On Being Broken, And Having a Future

I really enjoyed my recent series of Lenten devotions. I enjoyed the discipline of having to sit down with scripture, to write them, and keep them short. I’m looking for something else to contemplate, probably Martin Luther’s Large Catechism, simply because I want to use it as a teaching tool. I should probably know what I am teaching.

But this morning, I was thinking of something else — about this ministry it seems I am called to do. About the young people it appears I am called to do it with.

One of my kids — I won’t say who — described life in the foster system like this:

You don’t matter. The law doesn’t exist to protect you. Oh, there are laws and rules, but they’re only used against you, and never in your favor. You mess up, you will be punished. But no one will ever be punished for hurting you. You’re nothing.

No one has to explain this world to me. I’ve lived in it much of my life. It was my childhood — nowhere near as brutal as the lives many of these kids are living — and it was also my experience in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (institutionally, the decision makers in the ELCA enforced their rules and adhered to their principles only so far as those could be used against me or it was convenient to do so; otherwise, there were no rules, or at least no rules that worked in my favor). If anything, I probably identify a little too closely with these kids because of this. I suppose that’s a risk. I don’t honestly care.

But they don’t have to explain their worlds to me. They don’t have to explain lonely, silent suffering. They don’t have to explain cruelty and indifference. They don’t have to explain incoherent and capricious rules that never work in their favor. They don’t have to explain never being normal, ordinary, human beings. They don’t have to explain the ache to be just that. Because I know this world. My wife Jennifer knows this world.

And yes, finally, these are people to whom I matter — matter a lot. Who love me and accept me and want me in their lives. Who don’t judge me and don’t stare icily at me and flip through pages wondering about all the awful things I’ve done that make me an inferior, untrustworthy, and unacceptable human being, a threat to all that is good and decent. Because there is no good and decent in their world, and they know it. To be wanted, to belong, to find some meaning in all of that — it’s all I’ve ever really wanted out of life.

I go where the Holy Spirit calls me. To people whom God has called me to love. And it happens, right now, to be a tiny handful of teenagers out west no one else really wants or loves. This is not what I imagined, and it is certainly not what I would have chosen.

We are all broken people, these kids, my wife, and me. Not in the generic, passive sense used by the church, used to somehow describe our sinfulness without actually pointing a finger or naming a name or labeling anyone an actual “sinner,” but as objects actively grabbed and bent and twisted and broken by people (in and out of institutions that include the church) too callous to care about our fates and wellbeing or so cruel they simply enjoy the sport of breaking us.

It’s hard to tell the difference, sometimes.

I love these kids. I think think they need me. I know I need them. They are my future, evidence that God does indeed love me and have some kind of plan for my life that doesn’t involve me dying alone and unwanted in a gutter somewhere.

They are my meaning. And they are my belonging.

Diversity and Conformity

Tyler Cowen has a lengthy interview with social scientists Jonathan Haidt (of Heterodox Academy) worth looking at. I’m still working through the interview, but here Haidt makes a point I’ve long wanted to make — that the push for “diversity” in America’s institutions is actively making them less tolerant and more conformist.

You want to basically bury racial and other kinds of diversity in a sea of uniformity. You want to give people a sense of common mission, you have common uniforms, so you want to make people feel they’re all part of the same — that’s what you do if you need a group to function effectively together. In the academy that is not our goal. We’re not trying to turn out classes of “our graduating class will go forth, and they will all work together as a unit to accomplish greatness.” No, that’s not what it’s all about. We want clashing ideas.

We don’t want uniformity and homogeneity, we want the benefits of diversity, but the irony is we have so focused on racial and other kinds of demographic diversity, because of the political slant of the university, because of the sacred values of the campus left, we have so focused on that kind of diversity.

There’s this wonderful line from George Will, in some essay he wrote, “There’s a certain kind of liberal that wants diversity in everything except thought.” That’s where we are. We now have almost a kind of uniformity the military has, where everybody’s on the left, which gives us cohesion, but that kills the very function of the university, which is to have diversity of thought, so we can change our minds. We challenge each other in the marketplace of ideas.

What holds a people together? What holds a diverse people together? Because something has to. A community of people has to have something in common — an ideal, a purpose, a culture, a language — in order to be united, and a diverse people have to somehow be united in order to find strength in diversity.

