“I’m Not Very Religious”

I met her at the door after worship. This young adult had come to church at the behest of a family member. If enduring the service wasn’t bad enough, now there was no clear path to the exit;  she had to wait in a line of church people to greet the pastor.

I introduced myself to the young woman and noticed her piercings and tattoos. She probably thought I was judging her, but what I was thinking was, “This is just the kind of person we need to get into church to hear how much God loves her!”

She made it clear it really wasn’t her idea to be there.

I just said I was glad she was with us.

She set her face to get out the door – I’m not sure if she was more uncomfortable to be talking to a pastor or to be holding up the line of parishioners behind her.

She had one more comment. “I’m not very religious.” It came out something between an admission and a dismissal, with just a hint of challenge.

I hope my answer surprised her. “Neither am I.”

Then she was gone.

I didn’t have a chance to explain that I meant my faith is in what God has done for me – and for her – not in religion.

I didn’t get the opportunity to say that religion is about following the rules to get God to love us.

Following Jesus is knowing God already loves us and definitively demonstrated that love in the suffering and death of the cross.

I didn’t get the chance to tell her religion is about getting to God.

But Jesus came to us. God always comes to us.

Most of all, I didn’t get a chance to tell her that God just loves her. Period. Because that’s who God is.

And that there is nothing she needs to do to earn or to keep God’s love and salvation.

It’s all been done for her.

And for me.

That ain’t religion.

That’s grace.

Posted in Church, Pastors, Christianity, Lutheran Theology | Tagged , , , , | 9 Comments

“What Do You Preach about at a Same-Gender Wedding?”

buttonThis past Saturday on a bright beautiful blue-sky fall afternoon next to the glistening Chesapeake Bay, I had the privilege of presiding at a same-gender wedding for the third time.

 I hope someday to lose count.

 I hope, as someone said during one of the toasts at Saturday’s reception, that as the novelty wears off we will talk only of “weddings” without hyphens.

 As a culture we have not reached that point.

Not too long ago, I was asked, “What do you preach about at a same-gender wedding?” (Actually, they asked about a “gay wedding,” but since all weddings are in theory gay – of course I mean in the original sense of the word – I’ve cleared up the phraseology.)

 My short answer: Jesus

 A longer answer: The good news about Jesus Christ (the Gospel).

 The same thing I preach at every wedding, funeral, and every other worship service.

 A little more specific: How every marriage is a reflection of God’s love in Christ in a relationship of two people.

 Every wedding service celebrates the love of two people while acknowledging and worshiping the Source of love.

At the wedding Saturday, I did not refer in the service, including the homily,  to the same-gender nature of the wedding. That was my silent stab at stepping toward a day when such services are simply “weddings.”

 And here, if you’d like the longest answer of all, is an excerpt from the homily I preached at last Saturday’s wedding. Feel free to stop reading now because I’ve answered the question in this post’s title. You’re not obligated to stick around like the poor souls in the congregation that day who, like those seeking a meal at a mission, had to wait through the sermon to get to the food. But if you’re interested . . .

– – – – –

Ecclesiastes 4:9-12
Romans 12:9-18

Every wedding is a miracle. It’s a miracle that out of all the people in the world, you each have found someone you want to share your life with. Who knew when you first worked together, you would end up in this beautiful spot on this gorgeous day, celebrating your love for each other and acknowledging the Source of all love?

Marriage is a miracle.  Two people living together is not always easy. A couple in our congregation recently celebrated their 65th year of being married – now THAT is a miracle!

 What is it that makes the miracle of marriage possible? The obvious answer is LOVE.  But that’s too easy, really. Love is too often minimized as a mere feeling. But what makes the miracle of marriage happen is love as a verb – love in action.

 This is the first time a couple has selected our Romans text for a wedding I’ve officiated. So I had to really work this week. As I researched this passage, I found some scholars have labeled it “The Christian Life in Action” or something like that. That’s appropriate, because this passage is about love and love is the essence of the Christian life – like the old hymn says, the world should know we are Christians by our love.

 But as I looked at Paul’s words here in Romans 12, I realized they work well as  sort of Christian wedding vows. You can break the first few verses into 10 simple principles . . .

I should never give a number because if you’re like me, you’ll be counting them as I go through them. “He’s on 8 . . . we’re that much closer to the reception.” Anyway . . .

