On a journey to find the silver linings

On a journey to find the silver linings

Monday, December 19, 2016

"Deeds Not Creeds." Really?

Emperor Constantine and the bishops of the First Council of Nicaea (325 AD), holding the 
Niceno–Constantinopolitan Creed of 381 AD.

We Christians have all heard of it or done it; the bash on "organized religion." You know what I mean and you've heard it before, and so have I. The two most common phrases that sum this up from the evangelical side are, "relationship not religion," and "deeds not creeds." I'd like to address them both, but today I'll start with the second one, as it is something that I've been hearing a lot lately in sideways remarks regarding denominational Christianity, of which I happen to be a part of. 
"Deeds not creeds." At first blush it sounds right, doesn't? Deeds being the good things we do to help others, make the world a better place, and meet the needs of our brothers & sisters in Christ as well as the lost. This is putting hands and feet to "love thy neighbor," essentially. These are the things that we can see tangible results from; perhaps it looks like bringing a new mother meals for a week while she adjusts to a new baby in the home, helping the elderly man next door with his yardwork, or secretly giving money to a family struggling to pay bills. There are a world of deeds that can be done, things we can do to help that are as limitless as the need that exists. Of course we ought to do these things for one another. Of course we should! But why? We do these things not because God needs us to, but because our neighbor needs us to. Scripture tells us to serve one another, to look out for the needs of our fellow saints, to be good Samaritans, and to take care of widows and orphans (which I believe includes all those in need). Yes, we ought to do these good deeds, but just because they are "good" should they take the place of "creeds?" 
So now I'm going to write out an actual Creed. And as you read it, keep in mind this question; which part of this do you disagree with? As you read, think about which part you can choose to not live by. Think about how taking out your neighbor's trash negates these words, or how you can set it aside in favor of buying a goat for a family in Africa. Read carefully and decide which part is man-made and therefore discardable. 
Here we go:
I believe in one God, the Father Almighty, maker of heaven and earth and of all things visible and invisible. And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the only‐begotten Son of God, begotten of His Father before all worlds, God of God, Light of Light, very God of very God, begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father, by whom all things were made; who for us men and for our salvation came down from heaven and was incarnate by the Holy Spirit of the virgin Mary and was made man; and was crucified also for us under Pontius Pilate. He suffered and was buried. And the third day He rose again according to the Scriptures and ascended into heaven and sits at the right hand of the Father. And He will come again with glory to judge both the living and the dead, whose kingdom will have no end. And I believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord and giver of life, who proceeds from the Father and the Son, who with the Father and the Son together is worshiped and glorified, who spoke by the prophets. And I believe in one holy Christian and apostolic Church. I acknowledge one Baptism for the remission of sins, and I look for the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come. Amen. 
There. A Creed. The Nicene Creed to be exact. It was written in the year 325 A.D. in response to a heresy that was about to take over the Christian church, one that denied the Trinity and the very nature of Jesus. How is this not important again? Because without knowing and confessing this, my very understanding of who Jesus is is at stake, and then so is the theology on which my entire life is built upon. 
Now please explain to me how a Christian is supposed to replace this with "deeds?" Because in my mind (as small as that is) the deeds I do and the life I live flows from this creed. In my mind there is nothing written here that I can disagree with to depart from. In my mind, no amount of deeds I do are better than believing in those words. Because the deeds I do are about my work and service (however good they may be), but this creed I confess is entirely about the nature of who Jesus is, and therefore what I do is because of who HE is and what HE has done. 
So tell me again how "deeds not creeds" is supposed to work?

Friday, July 22, 2016

Let Christians Remember

  My friends, like most of you I am weary of this political season; of the candidates, the rhetoric, the fighting, the doublespeak & lies said with straight faces, the hate, and the accusations. I am unsure of so many things on the news because of the spin, the angles, the agendas, and the sources. I hardly know what to believe anymore. And like so many others I've talked with, I can barely believe any of this madness is really happening to our country. At times I feel that we're simply being swept along in this surreal tidal wave of political and social lunacy, and that these United States are unraveling right around us.

