Archive for the ‘Church’ Category

Changes

April 10, 2021

In a couple of hours I will officially change jobs. Last Sunday – Easter Sunday – was my last official day with the parish I’ve been pastoring for nearly eleven years. And this morning I will be installed into a position I accepted nearly two months ago, have nearly completed initial orientation and training for, but still isn’t official until I’ve been installed.

I’m staring at piles of boxes in my office as I write. I’m 80% done with packing things up, waiting now to figure out where we’ll be living for the next few months until my family and I are able to deploy to the field I’ll be serving. We’re leaving the United States and I’m leaving traditional parish ministry, both for the indefinite future. I’ve accepted a position as a regional theological educator for my denomination in Southeast Asia, working as a support and resource to partner church organizations in that part of the world. I bring to the task a curious mixture of parish pastor experience as well as experience as a collegiate educator and corporate trainer. It’s an unusual mixture, accumulated in reverse order from many of my colleagues who pastor first and then go on to teach.

Change is hard for people and I’m no exception, though my tolerance for it is higher than some. Apparently that’s a valuable trait in overseas work, where daily routines can be fluid, to say the least. I leave behind the joys of preaching and teaching in a predictable cycle for the uncertainties of learning a new language, adapting to a new culture, and participating in the work of the Church in a different capacity. While there’s the exoticness of relocating to the other side of the world, there’s also sorrow at leaving literally one of the most perfect climates on earth for a much hotter and more humid climate. I’ve demonstrated repeatedly in my life that I can learn enough of a language (four of them, at present) to achieve short-term academic objectives, but now I have to become fluent in a fifth language. And not just ordinary fluent, but theologically fluent.

It’s exciting. Slightly terrifying at times. Oddly comfortable most of the time. I’m grateful I don’t have to do it alone while also realizing my family will need to negotiate most of these same challenges. Together we’re confident we can do it. We do believe God the Holy Spirit is leading us in this direction, opening doors and facilitating the transition. We also realize that’s no guarantee of success (at least in worldly terms). Finding that balance between humility and excitement is a day-by-day process.

I’ll be continuing to blog, though the topics may take on a decidedly more international slant. The same issues of culture and faith and life that I began writing here with fifteen years ago continue to be a source of continued fascination. And I’ll try to keep it mixed up a little bit with less weighty observations. Perhaps I’ll have time to resume work on some of the longer-term projects I’ve launched here, such as completing my study of the Bible’s treatment of alcohol, and finally finishing my analysis of Pope Francis’ 2020 encyclical, Fratelli Tutti. I plan to keep up with the Rambling postings each Sunday, as hopefully I’ll continue to have preaching opportunities, even if those become sparser as time goes on.

I hope all of you will keep in touch here as well. Your comments and questions have been the best part of blogging, and I’m grateful for the opportunities to dialog.

Guess I should go finish packing the last two boxes of my theological library. It will be fascinating to see where those boxes get unpacked!

How We Do Things

April 9, 2021

Tomorrow I will be installed in a new position. I move from being a parish pastor to working for my denominational polity in the capacity of an overseas theological educator serving partner church organizations in Southeast Asia. This requires the relocation of myself and my family to Southeast Asia, after a process of creating a network of supporters who will pray, encourage, share with others, and provide the financial stability for us to sustain years of work on the other side of the world.

Different church bodies handle these sorts of transitions differently. Some are very directive and a person can be moved at will by the ecclesiastical hierarchy to different locations or different positions. Some are very localized and independent and a pastor is essentially accountable to no one for the career decisions he (or she) makes. Lutherans are in this regard very consistent with our approach to most things, trying to hold together the tension the Bible sometimes creates when it describes different things without directing or prescribing them.

That means as an ordained minister I am not solely responsible and neither is my denominational body for matters of new or different positions. There are multiple entities involved in this. The Holy Spirit of God is acknowledged as a prime mover and director in these things, though in practice He is difficult to identify or quantify! I have a role to play, as does my denominational polity, and finally the specific people also affected by such changes – the congregation I have served for the last 11 years and the people I will be working with in the future. All of those entities are presumed to have a voice in this. The nature of that voice and how it is expressed vary, but they are all factors that contribute. Ideally this minimizes personal whim to some degree and provides some level of accountability.

I was issued a Call at the end of January. Think of a Call as an offer for a job. These days a Call usually occurs after some period of mutual exploration and discussion. Traditionally though, this was not necessarily the case, and a pastor in our denomination might simply receive Call documents in the mail out of the blue from some unknown congregation. In either situation, it’s the pastor’s duty to inform his current congregation of the Call, and then to prayerfully consider the Call and whether he should accept it. The Call documents should contain the basics to inform such a decision – location, information about the Calling entity, job description, compensation description, housing issues, and medical insurance details, for starters.