  1.  Love must be sincere – what is sincere love? It is love that is genuine; your actions are congruent with your words. Sincere love loves a person for who they are, not who we hope they will be. Sincere love helps the marriage partner become the best version of themselves, and it does not try to change them into something they are not.
  2. Look away from what is evil and cling to what is good – Pay attention to what you like about the person to whom your married. I used to teach parenting classes and would talk about how much easier it is to see when someone hasn’t done something than it is when they have – a messy room stands out more than a clean one. Focusing on what is good takes intent, but it is much more fulfilling in the long run than finding fault.  And it keeps passion in the love relationship.
  3. Be devoted to each other – Many marriages falter because the couple starts to take each other for granted. How can you make each other and your relationship a priority? Does your calendar reflect that priority? Karen and I have learned to schedule a date night each week – if for some reason our usual Friday evening doesn’t work, we find another time to devote to each other.
  4. Honor one another before yourselves – I said this in a sermon last week – being a Christian is not about getting our rights, it is being concerned about the rights of others. Jesus certainly was not concerned about his own rights when he allowed himself to be killed on a cross. Hopefully you won’t need to go that far, but if each member of a married couple looks out for the rights of the other, that is the picture of a lasting marriage.
  5. Be joyful in hope – have FUN together! Again, marriage is a lot of work and it is easy to forget the importance of play and laughter. Those are holy gifts of God!
  6. Be patient in affliction – You have been together for a while, but I tell all newly married couples that although they may not believe it now, there will be a time when they get on each other’s nerves and may not be as excited about the whole marriage thing as they are on their wedding day. Patience begins with understanding the reality that we are all flawed and have things about us that make us hard to live with – you can ask Karen about mine at the reception – but the miracle of marriage is that with patience we can endure – and enjoy – each other’s company for years and years.
  7. Do not repay anyone evil for evil – Forgiveness is HARD. It goes against our nature. It is counter-cultural – what Paul says here about not repaying evil is directly opposite “Don’t get mad, get even.” But when two people who share their lives hold onto grudges, resentment corrodes the relationship. Remember, forgiveness is as much – or maybe even more – for the forgiver. We imprison ourselves in cells of resentment, and deprive ourselves of the true companionship and sharing of marriage.
  8. Finally, (If you’re counting, I’m really only doing 8 . . . I figure that way it will seem shorter if you’re expecting 10. It’s my  gift to all of you.) Be faithful in prayer – I don’t know how that is possible to do all this stuff consistently without a strong relationship with the Author of Love.  That means being intentional about keeping your faith strong – worshiping together, learning together from God’s Word, and perhaps most importantly, praying for and with each other.  I know my marriage feels strongest when Karen and I are taking time to seek God’s will together, and when we are faithful about praying for each other.  Christian marriage is not just a unity of two people, it is complete only if God is truly and consistently a part of the relationship.  That’s what the end of the Ecclesiastes reading is about with its three-cord rope.

In summary, the kind of love that undergirds life-giving and lasting marriages is the love that Jesus spoke of at the last supper:  “Love each other as I have loved you.”  It’s important to know the context here – Jesus is speaking to His disciples on the last night He will spend with them before He is crucified.

At that meal he washed the disciples’ feet. I’m not recommending that as a marriage practice but it shows what Jesus was willing to do to show his disciples that he loved them. The next day he would show them how far he was willing to go.

Jesus didn’t just talk about love and how to love, He LIVED IT.  Jesus loved sacrificially, selflessly. In the Greek in which the New Testament was written the word for that kind of love is AGAPE.

. .  .

This is my prayer for you, Pete and Jim  – may you be bound to each other and to God by Agape love.  It is God who created you IN love, it is God who brought you together TO love, and it is God who will sustain you THROUGH love as you go forth into your life together putting love into action.


NOTE: The couple’s names were changed.

Posted in Bible, Christianity, LGBTQ, marriage equality, Sermon | Tagged , , , | 2 Comments

The Trumptape: Silence is Assent

BushTrump.jpgI have certainly heard the reprehensible attitudes expressed by Donald Trump and Billy Bush in their taped 2005 conversation.

But not in any “locker room.”

Mr. Trump and Mr. Bush echo the misogynistic mindset of many sexual offenders I dealt with when I was a probation officer. Inherent in the recorded dialogue is the idea that women really want men to assault them – to kiss them and grab them without consent – as well as the entitlement to women’s bodies fundamental to a male superiority mentality.

As a Christian and a pastor, my first response is repentance. I repent not because I have or have ever subscribed to an ethos that encourages or excuses such violent words and actions toward women, but because the church of which I am a part has actively and implicitly been a party to the minimization and marginalization of women’s roles and capabilities. Much of the church is still mired in chauvinistic belief, using bits and pieces of Scripture to justify patriarchal systems.

It is a short step from declaring that even God believes men are the superior sex to entitled enactment of that supposed superiority in word and deed.

Perhaps that is why it has been so easy for media savvy “Christian leaders” to brush off Trump’s misogynistic ramblings and proclaim their continued support for his campaign. Jesus in the wilderness was able to resist the temptation to bow down to evil in exchange for earthly power; would that these “leaders” would do the same. I am not even talking about their support for Mr. Trump’s campaign in general, but simply calling for an unqualified disavowal of the misogyny so plainly on display in the taped conversation.

