Hi. I’m Rob. I’m a pastor. You guys called me here a little over a year ago. We’ve had some time to get to know one another. I like you all, and I think you like me. At least some of you do. Are we at a point in our relationship that we can talk openly? Let’s give it a shot.
When your call committee was interviewing potential pastors, you put together a profile of your congregation. It’s something every congregation is required to do, just as every pastoral candidate is required to complete a Rostered Leader Profile. It’s part of the speed dating process. The potential pastor looks at the Ministry Site Profile and says, “OK, I think I can work with that,” and the congregation looks at the RLP and says, “Fine. This could turn into something.” The RLP highlights some areas of a minister’s strengths and “growing edges,” and the MSP lists a number of the congregation’s ministry priorities.
I have never, ever, never seen a Ministry Site Profile that doesn’t state, in one way or another, that the congregation hopes to attract young families with children or rebuild a youth and family program that has fallen away in recent years. Never seen it. Children are ALWAYS listed as a priority.
Why? I think the assumption is, that families are looking for a place where they can plant themselves, raise their kids in the faith, and those kids will either stay in the same town where the parents planted roots, or move away from that town but come back some day when they have kids of their own, or at least have a solid faith foundation to carry with them as they move somewhere else as grown-ups. It’s seen as hopeful to have kids in worship. It feels like a sign of security. And it’s completely delusional. Charming, but delusional.
The reality is that people are more mobile now than ever. Just in my adult lifetime, I’ve lived in 6 states and two countries. Twice. And I’m not in the “young family” demographic anymore, despite having two young’uns at home. The still younger set is even more mobile than my generation.
Before you say it, yes, every congregation has one or two examples of kids who have grown up, gone to college, and then came back. But for every one of those people who came back, how many never did? And those that left, how many have left the denomination for one reason or another? How many have left all things religious for one reason or another?
I don’t say any of this to make people feel bad or feel like failures when it came to raising kids in the faith or protecting the institution they worked so hard to build or maintain. It’s simply the way things are. Did previous generations make mistakes? Oh, you betcha! But that’s not the point at all. The point is just that our old assumptions about church and family are as outdated as kerosene lamps and coal cooking stoves. It might feel nice to wax nostalgic about “the good old days,” but that kind of thinking both fails to recall the struggles that came with the good old days, while also failing to engage with current realities. It’s not helpful.
What does that have to do with kids in the church? Well, everything. People under the old model used to say, without a hint of irony, “the children are the future of the church.” Even if they were right back then, they’re wrong now. The children, if we’re so lucky as to have any, are the PRESENT of the church. They are every bit as important as the 85-year-old member who gives 10% weekly, serves on the Council, works for the Altar Guild, the Finance Committee, and every other thing that congregations typically do. The only difference: they are children.
Because they are children, they act like children. They are silly; they are fidgety; they are moody; they are often socially “inappropriate.” (Well, they’re not, really. If they were adults and acting that way, it WOULD be inappropriate. But as it is, they’re kids and that’s all there is to that.)
One of the great things about kids is that they live in the moment. Yes, they think about the future, but mostly, they’re much more present in the moment than adults. And they’re always learning. I’m not talking about formal learning here. Whether you have a structured Sunday School class or not, kids are learning from the adults. Mostly they’re not learning facts or processes, either. They’re learning from adults how they, the children, are being perceived and received. “Am I welcome here? Am I unwelcome? Can I be a kid, be myself, be silly, fidgety and all the rest, or do I have to be Old? If I don’t behave the way the Olds expect me to behave, am I still accepted, or do I really need to conform until I can get out of here at the first available opportunity and never look back?”
Recently someone said to me, “Yeah, they’re kids. We get that. But isn’t there some middle ground?” I’ve thought about it. At first I thought there must be. But the more I ponder, the more I believe there is NOT a middle ground. Because kids don’t process like adults. They are very self-centered. (Well, maybe they’re not too different from adults, after all!) And they’re trying to fit in. But if they are too structured and too hemmed in, all they’re learning is, “I don’t feel welcome among these people.” That’s reality. I honestly don’t care how it used to be in the old days of “Do what you’re told.” To think that way now is to engage in delusional thinking. It’s not Back When I Was A Kid times anymore. Back When I Was A Kid, I hated church and I left it as soon as I moved out of my family home at age 17. Now, eventually I did come back, but I’m not most kids.
Look, all I’m saying here is this: We can’t expect kids to act like grown ups. We can’t expect them to treat all of our religious pageantry with the same reverence that was forced into us and that made us superstitious and terrified of an angry God. It’s not healthy, and it’s not the character of God to scowl at children who actually WANT to be involved in worship. They won’t always want that. If we can make it pleasant for them while it’s still something they want to do, it’s going to have a far better, less traumatic effect on them as they grow up and move away than forcing them into a rigid behavioral box that makes US more comfortable. One of the things that all of us churchy people need to learn is that it’s really not about us. It’s not about what makes us comfortable. Think about Jesus and his teaching, and let’s allow HIM to be our guide in this.
If you see a kid in worship doing something you don’t like, first check your trigger. Then, when you’ve calmed down, maybe say to the kid in a kind and encouraging way, “Hey, I’d like to help you understand what you’re doing a little better. Here’s how *I* do this and here’s why.” That’s going to carry a lot more weight than a complaint to the council or to the pastor. Be proactive. Encourage one another. Build one another up.
By the way, just so we’re clear: It is not the pastor’s job to raise your children or grandchildren in the faith. That’s the parents’ or grandparents’ or other caretakers’ job. MY job is to help you do your job. To encourage you as you encourage one another. So please regard this whole “letter” in the encouraging sense that I intend it. If you feel challenged, that’s OK. If you disagree, that’s OK, too. We don’t have to agree on everything, because our unity isn’t in our agreement on every jot and tittle, but rather it’s in Christ, who is our Lord and teacher.
I’d love to have more conversation about this with folks in a one-to-one or small group setting, but I’m going to leave it up to you to set that up. One of the things I’ve become convinced of over the years: People will either care enough to make a conversation happen, or they’ll be content to gripe behind a person’s back. One of those ways is befitting a follower of Jesus. The other … not so much.
Anyway, I hope to chat with folks about this or any other concerns/questions in the very near future. Don’t be a stranger!
Two weeks ago, I headed back to my hometown in Michigan because my step-father, Bill, had had an “incident” on May 1, which prompted my mom to call 911 for him. At the time, we thought it was a heart attack, possibly a stroke, perhaps a reaction between his many and various prescriptions and the alcohol in his beloved beer. It was none of those things, and precisely what caused the initial event may remain forever a mystery, though we all have a hypothesis. But the point is, it was becoming clear that he wouldn’t be getting better after this episode.
That was a reality that my mom struggled to cope with. Mom has Alzheimer’s, and while her long-term memory is as sharp as a tack, she can’t remember things that happened yesterday or this morning or 30 minutes ago, sometimes things that happened seconds ago. But she remembers pretty much EVERYTHING from her past. That memory includes the deaths of her first two husbands.
When my mom was 18, she married Richard. Dick. Both a name and a fitting pejorative. Dick was a “mama’s boy,” whose mama was extremely meticulous. Like, literal “white glove on the door tops to search for dust” meticulous, and she had raised her son likewise, so when Mom married Dick, his standards were high. Each morning she was to fix his breakfast: a bowl of oatmeal with a perfectly square pat of butter placed directly in the center of the bowl. If the butter shape or placement didn’t meet his standards, he would throw the bowl to the floor and mom had to clean it up. This explains a lot about her later housekeeping habits, which were essentially non-existent and which I also seem to have inherited.
