looking back to Lent…

It is a little hard to believe that it has been months since I last blogged. It had become for me a release, a way to sort things out. But, while on internship, blogging took a back seat to real life. And even though my internship ended in November I haven’t found the desire to pick it back up, at least not until now.

Today is Ash Wednesday, the beginning of Lent, and Lent has a way of helping us keep one eye focused on the present while the other strains toward what is to come, to the hope that lies ahead. But, as helpful as looking ahead can be, looking to the past is just as important. The past doesn’t define you and I yet it has undoubtedly shaped who we are. It is my past that has brought me to my present, about ten weeks from finally graduating from Concordia Seminary in St. Louis.

I never thought I would have pride for the sem the way I do. Sure my time has been fraught with struggles and tears, but I could not be prouder of the faculty I have studied under and of the faculties and graduates that served and studied long before I ever set foot on campus.  That is the thing about the past, the thing I cannot seem to shake, it reminds us that we aren’t the first. More than that, though, looking to the past reminds me that I am part of something bigger than myself. It is something that served generations before I took a breath and something that will continue to serve generations long after I breathe my last. History has a way of setting the context, of reminding me of where and when I sit and what that means for the present and the future.

That is true of my legacy of a future alum of Concordia Seminary and of my place within the Church. There are those who have gone before and those who will come after, I didn’t invent the Church, nor does it belong to me, rather, I am a part of her on account of the work of the Holy Spirit who has called, gathered, and enlivened the faith of all who belong to Christ and His Church. But, what difference does it make to think of the Church this way? What I mean is, how does understanding the church this way change the way I act? Well, I could wax and wane about what it means to be ecumenical. As Martin Franzmann once said, “The church, if it lives in obedience to its Lord, is not “also” ecumenical; it is ecumenical by definition since the Lord of the church is ecumenical — Lord of all that call upon his name” (Grace Under Pressure, St. Louis, MO: Concordia Publishing House, 1966, 3).

But, on a day like today, words about demonstrating the unity that exists between all Christians seem to be fruitless despite the validity of such a claim. Why? Because like I said, today is Ash Wednesday, the beginning of Lent. Amidst all the statuses and thoughts about who is giving up what and why I think it is helpful to remember that Lent isn’t about us, but about those who have gone before. Lent is something that has served the Church throughout the ages to remember who they are and what they would be without what comes at Lent’s end, the passion, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Although I have hopes of my own to give things up, or in the case of this blog to pick things back up, for Lent thinking of it only in terms of ourselves and what we want to get out of it betrays the legacy it has. Lent isn’t about you or me, it is about the Church. What good is it to give something up for Lent if it only benefits myself?

All over the world today people will receive ashes, more often than not on their forehead. And as those ashes are being placed there will be some variation of the words, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” And while that is an intensely private penitential moment, if we think those words are only about us as individuals we once again miss the point. Dust is not simply our own individual fate, it is the fate of every single person who has ever and will ever have breath. Death is one of the few things that binds all of humanity together as it is our common end. Today as we remember that we are dust let us remember that it truly is we and not just me. That is what Lent reminds us of, that is the point of giving things up, not simply to teach us something about ourselves, but to remind us of who we are as humanity. That all of us are broken. That all of us do things that are of no help to others. That all of us live for our own ends and enjoyments. That all of us have no hope if not for the hope that lies ahead on Good Friday and Easter.

Lent belongs to the Church, and only to the Church, because Lent is about the Lord of the Church, Jesus Christ. My favorite hymn of all time isn’t that old in the life of the Church as it has only been around since the 19th century. Whatever else it may stand for, the hymn communicates something about what it means to be the Church, what it means to belong to the Church, and what it means for the Church to live and breathe from one generation to the next. And so, as Lent begins I give back to the Church what gives me strength, because in the end, the Church’s One Foundation is Jesus Christ her Lord…

sunny Sante Fe would be nice…

Recently, thanks in large part to my dalliance with a rip current, I have taken some time to think about my place in life. And, wouldn’t you know it, in all that pondering  I felt the urge to once again put fingers to keys and open up about it.

Life has certainly been busy, but it has been good. The church whom I serve is full of people I will not want to say goodbye to in thirteen short weeks, but alas, that day will come. Things have sped by already, faster than I could have imagined. And perhaps, what I have learned most to this point of my internship is how much my education has changed me. I don’t know what I would have said to myself three years ago if I knew this is what I would end up being and thinking like, but I know it wouldn’t have been kind. Hurt and pain have a way of coloring reality worse than it actually may be. And as I have long since said, my time at a Baptist seminary taught me just how much of a Lutheran I really am. And in these last nine months that has never been more apparent to me than ever.

Being a Lutheran, what that means and why it makes a difference, is a post for another time. I can honestly say, perhaps for the first time consistently, that I am proud to be a Lutheran. That the synod may have its warts but there is no other lot I want to counted among. And yet, I am coming to a deeper understanding of just how much that has changed me. Part of that has more to do with the reality that I am becoming a pastor. Everything that entails, teaching, visiting, preaching, leading worship, being there for people when there are other places I’d rather be, is a humbling reality. But more than that, I have come to an understanding that I can never go back to the way I was. Not because I think I was somehow inferior, but because I followed the rabbit down the hole and am realizing just how far down it goes.

