Thursday, May 21, 2015

A Beautiful Life

     A couple of days ago, Bryan Lord, our Council Vice President, and President of New Venture Advisors, posted an article on Facebook by Frank Bruni in the New York Times addressing some of the challenges of youth suicide in the city of Palo Alto, California. httpp://www.nytimes.com/2015/04/12/opinion/sunday/frank-bruni-best-brightest-and-saddest.html?_r=0 
     That same morning another parishioner, Heidi Erdahl, a mental health nurse at Concord Hospital (Concord, New Hampshire), also posted an article on Facebook from Nursetogether.com that looked more closely at a killer that is taking the lives of over 41,000 people per year in the U.S.
http://www.nursetogether.com/the-secret-killer-of-americans  

     I've worked with Heidi for a number of years here in New Hampshire, on the Youth Suicide Prevention Assembly.  Each month a group of incredibly talented and dedicated mental health professionals and interested people gather to bring their expertise to bear on decreasing the suicide rate among young people. The difficult work includes looking at individual suicides to glean what might have been done differently, what was missed (if anything); we look for systemic problems in the treatment system, etc., all in order to prevent, as many suicides as possible. It is emotionally and spiritually taxing work, but the dedication of this group and others like it, have had a lasting impact on many lives.

     However, while this group works within the mental health system, and the various support systems in our communities and schools, it cannot address some of the larger societal messaging that, I believe, plays a role in so many young people contemplating suicide. The Bruni article does a good job bringing to the front the pressure that is placed upon our youth in regard to achieving academic success, but it doesn't delve into the suicide crisis among youth who have been bullied, or youth who are challenged by their sexual identity. Nor can it begin to address the larger question of societal messaging to our children and young adults, as to what constitutes a beautiful and meaningful life.

     I believe that as a society, we have so narrowed the definition of what a beautiful and meaningful life is, and put so much pressure on young people to live out that definition, that when some of them realize the vision is beyond their reach, they cannot cope with the loss.
I remember as a high school student, that there was a good deal of pressure to attend college, but it was also clear that there were other options. When my own children attended high school the landscape had changed dramatically. The high school they attended lay within the shadow of an elite college and the pressure to produce college worthy graduates was enormous. The entire curriculum was focussed on getting high schoolers ready for college. The attitude of the administration, despite the fact that this was a public high school,  was that students not interested in going to college should enroll in the regional technical school. Students who weren't ready for the rigors of the program were treated with a remarkable lack of caring. Yet, even for students who may be able succeed academically and get into college, as Bryan so aptly pointed out, many will be faced with the prospect of a mountain of college induced debt that will shackle their dreams for decades, and will limit their ability to lead the "beautiful lives" their parents expect.
     
      Yet, academic pressure is not the only thing our young adults must grapple with. Because our society has so narrowly defined success, too often, when young adults think about what it is to lead a beautiful life, the role models of pop culture are front and center. The altogether superficial lives of the Kardashians are paraded hourly before them on website after website, sending the message that wealth, the right clothing, the perfect friends, daily shopping sprees, unbounded conspicuous consumption, and a perfect body, makeup and hair, are what constitute a beautiful and meaningful life. The Kardashians are just one family in a cavalcade of celebrities whose lives are the yardstick by which our young people are asked to measure themselves; and often they are found wanting.  Alongside the celebrity culture is Madison Avenue, which foists on the whole public a standard of living which is beyond the reach of most people. Despite the unrealistic expectations set by modern advertisers, young people with little life experience, see these expectations as the norm for daily life, and again they are found wanting. Without a bottomless pit of money, they cannot hope to achieve this lifestyle. Yet the message remains: the beautiful life is one of constant consumption and self indulgence. The meaningful life is one in which self-centeredness is a virtue. What does one do, when thousand dollar handbags and five hundred dollar lunches are not even a remote possibility? What does one do when the perfect body is unattainable naturally or financially? It may sound absurd to the emotionally and spiritually mature individual, but this is the kind of stuff that is being thrust on our young people every day and it is crushing their spirits.
     When I look at the bigger picture, I see a society that has so narrowly defined what it is to lead a beautiful and meaningful life, that few can possibly attain it. The question needs to be raised as to whether such a narrow vision is healthy for our society as a whole, and our young people in particular. As a pastor, I believe that churches could have a critical role in helping young people move beyond the narrow definitions imposed by pop culture and Madison Avenue. However, we suffer from a credibility gap and a history of being concerned with the wrong things. First, is our credibility gap with millennials who have watched churches fight the culture wars; banishing one group after another from what should be the expanding circle of Christ's love. Church cultural warriors won many battles, but they lost a generation who refused to participate in the constant condemnation and refused to be condemned. Then, historically, as Bryan noted, "churches of yesteryear were about teaching the 'thou shalt nots' and my hope for the future of the church is that it could be a place,one source, of helping (especially its youth) figure out the lifelong puzzle of what 'thou shall' do with one's gifts and one's life."
     Yes, in many instances historically, churches have forgotten the Gospel and used the Bible as a cudgel to enforce selective morality. However, what if we could be a resource for helping youth "figure out the life long puzzle" of what "thou shall" do with one's gifts and life, as well as being the community that communicates that life is beautiful because we are each created in God's image, and that life can derive its meaning from our spiritual relationship with the Triune God?
      From my perspective, helping with that puzzle means first, offering the unconditional love of God in Jesus Christ which has so often been obscured by our own agendas. Imagine what might happen if churches gave up the cultural wars and simply took on the role of Jesus to the world by living his words, "Come to me, all you that are weary and carrying heavy burden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light." (Mathew 11:28-34) Envision the freedom that young people might experience if they knew that their lives aren't justified by material success, achievement, or being part of the latest trend, but are justified because God created them out of great love, and they are beautiful and holy in God's sight. Think how lives might be changed, and both anxiety and depression mitigated, if you and I, who believe that grace has been poured out upon us, and that the Holy Spirit intercedes for us "with sighs too deep for words" begin to share the grace we have received, and begin helping young people to receive the gift of the Spirit in their lives. What if we help young people see that their lives are much more than vessels to be filled with the illusions of Madison Avenue or merely jealous observers of pop culture icons by helping them discover the deep satisfaction that comes with sacrifice, caring, loving, building real friendships, being actually involved in life instead of observing virtually? What if we help them fill the spiritual emptiness left in the wake of conspicuous consumption and self indulgence, by sharing the joy of living for others? Can we help them reaffirm the essential value of their lives by being Jesus to them; welcoming them and sharing without judgment?
     We are facing a huge challenge, and there are no easy answers; no panaceas,  but by bitter experience,  I am aware that too many of our young people, unable to see themselves as living a beautiful and meaningful life, are giving up and contemplating taking their own lives. Suicide is a crisis of epidemic proportions, and while the mental health community can treat the symptoms, the more fundamental cause lies at the heart of our culture's messaging. How we change that messaging is a conversation that must take place. Many beautiful lives are depending on it.

