Tuesday, December 23, 2014

O Emmanuel/O God with Us

A.Hanson, 2012
O Emmanuel, you bring hope for all people: Come and teach us the way of love, O Gracious God. 

In my role as public minister, I interact with many people who believe that faith in something greater than themselves is foolish. But I guess that in spite of how foolish it might seem, I would rather have hope than despair for our world.

I see many tough and terrible things, but I also see many beautiful and redeeming things.  I believe in a God that brings hope, despite all evidence to the contrary, because I do see bits of Gospel and hope and goodness in the midst of all the brokenness.

Blessings on your Christmas season!

Monday, December 22, 2014

O Rex Gentium/O King of Nations

A.Hanson, 2009. 
O hope of all nations, and their desire, you are the foundation, you are that which makes two into one: Come and save the creature whom you have fashioned from clay. 

I think a lot about human beings as creatures in my work in the hospital.  I see the most basic animalistic functions happen: screams of pain, gasping for breath, bleeding.

I have never thought about asking God to "save the creature whom you have fashioned from clay", because that slides too close to asking for a miracle.  But as I reflect on this Advent, I wonder if "saving" is much bigger than I might imagine. Saving might mean just saving from this life. It could mean death.  I need to sit with this idea a little more.

O Rex Gentium, O King of Nations, you created us from the beginning of all that is. Come and save us. O Rex Gentium, O King of Nations. Come.

Sunday, December 21, 2014

Why I love my job…and hate it too.

A.Hanson, 2013
I love my job as a hospital chaplain. I get to be present with God's beloved people at all stages of their lives.  I get to be present at the beginning, middles, and ends of so many lives. 

I hate my job too.  I will meet you at the doors of the Emergency Department and escort you to a windowless room that is euphemistically called the "Compassion Room" and tell you that I will find the doctor to speak with you. To deliver the horrible news that you never imagined. 

I love my job because I get to hold the presence of the holy in unimaginable situations.  But I also hate my job because I will tell you that I was standing alongside your loved one praying when they coded and were pronounced dead in a sterile trauma room. I hate this because you should have been the one who stood with them, not me. 

I love my job because I get to hear so many stories of love and families and travel and adventures. I get to be a part of your life for a little bit of time, and that is such an honor.  

But I hate my job because some of the most intimate moments of your life are invaded by strangers.  By chaplains and social workers and nurses and doctors, and we are all kind, but you never wanted to see us. Not now. 

I love my job because I drive away from the hospital at night and I often cry.  I shed tears because of the injustice of it all.  Because of the beauty of your life or death. Because I grieve along with you.  But I hate my job because while your entire world changed in an instant, I have an extremely skewed sense of what is normal, and I know that tomorrow will hold another tragedy and another death and another trauma for another family.  And I will cry alongside them too. 

I love my job because I will sit with you in the darkest moments of your life.  I will hold your hand and walk with you.  I will provide you with information and guidance about things you never wanted to know.  And I do so because I love you even though I have not met you. 

I hate my job because I have to talk with you about mortuaries and organ and tissue donation and coroners and final conversations to have with your loved one and letting go. I hate my job because sometimes I have to be the one to tell you that it is time to leave the hospital because this is the start of a new normal. Even though you wish that the world could stop and you could freeze this moment of time forever.  

I love my job because I am truly working in the midst of the world and in the trenches where God can be found. And I get to proclaim with my pastoral presence and comforting touch and gentle words that God is here and death is not the end.  And that you can borrow the strength of a merciful God when it feels like you cannot go on. 

But I hate my job because I have the same questions that you do.  "How could God let this happen?"  "Why didn't God heal them?"  "Where is the justice?"  

But I love my job because I promise to sit with you and go with you wherever you need to go. I am not afraid of your pain or illness or body fluids or trauma.  I love my job because it is my calling. 

O Oriens/O Rising Dawn

A.Hanson, 2014
O Rising Dawn, brightness of the light eternal, sun of compassion: come and enlighten us, we who sit in darkness and without life. 

I work a lot of overnight shifts at the hospital where I am a chaplain.  The night always stretches before me with some sense of foreboding. Traumas take on a life of their own during the night.  There is such a breath of relief that comes for everyone at dawn.  For the patients, it is relief that they have survived to see a new day.  For the staff, it is relief that they have survived another shift and can rest safely at home.

I think this breath of relief captures a bit of the explanation of Christ as Rising Dawn.  A healing light that bathes a darkened world after many hours of tense darkness.

