What Divides Us?

I must make a rant… I just received an unsolicited text message from the Cambria County Republican Party Chair telling me I need to switch parties if I support the military, God, and law enforcement.  Rather than argue the bad faith claims within that I want to address the root philosophy behind this text.  At its core this text message is making the argument that a person must have all his views and opinions align to one ideology to belong to a certain political party, or group.  The idea that people cannot have divergent opinions within an affiliation is also a huge problem with American Christianity (and one of the main reasons I cherish my own Lutheran tradition, as it allows for questions, and debate, rather than absolutism).  The effort to try and claim values as exclusive to your group is a blatant recruiting tactic that has become the most useful tool for dividing us.  One need not be a Republican if they support military and law enforcement.  One need not be Democrat to support LGBTQIA+ people.  This overuse of the “No true Scotsman” fallacy (Google it) is one of the main things happening in American society.  I think the most helpful thing we can do to better unite, and love one another at this point is to point out when we see this fallacy in use and hopefully build awareness for it.  I for one am very tired of the fallacy in this text message that claims “I believe you kneel before God” so you must be a Republican.  I happen to believe in an omnipresent God who is in all things (Colossians 1:16-17) and if one was to kneel before God we would never not be kneeling.  Scripture certainly never makes such a demand.  However, it does demand that we love one another.  Don’t fall prey to the “no true Scotsman” fallacy.  You are allowed to be unique in your own ways and need not have absolute opinions to belong to our society.  You can be a gay Christian police officer who is pro-choice and loves to own firearms.  You don’t need to be in the boxes.  You can have your own identity.  I think this is very important during September, which is Suicide Prevention Month.  I know a lot of young people who don’t know who they are because our society has been telling them that they must fit into certain molds and the fact is most people, especially deep down, don’t believe in exactly everything the traditions they were raised in claim.  It is okay to be complicated.  I leave you with the ELCA’s welcome statement: We are the church that shares a living, daring confidence in God’s grace. Liberated by our faith, we embrace you as a whole person–questions, complexities and all. Join us as we do God’s work in Christ’s name for the life of the world.  May we all live into that vision.

The Letter A

I am writing this during June, which is Pride month, a time when allies like myself affirm and advocate for equal treatment of LGBTQIA+ people.  As LGBTQIA+ people are often discriminated against by the church universal, it is extra important for we Christians who do not take that view to speak out and affirm that God loves all people and that God’s vision for humanity is that everyone be able to love one another.  However, rather than focusing on homosexuality in this article, the “LG” part of the letters, I will be focusing on one of the even lesser understood types of people and that is the “A’s”, the asexuals.  Note: If you are interested in a deeper understanding of homosexuality in the Bible and why sexual orientation is not a sin I recommend reading “God and the Gay Christian” by Matthew Vines and/or “Love Without Limits” by Jacqueline Bussie.

What is an asexual? An asexual person does not experience sexual attraction – they are not drawn to people sexually and do not desire to act upon attraction to others in a sexual way. Unlike celibacy, which is a choice to abstain from sexual activity, asexuality is an intrinsic part of who they are, just like other sexual orientations.  One does not choose to be asexual or struggle to be “celibate.”

A 2017 Gallup poll concluded that 4.5% of adult Americans identified as LGBTQIA+ with 5.1% of women identifying as LGBT, compared with 3.9% of men. Among this it is estimated that asexual people make up about 1% of this total, making them a minority of a minority.  To put this in perspective it means that if we have 100 people at worship that at least 1 person among us is an asexual and about 3 are homosexual/bisexual/transgender.  Additionally, this data is thought to be too low given persecution and the need for many to “stay in the closet” and because it does not include teenagers and youth.

Although we do not think about it, we are all acquainted with asexual people in scripture.  The most obvious of course is Jesus himself. Another familiar biblical figure who was most likely asexual is the apostle, Paul.  As most asexual people tend to be (yes, I know some who are “out” to me), Paul is pretty down on sex in general.  He writes often against people who use sex abusively, but also fornicators.  When he does write specifically about marriage Paul’s asexual orientation is particularly clear, 1“Now concerning the matters about which you wrote: “It is well for a man not to touch a woman…5 Do not deprive one another except perhaps by agreement for a set time, to devote yourselves to prayer, and then come together again, so that Satan may not tempt you because of your lack of self-control. 6 This I say by way of concession, not of command. 7 I wish that all were as I myself am. But each has a particular gift from God, one having one kind and another a different kind. (1 Corinthians 7:1, 7:5-7).