I have a mind that doesn’t shut down, like I tell my wife, I wish I could shut it off but I can’t. Usually that isn’t a bad thing, but it has completely encompassed me. I can’t just sit and enjoy a worship service or a sermon or a book, I am constantly ripping it apart in my head. I don’t want to, it just happens. Part of that has to do with the fact that I am beginning to realize just what it means to be a pastor. Sometimes you have to be the bad guy. Sometimes, and I can’t believe I am about to phrase it this way, you have to defend the flock against the wolves.

But sometimes,  I really do wish I could turn it off. I wish I could go back to the way it was before I took the pill that changed my reality. The musical Rent perhaps best captures what is running through my head in the song Sante Fe. It is about escaping the current reality the characters face in order to embrace a different life, one that just seems that much better.

And yet, I know the grass is never greener on the other side. I can’t believe I would actually like to forget everything I’ve learned, but I do wish I could shut it off from time to time. But that desire would benefit me, and nobody else. Because what I have been given, what I have been gifted both in my faith itself and in the ability to understand and communicate it isn’t for my sake alone. Gifts never are.

The fact of the matter is, the burden is mine to carry, for the sake of those around me. That is what life is like for each of us. The burdens we carry they aren’t just for our sake, but for those whom we love, those people we call our neighbor. And none of them, not one, compares to the gift we have been given in Christ, who bore the burden on behalf of the entire earth. And if the cup didn’t pass from him, it won’t pass from us either. The Christian life is not one of roses and gum drops where everything works out because you have been given faith in Christ on account of the work of the Holy Spirit. You will not have health wealth and prosperity. Because this life, it will pass. And when we go into the grave it will not be the last trip we make. That is the point. That is hte hope, that going into the grave means coming out again. Resurrection. Hope for eternity not for tomorrow. But that hope indeed gets me through tomorrow because whatever comes down the pipe, no matter what befalls us in our vocations, we have the hope that where Christ is we too shall be. And while sunny Sante Fe would be nice, it pales in comparison to the hope of what awaits.

what do I stand for?

It has been too long. February and March came and went and here I sit, a third of the way through April and I haven’t taken the time to post. Ah well, such is life I guess. My internship keeps me busy, and I am loving every minute of it. The people who I am lucky enough to serve are nothing short of wonderful. Lent was a handful, but it is now ended and I am hoping in the coming months to get back to some kind of rhythm, both here and at the office.

As I lie here, knowing that my alarm will go off in a few short hours, I cannot seem to get a song out of my head, “Some Nights” by Fun. I’m not saying that it is the best song in the world, but it is catchy, and since the Blackhawks developed a scoreboard video using it, well, it gets a place in my playlist. What I appreciate about the song is the question it thrusts to the forefront, a haunting question, what do I stand for? It isn’t an easy question to answer. I know that once I do answer it someone will inevitably be pissed off by it. But that is the easy part, because I know that no matter what someone always will be upset. The hard part of that question, is answering it for, or rather to, myself.

I had thoughts recently of migrating from wordpress over to another format, though I don’t think that will actually happen anytime soon if ever. While I was planning on it, the place I was attempting to migrate to did not give me the option of simply importing all my posts, I had to copy and paste them one by one. Well, as mind numbing as that may be, it gave me a chance to look over some of my earlier writing. If you have the time to look at it, don’t. In saying this I do not believe I am being overly critical. Rather, I am being honest. As I read the words penned in a different frame of mind I am struck by how much I was speaking from a place of hurt. Pain and anger dripped from every single syllable. I stopped that process at about the fourth one, I couldn’t take it anymore.

It was a humbling experience. I was reminded of the fact that those who teach will be judged more harshly, and to be sure that judgment is warranted. It is hard for me to wrap my mind around some of the things that came out of my mouth. And yet, I know at the time I stood strongly behind it. I am certain that I would have fiercely defended my position, and more than that, would have been convinced of my correctness and written off opposition as ignorant. That is, after all, always my problem. Whether people see it in me or not, I know I am an arrogant cuss. I try to fight it, but for one reason or another it always, inevitably, comes out, and although I am not proud of that fact, I know it is true. Others may not see it, because I do well to hide it, or wait to express it until I am alone with my thoughts, but trust me, I know I am an arrogant cuss.

And so here I sit, unable to sleep, knowing I was wrong to write what I wrote in the past, certain that at the time I thought I was right, assured of my own arrogance which can be blinding, and waiting for the day I go back and read this one and feel the exact same way. But rather than be afraid of that, I am trying to embrace it. Because while it is true I am not the person I was 3 years ago, 2 years ago, heck, 2 weeks ago, I don’t necessarily think that’s a bad thing. I know I have changed, I’ve cooled off my hot head somewhat, put those theological hand grenades back in my pocket rather than throwing them on the table, and came to grips with some truths about my presuppositions and beliefs. And rather than dwell on the fact that I may have lost some of my edge, some of what made me who I was, I feel like I have gained some perspective. I feel like maybe for the first time in a long time I have a pretty good idea of who I actually am and what I actually stand for.

In the end, I think that is what matters right now, that I know where I stand. For so long I felt pulled in different directions, I felt the need to justify my place and my beliefs and today I feel comfortable, secure even, in where I have landed. I am a Lutheran, a moderately conservative one at that, and while those words may or may not seem loaded to you, they are not the easiest ones for me to type out. Because that label was so loaded with pain and anger, I did all that I could to avoid it. But I can’t avoid it anymore. I can’t pretend that I am still that guy I was three years ago. I won’t apologize for coming to terms with what was once my enemy.  And who knows, maybe one day I will wake up and take this post back, recant it all because I came to some new realization.

