Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Things That Should Not Be Controversial But Currently Are Controversial

Among the fallout from recent grand jury decision to not issue indictments against police officers involved in the conflicts with Michael Brown and Eric Garner is a Twitter hashtag war.  Those who were upset with the non-indictments expressed their frustrations in many ways, including the spread of the comment #BlackLivesMatter.  Many people used this hashtag to connect with others who were upset by the non-indictments and discuss both how they felt and how they could respond to these events.

While some people used these forums to discuss constructive ideas and actions, others used these forums to lash out at either police officers or people who are not African American.  This led to the creation of two other hashtags: #BlueLivesMatter and #AllLivesMatter.  The first began as a statement of support for police which would counter the anger expressed at many police officers during this volatile time.  The second began as an attempt to expand the "Black lives matter" message to include all races.

If you do a search of these three hashtags, however (the links above connect to the appropriate searches on Twitter), you will see that the messages are not consistent.  Because of the nature of social media, anyone who wishes to weigh in on a hashtag conversation may do so whether or not the person intends to be a constructive or destructive force within the conversation.  This is why you will see messages attacking police in the category #BlueLivesMatter or messages attacking other races in the other two categories.  (If you are a regular user of social media, you likely knew all of this already; if you are not a regular user of social media, I hope this gets you up to speed on how people use these hashtags to talk with others via social media.)

These conflicts within social media are spilling over into our real world conversations as well.  If someone makes the statement "All lives matter" at a public event, others will rush to criticize that person for minimizing the message that "Black lives matter."  If someone makes a statement that "Black lives matter," others will hear within the statement a criticism of police officers whether or not the statement ever addressed police officers.  If someone makes a statement that "Blue lives matter," others will rush to condemn that person for not caring about the lives of African Americans.

This blog post will not be able to bring these conflicting responses together and resolve the tensions.  However, I believe that it is important that the Church be involved in bringing these forces together to resolve their differences and reconcile with each other.  The Church already includes people who believe that African Americans do not receive equal treatment within the justice system.  The Church already includes people who believe that police officers are unfairly judged by people who were not present at the moment of conflict and can view the conflict with the benefits of hindsight and multiples viewpoints.  The Church already includes people who believe that each of us is created by God and loved by God.  Because of this, the Church can bring these three sides together for times of holy conversation regarding what has happened, what is happening, and what needs to happen so that we can address these issues in love, hope, and faithfulness.

While the Church may not stand behind everything that tries to claim the mantle of these three statements, the Church can assert these three things:

1) Black lives matter to God.

2) Blue lives matter to God.

3) All lives matter to God.

These three statements should not be controversial...and yet, in this environment, they may be incredibly controversial.  But the Church must still proclaim all three statements because the Lord created, loves, died for, and comes to every person covered by these three statements.

In this season of Advent, with all of the controversy within our world today, the Church continues to pray to the Lord.

Come, Lord Jesus!

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Commemorating St. Lucia and St. John of the Cross

This weekend the Church remembered St. Lucia and St. John of the Cross.

Unfortunately, much of St. Lucia's story has been lost to history.  According to some stories, St. Lucia's mother arranged for her marriage to a wealthy pagan man.  St. Lucia opposed the arrangement and led her mother to a Christian shrine, the Tomb of St. Agatha.  Here at this shrine, the mother's chronic illness was suddenly cured; this healing convinced St. Lucia's mother to cancel the arranged marriage and allow St. Lucia to follow her calling as a Christian.

Other stories allege that St. Lucia was tortured by Roman officials carrying out Diocletian's persecution of Christians.  These stories allege that the officials gouged out St. Lucia's eyes, leaving her blind until the Lord restored her sight.  The popularity of these stories (and the literal meaning of her name, which is "light") led to St. Lucia being named as the patron saint of those who are blind or suffer from eye troubles.  These may also explain why the celebration of St. Lucia often includes young girls wearing on their heads wreaths bearing lit candles.

What we do know is that St. Lucia lived in Syracuse and died a martyr's death during the Diocletian persecution.  If you would like to hear more about the stories surrounding St. Lucia's life and death, check out this summary.

