Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Lectionary: 3/3/2013 - 3rd Sunday of Lent (C)

Prayer of the Day
Eternal God, your kingdom has broken into our troubled world through the life, death, and resurrection of your Son. Help us to hear your word and obey it, and bring your saving love to fruition in our lives, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.

This week there are certainly themes of nature, and "bearing fruit", and that our actions have consequences.  But the one that came out the strongest for me is the differences between our ways and God's ways, and how our forgiveness and God's are so very different.  This is especially interesting after last week's text where a Pharisee warned Jesus his life was in danger, and in light of next week's text of the story of the Prodigal Son (and Jesus as the Good Shepherd!).

Isaiah 55:1-9
Ho, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters;
and you that have no money, come, buy and eat!
Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price.
Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread, and your labour for that which does not satisfy?
Listen carefully to me, and eat what is good, and delight yourselves in rich food.
Incline your ear, and come to me; listen, so that you may live.
I will make with you an everlasting covenant, my steadfast, sure love for David.
See, I made him a witness to the peoples, a leader and commander for the peoples.
See, you shall call nations that you do not know, and nations that do not know you shall run to you,
because of the Lord your God, the Holy One of Israel, for he has glorified you.

Seek the Lord while he may be found, call upon him while he is near;
let the wicked forsake their way, and the unrighteous their thoughts;
let them return to the Lord, that he may have mercy on them, and to our God, for he will abundantly pardon.
For my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways, says the Lord.
For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.

What a wonderful dose of good news and grace!  Hang on to it, you're going to need it later.  There are three notes here I want to comment on.  First, we are invited to do the impossible; second, God's love for sinners is steadfast and sure; and third, God's ways are not our ways.  The first thing we're told to do in this passage sounds impossible.  To buy without paying, to purchase without cost?  How could that work?  The Old  Testament is full of carefully constructed rules and systems to help society function, if society worked this way, how long could it last?  What is this impossible idea Isaiah invites us into?

And yet that's just what God's love is like.  Isaiah assures us that God's love for David (a sinner- adulterer, murderer, and occasionally just plain didn't listen to God) was steadfast (constant) and sure.  The wicked can be pardoned their actions and the unrighteous their thoughts.  In this Lenten season, as we wait for Easter and the new life Christ brings, here we are reminded that not only eternal life, but new life in the here and now is always possible.  Redemption is never truly impossible, and no one is beyond God's grace.

Finally, God's ways are not our ways- and we certainly know that.  Redemption is always possible with God, but we are not always so forgiving.  True forgiveness does not include whispered rumors and gossip.  True forgiveness does not include grudging resentment and latent anger.  Sometimes we simply cannot forgive, we do not have it in us.  But God, we are assured, has different ways than we do.

Psalm 63:1-8
A Psalm of David, when he was in the Wilderness of Judah.
O God, you are my God, I seek you, my soul thirsts for you;
my flesh faints for you, as in a dry and weary land where there is no water.
So I have looked upon you in the sanctuary, beholding your power and glory.
Because your steadfast love is better than life, my lips will praise you.
So I will bless you as long as I live; I will lift up my hands and call on your name.

My soul is satisfied as with a rich feast, and my mouth praises you with joyful lips
when I think of you on my bed, and meditate on you in the watches of the night;
for you have been my help, and in the shadow of your wings I sing for joy.
My soul clings to you; your right hand upholds me.

There are so many ways we seek God- in prayer and meditation, in our last thoughts of the day, in action and joyful praise.  And yet we continue seeking, because as Isaiah just reminded us, God's ways are not our own.  We will always be seeking God, because we will always continue to thirst.  (I am not terribly impressed with people who say they find God in a sunset.  Anyone can find God in a sunset, that doesn't involve looking very hard at all.  You want to impress me, look harder.)

Interesting note on the Hebrew- the word translated into English as "soul" in the second line is one of those words that has two meanings in Hebrew.  The other possible meaning besides soul (or "essence", really, rather than "spirit") is the face and throat area of the body.  So when the Psalm speaks of the soul "thirsting" for God- that word wasn't chosen idly.  It is a very apt way to talk about it though, isn't it?  Sometimes we are as desperate for God as we are for water at the end of a long walk.

1 Corinthians 10:1-13
I do not want you to be unaware, brothers and sisters, that our ancestors were all under the cloud, and all passed through the sea, and all were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea, and all ate the same spiritual food, and all drank the same spiritual drink. For they drank from the spiritual rock that followed them, and the rock was Christ. Nevertheless, God was not pleased with most of them, and they were struck down in the wilderness.

Now these things occurred as examples for us, so that we might not desire evil as they did. Do not become idolaters as some of them did; as it is written, ‘The people sat down to eat and drink, and they rose up to play.’ We must not indulge in sexual immorality as some of them did, and twenty-three thousand fell in a single day. We must not put Christ to the test, as some of them did, and were destroyed by serpents. And do not complain as some of them did, and were destroyed by the destroyer. These things happened to them to serve as an example, and they were written down to instruct us, on whom the ends of the ages have come. So if you think you are standing, watch out that you do not fall. No testing has overtaken you that is not common to everyone. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tested beyond your strength, but with the testing he will also provide the way out so that you may be able to endure it. 

I'm going to try not to do this to you very often, but do me a favor real quick- scroll down a bit to the reading from Luke, read the last half or so of the first paragraph, and then scroll back up here.

Back?  Okay- what you just read down below?  Was from Jesus.  What you just read above? Was from Paul.  Anyone who disagrees with me that Jesus outranks Paul by kind of a lot, you want to go have a chat with your pastor.

And yet, what Paul just gave us here was a wonderful example of a way in which our human ways are different from God's.  It is absolutely our way to "blame the victim".  How many times have you heard someone say that poor people are poor because they're lazy, or fat people are fat because they aren't healthy, or the survivor of a sexual assault must have been asking for it?  And yet we know perfectly well that there are plenty of hardworking poor, and plenty of healthy people who are overweight (and also that the BMI index is terrible for making judgments about individuals), and that it is literally impossible to "ask" to be sexually assaulted.  God's ways are not our ways.  God does not make the judgments we make.

Luke 13:1-9
At that very time there were some present who told him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. He asked them, ‘Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish as they did. Or those eighteen who were killed when the tower of Siloam fell on them—do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others living in Jerusalem? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did.’ 

Then he told this parable: ‘A man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard; and he came looking for fruit on it and found none. So he said to the gardener, “See here! For three years I have come looking for fruit on this fig tree, and still I find none. Cut it down! Why should it be wasting the soil?” He replied, “Sir, let it alone for one more year, until I dig round it and put manure on it. If it bears fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.” ’ 

The first thing I'd like to say about the first half of this passage, is that this ends all the arguments for "God punishes the wicked" or "God rewards the holy" forever and ever, amen.  Yes, all of them.  Yes, even that one.  (Now that you're paying attention, you will be stunned, as you go through daily life, how often this comes up.  It is a constant thing.  It certainly comes up often enough in the Bible.)

However, what is going on with the very last line of this part?  What is Jesus talking about, how is he not contradicting himself?  But when we think about this further- look, spoiler alert, but we are all going to die.  None of us are immortal.  So when Jesus says "perish as they did"- I don't think the dying is what he's talking about, because of course we're going to do that whether we repent or not.  These people he's talking about were sinners, just as we all are.  I think the difference he's talking about is that a sinner is separated from God, by sin which is a chasm between us and God.  But a repentant sinner is, like the Psalm above, thirsting for and reaching for God.  We are all separated from God, but some of us are facing towards God and reaching out, and because of that we both live, and die, somewhat differently.  The sermon linked to below on the text from last week really digs into that.