Especially disappointing is someone like James Dobson, who has spoken out forcefully against the scourge of pornography, emphasizing (correctly, I believe) its objectification of women. Certainly that same depersonalization is unmistakably expressed in Mr. Trump’s conversation.

In their “yes . . . but” reactions to Mr. Trump’s conversation with Mr. Bush, these very public Christian leaders are not only affirming Christian men (and sadly, women) who believe the Bible gives them license to lord themselves over women, but also confirming the belief of many outside the church that Christians are just a bunch of hypocrites.

The misogynistic mindset expressed in the conversation between Mr. Trump and Mr. Bush must  be called out by Christian leaders – and all men – without qualifying the condemnation with “everyone else does it” or “someone else did it worse.”

It has been distressing to read the enabling responses to the conversation. Representative is the reaction of the Chairman of the Virginia Republican Party, Corey Stewart. Mr. Stewart said Mr. Trump “acted like a frat boy, as a lot of guys do.”  Setting aside the reality that Mr. Trump is no “frat boy” (he was 58 at the time of the recording), that Mr. Stewart believes “a lot of guys” not only subscribe to those opinions but act on them is cause for concern. It is even more worrisome if Mr. Stewart is right, but I do not believe he is. Perhaps in Mr. Stewart’s circles these statements and actions are held by “a lot of guys,” but that is hopefully more indicative of his choice of associates than of reality.

But, whether it is a majority or “a lot” or even a few men, we cannot implicitly condone these attitudes and actions by positing that they are widespread. That is reason for action, not approval.

Even some of those who have condemned Mr. Trump’s remarks have evidenced a foundation of male superiority. Senator Paul Ryan said he was “sickened” by the recording, and that women should be “celebrated and revered.” I hope what Mr. Ryan meant was that women should be respected and valued in the same ways as men.

Even more distressing has been the reaction of women who countenance Mr. Trump’s behavior. In surveying comments on articles, posts, and tweets, I have seen too many women react with, “All the men I know talk/feel like that. What’s the big deal?”  I can only imagine what has transpired in the lives of those women to crush their self-worth. I can only imagine the effect of the misogynistic men in their lives.

That is why men especially have the responsibility to say “Enough! This is NOT how we are going to treat women and we are not going to tolerate men who do.” To excuse these statements and attitudes in any way only serves not only to further the marginalization and objectification of women but especially to normalize sexual assault and rape culture.

When I wrote about Brock Turner and indicted rape culture, one of the reactions I received was, “What rape culture? I don’t see any rape culture.”

Well, here it is . . . embodied in Billy Bush. His approving, snickering, encouragement of Mr. Trump’s misogyny is rape culture incarnate. “I didn’t say/do those things to/about women, so my hands are clean.”

As “clean” as Pilate’s.

To stay silent about the content and underlying ethos of Mr. Trump’s recorded remarks leaves one’s hands similarly “clean.”

Posted in Christianity, Church, Faith | Tagged , , , , | 8 Comments

Black Lives Matter: A 21st Century Beatitude?


Jesus kicked off the Sermon on the Mount with the beatitudes. “Blessed are the poor in spirit . . .”

A guy on the mount interrupted Jesus. “Hey! ALL lives are blessed!”

Jesus ignored him. “For theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”

The heckler again horned in. “The kingdom of heaven belongs to EVERYBODY!”

And so it went through the beatitudes, Jesus identifying those who are blessed – those who mourn, those who hunger for righteousness, the meek, the merciful, the persecuted, and so on – and the guy interrupting him each time.

Of course it didn’t happen that way. According to Matthew Chapters five through seven, Jesus was allowed to get through the entire Sermon on the Mount without interruption.

But how would he have responded to such a challenge?

Based on his teaching and ministry, I imagine Jesus’ reply would have been something like this. In Aramaic, of course:

“Dude, did I say ONLY those types of people are blessed?

“Of course not!

“If you’ve been paying attention to what I’ve been saying and doing, you know that I have come especially to remind those on the margins – the least, the lost, the last, and the left out – that they are indeed blessed. That they matter to God.

“For what does ‘blessed’ mean but to matter to God?

“Do you know your Scriptures? All through the Law and the Prophets, over and over my Father commanded the people of Israel to care for the orphans, the widows, and the immigrants. Do you think that means those are the only people who matter to God?

“Of course not!

“But both the Scriptures and I take special care to remind those who may feel God has forgotten them that they matter, and to remind YOU that they should matter to you. That does not mean you matter any less. However, if you are my follower then you are to also remind the diminished and the disparaged that they matter; that they are indeed blessed.

“Or, to put it another way, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.'”

And then maybe Jesus would tell the Parable of the Good Samaritan. In which one of the lessons is, of course, that Samaritan lives matter. As do the lives of those who have been robbed and beaten and left by the road.

To which the guy on the mount might reply, “All lives matter.”