We know much more about St. John of the Cross (it helps that he lived and died 1200 years after St. Lucia).  St. John's father gave up the wealth and status of his family name to marry a weaver's daughter.  St. John grew up in poverty and found work as a caretaker for those suffering from incurable diseases or madness.  In these conditions, St. John sought out and celebrated the beauty of the Lord which he could see even within the darkness of poverty and illness.  He was recruited to help reform a religious order, but the order imprisoned him rather than agree to the reforms.  Even in prison, where he was beaten three times a week, St. John wrote mystical poetry proclaiming the beauty of the Lord even within prison.  St. John managed to escape from this prison and went on to become one of the great mystics of the Reformation era.  You can discover more about St. John of the Cross by reading this summary.

Monday, December 8, 2014

Commemorating St. Nicholas and St. Ambrose

Over the weekend, the Church commemorated two saints, one vastly more popular than the other.  St. Nicholas, Bishop of Myra (in modern-day Turkey), is known for many things.  He was a survivor of the Diocletian persecution of the Church.  He attended the Council of Nicaea in 325 A.D.; this council created the original Nicene Creed.  In his day, he was well-known as a lover of the sea and a protector of sailors, leading to his designation as the patron saint of sailors as well as many congregations in port cities naming their churches after St. Nicholas.  But St. Nicholas is most-well known as someone who protected children and gave many gifts to the poor.  These traits of his led to him being the inspiration for Santa Claus.  You can read more about these stories here.

St. Ambrose is not as well-known today, but was a key theologian in the early church.  He wrote extensively and was highly regarded as a preacher and orator.  St. Augustine gave credit to St. Ambrose for convincing Augustine to convert to Christianity.  St. Ambrose fought against early heresies within the church and used his extensive knowledge of the Greek language to influence the development of the early Church's theology.  A more extensive telling of his work can be found here.

The Church commemorated St. Nicholas on December 6th and St. Ambrose on December 7th.

Monday, December 1, 2014

Addressing the Topic of Ferguson, Missouri

It's been a week since the grand jury declined to indict Darren Wilson for shooting Michael Brown.  Some people believe that this was the most just outcome because they believe that Michael Brown was the aggressor during the encounter.  Others believe that Darren Wilson is getting away with murdering Michael Brown because they believe that Michael Brown was surrendering when he was shot.

While the case is now complete (pending action by the federal government's Department of Justice), the topic will not go away that easily.  The case has become a rallying cry for activists who want healthy responses and changes within society and a flashpoint for those who will use any excuse to instigate destructive practices such as vandalism and arson.  The violent acts now overshadow the constructive discussions which we could have after this event.

The question becomes: what do we do now?  What changes do we make in response to the shooting and the grand jury investigation?

I do not know.  The answers lie beyond a quick fix and a change in police training.  To fully address the issue in communities around the country, we need to study our society and look at ourselves with a good dose of honesty.  What will it take to heal the breach between law enforcement and communities that distrust law enforcement?  What elements of our culture do we need to change over the next several years, and how do we start the process?

I have witnessed a healthy relationship between a community and its local police force.  I sat in on a neighborhood association meeting.  A member of the local police force serves as a liaison between the association and the police force.  This officer briefed the association on how the police force was responding to and investigating incidents within the neighborhood, then listened to the concerns of the neighborhood association's members.  While this meeting included only a small portion of the local neighborhood, discussions such as these could begin to cut the tensions between communities and police departments.

Where can the Church be involved?  It can offer to host meetings like the one above.  The Church can also host, participate in, and guide discussions concerning our nation's economy, the racial divides within our culture, and other tough conversations which we as a society need to have.  These conversations will be difficult and contentious, but it is only through such (holy?) conversations that we will move beyond quick-fix ideas and into permanent changes that truly address the issues in our communities.

In this season of Advent, the Church can also pray, "Come, Lord Jesus."  Healing these divisions will be the work of the Lord.  I am confident that the Church will be called to participate in this healing in some form or fashion, but the Church will be called to carry out God's actions, not its own actions.  The Church will pray for the Lord's Kingdom to come and the Lord's will to be done while it discerns how the Lord may act through the Church to do these things.

