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Personal, Pastoral and Political

I’ve been pondering about my presence on social media lately.  Interestingly it was the Women’s March that prompted it.  I did quite a bit of thinking before attending the march, sorting out my thoughts.  On the way to NYC my 17 year old daughter, along with some of the other people we went with, asked, “Why aren’t you wearing your [clerical] collar?”  I answered,  “Well, I’ not going to this march as a pastor.  I’m going as a ‘regular’ person.”  They responded that they thought it would be a great message to wear it and show that the Church was supporting people, but I told them that I didn’t think it would be appropriate.  If I were going with a church group that would be different, but in this case I just didn’t think it was right.  Not for me anyway.  (I saw many pictures of pastors at the marches and I have no judgment about the decision they made – I did what was right for me.)

Since then I’ve had a few occasions to reflect on the distinction between what I do as a pastor and what I do as private person separate from my calling/occupation – as well as my presence on social media as a person and pastor. The United States’ 2016 election has especially brought this to the forefront since I have become more vocal than I have probably ever been  in my whole life.  My mother has reminded me a few times recently that I’m a “pastor,” and although I’m not quite sure what she means when she says this, I guess she means that as a pastor perhaps I shouldn’t be so loud about my political views.

There are no clear-cut rules for what a pastor can and cannot do or say politically, although there is a LAW regarding non-profit organizations (which churches are).  A church cannot endorse any political candidate or party, which I wrote about in this post before the election.  As I wrote then, I completely agree with this.  But other than this law, there isn’t a lot of guidance.  Through my years in ministry (this year I’ll celebrate the 22nd anniversary of my ordination), I have come up with some guidelines for myself, which, like all things in life, are still a work in progress.

1.  I will never stand in the pulpit and endorse anyone EVER (even if it wasn’t against the law I’d still think it was wrong).

2.  As a pastor I’m called to serve people of all political leanings.  I have parishioners who are solidly liberal and those who are firmly conservative.  I know there are people in my congregation who voted for different parties.  I am pastor to all of them.  And as their pastor I love all of them.  Even if we may not always understand one another perfectly we ARE called to love one another.  And on the personal side I am not one who lives in an “echo chamber.”  I have friends and loved ones who vote and think differently than I do.  This is good for me and them.  Being with and relating to people who think differently than we do helps us clarify what we believe and at the same time learn from each other.  I have been challenged at times, made to expand my thinking, and even proven wrong and admitted it. Sadly, I think this kind of give-and-take is sorely lacking in our current political climate and both the left and the right are to blame.  We have to find a way to talk WITH one another instead of “over” and “past” each other, and foster relationships rather than making excuses to not like each other.  I take Jesus’ call to love my neighbor seriously, and that includes my liberal neighbor, my conservative neighbor, my socialist neighbor, my libertarian neighbor and my non-political neighbor.

3.  As a “regular person” I am, however, entitled to have political/personal opinions/beliefs and express them.  For me, it is ALSO the case that my opinions/beliefs are grounded in my faith in Jesus.  As a Christian, Jesus calls me to love my neighbor, care for the sick, feed the hungry, welcome the stranger, clothe the naked, visit the imprisoned, provide for the orphan and widow etc… (John 13:34 and Matthew 25:31-40).  Sometimes these issues are brought up in our national life as Americans – and when they are, I will do my best as a disciple of Jesus and as a pastor to stand for what he has taught and commanded.  To say as a “pastor” I shouldn’t speak up (or get political) when I see injustice done to my neighbor is to ask me not only to neglect my vocation as a pastor, but my call as a Christian.

4.  Social media is great and awful at the same time.  For example, when I set up my Facebook account there were very few guidelines for pastors and professional people on how to do this.  Now, my denomination (ELCA) gives very helpful guidelines, but it’s hard to go backwards.  My denomination recommends that pastors not “friend” people in their congregations, and I understand that completely.  Sometimes social media is a good outlet to vent with friends (especially those far away) – but parishioners may not feel comfortable reading their pastor’s rants or not want to know so much about their pastor’s political or personal views.  I haven’t really gotten any pushback from my congregation because I have been with them for a long time and I (hope!) they know I love them and that our relationship is based on more than posts on social media or political/personal views.  But I would’ve done things very differently if I had known then what I know now.  If I go to a new congregation I will create separate professional social media accounts to give both my parishioners and me some space from each other while still cultivating a supportive sharing dialog.    It’s a new world that we’re all still trying to maneuver, me included.

