Thursday, January 30, 2014

Saint of the Month: Ruben (Reflections on Epiphany 4)

Yesterday I went to visit my friend, Ruben. I try to do this every few months or so. Ruben is a retired laboratory tech, but for more than twenty years he was organist and music director at Faith Lutheran Church in Philadelphia. A native of Puerto Rico, he has a shy, self-effacing Latin charm and is easily the sweetest guy you'd ever want to meet. He also has a deep and abiding love for God. I love to visit with him, practice my lame, high school Spanish, fill him in on the goings on of our congregation, and serve him Holy Communion.

Ruben lives with Parkinson's disease. The ailment has left him debilitated and confined to a wheelchair. It has also affected his speech, producing an uncontrollable stutter which, combined with his accent, makes him a bit hard to understand at times. But Ruben is by nature a quiet man, and I talk my fool head off so I guess it all works out.

Ruben has never married and has no immediate family to care for him. Consequently, he abides in a local nursing home. I confess that I'm slightly creeped-out when I visit him. The home seems to me a kind of warehouse for the elderly and infirm—a Purgatory where abandoned souls are sent to wait out their time before being delivered into the arms of Jesus. There are all the usual noxious odors one associates with such institutions. As I walk down the hall to Ruben's room I am assailed by the smell of urine and feces, and I hear the moans and screams of those who are in pain, confused, and alone. It feels like a scene out of Dante. The hallway is lined with wheelchairs containing flesh and bone shells slowly being emptied of their souls. The heads are bowed, the eyes stare almost sightlessly. I try to make eye contact with a few and smile. Some smile back. Others just stare. I think of that old saying and paraphrase it to myself:
“As I am now, they once were. As they are now, I will one day be.” It's not a comforting thought.

Ruben is usually in his room watching Telemundo or reading his Spanish Bible. He shares the room with two other elderly gentlemen, each one assigned a tiny, curtained space containing a small bed and a dresser. I tap Ruben's shoulder. He smiles up at me and says we'll visit in the common area outside his cramped quarters. It takes him several minutes to wheel himself around the bed and into the hallway, but I respect the man's pride and offer no assistance.

I feel for this gentle soul living in this desolate local. I ask him how he's doing. “Que tal, mi amigo?

He looks at me with steady eyes.

I am blessed,” he says.

In the gospel lesson for the Fourth Sunday after the Epiphany (Matthew 5:1-12), Jesus calls the poor, the grieving, and the hungry “blessed.” This means Jesus has a pretty radical idea of what “blessed” means. It's not about being happy or having what we think we want. Rather, the blessed are the ones whom God loves. They are the ones who live in the promise of God's eternity. In their inmost selves, in their souls, the blessed are the ones who dwell in the knowledge that they are God's own forever. Their circumstances—even poverty, grief, and endless, hungry yearning—are only temporary. It's not about who we are. It's all about who God is.

If one possesses humility, mercy, integrity, a desire for reconciliation with others, and a zeal for righteousness even when such zeal is unwelcome, then one is truly blessed by these very virtues. These things bring comfort and peace to the heart, and they can't be stripped away. My friend Ruben has such virtue, and I love and respect him for it.

When it came time to give Ruben the Sacrament, I asked him what we should pray for. He smiled at me and said, “Happiness.”

Very well, my friend. You've taught me I can be blessed without being happy. But I can never be truly happy without knowing I am blessed.
Thanks for reading, my friends. God bless you.


Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called Children of God.” Let's make a little peace between Lutherans and Roman Catholics, shall we, children? Ask the Pope to recognize the 500th anniversary of the reformation by letting our two denominations come together again at the Lord's Table. It can't hurt to ask, can it? Let's show the world a spirit of reconciliation. Sign here.

Thursday, January 23, 2014

Fishing Sucks! (Reflections on Epiphany 3)

Fishing. I don't indulge in the sport myself. I guess I just don't like the idea that I have to kill something before I eat it. But ever since Sunday School days I've been familiar with the story in the Revised Common Lectionary for Epiphany 3 (Matthew 4: 12-23) in which Jesus calls fisherman to be his disciples. “Follow me,” the Lord tells them in verse 19, “and I will make you fish for people.” The gospel says that the fishermen left their nets immediately and followed him.

