Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Thank You, God, For My Shoes

The words of Martin Luther get me in the right frame-of-mind for Thanksgiving:

"I believe that God has created me together with all creatures. God has given me and still preserves my body and soul: eyes, ears, and all limbs and senses; reason and all mental faculties. In addition, God daily and abundantly provides shoes and clothing, food and drink, house and home, spouse and children, fields, livestock, and all property - along with all the necessities and nourishment for this body and life. God protects me against all danger and shields and preserves me from all evil. God does all this out of pure, fatherly, and divine goodness and mercy, without any merit or worthiness of mine at all! For all of this I owe it to God to thank and praise, serve and obey him. This is most certainly true." - Luther, from The Small Catechism.

Why do I dwell on the things I want? Why do I make lists about the things I don't have? Why do I envy the things others have?

Thanksgiving reminds me to think about what God has blessed me with. Thanksgiving reminds me that I have so much. Thanksgiving reminds me that the Lord is source of everything I have.

God provides us with all that we need every day. It's more than money. It's more than stuff. But God even gives us those things as well. Everyday should be Thanksgiving. Thank you, God, for my shoes.

Friday, November 14, 2008


All the world's a stage, and we are but the directors. (Shakespeare... kinda)

I have always been a fan of Roger Ebert, the movie critic. Lately he has been expressing great praise for the Charlie Kaufman movie Synecdoche, New York. I have no idea when I'll get the chance to see the movie, but Ebert's review, and subsequent expanded thoughts which he expressed via his blog, have my mind spinning. In his movie, Kaufman tackles a subject common in his films: the mind. According to Ebert, Kaufman depicts on the screen the very real struggle that all humans engage in daily to control (or direct) the people and world around them. It's a struggle that becomes more frustrating the more you engage in it.

Ebert composes a "parable" to try explain his thoughts: "The lodestars of John Doe's life are his wife, his children, his boss, his mistress, and his pastor. There are more, but these will do. He expects his wife to be grateful for his loyalty. His children to accept him as a mentor. His boss to value him as a worker. His mistress to praise him as a sex machine. His pastor to note his devotion. These are the roles he has assigned them, and for the most part they play them.

"In their own lives, his wife feels he has been over-rewarded for his loyalty, since she has done all the heavy lifting. His children don't understand why there are so many stupid rules. His boss considers John Doe as downsizable, and fears he may also get the axe. His mistress asks herself why she doesn't dump this creep and find an availableman. His pastor has a pretty good idea what goes on during the other six days of the week ("Roger Ebert's Journal," posted 11/10/08)."

Ebert, and apparently Kaufman with Synecdoche, are on to something that's as old as sin. In Genesis the advent of sin is described as humans' attempt to be like God. God is the director, but we aspire to be directors ourselves. We want to control our lives. This of course means controlling the people in our lives. They are the actors, as Shakespeare puts it. How many mother's are disappointed with their distant "selfish" adult children? How many merrymakers will fail this December at creating a Christmas spectacle because the characters who play "family" won't play their roles correctly?

When people don't act as we desire (and they never will) our quest to direct our world becomes an act of frustration. We become bitter. There is a reason so many people find peace and God while they are alone in the woods... trees take direction a whole lot better than people. Family, friendships and Christian community disappoint us far too much. We just can't control them. And so the futile play goes on. Lost in all this is the liberating truth that life is a gift and it unfolds wonderfully before our eyes every day as a gift. Selfcenteredness is the heaviest set of chains we allow to weigh on our souls.

Again, let me lift up Christmas as an example of this sinfulness. In the play John Doe direct in his mind about his perfect Christmas he will struggle to pick out the perfect card to send his actors and compose the most cleaver Christmas letter. He will buy gifts for the actors and attend events that fit his ideal vision of Christmas. He'll watch Food Network to prepare prefect meals for the 4 or 5 "family" and "business" get-togethers that are scheduled throughout the month. Of course, not to forget the reason for the season, arrangements will be made to attend a Christmas service at Grandma's church.

When December comes to an end John Doe is left both frustrated and in despair. "Why didn't Jane send me a card?" "Mike is such a jerk, he didn't appreciate my gift." "I can't stand that Lilly didn't come to the Festival with Lights with us." "Did you see how Jimmy and Mary acted at Christmas dinner?" "What a selfish p*** my brother is for not stopping by this year." "Why don't they sing any good Christmas carols at church anymore?" "How am I going to pay off these credit cards?"

Lost in this December song-and-dance is the gift of a Messiah for humanity; the message of Emmanuel, God with us; and the word of grace that our sins are forgiven. We miss the true Christmas gift that's available to the whole world when we instead seek to direct and control the world around us. The gospel truth is that through Christ we are free to embrace both the blessings of God's love and the meaning found in God's call for us to love others just to love them.

