They All May Be One

This is an adapted form of the sermon I preached this morning, the Seventh Sunday of Easter. The gospel text was John 17:1-11

So…when Jesus had said all he wanted to say,
He looked up to heaven and started to pray,
“Father, this is my hour, the end of my story,
So glorify me that I might show your glory.
I’m marked with a stamp that says, ‘return to sender,’
So fill me with light, with your awesome splendor. Continue reading “They All May Be One”

Labyrinth of the Week #6: St. John Neumann, Califon, NJ

I enjoy walking labyrinths. Labyrinths are maze-like structures that have been used as spiritual tools for centuries. There are many of them around, and I have started the habit of trying to visit them, perhaps once a week. For more information on labyrinths, check out The Labyrinth Society.

Today’s labyrinth was at the Catholic Community of St. John Neumann, a Roman Catholic church in Califon, New Jersey. It’s a medieval 8-circuit labyrinth, the first medieval labyrinth I’ve walked this year. The neat thing about medieval labyrinths is that they are divided into quadrants, and I find them more intricate than the more common classical-style labyrinths. (Possibly the most famous medieval labyrinth is the 11-circuit labyrinth at Chartres cathedral.) This labyrinth is made of two colors of paving stones, and it is clearly a work of love, professionally constructed. I was very impressed. It also contained two of the distinctive features of the Chartres labyrinth: the “lunations” around the edges, and the “cloverleaf” in the center.

Photo Mar 24, 9 37 37 AM
The traditional “Chartres cloverleaf.”

Driving to St. John Neumann was wonderful. My GPS took me through many back roads through beautiful woods. New Jersey has some beautiful country. When I arrived at the church, I had trouble finding the labyrinth in the vast grounds. Fortunately, a kind gentleman was outside – perhaps the groundskeeper – and he pointed me to where the labyrinth was.

Photo Mar 24, 9 28 50 AM

I stood at the entrance of the labyrinth, and the question on my mind was this: “What does it mean to have a Ministry of Depth, and how can I live it out?” This question arose from something that’s been on my mind since the retreat at the monastery a few weeks ago. As you may recall, the theme dealt with discovering and listening for the “hidden Christ” within each of us. One implication which the leader drew out was that we are all called to a “ministry of depth” in our own places, in our own ways. I haven’t fully figured out what that means for me, but it’s been dwelling on my heart since then.

As I walked, I felt a sense that a ministry of depth must begin with myself. I am called to continue to explore my own depths, to nurture a sense of holiness there and to seek and listen for God’s Spirit living deep within. And then, through that, I can be a source of depth for other people at church. It’s freeing, indeed. Instead of trying to be the local expert on scripture or church administration or interpersonal relationships (all of which I’ve fancied myself), I can see myself as a journeyman in those areas along with the others around me. Instead, I can see myself as the local “expert” on spiritual depth. I can model and encourage people to look deeper at what we’re doing, to look deeper at what their feelings and beliefs might mean, to look deeper for where there is grace in a situation. I truly believe that if I focus on this, I can be good at it. And I truly believe that it could be a benefit to a church community. It doesn’t mean that I can’t offer some advice and counsel on scripture, administration, or relationships – it means that my focus can be on depth, spiritual depth, depth of faith, depth of relationships. Sounds like a fun new journey.

Nerd Nite or Church

This has been a weird weekend. I did not go to church this morning, which for me is not normal. Now, for the past five weeks I of course haven’t been to my own church, but I always go to church, even when I’m on vacation or medical leave. But today, because of various reasons involving my wife’s schedule and my two-year-old son, I stayed home. On the other hand, I went out late last evening, which is also unusual for me on a Saturday night. My most excellent friend (and Pinewood-Men co-creator) Pete and I attended the first Nerd Nite Bethlehem. It was a fun evening at SteelStacks, described kind of like a low-key “nerdy” Ted Talk. We heard three speakers talk in a very enthusiastic and entertaining way about their nerdy loves, like television piracy and AI comedy robots. I’m glad I went, and from a depression standpoint, it was good to get out and do something. I have been more social lately than I’d been in months, and it’s probably a good thing.