Paul is clear that he is “different” than most people, and he is unable to separate his personal feelings from his advice, which he openly admits.  It is important to see that Paul does not condemn people who are sexual and admits they have different gifts than he does. 

It is integral to notice that Paul does not write or confess that he has any problem resisting sexual temptation as a celibate person would, but rather that he simply has no interest. It is important to consider the possibility that Paul was an asexual person and that we read his writing from that standpoint.  The concept of sexual orientation did not exist at the time and so he did not use that term outright.  If one does read Paul’s writings as if they were written by an asexual person, many passages sound vastly different.  If we confuse asexuality with celibacy, we make totally different conclusions. Paul’s seeming interest in what is interpreted as sexual purity even between married couples seems less strange if we read it as a personal witness based on his own orientation.  

I prayerfully ask you consider this and see if perhaps the Spirit shows you new and exciting meanings in scripture.

Yes, God is Everywhere, But I Need Worship

It has often been said during this pandemic that God is everywhere.  The church is not a building.  We should not despair that we cannot meet as usual in our buildings.  All of this is true and valuable, but I think we are missing something essential and that is worship.  Speaking for myself I need worship.  The beauty of liturgical worship and music is inspiring and life giving for me.

It is not lost on me that as church attendance declines in our soceity depression and anxiety increase.  More and more young adults and teens are self-diagnosing mental illness in themselves, some correctly, some incorrectly.  The fact is that in modern soceity, young and old, we are all feeling weighed down and not good enough.  The ubiquity of short-form videos like TikTok and social media are certainly contributing to societal malaise; offering us a constant way to compare and steal our joy, but I think that our collective pain is deeper and largely a product of the fact that most people no longer have a connection with the divine and do not experience true worship.  So many people feel they have been hurt by a church community or believe that the very real problems with church universal are a deal-breaker… so much so that it prevents them having a relationship with God and prevents them from experiencing the very real psychological benefits of worship. 

I can speak from personal experience best so that is how I will make my case.  Although I always belonged to a Lutheran church there were times that my family did not attend worship every week.  There were times (during my university studies for example) that I did not attend worship nearly at all.  After becoming a sacred musician as my profession, I went from almost never attending to attending worship every week.  I cannot truly put into words the impact that has had on my life and my outlook. From my own personal experience, I can certainly testify that without worship my mental health would be much worse. Yet, I feel somewhat alone in this feeling as even my close family and friends do not attend with me every week. I wonder how I can help get people to feel the benefit from liturgical worship that I do.

There are many who view worship as an obligation you must fulfill to “get a ticket to heaven”… I do not share that view and my love of worship does not come from that place.  My love of worship comes from the very real benefits I gain from hearing the Word, praying together, hearing and performing beautiful music, learning from a well thought out and non-judgmental homily (sermon).  In liturgical worship my spirits are lifted.  I feel it is our job as regular worship attendees to talk about this joy.  I want you to come to worship so that you can experience the same fulfillment I do.  Not because I need credit for “saving” you.  Motive is everything and I think we Lutherans too often let other “christians” speak for us. I want you to know that I want you at worship because it will bring you joy. There is no other reason.

Whether online or in-person (we practice all the proper safety protocols) please consider joining us for worship.  Worship is not about us and what we want, or about us telling you what is wrong with you and what needs corrected.  It is about you, God, and enjoying the sacred moment worship provides to feel your place and belonging in this world.  You are meant to be part of God’s good creation.  Take the risk and join us.  In a world where most places we go remind us of what we are lacking a well done and loving worship shows us that we are enough, we are God’s, and we belong.  Amen.

What Does the Lord Require of You?

Over the past several weeks I have been poring over the contents of the new supplemental hymnal, All Creation Sings.  Faced with current events I find myself lingering on the headings of Justice and Healing hymns.  We hear many voices crying that we need to unify as a people and we hear calls to resist cheap unification without justice for wrongs done.  With so many competing voices how do we know what to listen to?  How do we know what is right?  Put another way – What does the Lord require of you?  This is the name of hymn #1057 in our new hymnal.  It is a short hymn with lyrics directly from Micah 6:8, “The Lord has told you, O mortal what is good; and what does the Lord require of you, but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?”.   I want to reflect on this three-part command.

