Hobby Lobby Decision from SCOTUS

Once again, the Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS) has ruled on a case with significant religious implications, and from my perspective, got it wrong again.

There are many layers to the decision, and I’m not claiming to be a legal scholar with insights from that perspective.  But I am a person of faith and see the decision from that perspective.  Many others across this country are focused on what I think misses the point.  This is not about Hobby Lobby and that company’s ethics.  This is not a liberal or conservative issue.  This is not about the Affordable Care Act or any of its provisions.  This is not about women’s access to contraception.  It is not even about whether the particular contraceptive options are abortifacients or not.  Each of those can be their own topic and I think have confused the issue.

For me, the concern about the SCOTUS decision is about the interface between religion and the public life and whether even “closely held” corporations can have religious beliefs.

I know various religions have “initiation rites”, and Christianity has baptism as the orthodox entry point into the faith.  I have no knowledge of “initiation rites” or entry points into the faith for corporations.  It is one thing for an individual to have religious beliefs.  Even in “closely held” corporation, I can’t see how the corporation holds religious beliefs.  The persons owning the corporation can have religious beliefs, the corporation cannot.  The corporation might be run with specific religious principles at the forefront, but those are the decisions of the persons running the corporation.

My family does not have a religious faith.  The members of my family have religious faith.  As a family, we will do things or not do things that reflect the faith of the individual members.

What this and the previous SCOTUS decision has done is to at the very least reflect the diminishing influence of religion within this society, and at worst, affirmed the idea that religion is something less than what its adherents claim it is.  Those who celebrate that this SCOTUS decision is a win for people of faith have misinterpreted the cynical view of religion that has been demonstrated in these two recent decisions.





Ceremonial Prayer in Light of SCOTUS

Twenty-some years ago, as a new pastor in town, I was asked to give the invocation at the commencement ceremonies at Fairmont State University.  I was honored.  I crafted that prayer carefully, using expansive as opposed to particular language.  I referred to God generically.  I attempted to make sure that I would bring no offense to the audience, not all of whom were Christian.  I delivered the prayer in a heart-felt way, convinced that I would not run foul of the Constitution.  The commencement speaker that day was none other than the late Senator Byrd.  I recall that he invoked the name of Jesus Christ no fewer than a dozen times in his speech.  I recall thinking that it was odd that I, an ordained pastor could not pray from my convictions and yet a member of the U.S. Senate could go beyond what I allowed for myself.

This was my introduction to “ceremonial prayer”, a phrase in the recent SCOTUS decision that rubs me the wrong way.  Is prayer that is ceremonial even prayer?  For that matter, is generic prayer really prayer?  When we say, “Let us pray” in public settings with people of vastly different religions and religious experiences, what is it that we are doing and is it appropriate?  Some of my more conservative Lutheran brothers and sisters refuse to pray with those who have different beliefs or are of a different religion.  More and more, I think I’m with them.

Prayer is an intimate conversation with God, particular not generic.  When I pray, it is to God revealed as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  It is not to some entity, power, life force, or whoever happens to be listening at the time.  If I invite you to pray with me, I’m inviting you to pray to God … God to whom I pray, not the god of your imagination.  If you are not praying to the one to whom I pray, we are not praying together.

Ceremonial prayer is like that too.  In ceremonial prayer, the audience of the prayer are those gathered, not God.

When SCOTUS referred to prayer as ceremonial, then they said to me that my prayer isn’t what I think it is.  They just neutered my prayer.  That offends me.

I don’t do ceremonial prayers.  I’ve been asked to pray for any number of public events since that time long ago.  I’m always torn.  I’m always tempted to participate because I know that I’m more accommodating than many of those who like to hear themselves pray in public.  But I generally decline, several times a year, including the Maryland Legislature, the Chamber of Commerce Meetings, or other local events, unless it is clearly a Christian gathering.

If I do accept a public prayer “gig”, I think I’ll simply invite the participants to listen in as I pray.

