These days it seems that the church as well as the nation (and world) are caught up in never-ending spirals of condemnations. All we seem to hear is “Condemn them! Condemn that! If it’s not perfect, we must condemn!” Even the calls for church leaders to condemn an action, group or individual have grown more vocal as we demand our judgmental viewpoints be echoed from someone who (supposedly) represents God.
What is this need to condemn and where does it come from? Why do we think judgment and condemnation against others is the answer to so many of our problems? And why do we feel the need to demand that our leaders condemn those we want judged on our behalf?
The word “condemn” comes from the Latin word con-damnare. Damnare, the second half of that word, means to harm or damage; the con is there for emphasis. So to con-damnare someone means to really, really harm or damage them. (https://www.etymonline.com/ )
Of course, we can all see the word “damn” in this Latin word which invokes images of God (or us) sending people to the horrible suffering of hell. And while sometimes we may have a lighter meaning in mind when we “condemn,” such as to disapprove or judge against, the weight of the word tends to imply the harsh desire to hurt or rip apart those we’re condemning.
This I think is one of the reasons behind our need to condemn: to lash out and harm others after being wounded. When we experience this hurt or remember past hurts while failing to remember the many hurts we’ve caused, we often are left with a strong craving to retaliate. We want to damage others the way we’ve been hurt through assaulting, dehumanizing, demonizing, and damning them, their identity group, their character, their actions and their personhood. And we especially like to do it on social media where we think there are no consequences to our actions.
We also seem to do this out of our own sense powerlessness and feeling out of control of our situation. We condemn in order to lift ourselves out of insecurity and a sense of weakness; in order to bully ourselves out of anxiety and fear; in order to tear others down and rip them apart so we can feel more self-righteous and more like god and thus all-mighty and power-full so that at least in the condemning moment that sense of human weakness and helplessness disappears…until it returns when those we’ve condemned attack us back.
And this steers us toward demanding that our leaders condemn others so that we can hear our own condemnations through their voices. We get stuck in echo chambers where we choose to hear only what we want to hear, and what we want to hear is our leaders confirm our opinions and echo back to us what we believe so that we can feel righteous in our own right-ness.
The fact is that all this condemning actually just perpetuates the cycle of destruction as the condemned get defensive and retaliate with more condemning words or actions. Then we retaliate with our own condemnations and so on, until we descend into violent, hate-filled damning of one another in a horror-show like the spectacle on January 6 or other violence, riots and wars seen throughout human history.
Here’s reality folks: condemning one another does not work! It doesn’t fix any of the problems we want to fix. It doesn’t allow us to be the solution we claim to want to be. It doesn’t cure the evils of the world. It doesn’t heal the wounds we want to heal or help those we are called to serve. Condemning only harms, destroys and damages, perpetuating the cycle of bitterness, cynicism and fear into on-going hate and finally eternal damnation.
So what do we as followers of Christ do? Do we stay silent in the face of the evil and suffering so obviously happening in the world around us? Do we ignore the pain and oppression, hate and violence against ourselves or the neighbors we are called to love and just suck it up as our “cross to bear”? Do we hide inside a comfy, nice-but-not-kind church in a false sense of safety until we get to escape to heaven?
No, of course not! But we don’t turn to condemning, which is God’s work and God’s alone -- IF God chooses to do so. God is God; we are not, and we are commanded to be on God’s side, rather than forcing God to be on our side, including the side of us that wants to condemn. (Cf. First and Second Commandment & Bp Elizabeth Eaton)
Instead, we exhort and challenge the “what is” by speaking and living God’s eternal Law of “what God wants,” namely Love, by being and doing Christ’s love in everything we do and say into the world through kindness, compassion, peace, reconciliation, generosity, justice and self-control.
Instead, we admonish through the words of God’s Law but always in humility, seeing and renouncing our own sin and complicity in the larger evils first by checking in the mirror and asking how our own words, actions, and ways of life may already be breaking God’s Law, harming our neighbors and preventing Christ’s kingdom from coming near. “Do not judge, so that you may not be judged.” (Mt 7:1-5. See also Lk 6: 37-38 and Rm 2:1ff)
Instead, we proclaim through our actions and words the gospel of God’s grace, forgiveness, welcome, and equal acceptance and love of all people of all identities, standing with the wounded in solidarity and lifting them up through the Spirit’s encouragement, empowerment, and enlivening words, thoughts and actions.