Peace,
Pastor Peter

If you are having difficulty coping
the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is always available
1-800-273-TALK (8255)

Friday, May 15, 2015

The Experiment with Worship Continues

For several months now our congregation has been engaged in an experiment with Sunday morning worship. It's been exciting, frustrating, rewarding and interesting. Our hope is that at some point we will have developed worship that still lies within the context of a deeply spiritual liturgical experience (liturgy is the work of the people gathered for worship; it is also seen as the order in which worship happens), a worship experience that makes worship more accessible, and one that has integrity. Since many of our liturgical rituals have been learned over many lifetimes, it is challenging to sort through them to determine what is essential for the purpose of experimentation.
Early on, we decided that our basic framework would fall within the classic definition of Christian worship. Worship that included both Word and Sacrament was a must. Everything else in this experiment is still being determined. Weekly public confession, the Kyrie eleison (Lord have mercy), the Gloria in excelsis Deo (Glory to God in the highest), and a number of other parts of the worship ordo (ordo is the order in which the components of worship happen)  continue to get careful scrutiny in the context of what is happening in any given week.
What has been most interesting and challenging from my perspective is the way this experiment has changed both the way I preach and preside at the Eucharist. Gone is a pulpit or reading desk. Gone (most of the time) are preaching notes. Since we're not using the worship hymnal, the Eucharistic prayer (Anaphora) is modeled on Justin Martyr's Apology (When Christians were accused of being disloyal to the Roman Emperor it was Justin who wrote a long treatise or apology to the Emperor laying out what Christians believed and how those beliefs were practiced. This took place in the middle of the second century.), "There is then brought to the president of the brethren bread and a cup of wine ..., and he taking them, gives praise and glory to the Father of the universe, through the name of the Son and of the Holy Ghost, and offers thanks at considerable length for our being counted worthy to receive these things at His hands." (Apology, Ch. LXV) This has been a remarkable experience in that while I model the Eucharistic prayers upon the ancient prayers of the Church Fathers (Hippolytus, John Chrysostom, "Apostle Peter"), having to really think about the prayer each week, and relating it to the theme, the gospel, and the needs of the people, requires a fresh look at salvation history and its meaning for our own lives. And I have learned that Gordon Lathrop (one of my liturgical mentors) was correct when he said that freelancing the Eucharistic prayer must be approached with some fear and trepidation. After all, the Aanphora and anamnesis, as they have come down to us, are definitely inspired prayers. (Anaphora is a name for the Eucharistic prayer or the prayer over the bread and the wine, and the anamnesis is a form of bringing into the present the blessing of the bread and wine given by Jesus at the last supper.)
One of the goals we set for ourselves is that we will do our best to get away from asking people to handle a lot of paper, and we're not sure that having big screens is the answer either. Going down the big screen path makes us even more reliant on technology in order to worship. Somehow that seems counter intuitive. Our small worship team of Dave Kane, Diane Destrempe, Gretchen Lord, Alex Krantz, Karen Anderson and Russell Boynton, have worked hard to both bring new music to us (that is musically and theologically sound) and given new life to the some of the beautiful hymnody in the Evangelical Lutheran Worship book. I've come to appreciate what wonderful musicians Diane and Dave are. What I've discovered is that when Diane is given a little musical freedom, she really brings the music to life, and I've given Dave the moniker "Guitar Savant." Both are excellent musicians and they help all of us to be better than we are.  Although we are just beginning, it's been fun to see how Thursday evening rehearsals are expanding to include more people as enthusiasm and participation grow.
Another goal is to develop a worship experience that is user friendly, and welcoming to those with little experience of Christian worship. We try not to use what might be considered insider language, and even things as fundamental as the sharing of the peace are given a context. This is an elusive goal, because it is sometimes difficult to put oneself in the place of someone who has just begun attending worship in order to discern how worship is perceived, and while we do ask people, they tend to be overly kind. Within the goal is providing refreshment and fellowship prior to, and after worship. It is an attempt to make it easier for people to be with us. Marty Sink, our council president, and Marcia Journay, our council secretary do extra duty on Sunday mornings, arriving early to prepare. Yet, Jesus himself taught just how important hospitality is from inviting Zacchaeus to dine with him, to the feeding of the five thousand.
All in all, we're making progress and we're open to new ideas. If you would like to participate in any way, you are more than welcome. There is a place for everyone.