We can choose to debate whether Darren Wilson should be charged with a crime.  A better choice would be to choose to discuss the larger issues within our society, our culture, and our communities.  We can choose to start the process of addressing these issues now or we can see how long until another incident ignites a heated debate.  May the Spirit call us into difficult yet necessary conversations and may the Lord's Kingdom break into our society.

Commemorating St. Andrew

Readers of this blog may have noticed that I am marking the lesser festivals and commemorations of the Church calendar year.  I started doing this as both a personal spiritual discipline and a learning experience.

Unfortunately, due to a busy week and an illness running through the family, I missed two commemorations this past week: Clement, Bishop of Rome (Nov. 23) and Isaac Watts, acclaimed hymn writer (Nov. 25).  However, I did manage to include a hymn written by Isaac Watts in this week's worship service (O God, Our Help in Ages Past, Hymn #320 in the Lutheran Book of Worship).

Today, the Church commemorates St. Andrew, the Apostle, the disciple of Jesus.  John 1:35-42 proclaims that Andrew was the first of the Twelve to be called into fellowship by Jesus.  Andrew responds by telling his brother, Peter, that he has found the Messiah, and rushes to bring Peter to meet Jesus.  Andrew develops a reputation for bringing people to meet Christ; Andrew brings the boy with the five loaves and the two fish to Jesus before Jesus feeds the 5,000 families (John 6:9); Andrew also brings before Jesus a group of Greeks who approached Philip and asked to meet Jesus (John 12:20-22).  While Peter, James, and John formed the "inner circle" among the disciples, Andrew would be the first disciple included when the circle expanded to include others.

After the resurrection and ascension of Jesus, Church tradition holds that Andrew preached and traveled within the areas of modern-day Turkey and Greece.  He was crucified by the order of the Roman Governor of Patrae in Achaia; according to tradition, Andrew was tied to an X-shaped cross rather than be nailed to a traditional T-shaped cross.  To this day, the term "St. Andrew Cross" refers to an X-shaped cross; the symbol can be found on several flags, including the flag of Scotland, which claims Andrew as its patron saint.  Russia and Greece also name Andrew as their patron saint.

You can find a fuller account of Andrew's life, career, and legacy here.

Monday, November 17, 2014

Commemorating St. Elizabeth of Hungary

On this snowy (in SE Indiana, at least) day, the Church remembers and commemorates St. Elizabeth of Hungary.  The daughter of Alexander II, King of Hungary, Elizabeth and the wife of Louis IV, Landgrave of Thuringia (in central Germany), Elizabeth did not give herself to a royal lifestyle of comfort.  During her marriage, she learned about the order of St. Francis of Assisi.  In response to what she learned, she lived as simply as possible while engaging in many efforts to help the poor in Thuringia.  After Louis IV died from an illness acquired on his way to join the latest Crusade, Elizabeth arranged for the care of her children, reacquired her dowry, and used that money to build a hospital at Marburg.  Here, she worked within the hospital to treat the sick and continued to give from her financial resources to the poor.  She died on November 17, 1231, at the young age of 24.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Commemorating St. Martin of Tours and Soren Kierkegaard

Today, the Church remembers both St. Martin, Bishop of Tours and Soren Kierkegaard.  Their lives, stories, and societies are very different.  We remember them together because both died on the date of November 11.

St. Martin was born in the year 315 AD.  The most popular story regarding St. Martin occurred during his brief military career.  As a member of the ceremonial cavalry unit which protected the Roman Emperor, Martin wore a white cloak which was lined with wool.  One winter day while wearing his uniform, Martin came across a homeless beggar; the beggar was so poor that he was nearly naked during the winter months.  Martin's reaction was one of compassion: he took off his cloak, used his sword to cut the cloak into two halves, and gave one half of the cloak to the beggar.  Later, Martin had a dream in which Jesus, who was wearing the cloak which Martin had given to the beggar, told several angels what Martin had done.  Years later, Martin would be elected as bishop by the people of Tours because they valued him as a model of holiness.  St. Martin is also known for refusing to continue in the Roman military after his baptism, playing a role in a man's miraculous healing, and for intervening on behalf of heretics against whom other bishops were using the civil authorities to prosecute and execute.  Read this summary for a fuller telling of St. Martin's life.