The 18 year old turned 19 and had the first of my siblings, Desi. Two years later, along came Sharee. Not long after that, Dick and my mom separated and were living in two different houses. On top of – perhaps related to – his meticulous standards, Dick struggled with alcohol and mental unhealth, specifically, undifferentiated Schizophrenia. This was a bad combination, and Dick died by suicide when Mom was about 30.
At 32, Mom remarried. John was my dad. He had been in the 101st Airborne, became a cop when he got out, started the police Union in our town. But dad also struggled with alcohol and mental health issues, including PTSD from his upbringing. Grandma Martin, I’m told, used to discipline both of her kids by flushing their heads in the toilet. Grandma was literally a grade-school bully. She was also a bit of a terrorist in ways that I won’t get into now, but the short version is that she had both my cousin Marty and me terrified to go into public restrooms since about the age of 5. Well, Dad’s mental unhealth caught up with him, and he, too, died by suicide.
Fast forward to 1978. Mom met Bill through mutual acquaintances, and they hit it off from the beginning. They got married in July of 1979, and we all became a blended family. Not quite like the Brady Bunch. You can start imagining there, but you’ll have to go darker. Like, add in some Addams Family and maybe a touch of Manson Family … no, I exaggerate. We were weird, but it all worked. It was really a good match.
The other day, as I was sitting with Mom in her living room, where she had the TV turned up to 11 (mostly to keep her from being able to think), she said, “I wonder why God is doing this to Bill. He never hurt anybody.” I said, “Why do you think God is doing this?” She said, “It just seems unfair. It’s so horrible! I guess God doesn’t want me to be married.”
“Ma! You and Bill were married for over 40 years! If God didn’t want you to be married, don’t you think he would have done something about it before now??” But her thinking is beyond logic now. Mom also has never been much of a theologian. She converted to Catholicism in 1976 so that she’d qualify for a St. Vincent de Paul Society scholarship that would allow me to attend the Catholic School that became my “pedagogue” for 12 years. One of the “benefits” of being a Catholic is, you don’t HAVE to be a theologian. There are guys who are willing to do all your God-thinking for you, if that’s your desire. Even though Mom taught CCD for a couple of years, she never really thought deeply about God. Her theology was and is the acquired kind, not the deduced or wrestled with kind. Which is fine as far as that goes. But when you run up against having survived 3 husbands in a life-time, maybe it would have been better for her to have developed a healthier view of faith and our relationship with the Divine.
I may be coming across as unfair to our Catholic siblings. Surely there are more than a few non-Catholics who inherited a bad theology along the way and never really had the tools to question it. I’m not saying people are dumb. By no means. Mom is really quite intelligent, for example. But she has never been equipped for faith when it meets a big challenge like the ones she has faced in life.
Here’s what I’m really getting at: Faith isn’t what most of us were taught that it is. We tend to think of it as a set of precepts that we need to believe in – i.e. give intellectual assent to – in order to “be saved” – another phrase that we aren’t really taught to deal with the meaning of. Faith isn’t about “belief” at all, really. It’s about TRUST. And trust comes from relationship, and this is something that’s built over time. We don’t just automatically trust anyone or anything. Someone needs to prove trustWORTHY over time before we can fully put our trust in that one. But when we do, our trust doesn’t waiver due to bad circumstances. It may be tasted, and it may be strained, but it doesn’t break.
When we think about our faith/trust in God, we come to that through a relationship with God in Jesus that proves God to be trustworthy over time, in our lives, in human history. But the question becomes, what can we trust ABOUT God? If we think we can trust God to pop out of the box at the end of the play and to save the day (a “deus ex machina”), then we’ve placed our trust in a God that doesn’t exist.
So what CAN we trust God to do or to be? Remember when we said a few weeks ago that God protects us from nothing, but sustains us in everything? THAT is how God is trustworthy. God can be trusted to be self-giving, because God shows Godself to be self-giving on the cross and in every circumstance. God can be trusted to be radically forgiving, because this has been God’s character forever, and we’ve seen it both in the scriptures and in our lives. And God can be trusted to be co-suffering, as we have seen on the cross and again in our lives as we face every kind of struggle. God doesn’t rescue us from our problems or save us from hardships, but God loves us so much that he accompanies us and struggles alongside of us in everything. That includes the loss of 3 husbands and two children.
I know Mom is kind of beyond comprehending that now, though I wish she had been given the tools to explore all of this in her own lifetime and test how it’s true. God didn’t take Dick away from Mom, but God did help her and my two sisters survive … for a time. And when they died, God was still beside Mom, weeping with her. God didn’t cause my dad to kill himself, but when Dad pulled that trigger, God was present with him in his final moments, suffering his pain along with him. And God was present again with Mom and me, quietly bearing our burden, too. Just as God was with Bill in those excruciating final weeks as his body craved the food that he couldn’t eat and as he felt the pain of his metabolic systems shutting down much slower than any of us would have hoped for him, for mercy’s sake. But God was there, co-suffering in it all. And God is here now in our loss and in our mourning. Weeping alongside of us again. Loving us still.
This isn’t something I “believe” with my mind, but rather it’s something I “know” in my innermost being. I trust that it’s true, because I’ve been here before. God is worthy of that trust. It’s literally the only thing I can “give” back to God. And even that is a gift.
This is just a quick chuckle from the Dementia outpost. My niece Lindsey recently bought a house. I’ve seen the pictures. It’s a really nice house! New carpet and everything. She brought my mom over to spend the night after my step father landed in the hospital, cuz Mom gets a little nervous about staying alone at night. Plus, given her mental state, she doesn’t need to be alone in any place longer than absolutely necessary. But to take her overnight somewhere, she has to bring her dog, Buddy, the 100 lb Boxer.
Well, because the Old Folks are either to deaf or too enfeebled to let Buddy out every time he needs to pee, he has resorted back to some puppy habits, including doing various numbers (number 1 and number 2, in case I need to spell that out. I’m talking about pee and poo, you see.) indoors, including on the carpets.
Clearly Lindsey is not happy about this, but you can’t correct Buddy in front of my mom, because that’s animal abuse or something. And Mom had the audacity to say, “He’s just helping you decorate. To give the house some “character” so that you don’t get too snooty.”
My brother and I were laughing about this today and how ridiculous the whole thing sounds, but the silver lining in the whole deal is that we now have a new euphemism for “number 2”: it’s “character.” This led us to start howling about having to take a character and about finding character stains on our kids’ undies.
If you don’t laugh at this stuff, you will cry.
As some of you know, my mother lives with dementia. And when I say “my mother lives with dementia,” I mean, “My entire family and social networks live with my mother’s dementia.” This stuff affects everything.
My mom’s story is by no means unique. In fact, the more people I meet of a certain age (mine), the more I am astounded to learn just how widespread this disease is. For Mom, it started in earnest right around the time that Covid shut the world down.
Prior to the pandemic, my mom … I’m just gonna call her Geri, for your sake. Sometimes I’ll call her Mom. Anyway, prior to the pandemic, Geri was what you might call an “active Senior.” She retired from the insurance biz years ago, but wasn’t really satisfied just sitting around, so she got a job at the same place I worked: Henry Ford Museum. For Social Security reasons, she couldn’t work every day, so 2-3 days a week she had that job, which put her face-to-face with the visiting public. Then in the evenings, she and Bill (that’s my step-dad, whom I’ve know since I was 9. Great guy.) would go together to the local American Legion post. That’s where most of their friends were. Some nights they’d go to the Democratic Club in the next town over, but regardless of the venue, the two of them hung out together with people, and Geri kept social through her work.
And then came Covid. Suddenly, there was no more museum, no more Legion. Geri and Bill devolved into sitting around watching the TV too loudly. I mean, years of working in a factory had done a number on Bill’s hearing, but he had also developed a degenerative disease that prevented him from feeling with his fingers well enough to put in his not-inexpensive hearing aids. So they watched stupid television and began wasting away. Not only were they physically deteriorating, but also their minds started doing strange things.
