Pastoral Study Project Writing: Variation on the Confession and Absolution

* I would like to thank the Louisville Institute for graciously providing a Pastoral Study Project grant.  

A Variation on the Confession and Absolution

One of the critiques I’ve heard during this Pastoral Study Project through readings and interviews with theologians is that the traditional Lutheran Confession, addresses sin (from social science research, this is a focus on action) but is woefully lacking in addressing shame (focus on one’s personhood). 

We confess that we have sinned in thought word and deed by what we have done and what we have left undonebut this keeps us in our heads.  A cognitive ascent to knowing God and living in a right relationship with God.  Yet, shame is pre-language; we experience it before we have capacity for language and we experience it in our physical bodies. We have a physical response to shame - some of us drop our heads, we avert eye contact, we may want to hide like Adam and Eve or leave as quickly as possible.  We don’t feel safe when we are in shame.  

Confession: Lord, we have sinned against You by blaming and deflecting.  We hide from you, each other, and ourselves; believing that being half-alive is better than being fully known.  We often feel small, flawed, and worthless and don’t actually believe you are with us and for us.  We behave in ways that break true relationship with creation, each other and you.  We are in bondage to the ever present fear?  voice of shame?  - which is best here?  that says we can’t trust you and in the end, it is best to hoard and hide.

Absolution:  As a called and ordained minister of the Church of Christ, I declare to you all your sins are forgiven.  Shame doesn’t define you, your past, or determine your future.  Jesus has done that by becoming human, fully knowing your pain, and taking it to the cross.  In his death and resurrection, God has freed you of all your sins and shame has power to kill and destroy no more.  The Holy Spirit gives the power to name shame and blame and to receive God’s love, kindness, and grace in the community of the broken and wholehearted.  You are not alone.  You are never alone.  In the name of the Triune God.  Amen.  

Pastoral Study Project Writing: I Suppose

* I would like to thank the Louisville Institute for graciously providing a Pastoral Study Project. 

I Suppose (John 21:25)

Our final words matter.  They can be marching orders, encouragement, invitation, dedication, benediction, or curse.  How closely do we read the final words of the Gospels?  ‘I suppose’, aren’t those curious words to have in the Gospel lesson?  

Where I grew up in western North Dakota we had a versatile word.  "I s'pose.”  “I s’pose was handy to use when one needed to fill time, when a gap in conversation erupted, or as the beginning of a departure.  The long good-bye is what I learned it was called in MN; the lingering, saying just one more thing, offering one more insight into the weather report.  ‘I suppose’ was what you said when you were trying to wrap it up but wanted to do it gently and with grace.

Well, I suppose.

Honestly, “I suppose.” never was a strong phrase; it was never a power phrase, it won’t go well with the Super-hero pose some of us strike before we do hard things to boost our confidence.  Luther didn’t say at the Diet of Worms, “Here I stand.  I suppose, I can do no other.”  ‘I suppose’ was a phrase that couldn’t really offend, I suppose.  

I bet we avoid saying these open-ended words because we don’t want to be perceived as weak, as wishy-washy, as open in a culture that seems to value rigid lines of definition.  

What is the Holy Spirit giving us or teaching us in these words at the end of John’s Gospel?  I imagine the Spirit tapping John on the shoulder saying, “Go ahead, put the pen down, it is good.  It is enough.  It is good enough.”  Because the Gospel is good.  And the Gospel is enough.  The Gospel is good enough.  And then John takes a breath, feels the sense of holy incompleteness because the truth of God’s grace doesn’t solely live in the stories John knows.  

I hear in these vague closing words of John’s Gospel, an invitation and an assurance.  In the acquiesces of the “I suppose’ there is the sense that the job of recording every single act that Jesus did would be a task larger than a lifetime and larger than one life.  And so, in the end, we aren’t given everything that Jesus did but we are given the truth that Jesus is so active in the world that it is an impossible task to record every single one.

Perhaps ‘I suppose’ wasn’t meant to be a final ending but a transition off the page and into the text of our daily lives.  ‘I suppose’ wasn’t meant to wrap it all up tightly but purposely to leave it open . . . open-ended because God’s work is still happening.

So why should we care? 

I bet we avoid saying these open-ended words because we don’t want to be perceived as weak, as wishy-washy, as open in a culture that seems to value rigid lines of definition.  Well, I suppose, that in our highly polarized culture where words inflame, blame is used as control and deflection from my responsibility in a situation, and shame, personal attacks, and speculation are part of the blood sport of politics, I suppose just might soften things.  Soften language.  Soften positions.  Soften hearts.  Soft hearts are to conflict like butter in the kitchen is to lima beans;  it can cover a multitude of sins.  I don’t know that two little words on their own can have such an effect but I do know that the Spirit of God is still working in the world, and “If everything Jesus did was written down there won’t be room for all the books that would be written.”  

God will work through your ‘I suppose.”  

I suppose.  I suppose.

Well, I s'pose.  

Pastoral Study Project: Owning our Whole Story

* I would like to thank the Louisville Institute for graciously providing a Pastoral Study Project grant.  

Owning Our Whole Story

John 21:17

How hard is it to own the truth?  How hard is it to own -

  • The truth of the gap between who you think you are and what you actually do
  • The space between the best version of yourself and who you are when fear drives your actions
  • The tension between your ego and your wounded inner self

Peter could, I imagine, speak clearly about this.  He had a story to reckon with; the story of declaring his loyalty and unfettered devotion to Jesus and then the crashing crushing consequences of decisions made in utter fear to save himself.  