And Jesus would just shake his head. But still love that guy because even the lives of those who don’t get it matter to God.

Posted in Christian Living, Christianity, Racism | Tagged , , , , | 2 Comments

The Unexpected Pastor Goes to Camp

Mar Lu Ridge Chapel View

View from Mar Lu Ridge Chapel

What does hope look like?

For me last week it looked like 70-some young people, from 8 years old through high school age, singing crazy camp songs, laughing, learning, and listening to camp stories, swimming and zip-lining and sitting in circles sharing questions – tough questions – during “Ask the Pastor” small group Bible Study time.

Hope looked like a dozen or so young adults serving as camp counselors, enthusiastic even when they were exhausted, patient with the diversity of their campers’ needs and quirks and fears, not just teaching but modeling what unconditional love looks like.

And all of it – whether it was silly or exciting, new or passed down through the generations, quiet or top-of-your-lungs loud – all of it based on the foundation of God’s love in Christ.

It was my privilege to spend last Sunday through Friday as “Pastor of the Week” at Mar Lu Ridge Lutheran Summer Camp.

I left for camp basted in the bad news that has been so pervasive lately, and certainly there was more it while I was there. But being with those young people – campers and counselors – experiencing God’s creation and God’s love and yes, God’s FUN – was a hope recharger. At the end of the week I was thanked and given a Camp Mar Lu Ridge baseball shirt in recognition of the chapels I spoke at and the Bible studies I helped with, but I was the real recipient of a gift – of grace.

The gift of hope.

I also had my conviction renewed in the importance of camps and other opportunities to get young people out of their element, to get them away from the comforts of modernity I certainly appreciate but which sometimes shield us from the glories of the natural world, and to get them away from media that threatens to fill our minds, hearts, and even spirits to overflowing with human-generated artifice so there is no room left for organic awe and wonder, and even for unmediated interaction.

My belief in the transformative power of transitory immersion in creation predates my belief in a Creator. When I was an atheist/agnostic in my twenties I worked for two years as a counselor at a secular Wilderness Camp for troubled youth. The young men who spent a year or more in our intensive program became part of a group that built the structures they lived in, took weeks’ long backpack and canoe trips, and chopped a lot of firewood to get through the winters in the North Carolina mountains.  The camp – and others like it – had the lowest recidivism rate of any residential program in the state, an achievement attributable not just to the structure of the program but especially to the nature (pun intended) of the environment in which the program took place.

A few years later when I was working as a Juvenile Probation Officer, I was part of a multi-agency team that held “Family Nurturing Camp” weekends.  We designed a program (I say “we” but I only was responsible for the adolescent small group piece) that combined parent education and camp activities. The camp served families with children at risk of out of home placement, and even a weekend in the woods served as at least a foundation for transformation for many of those families.

Now that I am a Christian and a pastor, to combine my faith in camp programs with my faith in Christ is something I can get excited about. But until I spent last week at summer camp, I had not realized – or perhaps had forgotten – how important and effective this combination can be.

Because of my adolescent falling away from faith, I had almost forgotten the two summers I spent a week each at Camp Hanover, a Presbyterian camp in Virginia. But last week the memories returned of those experiences in the summers following my fifth and sixth grade years.

Some examples:

  • Torches! The second year my group had a counselor from England who told us the first day that later in the week we would be taking a “night-hike with torches!” The anticipation built as we pictured walking through the dark woods, our way illuminated only by the fiery sticks we held aloft. Imagine our disappointment when we found out “torch” was only British for “flashlight.” The night hike was still pretty cool, though.
  • Crush! My first exquisitely painful crush focused on a blonde-haired little girl in my group who obviously had no interest in me. That was of course only because she didn’t know of my deep feelings for her. I decided only a grand gesture would do. On the last day of camp, when it was her turn to ride on the tire swing that arced out over a chasm that probably is not as deep as my memory of it, I would jump on the swing with her when it swung back to the ridge from which it was launched. Unfortunately, my fear of heights exceeded my fear of girls and my love remained undeclared.
  • Protest! I did not like Crafts. I wanted more time on the Mudslide, a hill covered in mud (obviously) with bobsled-like ruts you slid down into a pond. That was definitely one of the best things about Camp, and for me Crafts was not, both due to my ineptitude with tools and the lameness of the craft options in those days. But my rebellion was short-lived and utterly failed.
  • C. S. Lewis! Each afternoon during quiet time, a female counselor read a chapter to our group from a book in the Chronicles of Narnia series. I still remember the feeling of the pen strokes on the back of my hand as she wrote “Prince Caspian” on the day we had to leave so I could find and finish the book when I got home. I did. I would go on to read all the Narnia books and two decades later when I returned to faith the theological books of C. S. Lewis would be a tremendous influence. I first heard of him at summer camp, a seed of faith that would not germinate for years.