O Oriens, O Rising Dawn, with gentle light you reveal that which the darkness hides.  Enlighten us from the darkness we hold within ourselves, from the darkness that shadows our world. O Oriens, O Rising Dawn.  Come.

Saturday, December 20, 2014

O Clavis David/O Key of David

O Key of David, and scepter of the house of Israel; you reveal and you do not hide; you close and do not open: come and deliver us from the chains of our prisons, we who sit in darkness and without life. 

This particular year, this cry to "come and deliver us from the chains of our prisons, we who sit in darkness and without life" feels particularly poignant.  Advent 2014 shall forever be remembered with images of tear gas and protests on the streets of Ferguson, MO, with a garish "Season's Greetings" sign glowing overhead. Images of thousands marching for change. Images of so much pain burned into our memories.

This year there is really nothing to say except, "O Come, O Come Immanuel."

O Clavis David, O Key of David, deliver us.  Unbind us from the prisons of our world.  Sit with us in our darkness.  Free us from ourselves.  O Clavis David, O Key of David, Come.

Friday, December 19, 2014

O Radix Jesse/O Root of Jesse

A.Hanson, 2012
O Root of Jesse, you stand as a sign to the people; before you leaders shall keep silent, nations shall be reverent: come to free us, and do not delay. 

Root of Jesse is one of the weirder statements about the nature of Christ.  It basically says that Christ comes from a royal lineage, and Christ's coming has been foretold.

What strikes me about this Antiphon is the command, "Come to free us, and do not delay." What I love about the prophetic literature is God's people holding God to God's promises. This feels particularly pertinent today.

O Root of Jesse, free us and do not delay.  Be a leader of peace in a world of violence. O Radix Jesse, O Root of Jesse, come.

Thursday, December 18, 2014

O Adonai/O Lord

A.Hanson, 2012 
O Lord, leader of the House of Israel, you appeared to Moses in the fire of a burning bush; On Mount Sinai you gave us your wisdom: with outstretched arm, come and redeem us. 

I think culturally we rebel against the idea of a Lord.  Adonai, or Lord, in Hebrew has connotations of a ruler and an omniscient being that Americans are uncomfortable with.  But it's not as if we do not have other lords or other things that rule over us.  We have made money our lord.  We have made success or career or education our lord.

What would happen if we surrendered to the Lord of Israel?  To the gentle wisdom of God?

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

O Sapientia/O Wisdom

A.Hanson, 2013
O Wisdom, you come from the mouth of the most high, and reach from one end of the earth to the other, mightily and sweetly ordering all things: come, teach us the way of wisdom.

In this particular season of Advent, we seem to have an abundance of chaos in our world. The senseless racism of our country has been made abundantly clear, despite all attempts to contain it, schoolchildren are dying in Peshawar, Pakistan, Ebola rages in Africa.

O God of Wisdom, you hold the earth in your hands.  Help us to know that you know all things and you order all things.  Help us to rest in your wisdom.  Even when it all seems so senseless.  O Sapientia, O Wisdom.  Come.

O Antiphons

A.Hanson, 2014
The O Antiphons are a set of sung refrains that are used at Vespers during the last seven days of Advent.

They get this unusual name because each refrain begins with "O" and some name of the Messiah. They pertain to some prophecy from Isaiah.

Also, they are beautiful.  So please join with me in my Advent preparation with the O Antiphons.

Friday, December 12, 2014

Sex and the Seminarian

Let's talk about sex.  Or more appropriately, sexuality.  But "Sex and the Seminarian" was a catchier title for this blog post.  Yeah, it's uncomfortable.  I am hoping it doesn't get me called before my bishop, but I sort of feel compelled to reflect upon this important issue.

I read a post this morning from the Fidelia's Sisters blog called "Holy Sexuality", which was written anonymously, which says something about this whole issue, reflecting on sexuality, shame, and leaders of the church.  So I am not writing mine anonymously.

The author reflects on how entering seminary and the ordination process felt like "going back in time" with regards to standards of morality.  The author does not specify her denomination, but I will compare it with my tradition, the ELCA.

At the beginning of candidacy, candidates are asked to read and sign the document "Visions and Expectations" which outlines standards of conduct for rostered leaders.

With regards to sex, the document says the following (From the ELCA social statement on human sexuality): "It is in marriage that the highest degrees of physical intimacy are matched with and protected by the highest levels of binding commitment, including legal protection. It is in marriage that public promises of lifetime commitment can create the foundation for trust, intimacy, and safety."  

And pertaining to single people, "Single ordained ministers are expected to live a chaste life, holy in body and spirit, honoring the single life, and working for the good of all."

