clint, however much we may enjoy his movies and recognize him as a favorite, is not to be venerated as sacred.

Now, I might just be letting my middle-aged grumpiness get the better of me, but I'm starting to resent how the words "icon" or "iconic" have morphed from their original theological meaning into secular usage. If we consider Clint Eastwood, Oprah Winfrey, and the NFL to be icons, what does that say about us as a society? What do these images represent for us? What are we venerating as sacred? Are we saying that we now find holiness in machismo, fame, and material success? There is, you know, another old-fashioned theological term for such veneration:


Let me just say that I have no problem with the English language evolving, but my old-fashioned heart yearns for clarity. The British playwright Tom Stoppard said it like this, "Words are innocent. Neutral. Standing for this. Meaning that. If you get the right ones in the right order, you can build a bridge across incomprehension." I like that. So I ask you: Can we please restrict this one word to its original ecclesiastic usage? There are plenty of excellent words in our language for Clint, Oprah, and the NFL. I'd like to suggest "classic," "emblematic," "evocative," or even "quintessential."

But I would prefer it if we reserved "icon" and "iconic" for those images which lead us beyond ourselves and our own sense of frivolous vanity. Let the words be used for images which lead us to sacrificial love, faith in God, admiration for goodness, and belief in eternity.

Let me know what you think.

Thanks for reading!

Monday, August 27, 2012

"Lord, to Whom Shall We Go?" (Reflections on Pentecost 13)

"Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them."
                                                                                             John 6: 56

So reads the opening phrase of the gospel lesson assigned by our Revised Common Lectionary for the 13th Sunday after Pentecost. For us  post-modern folk as well as for the turn-of-the-first-century audience for whom this was written, "This teaching is difficult; who can accept it? (Jn. 6:60)"

The Greek word translated here as "difficult" is skleros. According to Zerwick's Grammatical Analysis of the New Testament (1993), it can mean "hard to take" or "unacceptable." According to the German Bible Society's Greek Dictionary (and you know how smart those German guys are!), the word can also mean harsh or terrible. Basically, John's characters are telling Jesus that this flesh-eating, blood-drinking thing is offensive to them.

Granted, it sounds a little creepy to most of us, too. So how do we interpret this text? I can always take the academic coward's way our by pointing out that, according to the really smart fellas of the Jesus Seminar (and I don't know why there weren't any women in their little club), Jesus probably never said  anything at all like this. John's gospel was composed almost seventy years after the time of Jesus and seems to be prone to a little improvisation.

So, I hear you ask, if Jesus didn't say it, why is it in the Bible? Good question. Here's my best guess: By the time John was writing his gospel, everyone in the Christian community knew about the sacrament we call Holy Communion. But only those who were really in fellowship with the Christian community actively participated. Remember: at this time Christianity was officially an outlaw religion in the Roman Empire. Those who committed themselves to the faith risked being ostracized from their society, and, possibly, risked imprisonment or death. The ones who actively received the body and blood of Christ in the sacrament were the ones who had made a life-altering choice to be followers of Jesus.

The Judeans depicted in the sixth chapter of John take "bread" and "flesh" very literally. John's Jesus, however, uses the meal commemorating his physical sacrifice on the cross as a reflection of spiritual food. Jesus has provided a nourishment for this little group that no one else could. He's given them love for each other, faith in eternity, and courage. Those who who receive this spiritual food abide in Jesus and he abides in them.

John loves this word, "abide." It means, literally, "to pitch a tent with." That is, those who abide with Jesus are as intimate with his teachings, suffering, and resurrection as they are with the people who live under their roof. They live in the constant presence of Jesus, and everything they do is informed by sacrificial love (both God's sacrifice and our own willingness to give to each other), and the empty tomb promise of eternal life. Which, come to think of it, are not bad things to live with!

