Grace is an unmerited gift of pardon, forgiveness and love granted to individuals by God and one another. Lutherans are known for being grace-centered. As a pastor, I try to make sure that my proclamation from the pulpit, my teaching, and my pastoral care are firmly centered on the notion of grace. As a baptized person, I try to see to it that grace is at the center of ordinary life.
At the same time, we must remember that the traditional way of understanding God for Lutherans is that God’s direction or Word comes to us as BOTH Law and Gospel. While there is a time for the good news of grace, there is also a time in which law must be enforced.
I can’t really say much publicly about a situation I find myself in where I feel a great deal of grace has been administered, but a breach of trust has forced me to appeal to law and enforce some consequences for an action. The whole situation has resulted in hurt feelings on both side, and I really hate it. You can tell I hate it because it is 4:00 am and I can’t sleep and I am sitting up muttering about this stuff.
I really hope I have done the right thing.
I simultaneously find myself in another situation where for my own emotional, psychological and spiritual well being, I have let the rule of law determine the parameters of a relationship. And now is a time where it appears that what is needed here is more grace than I’ve been willing grant. Do I risk sharing grace (and in fact, some financial resources from our very limited resources), when there has been real distrust and a track record of squandering resources. How far does grace go here? At what point does one willingly open themselves and risk being injured – again – even though it is seemingly the right thing to do? Should law still prevail here?
This weekend clergy and laity from the Southeastern Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America gathered together at the Chattanooga (TN) Convention Center for our annual assembly. The assembly is the highest legislative body of our synod. I often speak of assemblies as if I don’t like them. In point of fact, there was a time when I did not like them. I have come to appreciate assemblies though. I would dare say I even enjoy them. Now, I am not going to lie to you, sitting through some of the plenary sessions and listening to reports can range from super dull to mind numbing. As soon as you start to doze, however, something happens to re-engage you.
Anyway, I am now safely home after the 2013 Southeastern Synod Assembly, and thought I would just write about a few things that were highlights for me.
- Due to some family circumstances, I missed Friday’s sessions. I was a little bummed about this because I knew that Bishop Julian Gordy’s term was up and he was eligible to serve another six years, and I wanted to participate in that vote. I was very happy to hear that my presence was hardly needed. Bp. Gordy won re-election with 91% of the vote on the first ballot. This thrilled me. Bp. Gordy is exactly what you want a Lutheran Bishop to be. He is a pastor to the Synod, but most especially he is a pastor to the pastors. He is a wise soul, but is also accessible and earthy. I appreciate his ministry and glad he will serve another six years as our shepherd.
- Synod includes lots of hugging. I am not really a big hugger, but years in the church have changed this for me. You run into people that you admire and cherish but don’t get to see often due to geography and schedule. Those hugs remind me of how the church at its best functions as a family. There is nothing quite like renewing friendships and catching up with those you admire and like.
- I met Presiding Bishop Mark Hanson this year. I have to admit that I like this guy. Witty, funny and a little irreverent, but someone with a deep love for the Church and for its people. He’s a man with a grace-centered theology that emerges from a love for Christ. He is the kind of leader you want in a post-Christendom America. He’s not a bad dancer either.
- It is so nice to wake up on an occasional Sunday morning and attend worship. I didn’t have to unlock doors, set thermostats, or worry about losing my sermon notes. I woke up, had breakfast and coffee, threw on some jeans and went to worship. I got to sit with my family, something that never happens. The makeshift worship space was beautiful. The walls were lined with banners from different ELCA churches, there were icons and candles all around the room, and the altar was front and center. The Word was proclaimed and the Sacrament administered, and all I had to do was show up and bask in the light of the Risen One. Plus there were bagpipes!