What does it mean to do justice? In a recent video post Presiding Bishop Eaton encouraged we the people of the ELCA to be repairers of the breach.  In the book of Isaiah chapter 58 the correct fast— the correct sacrifice, is described in detail.  This type of fast is what would bring the type of healing we seek.  That fast calls for loosing the bonds of injustice, removing the burdens of the oppressed, feeding the hungry, and silencing the speaking of evil.  At the time I am writing this, we are approaching Lent which is the traditional time for fasting for many Christians.  Can we choose the type of fast that Isaiah describes?  Rather than much easier fasting like giving up chocolate or our favorite food, perhaps one way we can do justice is to respond with compassion to those who cry out in oppression.  When someone cries out, “This topic matters to me,” can we respond with, “I hear you brothers and sisters and I am moved to help,” or will we respond self-centeredly and merely respond with “well different things matter to me, so your concerns are lesser.”  Can we sacrifice our own concerns for the concerns of others?  Can we accept that helping one group of oppressed people is not a way of showing them favoritism over another, but rather an acknowledgement of their need and a way to fulfill God’s command?  Whether we are supporting Black Americans, or LGBTQIA+ people, or immigrants, or asylum seekers, domestic violence victims, etc., can we commit to choosing the fast of seeking justice for the oppressed?

What does it mean to love kindness?  I believe everyone has some idea of what kindness is as most of us have experienced the kindness of another at some point.  Being kind is great, but scripture demands something greater, to love kindness – that is a whole new level.  This is not a, “Oh I should be kind, because I’m a good person,” type of obligatory kindness.  This is loving the idea of kindness.  When we love something, we would do anything for it without any need of prompting.  When we genuinely love something, we feel an internal driving force to fulfill that love.  What if we all made the effort to love kindness?  What would our country look like right now?

What does it mean to walk humbly with God?  For many people this seems to mean simply declaring oneself a Christian.  How many social media profiles have a proud bio stating: Jesus Follower <heart>, or Christian, or some random Bible quotation? I have seen quite a few.  Notice however, that the key element of Micah’s verse is left out of this outlook, that is, to walk humbly with God. Humbly.  Humility is certainly out of fashion in our country and in our time.  Humility is the ability to admit one is wrong.  Our world is filled with “doubling down” and the philosophy that never admitting wrongdoing is a sign of strength.  It is in fact the exact opposite.  To walk humbly with God also means that as we try to fulfill the first two requirements, to do justice, and to love kindness, that we acknowledge we will fail at doing that sufficiently.  We still must do it though.  We will try out best, and in walking humbly with God, in God’s grace and mercy, doing our best is enough. 

As is usually the case the more I pray and focus on even one line of a truly great hymn, I am drawn to scripture and in doing so I see things I would not have thought about without the hymn.  I am so profoundly grateful for the gift of music ministry and how it has helped me reflect and be drawn deeper into a relationship with God.  I truly hope that whether you read the hymns along as I sing them at in-person worship or online worship that the Holy Spirit moves your heart to reflect on and consider the beauty of the hymns our tradition is so deeply blessed with.

May we all choose a new and even better fast this Lent and may we indeed be repairers of the breach, the restorers of streets to live in.  Let’s at least try our best.

Amen.

Being Broken

“If one member [of the body] suffers, all suffer together with it; if one member is honored, all rejoice together with it.  Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it.” -1 Corinthians 12:26-27

The first epistle to the Corinthians tells us a truth that is repeated throughout scripture: we are all one body of Christ.  We dream of and strive for unity, to be one, just as Jesus prayed for us (John 17:21).  As I reflect and pray on the state of the world some thoughts and inspirations occur to me and I want to share them.

This year I experienced the most excruciating pain I have ever known.  I have a high pain tolerance, but I found myself doubled over writhing in pain with such intensity I felt like I would vomit.   I thought I was dying.  In reality, I had a kidney stone.  I was told by everyone, including my doctor that this pain was possibly the worst a human can experience.  It took me weeks to pass it.  While I was praying on the divided body of Christ this kidney stone experience came back to me.  Body’s, although one, really can be a pain.  Anyone who has experienced physical illness, chronic pain, or mental illness, can understand what I mean.  We certainly know that when part of the body suffers, all of it suffers.   I wonder why do we expect being the body of Christ to be peaceful and joyful?  Why do think unity is a state of tranquility?  If it is a body, of course it hurts.  We are broken in our own physical bodies and so we can understand why division in the body of Christ hurts so much.  You just cannot shake it.  You can try to ignore it, but some pain is just too bad to ignore.

