How Is Jesus Like a Lump of Coal?

It’s Countdown to Christmas Time, and that means the sneaky spooky spying Elf on the Shelf is back. Like a member of the North Korean Secret Police, the little informer keeps tabs on folks and reports back to the Dear Leader. It just creeps me out.

My objection is not singularly with the Snoop on the Shelf, though. It’s what he (it?) represents, the whole naughty/nice mode of parental blackmail. “Be good, because Santa only brings toys to the good kids. You don’t want to get a lump of coal in your stocking, do you?”

Why does this stick in my craw like a carelessly swallowed shard of turkey wishbone? Because it contradicts the most fundamental message of Christmas. The naughty/nice dichotomy is more of a threat to the “real meaning of Christmas” than a herd of Happy Holidays-proclaiming cashiers or a forest of Festivus Poles.

The essence of Christmas is GRACE.  Grace is God’s undeserved gift of forgiveness and salvation.

Here’s the thing – a Christmas system based on getting what you deserve is contrary to the grace embodied in the first Christmas. Jesus was most definitely not what we deserved. That baby in the manger wasn’t a gift for the “nice” . . . Jesus was born to save the “naughty.” Us.

The apostle Paul was clear on this: “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the worst” (I Timothy 1:15).

I’ve written before that as a Christian and pastor I have no problem with Santa. I love Santa . . . because Santa loves all kids . . . not just the nice ones. I believe it is possible to incorporate Santa into our Christmas celebrations without losing the focus on God’s grace.

That means eliminating the naughty/nice stuff.  This is something my wife, Karen, taught me. Our kids knew they were going to get presents at Christmas because they were loved, not because they were “good.” Christmas is a great time to talk about God’s love for everyone. It’s the perfect opportunity for discussions about grace.

Christmas is about God’s no matter who you are, no matter what you have done love for the world. We celebrate because all of us sinners – all of us “naughty” folks – got not a lump of coal in our stockings, but rather a Babe in a Manger.

(NOTE: I have intentionally overstated my feelings about Elf on the Shelf. I am NOT saying that you can’t be a “good Christian” – whatever that means – and play Elf on the Shelf with you kids. I’m encouraging parents – and non-parents – to consider the messages we choose to convey about Christmas. But the Elf on the Shelf really does give me the willies.)

Posted in Christian Living, Christianity, Christmas | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Racism and White Privilege: Reflection and Confession

(NOTE: This post contains strong opinions and some strong language. Please keep in mind that this is my personal blog, and is not an official expression of my church or denomination.  Also, if the language bothers you more than the issues this post addresses, that might in itself be a catalyst for self-reflection . . .)

It was one of the many referrals (charging documents) I received as a Juvenile Probation Officer in the 90’s.  The police report said four young men had been walking along a town street and had come upon a kickball in the front yard of a home. One of them had kicked it, and they had proceeded to play with it down the street. The law enforcement officer had apprehended them in the act, returned the ball, and then charged them with theft. It was misdemeanor theft because the value of the stolen property was less than $300. Way less. One dollar and ninety-nine cents to be exact. None of them had previous records.

That same week, a young man in the same town stole a car. He took a joy ride that lasted until he was apprehended in the act. The car was returned to its owner, and the young man was taken into custody because of the seriousness of the offense. I was called because part of my job was to make emergency detention decisions. The young man had no record and his parents agreed to a curfew and other restrictions. So I let him go home and told him we would meet again after I received a referral from the law enforcement agency. A couple of days later I got a call – there would be no referral. The young man’s father was a friend of a law enforcement official, and they had “worked something out.”

Four kids were among those who ended up in the Juvenile Justice system that week. They had to come to my office with their parents over a $1.99 ball. Another kid, who stole a car, had things “worked out.”


You’ve probably already guessed – the kid with the car was white. The four who took the ball were African-American.


Let me be clear up front. I am not accusing any individual of racism. The law enforcement officer who charged the four kids with ball larceny probably did not know about the dropped car-theft charge, and vice-versa. Everyone most likely thought they were just doing their jobs . . . including me when I let the alleged car thief go home. It is not the individual actions and decisions but rather the comparative outcomes that are of concern.

It is the system that is racially rigged. It is our culture that is racially rigged.

Would four white kids kicking a ball down the street elicit a second glance? Perhaps they would even evoke a slight smile.

But four African-American kids in a mostly white neighborhood gets a, “I wonder what they’re up to?”