But it’s ok. I dont need to know now if that will be the case later on because right now, in this moment, I can take comfort in the fact that my identity, security, and meaning do not stem from my fickle temperament and feelings. They rest solely and securely in the reality that in my baptism as an infant I was given an identity. I was given a faith in God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. I was sealed, adopted, promised of my place for eternity, not because I thought it was a good idea at the time, but because God did what God does best. And that is the hope I can take with me. That is the hope that ensures that no matter what else I may become, I was first and will forever be, a baptized child of God. No matter what assails me, this is my identity, this is what I stand for. Or perhaps better put, this is what stands for me.

into an uncomfortable place

Lent is upon us. For a long time I never really felt good about Lent, not that you are supposed to or anything. But growing up I never quite understood the whole idea of giving something up. It isn’t that I thought it was somehow too Roman Catholic of a practice to take up, I just didn’t see the point. In some ways it felt forced, fake even, like the “New Year’s Resolution” time of the church year. And sometimes, it became a contest of who could give up something harder than another person. Me? I just didn’t care. And all those ideas of picking something up for it instead of giving something up didn’t gain ground with me either because that was just the same five cent candy in a different wrapper.

I suppose that 5, going on 6, years of seminary should have fixed that in me, but it hasn’t. However, I have learned, in some way, to appreciate the season of the church year often referred to as a marathon compared to the sprint that is Advent. Not in giving something up, or picking up something else, but in the focus and clarity such a season brings to the church. It forces us to confront the reality that Christ came to us because we couldn’t go to Him. It brings to the forefront the nature, character, and purpose of the incarnation in a way unmistakable. It ultimately leads us to the cross and to an empty tomb, to a promise fulfilled and a hope that is ours.

And it seems, at least to me, that Lent is exactly what the church needs right now, especially those of us who call the Missouri Synod home. The firestorm that has ignited in the last week has been nothing short of mind boggling. Honestly, I didn’t think most people knew or cared about the LCMS. Yet here we are, a short time removed from a controversial apology that caught the eye of the New York Times and Comedy Central alike. And rather than pick apart either side, which isn’t necessary given the reconciliation that has occurred between the two parties, I’d rather think about what undergirds the controversy. By that I don’t mean what actually happened, but the place from which both parties are coming, a confession made time and again throughout the history of the Lutheran church yet made once for all in the Book of Concord.

It isn’t ever easy to explain to someone outside the fold just what I mean by that last statement. Because it isn’t simply a lens through which we read scripture or a road map to the best the bible has to offer. It is something that forms us, that changes us, that gives us the grammar of the faith, something that is authoritative for us and is at the same time an ecumenical proposal to others. Only, it doesn’t come off that way all the time. And we often find, to borrow the words once spoken to Maverick in Top Gun, our egos write checks that our bodies can’t cash. Because if Scripture and the Confessions actually do what I am claiming they do, there should be evidence of it, evidence that we are different, and not different in a we don’t play well with others kind of way.

I don’t need to speak about how broken the church is, how the disconnect is there regardless of denomination, confession of faith, and authoritative structure. And I know it is easy for that to be thrown back into our faces because we should know better, we should be better. Only we aren’t much better. And neither we nor those outside can figure out why that is and it becomes a wedge that not only divides us from those outside our fold but also one that divides us one from another.
And yet I feel that we Lutherans are unique within Christendom. I don’t mean that we are the only ones going to heaven, but I do believe that we are distinct from Eastern Orthodoxy, Roman Catholicism, and Protestantism. (You can thank Hermann Sasse for my thoughts on that.) Unique because of the content, character, and nature of our confessions contained within the Book of Concord. And while I don’t have time to lay that out in detail, I do want to put it out there. Because that is part of what it means to be confessional, to put it out there on the line, to show people where you stand. And ironically enough that is part of why things have erupted over the last week. Because people have chosen not to hide behind their confession, but to embrace it for all its strength and weakness.

After all, our confessions ultimately lead us to a very uncomfortable place, they lead us to the front lines and put us in harms way. Right or left, it does not matter. Our confessions expose us because we have made them our own. Their words are our words. We may not have signed the document, but it has certainly signed us. And it is always dangerous to be exposed for what you are.

Which is why for the first time, probably ever in my life, I’m looking forward to Lent. Because it always exposes me for what I am, the good, the bad, and the ugly. It reminds me of my inability to follow through on things I start, which is probably the real reason I don’t give something up for Lent, if I don’t try I can’t fail. Yet I do fail, every single day. I don’t need Lent for that, but it certainly helps because I know where the road goes… to a cross. A cross that exposed humanity for what it is, a cross that carried with it death and despair, a cross that exposes God for who He is. Because on that cross Christ is revealed to be the Son of God, not in glorious parades, but in suffering and death. In rising again He conquered sin, death, and the power of the devil.

That doesn’t mean life will get easier, if anything it will probably get harder. Because that cross and tomb becomes our confession, Christ Himself, and where He is there too we will be. It exposes us, puts us in harms way, into the places we do not want to go. Into the lives of others who suffer. Into the brokenness of the Church. And yes, even into Lent.

gift giving and heretic hitting…

Today seems like as good of a day as any to begin again. It has been almost two months since I last posted and quite a bit has happened. Classes finished rapidly, ending with the best gpa I have had at CSL, and my wife and I were whisked away to the east coast to begin our internship year known as a vicarage. Needless to say life has been busy but, to be honest, it has been nothing short of wonderful. Not only are we close to my wife’s family but the congregation of which we have become a part is more than a blessing. From day one we were welcomed with open arms and although it hasn’t quite been three weeks it feels like home.

