Article: Stop the Hate

Friday is Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday. The United States officially recognizes the 3rd Monday of January as a federal holiday in his memory and in his honor. 

He was murdered in Memphis Tennessee on April, 4th 1968 following a speech to the sanitation workers of that city. 

There is no doubt he is a martyr for the cause of justice and equality. The Lutheran church designates his birthday (January 15th) as a “feast day” or a “memorial day” for Dr. King. We recognize him both as a martyr and a “renewer of society”.

I have heard the talking heads on TV say a specific phrase too many times as it relates to violence, hate and white supremacy, “This is not who we are.” It seems that if they say it enough times, it will be true. That is not how it works. Unfortunately, there is still a lot of hate, violence and white supremacy in our nation. 

It is disheartening that I (as a pastor) in 2021 need to state that I am against white supremacy, bigotry, racism and prejudice of any kind. It is also disappointing to see people deny or ignore the evidence that this kind of hate is still strong in our country today. 

This past week on the news I saw individuals wearing anti-semetic (anti-Jewish) clothing mocking the holocaust and expressing that more deaths should occur because of their ethnicity. We all have seen the violent deaths of various people of color on the news this past year as well. 

To be crystal clear, I am wary of anyone that attracts or tolerates that kind of hate. I am suspicious of anyone that a hate group (or racist individuals for that matter) supports unless that person denounces it from the mountaintops clearly and articulately. 

There is no room in our country or even our world for racism and systems that reinforce such inequality.

For a moment we had Dr. King who reminded us that yes indeed, “This is who we are,” but that we do not need to be stuck here. That God has something better for us. 

God’s just ways are ahead of us if we embrace Christ. We can leave hate behind and rid it from our society if we stand for the justice that God brings. It is time pray for God’s will be done on earth as it is in heaven.

In the words of the prophet Amos, we should yearn for what God offers. And it is this…

But let justice roll on like a river, righteousness like a never-failing stream! Amos 5:24

This is why we need to pray. Nothing happens on its own. It takes will and determination to stamp out racist and prejudicial hate. 

Dr. King reminds us it won’t be easy, but something better is waiting for us if we do the work…

“We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it really doesn’t matter with me now, because I’ve been to the mountaintop. And I don’t mind. Like anybody, I would like to live – a long life; longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. 

I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land… Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.” 

Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King in Memphis, TN, April 3rd 1968

Photo taken from Dr. King’s final speech. Quite possibly the final photograph before his murder.

Article: Love is Risky Updated…

Just before Christmas we said goodbye to our beloved Siberian Husky named Trinity. She was our three legged dog whose personality (read: sassy) dominated any room she occupied. She also occupied a large part of our hearts. 

Trinity received her name from my morning Bible Study group when I served Trinity Lutheran Church. When they saw her three legs, they knew immediately that her name should be Trinity and be our church mascot. That was 13 years ago this month. 

We mourn her loss because she was a member of our family and we were her pack. I could tell you story upon story of her sassy antics over the years but I won’t. 

If you have never had a pet, this might be hard to understand such grief over “just an animal.” Yet, love is love and loss is still loss. Grief is real when you lose someone you love, animal or human. 

I am comforted by a moment in Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s life when a small boy in his church experienced the loss of his dog…

One day, a ten-year-old boy came to see Bonhoeffer. Breaking down and crying, the boy explained that his beloved German shepherd, Mr. Wolf, had just died. The boy sobbed as he told the story, but soon his tears stopped and he asked Bonhoeffer, with deep intensity, “Tell me now, Herr Bonhoeffer, will I see Mr. Wolf again? He is surely in heaven?”

Bonhoeffer explained in a letter to a friend that he was dumbfounded. He didn’t know what to say. Never before had one of his astute professors or gifted fellow students made such an inquiry, a question that Bonhoeffer could see meant so much to this grieving boy.