But I can’t shake this feeling of guilt. I gathered with a hundred or so people this weekend, but not for the reason I usually do. I listened to people up front singing praises, and I felt a great level of affinity with them, but the praises they sang were not directed to the place my praises usually are on the weekend. It just feels wrong, like I didn’t do enough. I could have worked out going to church. I could have found a church with a Saturday service last evening. I could have taken my son with me to church somewhere this morning. But I didn’t. I took the path of least resistance. I was out late last night, and I even slept in. It just didn’t feel right. It still doesn’t feel right.

Part of me knows that it’s okay. That it’s okay to miss church once in a while. That it’s okay especially when the reason has to do with making life a little easier on my family. Part of me knows it’s okay to do something fun, and to spend some time with a good friend. And I don’t believe that God is condemning me for this. But I’m disappointed in myself right now. I don’t like this feeling. And honestly, it feels bigger than this weekend. I feel like I’m not doing the right thing left and right right now. Like I’m just being self-absorbed and lazy. Like I’m just taking the path of least resistance and coasting. Like I’m not accomplishing anything.

I don’t like this feeling. But I think it’s the voice in my head, the voice who has told me for years and years, “You should have known better.” The voice who has told me for years and years, “You are a failure.” Hello, voice. Welcome back. “I never left,” he says. Yes, I know. But I have my daughter’s birthday party this afternoon, voice. So how about you shut up for a while, and let me be a good father.

Sigh. This is my life. It will be a good afternoon. My job is to wrangle the toddler while my daughter and her friends have fun. It will be good. And I’ll deal more with that stupid voice later. But for now, I will forgive myself for any mistakes I’ve made this weekend, and I will just do my best the rest of the day. That’s all I’ve got, when it comes down to it, isn’t it?

Darkwater

This is a semi-fictional account of two events: a spiritual quest I went on in Schuylkill County yesterday, and a session with my spiritual director this morning. There’s no need to try to discern how much of it is “true.” In a way, it all is.

Continue reading “Darkwater”

An American Lutheran or a Lutheran American?

I have lived in a “parsonage” of sorts for my whole life, living in one way or another the life of a professional religious person. I spent my childhood literally in two parsonages, the son of a Lutheran Church in America (from 1988 on, Evangelical Lutheran Church in America) pastor. I attended an ELCA-affiliated college (though I did not find Muhlenberg to be particularly “Lutheran”). I attended an ELCA seminary right out of college, despite not wanting at that point to be a pastor. (More on that saga someday, I promise.) From seminary, I went straight into full-time church work. I was a Director of Christian Education/Pastoral Assistant for five years, and then went straight from there into finishing my training to finally become a pastor, which I have now been for nine years. The church has been in my blood since I was born. I love the church. I love the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. I love the congregations that have nourished me, and which I have served. I love the synods I have been part of, and the youth programs of those synods that have contributed to who I am. The church is my home, my family, my culture, and in a way, my nation. The church is, in a way, my nation. That’s a weird thing to say, and the weirdest thing is…I didn’t intend to write it. But I suppose there’s some truth to it, and I think it may inform what I really want to talk about today.

I want to talk about the problematic relationship between the church and American culture, and more specifically, the problematic relationship between worship and cultural holidays. Today is the day before Memorial Day, and so it’s on my mind. Every time Memorial Day, July 4, or Veterans Day approach, I shudder as I meet with the Minister of Music to plan the service, because I know that there are people in the congregation who want to sing patriotic songs as hymns. I hesitate as I prepare my sermons, because I worry that people might be upset if I don’t preach about the greatness of America. I tremble as I begin announcements in worship, because I don’t know how far I have to go in recognizing the holiday to keep people from being upset. (Do I ask all veterans to stand? Do I wish people a “happy” Memorial Day, or a “blessed” one? Do I offer a special prayer for America, or for military personnel?) I feel as though I’m being watched, judged, that I have to give a certain amount of attention to these holidays, or face being labeled “unpatriotic” or “un-American.” I feel like I’m a politician, who has to make sure to find a way to make everyone happy. And to some extent, I do that. I always try to refer to the holiday in my sermon. Sometimes I will grudgingly allow “America the Beautiful” to be the final hymn. But it always seems like a balancing act.

Because there’s the other part of me that knows that patriotism expressed in the context of weekly worship comes treacherously close to blasphemy and idolatry. I know that the purpose of weekly worship is not to make people “feel good.” The purpose of worship is not to be the place where good citizens come to begin their week. The purpose of worship is not for the people to hear the preacher expound on a topic of interest.

