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.

The Gospel of Inclusion by Brandan Robertson, Book Review

There are many books available on the market that explore what it means to be part of the LGBT+ community in the Church of Christ. Those that are opposed to full LGBT+ inclusion often use scripture to make their point known for all that will hear. In the process they often neglect that everyone is created in the image of God.

Brandan Robertson presents a well-researched proclamation as he advocates for a full inclusion of LGBT+ people in the church today. He brings to the forefront that we are all called to be in relationship with God and it is of great importance how we live out that relationship in the rest of our lives. He addresses the six “clobber” passages that have been used time after time to berate the LGBT+ community. These passages have always been taken out of context when used in this manner and as people of God, we have learned a lot as we grow into relationship with one another. Robertson writes, “Any relationship centered on a consensual commitment to sacrificial love for the good of another is a holy relationship, and any attempt to break that commitment is seen as less than God’s desire for humanity.”

This resource compliments his previous offering, True Inclusion, which discussed what it truly meant to be a welcoming church in the world today. Doing such, requires change among our thought patterns and the denigration of those that we see as different. This is not just true for the LGBT+ community, but also for immigrants, gender, race, and any other way that we as broken people decide to divide.

This is not an easy step for the church to take, because of the damage that has been done over time. The Gospel has been co-opted by humanity to use to its own advantage in various times and places. It is time to speak up and be bold in our proclamation. Robertson shares, “We must know that our silence is being complicit in oppression. Silence is opposed to the gospel. We must, in Christ’s name, speak up. We must be willing to sacrifice our positions of privilege, power, and comfort in order to lift up the oppressed and give the voiceless back their voices.”

There is redemption to be found in Christ and we are not called to get in the way of the Holy Spirit working among the people of God. We are called to love and inclusion. Brandan Robertson’s book shares this in a way that is full of wisdom as well as from a full heart that has experienced many things. It speaks boldly and calls us forth in love.

I Don’t Know

June 16, 2019

John 16:12-15

“I don’t know!”

This sentence alone can be interpreted in many ways. For a teacher asking a student the answer to a math or science question, it shows that the student does not comprehend or simply failed to do the homework or reading.

When it comes to hearing this answer in the setting of the church, how does it make you feel? Are you comfortable with living into not knowing, or are you more like the disciples that are constantly seeking concrete answers from Jesus? Are you comfortable with mystery, or are you stymied by it?

As a pastor, I hear plenty of questions where people want specific answers. Sometimes that is just not possible. At one point in my life, I have even had asked some of the same questions. I recall during CPE in seminary, where I was a chaplain in a hospital, the struggle and challenge of walking with families that encountered various diagnosis. One family I visited was in the ICU and they were sitting with their father, whose chance of recovery was very slim. As we prayed together, I could sense the love that filled the room. The next day I stopped by and he had awakened from the coma he was in and was beginning to communicate with his family. Another family had a sister that had had routine heart surgery and died a couple of days later due to complications. Where was God in these circumstances, I questioned at the time. It was safe to say I didn’t know and to just be present.

That is the mystery of God that we live into and it could not be made more apparent than today when we recognize Holy Trinity Sunday. The mystery that is God, lays in the very heart of the Trinity.

The disciples were uncomfortable with this mystery. They wanted answers before they were even ready to understand what those answers may be. They constantly sought answers to the mystery that was unfolding in front of them, yet they did not fully understand what was happening. They knew the God they followed in the Hebrew scripture, yet something was not computing when trying to equate God with Jesus. There was a disconnection with fully understanding that Jesus was both divine and human. There was a disconnection occurring when they tried to understand that Jesus was the Son of God. There was a disconnection when Jesus promised to send them the Holy Spirit.

So, where does this disconnection happen for us? It happens more times than we would like it to. To say that we fully understand God and the mystery that surrounds the Trinity means that you are fooling yourself. As David Lose writes in his blog,

“As I’ve said before, I don’t understand the Trinity and don’t trust those that report that they do. The Trinity is, at heart, our best if manifestly inadequate attempt to capture in words the mysterious nature of God.”

We fall short when we think that we have everything figured out and those that are different or have different thoughts than us are wrong. We stumble when we move forward in our own reasoning without listening to the Spirit’s guidance. We slip when we bow to the expectations of the world in preference to the teachings of Christ.

Jesus calls us to trust in the mystery. The mystery that we are not expected to fully comprehend. To be comfortable in the unknown requires faith. As Jesus tells us in today’s lesson, “I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now.” The disciples have already been overwhelmed with the journey thus far and Jesus knows that they are not quite ready to bear anything else. It will only be revealed when they are ready. It is the same for all of humanity.