Bonhoeffer sat with the boy, feeling small next to his important question. Clearly Mr. Wolf had meant so much to the boy. The overly confident protégé, who had always been told he had a brilliant answer for every theological question, now sat humbled by the boy’s love for his dead dog.

Finally, turning to the boy, Bonhoeffer said, “Well, we know you loved Mr. Wolf, and we know that God loves you. And we know that God loves all the animals. So, yes, yes, I think you will indeed see Mr. Wolf in heaven, for I believe that God loses nothing that God loves.”

That is the promise I cling to for every loved one I have said goodbye to. “God loses nothing that God loves.” That includes family, friends and even animals that share our home. 

Love is a risky business. At some point we will experience the loss of that relationship. However, I wouldn’t trade the love I’ve received for no love at all.

Below is a previous blog post on the risks of love. It was written shortly after we said goodbye to Momo one of our other dogs in 2018…

Love is a risky business.

Every time you open yourself up to love and to be loved, you also run the risk of having your heart broken.

Friendships sometimes end.
Couples divorce.
Everyone eventually dies.

Love can be hazardous because heartbreak eventually catches up. That might sound like a negative statement but it is not meant to be. Let me explain…

Humans are amazing! We know the risks of love, yet we give our hearts away anyway! Why? Because we are made for connection.

According to Matthew Lieberman, author of Social:  Why Our Brains Are Wired to Connect, he suggests the infant’s social needs for connecting with a caregiver who is committed to meeting the infant’s biological needs – food, water, sleep, shelter, safety – is paramount.  No connection, no survival.  He says love and belonging are NOT conveniences we can live without. As 60 years of attachment research attests; connection is the platform for the rest of existence, thriving and flourishing.

In other words, it is not just a pastor telling you that you need love in your life in spite of the inherit risks. You can’t survive without it.

Even if I wanted to avoid all possible heartache by retreating from family, not make friends, never get married, or ever have children or pets…I am not sure it is possible. Even if it was conceivable, we would be worse off for attempting to do something against our nature.

When we lose someone we love, it hurts because love matters. When there is a relational ending, we are in pain because relationships are important to us.

I was reminded of this on Wednesday night when we said goodbye to our boy dog Momo. It hurt so much to watch him pass. Why? Because we have spent the last 13 years sharing the same home, eating (some of) the same food and enjoying each other’s company (most of the time). A part of our hearts went with Momo as he left us because of the love we shared.

It won’t stop me from loving our other two dogs. It won’t stop me from loving Mrs. Pr. Ben. It won’t stop me from loving my kids or my parents. It won’t stop me from loving at all. As a matter of fact, this loss (and every loss in my life) has caused me to love the people and animals closest to me even more. Weird huh?

As I think about it, a dog’s love for its people is not complicated like human love can be. It is unconditional. Don’t be offended, but I see a little bit of Jesus’ love for me when I see how our dogs love us without reservation or condition.

At the heart of the good news (gospel) about God is His love for us. A big love that never ends in heartbreak.

St. Paul tells us that “The last enemy to be destroyed is death.” 1Corinthians 15:26

That is exactly what God did on Good Friday and Easter morning. The only way to obliterate death was to destroy it from within. The Son of the Living God became human in order to bring life out of death. Only God could do this. Yet it took God the Son to die in order to abolish death.

In the moment of resurrection, death no longer had permanent power. It went from being a destination to becoming a doorway.  St. Paul quotes Isaiah when wrote a little later in 1Corinthians 15 “Death has been swallowed up in victory.” (15:54b)

Never forget that all of this was done out of love for us and for creation. Earthly love may be fragile and risky, but God’s love is not.

One of the lesser studied books of the New Testament is the book of Colossians. It is a letter of Paul that paints a different picture of salvation. In Colossians, Paul paints a cosmic view of redemption that involves everything (not just humanity).

I like the version from Eugene Peterson’s “The Message.”

