God comes to us through the words of the Bible. That claim has remained central to the church for almost as long as there’s been a church. We do not gather around personal conviction or individual experience. We are guided by the document that unites us, existing beyond the control of any, inspiring all.
Words are funny things, though. They don’t dwell in isolation. Until they’re heard, and in some way understood, they don’t have meaning. We don’t carry around the Bible as a talisman, saying it’s good unto itself just because it exists. We read, explore, discuss. As they’re expressed, God’s words permeate and transform our lives. Dialogue between us and God is a two-way street, an actual relationship growing us and God together.
The Bible is real with or without any one of us, but it only becomes real in our lives when we interact with it. Our participation is intrinsic to the process. As we participate, we shape the future of the relationship and our understanding of it.
This brings up one of the great joys (and occasionally frustrating pitfalls) of scripture. The lens through which we view the Bible is going to determine, in large part, what we come away with after reading it.
This is true with every passage, but especially so of the parables we’re hearing on Sundays during this season. Last week we heard the Parable of the Sower. This Sunday we’ll hear about weeds and wheat, the Sunday after about all the things the Kingdom of Heaven can be compared to. Jesus isn’t talking abstractly in these stories. He’s linking up “God stuff” to the common, everyday experience of those who hear his words. Their ears and their lives complete the story. Their interpretation isn’t a bug in the process, it’s a feature.
The problem, of course, is that our own interpretations and agendas tend to overwhelm the Word. We want God to become the great affirmer, giving us an A+ for the way we see things instead of transforming our vision. Culturally and as individuals, we use the Bible to justify ourselves instead of following it into serving God and our neighbor.
One of the sure signs that we’re falling prey to this instinct is to read God’s word in a way that divides the world into right and wrong, then puts us on the right side…or at least gives us easy access to it. In the Parable of the Sower, it’s awfully easy to say, “I am good soil, or I’m going to be! Those other people are bad soil.” It’s even easier with next Sunday’s reading, which encourages us to ask, “Who’s the weeds and who’s the wheat?”
Every time we divide the world into right and wrong folks, saved and condemned, we’re actually engaging in a form of self-justification, using scripture as the tool to enforce our power instead of following God’s. You can tell this is wrong by the endpoint we’re aiming at. If scripture exists only to divide good folks from bad, and we are good folks, then we don’t need scripture anymore. Whatever it condemns doesn’t apply to us. Its lessons are meaningless to people who already know them. We begin to view scripture the way a PhD in mathematics would view an elementary school textbook. “That’s true, but I don’t really need that anymore. Those who need to learn those lessons should read it.”
It’s distressing the number of “good” church people who actually think this way. Effectively, they’ve used scripture to work their way out of a relationship with God. That’s the opposite of what’s supposed to happen!
The lens of dividing good from bad—and putting us on the side of the good—will harm our relationship with God and each other far more than it helps. Yet this is exactly the lens we’ve been taught to use by culture and many church leaders.
I’d like to offer an alternative. What if all the words of a given passage applied to us in one way or another. What if, when we read about soil that accepts the seeds and soil that rejects it, both of those are contained in us? What if, when we hear the parable of weeds and wheat, we’re all some of each?
Now our response changes. Instead of going on a witch hunt, trying to figure out who’s good and who’s bad, we know that we’ve already found the good and bad people…they’re both us! When we read the good part, it applies to us. When we read the bad part, it does too.
Our aim in reading scripture isn’t to parse out which side of the line we’re on. Instead we admit that we’re not perfect, boldly confess that we fall short AND that there are beautiful things about us, then ask how we might bear good fruit to the world even when we’re broken.
Scripture helps us figure out the definition of “good” fruit, but the purpose is not to aggrandize ourselves, but to share life-giving things with our neighbor. We’re forced to return to God’s Word time and again, checking ourselves against its standards. As we do so, we hear again how we’ve fallen short, but we also hear the great message of hope that goodness endures anyway. Every time we think we’ve got it, we’re humbled. Every time we despair, we’re given new hope. The cycle continues through every step and relationship in our lives.
This is a far more faithful lens than the cheap one most of us grew up with. It brings more hope and more truth into the world. None of it centers around us. We’re just a bunch of types of soil jumbled together, weeds and wheat mixed up. But all of us are a part of it, growing together in the One scripture does center around, becoming more graceful and better for each other in the process.
Ep. 80 - Dave and Justin don't duck the old canard of faith vs. science. Are they mutually exclusive, congruent, or something in between? Sometimes it's not the subject you discuss, but the questions you ask that matter.
The Geek and Greek podcast is a show where two reverends talk honestly and clearly about faith, Christianity, scripture, and life.
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(So then) with my mind I am a slave to the law of God, but with my flesh I am a slave to the law of sin." Romans 7:25b
This is what’s referred to as St. Paul's 'inner conflict' and, for us Lutherans, it is highlighted by Martin Luther as “Simul iustus et Peccator,” which means simultaneously saint and sinner. It is such a Lutheran thing that OldLutheran.com sells t-shirts, hoodies, and other items with a graphic that, depicts this saying, and depending on who’s looking, says either “saint” or “sinner.” You might have seen it at a youth gathering or see one of our youth (or me) wearing it.
One day when I was wearing my Sinner/Saint t-shirt someone asked me what it meant. “Well it depends on your perspective,” I said. “From one perspective it says ‘Saint’ but from another it says ‘Sinner’.” When you are wearing the shirt, from your perspective it reads “sinner,” and from someone else’s perspective it reads “saint.” As I reflected on this design I noticed something. For me this t-shirt reflects how often in life it can feel like other people see us as “saints” or they only seem to see us possessing “saintly” qualities. On the other hand, we often see only our flaws, mistakes and sins, and stew on those. Thus seeing ourselves as “sinners.”
I often struggle with this myself. At times, it can be hard to see the saints that we are inside. To see ourselves through the eyes and the love of God. But it is an important part of who we are to see the “saint” within ourselves. It can be challenging and takes practice to recognize the “saintly” qualities within ourselves, but it is a gift to be able to see and name our gifts.
The flip side of this “simultaneously saint and sinner” conversation is that sometimes there are those we often label as sinners. Those who it is hard for us to see the “saintly” qualities in, because of how our society and systems have pushed them to the side and labeled them for us. And just like it is important for use to see and recognize the “saint” in ourselves it is equally important that we see the “saint” within the other.
May we all grow in our recognition of the fact that we are all simultaneously “saints” and “sinners” and the challenge and gift that that is.
Lord, please help us to see you in ourselves so that we may see the saint that we are even when we feel completely a sinner. And let us also see you in others, so we are able to see the saint in them. Amen.
Dear Shepherd of the Valley Congregation Members,
Our church council and worship task force have made provisions for us to worship together outdoors at Kleiner Park on August 2nd, 16th, and 30th. We want to fill you in on the details so you can be prepared.
AN IMPORTANT NOTE:
We will not worship on these dates unless the State of Idaho has returned to Stage 4, allowing public gatherings of more than 50 people. We will tell you explicitly via email if this has happened and if worship is a “go”. No Stage 4 equals no worship.
Sunday, August 2nd, 16th, and 30th, 7:00 PM at the Kleiner Park Bandshell/Amphitheater
NOTES FOR THOSE ATTENDING:
1. You will need to bring your own lawn chairs or blankets. We will mark out socially-distanced locations where you and/or your family can set up.
2. You will also need to bring your own bread and grape juice for communion. You don’t need to get fancy…a slice and a small cup for you and/or your family will do. Communion will happen in similar fashion to our remote, video-service communion. Each person or family will commune in their own spot, with their own elements.
3. To protect the community and to make us feel more secure, masks are required for everyone, including leaders. Extra masks will be available on site for those who don’t have ones at home or forget.
4. Music and other participation will be adjusted to minimize risk. We will incorporate ways of participating that are COVID-sensible. We will not have bulletins or anything else that needs to pass between hands.
5. We won’t be serving food after. We encourage people to protect each other by respecting social distancing when interacting before and after the service.
6. We WILL be having children’s time and the chance for at least a couple people at each service to share with us how they’re doing.
Park worship will not interrupt our weekly video service ministry. That’ll continue on those Sundays even if we meet in person. If you have any questions, call the church office or email Pastor Dave at email@example.com.
This weekend marked the Fourth of July, Independence Day in the United States. As many of you probably did, the kids and I spent it at home this year. We celebrated by eating hamburgers and talking about our country’s history a bit. We enjoyed watching people down our street light fireworks, but spent much of our time indoors with our pets, hugging them and assuring them that the booms they heard weren’t the end of the world!
As we cuddled our little furry friends, I was reminded of the time someone asked me, “Pastor, do you believe in patriotism?” I’m always a little suspicious when someone asks about “belief” in such a way. Things tend to be real, true, and important whether I believe in them or not. I don’t think the entire universe centers around the things I carry in my head.
I think the question was well-meant nonetheless. Since the topic is timely this week, I’ll share how I answered. As you’ll see, I think the ideals of patriotism and faith are similar, just not in the exact way we’ve been taught!
I do support patriotism in the deepest, root sense. The word comes from the Latin patros, or “father”. The idea is that we’re all of one father, of the same lineage. At its best, patriotism evokes a sense of community bigger than any of us. It’s meant to encompass the ideals that we hold to as universal, even though we express those ideals in individual ways.
Any person of faith will see the immediate parallel. We gather around God, who is bigger than any of us. God’s word inspires us and creates community that’s both bigger and better than the sum of its parts. Were the world ideal, patriotism and faith would overlap perfectly, as our civic life and spiritual life became seamless.
The world is far from ideal, of course. That’s why we need concepts like “separation of church and state”. In an imperfect world, concerned more with individualism and power than community, we end up needing protection from each other even as we live together.
Just as ideal faith and patriotism parallel, so do the less-ideal versions. Patriotism loses its vigor when it becomes self-referential. Theoretically, patriotism isn’t supposed to inspire you about your country, but about what your country stands for and does. It’s a lens through which we view the good that we do collectively as a nation.
Patriotism is supposed to remind us about important concepts like freedom, the sanctity of each human being, and the right to live together in relative peace. These things are acted out through our country, but they are not exactly the same as our country.
Too often, our vision falls short. We latch our eyes onto a flag, building, or person and say supporting them is patriotic without bothering to look beyond to what the symbols are support to evoke in us.
When we do this, the meaning of the word shifts. True patriotism calls something good when it evokes great ideals, but demands a course correction when it doesn’t. Cheap patriotism calls things good simply because they exist. This kind of patriotism demands that we revere the flag because it’s the flag instead of what it rallies us towards. Whomever holds—or invokes—the flag is deemed right, even if their actions don’t line up with the ideals upon which the flag was erected.
This kind of patriotism is harmful. It falls prey to manipulation by the powerful and well-indoctrinated. It victimizes the vulnerable, then marginalizes any who would object by terming them, “unpatriotic” and ungrateful.
Before we get too smug about identifying this trap, we must admit that the communities of faith fall all too easily into this mode of thinking when discussing faith. The church is meant to point beyond itself towards the God who inspires us all. All too often churches become good at pointing people to themselves and not much more. The greater being exists to serve the needs of the church, rather than the church to serve the greater Being.
When this happens, we slip away from, “We do this because it holds to a higher, holy ideal” into, “This is holy and ideal because the church is doing it.” This is no better in the sacred realm than it is in the secular. Abuses of power and person thrive in an environment where the central claim is, “Anyone in a position of authority is automatically right.” We’ve all seen the harm this can cause.
We’d do well to remember that whether we’re trying to be faithful or patriotic, we should focus on the higher ideals that faith and patriotism are leading us towards more than championing faith and patriotism as ideals in themselves. It’d make no sense to say a book was authoritative because it was made of words or a television show was automatically great just because it was broadcast. It doesn’t make much sense to say that faith and patriotism are true just because they exist either. Look at the fruits that come out of them and how they shape the surrounding community. Then you’ll know whether the ideal is worth subscribing to or not.
Among the many things that are looking a bit different right now are our usual summer activities for children and youth at Shepherd of the Valley. The biggest of these being that we are not having any in-person VBS or Day Camp this summer. However, we have an amazing At-Home VBS Curriculum called “Compassion Camp,” put together by Illustrated Ministry, which we have now made available to all of our church and preschool families! There is no cost for you to use this At-Home VBS Curriculum, it is our gift to you this summer. Our only request is that you do not share the resources publicly.
If you did not receive an email from Sara on July 1st with links to the curriculum, contact Sara (firstname.lastname@example.org) and we will get it to you! If you are a grandparent who would like this curriculum to use with your grandkids, just let me know! We just cannot publicly share the files on our website, for copyright reasons.
We are trying to conserve as many trees as possible by providing this curriculum to everyone digitally to use as they will, but we know that not everyone has access to a printer. Thus, if you need us to print out the coloring pages and activity sheets, just let me know, and we can do that and make they available for you to pick up outside the church. Also if you find that you need some of the supplies for the activities or crafts, please let us know and we can get you what you need!
We hope that this resource can be a way for your family to connect and grow together this summer!
Be Loved. Be Kind. Be You.
Ep. 79 - What is faith? Why is it so central to us as individuals and communities? Ride along as Justin and Dave tackle one of the big questions of human existence.
The Geek and Greek podcast is a show where two reverends talk honestly and clearly about faith, Christianity, scripture, and life.
Follow us at GeekAndGreek.com!
It’s Wednesday, and time again for Art and Theology! Today’s submission comes from our familiar contributor, Rosanna Cartwright. If you’d like to submit artwork of your own, you can email me at email@example.com and we’ll use it!
Rosanna explained this sketch as a response to the stimulus of the world, having overwhelming empathy for the trials people are undergoing. I think many of us experience this. We want badly for things to be OK. We don’t know how to start.
We should all take steps towards our goals; inaction is never the answer! However, when those overwhelming moments come, expressing our frustration and helplessness helps.
Here’s Rosanna’s depiction:
The first thing I notice about the central figure is that his face is hard to pin down. It appears to be a man. At first glance, you think you know him. But when you stop and really look at him, it’s difficult to tell for sure whether he’s old or young, or of a particular ethnicity. Markers are there, of course. It’s impossible to draw an all-encompassing face. But there’s enough room for interpretation that you can’t be 100% sure who he is. It could be almost anybody.
This is consistent with the message in the rest of the piece. “We all suffer” rises prominently from the bottom of the page. This is one of the bedrock things that unites us as human beings. None of our lives are perfect. We struggle.
Yet right by the prone figure at the bottom, the one dwarfed by suffering, is the word “compassion”, quietly underlying the scene. It’s not as prominent as the declaration of suffering, but it also provides a foundation, growing alongside as we scroll upward.
Next we meet our main figure, hands held aloft in a twin gesture: pleading to the heavens, also outreached towards us. Pain and companionship appear to mingle…an important assertion in a culture where we tend to avoid pain and isolate those who experience it.
Behind the main figure, in the middle section, we see a person walking, a person searching, a person bent over, seemingly unable to go further. A proclamation spills out: we are one in Christ. We’re not free to focus just on the man in the middle. Even the central figure himself isn’t doing that! Like him, we feel compelled to ask why and to reach out to the people we see in front of us.