Heaven Is For Real: Reflections on the Movie

There is something about the spring that brings out religious themed movies.  This year (2014) we’ve seen three released in quick order; Noah, God is Not Dead, & Heaven is For Real.  One of the things I like least about being a pastor is that I’m expected to see these movies.  They stir up a lot of questions and if I’ve not seen them, I will be clueless about how to respond.  I’m able to duck most of them.  This year’s crop is harder.  Having said all that, I attended a matinee showing of Heaven is For Real particularly because I’ve heard that so many people I know are interested in it.

The movie is based on the very popular book (Heaven is for Real: A Little Boy’s Astounding Story of His Trip to Heaven and Back) by Todd Burpo, published in 2010.  It is described as a true story.  I have no idea how closely the movie follows the book, and frankly, I don’t intend to find out.  Maybe the movie follows the book very closely and the book follows the experience of the Burpo family accurately.  If so, then some of the comments below take on a different meaning.  I’ll simply assume that like most movies, liberties are taken.

I’m not a movie reviewer.  This post will not focus on the performances or the other things common to movie reviews.  Others can do that much better.  What I will do is make observations and ask questions that come out of theological reflection.  In that way, I hope this is a useful tool, and relatively unique.  You see, movies like this shape our theological understanding of the world, often more than scripture does.  Without good questions, we are likely to simply take these at face value.

An aside: I thought taking notes in a dark movie theatre would be a lot easier than it was.

Why is this “event” described as “a trip to heaven and back”? 

Colton Burpo (age 4) nearly dies as the result of a burst appendix and has an “out of body” experience during his operation.  It is made quite clear that he does not die at any point during that operation.  He later has at least 2 (maybe 3) other experiences of “heaven” that most people would easily call, “visions”.  These visions serve to reinforce his original experience.  Why wasn’t this simply called a “vision of heaven”?  That’s what it was.  I’d be able to defend a vision of heaven very easily with the evidence presented.  An actual visit to heaven has too many other problems.

 What does this description suggest about who we are?

To say that Colton visited heaven is to subscribe to a type of dualism of body and soul that is not scripturally sound.  The distinctions between flesh and spirit we see especially in Paul’s writings describe “passions” or impulses rather than our identity.  The body spirit/soul distinction is dismissed out of hand in our creedal confessions of bodily resurrection despite what our culture might confess.  I’ll simply suggest again, this is a problem with calling Colton’s experience as a “visit” rather than a vision.

 What does this description suggest about heaven?

Popular culture describes heaven as a place where the dead person’s “soul” lives on with God.  It describes heaven as a place existing now separate from the earth.  The movie and the described experience reinforces popular culture’s description, not scripture’s description of heaven.  (I’d be more willing to trust that this was a “visit” if it conformed to scripture’s description than popular culture’s.)  I’m just going to leave that there, because scripture’s description of heaven is much more complicated and nuanced than I can do justice with here.  Suffice it to say, the book of The Revelation does not describe the kind of heaven Colton describes.

 Does God really control each and every event on earth?

The movie wrestles with God’s justice and mercy as a sub-plot.  To its credit, it doesn’t resolve this question.  God is seen as the cause for death and suffering (testing) but this is challenged appropriately.

 Why does Jesus have to wear a robe and be a blue-eyed European?

How long will we continue to make God/Jesus into our own image?  The movie presents a blue-eyed, brown-haired Jesus as fact.  That’s how Colton saw him.  That’s how the girl in the opening scene who has had similar experiences draws him.  The overarching conviction of the movie is that this is exactly what Jesus looks like.  That’s idolatry.  Had I been at home watching a DVD of this movie my vocal chords would have been engaged pretty loudly.

 Why the potshots at Universities, professors, secularists, and women?

As Todd Burpo wrestles with whether or not Colton’s visit was real, he goes to a University professor to get an idea about any alternative explanations.  When he gets what he is seeking, he dismisses it completely, presumably because the person he asks is associated with a secular university, is still in grief over her husband’s death, is a non-believer, and, it seems, is a woman to boot.  The whole University scene is cast in dark hues and the scene is full of elements that cause discomfort in the viewer of the movie.  Clearly Todd Burpo has wandered into “enemy territory”.  Women are the prominent purveyors of doubt and alternative explanations in this movie.  Todd’s wife gives a reasonable, logical explanation of Colton’s vision, opposes telling anyone of the vision, and is only finally convinced of Colton’s vision when he tells her something she has never told him.  Nancy Rawling is the first to suggest that they dismiss Pastor Todd from the church and that no one wants to hear what Todd preaches anymore. (Yeah, that’s right, Todd is a pastor.  That gets left out of the promotional material I’ve seen for the movie.)

