Tag Archives: Christianity

Ministry by Inches

Years ago, a teacher joined the Army chaplaincy. He was idealistic, hungry, and ambitious. He dreamed of adventure and glory. He had visions of going to war, preaching – Billy Graham style – and flocks of war-torn Soldiers would come to Jesus. If he was really honest, he kinda hoped he’d get a chance to shoot a terrorist or two too. He was a wandering fundamentalist. He had been through 9/11 and had grieved those days. He had been denied entry to combat troops but waited his turn, bided his time, went into seminary and found a place in the front lines as a Chaplain.

He believed the rhetoric that Iraq was a just war. A war to defend the homeland.

So he went. And he learned. And he fought. And he returned a different man. He was changed. He saw the world differently. He came away disenfranchised and disillusioned, haunted by the thought that maybe, just maybe, it wasn’t as he had been told. Maybe, just maybe, this was a hollow sacrifice.

He had seen so much death. So much destruction. So much sacrifice and so much heroism. Men who laid it all on the line for the men under him. Women, leaving traditional gender roles and heroically owning their space on the battlefield. He saw an America he didn’t think existed. One funded by massive amounts of cash. An America that seemed happy to contract out essential services and creating a proxy second class. A class that bowed their heads  and got off the sidewalk when Americans walked by. A real, no-kidding two class system with haves and have nots. It shocked him. He didn’t know what to do with that. He experienced the American Soldier, at once a hero, the best of their country, and also terrible, awful people capable of all manner of evil. Over the years, nose to the grindstone, he witnessed a country unsure of what to do with their sons and daughters who became warriors. They seemed to care but abdicated their role in holding civilian leadership accountable for sending them to war. It seemed all to easy to focus on killing the marginalized in some other place and thus ignore the chaos brewing at home.

The tension exploded in him. The fundamentals of his youth did not answer the questions swirling in his head. His journey brought him to this conclusion – violence only begets more violence.

He toyed with pacifism. But it wasn’t for him.

However, he saw truth in the ancient Zoroastrian thought, “Violence can beget fear, stalemate, annihilation, dominance, or more violence, but it cannot beget love, justice, abundant life, community or peace.” (From Saving Paradise by Brock and Parker)

But his life was at the margin of violence. Sometimes, he was in the middle of it but mostly, he operated on the margin. Men and women for all sorts of reasons (few having to actually do with defending America) had volunteered to do violence and his role was to ensure they had the free exercise of religion while they did it. He was also expected to advise commanders of the morale and morals of their Soldiers while being the voice for ethical prosecution of said violence.

It tore at his soul.

Who am I kidding? It tears at my soul. It is at once terrifying and exhilarating to know the power at the disposal of the US Army. It is empowering to know what kind of violent force can be brought to the table by a battalion of Soldiers. But, oh the tension. The pain in my heart when I take seriously the teachings of Jesus and the reality of my work.

How does serving as a Chaplain in the most effective expeditionary land Army the world has ever seen mesh with “bringing Soldiers to God and God to Soldiers?”

For me, its only possible in the inches. When I step back and look at the meta, the over all strategy, it is overwhelming and sometimes depressing. When I focus on the steps in front of me, the inches and the margins, I see great ministry. I see God walking with Soldiers as they muddle through. Sometimes, its me doing the muddling and my Soldiers revealing God to me.

guitar on the roadThe crowds never happened for me. Most services I do are very small. Today I did four. At two of them, it was me and one other person. That is the nature of this work. Its one at a time. Person to person. It’s me walking from gun crew to gun crew, a troubled marriage here, a struggling spirit there. This one wonders if the God of his youth is still worth believing in. This one has the heartbreak of a poor choices impacting her life. This one wonders if they were just crazy joining the Army and are, frankly, frightened of what comes next.

They speak to me in the darkness, in smoke breaks, and walking along the trail. Drinking a hot cup of coffee, they sigh deeply and wonder aloud if any of their sacrifice and effort are worth it.

Its a question I ask.

I’m not sure I know the answer but I know the path to find it. I know grief and I know sorrow. I know the inches and the margins.

And I’ll walk with them. Every step of the way.

Perhaps that is the ministry I seek from the Holy Spirit. To walk with me in the inches and margins.

Every step of the way.

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An Ally Every. Single. Day.

Back in February, I “came out” as it were as an “open and affirming” chaplain. It’s had an interesting effect on my ministry. Over the last few months, after leaving the prison and going to my mid-career Army chaplain school, it’s been revealing just what that means for me.

1. It means being an ally every day – for example, yesterday, when I took this picture in front of the Circular Church in Charleston, SC, one chaplain made a comment about the “interesting colors.”

God is still speaking

I replied by saying how cool it was that when this church said they welcomed everyone, they meant it. Another chaplain made a comment about the size of the church, something like, “Well, no wonder they are dying since they left the truth” – or words to that effect. I gently questioned if he was saying that there were not conservative churches dying across the country? Then pointed out that this church, unlike many others, had been around since the 1600s.