And for places that do not provide for same gender marriage, the ELCA says this: "An ordained minister who is in a publicly accountable lifelong, monogamous same-gender relationship is expected to live in fidelity to his or her partner, giving expression to sexual intimacy within a publicly accountable relationship that is mutual, chaste, and faithful." 

To summarize this document, sexual intimacy belongs within the bounds of marriage or a committed legal relationship.  When I started seminary, a friend told me  (who shall remain nameless for their own protection) that "You can be celibate or you can be smart."  Meaning, don't get caught.

I guess I would like to boldly ask for choices beyond celibacy or secrecy for seminarians and clergy people.  How about we invite a conversation about healthy sexuality? The Christian Church has shamed sexuality (particularly that of women) for far too long.  Sex was seen as merely procreative and otherwise, just plain icky. By cloaking sexuality within a cloud of secrecy, we open ourselves up to all sorts of unhealthy attitudes.

Sexuality was created by God for the mutual intimacy and consolation of both partners, so let's start there as a place of conversation.  It can be a healthy (and holy) expression of what it means to be created beings. By moving sexuality out of the shroud of secrecy, we also can be important participants in the societal conversation regarding sexual consent.  The Church can be an important voice in helping to uphold the dignity and worth of all people by encouraging open and honest communication about sex.  By making sex shameful in the eyes of the church, we further victimize those who have been hurt.

Seminarians have sex.  Clergy people have sex.  Some of them are married.  Some of them are not. We need to acknowledge that sexual intimacy is a healthy expression of what it is to be human and that our desire for closeness with another is a good gift from God.  I do think it is possible to have a healthy, faithful expression of sexuality within a relationship that does not have the bounds of marriage. 

By holding clergypeople to these standards (which I have described as "Puritanical" on some days), we set up a boundary between ourselves and the rest of the world.  Our people, our parishioners, do not wait for marriage to have sex or to live together. I think that it is possible for clergy to take the lead in modeling healthy, mature, faithful, respectful relationships just like we model sabbath and discipleship and being in community with one another. 

And to my detractors who feel like this is just me wanting to do whatever I want, I concede there might be some measure of truth to that argument, but mostly I just want the sexual shaming in our world to stop. Stop the shaming.  Open doors for communication and consent and faithful expressions of desire.  

Stop using the argument of "Biblical Marriage" because that does not mean just one thing in the Bible (One man and his entire harem?  One man, one wife, and the wife's servant?), and it certainly does not mean what we think it means for us now. 

Let's boldly, prophetically, and faithfully create a new narrative around sex.  Not just for clergy and seminarians, but for all people. Let's make it one of respect and openness, not secrecy and sneaking around.  Let's make it one of faithfulness to God and one another, not one of dishonesty. Let's contribute positively to the discussion around consent for sexual intimacy.  Let's contribute positively to the discussion around dismantling heterosexual privilege. 

I was accused of being too optimistic in discussing this on social media this morning. Maybe I am.  But I also know that nothing will change if someone doesn't hold hope for it to be different.

Monday, December 01, 2014

Chaplains as Missional Leaders

One of the ELCA buzzwords of the moment is "Missional", meaning to attend to the people of God outside the walls of the church and intentionality in word and deed with attention to one's context and culture. 

About a year ago I wrote an approval essay using an ELCA prompt that discussed six characteristics that are identified in missional leaders.   
These characteristics are:
1. Rooted in the presence and activity of the Triune God
2. Engage the way of the cross
3. Relate theology with culture and context
4. Evangelize
5. Cultivate Christian community and discipleship
6. Equip and send disciples into the world 

The ELCA, on their Specialized Pastoral Care page , states that these ministries are missional by nature, in that they, "embody the church's initiative to minister to people who are ill, imprisoned, elderly, troubled, conflicted, and afflicted."  We hear this call all over in scripture. I am going to dig a bit deeper into my own work as a chaplain to explore how I am a missional leader. 

1. Rooted in the presence and activity of the Triune God
      I depend intimately on the power of God to do the work that I am called to do each day. I pray for guidance each morning, I pray a quick silent prayer each time prior to praying with a patient, saying, "God, let my words be what you would have them be" and I pray at night that God would hold the prayers and concerns of each of my patients, and also hold me as I rest in God's arms for the rejuvenation that I need to do my work again the next day. 
     I also get the privilege of eavesdropping on God's work in the world.  I see mysterious works of healing every day, but I also see situations where healing is not possible and people surrender themselves to God. My job as a chaplain is to encourage the beautiful and broken people of God to testify to where they see God at work in their lives.  I can proclaim this work also. 