I have a feeling this isn’t the last time I’ll be pondering on these things.  I think everyone could stand a little reflection on where our views/beliefs come from, how we can best live them out, and how we relate to those with different views.  How do we proclaim what we believe in love?  How do we love our neighbor with whom we disagree?  What are the lines we cannot cross?  And even then, how do we love our enemies?  I’m still working on this, sometimes getting it right, sometimes failing.  That’s discipleship.

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Rising from the rubble

Last month I took the trip of a lifetime – at least for me.  As a 50th birthday present my husband gifted me with a Lutheran Church nerd’s dream – a “footsteps of Martin Luther” tour.

What surprised me though was that of all the things I saw and places I went, what moved me the most had really no direct connection to Martin Luther at all.  It was in the city of Dresden –  specifically, the Frauenkirche (Church of our Lady). The Frauenkirche had been one of the focal points of the city until it, and much of the Dresden, was destroyed in the allied firebombing of February of 1945 during World War II.  Only two small sections of the building remained upright.  And while some of the city was rebuilt after the war, the East German government which had control over Dresden decided to let the church remain in ruins as a memorial against war.  Here is how the church looked for FORTY FIVE years.

Frauenkirche ruins, 1967. photographer unknown

Frauenkirche ruins, 1967. photographer unknown

translation: The biggest puzzle in the world. photo: Penny Davis

translation: The biggest puzzle in the world. photo: Penny Davis

Before the Berlin Wall came down and Germany was unified, there was talk of rebuilding the church, but after the Wall came down, plans moved forward rapidly.  The people wanted the Frauenkirche back!  And not only did they want to rebuild it – they wanted it rebuilt exactly the way it was – and they decided to use as many of the original stones as possible.  In the square around the church, each stone was examined to find out if it was still structurally sound, and then marked so it could be determined the place it once held in the building. In the picture on the right, our guide was showing us a magazine cover story from the time that illustrated just how complicated a process it was.  Can you imagine the effort put forth to do this?  I was amazed.  More than amazed.  I was utterly moved by the determination and devotion of the people involved in this massive project.   It is a testament to the people’s faith and persistence that this building would rise from the ashes and rubble to proclaim God’s glory.  A literal resurrection.  I was speechless before I ever walked in.  The picture below is what the Frauenkirche looks like today.

467-dresden-frauenkircheBecause the church was made of sandstone, which darkens as it ages, you can easily tell the original stones that survived the bombing.  The dark stones are original, put back in the places they once occupied before the bombing, while all the lighter stones are new.  In a few hundred years we won’t be able to tell the difference, which is at once joyous and sad, in my opinion.  The healing of wounds is a wondrous achievement and gift, but to stand tall with scars is a testament to strength and faith.  I’m glad that the church has a museum which tells the story of its destruction and rebuilding as well as a monument in the worship space itself, which will continue to tell its story, long after the war torn stones and those crafted afterwards are indistinguishable.

The inside of the church was also rebuilt exactly as it had been, or as close to “exact” as humanely possible.  While its Baroque style wouldn’t usually move me, it was impossible for me NOT to be moved by the incredible attention to detail, the bright pastel colors, and the stunning dome.  I entered, like most of the tourists, and took picture upon picture.  I AM that tourist.  But I am also a person of faith.  So after walking around respectfully and quietly (as did all those present, we were in a church after all) – after taking it all in, I sat in a pew to pray.

474-dresden-frauenkircheI prayed in almost every church I visited on this trip, except when we were ushered through quickly by tour guides. But the Frauenkirche was the end point of the tour that day.  There was nowhere I had to go.  So I sat – and prayed – and sobbed.