Peter did go on to tell the story - the story of Jesus redeeming, saving love but before he could tell that story - before he could be the rock of faith that Jesus would build his church upon, before speaking boldly before the Sanhedrin and saying, “. . . We cannot help speaking about what we have seen and heard” (Act 4:20),  before those bold words said to the very people who set the crucifixion and thus Peter’s denial into motion, there had to be a reckoning with his story; with his actions. 

There had to be the integration of all parts of what he was and is.  Peter, like all of us, had a version of himself that he perhaps found easiest to love, easiest to walk through the world as. . . when we integrate all parts of ourselves we welcome all the parts of our stories - 

  • the parts that we are proud of
  • the parts we are ashamed of
  • the parts we learned about ourselves that scare us to our very core
  • the parts of us that can be interpreted in the worst possible way
  • the parts of us we will never wrap in love because we will never own those moments

You have these moments.  I have them too.  Maybe it was the 

  • the moment you overheard your mom tell your 4th grade teacher that you just weren’t that smart
  • the moment your boyfriend or girlfriend broke up with you . . . through a text
  • the moment your best friend betrayed you and told your deepest hardest secret
  • the moment you fumbled the football on the last down in the 4th quarter . . . and the worst part was the look on your dad’s face 
  • the moment you went to your high school class reunion . . . and you sensed you weren’t as connected to these people as you thought 
  • the moment who you thought you were was shattered for you

And this is the moment Peter needs to reckon with.  It seems Peter, like lots of us, avoids and denies the gap of pain.  He returns to fishing after the crucifixion and after the Risen Lord has appeared to the disciples.  He returns to what is known and comfortable - to the thing that ordered the rhythm of his life before Jesus called him to leave his nets.  Now he takes them up again.

The connection that Peter denied Jesus three times and Jesus asks Peter thrice if he loves Jesus is not easy to miss with a close reading of the passion story and the post resurrection texts.  And while this seems neat and tidy, it can leave the whole emotional landscape this conversation took place in out of one’s field of view.  

Why did Jesus ask him three times?  To give theologians 2000 years later some fun mind candy?  Was he grilling Peter?  Making him squirm?  Holding his feet to the fire?  Making sure he was really repentant?  Without stage directions, adverbs, and adjectives there are so many ways one can understand the tone, the intend of Jesus third asking, “Simon, son of John, do you love me?”  (John 21:17) and the response this third asking draws out of Peter - we don’t know how Jesus said it but we know that Peter felt hurt.

I feel hurt when 

  • someone intentionally wounds me 
  • someone speaks harshly to me
  • someone snaps at me
  • someone interprets my actions or words in a twisted way

When I emotionally connect with Peter with the above understanding than it seems plausible Jesus didn’t need to grill Peter; it reminds me too much of being grilled for coming home late from a date in high school just on a much much more significant level.  I remember feeling shame for being late up the driveway . . . so if I felt shame when I was grilled why won’t I understand Peter to also be feeling ashamed when Jesus asked the third time, “Simon, son of John, do you love me?”  

But knowing from the research that shame never leads to positive outcomes and it makes us want to hide, there is something else going on here that I believe has much more to do with Peter integrating - healing - the denial than having a neat three for three trifecta.  

Peter couldn’t deny the denial if he was to be the leader Jesus called him to be.

I know I feel hurt when someone speaks a truth about me I’d rather not acknowledge; like when I sit across from my spouse and he tells me where I’m missing the mark with our family but when it is spoken with love, walking through the pain is where the new life begins.  When he is telling me to make our lives better together, it is still painful to hear the truth but I know because our past together, that this moment will lead to greater connection, greater honesty, greater life.  This truth-telling and truth-hearing will be hard but denying it and living like ‘it’ didn’t happen only leads to exhaustion, desperation, and a sense of ‘is this all there is to life?’

Peter couldn’t deny the worst part of his life to be a whole person; walking into this pain with his community of faith was the work - the hard work that Jesus was making sure Peter did.  Following Jesus meant being honest and if Thomas could doubt and receive what he needed, Peter could deny and be made a whole, forgiven, resurrected saint and sinner.  

So, instead of Jesus grilling Peter with a stern disapproving look, now I believe, Jesus would have hung in there with Peter over and over and over until Peter DID feel the hurt.  I believe Jesus would have asked Peter 27 times, 50 times, 95 times - as many times as it took - over and over the question that would break any shell of denial, pretending, or avoidance so that the pain could be walked through and integrated.  Jesus already knew that Peter loved him; but could Peter trust himself to believe he did?

The pain must have it’s day.  The denial couldn’t be a thing between Peter and Jesus.  Between Peter and the other disciples.  Between Peter and . . . himself.  The denial couldn’t be the unspoken hijacker of every good next step Peter might take.  The pain must have it’s day.  And this time, it came with breakfast on the beach.

Jesus wasn’t hurting Peter, Jesus was healing Peter.  

Jesus wasn’t testing Peter, Jesus was loving him into new life.

Jesus wasn’t grilling Peter, Jesus was attending to Peter’s pain. 

Jesus wasn’t looking at him with disapproval, instead it is like Jesus cupped his face, put his hands on Peter’s cheeks, drew him in close and let him cry, heave, and fall apart.  Peter had worked so hard to hold it all together.  Now.  He.  Gets.  To.  Fall.  Apart. Maybe he got to crumble into the arms of Jesus.  The Bible doesn’t give us these stage directions but isn’t that just the type of thing the man who stopped and listened to those who were blind, crippled, and held in bondage to shame would do?  
















Pastoral Study Project: Appeasement and Idolatry

* I would like to thank the Louisville Institute for graciously providing a Pastoral Study Project grant.