As for the second half of this passage, well, that's a little more complicated.  Next week we'll be hearing the parable of the Prodigal Son.  Everybody has that one story or passage from the Bible that makes their head explode, and that's mine, so I'm going to try to keep from getting into it now as well.

I don't read this, as others often have, seeing the vineyard owner as God, and the gardener as Jesus, with us as the fig tree.  God promised Noah to never destroy the Earth again, and I don't believe Jesus is all that's keeping God from breaking that promise.  (Not to mention that they are of course also one and the same, along with the Holy Spirit, so reading it this way just feels odd.)  Not to mention quite a few of us do bear fruit, and no one suggests getting rid of a kid if they don't "bear fruit" after three years.

So perhaps this story is simply suggesting that yes, we can set safe boundaries in our lives?  And yes, while there's room for grace and freedom, there's also no reason to throw resources away where they won't be used?  I'm pretty sure I'll be getting into this more deeply next week, so stay tuned.

I don't really plan on doing this very often, but yesterday I happened to listen to the weekly Day1 podcast, and I heard a fantastic sermon on the text from last week, which I think addresses a lot of important issues.  So, if you feel like being challenged, I suggest reading The Fox Is In The Henhouse, a sermon by the Presbyterian Rev. Joseph Evans, from Tennessee.

Go in peace, love and serve the Lord.  Thanks be to God.

Monday, February 25, 2013

Blog Review: Everyday I'm Pastorin'

There are two comments I get about public Christianity on a regular basis.

1. Where are all the progressive Christians?  Where are they talking, where are they sharing, where are they in my town, where are they on the internet?

2. Aren't there any Christians who have a sense of humor?  At all?

In the interests of addressing both questions at the same time, I'd suggest taking a look at this blog: Everday I'm Pastorin'....  Fair warning: this is actually a Tumblr account, and it is full of GIFs (or moving images).  As you might imagine from those two descriptors, it also isn't a place for deep and involved theological discussion.

There are plenty of places like that, and I'll be pointing them out soon enough.  But a lot of people asking me those two questions up there tend to sound kind of desperate, at wit's end, and very harried.  So frankly, I think I'll start off with a tension-breaker.

This blog is, as far as I can tell (I don't spend a lot of time on Tumblr) as anonymous as they can make it.  And while it isn't entirely aimed at laypeople, as the voice of it is definitely clergy-based, laypeople will certainly get the jokes.

What does this blog do?  It illustrates the point of view of progressive Christian clergy with GIFs.  Often of cats, or bits of scenes from geeky TV shows.  It's ecumenical, it's hilarious, and it's very much tongue-placed-firmly-in-cheek.

Because progressive Christians really are all around.  And we do know how to tell a joke, especially when it's about us.

Friday, February 22, 2013

Lutheran Look: How does the church year work?

Great question!  The church year has several "seasons", just like the calendar year has spring, summer, autumn and winter.  They come in an order, they acknowledge and celebrate different things, and they even have their own colors!  Lutherans are pretty enthusiastic about following the church year, but there are also plenty of Christian traditions that aren't so big on it.  Personally, I appreciate that the seasons help us to focus on different things and appreciate the variety of the faith.

So, here's a basic rundown for you.  The church year starts in Advent (generally just after Thanksgiving).  There are also a bunch of holidays throughout the year that I'll do separate posts on one day, so I won't be focusing on those so much.

Time: 1st Sunday of Advent through Christmas Eve
Themes: Waiting for the Incarnation- we wait for God to come to us, we are expecting celebration, this is also the traditional time to examine Mary and Joseph's lives (blue is traditionally Mary's color)
Color: Blue (or Purple, if you don't have blue)

Time: Christmas Day until the Sunday before Epiphany
Themes: Celebration of the Incarnation- God has come to us, and we celebrate that God has so loved the world as to give God's only Son, Jesus Christ
Color: White and Gold/Yellow

Time: Epiphany through Transfiguration
Themes: Epiphany of the Incarnation- we come to terms with what it means that God loves us so much to have become incarnate, we are enlightened (light is a major theme)- this is the most forgotten season, and is the only one named after something we, the people of God, are doing
Color: White/Gold on Epiphany, Green during the season, White/Gold on Transfiguration

Time: Ash Wednesday (just after Transfiguration) through Easter Vigil/Holy Saturday
Themes: Waiting for the Crucifixion- Jesus Christ is going to die for our sins, this is a time of penitence and repentance (two very different things), of self-sacrifice and self-examination, suffering for the faith and death are also examined- we put away celebration and Alleluias for this time (though Sundays are not technically part of Lent)
Color: Purple through Maundy Thursday, Good Friday does not technically have a color and that tends to extend to Holy Saturday

Time: Easter Sunday until the Sunday before Pentecost
Themes: Joyous Celebration of the Resurrection- this is a time of celebration of new life, victory over the grave, unexpected reversal and forgiveness- the happiest time of the church year, everyone is encouraged to wear bright colors to church during this season especially in celebration
Color: White/Gold

Ordinary Time
Time: (Pentecost Sunday) through Christ the King Sunday before Advent starts
Themes: Various- often focuses on the earth and harvest because it takes place during summer and autumn, but the varied readings and sprinkling of holidays throughout make this the "catch all" season of the church- the first Sunday is Pentecost and is it's own thing, very nearly a one-day season, a celebration of the Holy Spirit, and often involves images of fire, doves, and wind
Color: Red on Pentecost, Green during most of Ordinary Time, aside from various special days, White/Gold on Christ the King

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Lectionary: 2/24/2013- 2nd Sunday in Lent (C)

Prayer of the Day
God of the covenant, in the mystery of the cross you promise everlasting life to the world. Gather all peoples into your arms, and shelter us with your mercy, that we may rejoice in the life we share in your Son, Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.

As reflected in the prayer for the day, the themes for this week's readings center around God's promises to us, especially to remain present with us.  All of the stories in the Bible center around this one covenant, that we will not be abandoned.  In the journey of Lent, while we walk with Jesus towards the cross, that is the promise that we cling to in the darkness.

Genesis 15:1-12, 17-18
After these things the word of the Lord came to Abram in a vision, ‘Do not be afraid, Abram, I am your shield; your reward shall be very great.’ But Abram said, ‘O Lord God, what will you give me, for I continue childless, and the heir of my house is Eliezer of Damascus?’ And Abram said, ‘You have given me no offspring, and so a slave born in my house is to be my heir.’ But the word of the Lord came to him, ‘This man shall not be your heir; no one but your very own issue shall be your heir.’ He brought him outside and said, ‘Look towards heaven and count the stars, if you are able to count them.’ Then he said to him, ‘So shall your descendants be.’ And he believed the Lord; and the Lord reckoned it to him as righteousness.
 Then he said to him, ‘I am the Lord who brought you from Ur of the Chaldeans, to give you this land to possess.’ But he said, ‘O Lord God, how am I to know that I shall possess it?’ He said to him, ‘Bring me a heifer three years old, a female goat three years old, a ram three years old, a turtle-dove, and a young pigeon.’ He brought him all these and cut them in two, laying each half over against the other; but he did not cut the birds in two. And when birds of prey came down on the carcasses, Abram drove them away.
 As the sun was going down, a deep sleep fell upon Abram, and a deep and terrifying darkness descended upon him.  When the sun had gone down and it was dark, a smoking fire-pot and a flaming torch passed between these pieces. On that day the Lord made a covenant with Abram, saying, ‘To your descendants I give this land, from the river of Egypt to the great river, the river Euphrates...."

