Pastor Chuck's Takeaway

Monday morning theological reflections

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Getting around the Big Blue/Red Divide

What is this? Earlier this month, I was having coffee with a friend in Seattle. He was sharing with me his plans to bike across America this summer. Beyond the obvious physical challenge, he also plans to spend time in local diners, shops, and taverns in hopes of gaining a clearer understanding from people who live in “red states”. He summed it up this way, “I live in this blue bubble of Seattle. I just don’t grasp how people in red states see the world. So I want to find out for myself”. America is at the height of partisanship, at least in my lifetime. The Big Blue/Red Divide in America partitions churches, neighbors, friends, families, and Christians, too. It’s Trump vs. Hillary, Fox News vs. MSNBS, conservatives vs. progressives, and urban vs. rural. Sadly, we are more than happy to go to our respective corners with our fellow Reds or brother blues. There we can retell, rehearse, and reinforce our side’s narrative sequestered in our side’s echo chamber. Having political conversations in the church can be problematic yet something of a prerequisite to grow community. It’s time to get around the Big Blue/Red Divide.

What does this mean? The April issue of the “The Atlantic” had an article “Breaking Faith” with some surprising revelations about American politics and faith. The so-called voters’ revolt away from traditional party choices, Republican Donald Trump and Democrat Bernie Sanders, signal deep discontent, anger, even mourning among Americans. “The culture and economy have shifted in ways that have marooned them with traditional aspirations unrealized in their real-world lives. (True for Red and Blue) The worse Americans fare in their own lives, the darker the view of the country.” That is pretty straightforward, but here’s the thing. Among white working-class, culturally conservative Americans who are disengaged from the church experience less economic success, more family breakdown, more resentment and pessimism, than those who remain engaged in faith life. Now what I found most shocking, a huge number of those voters who identify as evangelical that voted for Donald Trump, seldom or never go to church anymore. So we shouldn’t make much of the statistics that say that Christians voted for Trump. On the other side, “Black Lives Matter”, unlike the Civil Rights Movement under Dr. Martin Luther King, has not sprouted out of the African-American Church. Such social and political movements are becoming increasingly secular-based than faith-based. Our Blue/Red rift is more economic and political than religious and faith-related. Time to be more personal.

What is the takeaway? I saw a book review for “Strangers in Their Own Land” by Arlie Russell Hotchschild that intrigued me. The author is a Berkeley progressive who chose to travel to the oil and gas country of Louisiana to meet Tea Party supporters over the dinner table. And this book, with the tagline “Anger and Mourning on the American Right” is the product of her months-long research. It’s not just about the facts, it’s about feelings. Hochschild writes out of personal interactions with middle-class folks, “They feel confused and betrayed, because the rules of how the world is supposed to operate have changed. The narrative through which they’ve made sense of life no longer seems to apply. Worse, their narrative, their experience, and their very lives is discounted. The narrative they believe is about patience, hard work, putting up with pain and difficulty, being optimistic, and being faithful to family and faith. This will lead to realizing the American Dream of prosperity and security”. We can all relate to those hopes and dreams as Americans and empathize with the feel of betrayal and grief that the world is leaving you behind. I applaud my friend for his biking expedition to see and hear for himself. This is something that should move us all to reach out across the aisle whether it is Congress or the congregation. Our church has “Dialogue on Draft” where we meet at a public house and tackle polarizing topics from faith to politics to family to the apocalypse. Perhaps, a very real way to witness to the reality of Christ in the world is to be willing to listen and learn versus hiding in our partisan echo chambers. Recently, I attended a gathering of meeting your Muslim neighbors. At one point, I stood up turned around and greeted a man, “Hey, you are a real live Muslim”. We both chuckled. In Christ, listen to our neighbors; Republican and Muslim!



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“The Shack” Attack

What is this? “The Shack” is a global best-selling book that ten years after publication has finally made it to the big screen. Like the book, the film-version has stirred plenty of controversy. Some claim it is heretical, others warn it is dangerous for impressionable Christians. Having read the book and seen the movie, I say go check it out, as long as you keep in mind “it’s just a movie”. Consider “The Shack” art not doctrine, in that it is there to provoke thought, spark your imagination, and inspire questions about faith, life, and the Trinity. The story is about a married father “Mack” of three children in Oregon, who has been overcome by a great sadness. His youngest daughter was abducted and killed during a family camping trip. His grief, guilt, and anger with God have driven him inward and he has distanced himself from his family. His best friend, his wife, and his children, all have strong ties to Jesus and church. Mack mysteriously receives a note, signed by God, inviting him to return to the shack (the scene of the crime). Against all reason, Mack cannot resist the urge to go, desperately hoping to find some healing for his deep pain.

