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.