This is the great covenant (promise) that God made to Abraham.  This is one of the great beginnings in the Bible.  The Creation stories are one, God's covenant with Noah not to destroy the Earth again was another, and of course each of the Gospels start with one.  This is the beginning of God's special relationship with the Jewish people, which is a theme found all over the Bible from Genesis to Revelation.  When Esther saves her people, it's a demonstration of this covenant.  When Jesus speaks to the Syro-Phoenician woman, it's a surprise because she is not party to this covenant.

God's promises to Abraham here are fairly simple- many descendants and a land for them.  The promises we will see implied in the other readings for this Sunday are a little more complex.

Psalm 27
The Lord is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear?
The Lord is the stronghold of my life; of whom shall I be afraid?

When evildoers assail me to devour my flesh—
my adversaries and foes— they shall stumble and fall.

Though an army encamp against me, my heart shall not fear;
though war rise up against me, yet I will be confident.

One thing I asked of the Lord, that will I seek after:
to live in the house of the Lord all the days of my life,
to behold the beauty of the Lord, and to inquire in his temple.

For he will hide me in his shelter in the day of trouble;
he will conceal me under the cover of his tent; he will set me high on a rock.

Now my head is lifted up above my enemies all around me,
and I will offer in his tent sacrifices with shouts of joy; 

I will sing and make melody to the Lord.

Hear, O Lord, when I cry aloud, be gracious to me and answer me!
‘Come,’ my heart says, ‘seek his face!’ Your face, Lord, do I seek. 

Do not hide your face from me.
Do not turn your servant away in anger, you who have been my help.
Do not cast me off, do not forsake me, O God of my salvation!
If my father and mother forsake me, the Lord will take me up.

Teach me your way, O Lord, and lead me on a level path because of my enemies.
Do not give me up to the will of my adversaries, for false witnesses have risen against me, and they are breathing out violence.

I believe that I shall see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living.
Wait for the Lord; be strong, and let your heart take courage; wait for the Lord!

I hope that I will never have to fear what the author of this Psalm apparently had to fear.  But I certainly have fears nonetheless.  And the author is seeking safety and refuge with the Lord- a theme we've seen before, and something I've certainly done myself.  But what kind of safety?  People who trust in God die every day.  Tragic things happen to both good and bad people.  The author of this Psalm can't possibly be saying that if you trust in God, nothing bad will happen to you- right?

Which brings us back to God's covenants with us, and here we see what the author seems to be seeking.  The kind of safety the author's hoping for is certainly physical safety, but that doesn't mean it's the kind that's expected.  What's sought after here is not physical but spiritual safety- to be with God, to be acknowledged by and loved by God, to be surrounded by God.  There are some requests of protection, certainly, but the requests that are most emphatic and emphasized are those that have nothing to do with physical safety.

As Abraham and his descendants eventually found out, the covenants that God has made with us do not always mean prosperity or safety- but they do mean we're not alone.  They do mean God is always with us.  We are not and will not be abandoned.

Philippians 3:17--4:1
Brothers and sisters, join in imitating me, and observe those who live according to the example you have in us. For many live as enemies of the cross of Christ; I have often told you of them, and now I tell you even with tears. Their end is destruction; their god is the belly; and their glory is in their shame; their minds are set on earthly things. But our citizenship is in heaven, and it is from there that we are expecting a Saviour, the Lord Jesus Christ. He will transform the body of our humiliation so that it may be conformed to the body of his glory, by the power that also enables him to make all things subject to himself. Therefore, my brothers and sisters, whom I love and long for, my joy and crown, stand firm in the Lord in this way, my beloved.

Occasionally Paul gets on my nerves- besides some of the things he's said about women, I'm just not too fond of people who say that others should imitate them.  Someone who's an authentically good example to live by doesn't usually have to tell others that.  But here he's reinforcing what's been talked about in the previous two readings.  We certainly have promises and covenants with others, and of course we honor them, but we also remember that "our citizenship is in heaven".  That is where our true allegiance lies, with God.  All else may fail us, everyone else may betray us, but God remains with us no matter what.

There is some troubling language in this passage that I would like to address, but to be honest I don't believe I currently have time to do it justice at the moment.  I'm sure it'll come around again, though, so I'll ask for your patience on that.

Luke 13:31-35
At that very hour some Pharisees came and said to him, ‘Get away from here, for Herod wants to kill you.’ He said to them, ‘Go and tell that fox for me, “Listen, I am casting out demons and performing cures today and tomorrow, and on the third day I finish my work. Yet today, tomorrow, and the next day I must be on my way, because it is impossible for a prophet to be killed away from Jerusalem.” Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing! See, your house is left to you. And I tell you, you will not see me until the time comes when you say, “Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.”

This is one of the passages that I wish people would read more often, because it comforts me, somewhat, to know that Jesus had a temper.  If Jesus did, then perhaps God understands my own as well.

And yet, even in the midst of this temper, in the midst of sparring (verbally) with the Pharisees, Jesus will not abandon his ministry.  Jesus will not abandon his journey to the cross.  Jesus would gather us as though under wings, which I think is one of the loveliest images we're given of God's love.  Jesus does not abandon us, and though it's not phrased in a very cheerful manner, at the end he also gives us the promise that we will see him again.  The covenant, again spelled out that God does not leave us alone, we are not abandoned, come what may.

Love and serve the Lord.  Thanks be to God.

Monday, February 18, 2013

Blog Review: The Velveteen Rabbi

So, it's about time that I expand my Monday posts a bit (especially while most of my library is still packed away until I have a call).  So, this week, instead of a book review, I'll be doing a blog review.

The blog I want to talk about today is called the Velveteen Rabbi, written by Rabbi Rachel Barenblat.  I was wondering which of the many blogs I enjoy I should talk about today until I saw her post from this morning, Every body is a reflection of God, and knew that this was where I should begin.

Rabbi Barenblat has been blogging since 2003, began her rabbinical studies in 2005, and was named one of Time's top 25 blogs in 2008.  I enjoy reading her writing for a number of reasons- her poetry is very moving, the way she speaks of her work with her synagogue is the way I look forward to talking about my own ministry, and each post is heartfelt and often funny.  But that post I just linked you to is an example of the strongest reason.

Modern media gives us very few examples of competent, benevolent clergy (all the fictional ones on TV tend to be incompetent, evil, or both), and far fewer examples of female clergy of any type.  In fact, the Vicar of Dibley is the only one I can think of offhand.  And yet we exist, across faiths, denominations, and the globe.  And we're telling our stories, but it is still sometimes difficult to be heard, and sometimes it seems even more difficult to be able to listen.  I have learned a lot about faith and being clergy from men, and I value their experience, education and wisdom, but sometimes, frankly, I just want to listen to someone who is like me.  Not someone I have to translate in my head.

I am not Jewish, a mother, an East-Coaster, or a native Texan.  And yet very often I feel more at home reading her blog than reading one by a Midwestern ELCA male pastor (gentleman pastor?).  Her post this morning illustrates one reason why- I have been there, I have had that conversation with myself, I have fought that fight against American mass media in my own head. We both speak "clergy" and "woman" fluently, no translation necessary.

Certainly I have had the same feeling of "home" on men's blogs, as well.  But this is the kind of "home" I don't get to feel very often, so I value it even more.  We come from different backgrounds- ones that have fairly ugly history together, in fact.  But she's right- every body is a reflection of God.  Hers, mine, yours.