Christ is the answer to our ancient "synechoche" sin of desiring complete control. Dietrich Bonhoeffer in his masterpiece Life Together warns us of the danger of playing the frustrated director of our own lives. He compares the spiritual love we are called to have for others through Christ with the self-centered "emotional" love that loves in order to receive payback. He writes that self-centered love "loves [others], not as free persons, but as those whom it binds to itself. It wants to do everything it can to win and conquer; it puts pressure on the other person. It desires to be irresistible, to dominate. Self-centered love does not think much of truth. It makes truth relative, since nothing, not even the truth, must come between it and the person loved. Emotional, self-centered love desires other persons, their company. It wants them to return its love, but it does not serve them. On the contrary, it continues to desire even when it seems to be serving (Life Together, p. 42)."

I've always known that Mark 8:34-35 is a call to liberation through discipleship and not a burden. "Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me and for the sake of the gospel will save it." Jesus puts it another way in Matthew 11:28-30: "Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light." Yes, I've heard this before, but thanks to Shakespeare, Kaufman and Ebert I see this selfish sinfulness in a fresh way. It's time to give up our director's chair.

Friday, November 07, 2008

That's all I want.

Theologians have been debating the connection between faith and deeds for a long time. Lutherans rightly believe that humans are justified by grace through faith in Christ. It's dangerous to take that to an extreme however. If we believe that faith and deeds are not connected we might say through our actions that faith is good and deeds are bad. A poor Lutheran joke has a proud "faith alone" Lutheran telling someone: "Yes I've been saved by my faith alone, and to prove it I've made sure to never perform a good deed in my life."

A careful study of Paul's Letter to the Romans reveals that faith and deeds work together. He could not have imagined separating the two. Your faith must move you to action. Your actions must be a reflection of faith. Without actions you are not faithful. Without faith your actions are insincere.

This was a problem 2,750 years ago in the Northern Kingdom of Israel. The people excelled at acting "faithful." They went to the temple, make their sacrifices and received help from the priests. This is what they thought God wanted from them. In the mean time they oppressed the poor and ignored those in need.

The prophet Amos was called by God to express God's anger to the leaders of Israel. They would be punished for the injustices they committed. It's not a pleasant message.

We can learn from Israel's mistakes. Living by faith we are called to act. Yes we act through worship, prayer, study and service... but that's only the beginning. God demands we speak out against injustice. God empowers us to stand against oppressors. The Spirit moves us to walk with our hurting neighbors. Be careful not to get comfortable with your regular routines. When you worship... do it sincerely from your heart. When you give money... do it out of thankfulness. When you help others... do it out of love.

The Message translation makes Amos' words hit home: "I can't stand your religious meetings. I'm fed up with your conferences and conventions. I want nothing to do with your religion projects, your pretentious slogans and goals. I'm sick of your fund-raising schemes, your public relations and image making. I've had all I can take of your noisy ego-music. When was the last time you sang to me? Do you know what I want? I want justice - oceans of it. I want fairness - rivers of it. That's what I want. That's all I want." (Amos 5:21-24)

This is a healthy reminder. Yeah Amos puts it pretty strongly, but we need to hear it. Faith and deeds work together for disciples of Christ, therefore when we have religious meetings they better be for the purpose of serving Christ and loving neighbor. When we organize conferences and conventions they better be for the purpose of serving Christ and loving neighbor. When we plan religious projects and create slogans and goals they better be for the purpose of serving Christ and loving neighbor. Fund-raising schemes? Just who are you raising money for? Public relations? Image creation? Noisy ego-music? How we live, what we say and what we sing better be for the Lord and for the purpose of bringing the light of Christ's gospel to ALL people. After all:

That's what I want. That's all that I want.

Tuesday, November 04, 2008

I Voted Today

I voted today.

I voted today as an American and parent. I voted today as a concerned citizen. I voted today as a person who loves his country. I voted today disappointed with the way government is working. I voted today with hopes for the future and dreams for a better tomorrow. I voted today to send a message. I voted today as a refection of my values. I voted today as a Christian.

Yes some of these reasons for voting may sound conflicted but they are all a refection of myself. I bring to the voting booth my years of experience and memories. I bring to my selections my faith in Christ and my calling to discipleship. I am Tony standing there casting my vote.

It's not an easy vote to cast. While this election for president may seem "black and white" on the surface... it's not. No candidate reflects all of my values or my dreams. No candidate is a perfect match for what is important to me. No candidate has a lock on the Christian vote. No party is a perfect match for discipleship.

These are facts that might disappoint some... but for me they are liberating. Standing outside the system I am free to call out for justice and speak against those in power. Standing with the gospel I am free to support people from all walks of life. Casting my vote as a reflection of my faith, first, I am free to stand against the wickedness of any party or political machine.

Therefore, I voted today and will vote again the next time around.

"Do you know what I want? I want justice - oceans of it. I want fairness - rivers of it. That's what I want. That's all I want (Amos 5:24, The Message translation)."