Thursday, February 28, 2013

I Know That I'm Forgiven...But I Don't Know How I Know

photo by Amanda Christensen-Graef
I once had someone question the Absolution offered at the end of the Confession of Sins.  She said, “I don’t need someone to forgive my sins.  God does that.” 

Leonard Cohen wrote these lines in a song called That Don’t Make It Junk.

“I know that I’m forgiven,
But I don’t know how I know
I don’t trust my inner feelings
Inner feelings come and go”
                         (Ten New Songs) 

Of course God forgives sins, but without someone to declare that forgiveness to me, my forgiveness becomes an internal phenomenon.  A product of my inner feelings, which change more often than the weather.  Worse, forgiveness becomes something I do for myself. 

We have a tendency to make faith largely a private, internal matter.  And yes, our relationship to God is highly personal, deeply intimate indeed.  But God is more than the private relationship God and I have. 

An important part of my intimate relationship with God is the way it drives me to engage the world.  My relationship with God compels me to be relationship with others.  And God addresses my heart not only through an internal voice, but in a spoken word that enters through my ear.  A word that originates from outside of me, beyond my control.  A word spoken that draws me into it. 

When Absolution is pronounced by a pastor, a minister or a priest, it is pronounced on behalf of God.  It draws us out of the echo chamber of our own inner feelings, and into relationship with our brothers and sisters. 

Luther, taught children to make the sign of the cross (touch your head, your heart, your left shoulder and your right shoulder) like this:  God is in my head, God is in my heart, God is on my left, and God is on my right. 

God is inside of me, and outside of me.  God is not my possession as much as what and who possesses me. +

Friday, February 22, 2013

And We're Off....

Lutheran worship follows the basic progression of Western catholic liturgy.  There is the Entrance Rite, Word, and Meal.  These three  movements comprise the Liturgy. 

Each of these large movements are made up of smaller pieces, like a symphony.  The Entrance Rite, for example, contains an invocation, supplication and praise, ending in a concluding prayer which captures the worship theme of the day (Prayer of the Day).

The Entrance Rite focuses our attention and draws us into the presence of God.  It typically begins with a Brief Order for Confession of Sin and Forgiveness.  “if we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us...”  That’s 1 John 1:8.  Just about everything we say in the liturgy comes from the Bible. 

The Entrance Rite ushers us into God’s presence by immediately taking us out of our comfort zone and our self-serving.  Our admission into God’s presence is our admission that we are not who we claim to be, despite our best efforts. 

And, if we’re listening carefully at this point, we’re also acknowledging that much of the brokenness and suffering we experience is self-inflicted.

Why is this admission important?   Does God take some perverse delight in making us feel bad about ourselves?  Well, let’s look at that for a moment.

In every other aspect of our lives, we strive to “put our best foot forward.”  Our goal is to “make a good impression.”  This is the path to success, right?  And success equals happiness.  This is the underlying formula for most of our recipes of living the good life. 

Take politics for example.  Candidates seek success (votes) by pointing out their opponent’s “sins,” and ignoring their own.  Or, if they’re really sophisticated, they try to spin their own frailties and shortcomings into something positive.  That’s the way our world works.

To be successful, project an image of strength and certainty.  We’re captain of our own ship, master of our own fate, and we know exactly where we’re going.   

The trouble is that underneath that projection, we know the truth.  We project strength to cover our weakness.  Certainty to mask our doubts.  Independence to hide our insecurities.   

Yeah, we’re the captain of our own ship, but the instruments are all jammed, there’s a thick fog, and we’re flying by the seat of our pants not sure where we’re even going.  But, don’t tell anyone. 

We invest a lot of energy keeping that a secret.  Making a good impression requires lots of emotional suppression.  As the gap between who we are and who we claim to be (in order to be accepted, successful and loved) widens, our stress increases.  The bigger that gap, the greater our stress.

Some come to think then, that it pleases God when we feel awful about ourselves.  When we’re filled with self loathing.  So we confess our sin with gusto.  We pull out a laundry list of sins and delight in adding to it.  Even if we have to make stuff up.  Heck, it’s all for a good cause.

But, trying to impress God with either our sinfulness or our goodness is equally boneheaded.   Besides, it’s a complete waste of energy.  Because it is not necessary.  How do you impress someone who already loves you?  Why would you want to? 

So, why do we have to confess our sins when we come before God, if God isn’t just trying to make us feel bad about ourselves?   What’s the point?

It’s like carrying heavy bags around with you all the time.  Baggage filled with fears, anxieties, secrets that can never see the light of day.  Coming into the presence of God, we finally get to put those heavy bags down.  Under God’s loving eye, we might even get the courage to begin unpacking them.