The pastor prays, discusses with family, and comes to a decision. If he declines the Call he notifies his own congregation and informs the Calling entity in writing and that’s the end of the story. At least until another Call arrives! I know a guy who had three Calls to consider in a period of less than six months!

If the pastor decides to accept the Call, he informs his congregation and the Calling congregation as well and plans to transition. Transitions are hard and therefore are recommended to be reasonably swift without being too abrupt. The congregation the pastor is leaving needs to begin making plans to Call a new pastor and hanging around for months and months is usually counter-productive to this.

All of the various necessities of relocation and other things are secondary to the installation of the pastor in his new capacity. A formal installation is a public event wherein someone called to an official position in the Church is installed in this capacity. Ideally it’s a public witness that the process of reaching this point has been conducted in good faith, though that isn’t always the case, unfortunately. But it is the public declaration that this person has been asked to perform these particular tasks on behalf of the Calling congregation or entity.

In my case, the Call wasn’t from a congregation but from our denominational polity, and specifically from the part of that organization overseeing overseas church work. In this situation, my installation has to occur here in the United States, with a local congregation essentially standing in and representative of our denominational polity. The congregation I am leaving will voice support for and acceptance of my work in this new capacity on behalf of the larger church body. The installation happens here rather than on the other side of the world because here we have congregations who can speak on behalf of denomination.

Installation is a rite, something our church body has developed under the influence of Scripture and in an effort to be faithful to it, but ultimately it’s something we have created for our own use. I’m installed by another representative of my denomination – oftentimes an ecclesiastical supervisor or designated representative. In my case, I’ve asked to be installed by a retired pastor who is a member of my congregation but also spent the first decade of his ministry career serving as a missionary in the Philippines. I like the symmetry of someone who has worked in that part of the world on behalf of the church installing me in my new role in that area, even if my role will differ markedly from his.

Installations can be big affairs – entire church services crafted around the Rite of Installation. I’ve opted for a more stripped-down approach. It’s more appropriate to have a big celebration when the installation is in the congregation where the pastor is arriving. It’s a little harder to celebrate when the pastor is leaving that congregation (though of course there are times when that kind of celebration is pretty appropriate!). I’m a simple guy. A simple service will do.

Once that installation is complete the transition will be final. It is the final acknowledgement that all parties involved trust that not simply human agency was involved in this transition, but God himself. It’s his glory and purpose we’re after, in the end, not our own personal preferences (although I believe He can use those preferences). It isn’t a guarantee of success, but rather how we do things in an attempt to be faithful to God’s Word and God’s people. When it’s done properly it can be a beautiful thing, but it is also a system involving sinful human beings and so it can be manipulated.

Hopefully, this transition is one of the former rather than the latter!

Fear and Loathing in the Confessional

March 30, 2021

Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, even so I am sending you.” And when he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you withhold forgiveness from any, it is withheld.” John 20:21-23

The work of the Church is declaring the good news of the forgiveness of sins in Jesus Christ to those wracked with guilt and desirous of change. Often this gets abbreviated to just telling people about Jesus, but the crucial matter is what you tell them. If you tell them only that Jesus loves them, and never tell them of their sin and need for forgiveness, you haven’t shared the full story. If you only introduce them to the historical figure of Jesus without ever telling them why this historical figure matters to their lives unlike any other historical figure, you haven’t shared the full story. For someone who can see their sinfulness, their need for sin and forgiveness, the most beautiful part of the story is that this is exactly why Jesus is relevant to them. This is what Jesus brings them that nobody else can. And the Church is to be the place marked by both the proclamation of this reality and the actual forgiving of sins.

So when the Church (or a particular parish or priest) refuses to offer forgiveness to those desiring it, there’s a serious problem. An issue in one Roman Catholic parish in New Jersey recently due to the pandemic. Due to complications arising from properly disinfecting surfaces in the confessional – the small cabinet traditionally used in Roman Catholic churches to screen the penitent from the priest and allow them to confess their sins and receive absolution – a priest refused to allow un-vaccinated people to come to Confession, one of the sacraments of the Roman Catholic church.

People are understandably somewhat frightened and weary of COVID. But refusing to absolve repentant sinners is a gross failure of an ordained priest, and one rightly corrected by ecclesiastical supervisors.

The irony here is that the prohibition against any un-vaccinated person coming to Confession was ostensibly for their own “protection”. However to not receive forgiveness is a far greater danger to a person’s well-being than COVID, with potentially eternal ramifications!

Now, I’m not Roman Catholic and I do not necessarily agree with their traditional practice of Confession, or their understanding of the need and role for penance in receiving forgiveness. But if you’re going to tell people their forgiveness is dependent on Confession, and forgiveness is the means of eternal life, and then you refuse to hear their confessions, there’s a dangerous problem at play here!

Thankfully the situation was rectified quickly.