I pray about this division and the words of Jesus come to mind, “This is my body broken for you.”  I begin to wonder how I have never seen this connection before.  I have heard and read both passages countless times.  I think in a new way.  Perhaps Jesus was talking about more than just his own sacrifice for our sins when he said, “This is my body broken for you”.  Perhaps he was telling us about how the body of Christ, his people, is broken, for us.  We a separated and broken because of our own self-righteousness and Jesus is saying, “I’m putting up with you people’s stubborn need to be broken.”  This is my body broken for you.

It is of course, impossible for me to not think about the next thing Jesus said, “This is my blood, shed for you.”  I think about the word shed.  I love words.  It hits me differently in this context than ever before.  My dictionary says the word shed means:  to discard something undesirable, superfluous.  I wonder if Jesus is telling me something I have been missing yet again.  Maybe Jesus is talking about more than just his own sacrifice for our sin.  Perhaps to be whole, to restore the broken body, one must shed.  Perhaps we must shed our need to be correct and our need to correct others.  I thank God that our God, Jesus Christ, has grace enough to willingly break and shed for us.  I wonder if maybe it should not be too much to ask that we try to do some shedding ourselves.  I wonder if perhaps we can be united and broken simultaneously.   

At a recent church meeting we were discussing unity and what it means to be one body of Christ.  One of the pastors said that for them it was like harmony in music.  Being, a musician and a composer I immediately thought, yes, but some of the best harmony in music does not sound good.  It is dissonant.  Dissonance is necessary for the beauty of resolution. 

I think about conversations I have had with other Christians who fundamentally disagree with my Christianity.  They are very convicted people.  For a lot of people that conviction that certainty is what being Christian means. That conviction makes them forget about Christ. That certainty leads them to argue, “Well if I love my neighbors, I can’t allow them to sin.”  I have heard that argument countless times.  It is a Christianity based on correction.  It is a Christianity based on judgment.  It is not Christian.  Jesus never taught anything even close to “If you see your neighbor sin, point it out and exclude them if they do not abide your judgment of what is sin.”  It is in fact, literally the opposite, of what Jesus taught.  “Do not judge, so that you may not be judged… (Matthew 7:1-5). He who is without sin cast the first stone (John 8:7).  Anytime we draw a line of separation in the sand Jesus is always on the other side.

I wonder if perhaps to be the body of Christ is to learn to be broken and to learn to shed.  To allow brokenness among us in our neighbors while at the same time praying and working to shed our own sins instead of calling out those of our neighbors.

I hope this reflection lends you food for thought as I had not ever considered how the eucharist is so connected to being united before.  Of course, the one who taught in parables would leave a gem like this to uncover.  May it help you this day and assist you in more fully living into God’s kingdom on earth. 

Engage

On September 22, I participated in a joint webinar from Lutheran World Federation (LWF: The Global Lutheran Church) and the ELCA entitled “Ignore, Engage, or Resist? Global responses to religious nationalism”.   It was a valuable learning experience and I want to share some of the insights that were presented.

Over the past decade or two religious nationalism has been creeping its way into American Christianity.  We have reached an inflection point in which we must deliberately make a point of resisting and denouncing the use of our Christian beliefs as nationalism, patriotism, or connected to one political party or another and conflating being Christian with being American.   Considering how the German Lutheran church failed to resist and put itself firmly opposite to Nazism (other than some exceptions like Dietrich Bonhoeffer), Lutherans have a particular responsibility to denounce religious nationalism.

Rev. Dr. Sivin Kit, a pastor of the Lutheran Church in Malaysia, is the program executive for public theology and interreligious relations with the Lutheran World Federation in Geneva, tasked with pursuing strategic theological questions and contributing in areas of religion in the public space, interreligious collaboration, and peacebuilding.  Dr. Kit taught us that religious nationalism is the relationship of nationalism to a particular religious belief, dogma, or affiliation. This relationship can be broken down into two aspects: the politicization of religion and the influence of religion on politics.  Religious nationalism is on the rise most in the United States, but it is also rising in various countries around the world.  Historically religious nationalism has been used to oppress others and to convince normally decent folks to go along with that oppression in the supposed name of their religion. 