And we proclaim this Gospel and Law not by tearing some people down to lift ourselves or others up, but by preaching over and over again the affirmative, positive gospel that we know through teachings and ministry of the Jesus of Nazareth in the Bible. (Thanks to Bishop Michael Curry for reminding us of this on the webinar that was recorded today entitled “Democracy and Faith Under Siege: Responding to Christian Nationalism” and can be found here soon.
So no, I will not condemn. Nobody but God has the power or right to condemn, including me. But I will speak and affirm God’s Law AND Gospel loud and clear ad nauseum to those who would listen. For that is my call as a pastor. And I do this knowing that I too am in bondage to sin and cannot free myself, knowing that through faith that I too am a beloved child of God and created in God’s image, knowing that I too am welcomed, loved and accepted through my baptism.
And SO ARE YOU a beloved child of God, created in God’s image, welcomed, loved and accepted into Christ’s kingdom! What amazing, grace-filled good news this is that we all get to share with the world! So let’s stop condemning and instead lift up God’s love for our neighbors in all we do and say.
In Christ’s Love,
What is God doing in the world? As we go through these days of division that have reached the point of violence or threatened violence against the foundations of our society, we may be wondering “Where is God in this?” and “What is God calling us do and be right now?”
This is a paralyzing question in the midst of the anxiety and fear and anger we may feeling. But perhaps some guidance directly from God Word (Law and Gospel) may be helpful in naming one of the most important ways God is showing up right now as you wrestle with how God is calling you to live into this time and place.
So I offer you this reminder in less than 2+ pages of what God’s Law states to us. Note that this comes from Scripture, Luther’s Small and Large Catechism, some familiar words from the Preamble to the U.S. Constitution, and bit of my own work in Christian Ethics. It’s longer than usual so you may want to read on a computer or print it out rather than trying to read on your phone.
God’s Law - The Great Commandments – the two commandments upon which ALL of God’s Law is based. (Mt 22:40)
God’s Law - The Golden Rule – the governing rule that can be found in every major world religion and philosophy, including that of democracy.
God’s Law - The Ten Commandments – the laws that so many people want front and center in their communities yet refuse to follow as God wills. These emerge from the Great Commandments.
God’s Law – “God has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” Micah 6:8
If you’re hearing God’s Law as presented as a tool that you can use to bash other people over the head to justify yourself, then you’re doing it wrong. If God’s Law too easily becomes a weapon in your hands to shoot, maim or shatter other lives, then you’ve missed the point. For God’s Law was and still is intended as an earthly gift and blessing so as to order and guide our lives in the way of Christ as we relate to each other and God under the power of sin. If we all followed this law to the best of our ability even in the midst of our sin, the world would be a better place.
But the world would not be saved, for in the end the law, not even God’s Law can save. In the end, it accuses, convicts and kills anything that would destroy, hate, and tear down God’s creation. It is as a mirror that we first hear God’s Law. “Do not judge, so that you may not be judged…You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your neighbor’s eye.” (Mt 7:1-5)
Only when we’ve applied God’s Law to ourselves, been humbled and convicted that we can use the Law of God to direct others. Only then will we hear, receive, and live the Gospel of Jesus Christ into the world. For only in Christ are you forgiven, saved, healed, and made whole. That’s the Gospel message: that Christ loves you, welcomes you, accepts you, blesses you and fills your whole self with faith, hope, and joy no matter who you are, which political party you support, or in which identity group you place yourself. Through Jesus’ life, Jesus’ teachings and ministry, Jesus’ suffering and death on a cross and Jesus’ resurrection you receive new life, shalom life, blessed life, the truly great life. Never, in any political ideology will you receive these things.
So live out your salvation in Christ, empowered by the Spirit to love God and neighbor and encouraged to fulfill God’s Law the best that you can. “Blessed are those…who walk in the law of the Lord.” (Ps 119:1)
I still reach for my eyeglasses every morning as I get out of bed even though I don’t need them anymore. I still prepare myself to take out my contact lenses before I go to sleep despite the fact that I’ve thrown them all away.
Over the Christmas season, I had cataract surgery on both eyes and now I can see in new ways. Though there is still some healing and adjustment to take place, I am no longer reliant on contacts or glasses (except possibly readers) to experience the world around me. Life has become manifest to me in clearer ways than when I was in the second grade. I can see!
