Zeus is Alive and Well in the Church

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What’s the difference between this portrayal of Zeus and most common portrayals of God?

“Tell me about your Sky Wizard,” they said to me with a smirk.

They were referring to God, of course.  A God they didn’t ascribe to.

I think there was a time in my life where hearing that phrase would have offended me, but it certainly doesn’t anymore.

Because they’re right.  The God that many Christians subscribe to is exactly like some sort of “Sky Wizard.”

They’re granting wishes (though usually people call them prayers).

They’re in control of everything: the weather, your fate, every single outcome of every single instance, pulling levers like some busy 1940’s phone operator.

They’re a trickster: Zeus was known for tricking people.  He was fair and just, but also would throw obstacles in people’s way. In the same way we have people say, “God is testing me!”

I hear it all the time, as if God has nothing better to do than mess with your life.

Blessing people who do the right thing: “God is so good.”  I don’t want to deride people for saying this, but we have to make a distinction between getting what we want and getting something from God. A lot of times I find that God calls me to do exactly what I don’t want to do.

For Christians, God is most clearly seen in the person of Jesus.

Jesus: who would give up everything for the people he loved.

Jesus: who, especially in the Gospel of Mark, doesn’t need to be in control of everything, but remained steady and dedicated to love no matter what happened.

Jesus: who didn’t grant wishes as much as responded to the needs of the world with healing and hope…and called others to do the same.

Jesus: who is not interested in blessing people with things, but forming them into blessings for the world.

Zeus is alive and well in the Christian church.  He spends his days occupied with you in so many ways.

But Jesus?  Well, Jesus is dead.

And resurrected.

And asking you to be focused more on others.

And I sometimes have trouble finding him in places where people of faith dwell.

Seriously. I find this to be a problem.

About That Knee…

football-player-kneeling-with-helmet-off“Take a knee,” he said.  We all knelt as he explained the next play.

I didn’t play football for long.  Let’s be honest: it wasn’t my calling in life.  Team sports leave me largely exhausted, and team players find me largely exhausting.

But for the short time I did play, we took a knee every time we had to hash through something.

“Take a knee,” she said as I grew really tired standing next to my wife during the birth of our second son.  Neither birth was long, mind you, but I had been standing up and needed to hold the hand…but also needed not to be on my feet the whole time.  I was going to give out, too.  So I knelt.

I took a knee by the bedside as we waited for something new to be birthed.

“I invite you down on your knees,” he said as I took my ordination vows.  Hands were laid on me and people spoke words over me, and I responded back, about how we’d try to care for God’s people and the world.

The position of humility, but also of power, of one assuming the mantle.

Their knees all bumped up against the counter as they sat there, still.  They couldn’t order anything, and they were harassed right out of their seats, and yet there they sat, knee to knee, protesting their right to exist at the same counter as their white counterparts.

It was another position of humble power.

We take a knee to hash things out, to encourage new things to be born, to take vows, and yes, to sit in and protest when things aren’t going well.

Are things going well?  Maybe it depends on who you ask.

But if my brother and sister are in trouble, it stands to reason that I’m in trouble…or will be soon…so maybe we do need to take a knee to hash it out.

And, from a Christian perspective, look…standing up for a flag, saluting, even putting your hand over your heart, the early church would absolutely be shocked that Christians ever do such a thing. 

For the early church the choice was clear: you were either part of the empire, or you followed the God seen through Christ.

For that early church, you could not do both.  Any allegiance to anything other than Christ was allegiance misplaced.

And that was true until the church and politics got married…certainly the definition of a “marriage of convenience.”

Convenient for whom, though? Are they still married? Can we pledge allegiance to both today?

Maybe we should take a knee and discuss it.  It’s worth discussing.

Now, please don’t get me wrong…I’m not suggesting you shouldn’t stand for the national anthem or salute the flag or place your hand over your heart.  I fully believe you’re welcome to wrestle with whatever you do or refrain from…whatever it is you decide to do.

Women and men died for the flag; yes.  That can’t be denied, and should be honored and respected.  Why did they die?  How did they die?  For what did they die?  That’s all part of this discussion, you know…not just that they died.

There is a larger conversation that is trying to happen here, some things that are trying to be birthed, some ways we need to figure out if we’re keeping our vows to one another as a country, some people who are protesting the fact that they feel left out of the promises our flag stands for.

So perhaps we should take a knee and discuss it all.  It’s worth discussing.

How To Observe Armistice Day

Jesus wept-John 11:35

For such a short verse, John 11:35 gets a lot of airtime.  And rightly so.ww12

I guess we all need permission to cry.  And if we can get that permission from God, a God who cries with us, then all the better, right?