The purpose of weekly worship is to proclaim Christ crucified and risen.

Plain and simple. The purpose of worship is to proclaim Christ crucified and risen. And everything in worship is to point in that direction. Scripture readings point to this. Sermons point to this. Hymns point to this. Prayers point to this. The sacraments point to this. And I am so hesitant to allow anything to turn us away from this. And honestly, songs whose main purpose is to sing the praises of a country, even if they mention God, are not Christian hymns. And honestly, there is no place for such songs within the context of weekly worship. They just muddy the water. They confuse the purpose of worship.

Don’t get me wrong. Christians can certainly be patriotic! And the church can certainly offer patriotic programs or services at a time other than regular weekly worship. There is nothing wrong at all with hosting a Memorial Day service of remembrance, or a “hymn sing” of patriotic songs on the afternoon of the Sunday nearest July 4. But these ought never replace the worship of Jesus Christ the crucified and risen Lord. And these patriotic programs ought never be intertwined with that worship either. There is enough America-worship out in our culture. The church does not need to add to it by confusing the worship of God with the celebration of our nation’s history.

Now, here’s where the first paragraph of this post comes into play. I recognize that I have a deep cultural, family, almost ethnic, almost patriotic, connection to the ELCA, and that this connection is not something that is shared by many people, even many who are faithful, active church members. And that’s not because I’m a better Lutheran, or a better Christian, or because of anything at all except my own personal background, my own upbringing. Like being an Eagles fan because you were raised in Philadelphia. My blood flows Reformation red because of an accident of my history. My veins don’t flow with red, white, and blue. Again, don’t get me wrong. I am glad to be an American. I like America a lot. I am very proud of the ideals that our founders based the country’s constitution on, and I do want America to become the nation they envisioned. But I don’t have a patriotic connection to it the way I do to the church.

But I recognize that many people do. Many people do have blood that flows red, white, and blue, and that’s great. And many of those people also happen to be faithful Christians, active church members, and that’s great. And I think I can understand why for them, this whole problem I have with patriotism intertwining with worship seems at best like I’m making a mountain out of a molehill, and at worst like I’m being unpatriotic and ungrateful. To them, there is nothing wrong with singing “America the Beautiful” in worship, because it’s just a song that brings them joy…it doesn’t mean that they worship America. I’m just guessing.

And maybe I am wrong. I don’t think I am in this case, but maybe I am. I guess what I’ve learned through writing this post is that we all carry so much baggage, so much stuff in our history that informs who we are and how we view one another. We all have our core that we identify as, and mine is as an ELCA Lutheran (who just happens to be American). Others identify themselves as Americans (who just happen to be ELCA Lutherans). Every year around the major patriotic holidays, I find myself struggling with this distinction, and maybe that’s the way it should be. The church has always had a complicated relationship with empire, with culture, with nation. Maybe that’s the way it’s supposed to be.

God bless America. God bless the church. God bless us all.

P.S. I thought I’d also be talking here about my problems with Mother’s Day in the church. And Valentine’s Day. That’ll have to wait for another day. Lucky you!

The Trajectory of God’s Word

This is an adapted version of the sermon I preached today, the Fifth Sunday of Easter (Year C). I preached on the first reading, Acts 11:1-8.

Simon Peter got in trouble with the other church leaders in Jerusalem, because they thought he was going against God’s word. This takes place in the early church, just a few years after Jesus was raised from the dead. This young church was predominately Jewish, and they saw Christ as the fulfillment of the Word of God. The Word of God they had tried to follow their whole lives, the Word of God found in their scripture, in what we now call the Old Testament.

The Word of God said that the people of Israel were God’s chosen people, and that under certain circumstances, outsiders could join the community of God’s people. If they followed Israel’s laws, became circumcised, and kept kosher, then certain outsiders could be accepted into the community. The young church continued this practice. If you were a Gentile who wished to join the church, you first needed to become Jewish. You first had to become like us.