The season of/after Epiphany that we enter into today is all about seeing in new ways and thus living in new ways. It’s about manifestation and revelation. Epiphany is when we in the western church recognize and honor the Christ-ness, the Messiah-ship of Jesus of Nazareth as he becomes manifest in his fuller glory for all to see.
During Epiphany we celebrate events like the Magi following the star from the East as well as Jesus’ baptism and God’s voice revealing the beloved anointed one through a booming from the clouds. We also see Christ manifest to us in the miracle at the Cana wedding, his first proclamations that “the Kingdom of God is near,” his first healings, and his shining transfiguration on the mountain.
In these manifestations of Christ, we who are willing to see are given new eyes so as to recognize who Jesus really is: God’s divine presence dwelling with us and humanity’s savior working among us for love and life.
Jesus the Christ is not just a cute baby who comes to be our best friend. Nor is he just the good guy on the sidelines, supporting our platforms and cheering us on while we fix the world according to our dysfunctional human tools and violent rage.
Jesus the Christ is the life-giving, world-transforming, love-filled presence of God come to our homes, families, communities, social systems, and nations to change everything. Everything! Jesus the Christ is God’s love made flesh who calls us again and again to follow him in a radical way of love and complete trust in God.
During this time of epiphany revelation, I encourage you to let the Holy Spirit give you some new eyes to see Jesus the Christ manifest in the world around you. No need to go as far as cataract surgery. Just clear your eyes of the messiness of the news and the anxieties of the pandemic, perhaps through prayer and contemplation. Open yourselves up to the Spirit’s work in your mind and heart.
And then look around through Spirit-lenses to see how God’s love is manifesting itself to you and your fellow followers of Christ. Ask yourself again and again, what is Jesus the Christ doing in my life, my congregation’s life, my community today? Where is Jesus the Christ calling you to go, what is Christ calling you to do, and how is Christ calling you to live? And finally ask, how can I be better equipped to see what Jesus so badly wants me to see so that I can follow him?
But beware! There are wolves in sheep’s clothing trying to trick our eyes into seeing Jesus Christ in places and actions in which he would never reveal himself. Jesus the Christ does not manifest God’s Kingdom in lies and falsehoods for he is the Truth of God’s love. Jesus does not manifest God’s Kingdom in fear-filled hatred and demonizing of other people for he is the Courage and Spirit of God’s love. Jesus does not manifest God’s Kingdom in violent actions or words demanding harm against anybody for he is the Prince of Peace.
To put it bluntly, we who would follow Jesus the Christ cannot follow those angry, self-centered cries to take out our rage on one another because we disagree about social actions or political outcomes. Violence is not and never will be the answer for God -- Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. To follow those voices of hate is to leave the Way of Christ behind.
Christ’s Way is always the Way of Love, God’s selfless love for the whole world!
So let us open our eyes to a new way of seeing and being love this Epiphany season, let us open our hearts to the Spirit’s power, and let us follow Christ’s vision of life in God’s Kingdom. For God has come to dwell with us. See?! Jesus is right there!
In Christ’s Love,
A man and his pastor were walking through the parking lot toward the church one Sunday. It was a cold and blustery day and snow had carpeted the asphalt in front of the building. Both were wearing thick winter coats and boots and gloves. The pastor was also wearing a mask to protect against the spread of Covid, but the man was not.
As they approached the door, the man said, “Pastor, why are you wearing that mask? You look like a fool. Don’t you have faith in God? You should take it off and trust that God will protect you.”
The pastor studied the man for a moment and then said, “I notice that you’re wearing your heavy winter coat and warm gloves and good snow boots, John.”
John paused, wondering at this change in subject, and finally said, “Of course I am. It’s my turn to shovel the walks and it’s cold outside. So what?”
The pastor said, “So, why don’t you take off all those clothes and trust that God will keep you warm while you shovel? Don’t you have faith that God will protect you from the cold?”
John’s mouth moved up and down silently for several seconds as he caught the pastor’s meaning. “Yeah, well, that’s different,” he finally mumbled looking away.
“You’re right, John, it is different,” the pastor replied with a smile easily seen behind the mask. “You’ve decided to use the brain God gave you to keep yourself warm. I’ve decided to use the brain and the love God gave me to protect you from a virus that could hurt or kill you. And if being a fool for Christ means loving you by wearing a mask, that’s what I’m going to do.”