2. Engage the way of the cross
     If we confess that the way of the cross is that God is most clearly seen in suffering, and knows what it means to suffer, and bears with humanity in its suffering also, I cannot think of a more hopeful thing to proclaim in chaplaincy ministry in a hospital. My own ministry of accompaniment in suffering, because I cannot heal illness or injury, is representative of Christ's ministry of accompaniment. Many of my patient's hope fervently for healing and cures that never come from God. And the only hope that I can offer is that they are not alone in their suffering.  
    Another aspect of the way of the cross that I frequently encounter in my work are patients and their loved ones who are crossing the threshold from life to death. I am in a unique position to have the ability to proclaim (if this is meaningful for this particular patient and family) that death does not have the final word.  It feels like the end of the world, and in many ways it is, as a family walks out of a hospital without the loved one that they entered with, but death is not the end.  Recently, I sat with a woman whose husband was declared brain dead.  She found comfort in the idea that her goodbye was not a goodbye, but rather a "see you later."  

3. Relate theology with culture and context 
     This is something that I do frequently. The hospital is a highly specific context. It is not a church, but it is still a place for proclamation and confession. My work is highly sensitive, and involves gently seeking how patients view God and prayer and faith in their own culture and context.  Then I meet them where they are.  This is one of the things that chaplains do best, because to act like a bull in a china shop with your own theology, bowling over people in their own time of need to confess your own convictions is entirely inappropriate in a hospital setting. 

4. Evangelize
     This is one that is a little more difficult in a hospital setting, probably because of the normative understanding that evangelizing means to share your faith with people in the world with the intent of encouraging them to convert to your faith or join your church. But if you look at evangelization in its original Greek, euangelion, which means simply "good news", I participate in plenty of this in the hospital. I rejoice with patients who have received good news about their diagnosis or surgery. I pray and mourn with people who watch their loved ones die, yet as these families rejoice that their loved ones are in heaven, I too give thanks for the work of Christ in this way. I also share aspects of my own theology and faith when asked. 

5. Cultivate Christian community and discipleship
    Part of my work as a chaplain is to assist patients in meeting their spiritual and emotional needs in the hospital.  Sometimes this means calling a pastor from their specific denomination or church to visit.  Sometimes it means facilitating a specific religious rite, sometimes it means providing a Bible or prayer shawl, or rosary or menorah. A huge part of my work as a chaplain is to encourage patients to name, claim, and enact religious and spiritual practices that provide comfort to them.  This is a way of cultivating discipleship. 

6. Equip and send disciples into the world 
    As explored above, much of my work involves accompanying the patient as they dig deeply into their own beliefs and spiritual practices. I am present for some of the most heart-rending and raw moments that this world can offer.  Part of my work is to help the people of God to walk forward into a "new normal."  Recently I spent several hours with a patient who was driving the car in an accident that caused her sister's death. She asked, "What does God want me to do now?"  And I didn't have any answer except, to put one foot in front of the other and keep on living life the best way that she knew how. I also spent a number of hours with a patient who was diagnosed with cancer after she thought she had appendicitis. I was able to help her engage prayer practices and other forms of discipleship to her prepare her to face many months of treatment ahead. 

In some circles of ELCA clergy, chaplaincy is seen as having "soft" theology or not as good as parish ministry.  For me, it is the ultimate expression of missional leadership of Church in the World and a wonderful example of the Ministry of Word and Sacrament.  It is proclamation of both the word and the Word, the sacraments are engaged on an even more visceral level than in parish settings, and it requires knowledge of all aspects of ministry, in particular, a highly attuned sense of pastoral care and the ability to educate and equip disciples at a very critical point on their journey.  Hospitalizations, whether for serious injury or illness, are a critical turning point for many people of faith.  And the intersection of death with life is one place where the promises that we proclaim from the pulpit are moved from an abstraction to a reality. 

Chaplaincy in the Ministry of Word and Sacrament

Chaplaincy is considered a Specialized Ministry in the ELCA. The normative "first call" ministry in the ELCA is parish ministry.  The first call pastor is placed in a congregation where they serve in traditional functions of Word and Sacrament such as preaching, presiding at communion, baptizing, teaching confirmation, and so on.

First call candidates are generally not considered for specialized ministry. My own sense of call has been to hospital chaplaincy. I find this to be the place where I am most living out of my call of service to God and to the world. I frequently find myself not fitting into the mold of the normative first call ministry. So I am attempting to think through how my call to chaplaincy is an incarnation of the ministry of word and sacrament (ordained) ministry.