+     +     +     +
I kind of like the fact that the RCL has paired this gospel lesson with a reading from Joshua 24 in which Joshua, the successor to Moses who has led the people of Israel in victorious conquest of the Promised Land, confronts the nation and asks them to "choose this day whom you will serve (Josh 24:15)." He then rattles off a list of local tribal gods (folks in that time had not yet figured out that there is only One God). Both of these lessons sound a call for commitment. Personally, I often think the difference between those who claim to be "spiritual" but not "religious" is a simple unwillingness to commit.
But if we are not committed, not willing to abide with the God of sacrifice and resurrection, to what god do we commit ourselves? In what deity do we abide? In John's text, Simon Peter asks Jesus, "Lord, to whom shall we go?"
There are tons of tribal gods upon which we can rest our allegiance, but which has the words of eternal life? Do we abide in...
      ...our wealth and security? Great, until the economy tanks or we fall ill.
     ....our government or our free market? Please..!
     ...our job? Wonderful, until we're laid off or we retire.
     ....our intelligence? Until we make that stupid decision or until Alzheimer's strikes!
     ...our local sports teams? Not in Philly this year!
     ...the goodness of human nature? Only until a maniac opens fire in a movie theater in Colorado or a junkie in New Jersey decapitates her two-year-old child.
No. An old country/gospel song puts it like this:
          Living below in this old sinful world
Hardly a comfort can afford,
Striving alone to face temptation so...
Where could I go but to the Lord?
Where could I go? Oh, where could I go?
Seeking the refuge for my soul.
Needing a friend to save me in the end,
Where could I go but to the Lord?
(J.B. Coats)
Lord, to whom shall we go?
Thanks for stopping by, my friends.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Confessions of an Amoeba

"We're like Fort Apache," Wayne said. "They got us surrounded!"

Wayne is a faithful member of my congregation and a volunteer sexton. He and I often chew the fat over the future of our tiny little Lutheran parish--an island of Reformation theology adrift in a vast Roman sea. Faith Lutheran Church of Northeast Philadelphia is actually surrounded by six enormous Roman Catholic parishes, each claiming about nine thousand families. Additionally, we fall in the catchment area of at least two non-denominational evangelical mega-churches.

If the power and glory of Rome and the splash and flash of the megas isn't enough to pound us into insignificance, we have to deal with a rather unfortunate physical location. In a masterpiece of miscalculation, our founders placed us on a one-way street barricaded by a freeway and Interstate 95. We sit in full view of pretty much nothing at all, making our property an ideal location for drug deals, trash dumping, vandalism, and other assorted pestilence which plague the urban parish.

Now don't get me wrong. I love my parish, but I'll be the first to admit that the architecture--if you could call it that!--is a nightmare mixture of lousy fung shui and ghastly aesthetics. The upside is that the building is paid for, it costs relatively little to heat and cool, and it looks pretty full when you get about sixty people or so inside it (Our average Sunday worship attendance is in the low 90's). So, overall, I'd have to say that God has been very good to us. After fifty-two years, we've still kept the doors open. There are still kids in our Sunday School, and we still do the best we can.

Recently, our local non-denom mega-church, the Bethel Church of Franklin Mills, invited me to attend the Global Leadership Summit. This was a two-day satellite feed conference presented by Bill Hybel's Willow Creek Community Church outside of Chicago. I really enjoyed the summit, and I consider it one of the few continuing education events I've attended from which I actually learned something. However, being in the Bethel Church, a converted movie theatre with hundreds of seats which worships over 1,100 people each weekend, and watching the feed from the 7,000+ seat Willow Creek Church, gave me a bit of an inferiority complex. Who was I and how significant was my ministry compared to the fabulous success of these titans of the faith? I was but a pitiful amoeba, lost in the shadow of these behemoths of ecclesiastic grandeur.

Fortunately, Rob Tarnoviski, the senior pastor at Bethel Church and a very gracious host, reminded me, "We're not trying to build congregations, Owen. We're trying to build the Kingdom of God."

Okay. Good point.

Shortly thereafter, Cindie, a member of my parish and one of the cheeriest little Lutheran ladies one is likely to encounter, told me a story about a recent visit she had made to a new couple in our congregation. Jason and Doug live in South Philly, but they commute all the way up to the Northeast every Sunday to worship with us. Jason's brother, Cindie tells me, worships with a non-denominational mega-church and can't understand why Jason makes the journey to our tiny Lutheran parish. The brother boasts that his church is filled with hundreds of people, has a team of pastors leading small groups, a terrific and professional praise band, and three giant projection screens which make everyone feel part of the service.

To which Jason replied, "But my pastor knows my name."

Well said, my friend. Jason reminds me that even though some people will crave the excitement and energy of the mega-church (or perhaps the anonymity, too), there will always be those who will yearn for the family feeling only the small parish can provide. I think of Mother Teresa's quote: "We ourselves feel that what we are doing is just a drop in the ocean. But the ocean would be less fat without that missing drop."