Long story short, Mom has dementia. Pretty bad. She’s always been the kind of person to tell the same story several times back to back, just because she was uncomfortable with silence, but now things started getting bad. Like, “asking the same question about what the kids want for Christmas 5 times in as many minutes” bad. And that turned into “being confused about what day it was” bad. And that further deteriorated into “not having taken a shower in over a week” kind of bad.
Things have actually gotten much worse since this whole thing started. The “funny” thing that happened today is, as I was having a long conversation with Mom on the phone – by the way, she is convinced these last two days that I am either in town with her and so she’s asking me why I’m staying at a hotel instead of at her place, or that I’m driving home, wherever she thinks home is for me now. She seems to forget most days that I don’t live in Oklahoma anymore – we were talking about skilled nursing facilities, convalescent homes, that kind of things, and she reminds me that she worked at one of those for many years since before I was born. And she goes, “And some of those old people in those places are MEAN!”
This is “funny” in an ironic sort of way, because Geri has become at times in the course of this disease one of the meanest, cruelest, most heartless people I’ve ever met. She flings F-bombs that would make Richard Pryor blush. She calls all of us who are left every name in the book except “child of God.” She even told my niece, her grand daughter, whom she essentially raised because my sister was so messed up on Depression and every kind of narcotic imaginable, that she wished that it was her, my niece, who had died back in 2008 instead of my sister. Mean. Viscious. A real Bitch.
This is not my mom. This is NOT who Geri is. But it’s who she becomes, thanks to this disease. My mom? She’s a fighter. A warrior. A survivor. She survived her first husband Dick and my dad John, both of whom were schizophrenic alcoholics, both of whom died by suicide. And now it looks like she’ll probably survive Bill, whom she had to call 911 for this past Monday, because it appeared he was having a heart attack. (It wasn’t a heart attack. Might have been a stroke. May have been a massive seizure. We’re still waiting on test results.) Things don’t look good for him, I’m sorry to say. On the other hand, this is the same man who, when Dr. Jack Kevorkian was in the news a lot in the 1980s, wanted to have the Suicide Doc on his speed dial because he never wanted “to get that way.” It’s also the same man who spends every day talking about how much he hates living in the body he inhabits, because he’s in constant pain and has been for a number of years.
But the point was, Geri’s a survivor. That’s not a compliment. It just means that she will do whatever she has to do, say whatever she has to say in order to maintain what it is that she thinks she needs. Healthy or not. More often than not these days, it’s anything but healthy.
Last time I went up to see Mom was in November of 2021. I had been up in the spring as well, because we thought she might be dying. She had dropped down to 80 lbs. and looked downright skeletal, but a few weeks in rehab got her back up to a reasonable weight. The only problem was the dementia. I may have made things worse by taking her to Frankenmuth, MI for lunch. That’s one of the places she always loved going when I was a kid, and I think she was happy to go again with me, except that we got separated in a gift shop and she got terribly confused. The whole thing had wiped her out, and she slept most of the car ride home.
Anyway, in November of 21 I had gone back up because her dementia had gotten quite bad and even she had noticed. I was planning on getting her to sign Power of Attorney papers. As much as she loves my niece, Mom knew that Lindsey would never be able to make difficult life/death situations on her behalf, so she had wanted me to take charge of that. Well, Covid was still raging, so I couldn’t get the paperwork together and get her to a Notary to make everything official. We had tried doing some teleconference things, but all I had was my cell phone and I wasn’t able to upload things properly. Needless to say, it all fell through. And then we got in a fight.
We got in a fight over her dog, Buddy. Mom had told me numerous times over this trip and the previous one that she wishes she and Bill could move into an apartment like the one we lived in when I was a kid. If it was a place with nursing care, that would be fine. She’d just have to be able to bring Buddy. Did I mention that Buddy is a 100+ lb Boxer? They haven’t invented the assisted living unit in the world that would accept a Buddy. When we suggested that my niece could keep Buddy and bring him by every day or two for extended visits, Bitch Geri came out. It was like Jeckyll & Hyde, if Hyde were a foul-mouthed old lady.
That fight pretty much ended things for me. I drove home without really even saying goodbye. It was a bad trip. And we were estranged for a long time because of it. But I had washed my hands of the situation, primarily because I wasn’t living there near her. Lindsey and my step-brother were. They were the two who went by multiple times a day to make sure people had eaten and had taken their meds. They did grocery shopping and errand running and bill paying. I was just in town for a week to try and make magic happen, because I was Geri’s baby and thought we had a special bond. Well, we did. But this wasn’t Geri. She had gone away, leaving her body behind to be inhabited by a demon from the deepest pit of hell. I had failed. The trip was a catastrophe.
More recently, we’ve been talking on the phone more. Some days the tone is quite pleasant. “What do the kids want for” whatever the next holiday was coming up? Not that she would remember to get it, but it gave us a chance to talk about the kids and what they’re into. Other days it was more about “you kids don’t care what WE want! You want to do what YOU want! We’re just an INCONVENIENCE for you! You want to take my dog away. Well, fuck all of you! You can all just fuck right off!” Of course, if you reminded her about this, she would suddenly become genteel. “WHAT?? I would NEVER use that kind of language!” OK, Ma. I think you taught Lenny Bruce how to swear, but of course you would never use language like that.
Well, things are even worse now because of the situation with Bill. He’s supposed to get out of the hospital tomorrow, but he simply can’t go back home. Depending on which of the dozen or so conversations you have with Geri on a given day this week, she will either deny that until the cows come home or she’ll admit that he’s bad off and she can’t possibly take care of him. But she won’t go to a nursing home. She’ll be damned before that happens. And she won’t even go to scheduled doctor appointments now, because deep down she knows she can’t hang any more, and she knows that any doc visit might result in her declaration of incompetency.
She’s not wrong about that. That’s what needs to happen. Since she won’t willingly go to a care facility, we’re going to have to force her to go. That means getting legal guardianship. It also means getting conservatorship. Neither of those things is easy and both of them take time and presence. Those are two resources I don’t have at my disposal. It may require getting an attorney involved. I understand that, if I get an attorney, she is also entitled to one, and one will be appointed if she can’t afford it on her own (she can’t). Part of the process involves the appointment of a Guardian Ad Litum, who will be the Court’s independent eyes and ears, who will very clearly see, if they spend any time at all with Mom, that she needs care that nobody at home can provide. But her attorney will fight guardianship if it means she has to give up her dog and go into a home. So that will be expensive and bitter, even if completely uncalled for.
Even if Mom doesn’t contest guardianship, I’ll still have to get paperwork filed. I’m entitled to do that on my own. But I can’t do any advance work for it because I don’t have that Power of Attorney, and absent the PoA, HiPAA declares that I can’t get access to any of her doctors’ diagnoses. It’s a catch 22.
Look. There’s lots more legalese involved here that I don’t feel like rehearsing again, because it makes me want to vomit. The long and short of it is, if we’re lucky enough, we’re all going to get old. And we’re all going to die. If we’re SUPER lucky, we will die suddenly. Quietly, perhaps. But if not, we will get really sick first. We may even lose our minds, rapidly or slowly. And we won’t be competent to make good decisions for ourselves, but depending on the work we do when we’re still of sound mind and body, we might save our loved ones a lot of stomach aches, expensive legal fees, and years of psychotherapy.
So, I’ve given you the story. It’s not a pretty one, but it’s not uncommon. In fact, it seems to be getting more common by the day. So with the ugly story out of the way, here comes the request: Get a will. Assign your Power of Attorney. Put together an Advance Directive to take the fighting and the guess work out of life decisions that your loved ones will have to make on your behalf when you’re beyond having a reasonable say. Do it. Please.