“From beginning to end Christ is there, towering far above everything, everyone. So spacious is he, so roomy, that everything of God finds its proper place in him without crowding. Not only that, but all the broken and dislocated pieces of the universe—people and things, animals and atoms—get properly fixed and fit together in vibrant harmonies, all because of his death, his blood that poured down from the cross.”

Like I said, in this life, love can be risky. But I wouldn’t trade all the love I have received over the years for no love at all.

If you see me (and Rachel) online, just know that we are sad right now and tears flow pretty easily. We give thanks to God for gift given at Easter…it is that love that keeps us moving forward.

God bless you all,
Pr. Ben

Article: We are the Church

When did the Christian Church officially begin? 

Some would say with the 12 disciples and the others who followed Jesus during his ministry.

Others would say on the day of Pentecost when Holy Spirit was given to all who believe.

And still others would say in about 300AD when the first actual church building was built.

OK, no one would declare that last one out loud, but some within the Christian Church claim that as their truth in 2020. 

What do I mean? Many pastors have heard the same thing more than once this year, “We should open the doors and open the church.” 

Earlier this fall, a pastor shared these words on Facebook, “One of the saddest things I have heard, ‘For us the church is the building. Without it, we have nothing.’  

Let me be abundantly clear:

  1. The building is not the church.
  2. We all miss being together but don’t forget, we have a parking lot worship every week.

The Christian Church didn’t miraculously begin in the year 300AD when the first Christian Church sanctuary was built in Aqaba, Jordan. No! The Church had been around for almost 260 years before the first actual church building was erected. 

Our building is a beautiful venue in which to do ministry. It is the place where the church gathers but the structure itself is not the church. 

Jesus uses the word “church” three times only in the gospel of Matthew (yep, that’s it!) and he is referring to the body of believers (us), not a place and definitely not a building. Somewhere down the road of history someone wrongly started using the word “church” as the place where people gather. 

The root word of “church” in the Bible is ekklesia. From this word we get ecclesiastic and ecclesial. This word has everything to do with people and nothing to do with a building of any size. In all of the places that the Bible uses the word “church” it is always in relation to people and not a place. 

We are the church, not 3720 E. Tropicana Ave. As much as we love our building (I do too), it is not the church. 

I can’t speak for other congregations, but this is the most difficult trial we have ever faced at Community Lutheran Church in our 47-year history. No one could have predicted this season of exile that we are experiencing. Yet we are enduring! We are still the church and we aren’t going backwards!

Saint Peter in his letter to the church writes about difficult moments such as these. Peter writes, “In this you greatly rejoice, though now for a little while you may have had to suffer grief in all kinds of trials. These have come so that your faith—of greater worth than gold, which perishes even though refined by fire—may be proved genuine and may result in praise, glory and honor when Jesus Christ is revealed.” 1Peter 1:6-7

Our faith is being proved genuine in 2020! This season can serve to grow our trust in Christ. We will get through this… together. We are the church and “the gates of Hades will not overcome it.”

God bless you,

Pr. Ben

Article: The Latest on COVID

As you know, we have been worshipping online since March. It hasn’t always been easy, but we have been doing the best that we can. Recently (with the cooler temperatures), we started parking lot worship at 8am on Sunday and it has been wonderful to see so many people come!

A few weeks ago, I stated that we are literally applying the words of Jesus to “love your neighbor as yourself” in our rationale not to worship inside the building during the pandemic and potentially risk the health of others.

This past week, our governor instituted stronger restrictions in hopes of slowing down the infection rate in our state which is climbing. The day after those guidelines were implemented, I received a message from a local TV station asking if I wanted to be interviewed for their evening news broadcast to comment on these mandates.

I replied that we are already online and agree with any mandate that is backed by mainstream scientific research. 

And just like that, I wasn’t going to be interviewed! Ha! My guess is that they were looking for a pastor to complain about the restrictions.

Shortly after that conversation, I came across an article from the Christian Medical and Dental Associations (CMDA). This organization dates back to 1931 and is made up of over 20,000 individuals in the healthcare profession.