Ashes, Ashes…

February 17, 2021

Another Ash Wednesday, and Christians around the world will participate in an ancient rite linking us to our mortality and to the promise of God that in Christ, our death is not the end. Growing up in a particular culture and religious tradition I presume a certain uniformity to rites such as the Imposition of Ashes. But that would be mistaken. Things are done in different ways and different places, something that shouldn’t be surprising but a good reminder of our unity in the midst of variation.

Breaking Good

February 8, 2021

The Supreme Court Friday determined the State of California could no longer enforce bans on indoor worship. This is good news for people of faith – Christian or otherwise – who over the past nearly year have by and large been unable to worship indoors and required to meet virtually or in parked cars, separated from one another by varying degrees of frankly arbitrary directions enacted by executive fiat rather than a due process of legislative evaluation and feedback. Good intentions to curb the pandemic, but good intentions which look at only the material, physical side of the suffering and ignore and even exacerbate the emotional, psychological, and spiritual sides.

Of course, just because you can do something doesn’t necessarily mean you should. Some religious groups may opt to continue worshiping outdoors because they believe it safest for their members. Others will joyfully be back inside tomorrow – or today. This will be another test for congregations – to determine what the best course of action is for them and their people regardless of what congregations around them might be doing.

Further, while indoor worship cannot be banned any longer, additional limitations – such as stronger language prohibiting singing or chanting – may may outdoor worship the preferred option for many congregations, especially if (like ours) the weather makes such an option reasonable. Good news in this case comes tempered by additional restrictions which may ultimately make it less good.

Back in June when the first stay-at-home order was lifted, I pushed easily to have us move back inside. We had already polled our members on this and their response was nearly unanimous that they wanted to return to indoor worship. We didn’t yet realize the staying power of the COVID-19 pandemic, and it seemed the most reasonable course of action. Eight months later, the option to return to indoor worship is more complicated for me.

Firstly, we’re blessed to live in an area where the weather is temperate year round, rainy days are rare and snow days are practically non-existent. It might be nippy at mid-morning still – in the 50’s – but workable, particularly when the sun is shining and there isn’t a breeze. As such even though my congregation is comprised almost exclusively of post-retirement adults, they’re not only willing but able to handle outdoor worship with some layers of clothing. The seats aren’t terribly comfortable, but they weren’t happy with the 50-year old cushions on the pews inside either!

More than a few people have commented how much they like being outside. A change of venue perhaps, or the ability to enjoy our glorious weather a little more than they might otherwise. Because a small group of dedicated volunteers has committed to coming early to set out chairs and set up the sound board and microphones and electronic keyboard, our outdoor worship really is a beautiful setting, even in a parking lot.

The pandemic certainly appears to be affecting our county more in the past couple of months than it did the rest of the previous pandemic period. While I still personally know very few people sickened by COVID, the reported numbers for the county are far higher than they used to be. Those numbers have dropped dramatically in the past two weeks or so, but they’re still comparable to earlier rates we considered high.

While many of my parishioners have either begun or completed their vaccination cycles, some of them won’t. None of our members have had COVID at all, despite our continued in-person worship whether outdoor or indoor. Some dismiss the media frenzy about COVID and point to the overwhelming recovery rates from COVID, despite the fact they are in the highest vulnerability demographic. Some of our folks may not feel comfortable worshiping indoors again knowing not everyone is going to be vaccinated, but that will likely be a minority and moreover that shouldn’t matter if they themselves have received the vaccine.

Our denominational leadership at global, national and local levels has maintained a position since the pandemic began asking local congregations to adhere to all applicable restrictions and instructions from health officials. Our denomination does not see doing so as in any way restricting our ability to worship our God (since we can do so virtually, outdoors, or with other reasonable adjustments), and a failure to abide by instructions runs us afoul of admonitions to civic obedience in Romans 13. Every individual congregation must make their decisions in this regard for themselves, and the range of responses is a rather wide spectrum.

Thrown into the mix are varying ideas of what our obligations are to one another in terms of safety and Christian love. Is it loving our fellow-parishioners to return to indoor worship knowing if they contract COVID they are more likely to have complications from it – complications which could prove lethal? What is the duty of a Christian congregation in the pursuit of safety? Christians around the world routinely choose to worship together despite a host of very real dangers in terms of arrest, imprisonment, capture, or worse. Christians the world over and throughout history have prioritized Christian worship and fellowship as worth risking their lives for. How does that reality and history impact decisions we make today in relative safety and comfort? And how do our decisions balance the reality that we proclaim a God who created all things and sustains all things and is more than able to keep us safe, with the recognition that this God also gave us our brains and we should therefore use them?