In his first letter to the Corinthians (chps 1-3), Paul declares himself a fool for Christ’s sake and that Jesus’ followers in Corinth should be become fools in order to become wise in God’s way of the gospel. “If you think you are wise in this age, you should become fools so that you can become wise. For the wisdom of this world is foolishness to God,” he writes. What did Paul mean by this?
Well, he certainly didn’t mean shoveling snow without warm clothes on. Nor did he mean choosing not to wear a mask to prove our faith or because it makes us look silly. No, faith in God does not mean we’re supposed to dump reason beside the road altogether just because we’re anxious.
Instead, God’s foolishness is a message of love in a world of hate; a message of meekness that empowers others rather than powers over others; a message to support one another instead of competing with each other; a message to come together in a community of peace instead of falling into division and fighting over something doctors, nurses, and tricker-treaters wear regularly. God’s foolishness is a proclamation of hope in a time of despair and a flaring of light in the midst of deep darkness. Finally, God’s gospel foolishness says “no” to the world’s judgment, meanness, apathy and selfishness and says a resounding “YES” to forgiveness, kindness, compassion and generosity.
In the end, God gave us brains as well as hearts, bodies and spirits, and we are called to use our whole selves in the best possible way to protect the lives God gave us as well as protect and care for the lives of our neighbors. “Love your neighbor as yourself,” remember?
You don’t have to shovel snow in the cold naked to prove your faith to God or others. And neither do you have to go maskless to show your trust in God. Instead, in today’s world, wearing a mask to protect others from the Covid-19 virus is a sure sign of faith in God and in the love God gives us in Christ. And it is this very faith that calls us to share God’s love with all whom we meet, even if the world thinks it looks foolish.
When I was on vacation this summer, I went biking on the Hiawatha bike trail near the MT-ID border (I-90 Exit 5). The trail is an old railroad bed converted for biking and it hosts several long, dark, dank tunnels, the longest being over one mile.
Deep inside these tunnels there is no light at all, unless you bring a lamp which is required. Just to see how dark darkness can be, I stopped in the middle of one of those tunnels and turned off my lamps. And it was dark. Really dark. (The pic is real. That’s how dark it was!)
I couldn’t see my own hand much less the trail ahead. I could have easily gotten turned around in there, lost until I finally crashed into a wall…which wasn’t on my agenda so I didn’t move an inch. In that darkness, my anxiety level shot up as I tried to get my sense of bearing. I became confused and my life became unpredictable and scary. Stuck in the tunnel without light, I could have easily turned to despair. Quickly I turned on my headlamp and bike lamp so that I could see, even if only a few feet around me.
In many ways, going through the past six months has felt like a journey through that dark tunnel, often without the headlamps turned on. Life has become unpredictable, uncontrollable and frightening because we simply don’t know what is ahead of us in the darkness of the future. And even though we think we know what’s beside and behind us, even that is hard to see and wonder about because it’s changing so fast. The tunnel seems almost never-ending and that light at the end looks to be nowhere in sight.
This darkness on the journey through our pandemic tunnel actually has a named phase, at least according to experts who study disasters and their aftermath. (https://religionnews.com/2020/09/14/the-pandemic-at-six-months-welcome-to-the-disillusionment-phase/) This phase of feeling lost in the dark is called the disillusionment phase which follows the impact, the honeymoon, and the heroic phases of a disaster and precedes the reconstruction phase. (Yes, there is a hope-filled reconstruction phase to come, though you, me and many others may not be feeling it yet.)
The disillusionment phase is marked by a continuing anxiety that becomes less and less hopeful of an end to the struggle. People feel stuck in their suffering, and cynicism, anger, and despair become the more usual way of being. There is an increased turning to panaceas like drugs, gambling, alcohol and other things that lead to more addiction. It truly is a time of disillusionment.
In reality, the depression that people may be feeling right now is very real...and in fact is quite normal during the recovery of such disasters. Though it doesn’t help that the disasters and suffering just seem to keep piling on – fires, floods, hurricanes, civil unrest, political wrangling, division and the increasing turn to violence to solve our problems.
So what do we who are people of faith in Christ, the light of the world, do? Do we remain stuck in our suffering, wallowing in the seeming hopelessness of it all? Do we stop thinking about and praying for God’s future for us, even if we don’t know what it is?