And if you’re a church person, talk to your pastor/priest/witch doctor about your funeral arrangements. Is it a maudlin thing to do? No, I don’t think so. Pastors, priests, and witch doctors are intimately acquainted with death. YOU may feel a little weird about it, but I can assure you that your spiritual guide will not. They will more likely feel relieved to get the inevitable out in the open, and in the long run, it will make your transition that much less traumatic for the ones who will care for you when the time comes. It is SO helpful for a grieving adult child to know that Mom loved John 11 and wants “A Mighty Fortress” played at her funeral, and that Grandpa wants a polka version of “My Way” at his wake with the lyrics to a love song by Johnny Cash translated into Hindi as the 2nd reading at his Celebration of Life. Have these conversations with the people who need to know. Get it down on paper in a place where somebody knows to look for it. Please. For the love of all that is good and holy, don’t put this off.
I just wanted to drop a little note here in recognition of the winding up of our weeks-long study of Paul’s Letter to the Galatians. For those of you who missed it, and for those who might be interested in joining a future study, either in person or online, here’s a brief recap of what we did in this study.
We’ve been walking through St. Paul’s letter to the Galatians, pretty much line-by-line, but we haven’t been following the standard “Lutheran” reading. The Lutheran reading has quite a bit to do with the individual and his/her “faith,” his/her “justification by faith” versus “justification by works” or that phrase, “works righteousness” of which we Protestants are so fond. We’re not calling that outlook wrong, because it’s not about “right” and “wrong.” However, we are willing to say that it’s anachronistic. Luther’s discovery of a gracious and merciful God in the letters to the Galatians and to the Romans, in particular, were a huge leap forward in light of Luther’s own experiences with late-Medieval Roman Catholicism. But Luther’s concerns were not Paul’s First Century concerns, and they were not the cause for him writing these letters to the churches he had planted in Galatia or the ones he was planning to visit in Rome.
So, rather than approaching Galatians through that standard, Protestant, Lutheran lens, our approach in this class has been informed by more recent scholarship, including the movement that came out of the 1970s and is known as “The New Perspective on Paul” (NPP), headed by EP Sanders and others. While we didn’t use Sanders in our study, we did rely heavily on J. Louis Martyn’s seminal work on Galatians in the Anchor Yale Bible.
We also dug in quite a bit to a movement that some are already calling “The Post-New Perspectives on Paul” movement, led by scholars like Dr. Douglas Campbell from Duke University. We also drew a bit from Martin Hengel & Anna Maria Schwenger’s research in Paul Between Damascus and Antioch and Sarah Ruden’s Paul Among the People.
Thanks to this kind of scholarship and the discoveries that it stands upon, we have learned more about Second Temple Judaism (the Judaisms of both Jesus and Paul) in the last 80 years or so than Christians have known in the previous 1900+ years. This helps us when we look at Paul’s writing to see that he is not struggling as Luther did with late Medieval concerns, but rather with God’s invasive (apocalyptic) mission into the world, wherein God in Christ breaks down barriers that humans have always constructed between themselves. And as a result of that in-breaking, we can view God working to bring humanity together as a species.
This is the Bible’s project from beginning to end, though there are a number of roadblocks and redirections along the way. But the library we call the Bible addresses humanity as a species, in contrast to the Lutheran, individualized interpretations and the modern North American Protestant/Evangelical/Charismatic hyper-individualistic focus on the texts’ meaning.
Teacher Michael Hardin reminds us that we humans are living copy machines who mimic one another’s desires, and that we do so mostly non-consciously. Along with Hardin, we brought in hints and glimmers of the Anthropological insights of the late French sociologist Rene Girard and his Mimetic Realism. Even though Paul never studied Anthropology, it is clear that he understands the human condition, and so he speaks in both Galatians and Romans about our human inability to discern our intentionality. Paul writes in terms of an “evil impulse” (the concept of the yetzer ha-ra) and about the “structures of the universe” (ta stoicheia tou kosmou) that keep us in bondage, and from which Christ comes to liberate us.
Paul’s context for writing the letter comes from his having broken off with the Jerusalem church headed by James the brother of Jesus and Peter/Cephas the Apostle, who had previously given Paul the “all clear” to preach his understanding of the gospel to Gentiles, but who had also – at the same meeting – sneaked in “false brothers” “to spy on our freedom in Christ.” It is these False Brothers who are coming into Paul’s church plants, spreading slanderous lies about Paul, and convincing his church members that Paul was wrong to teach that God’s grace erases all differences, including the cultural identification markers of Judaism, namely male circumcision, keeping a kosher table, and keeping holy the Sabbath day.
These three things belong to a holiness code (“works of the Law,” interpretations of Torah used to identify who is holy and who is profane), which Paul claims is mixing the yoke of bondage to religious observance back into the gospel of freedom that Christ won on the cross. The argument isn’t about whether the content of the holiness code is either right or wrong, but about how holiness codes themselves and things like them serve as barriers that people use to re-erect boundaries that Christ has torn down. The task and the end product of all such religion, for Paul, is humans deciding for themselves who is “in” and who is “out” of God’s preferred group. This is the distinction between religion and revelation.
So, that was the crux of the course. We weren’t overly academic in our approach, even though it kind of sounds from this description like we were. But in any case, I think our study really opened up this letter from Paul for folks in exciting ways, and may actually have helped “redeem” Paul from some misunderstandings that have accumulated over the years, cutting his writing off from revealing anything that sounds like Good News. And our Bible Studies are all about Good News! So if that sounds appealing, please consider joining us one of these days.
We’re wrapping up Galatians today, and I’m not sure where we’re heading next. Because the summer is almost upon us, we’re beginning to see our seasonal folks departing for more reasonable climes, and lots of our year-round folks will be traveling in the next months. Because of this, we’ll probably stick to smaller, one-off or two-and-done sessions, which will continue to meet in person, but also via Zoom. If you have a particular interest area you would like us to study together, feel free to drop a comment here. And as always, you’re welcome to join us! Bring a friend, if you want. The table’s plenty big.
Not that I have nothing to say, but I’m not yet ready to say it. Just popping in to make note that I’ve finally cleared up the domain name issue with this blog. Imago-Dei-Tulsa may still get you here, but now you can shoot straight over to AccidentalLutheran.com for all the poop that’s fit to scoop.
As I type this entry, we are drawing to the close of our first quarter of ’22, and it seems like a good time to check in.
Last time we met here, we mentioned a number of things that were in the works for the first quarter, and I think it’s fair to say, we accomplished a lot! Our lovely, lively little congregation has been meeting successfully at 4 p.m. on Saturdays, as we are used to; but we’ve also made the transition to 11 a.m. Sunday worship, as well. It’s not without its hiccups: Sometimes the community that meets before ours goes a little overtime, which causes us to need to scramble in order to start on time. But that’s not a big deal. The bigger issue is losing a couple of folks who relied on that 9 a.m. Sunday service. Some of them were able to switch over to Saturday evening, which also gave us the benefit of a more fleshed-out time together. It’s just always nicer to have more folks than fewer, because the energy level shoots way up. Anyway, that’s going along swimmingly, or at least much, much better than it could have been.
We have also managed to pull together a Worship Planning Team, which is something we said we wanted to do. Not only have we pulled together the Team, but also said Team has really been working overtime to curate a Lenten worship series that was created by the good folks over at Worship Design Studios. Every congregation that takes on a WDS series has to do a lot of work to make the series their own, and our freshly-minted team has done a great job so far! We kicked off with a beautiful Ash Wednesday service, and we managed a really gratifying and meaningful Lent 1, as well. Did everything go smoothly? Oh, no, it did not! But in spite of the flaws, the trials, and the errors, I think it has been more than sufficient, and I applaud all the folks on the team. Great job!
