Religion in My Public School

matthew-gilbert

Today a Middle School, it was Matthew Gilbert Seventh Grade Center back in 1974 Jacksonville, Florida.

(Occasionally I post draft excerpts  from Too Smart for God, the book I’m slowly writing about my journey from Christianity to atheism/agnosticism and back. Here’s an early chapter. Comments and suggestions for revision are welcome!)

In Seventh Grade one period was taken up with something called the “Pre Vocational Wheel.” You got to rotate quickly through a series of potential careers; quickly was good in case you sucked at one of them like I did in Woodshop. The birdhouse I made would have been condemned by any reasonable avian housing inspector. Home Economics was great, even though it was nobody’s idea of a career, because we made food sometimes. Looking back, it’s surprisingly progressive in the 70’s South that boys were required to take Home Ec along with the girls. My big mistake in that class was not picking red fabric when we did sewing because my blood from needle pricks would have blended right in.

Another spoke in the Pre Vocational Wheel was Business Administration. All I remember content-wise was a bunch of filing practice along with a smattering of business letter writing. As long as you were handy with the alphabet and could spell “Sincerely,” you could ace Business Administration.

The B. A. teacher was a laid back yet arrogant guy. That’s not as oxymoronic as it seems. He was cavalier about his casualness. You probably know the type, non-establishment rebels who have sold out but have convinced themselves it was on their terms.

I only remember two other things about this Business Administration teacher, one of which is not his name. So I’ll call him Mr. Smythe. While reviewing one of the scintillating filing exercises, Mr. Smythe corrected me about the pronunciation of “Smythe.” I said it like “Smith” and he said it should be “Smithy.” I would not let the matter rest, although I admit I was unsure and arguing mainly out of boredom and disdain for Mr. Smythe.

I’ve just spent a half hour on Google reading phonetic expressions of “Smythe” on various websites, as well as listening to MP3s where they are available and none of them has “Smithy” as a possible pronunciation.

Suck it, Mr. Smythe!

Yes, it is a little pathetic that I am still fighting this battle 40 years later. I’m including this in part to demonstrate a critical facet of my personality – I don’t like to be wrong. That trait, certainly based in pride rooted in intelligence (and reinforced by everyone telling me how smart I was from the time I can remember with the occasional exception of dolts like Mr. Smythe) is  something that inhibited my return to the church as an adult. It would mean admitting I had been wrong to leave in the first place.

Knowing the right answers was (is) a big part of my identity, and Mr. Smythe offended that by correcting me unjustly. Like all middle schoolers and college sophomores, I had an overdeveloped sense of fairness and belief in my ability to adjudicate justice and truth . . . especially when I was the self-perceived injured party.

It took (is taking) me a while to grow out of that, too. It’s a process . . .

The second thing I remember about Mr. Smythe is the day he decided to evangelize. He wanted all of us seventh graders to see the light, or more exactly, his light. That meant sharing his view of God and casting off our various religious indoctrinations.

Some of you more conservative Christian types are metaphorically on your feet applauding. “Hear! Hear! Religious freedom! God back in the schools!” And so on.

But not so fast . . .

You see, Mr. Smythe was an atheist. He was in fact the first person who I ever heard say out loud that he did not believe in God.

I don’t remember what precipitated the conversation. Perhaps we were learning how to address a Cardinal or a Bishop in a business letter. Something got him going.

“Now I know most of you go to church. Your parents probably make you. What a waste of time!”

In spite of my basic antipathy toward Mr. Smythe, he was verbalizing some of my unspoken angst.

“I’m an atheist. There is no God. And most people know that. They just don’t want to admit it.”

Whoa! No God . . . I didn’t like church but I had never gone that far. At least I hadn’t allowed myself to venture there in seventh grade. That would come later.

“Your parents, they don’t believe any of it either but they go to church and go through all the motions for the same reason all of you do stupid things . . . peer pressure. The same reason they buy big houses and expensive cars. Peer pressure. Keeping up with the Joneses.”

“The difference between your parents and me is  they don’t have the guts to say it. God does not exist.”

Now wait a minute. That’s not true. About my parents. You don’t even know my mom or dad. My hand shot up.

“Yes, David?”