The ELCA defines the Word as both the holy scriptures and the living Christ. So the proclamation of the Word includes preaching and teaching of scripture, but also testifying to the work of the Living Christ in the world. This is where I find myself most often resonating with this aspect of my call in chaplaincy. Jesus Christ epitomized a ministry of accompaniment.  Jesus SAW people in their need (blind man, hemorrhaging woman, woman returning from burying her son, and so on.) Through my baptism, I die and live in Christ, and Christ lives in me. I am called to walk alongside those I meet in the hospital.  I am called to extend the love of Christ to those in their greatest time of need.

The Lutheran church defines a sacrament as taking a very ordinary thing (water, bread, and wine) and using that to make manifest the promises of God.  Baptism with water grants us eternal life in Christ, and Holy Communion feeds us for this journey on earth and reminds us to whom we belong. These sacraments are of paramount importance in the hospital, when we are reminded of our mortality and finitude and frailty in the face of overwhelming circumstances. While I am not presently allowed to preside over the sacraments because I am not ordained, I have no doubt that being able to offer them in my ministry of chaplaincy is crucial.

One of the ELCA buzzwords these days is the idea of "Missional Leadership".  This was the prompt for my candidacy approval essay and I will explore it in my next blog post: Chaplains as Missional Leaders

What is Chaplaincy Anyway?

One of the things that I have been wrestling with lately is the question, "What is chaplaincy anyway?" As a discipline, it is not terribly well-known or understood. When my patient's ask me what I do, I usually say something along the lines of, "Chaplains provide spiritual and emotional support while you are in the hospital."

My work involves discussions of trauma, acute illness and injury, coping with loss of function, loss of life, and so on.  It involves end of life care and it involves discussions about transitioning to comfort care and about who will make decisions for you if you are unable to make them for yourself. They are non-biased, non-partisan, supportive conversations that involve attending to the specific needs of the patient.

This doesn't seem particularly different than what might be offered by social workers or particularly compassionate nurses.

But the other dimension that makes chaplaincy unique is the understanding that patients have spiritual needs and part of whole-person care is attending to those spiritual dimensions. My CPE supervisor has been challenging me with this question during the last couple months, "If your work is only about attending to the spiritual and emotional needs of the patient, why can't a particularly compassionate atheist do the same work?"

I am not sure that I have an answer, but this is the one that I am trying on lately:  Chaplains must be people of faith themselves, it doesn't matter what sort of faith, as a Jewish chaplain can provide care to a Buddhist patient, or a Christian chaplain can provide care to a Muslim patient, but it is important that in order to do their work with integrity, they must believe that there is a higher power at work in the world and in our lives. 

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Glimpses of the kingdom…a sermon on Matthew 25:31-46

A.Hanson, 2009
From a sermon preached at Holy Love Lutheran Church.

