Category Archives: Faith

Boycott!

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.

Amen

Christmas Wars

I think it is worse this year.

More and more “Christian” groups are stridently demanding that Christmas be celebrated as the remembrance of the birth of Jesus Christ and are opposing what I refer to as “secular Christmas” celebrations.  One group, “Repent Amarillo”, has gone so far as posting a video of the execution of Santa Claus.

I observe that as a group loses influence within a culture, they often become more strident and work hard at regaining lost influence.  This is what I think is happening to religious conservatives.

I operate with the assumption that there are two Christmas celebrations.  One is firmly rooted in the celebration of the birth of Jesus Christ.  The other is a secular winter holiday with the same name.  When someone wishes me “Happy Holidays”, they are in fact being considerate because they don’t know which one (or ones) I celebrate.

Here is the kicker.  I celebrate both.  I don’t find that to be a problem at all.

What religious conservatives and Christmas “purists” don’t seem to recognize is that they continue to drive a wedge between Christians and non-Christians with their strident rhetoric.  When it gets to be an either/or situation, evangelism suffers.  Far better to use Paul’s example in Corinth when faced with the monument to the “unknown god”.  He shared with the people of Corinth what he knew about that unknown god … Jesus Christ rather than beating them over the head with their paganism.

The way Christians can claim Christmas is through that interpretive maneuver.  After all, it is a short step from the secular Christmas celebrations to the Christian celebrations, and when approached reasonably, most who observe the secular holiday are open to Christian interpretation.

Dialogue in Disagreement

It seems to me that one of the most difficult things for Christians to do is to engage in dialogue over matters where there is disagreement, especially in matters related to faith.  I’m going to use a recent comment on this blog to illustrate this and to attempt to engage in some dialogue, knowing in advance that I’ll make some mistakes, and it won’t be perfect.  The article I wrote that the commenter responded to is here.

The quoted comments will be italicized and indented.

My comments will be in normal typeface.

Are you really a pastor or just pretending, because you make no sense at all.

I’m sorry that you didn’t understand.  I was attempting some very short answers to complicated questions, and my shortcuts were likely too brief.  Please, because we disagree or you don’t understand, don’t call into question my role in this church.  Too often, we belittle those with whom we disagree or don’t understand.  I’ll attempt to not belittle you.

The commenter then quotes my statement, and adds a comment.

“You see, the matter is that the ELCA is what the congregations determine it to be. It is not some monolithic entity” The ELCA is what happens to a denomination when they are of the world and not in the world. Our congregation could easily vote to reject the ELCA statements
and go with the flow and not make waves. What would the point be in belonging to the ELCA Club and paying dues to support someone elses agendas.

Once again, I apologize that I wasn’t clear.  I’ll try to expand and be more clear.  The ELCA is indeed a denomination, but since its inception, it has been described as being composed of three expressions; the congregation, the synod, and the churchwide.  Most who are unhappy with the “ELCA” are focused only on part of the church, usually churchwide.  What each congregation teaches and how it lives the Gospel helps shape what is the ELCA.  As congregations decide to leave, they change the dynamic of what is the ELCA, which I think is a great loss to this church. Therefore, there is no such thing as “the ELCA Club”.  The ELCA does not exist apart from the congregations of which it is made.  The ELCA is not some independent “other”.  Mission support is not paying “dues” but gathering together resources for shared ministry.  Congregations have a responsibility to be engaged with one another because we are the ELCA.

I note that we wrestle with our role as parts of a body in many other ways too.  I may disagree with the priorities of the local congregation (especially related to where we spend our resources), but still am engaged in sharing ministry with others.  I will work to influence the priorities of congregational spending wherever I can, but ultimately, it is about something larger than me and what I hold to be important.  Likewise, I share ministry with people who throw a few dollars into the offering plate every once in a while, even though I contribute enough that it makes a difference in how I have to budget other things in my household.  I disagree strongly with their priorities, and yet, will work side by side with them to advance the ministry and mission of the congregation.