Thanks be to God.

Friday, February 15, 2013

Lutheran Look: Sexual Ethics Education

I'm willing to bet that title causes some surprise.  So, let me introduce this post a little by sharing a link to Love, Joy, Feminism, a blog by Libby Anne, who was raised in an evangelical Christian household that encouraged the Christian purity culture and practiced "traditional gender roles".  (I can't stand that term.  Traditional for who?)  She's since left that tradition, and her focus is talking with others who have as well.

She explores a variety of issues in the blog, but in this post she points out that while Christians generally have very strong opinions about sex and sex ed, one way or another, we don't do a lot in terms of talking about sexual ethics with our teens, in terms of how to do things right.  She offers one central question:

What would you tell teenagers about sex?

My short answer? A lot.  When in doubt, I believe in education.  My parents did not censor my reading- though we discussed what I read regularly.  I learned early how to use a library, and have been on the Internet since I was 12.  I am an unabashed nerd, and my answer to nearly every concern or project I run across is "more research!"

And I was not the only teenager like that who I knew, when I was that age.  Oh, they might not call it "research", but anytime you deny information to a teenager, they are going to go looking for it.  (My English teacher once ensured our entire class would read "The Wife of Bath" tale from the Canterbury Tales by saying he wasn't assigning it because it was too lewd.)  And on this subject, my thoughts may well be influenced by the fact that I went through a full sex ed curriculum in my health classes in middle and high school that contained the anatomical information, as well as details on how STDs are transferred, what the symptoms are, and how the more common varieties of birth control worked.  This happened just before the rise of "abstinence only" education, and I'm extraordinarily thankful for it.

Now, when it comes to anatomy, STDs, and the chemistry of birth control, I don't know that church is the appropriate place for that- unless, of course, it isn't offered in the local schools.  In which case, where would you rather your kid learn about these things- in church, or from unreliably informed friends?

I wish the ELCA had something like the UCC's "Our Whole Lives" curriculum, which deals with so much more than just sex ed.  Failing that, however, I think there are certain major subjects that do need to be addressed by the church, with confirmation students and youth groups.
  • What does the Bible actually say about sex, marriage, and love?
    • Quite a bit of what the Bible says on this subject has certainly been influenced by the culture of that time's treatment of women (as property) and understanding of marriage (as an economic contract).
    • Take that away, however, and you are still left with firm stances- rape is bad, and adultery (that is, breaking a vow of fidelity) is bad. 
    • And sex? Every time the idea of "sexual immorality" is brought up, it always centers on taking sex lightly, not valuing it for what it is- a unique connection between people, a show of trust, vulnerability and honor.  Jesus told us to love one another as God has loved us, and sex is just one way to show that love.
  • How do we make decisions about sex, marriage and love, both including and excluding the religious aspect?
    • Separately from the Bible, we can recognize that our relationships (romantic and not) are healthy when they build us up; involve respect, admiration, and trust; and provide us with support and love.
    • We recognize that having sex is the most physically vulnerable you can be with another person, and that it is tied into emotions and relationships in a unique way.  As a comparison, it's sort of equivalent to asking someone to hold your wallet and cell phone in the middle of the Mall of America for two hours, and trust that they won't spend all your money and post all kinds of things to your Facebook.
    • Also, we can recognize that sex involves a lot of risk, especially when approached without the right education or with a lack of trust.  STDs and pregnancy are certainly part of that, but also a relationship that involves sex is necessarily deeper and more complicated than one without, and breaking it more painful.
    • Given what the Bible does say about marriage, many people do still choose to wait until marriage to have sex.  On a side note, it is required of ELCA pastors, and those studying to become pastors, that they only have sex with the person they're married to.  (Since 2009, we have acknowledged that legal marriage is sadly not an option for everyone, and a somewhat-equivalent system has been set up for homosexual pastors with partners.)
  • What are ways that sex can and has been misused?
    • Rape and Incest- I put these two in the same category because incest often involves one partner being underage, and therefore unable to consent.  The Bible does have stories of rape and incest in it, and sadly does not approach them with the pastoral ways we would today- because then as now most people being raped were women, and in that time the suffering of the woman was secondary to how the rape "decreased her value" to her nearest male relative- husband, father, or brother.  However it does clearly state that both are crimes, and that sex should always be entirely consensual.  (And the Song of Solomon is a lovely celebration of what that consent might look like.)
    • Pornography and commercial sexuality- Any time that money enters the equation when we're talking about sex, it degrades both the act and the people in it.  What should be a situation of completely free consent has added the coercion of financial incentive.  What should be an act of trust and love between two people has become a financial transaction.  The value that each person would hold for the other is removed and only the value of the money matters.  The people involved become bank accounts, objects, and that is not following the commandment that we are to love one another as God has first loved us. Pornography in particular adds to the objectification of others (and therefore not loving them as God first loved us) by having nothing to do with who they are as people, but only what they look like and what they're willing to do on camera.  In addition, pornography is often connected to sexual trafficking and those involved are often forced to participate.
  • How do we approach the decision making of people with different points of view than ours?
    • With grace, education, and open hearts.  We acknowledge that all people are the beloved creations of God, and that we all fall short of God's hopes for us.  We, as yet, see as through a mirror, darkly.  One day, when, we do not know, we will all join in celebration together, at one with God.  Until then, we encourage respect and honesty wherever we can.
For further information on what the ELCA itself says on related matters, there is the 1991 Social Statement on Abortion, the 1996 Social Message on Sexuality, the 2001 Social Message on Commercial Sexual Exploitation, and the 2009 Social Statement on Sexuality.  (Social Messages are a bit shorter and less thorough than Social Statements, and only have to be voted on by the Church Council, rather than the entire General Assembly.)  All have subject headers and are reasonably skim-able for those truly interested.  You can also see something of a journey that the ELCA has made between the 1996 Sexuality Message and the 2009 Sexuality Statement.

So, why wait until your wedding to have sex?  (You didn't really think I'd finish this post without asking that, did you?)

Well, this article from A Practical Wedding is a wonderful list of reasons to wait- from a completely non-religious point of view.  That's right.  There are reasons that don't have to do with the Bible.

On a more personal note, I'll add that yes, I waited until I was married.  Partly because I've known I was going to be a pastor for the ELCA since I was 15, and I knew that rule going in.  But mostly?  Not so much because of that.  And it wasn't really because I wanted it to be "special", either.  And hellfire and damnation didn't really enter into it.

I mostly waited because I couldn't (still can't) imagine wanting to have sex with anyone I wasn't married to.  I am a deeply and naturally monogamous person.  Like I've said, sex involves a lot of vulnerability, and I wasn't interested in being that kind of vulnerable with a person I hadn't already said I'd spend my life with.  Touch has always mattered to me- I like hugs, but it took me a lot time to get used to them from people that weren't family.  My husband occasionally gets me flowers, but only occasionally, because I honestly prefer just having his arm around me as we watch a movie.  I didn't want to share that kind of physical affection with anyone else.

So I recognize that not everyone's wired that way, and your reasons for waiting may be different from mine.  But I will mention this: I've spoken to a lot of women (and a few men) who have told me that they wish they had my "excuse" for not having sex before marriage.  Who said they wish they could just sweep that option right off the table in any dating relationship right away, because of the pressure and the complications of when and why you make the decision to have sex.  You may find dating a lot easier if you tell people right off you're going to wait until marriage for sex- it certainly helps weed out the ones who aren't really interested in you as a person.