Gospel Text: Matthew 25:31-46

Grace, peace, and mercy are yours from the Triune God.  Amen.
Today is the last Sunday in the liturgical year. On this particular day we talk about the person of Jesus Christ and God’s ongoing work in the world. We talk about what it means to have a King who defies earthly standards for what is royal and we learn about who we are in relationship to this King. The kingdom of God is now, not some far away time or place, and Christ shall reign forever and ever. 
Which is all well and good until we get a text like today’s Gospel from Matthew 25, which doesn’t sound like something to celebrate.  Jesus has gathered on the Mount of Olives with his disciples and they have asked him to describe what the end of the age will look like.  Today’s Gospel text comes from Jesus’ final time of conversation with his disciples prior to the beginning of his trial and passion.  In typical Jesus style, he decides to tell a story.
The story features a king who has gathered “all the nations” before his throne.  This king is said to separate the people from one another as a shepherd will separate sheep from goats. The king says to those on his right hand, the sheep, that they have been blessed and will inherit the kingdom.  They provided food, water, hospitality, clothing, and companionship to others during their time of need.  This group asks, “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food? We were just serving others.”  The king says to the people, “Truly I tell you, just as you did to the least of these who are members of my family, you did for me.”  Then the king turns to those on his left, the goats, and says, “You are accursed, depart from me and into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.  For I was hungry and you gave me no food…” and so on. Those on the king’s left say, “Lord, we never saw you.  Therefore, we were never able to serve you.”  The king responds, “Just as you did not serve those who were in need, you did not serve me.” 
This text is a favorite among Christians everywhere, particularly those who have a bent towards social justice, because it is such a clear exhortation to be of service to one’s neighbor. Because just as Jesus says, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are my family, you did it to me.” But the underlying motivation for many, if not most, Christians is not to be of service to one’s neighbor because of the Christ in them, but rather, an overwhelming desire NOT to be a goat. It is easy to read this parable and make it simply a humanitarian call for good works, which unfortunately correlates with a reading that our salvation is achieved by what we do.
We are entering into the season of good works. In just a few days we will be celebrating Thanksgiving, followed by Christmas in a few short weeks. If you have not already received the annual mailers from the Denver Rescue Mission, your time is coming. There is a pull this time of year to donate money, canned goods, toys, or warm winter clothing to one’s neighbors because “It’s what good people do” and perhaps, doing good works lets us be a bit more self-absorbed when it comes to holiday consumerism and consumption. If we toss a few dollars the way of “the least of these” it lets us buy our new electronics and clothing with a bit less guilt and feel warm and snug in our salvation by material means. I am not sure that any of us actually believe that doing holiday good works helps us rack up more points on a heavenly scorecard, but donating money for tax deductions at the end of the year or donating our cast-off household items to those who should be thankful for them is no less selfish than thinking we can coordinate our own salvation by what we do.
I am not convinced that the distinction between sheep and goats in today’s Gospel text is as clear-cut as Jesus would have us believe.  I know that I am both a sheep and a goat.  I recycle, I give to non-profit organizations, I listen to NPR, and I do my best to be a good person.  Yet while I am driving home from my chaplain job, I refuse to make eye contact with the people standing on the corner of Broadway and Sixth Ave with their signs because I am feeling fatigued from being of service to people all day long.  If we were measuring salvation by what we do, I would most certainly not measure up.  None of us would.
But in making this parable about the sheep and goats and avoiding everlasting turmoil or securing everlasting salvation, we miss a very important thing. Where is God in this parable?  God is not in the sheep.  God is in the people who are in need. Both the sheep and the goats seem to be surprised by this.  And I think it surprises us too. We want to think that we are somehow the ones bringing God to those people who desperately need God in their suffering.  We have a hard time imagining that God is already in the midst of the hungry, the imprisoned, the sick, and the lonely. There is an entire mission-trip industry built upon the desire of well-intentioned Christians to bring the “love of Christ” to people in need, but God is already there. Jesus is more likely to be found in a prison than a parsonage, or in a mental hospital instead of a mega-church.
So what’s the good news? Why read this text in a church?  And particularly, why read this text on a Sunday where we celebrate the Reign of Christ in the world?
What would happen if we view the coming Kingdom, the Reign of Christ in a new world not as something that is far off, but as something that is breaking in now? God is already here among us, making things new, stirring things up, working in, through, around and beside us. God is in us in our work as sheep, and in us when we are the broken and needy ones who are being cared for by the sheep. This is the Kingdom! The reign of Christ looks like: I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me a cup of cool water, I was in the hospital and you came to see me, I was in prison and you visited me, I was an immigrant and you showed me hospitality in a strange land, I was standing on the corner of 6th and Broadway and you met my eyes and smiled at me.
People of God, the kingdom of heaven is not far away, it is breaking in among us even now. Where might we see glimpses of the reign of Christ?  During his public address on Thursday night, President Obama cited this very scripture text in his call for justice and reform on immigration issues, and to welcome and make a way for our brothers and sisters from other countries, because we see the face of Christ in them.  I call this a glimpse of the kingdom! My friend Margaret is the pastor of a food truck church in St Paul, MN. She hands out calzones and the Peace of Christ on the streets.  I call this the kingdom! Yesterday during my shift in the emergency room I held an elderly woman’s hand as she was experiencing a heart attack and was terrified. I call that a glimpse of the kingdom! We see Christ in the face of our neighbors and in those people who meet us in our own time of need. The kingdom of God is now, not some far away time or place, and Christ shall reign forever and ever.  Amen!

Monday, November 10, 2014

God sits with us in our excruciating expectation…a sermon on Psalm 70

A.Hanson, 2009. The Netherlands.
A sermon preached at House for All Sinners and Saints on Sunday, November 9, 2014. 
Grace, peace and mercy are yours from the Triune God.  Amen.