- Our church catches a great deal of flack for being Liberal Protestants. We are written off as irrelevant, we are mocked for our views and – especially in the Bible Belt – we are spoken of as if we are not truly Christian. I confess that I used to have some shame around this. Assembly remedies that for me. Yes, we are a liberal church. We hold crazy ideas like women being equal to men, or that God loves you even if you get divorced and would never take the sacrament away from you in a time when you need it most. We think Jesus meant all that squishy love-your-enemy stuff and we sure as hell think that when Jesus said we have an obligation to the poor he was serious. And unlike other religious voices you may hear on the subject, the ELCA does not believe that God hates gay people. God loves the GLBTQ community, and so do we, and they are welcome in our churches. Most of all we believe that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us. His death is one that continually allows us to live boldly, and when we mess up, to come seeking forgiveness and reconciliation. As Bp. Gordy said in his sermon this morning, the church is nothing more than a bunch of drunks trying to drag another drunk out of the ditch. Or as Martin Luther said, “We are beggars, this is true. Amen.” Yep. Drunks, beggars, scoundrels even. But loved by God and each other. If you want to mock me for that, go right ahead. God loves you anyway, and so do I (well, not always, but I am working on it).
All in all, Assembly energizes me. It helps boost me and I always come back to the parish excited and with new ideas. I am actually looking forward to work tomorrow.
The vocation of the person is to construct his own solitude as a conditio sine qua non for a valid encounter with other persons, for intelligent cooperation and for communion in love. – Merton, Disputed Questions, X.
I wrote this piece a couple of years ago and posted it to another blog. I thought I would repost here simply because it is an issue getting a little traction lately. -lp
I have to confess that I don’t think that we “do” Lenten fasting well in my neck of American Christianity. Most often people give up some token item for the fast, which really isn’t a fast at all. Giving up chocolate or soda (soda is my big weakness) is nice and all, but doesn’t really amount to the sort of disciplined fasting that the church really expected through the years. Western Christians – especially Roman Catholics – take their cues from Pope Paul VI’s “Apostolic Constitution on Penance,” which reorganized fasting and abstinence observations into their current form. This includes a fast is one full meal per day plus smaller portion of food at another time of the day that does not equal a full meal. Abstinence means one cannot eat meat (ie flesh), but are permitted eggs and dairy, and even to use sauces which are seasoned with meat but in which meat is not the lion’s share of the meal (ie chicken broth and the like).
Fasting is to be practiced by all people 18 to 59 on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday, and abstinence is to be practiced on Ash Wednesday, Good Friday, and all Fridays during Lent.
In the Eastern Orthodox Church, fasting is quite a bit more strict and carries on beyond the Lenten season. The Orthodox Church in America describes fasting as, “an essential element of the Christian Life. Christ fasted and taught men to fast. Blessed fasting is done in secret, without ostentation or accusation of others (Mt 6:16; Rom 14). It has as its goal the purification of our lives, the liberation of our souls and bodies from sin, the strengthening of our human powers of love for God and man, the enlightening of our entire being for communion with the Blessed Trinity.” The Lenten fast is as appears below:
Week before Lent (“Cheesefare Week”): Meat and other animal products are prohibited, but eggs and dairy products are permitted, even on Wednesday and Friday.
First Week of Lent: Only two full meals are eaten during the first five days, on Wednesday and Friday after the Presanctified Liturgy. Nothing is eaten from Monday morning until Wednesday evening, the longest time without food in the Church year. (Few laymen keep these rules in their fullness). For the Wednesday and Friday meals, as for all weekdays in Lent, meat and animal products, fish, dairy products, wine and oil are avoided. On Saturday of the first week, the usual rule for Lenten Saturdays begins (see below).
Weekdays in the Second through Sixth Weeks: The strict fasting rule is kept every day: avoidance of meat, meat products, fish, eggs, dairy, wine and oil.
Saturdays and Sundays in the Second through Sixth Weeks: Wine and oil are permitted; otherwise the strict fasting rule is kept.
Holy Week: The Thursday evening meal is ideally the last meal taken until Pascha. At this meal, wine and oil are permitted. The Fast of Great and Holy Friday is the strictest fast day of the year: even those who have not kept a strict Lenten fast are strongly urged not to eat on this day. After St. Basil’s Liturgy on Holy Saturday, a little wine and fruit may be taken for sustenance. The fast is sometimes broken on Saturday night after Resurrection Matins, or, at the latest, after the Divine Liturgy on Pascha.