Getting the car-theft charge “taken care of” benefits everybody, doesn’t it? The kid is kept out of the system, and the system is freed to deal with more serious matters. The law enforcement official vouches for the family and its ability to take care of business without the system’s intervention. Tax money is saved!

This just illustrates the depth of the roots of white privilege. The African-American kids had no such connections, not because of anything they have done or haven’t done but because of a white-dominated power structure that predated their births by generations.

Don’t get too hung up on the specifics of this one incident. I was part of a justice system that then and now arrests and  incarcerates people of color at a significantly higher rate than it does white folks. Either you believe non-white folks are inherently more prone to criminal activity than people of European descent, or you acknowledge there is something systemic going on. Either you embrace racism, or you acknowledge systemic racism.

Take a look at the rates of arrest and incarceration for something like pot possession where usage rates are about the same, but where black folks are arrested and imprisoned far more often. Take a look at a for-profit prison system that thrives in a country where people are imprisoned at a proportion among the highest in the developed world and where most of those imprisoned are people of color. How can you not acknowledge there is a systemic cancer in our justice system, and that the cancer is racism?

It is not my intention to get into the specifics of the events surrounding the tragic death (and it is tragic, no matter what actually happened) of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri.

To focus only on the Brown/Wilson case is to miss the point. To endlessly debate the merits of Officer Wilson’s actions is a failure to listen to what the anger is about. The present incident is only a symbol for the harm done by generations of systemic racism and resulting white privilege in our country.

In my present profession, we sometimes better understand current congregational issues in light of controversies, conflicts, and pastoral improprieties that occurred in the sometimes long-ago past of a church. We talk about patterns that have become part of a church’s “DNA,” even when those who participated in the original incidents have moved on or died off. I was talking to some pastors recently about why it was difficult to get two nearby churches to cooperate – in part it is because of left-over hurt feelings from the founding of the churches decades ago. What it takes for such congregations to begin healing is to name those flaws in the DNA and to acknowledge their rootedness.

We must acknowledge that racism is a flaw in the DNA of this country. Racism is rooted in our power structures and systems.

It is time for those of us who have benefited from that system to listen to those who have been harmed. It is time for us to call out the power structures that have perpetuated the racial divide in our nation. I am reminded of something Martin Luther wrote in his Heidelberg Disputation – “A theologian of the cross calls a thing what it actually is.”

We white folks have to stop our avoidance of calling the things of racism and white privilege what they are. We deflect and deny with our protests of “I’m not prejudiced,” and the pathetic, “But I have black friends.” We claim to be color-blind. Let us call these things what they are. Bull.

The purported color-blindness is particularly problematic. Yes, many white folks are color-blind. We are also color-deaf and color-dumb. We don’t see or hear, and certainly we do not speak up for, those who have been and are harmed by the systems of racism and white power in our country.

We defend Officer Wilson’s actions, but we can’t see why people of color might have reason not to trust law enforcement. We debate the Grand Jury’s decision, but we don’t acknowledge that the secrecy of the grand jury process, rather than an open trial, might concern those who have been failed by the system over and over again. We don’t even understand why it might be problematic for a few KKK members to be part of a police force that patrols a community comprised of a majority of people of color.

The game has been played with loaded dice for many years. Now, we want those who have been bamboozled to forget all that. “Trust us, these are fair dice. I know we’ve said that before, but this time we mean it. . . Let’s roll.”

The more comforting narrative for us white folks is that the problem is not racism, but the behavior of black folks. Oh, not all of them, but certainly the “thugs” that are responsible for the current unrest.

I almost never watch television news, but I tuned in after the Grand Jury’s decision was announced. I switched back and forth between CNN and (God help me) Fox News, and was distressed by the tone of the coverage. Mostly it consisted of back-slapping parties where reporters stood around talking about how scared they were and how the tear gas had been such an ordeal for them. It seemed disappointing that the marchers were non-violent. They finally found some looters on which to focus . . . that certainly made better television  than the peaceful marchers and fit the desired narrative.

No time at all was spent talking about why folks might be so outraged. Anger is unexpressed hurt. Decrying theft and destruction – even when it is the exception – is easier than actually dealing with the underlying issues. Sure, looting is wrong.  The vast majority of marchers have not been looting. But perhaps we would benefit from some empathetic reflection about what would cause someone to be so bereft of hope that their response to perceived injustice is, “F– it, might as well grab some Stoli.”

I believe it is the same hopelessness that led to a too-common refrain heard from African American young people with whom I worked in my previous profession: “What difference does it make what I do? I’ll be dead or in jail before I’m 25.”