The Worship Planning Team is still working out the final details for the rest of Lent into Holy Week, so please keep your eyes peeled for more details as they become available. And I’ll want to come back to Holy Week in a minute, but first, we had an unexpected and much-welcomed delight just before Ash Wednesday.
First of all, we had this Sacred Harp singing school planned, and it went great! There weren’t a LOT of people there, but all of the parts were covered, our instructor was wonderful (as always — Keith and I go way back now, and it was so good to see him!), and everyone thought it was a really worthwhile time. Massive success. I think that some of our guests that day, the folks from First Congregational Church, are planning on starting up a monthly sing, all because we took the initiative to kick things off! Yaaaaay!
But right on the heels of the Sacred Harp event, our own Church Musician, Kathleen, managed to pull together the talents of a BUNCH of local musicians and singers, to create an event called “Sharing Our Songs to God.” I don’t know the backgrounds of every person gathered that evening, but we had a few of our own people sharing songs, and there were people from St. Andrew’s Catholic Church across the street, and I think some others from outside these two congregational circles. And it was Ah-maze-ing! Kudos to Kathleen for using her friendship ties to pull off an astoundingly great evening of sacred music, just for the sake of doing things together for the glory of God. Outstanding.
And I wanted to mention that event first before coming back to Holy Week, because there’s actually a tie-in.
Christ Lutheran and St. Andrew’s have a pretty long and storied history together. In recent years, thanks to the scourge of Covid, the relationship has cooled a bit, just by virtue of isolation. We would love to rekindle our flame. One of the ways we might accomplish that is by doing some worshipping together. And here’s the Holy Week tie-in.
Christ Lutheran hasn’t done an Easter Vigil service in a few years. St. Andrew’s does one every year. Our Worship Planning Team is recommending that we Lutherans swim over the Tiber for the sake of Christian unity this year on the Vigil of Easter.
What IS an Easter Vigil, anyway? Well, it’s a LOT of things, but among the many facets of an Easter Vigil is the gathering of the church in the dark hours of Holy Saturday to sit in the void between the death of Christ on the cross and his Resurrection on the third day. Into that void, we share the stories of salvation history. There are properly 12 biblical stories that belong to the Vigil, though a lot of parishes only focus on a few of them. But they run from Genesis in the Old Covenant to the empty tomb and the resurrection from the New Covenant. We also get to bring back the Alleluias that we had put away on Ash Wednesday, there’s the lighting of the New Fire, the dipping of the Paschal candle into the baptismal waters, the praise of God for all creation and his renewing of the same, and there’s the first Eucharist since Holy Thursday.
Eucharist. With Lutherans? In a Catholic church? Well, no. Although the Roman Catholic Church and the Lutheran World Federation have done decades worth of work on finding common ground between our rich traditions, one sticking point remains the celebration of the Eucharist. In the ELCA, we gladly welcome all to the table. For many and various reasons, Lutherans are not in communion with Rome, and we are not meant to take the Sacrament in the Catholic Church.
I’ve been thinking a LOT about this lately, and I still think we ought to join St. Andrew’s for the Vigil, even if we aren’t technically “welcome” at the table. Part of the reason I think it’s a good idea is this: There is a theological term called “kenosis.” Primarily it’s about God’s self-emptying and self-giving, not only on the cross, but also in intentionally setting aside divinity in order to become flesh and dwell among us. It’s about understanding that God has the right to divinity, but for our sake, put it aside. Since we are called to imitate God in Christ, I think it would be an excellent opportunity to practice “kenosis” by setting aside our right to sit at the table, in order that we might be in fellowship with our Christian siblings “on the other side of the street.” It’s not like we’re forever giving up the Eucharist, but rather humbling ourselves for one night. Granted, it’s an important night, but it really is just one night. I hope you’ll strongly consider joining me at St. Andrew’s for the Easter Vigil.
An added benefit, I think, from celebrating this Vigil together, is that it’s going to give us an opportunity to talk with folks over at St. Andrew’s about some of the things that the RCC and the LWF have been discussing “at high levels” for all of these decades, but doing so in the immediate neighborhood. All great Reformations begin at a local level, and with God’s leadership and encouragement, you just never know where things might end up. The one theological thing I’m completely sure of, is that God is surprising. I hope we can be open to being surprised.
The last thing I’ll mention in this entry is this: Your Council will be gathering on March 12 for an off-site retreat. We have two purposes in mind. The first is to orient new Council members. The second is to discuss all of the information that leadership has been collecting in recent years concerning what your hopes and dreams for the future of Christ Lutheran Church, to begin a discernment process about how those things fit with God’s purpose for our congregation, and to try to coalesce all of that into a vision that we can bring back to you, the members and friends of CLC, and in that way have a plan for the next couple of years. I’m sure I’ll have more to say about this very soon, so keep your antennae tuned to this page and other church channels for updates and thoughts and all that good stuff.
In the midst of all of this, we pour out our prayers for the people of Ukraine and for the brave Russian citizens who are bold enough to stand up against their government’s aggression against a sovereign people who happen to live on politically desirable real estate. We continue to pray also for the countries who have compassionately chosen to host refugees from this now-war-torn region. We dream, along with Isaiah, that empires might give up their ambitions to power, that the people might forge their swords into plowshares, their spears into pruning hooks, and might learn war – finally – no more.
EDIT: Here’s an additional item to celebrate: Synod Deacon Pam Fairfax reports that the Feed My Starving Children program, which she organizes every year through Christ Lutheran and ecumenical partners (including Trinity Lutheran – an LC-MS congregation, and St. Katherine Drexel Catholic Church) received approximately $5000 in donations from us, which amounts to 20,000 meals! That’s roughly 600 pounds of food that went toward feeding our local community! We had 42 members + family and friends participate in the campaign, and all of this is completely worth celebrating! Thanks to Deacon Pam for reminding me, and thanks to all who participated!
There are other very successful events that also took place during our first quarter. I would encourage people to look at the Cross Notes, our monthly newsletter, to hear from our Parish Nurse, our Prayer Ministry team, our various Circles of the Women of the ELCA, and our Deacons. All of these ministries have their chairs, who are asked to submit articles to the monthly publication. If you have your own article for submission, please send it to email@example.com before the last working day of each month for inclusion in the following month’s mailing.
Well, the New Year is only 4 days old, and already there are a lot of irons in the fire. Part of that comes from unfinished and unexpected business holding over from last year.
Probably the first major thing on the agenda this year will be sorting out our Sunday worship service. Quite shockingly, we received news from the Episcopal congregation we rent from that they were not, in fact, going to discuss or negotiate with us regarding worship times, but rather, they unilaterally decided that they wanted to reclaim the 9 a.m. Sunday morning worship time slot that our congregation has been holding for the last 6 years. This puts us in a bind, especially since we had just recently surveyed the congregation, who overwhelmingly preferred staying in that 9 O’Clock spot. I think this could have been negotiated and discussed, but it was handled very poorly from the side of our landlords. It was disappointing, to say the least.
On the other hand, maybe this is a gift. While those who are ALREADY present show a strong preference for a 9 a.m. time slot, perhaps there are others who don’t YET come to our services because they find 9 too early on a Sunday morning. This is one of the things we need to consider very carefully, not only in choosing worship times, but in a general sense, we need to keep asking: What about those who aren’t here yet? There’s a bit of a tension, to be sure, but we need to be mindful about being open to new opportunities.
Another potential gift of an 11 a.m. spot is the opportunity to move directly from worship into a shared meal. Maybe it’s a potluck and a service project wrapped into one. We don’t know yet what cool things could happen if we crack open our hearts and minds in order to allow the New Thing to take shape in our midst.
Or maybe we find another venue. That’s also a live question. Maybe it’s both a new venue AND an 11 a.m. service. These are important questions for discernment.
