Review: The Mystery of Suffering and the Meaning of God

As a pastor, it is probably one of the most received questions that I hear, “Why to bad things happen to good people?” This age old question is known as theodicy. Laytner goes to the depths of this theology through his own personal experiences.

Anson Hugh Laytner retired from a career in nonprofit and academic settings. His reflections are from the lens of a liberal rabbi, thus venturing deep into the book of Job is a natural descent into the suffering found within the Hebrew Bible. He attempts to shed some light on the subject for those that are challenged by the concern of God’s presence.

Laytner’s story begins with enough pain and suffering that it would be understandable to turn away from God and yell at the top of your lungs in anger. He continues to weave his story in and out of the narrative from Job. Interpreting Job in the way of mid-rash, he comes to his own way of dealing with struggle that could assist others that have encountered suffering like Job or even Laytner himself.

The Mystery of Suffering and the Meaning of God will give you a new perspective into living a life that can find a deeper relationship with God. The vulnerability that is shared is also a great example of being open to where healing may occur.

Thanks to Speakeasy for a review copy of this book.

Book Review: Seculosity by David Zahl

Secul… what?

David Zahl presents a lively discourse on what we turn our attention to in the present time. What is it that leads us away from God and what do we treat as our priorities today.

If you have never heard of the term seculosity before, it is because it is of Zahl’s creation. “What’s more, there does seem to be a discernible difference between grounding your hope in something material and something spiritual. Blanketing both groups with such a loaded label could come off as patronizing. Which is why I am proposing a fresh term seculosity. I’m using it as a catchall for religiosity that’s directed horizontally rather than vertically, at earthly rather than heavenly objects” (xxi).

As we get overwhelmed in our daily lives, there are many areas that get prioritized over our dedication to Christ. Zahl ventures into the areas of parenting, work, technology, politics, and much more as we have turned these into our own type of religion. He even ventures into how we co-opt the church and what we have made it to be that is far from the vertical faith that God has originally called us.

Zahl includes a great sense of humor that brings the discourse to heart and one that the reader can relate. While he points to the things that create seculosity, he does conclude the book with “What to ‘do’ about it.” His argument is not that we are less religious than we have been in the past, in fact, we may be more. We have just turned our religion to things that are not the God of creation. He points to the unique position we have as offering the grace of God. However, amid the grace, we are also sin and are broken. To repent of this and be awash of the grace of God is a hope that nothing in the secular world can offer.

Fear and Faith

August 11, 2019

Luke 12:32-40

Fear and Faith.

These are the recurring themes from our lessons this morning.  Could living our lives be as simple as stripping everything away to whether we are living in fear or if we are living in faith? Do we know how to name fear, and do we know how to name faith?

Sometimes fear is very evident and can be seen in the faces of little children. This past Thursday I had the opportunity to meet Alice whose husband was deported after following the legal process for nearly two decades. She shared how her five-year-old granddaughter had developed a fear of police after her grandfather had been taken. She would scream and cry while they were in the car whenever they saw a police officer. To combat this fear, she had a friend dress up as a police officer come over to their house and teach her that the police are not people to fear. She wanted to make sure that if she was ever in trouble, she knew that she could go to a police officer for help. For some, that feeling of safety and freedom is hard to find in this earthly world. That is when we turn towards God to catch a glimpse of the hope that resides in Jesus.

There is an absolute freedom in the reign of God which calls us to live in faith and to banish fear from our lives.

It can be easy to let fear control our lives. It has happened over and over again. As we turn to history, we can look at the rise of the Third Reich and Nazi Germany. Fear in the face of Hitler gripped Germany, while many people knowing what was happening, chose not to raise their voices. Many of those people were Lutheran! The fear also went the other direction as the reich created a fear of those that were different, resulting in nearly 11 million people killed during the Holocaust, simply because they did not fit the model picture of what the leaders thought humankind should look like. Fortunately, the rest of Europe and America stepped up to this manufactured fear of the other and fought to bring peace and freedom to Europe.

It is easy to co-op the gospel to your own making and we have seen it done in our own country through slavery, segregation, opposition to suffrage, and even to our present-day treatment of the stranger and neighbor among us.

Fear is not new. Fear has shaped humanity from the very beginning. Fear gripped Abram as he was afraid that he would not have any heirs to receive the blessing of the Lord. He was fearful of what would happen to his possessions after he died. What would happen to those things that he had been promised? He was fearful it may go to a slave born within his house.