The unremitting hopelessness that pervades the lives of great swaths of our brothers and sisters should concern us; especially us Christians.

But our response too often is that people of color should just “get over it.” Sure, there were problems in the past but we’ve moved beyond all that.

One thing I learned very early in dealing with people who are hurting is that you only provoke anger, not healing, when you tell someone who has suffered a loss to “get over it.”

It is up to victims to decide when to “get over it.”

As a Christian, my faith must inform my response to systemic racism, and especially my response to those who have been, and are, impacted by it. Nowhere in Scripture does Jesus tell anyone in pain to “get over it.” Therefore, I must resist my urge when confronted with something as unpleasant as racism, from which I have undoubtedly benefited, to tell others who have been harmed to “get over it.”

Didn’t Jesus tell us to deal with the log in our own eye rather than the speck in our neighbor’s? The marches – and even the riots – are the speck. The log is racism and white privilege.

We must confess our complicity.

I confess that I have benefited from white privilege. I have benefited from white privilege every time I have walked into a store and not been viewed as a potential thief because of my skin color. I have benefited from white privilege every time my presence on the sidewalk has not been a source of fear for others I approach. I have benefited from white privilege in every interaction with police officers who have not felt the need to search my vehicle or to question my presence in a particular area (or to ask me if I have a right to be in this country).

I’ll close with another story, this one from a little farther back. It’s a small thing, but I would surmise that upon honest reflection most if not all white folks could find some similar examples in their own lives:

I was in a 7th Grade drafting class where we sat on tall metal stools in front of drafting boards. One day a student was crawling around on the floor, just goofing off. He kept shaking my chair while I was trying to use a compass or something. I got frustrated. So I pushed him with my foot. When you’re in 7th Grade sometimes you’re like Superman and don’t know your own strength. I pushed him a lot harder than I intended and he went skidding into the chair next to mine. The kid cut his arm on some sharp screw or whatever.

The commotion got the attention of the teacher. He asked what happened. The kid next to me said I had kicked the kid on the floor. I was clearly in the wrong. The kid on the floor was bleeding. The teacher sent us both to the office.

The Assistant Principal had forearms the size of most peoples’ thighs. The tattoos only made them seem meaner somehow. You didn’t want to get “swats” from Mr. Lomax.

So there I stood with the other kid in front of Mr. Lomax’s desk. Hanging on the wall behind him was his “Board of Education,” with holes drilled through to make it more aerodynamic.  Mr. Lomax asked me what happened. I had to think quick – I had never gotten swats in school and didn’t intend to start. But I didn’t have much practice lying to teachers, either. “My foot slipped off the bar at the bottom of the chair. It just slipped – I didn’t know he was there.”

The other kid protested. “He kicked me! Look, I’m bleeding.”

My story was totally preposterous. No way could I have done the damage if my foot had just “slipped.” But Mr. Lomax bought it. “You shouldn’t have been on the floor.”

I watched as the other kid got three swift swats.

I felt victorious. And I had been.

Did it make any difference that the kid I kicked was African-American, and that Mr. Lomax, the drafting teacher – and I – were white?

Of course it did.

When I returned to class, the (white) kid who sat next to me was outraged. Where I saw a victory, he saw injustice. He was willing to call it what it was.

Go and do likewise.

One more confession. I confess that I have no real idea what it is like to be a person of color in this culture. I have no right to speak for anyone else. I hope it is clear in this post that I am writing from my own perspective.  If those who read it do nothing else, I hope they will join me in listening to the voices of those who live in and with the consequences of systemic racism.

Posted in Christian Living, Christianity, Racism | Tagged , , , , | 1 Comment

The War on Rohatsu-Bodhi Day, and Gantan-sai, and . . .

Between now and New Year’s Day:

  • November 23 – Christ the King (Christian)
  • November 24 – Guru Tegh Bahadur martyrdom (Sikh)
  • November 26 – Day of the Covenant (Baha’i)
  • November 27 – Thanksgiving
  • November 28 – Ascension of Abdu’l-Baha (Baha’i)
  • November 30 – St. Andrew’s Day / 1st Advent (Christian)
  • December 6 – St. Nicholas Day (Christian)
  • December 8 – Rohatsu – Bodhi Day (Buddhist)
  • December 8 – Immaculate Conception of Mary (Christian)
  • December 12 – Feast Day of Our Lady of Guadalupe (Christian – Catholic)
  • December 16-25 Posades Navidenas (Christian)
  • December 17-24 Hanukkah (Jewish)
  • December 21 – Yule (Christian)
  • December 21 – Yule (Wicca northern hemisphere)
  • December 21 – Litha (Wicca southern hemisphere)
  • December 24 – Christmas Eve (Christian)
  • December 25 – Christmas (Christian)
  • December 26 – Zarathosht Diso (Zoroastrian)
  • December 28 – Holy Innocents (Christian)
  • January 1 – Mary Mother of God (Christian – Catholic)
  • January 1 – Feast of St. Basil (Christian – Orthodox)
  • January 1 – Gantan-sai (Shinto)

No way can I keep all that straight, nor can I know who is celebrating what.  So . . .