 

Progressive Church

Conversation quickly moved on.

I’m not a quick-witted person; I wish I had zingers that I could throw out there, but I’ve realized that the best way to advocate for others is to simply tell the other story, counter the embedded narrative and to do it in love.

2. It means being gentle and allowing people to grow in their time. Not everyone is ready for their theology to be drastically confronted. To be clear, I am much harder on chaplains than any other group since they, of all people, should understand treating others with dignity and respect – and should be able to handle having their theology questioned. Sometimes, I’m gentle in poking holes in arguments or reflecting what a statement might sound like to an LGB* Soldier – other times, I just lay it out there and watch the sparks fly.

Either way, I try valiantly to couch all advocacy in love.

But bullying – that I confront. There is too much to loose.

3. It means saying it out loud. I’ve talked to more chaplains about this subject than any other. Saying, “Well, look. I’m open to everyone, if they would just talk to me, reach out to me, they would find that I’m a loving and caring individual.”

That’s not enough.

And it’s not going to happen.

Here’s the thing: when dealing with those who have been battered and bullied by theology and churches for this long – we need to be clear and direct about how we, as clergy, will interact with them. If you are truly welcoming, then say it and be specifically inclusive. Let people know who you are welcoming to, and how you will treat them when they come to you. Put up signs. Make statements.

Sign

4. It means being an ally for everyone. I have found that it’s not just LGB* Soldiers that need an ally – I try to use my limited status, power, and responsibility as an Army chaplain/officer to be an ally for all minority groups I come across. Minority faith groups need intentionality. Women, other ethnicities – it means separating from a joke, even the well meaning ones – because joking from a position of power and majority sounds an awful lot like bullying.

It means saying something.

And that is where it’s actually the hardest.

I think the most important lesson I’ve learned about being an O&A chaplain is this: being an advocate for others requires more than just big statements and signs on my door, it means taking the small opportunities to talk to others, challenging assumptions, and lovingly letting others know:

You are welcome here.

By the way, this blog inspired me to write this morning. Good thoughts.

*I say LGB since the Army has yet to allow Trans Soldiers to serve openly, though it’s looking at the problem.

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Billy Graham Library, A Mechanical Cow, and what unintentional prejudice looks like

Facepalm.

It was a total facepalm moment.

There I was, staring at the silly mechanical talking cow that was introducing me to the farming history of Billy Graham. It was a protestant chaplain field trip to the Billy Graham Museum, Charlotte NC. The opening exhibit is a full size talking cow that praises God and Billy Graham. Its four minutes of “halleluah-indnt-God-great-praise-Jesus-this-is-where-Billy-was-born” talk.

In the best stereotypical “Aunt Jemima” black woman voice I’ve heard… ever…

It’s the only distinctively black voice in the entire museum. The only one. Every other voice I heard was distinctively Caucasian. Mostly, who you hear speak are narrators and Billy Graham but they are all serious and they are all white.

The only levity in the whole place is the silly praising talking cow, in the barn, behind the fence. It’s meant to be funny, bring a smile, and appeal to the kiddos.

And it’s the only black voice.

In 2014.

Celebrating a man who worked diligently (at least that is certainly what the museum said in its various exhibits) at working toward reconciliation and bringing diversity to the world.

For what it’s worth, I seek to understand Billy Graham in the world in which he was raised, I give him great credit as a person who worked for and actually achieved reconciliation and diversity across the American religious landscape.

It’s what makes the decision to make the only person of color voice the silly, talking cow even worse.

And then there was the prayer.

Before we went in, an older man who works for the library wanted to pray for the large group of Army chaplains who was about the tour the museum. In his prayer, he passionately prayed for male chaplains who bring the gospel to male Soldiers. I know he didn’t mean to exclude the female chaplain who was there, I’m certain that he didn’t intend to exclude all the female Soldiers in the US Army – but he did.

This is why we, as Christians and certainly as chaplains have GOT to be more intentional about inclusive language. We need to name everyone.

I’m certain that the library didn’t intend to be prejudicial when they chose the black voice for the talking cow, I’m sure that when they respond to the letter I’m sending them, that they’ll talk about Billy’s dedication to diversity and reconciliation.

It just highlights how blind we white men tend to be when it comes to minorities. We are just unaware of who we leave out and what prejudice looks like.

We’re better than this.

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Filed under Army, Chaplaincy, Two Pastor Family

Hope

This last week, during counseling, one of my inmates made a profound observation about his life,

 “I know I’m going to make it, but right now really sucks.”

What a resilient statement. It’s a life-giving, hopeful statement. It’s based in reality. It is a recognition that he is full of sorrow and discouraged but, based on his past journeys through similar terrain, he knows that he’ll make it.

On the same day, Good Friday, I served Communion in the SHU. The SHU is the “specialized housing unit” 23 hour lockdown, solitary. Inmates end up there because they are having a difficult time getting along with others or obeying the rules. It is, by it’s nature, a depressing place. Inmates struggle back there. It is not a pleasant place to be. I put on my stole, filled individual communion cups, and took the trays into the SHU. The inmates are usually very respectful of my presence in there. They’ll stop their conversations and, particularly if I’m bringing communion, they’ll quietly prepare themselves for their turn.