So in the mayhem here is what I, a confessing Christian, must tell myself:

Let Christians remember that we do NOT live in a "Christian nation."

Let Christians remember that Jesus was rejected because He refused to assume political power and control.

Let Christians remember that Jesus' only explicitly expressed political views were to pay our taxes.

Let Christians remember that the words "democrat" and "republican" are not in the Bible.

Let Christians remember that God does not lead a country - He leads His people. That is a big difference.

Let Christians remember that God does not lead a political party - He leads the Church.

As a Christian my conscience is spun from sure and ancient Words, and my hope is not in the words of a man or woman I will ultimately cast a vote for.

And even though I live in this crazy, sad, and ever-changing world for my numbered years, 
there are things I know,
there are things I am sure of.

Divide this as you will, hate it if you want, but it's what I believe.

Monday, July 11, 2016

Missing the Moment

Here's my deep thought for this Monday morning, something that's been bothering me for days.
As I'm sure most of you have, I watched Diamond Reynolds' video. She was recording her boyfriend Philander Castile in the aftermath of his shooting by a Falcon Heights, MN police officer. It was tragic, simply tragic, watching a man as he lay dying. One of the worst things I've seen in a long time - because it was real.
But here's what struck me. And please don't get me wrong - I am not diminishing his death, I am not taking sides on who did what or what went wrong, who was at fault, any of that. Here's what caught my attention as I was watching it for the very first time. Diamond Reynold's was paying more attention to her phone than to the man laying next to her dying. Period. She gave very few words of consolation to him, but many to her phone. And it struck me as so obvious that even the bloodied Castile was secondary to her need to be taking video. So like a weirdo I went to her Facebook page and was dismayed at what I found. I'm not here to smear someone or discredit the story - do your own research and come to your own conclusions, but I came away with an awful realization, and because I saw a bit of myself in it I'm not exempt from my own contempt; people are so narcissistic that they live through their phones, missing the actual moments that make life on this planet worth living and dying for. She missed the moment. She missed it. He was passing, and then gone, and she missed it. Yes, she experienced it, but she experienced it through Facebooking.
Let me say this. My dad died nearly two years ago. He passed suddenly of lung cancer; it was the most awful thing I've ever seen with my own eyes, and I will not ever forget those last moments before he left this world. The look in his eyes. And at that moment he needed my mom. He needed me, my brother, our family, and for someone to hold his hand as he made the journey out. What if I were taking video of that moment? What if I were giving a play-by-play to Facebook Live instead of sharing wordless conversations with my mother? What if I were paying attention to my phone and not my dad? 
This is too big of a thought right now. Words are not adequate. My mind is shutting down. I truly TRULY cannot comprehend missing that moment for the sake of engaging in social media. 
Granted, there are many other dynamics at play in these situations, countless things about them that are different, and I acknowledge that. But at the very essence, down to the core, a life was passing from one world into the next. With all political, social, and racial issues aside, she missed the moment. And regardless of Philando Castile's guilt or innocence, and despite the fact that his girlfriend was a foot away from him, her company was her phone, and he was alone when he passed over. And THAT is tragic.
Lord have mercy. 
Please let us learn.

Friday, December 25, 2015

The God of Poopy Diapers, Pieces of Silver, and Backwards Butterflies

Today we remember a God who became a bitty baby - starting life on this planet in a wooden box in a cruddy manger; this infant King greeted with the grunted lullabies of filthy farm animals. No worldwide royal celebration like little Prince George received. No. Scratchy hay on tender newborn skin, an unknown teenage mom with a bad reputation changes His poopy diaper and nurses His hunger, and a few curious rednecked shepherds look on. 
  As if that weren't lowly & odd enough to start with, He ended a perfect 33 years on a wooden cross with nails in His feet & hands high atop a hill called The Skull - a shameful and cruel death only foreign criminals deserved. His friends placed His lifeless body into a dark cave where He was expected to stay for eternity; stay and rot, stay and finally quit causing so much damn trouble to the MegaPastors of the day. 