I found their article to be of note. I hope you take the time to read.

God bless you and stay safe,

Pr. Ben

A Plea to Our Churches

by Jeffrey Barrows DO, MA (Bioethics) and Christopher Hook, MD (Hematologist)

The daily rendering of the news informs us that the rate of COVID-19 infections is skyrocketing. The time it takes for the U.S. to accumulate one million cases has dropped from 44 days to just seven days. The pandemic has not only arrived; it is hitting with hurricane force and has reached a crisis point. The sector that is bearing the brunt of this raging pandemic is our healthcare system, particularly the healthcare professionals who constitute the backbone of our healthcare system. They are overworked because of the sheer volume of critically ill patients under their care and because many healthcare professionals have become ill with SARS-CoV-2 themselves. We have to slow the rising tide of COVID-19 cases, or our hospitals will be overrun.

The vast majority of healthcare professionals who have been infected with SARS-CoV-2 did not become infected at their workplace. Studies have shown that most healthcare professionals become infected predominantly in the community. It is when they go to church, celebrations and small gathering with friends outside their immediate family that they become infected.

As an association of Christian healthcare professionals, CMDA has been wrestling with the role God would have us play in this pandemic. We previously released guidelines for churches to follow as they reopened from the shutdown last spring. We also released public policy statements addressing the “Duties of a Christian Health Care Professional in Pandemic Infection” and “Triage and Resource Allocation.” Finally, we released this recommendation on mass gatherings:

Romans 13: 1 & 2 gives clear guidance in times like these. “1Every person is to be in subjection to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those which exist are established by God. 2Therefore whoever resists authority has opposed the ordinance of God; and they who have opposed will receive condemnation upon themselves. 

Christian Medical & Dental Associations endorses the efforts of state and federal government authorities to mitigate the spread of the coronavirus by limiting large gatherings. We believe that churches that ignore those instructions are placing their congregants at increased exposure and risk of SARS-Co-V-2 (Covid-19) infection and therefore we cannot condone such decisions or actions by churches.

Despite these efforts, CMDA is saddened to learn not only that many churches have ignored our guidelines but that congregants have become infected with SARS-CoV-2 as a result of those decisions. One of us is personally aware of several recent weddings when people did not mask or engage in social distancing which resulted in the entire wedding party and family being infected with SARS-CoV-2. This is not only unfortunate; it is unloving.

We believe the church is a major priority in our lives, but it should not become an idol by itself. Loving God with all our heart, mind and strength is our first priority, and it can be done with our families outside of church. It can be done via the gifts of electronic communication that allow us to join virtually with other church members. We are not being prevented from having Bibles, reading Scripture and singing songs of praise because we can do them at home and with the church through these virtual tools.

But the issue here is the second greatest commandment: to love one another as we love ourselves. Restricting meeting for a season is not about fear of contracting the virus ourselves. Rather, it is about loving one another and minimizing risk to the vulnerable around us. As members of the body of Christ, we are called to be His ambassadors (2 Corinthians 5:20). That means that Christ has chosen us to reveal His love and grace to all those around us. Choosing to put off gathering together as a church is a statement of love.

Voluntarily choosing not to gather allows us to make a statement that is not overshadowed by a government restriction. It enables a church to proclaim to their locality that they care so much for their members, family and friends that they are willing to give up their right to gather together. It allows each church to make a statement of love, not just by their words, but through the action of no longer gathering together. It is tragic to see Christians become even more reviled because we appear to care only about our individual freedoms and don’t care that we may be contributing to others getting this illness because of our selfishness. As Christian healthcare professionals, we will voluntarily restrict our “freedoms” for a time to help protect my neighbor.

As an association of Christian healthcare professionals, CMDA urgently requests that churches strongly consider taking their services online and cancel in-person gatherings until this current surge of COVID-19 cases passes.

It is about love, not fear.