Happy Holidays!

Source for Holidays: Interfaith Calendar


Posted in Arts and Culture, Christmas, Faith | Tagged , , , | 4 Comments

Review and Reflection: “Birdman”

birdman poster

“Birdman,” and this post, are rated “R” for adult language and themes.

When we think of “breathtaking” films what usually come to mind are epic spectacles of sound and fury. But “Birdman” is a film that takes one’s breath away through the transcendence of the art form of film itself. “Birdman” is an amazing, synergistic achievement of artists at the height of their power. The result is both enthralling and exhausting; “Birdman” achieves a rare existential immediacy that is a thrilling reminder of what filmmakers, and indeed artists of all sorts, can attain.

in “Birdman,” Director Alejandro González Iñárritu (“Babel,” “21 Grams”) and Director of Photography Emmanuel Lubezki create the illusion of one uninterrupted take. There are no visible cuts in “Birdman;” the camera follows the characters through the labyrinthine corridors of the St. James Theater, onto the stage and out into the streets of New York.  Lubezki has achieved legendary results with long takes in films like “Children of Men” and “Gravity,” but in “Birdman” the seamless nature of the entire film contributes to the edge-of-your-seat experience. It is like watching an intricate dance where every precise movement contributes to the majesty of the whole.

All that, and it’s laugh-out-loud funny as well. A discussion of the serious themes of “Birdman” should not overshadow the fun of the film. There is plenty of snappy, clever dialogue as well as perfectly timed slapstick. You can amuse yourself counting the pop-culture name drops (from George Clooney to Justin Bieber) that are almost always biting references (Hugh Jackman’s not available for a serious role because he’s “shooting the prequel to the prequel of “Wolverine.”)

Sure, it’s a dark comedy.  There’s no happy ending (maybe . . . there is some ambiguity at the finish) where everything is neatly tied up. Like life. This is a film that earns its laughs by dissecting the faults and fears of its characters who are, if we are honest, a lot like us. We may not be actors and actresses like the people who populate “Birdman,” but we too struggle with the questions the film deconstructs.

What is it that gives us significance?  How do we know we really matter? What does it mean to be loved?

Those concerns are immediately raised by the Raymond Carver epigraph (that is carved on his tombstone) with which director Iñárritu begins the film:

And did you get what
you wanted from this life, even so?
I did.
And what did you want?
To call myself beloved, to feel myself
beloved on the earth.


riggan and birdman

What Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton) wants is to be taken seriously.  Once he had everything that is supposed to make us happy. He was rich and famous. He was “Birdman,” a super-hero movie phenomenon. But he walked away from all that in the 90’s when he turned down $15 million to star in “Birdman IV.” His career spiraled downward, and now, he laments, “I’m a f—ing Trivial Pursuit question.”  Riggan’s final hope for significance – and love – is to write, direct, and star in a Broadway adaptation of the Raymond Carver short story, “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love.”

Riggan has poured everything into the play – all of his money, all of his credibility and connections, all of himself. But as the film begins, Riggan is experiencing nothing but obstacles in his Don Quixote-esque quest. Not the least of which is that he apparently is slipping into (or has already entered)  insanity. . . maybe; There is a magical realism element to the film that leaves the viewer questioning just what exactly is “real.”

Riggan is not only unable to shed his “Birdman” legacy with the public – A reporter asks, “Are you afraid people will say you’re doing this play to battle the impression that you’re a washed-up comic strip character?” – but that comic book character is a part of him, speaking to him, appearing to him, perhaps giving him telekinetic powers. Who is Riggan – is he Birdman, or vice versa?

Riggan wants to be known as a serious actor, not a superhero character. But in a way he wants what superheroes have – to be universally beloved. That is, of course, tragically unattainable. That Riggan is indeed a tragic, flawed character is vividly highlighted in a scene in which he walks the streets of New York and is confronted by a street-actor noisily emoting MacBeth’s “Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow” speech that ends with the declaration that life is “is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.”