So the possibility of worshiping indoors again is more complicated this time than it was eight months ago. At least for me. But I remain steadfast in maintaining that regardless of the decision made, it is the duty and privilege of that local body of Christ – my particular congregation – to keep loving one another. Even if we’re not thrilled with the decision. Even if we would have preferred to stay outdoors or return indoors. Our personal preferences don’t outweigh direct Scriptural commands to show love to our brothers and sisters in Christ in our patience and willingness to sacrifice our personal rights if it in any way might endanger the faith of a brother or sister in Christ (1 Corinthians 8-10; Romans 14-15). It sounds simple but it turns out to be quite challenging for many people. Pandemics apparently don’t make it any easier, either. I trust we’ll make a good decision. Maybe not perfect, but one our people can work and will work with in love for one another and their God.

Book Review: Live Not By Lies

February 2, 2021

Live Not By Lies: A Manual for Christian Dissidents by Rod Dreher

I was looking forward to this book a great deal, remembering how I found Dreher’s earlier work, The Benedict Option thought provoking and important. Having finished his latest work I’m conflicted in my reactions.

First off, pay attention to the title. This book is primarily a political work. It has to do with resisting totalitarianism (soft totalitarianism, as Dreher describes what is gradually taking over in America and the West). This soft totalitarianism will likely (at least for the near future) rely on non-military, non-violent means to continue to shape public opinion and perspectives both through positive affirmation techniques as well as punitive efforts such as banning web sites, YouTube channels, Twitter feeds or Facebook accounts. Dreher sees in the history of Western Europe and Russia under both Stalinism and Naziism valuable lessons about how to endure this coming darkness in American culture. Granted, this darkness will hit the faithful Christian pastors, congregations, and families first and foremost, but it will affect all of American society and culture. Barring a miracle, Dreher doesn’t think this can be avoided, therefore we must learn and prepare now how to endure it and outlast it.

He writes to and for Christians, without a doubt, but this is a political book. The darkness of totalitarianism he rightly warns about are certainly nothing new in world history or Christian history. Christians have endured, outlasted and at times thrived amidst cultures that were directly opposed to them. And, also very true, countless Christians have and continue to lose their livelihoods, their health, their freedom, and their lives in such contexts. This is no small matter. But we must be clear that Dreher’s primary concern is political rather than religious.

Roughly the first third of the book is dedicated to supporting and illustrating Dreher’s assessment of our current situation in America and the rising tide of soft totalitarianism that will soon displace everything we’ve enjoyed in terms of freedoms and liberties. Much of this will be accomplished through socially active corporations and businesses rather than at the point of a government military bayonet. Americans already conditioned to value first and foremost personal achievement and comfort are increasingly unwilling and unable to endure even the thought of discomfort or adversity, and will willingly sacrifice more and more of their freedoms to ensure they maintain their comfort and are accepted as socially relevant and culturally admirable.

The next two thirds of the book cover the major points of Dreher’s outline for resistance – value the truth, cultivate cultural memory, create and maintain strong families, engage deeply in a faith, seek solidarity beyond faith boundaries, and embrace suffering as a necessary and sometimes valuable part of life. These are broad brushstrokes filled in not with specific how-tos but rather illustrative historical anecdotes gleaned firsthand from those who survived (or didn’t survive) the brutal repressions under Communist or Nazi governments.

The proof that this book is primarily political rather than religious struck me most fully on p.176 where, while emphasizing the importance of building and maintaining relationships and cooperative efforts with others who have not succumbed to the totalitarian state even if their beliefs differ markedly from your own, Dreher states “The Christian activist’s point: be kind to others, for you never know when you will need them, or they will need you.”

This might be a good activist motto, but it is patently unChristian and unBiblical. I’m not accusing Dreher of being either of those things, but it’s clear that his focus in this book is on resisting, enduring, surviving and ultimately triumphing over repressive political regimes that are hostile to Christians and others who do not accept their agendas. If I had thought more about the word Dissidents in the subtitle that might have surprised me less than it did.

My main disappointment in this book is that it is mainly ideological rather than practical. His many Eastern European and Russian anecdotes and interviews definitely support his major premises but do not provide anything close to a Manual. It is not a how to so much as you ought to do this. It is a manifesto rather than a manual, a call to awareness rather than instructive to those already seeing what Dreher sees or already convinced by his arguments.

This is not a bad book but it is mainly a political book. Christians should read this book as a means of recognizing just how bad things might get, whether by soft means or hard means. Prisons, torture, solitary confinement, economic marginalization and executions were all hard means by which Soviet and Nazi regimes attempted to force conformity to and acceptance of their ideologies and agendas. In the West it may never come to such harsh, crash measures when so many people are obsessed over their careers and maintaining a social media image dependent on continued purchases, extravagances, and travel. How many people in the US – Christians even – would be quick to accept whatever was told them in order to ensure their Twitter feed stayed up and their YouTube channel remained monetized and their Facebook account was never flagged as offensive or deleted as such. Additional pressures such as banks choosing not to do business with certain individuals or groups branded by the larger culture as offensive makes it even more complicated. In short order – and without the threat of violence or government interaction at any level someone could find their career ended and struggling to make ends meet. Does it sound far-fetched? Read the headlines more carefully. It’s already happening.