“My father was church treasurer and he sings in the choir. My mom taught Vacation Bible School. We pray before every meal and at bedtime. My parents definitely believe in God.”

Mr. Smythe shook his head. I didn’t know yet what condescending meant but that’s what he was. “David, what does your father do for a living?”

“He’s an accountant,” I said proudly.

“Well, that explains it,” Mr. Smythe proclaimed, his voice ringing with the triumph of besting a 12-year old. “I’m sure most of his business comes from people in the church. The church is all about money for him . . . business contacts. If he didn’t go to church, he wouldn’t have clients.” Dismissing me, he turned to the next item of what he was supposed to be teaching us about The Wonderful World of Filing and didn’t give me a chance to respond.

It wouldn’t have mattered. I’m sure if I had told him my dad wasn’t that kind of accountant, that he didn’t need clients because he worked for the railroad, Mr. Smythe would just have replied that the expectation to go to church was simply part of the corporate culture. He should know, teaching Business Administration and all.

I was pissed at Mr. Smythe. I realize writing this that I still am.

The memory of Mr. Smythe’s attempted atheistic evangelism undergirds my conviction that religion has no place in public schools. Some Christians advocate for teacher-led school prayer in the name of “Getting God Back Into the Schools” (as if God could ever be absented from anywhere – by the way, the implied ability of humans to expel God from school or any other space does not enhance the argument that God is omnipotent). But they fail to consider that once you open the door to religion, all religions – and anti-religion – are going to walk right on in.  It would have been no more appropriate for Mr. Smythe to tell us we should be Christians, or Buddhists, or Wiccans, than it was for him to promote his atheism in Business Administration class.

On the other hand, maybe Buddhism would have been more appropriate, a sort of Pre Vocational Dharma Wheel, but I digress.

Religion, or more exactly faith in God (or not), is too important to be entrusted to the whims of which teacher’s class one’s child is assigned. I venture to say this is true for believers of all sorts as well as non-believers. In a pluralistic society, it is just as wrong for my child to be directed to pray five times a day facing Mecca by a Muslim teacher as it is for a Muslim child to participate in a Christian teacher’s prayers in the name of Jesus, or for a child from an atheist family to be required to be a part of any prayer at all.

It is even more blasphemous – and I do not use that term lightly – to attempt crafting an inevitably milquetoast address to a generic deity that may or may not exist so as to please everyone.

Certainly prayer should be allowed in public schools . . . and it is. The old saying is true – “As long as there are math tests, there will be prayer in school.” Students should be allowed to pray individually or in groups in which they voluntarily participate free from the actual or implied coercion of even well-meaning authority.

I do not hold Mr. Smythe responsible in any way for my eventual conversion to his unspiritual “side.” The offensiveness of his screed was more about my parents’ faith, or lack thereof, than my own. I don’t recall ever doubting the sincerity of mom or dad’s belief in God or Jesus.

Although I did not know, or at least acknowledge, at the time, even in seventh grade I was already well down the road in my journey to rejecting God myself. But Mr. Smythe’s clumsy and inappropriate atheistic proselytizing did nothing to further that expedition of escape. In fact, he had the same inverse affect as Christians who were similar in their methods if opposite in their beliefs. I no more wanted to be as bitter and closed-minded as Mr. Smythe than I wished to mirror the intolerant Christians I was already beginning to eschew

(You can read other draft excerpts from my alleged book, Too Smart for God, by clicking here.)

Posted in Christianity, Christianity and Culture, Too Smart for God | Tagged , , | 2 Comments

On the Pre-Inauguration Sermon

I just read the sermon preached at the new president’s church service this morning. Its hagiography left me confused as to who was being worshiped (“You ended up garnering the most votes of any Republican in history.”/ “I don’t believe we’ve ever had a president with as many natural gifts as you.”). Its theology was devoid of Gospel and limited to “God likes walls.”

The word “wall” appeared six times. Here are six words that did not show up at all:

Mercy
Grace
Love
Hope
Peace
Forgiveness

And one more that was mysteriously absent from this Christian pastor’s sermon:

Jesus

I post this not as a commentary on the new president, but as a reminder to Christians and especially to non-Christians that many so-called Christian leaders have confused, conflated, and even cut out the Gospel in their quest for power, prestige, and popularity.