I sobbed for the thousands who died in the firebombing.  I sobbed for the horror of war and the lessons stubborn humanity has yet to learn.  I sobbed for 45 years of ruins and rubble.  I sobbed for the struggle and perseverance of the people under the East German government.  I sobbed for the sheer tenacity of the people determined, not just to rebuild, but to rebuild it as it was.  I sobbed for those who did not live to see this house of God rise again.  And I sobbed for my own life’s pains, that in comparison seemed so small.  Yet I also sobbed for the backbreaking work I have done (and continue to do) with God’s grace as my strength, to rise from the rubble and stand.

492-dresden-frauenkirche

the Frauenkirche’s original spire

In that sobbing moment, the Frauenkirche became a symbol for me, a symbol of the resurrection.  Of course the resurrection of Christ is God’s power pure and unaided, while the Frauenkirche’s resurrection was the work of the people – but it was work inspired and empowered by God.  Indeed, I felt God ALL around me in that place, in a way difficult to explain, and in a way I have felt in very few other places in my life.  It’s as if the space embraced ALL the pain and joy of human life simultaneously.  I honestly did not want to leave, and I didn’t for a long time.

Near the church’s exit is the monument I alluded to a few paragraphs above.  It is the original spire which adorned the top of the steeple.  It’s a twisted mass of metal, melted and crushed by the heat and debris of those February days in 1945.  At its base, people leave candles which say “peace be with you.”  There can be no more profound sentiment with which to leave this sacred space than peace; a deep well of God’s peace despite all the horror that happened there.  In addition to this peace of God, I also left the Frauenkirche with a new commitment to “worldly” peace – a resolve to bring an end to rubble and ruin, to the evil we humans are capable of inflicting upon one another.  For both the peace of God and worldly peace will never condone evil – indeed, the hope of peace inspires us to work for peace.

The Frauenkirche has changed me, profoundly.  I believe I’ll be figuring out the “how” of that change for the rest of my days…

No signs on my lawn

My sixteen year old asked me a question recently that stirred up great debate between all three of my children and me as we were riding in the car.

16:  Mom, why don’t we put a [political] sign on our lawn?

   gary_johnson_two_evils_yard_sign trump steinhillary-clinton-yard-sign

Me:  We can’t.

16:  What do you mean “We can’t?”

Me:  We live in a church-owned home, and because it’s church property, not our private property, we can’t.  It’s the separation of church and state.

16:  That’s not fair.  We should be able to tell people what we believe!

Me:  As individuals that’s true.  And if you want to put a sign on your bedroom door IN the house, or a sticker on your phone, or wear a t-shirt “go for it.”  But we can’t put a sign on church property.

All three chimed in, agreeing with their sister that it wasn’t fair, and that they have as much right as the neighbors do to advertise their allegiances.  They felt penalized for living in a church home since it stifled their desire to advertise. Understanding that they didn’t sign up for being pastors’ kids, I sympathized with their dilemma.  But that doesn’t change the reality.

Anyone who knows me personally knows I can be very outspoken.  I don’t think anyone who is my friend on Facebook or follows me on Twitter could wonder about my political leanings.  But stating opinions on my personal Facebook profile is ENTIRELY different than putting a sign on the parsonage lawn or talking about how I think people should vote from the pulpit.  Even on Facebook I have not and will not tell people who or who not to vote for – I think that’s wrong anyway, leaving the pastoral aspect out of it completely.  I may be very vocal about who I’m not voting for (believe it or not I haven’t said who will get my vote), but I leave your decision up to you.

I take the separation of Church and State very seriously.  Some pastors skirt the edge.  They can’t cross it because of something called the Johnson Amendment, which you can read about.  Some even support a certain candidate in this presidential election because they promise to do away with the Johnson Amendment (I leave you to discover which one).  I think that’s dangerous.  In our much of our society religious institutions still hold an important place.  In some congregations what the pastor says “goes” because they are very authoritarian.  For a pastor (or rabbi or imam…) to stand in worship, where their words carry significant weight, and TELL people who they should vote for – and in some cases that they’re damned if they don’t – is just WRONG.  In the Christian tradition, the pulpit is the place for Jesus to be preached – and while Jesus was certainly political, he was political in the sense of fighting for those who were the “least of these” NOT those in power.  Jesus would throw his weight behind the poor and homeless, not Clinton or Trump.  If churches are able to put up political signs in front of their buildings and raise money for candidates, we become instruments of Caesar, not Jesus.