Fear has gripped the disciples as they think about the difficult call that Jesus is continuing to make for them to follow. They worry about what is coming next and how they are going to live in their lives with Jesus. Jesus’ ministry is changing things and that change brings the unknown. Change can easily heighten our sense of fear.

When our surroundings change, our sense of direction is thrown out of whack and it can be easy to get lost. Do we become complicit to the negative changes around us like history has done in the past, such as Nazi Germany?  Do we embrace the change that lifts up all of God’s creation and pray for it as the in-breaking of the reign of God?

To move toward the freedom found in Jesus, we must acknowledge our fear.

Jesus is well aware of our fears and says, “Do not be afraid.” Our first response may be cynicism.

Thanks, Jesus! Sometimes that is much harder than what you suggest. Change is difficult. The unfamiliar can scare us. When we venture into the unknown our knees begin to quake and buckle. And in the midst of it, you tell us, “do not be afraid!” Yet, somewhere amid our fear we can begin to find just that tiniest seed of faith. That is all it takes. And, each one of us has that seed within us, even when it does not feel like it.

The author of Hebrews reminds us of what faith can look like. “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” Abraham learned what it meant to have faith. He found the freedom that is in the grace of God. As he listened to God and released all of his fears, he began to truly understand what God had been calling him to from the very beginning.

Jesus nurtured the seed of faith in the disciples that are following him, “have no fear little flock.” Jesus continues to nurture those seeds within us through the freedom that is given to us to follow and obey his word. Our faith, as it grows, begins to drive the fear out. There is an absolute freedom in the reign of God which calls us to live in faith and to banish fear from our lives.

Throughout history the faithful have been lifted for us to remember. Today we remember the faith of Clare of Assisi. Clare was friends with Francis of Assisi before he heeded the call from God to rebuild God’s church. Clare faithfully followed in the footsteps of Francis. Clare learned what it meant to give herself wholeheartedly to living into her faith. Her faith led her to found the Order of the Poor Ladies. Fear was not on her radar and the example of her faith lives on today as we remember her.

Fear and faith are both powerful entities. The question is, which one are you allowing to direct your life? Will you live into the fear of the unknown, the fear of change, or the fear of those that are different? Or, will you embrace your God-given faith to bring the reign of God closer to all of God’s creation?

This morning I leave you with a prayer from Clare,

I pray you most gentle Jesus…

Give me a lively faith, a firm hope, and perfect charity,

so that I may love you with all my heart,

and all my soul, and all my strength.

Make me steadfast in good works

and grant me perseverance in your service,

so that I may please you always. Amen

Christ in All

Bethany Retreat Center, Lutz, Florida

August 4, 2019

Luke 12:13-21

In Christ there is no division!

“There is no longer Greek and Jew, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave and free; but Christ is all and in all” (Col 3:11). Feel free to add what other divisions we may witness out there to this list. Simply put, Jesus tells us that there is no difference among God’s creation.

We are the ones to make up the differences. We have created the idea of race. We have created the concept of political parties. Those that have and those that have not. We have made our own categories of what we think is right and what we think is wrong. Evil creates differences and tries to separate the people of God through means like the two mass shootings that have happened in our country in the last 24 hours, in El Paso, Texas, and Dayton, Ohio. Yet, Christ is in all! This can be hard to comprehend in times like this.

When I woke up this morning my hear broke even more after hearing of the Dayton shooting in the early hours of the morning. How often does this have to happen for people to raise their voices and a difference is made. We create differences that are not their in God’s eyes.

In God’s reign there are no differences and we encounter the grace of God in ways that are beyond our current understanding.

The rich man in Jesus’ parable likes to set himself apart and above others so that he can live prosperously. In other words, he is taking more than his daily bread that we pray for in the Lord’s prayer. Now, wealth is not a bad thing!

However, it is the person in the crowd asking Jesus to tell his brother to split the family inheritance that provokes the telling of this parable. The person in the crowd is most likely the younger of the two and thus according to Jewish inheritance traditions would not receive much. He wants what he believes is due to him. The rich man is not much different. He has done well farming his land and has been blessed with an abundance of crops. Instead of ensuring that those in the community are cared for, he is just going to build a bigger barn.  