This is why diversity is, in many ways, so stifling, conformist, and intolerant — it demands uniformity of thought and outlook. That tightly constructed and brutally demanded outlook becomes its unity. The “differences” celebrated (race, sexual orientation, gender) become almost completely irrelevant given no one within the “diverse” community is allowed draw differing conclusions about the world or human purpose. The belief in diversity itself becomes the unifying principle, the ideology, that holds a community together. It becomes a culture as well, though it is a top-down culture and ideal imposed upon people, rather than a a set of practices and an outlook that forms organically from the bottom-up. It’s a form of assimilationism, just as unforgiving and just as brutal, and nothing more.

While life is never easy for non-conformists (like me), ideologically constructed forms of belonging can be much worse than ways of belonging based on shared organic culture, language, or ethnicity. One can at least be raised in language, and there are often (though not always) acceptable ways of dissenting or non-conforming in a culture. (I think this was one of my problems with the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America — I could not conform to the “culture” of the ELCA because I wasn’t raised in it, and the ELCA is not really held together by its confession of faith.) But ideologically imposed ways of belonging are exceptionally hard because they demand not just assent but acceptance and rigorous adherence — there are no proper ways to dissent or non-conform when an ideology is being imposed.

Which is why diversity creates an intellectual and moral monoculture, one that will be brittle and inflexible and incapable of effectively thinking about or dealing with the very real problems of the world. And this is why it will eventually fail, and be consigned to the scrapheap of hugely unsuccessful ways of organizing the world and solving the human condition.

He Is Risen Indeed!

Today was Easter Sunday in the Western Church, and I didn’t preach. Nor I am going to pretend I did, though next Sunday, April 3, I will preaching and presiding at First Reformed Church in Chatham, New York. If you are in the area, please, come and hear some good news! And receive the grace of God!

Easter (Year C)

  • Acts 10:34–43
  • Psalm 118:1–2, 14–24
  • 1 Corinthians 15:19–26
  • Luke 24:1–12

1 But on the first day of the week, at early dawn, they went to the tomb, taking the spices they had prepared. 2 And they found the stone rolled away from the tomb, 3 but when they went in they did not find the body of the Lord Jesus. 4 While they were perplexed about this, behold, two men stood by them in dazzling apparel. 5 And as they were frightened and bowed their faces to the ground, the men said to them, “Why do you seek the living among the dead? 6 He is not here, but has risen. Remember how he told you, while he was still in Galilee, 7 that the Son of Man must be delivered into the hands of sinful men and be crucified and on the third day rise.” 8 And they remembered his words, 9 and returning from the tomb they told all these things to the eleven and to all the rest. 10 Now it was Mary Magdalene and Joanna and Mary the mother of James and the other women with them who told these things to the apostles, 11 but these words seemed to them an idle tale, and they did not believe them. 12 But Peter rose and ran to the tomb; stooping and looking in, he saw the linen cloths by themselves; and he went home marveling at what had happened. (Luke 24:1–12 ESV)

Why do you look for the living among the dead? Christ is risen! He is risen indeed!

The eleven did not believe. They dismissed the reports of the women out of hand. But Peter had enough sense to wonder, to want to go look for himself.

And he found an empty tomb, with the burial shroud crumpled up (or nicely folded, however you envision it) where they had lain him. And Peter marveled at what he saw.

Marveled. Because Jesus is no longer dead. It would soon become apparent to all that he had risen from the dead. But it would take a little time. It would take the breaking of bread, it would take Jesus meeting his disciples as they huddled, frightened, in a locked room.

But the world would come to know — Christ is risen! He is risen indeed! Alleluia!

Some Thoughts on the Coming Church Plant

I know, it is Holy Saturday today. I should be resting, mourning, lamenting, the death of Jesus. Not knowing what comes tomorrow when we go to his borrowed tomb.

However, my mind is whirring. In a little less than a month, Jennifer and I will be leaving upstate New York and heading out West — to something strange and unknown.

To acquire some new family.

And start a church.

I’ve been thinking a bit about that church, this worshiping community, will look like. And here are some of the things that I’ve been considering.