I’ve been a pastor for over 20 years.  Sometimes the restriction of the Johnson Amendment has been frustrating, as it is now.  But I am not sorry for it.  It keeps me true to the gospel instead of my own desire for political power or to hold undue influence over others.  It doesn’t mean I won’t talk about larger issues within politics – after all, I just said Jesus was political.  But there is a BIG difference between saying, “Jesus calls us to serve the poor, so what are we doing about it?” and, “Vote for ‘so-and-so.'”  One is a call to action, inspired by Jesus, for the sake of others – the other is a call to create a political base for the consolidation and promotion of a certain political power.  As a pastor, I am called to do the one, but not the other.  And if the other option becomes more important to me, then I should resign my position.  Now, one is certainly able to be a “Rev” and run for office in a political party – look at Mike Huckabee or Jessie Jackson.  But they do NOT serve specific congregations.  And if I lived in my own home instead of a church-owned home I could litter my yard with signs, but that is not the case, much to my children’s dismay.

So, if you’re my literal neighbor, and wondering why you haven’t seen a sign on my lawn, now you know.

What’s an “UNCO?”

I recently attended a very different kind of professional conference.  Normally when I go to these kinds of things I go to hear someone speak, almost like taking a class at school.  An organization pays someone (or a group) to share their expertise on a certain topic or topics, so I attend with the expectation of listening and taking lots of notes.

At the conference I attended last week, called an “UN”Conference – or UNCO – the model is the opposite.  At this “unconference” the agenda is not known ahead of time (although there is a group of conveners who set a schedule and guide the participants in keeping to it (more or less) but grows organically from the people who are gathered.  I showed up with a completely open mind, not knowing how I would participate or what I would learn, but I had been told by many people that it was a fantastic experience both professionally and personally.  I trusted their word and opened my mind.  Here’s how it went…

PART I

Lots of topic ideas! How to break them down?

lots of topic ideas! How to break them down?

On the first afternoon/night of the UNCO, attendees are invited to share topics and/or struggles they’re interested in or wondering about. No topic is too “boring” or too “wild.”  At the UNCO I attended there was a HUGE poster in the front of our large gathering room where people could write their ideas for topics.  We had all afternoon and evening to do it.  Once this is done, the conveners try to discern which of these topics they can “lump together” and which “have legs” (a popular phrase at this UNCO), because it’s hoped at the end that a few of these topics will “have legs” and lead to further online discussion or even a tangible resource that can be shared.

 

PART II

UNCO breakout sessions

UNCO breakout sessions

The next morning the ideas are discussed by everyone and broken down into a manageable number of categories that become small group “breakout sessions.” People are then free to choose which sessions to attend depending on their interest.  The UNCO I attended had 15 (1 empty slot) sessions across an afternoon, 4 sessions meeting at a time.  There is a facilitator at each session – someone to take notes, keep the conversation going, and to make sure that no one person dominates the discussion.  Each of these breakout sessions are an hour(ish) long, with space built into the schedule if people feel like they need more time.  At this UNCO there was free time built into the schedule in the late afternoon before dinner.  People were free to nap, have informal conversation, explore the retreat center (including a wonderful labyrinth), or gather to continue any discussions from earlier in the day.

 

PART III

15 groups, down to 4

15 groups, down to 4

On day three we began once more gathered as a whole.  A very brief summary of each breakout session was given by those who were part of the discussion, and answered the question, “does this have legs?”  Sometimes the answer was, “We had a wonderful discussion and shared a lot of thoughts/ideas, but that’s about it.”  Other times the answer was, “We came up with some ideas on how to take this topic farther, so YES!”  Out of the 15 breakout sessions at my UNCO, there were four groups that felt their topic might have legs.  After we whittled the 15 down to four, we had one more breakout session – with each of us having the chance to chose one of those four groups to attend, in which we would figure out how to give the topic legs.