As a pastor, I am deeply disappointed that with the entire library of Scripture at his disposal and the opportunity to share the Gospel of God’s grace with the new president and a listening world, this morning’s preacher chose to lift up wall-building Nehemiah rather than Jesus, who tore walls of division down.

Sad!

Posted in Christian Living, Christianity, Christianity and Culture, Sermon | Tagged , , , | 1 Comment

Making the Devil Mad (or something like that)

The funeral last week celebrated the life of a dear 84-year old woman who I will especially miss because she lived on the route I take daily to walk my dogs.  Before it got too cold in the past few days to walk my pair of short-haired little Italian Greyhounds, they would look up at her porch as we walked by, looking for her.

Even at 84 her death was a shock, one of those messy end of life situations where emotions are a muddled mix of sadness and anger fueled by questions about circumstances and the care she was receiving.

When I met with her family to plan the funeral, a daughter asked if we could sing Christmas hymns.

“Certainly not,” I replied. “It’s Advent. In the Lutheran Church we don’t sing Christmas songs until Christmas.”

Not really. Although there are some pastors who might say something like that . . .

What I did was the most important thing a pastor can do. I listened.

The children shared with me how special Christmas was for their mom.  The daughter went on to tell me that another pastor had once said, attributing the quote to Martin Luther, that “The devil gets mad when we sing Christmas carols at a funeral.”

I had never heard that particular Martin Luther quote. He said and wrote a lot, but he’s sort of the religious analogue to Abraham Lincoln – he gets credit for plenty of stuff he didn’t actually say.

It certainly sounded like something Luther might have said; if not Lutheran than perhaps Lutherish. He did write often about how to repel the devil. Here’s a personal favorite: “But I resist the devil, and often it is with a fart that I chase him away.”

So at Saturday’s funeral we sang Christmas hymns. After we read Luke’s Christmas account and I shared my homily emphasizing the hope of the manger even in the midst of grieving, based on Luke’s account of Jesus’ birth, we sang Silent Night.

But it was “Hark the Herald Angels Sing” at the end of the service that felt like a defiant proclamation of joy, as we raised our voices and sang . . .

Hark the herald angels sing, “Glory to the new-born king.”

We sang in defiance of death itself, proclaiming the king born in a manger had defeated sin and death once and for all.

Peace on earth and mercy mild, God and sinners reconciled.

We sang for all of us, and for all of God’s children, reconciled to God in Christ, our relationship restored through the forgiveness of our sins.

Joyful all you nations rise. Join the triumph of the skies.

We sang our joy, even as we gathered because someone we loved had died. We sang our joy, even when it didn’t make sense.

With angelic hope proclaim, “Christ is born in Bethlehem!”

We sang the hope of Christmas, God in human flesh placed in a manger.

Hark! The herald angels sing, “Glory to the new-born king.” 

I don’t know if the devil got mad. But we gathered there and sang our solidarity with each other as Jesus is in solidarity with us. We proclaimed that we are not alone in this messy world or in the messiness of our lives.

We sang about something bigger and better than death or disappointment or despair . . . we sang our hope.


(This post is adapted from an excerpt of a sermon preached for the Blue Christmas service at Christ Lutheran Church on Wednesday, December  14, 2016.)

Posted in Christianity, Christmas, Church, End of Life, Martin Luther | Tagged , , , , | 1 Comment

An Intersection, a Truck, and the Randomness of the Universe (and God, too)

So this happened . . .

I’m waiting to turn left at a long red light. There are two left turn lanes; I’m in the one on the right. A grey van is on my left. It’s not pulled all the way up, so I can see the oncoming traffic. Midnight Oil’s “Beds are Burning” blares from my radio tuned to the First Wave satellite channel. I’m thinking about what I need to do the rest of the afternoon, and about the sermon I just started writing at Panera Bread.

The light finally changes.

I pull forward. The van stays a little behind.

I’m always in a hurry to get where I’m going. Usually I would hit the gas and get moving. But I have seen the aftermath of shattering crashes at this intersection. So I wait a beat.

A mammoth red tow truck barrels toward the intersection from the left. I can’t tell for sure if it’s slowing down. The van beside me pulls forward. He must think it’s safe.

I start.  The van stops, and so do I – again I am just ahead and my view is not blocked.