No, that is not the Christian answer, for followers of Christ are people of hope and faith and love. We don’t give in to despair. Instead, we need to turn on God’s headlamp so that we can see the power of God’s Spirit working in the world more clearly and live in Christ’s light. “Your word is a lamp unto my feet and light onto my path.” (Ps 119:105)
You see, the problem is not the darkness itself. Darkness in itself is neither good nor bad; it just is. Without it we wouldn’t be able to see the stars or enjoy a controlled camp-fire or walk in the moonlight. Also, many of God’s creatures only thrive in the darkness. And it’s often only in darkness that we can know how dependent we are on God.
No, the problem is not the darkness. The problem is our own inability to see in the darkness. When we can’t see what’s around us, we become afraid. And when we are afraid, we try to put ourselves in control. And when we do that, life easily goes wrong.
What we need is a boatload of faith, a truckload of hope, and carload of love (all three gifts of the Spirit) so that we can let go of needing to be God and trust in the lamp of Christ that illuminates our path ahead! Walking in the beam of Christ’s light is the follower of Christ’s path for it is there that we can welcome the Spirit into our hearts, minds and souls.
How? Well, why not start by reading scripture again and letting that Word wash over you. Psalm 62:5-9 and Matthew 6:25-7:5 are good places to begin. Listen to uplifting music and connect with friends and family who will raise your spirits, not drag you down. Turn off the news, social media, internet commentary and the 24/7 talking heads who assuage their greed by making us anxious and afraid.
And pray…a lot. Look for the many ways God of love and hope is working in the world around you and name them out loud or in a journal. Spend time exploring what new adventures God is calling you and your congregation to go on now (and no, it’s not backwards). And find ways to care for others. Getting out of our own heads and focusing on the various ways we can serve and already are serving others, is a great way to experience God’s light in our lives.
“It is you who light my lamp; the Lord, my God, lights up my darkness.” (Psalm 18:28) Even though we may be feeling trapped in the dark without light, God’s light of Christ is here, guiding us when we step into the light. And in that light we can start moving toward the reconstruction phase as God’s true light at the end of the tunnel appears in the distance.
“What does God’s call to love our neighbor as ourselves mean for us today?”
How would you respond to this question? How would your congregation?
Given what we’re seeing in the behavior of some folks across our country right now, including Christians, this question does seem a good one for we who name ourselves as followers of Christ to ask. After all, this is God’s second greatest commandment to us: love your neighbor as yourself. And we as Christians are called to live this command to the best of our ability through the power of God’s forgiving grace.
I wonder what would happen if we dedicated a year to studying, exploring and practicing God’s call and command to love one another? I wonder what might that look like in our congregations, our synod, our personal lives, our wider ELCA? Stop and imagine for a moment spending a whole year talking about, praying about, listening for, and discerning new and continuing ways to live Jesus Way of Love in this world today.
I wonder how many of us might dismiss this idea as too boring, too “been there, done that,” too “well, duh.” I also wonder how many of us would think that it was a great idea…for those people over there. “I don’t need to learn anything more about Christian love,” I may find myself thinking, “but ‘they’ do!”
In this world of polarization, judging and blaming as well as the ongoing need for excitement-seeking stimulation, focusing on exploring and living God’s call to love our neighbors in more and healthier ways may not be something we want to do.
…And yet love is the center of Jesus’ way of life. Jesus doesn’t shut up about love. In fact, Jesus talks about love all the time. Loving God and loving our neighbors (all of them) permeates Jesus’ call, his teachings, his actions.
And Paul talks about God’s love and neighbor-love all the time too, teaching us again and again how God’s love for us in Christ calls and commands us to live our lives driven by love for all of God’s people and creation.
And the prophets love talking about God’s steadfast love and mercy while calling us to live out that love, justice and mercy into the world.
Even the Torah – the law found throughout the Hebrew Scriptures -- is centered on God’s command and call to love God and neighbor.
What are the Bible texts that pop into your mind when you think of loving your neighbor as yourself?
For many it may be Paul’s famous love sermon from 1 Cor 13 that is often read at weddings but is actually meant to teach a conflicted community what it means to love one another. “Love is patient and kind, not boastful, arrogant or rude. Love does not insist on its own way; it’s not irritable or resentful. Love bears, believes, hopes and endures all things.”
Or what about Paul’s exploration of love as the Fruit of the Spirit in Galatians 5? “Love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faith-fullness, gentleness, self-control.” Or his description of love in Romans 12, “Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; love one another with mutual affection…”
Jesus too teaches us love, both God’s love for us and how we ought to share that love with others. Often he does so through parables like the story of the Prodigal Sons or the Good Samaritan. Then there is the parable of Kingdom sorting in Matthew 25 in which Jesus declares bluntly what it looks like for the nations to love of both Christ and neighbor: “Come you (plural) that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you all gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me…Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.”