  But He didn't stay there in the rocks He created; while His ragtag band of friends reeled from the shock over His sudden and violent death, while they hid in fear and wept from grief, He journeyed even farther down into darkness, farther from the oneness with God that He had forever known, all the way to hell - a world and a dimension apart from everything He created. He was the farthest away from God He'd ever been, as far from God as anyone can be - all the while still BEING God.

  But why? What kind of a god does that? No noble Greek god would dare, no pagan deity, no god of imagination, and no god of histories past has endured such an unfathomable low. (Such an unkingly thing showing such weakness!).
But it was in the starless void of light filled with demons and lost souls - when He left the manger, when He had finished what He had set out for, when He was done on the cross, when He was done in Gehennah - then and only then was He done in the tomb. 
  And here is how much He loves us: that He came back again, back to us, back FOR us - while our hearts were full of blackness and hate for Him. We had just turned our backs on Him, just denied Him, just sold Him for 30 pieces of silver, just spat on Him as He walked past with the weight of the world crushing His shoulders. Truly this is the only God who could love the face of a child like me. The only One who WOULD.
  He stepped out of heaven and onto this earth - like a butterfly that crawls back into a cocoon and turns back into a chrysalis. He died to take the sin that is uniquely ours, to let that eternal blackness be nailed to the cross with Him as He suffered in our place - and our rightful place is separation from God. But He did what only a true god could do, what no other god has done - defeated death itself. He came out of that deadly bout as the undefeated champion over my sin and your sin. He left the center of the earth that meant to hold Him and walked back into sunshine; because His name is Emmanuel - God with us.
And He is.

Sunday, November 22, 2015

Why I Joined A Dead Religion

The man in the white dress was coming around, handing out gifts to the children on their knees. We mixed group of silver-haired saints, sticky faced toddlers, working class stiffs, and menopausal moms.
Some ancient tune being played in the background, the notes brought invisible peace that I didn't know I needed. 
He put the bread in my waiting hand, I took it and ate.
He gave me red wine, I took it and drank.

Nothing changed - but everything had.
So I got up, gave a slight bow, and as I walked away from the portal and back to my seat I said to myself, "THAT is why I joined a dead religion."

That's what I always thought. That's what I was always told.
Any stodgy church that doesn't have a rockin' band is dead. Any church that isn't growing is dead. Any church that limits the Holy Spirit is dead. Any church without a youth group is dead. Any church without a coffee shop is dead. Any church that's older than 50 years is dead. 
Why on earth would I ever want to be set foot in a rotting graveyard like that?

I'm into "deeds not creeds," ya know? Creeds are for zombies - the dumb moans of spiritless shells. 
Confessions are for the walking dead - lifeless words that can't cast heavenly spells. 
No, none of that ancient garbage is for the "true believer." The time for formulas has come & gone, and we've evolved. We're off the map and we're spirit filled. At least, everyone around me was... 

Don't you know? In a "spirit filled" church, pastors must wear skinny jeans - they all do, you see. They tell funny jokes, give relevant references to the upcoming Star Wars film and can life coach like nobody's business from the stage. Canned messages from sermons.com cast a vision from heaven and all the good little lemmings will jump off the cliff together. 

Hipster Pastor has the Words of Life but never uses them, doesn't even know what to do with them except throw out a nugget here or there, but mostly keeps them shut in that book of red letters. Then like the performer that he is, he skillfully turns the mirror on you and there you are; kind of happy about it because you love yourself most of all. Only it's not the squeaky clean image everyone around you sees; no, it's your blackened self, your zombie self. Then he throws a sprinkling of magic words about a Jewish guy and something about a cross and tells you how to repay that holy man for what He's done because you suck so bad and He deserves your best. He tells you to have fun with that and slips away as the words fall to the floor and Hipster Band takes over the room, the lights go down and the smoke machine winds up.

Worship repeats the word "I" a thousand times over so God knows we mean it, so we know how important we are, so we FEEL so we know. Tears must stream down cheeks and bodies must sway while hands touch the sky - it's a sure sign you're really in it. Maybe if you cry that Jewish man will know you're really scared and confused and don't know what the hell you're doing, and maybe THEN He'll hear your prayers and tip towards your tears. But no.