The red truck makes it to the intersection. He’s not stopping! There’s not even a tap on the brakes.

It registers that the van was moving again. My only thought is “Van! Stop!”

And it did.

The truck roars through, at least 50 miles per hour, the driver oblivious even to my horn’s long fruitless bleat.

If I hadn’t seen the accidents before, I would have hit the gas immediately.

But I had seen them, and I waited.

If the van had pulled all the way up to the line next to me, my view would have been blocked and I probably would have gone ahead when the light changed. Would I have been able to stop in time?

But the van stayed just behind, just enough for me to see the oncoming danger.

Often I drive like I go through a lot of my life, on absent-minded auto-pilot, lost in thought.

But this time I was alert.

I punch my arm to make sure I didn’t die in a crash and am now living in a post-death dream.

“Ouch!”

I’m okay!

God, you must still have work for me to do.
You’re not done with me yet.
I’m not done.
Thank you.
The time will come when I’m not paying attention.
When the van does pull up and blocks my view.
When it’s too late to brake.
Either literally or figuratively.
Like everybody, I’m booked for a limited engagement.
My run may be periodically extended.
But someday my show is going to close.
The sets will be struck, my costumes and props will be trashed or auctioned.
But not today – at least not yet.
Thank you God for the most precious gift of all.
Time.

So I go to post this on Facebook with a reminder to look both ways before proceeding after a red light.

But the first thing I see is this:

Someone has posted a note they got from the principal of their kids’ school this morning. Two other kids got killed and two more injured in an auto accident at an intersection.

What the hell?

I’m a pastor. My degree says I am a “Master of Divinity.”

But don’t ask me to explain that.

Of course the two incidents are not related. I don’t know the kids or their families. We are separated by hundreds of miles and only connect in some Facebook Venn diagram of random acquaintance.

But still . . .

I ask myself (and God?) why some middle-aged pastor is spared while two kids are not.

There is no answer, or more exactly no explanation. God’s only response is the one Job got, “Where were you when I created the universe,” etc.  Or the one spoken by Isaiah, “God’s ways are not our ways” and so on.

This is of course inadequate. But it is also the wrong way to proceed.

God is not some cosmic puppeteer pulling our strings or even a divine director guiding us through some tragic script.

I shared this story with a group of folks, and one of them said, “You don’t know what those kids had done. Maybe they had done something really bad.”

No!

If that’s the way the world worked, then I would have gotten flattened by that truck long ago.

And so would you.

One more thing God is not – a celestial death panel.  Father, Son, and Holy Spirit do not convene and decide who deserves to live and who will be deprived of transcendental life support.

Everyone suffers. Some of it is self-inflicted, some intentionally imposed, but some suffering just seems random.

And maybe it is.

God is certainly in control, but in God’s sovereignty is the provision for free will.

At the sub-atomic level that makes up everything – including us – there is uncertainly and yes randomness.

These things do not destroy or even threaten my faith. They do not speak of the absence of God or the impotence of God, but rather of the way God chooses to deal with the universe.

With me.

In spite of the many mistakes I’ve made, the way I’ve used my free will to squander much of the time I’ve been given, in the randomness of this messed-up world where kids on their way to school die in car crashes and middle aged pastors live another day, God has been there.

God has been here.

God was with me when I stopped short of being crushed by a tow truck.

God will be with me the day when I don’t stop in time.

It is not blasphemy to acknowledge the fickleness and especially the impermanence of life in this world.

But I will not face that on my own.

In a world filled with variability, God is the Constant.

God is my Constant.

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Unexpected Advent Reading: “The Stand”by Stephen King

the-standWhen I began to reread Stephen King’s The Stand a couple of weeks ago, I didn’t realize it was perhaps the ideal book for this season of Advent.

During Advent, our worship Scripture readings traditionally mix prophecies about the coming Messiah with apocalyptic visions of His return.

The Stand is nothing if not apocalyptic.

In his introduction to the 1990 version of the novel, King called his work “a long tale of dark Christianity.”

I totally missed the Christianity part the first time I read The Stand.  The sixteen-year old me just thrilled at the saga of a small group of nondescript individuals who ultimately go on a quest to defeat the darkest evil. Sounds like The Lord of the Rings, doesn’t it? There is general consensus about the Christian themes pervading Tolkien’s trilogy. The Stand’s theological foundation may not be as apparent or as well-known, but after reading it again I am convinced it is just as valid.