As children of God, we are invited into this wonderful mystery. We are invited to join in community and walk with each other as the Trinity leads us. Richard Rohr, in his daily meditations, recently shared this about the Trinity,

I see mystery not as something you cannot understand; rather, it is something that you can endlessly understand! There is no point at which you can say, “I’ve got it.” Always and forever, mystery gets you! In the same way, you don’t hold God in your pocket; rather, God holds you and knows your deepest identity.

Whatever is going on in God is a flow, a radical relatedness, a perfect communion between Three—a circle dance of love. God is Absolute Friendship. God is not just a dancer; God is the dance itself. This pattern mirrors the perpetual orbit of electron, proton, and neutron that creates every atom, which is the substratum of the entire physical universe. Everything is indeed like “the image and likeness of God” (Genesis 1:26-27).

We have the opportunity to encounter each part of the Trinity in our own time and place. We are invited to join in the dance of the Trinity as Richard Rohr refers to and that we will sing about soon. To enter that relationship is mysterious and yet also overwhelming. God is much greater than we can ever imagine. God is the creator that calls us to care for God’s creation. Jesus is the part of the divine that has come to us in our own human form to show us the way. The Holy Spirit completes the three to companion us on this great journey of life.

The Holy Trinity is present with us at all times in our lives. When we are born. When we fall off the bicycle for the first time and scrape up our knees. When we enter the scary world of high school. When we must start providing for ourselves. When our own children are born and when we grow old and experience all new aches, pains, and terrible diseases. The Holy Trinity is with those that wake up from comas as well as those that breath their last breathes in this earthly world.

The Holy Trinity is at the heart of our Faith and is revealed to us in Jesus Christ as he died on the cross to reveals God’s unbounded love. The Holy Trinity is the Spirit that companions us throughout all of lives twists and turns. The Holy Trinity is the creator God that brings us all together in a relationship that is growing and is mystery.

It is okay to say, “I don’t know,” when you do not have an answer. For we are not expected to know it all. For as Jesus tells his disciples, you are not yet ready to bear it all.

Let us pray. Holy Trinity, your mysterious way leaves us dumbfounded. As we enter the dance of the Trinity, let us be open to those teachings that draw us ever closer to you. In the meantime, let us be at ease with those things we cannot understand and let our faith guide us in your ways. Amen.

The Spirit Abides!

June 9, 2018

John 14:8-17, 25-27

There is an anxiousness that often times will creep up within me when I find myself in a place that is unfamiliar. Perhaps, you know exactly what I am talking about. It is that feeling when you feel yourself at an unease and you begin looking around for someone that you may know. Someone familiar to make the unfamiliar not seem as unnerving.

Believe it or not, some people live for these moments! And to be honest with you, as an introvert I do get anxious, but that little bit of the extrovert within me loves the new surroundings and the ability to experience new people and places. I want to believe that extrovert is the Holy Spirit within me pulling me in a direction to try and experience new activities, people, and places. It is the same Holy Spirit that energizes us to go out and share the good news of Jesus Christ.

Our first reading this week unfolds onto the birth of the Christian church as we know it. Now, Pentecost is not a new celebration for the followers of Jesus. It has been known as the Feast of Weeks, Shavuot, and eventually Pentecost by the Jewish people. Pentecost would follow 50 days after Passover and on it they would celebrate the handing down of the Torah, or law, to Moses and also the giving of the first fruits of the harvest at the temple. Therefore, the disciples are already gathered, and it is in this place that Jesus sends the Holy Spirit to take up residence in them. It will guide and teach them in the ways of the Lord and drive them out into the world to spread the gospel.

Amid this Pentecost celebration the anxiety had to be escalated! This was not a normal Pentecost, as everyone was speaking in their native language speaking about the amazing deeds God has and will continue to accomplish. I would like to know how Philip felt at this point in time following the conversation that he had with Jesus in the gospel lesson this week.

Philip needs to learn a little patience as the disciples walk with Jesus. Philip asks Jesus to show them the Father so that they will be satisfied. He does not sound much different from Thomas after Jesus’ resurrection. He wants some proof of who Jesus really is. This will satisfy him. He knows that it had happened before with Moses, so why can’t Jesus just reveal the Father to the disciples so that they are better equipped to go and share Jesus’ message. There must be more. Philip could simply be afraid. His expectations of God, the Father is not what he has witnessed so far with Jesus as he eats with sinners and touches the outcast. He is afraid and his heart is troubled because he is still looking for God among the actions of Jesus. This therefore feeds into the unbelief that Jesus addresses further in the gospel lesson.