We are good at building places to put our stuff. We buy bigger houses so that all our stuff can be contained. If we cannot buy a bigger house than we buy a storage unit so that we can collect more stuff. While George Carlin could be profane at times in his standup comedy, his social commentaries were many times spot on. His routine on our obsession with stuff is about as absurd as the rich man tearing down his barns to build even bigger barns.

In some form or another, we have probably all done it at one point though. We got a bigger car because we needed. We got a bigger house because we needed. We rented a storage facility because we needed it.

Instead of a new life in Christ, we can easily get wrapped up in the material stuff of the world. The person that asks Jesus for a share of the family inheritance is more concerned for himself. The rich man is more concerned about living the good life and stockpiling so that he can eat, drink, and be merry. They are concerned with worldly richness, not being rich toward God.

Paul has addressed some of the same concerns to the communities he has preached. In the letter to the Colossians he reiterates the importance of Christ and the freedom that now exists. This freedom should be lived as a new life in Christ and not of the world. Paul’s letter was written nearly 2000 years ago and sometimes we get caught up in his choice of words.

Sojourners magazine recently published an issue of letters to the Christian church in America from Christians around the world. These letters may have been some of the very things that Paul, himself, would write to us today. I would encourage you to read the letter from Kuki Rokhum in India.

We are blessed to have the opportunity to worship together this morning where some of our siblings around the world do not have that freedom. We are blessed with a great abundance that we quite often take for granted. More importantly, we must remember that we are not blessed because of where we live, but because we are children of God. We are created in God’s image. In this we should be reminded that there are no differences or division in God’s eyes, only the ones we have created in our own. For Christ is in all and in God’s reign there is no difference and we encounter the grace of God in ways that are beyond our current understanding.

Let us pray. God of unity, you are Christ in All. May we be open to seeing that in our neighbors and strangers alike. May we worry less about our worldly wealth and focus on the wealth that can only be found in you. Amen.

Book Review: Dear Church by Lenny Duncan

Let me start out by saying that I feel ill-equipped to offer much of a commentary on the topic of race. Yes, I have attended a multi-day anti-racism training and I have read various books on race relations, but I will never know what it feels like to be a person of color in the church or in our nation. I grew up in a predominantly white town and have lived for a majority of my life in predominantly white towns. The two congregations that I have served have each had one person of color as a member.

The congregations that I have served are exactly the ones that Lenny is writing to in Dear Church: A Love Letter From a Black Preacher to the Whitest Denomination in the U.S. I know that to do anything I must stop and listen to those that have experienced discrimination and told to go back to where they came from. I can be present with them and attempt to be a representative of God.

Lenny’s call for a revolution will make many in the church uncomfortable and we will begin to hear the denials of racism stack up. I believe that everyone has at least a bit of racism within them and to begin this conversation we must repent of it. Lenny has allowed himself to become vulnerable in the sharing of his own experiences and his call to action. He is a pastor on the front lines that is truly willing to put his call on the line to do exactly what Jesus.

There are parts in the book that I do not fully understand and yet I am willing to listen and change my own practices if it means that I am able to preach a more inclusive gospel. As he states time and time again, Jesus loves everyone, and if we are to live into our true calling as Christians, we should too. This is a must read so that we can come to an understanding of where the church is today so that we can move into the future. If the ELCA, as the whitest denomination in the U.S., does not confront our heritage and enter the conversation, we vary well may not be around in the near future.

Only One Thing!

July 21, 2019

Luke 10:38-42

As a child, I could not wait until Christmas break came upon us. It meant that Christmas was usually less than a week away and the excitement that built up in my family home was almost uncontainable. At least among myself and my younger siblings. The excitement that my parents exuded would at times be present in raised voices because of the anticipation of getting everything ready to host Christmas Eve. Four of my older siblings would return home with their families and the house would nearly be bursting at the seams.

My mother had to get her Martha on, at least a week or two before Christmas Eve. The amount of Christmas treats that she made was incredible. She would plan for dinner on Christmas Eve, which usually consisted of ham and various sides topped with all those wonderful treats that she would make. Over the years, as nieces and nephews were born, and then they began having their own children, Christmas Eve became a good type of chaos. Unless you were my parents because it could easily become overwhelming.

I could see my mother and Martha agreeing on the hecticness of having a houseful of people. Martha’s anxiousness that appears in Luke’s gospel could be expected as she wants to make sure everything is right for Jesus and his disciples. We have no idea how many people came into their home. I am sure that it was Jesus and at least the twelve closest disciples, but nothing rules out that this group could have contained the seventy that Jesus had sent out earlier to share the peace of God and cure the sick. It is the hospitality that Martha is showing now that he had told the disciples to look for.