1) We’re going to begin as a bible study with communion with a solid focus on the story told in scripture. There will be a basic introduction to the Bible — what is it, where does it come, and who keeps it these days? — and then an introduction to the story of scripture as outlined in Nehemiah 9, the Gospel of Mark, and the Apostles’ Creed. We’ll start small, and probably do these studies in public places (coffee houses?) to begin with. As Jesus says in Matthew’s Gospel:

19 Again I say to you, if two of you agree on earth about anything they ask, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven. 20 For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them. (Matthew 18:19–20 ESV)

2) Our confessions of faith will be the historic creeds of the church – the Apostles Creed and Nicene Creed, and I plan to use Martin Luther’s Large Catechism as a teaching tool as well. Luther’s language is blunt and even earthy – he could be a profane man at times – and the large catechism teaches the faith by focusing on the ten commandments, the lord’s prayer, and the apostle’s creed. (The small catechism also includes teaching on baptism and marriage.) The creeds are important because they are condensed understanding of the story told both in scripture and the gospels (in much the way Nehemiah 9 is of the entire story of the Old Testament). However, they also connect us to the Church catholic and apostolic, however tenuously, and will anchor this little worshiping community in the tradition of the greater church.

3) Because, for better or for worse, this will be a Lutheran church. I was formed as a Lutheran, as was my wife, and no other expression of church or understanding of the gospel makes real sense to me. The teaching and the worship will basically be Lutheran. Worship will be liturgical, though I’m going to crib a fair amount of the liturgy from the Reformed Church in America. It will focus on God’s grace. the gospel is, as I understand it, what God in Christ does for us. We respond, and our response is important, but I want to focus the teaching on who we are given that God has reached out to us in Christ. I don’t want to teach about Jesus as much I as want to help people meet Jesus.

4) The New Testament does not diverge from the old, which is the story of God calling a people, their failure to be the people God called them to be, and God’s increasing movement toward that people – to do ALL of the world of salvation, rather than just some of it. This story – of calling, failure, and redemption – IS THE STORY I want people to meet Jesus in and find themselves in. To make this tale, of calling and failure and redemption, be the story that tells them who they are and what their lives mean.

This also means all of the promises God made to Abraham, to Israel, to David, and through the prophets, are resolved and fulfilled in the person of Jesus, in his life, death, and resurrection. There are no promises of God left flopping around yet to be fulfilled.

5) My understanding of God’s work is incarnational — that God uses the finite, flawed, and very limited means that are us to be grace, love, and mercy in the world. My understanding of God is also sacramental as well. I believe deeply that the power of God is present in ways we do not understand in baptism and communion. Jesus is bread and wine. Baptism does, by itself, save, because we have the promise of Jesus that it does. God uses means to communicate and convey grace, bread and wine and water and words are means, and so are our lives. We respond to God’s grace with love so we can show that grace in the world, and bear witness to God’s never-ending love for his people, and for humanity.

Our response to questions about God will be the same as Philip’s — “Come and see!” And I’m hoping we can get to that place in John’s Gospel where the Greeks show up and say to us, “Sir, we wish to see Jesus.”

6) Everything else is adiaphora – not essential. I’m not a prophesy person, and I believe most of what is written in prophetic books about “the future” (Daniel, Ezekiel, and Revelation) has already transpired. We won’t focus on such books except to remind ourselves that God promises victory to those who persevere in faith because God is with us. These aren’t unimportant writings – Revelation is God’s judgment upon Rome in all its brutality – but they aren’t predictive writings. They don’t lay out a future to come. They give us assurance that God has not forgotten us in our suffering, and that we are not alone.

7) It will be important to read Paul normed by the gospels, rather than the other way around (which I think too many Christians tend to do). I also tend to read Paul prophetically, rather than as a lawgiver. That is, I read Paul in light of the failure of the church/people of God to be faithful. Are we still the people of God? What does it mean to be faithful? How does God deal with us when we fail to be faithful?

8) There are some tools we can use to let the world know about us – I’m thinking Facebook and Meetup, which is an internet app I’ve fiddled with but haven’t used. That will let people know we are out there. I also know there is some interest for some distance participation, and Youtube and Periscope will be good ways to accomplish that (and maybe even Skype!). The best way will be word of mouth – the witness of those who say “come and see!” I think that will happen too.

