Monday, July 23, 2012

a short word on evil and the shooting in Aurora, CO

Like all Americans, I was horrified, grieved and unnerved to hear of the massacre at a movie theater in Aurora, CO this weekend.  A movie theater of people, gathering to enjoy a summer blockbuster, was sprayed with bullets, leading to the murder of 12 people and the injury of 50-some more.  News coverage has mostly followed the typical sensational and speculative script that comes about each time one of these mass shootings occur.  Virtually every hour, news anchors on the 24-hour networks have called in criminal profilers and psychologists to try to explain to us all the "why?" behind such acts of evil.  Evil is typically something we can avoid in most of our everyday life.  Mass killings are too common, certainly, but still relatively rare in the big picture.  But when such a visceral act of violence occurs, apparently targeting individuals for no real reason, we want to know why. 

This is not the only place we have seen evil in the news lately.  The Jerry Sandusky-Penn State scandal also calls to mind questions of evil in our world.  How is it that a man could abuse children so callously over such a long period of years?  Even worse, how could "normal," professional people--even revered and admired people--tolerate it and cover it up? 

What if, instead of bringing the psychologists and the criminal profilers and the attorneys, we brought in clergypeople and theologians?  Can we continue to avoid the pervasive nature of evil, even in seemingly "good" people like Joe Paterno anymore?  Where does this evil come from?  Is there any power or force greater than this evil?  How can we hope to overcome evil?  Will a day come when we no longer must seek to heal victims of sexual abuse or bury young people mowed down in their prime?

These are all questions for which Christian theology has answers.  At a time in which we are so baffled and troubled by evil, wouldn't it behoove us as a nation to at least give a listen to what those answers may be?

My prayers continue to be with all of those who suffered losses in Aurora, CO.  May God grant you comfort, peace and the assurance of His presence through all of the stages of grief.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

my faith story

I've been thinking recently that it is so easy to write about tangential issues and never get around to writing about the most important and central part of my life: faith in Jesus Christ.  So today I want to take an opportunity to share my faith story with you. 

I grew up in a Christian home where I was taught the Bible from a very early age.  In fact, I'm pretty sure my Mom even read me the Bible when I was in the womb!  Saturation in the Bible would describe my growing-up years.  We had family devotions.  We were required to have personal devotions (Mom used to say, "You need to nourish your soul just as much as your body" so we would have devotions even before breakfast).  We listened to Christian radio, read Christian biographies, and even listened to tape recordings of Scripture as we went to sleep at night.  As I became a teenager, we were paid 25 cents to memorize each Bible verse.  This motivated me to memorize chapters of Scripture...even a few whole books (short ones!). 

At the tender age of two years old, I was laying on the changing table when I said to my Mom, "Jesus...come in...heart."  Mom marks that down as the beginning of my faith journey, the stake in the ground of faith, if you will.  I have a lot of appreciation for her belief that a tiny child could have saving faith in Christ (or shall I say, "faith in the saving Christ"!).  Clearly, for a little child to believe, it is the work of the Holy Spirit!  I was baptized a year or two later, at my request.  Although I now believe that conversion and baptism are best understood as a single act, I also agree with an article I recently read on Christianity Today's website: if we find ourselves in the posture of faith and trust in Christ, that is what is important.  It is not so much the journey we took to get there or whether we said a perfect sinner's prayer or had baptism at the "right" time.  It's not whether we use the term "decision for Christ" or the term "Christ's decision for me."  The point is that we trust Jesus for our salvation.  I would add to that that we should also realize that faith itself is the gift of God and from God much more than it is our gift to God.

At any rate, from the earliest of ages, I found myself in the posture of faith in Christ for my salvation.  I had been taught and came to understand for myself that I was born with sin and brokenness in my heart.  After all, who needs to teach a child to rebel?  Rebellion is so common and normal among children that it points to the innate nature of sin.  Children normally and naturally go through selfishness, disobedience and lying.  I understood, though, that sin wasn't just something I did; it was something that was inherently part of me.  I had a nature that made me turn away from God and from my parents.  I came to understand that I needed a Savior to take away my sin, to carry it for me so that it would no longer weigh me down.  I came to understand that I needed forgiveness and restoration.  And I truly believed (and still believe) that Jesus' death on the cross and subsequent resurrection gave me such a salvation and redemption.