Fear and a troubled heart can lead us in many wrong directions. Out of fear, we seek to exclude those that are different from us. Out of fear, we lock all our doors and are afraid to step out into the greater world. Out of fear, countries engage in war with one another. When this fear takes over our very being, our hearts become troubled and we fail to see Jesus in anything. The enemy has worked its way in and is doing exactly what it intended to do; to believe that we are separated from the love of God.

Personally, it is hard to overcome that unbelief! On my own, I struggle with this from time to time. The moment that we think we have it all figured out ourselves is when we begin to find ourselves in trouble. If we keep going down that hole, it just keeps getting deeper and we definitely cannot climb out on our own.

While Philip cannot help is own unbelief, Jesus can. And Jesus does the same thing for each one of us, for every person in our community, state, country, and around the world. The proof of Jesus helping our unbelief is that fact that he laid down his own life to share with us the depths that God is willing to go to bring us a love greater than we could ever imagine in our earthly home.

To relieve Philip’s anxiety and fear, Jesus gives him peace. It is a peace that will wash over him and guide him. This peace comes to him in the form of the Holy Spirit. Jesus once again reminds the disciples that he is different from anyone that has come before him.  He tells them, “I do not give as the world gives.” What a blessing this is for us to live into. You name it, we can find it out there somewhere in the world. But if we are looking for a grace and love that knows no bounds and is willing to knock down all barriers, that alone can be found in Jesus Christ.

The Holy Spirit is alive and active in our lives and is just waiting for us to listen and heed her guidance. It is not just for us individually. The Holy Spirit is also alive and well at Trinity Lutheran and it is our hope with the Tune-In team that we hear that Spirit moving and calling us to new and wonderous ministries.

Are you praying for the Holy Spirit to reveal itself in the life of our congregation? If not, will you? The Holy Spirit is just waiting to set us on fire with the passion to go out and share the good news, and oh, how much sweeter it is when we are able to do it in community.

Jesus went to the cross for us. It is here that we lay our unbelief and are reminded of the gifts of God found in the waters of baptism and the presence of Christ in the bread and wine at communion. The Holy Spirit is not a noun. The Holy Spirit is a verb that is active and moving around us as we continue to be God’s hands and feet in the world. It is the Holy Spirit that keeps everything moving. It is the Holy Spirit that takes up residence within our very beings and guides us and teaches us in the ways of the Lord. The promise of Jesus Christ has been fulfilled in the Holy Spirit!

Let us pray. God of Spirit, you have sent us your Son, Jesus to heal the sick, walk with the outcast, feed the poor, and so much more. May the Holy Spirit that comes to us as an advocate continue to teach us and guide us to be bearers of your goods news. Amen

Cultivating Change

March 24, 2019

Luke 13:1-9

Once upon a time a psychology professor walked around on a stage while teaching stress management principles to an auditorium filled with students.  As she raised a glass of water, everyone expected they’d be asked the typical “glass half empty or glass half full” question.  Instead, with a smile on her face, the professor asked, “How heavy is this glass of water I’m holding?”

Students shouted out answers ranging from eight ounces to a couple pounds.

She replied, “From my perspective, the absolute weight of this glass doesn’t matter.  It all depends on how long I hold it.  If I hold it for a minute or two, it’s fairly light.  If I hold it for an hour straight, its weight might make my arm ache a little.  If I hold it for a day straight, my arm will likely cramp up and feel completely numb and paralyzed, forcing me to drop the glass to the floor.  In each case, the weight of the glass doesn’t change, but the longer I hold it, the heavier it feels to me.”

As the class shook their heads in agreement, she continued, “Your stresses and worries in life are very much like this glass of water.  Think about them for a while and nothing happens.  Think about them a bit longer and you begin to ache a little.  Think about them all day long, and you will feel completely numb and paralyzed – incapable of doing anything else until you drop them.”[1]

Quite often, when we hear the word change, we get that uneasy feeling in our bodies. We become tense, or possibly get butterflies wondering what that “change” may be. We get caught up in our stress and worries yet fear change and what that may mean. However, Jesus calls us to a life of change. He does not want us to be stagnant in our practices and wants us to encounter the triune God in new and exciting ways every day.