 Why does the conclusion drawn by Todd Burpo in the movie’s final sermon dismisses his son’s experience?

 For a book/movie about visiting heaven, the conclusion doesn’t fit if the purpose is to declare that heaven is a real place.  In fact, the resolution that Todd comes to is that all of us have the ability to see heaven around us.  It was very anti-climactic.  I felt cheated by the ending, especially as Todd defends Colton’s visit to heaven throughout the story.  One has to remember that the story is about Todd and his struggle with his son’s experience.  It is not about his son’s experience.

 What does this film say about the nature of the church?

The congregation is a key part of this story, but it is not a healthy congregation.  In comparison, the volunteer fire department seems to be healthier.  The congregation is quick to disappear as the pastor struggles.  It seems that Todd is popular and attendance is tied to that popularity.  Todd is not compensated properly, this is never resolved in the movie.  There is some good person to person care demonstrated.  The Board consisted of two strong personalities and one silent member.  The church itself was never presented in a favorable light except as the location of a vision and the place where Todd redeemed himself.

Other quick observations

I was surprised by the references to intimacy between Todd and his wife, although it was portrayed as her power over him.

I appreciated the landscape scenes of rural Kansas.

So, do I recommend this film?  No.

If you see it though, I’d recommend talking about the questions raised here, and those you might have from your own reflections.


Parsing Representative Todd Akin’s Apology

Nothing seems to draw my attention quicker than a public “apology”.  Most aren’t worth the oxygen necessary to form the words, so I crawl out of my lethargy and take notice when one is prominently offered.

Representative Todd Akin got himself noticed during the doldrums of August when he famously said, “If it’s a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down.”  In context, he was discussing abortion, and attempting to make the point that pregnancies resulting from rape are rare.  (This blog post isn’t going to address the factual fallacies of Representative Akin’s statements or stance.  I’m only looking at the apology.)

After a firestorm erupted on the internet and calls for his resignation from the US Senate race in Missouri came fast and furious, including from Presidential candidate Mitt Romney, Representative Aiken offered the following apology in a campaign video.

“Rape is an evil act.  I used the wrong words in the wrong way and for that I apologize.  As a father of two daughters, I want tough justice for predators.  I have a compassionate heart for the victims of sexual assault, and I pray for them.  The fact is, rape can lead to pregnancy.  The truth is, rape has many victims.  The mistake I made was in the words I said, not in the heart I hold.  I ask for your forgiveness.”

How did this fare as an apology?

John Baldoni writing for Forbes believes that Representative Akin “flubbed his apology”.  He writes,

Akin also committed the first sin of insincerity – making the apology about himself and not the people he has offended.

Misogyny aside, Akin made another mistake — one that is all too common in today’s “apologize and it will go away” culture. Akin has made himself the focus on his apology, not the millions of women he had insulted.

Akin also attempted to disavow his insult by claiming that he had used a poor choice of words. As Ben Franklin said, “Never ruin an apology with an excuse.” When you watch Akin apologize, you get the feeling that he cares more about his candidacy than he does about anything else.

I wouldn’t rate the apology as harshly as Baldoni.

First, Akin came close to admitting that he was wrong.  In his apology he didn’t defend his use of words as too often happens, but rather he states he used wrong words in wrong ways.  I would have liked to see him state unequivocally that he was wrong and insensitive to a violent act.

Second, he didn’t address his apology to a select group of people, but instead to the broader audience.  This is where I disagree with Baldoni.  To apologize “to those I have offended” too often blames those who are offended.  His at least was an attempt at a blanket apology.  In my view, this is positive.