I love the psalms. I love that I can borrow their words when I am too tired or too broken to come up with words on my own. Like Psalm 70,
Be pleased, O God, to deliver me.
 O Lord, make haste to help me! 
Let those be put to shame and confusion
who seek my life.
Let those be turned back and brought to dishonor who desire to hurt me. 
Let those who say, ‘Aha, Aha!’ turn back because of their shame. Let all who seek you
rejoice and be glad in you.
Let those who love your salvation
say evermore, ‘God is great!’ 
But I am poor and needy;
hasten to me, O God!
You are my help and my deliverer;
 O Lord, do not delay!
Academically speaking, the form of this psalm is called something ridiculous like “a prayer of an individual for divine assistance” but I prefer to call it the kind of prayer that I usually end up praying.  Short bursts of pleading, begging, and asking God to show up because I feel alone, frightened, mad, or otherwise confused and in need of guidance. This is the gift of the psalms to us. They are not the flowery sayings of Jesus in the parables and they are not the rhetorical works of Paul in his many letters to various Christian communities. They are real prayers from real people who know what it is like to be stuck in the trenches of a terrible day.
Today’s psalm is from someone who is waiting impatiently for God to bring justice after feeling abused, persecuted, and alone. It could be the words of the queer kid who has been disowned by their parents.  It could be the words of the addict who is trying to stay sober.  It could be the words of the middle-aged child who is trying to navigate a bureaucracy of healthcare and benefits for their aging and ailing parents. It is a very real expression of lament and grief while waiting for God to show up and make this injustice right.
Somewhere Christianity started perpetuating the idea that we are supposed to be gentle and pious and patient in our prayers. The sort of Precious Moments or Hallmark brand of faith where we sit quietly and offer our prayers in a hushed and appropriately reverent tone of voice.  Then according to this model of faith, we wait for God to answer and we accept that answer and settle peacefully into whatever happens because it is God’s Plan with a capital “P” and it is wrong to argue with God.  Or something. Because if we don’t act the way we are supposed to, and wait patiently and act appropriately, we risk angering God or driving God away from us.
But I need a stronger God than that.  I need a God that doesn’t risk getting offended or wounded.  I need a God that can take my biggest questions and loudest laments.  And I suspect that you do too.  In my work as an ICU chaplain, I have lots of “What the hell are you thinking?!” kinds of questions for God.  Like “Why does someone dying of cancer anyway get hit by a car and die in the ICU instead of at home?” or “Why does someone’s family leave her alone to die?”  Where is the justice? We need a God that can take our laments and our pleading and our impatient waiting. And in the psalms we hear people just like us asking God these same tough questions and demanding that God make Godself known in a broken world. This is Gospel to our aching hearts.
The psalmist obliterates that Hallmark brand of religion by crying out in the midst of this excruciating waiting. “Hasten to me O, God!”  “O, Lord do not delay!”  We need to have a God who sits with us while we are waiting for the promise of everything being made new. This psalm is an earnest plea for help, and is rooted in in the psalmist’s trust in God’s listening and redemptive power. I think we get self-conscious sometimes about not wanting our prayers to seem too desperate, because that makes us vulnerable.  If we pray for something broad like “happiness” or “greater understanding” or “peace” we can find some way to make whatever happens fit into our experience. I do this too in the prayers that I pray with my patients. And I have been thinking about it a lot lately and wondering if I am protecting God and my idea of God what God does. What would happen if we all prayed with the same urgent cries of the person in today’s psalm?  Our prayers don’t need to be logical, beautiful or presentable, but simply the honest, messy and ugly cries of our deepest selves.
Woven into our experience as people of faith is that damn platitude, “Good things come to those who wait,” which is entirely non-biblical by the way, and implies that if we wait patiently enough, we will get what we want. But sometimes our prayers are not answered in the way we want or think they should be. Sometimes no matter how earnestly we pray for healing or happiness or wholeness for ourselves or others, our waiting doesn’t necessarily bring about what we want or think we deserve.
But I wonder if that is actually the reason we pray.  What if prayer is less about persuading God to answer our prayers, and instead changes us, makes us new? This is a huge paradigm shift, and it seems to say more about God than it does about us. A lot of the time I am not able to make sense of what God is doing on a “micro” level in the world around me.  I see a lot of the absolute worst that the world can offer, and I need to cling to something bigger. I need to cling to the hope that God is making all things new and that life WILL win out and death DOES NOT have the final word. I am slowly learning to trust that prayer is not about making my world make sense, but making me a part of God’s unfolding world.

The other time that this particular psalm appears in the appointed readings for the liturgical year is during Holy Week.  A time where even Jesus cries out in lament, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”  God WANTS to hear our prayers. God PROMISES to sit with us in our anguish. How liberating it is to know that God can take our anger, our laments, the deepest cries of our broken hearts.  God participates in all of this. And just as the psalmist declares “God is great!” and “You are my help and my deliverer!” even while waiting for justice, we too know that God sits with us in our most excruciating times of expectation.