Because I have this perspective, I’m not as troubled by decisions of the ELCA which run counter to my specific priorities or my specific understanding of the center of scripture.  Likewise, I’m not threatened by those congregations that in their context, make different choices than I make in my context.  That does not mean for me that the ELCA is a denomination “of the world”.  Your comment suggests to me that you believe that those who voted to approve controversial positions were not grounded in scripture.  I listened carefully to the debate, and am convinced that there was appropriate attention to scripture from all sides, even the sides of the debate with which I disagree.  What takes priority and what is the central message of the Gospel is different for different people.  In some ways, it is similar to the differences between denominations.  But from my perspective, these differences are not sufficient to cause a split. Clearly, you see that differently.

“Regarding abortion, the issue is not about knowing someone who has had an abortion but supporting a denomination that offers to pay for the murder of a child.

I agree that the question about abortion is not about knowing someone who has had an abortion.  I apologize for being curt in my reply. Abortion is a passionate debate, one where there is little hope for dialogue.  Passions run much too high.  The commenter is opposed to the ELCA health plan paying for abortions.  I probably agree, not having thought about it much.  I’d simply ask that there be some discussion about what constitutes abortion for the commenter.  Is the commenter against termination of any pregnancy, viable or not?  How is that determined?  I don’t know enough about all this. Then, as in guidance offered in many parts of scripture, one must weigh the “greater good”.  That is not easy even from scripture.  Remember, this is the scripture that advocates stoning of adulterers and disobedient children.  It both commands divorce and calls divorce adultery.

As far as sexuality in colleges of the ELCA, again I say, it is not about knowing that there is sexual activity but the fact that the colleges are providing avenues of acceptance of for such activity.
I went to college in the 70′s and had a good old time, but when I grew up I knew my children would go to a Christian college because my husband and I wanted the best faith based professors to mentor them and serve as Godly examples. Well that was a waste, so why would someone choose to send their child to an ELCA school who’s attitude has nothing to do with Biblical teachings.

I have some real challenges with broad sweeping statements about what constitutes Christianity (based on morals).  The American Lutheran Church college I attended shaped my understanding and appreciation of paradox, vocation, and scripture (that was not literal or fundamental).  Students and professors sometimes lived out the Christian faith in obvious ways, and at other times were engaged in sinful activity … including competitiveness for grades.  In some ways, I’m not sure what a “Christian College” might be.  Is it a college that lives radical grace and forgiveness as its foundational values?  Is it one that offers radical hospitality?  Is it one where the poor, disenfranchised, alienated, and those whom society has deemed valueless are lifted up and given value?  Is it one where only scripture is used for teaching?  Is it one where all share all possessions in common?  Is it one in which vocation is understood as a calling of God and equipping of the Holy Spirit?  Is it one in which one is allowed and encouraged to wrestle with questions of faith in a safe learning environment, far from fear of condemnation?  Some of us might define Christianity in these ways from a faithful reading of Scripture.  “Christian” is a term I use to describe Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior.  I’d be interested in conversation about how the commenter describes “Christian”.  In the places where I have conversations about the Christian faith, Christian does not mean only one thing, and it is not universally understandable.

And yes I dare say that we all have seen illicit sexual activity in our congregation as well as many other sins, if we didnt all sin there would be no need to go to church. We are to observe, address and repent of our sins. If all our sins are okay, I’m okay, you’re okay, he’s okay ,it’s okay, we’re all okay.,lets just all get along. Then why did Christ have to die on the cross. It is our job to love our brothers enough to steer them away from sin and each of us help each other to recognize and repent .

Often, when there is conversation about these kinds of disagreements, the conversation devolves to the “if there are no standards then everything is ok and Christ’s death, resurrection, and ascension mean nothing” position.  Please, step back and take a breath.  It is not “everything goes”, although I can see where it can look like that’s where it is leading.  Obedience to scripture is important.  But here we’ll probably disagree about what is most important in scripture.  Grace is important.  I often wonder if one is more important than the other, because when I put one ahead of the other, things get messed up.  It is my experience that sometimes grace happens before obedience.  Sometimes obedience is first.  Sometimes forgiveness comes before repentance.  Sometimes repentance is first.  Sometimes obedience draws me closer to God and sometimes God draws me closer to obedience.  I don’t want to be like the Pharisees who could see everyone’s failings and not consider their own.