But there’s an element of truth in saying it has always happened. Or perhaps the roots just go back farther than we like to think. At one Dreher uses as support for his premise of the onslaught of soft totalitarianism a very practical litmus test – have you ever held your tongue and not said what you really thought because you were afraid of the consequences? It sounds like a water-proof demonstration of Dreher’s assertions. Surely most if not all of us at one point or another at some point in our lives has decided it was more prudent to remain silent.

Is this anything new? I’m reading To Kill a Mockingbird to and with my family. I read it as a high school freshman but don’t remember the book at all beyond the character names. It’s fascinating to read it essentially for the first time and appreciate how good the book is on a variety of levels. It’s not easy to read, as some of the explicit language that was commonplace at the time has been judged never appropriate by anyone other than African Americans themselves. We have to check to make sure the windows are closed and the doors are closed so neighbors don’t overhear something and misinterpret it.

A side character we’re introduced to in the book is a white man who lives with a black woman and has children with her. His preference to live in the black community is a source of consternation to the white people in town, but they dismiss it because they believe him to be an alcoholic. However we’re told as the book unwinds that he actually isn’t an alcoholic – doesn’t even really like the taste of alcohol. But he maintains the appearance of a drunk – reeling when he walks and never to be seen without a brown paper bag that he drinks out of. His explanation for cultivating such a bizarre persona is that it allows him to live life the way he prefers without the outright ostracism or even violence of the white townspeople who, were it not for his alleged alcoholism, could never permit him to carry on his life with a black woman. Because he doesn’t hold the same prejudices as his white neighbors, he finds it more convenient that they dismiss him as a drunk rather than attempt to reform his unorthodox opinions, or punish him for them.

In other words, it’s undoubtedly true that in all times and in all places people have had to hold their tongues or curate a particular public persona that may not fully reflect their private beliefs. That this is the case has not always been indicative of a totalitarian agenda or regime, a fact others have noted. One might easily argue from the Bible that Christians should at all times feel as though they have to be careful about what they say and do because the world and popular culture will naturally be antagonistic to the full weight of the Gospel.

Dreher maintains the suggestion first voiced by Neil Postman that while Americans were busy vaccinating themselves against the evil external threat of Communism as articulated by George Orwell in 1984 and Animal Farm, we have actually fallen prey to the dystopia described by Aldous Huxley in Brave New World, a situation where people don’t need to be imprisoned or threatened to behave a certain way because they’ve been conditioned to think the desired behavior is the behavior best for them and everyone else. I think this is a fair assessment. I think that people who continue to voluntarily sacrifice their rights and privacy for an illusory safety and convenience will ultimately be rudely disappointed with their choices. How long it takes them to wake up and realize that – if ever they do – is hard to say.

Finishing this book makes me want to go back and reread The Benedict Option (and I will), as I feel it was more specific to Christians and the life of faith not as a means to a political end but in and of itself.

Digital Dangers of Association

January 17, 2021

I received a call this morning, about an hour and a half before our worship service. The young woman identified herself as a reporter for the local newspaper, and I sat up. This could be interesting.

Contrary to some colleagues or parishioners, I view the relationship of the press to the Church with a healthy dose of skepticism and caution. Part of this is objective, watching how the Church as a whole is often portrayed in the American press. Part of this is subjective. I’ve dealt with the press to a limited extent in my pastoral career, and the results have never been satisfying. Not through deliberate malice on their part, but just because of the challenge of trying to articulate a message to someone who will then rearrange that message to suit the various needs of their individual reporting style, length limitations, and other unknown criteria.

The reporter indicated our congregation’s name was listed on the web site for a local Martin Luther King committee dedicated to fostering a greater understanding and appreciation of Dr. King and his legacy. That was news to me. I quickly found the web site and sure enough, under the list of faith organizations honoring Dr. King was our congregation’s name (misspelled) and address, as well as our two daughter congregations in the area. I know I never asked to have our name put on that list, nor have I had any contact whatsoever with this organization. While I respect Dr. King’s contributions so our country, I don’t believe in actively associating my congregation with any particular outside organization. Such relationships are complicated to say the least and problematic at worst.

I assume the reporter was interested in attending our service to see how we honored Dr. King, as apparently this local committee had designated today as the day for churches to do so. And it was a good reminder of how easy it is to be linked digitally to an idea or cause or group these days. Without any knowledge on your part, and without any cost or responsibility to whomever it was that put our name on that list. A good reminder of how impossibly complex and convoluted digital rabbit holes can be. This was (I presume) an innocuous request and no harm was intended either by putting our name on that list or by the press contacting us. But it could just as easily have been much less innocuous, and the ramifications far more difficult to clarify.