As I grew, I came to understand that that sin nature is always there as long as we are on this earth but that in salvation, God also gives us the "firstfruits" of our new life with Him in eternity.  We have a new nature too and that is why despite the in-fighting and hypocrisy and sin and ugliness we see from Christians, we also see that Christians are some of the most generous, sacrificial people in the world.  We see this in the Christians who venture into the leprosy colonies, who reach out to treat those who battle foot-deforming illnesses in Ethiopia, who serve and care for the most hungry and impoverished in the world.  Even Nick Kristof, the New York Times columnist who tackles social issues and doesn't shy away from criticizing conservative Christians, has noted that, in all fairness, you will always find Christians at the heart of seeking to alleviate suffering, in the most dangerous and ugly places on earth.  There is a glory that shines in the midst of the darkness and God uses Christians to bring some of that beauty and hope into the world.  That is why Jesus told us we were the light of the world.

At any rate, as I went through junior high, I found myself less interested in growing in faith and more interested in my hormones.  This passed shortly though and gave way to a period of two years of anxiety and depression that didn't exactly make me suicidal but didn't really make me want to live either.  An increasingly unhealthy dynamic at home probably didn't help things (I was living through the second disintegrating marriage in my family).  I believe that I developed obsessive-compulsive disorder during this time and found myself trying to purge myself of any sin (even a sinful thought) and doing illogical things like obsessively washing my hands.  The outward compulsions were a sign of how much pain I was in inwardly.  There were so many days I crawled through, only holding on to the hope that I would find the answers and be able to be whole in the future.  My interest in matters of faith had returned, thankfully, but often the heavens seemed dark and answers were elusive.  By the grace of God, I didn't give up, though.

It was the restoration to a healthy Christian community that led to my restoration.  Although I had grown up in evangelical and Pentecostal churches, we began to attend a Lutheran church that had a lovely service by the lake.  As we continued to attend and to hear God's Word faithfully preached, as we became a part of a small group and began to serve in the church, I found my hope and wholeness begin to be restored.  In this church, I found pastors who showed me unconditional love and that was healing as well. 

At the same time, I began to study Martin Luther's story.  I came to see that he had suffered the same obsessive anxiety to be perfect and to receive God's favor that I was going through. Martin Luther did not grow up in a world where he had access to the Bible like we do today.  The Mass was in Latin and the Scriptures were in another language and reserved for the elite.  It was only in his work as a young monk that he began to actually read the Bible.  When he did, he was completely overcome by the grace of God.  He came to see that salvation is never dependent on what we do, but is totally dependent on what God has done and is doing for us.  Jesus died for us so that we could be free from efforts to please God (efforts which are never enough to match God's perfect standard).  He saw that while God is holy, He is also merciful.  When we could not bring redemption and healing for ourselves, Jesus did it for us, at great personal cost. 

It was not that I had never been taught this.  I was steeped in Scripture and its teaching about salvation.  But somehow I had gotten myself into a place where I believed that, as a Christian, I was responsible for holding on to God's favor.  I saw myself as a worse sinner than other sinners and was desperately trying to claw my way up the ladder of holiness.  Martin Luther reminded me that only Jesus can obtain God's favor and that it is given to us as a gift--not only at the moment of our conversion, but for the rest of our lives.  Is obedience important?  Yes!  But not to obtain God's favor.  It is the way we show our love and gratitude to God for what He has already given us.  Little by little, I began to experience more and more freedom from the obsessive control I was trying to take over my life.

In the years that followed, I had many ups and downs.  I had times when I followed God more closely than others.  I had times when I clung to my own control instead of to Christ.  I think of myself now as "in recovery" from this obsessive control.  It's a life-long journey.  And now as an adult, I often feel I have more questions than answers.  But in the midst of the questions and struggles, there is one passage that I cling to.  In John 6, Jesus has just finished a particularly difficult-to-understand teaching ("eat my flesh...drink my blood").  Many people are repulsed and turn away from following Him anymore.  Jesus asks His disciples if they plan to do the same.  Simon Peter's words are the ones I cling to, "Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life. We believe and know that you are the Holy One of God" (NIV).  This is so often how I feel.  So often, I don't understand God.  I have so many questions.  The heavens often seem dark.  Scripture is so often hard to understand.  But what I do know is that there is no other credible place to which I can turn.  There is no other Person who was willing to die for me.  There is no other assurance like that which I have in Christ.  So I cling to Him in the midst of the questions and confusion of this life.  I remain in the posture of faith. 

There's a lot more I could write about.  My growth in faith in college and at Bible camp.  My years in Christian ministry.  Seminary.  But this will suffice for now.  

Jesus has saved me, redeemed me and given me the gift of faith.  He holds me in the palm of His hand and promises that no one can snatch me away from Him (John 10) and nothing can separate me from His love (Romans 8).  To whom shall I go?  I go to Jesus.

Monday, July 9, 2012

Politics, Original Sin, and a New Creation

It's election season.  Politics is in full swing and as time goes on, it gets increasingly, nasty, unreasonable and full of attacks.  I describe myself as a "radical moderate" (a term coined by my husband), fitting neither in the Republican nor Democrat camps.  I try to listen to both sides, think about what I believe is right (particularly through the lens of my faith), and use common sense and practicality to decide how to vote and how to think about political matters.  I don't enshrine my politics or one party or another as being "of God" or "more American" than another.  I think there are stinkers and good people in both parties.

And so as the political debates begin to heat up, I begin to become very frustrated with how people proceed.  The dark music of political ads, the inevitable ad hominem attacks comparing one leader or another to Hitler when such is comparison is wholly unwarranted (I have heard this said of both President Bush and President Obama), the unwillingness to sit down and listen to another perspective (if my belief is true, it will hold up to scrutiny!).  I start wanting to sing, "Why can't we all just get along?"  I don't understand why people can't be more reasonable with one another and work together for a better future.

This is because I am an idealist.  In the abstract, I think that surely people can just be reasonable and practical and get along.  But this is because I forget so easily the reality of original sin in our world.  To expect perfection out of sinful human beings is unrealistic.  To expect that we can all just use reason and common sense to get along is not reality.  Because I am a Christian, I believe that there is something terribly wrong at the core of human beings.  This is why absolute peace has never been achieved in the history of the world. This is why the utopian dreams of communism never came to fruition but merely became another way to take what belonged to someone else and dominate one's neighbor.  This is why the competitive environment of capitalism so easily leads to trodding our neighbor underfoot instead of providing opportunities for everyone.  We are sinners and whatever political system we are given, we will find a way to manipulate it for ourselves and to the detriment of our neighbors.

Because we are sinners, we also turn nasty in political debate.  We harden our hearts to hearing another side.  Rare is the journalist or commentator who takes the time to at least listen to another perspective fairly.  We call the Affordable Care Act "Obamacare."  We call pro-life people "anti-abortion."  Certainly, we will not see things from the same perspective all the time, but we fail to even listen to another side of the story.  We attack Americans who think differently than us and call them "un-American."  I have heard this attitude from the elite intellectual who thinks the Republican farmer has nothing to teach him and is hopelessly backward and out of touch.  I have heard this from the blue-color Republican who dismisses the liberal as a Nazi in the making, as someone trying to destroy America.  (And I have participated in such attitudes as these too from time to time.)  Both are wrong.  But why would we expect anything else from sinful people?  We are not reasonable and able to get along all the time, precisely because we are sinners.

Not only do I fail to take sin seriously in the everyday American, but I also fail to take it seriously at times in relation to the evil in the world.  When you get a lot of education, it is easy to look at things from a theoretical perspective: "If I reason with the nations of the world, they will see the wisdom of my approach and stop the evil that they are doing."  But evil is not something that can be reasoned with.  In fact, when it is downplayed, it gains more power.  I will always be of the opinion that war should be avoided if it can be and should only be a last resort, but there is absolutely a time and a place for strong military action that sets boundaries with repressive regimes.  Look at the accommodation of Neville Chamberlain that did not take evil seriously.  Look at the prophetic eye of Winston Churchill that dared to call evil what it was, even if he was maligned as a warmonger.  The fog of war does not always immediately reveal who is right and wrong, but Churchill's courage and willingness to be misunderstood and disliked is to be admired.  We have to take evil seriously and not think that it can be reasoned with.