I guess this makes a little bit of sense if viewed in context. For me, fishing was something old retired guys did off the pier. You bring a deck chair, drink a few beers, and fall asleep with your rod in the water. But fishing for a living—today as in the ancient world—is a whole different story. I remember as a kid sitting up late to watch Spencer Tracy in The Old Man and the Sea on the Late Show. I remembered the fisherman's sense of desperation and I was struck by the physical demands of the profession. I recall the bleeding hands and the sheer danger of a life on the ocean. Later, The Perfect Storm drove home the back-breaking labor, the smell, the time away from home, and the physical peril involved in putting that slab of salmon on my dinner plate. I have a whole new respect for fishermen, believe me!

So, I guess I can see why these guys would leave a life which was brutal, hard, and fairly uncertain. What I don't understand, however, is why they would trade it for a life which would be brutal, hard, completely uncertain, and end in martyrdom? (Note that this pericope starts out with a preacher getting arrested!) Either they were really freakin' desperate to get out of the fishing business, or there was something about Jesus which compelled them to change their identities and embrace a new way of life.

Sometimes I feel that being the Christian Church in America today is like being an ancient fisherman. It can be brutal, hard, and uncertain. What really makes it tough is that we don't even know at times what fish we're after. We don't know how to think like the fish we're trying to catch, and so we don't know what bait to use.

The fish don't seem to be swimming our way, either. The hook of the knowledge of sin still smarts. And the fish in the net have so many reason to try and tear themselves loose. There's a massive amount of pain inside this net. There's sickness, family issues, fear, poverty, unemployment, the death of loved ones, addictions, mental illness—and let's not forget disillusionment with the Church itself. We fish tear at that net, a net that feels so often like an obligation and not a place of rest and refuge and love.

The wider ocean beyond the net of the Church looks blue enough, but it has a tendency to keep us compartmentalized, computerized, and isolated.

So what is it in Jesus which overcomes resistance?

I don't know about all of you, but I think I need to stop at times and reflect on my own relationship with the one who loves, forgives, and sacrifices. There are all kinds of church growth strategies out there, but they don't mean a thing without the love of Christ. Unless someone can see Jesus in me—Jesus present in hope, forgiveness, welcome, and purpose—I will never convince them to embrace Christ's Church.

I know we'll never catch all the fish out there, and many will tear themselves loose from our tattered nets, but we'll keep throwing the nets out anyway.

Thanks for reading, my friends. Keep fishing.

Hey! I'm still trying to mend the net which binds Lutherans and Roman Catholics. The 500th anniversary of the Reformation is getting close. Let's ask Pope Francis—a pretty cool fisherman if you ask me—to invite Lutherans back to the table. Check out my petition at

Thursday, January 16, 2014

Is the Pope a Closet Lutheran? (Reflection for the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity)

I know. It's not exactly an event that rates a Hallmark card, and if the Philadelphia Eagles had survived further into post-season play, the annual Week of Prayer for Christian Unity would pass through my part of the world with no notice at all. Nevertheless, I really dig that, for one week at least, Christians try to wrap our heads around the fact that the beliefs we hold in common are much more important than the ones with which we differ.

The Week of Prayer was actually—I was surprised to learn—the brainchild of a Roman Catholic priest. As a life-long Lutheran, I was brought up to believe that those guys thought no one would be in heaven but them. In reality, Father Paul Wattson, a Franciscan Friar, cooked up this celebration way back in 1908, and Pope Pius X was pretty keen to sign on to it. The Roman Church has supported the celebration ever since with great enthusiasm. So props to you Catholic folks!

The week spans from the Feast of the Confession of St. Peter on January 18th and lasts through the Feast of the Conversion of St. Paul on January 25th. This puts it in a little bit of competition here in the US with both the Martin Luther King, Jr. Day of Service and the NFL playoffs. But, heck! I'm going to try and talk it up anyway, and I look forward to gathering on Sunday for a joyous vespers service with some of my Roman Catholic, United Church of Christ, United Methodist, and Episcopalian neighbors.

Unfortunately, any catering we do for this festivity will take the form of coffee hour after the worship has concluded. For Lutherans, coffee hour borders on the sacramental, but it's still not the same as sharing the bread and wine of Holy Communion as part of the festival. Alas, our Roman friends are still not permitted to join with us in the sacrament.

But while there's life there's hope,and I take a great deal of comfort in these recent words of Pope Francis:

The Eucharist, although it is the fulness of sacramental life, is not a prize for the perfect but a powerful medicine and nourishment for the weak.” (Quoted November 25, 2013 by CNN Belief Blog)

This statement suggests to me that the Holy Father has really hit the nail on the head as to why Christians eat this meal in the first place. We come around the table as a family, understanding that—if all the cards were on the table—we'd know that we're all a bunch of screw-ups desperate for the love of an understanding God. The body and blood of Jesus, present in the elements of this holy supper, remind us that once a man loved us enough to die on a cross for us. Even if we're not perfect—or even close to perfect—we're still loved by God the same way a parent loves an erring child. And maybe this encounter with Christ's sacrifice will change us for the better and bring us closer to understanding, loving, and forgiving one another.