Wine and oil are permitted on several feast days if they fall on a weekday during Lent. Consult your parish calendar. On Annunciation and Palm Sunday, fish is also permitted.
I used to fast every year during Lent. Often that fast was a combination of the Roman Catholic rules and of giving up something. One year I used the Lenten fast to quit smoking. Several years – even during my wilder college days – I chose to give up alcohol. I used to look forward to abstention from alcohol in those days because I felt my head was always clearer and it gave me a chance to focus on the close of the semester. I often wouldn’t eat meat at all during Lent, though I usually simply abstained on Fridays. In fact, after one Lent I didn’t eat meat again for more than two years.
I have not fasted from food in six years. It isn’t because I am lazy or because I am weak. But fasting from food cannot and probably will not ever again be a part of Lent for me. Why? I am married to an adult anorexic. Though she mostly enjoys healthy times, she has struggled with symptoms for decades, and must be conscious to this day about food intake and her anxiety levels.
Anorexia is so much more complex than what you may have learned in that 80’s after school special you watched as a kid. It is often not about a person feeling like they are “too fat” and then starving himself or herself. The reasons people restrict their food intake are vast and diverse. For some it a response to stress or anxiety; for others it is a need to feel in control. For yet others it is a way of self-abuse, much in the same way that others may cut or burn their bodies in order to self-mutilate.
Anorexia is not just about teenage girls either. While most cases of anorexia develop in the teenage years and rarely develop after the age of twenty, it is estimated that at least 10% of all active anorexics are above the age of forty. It is also estimated that for 60-70% of all anorexics, anxiety disorders exist that are unrelated to body weight or body image. So anorexia is not about a person desiring to appear thin.
A key to not suffering a setback in the recovery process is to be mindful about food intake. Encouraging food restriction or participating in food restriction can often lead to anorexics suffering a relapse in symptoms. This is especially dangerous when it comes to religious fasting. When the church ties pleasing God or spiritual growth a restriction of food intake, it becomes a recipe for disaster. The church needs to find other more creative and caring ways to encourage those with eating disorders to participate more fully in the life of the church, especially during Lent.
“Most adult anorexics struggle with the shame aspect. When that shame is transferred onto your spirituality because you can’t participate in fasting – which is where we focus so much of our energy during Lent – it makes you feel even more ashamed, more broken. While that brokenness is a part of Lent, there is a point at which it becomes unhealthy,” one adult with anorexia told me.
In some ways this is a post with a beginning and a middle, but with no real end. There are no real conclusions that I have drawn or advice that I have to offer. To diagnose a problem is a good start, and we as the church must find ways to help those suffering with eating disorders observe a Lenten discipline without contributing to unhealthy food restriction and without making those with eating disorders feel even more on the outside during Lent. I sure wish I had some answers to how this works. Perhaps some readers do.
It is late, after midnight, and a nice steady rain is falling. I am pretty sure everyone else in the house is asleep, and I have to confess that I am enjoying the silence. It has been a very busy couple of weeks, with two funerals and many illnesses, both serious and minor. My two youngest had strep throat and it appears now that my lovely bride has contracted the flu. Basically what this means is no time off the past couple of weeks.
I think that what has made this difficult this time around has been a spiritual dry spell. Oddly enough, this dry spell has occurred in the midst of me being in a doctoral program in Christian Spirituality. Weird, huh?! Maybe not. I recall a couple of years ago when my wife was finishing her dissertation that she decided she no longer wanted to teach. I guess you study something enough that it sort of repels you. This becomes a little more problematic though when what you study is prayer and devotion.
My thesis is done. I need to send it in for a final format check, but all the content has been signed off on by my readers. And yet all this studying has left me in a place spiritually that seems…well…dry.
It makes me look forward to Lent this year in a personal way. It will be a good chance to put away academic study for a while and return to using my reading and study time for more personal, devotional use. This year I think I will spend the time studying John Cassian’s Institutes. Cassian was a student of one of my favorite early church monastics, Evagrius Ponticus. At the heart of the Institutes are reflections on what the early Christian writers called the passions. Nothing is quite so spiritually motivating as a Church Father to kick you in the head for six straight weeks. Hopefully this – along with more discipline around the daily office – will get me back in a groove again.