One final note: you never "have to" have sex.  You never owe it to anyone.  I don't care if they paid for dinner or helped you move or you've been dating for a year and they're ready.  I don't care if you've had sex before with someone else or even with this person.  You never owe anyone sex, ever.  And if they're not willing to wait for your enthusiastic consent, then they are not worth your time, trust, and certainly not your love.  You deserve better, you are a beloved part of God's creation, and you do matter.

God bless you all.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Lectionary: 2/17/2013 - 1st Sunday in Lent (C)

Prayer of the Day
O Lord God, you led your people through the wilderness and brought them to the promised land. Guide us now, so that, following your Son, we may walk safely through the wilderness of this world toward the life you alone can give, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.

So, Lent has begun!  We've spent the last several weeks talking about the beginning of Jesus' ministry, and now, thanks to Christmas and Easter being so close together, we're going to be skipping to the end soon.  (To hear about the middle, come to church during 'Ordinary Time' in the summer!)  We have put away the word "Alleluia" during worship, many of us now have midweek Lenten services to attend, and the services take on a new emotional tone, because we need to explore the darkness of Lent in order to be able to truly understand the celebration coming at Easter.

Deuteronomy 26:1-11
When you have come into the land that the Lord your God is giving you as an inheritance to possess, and you possess it, and settle in it, you shall take some of the first of all the fruit of the ground, which you harvest from the land that the Lord your God is giving you, and you shall put it in a basket and go to the place that the Lord your God will choose as a dwelling for his name. You shall go to the priest who is in office at that time, and say to him, ‘Today I declare to the Lord your God that I have come into the land that the Lord swore to our ancestors to give us.’ When the priest takes the basket from your hand and sets it down before the altar of the Lord your God, you shall make this response before the Lord your God: ‘A wandering Aramean was my ancestor; he went down into Egypt and lived there as an alien, few in number, and there he became a great nation, mighty and populous. When the Egyptians treated us harshly and afflicted us, by imposing hard labour on us, we cried to the Lord, the God of our ancestors; the Lord heard our voice and saw our affliction, our toil, and our oppression. The Lord brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, with a terrifying display of power, and with signs and wonders; and he brought us into this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey. So now I bring the first of the fruit of the ground that you, O Lord, have given me.’ You shall set it down before the Lord your God and bow down before the Lord your God. Then you, together with the Levites and the aliens who reside among you, shall celebrate with all the bounty that the Lord your God has given to you and to your house.

Sometimes it's easy to forget, but we know that everything that we have, came from God and belongs to God.  Intentionally giving some back to God is one way of recognizing that in our lives.  There are many texts about tithing (that is, giving a tenth of our income to God- often to support your church) but this passage has a slightly different spin.  Here, the emphasis is put on giving to God first.  Often, even if we've pledged a certain amount of our income to our congregation, denomination and various charities, we find ourselves giving them the last ten percent.  First we pay our bills, then we take care of other necessary things, then we have some fun, and finally we hope to have not accidentally overspent so we can still give the amount we've promised to the church.

Of course I recognize that these are difficult economic times for everyone.  And because of that, I suggest that what ever person and family truly needs is a carefully thought out budget, written down somewhere.  And one of those line items, for those of us of the Christian faith, will be a certain amount to give to our congregation.

And for that line item I have two suggestions.  First- I suggest calculating it as some percentage of your total income.  If you're not used to tithing (or for that matter giving a certain pre-decided amount) starting at 10% would be quite a shock- so don't.  Start at two or three percent, or whatever amount feels financially comfortable for you- the idea is to turn this into a habit that will continue.  Divide that amount into monthly or weekly amounts, and you have your regular giving amount.  And if you miss a Sunday, don't forget to make up for it- or look into Simply Giving if you're Lutheran and never miss a week.  Then each year you can increase it by half a percent or so until you reach 10%.

My second suggestion is to keep that amount separate from another line item for other charities you may give to.  That's simply a matter of being detailed in your budgeting, and will help you keep track of exactly where your money is going.  And then set these percentages aside right away, first thing, as your first fruits.

Psalm 91:1-2, 9-16
You who live in the shelter of the Most High,
   who abide in the shadow of the Almighty,
will say to the Lord, ‘My refuge and my fortress;
   my God, in whom I trust.’ 

Because you have made the Lord your refuge,
   the Most High your dwelling-place,
no evil shall befall you,
   no scourge come near your tent.
For he will command his angels concerning you
   to guard you in all your ways.
On their hands they will bear you up,
   so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.
You will tread on the lion and the adder,
   the young lion and the serpent you will trample under foot.
Those who love me, I will deliver;
   I will protect those who know my name.
When they call to me, I will answer them;
   I will be with them in trouble,
   I will rescue them and honor them.
With long life I will satisfy them,
   and show them my salvation.

 This Psalm ties in nicely with the Gospel reading for this week, in what may be a way that will surprise you.  I especially appreciate the first line of this- while many people think of being under the shadow of God's wings as God's looking out for us, I prefer to think of a more literal shadow.  As pointed out by our first reading, everything that is ours was God's first, and we also know that everything that is, exists because God caused it to be.  So any actual shadow you actually stand in? Is God's shadow.  When you stand in the warmth of the sunshine?  That's the warmth of God's love for us, to make a place where we can live.  Think about that long enough, and suddenly it's really hard to complain about your ice cream melting.

Romans 10:8b-13
‘The word is near you,
   on your lips and in your heart’
(that is, the word of faith that we proclaim); because if you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For one believes with the heart and so is justified, and one confesses with the mouth and so is saved. The scripture says, ‘No one who believes in him will be put to shame.’ For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; the same Lord is Lord of all and is generous to all who call on him. For, ‘Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.’

So, the first two readings point out that everything that is, belongs to the Lord, and this reading reminds us that we are part of that list.  God has put our faith on our lips and in our hearts (that is, we speak of it and believe it) no matter our background.  Paul brings up the "no distinction between Jew and Greek" because that was a major question in his day- in order to be Christian, did you have to be Jewish first?  He and Peter (Jesus' best-known disciple) disagreed on this, but Christians eventually accepted that Paul was right.  All Christians who confess "Jesus is Lord" are equal in the eyes of God, and to this day that is the only commonly-accepted requirement for being considered a Christian.  We are all God's children, we can and do call on God, and there is no difference between us that matters to God.

Luke 4:1-13
Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness, where for forty days he was tempted by the devil. He ate nothing at all during those days, and when they were over, he was famished. The devil said to him, ‘If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become a loaf of bread.’ Jesus answered him, ‘It is written, “One does not live by bread alone.”

Then the devil led him up and showed him in an instant all the kingdoms of the world. And the devil said to him, ‘To you I will give their glory and all this authority; for it has been given over to me, and I give it to anyone I please. If you, then, will worship me, it will all be yours.’ Jesus answered him, ‘It is written,
“Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.”

Then the devil took him to Jerusalem, and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, saying to him, ‘If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here, for it is written, “He will command his angels concerning you, to protect you”, and “On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.” ’ Jesus answered him, ‘It is said, “Do not put the Lord your God to the test.” ’ When the devil had finished every test, he departed from him until an opportune time. 

Jesus has fasted for forty days (hey, that's how long Lent is! what a shock...) and at the end, after forty days of constant temptation, the devil tempts him three more times.  First, with a basic human need- hunger.  (If you've ever wondered why people give things up during Lent, and why it's so often food, this is where it comes from.)  Second, with something that tempts so many of us- power.  (Though it does seem odd that the devil would choose that particular method with Jesus, seeing as Jesus is God and therefore already has power over all that anyway.) 