So, dealing with Sunday morning worship is a high priority. But there are other important issues we need to consider, as well. There are a couple of things coming up on the horizon … which isn’t really that far away, if you think about it … to which we need to pay some attention.
For example, on Feb. 19 from 10 am to 3 pm, Christ Lutheran Church will be hosting a Sacred Harp singing school. Never heard of the Sacred Harp? Check it out at fasola.org. There are copious YouTube videos that can also give you an idea what this is about.
One of the things I love about the Sacred Harp tradition is the explosive joy that folks get from singing it. I was thinking about this during the Holiday Lights event at which our awesome choir took the stage to help passersby sing a few carols. There were some … issues, shall we say? … with the PA system, and so all those great voices were either drowned out by the overwhelming loudness of the amplifiers, or the singers’ voices simply got swallowed up by the vastness of the outdoor space they were singing in. I said to Christy at the time, “You know, this wouldn’t be a problem if they were singing fasola.” She said, “Yeah, but the sound can be grating for some people.” “True,” I said, “But their voices wouldn’t be drowned out by that PA. Sacred Harp singing may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but it can’t be ignored!”
Anyway, keep your eyes peeled for more info on that Singing School coming up. Even if you don’t think you can sing, I hope you’ll come and try. It’s a school, after all, and it’s designed specifically for people who “can’t” sing or read music. It’s gonna be great!
Not long after that, Lent begins. Yes, already. Yes, I know we just finished with Christmas. But I really felt like we were behind in planning on Christmas, and I want to get a jump start right now.
Which brings me to this: A Worship Planning Team. I’m looking for people who are curious about what goes into planning worship. Did you know, for example, that Sunday mornings and Saturday evening services don’t “just happen?” Who knew?! (Hint: I did. So did Julie and Sandra and all the ladies on the Altar Guild. They need some folks, too, by the way!)
So I want to put together a team that will help think through and plan worship, not only for but especially for the bigger seasons of the year. Lent, the Great Three Days, Holy Week and Easter is one of the bigger seasons. Advent and Christmastide are another. But there are also smaller fasts and feasts along the way that deserve our attention. I can’t do this on my own. It’s too much. So I’m looking for some peeps to join me.
One of the things I DO want to do for Ash Wednesday is a program I’ve been doing for the last 8 years or so. It’s called “Ashes to Go.” (See ashestogo.com) This sounds really intimidating, because it’s a little bit like <gasp!> “evangelism!” Don’t worry. It’s not really that hard. I’m a shy introvert and I can do it, so you can, too.
The idea behind Ashes to Go is that we move from our Ash Wednesday service out into the community in groups of two or more, and we take ashes to folks who, for whatever reason, are unable to attend a service with the imposition of ashes. Yes, it’s Covid season, but I have a plan to do this safely. But the wearing of ashes is an ancient reminder of our humanity, which includes mortality. But we place the ashes on people in the shape of the cross, which reminds us that death is NOT the final word.
The first time I did Ashes to Go was both extremely humbling and incredibly liberating. It made a *permanent* mark on me, and I’d like to invite you all into that blessing, too. So keep your eyes open for more information on that, as well.
What do we have so far?
* Rethinking Sunday Morning
* Sacred Harp Singing School
* Worship Team formation
* Ashes to Go and Lent planning
But wait! There’s more!
Right before Lent, we have Mardi Gras. Fat Tuesday. Fetter Dienstag. Karnival. Whatever you want to call it, it’s the last push for decadence before Lent. It feels like that’s something we need to strongly consider being involved in.
Then, in the first weeks of Lent, there’s also St. Patrick’s Day. I don’t know whether that’s a big festival for Christ Lutheran folks, but it feels like it really could be. I know how much you all enjoy getting together and eating. Who doesn’t?! But it’s something we need to plan ahead for.
Those are some of the bigger things I’ll be working on, with the help of your friendly and more-than-competent Church Council. We’re also going to be looking at expanding our policies and procedures manual, including some updates on church structure. I’m in the end stages of putting together a Funeral Policy and procedures thing, which might not sound terribly exciting, but is really quite important. I also have in mind to draft a policy on children in worship (We should be much more intentional about honoring the presence of young people among us, since they are NOT the future of the church as much as they are the PRESENT of the church.) I’d like for us to consider also being more openly welcoming and affirming for LGBTQIA+ folks who might want to worship with us, but who have either resisted so far or have remained very quiet about who they are because, while this congregation is certainly in no way UNwelcoming of this demographic of siblings in Christ, we also aren’t an openly safe space for them just yet. But all of that is part of a bigger conversation we all need to have together.
So, these are some of the bigger items the first quarter of 2022 has in store for us, along with some of the more day-to-day tasks and responsibilities. It really feels like plans are falling into place, and this is going to shape up to be an important year in the life of this congregation. I’m still very excited to be part of what God is doing in and through Christ Lutheran Church. Whatever we do, we’ll do together. Whatever we are, we remain united in Christ, who is the head of our body, feeder of our souls, and transformer of our minds.
Come on ’22! We’re ready for ya!
All human societies are rooted in violence. This has been one of my core convictions since Rev. Dr. Duane Larson introduced our Systematic Theology class to the work of French philosopher, sociologist, theologian René Girard in that first semester of seminary. The context of this introduction was a lecture on the great “Atonement Theories.” Theories of the Atonement are discussions about HOW God accomplishes the salvation of humankind from what Luther would call “sin, death, and the devil.”
(This is a theology discussion, but it’s also a practical anthropology discussion, so I promise there’s more to it than just a load of BS. Please follow along if you can, because this is really important for how we humans live together, how that living together is complicated and becomes problematic, and how we can actually get out of the trap, thanks to God’s work in Jesus. This is also central to my own ministry, which a lot of people call into question because it isn’t exactly “orthodox.)
So, back to Girard. All human societies are rooted in violence. To put it slightly differently, violence is “original” to humanity – or better yet, our cultural “origins” lie in violence. This a a good way to look at “Original Sin,” by the way, if Augustine’s (or Luther’s or Calvin’s “Total Depravity” theories of humanity make you want to vomit.) And violence is something we “catch” from our environments. (Akin to Luther’s idea that all human works are shot through by sin … it’s just not that it’s some kind of rottenness we inherit because our parents had sexual intercourse in lust.) This is a phenomenon known as “mimesis” or “imitation.”
One of the classic “proofs” of mimesis is the group of kids placed in a room with a dozen toys. No particular toy is more appealing than another … until one kid picks one to play with, and then suddenly, that is THE toy to have. Because Timmy has the red ball, it must be good, so now *I* want the red ball! It’s not that the ball is desirable in and of itself: it’s that MY desire has been shaped by what Timmy has. I’ve acquired his desire. If there are 10 kids and 10 red balls, no problem. But if there are 10 kids and only ONE red ball, that desire leads to rivalry, and the rivalry sometimes leads to violence.
Our biblical narrative plays this out with the story of Cain and Abel, which incidentally is where “sin” is mentioned for the first time in Genesis. It’s not Adam and Eve eating the fruit, but it’s at the point of rivalry between Cain, whose offering to God was not deemed pleasing, and his brother Abel, whose offering WAS acceptable to God. Cain, lacking what Abel had, became his brother’s rival, and violence ensued. God had warned him not to do what he was about to do because “sin is crouching at your door.”
Are you following me so far? Good.
Keep in mind that Abel, the son of Adam and Eve, was now dead. That left Cain to be the one who went and founded civilization. So the culture of the world, according to the biblical narrative, is founded on murder. Society is rooted in violence.