The question, “does this have legs?” is crucial to the whole UNCO idea.  The purpose of the gathering is not just for people to sit around and talk – it’s for people to talk, but then figure out what they can DO.  The idea is to leave UNCO with homework, both individually and as a group.  The idea is for something to come out of the time that has been spent together.

PART IV

IMG_0685After this final breakout session, and after lunch, the whole group meets again to discuss the “legs” – the ideas for how to carry the topics into the future in concrete ways.  The UNCO group is pretty organized online, and much of the “concrete way” is a continued conversation, gathering of resources and SHARING resources online since most of the participants are coming from different parts of the county (at the UNCO I attended outside of New York City, people came from as far away as Minnesota and Texas!).  One of the ideas at the UNCO I attended has already taken shape, and that is a support network for clergy. The other will be a resource for rituals of transition for different parts of life, a way for the Church to acknowledge “secular” personal life events of people within the community of faith – events like the first cell phone, getting a drivers’ license, relinquishing a drivers’ license, moving to assisted living etc…

At the UNCO I attended worship always began our work together – at the first gathering and welcome and in the next two mornings before our work began.   Worship was also born organically from the participants.  At registration we indicated if we’d be willing to help with worship, and once there we brought whatever instruments we could play and planned worship with one another.  My UNCO had wonderful people who played piano, guitar, ukulele, clarinet and saxophone, as well as a professional gospel singer!  But worship also concluded our time together – prayer for the work accomplished, the work still before us, for the new friendships made and for safe travels as we departed.

IMPRESSIONS

IMG_0696It really was a wonderful experience.  I met a lot of new colleagues in ministry, almost ALL of whom were from different denominations than mine.  It was good to support, share and learn with colleagues from the United Methodist, Presbyterian, UCC and Baptist traditions, as well as meeting a fellow Lutheran from Minnesota!  It was profound to cross these boundaries, share common joys and fears, and work together.

This model of conference (or “UNconference”), while respecting each person’s right NOT to talk, does a good job at opening up even pretty strong introverts, so that people don’t spend three days with their heads down, pen to paper – but looking up and talking and listening as other participants share.  The UNCO assumes that we all have knowledge and expertise to share with one another, and that from interacting with each other we can come up with ideas for specific situations we’re concerned about or in which we find ourselves.  The free time built in the schedule is helpful for continuing conversation, but also for making new friends as we bond around our love for Jesus and our desire to serve.  Well worth the time and effort.  I hope to be back next year!

Click here if you would like more information about UNCO.  They hold two gatherings a year – one on the east coast and one on the west…

 

a scare and the word I needed to hear

So a funny thing happened as I was getting my mammogram.  Well actually it wasn’t very funny.  At all.

I had gotten the standard x-rays and been sent to my cubicle to get dressed.  The technician would come get me after the doctor gave me the all-clear and I’d be able to go on my way.  Except that’s not how it happened.  The technician returned to me and said that the doctor wanted two more pictures.  At first I was annoyed because I thought the technician had somehow screwed up the initial series, but when I stepped into her room I noticed the machine was set up for an angle she hadn’t used before.  She took THAT picture then changed the plastic piece to a very small square one,  concentrating on one area of my right breast.  I got concerned.  When she was done, she told me she wanted me to stay in the x-ray room, keep the gown on, and wait for her to come back after she had shown these additional pictures to the doctor.  Now I was nervous.  “Keep the gown on.”  “Wait here.”  Neither of those things sounded good to me.

She returned to the room, and said as sweetly as she could that the doctor had seen something, probably nothing, and that he wanted me to go down the hall to have an ultrasound of the breast.  Annoyed to nervous to terrified.  As I waited for the ultrasound I had time to text my husband – one of the weirdest texts I’ve ever sent.  I hated to tell him like that, but with little time and no access to a phone it was the best I could do.