Blessings,
Pastor Peter

Friday, December 19, 2014

Christmas 2014

In the Gospel according to St. Luke, the birth of Jesus unfolds in three parts. First is the story of Mary and Joseph, caught up in Caesar Augustus' bid to get more accurate tax rolls; they must travel to Bethlehem, where "the time came for her to deliver her child. And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger..."
The second part of the story is the angel visitation to the shepherds in the nearby district of Bethlehem. Within the scene that unfolds before the shepherds, all of the illusory power of Rome was laid bare, and in Christ Incarnate, God shows us a new reality. From the moment the angel of the Lord appeared, the powers of the world, were  shaken and hope was born. The contrast is unavoidable.  The angel was surrounded by the glory of God, over/against the manufactured glory of the cult of Emperor Augustus. It was said of Augustus that he was divine, the son of god, the messiah of the world, and the author of peace, but this fame was safeguarded by a quarter of a million Roman soldiers. His divinity attested by a cult that had within its authority the power to remove all dissenters. The Pax Romana was not a dynamic unfolding of fellowship, but a peace enforced by a two edged sword. Augustus' power was not a divine gift, but was ripped away from every ruler Rome conquered. Obedience to Rome did not come out of loyalty to a democratic process, but was built on the fear born of tens of thousands of crucifixions.
Yet, the angel of the Lord was surrounded by glory, not a manufactured glory, but the glory of the creator of the universe, and while there is every reason to fear true divine authority, the angel immediately beckoned the shepherds to lay their fear aside. Then, the angel gave them genuine "good news" of a real messiah. This, in direct contradiction to the pretense of Augustus. And where would this messiah be found?  In Bethlehem, the House of Bread.
Born in the House of Bread, the child would become bread for the world, exposing the lie of Roman militarism and its insatiable appetite for wealth, power and prestige. Rome would try to take everything, the true Messiah would give himself away. In what kingly surroundings would this Savior be found? In bands of ordinary cloth; no kingly robes, no crown, no scepter, and his throne a manger set within a stable. His humble surroundings a reminder to the powers and principalities that even as his humble garments cannot hide his Sonship, their costly raiment cannot hide the fact that their power is a sham.
The third part of the story is the shepherds reaction to the good news.  "Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us."
They were not coerced or oppressed, but rather, invited to participate in the central event of human history...and that is good news. They (and we) are not bystanders, but instead are given a major role in the Incarnation. We are to be the people who share the good news, and not just in words, but in actions that demonstrate to the world that the birth of Jesus Christ changes everything.
One of the interesting things about the Christmas Carols we sing during Christmas is how so many of them are written in the present tense. "Silent Night, Holy Night, all is calm, all is bright,"..."Joy to the World the Lord is Come,"...What Child is this, who laid to rest, on Mary's lap is sleeping,"..."Still, Still, Still, it is the eve of our Savior's birth," all insert the birth of Jesus into the present. This is as it should be, for the Incarnation is an ongoing event, as Jesus' life death and resurrection continues to "break oppression and set the captive free."
But as our Greek Orthodox brothers and sisters remind us, "be attentive." The Messiah comes among us to challenge our preconceptions about militarism, human exploitation, environmental degradation, economic and political justice, and materialism. These are the garments which we have tended to have wrapped around us, not always by design, but enveloping  us, nevertheless. 
I suspect, that the shepherds also realized this. Their lives were not perfect, but still they returned "praising God for all they had heard and seen." Let us also praise God for all we have heard and seen, knowing that the Savior who challenges us to change, promises to be with us all along the way.