What are your “love” texts from the Bible, the passages that inspire you to love?
Love is the core, the focus and the engine behind everything Christians, including Lutherans, are and do and seek in the world. Love is everything, for God is love.
As I consider the Christian Church today, even us ELCA Lutherans, I wonder if we’ve lost the love. Have we ignored God’s deep, abundant, abiding love for us in Jesus as a cheap gift to shove into the back of our closet so we can keep living as we always have? Have we forgotten what it really means to love our neighbors as ourselves (if our sinful selves ever knew)? I don’t know…I merely wonder.
Maybe if we dedicate a whole year across the Montana Synod to studying, exploring, and living out God’s call to love our neighbors as ourselves, we will discover what Jesus-love really means for us today. I wonder what the Holy Spirit would do with that!
 Birch, Lapsley, Moe-Lobeda, Rassumssen, Bible and Ethics in the Christian Life (2018).
He preached the gospel to me without even knowing it. I was over half-way up the trail to Firebrand Pass in Glacier Park and it had been a long slog. The trail had been steep with more “up” to come. It was covered with overgrown foliage making it hard to see the roots and stones I kept tripping over. The higher I climbed, the harder it was to breath. I was losing my will to keep going even though I knew I was just getting to best part – the view!
I had stopped to sit on a stump to rest and eat a snack when he came down the trail toward me. “How’s it going?” he asked. “Oh, good,” I lied. “Slow but sure.” He didn’t hear the lie. Or maybe he did. For the next thing he said was just what I needed to hear. “Yeah, that’s the way. I try to enjoy every step.” And then he hiked on.
Enjoy every step?! That was not something I was doing. I was suffering each step. Groaning some steps; losing hope on other steps. And stopping every 10 steps to rest. I was tired, frustrated and in pain. I was not enjoying anything.
But not being one to give up, I decided to give it a try and practice enjoying every step. So I started up again, this time slowing down. I focused on the trail and the flowers and the new view each step brought to my eyes. I breathed evenly and with intention instead of gasping and groaning. I stopped worrying about getting to my destination and just tried to enjoy each step.
And it worked – mostly. I started to enjoy every step and the whole hike more fully. And in that way, I reached the top and the sheer awesome beauty of the pass. All because the mountain preacher reminded me about joy.
Joy, at least from a Christian perspective, is not warm, fuzzy, cuddly happiness. Instead, joy is about recognizing Gods blessings and gifts in and around us no matter the circumstances, good or difficult, and being enlivened by their presence – God’s presence – on our journey. Joy is about finding hope, faith and love in and through Christ in the moment, every moment, rather than suffering on a difficult past path or worrying about what future steps may bring. Joy is living and moving through life in God’s beauty and the Spirit’s strength rather than getting stuck in my own stuff.
Not every step I took after my encounter that day was a happy one. In fact, a lot of them were not very happy. They were slow, brutal, hard steps that my own will did not want to take. But even so, I found joy in many of those steps (not all; there were still some grumbles and groans). And finally I was rewarded by the exhilaration of reaching the top of the pass where the view was spectacular and the wind (Spirit?) nearly blew me off my feet.
I learned some things from that hike about the journey we are on now through pandemic, political and social strife, economic difficulties and the suffering of so many people who have been wounded for too long.
First, I learned that this journey is a lot longer than my hike and won’t be completed in a day, week, month or maybe even a year. Life is a journey and not every step is a happy one, or even a joyful one. Yet we must keep plodding forward and yes, even upward. We cannot give up.
Second, we aren’t on the journey alone. My hike had that preacher (and other hikers) who encouraged me along, whether they knew it or not. And as I practiced enjoying every step, I experienced God in each step as well. God steps, walks, struggles, groans and cries with us as we walk our journey in these days. When we step in love with each other, instead of getting in each other’s way, we can find joy in the journey together.
Third, we can choose how we will step on the journey. We can fight or resist every hard step like I was doing before I met my preacher. We can choose to be apathetic or frightened or anxious and just stay home.
We can even try to go backwards, although on life’s journey that just doesn’t work. We can’t go back again except in our minds. Or we can choose to listen to the preacher and hear God’s call to come, to follow, to grow and to love, letting God lead the way. We have the choice to participate in God’s joy, the joy God wants for us, simply by following Christ.