Rev. Sathiana, a pastor serving the Lutheran Church in India, shared that in modern times most people associate religious nationalism with Islam and jihad.  Iran would be a perfect example of how religious nationalism can be used to justify oppression and violence.   In almost all cases, religious nationalism is co-opting a religion to get members to accept political ideology that is often in direct contrast to the actual teachings of the original religion.  Contrary to popular propaganda, Muslims, in general, do not believe in or accept the violent rhetoric espoused by Iran or other nationalistic groups.  As Christians, we must absolutely engage and resist religious nationalism in all forms.  Indians throughout history have a special understanding of the damaging effect it can have on a country.  Indians value the separation of church and state because of their past.

Dr. Dicky Sofjan is part of the Core Doctoral Faculty in the Indonesian Consortium for Religious Studies, located at the Graduate School of Unviersitas Gadjah Mada (UGM) in Yogyakarta, Indonesia. Dr. Sofjan shared that Indonesia is specially equipped to resist religious nationalism because it is a country made up of over 17,000 islands, with over 6,000 different aboriginal peoples.  As these islands joined to become Indonesia, the people were already used to the idea of being from their specific island and being an Indonesian.  Dual identity makes Indonesians able to accept that they can be Muslim or Christian without this being in conflict to being Indonesian or any other identity that is important to them.  Islam has flourished greatly over Christianity in Indonesia because many of the American Christian missionaries espouse a doctrine of conversion.  In fact, some even claim that Jesus said, “Love for one’s country is part of faith.”  The well-educated Indonesians like Dr. Sofjan know better than to believe that Jesus really said this, but the average Indonesian rejects any idea that makes national identity part of faith.

The Rev. Angela Denker is a former sportswriter turned Lutheran pastor, writer, speaker–and wife and mom of two little boys–based in Minneapolis.  Denker is a contributor to various publications, including The Washington Post, Sports Illustrated, Christian Century, and Living Lutheran.  Her book, Red State Christians: Meet the Voters who elected Donald Trump, explores the rise of religious nationalism among American Christians.  Pastor Denker points out the rampant religious nationalism she saw in her research for the book.   She spent much of 2018 visiting and attending various churches throughout the United States and she noticed idolatry in most.  Many churches had American flags on or next to the altar.  Many sang the national anthem and national songs instead of hymns.  Many venerated the military itself, while dehumanizing the individual members who are serving.  Many worshipped the Bible itself, sometimes even enshrining a physical copy, while disregarding and distancing themselves from the Gospel.   Many went entire services without even referencing Jesus once.  This worship of the idol of America and not Jesus is the sin that led to so many to accepting religious nationalism.   This is how, in current times, so many will defend the economy over defending human life. 

Dr. Kit summarized that we as Lutherans can start to engage and resist nationalistic viewpoints by first being empathetic and understanding where and why this is happening.  We need to understand that being a Christian is not tied to being any nationality, race, gender, or identity.  God’s family is all people and we must be deliberate in spreading that truth.  We must not be afraid of preaching in the public square and acknowledge that now the public square is online.  Many church members get their preaching from the internet and not from their own pastor.  We need to be present, engaged, and loving in that space and be absolutely dedicated to spreading the good news of Jesus Christ and not our national identity.  One can be a Christian and anything else simultaneously; indeed, one of Luther’s most important teachings is the doctrine that we are both sinner and saint at the same time.  The church must teach and preach the Gospel according to Jesus and not according to a country.

Honoring African American Hymnwriters

Rev. Charles Tindley

Rev. Dr. Charles Albert Tindley (1851-1933), often remembered as “The Father of American Gospel Music” and “The Prince of Preachers”, was the son of a slave and a free woman.  Because his mother was free, he was considered free, however he grew up among slaves.  Born in Berlin, Maryland, he moved to Philadelphia after the Civil War, where he became a brick carrier.  Charles was never able to go to school, but he studied independently and had various people tutor him whenever he could.  He learned Hebrew from a Philadelphia synagogue and eventually learned Greek by enlisting in a correspondence course through Boston Theological Seminary while he was serving as Sexton at a Philadelphia church.  He became ordained in the Methodist Episcopal Church by getting high marks on an exam even without having attended a formal seminary.  He served as an itinerant minister starting in 1887.  In 1906 he became the Presiding Elder at the church he used to be a sexton.  The church grew from the original 130 members to over 900 under his charge.  Tindley was eventually given an honorary Doctor of Divinity by Bennett College in Baltimore.