What does this mean? The real action begins when Mack makes it to the abandoned shack that is transformed into God’s B & B. There Mack meets the Trinity in a very human and very relatable form. “Papa” is a middle-aged, biscuit-baking, African-American woman (played by Octavia Spencer). Jesus is a young, Jewish man with a big beard and bigger smile who uses his carpentry skills to build something important for Mack’s healing. The Holy Spirit is a tall, slender, serene, Asian woman who helps Mack see his life as a garden that needs tending and tenderness. This is where you either love or hate the movie. You may hate it if your faith is offended by a God that is so accessible, so down-home, and in some ways, too schwarmy. “Papa” is over the top, at times. There is one hokey scene where Mack and Jesus are joyfully running together atop the lake?! These are the times, I wanted to stand up at the theater and publicly disavow the movie’s Jesus. Or you may love it for those very reasons. With all the mystery, might, distance, and detachment, we associate with God, some of us are hungry for meeting God in an earthly locale, maybe not as laid-back as Papa’s lake cabin. Personally, I loved and hated it (for reasons already cited). What I really appreciated were some very human rites that Mack experiences that bring healing from on High, not unlike the sacraments. To help him begin to let go of his grief, Jesus helps him through a simple yet sacred ritual. To engage his anger with God, Mack talks directly (prayer?) to the Father (Papa). The Holy Spirit gets him to dig into the garden (his life), to learn we grow in faith by practicing faith.

What is the takeaway? Perhaps, the most basic takeaway is who God is NOT according to the “The Shack”. God is not a cosmic force devoid of personality or power. The Trinity is not a cosmic killjoy who smirks when we feel pain. In fact, it is engaging when Papa, Son, and Holy Spirit are in the same room, as they seem to delight in each other, operate with a certain harmony, and find their place within the whole. It is so difficult to grasp and teach the concept of the Trinity, in words, print, or film. Yet, “The Shack” gives us something to contemplate. That itself, may be worth of price of your movie ticket. Something that the world, including church-goers, simply don’t comprehend is that God is a relational God. The God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, communicates and communes with some rough, rowdy, and questionable characters, like Jacob, the con-man. And at Christmas, God comes all the way down to Bethlehem, taking on flesh and blood, living an earthly life, enduring worldly sorrows, knowing hunger and happiness, befriends people like Zacchaeus and Mary Magdalene, and going to the cross and grave, for the sake of our relationship with us. In the church, we meet our brothers and sisters in Christ. And in eternity, we will be reunited with all of God’s people that have gone before us. There is a mysterious passage in Hebrews, that speaks of the necessity that Jesus experience weakness and suffering so he is qualified and equipped to be our high priest, our intermediary with God the Father. “Every high priest selected to represent men and women before God and offer sacrifices for their sins should be able to deal GENTLY WITH THEIR FAILINGS since he knows what it’s like from his own experience.” AMEN.


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Good News or Fake News?!

What is this? Fake news is making news these days. This month, Edgar Maddison Welch was taken in by a fake news story and decided to “self-investigate” with his assault rifle. The twenty-eight year old showed up armed and dangerous at Comet Ping Pong Pizza in D.C. in response to a report claiming that Hillary Clinton and her cohorts were running a child-trafficking operation at this location. Welch stormed the poor pizzeria, fired one round into the floor, and demanded to know where the children were being held against their will by the Democrats. Fortunately, no one was hurt, but the Comet Ping Pong owner has been deluged with death threats. Fake news, also called hoax news, is deliberately published fraudulent propaganda and disinformation to drive web traffic and inflame social media. The purpose is to increase advertising revenue by profiting from readers gullibility. With the rise of web-generated news, fake news has become a powerful force, like “yellow journalism” of a previous generation. Thus, traditional and objective media sources are declining, and so is accuracy, accountability, and a sense of what is factual.

What does this mean?  The Christmas gospel is not fake news but it sure sounds like some kind of wild fabrication, that could qualify for fraud to promote faith. I mean, really, God decides to make His Supreme Self known on Planet Earth. God had tried to communicate with us via Creation, the Commandments, lots of prophets, assorted epiphanies, and a cast of mediocre biblical characters, all to no avail. Humanity was too busy, wasn’t listening, or wasn’t really interested. Or maybe we simply don’t have the capacity or desire due to our sin condition. Another issue is, how does a transcendent God send an intimate message to a bunch of people who must look and behave like a bunch of ants from where God is sitting on the heavenly throne. Plus, God insists we operate by faith alone to trust grace alone even when we feel all alone. The gospel plan was to send the Son of God into this world through a pregnant virgin named Mary. The Festival of Christmas is officially called “The Nativity of Our Lord”, in other words, God becomes a native, a local, our neighbor. God finally manages to say, in the same flesh, who is God and what is man.