Appeasement and Idolatry

 For me, I quickly learned seminary wasn’t about asking big bold questions and exploring vast open wonderings about the Divine.  For me, it was about learning the right answers, listening and watching people debate theology, doing my best to stay out of these conversations and passing the test.  Some gatekeepers in the endorsement process may be more open to bold wondering but I played it safe and learned the theologically correct answers in a very cognitive way.  I could recite the Small Catechism, and quote Ezekiel 36:26 in Hebrew and rattle off the core Lutheran theological tenets and even discuss Luther’s kidney stones.  But “saved by grace through faith alone” and the Luther rose never transformed my heart in an incarnational way that gave shame a real run for its money.

But sometimes all you need are the right words at the right time because the way you’ve been doing faith just doesn’t work anymore.

Those words can in an insightful conversation through the Pastoral Study Project grant with Dr. Walter Brueggemann, a renowned Old Testament scholar, I asked him about appeasing God, atonement theology, and expanding out Incarnational theology.  His words freed me.  

Sometimes you just have to hear the message in a new way.  

His response to the word ‘appease’ was this, “appease God - if you take a bad marriage one way to keep it going is to appease your partner.  Appeasement isn’t faithful or honest, appeasement reflects a skewed failed relationship with God or another human being, God doesn’t want to be appeased, God wants to be related to honestly.”  

These words could be my tattoo (although getting a paragraph inked on my lower back sounds like more pain than I’m interested in.)  Hear them again, 

“Appeasement isn’t faithful or honest.  Appeasement reflects a skewed failed relationship with God or another human being.  God doesn’t want to be appeased, God wants to be related to honestly.”

That is grace.  For me.

That is invitation.  For me.

That is enough.  For me.

In that moment, I realized that appeasement led one to idolatry - to believe the worst things about God; to have that understanding of God be based in fear and to misconstrue God’s nature.

Never has the debunking of idolatry looked so good!  I had clung to a limited understanding of idolatry: 

1) that made God in our own image - I believed this was connected to moral behavior; or caused us like the Israelites in Exodus 32 to dance around a golden calf crafted by human hands. 

2)  that replaced God’s role in our lives with another person, success, security, health and wealth, etc.  That we put our trust in things rather than a relationship with God.

3)  or a twist - that we set aside being created in the image of God to conform to standards of beauty, success, worthiness that others, culture, dictated for and to us.

All of these seemed to be centered in an anthropological way.  Focused on how humans understood themselves or how humans behaved in relation to God but - 

What if idolatry was believing the worst about God?  What if idolatry shifted the focus from Immanuel to the God who must be appeased?

What Dr Bruggeman offered made sense to me in a neurobiological way - if I feared God as a child because I would need to explain my actions at the judgment throne, without the assurance of Jesus ‘taking my place’ if you want to delve into atonement theology - than, of course, I would fear God and create an understanding of God that involved a lot of . . . fear.  When you are in fear you subconsciously keep searching the environment to confirm you should be afraid.  Except the fear only provided a narrow lens for reading Scripture.

A lens that is skewed.  Dr. Brugeeman gave me a lens that is more honest.  God doesn’t want our appeasement.  God wants a relationship.  












Pastoral Study Project Writing:

* Thank you to the Louisville Institute for generously providing a Pastoral Study Project grant.  

The Adverbial Void

How do you hear and read Scripture? When a phrase that Jesus says is read, do you hear it as warning? Condemnation? A loving truth? The same words can be said 17 different ways.

At the Independent Living Facility where I’m a chaplain, we watched a Bible narrative - word for word the Gospels dramatized. I was ready for a Jesus like ones I’d seen before, rarely smiling, didn’t seem to enjoy live too much, seemed really holy in the sense that He wasn’t actually also human. But this Jesus actor spoke consistently with a kindness in the tone and a smile. This Jesus, I thought, gave what I hadn’t seen before and what was it?

Adjectives and adverbs - when an interpretative approach to a phrase was needed, this Jesus always opted for kind and loving. These would give me a sense of what I was dealing with, instead of relying on my sense or someone else’s to fill it all out. I need adjective and adverbs because without them I put in my own they are often the sternest, most rigid.  Adverbs and adjectives give us direction and understanding. They bring words to life and share the authors fullest intent for how we are to read the words. This is the complaint with emailing. Many messages are misunderstood because we do not understand the context. If my boss emails and says, “What is your census today?” and I’m already feeling unsure about our numbers, I may interrupt that email as judgment. Whereas, if the email is accompanied by some words that help affirm my relationship with my boss, I hear it differently. If your are reading an account of a parent at the park with two young children, and the words of the parent are, “Get in the car  now!” you may read that as terse; representing anger or annoyance and that the family will be in eggshells before nap time rolls around. But what if there is an adjective? The parent said laughingly, “Get in the car now!” And even more helpful what if we had an adjective and an adverb? The parent said laughingly, “Get in the car now!” while the kids giggled into the back seat.

That is the gift of adverbs and adjectives - they can provide the emotional context. We hear texts differently. We all don’t process and integrate Biblical stories the same. Mark Allan Powell points out in What are they Hearing? Bridging the Gap between Pulpit and Pew clergy identify more with Jesus in the stories, laity more with the crowd.

Why how we hear words matters: It’s about incarnation. From neuroscience we get all this great insight into how God wired our brains. The amygdala is going to keep us safe and if we live with some anxiety, constantly scanning for threat and adapting to keep ourselves safe, if we aren’t in a place of calm and groundedness, that amygdala is going to tell us to play small and safe.

So, if we’ve experienced an amygdala hijack in worship, when fear takes over that will influence our reading of Scripture. And I believe what it does is causes us to interpret the text is the most restrictive way so as not to get it wrong; not to make a mistake; to be above reproach. To be clear, the condemnation might only be coming from our own internal critic; our own internal voice.