Maybe I'm reading too much into the Pope's recent statement, but if he's saying that perfect adherence to the Roman Church's doctrines is not necessary for an invitation to the dinner table, then I'm pretty encouraged.

Martin Luther wrote this explanation of his view on who is worthy to dine at Christ's table:

Who, then, receives this sacrament worthily?...a person who has faith in these words, 'given for you' and 'shed for you for the forgiveness of sin,' is really worthy and well prepared.” (Small Catechism, 1526)

I like to think that, somewhere in heaven, Luther is raising his beer tankard in a toast to Pope Francis and saying in his best 16th Century German, “Dang! I like this guy!”

I wish you all a blessed Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, and, as always, I invite you to celebrate it by signing my petition for sacramental unity here.

God's peace and blessings be with you in this New Year, and don't be shy about leaving me a comment.

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

In the Mud With Jesus (Reflections on the Baptism of Our Lord)

My old landlord in Los Angeles had a great bumper sticker on his truck:


Pretty true, don't you think? Sometimes we just don't want to suck it up and do what's required.

In the gospel lesson assigned in the Revised Common Lectionary for The Baptism of Our Lord (Matthew 3:13-17), Jesus is all set to do what is required to “fulfill all righteousness” (v. 15) even though good ol' Cousin John the Baptist would prevent him.

It's easy to see John's point. I mean, in the light of Christian doctrine, if Jesus was without sin, just why did he need a ritual bath to cleanse him from the sin he wasn't supposed to have? I guess John is showing a little institutional deference to the guy he believes to be the Messiah of Israel. If Jesus is really the promised one of God, why does he need to get washed by the second-string prophet?

I always believe that Jesus didn't go through with the ritual for his own sake. He did it for our sake. Jesus got down in our dirty bath water so we would know God present in us, in our lives, in our circumstances, and in our weak human flesh.

Some time ago I saw a great documentary on PBS (and aren't all PBS documentaries pretty great?) about the United States Marine Corp. One scene showed officer's candidacy exercises at Camp Lejeune in North Carolina. A candidate was ordered by his DI to crawl through a culvert several yards in length. The culvert was half filled with muddy water and only about two feet in diameter. The candidate was suddenly gripped by a paralyzing attack of claustrophobia and froze at the entrance of the culvert. I was expecting the DI to start screaming at the candidate something like:

You worthless wuss! You disgusting, subhuman piece of whale poop! Get your pansy butt into that hole before I rip the flesh from your face with my teeth, you pants-wetting disgrace to the Marine Corp!!”

But to my surprise, the DI, who was wearing a spotless Marine fatigue uniform, jumped down into the mud himself and told the young candidate, “Follow me and stay close!”

The young Marine followed his DI into the black tunnel and emerged safely out the other end. I suspect he was a different man when he came out of that water.

Sometimes we just need to know that we are not alone.

In baptism, Jesus united himself with us so that we could be united with him. Saint Paul wrote:

Therefore we have been buried with (Christ) by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life.” (Romans 6:4).

Martin Luther put it like this:

(Baptism) signifies that the old person in us with all sins and evil desires is to be drowned and die through daily sorrow for sin and through repentance, and on the other hand that daily a new person is to come forth and rise up to live before God in righteousness and purity forever.” (Small Catechism, 1526)

I like to think that Jesus got down into our dirty bath water so we won't be afraid to follow him where we don't always want to go. He is asking us to follow and stay close as we enter the dark places of our past which need healing. As we try to forgive those whom we don't want to forgive. As we aid or welcome people we don't want to aid or welcome. As we make changes to our worship styles we don't want to make. As we risk our comfort on new missions. As we are rocked off our angle of repose and forced to make decisions which will frighten and change us.

In Jesus we have a leader who says, “Follow me and stay close!” as we drown our sinful selves and grope through the tunnel of our lives toward God's promised daylight. It is good to know we are not alone.

Hey! Want to really claim our baptismal inheritance? Let's unite with our baptized Christian brothers and sisters in Holy Communion. You don't have to get wet, just click on my petition asking Pope Francis to invite Lutherans back to the Eucharistic table. I ask you: What better way to celebrate the upcoming 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation? C'mon! Be radical! Just click here.