In the gospel lesson for this Sunday, Jesus calls us to change. Twice in the gospel lesson Jesus calls for those that are listening to him to repent. He is simply telling them to seek forgiveness and to return to God. He is well aware of the sins that they partake in every day and his call for them to repent is done with great love so that they will come to know the love of God which is greater than anything else. To repent though, means to change. Not only are they to return to God and seek the forgiveness that comes in repenting, they are also called to stop sinning. They are called to change their life and start following Jesus.

He follows this call to repentance with the parable of the barren fig tree. Its placement seems odd, yet let’s see how we can tie the call to change with the fig tree. There are many times in our lives that we attempt something new and it simply does not work. We try to change and then we wonder if it truly made a difference. Just maybe, we are not giving it enough time to germinate. To begin growing. Just maybe, God is still at work and we must be patient. Remember, God does not work on our timeframe.

I recall one such time in my first congregation when I got frustrated and did not let a new ministry germinate. I sensed God calling me to start a new cross-generational worship that seemed to be almost dead on arrival when it kicked off. Don’t get me wrong, there were people that showed up. However, I was disappointed, because my expectations were not met. I expected something grand and glorious. However, after three months in, I decided to pull the plug. I was not much different from the man that owned the fig tree and wanted to cut it down because it was not bearing any fruit.

How quick we are to cut off those things that we see no purpose or production coming out of. Isn’t this the practice in the business world today? It is all about the bottom line. In this season of Lent, we talk about letting go, but also, we must contemplate when is the proper timing to let go of something. We must discern it and ask ourselves, is it something that is pulling us further from God, or is it something that we can simply let be and see if life will come out of it?

When we are called to change, that does mean letting go. Letting go of the way that we used to be. Letting go of something that draws us away from God. Letting go of something that may be holding us back. It could be thoughts, fears, expectations, practices. The call to change brings us to a different point in our lives. It could be scary. It could come with anxiety. It could come with questions.

In the parable of the fig tree, the gardener tells the owner of the tree to give it some more time before coming and looking for fruit. Did you know that it could take up to six years for a fig tree to bear fruit? Perhaps it has not had the proper nutrients fed to it. Perhaps there have been other factors that have led to it not producing. Perhaps, it just needs time to germinate and to absorb everything around it.

Change is very much the same. It takes time. Yes, you may see some immediate results when you begin to change something. To fully live into the change takes time and living through some difficult times of transition. When we start a new ministry, we should not expect it to be perfect right away. It takes time to plant the seed and for it to germinate. We may have one image in our mind of what success may look like, and God may have another. Sure, we would love to have this sanctuary full every Sunday morning, but are we planting seeds with people and letting those seeds take root? Or do we just think someone else will do it or it will happen on its own and it will somehow all of a sudden be the way it used to be?

When we let go of the past and repent, we are telling God that we are willing to change. We are willing to be in a relationship with the very creator of life. We are willing to open our hearts and minds to the mystery that is unknown. Jesus bears this loving relationship for us through his life, from birth to baptism, to his life of ministry and ultimately his willingness to succumb to death on a cross so that we know the depths that God is willing to go, to redeem creation and share God’s love. The ultimate change that takes place is in the resurrection, and that is the promise we are walking towards this Lenten season.

Let us pray. Patient God, may we let go of things in the past that distract us from your very word. You call us to live a life following Jesus and in him may we cultivate a life of change where we begin to embody Christ. Amen.


[1] Story from http://www.marcandangel.com/2013/05/21/4-short-stories-change-the-way-you-think/

Entering Lent

March 10, 2019 Lent 1

Luke 4:1-13

The first spring following my families move to Richmond brought grandiose plans of a wonderful thriving garden in the backyard of the parsonage. Vern came over and tilled the ground for us and by the time he was completed, we probably had at least 200 square feet of space for a wonderful garden. We marked the garden all out and planted seeds. We put a fence all the way around the garden so that the many rabbits roaming around the yard would stay out. Since it was the first year, it required a lot of tender loving care to weed it and water it. The weeds seemed to like the water much more than the plants did. Then we went on vacation!

We came home to an enclosed jungle! Okay, maybe it was not quite that bad. I still manage to harvest some radishes, cucumbers, tomatoes, zucchini, and even a bit of lettuce. The corn did not turn out. Neither did the watermelon or cantaloupe. We would try again the following year and scale it back a little. Last year we decided that it was just too much work! It takes a lot of patience to prepare and cultivate a garden. There are many challenges and temptations that come along the way.

On this first Sunday of Lent, Jesus enters the wilderness. He is tempted and holds fast in his faith. During this season of Lent, you are going to be asked to let go of the things that weigh you down and to cultivate those areas in your life that bring growth.