And the third temptation?  That one isn't really something we talk about a lot, is it- testing God.  The devil has been trying to get Jesus to admit a lack of trust in God (in himself) this whole time.  You can turn these stones into bread if you want, why suffer?  You can *use* the power you have over these people, why be humble?  But one of the points of God becoming one of us and coming to us as Jesus was to be like us- to suffer as we would, to experience humility from our end.  Jesus could have flown right off the top of that temple if he'd wanted.  But he was here as one of us, and the only times he used his power while he was here was to show the love of God for us in his miracles.  What the devil suggested wouldn't have done that.  Jesus has no need to test God, and neither do we.

And did the devil really just quote Scripture?  Yes.  We don't say this often enough- anyone can say the words of the Bible, and the Bible is a long enough book that it's words can be used to say nearly anything, if you pick the right sentence here and there.  Which is why we read the Bible regularly, to get a sense for it as a whole, to understand who Jesus was and what he worked for and stood for, so that when people take these phrases out of context, we can say "I don't think that word means what you think it means."  Because we have come to understand God's love for us, shown through Jesus Christ, and throughout the Bible.

Go in peace, serve the Lord.  Thanks be to God!

Monday, February 11, 2013

Book Review: The Five Love Languages

While this is not technically a theological work, it certainly would make an excellent book for relationship counseling and even premarital advising.  The Five Love Languages by Gary Chapman has quite a bit of very solid advice in it.

Which is not to say it's a flawless book.  There are some gender stereotypes in it that make me wince- all women like shoes, men can't multitask, etc.  And the voice of the book isn't really my cup of tea, though you may like it.  It is very clearly a book that was written for people who like the books you find in Christian bookstores.  And I realize this blog is young yet, so you may not realize this, but to be strictly honest I've investigated a lot of books in Christian bookstores (professional hazard, you might say) and it's not a voice I favor.  A little too glib and shiny, ignoring the darker side of things, pretending that we live in a perfect world.  Not really the voice I'd go for in a book focused on relationship counseling.

So, this book isn't intended to help someone recognize and escape a bad situation, but it does have some very practical advice about relating to another person.  The general concept of the book (as you may have guessed from the title) is that there are (at least) five different "languages" that we use to express and receive love.  Someone who prefers to receive love from their partner with words may not recognize that their partner values acts of service more.  And so one partner is constantly saying I love you, and the other is constantly doing little chores around the house, and both are flabbergasted that neither of them seems really fulfilled. 

The five love languages are (paraphrased) physical affection, words, gifts, acts of service, and quality time.  And lest we jump to conclusions, there are many ways that all of those can be expressed- gifts don't have to be expensive, and some people value a hug over a kiss.  A person may have two preferred love languages, and certainly may really dislike one or more of them as well.  (I know a lot of people who don't really like receiving gifts, for example, for a variety of reasons.)  So it's a bit more complicated than you'd think at first, but Dr. Chapman does a good job of laying it all out.  Also, it's the kind of book where, if one person in a relationship is more of a reader than the other, the basic concepts can be easily relayed.

So it would be a lot of use to someone who's just feeling a bit disconnected or unfulfilled, but isn't necessarily the first book to reach for in extremely miserable situations, by any means.  Also, the concepts are easily translated into relationships that aren't romantic- Dr. Chapman apparently has a whole series worked out by now.  I haven't read the others- I may some day, but my too-read list is long enough it won't be for quite awhile- so I can't review them.  But if you like this style of advice book, investigating them might be right up your alley.

Friday, February 8, 2013

Lutheran Look: What's the point of confirmation?

As you might expect, I get this question mostly from confirmation students.  And depending on the student, I often give different answers, because very often the question means different things.

As far as I'm concerned, the ultimate point of confirmation is helping the student to transition from the - often simple and trusting, if certainly not unquestioning - faith of a child, into a more complex, nuanced faith that will grow with them into adulthood and stay with them all their life.  Confirmation traditionally involves three sections: focused study in the Bible, learning how it's structured and what it says; learning Martin Luther's Small Catechism, which explains Baptism, Communion, the Lord's Prayer, the Ten Commandments, the Apostle's Creed, and a few other things; and probably also a section on "Christian Life"- or how our faith is involved in our daily lives.

Those of us who are "cradle Lutherans" were likely baptized as infants or very small children- so students were probably welcomed into the family of God by others, not on their own terms.  At the confirmation service, after having gone through a new level of focused education, students "confirm" their faith in front of the congregation.  They take on the promises of baptism, meant to lead them into a Christian life in Christian community, as their own.

After being confirmed, students are considered adult members of the church.  They can speak up during congregational meetings, they can most likely be members of various councils and committees, and often they take on more responsibility for their faith life with their families, perhaps getting more of a say in which church service they'd like to attend or what they'll volunteer for.

Whether or not those who are confirmed but under the age of 18 have a vote in congregational meetings (such as an Annual Meeting or calling a pastor) depends, to some extent, on the congregation.  In the USA, my understanding is that no one under 18 is allowed to enter a "binding legal contract" that involves money- so those under 18 cannot vote on anything that involves the budget, or hiring staff (including a pastor).  Some congregations do allow those under 18 to vote on things that don't involve money- which ministries to emphasize, changes to worship services, etc.  

Personally speaking, I have to say I have no ethical problem with families forcing their kids to go through the confirmation classes against their will.  It's education, and like any class at school they might not like, it will almost certainly come in handy down the road.  Western culture has been shaped by Christianity in a lot of ways, and learning a bit more about the Bible and what the church does is very practical.

However, I cannot agree to actually confirm the student, at the confirmation service, if the student is unwilling or even just not ready yet.  Participating in that service is each student's choice, and if they cannot agree to the promises they are to make at that service, I won't force them to lie about it in front of their friends and family.  Any of my future students who would have questions or concerns about this will always be welcome to discuss this with me, and I will always be willing to help them and their family discuss it as well.  If a student wants to put off confirmation for awhile while they consider further, or study other denominations or religions, that is always their choice to make.

A few words on something confirmation isn't: in some faiths, there's a concept of an "age of accountability"- that small children are not responsible for their actions, but once a child reaches a certain age, then they are.  That's not what confirmation is.  We are all equally responsible for our actions at any age - and we have each been equally forgiven by the grace of God, through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.  Confirmation does mean claiming the faith as one's own, and it changes one's relationship with the church and the congregation, but that's all.

Confirmation may well be a little difficult or confusing, but the point, again, is to give the student resources and tools they can use for the rest of their life, as their faith grows and changes with them.

God bless!

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Lectionary: 2/10/2013 - Transfiguration Sunday (C)

Prayer of the Day

Holy God, mighty and immortal, you are beyond our knowing, yet we see your glory in the face of Jesus Christ. Transform us into the likeness of your Son, who renewed our humanity so that we may share in his divinity, Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.

Over the last several weeks, we've heard stories of Jesus as he grows and begins his ministry during the season of Epiphany.  We've been getting used to the idea of God incarnate, coming to us.  This week, Transfiguration Sunday, we're about to get into Lent, so we change gears a bit.  This week is about how God's power changes, or transfigures, those who speak with God, do God's will, and help God's people.  During Lent we will be shifting in time a bit and hear about the end of Jesus' ministry- the stories from the middle are told during the summer, in "Ordinary Time".