Yes, he is attempting to keep his campaign alive.  The apology tries to score some points in that arena with his statement about predators.  The voters will have to decide that one.

Finally, I ask how clearly does the apology distance itself from the original statements.  Here is where the apology completely failed.  There is enough wiggle room in the apology that Representative Akin doesn’t have to change his view one bit.  “Rape can lead to pregnancy.” [emphasis mine]  This is a “safe” statement in that it doesn’t necessarily mean his position is changed. In fact, his original statement left open the same possibility when he said “the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down.” [emphasis mine]

To me, this “apology” better than most public apologies, but still is primarily damage control.  It will be interesting to watch this play out.




These days it has been hard to get me here to post some “ponderings”.  Recent events calling on boycotts as a first response to news has me riled up.

You’ve seen the news.  Dan Cathy, The CEO of Chick Fil-A disclosed his objection to marriage between two people of the same gender.  He made the claim that the company is run on Christian values to justify his perspective.  The backlash was immediate.  Many groups have called for a boycott of the business, protests are planned, and counter protests are planned.  Almost every action is directed against another group with the desire to draw attention to one’s own perspective.

What a mess.  This is nonsense.  This is more polarization of our society.  I’ve never seen it so bad.

When did it become true that if we disagreed with someone that instead of talking we protest, demonize, or boycott?  What ever happened to civil discourse?  What ever happened to the hard task of listening to others not to find fault with their perspective but to hear their perspective and learn from it.  Are my opinions so full of ultimate truth that I must make sure that all people agree with me in word and deed?  The arrogance is astonishing.

While I personally disagree with Mr. Cathy’s reading of scripture related to same-gendered marriage, I also disagree with the actions of those who are calling for boycott or banning Chick Fil-A from certain communities.  These actions have further damaged any chance of seeing any change in Mr. Cathy’s stance.  Thanks for making that work harder.

My experience has been that I have more influence in someone’s life and decision-making if I am in relationship with them.  Boycotts and bans damage the possibility of relationship.  Boycotts and bans have their place, but not as the first response, or maybe even the 10th.

Martin Luther explained the 8th Commandment (You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor) this way: “We should fear and love God so that we do not tell lies about our neighbor, betray him, slander him, or hurt his reputation, but defend him, speak well of him, and interpret everything he does in the best possible light.”

Funeral for Suicide Victim

Two popular posts on this site have been for comments about funerals and scripture texts for funerals where there has been a suicide.  Not long ago, I conducted a memorial service for a popular man in town who died as a result of his illness of depression.  This is the sermon from that memorial service.  Many who attended the service found it helpful.  It is by far the one sermon I’ve preached that received the most positive comments.  Most who commented lingered long enough to talk more about what they heard.  It is slightly edited to protect the identity of the families.


A week ago, no one could have predicted that you would be here this morning.  That means this has been an especially hard week.  Know this: life is so very fragile.  When you stop and pay attention, it can seem as though everything around us makes life dangerous.  Sometimes the things that endanger us the most are sneaky and unimaginable.

Think about it.  A sudden heart attack from lingering heart disease catches us off guard.  A moment of inattention while driving can cause disaster.  For Jim, it was the sometimes fatal illness of depression.  This illness caused ups and downs and unpredictability for Jim.  It also caused those same ups and downs and unpredictability for those who knew and loved him best.

I’m not going to dwell on this entirely this morning, but there are some important things that need to be said, and it is my responsibility to say them.

It is impossible to know the kind of darkness Jim lived with.  He hid much of it from the people who were closest to him.  Because we look for explanations and for his death to make sense, we grab at any reasonable logic to figure it all out.  There is a big problem with that.  This sometimes fatal illness of depression changes how we think and turns rational logical problem solving upside down.  That means that there are going to be no real answers to our biggest questions about Jim’s death.  We either have to live with that or we have to make things up.

Yes, you heard me right.  Our choice in coming to grips with Jim’s sudden death is to either live with the reality that we will never have some real answers or make things up.  Without realizing it, each of us here have been making some things up.