IMG_0290

The ultrasound technician came and introduced herself with a sweet smile – trying to be reassuring.  I wondered how many times in a day they go through this routine with some unsuspecting woman.  I didn’t feel reassured.  I was wishing someone else was with me – my husband, a friend – someone to hold my hand and steady me.  As the technician escorted me down the hall to the ultrasound room I grew more and more anxious, beside myself even.  I felt myself shaking.  I didn’t want to cry in front of these strangers, but I could feel the tears welling.  Suddenly time started moving very slowly.  Our walk down the hall seemed to take forever.

I lay on the exam table as she maneuvered the wand over my right breast, pushing, pausing, moving etc…  I thought I might have a panic attack right there.  I knew I needed to calm myself, so I started some self-talk.

  • “If there is or isn’t something there, it’s already there, this panic isn’t going to change anything so calm down.”
  • “You just got a gyn exam three weeks ago.  Dr. W. examined your breasts and didn’t feel anything.  If something IS there it must be very small – and small is good.”

And then, I was reminded of my very own words in my sermon this past Sunday – “God comes to us in the midst of our FEAR and speaks PEACE.  ‘PEACE be with you.'”  In the midst of our fear Jesus speaks peace.  I was certainly afraid.  Very afraid.  Could I say those words to myself?  In the midst of this real fear could I accept Jesus’ words of peace for me?  Or was it just an empty platitude?  Very seldom had I ever had to put my own words (AND Jesus’ words) to the test in such a very serious way.

I said just two days ago that peace would not change the circumstances around us, but that peace could change us.  “Peace be with you,” Jesus was speaking to me.  I repeated it like a mantra – “peace be with you” – over and over and over as I lay on that table, eyes closed, while that wand pushed, paused and moved.  Then the self-talk changed, ever so slightly, but really quite substantially.

  • “God is with me, no matter what’s in my breast.”
  • “God is with me no matter what happens today.”
  • “I have peace through Jesus whether I walk out of here healthy or not.”
  • “Peace be with you.  Peace be with you.  Peace be with you.  Peace be with ME.”

And my breathing slowed.  And the tears dried.  And I was still scared, but it wasn’t like panic.  Even when the technician paused the ultrasound and went to get the doctor, and the doctor came in person to do his own pushing, pausing and moving.  I didn’t know a lot, but I knew I had Jesus and his peace.

Then the doctor told me I was fine.  I WAS FINE.

What he had seen on the x-rays and ultrasound was simply very dense tissue.  To say I was (and am) relieved is an understatement.  I felt physically lighter.  I felt like dancing.  I could’ve hugged the man, but he left the room before I sat up.  Before he left, he said to me, what I say to all of you women – and those who have women in your lives – “Remember, it’s important to get checked EVERY year.”  Amen.

Never in my 20+ years of preaching have I had the words loom so large over me.  There was FEAR, and there was PEACE.  After I calmed down a bit I was amazed really, and can only chalk it up to the work of the Holy Spirit.  Days after preaching about fear, even fear for our own health, I was confronted with exactly that, and was able to find Jesus’ words, Jesus’ peace, to calm me – to center me.  And I was/am SO thankful.

So – a few hours removed I’m still a little shaky, still reliving most of the morning, trying to allow the experience to find whatever more permanent place it will have in my life.  A scare like this can be a good thing – keep us on our toes, remind us to be grateful, remind us what is really important (and what is NOT), remind us that life is precious and that we are never (despite how we may feel) alone.


Women – if you’re over a certain age – get your mammograms.  Those of you who LOVE women over a certain age – make sure they get them.

law and gospel

As I shared in a post last week, for part of my Lenten discipline this year I’m taking time for personal devotional reading each day.  Specifically I’m focusing on  Daily Readings from Luther’s Writings, selected and edited by Barbara Owen, published by Augsburg (Minneapolis) in 1993.  As I was reading this morning, I came across the following entry and was instantly drawn in (it’s found on p. 98).