So, we will never have a perfect political world where everyone gets along and behaves well, precisely because of the nature of original sin.  Even Christians?  Yes!  Lutheran theology is so helpful because it teaches that Christians are both fully saint and fully sinner at the same time.  We will not be free of original sin until we are taken home to be with the Lord.  This means that in reality we will sometimes behave badly, including in the political arena.  We will lose our tempers.  We will sin in areas which we have publicly condemned in others.  We will lie and bear false witness.  We will be nasty, slow to listen and unloving at times.

But just because we screw up sometimes and can be forgiven does not let us off the hook.  Paul asked in Romans 6, "Shall we then sin so that grace may abound?"  Do you remember his response?  "May it never be!"  We are not only 100% sinner, but also 100% saint, created new in Christ Jesus.  We are new creations (2 Corinthians 5:17).  And although we are not yet free of the "old man" of sin and death, we are being made new, day by day.  The world rightfully condemns Christians when they do not live up to their own ideals of love, respect, truth, and forgiveness.  No, we will never be perfect, but we also should not lower our standard.  And we should be willing to repent when we mess up.

But why is it that the nastiest email forwards come from Christians?  Why is it that Christian on Facebook, email, Twitter and in conversation constantly bear false witness, sharing rumors that are not substantiated with others?  For example, no matter your political party, do you think the Lord wants you to forward an email suggesting that President Obama is a secret Muslim?  (I have received such rumor-filled email forwards primarily from conservatives, but that doesn't let liberals off the hook.  They have their own way of pushing down the other side.  Nasty comments paired with a newspaper article posted to Facebook, for instance.)  Does this honor the Lord?

As a Christian, no matter which political leader you are spreading rumors about, consider two steps: 1) Check before you forward anything--most of these email forwards have been passed around so many times that they no longer have any truth to them.  2) Pray for political leaders, as the Bible commands us to do (1 Timothy 2:1-4).  It is so easy to forget that prayer for our leaders is our responsibility as Christians.  But even if you disagree sorely with an elected leader, remember that God loves him or her and pray that that person may come to know God in all His fullness.  Pray for his or her spouse and family.  Pray for protection against temptation.  Pray for honesty, courage and integrity.  The pressures on our leaders are terribly strong and the temptations are great.  Without prayer, how will they have any hope of doing what is right?

Fellow Christians: you and I may have very different conclusions, politically, about how best to serve our neighbor.  But we are united by our common identity of saint and sinner.  We're going to screw up sometimes.  We're going to get mad sometimes.  We're going to bear false witness sometimes.  But let's strive higher.  Let's be an example in a fractious political environment.  Let's be people that the world can look to and admire and respect for our integrity, honesty, fairness, respect, and love.  There will be times to fight evil.  There will times to take on debates rigorously, and it is our duty as citizens to do so.  But let's do it with truth in our mouths and respect in our hearts.  Let's live out our new identity as new creations in Christ!

Friday, July 6, 2012

Summer Vacation: Seattle, Portland and the Oregon Coast (Part II)

Beautiful sculpture in front of the headquarters of World Vision 
Before I get to the second half of our vacation in Oregon, I wanted to mention our visit to World Vision in Federal Way, Washington.  We thought visiting their headquarters and taking a tour would be a great learning experience for Burrito and it was!  We pray every night for the "people in trouble" in Africa and it was great for Burrito to see pictures and hands-on illustrations of what people in Africa and other impoverished areas of the world go through.  It was wonderful to see the ways World Vision is helping through working in entire villages to provide clean water, food, health care, schooling and micro loans for businesses.  I was also impressed with their efficiency and preparation.  For example, they stash emergency supplies in specific locations around the world so that they can get in when there is a natural disaster or other emergency and begin assistance immediately.  Their long-term relationships and ongoing work within each country also helps them to make sure supplies actually get to the people who need them.  Very impressive.

After our whirlwind trip to Seattle, we began the trek down to Portland.  We began to be interested in Portland a year or so ago when we started watching Portlandia on IFC.  The opening song and comedic segment of the show stated that "The dream of the '90s is alive in Portland" and reminded us that it is the city where "young people go to retire."  We thought this was hilarious (and let's face it, we've met people from other cities...cough, Minneapolis-St. Paul...who remind us greatly of the characters who people Portlandia).  We (cough, I) also enjoyed being poked fun at a bit.  One of the first sketches involve a couple who are so deeply interested in where their food comes from that they want to know the name of the chicken they are being served at a restaurant, as well as all of the aspects of its life, and finally decide to visit the farm where he was raised before ordering dinner.  This is foodie/locavore taken to the extreme.  I can take a little good-natured ribbing!

We were only in Portland two nights, but I can testify that the slogan you find on a building downtime ("Keep Portland Weird") is entirely warranted and will not be a difficult goal to achieve.  I saw all of the following downtown during our visit: Rastafarians, a "gang" of guys on segways decorated with roses in a parade, people trying to get Oregon voters to sign up for a bill to make pot legal, a street preacher, street musicians, a dad pushing a baby car seat in an umbrella stroller, a piano player who was playing the piano on a rigged-up bicycle, one and only one very dressed up trendy lady, artists molding your face into a garden gnome in 10 minutes, a guy dressed up as Spiderman (complete with full face mask) on a bike, and a very fine variety of street food.  Quite the collection of folks!

In the midst of the weirdness that is Portland, we managed to have a nice time, though. First off, we had to visit the famous Powell's City of Books (a bookstore that takes up an entire city block and is the largest new and used bookstore in the world!).  I was in bliss surrounded by that many books, but Burrito was quickly bored.  She did enjoy waiting with a little girl who had lost her Daddy though until the store manager could call her dad on the intercom.  Powell's even has a machine where you can self-publish your book!  I loved the quote on these stairs:
 Next, we visited the Saturday Market downtown, where local artists sell their work and world street food is available for lunch.  I opted for the yakisoba noodles from the Hawaiian food truck, while staring longingly at the Lebanese and African food trucks (garlic figured majorly in their offerings and I was still dealing with garlic aversion).  We also visited the Lan Su Chinese Gardens in the heart of Portland.  We learned that for Chinese culture, there is no division between garden and home, as perhaps there would be in the United States or Great Britain.  The home is a garden and together they create a cohesive whole, providing serenity throughout.  I loved the quotation in the program: "Most cherished in this mundane world is a place without traffic; truly in the midst of a city there can be mountain and forest."--Wen Zhengming
We also had the pleasure of taking time for tea at the Chinese tea house located in the middle of the garden.  It was a deeply peaceful location and Burrito loved having a "tea party."  I sampled the licorice tea, she tried orange-cranberry and Daddy tried jasmine tea. 
After an eventful day in Portland, we took our next day to spend on a relaxing trip to the Oregon Coast where Christopher had a Sunday morning 5k planned in Cannon Beach.  Early forecasts had been for rain, but we were so glad that it turned out to be a nice day.  As is the case in Oregon, the beach was a bit cold at first (and the water is always cold that far north), but it was blissful laying on the sand and smelling the salt air and hearing the crash of the waves.  This was Burrito's first big trip to the ocean too (she had been to the Atlantic Ocean once but not long enough to play and enjoy it).  She worked on sand castles, hunted for shells and ran, giggling, through the bracingly cold water on the shore.
Seaside, OR--the end of Lewis and Clark's journey.
I am always at my most peaceful at the ocean.
 After a visit to Cannon Beach (which has a quiet, family-friendly vibe), we headed over to Seaside (which is louder and busier) where we stayed at a very affordable mini-apartment for the night right on the beach (on the quieter side of town).  Nothing beats being able to see the ocean from your bedroom!  The next morning, we sadly said goodbye to the ocean and began to make our trek home.

All in all, it was a great family vacation, made even nicer by a shorter drive than our usual massively long trek back to the Midwest.  We had never visited Seattle or Portland before so it was wonderful to experience new places.
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