I think Cain and Abel’s story isn’t meant to be taken as a play-by-play history, but it sure does make a point about the origin of our cultures. The other interesting thing about this is that, when God confronts Cain, God tells him, “Your brother’s blood cries out to me from the soil for vengeance.” Vengeance: the taking of an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, a life for a life. In other words, vengeance is not justice. It’s just a continuation of the violence cycle.
How ya doin’? I hope you’re still with me. This gets even more interesting. I just want to keep checking in with you.
OK, desires are inherited from social Others (mimesis). Frustrated desires lead to rivalries. Rivalries lead to violence. Violence is self-perpetuating (and escalatory) through the vengeance cycle. The Bible highlights this reality in the story of Cain and Abel and the subsequent founding of civilizations by the murderer Cain.
Girard and Girard followers call this the Generative Mimetic Scapegoating Mechanism. “Scapegoating?” I hear you cry. “Where does scapegoating come into this?” Gosh, I’m glad you asked!
Mimetic conflict exists not only between individuals, but also between groups within a society or between whole societies. But for groups to exist in constant violent conflict is unsustainable. There needs to be ways to curb the violence, or else it will result in an all-versus-all cage match with the very likely outcome of complete obliteration. So there needs to be some kind of societal pressure valve that bleeds off the rivalry for the sake of group survival. Enter the scapegoat.
A scapegoat is an embodied symbol of the conflict, and it provides an Other, some kind of an outsider, upon whose head these conflicts (or “sins” or woes or what have you) can be placed, thereby unifying the group or groups in their common “hatred” of this “enemy.” The scapegoat, once identified, can then be dealt with, either by driving it out of the community or by killing it. In so doing, a temporary but actual peace falls over the group. At least until mimetic conflict then rises again, and the whole process has to start anew.
If you think about how this plays out in American society, just as a case in point, you can think about how conflicted groups might need to find an easily-identified Other, upon whose head they can cast blame for their lack of good fortune, their difficulty in finding jobs, their failing cultural structures, or what have you. Our own history is rife with this. The immigrant, for example, has always been a convenient scapegoat. They look different from us. They talk different from us. They eat differently from us. Let’s blame THEM for our woes, because those of us who look similar to one another can’t very well blame each other. That would result in civil war! See what I mean? Plug in any group you want. The story is always the same. WE are in conflict over land or jobs or opportunities or this, that, or the other. As long as there’s somebody different, someone easy to identify as the culprit, we can beat and chase and kill them … in small numbers, because if we got rid of them ALL, we’d have to turn back on one another, and that just won’t do.
Still with me? I have a point. I’ll get to it soon.
The thing about scapegoating is, we know it’s bad. We know it’s avoidant of the issues that actually cause the conflict. But it’s convenient. And most of the time, when we identify a scapegoat or scapegoats, we don’t even really realize we’re doing it. If we do, it doesn’t work, because it’s downright unjust. If we can’t ALL come together, convinced that this guy or that group is the one deserving of our scorn … if there isn’t unanimity over against the scapegoat, there will always be somebody to point out the truth, and the mechanism will fail.
I’m gonna bring the biblical narrative back in for a minute. And Girard, too. The Bible is LOADED with attempts to create scapegoats. Once you start to see them, you can’t UNSEE them. You can’t NOT see that Cain killed Abel, not because Abel was a bad brother, but because he had something that Cain did not. To skip over some other notable examples and jump straight to the biggie, it’s not that Jesus needed to die because he was a bad guy. It’s that he had something nobody else had. Authenticity and authority.
John’s Gospel lays it out best when it builds up the conflict between Jesus and the various groups of religious authorities of his time. The Pharisees and the Scribes and the Sadducees did not like one another. They were all vying for the authority to lay claim to authentic worship of God. When Jesus did his healing and his teaching, “and with authority,” how do you think that was viewed by those who claimed that mantle for themselves? And when Jesus’ disciples talked about him as a king, how do you suppose King Herod took that? How about Governor Pilate, the emissary for the great Caesar? Not well, I can assure you.
And so the High Priest Caiaphas spells it out for the slower-witted among them. “It is better for one man to die than for a whole nation to perish.” In other words, let’s scapegoat Jesus. He’ll bring us together – and not just US, but the Roman political powers, too – over against him. And that’s exactly what happened. John’s Gospel tells us that Pilate and Herod even became friends over the scapegoating of Jesus.
But the story of Jesus, and especially the story of his resurrection, spells out what happens when a society creates a scapegoat, kills it … and then it comes back. Uh oh. But what about all those sins we placed on the scapegoat’s head? Where are they? Yup. They came back with him.
Where Jesus’ story is different from other scapegoating stories, is that when he does come back, he doesn’t come back with the same cry for vengeance that Abel’s blood called out to God from the soil with. His blood comes back speaking of peace. Speaking of forgiveness. We schemed to kill God, and God forgives us. Woah.
That is the center of my theology, and this is the very basis for my ministry. As a culture, we no longer have the convenience of choosing forgiveness or unforgiveness. We’re too far down the road for that. Our choice is now between forgiveness or extinction.
The crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus, the Christ, the Son of God, spells the end of scapegoating. We don’t have that option any more. The “deep magic” of it is exposed and shown to be unviable. We need a DIFFERENT way of gathering together. A way that isn’t over and against a common enemy. And that Way is shown to us, is embodied for us, by Jesus, “whose blood speaks a better word than Abel’s” (Hebrews 12:24).
I hope you’re still with me, cuz I’m still not done.
Now, just because scapegoating doesn’t work anymore, that doesn’t mean that we don’t still engage in the practice. As a minister of the Gospel, I know this on a very personal level. Not only do I see parishioners attempt to scapegoat one another, I myself am often the identified scapegoat. Did you all see my Facebook post of December 8, 2021? I called it “On Pastors and Social Media.” It was a long post, so you may not have read it.
Whether you read it or not, that post was, in a way, precisely about how people scapegoat pastors. I wrote it for myself, but I also wrote it for my fellow ministers, AND I wrote it for lay people. In that post I point out that pastors hold a post that has traditionally forced them to comply with societal expectations. In a sense, we embody Jesus — not because we are the holy Sons and Daughters of God — but because we are public figures. And when we fall outside the expectations that people hold for public figures, we’re knocked off of the pedestals that most of us never asked for. I certainly never asked for it. All I’ve ever wanted was to be faithful to the call I’ve received from God to go and live among the people and remind them that God loves them. God sometimes thinks they’re a jerk. God knows that they love to create scapegoats. But God wants to free them from that Original Sin of violence and the perpetuation of violence through revenge.
Remember when, after Jesus performed the sign of feeding the multitudes in John’s Gospel, how the people came to him and tried to make him king by force? That’s when Jesus knew his goose was cooked. The people had an expectation of him as their king. He wasn’t there for it. And they killed him because of it. Killed him. Murdered their scapegoat because he didn’t fit in with what they thought he should be.
I’m going to speak candidly here. But a quick recollection first.
Back in seminary, we had a couple of classes on dealing with life in the parish. One of the sessions focused on “church alligators.” (Now that I’m a Florida resident, I think I take some offense to that term on behalf of my new reptile friends. But I digress.)
Alligators in the church are the people who have expectations of a pastor, and when that pastor, being a human being, fails to live up to those expectations, those folks will seek to devour her or him. Sometimes these confrontations are direct. Sometimes they come in the form of anonymous letters. Sometimes they come through people gossiping and creating emotional triangles, in which they team up against a pastor (or someone else) in order to get more folks on their “side.” All of this is scapegoating.
Are you shocked that such people exist in the church? I know you aren’t. Neither am I. It’s “human nature.” It’s “original sin.”