By holding a simple verse of Scripture, “looked at him and loved him.” as a lens to use when adjectives and adverbs aren’t present, I will get to where my tradition has espoused: you read the Bible through Christ; through the cross.

Let’s play with Luke 18:18-30, I hear condemnation and judgment from Jesus to the rich young ruler:  “You know the commandments” (how is Jesus saying this? With a wagging finger, with exasperation? with judgment? Lord, give me an adjective!) If it is with any of these I hear and feel judgment and distance from Jesus I know the commandments and don’t keep them as I should. And additional self judgment shows up to fill out the point that I, like the rich young ruler value the wrong things. Self-judgment will throw in: you should do more to live as a good Christian:

You should work tirelessly denying your needs

You should be more patient with your children

You care too much about the wrong things

Thankfully, the Bible is not completely void of descriptors and stage directions.  Consider the rich young ruler, this lesson is in all the synoptic Gospel’s and Mark is the only one to add in verse 21, “Jesus looked at him and loved him.” What if I added that to every text where there are no adjectives? What if I read the Bible through this lens of love? REALLY read it this way? In a way that puts flesh and blood - Incarnation - into what I learned in seminary that we read Scripture through the cross. That sounded and felt like an academic exercise; a formula. When in the end, this really is about Jesus speaking love.

But when I read it through the lens of Luther’s 8th Commandment: to put the best spin on it, I don’t hear condemnation but Jesus speaking the truth that is honest and freeing for the rich young ruler. The ruler leaves not because Jesus has made him feel bad about himself but because Jesus had been honest in a loving way with him and there is a hard truth then with which to struggle. Love, honesty and accountability can all hang together.

Or consider in Luke’s Gospel when Jesus looks at Peter right after the rooster has crowed three times and right before Peter runs out. How did Jesus look at him?  What was the emotion Jesus showed? Was it the tortured face of Jesus that caused Peter to run?

I would render a guess that with the adverbial void found in Scripture, some of us interpret the texts in the most condemning restrictive way possible. Especially those of us in the pews who may not have theological training that encouraged questioning and wondering about the biblical text. And for those of us who did wonder and were told we were not Christian enough.  But what do we do for those who are highly sensitive and slightly anxious?  Those who hear it all as condemnation (you aren’t enough)?

Perhaps this fascination is the root of my current wondering about adjective and adverbs in the bible. There just aren’t that many. Perhaps moving from an oral tradition to writing the accounts, specifically, of Jesus meant that the readers who had been hearers just a few short years before, would know in their hearts what emotion was being conveyed. They would know what was implicitly understood.  What other possible ways of understanding might exist? And by seeing other possibilities, how does the Holy Spirit invite us to see God’s creative life-giving work in the world through Jesus?


Pastoral Study Project Writing: And Some Doubted

* I would like to thank the Louisville Institute for graciously providing support through the Pastoral Study Project grant that made this reflection possible.  

Honest to Goodness . . . Doubt

 Sitting in the shadow of the great commission of the church to make disciples and baptize through the authority of Jesus, are these humble transparent words:  “At the sight of the risen Christ they fell down in homage, though some doubted what they were seeing.” Hmm. 

  • If ever there was a time to codify and lock down what it meant to know the Risen Lord; this might be it.
  • If ever there was a time to use strong polling numbers showing uniformity to demonstrate belief in the Risen Christ, this might be it.
  • If ever there was a time to sweep under the rug, any outliers, truths that might make some uncomfortable, this might be it.
  • If ever there was a time to gentrify the biblical witness to bolster certainty this might be it.

But this wasn’t that time.

In fact, this was the time when the Holy Spirit peppered the last words of Matthew’s Gospel - with a little easy to miss, (especially if we are so inclined) honest to goodness truth.  A truth that represents the very moments of our lives of faith together, too. Moments when doubt and worship are woven together.  Not separating one from the other; but both being part of the whole.

What did this look like up on that mountain?  What did it sound like in an embodied way?  

Did Bartholemew do the head invitation to Andrew who with a furrowed brow kept shaking his head in consternation?  

Did Thomas, who had honestly voiced the dark night of his soul, "Unless I see the nail marks in his hands and put my finger where the nails were, and put my hand into his side, I will not believe.” did he put an arm around Philip who jumped from one foot to the other and did Thomas say with empathy, “I get it.  I get it.  Me too; we’re in this together.”  

Did James hang back while the majority of his fellow followers pressed their foreheads to ground?  And then over the bowed heads did he see Jesus looking at him . . . with love?

If ever there was a time to deny the experience of some, to oppress the truth of some for the monolithic expression of the message, - a dynamic that perhaps you know in very personal ways wounds and dehumanizes - it was not that day on the mountain in Galilee in the presence of the Risen Christ.  Instead, this was the time for authentic practice in following Jesus; being courageously honest, ditching any pretense or pretending; believing an honest to goodness ‘I don’t know’ is more life-giving than professing a thousand words that force you to hide.   

If some of the earliest disciples - the ones who literally broke bread with Jesus, spent three years watching him heal, bring back to life, move crowds, and stand up for the oppressed - if some of them doubted, what are we to make of that?

In an age and location when and where the authority of the church to shape culture has decreased and organized religion is increasingly seen as destructive or irrelevent, what is the gift for discipleship and mission in these humble words, “some doubted what they were seeing.”  

What if we started talking about this?