I ask, because I’m interested to know, is there a point where forgiveness is not offered if there is no real change in a person’s behavior (if repentance is related to behavior)?  Does anyone ever repent about Thanksgiving Day feasting (gluttony), a sin when so much of the world goes hungry or do we in the church bless this sin?  Does anyone ever repent of the coveting that is the basis for our North American economy or does the church simply go along?  Jesus says all remarriage (in one of the Gospels) is sinful, and yet we don’t demand those marriages end.  My point is not to justify “sin”, but to invite us into a larger question where we seek out the answers together and listen carefully to one another in a way that honors how scripture speaks to another.  I want to have this kind of conversation … not because I know the answers, but because it has implications on what we mean by repentance, obedience, sinfulness, and forgiveness.  Why is it that some sins are considered acceptable and others are not?  How do we decide?  Is there a difference between sin as a condition and sinful acts?  Dialogue will reveal a good deal in these matters.

There is more from the commenter, some of it quite personal.  I hope I did not call her names, or insinuate that she is homophobic or un-Christian, or is out of touch with the world.  If I did, I am sorry for that, for that was not my intent.  There is too much of that in the world as it is.  I have a lot of questions, and believe that Christians can ask questions of one another without having to fight about preconceived truths.  I learn a great deal from these kinds of dialogues and invite people into them all the time.

There is more I can say, and I’ve said too much, so enough for now. 

The importance of a blessing

Many secretly believe that children really don’t belong in worship, especially if they are “disruptive”. We’ve worked hard to nurture the participation of children in worship, including simple things like a simple laminated order of service in every pew rack, children’s Bibles in every pew, and ways for children to participate in worship leadership.  Disruptions occur, but they are not usually very long.  The pastors do a good job ignoring them and parents do a pretty good job at making proper adjustments.

We invite parents to help determine when their children are ready to begin to participate in the sacrament of Holy Communion and offer age-appropriate education prior to first communion.  We offer a simple blessing accompanied by a hand on the head for those who do not receive communion. (I say, “May God bless, protect, and keep you all the days of your life.”)

Yesterday in worship, a young girl of about 4 came forward to the altar, and was prepared for the blessing.  For at least 30 seconds, she pulled her bangs up to expose her forehead, and waited patiently for the blessing.  I think only her mother and I noticed, and we were both moved.

Pondering Pastor

Secularizing the 10 Commandments

It was just once too many times.  I caught part of an interview with Glenn Beck last evening where he was advocating that the 10 Commandments were a good set of “rules” for our country and that even atheists could support them.  He joins a very long list of people who somehow believe that the 10 Commandments are easily secularized.  But let’s look at the first 3 Commandments (as Lutherans count them).

  1. You shall have no other Gods.
  2. You shall not take the name of the Lord, your God, in vain.
  3. Remember the Sabbath and keep it holy.

How do you secularize that?  How do atheists accept those?  These first 3 Commandments have to do with our relationship with God!  Now I know that Glenn Beck wants to restore the place of religion in our society but this naturally leads to some questions for me.

  1. Which god?  People in this nation worship any number of deities.  I’ll refuse to worship Glenn Beck’s god.
  2. A “generic god” is not God.  Generic prayer is not prayer.  How does this proposal reconcile the multiple deities worshiped in this country without resorting either to “establishment of religion” or so watering down the witness of God’s self-revelation that we simply become a culture that worships a generic god.

Even the last 7 Commandments are problematic if they are not addressed to a specific people with other “commentary” in sacred scripture.

  1. Honor your father and mother.
  2. You shall not kill.
  3. You shall not commit adultery.
  4. You shall not steal.
  5. You shall not bear false witness.
  6. You shall not covet your neighbor’s house.
  7. You shall not covet anything that is your neighbor’s.