Some of that gets to be pretty blatant.  Maybe you’ve heard some of the rumors that are circulating these days.  When we don’t know details, we tend to make assumptions and fill in the blanks.  When you hear this kind of speculation, remind yourself that sometimes we have to accept that we don’t have the answers.  When you find yourself filling in the blanks, remind yourself that we don’t have the answers.

If you’ve been feeling guilty or questioning what you could have done to help Jim more, that’s quite normal.  The problem is that you either have to accept that you will never have any real answers or you will make things up and have the guilt.  You did the best you could.  Jim didn’t die because you failed.  Jim died because of this sometimes fatal illness of depression.  Please hear me.  You did the best you could.  Jim didn’t die because you didn’t do enough.  Any guilt you have is the result of you making things up and changing the truth.  Please don’t do that.

Some anger at Jim is appropriate.  This isn’t fair or easy or convenient.  Jim’s death changes so much and makes so many things that much harder.  Some of the anger however comes from trying to fill in the blanks and deciding that you know what Jim was thinking and what he wasn’t thinking about.  Remind yourself that you don’t have the answers.

Look, I don’t want to dwell on this all morning.  There are other, even more important things that need to be said.  This sometimes fatal illness leaves more questions than answers.  It is good for us to accept that many of our questions will never be answered.

But there are plenty of things we do know.

We know that Jim loved (his wife and children are named).

We know that Jim loved and cared about his larger family.

We know that Jim had this unique ability to touch the lives of people in significant ways.  You’ve no doubt been telling and hearing some of these stories over the past several days.  He used his love of baseball to encourage people in ways that literally changed their lives.  Someone yesterday said that even meeting Jim only one time set them on a different course in their life, and that it was good and productive and they were grateful for that important gift Jim gave them.

As much as anything, that is why so many people came to the funeral home yesterday, and so many people are here today.  Jim had this ability to let you know that you mattered.  Jim had this ability to let you know that there was opportunity ahead in your life.  Jim had the unwavering ability to encourage others and help them see their value.

Over and over again this week I’ve heard this story repeated.  There is far too little encouragement in this world.  Jim was one of those rare people with that gift of encouragement.

But, as important as this is, it is only a piece of who Jim has been to you.  You heard the words of  (his brother) earlier as he attempted to summarize who Jim has been to him.  Multiply that by hundreds and you will just be scratching the surface.  It is easy to say that knowing and loving Jim has helped to shape who you are.  That is by far the more lasting impact of Jim’s life.  I’m not going to even attempt to summarize who Jim has been to you.  That is your job.  In the coming days and weeks and months, share those stories.  Those are the stories that begin with, “Remember when …” and lead to big grins, amazement, sadness, nostalgia, and sometimes raucous laughter.  I dare say, you will discover something about yourself and something about Jim as you tell these stories.  When you tell these stories, it is natural to be grateful, especially grateful to God for placing Jim in your life.

This is a good day to give thanks to God for placing Jim in your life.

We know that because Jim has played an important part in shaping who we are, his death last week leaves a hole that is huge.  It hurts.  It leaves us reeling.  It leaves some of us feeling overwhelmed.

This is a good day to acknowledge that hurt and pain.

We know that just like God gave Jim the gift of encouragement, God gives gifts to people so that the work of God might be accomplished.  When we care for one another we are doing God’s work.

This is a good day to allow people to comfort us.

We know that God has made some irrevocable promises to Jim.  Long ago Jim was baptized and became a child of God.  That was a relationship that God promised never to abandon.  On a day like this it is so important to let those words in the second reading take hold of us.  I paraphrase.  “What can separate us from God’s love?  Nothing, nada, zip, zilch, not the stupid things we do, not the little mistakes we make, not the big blunders that hurt others, not anything at all.”  God’s love in Christ Jesus is for all time, and it is for Jim.

We know that God made the promise to Jim to love him, to be with him in thick and thin, and to forgive him.  God promised to forgive Jim.  That brings me peace today.

We know that God promised Jim everlasting life.  Jesus goes ahead to prepare a place for Jim. That brings me hope.