I will never be a Bill Hybels or a Joel Osteen or a T.D. Jakes. But then, I am not called to be. I remind myself that what I am doing is what God has intended me to do. Where I serve is where God intends me to serve. And who I am--to the best of my sinful ability--is who God intends me to be.

"We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose."
                               Romans 8:28

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

"I Am the Bread of Life" (Reflections on Pentecost 11)

I dread it every three years when it comes around in the Revised Common Lectionary--that freakin' "Bread of Life" summer!I don't know what the folks who devised our Lectionary were thinking, but every third summer, in Cycle B, there are six--yes, SIX!--Sundays in a row when the gospel lesson focuses on Jesus as the Bread of Life. That's always a good time for either the pastor or the congregation to go on vacation. I mean, just how much can I think of to say about bread?

"I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh." (John 6:51)

To non-Christians, the response to the above quotation might be, "Yech! Sounds like cannibalism!"And I have to confess that for some Christians, asleep in the pew, the question of what it means to eat the flesh of Jesus might not be something we really ponder. So I wrestle with the question of, "Why would you want to do something which sounds so disgusting?"

Glad you asked. Some years ago I stumbled upon a wonderful book titled Rabbi Jesus: The Jewish Life and Teachings That Inspired Christianity by Bruce Chilton (Doubleday, 2000). I recommend it highly. Professor Chilton made me look at the sacrament of Holy Communion in a new way.

He begins by describing Jewish ritual sacrifice at the time of Jesus. Animals were brought to the Temple of Jerusalem, their throats were cut, and their blood was splashed against the burning hot metal altar. Then, the flesh of the animal was thrown onto the fire. The sputtering steam of the blood and the smoke from the animal's body were seen to ascend--symbolically to God on high. To offer sacrifice in this way to atone for one's sins was one of the holiest things a Jewish man could do.

Unfortunately, not all men--and no women--were permitted to enter the inner court of the temple to participate in this ritual. Gentiles were forbidden, as were those deemed to be ritually unclean. Jesus himself, because of his questionable parentage, would not have been permitted full participation in the sacrifice of the body and the blood.

Mary and Joseph were not married when Jesus was conceived. Prof. Chilton notes that any question about who Jesus' father might be would automatically classify Jesus as a mamzer--one who could not be assumed to be 100% Jewish. Such a designation would have put Jesus on the margins of society.

So what does Jesus do? He institutes his own holy practice. He eats ritual meals from which no one is excluded. He eats with those who are deemed to be ritually impure: tax collectors, prostitutes, sinners of every kind. His followers will even share this meal with gentiles. Those forbidden to touch the body and the blood of the sacrificial animal in the temple will not only touch but eat Jesus' body and drink of Jesus' blood. And Jesus, by his death, will be the sacrifice for all.

What more intimate and necessary thing can we do than share our food? Think about it: you don't even have to know a stranger's language in order to offer him or her something to eat. In Near Eastern culture, to share food was to create family. If you eat of my bread, you become one of my household.

As a pastor, I love to preside at Holy Communion. I need to share the common hunger we all feel--for forgiveness, for wholeness, for community. And I need to ingest the man who loves with his whole body and soul and whose love knows no distinction of persons--young or old, married, single, divorced, re-married, gay, straight, black, white, rich, poor, conservative, liberal. All human. All God's family.

If you come to my congregation some Sunday, we'll welcome you to our table. We simply can't let you be a guest in our home without feeding you.

God bless you, my friends!

Monday, July 30, 2012

If God Is Good, Why Is There Evil?

 My thoughts and prayers go out to the victims of the shooting rampage in Aurora, Colorado on July 19th. My family lived in Aurora when I was about a year old or so. In fact, I was actually baptized at St. Mark's Lutheran Church in that town. Although I don't remember Aurora--we moved when I was still quite small--I feel a sympathy for the place and for those who have suffered there.

I wonder if there's anyone out there who is asking, "If God is good, how could he let something so terrible as this happen?" Truly, moments of such horror, placed right on our doorstep, challenge our whole belief system.

For my part, however, I rest in the belief that God did not cause this tragedy--a disturbed young man did.

Yet now you ask me, "But, Pastor Owen, why would God let this happen?"