9) Mostly, our focus will be on what Jesus told us were the greatest commandments – to love God and love our neighbor. We will figure out what that means in the place we find ourselves in as we gather, as we teach and praise and proclaim. And live out our lives accordingly, as gathered, forgiven, and redeemed people proclaim the good news of a crucified king who saves the world.

This little community doesn’t have a name yet. Molly suggested Grace Church — a nice Lutheran name, though she likely doesn’t know that. I like exile motifs myself, like By The Waters of Babylon or Eretz Nod, but’s that a mouthful. And doesn’t entirely communicate what I think I’m trying to accomplish. I have no doubt the right name will find us, eventually.

For any of you out there who want to be part of this but aren’t in Spokane, or won’t be any time soon, keep track of us here. We’ll find a way for you to participate, I promise. In the meantime, you can always pray for us. And for the work we’re called to do.

Good Friday 2016

44 It was now about the sixth hour, and there was darkness over the whole land until the ninth hour, 45 while the sun’s light failed. And the curtain of the temple was torn in two. 46 Then Jesus, calling out with a loud voice, said, “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit!” And having said this he breathed his last. 47 Now when the centurion saw what had taken place, he praised God, saying, “Certainly this man was innocent!” 48 And all the crowds that had assembled for this spectacle, when they saw what had taken place, returned home beating their breasts. 49 And all his acquaintances and the women who had followed him from Galilee stood at a distance watching these things. (Luke 23:44–49 ESV)

Pilate, beholding a living breathing Christ, found no guilt him. The thief, sharing The Skull with Jesus and dying on a another cross beside him, knew Jesus had done nothing wrong.

But it is in Jesus’ death that the centurion fully beheld the nature of the man dying — “Certainly this man was innocent!” (Ὄντως ὁ ἄνθρωπος οὗτος δίκαιος ἦν)

And he praises God.

A believer. A gentile believer, present, there, at the foot of the cross, witnessing the whole sorry spectacle.

What kind of death is it that a man can die and demonstrate his innocence? I don’t know. The centurion was likely well-acquainted with death, having doled out a lot of it himself in his life. He’d seen men (and women) die in all sorts of circumstances. They were familiar, the ways of death, how men died, and something about this death — this execution — was different. Different enough to bear witness to the innocence of the one dying.

Different enough to cause a man to believe. To praise God.

Jesus was different. Because he was truly innocent. Innocent in ways we are not.

We are the thieves hanging beside Christ, getting our due reward. We either know that, and beg forgiveness, or we rage against the apparent impotence of God. “Save yourself! SAVE US!!”

I both like this understanding and I hate it. Christians, especially since the Enlightenment, struggle mightily with the morality and meaning of suffering. Especially innocent suffering, the suffering of children, suffering undeserved. Often, we require our victims, in order to be proper victims, to be pure and blameless, to lead simple lives untainted by sin, to have contributed nothing to their own situation. And somehow, if they have, if they are sinners, well, they have brought their suffering down upon themselves.

This isn’t idle speculation. I deal with young people every day who try to make sense of the evil, the brutality, the violence they have lived (and sadly, are living) through, and sense in their bodies and their souls they somehow came to deserve it because … because why? And where was God in the dark and terrifying places where they were all alone with the people who abused them? What does it mean to suffer, and suffer virtuously, and be innocent and undeserving of one’s suffering?

As Christians, we confess our sinfulness. Our lack of innocence. We confess it. We believe it. We know it to be true.

Because Christ was innocent in ways we are not. Ways even children are not. Without sin in ways we cannot be. He responded to our fear, rejection, and violence with love, not despair or anger. His wounds bear witness to his love for us, and not our hatred toward him.

Jesus died the death of an innocent man — a death we can be part of, a death he willingly shares with us. A death we cannot die on our own.

Maundy Thursday 2016

47 While he was still speaking, there came a crowd, and the man called Judas, one of the twelve, was leading them. He drew near to Jesus to kiss him, 48 but Jesus said to him, “Judas, would you betray the Son of Man with a kiss?” 49 And when those who were around him saw what would follow, they said, “Lord, shall we strike with the sword?” 50 And one of them struck the servant of the high priest and cut off his right ear. 51 But Jesus said, “No more of this!” And he touched his ear and healed him. 52 Then Jesus said to the chief priests and officers of the temple and elders, who had come out against him, “Have you come out as against a robber, with swords and clubs? 53 When I was with you day after day in the temple, you did not lay hands on me. But this is your hour, and the power of darkness.” (Luke 22:47–53 ESV)

The crowds. Always coming to Jesus. Coming to hear him speak. Seeking an encounter with God — a word of forgiveness, a healing and resurrecting touch, the spectacle of God doing something incredible in the world.