Soren Kierkegaard was a Danish Lutheran philosopher and theologian.  Kierkegaard is credited as the founder of existentialism, although "later existentialists had significantly different agendas than his."  He is also known as a fierce opponent of "cheap grace" and Christendom because he believed that an easy Christian life without pain, suffering, cost, or risk was not truly a Christian life at all.  Kierkegaard is also credited for writing beautiful prayers, poems, and hymns.  You can read more about Kierkegaard in this article from "Christianity Today."

Friday, November 7, 2014

Remembering Three Lutheran Missionaries

Today, November 7th, is the day the Lutheran Church commemorates three missionaries.  Although only one of these missionaries died on November 7th, the Church chooses to commemorate the three of them on the same day because they were called and sent to Southeast Asia.

Bartholomaeus Ziegenbalg was a German Lutheran who was sent as the first Protestant missionary to India.  Before his death in 1719, he was able to translate the entire New Testament and several books of the Old Testament (Genesis through Ruth) into Tamil, the local language.  He also established two congregations and a seminary to train their leaders.

John C. F. Heyer was born in Germany and emigrated to the United States as a teenager.  After studying theology in both America and Germany, he became a lay preacher in 1817 before his ordination in 1820.  After his wife of twenty years died in 1839, he discerned a calling as a missionary to India, where he served the same community as Ziegenbalg once served.  Heyer spent 15 years as a missionary in India before returning to the United States and settling in Minnesota, where he organized several congregations.

Ludwig Nommensen was born in a territory which often transitioned between Danish and Norwegian rulers.  He discerned his calling as a missionary and was sent as the first Christian missionary to the Indonesian island of Sumatra.  Nommensen spent his career in Sumatra with the Batak people, with whom he translated the Bible into Batak and guided the development of a native Batak church.  The Batak church is now one of the companion synod partners of the Indiana - Kentucky Mission Territory.

We give thanks to the Lord for these three missionaries and for all who answer the Holy Spirit's call to serve the Lord in a foreign land.

Saturday, November 1, 2014

All Saints Day

While we will fully observe the day tomorrow in worship, today is All Saints Day.  On this day, the Church remembers all of the Saints from generations past, present, and future.  While many saints have their own day (for example, St. Andrew on November 30th), this day gives recognition to every saint.  While history will not remember the vast majority of saints, every saint means something to Christ and leaves an impression on someone.  Therefore, we observe this day to remember the stories of those who left an impression on us.

One of the ways of marking this day is to recall the saints of the congregation who have died within the past year.  The congregation I serve will remember four members and three friends of the congregation who died since November 1, 2013.  At tomorrow's worship service, we will light a candle for each person as a visual reminder of their passing from life in Christ to death in Christ.

We also remember God's actions to adopt us as God's children and extend to us the promise of resurrection.  These things are encapsulated in this verse:

"Beloved, we are God's children now; what we will be has not yet been revealed. What we do know is this: when he is revealed, we will be like him, for we will see him as he is." (1 John 3:2 NRSV)

Whom do you remember?  How will you remember them?

Friday, October 31, 2014

Happy Reformation Day

October 31 is an important date on the calendar of the Lutheran Church.  This is the anniversary of the day on which Martin Luther nailed his 95 Theses to the front door of the church in Wittenberg, Germany.  This document was the beginning of Luther's protests against several practices of the 16th Century Roman Catholic Church, including the selling of indulgences, the withholding of communion wine from laypeople, the use of the Latin language in worship, and the emphasis on good works.  The Roman Catholic Church responded to Luther's invitation to debate and discussion by ridiculing him, then excommunicating him.  However, the invention of the printing press aided the spread of Luther's ideas even as the Roman Catholic Church attempted to destroy Luther's documents.  Luther's writings and ideas sparked several different reform movements that drifted away from both the Roman Catholic Church and one another, leading to the various denominations we see within the Church today.

Because we are part of a tradition that claims the Church is "always reforming," October 31 is also a date to consider where the Church still needs reforming.  I ask you, what reforms do the Church need to implement?  What should the Church keep?  What should the Church add?  What should the Church release as a practice which used to serve the Church well but is no longer a good idea?

If you have answers to these questions, I invite you to leave your answers below and participate in a sharing of ideas.  I will respond to all suggestions.