I’m not sure why we need permission to cry, though.  I think it might have to do with the fact that most of us generally don’t like that emotion, that feeling, that uncontrollable sobbing that happens when we cry.

For me it’s kind of like throwing up.  I hate throwing up because I hate not being in control of my body.

When we cry we lose control.  And, as Kristin Wiig’s character in Bridesmaids noted, some of us are ugly criers.  So there’s that…

On Armistice Day, Veterans Day, my thoughts turn to my grandfathers Red and Sodie.

My Grandpa Red, with his Cardinal red hair, never cried.  At least I never saw it…though I don’t suppose I would have.

He served in World War II, the second time we had cut the world in two, invaded little islands to set up bases displacing people who had nothing to do with our own little fights.  And then we sent babies off to fight in suits and ties.

Today I see more military pictures of women and men in fatigues, but the pictures from my grandfather’s era usually had them in dress uniform.  Suits and ties fighting for the men in big offices with suits and ties who had caused the problems in the first place.

No wonder my generation is experiencing a delayed adolescence.  Nothing makes you grow up at the young age of 18 like being told that today could be the “the day.”  The day it all ends.  The day you end it for someone else.  The day you’re drafted.  The day…

It reminds me of the beginning of the Gospel of Luke where the writer says, “In those days there came a decree from Caesar Augustus that the whole world should be taxed…”

Those days.  That day.  Perhaps that’s what Jesus came for.

The only time my grandfather mentioned the great war was when he wanted to tell me vividly that war is hell.  He talked about coming home from battle finally after being a gunner on B-25’s over occupied China (and being shot down), going to the house of his best friend in the war who had died in action, and being rejected by his friend’s mother as she opened the door.

No, not rejected, slapped in the face.  “It should have been you,” she said.

My childhood fascination with the war faded there.  The military channel, fighter planes, hero stories…they all paled in comparison to this story, a story about a grief obscured.

My other grandfather, Sodie, fought in the European theater.  He was shot in the stomach.  He received the purple heart.

He died when I was three, before I knew him.

One day when I was 13 I was nosing around some boxes in the basement, and I found a cassette tape.  I popped it in and found a recording of him, my grandfather, on his death bed saying goodbye.  I don’t know that I’ve told anyone this before…

He was saying goodbye and talked about some regrets.  Regrets of failed relationships and things he had wished had gone better.

And there was a little line in there about the war, about fighting.  And not regretting being in the war or going to war for his country, but something about regretting that we fight at all like that.

The sound was garbled…another grief obscured.

Growing up we used to sing Onward Christian Soldiers as a hymn.  We were “going off to war with the cross of Jesus going on before.”

The irony there, of course, is that the cross was meant to end all war, all record keeping in that way.  It was meant to be the end of such violence and hatred and fear.  It was to show that killing can’t stop God, can’t stop life, so why bother?

But now the cross is a grief obscured.

Obscured by our desires for control and domination.  Obscured by our wanting to seem powerful in a world where we feel quite powerless.

I can’t sing that hymn anymore, though it’s nostalgic for me in some ways.  I think nostalgia can sometimes obscure our grief, too.  The church seems to be particularly good at doing this: obscuring the grief of the world through glossing over hard realities.  “Good Friday” can’t be too sad or else people won’t come to services.  Ash Wednesday can be done on the fly, at the bus stop or corner, because people are too busy to observe their mortality for any length of time other than a quick swipe.  Funerals can’t be too mournful because the person is in heaven now and we should be happy they’re in a better place…

Let’s pretend Jesus is a captain and we are Jesus’ soldiers and we’re fighting the world…when the real story, the actual story, is that Jesus was a servant who died for a world all too in love with violence and fighting.

I won’t observe Armistice Day by singing a hymn about might.  I don’t want to obscure the grief anymore than it already is.

I won’t observe Armistice Day by pretending that I think war is ok.  I don’t.  I just don’t.  I respect our soldiers, I pray for them, but I weep that those making the decisions to go to war are not those signing on the dotted line to fight them.

Integrity seems a bit lost there.

As a Christian, I observe Armistice Day by giving thanks for those who have given their life so that I can write like this.  I give thanks for my grandfathers who, though their grief was obscured, lived full lives after the hells of war.

Today I observe Armistice Day by praying that we’ll learn war no more.  Today I observe Armistice Day praying that we’ll have no more grief obscured, that we’ll take care of those scarred by war and help them sort out their grief.

I don’t begrudge people for waving a flag or putting one out.  I understand sacred symbols; I see why they do that. There is a part of me that loves Americana.  But I don’t do that on Armistice Day.