While today is just another day at the office trying to plan out the next few days, get some reading done, and hopefully work on some sermonizing, it is also a day that has caused me to stop and think. Growing up, this time of year wasn’t always the easiest. We never had much money and the holidays always have a way, at least in my life, of bringing out the worst in situations. Christmases, like most other holidays, always came in twos, one with mom, and one with dad. But no matter the financial situation, our parents always did their best to give us whatever we wanted. It may not have been the most glamorous labels or the best stuff but every year we had presents under the tree and something to brag about when school resumed. Not everyone is as fortunate as we were.

This year my wife and I, thanks to our vicarage congregation, had the opportunity to buy presents for a child who otherwise would not have the chance to have them. And as we looked at the list, and our bank account, we thought about prioritizing based on what we could afford. It may not have been the smartest decision, but that priority list went out the window. I know there were years when my mom couldn’t afford what we got, yet somehow we had stuff to unwrap and brighten our day. This year, as I thought about my history and the similarity that must exist between my past and that little girl’s present, I knew we couldn’t stop with what we could or couldn’t afford.

After all, isn’t the Christmas season about giving? Just look at the man who really brings Christmas joy, jolly old St. Nick.  He has built a reputation on the giving of gifts to the good little children. Only, the gift I remember him for, and the gift that arguably made him most famous, was the one he gave to Arius. It was during the Council of Nicea in 325 that Arius was attempting to defend his notion of the person of Christ, namely that Jesus was only a man and not God. Upon hearing Arius wax heresy eloquently Nicholas, a bishop in attendance, stood up and slapped Arius in the face. Jolly Old St. Nick, gift giver and heretic hitter.

Apart from being a story that makes me smirk, and one that scares me should I meet St. Nick in the resurrection, it causes me to think about the importance of how we talk about Christ and his incarnation, especially during Advent and Christmas because the way we talk about things influences how we act. It is too easy, and perhaps too dangerous, simply to speak about the coming of Christ in a romantic, lovey dovey, feel-good, sappy family channel, halmark card kind of way. As much as the incarnation is evidence of the love of the father for his creatures, it is also an affront.

Adolf Koeberle, a German theologian from the early half of the twentieth century, speaks of the incarnation in a way that shatters the common story. “The miracle of His presence is the pledge that God has taken pity on the world” (Koeberle, The Quest for Holiness, Wipf and Stock, 53.) Pity? Not love and joy but pity? For whatever else it may be, the incarnation is God’s way of telling humanity that we cannot climb a ladder to heaven. It doesn’t matter what we feel, experience, think, or do, nothing can get us up. He comes down. He comes to us.

In the same way, the cross too is an affront to us. “God has disclosed His judgment on the world in the Cross of Jesus so as to crush us utterly and completely by the judgment it reveals. Here He shows the world what it would never have fully realized by itself, the end of its own wisdom and willfulness and the judgment of God on both” (Koeberle, The Quest for Holiness, Wipf and Stock, 46).

Indeed this time of year is a season for giving, but the reality is there is nothing we can give to God. Nothing we can do to make him happy, or like us better, or get closer to him because he has already done that for us. He came to us. He continues to come to us in Baptism and Holy Communion, in the words of the absolution and in the preaching of and reading of His word. If nothing else this time of year should remind us of this fact. The incarnation, the beautiful baby Jesus and heart warming nativity scene isn’t simply a pledge of love, it is pity enfleshed, pity and judgment that will lead to a cross. Pity and judgment that reminds us of what we cannot do.

But in that moment, when we realize what the incarnation and the cross mean for us as a people we are freed from the falsity of life. Freed from the need to check off boxes on a list of things we have to do to be good Christians. Freed to love people for no other reason than that they are people. Because the other way that God continues to come to us, to care for us, is through us. In the mother that cares for the child, in the son who has to work two jobs to help his family stay afloat, in the random stranger that buys the Christmas presents for those who cannot afford it.

Life under the cross isn’t about making God happy, it is about being his hands and feet to those who need it. What is between me and God has already been decided; 2000 years ago and half a world away. But what is between me and my neighbor, well that changes every day. The situations that arise, ones that remind me of my past, ones that challenge my present, and ones that shape my future are the places in which God has placed me to care for my fellow creatures. In Lutheran terms the third use of the law is less about making me acceptable to God and more about teaching me what it means to care for my neighbor, in that way it guides me.  Obedience to it doesn’t effect my place with God, but it does affect my place with my neighbor.

This season is one of giving. One where God gave to us because we cannot give to him. One where God gave to us so we could give to the world.

more than enough: toward A theology of hope

The following is a submission for our student publication at Concordia Seminary. I’d love to hear your feedback so that I can improve as a writer and theologian.

 

More Than Enough: Toward a Theology of Hope
By M. E. Borrasso

 

On the heels of the first presidential debate of this election season, pundits of professional and amateur persuasion are quick to offer up their collective opinions. Candidate A did this well while candidate B did this poorly and candidates C, D, E, and F, the ones we all forget even exist, are just that, forgettable. He promises this, she promises that, and each and every one of them offers up their own ideas or perspectives concerning the best way to move forward. Regardless of political affiliation, the tie that binds politics is one optimistically known as hope. While there are undoubtedly other factors that contribute to the political process, e.g., financial interests, the rhetoric of the day on both sides of the aisle is one of hope. For a better next four years than the last, for a vibrant economy and a stronger national identity, these are the hopes of politics.

