A former Lutheran pastor sharing thoughts on faith and life. Please join the conversation! I love your comments!

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Religion Interfering With Altruism?

There has been some mention, lately, of a study which showed children who are raised without religion tend to be more altruistic.  The scientific validity of this study is uncertain but to me this is beside the point.  The undertaking of such a study combined with the response to it calls to attention the number of people for whom this study would simply verify their own experiences with Christianity.  For example, those who have been wounded by religion and those whose only exposure to religion is hate mongers who fill the media with the portrayal of an angry, judgmental, anti-homosexual, anti-sex, misogynistic, God with a persecution complex.  For such people the idea religion might interfere with the development of altruism might seem rather obvious.  As a person familiar with both the good and the bad of the church,  even for me several reasons why religion might hamper altruism immediately sprang to mind. 

It seems to me the underlying problem which has created a church with a reputation quite out of tune with “they will know we are Christians by our love” is a view of Christianity which emphasizes obedience to God before love of neighbor.  To many there seems to be no problem with such an approach but to me this seems highly unhealthy.  If God is the God of love then obedience to God would be love of neighbor and anything which looks like blind obedience would be contrary to that love.  In fact any God worthy of the label “God of love” and worthy of our faith would demand of us such a great commitment to loving one another that we would stand up even to God, for the sake of our brothers and sisters.  

There are even scriptures which support this idea.  Moses stands up to God for the sake of the people.  Abraham stands up to God multiple times for the sake of Sodom.  The Syrophoenician woman stands up to Jesus for the sake of her daughter.  True, there are other scriptures which seem to demand blind obedience.  But, if I have to choose between scriptures which portray God as a petty, fickle, arrogant jerk who demands obedience or God as one who calls us to stand up for justice, mercy, and peace then I think I will go with the latter.  Because any God worthy of faith would rather we turn our back on God than we turn our backs on our brothers and sisters.  God is God.  God can take it.  Our brothers and sisters need us.  They need us to be a stalwart, persistent, and passionate voice for justice, mercy, and peace.  They need our love.  They need our action.  And, for the sake of all that is holy, they need us so committed to love we would fight with all that is in us against the remotest possibility our religion might get in the way of teaching our children things like altruism and compassion.  

Let us set aside defensiveness in favor of introspection and repentance.

Saturday, October 31, 2015

Reformation and Cultural Amnesia

In honor of Reformaion Day, I thought I would share my Reformation Sunday sermon.  Happy Reformation Day/Halloween/All Saints/Dia de Los Muertos!

“Then Jesus said to the Jews who had believed in him, ‘If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples; and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.’ They answered him, ‘We are descendants of Abraham and have never been slaves to anyone.’“ (John 8:31-33)

There are at least a couple of ways of looking at this passage, either of which paint it in somewhat of a humorous light.  Possibly, Jewish leaders have forgotten their history and have disconnected themselves from the story of Israel as slaves in Egypt. Or, when Jesus talks about being slaves, they are thinking about their cultural context in which many worship and sacrifice to idols.  Sometimes enslaved can refer to being enslaved to idols.  Even in this interpretation these children of Abraham are practicing some selective memory since the history of Israel is not without its ventures into idolatry.  

As Americans, we have no room to scoff at these Jewish leaders’ historical amnesia.  The land of the free and the home of the brave is also the land of the slave and the ransacked home of the victims of nearly genocidal systematic violence.  The “good ole days” tended to be far from good for minorities and paradoxically perilous for both foreign immigrants and those original natives of this land.  Yet we often practice cultural amnesia by lauding ourselves as fiercely independent pioneers who pulled ourselves up by the bootstraps completely ignoring all those shoeless folks we ground under our boot heels in the process.   The church practices similar selective forgetfulness as we too often speak harshly of other faiths and ignore  our own dark history from the crusades to our own Martin Luther’s anti-Semitism.  

And so it is not a stretch to hearken to the words of today’s gospel as if they were spoken to us.  Jesus says, ”If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples; and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free." (John 8:31) Lest we too protest we are slaves to none and nothing Jesus elaborates, “Very truly, I tell you, everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin.” (John 8:34) Even if we succumb to cultural amnesia and blindness to the contemporary sins of our nation, and the harmful actions of the church throughout history, personal failings confront us more directly.  Who among us can even truly live up to the most essential tenet of our faith to love our neighbors as ourselves?  Who among us can say, without a glimmer of a doubt, our beliefs and the actions based on those beliefs are right? 