Who knows what other seeds of faith were planted in those two weeks at Camp Hanover? I remember bits and pieces of chapel services – a counselor talking about the hands God had given her and what she could do with them if she thought of them as God’s hands, a skit about racial prejudice (which would have been quite radical for mid-70’s Virginia), singing “Pass It On” at campfire worship, and so on.

Camp Hanover then – like Mar Lu Ridge now – was not an institution of indoctrination like you may have seen in the documentary film“Jesus Camp.” God was not – and is not – forced down campers’ throats but rather acknowledged and honored as the creator of the natural world in which the camp exists and as an abiding, unconditionally loving presence in the lives of campers and counselors. Participation and even questions are not only allowed but encouraged during Bible studies.

At Mar Lu Ridge, Bible studies happen two or three times a day within groups. They focus not on doctrinal purity but rather on campers’ experience of God during their time at camp as well as in their “normal” lives. There is something about the separateness of camp from those normal lives, something about unfettered engagement with creation, that facilitates a deeper connection with God. God just seems nearer and more real somehow in the majesty of the mountain views, in the refreshment of a summer breeze, in the crackling of a campfire and the chorus of campers singing around it.

The loving presence of God is also expressed in the compassionate care of counselors and other camp staff.  The counselors in particular embodied empathy and grace as they wiped away tears, assuaged fears, built group cohesion, negotiated peace between temporary enemies, and responded to the myriad and ongoing needs of young people away from home, many for the first time.

I was impressed by these young adults, some a third of my age (18×3=54). I told someone that I felt both very young and very old during my week at camp. But where else can a young adult have so much responsibility, and have the opportunity to undertake it as admirably as the counselors I met at Mar Lu Ridge? Where else can those barely above camper age themselves build relationships with young people and be looked up to as role models, and also influence their spiritual life not just at camp but also by planting seeds of faith for the future?

Those counselors will undoubtedly be leaders in our churches and in our communities. I have read that a good percentage of pastors and other church leaders were campers and/or counselors in church camps. It is no wonder many were counselors; what an opportunity to put faith in action caring for others!

All of this serious stuff is not to negate perhaps THE essential of the camp experience. FUN!  If it wasn’t fun then no one would show up for the other stuff. And it is fun. I did not hear a young person all week claim that they weren’t having a good time. Fun was evident in their smiles and in their laughter, in their singing and dancing and overall joy.

Songs and skits are at the heart of fun at camp, and there were no shortage of them at Mar Lu Ridge complete with motions and dancing and verses that get faster and louder. Some of them have been around for a long while; I remembered “The Rattlin’ Bog” and some others from Camp Hanover! The skits were of the same type as well, except there are more fart jokes than I remember . . . but I’m sure that’s okay at a Christian camp because after all Jesus was fully human and I can picture him and the disciples around the fire at night . . . well maybe not. Anyway . . .

Last week in addition to general camp fun, last week there were several specialized groups. There was a cooking group (who named themselves the Crazy Dabbing Cupcake Unicorn Chefs) easily identifiable by their tall white chef’s hats. I particularly liked this group as they shared their culinary creations at dinner each evening; the Teddy Bear Bread was excellent, and the S’mores Ice Cream Cake was the biggest frozen dessert I’ve seen off a cruise ship.

Another group participated in Science Camp, with experiments including “How many rubber bands can you wrap around a watermelon until it bursts?” and incasing themselves in huge bubbles.  There was also an Adventure Camp Group that I didn’t see much of because they were off white water rafting or hiking or otherwise testing their mettle against the challenges of nature.

About halfway through the week, a counselor asked me what impressed me most about camp. I answered it was the fun. I think he was surprised so I explained that we in the church have made the mistake of divorcing fun from Christianity. Too often our religion is a dour affair especially for children with so many rules – don’t run in church, don’t talk in church, don’t dress too comfortable for church,  take your hat off in church, sit up straight and pay attention in church – that it is a wonder any young person sticks with it once they have a choice.

Jesus undoubtedly knew how to have fun.  He was fully human, not just the solemn parts. His first miracle was at a wedding party (turning water into wine).  Jesus was the kind of person you invited to parties. People liked to be around him. I doubt if he was serious all the time.

What Mar Lu Ridge and similar camps do is demonstrate, through the opportunity to experience it, that following Jesus can be fun, at least sometimes. Christians do not have to conform to H. L. Mencken’s definition of puritanism (“The haunting belief that someone, somewhere may be having a good time.”).

At summer camp, young people internalize not rules but JOY as the center of our relationship with God.  Rules are important – they keep us safe and help us get along with each other – but they are for us not us for them (as Jesus said about the Sabbath).  Learning that is a great gift, one that is given by the camp program and by those who make it happen.