Yet, despite the current hype of the coming days, hope has a way of manifesting itself in all arenas of life, not simply the political one. Take, for example, the planting of flowers in depressed areas around St. Louis. Both at the recent theological symposium and in subsequent classes I have been reminded of the peculiarity and profundity of planting flowers. A seemingly useless gesture amidst downtrodden and dilapidated domiciles proves to be a confession of hope, encouraging the change to come. The planting of these flowers reminds us of the need to have an answer that uplifts those who are downcast and heals those who are broken. If only that were possible. A hopeful answer to the why of suffering eludes even the most astute theologian. Sure we can point to helpful places, but, more often than not, when faced with suffering we find ourselves asking the Lightfootian question, “Does anyone know where the love of God goes when the waves turns the minutes to hours?”

More than a fair question, Lightfoot’s question strikes at the depth of human suffering. I would venture to guess that suffering is something we have all experienced. It may take different forms, but for each of us there is something that shakes our confidence and tests us in ways we did not know we could be tested. For some, suffering is financial. Given the strains of seminary life this is most assuredly a real, and even frightening, concern. How will I pay for classes or books? How will I pay for gas, food, rent, and everything else that comes down the pipe? Will I be able to pay back the loans I take out to pay for all that stuff? For others, suffering is personal. The multifaceted nature of seminary life causes us to ask the uncomfortable questions. Am I smart enough? Am I good enough? Will I live up to the perceptions of my place in the church? All of these questions, and ones which we only ask in the seclusion of our heads shake the foundations that brought each of us here. For me, suffering is all encompassing, it involves myself, my family, and my friends. As I walk through my time at seminary, struggling with finances and personal security, it seems that my family and friends are presented with tougher and tougher situations that break, beat, and belie my confidence in the glory of creation and the sweetness of life.

What road is left to take when I find myself face to face with Lightfoot’s question? Where can I turn when the waves of my suffering turn my minutes to hours? What flowers can I plant? To what future can I look? The answer is almost painfully obvious, especially given our context at the seminary, to the cross of course. But this response can fly off my lips with a pithy quality that embitters my soul to that reality. I may not want to admit it, but the “right” answer is the one that causes me to question things all the more. If the answer is so simple, why don’t I feel better knowing it? My question betrays my problem, it is all about me. And in telling myself to look to the cross I make for myself another law which I cannot keep. Rather than mitigate my suffering it magnifies it because once again I failed to go first where I know I can find the answer.

Perhaps, though, where is the wrong question to be asking. Wrong because it attempts to locate hope in a place as an abstract place rather than in a concrete person who embodies that quality. Who is the hope? Well that is most assuredly Jesus Christ. But still, who is a question that only has effect after we establish what hope is. The what of hope causes us to stop and think, when we need hope to get through this life, what exactly do we need? Is it an idea? A feeling? Or is it something which forms and embraces us. Is it something we fix, or something that fixes us? Something we can reach out and grab, or something that reaches down and grabs us? Something that I look to, or something that looks to me? Only understanding hope in such a fashion appropriates the reality that Christ reached down and grabbed us at the cross. The who and where of hope are important because of the what. Or, put another way, in coming to us in the cross Christ taught us what hope does. Hope conforms our suffering to that of Christ’s. It reminds us that when the waves turn the minutes to hours, God is with us. It is hope that causes us to embrace the glory of creation and the sweetness of life alongside the bitter side dish of suffering. It may not feel like much some times, like flowers in a street or promises on the campaign trail, but it is more than enough. For in suffering, in the cross of Christ, God makes himself known.

paradoxical justice

These past few weeks have flown by. It feels like just yesterday I was getting ready to go through orientation and here I sit, weeks later, knee deep in classes and midway through the 23rd Symposium. The “Theological Symposium” put on by Concordia Seminary is an event that happens every year, at least for the last 23, where people come together to think about and discuss a prudent topic. This year the theme is, “Doing Justice: The Church’s Faith In Action.”

A timely topic no doubt, but, perhaps inevitably, the conversation has vacillated between the poles of guarding against turning the Gospel into something purely social and the importance of recognizing the felt needs of our neighbors, the ones next door and the ones across the pond. The presenters have done a masterful job wading through the murky waters and have helped sketch the landscape we encounter daily. In an invaluable way they has reminded us, at least have reminded me, that, as one presenter Kathryn Galchutt, said, “Both justice and mercy begin at home, they just do not stay there.”  ‎But, as what tends to happen when we begin talking about something, the conversation has taken on a decided tone; one that, in my opinion, limits our understanding of justice.

Let me first say that I do not think this was intentional, nor do I think it is necessarily problematic, I am merely conveying what I have experienced this first day. The tone, for lack of a better word, has to do with justice being understood as meeting a felt need. Conversations, important and necessary conversations, have been held concerning how we help those who need to eat, who need a job, a home, and more help than perhaps any single person can provide. Additionally, we have been reminded of our complacency and complicit role in systemic evil.  All of this important, but in the end, all of it limits the scope of justice to a single idea,  aid. A need exists for whatever reason, justice invokes the necessary methodology through which that need is met, and that reason is eradicated.