In a way The Stand is my Lord of the Rings. As an adolescent, Frodo and his friends never engaged me the way their story transfixed many of my fellow-nerd friends. But The Stand resonated because it felt so real, so about the America I thought I knew beyond my sheltered suburban sphere especially from television and movies. Stephen King’s constant brand name-dropping has been the target of derision by critics, but to a kid saturated by television and especially its ubiquitous commercials and ear-worm jingles, characters resonate when they never take an aspirin but reach for an Excedrin, open the Frigidaire instead of a generic refrigerator, and wipe their noses not with tissues but with Kleenex.

As awesome as I found the battle of good versus evil and the gory parts and the scary parts, it was ultimately the characters that set The Stand apart from anything I had read before. Although the minor characters are often generic types that serve to propel the plot, the primary people grow and change as they struggle internally with good and evil. As a 16-year old, I could admire Stu and Larry while I hoped to grow into a brave leader like they became despite their limitations, and I could hope I didn’t have as much Harold in me as I feared (after all he wanted to become a famous writer and to get a girlfriend – not necessarily in that order – just like me).

King has said he gets letters asking about the characters’ lives now, as if they were real people. I kind of get that – it had been over 30 years since I’d read The Stand, and I remembered the characters probably more clearly than I recall some of my high school classmates.

I admit being a little reluctant to revisit the plot and people of The Stand.  Most of us who have crept into middle age have had the experience of watching a movie or reading a book that seemed earth shattering to our younger selves, only to be disappointed as we experienced our memory deflated before us. (I’m looking at you, “Logan’s Run.”). The expanded version of The Stand also was a little intimidating; it’s now well over 1000 pages after King added 400 pages that had been excised at the insistence of his publishing company when it was first released. But my 19-year old daughter had never read The Stand, and I thought she’d like it, so I told her I would read it again if she would give it a try.

The Stand more than stood the test of time and experience. In fact, time and especially experience deepened its impact.

When I read The Stand the first time, I was in the last throes of my relationship with God and the church. The Christian infrastructure of the plot didn’t interest me at all.

But now, rereading the novel through the lens of an unexpected Christian and pastor, I couldn’t help but recognize and appreciate not only the theological undertones (and overtones) in The Stand, but also the theological questions with which King wrestles in the book.

Like the Bible, The Stand is an epic clash between good and evil. But – also like the Bible – The Stand confronts but does not fully resolve issues like free will and the inscrutability of God and the problem of evil (if God is all good, all knowing, and all powerful, why is there evil?).

God is a primary character in The Stand. God is always there, behind the scenes, and even overtly – the “hand of God” makes an appearance in the climax. God has a plan, but it is never fully comprehended and it is always up to people to enact that plan . . . or not.

People are not merely chess pieces moved about by God. Free will works both ways. Characters in The Stand are free to choose to act in ways that advance God’s good plan or that work against it.

At a pivotal and deadly moment, a voice is heard saying, “This is Harold Emery Lauder speaking. I do this of my own free will.” Harold in particular struggles with who he is and who he will be and especially who he will serve. There are multiple times when Harold is portrayed grappling with his choices . . . with his will.

When Mother Abigail sends the small band west to confront Randall Flagg, those who have been selected for the quest ask if they have a choice. She answers, “There’s always a choice. That’s God’s way, always will be. Your will is still free. Do as you will. There’s no set of leg-irons on you. But . . . that is what God wants of you.”

It is of course in Mother Abigail that God most plainly shows up in The Stand. She is the book’s Moses. She is the reluctant prophet and leader of a people in the wilderness:

Her place was not to judge God, although she wished He hadn’t seen fit to set the cup before her lips that He had. But when it came to the matter of judgment, she was satisfied with the answer God had given Moses from the burning bush when Moses had seen fit to question. Who are you? Moses ask, and God comes back from the bush just as pert as you like: I Am, Who I AM. In other words, Moses, stop beatin’ round this here bush and get your old ass in gear.