First the plates must be passed and records will be checked for faithfulness - so don't forget, your faith shows through painful giving. You can't cheat God and He's always watching. Fork it over and you'll be blessed. Then that Jewish man will come closer so you don't have to reach out over the edge where all the other lemmings just went.

Then speak languages only angels understand - you must if you are true; if you don't you are not one of us. Make it up, mumble something, anything, slippery words so they all think you can and don't notice when you can't. They'll keep coming back, keep pressing their otherworldly hands on your body to make you morph with them, make you talk like them, make you join their club. So just whisper your prayers; they'll see your mouth moving and it will make them happy, and they'll go away and leave you to tears you want no one to see. God gives it to them, but not to you. They speak His language, but you don't. The pain goes down to infinity and up to eternity. 

Next, give your time, your talents, your everything because Someone gave everything - that Jewish man who haunts you - it's the least you can do and it's not nearly enough. Give your attention, your heart, your soul, your gifts, all you are and more. Pray more, get on your knees, get in that prayer closet you heathen; there's still 23 hours in the day and you can't remember everything you forgot, be diligent and get it all out in fresh new words every time.  

Stuck in the Matrix. Stuck knowing there's two worlds and not knowing which one is real or which one you should be in. What are those red letters? How to even know what they mean? I know they must mean something. How to hear Him speak, see His face, feel Him near, know He loves, and even maybe forgiveness for the twisty monster in the mirror? Is He even real? Is any of this real? I don't hear the voices, speak the tongues, see the visions - maybe I'm not real... 

The smoke machines, the angels overhead and demons at your back, the weight is too heavy, skinny jeans & skits, money & music, slain in the Spirit, drunk in the Spirit, ecstasy all around & I can't fall down, swirling water a symbol of grace, a Saltine symbol of a Jew I once knew, grape juice symbol of blood once spilled. Spirits and saints, gold dust from heaven, purpose and destiny that I can't figure out. There's not enough tears, not enough reaching, not enough asking - it's always for someone else and just out of reach. I just want to give up and make the spinning stop. 


I passed it by a hundred times, never paying any attention; a little building with stained glass windows and a sign about a potluck.
LC-MS. What is that anyway? Some kind of cult, probably. But I might look it up, can't hurt to try. 

A week later and we go in, sniff the air suspiciously. 
Little old ladies with polyester jackets, an off-key organ making me cringe, kids crying at inopportune times, burnt coffee, songs I don't know, stand up, sit down, I have no idea what's going on. This is not what I expected, and yet it is. 
And I love it. I LOVE IT.

I am told about that Jewish guy, and His name is Jesus. He is the Red Letters. He is the Word.
I am told who I am to Him, that yes I am a blackened sinner but He loves me anyway. He knew I was the walking dead heading towards the cliff, so He got on a cross to rescue me. He died, then He was gone. GONE. 
And He took my sins with Him when He went. 
Then He came back. And I am a saint - because He said I am, not because of what I do or say or think or feel. I'm a saint because He is who He said He is and He did what He said He'd do.

I hear the man in the white dress reading the red letters - all of them, all the time. He tells me what they mean; they are about Jesus - all of them. The Red Letters are the Words of Life and He is the Word. And He is in the words from the very beginning - ALL of the words are Red Letters and He is in them all because they are all about Him. All of them.

And so I take the bread and take the wine, and Jesus is there because He said He is. And I am forgiven and I am free because He said I am. 

I do not have to wonder, don't need to muster tears, fake whispers to angels or cast demons from the past, no praying out sins I can't even recall or giving till it hurts, or anything at all. 

So what do I have to do? Nothing - absolutely nothing. The Red Letters say it's HIS work that I believe in Him, so there's nothing left for me to do.
Nothing.  Because He knows I can't anyway.
HE saved me in my baptism, in water He washed away the death because He was there. The Red Letters told me.
And HE saves me in the bread and wine, and brings new life because He is there. The Red Letters told me.
And HE comes to me in that book, every black & scarlet word between the covers because He is there. The Red Letters told me.

The man in the white dress came around, handing out the gifts of God to the this child on her knees. I didn't have a vision, didn't speak a language of angels, didn't even think to ask. And yet there He was - right there, giving me everything because He loves.
He put the bread in my waiting hand; I took it and ate. Jesus is the Bread of Life.
He gave me red wine; I took it and drank. Jesus' blood shed for me.