Jesus tells us the truth will set us free.  The truth of God’s love as revealed through Jesus, the truth of forgiveness and grace, sets us free to live and love boldly.  We are set free from past mistakes.  We are set free from concern for right belief.  Freedom means we let go of concern for our own salvation, leaving such in the loving hands of God, so that we might see and serve our neighbor in need.  

Sometimes I despair at hearing Christians say heartless things in order to justify self-righteousness or inaction in the face of suffering.  Freedom feels no need for self-righteousness because all has been made right through grace.   Freedom does not seek an excuse for loving less because there is no need for excuses, no one keeping score, only forgiveness and growing in love. 

We will all make mistakes.  We will all fall short some times.  Martin Luther certainly did by falling into bigotry against Jewish people.  But even this horrible sin did not define all of who he was.  He was also a person with a particular message to deliver in a particular time in history.  Just as all of us are.  We each have a message to bring.  Not all of our audiences will be so large as Luther’s, nor will we all use words. But we are free of our failings, free of our strivings, free to be a message of love delivered in our unique way in our unique moment in place and time.  

Saturday, August 22, 2015

School Dress Codes: Good or Evil?

As we start back to school in this country there has been talk about school dress codes.  I am a bit conflicted about what I hear and read.  I hear a resistance to the sexualization of our young girls and a resistance to the clothing which proclaims that sexualization.  This sounds good.  On the other hand I hear a resistance to the idea girls should be ashamed of their bottoms, their boobs, their shoulders, and a resistance to the idea we should primarily be concerned about the distraction our girls might cause to boys.  This makes sense to me as well.  I hear and read school staff reiterating the dress codes apply equally to males and females and I find this less than honest.  The codes might be written in a way which speaks equality but the truth is, the codes are far more frequently applied to females because they are far more likely to break the dress code.  Is this because our girls are naturally more disobedient?  Is this because our girls feel the pull to be sexy more strongly?  Are they more slutty than boys?  Or is it because of aspects of our culture which sexualize our daughters more so than our sons and then shame them for the sexualization we have inflicted upon them?  

Obviously, I think the latter more likely.  However, I am not sure it would be helpful for us to then acquiesce to the sexualization rampant in our culture and encourage girls to wear whatever society pressures them to wear.  What if instead our dress codes became counter cultural rather than shaming?  What if we re-articulate the reasoning behind our dress codes?  Our dress codes need not be about distractions or shame.  Rather let our dress codes be about valuing minds and healthy bodies and healthy sexuality with equal power, equal expectations for all.  Our dress codes could seek to undermine the culture which exploits women and teaches men to consider women as objects of lust or shaming.  

My body is never merely a distraction to someone else.  My body is an instrument of my power in the world.  It is an agent of change.  It is a conduit of my strength.  It is my health.  It is a vehicle for my agency as I work to make the world a better place.  My body houses me and when it is healthy and strong I can better face the challenges of life and be a force for good.  If our dress codes loudly and proudly proclaim this view of the bodies of our young men and women then they will address what is unhealthy in our society rather than shaming our young women for the consequences of that ill health.

A dress code might begin by saying “This school is an academic environment.  We are here to learn from one another: students learn from staff, staff from students, and students learn from one another.  In addition to academics, together we seek to help each other learn what is healthy and what is unhealthy, what is helpful and what is unhelpful.  Certain aspects of our world encourage us to look at each other as sexual objects, to diminish our bodies to nothing more than what is sexy or pretty.  In this place we see our bodies as vehicles of things such as health, strength, will, and mind.  Our bodies are important for our health and our ability to act in this world.  Therefore, we seek to dress in ways which counter the culture of over-sexualization.  In order to better guide one another into a healthy view of our bodies and to act as agents of positive change in our society we adopt the following dress code….”  

Our young people are thoughtful and vulnerable to the messages we send.  It is not in their best interest for us to keep policies in place because that is the way it has always been done, or because it is more comfortable for the adults.  Our schools and the staff of the schools do a wonderful job of teaching and caring for our students.  This is not meant as a criticism of them.  It just may be time we as a nation and communities rethink and articulate better reasoning for why we do what we do in regards to dress codes.