Merry Christmas Friends,

PB




Friday, February 21, 2014

Still Learning to Give Ground




It has been almost fifty years since the passing of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. A great many things have changed during that time, although there are moments when many of us realize that the deep wound to our national soul that is racism, has yet to be closed and is far from full healing.

One of the privileges of ministry, is that as a pastor, people sometimes share with me the  deep grief that comes with the loss of a child. From parents who have lost infants, to parents who have lost adult children, there is a grief and sense of loss that is inexplicable. It is as if the hopes for the future are cut off and there is no way to restore them. I've witnessed the healing and the heartache close up, but still cannot know with truth, what it is to lose a child.
Thus, I cannot begin to fathom what it must be like to live in a community, or be part of a people, whose children may die, or be killed simply because of the color of their skin. Yet, as the "stand your ground" laws have played out in Florida, anecdotal evidence suggests that this is exactly what is happening. 

 As with many of you, I have been working through the George Zimmerman trial verdict and most recently the Michael Dunn trial, and trying to determine how I should respond. As part of the process I have certainly paid a good deal of attention to what others have said, both to gain insight, and in some cases, avoid making the situation worse. Yet, there is no easy response, as there are no easy answers in the wake of these unsettling trials.
I am not Trayvon Martin or Justin Davis, and I could not have been, even if I were 35 or 40  years younger. I've lived my entire life under the protective dome of white privilege. I expect that I will be waited on in banks and restaurants, that my word will be believed, and that my rights will be respected.  This simply is not true of black people in America today.

In the Spring of 2001, while working on my D. Min. program,  I was driving with Pastor Benny Smith through the streets of Philadelphia. It was well after midnight as we had attended a late evening worship service that lasted for several hours. Pastor Smith was driving because he knew the streets of the city much better than I. There was little traffic when we stopped at a red traffic light, and we continued our conversation about the sermon we had just heard. When the light changed to green we proceeded. Within a few seconds Pastor Smith was being pulled over. When the officer approached the car, Pr. Smith placed his hands on the steering wheel "in plain sight," I recall him saying. The officer, asked for license and registration, all the while holding an intensely bright flashlight on Pr. Smith's face. The officer then stated that Pr. Smith had just run the traffic light. Pastor Smith, who was wearing a suit and tie, protested that the officer was mistaken, but the officer was adamant, and haughtily declared he had "no intention of arguing" with him. The officer's tone seemed unusually surly. It was then that I, who had gone relatively unnoticed said, "Officer, I believe you are mistaken,I watched the light turn green before we proceeded through it." I immediately got the flashlight in the face treatment Pr. Smith had received, but pale white face and clerical collar changed everything. Immediately the officer's tone changed. Perhaps he said, he had "been mistaken." Then, as quickly as he had come, he let us go and retreated to his car. Pastor Smith took the encounter in stride and told me that it was fairly common when he was out late at night to be pulled over by the police. What I realized afterward was that without even realizing it, I had invoked white privilege, and it prevailed.

I have been stopped several times by police, but I never experienced the tone of voice and the attitude that the officer used that night in Philadelphia. There was an inherent tone and attitude that seemed to say Pastor Smith must be guilty of something. Indeed, he was guilty of being black.

The experience of that night, and others along the way have made me acutely aware of being the beneficiary of white privilege, and yet, each episode has left me more troubled. What would have happened if I hadn't been with Pr. Smith? What if I also had been black? The way stand your ground laws are working out leaves me more troubled. Being unreasonably pulled over is injustice enough, but the taking of Trayvon Martin's and Justin Davis' lives seems the perfect storm of racial prejudice, vigilantism, and with poorly written statutes, state indemnified murder.
 
Listening to those who espouse the idea that race played no role in the death of Trayvon Martin or Justin Davis, I can only conclude that they are deaf to the historical undercurrents, and sometimes main current that inserted race into the bloodstream of American life. Race was the issue that the founding father's (save John Adam's and a few others) were loathe to deal with. Thomas Jefferson recognized that slavery was a blight on human freedom, but, could not move beyond his personal and total attachment to a life built on the sweat and tears of others.
Interestingly, as the issue of slavery moved steadily to the forefront of politics in the gathering storm of the 1850's, the system tended to justify itself on racial grounds, with the oft repeated mantra that black people were somehow inferior.  This view, reached its antebellum denouement in Chief Justice Roger Taney's majority opinion in the Dredd Scott case.
With the end of the Civil War, the death of Abraham Lincoln, the vindictiveness of northern radicals, as well as unrepentant south, the race question was never settled. Jim Crow became not just the law of the land in many states, but a way of life predicated on the perceived racial superiority of the white race. That perception even gave rise to the Ku Klux Klan and it was all to clear that despite the hopes of men like Lincoln and Frederick Douglas, Justice Taney's words were still a nightmare reality.  In the 1950's Brown vs. Board of Education signaled that black people could no longer accept Jim Crow as the law of the land, but it wasn't until the 1960's that civil disobedience and the foresight of Lyndon Johnson seemingly ushered in a new day.
In the years since, progress has been made, but with strides forward have come steps backward, and the election of Barak Obama set off a new round of racial demagoguery and fanned to life once again deep seated fears regarding race. (Ted Nugent's recent comment calling the President a "subhuman mongrel" is ample evidence of the continuing fear.) As a result, we have witnessed efforts to curtail voting rights, require identification to prevent non existent voting abuse,and the passing and uneven enforcement of "stand your ground" laws, which from my perspective, seem to be playing out like a modern day version of lynching. Florida's law includes the following: 

