spiritual disciplines

American Church: A Question of Priority

I’m writing this blog post on Memorial Day, and will confess that I have some mixed feelings about it. Not about a national day of grieving those whose lives have been lost as a result of war, but about how we in the church deal with days like today, including our views on war, armed service, patriotism, and faith.
Full disclosure: I am a Lutheran clergyperson (Evangelical Lutheran Church in America), a registered Democrat (though I am considering changing that), have never served in the military, lean toward pacifism, and genuinely wonder why there isn’t even a discussion about repealing the Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. Though my father served in the army during the Korean conflict and I have a nephew currently serving as an Army Ranger, I have no bias toward the military. I am a patriotic American, love the freedoms that we consider our rights as human beings, recognize the role our military has played in procuring them, and am greatly appreciative. Talking about constitutional rights, I am a committed advocate for the rights of all persons, including our LGBTQ brothers and sisters as well as all immigrants, regardless of status, and I consider racism to be one of the most horrifying evils in our world. Theologically, I don’t believe in eternal “hellfire,” trust that there is a God of mercy somehow, and that for those in the church, revealing and living this mercy and compassion trumps everything else–American citizenship included. Some would call me a liberal or progressive; I can live with that, though I don’t find pidgeon-holing to be very helpful.
My profession causes me to think deeply about how the issues of our culture intersect with my theology and faith (or perhaps the other way around). The current general American acceptance of war, violence, gun-rights, and the connection of these things to “real” patriotism wrankles me. Even more so, I find it despicable that these things are viewed as somehow “faithful” or “Christian.” Many of our Christian churches recognized Memorial Day yesterday during their corporate worship. Excellent! We have a need to mourn all who have died in war, for each death is truly tragic. But how many of these same churches mourned only U.S. American losses rather than all people God loves, non-Americans included, who have died by our hands in war? How many used this day of collective grief to equate military service with American patriotism? How many connected a constitutional freedom to worship with Christianity? How many compared American service people who have died in war to Jesus’ death on the cross?
Those who serve or have served in the military are to be respected, no question. All of them that I know are courageous, honorable people who go about their work with pride and who perform their duties well. I’m just not sure how military service gets mixed so deeply into Christian piety or worship. There are many people who do their jobs well; lots of people who risk their lives in their work. Many vocations require courage and principle. Millions of people are committed to their work because of their integrity and dedication to something beyond themselves. I can’t begin to count how many people take tremendous personal risks for the sake of others. The things we honor most about military service are not exclusive to the military.
This doesn’t mean we as a culture shouldn’t honor veterans on Veterans’ Day or ignore our collective grief on Memorial Day. It does mean that we in the church do need to make clear the difference between God’s vision for peace and reconciliation and a U.S. American cultural agenda. They aren’t always the same thing. In fact, I believe they are becoming more disparate than ever.
It’s fine to have an American day of remembering and grieving death in war. Because grief and war are real, it’s also good to do so in the church. But the very identity of the church is grounded in God’s vision of redemption, mercy, and grace. In the church we claim our identity as disciples of Jesus, who brought among us God’s vision for loving enemies, forgiving all who are offensive, reaching across boundaries to those who are different, recognizing that all people from all cultures, nationalities, and races are loved and valued by God, and that those who have the most resources and power have a responsibility to love and walk with those with the least. These are the principles and values that Jesus considered to be worth dying for. And on this Memorial Day I’m not sure the church that bears his name can always say the same thing.
Perhaps we should have a day in the church year where we lift up peacemakers, honor those who have made it their life’s work to be among the poor, applaud those who are ridiculed for standing up for LGBTQ folk. What would it look like to have a day in corporate worship to recognize those who advocate on behalf of immigrants, to be inspired by testimonies of those who have struggled with forgiving enemies but have been moved by God to do so?
We are, without a doubt, Americans who happen to in the church. But I think it is infinitely more important to remember that we are church who happen to be in America.

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Categories: american christianity, Institutional Church, kingdom of God, missional church, spiritual disciplines | Tags: , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

Beautiful, Broken Congregation: The “So What?” Of Easter

One of my favorite things about being a Lutheran is that we openly talk about being “at the same time, saint and sinner.” This doesn’t mean that sometimes we are good and sometimes bad. It has nothing to do with whether choices we make are holy or evil. It doesn’t even divide us into part saint and part sinner. No, we Lutherans talk about everything we are–and therefore everything we do–is at the same time absolutely broken and yet completely redeemable. The God who can raise Jesus from the pit of death is the same God who brings life and hope and newness out of my most deeply dark places.