  1. Would it give It gives us permission to own our reality as well.  To own our moments, our doubts, our strengths, our wild dreams we hardly dare to voice lest self-judgment pounces.  I got to hear Dr. Brené Brown in Minneapolis about her new book, Braving the Wilderness and she poignantly asked the question, “How many of you have said in the last year around for example an election topic, “I don’t know anything about that?”  Her point was that culturally it feels weak to say I don’t know, we fear judgment, or we want to get into the conversation, we want to help depolarize exchanges at family reunions that stop meaningful conversation about climate change, white privilege and racism, or gun control but want to do it when we’ve got all our opinions firmly articulated . . . or want to do it with those we know will give us a resounding amen!  Some of them doubted gives us permission to stop pretending in a culture that says posturing is your best bet. 
  2. What if we started talking about this?  Would ‘and some doubted’ negate our human desire to put things in binary categories - either/or, good/bad, the difference of night and day/ thinking.  Doubt and faith are more closely related than binary categories allow us to see.  It removes our lives of faith from needing to be neat and clean, perhaps even stagnant to being messy and organic.  That is just the process of being alive and doing faith with others.  
  3. The church gathered in the grace of the Risen Christ will look like the eleven on the mountain:  a mix. These verses show that communities of faith aren’t suppose to assume people all believe the same way orbring the same lens to worship.  Dr. Richard Beaton writes, “Upon seeing Jesus they worship. This part we understand; it makes sense given the circumstances of Jesus' resurrection and the preceding events. But they also doubt. Worship is not typically associated with doubt. In fact, many feel that even if they do doubt, they cannot admit it.” It is brave to live in the honest to goodness I don’t know.  My best bet is when the Lord’s Prayer is prayed in your ministry context, some will mumble the Our Father, and others will grow silent on “kingdom” and others still will feel their throats tighten when the words, “as we forgive those who sin against us” echo across the ceiling.  Because our life experience makes us pause, wonder, or chaff with these words.  Across the globe some people bounce out of bed or off their mat excited to come and join their voices with their neighbors praising God, - this time sets their lives in focus and across the globe there are people who were dragged to a church by a parent or spouse, or familial guilt, giving this faith thing one more chance, pretty convinced there are a 100 places they’d rather be than in worship. . . maybe that is someone you love. . . maybe there are times it is you. . . 
  4. What if we started talking about this? What do we learn about Jesus? We learn that He isn’t afraid of doubt, he doesn’t scold, berate, humiliate, or denigrate those who aren’t convinced.  The honest to goodness choice these disciples make show us they believed because of their life-giving interactions with Jesus that their doubt won’t cause them harm/public shaming/berating/intimidation.  They trusted Jesus enough to know their doubt was safe with him.  CAN PEOPLE SAY THE SAME OF THE CHURCH?  The disciples could trust him because he had always kept his word and when the rich young ruler asks Jesus what he must do to obtain eternal life, Jesus tells him sell his possessions and give to the poor,  as the rich young ruler leaves Jesus didn’t look at him with condemnation, rather Jesus looked at him . . . with love.  Jesus would look at these disciples with love as well; JUST HOW HE LOOKS AT YOU.  Dr. Craig Koester writes, “like the first disciples, we bring our doubts to the place where Jesus promises to meet us. And this too is discipleship.”
  5. Our human beliefs and convictions in any given moment don’t change what God has done in Jesus Christ.  don’t change that you are created in the image of God, ‘worthy of love and belonging’ - to quote Brené Brown.  Don’t change that you have been marked with the cross of Christ forever.  Don’t change that Jesus died and rose for you.  For me.  Don’t change that sin and evil no longer have the final word.  Our human response can be real because if faith is to be real, life-giving, and organic, than our moments - as important and powerful as they are - are still simply simple moments held in the infinite union with God.  


Dr. Seuss would love that play on words.

Let me say it again, 

The disciples - those who were worshiping and those who were doubting could not be about the mission of the great commission without first this permission - to be honest.

How honest are we with each other?

How honest are we with ourselves?

How honest, really honest are we with God?

I’ve faked it.  I still fake it in certain situations.  I can be faking it before I even know I’m faking it. Take the right portions of self-doubt, power-over, isolation, and conflict and I will fake it ’til the cows come home.  And my guess is with the right portions of your own shame inducing dynamics you will fake it too.  Shame wants to name us forever.  WE are only one thing.  WE are only as worthy as our last great sermon.  We are only as worthy as our last creative campus ministry kick off.  We are only; always evaluated on our last great engagement with life.

Some of us grew up in families in which it wasn’t safe to be honest.  Rostered ministers who have a child on the spectrum or a child who is transgendered, navigate how much of their honest to goodness truth will be safe in various situations.  For those who live in the shadows because they don’t have documentation, honesty about their status is incredibly risky.  

Our hope, prayer, and calling in the Body of Christ is that we are a safe space.  Where each person is held to be known and loved as a child of God.  Period.  The church has not always lived into this hope, prayer, and calling.

Can we be the honest to goodness church?

The Honest to Goodness church where, honesty will be viewed as a way to glorify God.  

The Honest to Goodness church where we will live with the questions, instead of deny their existence or accept pat answers that feel like our cousin’s hand-me-down jeans.

The Honest to Goodness Churchwhere we will we will take seriously Jesus question, “And who do you say than I am?”  and next, how are you freed to serve your neighbor?

The Honest to Goodness Church where we will be led by the Holy Spirit into the vulnerable space of mystery and holy presence, knowing some of our answers actually limit our ability to sense the Spirit’s movement.   

God doesn’t love or cling to our pretending.  If anyone does, we do.  But God doesn’t.  God loves and longs for our creative hearts to say yes and yes and yes not when we finally have it all figured out but in this moment to being part of God’s healing movement in the world.  

And, according to St. Matthew, doubters are part of that movement.

In the end?  They get where they needed to be.  They all become bearers of God’s unconditional love in Jesus the Christ to the ends of the earth.  They get to Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria, and if tradition is correct, the chief of all the doubters Thomas, even to India.  