The Red Letters told me.

Then I got up, gave a slight bow out of respect for the Holy of Holies, and as I walked back to my seat I said to myself, "THAT is why I joined a dead religion."

Friday, November 6, 2015

Black, White, and Red All Over

Racism isn't a real problem anymore, and people that think so are just overreacting or being dramatic.
That's what I used to think before moving to Missouri.

We arrived only two months after the Michael Brown shooting in Ferguson, which, if you somehow don't know, is part of the greater St. Louis metropolitan area, just north of the city proper. It's 35 minutes from where we now live. But when we got here, I didn't know my head from my tail or which end was up; I was spinning from the move across country and the sudden death of my dad. To me, Ferguson was just down the street, and everything we were watching live on the news may as well have been in our backyard. Geographically, I just didn't know otherwise.

The rioting and protests and stories of discrimination were on the news every night. I couldn't comprehend why black men and women were protesting in the streets. I didn't know why everyone was so angry. And I certainly had no vocabulary to respond to the "us vs. them" conversations that were happening at backyard barbecues in my pristinely white neighborhood. Really, the whole thing caught me off guard.

I didn't think people really still said these kinds of things about their fellow human beings, even in a "joking" or "harmless" backhanded way, and I certainly didn't think true Racism - like, "Martin Luther King racism" was still a problem for Americans in our day and age.

See, the home I was raised in was special. My parents were truly accepting of everyone, and I mean everyone. My brother Kip is Sioux indian and was adopted as a newborn. He and I are only 8 months apart so he's been my brother since the day I was born - and believe me, we act like it; good, bad, and ugly. The only racism I experienced growing up were the occasional nasty comments from stupid white people making dumbass remarks about his "red" skin to the person they didn't know was his sister. Trust me, I felt no hesitation saying, "really? That 'prairie nigger' happens to be my brother." That was a surefire way to stop the conversation and shame the riffraff far enough away to leave us alone. And my best friend Winona was my constant companion for almost 10 years until I graduated and moved away. She too is Sioux indian, and I couldn't have cared less. All I saw was my sister - we were "blood brothers," having secretly cut our hands to swap and seal blood when we were 12. If anyone had dared made mention of her race, I'd not only have been confused, but that person would've ceased being a part of my life for good.

But that was back in the '70's and '80's. Times have changed since then - right? North Dakota doesn't have a "real" racism problem, Montana doesn't either - at least not in a sheltered white person's perspective. (Now keep in mind that's mostly because there are so few black people to be racist against). But now Native Americans, that's a different story; for some reason, we don't consider them when we talk about "racism." They're mostly not even considered at all, which is a whole different story in and of itself.

Coming to Missouri, coming here in the heat of the unrest in Ferguson, I found out in a damn hurry that my lily-white naive opinion about racism was just a fractured fairy tale. 

In so many ways, I found out. And now it's my responsibility to teach my kids. To be "Bob & Heidi" to the next generation of "Kip & Tanya's." I thought I've been a good parent, talking to my kids about being kind and loving to all people regardless of their skin color. And when "teachable moments" have come up over the years I think I've done a pretty decent job - decent enough for where we lived, anyway. But I look back now and realize I haven't done enough; not enough for this place. How could I? I didn't know enough myself.

And here we are, 35 minutes from Ferguson Missouri in 2015. "Black Lives Matter" is everywhere here, the morning news is just a recap of the shootings, robberies, and killings from the night before, and how do I explain all of this to my kids? Remember, the police reports in our town talked about cows on the loose and streakers at football games, and now they practice lockdowns, see their schoolmates segregate themselves by color in the lunch hall, and think that driving through North St. Louis means they'll get shot.

How do I teach my kids? Where do I start? Well, none of it makes sense without a little bit of history to give some context, so I started with cinema - that great captivator of imagination and magnifier of ideas. Sophie and I spent the afternoon watching "The Help," and it rocked her little world. She absolutely loved the story and was glued the entire time. I watched her be confused, angry, amused, and heartbroken. I needed to explain some scenes to her and make things that were over her head a bit easier to understand (like the shooting of Medgar Evers, the "shit pie" incident, and when Yule Mae was arrested and beaten for stealing a ring). 