In the act of confession, we are relieved of the burden of having to impress God, and each other, and freed to be who we are.  We are freed to relate to each other in new ways.  We are freed to engage our world in new ways.  Supportive, cooperative....not exploiting and self-serving. 

And, as we hear in the declaration of absolution that in spite of everything, we are loved by God deeply and unconditionally, we’re  turned to a new path.  Given a new road map to happiness, peace, fulfillment, contentment and joy. 

And you can leave all that baggage here.  You won’t be needing it where you’re going. 

Thursday, February 14, 2013

What IS Lutheran Worship Anyway?

One afternoon, I was in Manhattan for a meeting.  I had some free time before the meeting started since I lucked out on the subway.  Every train arrived right after I did.  So I stopped at Saint Patrick’s Cathedral. 

I love going into Saint Patrick’s.  The hush of the sacred just steps off of Fifth Avenue is always startling and refreshing.  The contrasts remind be a lot of DC.  The poor struggling with their lives in the shadow of power. 

You go into St. Patrick’s, and the homeless are sleeping on pews under the watchful eyes of the saints, people are praying, lighting candles, or browsing the side altars like they're shopping for vegetables.    

This particular afternoon, Mass was going on at the main altar.  As the doors closed behind me, the hush descended and I heard the familiar Hymn of Praise...This is the feast of victory for our God.  Alleluia.  Alleluia. 

They were singing right out of the Lutheran Book of Worship, Setting One, in one of the largest Roman Catholic cathedrals in the world. 

That’s the perfect place to begin thinking about Lutheran worship today.  Our Lutheran worship isn’t unique.  It grows out of the Western Catholic liturgical tradition.  A tradition we share in varying degrees, with Roman Catholics, Anglicans (Episcopalians), and the Reformed Churches (i.e. United Church of Christ, Presbyterian, Methodist etc.).   

So, what was Luther’s beef with the Mass?  In truth, not much. At least in practice anyway.  In the Reformation, Luther brought basically two innovations to the Mass.   First, he translated the Mass from Latin into German.  Something he did with the Bible too.  

Second, he restored the Word (preaching) to the Mass. In Luther’s time, the Mass stressed the sacramental.  The Lutheran understanding of the Mass held Word & Sacrament in equal importance and equal esteem.

The Sacraments were tangible expressions of the Word.  Nothing more and nothing less. 

That’s about it.  Two things, but they were doozies. 

It should be noted that Roman Catholics pretty much embraced Luther’s changes to the Mass with Vatican II about 50 years ago. 

Anglicans applied Luther’s principles and innovations and developed many rich spiritual resources, like the Book of Common Prayer, that still serves all Christians today. 

The biggest and most enduring thing that Luther did in terms of shaping the Mass was to connect worship to the daily lives of people.  He made the Word accessible.

For Lutherans, the Word of God doesn’t exist to support the life of an institution.  The Word & Sacraments were to nurture and enrich the lives of the faithful and equip them to live the Good News.  To be a blessing for all. 

These innovations continue to define Lutheran worship. 

Lutherans fiercely guard the integrity of the Word and Sacraments while continually struggling to find new ways to connect them with the ever changing lives of people. 

To be sure, sometimes we’re better at guarding than innovating. 

We still know that worship practices and forms will change and evolve as people’s lives change.  That’s a given for Lutheran worship. 

The integrity of Lutheran worship is not that we keep doing things the same way, but that we find new ways to declare the same thing: God’s unconditional love for all in Christ.

Thursday, February 07, 2013

Lutheran Pastor Forced to Apologize

The Rev. Rob Morris, pastor of Christ the King Lutheran Church (a congregation of the Missouri Synod) in Newtown Connecticut, was forced by Missouri Synod church officials to offer a written apology for participating in an ecumenical prayer vigil in Newtown, following the mass killings at Sandy Hook Elementary School.  Unlike the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) The Lutheran Church - Missouri Synod (LCMS) forbids its clergy from participating with other faiths in worship. 

The prayer vigil, held in Newtown, two days after the shootings in December, was attended by President Obama, and Muslim, and Jewish leaders as well as other Christian clergy and families of the first grade class where the shootings occurred. 

I’ve included links here for those who want to read more about this story. 

NBC News

Religious News Services

I’ll admit, there was a time when my first reaction to this would have been anger.  And yes, I’m still angry.  The general public doesn’t understand the difference between the ELCA and the LCMS.  All they see is Lutheran, and so I and to some degree all Lutherans, are tarred by this brush which I personally find offensive and the antithesis of everything I believe and confess as a Lutheran.

But that’s not my strongest reaction anymore.  My strongest reaction is sadness.  Sadness at the missed opportunity to bring the love of God close to people who desperately needed it. 