The temptations that are waved in front of Jesus’ face this week are very powerful. They are temptations that pull people into power that is hard to let go of. What if we could turn a stone into a loaf of bread, or simply anything to feed ourselves? Could this be a blessing to those in countries that have the constant threat of famine. Jesus had been fasting for 40 days! He had to be hungry. I am sure the thought of a loaf of bread would have made his mouth water.

Imagine standing on the highest peak wherever you were and being able to see off in the distance for miles and miles. What if someone promised to you that it could all be yours if you just turned away from God and turned your worship towards evil, idols, or even material possessions? Does not sound too far from the truth for some today, does it? How quick we are to turn away from God for something that is newer, brighter, or shinier.

The third temptation of Jesus is the promise of invincibility. This seems to come to us more often when we are young and stupid! Now, don’t try this at home, but one attempt at this for me was when I thought I could run across the pool cover on my parent’s pool in the middle of winter. I may have been trying to show off for the next-door neighbor, and fortunately, I got all the way to the other side before my foot just barely broke through the ice frozen on top.

It is these temptations that Jesus walks away from after fasting for 40 days. He lets go of them so that he can move forward into the ministry that God is calling him to. A ministry that had been established from the very beginning of time.

Many people have used Lent as a time to fast from something as a discipline. I encourage you this year to let go of something. Not just for Lent, but for good. It could be something that distracts you away from God. A great definition of to let go is to relinquish your grip on something. As we do so it provides us the opportunity to return to God.

While Jesus let go of the temptations after his 40 days in the wilderness, it was also a sign of growth. His time of fasting in the wilderness revealed his great faith in God the Father which prepared him for his ministry ahead. A ministry that would lead to growth in his disciple’s faith as well.

Unlike me trying to cultivate a garden, Jesus was much better in cultivating a faith that laid the foundation for all of us to follow. The term to cultivate usually is used in farming as I am sure many of you know. We can also use it to refer to our lives and today to our faith. To cultivate means to prepare and then foster growth. To cultivate also means to labor, care for, study, refine, or encourage. All of these can relate to our faith and its growth as we draw closer to God this Lenten season. It takes work and we must be intentional.

As you noticed, there is also room for you to write on the doors what you are going to cultivate over these next forty days. After his time of testing in the wilderness, Jesus let go of the temptations and cultivated his faith as he drew closer to God.

How are you going to draw closer to God this season?

Let us pray. Lord, we return to you, asking for forgiveness this season of Lent. In this time of preparation, may we be guided by the Holy Spirit to let go of those things that weigh us down and be drawn to those things that cultivate our commitment to you. Amen.

Book Review: Shameless by Nadia Bolz-Weber

In her latest book, Nadia Bolz-Weber, opens up a topic that many in the church attempt to stay clear from. While the entire basis of our life on earth is contingent upon our ability to have sex, it has often times been a taboo subject within the church. Many times the church has went to extremes to steer clear of the topic or at its worse, to speak of the evils of it.

I did not grow up in the church and therefore was not too aware of the purity movement that happened within it. I heard a few things along the way, but at that time it didn’t affect me so I did not pay too much attention. It is the purity movement that she directly addresses in the beginning of her book and bringing to the forefront the harm that is has caused over the years.

Like many of her other books, she brings in many stories from her parishioners that help support her thesis. She also speaks of the holiness of being with God and each other. As she compares the two she says that “holiness is about union with, and purity is about separation from.” I believe that it all comes down from this as we are a holy people that are called to live with union with one another.

To attempt to say what is holy and not holy of others is in direct competition with God. God has created each of holy. Every sing part of our bodies. To be with another person in being welcomed into a holy experience. There is nothing that we should be ashamed of. We should not let others make us feel any less.

There is no shame to be felt in our bodies. “God is made known: in the miracle of our infant bodies, so recently come from God that you can smell God on their heads; in the freedom of our child bodies as they were before shame and self-consciousness entered into them; in the confusion of our pubescent bodies and the excitement of our teenage bodies as they become familiar with desire; in the fire and ice of our young adult bodies as they connect with each other; in the goddamn mind-blowing magic of our baby-making bodies; in the wisdom in our aging bodies; and in the so-close-to-God-you-can-smell-God beauty of our dying bodies.” God wants us to be one with our bodies and to know them intimately as they are created in the image of God.

This is a tough message to share as we have avoided the conversation for far too long. It is about time that someone like Nadia brings it the forefront. She has also included some great resources for individuals and congregations to reach out and learn more.