Like Moses, she is frustrated by the people she has been called to lead and even more aggravated with God. She rails against the apparent cruelty of God, found in the Bible especially in the Old Testament:

I have harbored hate of the Lord in my heart. Every man or woman who loves Him, they hate Him too, because He’s a hard God, a jealous God, He Is, what He Is, and in this world He’s apt to repay service with pain while those who do evil ride over the roads in Cadillac cars. Even the joy of serving Him is a bitter joy. ‘Abby,’ the Lord says to me, ‘there’s work for you to do far up ahead. . .  And in the end, your reward will be to go away with strangers from all the things you love best and you’ll die in a strange land with the work not yet finished. That’s my will, Abby,’ says He, and ‘Yes Lord,’ says I, “Thy will be done,’ and in my heart I curse Him and ask ‘why, why why?’ and then the only answer I get is ‘Where were you when I made the world?’”

Not only do clear Mosaic references abound in that short excerpt, but also The Garden of Gethsemane and Job get thrown in for good measure. In fact The Stand echoes Job’s struggle with suffering throughout – within the overarching battle between good and evil (a bet between God and Satan in Job), people suffer.

Like Moses, Mother Abigail is not allowed to see the end of the journey. Moses was denied entry into the Promised Land because he takes credit for bringing water from a rock; Mother Abigail similarly identifies her sin as pride. Neither Moses nor Mother Abigail’s fate seems fair, but God’s ways are not our ways, etc.

But God in The Stand is more than the apparently cruel and capricious God of the Old Testament.

There is real grace in The Stand.  And faith.  As a Lutheran Christian – saved by grace through faith – those themes certainly resonated.

In an interview with Salon Magazine, King said he wrote The Stand “to explore what it means to be able to rise above adversity by faith, because it’s something most of us do every day. We may not call it Christianity. I wanted to do that, I wanted it to be a God trip.”

The heroes in The Stand are not chosen because they are exceptional. They do not have super powers or great intelligence or especially great faith. At least two of them are professed atheists/agnostics. But God uses them anyway, and by the time of the climactic confrontation those who make the stand against evil not only have received the gift of faith but publicly share it.

One of them, just before he dies, even echoes Jesus on the cross (“Father forgive them, for they know not what they do”) when he says to the man about to kill him, “That’s all right . . . You don’t know any better.”

God may not always prevent suffering, but God graciously gives those he allows to suffer faith and it is ultimately faith that saves the world. Or at least what’s left of America.

Sacrifice is at the heart of Christianity. The sacrifice of Jesus is central to salvation. Followers of Jesus are called to sacrifice to further their faith as well as the kingdom.

Sacrifice is at the heart of The Stand. Ultimately it is sacrifice that will be called for to defeat evil. Characters who desire to serve good are called to sacrifice.

As in the Christian narrative, strength is embodied in weakness.

The character that most embodies the Christian journey is Larry Underwood. He is clearly, in Christian parlance, a “sinner.” Or, in the words he keeps hearing in his head, he knows “You ain’t no nice guy.”  But Larry is refined through the crucible of the plague and its aftermath. He takes a harrowing hike through a long tunnel filled with corpses and comes out the other side. He completes a purifying walk in the wilderness before fulfilling his purpose. Larry’s problem is that he is human – he is flawed, especially in his selfishness. But over the course of the book he becomes someone God can use. More surprising, he develops into someone who is willingly used despite the possible – probable – consequences.

Larry and the others who make up the heroic band in The Stand ultimately embody an essential element of Christian theology precisely because they are so human, so absolutely unheroic. Throughout the Bible unremarkable people are used by God to do great things – the little shepherd boy who grows up to be Israel’s greatest king (David), the fishermen who follow Jesus and spread the Gospel (the disciples), and on and on. The characters whose God-given quest is to defeat the evil embodied in Randall Flagg are of the same ilk.

Of course the Hero of the Bible is similarly non-descript. It is a baby placed in an animal feeding trough after he is born to a poor family in occupied territory who would grow up to save the world. Because He does not appear in The Stand, it would go to far to say that it is a “Christian novel.” But certainly the themes it explores are most certainly Christian, and it can provide an interesting and unexpected starting point for discussion of those themes.

Especially, perhaps, during Advent.