The SHU becomes a sacred place. A place where God is present.

I move from cell to cell. The small feed tray is opened and I kneel down outside of it. Because of the low height of the open slot both myself and the inmate inside are in the kneeling position. Though a massive steel door separates us from one another, our faces are inches apart which creates a very intimate experience. Behind us, radios squawk, correctional specialist discuss what needs to be discussed, other inmates talk through their doors to one another, but in that sacred space between me and the inmate, God is there. I invite the inmate to confess whatever they need to God and then say amen out loud so I know to pray. When they are done (this can take a few seconds or even minutes as we kneel on the hard cement floor), I pray for them, myself, and the correctional staff. I thank God for the forgiveness promised in 1 John 1:9 and praise God for mercy and unmerited favor. I speak the words of institution:

“I will tell you the story as it was told to me, that the same night Jesus was betrayed, he took bread…”

We partake of communion together and end with the Lord’s prayer. Some of us have known each other so long now that they could recite the entire liturgy with me. When I finish, it is not uncommon for the inmate to have tears in their eyes. Yesterday, I ended with, “My friend and brother, it is Good Friday. Easter is Sunday. I’m so sorry that this will be your Easter.”

Over and over, they would say something like, “your right Chaplain, but God is here.”

Hope is so powerful. It can carry us though such hard times. It can give us strength to make it. It can endow us with the courage we need to see life as it is – tough, but we’ll make it. Hope is the very stuff of life.

When I hear hopeful statements like that, I am encouraged that growth is taking place. I am convinced that though it may be hard for them to experience it, they can see it in the Gospel. For that moment, that sacred moment, it’s going to work out.

Life is bigger than their suffering. 

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O Church, how limited you can be sometimes…

The Church is in constant need of reform. Recently, a fascinating conversation took place on my facebook page about the Independent Baptist Church movement. I am a product of that movement. I went to those schools, I was trained in that hermeneutic and learned my homiletics there as well. Like most who leave an all-encompassing movement like that, I did so because of intense personal hurt. When I needed grace, I got law. When I needed love and acceptance, I got rejection and judgement.

As a chaplain and pastor now for well over a decade, I have come to realize that this phenomenon is common to all institutions in the Kingdom of God. Heck, it’s not even unique to the Kingdom! Its an institutional thing. I’ve watched it happen in the Army and in other types of organizations.

Just as predictable as the cycle is, so to is the reality that reformation will come along as those involved follow Christ. At it’s best, the Church is a community that provides encouragement and support for everyone. It’s the whole, “no difference between the Jew/Greek/Male/Female/slave/free idea. I was so angry for so long at fundamentalism. Now, I accept them for who they are. I hope they grow. I hope they experience grace. I am sad often when I experience them bound by their rigidity. It is no more fair for me to judge them for their paradigm (limited though it be) then it is for them to judge me for mine.

I’m a believer that there is room for ALL of us in the Kingdom.

That said, I do not have time or space in my life for mean people. And I’ve experienced mean people everywhere.

Christianity, at it’s best, will be about love and authenticity.

During my CPE residency, I was given this illustration. It was very helpful to me.

Imagine you needed 75 cents for a coke and you went to your dad for that 75 cents. He reaches into his pocket and produces 50 cents. He offers it to you. You get angry, 50 cents is not enough! You need 75. Your father gets angry and says, “but this is all I have, I don’t have any more!” Hurt and pain ensues. You keep demanding 75 and your father only has 50 cents. It’s all he can give. You storm off determined to find it elsewhere. Your father sighs and collapses into his chair, broken that he did not have what you needed.

Later, you realize this reality and give grace to your father. He gave you what he had.

It’s how I now feel about fundamentalism. It gave me what it had. Admittedly, it was not enough and I was so hurt in the process and I’ve seen others very hurt. I’ve also seen great good in people. They try hard. Perhaps they could do  more. But then, who am i to judge. People would not be fundamentalists if it did not fill a need (or assuage a fear) in their lives. I hope they experience some grace. At least, they will get it from me.

In the prison context that I currently minister in, I minister to unchurched and barely churched most of the time. I often get the question, “why are there so many denominations?” There are many answers to that question but last night I drew this on the board to illustrate how movements become institutions in need of reform become movements that become institutions in need of reform, become movements….

Cycle of the Church

I hope my children extend the grace I need someday when they are experiencing the limitation of my theology…

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Filed under Peace, Theology

Post Christmas Feelings

My daughter was looking pensively out the window and my wife asked her what she was thinking, “Well,” she said, “sometimes Christmas just doesn’t feel the way I thought it would feel.” 