“The law indeed was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.”  John 1:17

“It is proper that the Law and God’s Commandments provide me with the correct directives for life; they supply me with abundant information about righteousness and eternal life.  The Law is a sermon which points me to life, and it is essential to remember this instruction.  But it must be borne in mind that the Law does not give me life.  It resembles a hand which directs me to the right road… Thus the Law serves to indicate the will of God, and it leads us to a realization that we cannot keep it.  It also acquaints us with human nature, with its capabilities, and with its limitations.  The Law was given to us for the revelation of sin; but it does not have the power to save us from sin and rid us of it.” Luther’s Works, Sermons on the Gospel of St. John (1537-40) LW 22, 143-44

Law and Gospel

We talk a lot about “Law and Gospel” especially in the Lutheran branch of Christianity.  It’s an eye-opening way to look at Scripture, a profound way to orient our thinking and believing, and it is the foundation of my preaching. Clergy use the phrase frequently, but I wonder how good we are at actually explaining it to people.  As I read the above passage from Luther slowly and quietly this morning, it struck me that a lot of the chaos that exists in our culture and in our lives is there because we have lost sight of the distinction between law and gospel – because we think one can give us the other.  

Basically, VERY basically, the Law is that which convicts us, while the Gospel is that which saves us. The Law is the rules, the Gospel is the love.  Some incorrectly reach the conclusion that the Law is the Old Testament, while the Gospel is the New Testament (to be clear, there’s plenty of gospel in the Old, and a boat load of law in the New).

It’s a huge part of our cultural psyche that we’re self-sufficient and independent.  We pull ourselves up by our boot straps. We’re told that we’re rewarded justly for the effort we put into something.  Behave, play by the rules, work hard – and we’ll get what we deserve.  This thinking filters down to our lives as individuals as well.  We worship at the altar of “merit.”  We work hard to “deserve,” “earn” and “justify” the benefits of our hard work.  It seems natural then, that we apply this cultural worship with our religious faith.  Now, there are many faiths which DO focus on how our actions impact both our earthly and eternal fates – but Christianity is NOT one of them.

Christianity tells us that there is nothing we can do to earn our salvation; our salvation comes through Christ’s sacrifice only.  And that can be hard to swallow.  There is a huge chasm between the “do it yourself” culture and Christian faith which says, “you can’t.”  Many have tried to bridge this chasm by blurring the distinction between law and gospel, believing that somehow our actions DO impact on our salvation.  Others live with a certain contradiction – saying “Jesus saves,” while also saying that if a person behaves a certain way they aren’t saved.  Luther’s quote above is very helpful, because it doesn’t negate the power of the Law.  But it puts the power of the Law in its proper place.  I want to highlight a few key words (at least key for me):

The Law is a sermon which points me to life, and it is essential to remember this instruction.  But it must be borne in mind that the Law does not give me life… The Law was given to us for the revelation of sin; but it does not have the power to save us from sin and rid us of it.

We NEED the Law; the law holds a very important place for us because it guides us in life and faith.  It holds up the ideal to us of community and individual life.  As Luther described, the Law is the hand which directs us.  And because the Law is the ideal, its function is to show us where/when/how/who we have failed.

The Law does not give me life – it does not have the power to save me from sin.

The Law guides my life, shows me where/when/how/who I’ve sinned, but can’t save me from it.  That function belongs the the GOSPEL.  The Gospel proclaims God’s love for us even while we sin.  The Gospel tells us that through Jesus sin and death have no power over us.  The Gospel tell us that precisely because of our inability to keep the Law, Jesus died and rose again for us.  The Gospel proclaims God’s love and grace in both the Old and New Testaments.  The Gospel is also the very person of Jesus Christ. Without the Law, the Gospel means nothing – we have no need of it.  Without the Gospel, we are utterly condemned by the Law.  They each have their place in our lives, but it’s dangerous to confuse them. When we do we can become selfish, not caring about our actions, thinking “anything goes” – or we shut doors on people, hurting them with our judgments; also hurting ourselves, when we’re left wondering if we’re good enough, if we’ve done enough, if we’ve believed enough for God to save us.

The Law is certainly an indispensable part of the word of God, but the Gospel has the LAST word.

what I’m doing for Lent

As I shared in my sermon a few days ago, my attitude has been negative lately.  There has been some stress at home and at church.  The political situation in the United States has been very upsetting to me and I’ve been posting and sharing a lot of links on Facebook and Twitter, especially regarding Donald Trump and Ted Cruz.  I could go on and on about it, but I won’t – because I decided that my Lenten focus this year will be on allowing God to transfigure my attitude.