Much of the advertising in this country uses coveting as a means to encourage us to purchase products, essential for the market economy we live in.  Without coveting, our economy collapses.  Of course, with unbridled covetousness, our economy  has a “bubble” then collapses.

I’d like those who advocate for the secularization of the 10 Commandments to be honest.  They really believe that the 5 Commandments are worthy of attention.

  1. Honor your father and mother.
  2. You shall not kill.
  3. You shall not commit adultery.
  4. You shall not steal.
  5. You shall not bear false witness.

Oh, except that much advertising relies on false witness.  Large profits require “theft”.  Many fathers are unknown or absent.  We encourage killing in self-defense and war.  Pre-marital sexual activity is the norm.  Porn fuels an economy that influences technology.

What is our society to do?  If we were to follow the 10 Commandments, our economy would falter even more, especially if these 10 Commandments are divorced from the context in which they were given to God’s own people.

Don’t get me wrong.  I believe the 10 Commandments are valuable … within the context of a faith community.  God didn’t give these commandments to the Egyptians or any other power of the day.  God gave these commandments to the small band of people God claimed as God’s own.  These commandments set God’s people apart from the other peoples/nations.  They were/are a gift.

God’s people have shared this gift to the cultures in which we live, and where it made sense, those cultures have adopted them.  Let’s not secularize the 10 Commandments however.  Let’s let our culture borrow from many religious traditions to order society for the common good … and let our culture borrow from secular traditions to order society for the common good.  Let’s stop using religious language as if our culture and the religious tradition are one in the same.  That will only turn out poorly.

Open Letter to Lutheran CORE

Dear members of Lutheran CORE,

As you move into the next few days and organize the North American Lutheran Church (NALC) I would ask that you temper your enthusiasm with humility and your rhetoric with wisdom.  This is undoubtedly an exciting time for you and your hopefulness for that which you create can certainly blind you to the dangerous waters in which you navigate.  I wish you well.  How can I not, with so many friends among you?

Please, don’t offer the extreme examples of what you find offensive in the ELCA as normative.  You know that great variety exists within the ELCA and will exist even within NALC in a relatively short period of time.  Remember Luther’s explanation of the 8th commandment and make that the cornerstone of of your public and private comments.

Please keep in mind that you are not the only faithful Christians with the name Lutheran.  Ryan Schwarz is quoted in the August edition of “CORE Connections” saying, “Lutheran CORE will seek to help faithful members of the ELCA and ELCIC to continue to uphold the authority of scripture in an increasingly challenging environment …”  Many faithful (to Christ) members of the ELCA uphold the authority of scripture in a way different than you.  I consider myself one of those, and will not need your help.  In fact, your rhetoric is part of my increasingly challenging environment.

I plead with you to seek guidance from a wide variety of sources, not just those with whom you agree.  “Without counsel, plans go wrong, but with many advisers they succeed. ” (Proverbs 15:22)  It is very tempting in these early days to restrict your circle of advisors. As an outsider looking in, that has been the history of CORE from the beginning.  NALC moves you now onto the “big stage.”

Please attend carefully to those you elect to serve the NALC.  The proposed Constitution has heavy expectations and demands upon those persons.  If you elect Paull as Bishop, treat him with consideration and respect.  He will need your prayer and support and encouragement.

Please, not all who are part of the congregations you serve are of one mind with you and this direction you are taking.  I’ve watched these people feel disenfranchised from the congregations they know and love as you’ve taken this path.  I have sought to help them find ways to remain in congregations where they no longer receive appropriate pastoral care.  This is some of the hardest work that lies ahead for you.  Please find respectful ways to care for these members of the body of Christ.  You have said that the ELCA left you, they tell me that their congregation has left them.  In most cases, they’ve been pretty quiet in the face of your enthusiasm.

In Christ,
Earl Janssen
Our Shepherd Lutheran Church, Severna Park, MD