What is the takeaway? Tis the season of subjectivity, the age of “truthiness”. Steven Colbert coined that word meaning, “a quality characterizing truth that a person making an argument or assertion claiming to know ‘intuitively’, ‘from the gut’, or ‘because it feels right’ with little or no regard to evidence, logic, or analysis”. Being rational beings, we can get annoyed by politicians, preachers, and even preschool teachers who try to convince us of some truth mostly because they believe it in their head and/or heart. SO WHAT DO WE DO WITH CHRISTMAS!? GOOD NEWS OR FAKE NEWS? HARD-TO-BELIEVE OR JUST MAKE-BELIEVE? Faith is more than “from the gut” or “intuitive” or “because it feels right”. For the baptized, having faith in God persists often in spite of such subjectivity and feelings. Faith is “a gift from God” that comes with peace “that passes all understanding” as a way leading to what Paul describes as, “no eye has seen, no ear has heard, no mind has conceived what God has prepared for those who love him”. Christmas is where the mystery begins, the cross is where it goes, and the empty tomb signals our eternal destination.










Post-Traumatic Election Syndrome

What is this? Let me begin by saying, the presidential election did not go my way. If you were on the winning side, I invite you to imagine how you would feel if your candidate lost. Like so many media sources, I was blind-sided by the voters and bamboozled by the polls. So I woke up, appropriately, wearing my “Disrupted” (old mission) t-shirt. To protest the outcome, I did shave my head, something I do every two weeks when what’s left of my hair becomes shaggy. When I announced this, the church secretary told me she couldn’t tell. At the YMCA, where I was trying to sweat out some frustration, I heard lots of commentary on the election, “Trump has to bring us back together” and “I’m not sure he can”. On the news I heard provocative comments, “It was a vote for racism”, “It was a voice of anger, like a primal scream”. From Caroline, my 13 year-old daughter, I heard, “NOOOOOO!” and Elizabeth sighed, “I need a hug”. This was an ugly election featuring two very unpopular candidates at a critical juncture for our nation. Like so many, I underestimated the voters’ anger.

What does this mean? Whether by Providence, Karma, or just coincidence, this week’s assigned gospel (Luke 21:5-28) is Jesus talking about the end of the world, “Nation will rise against nation and kingdom against kingdom. There will be great earthquakes, famines, and pestilences in various places and fearful events and great signs from heaven”. Conveniently, I’d already decided to go off-lectionary this week for my sermon. As hearers of  Jesus’ preaching, we gravitate to the apocalyptic fireworks. But, given the whole biblical message of judgment and salvation, my thought is we should focus on what Jesus says a few verses earlier, When you hear rumors of wars and revolutions (and Republican majorities and Progressive Supreme Court Justices)do not be frightened. These things must happen first, but the end will not come right away”. My sense is in our culture, congregations, and country, we live in a state of high anxiety and constant dread. In part due to cable TV with big bold print BREAKING NEWS or ALERT!, ALERT!, we experience war, violence, and danger right in our own living rooms. The scary world feels so ominous and imminent on our big screens. We operate out of such fear we forget by faith God is with us. Jesus says to us a few verses later, “By standing firm you will gain life.”

What is the takeaway? Psalm 27 credited to David proclaims, “The Lord is my light and my salvation, whom shall I fear? The Lord is the stronghold of my life- of whom shall I be afraid? Though an army besiege me, my heart will not fear, though war break out against me, even then will I be confident”. The call to faith is to go boldly (yes, the old Star Trek mantra) from the Roman Empire to the American Empire to the Federation Empire (Star Trek again) into the future trusting God is with us. And not only that, but God in Jesus Christ is for us, on our side, will not forget or forsake us. So if your candidate was victorious, congratulations. And if your (and my) candidate came out on the losing side, I feel your pain, but we are all Americans. Republicans and Democrats, politicians and patriots, Lefsa-lovers and Ludefisk-haters, young and old, those who need a hug and those who need a job, we have lots of work and prayer to do as Christians, citizens, and families. Standing firm means we go boldly about our work, prayers, family life, and citizenship into the future, trusting God is our stronghold, so whom shall I fear? Standing firm does not mean to hide out and hunker down, but have confidence God is mysteriously bound up in our messy world, working among us, and bringing about light and salvation to creation! Empires (including ours) will rise and fall but Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever!