Who Was That Masked Stranger?

Like a lot of people around the world, I’ve been wearing a mask for a few months.  I used to always wonder why people from Asian nations wore masks and now I know.  Most people are wearing them to protect other people from catching the coronavirus.  The masks most of us wear aren’t going to protect us from the virus, but it can prevent the other person from you if you happen to have the virus and since you can be asymptomatic, it makes sense to wear a mask in public places.  It’s weird for all of us to have to wear these masks covering our mouths, but if it can slow the spread of the virus it kind of makes sense.

Well, it makes sense to most people. Some like this gentleman in Florida, seem to think putting on a mask is some kind of conspiracy.

There is a movement taking place where wearing a mask is not something you do out of safety, but out of weakness. R.R. Reno, the editor of First Things magazine caused a stir in May as he shared his thoughts on the issue.  In one of his widely shared tweets he said the following:

Just to reinforce. Talked to my son in Seattle. The mask culture if fear driven. Masks+cowardice. It’s a regime dominate by fear of infection and fear of causing of infection. Both are species of cowardice.

Just to make sure people got the point he added the following tweet:

By the way, the WWII vets did not wear masks. They’re men, not cowards. Masks=enforced cowardice.

To say that all of this caused a stir is an understatement. Many, many people responded to the series of tweets with a lot of righteous anger. That response must have rattled Reno because he not only deleted the tweets, he deleted his entire Twitter account. So much for being manly.

Wearing of masks is not unheard of in America. During the 1918 Flu Pandemic, there were people who wore masks and those that didn’t. Cities such as San Francisco and Seattle had ordinances requiring people to wear masks. Just as there were recommendations and laws were in place back then, there were people that opposed such a requirement. San Francisco had something called an Anti-Mask League.

Reno is a Christian, and he is presenting a view about what our faith says about wearing masks.  In his view, Christianity is supposed to be strong and not weak.  It isn’t cowardly and fearful, but it should be daring and bold.

But is that a Christian view? In the second chapter of Philippians, Paul lifts up Christ as an example of what it means to be a Christian.  Paul says:

Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others. Let the same mind be in you that was[a] in Christ Jesus,

who, though he was in the form of God,
    did not regard equality with God
    as something to be exploited,
but emptied himself,
    taking the form of a slave,
    being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
    he humbled himself
    and became obedient to the point of death—
    even death on a cross.

 

To live as a follower of Jesus, means being willing to be humble and to live for other people.  We aren’t wearing masks because we are scared, we wear them to protect others.  Since someone can be asymptomatic, wearing a mask stops the virus from spreading to others. If we are follower of Jesus, we aren’t being cowards, but caring for the other.  Wearing a mask protects my 86 year-old mother from getting the virus.  Wearing a mask protects the person at the check out at the grocery store.  Being a Christian is as much about living the faith than it is talking about faith.

One day, we won’t have to wear these masks and I will be happy.  But for now, I’m going to wear the mask because when we wonder if Jesus would wear a mask, all I need to do is look to Philippians to know the answer.

Comfort Foods

Comfort foods.  We all have them.  We have something that we like to eat that makes us feel good inside.  When you’re having a terrible day or you feel under the weather, having your favorite meal or drink can be a bit of a pick-me-up.

My comfort food is shrimp fried rice.  I think I love it because it harkens back to simpler days when I was young. I remember eating shrimp fried rice as a kid and the best place to go get that dish was a Chinese restaurant in my hometown of Flint, Michgan called Kenjo’s.  It was just at the edge of downtown and I remember we would go there at times to have lunch after church.

These days when I have a bad day, I will still order shrimp fried rice.  At the age of 50, life is not as carefree as it was when I was 10.  Getting a good dish of Shrimp Fried Rice especially when life seems to be going sideways, makes me feel good.

Comfort food makes us feel good. Comfort food is….comfortable.

Sometimes in life we need comfort when we feel beaten up by life.  Or when we are grieving the loss of a loved one.  Comfort is even found in the Bible.  Comfort, comfort my people, God says to the people of Israel in Isaiah. That message is a balm to the Israelites who at the time of the writing are in exile, far away from their homeland.

But for Christians, comfort can be something that keeps us from taking part in God’s work in the world.

It’s so easy to want church to be comfortable.  We want to meet our friends and listen to the choir or even sit in our favorite pew.  As humans, we love the familiar.  We don’t want to have to face our fears.  We don’t want to fail. It’s much easier for us to stay in our comfort zones where things are familiar and things are safe.  But is that what God wants for us? Did Jesus stay in a comfort zone?

In the tenth chapter of the book of Acts, Peter is called to go and preach the gospel to a Roman soldier, a gentile named Corneilus.  At first, he isn’t crazy about this.  He believed the revelation of Jesus Christ as Lord of all was a message that was for Jews and not for Gentiles like Corneilus.  God had to show him in a dream that yes, going into all the world preaching the good news and making disciples to was something God wanted shared with everybody.  None of this was in Peter’s plans.  But he listened to God and decided to go and visit Cornielus.   Peter had to get out of his comfort zone and it’s a good thing he did.  His message to Cornielius touched the Roman and his household and the Spirit moved among them.  Peter realizes that the gospel belonged to these Gentiles as much as it ever did to him.

Peter got out of his comfort zone.  What about us? A friend shared a quote attributed to Pope Francis that I’d like to share:

“The Holy Spirit annoys us. The Spirit moves us, makes us walk, pushes the church to move forward. [But] we want the Holy Spirit to calm down. We want to tame the Holy Spirit, and that just won’t do. The Holy Spirit gives us consolation and the strength to move forward and the moving forward part is what can be such a bother. People think it’s better to be comfortable, but that is not what the wind and fire of the Holy Spirit brings.”

The Holy Spirit comes to our lives and communities of faith in wind and fire and as comfort food.  And that terrifies us.  We don’t want the Holy Spirit sending us to do unfamiliar things.  In some ways we want to be like Bilbo Baggins, the famous hobbit in JRR Tokien’s novels who was content to live a simple and comfortable life.  But then life comes crashing in literally and he is pressed into service because the world was in danger and his help was needed.

Our own world is in danger.  We have a pandemic that is flaring up again putting millions in danger.  We are dealing with the long history of police going after people of color.  Race relations are at a low ebb.  What is God calling us to do?  And are we willing to follow even when we don’t want to and wish the Holy Spirit would shut up every one in a while?

Comfort is great when it comes to food. When it comes to churches? Not so much.

To the Church at Lake Wobegon

Dear Friends and Family of First Christian Church of St. Paul:

Last week in the immediate aftermath of the killing of George Floyd I decided to go for a walk. We live in North Minneapolis.  It was a nice sunny day, perfect day for a walk.  “Be careful,” my husband Daniel said as I left.

Later that evening, I was chatting with my mother. As we finished our phone call to say goodbye, she asked me to be careful.

Be careful. This has been my reality since I was a kid. My parents were telling me to be careful ever since I was a teen. Growing up in 1980s Michigan, my parents were always concerned about me, not that I was doing something reckless, but because I was a young black man. Even now when I’m 50 years old, some loved one is always telling me to be careful. This is how African American men ( and even African American women) have to live. Black mothers worry when their sons go out with friends. They worry they will get in trouble with the police or worse.

George Floyd was seen as a threat. He had a target on his back on that Memorial Day when he met his end on a Minneapolis street. For far too long, too many African Americans have been viewed not as a fellow human being, but as a threat, worthy of being killed.

Before I go any farther I have to say the following: I believe America is a good nation. I know there are good cops that care about their communities. I know there are good white people. I know that we aren’t living in a time of segregation like my Dad did growing up in Louisiana in the 30s, 40s, and 50s. All of this is true. And yet, a middle-aged black man is dead, again because of the color of his skin.

What’s infuriating is that George Floyd was a gentle giant, a committed Christian who moved to Minneapolis a few years ago from his native Houston in search of a better life, dies at the hand of a cop who had a long history of complaints and for some reason remained on the force. He was engaged to be married and he never got the chance to walk down with his love.

But what is upsetting and frightening is that it could have been me. It could be me. Floyd is only a few years younger than I am. I pray that it never happens, but it is not out of the realm of possibility.

And then there were the riots. Coming from Michigan as I do, you learn about the Detroit riots in 1967. It’s no surprise to African Americans and other people of color that Minnesota is not an idyllic place. Racial disparities are among the highest in the nation. That said, I would have never, ever thought there were going to be riots like what I’ve seen in the past few days. To say that Minneapolis is burning is as weird as saying Lake Woebegon is burning, but it has happened.

So where do we go from here?

That’s the rub. Talking about the problem of race in America is always a challenge because you have those who want to live in denial that there is a problem (and that includes some African Americans) and those that think there are racists under every bed. But I think as Christians what it means is that we live our lives with God’s table at the center. The Restoration Movement which gave birth to the Disciples believes strongly that the Lord’s Table is for everyone. Now when Alexander and Thomas Campbell were making their argument about the communion table they were informed by the internecine battles within the Presbyterian Church. If you didn’t believe the right way, you couldn’t have communion. The Campbells believed it was God, not an interpretation of a creed, that invites us to the table. God wants to be in a relationship with us and God desires that all us be in relationship. So in light of all this, we have to live a life that welcomes everyone into a relationship with each other and God. We have to be communities where people from all walks of life are welcomed, united in Jesus Christ.

Relationship means listening. Listening means being vulnerable. Relationship is rooted in reconcililation. It means living a sacrificial life and opening yourself up to dissonance.White Americans have to be willing to listen even when what you hear goes against what you know or experience. That’s hard to do because we all come with our own experiences and biases. It’s hard to listen to something that doesn’t jive with what you believe. But I think White Americans have to do that because we can’t change until we hear the stories of African Americans that might not be the story you are used to.

But in that relationship there also needs to be grace.  Far too often, having a conversation on race become stilted out of fear that something will be said that is offensive.  The thing is, if we are going to have an honest talk on race we will stumble and say something that might come off as offensive.  It means making mistakes, seeking forgiveness and moving on. It means African Americans should show grace to their white sisters and brothers understanding that we are all sinful and all in need of God’s grace.  The racial reconciliation is messy and that’s okay. It will be messy.

As an African American man, I am honored and blessed to be the lead pastor of this congregation that doesn’t just have diversity as a value, but we live it out. We come from various racial and ethnic backgrounds and yet we are in a relationship with each other. But even here, we have to be willing to listen deeper and make space for grace. Because those unsettling stories are there just below the surface and they need to be brought forth and dealt with.

Second, we have to be involved in the work of reconciliation. Our Presbyterian sisters and brothers wrote in the Confession of 1967, that God’s reconciling love breaks down barriers, the Church is called to fight for reconciliation:

God has created the peoples of the earth to be one universal family. In his reconciling love, God overcomes the barriers between sisters and brothers and breaks down every form of discrimination based on racial or ethnic difference, real or imaginary. The church is called to bring all people98 to recieve and uphold one another as persons in all relationships of life: in employment, housing, education, leisure, marriage, family, church, and the exercise of political rights. Therefore, the church labors for the abolition of all racial discrimination and ministers to those injured by it. Congregations, individuals, or groups of Christians who exclude, dominate, or patronize others , however subtly, resist the Spirit of God and bring contempt on the faith which they profess .

I am reminded of the parable of the Good Samaritan. We’ve heard the story of the man traveling down the road who ends up beaten and left for dead by robbers. Two religious people see this injured man lying at the side of the road and pass him by. For whatever reason, they didn’t stop to offer help. Finally, another man comes by, a Samaritan. Jews and Samaritans didn’t get along, but this man didn’t care about whatever animosities kept them apart. He takes the injured man and places him on his donkey to the nearest inn. He even tells the innkeeper to keep a tab that he would pay back when he swung back that way again. The Samaritan got involved. He could have said this was none of his business and moved on, but he didn’t. He got involved.

The same thing needs to happen now. I said in a sermon four years ago, in the aftermath of Philando Castile’s shooting that the only way these killings of black people by police will stop is when white Christians, white Americans step up. This is not simply a problem for African Americans but it is all of our problems. It’s an American problem and most of all it is a spiritual problem.

The past few days have left me angry and sad. As a community and as a nation, we have a lot of work to do. We need to start talking But I have hope in Christ. I have hope in the Christ that died a horrible death, suffering with humanity and freeing us from the bonds of sin. Ultimately, I have hope because, in Jesus Christ, the evils of racism will never have the last word. Let’s pull up a chair to God’s Table and start talking.

 

In Christ.

Dennis Sanders, Lead Pastor

Blood Cries Out

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When I was 13, I remember going to the credit union with my mother.  Mom was busy talking to one of the tellers while I waited near the door.  I was just kind of keeping to myself not really paying attention to what was happening around me.  Most people who knew me, saw me as someone who was quiet and probably too sensitive emotionally. I wasn’t really a threat to anyone.

Little did I know, someone did think I was a threat. A security guard came up to me and asked what I was doing.  I was a bit surprised and before I could answer, my mother came up and said sternly that I was with her. She learned that the security guard came up to me because another teller was basically scared of me. As we left the credit union, Mom was mad at the teller who saw me as a threat.  She was also a bit upset at me for not being more aware of my surroundings.

I look back at that event and I see how naive I could be.  I had grown up in the years following the civil rights movement of the 60s.  Growing up in mid-Michigan in the 70s and 80s, I grew up not knowing a lot of the open racism that was so rampant in American in the decades before I was born.  My father grew up in Jim Crow-era Louisiana in the 30s, 40s, and 50s.  He knew about how you could be the judge because of your skin.  Because that wasn’t the world I grew up in, I didn’t understand that anyone could see me as something to be feared.

Like many people, I’ve been made aware of the horrific murder of Ahmaud Arbery, a 25- year old man who was murdered by two white men in Georgia who thought he was a burglar. Greg McMichael and his son Travis saw Arbery running in their neighbor and believed he was fleeing from a crime scene.  The reality is that Arbery was jogging.  Something that the two men should have noticed, but didn’t.  The McMichaels took off in their truck with guns and long story short Ahmaud Arbery was shot and killed.

Now, I truly believe things are better for African Americans than they used to be.  I can do things that my Dad wasn’t able to do because of segregation.  I think our nation is in a better place than it was circa 1955.

But better doesn’t mean perfect.  While the rampant racism that defined the American South for decades has receded, it is still present.  Arbery is part of a long line of African American men that have died at the hands of white Americans in recent years.  The ghost of Jim Crow still haunts America.

In the last day or so, the phrase “blood cries out” got stuck in my head.  That phrase comes from Genesis 4:8-11, the story of the brothers Cain and Abel.  Cain kills Abel and when God asks Cain where is Abel, Cain replies dismissively. “Am I my brother’s keeper?” God responds by saying the following:

 “What have you done? Listen! Your brother’s blood cries out to me from the ground.

Abel’s blood cried out from the ground. God heard the cry of the victim, Abel, and wanted Cain to face the justice of God.

In the book of Deuteronomy, a law stated that if the body of a person was found in a field and no one knew who killed the person, a group of people determined which city the body was closer to. Representatives would sacrifice an animal as an atonement to God for the sin of murder. It didn’t matter that they themselves didn’t do the crime. What mattered was that it mattered to God. Blood was crying out from the ground and it needed to be answered. Taking this crime seriously meant they cared about life.  If a city refused to do this, it sent a message to God about how they viewed life.

Ahmaud Arbery’s blood cries out from the Georgia soil.  The McMichaels have been charged with murder.  We know that temporal justice is at least beginning.  But what about the justice of God?

I don’t have an answer.  What I do know is that all of us must care.  To ignore this, to avert our eyes, means we don’t hold life as sacred.  To ignore it is to say that the color of one’s skin determines their worth.

Arbery’s killers will face trial, but in a way, we are facing trial as well.  How will we respond to the justice of God who weeps over the blood crying out?

Testing God

How important is going to church for you? What would you do to be able to go to worship? Would you kill someone for it?

Christian worship is a big deal. At our last in-person gathering on March 11 which happened to be a Bible Study, we learned about why going to church matters. In a series created by Lutheran pastor David Lose, he reminds us that after seven days, we start to forget that we were loved by God. We need to be in church to remember what God has done and how much God loves us. So, going to church in-person matters.

So, yeah gathering together for worship matters.  It isn’t secondary or nonessential. We can’t phone it in. 

But can something that we think matters, something that is deemed important become an idol?  Can we put the forms of our faith, that help us connect to God ahead of compassion?  When is attending church something that becomes selfish, reckless and not even something that is Christ-like? In these days of COVID-19, when is going to church a sin?

Three days before our worship service on March 15,  I made the decision to cancel Sunday worship. I didn’t want to do it. We are a very small congregation and at the time, we could still gather because of our small size. Then I thought of the three octogenarians in our midst. There is a member, a gentleman in his late 60s,  that takes medicine that suppresses his immune system. When we don’t know who might have the virus, it didn’t make sense to have worship when it might put those people and countless others in danger.

Pastors in Florida and Louisiana have flouted laws and common sense by having large worship gatherings. Florida pastor Rodney Howard-Browne went as far to say that going to church was macho.  He was focused in “raising up revivalists, not pansies.”

R.R. Reno, the editor at First Things, demanded that church, especially Catholic Churches, must stay open. Reno says the coronavirus is “serious business.”  He then says that the spiritual care of flock is more important than their physical health:

The coronavirus pandemic is serious. Perhaps political leaders are correct to take stern measures to slow the spread of the virus. (Although I am increasingly convinced that we may look back and judge the shutdown of the global economy an ill-advised course of action, no matter how dangerous the virus is for those vulnerable to complications.) Whatever our judgments about public policy, church leaders need to resist the temptation to imitate the (for them correct) worldliness of those who work for public health. The Church’s concern should be to sustain the spiritual health of those entrusted to her care. 

 

He then says that closing churches during a pandemic is about bowing down to the powers of death:

It is imperative that Christian leaders not succumb to the contagious panic, which is a weapon of the Enemy to enslave us to our fears. Many steps short of suspension and cancellation can be taken to ensure that prayer, worship, and the administration of the sacraments are done in responsible ways.

Reno wants to believe that if churches practice safety, then the people can worship freely. Reno might want to talk to members of the Skagit Valley Chorale in Washington State. They were wondering if they should have their choir practice. They went ahead with a lot of precautions. The end result? A number of members came down with the coronavirus and two died:

On March 6, Adam Burdick, the choir’s conductor, informed the 121 members in an email that amid the “stress and strain of concerns about the virus,” practice would proceed as scheduled at Mount Vernon Presbyterian Church. “I’m planning on being there this Tuesday March 10, and hoping many of you will be, too,” he wrote. Sixty singers showed up. A greeter offered hand sanitizer at the door, and members refrained from the usual hugs and handshakes. “It seemed like a normal rehearsal, except that choirs are huggy places,” Burdick recalled. “We were making music and trying to keep a certain distance between each other.” After 2½ hours, the singers parted ways at 9 p.m. Nearly three weeks later, 45 have been diagnosed with COVID-19 or ill with the symptoms, at least three have been hospitalized, and two are dead.

They thought they were being careful and still the virus wreaked havoc on the chorale. If that could happen with 60 people who show up for a rehearsal, what are the chances someone or someones sitting in a church sanctuary could spread the illness to hundreds if not thousands?  

Worship matters to the Christian faith.  But like anything, when you put something ahead of anything else then it becomes an idol.  Pastors can talk about religious freedom, but I don’t think God is calling me to gamble with people’s lives.

The thing is, the two pastors and Mr. Reno are interested in looking holy.  Worship is supposed to draw us closer to God and prepare us for mission in the world outside the church. But in the midst of a deadly pandemic with people who could die if they catch the virus is not about drawing closer to God. Instead, it’s about looking “good” or holy.

David French mentions the temptation of Jesus in his writing which is found in Matthew 4. I never understood the temptation where the devil takes him to a high place and tells Jesus to throw himself down and that God would command the angels to protect him.  Jesus declines saying that it was wrong to test God.

I never understood what it meant to test God, but I French makes it rather plain: it’s when someone is trying to tell others how religious or holy.  It’s a performative faith.  

Jesus never tried to do things to seek attention.  Jesus healed people and people were amazed, but the miracles were never to draw attention to Jesus, but point to God.  Having a worship service during a pandemic is not about being faithful to God, it’s about showing off.  It’s less about serving God than it is making God our butler who obeys our commands.

It may look unfaithful to suspend worship for a time being.  But the reality is that we aren’t meeting in-person (we are meeting virtually) because we care for the other.  Jesus lived for others and that is what we are called to do.  Caring for your neighbor by preventing illness is what God calls us to do.  Going to worship now is not about caring for the neighbor.  

I long for the Sunday when my congregation can meet in person and celebrate communion.  But for now, we worship in different ways because God calls us to care for the weak among us.  Worshipping God and not caring for the other is not true worship.  

 

Brighter Days Ahead

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Since there isn’t a lot to do in these days of COVID, my husband Daniel and I went for a walk Sunday.  We walked up and down one of Minneapolis’ many parkways. We were walking back towards our car and past a number of houses on the parkway.  Maybe a block or two from our car, we saw someone- probably a child- wrote in chalk on the sidewalk.  The writings were all positive sayings that really spoke to the times.  One of them seemed bold in saying “brighter days ahead.”

It was an interesting saying to make at this time. All around us, it feels like brighter days are never coming again.  All around us, we hear people getting sick and people dying and dying and dying.  We have no idea when this crisis will end. We have no idea how long we have to keep our distance from each other.  We don’t know when the virus will dissipate. In my own life, I had just heard a few hours prior of the surprising death of young colleague in Oregon, who died of a heart attack.  It didn’t feel like brighter days ahead.

I think about trips to the grocery store or Target and seeing the bare shelves. People are taking toilet paper, eggs, and bread because they don’t know if there will be a time when they can’t leave their houses.  The people don’t think there are brighter days ahead, those empty shelves are a sign of fear.

When I was in college, my church group would sing a song that began, “The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases.”  I didn’t know it then, but the phrase was from Lamentations 3:21-23.  Lamentations is an interesting book because it is written after a devastating event.  The writer searches for God in the midst of the chaos and they move from utter helplessness to a sense of hope.  Things are still horrible, but they have hope.  They trust God is faithful and never gives up.  They believe even though the environment around them is bleak.

Daniel showed me a performance of the St. Olaf Choir in Norway.  They sang a song by Kim André Arnesen called “Even When He is Silent.”  The text was found at a concentration camp after World War II:

I believe in the sun, even when it’s not shining. I believe in love, even when I feel it not. I believe in God, even when He is silent.

Someone who very well may have faced death at a concentration camp still believed in God even though life would tell you God isn’t there.  That’s hope.

I think that is what we have to have these days.  Brighter days ahead is not a nicety to make us feel better when life is crappy.  It is lighting a candle in the darkness, believing that whatever evil seems ascendant and in control will not ever have the last word.

We believe in life even when there is death all around.  Because we believe that in Christ there are brighter days ahead.

 

 

 

So is brighter days ahead just a nice trope to

 

 

Buried with Christ

There is an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation where Dr. Beverly Crusher notices people on the Enterprise are vanishing. She learns that she has been zapped into some kind of pocket universe that is collapsing around her. She has to find a way of getting out of this dying universe before it was too late.

As Americans adjust to this altered life in the shadow of the coronavirus, I feel at times as if the world I knew, the world all of us knew until a few days ago is collapsing around us. Little by little, we can’t watch our favorite sports team, or go to church or even go to our job. My husband asked me a few nights ago when do I think we will forced to “shelter in place” as people in the Bay Area are having to do. In normal times, I would have said that won’t happen to us. I can’t say that now. In a few days we could be forced to just stay in our homes.

All of that brings about a strange feeling; a feeling I couldn’t initially put my finger on. But then it hit me: it felt like I was being buried. First government authorities said no gatherings under 500. Then 250. Then 50. Then 10. Some parts of the United States are now under lockdown. People can’t leave their houses except to get groceries or gas. I get it that this is needed. I know we need to do this to “flatten the curve.”

And yet I am filled with sadness. People are shut up in their homes. Businesses stop. Jobs lost. People die.

It’s not the end of the world, but the end a world. It’s the end of the world we used to know and it feels like…death. We are buried.

It is interesting that the COVID-19 outbreak is happen during the season of Lent, those six weeks where we join Jesus on the road to Jerusalem where he will be totured and executed by the state. Being buried feels like it would have on that dark Friday we call good so long ago. You feel the coffin sealing shut and being lowered into the ground. You can hear the dirt piling on top of the coffin, telling you that you are not ever getting out.

In Scripture, Jesus’ body was placed in tomb and the stone rolled in front of the tomb. There was no way of getting out now.

I think about the disciples in the days following Christ’s death. In Luke 24, the Risen Christ meets two disciples who still believed Jesus was in the tomb. They didn’t have any hope that they would see Jesus ever again. They had to feel a sense of hopelessness. Nothing good was coming around the corner.

Right now, I know no one can tell us that things will turn out fine. They won’t. At least not for a while. There is no vaccine. No treatment. It won’t be over in a few days or weeks. It could be months. Maybe even a year. There is no way to be optimistic here at all. It is bad news all the way down. We are buruied and we aren’t going to get back up.

So no, I’m not optimistic. But I am hopeful.

I have hope because even though Jesus was buried, shut up in a tomb, we know Jesus didn’t stay dead. He rose from the dead and defeated death. The loss we feel, the sense of death is not forever. No virus can win forever. We have hope in Jesus Christ and we believe death will never have the last word-even when we are shut up in our homes, even when it feels like death is on the prowl. It is that hope that we must hold on to even when our world slowly dies. We can rest in the hope that death can’t win. Colossians 2:12 remind us that we are buried like Christ and like Christ we are raised. Baptism is a reminder of this. When we feel buried, we know that Christ was buried.

We need that hope because we need to share it with others who are not just losing their “freedom,” but losing their jobs because of the coronavirus and the economic harm that is coming will be brutal. We need hope because there are dark, dark clouds on the horizon.

My mother loves the hymn “Because He Lives,” by Bill Gaither. It might seem a bit syrupy, but I think the chorus speaks to me right now:

Because He lives, I can face tomorrow,
Because He lives, all fear is gone;
Because I know He holds the future,
And life is worth the living,
Just because He lives!

Tomorrow is not looking great. But the Christ that was buried arose from the dead. At a time like this, that is the hope I hold on to.

Big Me and Little Jesus

An updated post from 2015.

Anyone remember LiveJournal?

Over the years, I’ve noticed a change on social media.  When I started writing on LiveJournal around 2001, friends were fairly open about their lives.  There was nothing exhibitionist about it- it was just everyday people sharing the struggles of everyday life. As Caitlin Cass showed in a recent comic, it was a window into someone’s thoughts and worldview.

Blogs were the same way.  People were willing to share their imperfections and questions.  The posts were filled with nuance and reason.

But over, decade or so, something happened.  Social media became less personal.  Social platforms like Facebook, Instagram and Twitter became more showrooms that presented a more cleaned up and perfect version of the self.  People tend to make more statements instead of  asking questions.  I used to think everyone online on Facebook was happy, but that’s not really the case.  People aren’t more happy, but they are more shallow. There is less ruminating about issues.  There is less room for doubt or nuance. People are known more for their political viewpoint or identity than as actually flesh and blood people.

Being a church communicator, I’ve been hawking the importance of social media for years.  I still think that is important for churches to be on social media, but we need to be more aware of what social media, at least the most current version of social media is doing to us as a culture and as a church. Because, like any bit of technology it is changing us.

Social Media has at times made the church less a place of sinners saved by grace than a place where people try to present themselves as correct.  Liberal and conservative Christians focus less on their frailty, their temptation to sin and more on presenting their viewpoint/ideology as the superior one to the other side.  I don’t hear people sharing their uncertainties and questions as much as making a case for their side.

While polemicists on the left, right and center tend to roll their eyes when they hear commentator David Brooks speak, more often than not, Brooks has his finger on what is going on in culture on what has changed for good or for ill.  In his 2015 book, the Road to Character, talks about how as a society we have become focused on resume virtues as opposed to eulogy virtues.  Resume virtues are the skills and experiences that fit on a resume.  Places like Facebook and Twitter are places you will find resume virtues.

Eulogy virtues are those things that people will say about you when you are gone.  More often than not, this is what you will still find in obituaries and on social media sites like Caring Bridge.

Resume virtues are part of what Brooks calls the culture of “Big Me” a resume or highlight reel of your life which shows just the good parts.  “Big Me” is looking at yourself as larger than life.  Brooks shares a set of statistics from the 1950s and from more recent times:

My favorite statistic about this is that in 1950 the Gallup organization asked high school seniors: Are you a very important person? And in 1950, 12 percent said yes. They asked again in 2005 and it was 80 percent who said they were a very important person. So we live in a culture that encourages us to be big about ourselves, and I think the starting point of trying to build inner goodness is to be a little bit smaller about yourself.

This is what I’ve seen in the shift in social media.  When I was on LiveJournal circa 2001, it was basically about sharing the ordinariness of our lives.  Fifteen years later on Facebook we see Big Me in action, where we show all the successful parts of our lives and leave the darker aspects of living behind. Brooks expounds on this in a New York Times column:

We live in the culture of the Big Me. The meritocracy wants you to promote yourself. Social media wants you to broadcast a highlight reel of your life. Your parents and teachers were always telling you how wonderful you were.

But all the people I’ve ever deeply admired are profoundly honest about their own weaknesses. They have identified their core sin, whether it is selfishness, the desperate need for approval, cowardice, hardheartedness or whatever. They have traced how that core sin leads to the behavior that makes them feel ashamed. They have achieved a profound humility, which has best been defined as an intense self-awareness from a position of other-centeredness.

So where is God in all of this?

I think in the culture of Big Me, God become less the Savior or Father, than the God of Moral Therapeutic Deism, a God that wants us to be happy, but not one that challenges us to be better. We get churches where we are affirmed, but never to be better, more virtuous.  We get churches where we don’t talk about sin (or at least we don’t talk about our sin, the sin of that guy down the street, though…) but we talk about how to be successful.

Brooks believes we needs to recover and older moral frame-work one that uses religious words and concepts:

There are certain words that have been passed down through the generations that we’ve sort of left behind. And some of them have quasi-religious connotations, but I don’t think they need to. Those are words like grace — the idea that we’re loved more than we deserve — redemption and sin. We now use the word sin in the context of fattening desserts, but it used to be central in the vocabulary, whether you’re religious or not; an awareness that we all sin and we all have the same sins — selfishness, self-centeredness. And I think rediscovering that word is an important task because without that you’re just too egotistical. You don’t realize how broken we all are at some level.

Maybe as Christians we need to start engaging and changing the nature of social media instead of letting it change us.  We need to talk more about our own sin and brokeness; not in a tell-all kind of way, but in honesty.  We have to present ourselves as saved by God’s grace and not through merit.  We have to be willing to show the cracks in our armor, to show we aren’t all that and a bag of chips.  We have to be about proclaiming a culture of Big God instead of Big Me.

Social media today  has had the effect of alienating me from my friends.  I don’t care as much about knowing what you had for dinner or your last trip as much as what is your story.  I need to be more honest about who I am and to hell if it doesn’t look good on a resume.

Social media has its place in our society.  But let’s make it a place that is little less about how “correct” we are and more about telling our stories and vulnerablities because we all need to hear them.

Jesus of Suburbia:An Update

This is an update of a sermon I wrote in 2014 on suburban ministry.

Mahtomedi Water Tower at Sunset. Photo by Tony Webster.

It’s been over six years since I started at First Christian of St. Paul which is in the suburb of Mahtomedi, MN.  One of the things that was kind of hammered home to me in seminary is to learn to do ministry in a certain context.  And with this call, context matters, at least to me.

I’ve shared before that I’m a city kid that grew up with an antipathy towards the ‘burbs.  So as my mentor Bob Brite has said, “the Holy Spirit, the practical joker that she is” has me preaching at a church in the suburbs.

And I don’t think I’m prepared for it.

I’ve noticed over the year that our seminaries prepare students for one kind of context: cities.  The urban context has long been what our seminary education has been based on.  I can understand the need to focus on cities; it is where the majority of Americans live.  But most seminaries tend to ignore rural contexts and view suburbia with a sense of contempt.  In a blog post last year, I shared what an evangelical blogger wrote about the suburbs and it wasn’t a love letter.  A fellow Disciples pastor has said that the only message we seem to have for suburbanites is how they are bad people for abandoning the city.  Surprisingly, people tend to not be crazy to being called sinful because of where they decided to live.


Most seminaries tend to ignore rural contexts and view suburbia with a sense of contempt. 


A lot of the Christian antipathy towards suburbia mirrors the larger culture’s view of suburbia.  Hollywood has long depticted the ‘burbs as a place of conformity and blandness.  Growing up in 1970s Michigan, I was told that the nearby Detroit suburbs were made up of former white Detroiters who wanted to get away from African Americans. But the thing is, as I said in a 2013 post, suburban America is far more diverse than we think:

Twenty years later, I don’t have the same hatred of suspicion of the burbs.  They are still not the places I prefer to live in (thought I did live in the Washington, DC suburbs of Arlington, VA and Silver Spring, MD in the years following college). Part that is because I actually started paying attention to what is going on in the suburbs.  Over the years, I’ve learned that hunger take place in suburbs like Maple Grove, Minnesota, which is just west of Minneapolis.  I’ve learned that domestic violence takes place and that there are shelters for women and children in the tony suburbs of Oakland County north of Detroit.  I learned that runaway youth who live in the burbs need a place to stay.  I learned that suburban schools are becoming more diverse, handling people from different parts of the world.  What I’ve learned is that the suburbs are not some fascist utopia, but are real places with real problems.

But many Christian leaders seem to choose not to care about what is happening there.  Instead, they brand suburban living as unChristian.  This is what someone said on the Fare Foreward blog in 2013:

Yet some forms of cultural resistance should be universal, because some aspects of “normal” life in America are deeply unChristian. Bradley laments that “anti-suburban Christianity” has lead to this kind of legalism. But there are some things deeply unChristian, and deeply counter to even natural virtue, in the suburbs. Will Seath does a good job of laying those out in his article from the winter edition of Fare Forward. Bradley suggests that the anti-suburban Christians advocate for urbanism at the expense of the suburbs. But, as the buzz around Rod Dreher’s latest book on moving home, a lot of the anti-suburban sentiment comes from people who support small town living just as much as from those who support city living. And the thing that unites the city and the country against the suburbs is the belief that the suburbs are not, as a matter of fact, ordinary, natural life, but a strange artificial construct that hinders ordinary live and ordinary relationships (see Seath for more).

And this was my response after I picked up my jaw from the floor:

Notice what’s being said here.  It’s not that suburbs aren’t optimal to Christian living.  No, suburban living is unChristian (empahsis mine), it goes against what it means to be a Christian.  I haven’t read the Will Seath article, but even without reading it the above statement is astounding.  What is being said here is that nothing good comes from the suburbs, and that millions of Christians in America are basically committing a grave sin because they chose to live outside the city.


Being church here in Mahtomedi is not the same as in the city or in a small town.  But Christ is here.  There are needs. There are people who need God in their lives.


First Christian was in St. Paul until 1996.  I’m pretty sure we aren’t planning on moving back.  So that means learning how to do ministry in the suburbs. Being church here in Mahtomedi is not the same as in the city or in a small town.  But Christ is here.  There are needs.  There are people who need God in their lives. Our church is involved in a coalition of suburban churches that staff a homeless shelter for families in the suburban counties east of St. Paul.  A large Lutheran church down the road tries to help some of these same people get back on their feet.  Suburbanites don’t have to go into the big city to do mission, it’s here at our doorstep.

But there is still more to be done. How we are sharing our faith with others in the neighborhood? How are we showing that this church is an active presence in our community? What does our witness as a diverse congregation speak to the wider majority white community?


The Jesus of the City and the small town is also Jesus of suburbia.


I feel that seminary left me unprepared for how to do ministry in this context.  It’s not urban ministry and it sure isn’t rural ministry.  But how do learn to do church in this context?  How can we preach the good news in words and in deeds in these places far from the urban core?

This is a little tip for seminaries: start thinking about what it means to do mission in the ‘burbs.  Because an ever larger share of American society is choosing to live there.  We have to find ways to help suburbanites join in the mission of God and not feel guilty because they happen to be in the wrong zip code to some urban-centric, snobby Christians.

The Jesus of the City and the small town is also Jesus of suburbia.

Not My Problem

This morning, a visitor showed up for worship. During the passing of the peace, I came over and introduced myself. By the time the sermon began, the visitor was gone. I realized how he talked about church made me think he was planning to worship with the church that rents out space with us, which is a bit more conservative.

But I still felt bothered that this man left. It reminded me of the visitors that have come to the church and then never decides to become a part of our congregation. In both cases, I blame myself. I start to wonder if I wasn’t nice enough or not friendly enough. I even wonder if I am bad luck for the congregation since we have not had visitors that want to stay and be a part of our community. I try to write letters to let them know I enjoyed visiting them and that I truly care.

But I’m starting to think this really isn’t on me after all.

I know my aspergers can make me come accross as uncaring at times, but I’ve worked hard to be caring and respectful. I’ve done what I can to welcome people. At the end of the day, I can’t be responsible for how they respond. I can trust that God will work with them, but I can’t change their mind unless they are willing to change things.

I tend to make myself responsible for everything and everybody. But I can’t change people-unless they want to be changed. I’ve been trying to meet with a friend who says they want to get together to chat. I’ve contacted the person with dates to meet more than once and I never heard back from this person. This has happened to me with other people again and again. People seem to “ghost” me a lot. I do get upset about that. At the end of the day, however, they have to make the decision to contact me; it is up to them. If they want to meet with me, great. But, they have to have to the balls to contact me. That’s what grownups do.

For a long time, I’ve blamed myself for visitors not staying at church or letting friend take advantage of me. I can’t allow that to happen anymore.