Monday, October 27, 2014

Reformation/Re-formation

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?  


Saturday, October 18, 2014

I DO believe in mystery

A.Hanson, Denver 2012
A couple of weeks ago, I wrote this post, in which I state that I do not believe in miracles. After quite a bit of conversation with friends and other clergy types, I think what I was trying to say is that while I don't believe in miracles, I DO believe in mystery.

I believe that there is a power bigger than us at work in the world.  I believe that there are things that we cannot explain. I believe that God works in ways that do not always make sense to us.

About week ago I attended a very traumatic death in which a woman essentially suffocated on the secretions in her own lungs. This is respiratory failure.  She was alone, and had no family present.  They had left the hospital because they just couldn't deal with what they were seeing.  I don't fault them that. I stayed with this woman until she breathed her last rattly breath. And it was awful. As soon as I stepped away from the room to help the nurse with the death paperwork, a wonderful, beautiful yellow lab was present in the hallway. We have therapy animals sometimes at the hospital, but rarely do I see them on the ICU units. This gentle yellow lab let me hug him and cry into his neck. I think this dog was an angel.  This is mystery.  I think that God knew that I was extremely raw and unable to talk to people at this point, but the gentle love and care of an animal was exactly what I needed.

And I see mystery all the time. I see people arriving at the hospital at just the right moment to be with their loved ones.  I see trauma teams working together in perfect harmony to save someone's life.  I see people being discharged from the hospital after impossible poly-traumas.

I absolutely believe God is capable of mystery, and sometimes that comes in the form of miracles.  But sometimes its just a little bit more mysterious than that.

Sunday, October 05, 2014

I don't believe in miracles


Confession: I don't believe in miracles.

This is something that I have been wrestling with lately in my work at the trauma center.

I have seen enough tough reality to recognize that miracles don't happen just because you might want them.  I have sat with people who DESERVE a miracle.  Who pray unceasingly for a miracle.  Who don't get that miracle.

I think culturally we buy into some sort of mythology around miracles that implies that if we "believe" hard enough or pray hard enough we will get what we want. I have seen too many people die and too many families hurting.

It's not the job of the chaplain to believe in miracles.  I think its damaging. I have no doubt that God is capable of miracles, and I am not so cynical that I wouldn't shout from the rooftops if I happened to witness one, but its not my job to hold out hope for the impossible.  Or worse yet, tell patients that.  I don't believe in miracles.  At least not the kind where you want something and pray for it and get exactly what you want.

Because sometimes, miracles are not healing or curing.  Sometimes a miracle is a peaceful death. Or what seems like an impossible reconciliation between family members.  Or sitting with a hurting person whose spouse is suffering cardiac arrest in the ICU and feeling the power of the Holy Spirit flooding over the room in a flickering moment of calm amidst chaos.

I believe in a God who shows up.  I believe in a God of accompaniment, not a God who dispenses good or bad things according to a quantifiable amount of belief.

Where God shows up

A.Hanson, NYC 2014
I am currently working as a hospital chaplain at a Level 1 Trauma Center.  There are thousands of moments that I think about writing about, and then inevitably the exhaustion wins out and I never actually do it.  So I have lots of half-baked thoughts rattling around in my head.

During my shift last night I was called in to support a patient who was being discharged soon and is homeless. These are the sorts of situations where I feel utterly helpless.

This patient has been homeless for 18 years, camping in barns and outbuildings. He is chronically ill after many years of hard living (drinking, lack of healthcare, and sleeping outdoors). He is quite possibly unable to survive "sleeping rough" anymore. He's been trying to get into homeless shelters, but is not having luck anywhere.  His nurses don't want to discharge him, but at the same time, there are people who are sicker who need the hospital bed.  And somehow in the midst of all that human misery, the chaplain shows up.

After we talked for awhile, this man asked if I would pray for him.  Before I begin a prayer with a patient, I always say a quick prayer that is something along the lines of "God, let my words be what you would have them be."  In my prayers with this patient last night I found that the words were not my own.  I prayed to a God who "knows what it means to be homeless because you were born in a stable in a land that was not your own."  It felt like a meager offering.

But somehow it was comforting to this gentle man.  He remarked, "You know, I lived in a barn too.  I know that God is with me."

And that is where God shows up.

Monday, September 15, 2014

The Kingdom of God is like an accountant who spills coffee all over his ledger…a sermon on Matthew 18:21-35

A.Hanson, Estes Park, CO 2014
A sermon preached at House for All Sinners and Saints on Sunday, September 14, 2014. 