I had the privilege of being one of those people last week. Sort of. It was my first time as Pastor of the Week, and I hadn’t been to summer camp since those two weeks at Camp Hanover 40-some years ago (yeah, I am old – Nixon resigned during one of those weeks). I wasn’t always sure what I was doing. A lot of my time was unstructured and my introverted nature kicked in so I wasn’t as involved in as many activities as I might have been. I also took some time each afternoon to write (my book, Too Smart for God will be finished this summer!), which was an awesome opportunity but I’m sure I missed some stuff by doing that.

But what I did participate in and see was more than enough to convince me, or re-convince me, that camp programs are one of the best things churches and denominations do for their young people and for the future – and present – of those churches and denominations.  I am blessed to be part of a Synod (equivalent to districts, presbyteries, etc. in other denominations) – the Delaware Maryland Synod of the ELCA – that prioritizes the Christian camp experience through its support of Mar Lu Ridge.

As I reflect on my week at Mar Lu Ridge, two specific encounters with campers, both on the last day, stand out.

One is the camper who told me at the closing cookout, “I had so much fun this week I actually forgot I was an atheist for a while.” My prayer for that young person is that they will remember – someday – how much God loves them. Like it did for me, that may take a while but it sounds like seeds for that epiphany may have indeed been planted during the week at camp.

The second thing that happened was at the closing worship service with campers, parents and staff present. Not having done Pastor of the Week before, I wondered all week if anyone was listening to my talks at chapels or the other pastorly things I did, especially in light of my inexperience in that environment.

At the closing chapel I had the opportunity to speak again. I addressed the parents, telling them campers had asked great questions during “Ask the Pastor” Bible Studies and encouraged them to encourage their young people to keep asking questions because that’s how they’d learn. Then I turned my attention to the campers, ending by quoting the assistant director of the camp I worked at in my 20’s who always said to young people who left that camp after a year, “Go home and make home a better place because you are there.”

When I was done, I again wondered if what I had said had been appropriate for the situation and thought maybe the campers had tuned me out by now.

Later, it was time for one of the campers, not much older than 10, to pray. His prayer? Basically, “God, help us keep learning about you and help us make home better.”

At least one person was listening!  Maybe I planted a seed or two during my week at camp.

If I did, I’m sure it was the environment and not me, but it felt good, anyway.

It was part of that gift of hope I talked about at the beginning of the post.  It is a gift not just for me, but for the campers and their families, and for the staff, and for everyone (and every church) who makes the camp happen through their time, talent, and financial resources.

Posted in Bible, Christian Living, Christianity, Church, ELCA, Faith, Lutheran, Pastors | Tagged , , , , | 3 Comments

Deconstructing the Narthex

Last Sunday I removed the narthex from the church I serve.

Some of you may be wondering, “What’s a narthex?” It is for you that our narthex was eliminated.

In a church building, the narthex is the entrance lobby, the room where one enters and is greeted (hopefully) before going into the worship space.

To be clear, I did not physically demolish our church narthex. It’s still there.

I performed a semantic renovation. And, I hope, sparked a perceptual reformation in our church.

At both worship services, I announced that I had stricken the word “narthex” from my vocabulary. From now on, I will call the lobby . . . the lobby. Because I edit our church publications, all future bulletins and newsletters will reflect this change.

No longer will I say during Sunday morning announcements things like, “See Nancy in the narthex for information about Orioles tickets.”

Because if someone is new to our church – and especially if they are new to church in general – then such an announcement will only provoke confusion.

Who’s Nancy?

Where or what the heck is a narthex?

Why not the Nationals? (That last one is my own lonely query as a Nats fan in adrift in a sea of O’s supporters).

By proclaiming, “See Nancy in the narthex,” we have instantly divided the congregation into insiders and outsiders. Insider, long-time members of the church will of course know Nancy. She’s involved in lots of things and loves the church. Who doesn’t know Nancy?

Guests and newer members of the church, that’s who.

“In the narthex” makes outsiders of those who do not have a church background, folks we want and need and are commissioned to reach with the message that God loves them. It reminds them that they are in fact “them” and not “us” who know how to find the narthex. It reinforces their feeling of being out of place even as they have courageously ventured into the unknown territory of the church, into our midst in spite of the prevailing (mostly self-inflicted) perception of Christians as a judgmental, closed-minded bunch.

No matter how welcoming we say we are, our hospitality rings hollow if it seems predicated on having some foundational knowledge about God, the Bible, and church architecture.

Some of you church folks are thinking (if you’ve read this far), “But they could just ask.”

I hear that sometimes from long-time church folks. “We don’t need signs pointing the bathroom, guests could just ask where it is,” or, “You don’t need to remind everyone each week how the worship book works, guests could just ask where the liturgy is.”  These sorts of statements bring memories of my own introverted nature and the time in my life when I, an unChristian, ventured into a church. If the vibe I got was, “I could just ask,” I would have never gone back.  Fortunately, I had someone to guide me through the strange rituals of worship (and to tell me where the narthex was).