Several times throughout the day I have been reminded of Gustaf Wingren and his notion that, “God does not need our works but our neighbor does.” As a church body we have admittedly had a history of being quietistic, for good or bad, when it comes to issues of justice. The obvious examples of the times we have become vocal need not be mentioned. Suffice it to say, we know how to take a stand sometimes we just prefer not to, unless, of course, the Gospel is at stake. This too is extremely important. We do not want to cheapen, imbrue, or lose that which has been gifted to us. We protect it at all costs and sometimes that leads us down roads most, inside and outside our circles, just do not understand. But Wingren, and indeed this entire symposium, calls us to remember that there are physical and spiritual needs that must be met. While the church’s unique responsibility is unburdening the conscience, it is not her only responsibility.

But thinking of justice, I wonder if, as I alluded to earlier, we are defining it too narrowly. We are, for better or worse, tying up justice with materialistic concerns which are of vital importance.Whether it is the inexhaustible work of LWR to aid and develop or the work of congregations who care for illegal immigrants or those who have nothing, we are working with a concept of justice that inadvertently glosses over emotions. Certainly our discussions on dignity and human worth have hinted at this but they too have ended with or moved toward the idea that we should actually meet the physical need of a person. But what about the injustice that exists within families? The son who feels like a second class citizen. The wife who doesn’t recognize the person she married. The bread winner who works to provide yet feels invisible. These too, as Bernhard Seter would say, fall under the category of, “I may not be able to define justice or injustice, but I know it when I see it.”

And we Lutherans have always had a way of dealing with these or any other theological tensions, we simply label them a paradox and continue one with life. Our theological presuppositions are rife with paradox, saint and sinner, now and not yet, etc. Even today I am reminded that there is again this tension between unburdening the conscience and filling the stomach. But I wonder if we run to that fire escape a little too often. It is easier to chalk it up to paradox than risk everything by facing the fire head on. Our theology is something we can hide behind all too easily and in doing so, betray the principle that allows us the freedom to live and think as Lutherans, because paradox isn’t an excuse, its a weapon.

We live in a world that isn’t fair. Being born in America is more of a privilege than we will ever know. Getting an education is a privilege all to often understood as a burden. As one presenter put it, “Being born in America is like winning the lottery of life.” Yet we still murder, rape, and exploit our neighbors. We still look to our own interests. We still turn way the beggar and toward that which we don’t need but can afford. And despite this reality, we live. We care for one another. We volunteer to tutor, we create programs that teach people how to care for themselves and their families, physically and spiritually. We look the beggar in the eye and give him the dignity befitting a human being. And the only way that can make sense is through a word like paradox. It is a both/and, it always will be.

That is of course until all is made new. While Christ’s death and resurrection have secured the future of all creation, the benefits are waiting in escrow. And until that day when we together with all creatures are made new we live a life with the recognition that life is up and down all at the same time. Rather than letting the realization that, to play on Christ’s words,  we will always have the poor, destitute, and hurting whether it be physical, mental, or spiritual with us always paralyze us into quietism, we can enter into life unafraid with an unswerving confidence in the future. Because while today thousands will die, one day Christ will return and put all things in order. While we live with evil and good today, tomorrow will know only joy. While we live with, and will always live with injustice this side of Christ’s return, on the other side there is nothing but justice. The justice of pardon brought forth by His blood. The justice that levels the playing field, restoring all things to their proper place. The justice of the cross and empty tomb. The justice that can only come when He comes again.

a fresh start?

As the calendar page is about to turn once again, a new chapter in my life is beginning. Over two months have passed since I last tried to get this blog a sense of regularity, and who knows, maybe one day it will find that. But rather than apologize and give weak excuses for my lack of activity I am just going to push forward.

A new address, a new school, and a new quarter is about to begin. Yet, despite its newness, this is a continuation of something that I began four years ago. The rest of my week is going to be filled with two days of orientation and an opening service all leading up to next week when classes resume. Only, this isn’t my first orientation or opening service or even my first quarter here. In the fall of 2008 I began work toward my M.Div. at Concordia Seminary in St. Louis. I had no idea what would happen over the next two years, but at the end of my second year I left. Two more years pass, and my journey here resumes.

It is tempting to want a fresh start, to put all of the past hurt and anger behind me as if it didn’t happen. But to do so would be to ignore everything I have experienced throughout the past four years. So rather than want a fresh start, I want to pick up here I left off with an informed mindset, ready to continue having spent time on the other side of the street. I don’t know what my future will hold here but I do know, for maybe the first time, that I belong here, and that makes all the difference.

If I were to be honest about my last trip down seminary way I was unsure of my place. I could barely stomach calling myself a seminarian much less a Lutheran one. I wasn’t comfortable in my identity nor my place in the institution. So rather than look for the best in those around me, I found it much easier, and much more entertaining, to find the worst. It became commonplace for me and my close group of friends to sit outside the chapel or in an archway, have a drink, and scoff. We took pride in it. Classes and the lunch table were places we found our material, and at night it became our own little version of stand up comedy. It was as cathartic as it was corrupting. I don’t regret those times because they gave rise to now cherished memories and lasting friendships. I do, however, need to be honest about them because this time around, the scoffers club is no more.

I wish it were that easy to say my attitude is completely different. To  be sure I do not hold the grudges anymore no do I look for the worst, in fact, I have a sense of belonging there I didn’t have before. But that doesn’t mean the nicety of the campus is what I expect. My experiences cause me to fear what might be coming down the pipe. Apprehension may be a better world but the idea is the same. I know what this was like the first time around and I am leery that it is waiting for me just around the corner. I am happy to say that as of now, I haven’t come face to face with the problems of my past. My experiences in my returning to the seminary are decidedly different than those of my initial venture. I am continually met with warmth and care and I hope this community continues on that track.