Continuing the Squeeze

January 16, 2021

Political pressure to redefine what freedom of religion and the First Amendment mean in our country continues. Those who feel this can be easily defined and resisted in terms of political parties would do well to be more observant.

In North Dakota this week a bi-partisan bill was introduced which would eliminate protection for clergy regarding Confession, ostensibly, though the wording of the bill itself is disturbingly less specific. Senate Bill No. 2180 removes a clause exempting members of the clergy from mandatory reporter requirements regarding suspected child abuse or endangerment.

Traditionally our country as part of freedom of religion has respected particularly those sacramental aspects of religious practice. A long-standing aspect of Roman Catholicism as well as several other mainline Protestant denominations centers on the confession of sins and the declaration of absolution by a duly installed minister or priest, with or without penitential requirements. Those who are baptized followers of Jesus Christ are either required or encouraged to confess their sins privately and specifically to a priest or pastor, who may require the confessor to perform a penitential act, such as recitation of prayers or the rosary, as part of absolution – the wiping away of in the eyes of God of sin(s). Confession is Biblical (James 5:16, John 20:19-23), and the Church has long stood by the practice that whatever is shared in confession is private, exempt from reporting or other recriminations beyond the penance potentially imposed by the priest. The idea being that the forgiveness of God is separate from (and superior to) whatever other forms of justice we may rely on here. The Church should not be seen as part of a temporal system of power or justice but rather unique, an outpost of the Kingdom of Christ. A priest might encourage a parishioner to present themselves to the authorities, but the priest should not do so themselves, either of their own volition or under the compulsion of the law, else people refrain from being open and honest in their confession.

California attempted a similar measure last year ago that failed. The impetus in both situations was the alleged protection of children, the idea being that priests who might have been guilty of pedophilia and child abuse might have confessed their sins and received absolution, and had those confessions been subject to mandatory reporting laws (a relatively recent legal innovation) the abusers might have been stopped earlier. It sounds like a reasonable rationale, although I’m not aware of evidence indicating mandatory reporting would have been of much use – meaning nobody has proven that abusers were confessing their abuse.

As I noted a year ago, confession is a core element of historic Christian practice. A priest/pastor and parishioner might engage in any number of different conversations, any of which could lead to a guilty party turning themselves into authorities. Eliminating the protection of confidentiality from the practice of confession and absolution is a stark intrusion into the practice of the Christian religion. Under the assumed benefit of protecting children, Christian life and practice is severely disrupted. The fact that such a disruption would likely go unnoticed by the vast majority of confessing Christians is not the issue. Rather the basic issue is whether freedom of religion is maintained, or whether continuing political pressure to modify it and make it more compatible with contemporary (and transient) cultural preferences is advanced.

Tragically, I assume it will only be a matter of time before the protections of the confessional are stripped away. This will not be to the benefit of our society or culture as a whole, but rather another step (and hardly the last) in the denigration and eventual dismantling of religious freedom in our country.

Book Review: Steps of Transformation

December 21, 2020

Steps of Transformation: An Orthodox Priest Explores the Twelve Steps by Archimandrite Meletios Webber

A friend of mine in the midst of recovery shared this book with me as she is converted to Orthodox from more traditional evangelical Christianity.

This is an excellent resource for anyone trying to understand addiction and the people embedded in addictive behaviors. It essentially is a series of reflections – some theological and others more clinical in nature – on addiction, addicts, and finally the Twelve Steps. Arguably the book’s strongest feature is the introductory sections on addition and people in addiction. The author does a good job of plainly explaining many of the thought processes involved in addiction that are so puzzling and infuriating and heartbreaking to those who love and care for them. Recognizing that traditional tools for dealing with other people (communication, rationality, honesty, etc.) are practically ineffective with people active in their addiction can be hugely comforting, and hopefully will direct friends and family to support groups such as Al-Anon designed for those who aren’t addicts themselves but have addicts in their lives. The author spends almost no time at all on these organizations but those with addicts in their lives would likely benefit immensely from a support network of others in similar situations.

Bible verses are quoted throughout and there are attempts to find examples of each of the Twelve Steps in Scripture, often in the parables of Jesus. References were also made to Orthodox saints and writers which, as a non-Orthodox Christian were curious to me and spurred me to outside research for more information.

Some of his language early on points to a perceived or real hostility among Orthodox Christians of the Twelve Steps as an alternative to Orthodox Christianity. Webber works hard to demonstrate why the Twelve Steps insist upon being so vague and non-specific about higher powers and the God of our understanding, which was helpful for me as I have been critical of the Steps for this in the past. Keeping perspective that the Twelve Steps are first and foremost focused on helping someone leave behind drinking or other addictive behaviors is critical. But at the same time Webber argues that the Steps offer a deep spirituality, however it is a depth I often see lacking (at least externally) in many of the recovery people I work with regularly. The steps are easy to pay lip service to, since many of the changes are -as Webber admits – internal and deeply personal and subjective. They’re hard to measure in any quantitative or qualitative fashion beyond whether a person is remaining sober or not.