Rising further, we find two new commands: spread justice and share hope. In the midst of hurt and confusion, we’re supposed to work to make things better. Even when we can’t find the way forward, we’re not to lose hope. So many people try to find the reason for suffering. That’s not what we’re invited to focus on. Rather we’re called to find the reasons to be together and work for goodness in the midst of suffering.
Finally we reach the top, where we see the words, “When one suffers…” This completes the loop, pulling us into the verse from 1 Corinthians, Chapter 12. Though we started with the idea of suffering, we realize it wasn’t by, or for, itself. It isn’t measured by the individual either. If anyone in our community suffers, we all suffer together. We’re not free to abandon each other, retreating into castles of false safety. At one time or another, each one of us has been every figure in this sketch. We remember that and we assure each other that, even if we can’t stop suffering with a wave of our hand, nobody is alone.
If we could absorb this sketch into our daily lives, how much more peaceful and loving the world would be. Our fear would be less, our joy more. Suffering isn’t mean to last forever; love is.
Thank you to Rosanna for sharing this sketch! You can find her at www.facebook.com/rosanna.cartwright.3. Come back and join us next week for more Art and Theology!
A new videocast is underway at Shepherd of the Valley! Whitney Springston from Idaho Youth Ranch joins Pastor Dave to talk about the ins and outs of parenting! Join us each week as we tackle a new challenge facing parents today.
This week we talk about the things kids need to hear their parent say at one point or another, probably repeatedly! You can watch the videocast below or find all our episodes in podcast form at feeds.buzzsprout.com/1104131.rss
Public discourse in the United States is not in a healthy place. It’s hard to know what, or who, to believe when someone steps in front of a microphone anymore. Our discussions have become mercenary. Whatever it takes to get the job done, we will say and justify as right.
One of the first casualties in this environment is our communal language itself. We’re all familiar with the concept of “a war of words”. What about the war on words?
We usually identify propaganda and histrionics as attempts to attack people on the opposing side of an issue. What if that isn’t the whole point? Outrageous public declarations aren’t mean to convince you. Those who make them couldn’t care less if only 10% of people really buy in, or if the other side raises Cain in response. Outrageous speeches are designed to attack language itself, to rob us of the chance to communicate in meaningful and powerful ways, thus preserving the power of the speaker with the microphone.
One of the favored tactics of people having marital affairs is to turn the matter around, accusing the spouse of having an affair first. There are plenty of psychological and relational reasons for this; all are icky and we won’t get into them. This kind of accusation also has a communal effect, though. When you’re doing something wrong, accusing the innocent party of doing that wrong first robs the counter-accusation of power.
Let’s say I am doing Wrong X. You discover it and cry it aloud to the community. The community will be shocked, look at what I’m doing, and probably agree with you that it’s wrong. Blame will fall on me. My offense will be condemned. I will lose power and standing. As long as I remain in the community, it’ll be hard to keep repeating my wrong.
But let’s say I am doing Wrong X, but before anybody discovers that, I cry loudly that YOU are doing it. The story changes now. If people investigate and find the charges to be ridiculous, so be it. We have now established that charges of doing Wrong X are ridiculous…like “crying wolf”. If you discover me doing wrong and cry it aloud, people will view your accusation through that same lens of ridiculousness. Some will assume you are only accusing me to get back at me. Others, having once been fooled, will be tired of the whole conversation and want the matter to go away. At best, most observers will deem it a “he said-she said” situation where we don’t know what actually happened but both parties are accusing each other, so let’s just throw up our hands and leave.
Notice how, by making a false accusation, we have turned an “I’m 100% wrong” situation into, “It’s 50/50 at best”. We haven’t done it by changing reality or morality. We’ve reframed the language we use to talk about these things, turning once-important words of accountability into ridiculous arguments.