But Peter broke this rule. He spent time with Gentiles. He ate with Gentiles who did not keep kosher. He baptized Gentiles who had not been circumcised. This led to his trouble with the other church leaders. And he did it because of a dream.The dream went like this:

peter27s_vision_of_the_sheet_with_animals

Peter saw something like a large sheet coming down from heaven, being lowered by its four corners; and it came close to him. As he looked at it closely he saw four-footed animals, beasts of prey, reptiles, and birds of the air. He heard a voice saying, ‘Get up, Peter; kill and eat.’ But Peter knew better…he knew that these were all animals that scripture had declared unclean for Jews to eat. And he said this to God. He said, ‘By no means, Lord; for nothing profane or unclean has ever entered my mouth.’ But the voice answered from heaven, ‘What God has made clean, you must not call profane.’

And Peter knew that this was a new word from God. God declared new things to be clean. And Peter soon realized that this was about far more than food. Immediately after this dream, some Gentiles arrived at his home, and asked him to speak to their master, a Roman centurion, about Jesus. Prior to this dream, Peter would have refused to speak to them. But now, Peter realized that this new word from God told him that not only were all animals clean to eat, but also all people were welcome to receive God’s Spirit. And Peter went to the centurion, spoke with him, ate with him, and baptized him and his family in the name of Christ.

After telling them this story, Peter said to the other church leaders in Jerusalem, “If God gave them the same gift that he gave us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could hinder God?”

They were shocked, because this sounded like a new word from God. They were shocked, because it sounded like God’s word had changed. And yet they also rejoiced that God was now welcoming Gentiles as well, just as they were.

But I wonder. I wonder if God’s Word really changed. I wonder if God’s Word has always been less about drawing lines in the sand, less about setting down rules and regulations, and more about drawing out a trajectory, a direction. And I wonder if that trajectory always stays the same, even if the specifics change. If we look at God’s Word throughout scripture, we see that over time more and more people are welcomed. Over time, love and compassion are deepened. Over time, judgment gives way to mercy. Over time, things move closer and closer to the kingdom that God has promised.

Through the prophet Jeremiah, God promised this:

The days are surely coming, when I will make a new covenant. I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts. No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, “Know the Lord,” for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest.

Through the prophet Isaiah, God promised this:

my house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples.

Through the prophet Joel, God promised this:

I will pour out my spirit on all flesh; your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, your old men shall dream dreams, your young men shall see visions.

I wonder if perhaps the Word of God is first and foremost a word of promise, a word that promises that more and more grace is coming, that more and more hope is coming, that more and more people are welcome, until that last day, when the promises are fulfilled, when all is made right.

I wonder if perhaps the Word of God is not primarily about the past, not about what happened so long ago, but about the future. I wonder if perhaps the Word of God is calling us forward, and has always been calling us forward, to the promised future. A future in which more and more people are welcome. A future in which love and compassion continue to deepen. A future in which more and more judgment gives way to mercy. A future that comes slowly. A future in which we have a role to play.

The future John glimpsed in our second reading from Revelation when he heard God’s voice say, “See, I am making all things new!” The future that the disciples were called to be a part of when Jesus said in our gospel reading, “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another just as I have loved you.”

The future that we glimpse today when we welcome people who are different than us, without telling them they have to become like us. The future we glimpse when we recognize our differences, and celebrate them. The future that we are already part of, because God’s mercy has been extended to us, God’s grace has been poured out on us. The future that we are called to proclaim, as God’s mercy and grace continue to flow ever forward toward that future.

A rant about the “War on Christmas”

I posted this essay on Facebook in December 2015. It’s a seasonal essay, about the so-called “War on Christmas.” But I think some of the points transcend that season, and apply to the church at any time of year. Either way, I thought it belonged on this blog, and I didn’t want to wait another eight months to post it here!

It’s the secular Christmas season again, so it’s time for me to start getting cranky at other Christians. Every year, I feel such anger and such bewilderment at my fellow followers of Christ, for the absurd and childish behavior that always comes from us this time of year. But now I think I have a theory about where that behavior comes from.

It’s because we’re doing a lousy job at telling the world the good news of Christ. We’re doing a lousy job of it, and that upsets us…the world isn’t responding to us the way we think it should, the way we think it might have done in the past. This is heartbreaking; we have such good news for all people, and they don’t seem to be listening. We can see it everywhere…worship attendance has fallen, congregations are closing, our voices as Christians are increasingly viewed as marginal or fringe. We don’t like this. It hurts.