Tindley was also an influential activist acquainted with many politicians and business leaders in Philadelphia, including the famous business magnate John Wanamaker.  Tindley marched in protest against many social events that were degrading to African Americans.  When marching against the screening of the infamous pro-KKK film, The Birth of a Nation, at a local theater, Tindley was beaten with clubs, sticks, and bottles. While others were taken to hospitals, Tindley had to be nursed for his injuries in his own home.

As a hymn and songwriter, Tindley’s work influenced countless Gospel hymnwriters and five of his hymns are still often used today. Notably his hymn “Overcome Someday” is credited by scholars as the basis for the U.S. Civil Rights anthem, “We Shall Overcome”. Other popular hymns by Tindley include “Take Your Burden to the Lord and Leave it There”, “What Are They Doing in Heaven?”, and “Stand by Me” (not to be confused with the later Sam Cooke song).

We must acknowledge the great contributions to hymnody by often overlooked African American preachers and hymn writers like Rev. Dr. Charles Albert Tindley, and to that end I will continue to research and share what I have learned.  I have also purchased for Trinity the ELCA’s own African Spiritual hymnal, This Far by Faith.  Though the ELW does include many styles of hymns, it is right that we celebrate and praise God with more of this music.  As we begin singing again after the pandemic, look to see more hymns I will be selecting from this collection.  As Lutheran’s we are already very accustomed to the image of God being a military defender against the forces of evil, as is particularly evident in our theme song, “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God”. In this time of upheaval and uncertainty, reflect upon the words to Rev. Tindley’s “Stand by Me”:

In the midst of tribulation, stand by me.

In the midst of tribulation, stand by me.

When the hosts of hell assail, and my strength begins to fail,

thou who never lost a battle, stand by me.

Listen to the hymn here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UCvIkznNmCA

How Do We React to This?

Like so many Christians, I am filled with righteous and just anger over the photo Donald Trump took in front of St. John’s Episcopal Church.  The man ordered armed guards to gas innocent people just so he could pose there holding a book he has likely never read (and certainly doesn’t attempt to follow its teachings) in front of a church he does not actually attend.  I am hearing the voice of Jesus saying, “You brood of Vipers!” and “Do not practice your piety on the street corner.”  Practicing your false piety at the expense of your neighbor’s health goes even further beyond that.  There are no doubts that the President’s actions were selfish and sinful.  He made a mockery of our holy book and our savior’s teachings.

Yet, the picture haunts me and challenges me for another reason entirely.  It hit me the moment I saw it and I have not heard anyone else speak of it or write of it.  So, I have chosen to share it in the hopes of sorting through this challenging image.  The aspect of the picture that stings my soul is the church sign.  Even as this awful act of sacrilege was occurring, the church sign professed, “All are welcome.” Ouch.  In this moment. that is extremely hard for me to stomach.  I keep trying to push it away, but I hear the small voice of the Holy Spirit inside me incessantly whispering, “All means ALL.”

I have read the response from the Episcopal bishop.  I understand the outrage of the visit and how no permission was asked.  The violence the President had carried out in the name of our God is disgusting and despicable.  Yet, I still hear that voice saying, “All means ALL.”  All means not just the folks we traditionally picture when saying, “All are welcome”, the oppressed and downtrodden.   Welcoming these is certainly in line with the teachings of Jesus, yet, when you really think about the character of Jesus can we truly imagine him turning Trump away and casting him out of the church?  I cannot…and it hurts.

Throughout scripture, Jesus is at odds with the powers that be, any human power that oppresses his people.  Both political and religious leaders are not spared from his chastisement.    There is no doubt that Jesus would speak against many of the things Donald Trump has done and stands for.  Yet, at the end of the day, though he may call out the “Brood of Vipers!” would he say they are not welcome? Jesus does not profess that the Pharisees should be removed from the church.  I think he would say something like, “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.”

As a Lutheran, my faith is centralized around the grace of Jesus Christ that is present throughout scripture and in the teaching of Jesus.  Grace is one difficult message.  Grace is both hard to accept when it is given to you (as we are taught to earn our way) and difficult to give to those who we know do not deserve it.  However, the point of grace is that we do not deserve it.  Maybe this focus on grace is why I noticed that sign instead of feeling the immediate outrage others felt.  I am so glad that God, having become human flesh and living among us, understands our human feelings and surely can empathize with our outrage.  I am glad that it is God who ultimately gives the grace of Jesus Christ because I do not think I am ready to do it.  In my own local church, there are truly people of both liberal and conservative persuasions worshipping together.  I do not think that is the case in many churches today.  Perhaps that is why I have a different perspective.