Watching a movie on a Sunday afternoon won't change the world, but it's a start. It's planting seeds in her little mind, giving her a greater sense of the bigger picture, and putting some faces (even fictional ones) to injustice and change. I can keep taking my kids to pow-wows like we have in the past, like my parents did with me, I can get them involved in activities that have a greater mix of diversity, I can watch movies and tv shows that open their eyes. But really, the best thing I can do with and for my kids is to treat everyone with the same kindness & respect as the person before - with no exception of age, color, religion, gender, you name it. I plop myself down and chat with a black man at the hospital the same as I would anyone else. Don't step to the other side of the street, don't make distinctives based on skin color, don't avoid conversation or eye contact. For God's sake, we are all created equal - I finally see we don't really act that way, even when we politely say we do.

"The Help" might be over her head in a lot of ways - she may be too young for some of the themes. But in the world we live in now, in this place we call home that's regularly on the national news for social unrest and cultural violence, 10 years old seems old enough to understand that we're just people who are on this journey side by side; that we're all simply people who are black, white, and red all over. 

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

"Happy Easter." What a weird thing to say.

   It's such a weird thing to say "Happy Easter," isn't it? I found myself saying it to the guy who filled our propane tank as he walked off after handing me the bill. I turned away, shook my head at myself and thought, "what on earth are you saying to that guy?!" Like, you're happy that it's a holiday, you're happy to give good wishes to strangers passing by, and you're happy to say something nice to people that need a positive boost in their day.

    But saying "Happy Easter" during Holy Week is strange. It's reflexive; a polite, cultural little ditty. And yet ideally, we're remembering our sin. We're remembering how imperfect, hopeless, and helpless we are. We're realizing our eternal state apart from God's grace. We think about what compelled and propelled the perfect Son of God to take up the cross on our behalf. We remember that it's because of our hopeless state that He came to take our place on that cross... It sucks. And it's beautiful. It's dark, and it's light. Such a paradox of things that don't make sense in my little mind.

    So I feel such a heaviness today. I feel the gravity of my human state. The sins I can't get away from, like I can't get away from my own skin or my own breathing. And the weight of them is crushing me....

    But I have hope for tomorrow. Tomorrow is Maundy Thursday; the celebration of the Last Supper. The day that Christ takes the cup of suffering for us. It is a dreadful day, and a beautiful day, because He did that out of love for us all.

    And I have hope for Friday. Good Friday. The day that He was crucified unjustly for MY sins (the sins I commit every day, in thought, word, and deed). The day He took the sentence of "guilty" in my place so that I could stand before God as innocent. The day he suffered, died, and was buried because of His love for us all.

    And I have hope for Saturday. That cold, dark day He spent in the grave. Apart from His Father. Apart from this world that HE created. Apart from the glory He so rightly deserves. I have hope for that long, black day...

    And I have hope for Sunday. The best day! The day to remember and celebrate that He didn't stay dead and cold in that mountainous tomb. The day to remember that He overcame death and the grave so that I wouldn't have to spend eternity in one myself. The day to remember and celebrate that I now have a clean slate and a clear path to God the Father. I've been pronounced "not guilty" because Jesus volunteered as tribute in my place and now I get to live a life of hope, knowing my eternity is secure with the Lord!

    So it is a weird thing to flippantly say "Happy Easter" to the gal at the grocery store checkouts. Yeah, it really is - especially if you don't think about what it means apart from the Easter Bunny and marshmallow Peeps. But at the same time, I AM happy about Easter. I'm happy that it wasn't me on that cross. I'm happy that God loved me so much He would send His son to take my place on it. I'm happy that I get to serve that kind of God! And I'm happy because such a love as that gives me a hope for this thing called life in all of its ups & downs.

   It's a loaded statement, and a paradoxical one when taken apart at its' seams. But a truer statement couldn't come from my mouth this week, no matter how flip it may sound when the words tumble out.

   Happy Easter to you all.