Fair enough. And many of us have seen that something different is needed, something new; something has to change. Some have tried different ways to address this: different styles and times of worship; attempts to make the church more “relevant” or “contemporary.” Some of these ideas are helpful, others misguided, but again…fair enough. It’s worth a try. Full points for any church or individual who has tried to change the way we share the message. Effective or not, it’s a faithful try.

But there’s a dark side. There’s another way Christians have tried to make a change…demanding that others change for us. And this is not only unproductive and unhelpful, but frankly I believe it goes against the Christian faith. Here are some examples:

We are upset that worship and Sunday School attendance have dropped, so we blame sports. “They shouldn’t be allowed to have soccer practice on Sunday morning,” we say. You see, there was a time when nothing happened in America on Sunday mornings except church. And then, when we had no competition at all, we had good attendance. Now that other things are vying for people’s time, we find it harder. If Bob’s Hardware Store is the only game in town for years, and then suddenly finds that a Home Depot opens up five miles away, what does Bob do? Find ways to compete. Offer a certain kind of service you can’t get at Home Depot, offer sales, work on ways to deepen loyalty among its customers. Bob changes something to attract customers. But if Bob’s Hardware Store were a church? Well then, Bob would complain that it’s not fair that another hardware store moved in. He shouldn’t have to deal with competition. He shouldn’t have to change. Home Depot should just go away, because they ruined everything. We act as though it’s Home Depot’s responsibility to get customers in our door.

We blame schools. “Things were better when there was prayer in schools.” We say, “There’s a war against Christianity (or Christmas) because there are no longer nativity scenes on school property.” When did we give public schools the job of teaching our kids about God? What happened to Sunday School, confirmation class, other Christian education in the church? Sure, perhaps schools used to help with that. But why did we get so dependent on them? Who has the job of teaching people about Christ? We do! Not the schools. But we’re bad at it. We’re scared to do it. So instead of learning how to do it better, we whine and complain that others aren’t doing it for us anymore.

And of course at this time of year, we blame large corporations. We blame Best Buy, because they have the gall to use the word “Holiday” in December instead of “Christmas.” We blame Starbucks, because they have the audacity to offer blank red cups instead of cups with reindeer and snowflakes on them. We complain and complain and complain about the “commercialization of Christmas,” and yet when commercial interests try to back away from using our images and terms, we threaten boycotts. To me, this is the most distressing part of this whole phenomenon…

…Are we so bad at teaching people about the good news of Jesus, that we expect Starbucks to do it for us?

Come on. This is not only ludicrous and childish, but it is completely counterproductive. If our goal is to invite people to hear the good news of Christ that we have heard, then perhaps presenting ourselves as entitled cry-babies who want special treatment isn’t the best way to do it. If we have faith in God, if we have trust that God will take care of us, then why do we make so many demands that our culture coddle us? Why don’t we act on our faith, and show the world that we can take it! Throughout the New Testament, we hear about persecutions, and how the early church gracefully and faithfully walked through them. Stephen was martyred and prayed as it happened; Paul wasn’t happy unless he was in prison; Jesus himself walked straight to the cross. That is how we are called to deal with persecutions. And I’m not convinced that Christians are persecuted in 21st century America, anyway. Inconvenienced? Maybe. But I’m not sure those two words are synonyms.

So here’s my humble suggestion. This year, instead of demanding that America keep the Christ in Christmas, how about we Christians encourage each other to keep the “Mas” in Christmas. Remember what the suffix “-mas” means. It means “mass,” or “worship service with Holy Communion.” The word “Christmas” does not mean “birthday of Christ;” it means “feast day of Christ.” Christmas isn’t a birthday party, it’s a feast day, a holy day, a day on which the church gathers together to celebrate the birth of the one we believe is the Savior. It’s a time for the church to gather together and hear again the good news, and to share that good news in the form of bread and wine where Christ promised to be present. Instead of complaining that soccer leagues and retail stores and school boards aren’t keeping Christ in their places, let’s gather together in the place we know Christ is. Let’s hear the good news again. Let’s remember what this season is about. Let’s remember what the good news is about. And if you’ve forgotten, then come to church again this Christmas. Together, we’ll remember.