This is a great resource for anyone with an addict in their lives, but it will make most sense to those who also are Christian. While aimed at Orthodox readers it is not done so in a way that is exclusive or which prohibits other Christians from benefitting.

As is generally the case in practical theology, there are aspects I think he should have mentioned as differences rather than focusing so much on trying to show the Steps as consistent with Orthodoxy, or at least not contradictory. For instance, his discussion in Chapter 12 of Steps 8 and 9 (making a list of all people we have harmed and being willing to make amends, and then actually making amends where possible) completely ignores the limitations of these steps compared to the deeper healing offered in Confession and Absolution. Many addicts have criminal backgrounds in the not-so-distant past. Sponsors are not protected or exempt from being subpoenaed and forced to disclose things a person in recovery may have admitted to them. A list of persons harmed and needing amends made to could be used against an addict when obtained from their sponsor, and for this reason some addicts are very honest that they can’t put everything down.

The rite of Confession and Absolution is however (at least for the time being) still recognized by the State as a sacred place, the contents of which cannot be disclosed and which a recognized priest or minister cannot be forced to disclose to others. Although there are active efforts in various places to begin undoing the private nature of Confession, at least for now Confession can offer a much deeper healing in that it can allow the recovering addict to be fully, brutally honest. And of course, making amends is not the same as seeking the forgiveness of God. Only in Confession and Absolution can the promises of forgiveness in faith in Jesus Christ be articulated by another human being and, perhaps, finally truly heard and accepted in a way not possible with generic corporate confession or through the Twelve Steps.

Again, I strongly recommend this book to those with addicts in their lives, or those who care for those with addicts in their lives. Certainly it should be required reading in seminaries where future ministers are trained in practical theology. Webber speculates that perhaps addiction has become a far more common occurrence in our time and place as opposed to in Jesus’ day. Perhaps that is true, both in terms of our psychological climate as well as the increasing availability and cultural acceptance of more and more addictive substances, as well as the increased anonymity possible in a culture where the family is fractured. If these things are true, it will become increasingly important that pastors and religious leaders be more familiar with the nature of addiction and the addicted mindset.

Control

December 2, 2020

Thanks to Steve for his response to a previous post. I’m going to respond to his comment in this post out of convenience from a text-editing standpoint, and because the point he raises has been voiced by various people in different but related contexts. Steve wrote:

Would you really gather inside for worship wearing a mask and sitting 6 feet apart if the state allowed it? You would be devastated if a parishioner became ill after attending such a service. From a practical perspective it’s just not safe and too risky. Let’s be honest, this rant is about the separation of church & state.

This is about my sixth take on a response (I deleted the first five!), and I’ve probably written a few thousand words before deciding to opt for the less-is-more approach. I take Steve’s questions in good faith and pray these responses will be received the same way.

Yes, I would really gather inside for worship if it was not expressly forbidden by the State. We did so for over 100 years prior to COVID. We did so in June and July and again in October and most of November when we were allowed. This is a Church, I’m her pastor, and it’s my job to provide the Word and Sacraments of God to the people of God. I’ve been blessed to do this for the last 13 years or so without having to explicitly question the means by which we did so under the rubric of whether it was safe or not. Of course it was safe enough – it’s what we’d always done! The only thing that called our traditional ways of doing things into question was COVID and subsequent restrictions on houses of worship.

We are blessed to reside in a county with some of the lowest infection rates of any county in the nation. We’ve adhered to CDC and state stipulations and guidelines, even as those have flexed and changed and changed again over the past nine months. None of our members has had COVID, thankfully. I could say this is because of the precautions we’ve been instructed to take but I’ll never know that for sure this side of eternity. The precautions as a whole seem reasonable and so we abide by them. What is unreasonable is when exemptions are made for some businesses with far closer exposure and fewer precautions while houses of worship are by and large arbitrarily restricted. I’ve heard of two outbreaks allegedly linked to houses of worship in the last nine months. I’d encourage anyone to research those further and judge for themselves if they are good enough grounds upon which to base a large policy restricting a Constitutionally guaranteed right. In San Diego strip clubs are allowed to operate while churches are restricted. I pray that recent Supreme Court decisions will begin to help state leadership re-evaluate their mandates. Not every church can, should, or will allow people back inside for worship during the pandemic. But that is a decision the congregation should make, not some official with no direct knowledge of the particulars.