When I looked at the Gospel text for this week, I have to admit that I was not at all thrilled.  “Forgiveness” is not one of my favorite topics. If I actually get honest with myself, my own standards of forgiveness are even more rigid than Peter’s.  While Peter asks Jesus if he should forgive up to seven times, the same is not true for me.  I might offer a second chance if I am feeling exceptionally generous, but very rarely am I willing to forgive any more than that, once I have been wounded. Because I REALLY like to hold onto my resentments.  Sometimes it feels really good to let that righteous indignation fester.   Author Ann Lamott describes holding onto resentments as eating rat poison and hoping the rat dies. It’s not good for us, but that doesn’t stop us from doing it anyway.  Because these resentments help us to build a wall that might prevent us from being hurt in the future, because living among other humans sucks sometimes.
In this text, Peter is asking Jesus for a sort of prescription for how to live in community.  For as long as humans have existed in proximity to one another, we have been hurting each other. Peter wants to know if there is a limit on the granting of forgiveness.  Kind of like a “seven strikes and you’re out” rule.  Jesus answers that the disciples are called to forgive seventy-seven times, which in the original Greek is shorthand for something like “infinity.” 
Yeah…no thanks, Jesus. I’m good.
Forgiveness is REALLY, REALLY hard. It makes us vulnerable, both in the asking and in the receiving.  When we are the ones asking for forgiveness we have to admit that we are jerks and we screwed up.  When we have been asked by another for forgiveness, we have to admit that we have been hurt. Forgiveness can indeed be a tool for repairing relationships.  My friends Peter and Kate are working on this with their three year old son.  When he hurts someone he is supposed to say, “I am sorry.  Will you forgive me?”  While we could probably all take a lesson from this preschool forthrightness and humility, Jesus’ command to forgive doesn’t always come that easily. And while asking for and receiving forgiveness help us to live together with a bit more harmony, forgiveness does not imply relational obligation. And beyond the everyday slights for which we nurture righteous anger, are those things that hurt us so deeply that we cannot ever imagine being able to forgive. 
In a world where domestic violence, abuses of power, racism, and homophobia are tragically common, calls from Christians to “forgive those who wronged you seventy-seven times” perpetuate a sickening sort of victim-blaming. Forgiveness is a bit more complex than this interaction between Jesus and Peter would have us believe. 
Forgiveness is not about absolving someone of their wrongdoing.  It’s not about helping someone clear their conscience.  Forgiveness absolutely does not mean embracing the violence perpetuated against us. Sometimes forgiveness is about your own heart becoming free. Sometimes forgiveness is not about repair, but rather about letting go.
My friend Katherine was murdered by a stranger seven years ago.  I thought my anger at this horrific act of random violence would never go away.  Hating the man who needlessly took her life felt good.  Until it didn’t anymore… The weight of this pain was crushing. This is not how God would have me live.  This is not how God would have any of us live. Forgiveness in this case is not about repairing a relationship that was broken.  It is about repairing my own broken heart. Forgiveness meant placing a burden of pain and grief that was too much for me to bear into the hands of God. We all have these sorts of situations in our lives.  Relationships where we have been hurt or deeply hurt someone else.  Situations where we have been oppressed by unjust systems of power.  And maybe the hardest person to forgive is ourselves. God wants us to be free, but we can’t do this alone. So now what?
The parable that Jesus tells the disciples is intended to shine some light on this command to forgive, but like most of the parables that Jesus tells, leaves us more confused than enlightened. Let’s attempt to break this down.  A king is attempting to settle debts with his slaves.  One of those slaves cannot pay his debt, which is astronomical, and is going to be sold, along with his family.  He begs for mercy and he is granted it.  Then the newly forgiven slave goes out to a fellow slave who owes him money and “seizes him by the throat” and has him thrown into prison. When word gets back to the master that this is taken place, the first slave is handed over to be tortured until he can repay his debt, which may never happen because it is so large. Then follows a bit of oh-so-helpful commentary, “So my heavenly father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart.”
It is tempting to turn this parable into an allegory, to dissect it to find the hidden meaning. And that is a favorite thing to do among Christians everywhere.  To cast God as the king, and to see ourselves and our neighbors as slaves owing this God something. And if we don’t do that thing, we will be tortured for all eternity. God is not some heavenly accountant, tracking our sins against a savings account of good deeds.
Beloved people of God, the kingdom of God is NOT like a king who wishes to settle accounts with his slaves.  The Kingdom of God is a bit more like an accountant who spills coffee all over his ledger and decides to throw it away because he can’t read it anymore. The cross is God’s final statement that puts to death all our earthly accounting systems.  We don’t start our relationship with God from a place of having our debts paid off through our own actions, and hoping to keep a positive balance by forgiving those who sin against us and managing to avoid hurting anyone else.  That’s an exhausting race that we will never win. Rather, we start from a place of love.  God so loved the whole world and the people in it, that despite their myriad imperfections, came to live among us and die for our sake on a cross.
Jesus knows that we will hurt each other.  That’s part of what it means to be human. We are not commanded to forgive because it makes us better people.  We are not commanded to forgive because it’s eternal fire insurance.  No…we are commanded to forgive because we have first been forgiven by a merciful God who wants nothing more than to love us.  We start our relationship with God as fully forgiven people, there is no debt to pay.  With that knowledge, we live to care for and forgive our neighbor for their sake, not because we are trying to satisfy a debt to God.  So go live boldly in the knowledge that you are loved, forgiven and freed.  Thanks be to God.