That happens sometimes doesn’t it. Sometimes, good things don’t entirely feel the way we thought it would feel or should feel or could feel. All those “coulds” and “shoulds” tend to just beat us up. Here’s the thing, Christmas is always best experienced in giving to others. The Holiday, at its best, celebrates the giving of the Divine to us humans. Thus, if a person really want to experience Christmas, it needs to get out of indulgence and into serving.
So, this, is Christmas.
“It is more blessed to give than to receive.” Not that there is not a blessing in receiving; it’s that the greater blessing comes through giving.

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Getting sucked into the Duck Disaster…

It wasn’t the interview. (I didn’t even know it was a thing until the memes started on my facebook feed. I don’t watch much tv and certainly not a show about rich people acting ignorant and poor when they are neither.)

It wasn’t what he said. (the man is entitled to an opinion and certainly free to share it)

It wasn’t him getting dismissed from the tv show. (the cable channel certainly have the right to retain those who represent their brand. Also, I don’t watch the show and have no attachment to it. If it was “Almost Human” on the other hand…)

It was the all the hullabaloo that started after. It was the perceived connection to religious freedom and the 1st Amendment right to free speech that got to me. It was the implication that somehow these statements about others (specifically African Americans and Homosexuals) represented Christ, Christianity and the Church.

They might represent Phil Robertson or maybe even his local church but they certainly do not represent me, my church, or my understanding of Christ.

Phil Robertson is my brother in Christ. We serve the same Lord. However, we might disagree on what exactly that looks like. And that’s ok. Frankly, the whole thing gave me opportunity to reflect on some things that are important to me. I like that about the internet and even Facebook. I did have a couple thoughts that I posted:

So… Here’s the thing. Freedom of speech is emphatically not the same thing as freedom from responsibility. The rich white guy certainly has the right to say what he wants and the rich entertainment company certainly has the right to fire him for it.
No one is losing their rights!!! They are just being held accountable.
Imagine that.

Followed by:

Also, before the band wagon really gets going, perhaps this could be considered,

– should a private company be forced to re-hire (or unfire) a person who publically disagrees with their principles and values and no longer represents what they are about?

Should churches be able to fire pastors who no longer agree with and represent their theology/principles/values???

Still a free speech issue?

Both interesting thoughts I probably would not have had apart from this silliness.

A kerfuffle like this tends to highlight just how differently Christians tend to experience and interpret their faith. Whenever this happens, we start to separate into groups, building walls, lobbing mortars at a perceived enemy.

Here’s the truth, we’re all still family. There is room in my family for Phil Robertson and Ray Boltz. Al Mohler and Gene Robinson. Mark Driscoll and Frank Schaefer.  Carlton Pearson and Ben Carson.

Our faith is big enough for all the family…. even the arguing cousins.

So, thanks GQ. Thanks Phil Robertson. May our Family be big enough for love…. and arguments…

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Shame. Hope.

Guilt. Shame. Church.

Do they go together ? Sometimes, it certainly feels that way.

Why is it that the Church uses those tools so much? Seems like every time I turn around, I am meeting someone who has experienced great hurt at the hands of the Church as a result of a very ungracious way of communicating guilt and shame.

Guilt is what we feel when we’ve done something wrong.  Guilt is sometimes deserved and sometimes not deserved.

Shame is what we feel when we are wrong. Shame is exposure. When what we’ve been trying to hide is exposed to others.

In the story of the nativity, guilt and shame are powerful players.

It begins in Matthew when Joseph discovers Mary is pregnant. 1:2. Seems that Mary was “found to be with child.” Discovered. Uncovered. Exposed. Shamed.

This is not just about Mary. In Matthew’s Gospel, she enters the story with this: there was a girl, promised to an honorable man named Joseph. They did not have sex. She was pregnant. She is discovered and now it’s Joseph’s problem. But Joseph is an honorable man. He is a just man. He doesn’t want Mary to be hurt.

Stop.

Listen.

The story of the birth of Jesus Christ, the opening story of a faith of untold millions in human history starts out talking about sex. Specifically, scandalous sex. There was this girl you see…

For shame.

This is not just about Mary. Marriage was a big deal in the ancient Mediterranean culture. Marriage is the glue that holds the culture together. Who your kids marries determines what kind of care you can expect in your old age. Having children gave you legacy and workers in your family business. Much of Mary’s young life was focused on her future husband and that choice was more about her family than her. What had taken place here was a negotiation between Mary’s father and Joseph’s father. There were certain obligations that needed to be met. Mary had no life of her own – she belonged to her father until her father gave her to her new Lord. The one who would care for her as she bore children to him. Joseph was obligated to provide for his parents in their old age. To do this, he needed children to work in the shop, learn the trade, grow and care for him through marriages that he would negotiate. This was not about love, this was about culture. Security. Continuity. The bride did not expect love, companionship, or comfort. This is a gender-divided world where men and women had little contact. Their union was arranged for the political or economic advantage of their families. If love grew from such a thing, it was a blessing though not necessary.

In America, we talk about marriage being the social glue that holds culture together but our ideas of marriage and their ideas of marriage are oceans apart. In ancient Palestine, Marriage held the social contract, the security of food and the passing on of necessary work. These were not wealthy people, they were just people living in a society. That society valued marriage in a way we cannot fully grasp. The whole process was a ritualized removal of Mary from her family. The groom’s father offers gifts, money, or services to the bride’s father to win the daughter for his son. The mother’s negotiate the deal to ensure that all is above board and fair. The bride’s father makes the ultimate decision. It sounds harsh to our ears but we are talking here about property. And community. And the security net the society depends on.

To be single is disastrous. Certainly for a woman.

To be single and have a bastard? Almost no other option excepting prostitution existed.

Discovered. With. Child.

I see Joseph pacing. “Does your father know? Really?? And he didn’t tell me?? This is not right!!”

Mary, sobs in the corner, “the angel… said I was highly favored… said I was going to…”

“STOP!! Just stop! You don’t even know what you’re saying! Will you add blasphemy to your harlotry??”

In the ancient Mediterranean world, people believed that unless prevented by appropriate measures, a man and woman who found themselves alone would inevitably have sexual relations. This is why the culture prescribes that men (fathers, husbands, brothers) watch, guard, and protect the women in their care.

There were a variety of strategies for accomplishing this protection. One was to ensure that there were always chaperones – woman, children – always around. The other was to structure the houses in such a way that there were inner rooms and courtyards that would prevent outside men from seeing the young girls. Again, if you are the father to a young woman in this time, protecting your daughter from violation is of paramount importance. You love your children, and they are your treasure. Literally. If this sounds like some Muslim cultures you have read about, you would be correct in seeing some similarities. Their world and our world are not the same.

Discovered to be with child. Calamity. When Joseph, their pious man, realizes, long after the rumors have been floating around, probably in the presence of her mother, that Mary is pregnant – they whole paradigm shifts in that moment. Trust is gone. Mary’s father had negotiated in good faith. Good faith! He guaranteed a virgin that would bear him many children. But this! This treachery. This betrayal! Someone needed to pay. He certainly had.

This was not just about Mary. This was about a system that had collapsed. Mary is betrothed. Our modern ideas about “engagement” do not capture the arrangement that has been made here. Betrothal was a family event rather than between individuals. Betrothal was the initial phase in a process in which the prospective spouses were set apart for each other. This had taken place years ago. The couple did not live together but a formal divorce was required to break the publically established betrothal. Any sexual relations outside of marriage was adultery. This was not a case of young love – this is adultery. Clearly, there is a problem. Perhaps her brothers had not cared for her. Perhaps her father had not protected her enough. Without the proper “tokens of virginity” after the marriage, her family would be shamed.

Joseph clutches his chest. Sinks to his knees. He was not ready for this. He’d never be ready for this. The girl he was promised huddled uncomfortably in the corner protecting her stomach, she was afraid. She was afraid of him. She was right to. He could have her stoned. Dragged into the street. Ruin her father and family.  They would never do business in this town again.

Now, Matthew, introduces the hero factor. Joseph is presented with two bad choices. He could expose this girl to death (Numbers 5:11-31) or return her to her father though divorce. He certainly does not want to take responsibility for a child that his not his!! Who would do that? The cultural honor code that society functions by, the “way things are” demand that he not let this stand. This child does not get to get away with messing that up. Regardless of her claims of supernatural conception.

But he is a just man. He does not want blood on his hands. He does not want to ruin this family. He does not want to be made out more of a fool that he is already been. People have been talking. Mary was not a part of the monthly ritual bathing. He knows that the rumor mill is in full operation. He is already tainted by this relationship – better to end it now, find someone worthy, and hope the whole thing is forgotten.

He makes plans for divorce. Not public shaming divorce but discreet and private divorce.

Isn’t it something that for all the stories of the birth of Jesus, Matthew chooses to start out this way? The lineage of Jesus through Joseph, a helpless girl, and a noble man.

It’s the stuff of great novels or rubbishy ones – depends on what you like to read I guess. Only, it’s not a novel and Joseph is a man plunged into a personal trauma he never wanted nor was prepared for.  He didn’t ask for this. He didn’t sign up for this. He certainly didn’t think he was up to the task of being “step dad.” His family was about to look not very normal.

Here’s the thing, we’re very good in our puritan culture of holding up a family system that we identify as “normal.” There’s a father, a mother, idealized kids, dog, picket fence, college, sports… the whole thing. When something comes along that looks different, even when we are witnessing redemption at work, sometimes, we let shame do our talking and condemn what doesn’t look right.

Until we’re the ones with the weird looking family system. Until we’re the ones with the kids from different parents and the baggage of divorce.

I have 7 adopted brothers and sisters. Several of them have handicaps that are quite severe. I grew up with a mantra – “what’s normal?” I mean really – what. is. normal?

The church seems to be really great at deciding and then spiritualizing what normal looks like. Jesus was not born into a normal situation. This was not lost on anyone and Matthew chooses to lead with it. Something very different is happening here.

All the traditional rules about the birth of a king are off. All the standards of lineage are broken. It is fascinating to me that Matthew spends all this ink laying out the Jesus bloodline and then saying – but that’s not how this one went down… there was this girl… betrothed to a man…

The birth of Jesus Christ is not about joy and happiness.  It does not seem to be too full of joyful anticipation. There is the journey of Mary to see Elizabeth. Seems a bit strange no? A young woman spirited away to another town visit with her Aunt in her “advanced maternal age…” Then there was the whole taxes thing and the long journey and the born in a barn… Not much about this birth is the way it’s supposed to be.

But look what it became.

Christmas is often like that. The season seems to highlight over and over again how life is not always played out the way it was planned. People are not where they are supposed to be. Plans didn’t turn out. Dreams didn’t pan out. Goals were not reached. Christmas is fun but can’t really hide the emptiness.

Not every Christmas is all tinsel and cookies. Not every birth is baby showers and cuddly blankets.

Joseph knows that feeling.

He carries through with the marriage out of duty. God tells him what’s going on, what’s expected of him, and Joseph responds immediately. No divorce. No putting away. This step-dad steps up to the plate and does what God has asked him to do. He does not choose shame and guilt. He does not walk away. He embraces and scandal and owns his calling.

This is why Christmas is so hopeful. Life is not always what we want it to be but there is hope. There is always hope.

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All Saints and the struggle of understanding Christian History

All Saints Sunday, 2013

Luke 6:20-31

It’s All Saint’s Sunday. A day when we, as a Church, remember the saints that have gone before us. Generally, it’s a day for warm memories and challenging stories. Traditionally, capital “S” saints who are revered in the Catholic Church are people who are set apart, their holiness and particular living worthy of memory. In the Protestant church, many hold that all Christians can and should be categorized as “saints” even the not so holy. Therefore, on a day like to today, we remember all our beloved who have “gone to glory” before us.

This brings us a challenging thought however – isn’t our collective past as Christians fraught with very non-holy actions? Even our saints, upon closer examination, are not exactly paragons of holiness. If we expand the definition to include everyone, we’re really in a bind!

The Chapel where I pastor is called, “Memorial Chapel.” This year will be the 136th year of active worship within it’s walls. Those walls are covered with what are essentially gravestones marking the heroic dead – many of whom are officers who died during the “Indian Wars.” Surrounded by the memory of one of America’s bloodiest periods, where sovereign peoples were put to the sword and whole people groups laid waste by good Christians who worshiped in that very church is complicated to say the least. From here, native children were placed in good Christian homes forbidden to even speak of their cultural heritage. Fort Leavenworth was the edge of civilization back then, beyond that was war.

On All Saints day, I remember that our Christian past is complicated and not always terribly Christ-like.

Then, as I am preparing for my message, my text is from Luke 6:20-31:

“Then he looked up at his disciples and said: “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God. “Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled. “Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh. “Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you, revile you, and defame you on account of the Son of Man. Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, for surely your reward is great in heaven; for that is what their ancestors did to the prophets. “But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation. “Woe to you who are full now, for you will be hungry. “Woe to you who are laughing now, for you will mourn and weep. “Woe to you when all speak well of you, for that is what their ancestors did to the false prophets.

“But I say to you that listen, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from anyone who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt. Give to everyone who begs from you; and if anyone takes away your goods, do not ask for them again. Do to others as you would have them do to you.”

Not helpful.

How do I, a Chaplain in the mightiest Army the world has ever known make sense of 1. Our bloody history and 2. Jesus words in this text?

As I thought about his text I remembered another pastor, a saint, who faced similar questions. Perhaps it might be helpful to remember his struggle.

Cheap Grace

“Cheap grace is the deadly enemy of our Church. We are fighting today for costly grace. Cheap grace means grace sold on the market like cheapjacks’ wares. The sacraments, the forgiveness of sin, and the consolations of religion are thrown away at cut prices. Grace is represented as the Church’s inexhaustible treasury, from which she showers blessings with generous hands, without asking questions or fixing limits. Grace without price; grace without cost! The essence of grace, we suppose, is that the account has been paid in advance; and, because it has been paid, everything can be had for nothing….

Cheap grace is the grace we bestow on ourselves. Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, Communion without confession…. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate.” – Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship

These words were written by a young pastor. The words were first published in 1937. The pastor the wrote them had been overseeing an illegal seminary training pastors for ministry in Nazi Germany. At the time of this publishing, the Gestapo closed the Seminary in Finkenwalde and arrested 27 pastors and former students. This was a text written for a country in battle for its soul.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer and his twin sister Sabine was born on February 4th, 1906. His father, Dr. Karl Bonhoeffer is just beginning to teach neurology and psychiatry. He would go on to become one of the most well-known and most respected psychiatrists in Germany.  His mother was one of the few women in her generation who obtained a university degree. It was a happy family. A family of thoughtful, educated, and scientific people. D’s brothers would go on to become scientists and were dubious at best of D’s forays into the theological life.