Here's my best answer: I still believe that God is good--and good all the time. As the scripture says, "God saw everything that he had made, and indeed, it was very good." (Genesis 1:31a) God is not the author of evil; nevertheless, we are always faced with the problem that nothing can exist without its opposite. Because we have light, we understand that there is darkness. Because there is sound, we apprehend the concept of silence. So if we believe in real goodness, we must accept that there may be some things which are not good. Indeed, if we are truly free to experience love, charity, mercy, pity, friendship, and all of the things which make us most human, we must accept that these things can only be genuine in our hearts because we also have the capacity to deny them. In order to make love real, we are born with the ability to chose hatred, indifference, selfishness, violence, and all which degrades the human spirit. And to be born into a world where such a choice exits is to be born into a very dangerous place. Just as to be born on a beach means we will forever encounter sand, to be born human means we will never be out of contact with evil.

So where was God on the night of July 19th in Aurora, Colorado?

God was present in the heroic acts of love expressed by those who refused to leave wounded friends and children--in those who shielded others with their own bodies. In acts of life-giving sacrifice which echoed the sacrifice of our Lord on the cross.

God was present in the compassion of first responders and emergency room teams who have dedicated their lives to the protection of complete strangers.

God was present--and is present still--in the compassionate embrace of a community and a nation praying for and loving the victims of this tragedy.

And, sadly, God is present in the love experienced through grief. And God does not cease to be good even when our circumstances keep us from seeing the goodness.

God will be present in the challenges which lie before the members of this community as the victims recover and try to reclaim their lives. There will be much need for love, patience, empathy, and courage. There will also, I hope, be found the need for that most divine of attributes, forgiveness.

I can't bring myself to hate James Holmes or wish for his execution. I don't know what kind of demons have laid claim to his mind--a mind which might otherwise have been a benefit to his fellow human beings. I only pray that such violent demons do not claim my mind. I pray only for mercy and healing for this community, and the peace which passes understanding.

Thanks for reading, my friends. As always, I'm interested to learn your thoughts.

Monday, July 16, 2012

Is the Church Irrelevant?

This morning Faye, one of the great pillars of my parish, dropped by church to do some photocopying. We chatted for a while, and I asked the usual questions about how she and her family were doing during these hot summer months. She happily reported that her granddaughter was doing very well, but this young adult raised in the church was not inclined to attend worship. "What can you do, Pastor?" Faye said. "She says she's a very spiritual person, but she doesn't like organized religion. She has her own ideas. I'm certainly not going to push anything on her."

I think Faye's attitude toward her granddaughter's spirituality is perfectly appropriate. Everybody has their own spiritual path to walk, and one of the greatest errors the Christian faith has made over the centuries has been the attempt to force dogma down the throats of the unwilling.

But, given the life I live, I can't help but try to share my love of the faith and my reasoning for continuing in the religious institution in which I was raised. If we take wars and persecutions, Crusades and Inquisitions, sexual and financial scandals out of the picture, the Church as an institution still has, to my mind, a great deal to recommend it.

The English word "church" comes to us via a twisted and tortured path through Middle English and Germanic words taken from the Greek kyriake oikia meaning "Lord's House." What is a house if not the home of a family? The fancy word we in English use to describe "churchy" things is ecclesiastic, which also comes to us from the Greek. Ecclesia is the word the New Testament uses which we normally translate as "church." It means an assembly or gathering of people who have been called together.

I can't imagine anything more necessary or poignant in today's individualistic society than human gathering. Recently, I was hanging out in my local Starbuck's and I noticed at a nearby table about four or five twenty-somethings drinking overpriced coffee and chatting animatedly. Besides their tattoos and piercings, the young people reminded me of myself and my college friends from back in the day. But there was one glaring difference: each one of these beautiful young people held some kind of electronic device in their laps under the table and were busily texting or facebook-ing, or something while they were supposedly enjoying each others' company. I wanted to go over and tell them, "Could you please put the damn iphones away and just be present with each other?!"

Our technology is great, but it seems to have robbed us of the ability to be with one another. I believe a big part of our humanity still craves the physical company of the family. We need to know that we have a home full of people who are willing to understand us, who share our thoughts, and to whom our presence is special and valuable. This is what the Church, at her best, should give us: community. We are united by our shared story-telling and by the shared rituals which help us navigate the transitions of our lives.