But that is less and less true as more as more of our guests come to us without any background or guide.

And for everyone, whether introvert or extrovert, if we are serious about welcoming everybody then we will do whatever we can to reduce the insider/outsider dynamic.

I am blessed to be part of a growing congregation. We are reaching out to some folks without a church background, but of our 14 baptisms so far this year only five have been of adults. (It is disappointing and should be unacceptable that five is “a lot.”)  I love baptizing babies – it is one of the best things I get to do as a pastor.  But an adult who is baptized is usually someone who is relatively new to the church experience.

We can and must do much better at what is the primary mission of the church, reaching those who don’t know that God loves them with the Gospel message that God indeed loves everyone no matter who they are, no matter what they have done.

In the never-to-return past, most folks had at least a foundational familiarity with church. To operate on that basis in the current culture limits our reach – and more importantly, the reach of the Gospel – to the ever-shrinking pool of people who still possess that background.

Excising the word “narthex” from my vocabulary is of course a small, symbolic gesture. But it is a way for my church (and maybe readers of this blog) to consider how we perpetuate an insider/outsider dichotomy to the detriment of our Great Commission.

For my next trick, I’m going to try to start talking like a normal person when I’m leading worship. Sometimes I hear myself employing church-speak  I have picked up somewhere – “At this time we will read the Scripture for this day” – and I want to slap myself.

How about, “Now we’re going to read today’s Scripture.”

Then, maybe I’ll try to do away with all the insider names for communion linens. With apologies to my worship teachers in seminary, I can’t remember the difference between a corporal and a purificator anyway . . . and what’s a fair linen again?

Posted in Christianity, Church, Lutheran, Worship | Tagged , , , , | 4 Comments

It’s Not Just About Brock Turner: The “Rape Culture” Is US

(NOTE: This post contains some graphic language. If you are offended by the language, I hope you are infinitely more offended by the pervasive culture of rape and sexual assault this post addresses.)

Men, we have to speak up and speak out. To be silent is to give mute assent to a culture of rape that victimizes women with both physical violence and spiritual dehumanization. We must change that culture, a culture that we – men – have actively and passively allowed to pervade not just our college campuses, but just about anywhere men and women gather. That includes, I should confess as a pastor, the church.

We have acquiesced to systems – both formal and inherent – that place men above women in business, education, and, yes, religion. Why not? It certainly serves our purposes. Superiority has its privileges.

In our position of supremacy, we have not taken seriously the suffering women experience. We have responded with silence or sly grins or ribald laughter when women are objectified and even when that objectification is enacted on their bodies. It’s just how guys are, after all, and some women are just asking for it.

This boys-will-be-boys BS must end.

The first step: Stop blaming women for the evil – and I use that word advisedly – actions and attitudes of men.

Over the past few days, a powerful corrective for our rape culture has been read and shared through the various conduits of social media. It is a wrenching missive germinated in pain. The author is a 23-year old woman, a victim of sexual assault. Those words, “sexual assault,” sound almost quaint in light of the violence and aftermath she describes in this letter she wrote and read in court before the sentencing of her assailant.

The letter addresses that violator directly; “You don’t know me, but you’ve been inside me, and that’s why we’re here today,” she begins.

Her detailed description of the devastation of her body is difficult to read.

(M)y breasts had been groped, fingers had been jabbed inside me along with pine needles and debris, my bare skin and head had been rubbing against the ground behind a dumpster, while an erect freshman was humping my half naked, unconscious body. But I don’t remember, so how do I prove I didn’t like it.

The saga her ongoing victimization indicts our culture and all who remain silent, accepting the way things are.

I was not only told that I was assaulted, I was told that because I couldn’t remember, I technically could not prove it was unwanted. And that distorted me, damaged me, almost broke me. It is the saddest type of confusion to be told I was assaulted and nearly raped, blatantly out in the open, but we don’t know if it counts as assault yet. I had to fight for an entire year to make it clear that there was something wrong with this situation.

She is violated by the assailant then violated again and again, especially by a legal system that seems more intent on protecting the person and reputation of her attacker:

I was pummeled with narrowed, pointed questions that dissected my personal life, love life, past life, family life, inane questions, accumulating trivial details to try and find an excuse for this guy who had me half naked before even bothering to ask for my name.

Read it. Seriously, read it. Or watch CNN anchor Ashley Banfield read it. Even if you don’t finish this post, it is more important to me that you read this sure-fire empathy-inducer.

When you are done reading it, share it. Go ahead, I’ll wait.

If you have a teenage son, make him read it. He may not want to; it is rather long. You may not be sure if he should read it as it is graphic, but therein lies the impact. It is real. It is no more explicit than the movies he watches or the video games you let him play (and the attitude toward women enacted in the assault is no different than in many of those “entertainments”). Bribe your son if you must, perhaps tell him he must read it and discuss it with you before he is allowed to date.