Jesus promised to be with the disciples, to be with us to the end of the age.  This is honest.  Jesus’ presence is goodness.  God’s love is the honest to goodness truth for you, for me.  Together, can we be the church of the honest to goodness?

















How honest are we with each other?

How honest, really honest are we with God?

How honest are we with ourselves?

The Great Commission needs the verse that comes before - to show us the Risen Christ gives the mission not just to some but to all and maybe even their doubts are part of it.  

Is there a group of believers out there that feels called to proactively be the Church of the Honest to Goodness?  

At the Church of the Honest to Goodness, honesty will be viewed as a way to glorify God.  

At the Church of the Honest to Goodness we will live with the questions, instead of deny their existence or accept pat answers that feel like our cousin’s hand-me-down jeans.

At the Church of the Honest to Goodness we will take seriously Jesus question, “And who do you say than I am?” (TEXT)  and next, how are you freed to serve your neighbor?

At the Church of the Honest to Goodness we will be led by the Holy Spirit into the vulnerable space of mystery and holy presence, knowing some of our answers actually limit our ability to sense the Spirit’s movement.   

And so, maybe, right here, in this moment, we are the church of the honest to goodness.  

I’ve faked it.  I still fake it in certain situations.  I can be faking it before I even know I’m faking it. Take the right portions of self-doubt, power-over, isolation, and conflict and I will fake it ’til the cows come home.  And my guess is with the right portions of those things, you will fake it too.

So, can we start the Church of the Honest to Goodness?  The honest truth of our doubt, and failings, and flipping drivers off under the dashboard?  Because, whether or not we are honest about these things, these dynamics, they are still there.  They form the sub-text (to use therapy language) of our lives and so we mumble though certain petitions of the Apostle’s Creed or Lord’s Prayer, and don’t read the Bible because we feel like we should know more about it or understand it better than we actually do.  

God doesn’t love or need our pretense.  If anyone does, we do.  But God doesn’t.  God loves and longs for our creative hearts to say yes and yes and yes again to being part of God’s movement in the world.  

And, according to St. Matthew, doubters are part of that movement.

In the end?  They get where they needed to be.  They all become bearers of God’s unconditional love to the far corners of the world.  They get to Corinth and if tradition is correct, the chief of all the doubters Thomas, even to India.  

And in the end, all that matters is Jesus' love.  That's honest.  And that's goodness.  It is the honest to goodness truth.  

Pastoral Study Project Writing: What If Zacchaeus Was Your Neighbor?

* I'd like to thank the Louisville Institute for generously providing grant support through the Pastoral Study Project which allowed for this reflection.  

Luke 19:1-10

What If Zacchaeus Was Your Neighbor?

What it was like to live down the street from Zacchaeus.  Was he a good neighbor?  In the sense that he kept the dandelions out of his yard, got the trash out on time and always picked up after his Jack Russell Terrier on their walks.  Would you despise him?  I mean, what if he was the guy who always got the newest boat and was going to retire at 50?  Would you love to hate him?

Do you think he would have been a good boss?  Did he give direct explicit instructions for how to file the W-2’s?  Was he prompt and specific with feedback?  And would he write a solid letter of recommendation if you wanted to venture out of the government sector and apply for a job at the local Palestinian tax accountant’s office?  At the annual tax collectors convention, was he well-respected?  Would another tax collector we met in Luke 5, Levi, have stories to share about Zacchaeus? 

I wonder what it was like to have Zacchaues as your dad, I mean, would you be proud of him?  Would you have lots of toys but few friends?  Would you want the other kids to know who your dad was.  Or would you ask him to drop you off a few blocks from school so you could walk in anonymously.  

Have you ever thought, “what if Zaccheaus was my son?”  Were his parents grieved that he had found a path to wealth when so many around them were living hand to mouth?  Did they feel some humiliation because of his choices?  And, for them, had their sons’ chosen profession with its exploiting tactics - had this been the litmus test among their social circle.  The test that showed them which other couples really were true friends and which, seemed to always be too busy to get together or those who simply never returned calls or emails.  Did thoughts loop through their heads, “What did we do wrong?  We had dreamed he would make us proud.  We even gave him the name Zaccheaus - ‘innocent, blameless’, hoping he would live into and up to that.”  

I wonder what it would be like to be married to Zacchaeus.  You would be used to a life in which you always had enough - actually more than enough more than enough money, more than enough food, more than enough help around the house - with all the servants - and, so what? if the other spouses seemed to always move away when you entered the room.  So what if? from time to time anonymous mean-spirited memes using your husband’s image circulated on social media?   I mean, you get used it after awhile.  It comes with the territory.

And what would it be like to be Zacchaeus?  Wealthy but despised.  Successful but separate.  A powerful puppet viewed with contempt.  He wasn’t allowed into the Temple or the synagogue.  People viewed his money as tainted.  His word, every word, was viewed as corrupt - to the point that as a tax collector, he would never be allowed to serve as a witness in any court in Isreal.  

What kept him up at night?  Did he worry about his children’s safety?  Did they get bullied at school?  Did he feel distanced from God like he’d sold out his soul? or had he told himself enough times“You’ve just got to do what you’ve got to do” that he was simply numb?  Did Zacchaeus like himself?

All of these questions have been set in a modern context in an effort to get Zacchaeus off the flannel board.  Let’s look beyond the lyrics“a wee little man was he” and see the whole dimensional person who lives in a community with relationships - broken, strained, relationships severed by sin. 

How many people had said to Zaccheaus through their actions and words, “While your name may mean blameless and innocent, we all know you are not. You are not blameless and innocent.  In fact, you should be ashamed of yourself.”  