It is a jumbled up day with all this mixed together.  Bittersweet describes it best.  It is as should be.  Ultimately, we know that God is the source of healing; bringing promise, forgiveness, and most importantly … hope.

May you experience that healing.


Ash Wednesday & Lent 2011

Ash Wednesday – March 9, 2011

Our Shepherd Lutheran Church – Severna Park, MD

For the next 40 days, you are invited to live your life as if your life matters.  You didn’t expect me to say that did you?  Let me say it again.  For the next 40 days, you are invited to live your life as if your life matters.

You received a reminder of your mortality on your forehead just minutes ago.  You heard the words, “Remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”  As I see it, you have a couple of choices.  Live your life as if your mortality is a far off into the future slight possibility.  Or, live your life as if your life matters, precisely because you are mortal.

What people want me to do today is to be a cheerleader.  You are giving up chocolate for Lent?  Great!  You can do it for 40 days.  It will be hard.  Hang in there.  You can do it.  It is only 40 days.  Think of the reward at the end!  It will be worth it.

I can’t do that.  I’d rather turn in my pastor card.

Let me tell you something else you might not expect me to say.  What we do during Lent is never meant to be temporary.  That’s right.  If you are living this season as it is intended and you are giving up, oh let’s say chocolate for Lent, then when Easter arrives, there will be no chocolate Easter bunnies for you.  Why play like Lent means nothing?  Why decide to ignore the call Jesus issues to obedience?

Live your life as if your life matters.  Lent is a time for renewal.  Lent is a time to take on some spiritual disciplines that make sense 24/7/52/lifetime.  Lent is a time for making sure the “whenevers” of Matthew’s Gospel are part of who we are.

Whenever you give alms.  Whenever you pray.  Whenever you fast.

Jesus doesn’t say, if you give alms, if you pray, if you fast.  He doesn’t say when you take the time to give alms, pray, or fast.  The expectation is that these three are all done, all the time, unnoticed by others, because this is what people of faith do when they are living their lives as if their life matters.

Whenever you care for the needs of others … just do it without fanfare or recognition.  It’s what people of God do.

Whenever you pray to align yourself with God … just do it without any need for recognition.  It’s what people of God do.

Whenever you deny the temptations that draw you away from God … just do it without needing to draw attention to yourself.  It’s what people of God do.

If you give alms, pray, and fast only during Lent, isn’t that really drawing attention to these practices and that you are something special during Lent?

Sorry if what I’m saying is messing up your plans for Lent.  I simply want you to live your life as if your life matters.  Why trivialize it?  Why make this 40 day time mean so little?

The church I served in Johnstown invites people to use self-denial envelopes during Lent.  I think they are asking either 25 cents or $1 per day as a means of self-denial.  Horse feathers!  You want to give alms, or to use this as self-denial … what about giving a full tithe during Lent if you’ve never done this before?  More than a tithe if you already tithe.  Maybe an even amount … say $80-100 a week.  A quarter a week?  Nonsense.  Live as if your life matters.

Pull out a 1 minute devotion and pray daily during Lent?  Ok, I suppose that’s a start.  Phfff.  Write a devotion daily, pray each hour on the hour for 5 minutes, memorize scripture … maybe a couple of chapters, read 20 pages of scripture a day, read a Gospel book a week and cycle through them twice during Lent.  All of this is prayer.  All of this addresses a whenever.  Live as if your life matters.

Don’t eat meat on Fridays, but instead go to some fish fry or seafood place?  When did that ever get to be equated with fasting?  Stop pretending!  Do you really need more than 1500-2000 calories a day, ever?  Have you ever considered eating a restricted calorie diet because it is the right thing to do, because over-consumption of everything is an American anti-Christian attitude?  Does our gluttony say something about how we see ourselves as entitled?  Is entitlement a Christian virtue?  Live your life as if it matters.

There are a lot more examples.  You can use Lent as a trivial venture into pretending that we are mortal.  Or you can use Lent as if you really get your mortality and live as if your life matters.  What you do has an impact on the world, on the people around you, on you, and on your relationship with God.

For the next 40 days, you are invited to live your life as if your life matters … and then …