Monday, October 27, 2014


Haarlem, Netherlands.  A. Hanson, 2009.
Yesterday was Reformation Sunday in the ELCA.  If you want a quick and dirty primer on what the Reformation is, click here. Reformation Day is celebrated among Lutherans with a particular sort of affinity that some of my clergy friends call "Lutheran pridefulness day."  It's where Lutherans get to pat themselves on the back and be thankful that they are different than OTHER kinds of Christians.

When Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses to the door of the Wittenburg church in 1517, he was responding to a overruling church hierarchy that was out of touch with the people and with what God was already doing in their midst.

 But it is with care and deliberation that I raise the following question, with this radical reforming history in our tradition, are we really willing to be re-formed now?  

I am not convinced that the ELCA is open to reformation in this day and age.  I raise for your consideration this article that appeared in the most recent edition of the Lutheran magazine, "Get set for clergy retirement wave: Age, perspectives to change the face of the ELCA" by Charles M. Austin.  Austin's article is primarily making the observation that there is an anticipated wave of clergy retirements in the near future, and these retirements will change the face of leadership in the ELCA.  This is an absolutely valid observation.  He also argues that this can be a good thing, with young clergy bringing energy to their work and perhaps building bridges between younger members who are new to the ELCA, with which I also agree.

But the overall tone of the article is one of unwarranted mourning.  Austin, along with many others quoted in the article, lament that with the retirement of many of these older pastors is the loss of "skill and wisdom gained in decades of ministry", "'residual memory' of predecessor church bodies", and perhaps most grating, these retired leaders' "commitment to ministry."  (Which seems to imply that younger clergy do not have the same commitment to their work.)  To all of this lament, I raise our own theology for consideration.

At the core of our Lutheran theology is the cross.  A symbol of death.  That in order to have new life, the old self must be crucified. When Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses to that door in 1517, it probably felt a little bit like death. He was standing up against a giant behemoth of an institutional church, and he had no way of knowing that his bold act would lead to anything but excommunication. But as Marty himself said, "Here I stand, I can do no other."  This is not to say that older pastors are dragging down the ELCA, but rather the attitude that the good days have already passed in our church.  It is fully possible to be a pastor in a call for decades and be continually open to what God is creating new every day. In fact, I feel fortunate to know and be mentored by several of these older pastors.

I have been working on my ELCA assignment paperwork, and in my Rostered Leader Profile, one of the questions is, "What are your hopes for the ELCA?"  which I answered with the following response:

It is my hope that the ELCA will be open to what God is already doing in the world in surprising places, and be willing to let some things die in order that new things might be born.  It is my hope that we believe what we confess in our own theology about death and resurrection.

Here I stand, I can do no other.

The ELCA is in decline.  This is not a special distinction.  We share this dubious distinction with all other denominations. There are fewer people coming to church.  There can be no assumed Christian culture. Being a member of a church is the exception, not the rule.  We are more likely to be eating brunch than attending church on Sundays. The understanding of "church" that pervaded American culture for so long is dead.  It hurts to hear and hurts to say, but it is true.  Healthy congregations still exist, and will continue to do so, but the sort of church that we hold up as overwhelmingly normative in the ELCA (or any other denomination, for that matter) just doesn't exist any longer.

I am a Lutheran. I love our tradition.  I love our theology.  I also hurt for a church that seems to be stuck in the past.  I hurt for all the vibrant, excited young leaders who have their vision squashed by people like Charles M. Austin and others who view us as second-string replacements for the "all-star" pastors who are retiring.

I do not think it is timely or appropriate to throw out all of our tradition.  But I ask that we consider why we do the things that we do. And be willing to let certain things go to make room for the new life in our denomination.  I know that the word "death" used in this post is going to make some people uncomfortable and angry. So how about re-formation?

Are we as the ELCA actually willing to be re-formed?

Are we willing to let go of "cultural Lutheranism" (tired jokes about jello salad and lutefisk and Scandinavians) and be willing to see what Lutheranism looks like today?  Are we willing to find places for people of color in our overwhelmingly white churches? Places for other languages and cultures in our expression of liturgy and worship?  To be influenced and changed by those people that we label as "Other" to "Our" tradition?

Are we willing to dare to be different in the way that we "do" church? Are we willing to provide space for our people to co-create worship alongside the seminary-educated professionals? Are we willing to let go of control?  Are we willing to explore alternative ways of educating and forming pastors?

Are we willing to dare to believe that the church does not actually exist within four walls?  That it might have nothing to do with buildings at all?  To believe that God is already at work in the world and instead of creating a place where people can come and encounter God, we will walk alongside people in the world where God is already with them?

Are we willing to stop lamenting what has been and turn with joyous expectation to that which is to come?