A person is justified in using force except deadly force, against another when and to the extent that the person reasonably believes that such conduct is necessary to defend himself or herself or another against the other's imminent use of unlawful force. However a person is justified in the use of deadly force and does not have a duty to retreat if:
1. He or she reasonably believes that such force is necessary to prevent imminent death or great bodily harm to himself or herself or another or to prevent the imminent commission of a forcible felony; or
2. Under those circumstances permitted pursuant to s. 776.013.(home defense) 

In the eighteenth chapter of the Gospel of John having washed his disciples feet, Jesus went with his disciples across the Kidron valley to the the Garden of Gethsemane on the Mount of Olives. Once there, he encountered Judas, who had "brought a detachment
of soldiers together with police from the chief priests and the Pharisees, and they came there with lanterns and torches and weapons." A dialogue ensued in which Jesus established his heavenly authority (when he said, "I am he," they "stepped back and fell to the ground"), but "Simon Peter, who had a sword, drew it, struck the high priest's slave, and cut off his right ear." In a moment Jesus told Peter, "Put your sword back into its sheath."

Some scholars believe that it was Judas' hope that Jesus would stand his ground. Not satisfied with the direction Jesus seemed to be going, Judas had hoped that in a real confrontation, Jesus would assert his full authority as the Son of God, that he would unleash the wrath of God and send the soldiers fleeing and take his rightful place on the throne most recently occupied by Herod. Standing his ground, he would confront deadly force, with a greater deadly force and triumph over all of his enemies. However, Jesus decision to give ground in the garden, and the entire Passion is Jesus rejection of the culture of violence of which "stand your ground in the latest example."  The Son of God, the one human being who had the right to stand his ground let himself be taken for the sake of humanity and all creation. Those who by faith claim the cross, have this as their heritage; a resounding no to the violent choice, and it is a heritage we must claim if the violence incited by "stand your ground" is going to be mitigated.

Yes, the laws must be changed, but it will not be by legislation that racism is purged from our national life. You and I must claim our heritage and in whatever ways present themselves, we have to set an example. As Jesus did at Gethsemane, we have to lay aside our fears and learn to embrace the future into which God is beckoning us. I'm not naive, this race virus in our bloodstream has been with us a long time, and will take time to purge; the future will not be trouble free.  I don't have the answers, but at least we can do this: claim our heritage, our baptismal birthright and take seriously Jesus words, "whatsoever you did to these the least of my brothers and sisters, you did to me." It took the death and resurrection of Jesus for his disciples to put aside their fears and embrace a new way of living. His life, death and resurrection should be enough to change our hearts as well.

Peace,

Pastor Peter

 





Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Gun Violence and Faith




It has been almost a month, but the images seared into our minds in the days before Christmas 2012 have yet to fade. Perhaps they never will, perhaps they should not. Perhaps a society whose gun control laws are the most lax in the western world, needs to live with the images of pain and suffering and bereavement a while longer. Perhaps the searing memories will eventually awaken us from our moral slumber and we will discover that the lives of our brothers, sisters, parents, children and friends are more important than the gun industry’s right to sell firearms to everyone, no matter how unstable or unqualified, and that the second amendment to the U.S. Constitution is not the cornerstone of our freedom. Perhaps it is time for us to learn the freedom of faith.
Strangely, when looking for sources or church social statements on gun violence and gun control, I found them lacking. There are statements on sexuality, babies, children, justice, and just war, but the Church has been largely silent on the issue of guns and gun violence.  Yet, Jesus' words, his journey to Jerusalem, the image of the lamb standing over and against the oppressive power of Rome, his admonition to his disciples in the Garden of Gethsemane, his exhortation to turn the other cheek, and walk the extra mile, are unambiguous testimony that violence is not an acceptable response to violence; that arming ourselves with fists, clubs, swords and guns can never lead to the peace we so desire for our lives.  Nonviolence and loving our enemy are at the center of Jesus’ Gospel.
I suspect that one of the reasons for the lack of attention to the epidemic of gun violence in our culture is that the purveyors of rapture theology and its voyeuristic glorification of violence and war cannot escape the paradox of Jesus message and their own statements.  The popularity of the books by LaHaye and Jenkins among evangelical Christians suggests that many have bought into the survivalist mentality expressed in the books. As a result, these Christians believe they must arm themselves for the end times, and that any attempt to disenfranchise them of their right to bear arms is a sign that the devil and the end is near. However, rapture theology is not part of Roman Catholicism, Anglicanism, mainline Protestantism, or the Orthodox tradition, and yet little has been written or spoken by any of these major Christian Churches.
Without saying it directly, however, the Church did make a statement within the very context of the Newtown, CT tragedy. While some outlying religious leaders were quick to lay the tragedy at the feet of those who had taken prayer out of schools or allowed LGBT people marriage equality, local pastors, priests, rabbis and Imams gathered around the victims’ families to offer love’s unconditional support, and in so doing they both lifted up the victims and gave powerful testimony to the simple truth that violence cannot overcome the power of God’s love, so graciously poured out into the lives of every human being.
Early Christians lived in violent times. The Roman Empire earmarked them for extinction. There is hardly a child who hasn’t heard the stories of Christians being fed to the lions. In response did the early Christians create personal arsenals of knives and spears? Did they create a culture among themselves that sought to conquer violence with violence? Did they defend their rights by arming themselves with the latest in high tech weaponry?  No, they did as the rabbis, imams, pastors, and priests did in Newtown. They cared for one another and for their neighbors in very public and open ways and in private prayer and encouragement. They prayed with the bereaved, they broke bread with the broken hearted, they shared the Laments and Psalms, they offered communion  (koinonia) in order to heal the community, and throughout the church, they clung to the vision of Jesus the lamb who stood against the purveyors of violence, prayed for his persecutors, and sacrificed his life for the sake of the world. And in doing this they found joy.
The shootings in Newtown, CT happened in the midst of the preparations many of us were making for the Christian celebration of the Nativity, as well as the secular celebration, which, at the very least celebrates “peace and good will to all.”  The juxtaposition of such evil and violence to the celebration of the incarnation deepened the intensity of the pain. I was reminded of the words of Jeremiah, quoted in Matthew, “A voice was heard in Ramah, wailing and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be consoled, because they were no more.” In some sense, the Newtown tragedy was a modern reflection of Herod’s murder of the Innocents. In the midst of celebration and blessing the power of evil and violence wreaked vengeance. From the beginning of his earthly life, Jesus was confronted with the choice between violence and love, and though he had legions of angels who would come to defend him (Mt. 26.53), he chose to confront violence with self sacrificing love.
In the sixth chapter of the book of Revelation we read, “Now I saw when the Lamb opened one of the seven seals, and I heard one of the four living creatures say, as with a voice of thunder, ‘Come!’ And I saw, and behold, a white horse, and its rider had a bow; and a crown was given to him, and he went out conquering and to conquer.” Does this verse mean that in our own age, as a people waiting with hope for Christ’s return that we also need to turn to violence in hope of conquering violence? Certainly not if the broad sweep of the Gospels, Letters, and Revelation are considered. Chapter twelve of Revelation declares of God’s people that, “They have conquered by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony, for they did not cling to life in the face of death.”  Being disciples of Jesus, we do not achieve victory by violence or shedding the blood of others, but by identifying fully with the blood of Jesus that was shed when he was crucified. In addition, disciples are to conquer by our testimony; i.e., by our willingness to stand in the center of violence and remain as non violent as Jesus remained before the Romans.
What the imagery of these verses call into question is whether Christians can cling to both their guns and their faith. Let’s not be silly here. We’re not talking about anyone’s right to hunt, or sport shooting, we’re talking about the belief that guns will deliver us from evil. John, the writer of Revelation did not believe so; his book is clear testimony against our violent tendencies. Jesus did not think so either. His willingness to die on the cross, his own blood offered up against violence, and the testimony of his mouth is what (in the book of Revelation) defeats evil and violence.
So, while Christians and non Christians seem to be arming themselves to the teeth in the aftermath of the Newtown massacre, and the possibility of tighter gun control, I will continue to trust in the testimony of Jesus own life, death and Resurrection. I will not succumb to the message that arming our citizens with guns will lead to the defeat of the bad guys in our society.  Statistics and history have already destroyed that message. I also refuse to give into the notion that it is too late, that nothing can be done. 
It is said of Martin Luther that if he knew the world was going to end tomorrow, he would go out and plant a tree. I hope to do the same. It is time to plant the seeds of a less violent society. It is time to ask what will have precedence in our lives when our “rights” clash with our faith. It is time to fathom what St. Paul means when he says, “’All things are lawful for me,’ but not all things are helpful. ‘All things are lawful for me,’ but I will not be enslaved by anything.”  It may be a long while before we see the results of any efforts to bring gun violence under control. As a society we have bought into the vision of violence overcoming violence. It will take a long time and a lot of work before that vision fades. But perhaps when it does begin to fade, the images of Newtown will begin to fade. With inherent sadness I must say that perhaps it is justice, that the Newtown images will remain fresh until we adopt a less violent vision,-- and they will do so not because we have good memories, but we will live them over and again in other places.
Even as we begin a new year, and the season of Epiphany has just begun, we look to the Resurrection. The Lamb has overcome the lion, and love wins.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Thanksgiving 2012