I like that. It makes so much sense and explains so much about our life experience. I ponder this aspect of Lutheran theology and find it truly grounding and helpful. No matter how much of a scoundrel I am, God’s goodness and love can bring something new and beautiful out of me. And no matter how wonderful and delightful I am, my brokenness gets in the way.

Consider that next time your best efforts fail miserably. Watch for God to bring something life-giving out of it. And when you are being praised for a job well done, don’t you always know deep down that you’ve somehow kept your inadequacies covered up–at least this time?

For those of you who are involved in a congregation, doesn’t this “saint/sinner” theology make sense for your faith community too? Sometimes I think we are harder on our congregations than we are on other organizations. Maybe because we somehow expect more saint and less sinner in the church. Maybe because congregations are often places where we pretend saint-ness and hide our sin-ness. Perhaps other reasons as well.

But the reality is that the church is made up of people. Not better than anyone; not worse than anyone. Just people. People who are, at the same time, saints and sinners. How, then, can the church–including your own congregation–be any different? The church is completely messed up, broken, and selfish. And the church feeds the hungry, shows mercy to the helpless, and walks with other saint/sinner people at major turning points in their lives. Jesus is Lord of all creation, not just the church, and yet we understand the brokenness and hypocrisy of the rest of the world. We somehow expect something different from our congregations.

It seems that your congregation (and mine) deserves a break. We will never, ever be whole and magnificent and holy. We will never reflect God’s love the way we should. We will always fight and be divisive and mean. Everything we do will have selfish motives. Just like each one of the congregational members. Just like each one of us.

And at the same time we are forgiving, merciful, and go out of our way to love. Somehow, God’s grace and compassion and life-giving ways still find a way to be lived out in and through our congregations. Sometimes in surprising and unlikely ways, but it happens!

It’s easy to bemoan our congregational deficiencies. It’s easy to blame someone else for our congregational problems. But it takes God’s gift of faith and hope to trust in God’s redeeming activity–in your congregation and in mine.

Easter is fast approaching, and we Christians celebrate victory of life over death, of newness springing forth in the midst of hopelessness. This Easter, I plan to re-emphasize my confidence in the God of life, of hope, of mercy. In my life, and in the life of my congregation. My church is, after all, a broken and divided community that reveals God’s love and grace in the world in ways that are beautiful beyond description. And you know what? So is yours.

Categories: Church in Transition, Institutional Church, kingdom of God, missional church, Revitalization, spiritual disciplines | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

The Church: The Practice Field for Forgiveness

Forgiveness is a nice word, isn’t it? It brings up images of reconciliation, restored relationships, people getting along, and everyone being nice. If only it was that easy. Forgiveness is, quite honestly, hard work. It doesn’t always happen quickly, nor does it always happen easily. It takes a desire to get better at it. It is anything but natural for us sinful human beings. And yet it is crucial for relationships as well as a witness about the nature of the God who is committed to forgiving us. We can continue to grow in our ability to forgive. It takes practice. The church is precisely the place to do so. The church, you see, is the practice field for forgiveness.

Forgive me (haha!) for using a sports metaphor here, but I believe it makes a good point. Using American football as a “for instance,” there is the practice field, and then there is the separate, official game field. The practice field gets used to hone skills, learn plays, and repeat them until they are automatic. This practice field is where you make mistakes, try again, and work at each skill until you get them all right. Then you take those refined skills to the official field and see how well you do in the real situation of a game against another team that will test how well you’ve practiced your skills. Then you’re back the next week at the practice field honing, refining, and practicing your skills even further.

Forgiveness is one of the skills that we work on as disciples of Jesus. We do so because it’s central to our life in Christ. We do so because it is the foundation of our relationship with God. We do so because forgiveness is the nature of God who created us, gives us life, and who holds us in constant forgiveness. To understand anything about God—to have anything to do with love—we have to understand something about forgiveness.

So we work at it. Within the community of the church we can practice, hone, refine, and learn the ways of forgiveness. Here in the family of faith we make our mistakes, we try again, and we work at forgiveness of each other. As we try this skill out in the world around us, the official game field, we have our forgiveness skills tested. Sometimes we find that it’s harder than we thought. So we come back, again and again, to the church. For it is here, on the practice field, that we hear, learn, experience, try, and grow in our practice of forgiveness. Here forgiveness is granted to us over and over. And here we get to try it out on each other and see how it works.

Even on the practice field forgiveness can be difficult. It is still hard work. But the crucified and risen Christ who lives in and among us accomplishes it. Through Christ forgiveness is the nature of the church.

The next posting on this site will provide some practice skills we can work at to hone our forgiveness.

Categories: religious, spiritual disciplines, spirituality | Tags: , , , , | 2 Comments

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