Mary and Martha have chosen to be hospitable in their own ways and sometimes the better part is to pause and listen to the Lord.

It is not hard to find a sermon that puts Martha in a bad light. She appears to be self-obsessed because she must do all of the work while Mary sits at the feet of Jesus. Mary has stepped out of the norm as she chooses to listen to Jesus and his teachings. Much like the Samaritan last week that stopped to help the stranger, which in Jesus’ time would have been viewed as counter-cultural, Mary chooses to sit at the feet of a male teacher. This was nearly unheard of in first century Israel and if the right person had seen it could have possibly got Mary in trouble.

Jesus’ teachings and actions move well beyond expected norms. Martha is uncomfortable with Mary’s actions and raises her concern to Jesus. She is anxious and wants help. Jesus does not necessarily tell Martha that she is wrong, but let’s her know that Mary is in the right place at the right time. She has chosen the better part. She has released any concerns that she may have so that she can fully turn her attention to their guest, Jesus. We do not hear Martha’s response, but I would like to believe that she began to fully understand what Jesus was talking about in this moment. Martha was serving where she felt called to serve at that time and so was Mary. We each have our own calling that connects us to the body of Christ.

I must admit it is easy to forget that. It is easy to forget that everything we do affects those around us. It is easy to forget that our own actions have consequences, either good or bad. It is easy to get caught up in the anxiousness of making sure our checklists are completed. It is easy for us to get caught up in our work (even if it is the work of the church), in school, with finances, in our relationships, in our time management, in the events of the world, and even in our aging. In all those things, are we preaching the gospel, or is Jesus just an afterthought?

The better part of this is to pause and sit at the feet of Jesus. To listen to his teachings and be fully present to his word. This is the kingdom of God that has came into Martha’s home and Mary has chosen the better part for her of sitting and listening. Perhaps Martha has even chosen the better part for herself if what she is doing is a proclamation of God. For her to project her expectations upon Mary is not what Jesus expects in the kingdom.

We are each called to serve the Lord in various ways and sometimes we must break out of the barriers that fence us in. The Good Samaritan visibly showed this last week by loving his neighbor and caring for his wounds. Mary shows her love for God by sitting at Jesus’ feet and hanging on his every word. While Martha gets caught up in her anxiousness, her act of doing may be the best way that she can express her love for God. The Samaritan and Mary have both broke through the fence of the norms of their day.

Hopefully, we can point to times in our own lives where we have welcomed God into our midst in our lives and the lives of those around us. Jesus helps us break through the barriers that fence us in and welcomes us and walks with us in love. To love others as we love God requires us to break through those barriers. Jesus sets us free! It has happened many times throughout the last couple of centuries as we have confronted the evils of slavery, racism, sexism and homophobia. Not to say that we have fully came to a full reconciliation of any of these, but we have made our voices be heard as we proclaim the gospel of Jesus Christ. Jesus sets us free to open our hearts, minds, and souls to embrace all of God’s beautiful creation.

Jesus also sets us free so that we can love the strangers and refugees among us. Jesus sets us free to love our Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, and atheist neighbors. In that freedom we are given the chance to sit at the feet of Jesus and listen to his words. The words that bring us closer to him and our lives in the kingdom.

So, let us continue to be hospitable and embrace all of God’s creation with love and compassion. Let us listen to Jesus for what is the better part in our lives.

Let us pray. Loving God, you walk with us and in that we can be empowered as faithful witnesses. We give thanks for the faithful witness of those that have gone before us, those in our midst, and those that will follow. May we be bold in proclaiming your good news and share your love beyond all boundaries. Amen.

You Can’t Do It Alone!

July 7, 2019

Luke 10:1-11, 16-20

Now that I have done it twice, returning to college after being out of classes for some time can evoke a tiny bit of anxiety. I began seminary a decade after getting my undergrad degree, and last fall I began a spiritual direction certificate program at Loyola University Chicago. This anxiety really can happen at any grade level, kindergarten, entering middle school, or starting as a freshman in high school. Once you get into class, it can get better as you get to know people and then you get the syllabus.

The syllabus is great because it has everything you will need in it for the year and what the expectations of the teacher or professor are. One of the first things that I usually turn to in the syllabus is the assignments that are due over the course of the semester. This past spring semester I looked at the syllabus for one of my classes and read that one of the assignments included group work. UGH!!!!!