Besides just the act of being together, the Church also provides the shared wisdom of the past. At weddings or funerals I like to explain that part of our ritual is the reading of really old stuff. When we hear really old words, we know what we feel has been felt by others throughout the centuries, and will be felt again by others in the future. Reading these words makes us feel less alone.

As warm and fuzzy as our personal spirituality may make us feel, it still remains true that none of us can manage very much on our own. What we do together can be so much more powerful than what we do as individuals. Last week my parish hosted an organizing meeting for Interfaith Hospitality Network. We will be the first congregation in the Northeast neighborhoods of Philadelphia to provide shelter for temporarily homeless families. I couldn't very well hostel a family of six or so in my house, but, with the help of the church two families--victims of our precarious economic times--will get a chance to stay together in a clean, safe environment (which happens to be our church basement) while Interfaith works to find them permanent housing. My congregation is doing this in partnership with a non-denominational mega church, a large Roman Catholic parish, and smaller congregations of Methodists, Quakers, United Church of Christ, Church of God in Christ, and Jewish brothers and sisters. Totally freakin' awesome if you ask me.

Jesus told his disciples that they would do even greater works than he had done if they showed a little faith (see John 14:12). I am so thrilled to belong to a family of people who are making a material difference in the lives of some very vulnerable folks--simply because it is the decent, loving, and compassionate thing to do. We expect nothing in return. Simple love of humanity put into practice. You can't get more spiritual than that!

Thanks for reading, my friends. Please leave me a comment to let me know you were here. Also, to find out more about Interfaith Hospitality Network, click on

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

America: God Mend Thine Every Flaw

(Warning: The views expressed in this blog post are those of the author and are not intended to reflect the opinions of his congregation or the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America--although I'll bet a whole bunch of those folks might agree with me!)

We're coming up on Independence Day, so I thought I'd take a moment to salute my native land--a country which got it's official start right here in Philadelphia. Granted, I'm always a bit uncomfortable wrapping the cross of Jesus in the American flag. I don't see the two symbols as being equal in value; however, I will always maintain (and I think Martin Luther would agree with me) that being a devoted Christian first and foremost will always make one a better patriot. Devotion to Christ means a selfless devotion to neighbor and a love of justice, mercy, and charity. Such is the foundation of sound society.

Besides the fireworks (and who doesn't like fireworks?), cook-outs, and parades, an aspect of Independence Day I really dig is the patriotic music. My favorite is that prayerful song "America the Beautiful." I particularly like this line:

           "America, America, may God thy gold refine,
           Til all success be nobleness, and every gain divine."

Last week, with the Supreme Court's decision that the Affordable Care Act is, indeed, constitutional, our nation achieved success for millions of her citizens. I am grateful for the wisdom of Chief Justice Roberts in upholding this legislation which I believe to be both noble and divine in intention.

Okay. I'll be honest. Truth be told, I don't really know that much about the details of the Affordable Care Act. To my understanding, it's twice as long as the Philadelphia phone book and only half as entertaining to read. But here's what I do know:

My sister has cancer.

Her symptoms presented some three to four years ago, but...

Her employer does NOT provide her with health insurance, and her wages are so low that taking the insurance burden on herself would cause even greater financial challenges than she already faces. Subsequently...

She was initially treated at a free clinic, but the clinic did not provide a needed CT scan. My sister was told she would have to have the scan at her own expense.

She could not afford the scan on her own, so the symptoms went largely untreated and the cancer spread to her brain, necessitating a life-saving emergency surgery.

Because of her strained financial circumstances, social workers managed to get the hospital to forgive 80% of her medical debt...

Leaving her liable for the remaining 20% which happens to be THREE TIMES HER ANNUAL SALARY. Therefore...

If she beats her cancer and lives to a ripe old age, she may still be sentenced to a lifetime of debt and/or bad credit.

And so, My Fellow Americans, I ask you, "What would Jesus have us do?" In the wealthiest nation on the globe, situations such as my sister's ought not to exist. This is not even a Conservative v. Progressive issue. It is a matter of human decency. It's a "Do unto others" issue, an issue of mercy and compassion. C'mon, folks. Let's stop this silliness about "mandates" and "death panels" and just do the right thing.

I'll be glad to read your comments. Happy Fourth, everybody.