Not only have we met when legally allowed to do so, my people have wanted to meet. I haven’t forced them. We have some who won’t or shouldn’t attend and I understand that completely. I’m supportive of those who don’t feel able to worship to stay home. Nearly all of my members want to meet, but not all of them can. If the majority of my members desire to worship and consider the risk one they are willing to take, it is not my job as pastor to tell them they can’t, that I refuse to provide them Word and Sacrament because it’s not safe to do so. Safe is a slippery word.

I would definitely feel bad if a member got sick. Would I take personal responsibility if they did? No. I am not the one who ensures their health and safety. We come to give worship and praise to the God we claim is in control of all things, including COVID. I don’t presume this means we can hug and kiss and sneeze into each others’ faces with impunity, but at least my witness of faith needs to be that God is the only one who keeps us safe. Therefore if my members are willing to gather, I will feed them the Word and the Sacraments. We’ll use the brains God gave us to try and do so reasonably given the circumstances, but I will not deny them the option. I also will use the brains God gave me to listen critically to what my elected and appointed leaders tell me. History shows them to be far less reliable than God!

This may sound callous at first, but let’s play it out a bit. I had a member (recently deceased) who went through a bad period of falls whenever she would come to church. She wore high heel shoes well into her 90’s, and as her balance and vision betrayed her she would regularly fall. Outside on the patio. Inside on the carpeting. Should we not have met because she was getting hurt and refused to wear more sensible shoes? Should I have turned her away in the parking lot for her own protection?

I can’t keep people safe. I can do what seems good and right and salutary by any number of different standards Biblical and otherwise as an effort to love my neighbor. But I can’t keep them safe. That’s not my job. I have to leave that in my Lord’s hands. Again, I don’t say this lightly or flippantly, but faithfully. I have to trust God to keep me safe every time I make a hospital call. I’ve been around people in all manner of infectious states (pre-COVID) and trusted ultimately in my God to keep me healthy and safe. I still put on the gowns and masks and gloves when told to do so, but my trust goes deeper than those things. As Christians, we are called to this level of trust, to remember we are not the ones in control of our lives.

In regards to not safe and risky, I believe that’s a decision each group of believers has to make for themselves based on their circumstances and their understanding of God’s Word. Christians met illegally and under threat of death for 300 years in the Roman Empire and for decades in Communist China and the former Soviet Union. They are still persecuted and executed around the world for their faith. And yet in all these places and times Christians have prioritized worship. They took precautions, I have no doubt. But they often made the decision that despite the risks and despite a definite lack of safety they would gather together to receive the gifts of God in his Word and Sacraments. This meant many of them were arrested, tortured, disfigured, and executed. This did not discourage other Christians but oftentimes emboldened them. We hold up and honor those Christians who were willing to take risks and suffer the consequences rather than renounce their faith or opt for a safe alternative. How can we be critical when Christians continue to seek God’s Word and Sacrament today?

Perhaps the issue is not whether Church is a safe place (it’s not – spiritually and otherwise!), but whether Americans value worship as much in an age where the Word and worship is a click away – a television station or a radio station or a YouTube channel away. Maybe the deeper question is how technology has impacted our valuation of human contact and community, leading us to believe that technology can fill these needs in our lives. That in an age when everything else is self-serve and an Amazon delivery away, worship ought somehow to be the same – on our terms and for our short term comfort. Perhaps a deeper question is how our avoidance of death through a cult of youth and beauty and exercise has left us vulnerable to the rawness of a world we do not control.

Barring the return of our Lord first, all of us are going to die. The Church is here to teach people how to live as well as how to face death. To give hope and assurance that COVID or cancer or substance abuse or abusive parents or any number of other tragic events do not have the last word on us even if they kill us. If we’re going to glorify doctors and nurses and grocery store workers and other front line workers, we should no less glorify the God of Church for sustaining his people to proclaim the Word of God and provide the gifts of God to the people of God. The Church does no one any good by acting as though a few more days or months or years of life is more important than eternity. There is no other organization that bears witness to this truth! And just as I want doctors and nurses and teachers to stand by their posts and do their jobs despite the risks, those of them who are Christian need to be sustained by the Church to do so, to know that what they do has meaning and value and their lives – if sacrificed in love of neighbor – are not lost or wasted but eternally anchored in the Son of God who overcame COVID and death. Their non-Christian colleagues need this same support and truth, they just don’t realize it yet.

So yes, I will meet inside again as soon as my people are ready to. The cold and damp weather is just as dangerous to them as COVID. So is the isolation and distance that has plagued our country and world for the last nine months. I’m in no hurry to die, and I’m in no hurry for my people to die. But if they face death – and we each do every day – they should be prepared to counter that fear and anxiety with hope not grounded in the fiat of a government official but in the resurrected Son of God, Jesus the Christ. To the best of my ability I will model that courage, and give my brothers and sisters in the faith the opportunity to model it as well, even as we use our best judgment to love and care for each other.