Today I give up a little control as a Christian.  Perhaps I even weep a bit like Jesus.  Weep with my grandfathers who couldn’t, or didn’t, or didn’t feel like they could, for whatever reason.  Today I let myself observe my grief over the whole idea of war; I don’t obscure it.

In doing so, I hope that I not only honor our veterans, but stand with them a bit.

 

 

 

“What Makes Things Holy?” or “Damn It!”

Today begins the long week of the church year that we call Holy Week.

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Our Easter Vigil fire at my faith community…a fire of sacred flame used for lighting candles for a profane/sacred people.

It’s the culmination of this walk toward Jerusalem that we take with Jesus every year…and every year it’s called Holy Week.

Even when some years the week seems holier than others.

I remember my first Holy Week as a pastor.  I spent most of every morning that first year coming early to the church to pray at the altar, with my prayer beads, being faithful to the hours as best I could.

This year, though, I spent this morning coming early to the crib of my son, with cheerios in hand, being faithful with breakfast as best I could.

And now, having been up for just as long but involved more in holy play than holy prayer, I’m reflecting on the difference.

Sure, I’ll keep the hours as best I can today, being mindful of Terce, Sext and None (though I’m a bit behind on Terce already), but I’ll do my best.

In college I took a course where we read a book called Holy Things by Gordon Lathrop, a premier Lutheran theologian, pastor, and scholar. I took exception to the title back then. Newly out of my atheist phase, “things” weren’t holy…only God was holy.

I was an idiot.

Now I see that things are, indeed, holy.  Bread, wine, water, yes…all of this.

And time mindfully spent.  And icons mindfully written.  Sermons, songs, prayers, hands, beads, stained glass, more prayers…mindfully said or not.

Holy does not mean “magical,” by the way.  That’s nonsense.  I don’t have time for nonsense…there are holy things to attend to.

No.  Holy means “set apart,” or better in the Latin, sacrum.  Sacred.

It’s funny, in my tradition we set things apart all the time.   But I meet so many with my college mindset who think nothing is holy; nothing is sacred.

And yet these are the people who I so often hear willing to damn people and things: that divorcee is in the wrong; that homosexual is an abomination; that movie, the song, that video is a disgrace to God.

So willing to damn things…so unwilling to lift things up as holy because it all seems so much hocus pocus.

That, actually, is most of us much of the time, I think.  As if our damning isn’t just as much the hocus pocus of personal opinion, prejudice, and the trappings of self-righteousness.

What makes a thing holy?  I’d say it’s purpose seen in light of the Divine.  The purpose of our time spent together, the bread, the wine, the water, the beads, the hands laid on to heal…

What makes a thing profane?  I’d say it’s probably us.  We so often take the place of God, damning people, places, and things in righteous indignation.

Progressive Christians do this, too.  You don’t get off the hook…no one does.  The sacred/profane line is thin.  So thin, in fact, that some might say it is imaginary…

But today, on this Holy Monday whose purpose it is to further our walk to Jerusalem as we lean toward Maundy Thursday, hear that time is set apart today for you to reflect on God’s work in your life, God’s purpose for your sacred existence, for the sacred existence of your neighbor, and this world.

And that purpose is not to damn you or any of it…

So spend a little less time doing that, and a little more time honoring things as sacred.

That, at least, is what I’m meditating on these hours.

On Naming the Dead and why I’ll say Philip Seymour Hoffman’s Name Next Sunday in Church

There are only two community worship experiences that we do where we name a list of all of the recently departed in a row: All Philip-Seymour-Hoffman-Saints (in November) and the Easter Vigil (the night before Easter).

And slowly and surely I’ve started to include not just the saints of the church who have passed on in recent years, but also celebrities, activists, politicians, and local heroes.

And I’ve started naming them on Sundays, too, when we give thanks for the saints who have gone before us. Like today I read out Pete Seeger’s name as a faithful witness in this world to the life of God shown in the Christ.

Was Seeger a Christian?  I don’t know.  I know he had a godchild.  I heard an interview with her on NPR. But there are plenty of people who have godchildren and don’t identify as “Christian.” I don’t think it matters in this case.  If there’s anyone who lived into the Beatitudes as a peacemaker, I feel Seeger is it.

We named him.  And we’ll name Philip Seymour Hoffman next week, too. Because it is less about how they identified themselves, and more about how God has identified them: child of God.

And, to be honest, Philip Seymour Hoffman touched me, and so many people, in his work that I think we’d do collective harm in not publicly grieving for him in some way; in some faithful way.  And I’m a firm believer that one of the ways that the Holy Spirit works in this world is through the arts, and I believe that God moved through him and his gifts.

Lord, he had gifts…

We name the saints not because of what they did  in life (though that is certainly part of it), but more because of who God claims them to be.