Dietrich’s young life was marked by a continual interest and calling into a life in the ministry. His father is proud of his son but hopeful that this religious phase would pass and he would pursue something more fitting his vast academic abilities.

This didn’t happen however, and Dietrich did indeed pursue theology. He was published at a young age. Within four years after beginning theological studies at Tubingen University, he successfully defends his brilliant and ground-breaking doctoral thesis, Sanctorum Communio (Communion of Saints), a significantly new way of looking at the nature of the Christian church. He is just 21 years old.

Like any young seminarian, he wonders what comes next. He sails to New York and begins a teaching fellowship at Union Theological Seminary. He identifies with the African American church experience in Harlem where he spends a great deal of time teaching and interacting with the congregation.  He is exposed to the “Social Justice” movement as taught through what would become known as the “Social Gospel.”  It is a profound moment for him and would inform what came next.

He is a contemporary of the theologian Karl Barth and the two wrote often. Barth said to him that Germany needed his voice. Things were getting bad there. In 1931, Dietrich Bonhoeffer returns to Germany.

1933. A pivotal year for Germany. Adolf Hitler, the Austrian Corporal turned artist turned political theorist completes his rise to power and is appointed Chancellor. Two days later, Bonhoeffer now a professor of theology at the University of Berlin, delivers a radio address on leadership attacking Hitler. He is cut off the air. In April, 1933 he publishes “The Church and the Jewish Question,” which was the first known essay to address the new problems the church faced under the Nazi dictatorship; his defense of the Jews was marked by Christian supersessionism – the Christian belief that Christianity had superseded Judaism, in history and in the eyes of God; the real question, he argued, was how the church would judge and respond to the Nazi state’s actions against the Jews; his essay was completed in the days following the April 1, 1933, boycott of Jewish businesses. Some scholars believe Bonhoeffer was influenced on this issue by his close friendship at Union Seminary with his African American colleague, Frank Fisher, and his direct observation of Fisher’s experiences under racism.

In the summer of 1933, many protestants welcomed the rise of the Nazi state. A group called, the Deutsche Christen (“German Christians”) became the voice of Nazi ideology within the Evangelical Church, even advocating the removal of the Old Testament from the Bible. The Deutsche Christians cited the state Aryan laws that barred all “non-Aryans” from the civil service, they also proposed a church “Aryan paragraph” to prevent “non-Aryans” from becoming ministers or religious teachers; the Deutsche Christen claimed that Jews, as a “separate race,” could not become members of an “Aryan” German church even through baptism a clear repudiation of the validity of Gospel teachings. The mainstream church was also coming under the grip of Nazism, becoming silent on the world that Germany was becoming.

In November of that year, he is ordained pastor at St. Matthias Church, Berlin.

In 1934, he and a group of brave Christians, form the “Confessing Church” in direct opposition to the established church who was about the business of assisting the State along the path leading to genocide. The Confessing Church was free of Nazi influence but not Nazi persecution. On August 2, German President Paul von Hindenburg dies and Hitler is proclaimed Chancellor and President.

He moves to Finkenwalde in 1935 where he is part of the founding of the aforementioned Seminary training pastors for ministry. By December, Himmler declares all examinations for the Confessing Church invalid, all training there invalid and all participants liable to arrest. German Jews are being arrested under the Nurmburg laws.

This is the world in which he writes about “Cheap Grace.”

He sets it against “Costly Grace” – “Costly grace is the treasure hidden in the field; for the sake of it a man’ will gladly go and sell all that he has. It is the pearl of great price to buy which the merchant will sell all his goods. It is the kingly rule of Christ, for whose sake a man will pluck out the eye which causes him to stumble, it is the call of Jesus Christ at which the disciple leaves his nets and follows him.”

It is “All Saints Sunday.” A day where we remember those saints who have gone before us, stood with us, and in whose shoes we stand today. It is right that we remember them. It is right that we recall the stands that others have taken so that we can evaluate where we are, who we are, and what we represent. Our Faith is not a faith that exists in opposition to others. We have a faith that is typified in its best sense in Love.

However, if the shoe of opposition fits, are we willing to wear it?

“Costly grace is the gospel which must be sought again and again and again, the gift which must be asked for, the door at which a man must knock. Such grace is costly because it calls us to follow, and it is grace because it calls us to follow Jesus Christ. It is costly because it costs a man his life, and it is grace because it gives a man the only true life. It is costly because it condemns sin, and grace because it justifies the sinner. Above all, it is costly because it cost God the life of his Son: “ye were bought at a price,” and what has cost God much cannot be cheap for us. Above all, it is grace because God did not reckon his Son too dear a price to pay for our life, but delivered him up for us. Costly grace is the Incarnation of God.”

Dietrich lived in that tension between the being a peacemaker and embracing war – even internal war – against a State which was doing such wrong. By 1938, he had made contact with the German Resistance. His twin sister Sabine and her Jewish husband escape together to England by way of Switzerland.