But what if it doesn’t? What if three weeks in it morphs into the beast of my past experience? Should I run? Do I fight? How do I move on if it turns out this is just a facade? Frankly, I don’t know and I hope never have to. But in reality not every day will be the warm and comforting sort. As is normal in life, stress will mount, things will be said, opinions expressed and feelings hurt. That is simply the nature of humanity. We care more about ourselves than the person next to us. Sure we all have our moments of piety, care, and concern but by and large my opinion is always more important than yours simply because it mine. My life is more important than yours because I am the one living it. Don’t mistake what I am saying, I don’t mean that I am actually more important, only that as I walk through life I live as though that were true. All humanity does. And it is precisely this reason that makes me happy I don’t have a fresh start, not here on campus or in my everyday life.

Fresh starts are funny things. With the past removed we finally have the chance to do things right. But the fact is, we will never do things right. We may choose a better option, but perfection is impossible. I’ve heard it put many times that the Gospel, that the forgiveness of sins is like a do-over, like a fresh start, but I don’t like that phraseology. It implies that by being forgive I can actually move forward and do things right this time, and if I don’t, I get another chance. Truth be told, I don’t want the chance to do things right. That is too much pressure. That is too much stress. If God is giving me a chance to be perfect I better not blow it. Because with every chance to be perfect, with every fresh start, is the crushing reality of imperfection and failure.

So, how then do I live my life? If I know that with every fresh start is the reality of failure life seems pretty pointless because I’ll never get it right. But here is the difference, and the reason why I think that phraseology does no good, forgiveness is not a do-over, it is a promise. It is a promise that no matter how many times you do or don’t make the right decision you are forgiven. It is a promise that no matter who we help, ourselves or our neighbors, at the cross we were all worth it. It is a promise that no matter where we do or do not belong, in God’s eyes we are always His children. And here comes the reality that reshapes our identity. Because my life isn’t about living right or wrong, it is about living, period. It is about having the freedom to care for others because I know I am cared for. It is about recognizing my place in the world and living in that place gladly. It is about the fact that the good and bad I do don’t matter to God, they matter to my neighbor.

Gustaf Wingren once wrote, “God does not need your good works, but your neighbor does.” And here I think we find the middle ground for that problematic notion that faith without works is dead. Because in faith we are freed from the bonds of life that push us to be better for ourselves. Free from the bonds of having to prove our worth to God and our place in society. Free to love and serve in the places we find ourselves with the work that is before our hands. This is why a fresh start is a bad idea, because I will never get it right, and the beauty of it is, I don’t have to. I don’t need a do-over, I have a promise. A promise that lasts longer than my ability to do things right. A promise that allows me to live and love despite hurt and pain, fear and sorrow, struggle and corruption. A promise given to me in the waters of my baptism where God claimed me as his own. A promise spoken in absolution and preached in a sermon. A promise I taste in bread and wine. A promise that frees the conscience and unburdens the soul. A promise that, as the Word of the Lord, endures forever.

part 1: the church is a whore…

THE CHURCH IS A WHORE, BUT SHE IS MY MOTHER

The above phrase, regardless of who actually said it, encapsulates a reality too easily dismissed as a plausible representation of the relationship between the individual and the church. In an age when the latest trends espouse an escape from the church and organized religion for the sake of following Jesus, such an idea seems more than preposterous. After all, the church is the one that causes wars, ignores the poor, and cares only for the sake of its survival. While people of both society and the church recognize the latter’s shortcomings, those inadequacies serve as justification for the wholesale rejection of the church rather than a continued embrace of it. This is why a phrase like the one above is so difficult to swallow; it is as if the call of today is, “The church is a whore, so let’s have no part in her.”

That sentiment is one with which I can empathize. Having grown up within the fold of a conservative, confessional, liturgical church body, the church has simultaneously been the place of my greatest joy and worst frustrations. In the summer of 2010, after spending two years studying at my church body’s seminary, I quit. I was exhausted and frustrated, angry and cynical, and I wanted nothing to do with the church that I perceived turned me into a shell of my former self. Walking away was difficult because of my connection to the church body. In almost every way, The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod is the only home I have ever known. Yet despite my deep connections to the LCMS, wholesale rejection of her was exactly what I thought the right course of action was given the hypocrisy I had experienced at the seminary level. As fate would have it, however, the home to which I never thought I could return is precisely the place of my future.

The question must be asked, why? What is it that has caused me not to reject completely the church I know to be a whore? This is often a difficult question to answer because of the personal convictions required to take such a step. Although it is possible for me to hold beliefs in accord with the LCMS, and yet not be a part of her, to do so would be inauthentic. Recognizing that as a Christian I hold to the Lutheran perspective, moreover a Missouri Synod perspective, here I stand, I can do no other. It was from her womb I was born in the waters of baptism. It was in her house, hearing words from her mouth that I took my first steps in the faith. It was at her table I joined my entire family, past, present, and future in the family meal. And it is her faith I know to be my own. Not taking my place within my family would be denying that which I know to be true, regardless of disagreements or reservations that continue to exist. This is why the controversial phrase that society will have trouble understanding encapsulates my reality. The church is a whore, but she is my mother.