Exodus 34:29–35
Moses came down from Mount Sinai. As he came down from the mountain with the two tablets of the covenant in his hand, Moses did not know that the skin of his face shone because he had been talking with God. When Aaron and all the Israelites saw Moses, the skin of his face was shining, and they were afraid to come near him. But Moses called to them; and Aaron and all the leaders of the congregation returned to him, and Moses spoke with them. Afterward all the Israelites came near, and he gave them in commandment all that the Lord had spoken with him on Mount Sinai. When Moses had finished speaking with them, he put a veil on his face; but whenever Moses went in before the Lord to speak with him, he would take the veil off, until he came out; and when he came out, and told the Israelites what he had been commanded, the Israelites would see the face of Moses, that the skin of his face was shining; and Moses would put the veil on his face again, until he went in to speak with him.

Very often, these days, when we talk about God, we try to emphasize having a personal relationship with God, and how much God loves us, and how human Jesus was, and so on.  And all of that is certainly true.  But there is another side as well.  We cannot describe God completely without including God's power.  Moses was apparently pretty terrified when God first spoke to him from the burning bush.  Here, God's power is so raw and direct when they speak together that Moses has to wear a veil to protect himself.  Don't forget in the Christmas story, when the angel appears to the shepherds, the first thing the angel says is "Don't be afraid!"- which I have to think means that they were.

God loves us, and Jesus was human, yes.  But God is also so powerful that Moses' face would shine after a conversation on the mountaintop.  Over and over again in the Bible, when God appears to someone, the first reaction is often partly stunned amazement, and partly fear at the incredible power on display.  God has told us not to be afraid, but we do need to be told that as well.  And we cannot speak about God honestly if we forget this aspect.

Psalm 99
The Lord is king; let the peoples tremble! He sits enthroned upon the cherubim; let the earth quake!
The Lord is great in Zion; he is exalted over all the peoples.
Let them praise your great and awesome name. Holy is he!
Mighty King, lover of justice, you have established equity; you have executed justice and righteousness in Jacob.
Extol the Lord our God; worship at his footstool. Holy is he!
Moses and Aaron were among his priests, Samuel also was among those who called on his name. They cried to the Lord, and he answered them.
He spoke to them in the pillar of cloud; they kept his decrees, and the statutes that he gave them.
O Lord our God, you answered them; you were a forgiving God to them, but an avenger of their wrongdoings.
Extol the Lord our God, and worship at his holy mountain; for the Lord our God is holy.

This is what's called a praise Psalm, which means it was written to praise God.  It focuses mostly on God's power, which is probably why it was chosen for this Sunday, and Moses and Aaron get a mention.  Notice how it also mentions God's justice twice- and when it talks about God as the "avenger of their wrongdoings" don't make the mistake of thinking it's talking about the wrongdoings done against Moses and Aaron.  They did screw up themselves as well a few times, and the Bible records God's justice towards them.

I think the mention of Samuel here is interesting- he's one of the few in the Bible whose first encounter with God was unknowing and not frightening at all.  The "called on his name" bit is sort of an in-joke for those who read all about it in 1 Samuel, chapter 3.

2 Corinthians 3:12—4:2
Since, then, we have such a hope, we act with great boldness, not like Moses, who put a veil over his face to keep the people of Israel from gazing at the end of the glory that was being set aside. But their minds were hardened. Indeed, to this very day, when they hear the reading of the old covenant, that same veil is still there, since only in Christ is it set aside. Indeed, to this very day whenever Moses is read, a veil lies over their minds; but when one turns to the Lord, the veil is removed. Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. And all of us, with unveiled faces, seeing the glory of the Lord as though reflected in a mirror, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another; for this comes from the Lord, the Spirit.
Therefore, since it is by God’s mercy that we are engaged in this ministry, we do not lose heart. We have renounced the shameful things that one hides; we refuse to practice cunning or to falsify God’s word; but by the open statement of the truth we commend ourselves to the conscience of everyone in the sight of God.

This week we skip ahead a bit, to the next book, to get to this part where Paul talks about Moses.  Why does Paul say that "only in Christ is [the veil] set aside"?  Again, throughout the Bible, people directly encountering God were always bowled over by the power of God's presence- unless God was coming to them as Jesus Christ, human and divine at once.  Many people were certainly very stunned by Jesus as well, but not in the same way.  The need for the veil that Moses wore wasn't there when people spoke to Jesus.

Paul then also points out that, as the Spirit works in each of us, we can see God in each other, and that does not require the veil either, because God's power and glory is "reflected in a mirror"- each other.  We have nothing to hide because we are surrounded by God's presence in each other, every day.

Luke 9:28–36
Now about eight days after these sayings Jesus took with him Peter and John and James, and went up on the mountain to pray. And while he was praying, the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became dazzling white. Suddenly they saw two men, Moses and Elijah, talking to him. They appeared in glory and were speaking of his departure, which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem. Now Peter and his companions were weighed down with sleep; but since they had stayed awake, they saw his glory and the two men who stood with him. Just as they were leaving him, Peter said to Jesus, “Master, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah” —not knowing what he said. While he was saying this, a cloud came and overshadowed them; and they were terrified as they entered the cloud. Then from the cloud came a voice that said, “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!” When the voice had spoken, Jesus was found alone. And they kept silent and in those days told no one any of the things they had seen. 

So, Jesus has been beginning his ministry, sort of getting things going.  He was baptized, he did a miracle at his mother's suggestion at a wedding, he went home after a bit (and got thrown out).  He's found the disciples, and they've been traveling around together for awhile by this point (notice we've skipped several chapters ahead again, the church year intervenes in our nice linear readings sometimes).

And yet here Peter has no frame of reference.  He clearly has no idea what to do- he wants to be helpful, so he comes up with the idea of making them dwellings, but it's a bit nonsensical.  (I'm not sure, but I've always figured there has to be a connection to the Jewish festival of Sukkot in there somewhere.)  When confronted with Moses and Elijah- not to mention Jesus taking on a very different look than usual- he doesn't know what to do.

I've never really decided if I think that God is answering Peter's unspoken "What should I do now?" directly, but I have to say, if you have no idea what you're doing, listening to Jesus is often a good idea.

Love and serve the Lord.  Thanks be to God!

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

City of God: Book 2

(Book 1 is here.)

For centuries, up until the last couple hundred years, really, Christianity had a serious disdain for fiction.  It seemed evil, somehow- like lies.  Good Christians read nonfiction.  (Well, to be honest, most good Christians, like most of everyone else, couldn't read.  But if they did, they would have felt guilty about reading fiction.)  The novel is still a pretty recent concept.

And wow, if they disdained fiction- they hated the theater.  Oh, sure, eventually you could go see a production of Shakespeare and that was okay, but anything else was evil, lust-filled, or a blatant invitation to sin.  And the actual actors and actresses themselves?  Were seen as the very worst.  Not accepted in "polite" society, never really acknowledged for their gifts and work.

If you want to know why?  Read this book.

Book 1 was about the looting of Rome, and Book 2, in a pleasant change of pace, is all about the evils and vices practiced in Rome before the looting.  In particular, Augustine has a real bee in his bonnet about the theater, and acting.  I suppose it's possible that a few of the shows he's talking about were actually as provocative and lewd as he claims, but all of them? 

Part of me wonders if, while writing this book, he was thinking back to the time he said, "Give me chastity and self-control, Lord, but not yet" and thinking he really should have held out longer. The extended, loving descriptions of how shocked and horrified proper ladies should have been at these shows are a little suspect, is all I'm saying.