And there were demons there, now come to light, which we all have.  And if people knew the full truth of any of us, I think they’d balk at having our names read in any list of so-called “saints.”

And yet, my name is there.  And so is yours.  And so is any of ours.

So, if you worship in a community and there is a time to call out the dead, name him.  Do it.  Or when the Vigil comes around to your community and your pastor knocks on the parish door to invite the dead to worship in the resurrection, make sure his name is there along with Pete’s (we don’t ever do last names, so technically I’ll just say “Philip Seymour”).

Or if you’re making a list for All Saints, include him there.

Him, along with everyone else you know personally who has died this year.  Him, along with every other faceless, nameless person suffering from addiction who will die this week that we won’t ever hear about.

Because, and here’s the main point, in naming Phillip Seymour, I hope and pray I’m also naming about 100 other people who will die this week in Chicago of an OD that we’ll never hear about, and no one will care about.

And if we can’t care, in some small way, who will?  If we can’t point to this and all other deaths, especially tragedies, and say, unequivocally, “there lies a child of God, loved and redeemed even now,” of what use is the church in truth-telling?

May light perpetual shine upon Pete and Philip and all the other nameless ones we’ve lost this week. Amen.

Natural Disasters and Prayers and Anger and Ricky Gervais…

A CNN story today made me pause a minute.prayer-hands_2134432b

It notes that many in the Twitterverse were using the hashtag “prayersforOklahoma” to respond to the natural disasters there, and that this rubs some prominent atheists the wrong way.

Ricky Gervais, an outspoken critic of any religion that presents itself in public, tweeted in response, “I feel like an idiot now … I only sent money.”

He’s what Al Franken calls “joking on the square.”  That is, he’s joking.  But not really.

And he’s hilarious.  And that’s a smart retort. And I wish I had thought of it.

It appears he’s slightly miffed at these tweet-prayers, and I have to say that if all people are doing is praying, then Gervais is right.

He’s right to be miffed if that’s the case.

Because prayer must always lead to action, and all your prayers won’t give blood to the injured, security to the now homeless, or tools for rebuilding.

But what Gervais doesn’t take seriously, and perhaps he should, is that prayer for the religious individual is akin to cursing.

Well, I curse as well as pray…some of us do.

But prayer is that response that happens when you have no control over a situation and you must move it from being an internal response to outside of yourself lest it eat you alive.

Or eat a community alive.

Or eat a nation alive.

So while prayer doesn’t give tools, it is a tool that can be used to share burdens, clarify desires, wants, and things we’re thankful for,  and release those things that we have no control over.

And, to be honest, I wonder if Gervais might not need a bit of that release in his life.  Don’t call it prayer; fine.  Call it what you will: meditation, a “time-out,” therapy, external processing.

But prayer is the lifting up of communal and individual need in such a way that real desire is acknowledged, and hopefully, heard.

Now it is true that Gervais doesn’t believe such prayers are heard by God.  But I wonder if Gervais would hear himself better if he prayed.

Look, prayer is not some sort of password that gets God to do what you want.  But prayers of thanksgiving and lament often clarify what it is that we want, and is a way to enact change both in ourselves, and hopefully, the world.  Communally lifting up people, places, situations, things, graces, disasters…it is important and healthy and necessary.

And the religious individual believes this act builds relationship between the human and the Divine.

And the religious individual, I think, can also agree that prayer helps them to know themselves better, too.  It strengthens our relationship with ourselves.

But where we, as a religious community, screw it up is when we respond as this commenter within the CNN article did with this little diddy, “God is still in control!” said Wilbur Dugger, a commenter on CNN’s Facebook page. “Everything (God) does is to get our attention. … My sympathy and prayers go out to those who get caught up in his demonstrations of (God) ruling the world.”

Oh, please.  Do we believe this is helpful?

Hell, I don’t even believe what the man wrote is true, let alone helpful.  And those are not always mutually exclusive in people’s minds.

Natural disasters happen.  Winds whip around. Tragedy strikes.  I don’t think God needs a tornado to get the attention of humanity.  If anything, the Christian should assert that that’s what Jesus was for…

That kind of response comes from a messed up idea about prayer, and God, and…well, makes me a reluctant Christian sometimes.

And in the face of that response, I’d stand with Gervais and shake my head.

And then I’d probably turn to Gervais and say, “You know Gervais, instead of getting ticked at him, why don’t you externalize it a bit? I call it prayer, but you call it whatever you want…”

And then Gervais might know himself a bit better and not get angry at other people’s issues.

And believe it or not, that changes things.

**By the way, if you’re like me and you pray and curse and it moves you to action, 100% of all donations to ELCA Disaster Response go directly to on the ground work through this link.**