The faith that has been passed on to me carries with it the responsibility of being faithful as those before me had once been. Sainted church historian Jaroslav Pelikan once quipped, “Tradition is the living faith of the dead, traditionalism is the dead faith of the living. And, I suppose I should add, it is traditionalism that gives tradition such a bad name” (Pelikan, Vindication of Tradition). Being faithful is not a matter of repeating what once was said for the sake of its survival, it is embodying the faith of the past in the present for the sake of the future. The question then presents itself; what is the faith of the past? “This, however, is the catholic faith: that we worship one God in trinity and the Trinity in unity, neither confusing the persons nor dividing the substance.” This phrase from the Athanasian Creed serves to define that which is orthodox and catholic concerning the confession of the church. In reality, this is how creeds function. “Such repetitiveness is, of course, no accident. It is intended to condemn those who “rashly seek novelties and expositions of another faith,” and above all to document—even actually to celebrate—the continuity of these creeds and confessions of faith not only with the other orthodox creeds and confessions that have preceded them but above all with what is cherished as the authentic apostolic tradition” (Pelikan, Credo). Creeds, and confessions of faith, are not simply static documents or sayings to be repeated so as to become an end in and of themselves. Rather, they serve to establish and define the border within the which the church lives.

Faith does not belong to the individual. Across the centuries faith has been passed down, gifted from one generation to another through the work of the Spirit. This point cannot be overstated; no Christian comes to faith apart from the Church that came before. The Spirit, through the marks of the Church, works to call, gather, and enlighten; without the Church, no one would believe. To the American ear, who would prefer to do things in the way of Frank Sinatra , a statement such as that one is bitter. Faith is often understood, in practice if not in theory, as intellectual ascent. “I accepted Jesus Christ,” becomes the phrase by which a person espouses their personal belief, as if belief could exist apart from the community that came before. But that phraseology and ideology are, at best, individualistic, and at worst, ignore the generations upon generations who were gifted belief through the work of the Spirit. It is a shared belief, a shared faith. In the Athanasian formulation, the catholic faith is “worship [of] one God in trinity and the Trinity in unity.” This is precisely why creeds are important, because they form and inform the individual and the community at the same time, fostering recognition of shared belief across the ages.

Because faith does not belong to the individual, neither can a statement of faith. While it is true that one must own the confession they profess, regardless of the creedal formulation, it cannot exist in contradistinction to the creeds and confessions that have come before. In this vein stands this statement of faith. Creedal and confessional formulations are designed to form and inform the boundaries of orthodoxy and catholicity while recognizing the shared faith across generations, those that have passed and those that will come. This is the golden thread, the theological motif, and that which binds together the voice of a Lutheran with the voice of the church. Hermann Sasse encapsulates this idea when he writes,

“Jesus Christ is Lord.” This is the original confession of the church. With it the Christian faith once entered world history. To understand the sense of this confession ever more deeply is the great, yes, basically the only task of all Christian theology. To repeat this confession, to speak it in ever new forms, to translate it into the language of all times and peoples, to protect it against misunderstandings and reinterpretations, and to understand its meaning for all areas of life–that is the task of all confession building within Christendom. No later confession of the church can and wants to be anything else than a renewal of the original confession to Jesus as Christ and Lord. This is true of the Apostles’ Creed, the Nicene Creed, the confessional writings of the Reformation, and any confession in which the Christendom of the future may want to speak its faith. As this confession stood at the beginning of the church’s history, so it will stand at the end. Then will be fulfilled that great world of the apostle: “At the name of Jesus every knee shall bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (Phil. 2:10f).

credo

By now you may have noticed that fractured, broken, and beautiful is no longer the title of my blog. After a few months away from the game I came to the conclusion that things needed to change. Rather, not that I needed to change things, but life has changed so much that this too must adapt to the reality I face.

In the time that has passed since April 25th quite a bit has happened. I am well on my way through the re-enrollment process at Concordia Seminary having only one qualifier left to pass before the end of July. We are still trying to work out housing for our unique situation but I have no doubt we will figure this out in the coming week or so. The internship that defined most of my past 10 months came to a bittersweet conclusion. The people I leave behind at St. Paul will never be far from the thoughts and prayers of Holly and I. We were truly embraced by such a warm community. Holly too is finishing her job, wrapping up her duties at St. John’s in the next day or two. A few weeks of break, packing, weddings, and maybe preaching one weekend will keep us busy until the big move.

That move will also be bittersweet as I leave behind the place that granted me a Master of Arts in Christian Ministries on June 2nd of this year. I have grown in unexpected ways and have been pushed and stretched by unexpected people and while it is sad to leave, I know my place is in St. Louis with the family that gifted me my faith.

As the one chapter in our lives close and another begins I think it best for now to reveal the path of both myself and this blog in a few consecutive posts. Over the next few days I’ll be posting my final papers for Northern Seminary, my confession of faith and application paper. In them, I hope you will come to understand why I am going back to St. Louis, why I am no longer afraid or ashamed to be labeled as a Lutheran, and what this blog will hopefully turn into in the coming months. It is bittersweet to say goodbye to fractured, broken, and beautiful because of the therapeutic effort it had on my life. I know it will never go away, as I am still the one writing, but the time has come for a change. Rather than hide behind ambiguity I want to embrace it, I want to be open about my struggles, and I want to confess what I believe. That is why I chose the word credo (Latin: I believe) for the blog, because it connects me with the faith of the past, the faith that struggled with and embraced what it can and cannot know, the faith that was gifted to me, and the faith I pass on.