But when we were talking about these “alligators” in our seminary classes, one thing we kind of all agreed upon was that we would put no stake in cowardly anonymous letters. If someone doesn’t have the courage to speak to another person face to face, but hides behind the anonymity of a written complaint, it’s probably not worth your time. It flies in direct opposition to the guidelines we, as a Church body, claim to adhere to and which are set out in Matthew 18:15ff. But if, as a pastor, you receive such a letter from a congregant, it would not be inappropriate to bring that complaint to light. Take it out of the shameful shadow and expose it to the light of the Truth of the Gospel.
Here’s where this rubber hits the road for me. I received a call from a synod representative today. The “synod” is a body of worshippers, an “assembly,” who is called together by the Holy Spirit for the building up of the whole. If you want to think of it purely as administrative, that’s probably appropriate. I mean, properly speaking, it’s all the clergy, rostered leaders, lay people, administrators, everybody. But in common parlance, the synod is the office of the Bishop.
Anyway, I got a call from the synod, telling me that they had received two letters of “concern.” When the representative said to me that they are truly concerned FOR me, not ABOUT me, I believe them. On a personal level, I believe them. Luther’s explication of the 8th commandment stuff, right? But when that rep told me that these members of another congregation are “concerned” about some of the things that I post on FB as “inappropriate” and “unbefitting a person in my role,” I don’t see that as “concern.” I see it as an anonymous complaint against me.
Now, as I said, I’m not interested in revenge. But I AM interested in bringing this to light. What that person or those persons meant to do was to get me “in Dutch” with the synod authorities. This is textbook triangulation. It’s textbook scapegoating. Whatever. I’m a grown-up and I can deal with it.
BUT part of the reason I believe I’m called here, not just to my current congregation (whom I love dearly!), but also to the people who call themselves christians in this part of the world, is to bring to them a message of repentance.
Repentance. Metanoia. A changing of the mind. A TRANSformation of the mind into the mind of Christ, not a CONformation of the mind to the patterns of this world. Remember this world? This world, that’s shot through with mimetic violence? Yeah, as followers of Jesus, who take our calling seriously, we have GOT to stop equating the role of pastor with a conformity to certain expectations about what we deem as “moral” or “proper” behavior.
As a seminary prof once told us, “Your job isn’t to tell people that they’re sinners. They know that. Your job is to remind them of grace.” Well, that’s what I’m here to do. Right now. Someone out there has tried to scapegoat me. It’s not the first time. It won’t be the last time. But remember this: the Kingdom of God is in your midst. The kingdom of God is a kingdom of liberation from Law and Expectation. You may hold me to an unrealistic and outdated expectation, and you may try to symbolically kill me (or drive me away, cuz that’s another thing that happens to scapegoats), but I WILL come back. And no, I won’t come back with vengeance, but speaking a better word: peace.
As God forgives all of us who tried to drive him out of this world on a cross, following the POSTIVE mimesis of Jesus (aka “imitatio Christi”), I’ll forgive you, too. But I want you to stop.
If you have a problem with me – and I understand where that’s coming from – bring it to me. Don’t be conformed to the scapegoating pattern of this world. I’m a reasonable person. At the end, we may find that we disagree anyway. Oh, well. Our unity isn’t in agreement. Our unity is in Christ, who sets us free. Disagreement ain’t nothin’ but a thang. I may not be the pastor for you. No harm there. But please don’t try to stop me from being the pastor that someone else needs: one who speaks their (often foul) language. One who drinks the same things that they drink (“John came neither eating nor drinking and they said he had a demon. The Son of Man comes eating and drinking and you say, ‘Behold a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!'”)
The truth is, there is a need for variety of pastoral types for a variety of people types. Ya know? Don’t step on my funk, just because I don’t fit your mold. Don’t step on my call, just because you don’t understand it. I forgive you, whether or not you forgive me for being me.
I’d also invite you, whoever you are, to look at the comments on my post and see the people whose lives are touched by my approach to ministry before you judge it “inappropriate” and “unbecoming.” That’s just some advice. You know, the Church is in decline, and we keep wondering why. For my money, it’s precisely because nobody wants to be a pastor who gets scapegoated for pastoring the way they pastor.
Anyway, that’s it. I hope you got something out of this. Maybe the personal aspects of this post don’t resonate with you at all, but you’re intrigued by the theological aspects. Or maybe it’s the other way around. I dunno. But if this has anything of value in it, I’d like to hear from you. And again, if you disagree, well, this post is public (as you noted in your letter to the synod). That means you’re free to publicly comment on it. Cool? Cool.
Advent is upon us once again. As Jesus predicted, even though we could read the signs (or the calendar) and see this thing coming, it sneaked up on us again like a thief in the night.
This has become a season of intense preparation, a season of busy-ness. We’ve got to get ready for Christmas. It’s time to prepare the decorations, finalize our shopping lists for loved ones, fight the crowds at the Black Friday sales (always with the warning that these outstanding deals are urgent and will never be seen again! Well, until next week maybe, when the crap we’re buying goes on sale at Amazon.com or something). We need to dig out the Christmas recipes, plan the parties, attend the parties, experience anxiety about the parties, etc., etc., ad nauseam. Busy, busy, busy! Or as the Grinch complains, “Noise, noise, noise, NOISE!” (Thank you, Grinch. I feel ya, buddy.)
While this has been our reality for several generations stretching back at least as far as the 1830s, Advent hasn’t ALWAYS been a stressful time in the commercial sense. This is a season that began some time around the 4th century, and originally was a time for prayer and fasting. That’s why the traditional color for Advent is purple. (Blue is a much more recent innovation.)
It was a time for fasting, because to fast is to cut out all the non-essentials, to boil things down to what’s most important, and to bring the body, mind, and spirit into sharp focus in preparation. Preparation for what? For the “advent” or “coming” or “presence” of Jesus, the Light of the world, who was showing up “in the fullness of time” (Gal 4:4ff) to shine into and scatter the thick darkness of this world. Think of this both in a literal sense (as Christmas happens after the winter solstice and heralds the lengthening of daylight) and in the figurative sense of chasing away the shadows that lurk in our hearts.
To fast is to sharpen our attention, our awareness, in preparation for the good thing that is to come, even though it probably will be painful and rather frightening. It’s meant to keep us paying attention to what’s important, so that we may endure the trial. Fasting is an excellent tool for that kind of thing.
It’s unrealistic to expect any or all of us to abstain from parties and social gatherings, this year especially. We have sorely missed too many opportunities for fellowship and face-to-face contact, thanks to the global pandemic. But there’s something about fasting that might be beneficial for us still. Maybe a different kind of fast.
What if we were to fast from distractions like … politics? From the incessant cycle of bad news on our TV and computer and telephone screens? Don’t we see enough bad news on our own without someone whose job it is to constantly remind us of how dangerous and divided the world is?
I don’t mean complete abstinence. I’m talking about a FAST. During a fast, one doesn’t abstain entirely from food. We NEED food to live. But we don’t need a diet of constant, mindless snackbowls or bags of junk food in order to live. We eat what we need to eat. The absence of the other food which distracts from nutrition helps us to stay focused.
In a similar way, what if we took in just enough news to be informed WITHOUT all the spin, the empty calories, the all-you-can-eat buffets of accusations about people “the other side of the aisle”?
Maybe THAT kind of fast would actually help us focus on what’s truly important, so that our hearts and minds and spirits might actually be open to the presence of Christ, who is already with us, right in the faces of those we are told to fear and hate? What if we – oh, I don’t know – prayed for those same people instead? It might be a bit like eating Brussels Sprouts for some of us, but think of the health benefits!
This is the spiritual fast I propose for us this year. Keep going to your parties. Do your shopping for your loved ones. But put it in perspective. Don’t be distracted by it. Give up the Fox and the MSNBC. Find a more plain, less fatty and salty source of information, so that we’re not distracted from the TRUE call of this season. It’s worth a shot, isn’t it?
A blessed Advent to all of you.