A word of caution . . . The Stand is a secular book written by a secular author. As with most Stephen King books, there is violence, gore, sexual situations, and language that may be offensive. Please take your own sensibilities into consideration if you are thinking about reading the book . . . in other words, don’t blame me if you find it offensive. Despite all that, it remains one of my favorite books. Your mileage may vary . . .

Posted in Bible, Christian Living, Christianity, Christianity and Culture, Faith | Tagged , , , , | 2 Comments

After the Election: A Pastoral Letter

Like many congregations, the people I serve as pastor are of diverse opinions about politics . . . and many other subjects. After the election last week, I wrote this letter to the congregation, emphasizing our unity in baptism and in mission. It was distributed in worship on Sunday, as well as by e-mail . . .


“Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn.” – Romans 12:15

Dear Christ Lutheran family,

What a week, huh? We have experienced democracy in action and can certainly be thankful we live in a country where we have a voice in the leadership and direction of our government. On this Veterans Day weekend, we are reminded voting is among our freedoms that have been defended by those who have offered themselves in service to our country. Let us thank God together for their service, past and present.

The election results portend change in our government and its policies.

But the election changes nothing in our church.

Just as before the election, we are a congregation of Democrats, Republicans, Greens, Libertarians, Independents, and those of other affiliations or no interest at all in politics. I believe that is a good thing. God does not fit in the box of any political party (or nation for that matter). The way a person votes – or doesn’t vote – doesn’t make them any more or less a Christian than anyone else.

We are stronger as a congregation because of the diversity of opinions about how to live out our faith. We can learn from each other.

But we must listen to each other, and otherwise put our love for one another into action.

In his explanation of the Eighth Commandment, Martin Luther writes that as Christians we are called to “speak well (of our neighbor) and to explain everything in the kindest way.” That is especially important regarding those with whom we disagree. What we must not do is impugn the motives – or the faith – of sisters and brothers who have come to different conclusions.

The Romans verse above  encourages God’s people to “rejoice with those who rejoice” and to “mourn with those who mourn.” It is a call for empathy based in a desire to understand the feelings of those with different reactions to the election. Please be patient with those who mourn; grief is a process with no set time period.

The reality is that we are united not because of our politics or our nationality, or by our ethnicity or any other human construct. We are united at the Cross.

We are not Christians because of how we vote . . . or because of anything else we do.

We are Christians because of what God in Christ has done for us, a gift of life and salvation that became ours in the waters of baptism.

We are saved not by government but by grace.

Now, as before the election, we are God’s people in this place and time, called to Gather, Grow, and GO! [1] We have work to do together, living out our faith in ministries within – and especially outside – the church.  No matter our opinions about the role of government, we the people of the church are called to joyful work like feeding the hungry, lifting up the poor, caring for and about the sick and imprisoned, and speaking up for those on the margins of society.

This week has evidenced some of the differences that exist among Christians, but has also given us the opportunity to be an example of how to live together – and minister together – not just acknowledging our diversity of opinions but celebrating the fact that we are united in Christ.

Christ’s peace,
Pastor Dave

[1] Our church Mission Statement is, “Empowered by the Holy Spirit, We Gather, Grow, and GO!”

Posted in Christian Living, Christianity, Church, Political | Tagged , , , | 2 Comments

A Millennial’s View: The Unexpected Pastor’s Daughter on the Election

11760138_10207280306031984_6362984565707607752_n-1My 19-year old daughter posted on Facebook last evening a reflection that struck me with its clarity of thought, honesty, and charity . . . more charitable, if I’m honest, than I feel like being right now (although I’m working on it). But sometimes children set the example for their parents. I asked her if I could share her post on my blog, and she said “Yes.” So here it is, unedited by her proud dad . . . 

*deep breath* Okay. Hi friends. I haven’t really posted any of my own thoughts on the election besides videos and posts that I’ve shared, so here goes…

I’m going to start off by saying that to anyone reading this who voted for Trump…it’s okay. I still love and respect you, and an election is not going to change that. I am not going to sit here and call you a racist, or a sexist, or homophobic, or Islamophobic. I’m not going to classify you as a deplorable. And I’m also not going to threaten to unfriend you. I refuse to do any of these things because for one, these actions, to me, would be giving in to the very hatred and divisiveness that I was so against and afraid of happening with this election in the first place; and two, because I simply know that this isn’t true about so many of you. A lot of you happen to be some of my closest friends, who I know very well to be some of the most caring, loving, and accepting people I know. I refuse to let any of that go because of our political choice. Sure, I disagree with you, but first and foremost, I will not stop loving and respecting you as a person.