So, what do we do?  My church’s motto is “God’s work. Our hands.” How do we try and fulfill God’s vision for equality and justice in His creation? Is it the peaceful protest and the nonviolent resistance of Gandhi and later Martin Luther King Jr.? Perhaps, but that is a secular and socio-political response.  What should the Christian response be?  I have no doubt that we must stand up and speak for those who are oppressed.  However, in what form?  How do we truly mirror Christ’s call to love our enemies at the same time? How do we not simply become labeled looters?  My church is the church that declared itself a “sanctuary denomination”.  I am so pleased that we chose the side of the downtrodden as Jesus taught.  I wonder how do we convince the rich, the oppressors themselves, that they must accept God’s vision of a just and equal society?  For many, the news that God will make mountains low and bring up the valleys to one equal place is good news, but for the mountains it is not.  How do we change the hardness of heart?  How do we learn to welcome Donald Trump in the hopes that he will repent, while full well knowing he almost certainly will not?  It is not a new problem.  Rulers all throughout the Bible defied God’s will and tried to make themselves the source of all things.  I do not have an answer, but I think it starts with good theology and education.  How do we teach the next generations to mirror God’s grace as Jesus taught?  How do we stomach, “All means ALL”?  I do not know, but I think it is the only way forward.  Pray with me for guidance, dear Church.  We must lead.  I have said it before and I’ll say it again:  we are in this situation because America gave up true theology for political theology.  It is no coincidence that the church’s diminishing numbers preceded this situation.

When we say, “All are Welcome,” do we mean it?

How Should Christians Respond to “National Day of Prayer”?

To live a life of faith, Christians must always prioritize what Jesus Christ taught.  So, let us examine what Jesus taught about how one should pray:

“And whenever you pray, do not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray at the street corners, so that they may be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. 6 But whenever you pray, go into your room, and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you. 7 “When you are praying, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do; for they think that they will be heard because of their many words. 8 Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him.”

Matthew 6:5-8

Locally, the “National Day of Prayer” has been typically conducted on the courthouse steps.  The location is the very definition of praying at “the street corner” – the exact thing Jesus has instructed us not to do.   In this time of social distancing, the local commissioners have decided to move to a digital format since people cannot physically gather at the courthouse.  Perhaps this is so ironic to me since they are seeking alternate ways to prevent people from “having to pray alone in their homes”, when praying alone in one’s home is what Jesus taught that we should do.  I have been asked why our church does not traditionally participate in the National Day of Prayer.  I have outlined the reasons why I personally do not sanction it:

  1. Jesus taught us not to pray as a public spectacle. (Matthew 6:5-8)
  2. One should pray every day regardless of a prescribed holiday (1 Thessalonian 5:17, Romans 12:12, Ephesians 6:18)
  3. Prayer and praise are beyond national borders and even include all of creation (not even just humans) through every end of the universe.  (Psalm 19:1, Psalm 66:4, Romans 11:36, Isaiah 55:12, etc.)
  4. The National Day of Prayer claims to be ecumenical; however, as many faithful peoples who pray do not participate, it is a case of some claiming to speak for others.  This is a form of bearing false witness.   Participation in public is held forth as a necessity for living a faithful life when the truth is that Jesus made no such claim.
  5. It does not acknowledge and respect that non-Christians also believe in prayer.
  6. Government sponsored prayer is politically motivated and pharisaic.  
  7. The “National Day of Prayer” does not raise awareness for “prayer”, as it is unrealistic to suppose that people are not acquainted with the concept of prayer unless reminded.

For the above reasons, and indeed others, the National Day of Prayer has always bothered me because it feels like it cheapens prayer.  For me, prayer is a means of having a relationship with God, or having a conversation, and to see it used in a way like this feels wrong to me.   What is the true purpose of it?  I cannot find an answer that is not rooted in a desire to seem righteous in the eyes of others.  Please pray for our nation and its leaders, but do so in the way Jesus taught and not in the way that political leaders tell you.  If the National Day of Prayer is a tradition you find meaningful, I ask that you not see this as a critique of you personally, but ask simply that you open your heart to the Holy Spirit and consider the scripture in your consideration.  Peace be with you always!