To make it clear, the shows he's talking about weren't the kind of plays we're used to.  These were shows at festivals for the Roman gods, in honor of the gods and illustrating their lives.  Now, if you've read any Roman mythology (stolen shamelessly from the Greeks, like their laws, which Augustine also has a bone to pick with- more on that later) you know not to be surprised there might be some- err- R-rated material.  But spending over half the book on how horrified he was by these shows?  I have to think he must have gone to an awful lot of them, to write this extensively.

Speaking of the Romans stealing their laws from the Greeks!  Augustine's larger point about the Roman festival shows was that if the Roman gods were decent at all, the shows would have given good moral content to the crowds.  He later goes on in this book to point out that if the Roman gods had given the Romans good morals, then they wouldn't have had to send ambassadors to Solon's court in Athens to copy down his laws.  And even if they'd had to do that, they wouldn't have tried to change them and vote on them when they got back.  (Still not really sure how that part of the argument is supposed to work.)

There is, I admit, one section of this book which I'm going to have to reread.  His section on Cicero's opinion on the Romans actually has some worthwhile political philosophy in it, and seems worth perusing again.

Anyway, this book ends with Augustine denouncing the Roman gods one more time, and then talking about how wonderful Christianity is in comparison.  I have to say, I'm really looking forward to the parts of this that have actual Christian theology in them- I'm kind of getting tired of the one-note "Romans suck!" melody here.  We'll see what Book 3 holds.

Monday, February 4, 2013

Book Review: The Nine Tailors

The Nine Tailors, by Dorothy Sayers, is a murder mystery, so you might be surprised to find it reviewed here.  But I am an irrepressible fan of mysteries, and this one belongs here more than most.

I love just about all of Dorothy Sayers' novels about Lord Peter Wimsey- an English gentleman "between the wars" (that is, the two World Wars) who almost accidentally takes up crime solving and finds himself surprisingly good at it.  A sharp brain behind a (carefully created and cultivated) silly exterior, with a dose of shell shock from his service in the Great War, Lord Peter is a detective as precise as Agatha Christie's Poirot (and as underestimated, for the same reasons) but with a sense of humor.  His valet, Bunter, is also a central character in this book, and if Wodehouse's infamous gentleman's gentleman Jeeves has any true counterpart in fiction, it's Bunter.

This book in particular is set in a country town, and much of the book (and the mystery) is centered around the village church.  We particularly learn a lot about the Anglican traditions of bell-ringing.  (Those of you who are not liturgy nerds can skim most of those bits, but I loved it.)  The village rector (pastor) is the very image of a busy clergyman- in fact, so few clergy are depicted in fiction as being competent, or at least not-evil, that this character got me through quite a few tough moments in seminary.  And I guarantee that you've never read or heard of a mystery that shares the answer to this one!

Sadly this book does not involve Harriet Vane, Lord Peter's practical-but-brilliant eventual love interest, or his always-hilarious mother the Dowager Duchess.  But the teenage orphan at the center of the story, Hilary Thorpe, is likable and believable as a grieving, intelligent teen looking for independence and answers.

For anyone who likes Agatha Christie, or any of what the English refer to "cosy cottage" mysteries, this book is sure to please.  Certainly an old favorite of mine.

Friday, February 1, 2013

Lutheran Look: Becoming an ELCA pastor- Seminary

This is a follow up to my earlier post about how to become a pastor, which covered the pre-seminary part.

So, you feel the call to ministry, you've figured out the finances, you've gone through the Entrance into Candidacy with your local synod, and it's time to show up to seminary.

Now, if you're lucky, you'll be showing up on the first day of regular classes, because you've taken a Biblical Greek class and you don't have to do Summer Greek at your seminary.  I didn't do Summer Greek, so if you do have to do it, I have no advice to give you, other than breathe deep, keep praying, and keep up.

Again, just like I suggested in college, I'm going to suggest getting to know the course catalog early and well.  Know exactly what you have to do in order to graduate.  Take a look at any special certifications you may want to get (some seminaries have that sort of thing for youth ministry or other special topics, read your course catalog).

The ELCA seminaries have a fairly similar structure.  Two years of academic classes, one year of internship (somewhere), one more year of academic classes.  There's also a Clinical Pastoral Education requirement- this probably means that for a couple months during the summer between your first two years, you'll be working at a hospital as a student chaplain, but there are also options where you can work at nursing homes, or doing social work, and there used to be an option for prison ministry.  I'll get to that in a minute.

Your first year is going to be hard.  The seminaries don't want students who aren't going to make it through the program to waste their money, so academically speaking, the first year is a trial by fire to see if you can handle it.  It'll cover the basics of theology and history.

Then you'll probably do CPE after that- which is, again, a trial by fire, but not academically.  This is where they make sure that you truly feel called to ministry.  Chaplaincy is hard, challenging work, in any of the settings.  I did mine in a hospital, and it involved a lot of different things.  Most days I went around my floor visiting people who'd asked to see me, or who had been there several days.  Some of these people wanted help filling out a DNR, some wanted to confess, some wanted to talk about what dying would be like.  A lot of people thought I was a nun (or married, or a high school student). 

Walking into a room, you never knew what you were walking into- could be a whole family or a person who hadn't talked to anybody but the nurses in days.  Sometimes I was on call to the ICU and ER for codes and deaths- I wound up doing the paperwork and helping the grieving families of, I think, 8 deaths over the course of 10 weeks.  Each was different, each family is etched in my memory, each experience was life-changing for me.  I visited the Mental Health Unit, did night shifts, talked to nurses and dietitians and local pastors.  I talked to a guy in the ER who was very drunk, and had requested a "man of the cloth"- that was interesting.  You will spend a lot of time at CPE taking classes on various special topics, reading, and doing a lot of self-examination.  And when you leave, I guarantee you, whatever background you came from, you will be a different person than when you walked in.

Second year of seminary will probably be a little easier academically.  Get to know your professors- they're involved in your Candidacy process too.  Focus on pastoral topics as you can, as you'll soon be headed out for Internship.  First, though, you have to be Endorsed by your synod committee for internship.  That involves an essay and an interview- it'll be pretty stressful.  Start figuring out what your gifts and "learning edges" are early so you know what kind of internship you're looking for- you won't necessarily get what you want, but knowing what you need is important.

Internship is probably a year long, maybe nine months.  You'll either be attached or detached- that is, you'll either be working in the same congregation as your supervising pastor or you'll be at another congregation nearby.  (If you aren't second career, you will almost certainly be attached.)  Internships are hugely individual- maybe you'll do special projects, or read books with your supervisor, maybe your congregation will be in crisis.  Your supervisor, depending on personalities, may teach you mostly what to do, or teach you exactly what you don't want to do- but either way, you'll learn.  I absolutely suggest finding your local ELCA pastor's text study (call the local synod to ask where and when) and go every single week, whether or not your supervisor does.  The pastors there may or may not be your style either, but they will be essential to your social life, and variety is a good thing.  Keep in touch with your classmates, hang on to your support system, you'll need it.

Senior year of seminary, you're putting together everything you've learned.  Application of theology will probably become more important to you for this year than it has before.  You'll prepare for and then go through Approval for ordination (which means another essay and at least two interviews, one with your synod, one with faculty members).

If you're Approved right off (and most people are, again, the people who run the seminary are not there to waste your time) you'll get assigned to a synod, and then be able to start interviewing.  (First call is a little different than how it'll work after that.)  And there you go, you're a pastor!

God bless!