And here’s the thing, guys. (Yes, I’m talking to everyone now.) Donald J. Trump has been elected to be the 45th president of the United States. Donald J. Trump IS, as much as it pains me to say it, going to be our 45th president of the United States. And I know, I hate it. The man who, as a kid, I just thought of as “the big, mean man who fires people on TV,” is now going to rule our country. And you know what else? I’m absolutely terrified. So many people in our country right now are terrified, and with very good reason. The LGBTQIA community is terrified that their basic human rights are at stake. Our vice president-elect believes in shock therapy, for gods sake. I have several friends who are terrified of being separated from their families, due to our president-elect’s stance on immigration. I have black friends who are terrified of leaving their homes because of the fear and hatred that this election has instilled in people. Muslim women are afraid to wear their hijab in public. Parents are terrified of what it is they’re supposed to tell their children. They’re terrified of sending them to school, where bullying and racism has spiked. Me, I’m terrified of what happens when Obamacare is done away with completely. I’m terrified, what with my “pre-existing condition,” of the prospect of not being able to receive health insurance, and knowing full well that I won’t be able to afford the $30,000 treatments that I need to receive every six weeks, not even including any of my other medications. Our country is absolutely terrified.

But again, like it or not, Donald J. Trump is going to be president. Unless by some miracle the electoral college votes otherwise, it’s going to happen. And I think that, for right now, what our country truly needs is unity. I’ve seen so much hatred and fighting being spread in these past fifteen months due to this election. I’ve watched close friends become enemies, and people from both parties say some really nasty, hurtful things. But the election is over now. The votes have been cast, and the winner has been decided. Like it or not, we need to begin the path to acceptance. I think Hilary Clinton said it well in her concession speech on Wednesday:

“Donald Trump is going to be our president. We owe him an open mind and the chance to lead. Our constitutional democracy enshrines the peaceful transfer of power and we don’t just respect that, we cherish it … I count my blessings every single day that I am an American. And I still believe as deeply as I ever have that if we stand together with respect for our differences, strength in our convictions and love for this nation, our best days are still ahead of us.”

I’m holding on to the belief that the majority of people who voted for Trump are not the hateful, racist, bigoted people that have been described in the media. In fact, I think a lot of the people who voted for him would be just as scared as we are right now if Hilary was elected. (Mind you, I am not making any kind of statement on whether that fear would be justified or not.) I think that our country is snowballing so quickly into hatred on both sides, and I think that we all owe it to ourselves to take a deep breath. Nothing is going to be fixed if we stay divided. Donald Trump is not going to succeed if we don’t show him any ounce of respect or support. I believe it is time right now to come together and begin loving our neighbors, no matter what side we were on in the election. As President Obama said after meeting with our new president-elect, “I believe that it is important for all of us, regardless of party and regardless of political preferences, to now come together, work together, to deal with the many challenges that we face.” And to Trump he went on to say, “Most of all, I want to emphasize to you, Mr. President-elect, that we now are going to want to do everything we can to help you succeed — because if you succeed, then the country succeeds.”

I am not saying that we need to stop speaking up and fighting for what is right. I am not saying that it’s time to give up. I am saying that it is time to accept what cannot be undone, and to work with what we have, and that is each other. The fight is not over, but the hatred needs to end. We need to love our neighbors, and work together to achieve a better America.

I respect Donald Trump and his supporters, and I pray that he makes good decisions, and that he really will, as he claims he will do, work for the American people. (And by the American people, I mean everyone, no matter race, religion, sexual orientation, gender, or otherwise.)

And if anyone needs someone to talk to, or someone who will just listen, I am here for you. I’m scared too, and I love you, and I support you. ❤️

 


 

NOTE: Before anyone quibbles about the title, I realize her birth year of 1997 does not put her in what is universally considered the Millennial generation. Here is my source for determining the delineation of US generations.

 

 

Posted in Christian Living, Christianity, Political | Tagged , , , , | 8 Comments