Notice also that telling an untruth isn’t a liability to my agenda as the wrongdoer, but an aid. I want the accusation to sound, and be, utterly ridiculous! My goal isn’t really to accuse you credibly, it’s to rob you of the language and ability to accuse me. I want to throw the whole notion of truth and accurate speech into doubt, so you cannot convict me of my wrongdoing through it.
The further public speech gets pushed into unreality and ridiculousness, the more language gets devalued. The Yelp/public review era has taught us this already. A four-star review out of five is supposed to be admirable. Instead it’s viewed as a disaster. If it’s not at the absolute upper extreme, it’s no good. When every meal is the best ever eaten in the history of the planet, saying, “Yeah, it was great,” sounds like an insult by comparison. But since “best in history” is repeated so often, even those extreme words lose their meaning. We can’t find words to accurately describe goodness or greatness anymore. We’re left guessing what everybody means, trying to parse out how much we trust the speaker personally instead of how much meaning their words carry.
Over-the-top accusations in the public square have the same effect. If I’m hurting you, but in the process I take language to an utter extreme, now you have no words left to accurately express the severity of pain I’m causing. Is it four-star pain? That’s less than five-star, so it must not be that bad. Is it five-star pain? Everybody says that. No big deal. Are you going to invent a new category of six-star pain now? That’s the same kind of exaggeration I just engaged in. Nobody’s going to believe you any more than they believed me. If they did, I’d just invent a seven-star category out of thin air and watch you scramble to catch up! I don’t have to convince anybody that my outlandish exaggeration is right. All I have to do is rob you of the ability to convince people that you have a point.
For those in power already, reducing language to rubbish creates a stalemate that will leave them in power and everyone else outside of it. That’s the point of “crazy speech”.
Once again, making words seem valueless and ridiculous isn’t a sad side-effect of the agenda of powerful wrongdoers. It IS the agenda.
Devaluing words has one last sneaky side effect, among the most important of all. Words are the means we use to communicate. We use them to identify, strengthen, and define relationships. They bind us together like glue. When that glue gets weaker or disappears, we’re isolated. We have nobody to rely upon except ourselves and whatever voices can break through. Inevitably those are the voices already in power. Stripping words of their authority is an attempt to strip all other authorities from the life of the listener, who is now at the mercy of whomever is behind that microphone.
For all these reasons, the devaluation of words has immediate importance to communities of Christian faith. Stop and think for a second. How do we know God? How did you learn about God? How do we say God speaks to us today? God works through words. We do not worship the Bible as God. We do say that the Bible is the central means by which God’s being and passion are made known to the world. Words are the means God has chosen to be with God’s people.
For the person of faith, devaluing words is the same thing as devaluing God. Robbing language of its power and authority is an attempt to rob God of same. This is not an accident. People who engage in this kind of public discourse want no authority but their own. That includes any deity. Even if they claim to revere a god with their words, ultimately those words are as ridiculous and powerless as all the rest. It’s a parlor trick, meant to weaken and distract the listener as the speaker grabs tighter to the reins of power.
The upshot is clear: There’s no way people of faith can stand with, or behind, this kind of speech and remain faithful. Ridiculous, disempowering diatribes that through their very utterance blanch language of its authority are the opposite of faith, no matter what actual words they contain.
Think of all the times you’ve heard people claim that there’s a “War on God” (or Christmas, or religion, or whatever you hold dear). Did you ever consider that the person speaking those words might also be the one prosecuting that war? Have you thought that we might be losing it precisely by listening and giving credence to those accusations? If not, you might want to take a minute and consider it.
Part of reclaiming the sanctity of faith in our culture is reclaiming the sanctity of the words that convey it. We cannot lift those as two separate matters. They are intertwined. Language and faith go hand in hand. Devaluing language harms faith and all the neighbors that faith is supposed to serve.
May the words you speak and hear this week have power. May they also bring goodness to the world and the people around you.