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

I Don't Want to Think About It

I'm worried about my sisters.

If you've been following this blog, you'll know that my sister Maryanne has been diagnosed with cancer. Last night I learned that her twin, my sister Lorraine, is living in the path of the Waldo Canyon forest fire which has destroyed half the state of Colorado and forced the evacuation of some thirty-two thousand people. As of this writing, the fire is still burning out of control, which means my sister and her family face the possibility that this monster blaze will devour their home and force them to run for their lives.

Now, Lorraine is nothing if not thorough. She phoned last evening to give a graphic description of the phenomenon: the sky turned black, ash everywhere, the smell of burning wood hanging over the entire town of Colorado Springs, and the air growing increasingly more difficult to breathe. Additionally, she has been documenting this catastrophe on her facebook page, and my wife has been following the fire's progress with great interest and no small amount of anxiety. After about two hours of watching the 24-hour news and weather channels (with growing worry for both Lorraine and my wife's sister in Florida who is being punished beneath the wrath of Tropical Storm Debby), I felt a desperate need to put all manner of disasters out of my head and switch the TV to a rerun of Everybody Loves Raymond.

Sometimes, I just can't deal with my own sense of helplessness.

Maybe that's what's going on in the world of the gospel lesson for this coming Sunday. The reading for the Fifth Sunday After Pentecost is the story of Jesus performing two miraculous healings: a woman who has suffered from hemorrhages for twelve years touches Jesus' cloak and is made well, and Jesus touches the hand of a supposedly dead child and brings her back to life (Mark 5: 21-43). With both healings, Jesus makes himself ritually impure.

I think now I get this "ritually impure" stuff. I mean, who really wants to deal with sickness and death? Like first century Judeans, I often feel the desire to get as far away from the things which cause pain and fear as I possibly can. The ancient Jews wanted to quarantine the bleeding and the dead and the grieving so that honest, God-fearing folks would not be contaminated by their sorrow.

Do you blame them?

But as a pastor, I struggle with knowing how to deal with such passages of scripture. After all, these are stories of miraculous healing brought about by faith. For me, it's just too easy to say, "Have faith and everything will be okay." What if everything isn't okay?

Have faith anyway?

My personal take-away from this gospel lesson is this: Healing and rescue come in God's time, not mine. The woman has bled for twelve years before she finally gets relief. The little girl is believed to have died because Jesus has been delayed coming to her aid. A line from a recent (and really excellent!) movie, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel sums up my feelings: "Everything will be all right in the end. So if it's not all right, it is not yet the end."

The other take-away is the example of Jesus, dirtying himself with that which the world does not wish to touch. I guess the job of the Church is to touch and be touched by the things and people who represent pain and fear. Homelessness, poverty, sickness, death. We are called to be in the midst of it. Worrying about my sisters and my sister-in-law may not do them any good, but, perhaps, it is making me just a little more human. I mean, there can't be healing if we are not touched, don't you think?

Thanks for reading, my friends.

(In the interest of honesty, however, I should disclose that Lorraine feels pretty confident that disaster will not befall her family. Interstate Highway 25 lies between her home and the inferno, and there's ample hope that this road will serve as a natural firebreak--although this hope is not a 100% certainty! Please keep her and all the residents of the Colorado Springs area in your prayers.)

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Waiting on God and Cancer

This Sunday will be the Feast of Saint John the Baptist. I'm supposed to be writing a stirring homily on this subject to touch the hearts of the faithful and bring them to repentance, but, to be honest with you, I'm having a bit of a hard time concentrating.

It's not easy to be thinking about Zechariah and Elizabeth and the Archangel Gabriel when I know that three thousand miles away my sister is having a PET scan to determine the spread of her cancer. Some weeks ago I blogged about my sister Maryanne's brain tumor. We now know that this tumor is actually a distant metastasis. Today's test will indicate just how aggressive this disease has become.

How do I feel? A big part of me is yet to get my head around the idea that this is as serious as everyone tells me it is. I just can't believe that my sister--my goofy sister who walked me to the store when I was little, who painted scenery for the plays I was in, who went dancing with me--is really this sick.

Another part of me is really, really angry about the inadequate treatment she was given at her local clinic. You see, my sis doesn't make much money so she doesn't have health care insurance. I'm just really outraged that today, in 2012, in the wealthiest nation on the planet, we still have people who refuse to see health care as a basic human right and not a privilege for those who can afford it.