Finally, I remember something I read once from an unknown source: “In this life, we are all walking up the mountain. We can sing as we climb or we can complain about our sore feet. Whichever we choose, we still gotta do the hike. I decided that singing makes a lot more sense.”
Often on life’s journey we get caught up in complaining every step of the way because it’s not going as we want it to or think it should. But singing evokes so much more joy than complaining. So on my hike I started to sing. What did I sing, you may ask? Well, for some reason I chose, “I’m not throwing away my shot!” from the musical Hamilton…over and over and over again. It got old eventually but it did get me up that mountain.
I’m pretty sure the Spirit spoke to me that day through that mountain preacher: “Enjoy every step. For I am with you always, to the end of the age. And in my presence there is joy.” (Matt 28:20; Ps 16:11)
So let’s choose to sing! Yes, quietly, under our breath, behind masks in worship for now. But go ahead and belt something out in your bedroom at home or even on the trail. Because singing just makes more sense!
Blessed and safe Labor Day weekend to you all!
Just breathe. We’ve heard a lot about breathing in recent weeks: about George Floyd’s last breath plea of “I can’t breathe”; about the breathing struggles of those who experience the symptoms of Covid, hospitalized or not; about the fact that our own breath can become an instrument of harm to others with whom we share the air when we fail to wear a mask. Just breathing can be challenging these days.
Just breathe. This was some guidance offered by Pastor Chris Haughhee, chaplain at Intermountain Children’s Home (a Montana Synod ministry partner), with the kids who are experiencing mental health struggles such as clinical anxiety and depression brought about by trauma in their lives. Pastor Haughhee shared this breathing guidance in a blog (found here) and with it a short, 3 minute film called “Just breathe.”
In this film, various children describe in detail their own experience with anger and what it feels like. One little girl uses the image of a jar full of glitter in water. To her, anger feels like that jar being shaken wildly so that all that glitter is exploding through her brain and she can’t see anything but flashing sparks of light. But, the girl says later, when she stops and just breathes, the anger settles down the way glitter drifts to the bottom of the jar when it’s no longer shaken. The film ends with both children and adults practicing the art of just breathing. (Watch the video here.)
Just breathe. This is good advice for us all these days. “And the Lord God breathed into Adam’s nostrils the breath of life and Adam became a living being.” (Gen 2:7) “Thus said the Lord God, Come from the four winds, O breath/Spirit, and breathe upon these dead that they may live.” (Ez 37:9). “And Jesus breathed on them and said, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit.’” (Jn 30:22)
But how can we stop and sit in the midst of a chaotic world that is shaking our glitter jar and just breathe? How can we inhale God’s Spirit of life and wholeness and the peace that passes all our understanding even as we exhale our anger, fear, and anxieties? How can we just breathe when it seems there are so many voices telling us to just jump?
Over and over we hear, “just jump” back into the social and economic world the way it used to be. “Just jump” off the cliff into the mire of our dysfunctional political system (are you already as sick of the ads as I am?!). “Just jump” in front of the moving train that is Covid-19 racing through our country at barrel-neck speeds, putting our own breathing and the breath of others at greater risk.
I remember when I was a kid standing on top of the high dive for the first time at the Rolla, ND swimming pool. My knees were shaking, my heart was racing, and every instinct I had was telling me to climb back down the ladder. But the kids below were shouting “just jump you scaredy cat!” And my own brain, trying to be brave in its terror, was shouting, “You can do it, you scaredy cat. Just jump.”
And I did. And I survived…but not without experiencing an awful wedgie that I’ve never forgotten and learning my lesson that just jumping, especially when I’m doing it for no other reason than to prove my courage in the midst of terror or get my own way, isn’t often the good or right thing to do.
In fact, it’s well known that Jesus didn’t jump. In the Gospel of Matthew, the devil’s second temptation involved taking Jesus to the pinnacle of the temple and telling him to “just jump.” “If you are God’s Son, throw yourself off and let the angels catch you. You won’t even stub a toe,” the devil says, even quoting scripture at Jesus to prove his point. (Mt 4:5-7)
“Don’t be afraid. It’s not real anyway. Don’t you trust God?! God will save you. Just jump.” Voices in our culture are saying versions of these words to us over and over again, tempting us through shame, doubt and fear to take unnecessary and even dumb risks to prove our bravery, often to try get their own way or seek their own purposes.