Now, I like people and I like working with people. However, this was an online course. How were we going to do group work? Also, there is that part of me that feeds into our cultural urges to be individuals and rewards those that are strong enough to do things on their own. There is little foundation in this, but individuality as become a large part of our society.

When we turn towards the gospel lesson, Jesus sends the seventy disciples out ahead of him in pairs! Jesus repeatedly ensures that the disciples are not on their own and reminds them that not one of them is greater than another. We too are sent, supported by Christ, and called to work alongside each other for the kingdom of God.

As the disciples traveled with Jesus they were consistently challenged by his teachings and he stretched them to think beyond themselves. They argued among themselves about who was greater and if they could sit at the right and the left hand of Jesus. To me, it sounds like the individualism that we are concerned about today existed two thousand years ago. Throughout history, wars have started and continue to erupt when leaders and countries think that they are better than others.

The seventy disciples sent out ahead of Jesus were given the task to start healing and proclaiming the word of the Lord so that the communities were ready when Jesus arrived. Jesus knew that they would not be totally successful in their mission and when they came back with great stories of the demons listening to them and people being healed, Jesus was quick to rebuke. For it was not them personally doing any of this work. It was God working through them. How easy this can be to forget. Imagine the inflated egos that some of them may have had when they returned with such great news for Jesus and he popped their bubble.

How easy it is for praise to be quickly taken in a negative direction. If allowed, it can result in the same inflated egos. Once their ego has been inflated, some people will do whatever they can to maintain it, including misleading others and going to the extremes of corruption. I am sure that we can all think of instances when this has happened in the corporate world as well as in our own government and especially other governments around the world.

It is easy to get wrapped up in our own way of doing things and want little help from others. Especially if we know the way we are doing it is the right way! It becomes easy for us to turn others away because things will get done the way we want them to get done, whether it is right or not. This happens in many areas, like school, to the operation of our cities, corporations, and government. Believe it or not, it can even happen in the church!

From the very beginning of creation, this was not God’s intention. We were created in the image of God to be in relationship with one another. Less than a month ago we celebrated Holy Trinity Sunday and lifted up the relationship of the Trinity and how Father, Son, and Holy Spirit work with one another to guide and lead us in our lives. We are not created to back bite and try to one-up one another. We are not created to take advantage of others. We are not created for our own personal successes that lead to inflated egos.

We are created to be in relationship and to live into community. We are created to support our siblings and to share the same love with them that Jesus shared with us. Do you think those seventy disciples that were sent out, did so reluctantly because they had to go out in groups? I personally doubt it, because I am sure there would have been a clarification from Jesus why they had to go out in twos if they had questioned him. It was their boastfulness that got them in trouble when they returned.

They are there to support one another and be reminded that they do not have to go alone. This is a great reminder for us as we try to go our own way with little support from others. We all know that things come together much better in relationship and in community with one another. However, we are pulled away from this when we think we know better. In Jesus we have a reminder that we are not alone, and we do not have to proceed on our own. No matter what it is we face we are encouraged to surround ourselves with others.

Earlier this week I had the opportunity to attend a benefit dinner for Ded Rranxburgaj and his family at Central United Methodist Church in Detroit. Due to an eruption of war in Albania in 2001, Ded and his family moved to the United States and applied for asylum. They followed all the rules and a couple of years ago Ded was threatened with deportation. His wife Flora, who has MS, has a medical exception, and their two sons are not in danger. As a community Central United Methodist has provided them sanctuary for roughly eighteen months as Ded awaits a court ruling. They could not have done this all on their own and if it were not for the church community, this family would have been split apart. This is community supporting one another and imitating Christ.

Jesus entered this world in a time when the Jewish population was tolerated in the Roman Empire, but he suffered at the very hands of that empire. When we come to the table and take communion we eat and drink the very being of Christ. May this loving welcome that Christ invites us to be open to all of God’s creation and may we carry that love out to those that are living amid injustice.

Jesus repeatedly ensures that the disciples are not on their own and reminds them that not one of them is greater than another. We too are sent, supported by Christ, and called to work alongside each other in the kingdom of God.

Let us pray. Sending God, you have sent us out into the world to share the love and grace of Jesus Christ. May we bring peace and comfort to those that are sick and in need of healing, and may we bring your word to those places that we see injustice. Amen.