Inspired by friend and colleague Pastor David Hansen, I decided to post what a week in the life of a Pastor, Husband and Father looks like. No week is typical, and there are always variations in hours, locations and tasks. Part of the reason I love this vocation is that there is such little room for boredom. I like the variety.
Saturday, January 12:
Slept in a little this morning. Was awakened by my six year old daughter attempting to put lip gloss on my lab, who was also asleep with me. He didn’t care for the gloss…must have been the color. Got up, had an awesome breakfast of blueberry pancakes and bacon, and spent some time chatting with my wife over coffee. Then it was off to the home office. I usually spend four to five hours on Saturday mornings preparing for Sunday. On this particular day, I ended up re-writing much of my sermon. After lunch, I spent the afternoon knocking around the house, preparing for two house guests.
Sunday, January 13:
Woke up early, excited that Confirmation class would consist of watching the film Luther. After confirmation was worship. The re-written sermon should have been re-written again. I would say it was a single, maybe a double, but far from a home run. It was nice to see a couple of new families in worship today. Hopefully they’ll return. After church it was home for lunch, a nice nap, and then started getting ready for the week ahead while my wife prepared a fantastic dinner. Looked over some ideas for a council retreat, and spent some time praying about a facilitator and topic. Also spent a little time reading Gordon Lathrop’s book Pastor.
Monday, January 14:
I work from home on Mondays. After breakfast did 3.1 miles on the treadmill, my first 5k. I studied some in preparation for my sermon. I cleared up a billing issue with one of our vendors (I lost a check like a dope). Made several phone calls to check in folks. Spent time preparing for our monthly Men’s Prayer and Study group. Picked up kids from carpool, ate dinner, and then off to the church to lead the men’s group. Made it home around 9:30.
Tuesday, January 15:
Spent bulk of morning working with our email host trying to diagnose some issues with lost email accounts, lack of forwarding and such. Sent off my annual clergy report to the Bishop. Talked to a potential karate instructor about use of our facility. Looked over bulletins for the coming week. Filled out as much as possible of Forms A&C, which are statistical forms for the ELCA. Carpool, snack with kids, cooked dinner and laid low for the night. Read a little more Lathrop.
Wednesday, January 16:
Did a couple of miles on the treadmill. Bad weather made traffic awful, which is never fun when headed to do hospital visits. Cold, rainy, and no covered parking available when I arrived. Did get to make a visit to a member and minister to a family in the waiting area concerned about a loved one’s illness. Made it back to church in time grab a quick lunch and prepare for evening’s Bible study. Carpool, looked over notes prior to Bible study, then back to the church. Made it home around 9ish.
Thursday, January 17:
Brisk treadmill walk for 30 minutes of so. Lots of phone calls and emails this morning. Phone started ringing as soon as I got on treadmill. Researched Lenten sermon series. Submitted my annual report to the congregation. Met with a parishioner for counseling. Spent some time looking over pre-marital counseling materials I will be using with a couple in February. Carpool. Got home and played with my kids. Made a big pot of jambalaya. Spent the evening in.
Friday, January 18:
Pastor’s Sabbath! My four year old is at home on Fridays, so we have a blast together. After breakfast we played with Star Wars actions figures. Then we jumped in my recliner to watch Power Rangers. Then more Star Wars. I have my own lightsaber. I did some laundry in the midst of that and then we headed off to pick up my daughter. Gorgeous day outside, so we played outside with the neighbors until it was dark. I also finally took down the last of the Christmas lights. Yes, I am a slacker. Put the kids down and the wife and I ordered some take out and enjoyed the quiet.
Saturday, January 19
Much like last Saturday but no pancakes. Worked for a few hours, and then watched Pocahontas I and II with my daughter. (I mostly napped). Then it was all about focusing on Sunday again. They seem to keep coming.