1941, Bonhoeffer is forbidden to print or publish. He makes two trips to Switzerland for the Resistance. WW2 is in full force. Over the next two years, Dietrich would continue to write, teach and preach while making several visits to Norway and in Sweden he would meet with the British – all on the behalf of the Resistance.

1943. Dietrich Bonhoeffer is arrested. He writes during his incarceration. He continues to minister while in prison – both to the other inmates and the guards. One guard, a Corporal, approaches Dietrich with a plan for his escape and the Soldier’s with him. The plot is laid but in the end, D stops it as he does not want other members of his family, incarcerated and not to be endangered by his actions or escape. He is transferred to Buchenwald. He is very cold in the winter of 1944. The news is that America and Russia are pushing in on Germany from all fronts. They cannot hold out forever. He leans up to the crack in his door and for hours converses with those near his cell, prisoner and guard, about the grace of God.

1945. In February an Allied conference is held at Yalta to discuss post-war settlements. On March 7 American forces cross Rhine River. On April the 3rd of that year, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a young German pastor, theologian, and author, is moved from Buchenwald to the Flossenburg concentration camp. On the 9th, he is executed with several other key leaders of the Resistance. On April 12 President Franklin Roosevelt dies; Harry Truman is sworn in as president. On April 30 Adolf Hitler commits suicide in his Berlin bunker. By May 2 Berlin falls. On May 7 the German forces make an unconditional surrender.

“Costly grace is the sanctuary of God; it has to be protected from the world, and not thrown to the dogs. It is therefore the living word, the Word of God, which he speaks as it pleases him. Costly grace confronts us as a gracious call to follow Jesus. It comes as a word of forgiveness to the broken spirit and the contrite heart. Grace is costly because it compels a man to submit to the yoke of Christ and follow him; it is grace because Jesus says: “My yoke is easy and my burden is light.”

So which was it? Was Bonhoeffer a combatant? A German patriot fighting for the soul of his country if not it’s government? Is there a time to take up arms? Is there a time to stop turning the other cheek?

These are questions I face regularly and struggle through. I recall Jesus words, “If you live by the sword, you will die by the sword.” I do not experience them as particularly judgmental but more of a statement of fact, if you live by the sword, it is very likely that you will die by it.

We live in complicated times but no more so than any other time. Those who are commemorated on the walls of memorial chapel lived in complicated times as well. They followed God in ways that made sense to the world that they understood. Let us not forget that their immediate peers and superiors had just finished fighting a war to end Slavery and the economics that the institution upheld.

When working through our Christian history and all the victories and failings of those who have gone before, we would be remiss forget the times in which they lived. They should be understood and given grace for the world that they understood rather than be judged by the one we understand.

Where does that leave us?

Living the Gospel in the best way we know how. Living out our faith in a way that makes sense to us in the world we understand hoping that a hundred years from now, we will be judged by the world we knew.

And in all this, seeking to live in the way that Jesus taught. Loving others. Blessing those that curse us. Doing good to those who hate us. Doing unto others as we would have them do unto us.

Is there a tension? Of course. But as a Chaplain who preceded me once said powerfully, “if you don’t feel the tension, then you’ve probably already given in to one side or the other already.” It is no wonder that the Apostle, in one of his last letters, written from prison, said that we were to take on the example of Jesus Christ in our lives. Living as a servant to our fellow man and, in the end, to “work out our own salvation with fear and trembling.”

Even so, I hope we can remain faithful. Perhaps when we, as saints “going into glory” meet Jesus he’ll say to us that we had this right and that wrong but in the end, we were faithful. I can only hope and work for that moment when he says to me, “Welcome home my good and faithful servant.”

Amen.

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The Church is community… even when we don’t like one another…

One of the unfortunate results of the American need for puritanism is that we tend toward more and more “pure” churches. It’s far too easy in our congregations to leave one body for the other. Disagreements, petty and profound, take on the language of God and our passive/aggressive side kicks in and we “have” to leave. As though we can somehow escape human nature.

We are human. We are going to disagree. I wonder what it would be like (in the salt/light context) for churches to model the idea that humans can get along even when they dynamically disagree? I wonder what it would be like for Christians to embrace the idea that they are peacemakers in themselves, their homes, their churches, and their local organizations? I suspect that the healthiest congregations are those made up of republicans/democrats/libertarians/green/coffee and tea parties – all worshiping the same God – all proclaiming the same gospel.

From the introduction to Bonhoeffer’s Spiritual Care:

Christ is the mediator not only between God and humanity but between persons within the Church … The Church is not an assembly of like-minded individuals, nor is it an agency organized around a certain previously agreed-upon principles (like a social agency or a labor union). The Church is entered through baptism, and it is baptism which gives us our relationship within the church. W are ties together in the body of Christ even if we don’t like each other. Community is not the same thing as camaraderie. 

 

Well. Said.

True community works through the disagreements rather than leaving one disagreement for the comfort of people who are where I am at.

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Filed under Chaplaincy, thought of the day