Fear of COVID-19

Fear.  I, like most of us, have seen immense anxiety lately that there is an “overreaction” and panic to the COVID-19 virus.  I have also seen and heard many people dismiss it as “nothing to worry about”.  Both reactions are false and inappropriate.  People make bad decisions and have anxiety because of fear.  In this case it is not fear of the virus, but fear of the unknown.  The problem is we simply don’t know how concerned to be.

               Organization are shutting down and doctors are recommending self-quarantine if you’ve been exposed.  Therein is the problem.  How do you know if you’ve been exposed?  The panic in our country is not without merit entirely.  The scientists and doctors are giving dire warning because we don’t have enough data.  It is not an overreaction to be cautious it is simply because we didn’t and don’t have enough tests.  The United States has performed 5 Covid-19 tests per 1,000,000 people.  South Korea has performed 3,692 tests per 1,000,000 people.  This is causing the panic.  We simply don’t know how serious the situation is.  Maybe it is nothing to worry about as some people are saying and maybe it is great cause for concern as others are saying. 

Those of us who lived through the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001 will understand the nature of this fear.  Living very near Shanksville, PA I am especially aware of it.  The first thing most people were thinking once they heard about the attack was, “What if there are MORE planes?”.  Therein was the cause of the greatest fear.  The immediate and possibly still imminent threat.  In our reaction to the COVID-19 pandemic we simply don’t know if there are MORE or not.  This uncertainty is causing the medical community to issue dire warnings.  The fear problem is the lack of data, knowledge, and preparedness not the fear of the contagion itself.

People who wish to remain positive will quickly point out that the virus is not that dangerous for most people.  The fact is we don’t know how dangerous it is. “More people die of influenza!” they will say.  The truth is we don’t know for sure if that is true or not.  Anyone who has experienced a panic attack or knows someone with panic disorder understands that a common side effect is paralysis.  When the fear, real or imagined, is so great that they simply cannot function.  We are experiencing a worldwide panic attack.  The market is crashing, schools are closing, concerts and sporting events are being cancelled.  We are paralyzed.

Why is this happening?  It is the natural next question to ask.  This is where we get into trouble because of our embedded political faction psychosis.   It is currently impossible to critique our government’s response to this virus because as soon as you do you are being “political”.  We are told we should not politicize a virus.  Some conservative news people have even accused Democrats of “weaponizing” the virus.  Fear again.  Fear of people who disagree with you being right.  It’s time to grow up.  I have said it before and I will say it again here:  The primary qualification for being a leader should be the ability to admit you are wrong.

If this is all caused by fear what can we do?  What is the opposite of fear?  The opposite of fear, my friends, is faith.  We have been shown quite clearly that we cannot and should not have complete faith in our government to deal with a crisis.  The government does not have enough tests, is unwilling to admit it, is unwilling and unable to assuage fears and is paralyzed against organizing effectively in a way that will comfort the 327 million people they are serving.  To exacerbate the problem the concept of quarantine has caused many to think that we can completely contain the spread of the virus when we cannot.  Additionally, out of fear people have rushed to stores to buy up and horde all the necessary items to prevent spread.  This phenomenon displays the complete selfishness of our modern society.     

How can one have faith in these times?  The problem as I see it is the worldview of most of us.  We want to have faith in institutions and famous people we like rather than in God and each other.  We talk about “they” and “them” instead of “you” and “me”.  It is no surprise America is struggling with faith as mainline Christianity is in decline and extreme ultra-conservatism and ultra-liberalism is on the rise.  Some will actively say that negative events are punishment from God even when Jesus himself says this is not something God does (see John 9).   I am not attempting to preach and lecture, but what I do want to share is that my own personal faith has helped me to not fall prey to fear and panic.  Because I know it works, I want to share it with others.  Not to “save” them, but to bring them into the comfort and joy that is present in feeling the Holy Spirit residing in you.

What we need to do in these times of global panic and fear is to be there for one another.  If you have faith try to share it with others.  You can do this in a non-judgmental way.  This is not about conversion.  It is about love.  Let’s all try to have a little more faith.  I will end this with my personal favorite scripture passage.  After all, when in doubt…listen to Jesus.

“Therefore, I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing?  Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they?  And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life? And why do you worry about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you—you of little faith? Therefore, do not worry, saying, ‘What will we eat?’ or ‘What will we drink?’ or ‘What will we wear?’ For it is the Gentiles who strive for all these things; and indeed your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.

“So do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own. Today’s trouble is enough for today.”

Matthew 6:25-34

May the peace of Christ be with you.

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