But the outrage doesn't get me anywhere. Just like old Zechariah in Luke's gospel, I find myself mute and questioning and begging God for a sign--even when I have God's promise:

"We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose." (Romans 8:28)

Well, Maryanne certainly loves God if anyone does. So what's good about this situation, huh? Will we see a miracle? Will there be a sign?

My family waits. And we hope. And we pray.

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Can Lutherans be Reincarnated?

Okay. I'm not one for living a life of danger. I don't sky dive or bungee jump or race motorcycles. The most dangerous thing I can do is flirt with a little heresy every now and then. So here goes:

Some weeks ago, Carol, a faithful member of my congregation, asked me if I'd be willing to read Dr. Brian L. Weiss' book Many Lives, Many Masters. The book is subtitled, "The True Story of a Prominent Psychiatrist, His Young Patient, and the Past-Life Therapy That Changed Both Their Lives." I told Carol I'd be willing to give it a look, and she graciously dropped off a copy at my office. I actually found it rather enjoyable. Dr. Weiss has a smooth writing style, and the book reads like a novel. It does beg the question, "Can a Christian believe in reincarnation?"

To Dr. Weiss' credit, he makes a very compelling argument for the transmigration of souls. I won't detail his evidence here, but if you click on his name (Brian L. Weiss, MD) you can learn all about him and his books. What I personally found most interesting was his assertion that some of the early Christian fathers seemed to believe in the doctrine of reincarnation. Weiss sites Origen, Clement of Alexandria, and Jerome as proponents of past-life experiences.

By the sixth century, however, reincarnation was pretty much denounced as heresy by the Church. This was chiefly because the notion that we gain wisdom and salvation through the accumulated experiences of past lives seems to undercut the fundamental Christian doctrine of total salvation through the atonement of Christ on the cross. As a Lutheran, however, I can't resist mentioning that the Roman Catholic Church's doctrine of purgatory seems to do precisely the same thing. I guess none of those sixth century churchmen noticed that!

If you're interested in the intersection of Christian doctrine and reincarnation, I suggest you take a look at the Reluctant Messenger website. The author does a very thorough job of detailing the evidence linking Christianity to reincarnation as well as  the Church's objections to this belief.

Now here's what your Old Religious Guy thinks:

I felt a tremendous amount of joy and comfort reading Dr. Weiss' book. Whether reincarnation is true or not, we cannot write or discuss the transmigration of the soul unless we first believe in the concept of the soul. What do I mean when I use the word "soul?" I mean that I believe in a personal consciousness which is informed by our physical selves but not bound by our physical reality. Please note, I do not subscribe to the ancient Manichaean heresy that body and soul are separate and opposite elements. I believe in a divine interconnectedness between our consciousness and our bodies; however, I also believe that consciousness--like all energy forces in the universe--can neither be created nor destroyed. It is eternal, and will survive once our material bodies have changed their form.

Did any of that make sense?

In short, I believe in eternity, or, as we say in our Creed, in "the life everlasting." Dr. Weiss' book highlights the very positive reaction people in this life have once they become aware of their eternal selves. So good job, Doc!

Of course, in reading Many Lives, Many Masters, one may become skeptical about exactly what Dr. Weiss' hypnotized patients were really experiencing when they recounted past-life experiences. Do I think the book presents 100% irrefutable evidence for reincarnation? I'm afraid I can't say yes to this. Perhaps the patients were tapping powerful but previously untapped creative potential within their own brains? Or, perhaps they were connecting to the accumulated wisdom of all souls? Maybe they were demonstrating, as John Steinbeck said, that there is "one big soul that ever'body's part of?"

But who the heck am I to judge?

Maybe in some past life I was a Navajo princess or a Lithuanian pig farmer. Who knows? What I know for certain is that in this life I am a Lutheran pastor. Trinitarian Christianity works for me (and that's a subject for a future post). Right now, I owe it to my soul and to the God of All Souls to be the best Lutheran pastor I can be. I'll just have to put the rest of eternity into God's almighty hands and live in the moment in faith, hope, and love.

Thank you so much for reading! I will be on vacation for the next two weeks and will not be posting. Please amuse yourself with some of the past posts you may have missed. As always, I look forward to your comments. God bless!