Everytime it happened; perhaps Zacchaeus pulled into himself a bit more.  That is the thing with blame.  That’s the thing with shame.  It hurts.  It steals our humanity and chips away at being created in the image of God.  Shame grows when there is judgment, secrecy, and isolation.  It is that dark pit in our thinking that drives, “you are not enough.  you are not worthy.  You are an imposter.  You are a fake.”  Shame speaks lies about us.  Shame has no place in the Kingdom of God.  

Maybe trying to mute the voice of shame drove Zacchaeus to risk entering the crowd in Jericho in order to see Jesus.  

Risk?  Why would this be risky?  Since Zaccheaus worked for the Roman government and the Romans occupied Isreal as the conquering power, Zaccheaus was working for the enemy; he was as a traitor.  The Zealots, a religious group engaged in gorilla warfare tactics had a way of dealing with traitors.  In the cover of a crowd, they would quickly stab a traitor and then slip away, getting lost in the throng.  Zacchaeus doesn’t hide in the crowd but climbs a tree so he can see.  

Like Zaccheaus, we too, have to ask, how much of ourselves will we let be seen?  What limb are we willing to go out on, to see Jesus?  

Imagine someone in an Armani suit climbing a tree!  If that crowd had had smart phones, this would have given lots of material for the next round of memes.

Everyone now could see Zacchaeus.  But only one really sees him.  Maybe it was the first time in a long time he had really been seen.  And known.  And loved.  And cherished.  Moved from a flat character easy to pin one’s hatred on, to a broken man caught in the bondage of systematic sin needing more than what he could ever gain on his own.  

Because Jesus really sees and loves Zaccheus into new life, into living out a kingdom of God ethic right here and now,’ “I will give half of what I have” -  the crowd is presented with the truth that when Jesus calls you, you are changed.  You can almost here the tsk-tsking coming from the cheap seats; coming from those who would prefer to stay in the smugness of self-righteousness, that says, “as least I’m better than a tax collector - why is Jesus going to HIS house?” than make the vulnerable journey with Jesus to God’s righteousness.  Putting on the righteousness of Jesus - putting on the blamelessness and innocence of Jesus . . . putting on the Zacchaeus that Jesus gives.  A relationship with Jesus?  It changes people.  

Nine years ago, when our daughter was about 13 months old, it was clear that her verbal skills weren’t allowing her to express her full range of thoughts.  So we started teaching her sign language.  “More peas please.”  “All done.”  “Apple.”  and when it was time for a fresh diaper, “change.”  One day we were rocking and reading a big fold-out Bible story book.  It was a favorite book; one we had read many times.  When we got to the page that told the story of Jesus healing the man who was paralyzed and whose friends lowered him on a mat through the roof, Chiara looked at the picture of the man on a mat, laying in front of Jesus - much like the ritual parents and toddlers engage in when it is time for a change -  she signed, “Jesus changes the man.”  

In this Bible story she was making a connection to her toddler worldbut for the past nine years, I’ve been struck that what she signed is a statement of faith.  Jesus changes people. 

Perhaps Jesus has worked some of this life-giving change - that has been our prayer - as we’ve reflected together on Dr. Brené Brown’s research in light of the Gospel.  Perhaps it has been through a permission slip you’ve practiced.  Or by clarifying your core values.  Or turning judgment to wonder; what we just did with Zaccheaus.  I wonder if God had given him a 1st century version of resiliency like this quote from Dr. Bessel Van der Volk, “Resiliency is the ability of the imagination to project into the future, a positive reality beyond the stresses of trauma.” and thus through that holy imagination, he scampered up a tree.

No one in the crowd wanted to claim that man up in the tree; he wasn’t welcome; His house probably got egged at Halloween.  But Jesus gives him a place at the table, a place to be known in these words, “He, too, is a son of Abraham.”   This chief tax collector, He, too, is a son of Abraham, he gets to belong, just like those lined up on the side of the road, just like the Chief priest.  Jesus restores us to one another.  

Before Zaccheaus climbed the tree, God was stirring him to finally say no to what steals his joy and yes to what feeds his soul.  He says Yes! to the bread of life, to the lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world, to the Saviorwho dealt shame a death-blow on the cross.  Shame doesn’t get to have the final word.  God does and that word is life - eternal, abundant, here and now.   

Like Zaccheaus, we too, have to ask, how much of ourselves will we let be seen?   And what limb are we willing to go out on, to see Jesus?  Amen.

Pastoral Study Project Writing: Our Vulnerable God

*I would like to thank the Louisville Institute for generously providing a Pastoral Study Project grant which supported the writing of this reflection.  

Our Vulnerable God

In the spirit of being led to see old words with new eyes, let’s explore what the the nature of God that is shared in the Bible (and thus our theology) that perhaps because of our cultural lens or what we were taught to see in Scripture, we have missed.  God’s covenantal relationship with Israel.  Immanuel, “God with us.”  Jesus Christ, fully divine and fully human.  The cross. The God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob models vulnerability.  Brené Brown defines vulnerability as, “risk, emotional exposure, and uncertainty.”  Research into vulnerability has increased.  People talk about vulnerability now.  

While there are many misunderstandings about what vulnerability is, at its core vulnerability is about connection, intimacy, and belonging.  Vulnerability is how we are known.  Deeply and fully known.  God wants us to know this about Christ in Eph. 3:14-21 to know how wide and long and high is the love of God in Christ.  “The imagery of the Bible’s story of vulnerability is set apart from the world’s story in that the biblical narrative tells of a God who is with us in this process of exposure.” (Thompson, 126)

Consider these in the biblical case for vulnerability:  

1.  God is relational.  God wants a relationship with us.  A real honest, open relationship with us.  Think of God and Moses talking (text), Jesus listening and engaging in conversation with the woman at the well, (text), even the Apostles traveling to the distant reaches of the known world to proclaim that in Jesus Christ, God has come to dwell with us.  “and he shall be called Immanuel”  God with us.  Consider what Curt Thompson offers, “. . . absolute joy must eventually include my being completely known, especially those parts that in subtle, hidden ways have carried shame, often without my conscious awareness.  This is the language of the new heaven and new earth.  This is the work that God alone has initiated and in which he longs for us to join him.  For God longs to be known by us as much he he longs for us to be known by him.  He desires us tho join him in his trinitarian life of being known”  (Thompson, 126).