I could’ve picked something easier, like giving up chocolate or staying away from fast food.  It wouldn’t be easy, but it would be easier.  Because controlling an outward physical thing you put in your mouth is A LOT easier than controlling what you allow in your mind and heart and what comes out of your mouth. (ref. Matthew 15: 11)

But that’s more what the spirit of Lent is about.  Reflecting, taking stock, looking in the mirror behind the pretty face to the bits of ugliness we’ve allowed into our souls.  Cleaning house.  Sorting through what keeps us from a fuller relationship with God and our neighbor and getting rid of it – hopefully not just for the 40+ days of Lent.  The ideal is to start a practice during Lent and have it for the rest of our lives. Really, what would be the point of setting a goal to be kinder for Lent, only to return to being mean once Easter arrives?

So here are the guidelines I’m working on for myself for Lent this year.  It’s not perfect or complete, but it’s a work in progress just like me.

  • I will read a little bit every day for personal devotional time.  I’ve gotten out of the practice of personal devotional time and that is not helpful.  This reading will be separate and apart from sermon preparation, because sermon preparation is neither personal or devotional since it has the intentional focus of something that will become quite public.  I’m going to be using Daily Readings from Luther’s Writings, selected and edited by Barbara Owen, published by Augsburg Fortress in 1993.  It’s been gathering dust on my bookshelf, so I’ve dusted it off and hope to find new meaning in it.
  • I will monitor how I consume and share social media.  This will be HARD.  My Facebook and Twitter timelines are FILLED with memes and links to articles, some of which are informative and important, especially in the current political season.  But they also make me angry and suspicious. Hatred of diversity is rampant.  Those who say they follow Christ aren’t acting like Christ.  Hypocrisy is more blatant than ever.  The political dialog isn’t dialog at all, just “talking at” people.  I could go on and on – which is part of my problem. There is a need to stand up to those who misrepresent Jesus. There is a need to call out hatred and injustice that masks as leadership or a desire to “protect” people.  I cannot sit by silent when part of my call as a baptized child of God is to serve, value and lift up the “least of these.”  But in the process of standing up for others I can’t allow myself to be dragged down in the mud and become like those I protest against.  Sinking to their level is not an option that is healthy for me (or for anyone else I think).  I can’t stop reading the news or sharing it, but I have to be stricter about monitoring my sources and the amount.  Perhaps just a handful of sources that are more bipartisan and only checking the news a few times a day instead of  throughout the day which social media makes so easy.  This will be a balancing act for sure – but balance is good.  Without it we fall.
  • I will be more conscious of the joy that is around me.  Too many times we think we have to “find” something to make us happy, or that “thing” that will bring us joy.  We search and search and many times the things we’re searching for are right in front of us, we just haven’t paid attention.  It’s there. We just have to see it better.  To use a Glennon Melton word, I have to better use my “perspectacles” (get it?  perspective & spectacles).  My husband and I had a wonderful talk this morning.  We shared what we were each going to do with our Lent.  He asked how he could support me.  Joy.  He told he made a thoughtless comment about me to someone the other day and asked for my forgiveness. Joy. My son gave me the biggest hug this morning when he woke up.  Joy.  I have food in my fridge. Joy.  I have a God who loves me.  Joy.

Many consider Lent to be a depressing time.  It’s actually one of my favorite seasons of the Church year. Why? Because self-examination is good for us.  Not just to “do whatever feels good,” but to think about what is really good for us.  And realizing through this self-examination that everything isn’t just “about” us either.  Our thoughts and actions have real consequences that ripple out to others.  And Lent also prepares us to receive with even greater joy the ultimate gift of Easter – when love conquered sin and death.  Plus, our culture hasn’t figured out a way to “sell” Lent yet, so it’s generally free of the consumerism that surrounds Christmas and Easter.

So blessed Lent to all of you who observe – and prayers for you on however you plan to take this journey.

Soli Deo Gloria.

lent