Do this because your son lives in the rape culture, and is immersed in media that too often tells our sons that the only value of our daughters is how they look and what they are willing to do for men. Do this because empathy is something with which all adolescents struggle, and this letter will give him some insight into the real feelings of the real woman who was really scarred by a real-life sexual assault.

This is a discussion that needs to happen in homes and in schools and, yes, in churches.

It is appropriate to ask, “Where is the church on this?” I doubt the church is the first place most victims of sexual assault think of when they are looking for support. Not in this day when Christians are known more for their judgment than their compassion. Not when the church on the whole has been woefully quiet about the culture of rape and sexual assault.

I always spend some time in the Confirmation classes I lead with middle schoolers talking with young men about respecting women, but that is not enough. We have to equip our parents to have this conversation with their sons, not just once, but over time. We must make it part of our youth groups and Sunday School curriculum. We have to face and counteract the reality that for years the church taught (and some still do) that men are in charge and a woman’s job is to please her man. Those who espouse this view will protest that they don’t mean a woman is less important, just that her role is “different.” I’m not buying it; if a woman’s worth depends upon a man’s evaluation, then men have power that can be misused . . . and will be.

In the wider culture, we must rethink the idea of “dressing appropriately” and “dress codes.” Have we given our daughters the idea that they are responsible for the sexual restraint (or not) of the males around them? Have we given our sons license to act out their fantasies of dominance because a girl’s dress or actions makes it so s young man just can’t help himself?

More BS.

So much of that BS in the case of the 23-year old woman. Brock Turner is the perpetrator in her case. He was found guilty by a jury of:

Assault with intent to commit rape of an intoxicated woman,
Sexually penetrating an intoxicated person with a foreign object, and
Sexually penetrating an unconscious person with a foreign object.
Three felonies. Brock Turner is a felon. Brock Turner is a sex offender.

During the trial, Brock’s attorney promoted the underlying message that the victim was complicit in her assault because she was drunk. Because she had gone to a party and drunk too much, she deserved what happened to her.

Some girls just have it coming.

And poor Brock, he was drunk and you know boys will be boys . . .

There’s the rape culture, folks.

I don’t really blame the attorney. He was doing his job in an adversarial legal system where justice is (hopefully) achieved by vigorous prosecution and defense. That’s a good thing, even the vigorous defense part, because sometimes people are accused of crimes they have not committed.

The problem is that the type of blame-the-victim defense perpetrated by Brock’s attorney works. Because the rape culture is so pervasive, attorneys use this tactic because it is effective.

That is a cultural problem, not a legal one.

In this case, it was indeed an effective tactic. For even though Brock was convicted of those three felonies, he received a sentence of . . .

Fourteen years? That was the legal maximum.

Six years? That was the recommendation of the prosecutor.

How about six months? That was the actual sentence, but in reality Brock will serve about.

Three months.

The judge said he thought a long prison sentence would have an adverse effect on poor Brock.

Isn’t that kind of the idea?

The judge took into consideration that Brock was a star swimmer at Stanford who lost his scholarship and that he had a good, supportive family.* He thought it was relevant that both Brock and the victim were intoxicated at a college party.

Boys will be boys.

The judge also said Brock’s “remorse” played a role in his decision. But the only thing Brock seems to have expressed remorse about was getting drunk. He has promised to do public service stuff warning against “alcohol and promiscuity” after he gets out of jail.

More rape culture BS. Alcohol did not assault the victim.

And promiscuity is about sex. Rape is not about sex. I thought we had this discussion decades ago.

There is a petition circulating to recall the judge, Aaron Persky (who also happens to be a former Stanford athlete. I’m just sayin’ . . .).

And then there is the letter Brock’s father submitted to the court. Apparently he is concerned that Brock will no longer enjoy grilling and eating the steaks his dad bought for him (I’m not making that up).

I don’t blame Brock’s father for the ridiculous attempt at rescuing his son. It’s what parents do, I guess. But again, the letter is reflective of a cultural cancer.

In the most maligned portion of the letter, Brock’s dad urged the judge not to put Brock in jail over “20 minutes of action in his 20 year life.”

It is not the “20 minutes of action” that is the root of Brock’s crime. It is of course the choices he made.

But we must acknowledge that his choices are a result of a thought process marinated not in alcohol, but rather in a culture where rape and sexual assault are minimized along with the worth and humanity of women. His choices brought him into a legal system where sexual assault is under-reported, under-prosecuted, and under-punished.

Brock’s choices were grounded in the BS of the boys-will-be-boys rape culture.

He is most certainly responsible for the choices he made.

We, especially we men, are responsible for changing the culture.


*How would an African-American young man with three felonies and no opportunity to go to college and a broken family fare with the same charges? That’s a topic for another post . . .

Posted in Christian Living, Faith, Family, Father | Tagged , , , , | 5 Comments