But Jesus didn’t jump. And neither should we. Jesus’ response to this temptation is to say, “Again it is written, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’” Don’t test God by putting yourself in harm’s way unnecessarily. Don’t throw yourself in front of moving trains challenging God to save you when you have been given the ability and intelligence to protect yourself. Instead follow Jesus and just don’t jump.
Instead, just breathe. Take a deep breath and release the anger, the fear of being seen as afraid, the anxiety of losing control. Take a deep breath and let the Holy Spirit pray for you with sighs too deep for words. Take a deep breath and fill your whole self and your whole community with God’s life and wisdom and hope.
For yes, God will save us and does save us always! But we cannot receive God’s gift by making bad, unhealthy and unloving choices. We receive God’s salvation by trusting deeply in God’s ever-ready, eternal love for us and then living out that love in all we do and say.
So don’t jump. Instead take some time today and every day to “just breathe.” Learn from the kids in the film and let all the sparkling glitter of anger go to the bottom of your brain. And then just breathe with God, allowing the Spirit to be your diaphragm and lungs, reminding you that nothing can separate you from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.
In Christ’s love,
What are the most freeing words ever spoken to you? For me, the words that give me the most freedom in life are, “I am not God.” And a close second are the words, “And I don’t have to be God.”
“I am not God and I don’t have to be God.” Those words have freed me from myself and my need to fix things for people, from my need to save them from their pain, from my need to make everything right for everybody. Ask the congregations I served as an interim…what they heard on my first Sunday was this: “I’m not Jesus and I’m not here to save your congregation. Jesus has already done that.”
As a leader, even as a follower of Christ, not being weighed down by the expectations placed on me by myself and by others and letting God be God so that I don’t have to – that’s the greatest experience of freedom I can have because it allows me the freedom to focus on what I can do and be. I’m now free to be who Jesus calls me to be and to do what Jesus calls me to do.
However, being a human being who is not God and who doesn’t have to try be God does not mean that I get to abdicate my responsibility as someone created in God’s image. I don’t get to say “well, I’m not God so I don’t have to do anything. I can just sit around and let God do all the work.” That is not what it means to not be God. That’s not even what it means to have faith in God.
In Christ, God frees me from having to try be God. I no longer need to turn in on myself and focus all my attention on me being the center-of-the-universe superheroine who has come to save the world. Jesus has already taken care of that.
Now I can be the free me God creates me to be: a person created in the image of the God of love and new life, intertwined in God’s abundant creation with the diversity of all human beings also created in the image of God. I get to be the baptized follower of Christ who is called to participate in God’s mission of love and justice and hope for the world. I get to be free from my need to be God over others so that I can follow the Spirit’s life-giving guidance in the work in which God invites and encourages me to participate.
Also, it is here, in this space of not being God, of not even having to try be God, that I get to most fully live out my freedom to follow Christ and love others. How? Well, in human beings, there is this space between something that happens to or around us and our response to that something. For example, imagine someone says something mean to you. Now, before you respond to that something, there is a moment of freedom when you have the choice to choose what you are going to say or do next. Nobody else gets to make that choice for you; only you.
You can choose to react instantly without thinking or without recognizing the possible consequences of your words or actions. Or you can choose to sit in that moment of pure freedom and remember, “I am not God.” You can choose to stop in that moment and ask yourself “how God is calling me to respond to this moment?” You can take that moment and choose to let the Spirit be your guide into following Christ in love and compassion.
That moment of choice between event and response, that is where the fullness of freedom in Christ lives. For Jesus claimed that moment for himself and ultimately for us, when he prayed to God in the Garden of Gethsemane, “My Father, if possible, take this cup from me. Yet not my will but your will be done.” (Mt 26:39) In Christ, that moment of choice for God is God’s moment and it is in God that our true freedom stands.
“I am not God, thank God! You are not God, thank God! God is God, thank God!” Owning that truth deep in our souls and letting it burst forth every time we face a choice, any choice – that is true freedom. A freedom not found in any bill of rights but finally in the first commandment as God reminds us again and again: “I am the Lord your God. You shall have no other gods before me, including yourself.” (Exodus 20:2)
In the end, the first commandment is not really a command at all; it’s a promise and it’s a gift of a true freedom that comes only in God. So let’s let God be God and live in the truth of not being God, giving thanks always for the freedom that comes in Christ!
Bishop Laurie Jungling
Elected June 1, 2019, Laurie is the 5th Bishop of the Montana Synod