Earlier this week, after Jesus and his disciples entered Jerusalem, we heard that “all the people were hanging on his words” and that he was surrounded by the people when the scribes and the chief priests tried to trap him in a discussion about taxes with a single dinar coin.

And right before Luke tells us of the plot to betray Jesus, he writes this:

37 And every day he was teaching in the temple, but at night he went out and lodged on the mount called Olivet. 38 And early in the morning all the people came to him in the temple to hear him. (Luke 21:37–38 ESV)

And now a crowd has come. To see him arrested. In the place where Jesus and his disciples spent the night.

His disciples want to fight — Jesus, after all, told them earlier that evening that the time was coming to prepare, to pack bags and buy a sword and get ready to flee — because they think the time has come. Right now. Here on the Mount of Olives.

But it hasn’t. Not yet. In one more miraculous act of healing, Jesus restores the ear of the injured servant.

And to Judas, to the crowds, he tells them — your hour, the power of darkness, has come.

Here we are, not ready for the darkness. The time has come for us to scatter. The mob is a fickle thing. It presses in and hangs on words and seeks the redeeming touch of God, it happily eats when bread and fish are miraculously provided, but it also gawks and eggs on and stands in mute wonder at spectacle. It wants a winner, and then it begs for blood and it demands death. And who are we to challenge the crowds when they show up in force with murder on their mind? What courage can we muster when we, the few (or the one), stand before the many?

Who are we when the hour or darkness has come? When darkness, in all its awful power, has descended upon us, wrapped us up tight, and won’t let go?

HOLY WEEK Stay Awake!

29 And he told them a parable: “Look at the fig tree, and all the trees. 30 As soon as they come out in leaf, you see for yourselves and know that the summer is already near. 31 So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that the kingdom of God is near. 32 Truly, I say to you, this generation will not pass away until all has taken place. 33 Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.

34 “But watch yourselves lest your hearts be weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and cares of this life, and that day come upon you suddenly like a trap. 35 For it will come upon all who dwell on the face of the whole earth. 36 But stay awake at all times, praying that you may have strength to escape all these things that are going to take place, and to stand before the Son of Man.”

37 And every day he was teaching in the temple, but at night he went out and lodged on the mount called Olivet. 38 And early in the morning all the people came to him in the temple to hear him. (Luke 21:29–38 ESV)

The disciples — and let’s face it, us — constantly ask Jesus: “When is the time? Who will be saved? Will many be saved? How, then, can anyone be saved?” We want answers. We want assurances. Both that we’re in, but also that someone else is out.

We we want to know who our neighbors are, and who they aren’t.

But Jesus doesn’t play our game, naming names. When we ask him for certain answers — “Lord, will those who are saved be few?” (Luke 13:23) — he doesn’t say yes or no. He tells us to busy ourselves with the work of our own salvation. Don’t worry about who is saved — live like someone who wants to be saved. Who is saved.

I think this is what Jesus means when he tells us to “stay awake.” (Though I have been awake for the last couple of hours, and I wonder — with the teens I am parenting and ministering to, if I will ever get a complete night of sleep again.) If you don’t know when the day is coming, it’s best to just live like someone who is ready.

My boss, a district general manager who wanders his district a lot, does something like this. He doesn’t tell anyone that he’s coming to visit our offices because he doesn’t want us to get ready. He wants us to be ready, all the time, to make an account of ourselves, to show that we are working as we have been trained and taught. (Do I stack up? You’ll have to ask him.)

To live like the day will always be today, that the trap will always be strung, that the district general manager will always show up and ask hard questions, is to be ready. And that, I believe, is what Jesus is asking of us. Always be ready. Live like you are ready. Love God and love your neighbor, bear witness to the goodness and grace that is God’s kingdom. That is what it means to be ready.

That is what it means to stay awake.