Pastor Morris was right to stand with the brokenhearted, to offer comfort to the inconsolable, to represent the visible presence of God in solidarity with those who weep at such unthinkable loss.  As a pastor, and as a human being, it would have been unthinkable for me to be anywhere else. 

I’ll leave the Missouri Synod leaders to work out their own salvation in fear and trembling, knowing that every church body today, yes, even the ELCA, has been guilty of all manner of failings and shortcomings when it comes to bearing the grace of God to the world. 

Instead, I want to affirm the mystery of what God calls us to be as the church.  God invites us into relationship, not that we may take possession of God.  As Paul says quoting the hymn in Philippians: Jesus did not count equality with God as a thing to be exploited, but emptied himself. (Phil. 2:6-7). 

This self-emptying is mark of our relationship with God too.  It is our ongoing work.  We are not called into relationship with God in order to take possession of God, but so that God may take possession of us.  So that we may work with God the way a sail, properly set, captures the wind without ever possessing it. 

Each one of us will have a different take on the mystery of our relationship with God.  None of us will ever fully understand it, or give proper expression to it.  That’s OK.  We’re not supposed to.  Because we are not called to perfect our relationship with God.  We are called to be empty vessels, that we may be filled with God’s love and so be in loving relationship with each other. 

Any understanding of our relationship to God that demands that we be less than human or humane; that we turn our backs on our brokenhearted sisters or ignore the tears of our grieving brothers, is flat out false and misguided.  That is an understanding that seeks to exploit God, not to be filled by God.  

Thank you for your faithful service Pastor Morris. 

Monday, February 04, 2013

The Super Bowl & the Spoils of Victory

Mercifully, Ray Lewis long ago dropped off my radar.  After his shady plea bargain deal where he admitted conspiracy and obstruction that let him off a double murder charge, I thought he deserved to just fade away.  And, unless you were a Ravens fan (which I am not, even though Joe Flacco is a graduate of my high school alma mater in NJ), that's exactly what he did. 

Oh, but now he's back.  The Ravens won the Super Bowl!!!!!  Congratulations Baltimore…I think.  Because now we are treated to a revolting parade of Ray Lewis, prancing and preening, spouting his obnoxious infantile nonsense about leadership, perseverance, morality  and God. 

You see, in the eyes of Ray Lewis, the reason the Ravens won the Super Bowl is because God is a huuuge Ray Lewis fan.  Evidently, Ray Lewis found religion.  Or rather, God and religion finally caught up with Ray Lewis and his awesomeness.   

Since I've gotten up this morning, I've seen Ray Lewis interviewed on three different channels (mis)quoting St Paul and Romans…."If God be for you, who can be against you."  Too bad San Francisco.  New England.  Denver.  God's just not that into you.

There he was at breakfast on the morning shows.  Again later when I went to the gym in the locker room.  On the treadmill on the big screen.  Again in the locker room after the tread mill.  And then, the hyper ventilating talk jocks shouting back and forth about the blown calls, the blown lights, the blown opportunities, and poor Ray Lewis!  How he was being soooo unfairly treated in the media for his spirituality and how he's turned his life around!

OK, wait a minute guys.  Breathe into a paper bag for a few.  What Ray Lewis is spouting has nothing whatsoever to do with spirituality.  Or with God.  As far as being unfairly treated…I wonder how the families of the murdered young men feel about how unfairly Ray Lewis has been treated in the media, the NFL, and by life in general while his career never missed a beat during the years since they buried their sons?  

No, if anyone is being unfairly treated here, it's God.   It's those who struggle with real spiritual issues like those grieving families. 

Ray Lewis, and his inane posturing cheapens and grossly demeans genuine spirituality and faith. Despite Ray Lewis delusional perspective, God's goals and the goals of an NFL football team really have nothing to do with each other. 

Despite what is often popular perception; a football game, a baseball game, basketball game, bowling, bocce, you name it; are not mini morality plays where God doles out favor.  In fact, I hate to break it to you, but I think God was watching Downton Abbey last night.  Especially while the lights were out.  Anyway…

Just to be clear, if you want to find God in sporting events, God's there.  Just not where Ray Lewis thinks.

Ignore the buffoon trotting around the bases pointing to the sky.  Watch the pitcher who just watched his pitch sail into the seats.   

Forget the purple confetti and the trophy, the locker room with the champagne soaking everything.  Head over to the other locker room where you can hear the showers dripping. Where cameras and questions seem a tasteless intrusion.  Where adults sit and stare at the wall. 

You see, that's what Paul was actually writing about in Romans, when he said, "If God is for us, who can be against us?"