As I was finishing up gathering leaves a few weeks ago, under a bright blue October sky,  I stopped to contemplate the scene. As the annual spectacle played out, I could not help but marvel and take delight in the particular surprises of this years autumnal offerings. The woods were on fire with color this year and the smells, at least on that day stirred up memories of other autumns and people associated with them.
People began to flood into my memory. People from childhood, from high school and college, people I haven't seen in decades, people who have long since passed away, and people I've met only recently. In my memory I was walking down Swain Avenue in Meriden, CT, on the middle leg of a 20 mile CROP hunger walk. It was autumn, and the day was equally crisp and bright. That was a great day. So many people cared. (Modern crop walks seem to be about 5k, kids were tougher back then.) That vision gave way to another autumn; mushroom hunting in the woods near Merimere Resevoir with my brothers and friends. I was willing to join in the hunt, but I confess to a lack of confidence when it came to eating our finds. Then I was at Pacific Lutheran University, in Tingelstad Hall on the fifth floor, sitting in the window sill, looking at the afternoon sun turning the snow fields of Mt. Rainier bright orange. Autumn images kept coming. There was Mt. Monadnock with a group of youth from Pilgrim Lutheran Church on a warm autumn day, and a golden view of the Great Gulf  from the top of Mt. Washington with Paula, and then I was riding my bike up to the summit of Mt. Greylock. The  sound of the wind in the trees was haunting and I recalled that the Mahicans revered the mountain and believed it was holy ground. (The five state view was worth the ride that day.)
Amid the flood of autumn memories, it is the people I remember the most. My grandfather Brenner and his friend Herman Gritz came to mind, crisp autumn air blowing in the doors of the church on Sunday morning as they ushered together. Walking with Prs. Fred McGee and Jack Kidder in the state forest in Colebrook, CT. Fishing on Long Pond in Maine with my brother, Gary (his ink and watercolor of the small fishing camp graces our fireplace mantel). Then there was fishing for Bluefish aboard the Hellcat on a choppy fall day off of Block Island. Paula and I were dating, and she learned a whole new language from the seasick fishermen; we caught some nice Bluefish too. Next, I was in Paula's parent's backyard watching young sons Stefen and Daniel "help" their grandfather rake leaves; and from there, my mind wandered to the Cumberland County (ME) fair. Grandparents, parents and children watching the Royal Canadian Mounties perform their equestrian show, and then over to the John Deere tractors. (Although both of Paula's parents have passed, I am sure our boys will carry their memories all their days.) Then I'm with my son Daniel, bushwhacking up Widow Whites peak (near Jiminy Peak in the Berkshires) exploring for cave formations. (Dan is a caver.) In the blink of an eye I'm at Immanuel Lutheran Church 40 years ago in the old parish building, another fall day. Food is being prepared. Ernie and Bettie Garbe are in the kitchen, as are Charlie and Charlotte Gardinier. There are cartons of milk from Sievert's Dairy Farm in the kitchen. Ken Ritchie comes to mind with a whole Confirmation Class of faces. Now I'm with Paula again, and we're hiking the trail toward the summit of Sleeping Giant state park. Goldenyellow leaves carpet the ground. We had driven up from Yale Divinity School for some relaxation...
The sound of a truck finally stirred me from contemplation and it was time to finish gathering up the leaves.
Yet, I am so thankful for the vision; for the wonderful memories of times and seasons gone by, for the faces of friends I haven't seen in years, who have had their own influence on my life, for laughter and love shared, for once in lifetime moments that cannot be re created, but will be remembered till I can't remember anymore. For parents and grandparents and the blessing of my beautiful Paula and our children, for harvest banquets that are cherished more with each passing year. O God, how marvelous are the works of your hands. How blessed are the thoughts you stir, the times you create, the love you pour out, and the memories with which you bless us. My heart is grateful; make it more so.
I hope each of you discovers a thousand reasons to be grateful and give thanks as you contemplate the seasons of your own lives.

Thanksgiving blessings to all, and

Peace.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Choices



A Journey of Years

In a previous blog I shared that the congregation I serve is a caring and loving place that accepts all people as they are, and that I, as a pastor, and as a person, would rather err on the side of grace. Shortly after I wrote that piece and posted it, my words were put to the test. A gay couple who have been vital members of the congregation for years asked me to preside at their wedding here in New Hampshire (a gay marriage state). I responded immediately by saying that indeed, I would perform their wedding.

My decision is the end result of many years of reading scripture, meditation, prayer, and conversation with trusted friends, family, and colleagues. My decision was certainly not immediate. As little as two years ago, I did not see myself ever presiding at a gay wedding. I was one who advocated that prior to sanctioning LGBT weddings, the Church should revisit the Doctrine of Creation, and clearly espouse a justification for reinterpreting a long held doctrine. Even though the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America opened the door to LGBT pastors in committed relationships, and the possibility of weddings in 2009, to date, no rite exists as for such a practice, so that those of us who choose to do such a wedding are largely on our own (and could face discipline).