2.  God is open to being wounded.  Vulnerability opens us up.  The Israelites wanted a king because their neighbors had kings.  This wasn’t what God wanted for the people yet God is willing to let them have a King.  Think of the prophet Hosea, speaking for God in longing tones of a rejected lover. 

3.  The Incarnation:  God takes on a body!  God could have brought salvation any way He wanted but Jesus comes as a dependent baby who needs someone to take care of him, to burp him, to comfort his infant cries and quickly he becomes a refugee; one of the most uncertain modern day situations we can think of.  

4.  Creation and continued co-creation with God - (XXX)  God’s creative action isn’t finished in the world.  And we are invited to be part of God’s saving work in the world!  God chooses to work through broken humans to share the Good News of Jesus with other broken humans.  

“Faith communities believe that God has dreams for our world and that God, through us, attempts to bring those dreams into embodied reality.  Our commitment to God’s work in the world provides the motivation to understand what God is trying to do through us.  We are one of the vehicles through which God works.” (Sellon and Smith, 32).  

“The Judeo-Christian tradition says that God is active in our world, continually creating and recreating.  Humans can either participate with that creative effort or hinder it”  (Sellon and Smith, 33).

5.  Forgiveness:   To forgive is risky.  To be forgiven is vulnerable.  To own our mistakes and trespasses, to truly with a penitential heart confess our sin, to live differently is vulnerable because it is exposing to say I wronged you or I benefit from a system of oppression.

There is boundaried vulnerability that includes self-care and accountability.  Forgiveness doesn’t excuse abuse of power-over or require us to be doormats to our own detriment.  This misunderstanding of “Turn the other cheek” (Matthew 5:39) has caused grievous results throughout history.  You are also God’s creation and you are to be treated with honor, respect, and love.  Do you not know, you too, are God’s beloved?

“It’s important to remember that forgiveness doesn’t mean condoning bad behavior, or that we need to interact with people who have hurt us.  Discriminating wisdom clearly sees when an action is harmful or maladaptive, and when we need to protect ourselves from those with bad intentions.  However, it also understands that all people are imperfect, that we all make mistakes” (Neff, 199).  

Consider Rev. Desmond Tutu and Rev. Mpho Tutu’s deep wisdom, drawn from their own lives of living under apartheid in South Africa and then through the Truth and Reconciliation Committee’s work in South Africa, 

“When people are hurting, they cannot be cross-examined out of their pain.  We all want our pain to be acknowledged and understood.  We all want to feel safe to express our hurt feelings in all their various forms and textures.  If you argue with the person you have harmed, that person will not feel safe, nor will that person feel understood.  When someone is hurt, that person wants his or her pain to be understood and validated.  Without that understanding, the forgiveness process will stall and you will both remain trapped in an endless loop of telling the story and naming the hurt.  Empathy is the gateway to forgiveness for you and for the one you have harmed” (Tutus, 178-179).

6.  The crucifixion:  Crucifixion was a humiliating way to die.  There is total exposure with the intend of shaming the one being executed.  Some of those who stood at the foot of the cross added to this humiliation by mocking Jesus with his own actions as ammunition.  “You saved others, save yourself.”  (Matthew 23:37).  They didn’t know all that the disciples knew, that Jesus had to die; that the cross was always looming on the horizon.  And so instead of seeing the cross as a horrible, awful step Jesus obeys to take toward the resurrection, they see it as failure.  They do not know that resurrection work is always hard work.  They do not know God through Jesus brings life out death. 


A core tenet of the Lutheran faith can point to vulnerability when you think about it.  Theology of the cross says that, “GOD MEETS US IN OUR DARKEST PLACES.”  God meets us in our suffering.

The Christian life of metanoia - turning back to God, is a process of revealing that which is death dealing and seeing what brings life; God’s grace.  Growth, new life, new beginnings.  These are the things we sing about on Easter morning and the largest season in the liturgical year is The Season after Pentecost marked with the color green to represent growth.  “Whoever is in Christ is a new creation, the old has past away, the new has come” (II Cor. 5:17) invites us to consider that in this growth God models vulnerability.  Christians who live under persecution, Christians who struggle to separate out what is Christ-centered living and what is cultural nationalism, Christians who are honest with their wonderings and doubts, Christians who are weary of all the in-fighting, Christians who listen to the holy rumblings in their hearts know vulnerability.  

We know vulnerability because we are alive.  God created us for vulnerability . . . 


And God shows us how to be vulnerable.  












Works Cited

Neff, Kristin. Self-Compassion: Stop Beating Yourself Up and Leave Insecurity Behind. New York: William Morrow, 2011.

Sellon, Mary K., and Daniel P. Smith. Practicing Right Relationship: Skills for Deepening

Purpose, Finding Fulfillment, and Increasing Effectiveness in Your Congregation. Herndon, Va.: Alban Institute, 2005.

Thompson, Curt.  The Soul of Shame.  Downers Grove, Il.: IVP Books, 2015.

Tutu, Desmond M., and Mpho A Tutu. The Book of Forgiving: The Fourfold Path for Healing Ourselves and Our World. New York: HarperCollins, 2015.