I have come to the conclusion (as many others before me I suppose) that much of our visceral reaction to homosexuality has to do with its threat to patriarchal society in general, and to male dignity in particular. Despite a few passages in the Levitical code found in Exodus and a few sentences written by St. Paul, which we take largely out of context, the Scriptures do not create hostility to homosexuality. It has been hostility to homosexuality that has all to often prompted Christians to eisogete into the Scriptures our own fundamental prejudice and fear. Let's be clear; Christians have long since banished most of the Levitical code with the understanding that the code's concerns (for example the ban on eating shellfish which had more to do with the order of creation than sin or cleanliness) are not concerns that can be carried into the modern world.  In most areas of our lives, my Lutheran brothers and sisters have moved beyond biblical literalism. No one is suggesting we turn the clock back to accept slavery, and most of us long ago acknowledged the tremendous contributions to the life of the church brought about by the ordination of women. Yet, the prohibitions against homosexual activity have remained.

One can certainly understand ancient Israel's prohibition of homosexual activity. The twelve tribes were infinitesimally small in comparison with the nations that surrounded them. Every body, every birth counted. Having children was a sacred national duty, and failure to participate was a treasonous abomination. Thus, barren women were much to be pitied and held in contempt, and homosexual activity was proscribed.

For me it has come down to this: I have come to realize that it is no longer my my task as a person or a pastor to try any longer to reconcile homosexuality with scriptural passages that condemn it (that work has been more than accomplished by more worthy scholars), but how to reconcile the continuing persecution, punishment and rejection of LGBT people with the love of Christ, and the Doctrine of Justification.  More and more I have lived through it and realized the disconnect.  I have written of the Westboro church on a previous occasion, but their hatred and hostility toward the LGBT community further clarified a moral dilemma. How can a church, or an individual, bear witness to the ever widening circle of Christ's love as witnessed by the Gospels, Acts, and the letters of Peter, John and Paul (even considering Paul's prohibition of unnatural relations) and espouse such hatred for any group of people? The two positions are irreconcilable. We're left with discerning what the norm is for Christian life. In order to do this, we move beyond visceral reactions, we move beyond what is "natural" or acceptable, we look beyond the law that condemns us, to the heart of faith: the love of God in the Incarnate Lord Jesus Christ that saves. The Gospel.

Everyone is fond of quoting John 3: 16, "For God so loved the world...," but alongside this we can lay 1 John 4:17-21, "Those who say, 'I love God,' and hate their brothers and sisters, are liars; for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen. The commandment we have from Jesus is this; those who love God must love their brothers and sisters also." The church has not always carried out this commandment, and while we can find fault with some on the Christian right (as it is known), the wider church throughout history has sown the seeds of disrespect and hatred for LGBT people, in such a way, that it should hardly surprise anyone that some people have chosen to use church teaching as the foundation to legitimize violence and hatred. I must admit, that over the past several years, I have found myself wondering how much responsibility the church must bear; how much responsibility I must bear for the epidemic of young gay and lesbian people who have committed suicide. We have, all too often, by our silence, given tacit approval to a heinous injustice. I have also, along with many of you heard the mantra that God "hates the sin" but "loves the sinner." Unfortunately, those who have been beaten, abused and even murdered, did not receive the ministrations of individuals acting in the name of a loving God.

In the end, I have come to the conclusion that if my ministry is going to have any integrity, if I am going to be any kind of vessel of the faith of the church, if I am going to exhibit any of the qualities in my life that do honor to the love of Christ that has been poured out so gracefully to me, --someone's sexual orientation cannot matter. Our relationships should be judged by their inner worth, by their spiritual breadth and depth, and not by the accidents (in the theological sense) of sexuality. There is nothing in Scripture that confines love; life giving and life affirming love, to the heterosexual community. It is God's own possession bestowed on all.

As intimated above, The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, the church in which I am ordained moved beyond biblical literalism a long time ago (a discussion of literalism must be reserved for another day). Is there anyone eschewing pork these days? Historically, this church has played a significant role in the anti slavery movement, and we moved far beyond literalism with the ordination of women. It is, in my humble estimation, long past time that we did so for the LGBT community.

"And what does the Lord require of you but to do justice..." (Micah  6:8)
Walter Brueggmann wrote, "Justice is to sort out what belongs to whom, and to return it to them."
Justice redefines the world. To do justice is to intervene in the workings of the powers and principalities of the world as Moses did with Pharaoh when he insisted on freedom for the Hebrew slaves. Justice is Nathan standing before King David and protesting David's murder of Uriah the Hittite. Justice is Elijah calling out Ahab and Jezebel for killing Naboth and stealing his vineyard. Justice is Jesus welcoming to the table tax collectors and sinners. Justice is Jesus at the well of Sychar welcoming a lost child of God back into the community. Justice may be our realization that Scripture does not create hostility to homosexuality, but that our hostility to homosexuals has been projected onto Scripture. Justice is saying that we cannot qualify the love of Christ poured into the human heart. Justice may be recognizing again, for another group of people, that what God has made clean, we may not call unclean. Justice may be saying to these people as well, "what God has joined together let no one put asunder."

I will be sharing more as time goes on.

Peace,

Pastor Boehringer