Emma Stone brilliantly plays Riggan’s truth-telling daughter, Sam. She’s just out of rehab, her life a mess in no small part because her father’s quest to be universally beloved has neglected those closest to him. In an amazing speech both in content and delivery, she excoriates Riggan’s desire to find significance by mounting  “a play based on a book that was written 60 years ago, for a thousand rich old white people, whose only real concern is going to be where they can go to have their cake and coffee when it’s over.” (Watch her face as the camera lingers in closeup after she is done her diatribe . . . The way she wordlessly conveys her realization that she’s said too much too harshly is simply awesome acting.)

But . . . as much as Sam belittles her father’s quest for significance, she has her own concept of what makes one matter.  She constantly berates Riggan for his lack of presence on social media. When Riggan ends up walking through the crowded streets of New York in his underpants (a hilarious scene that actually makes sense in the context of the film), she is elated when raw video of the incident shows up on YouTube and instantly gets hundreds of thousands of views. Sam’s idea of what makes one significant is ultimately just as hollow as Riggan’s.

This is a film where people get what they thought they wanted and it only results in more longing when it turns out not to be what they thought it would be.  Naomi Watts plays an actress who is finally attains her dream of performing on Broadway, but finds she is still dealing with the same stuff – especially her same self – as she was before. Edward Norton‘s character is a Broadway star, but the magic of the theater has morphed for him into jaded cynicism. When Emma Stone’s Sam asks what he’d like to do to her, his answer signifies yearning  – he says he’d like to scoop out her eyeballs and put them in his head, so that he can see Broadway like he did when he was young.

Film Fall Preview

Yeah, that sounds weird . . . but Edward Norton’s character, Mike Shiner, is a weird dude. He is the embodiment of a narcissistic actor.  He says he can only be himself on stage; everywhere else he’s acting. Speaking of acting, they might as well close the nominations for Best Supporting Actor at next year’s Academy Awards. They don’t need to nominate anyone else based on  just his very first scene.  In it, he dominates a read-through with Michael Keaton while managing a tour-de-force of acting in just one scene.  It is an incredible performance, as is his later destruction of a preview performance in which he ends up declaring that he will act with a chicken leg because it is “the only real thing on this stage.”

Norton is also part of the meta fun in “Birdman.” In this film about a washed-up former comic book movie-star, we have a former “Incredible Hulk” (Norton), a man who walked away from the Tim Burton “Batman” franchise (Keaton, whose post-Batman life has been nothing like Riggan’s), and a star in the “Spiderman” franchise (Stone).

The acting in “Birdman” is so strong it would be worth seeing it even if all the other elements weren’t so extraordinary. I should also mention Zach Galifianakis as Riggan’s best friend/business manager/producer Jake.  I confess I have never liked Galifianakis in anything I have seen, but he does great work here as sort of the straight-man with the Sisyphean task of keeping everything backstage, including his unhinged star, together.

So, yeah,  I liked “Birdman.”  I rarely see movies more than once at the theater, but I’ll go back. I want to try to find the disguised cuts in Lubezki’s cinematography, to hear some of the fast-paced dialogue that I missed the first time. I want to revel in artists doing what artists do, using their talents to force us out of ourselves for a while.

But at the same time, they force us to look at ourselves in new and sometimes uncomfortable ways. Certainly, as a Christian I have very specific answers to the questions the film poses – I get my significance from being a child of God, I know that I am beloved by God.  In my worldview, looking for meaning elsewhere is inevitably deficient or even futile.

As a human, though, I know that I do look for significance in other places. I want to be “beloved” and taken seriously. I want my life to matter. I don’t always fulfill these quests in the most healthy or altruistic ways.  Even pastors try to accomplish significance through growing churches or perfect programs or excellent preaching. The issues in “Birdman” are universal.

I saw “Birdman” with my wife and my 23-year old son. We went out to dinner afterward and talked about the film throughout. We discussed it on the way home. This morning as we got ready for the day, my wife and I talked about it some more. And we didn’t just talk about the superb film-making or what actually happened in the ambiguous parts; we tried to get at what it all meant. That is testament to “Birdman’s”  power and relevance.

“Birdman” is only in limited release right now, but I hope it finds a wide audience. At one point in the film, the Birdman apparition (or whatever he is) says to Riggan, “People, they love blood. They love action. Not this talky, depressing, philosophical bullshit.”

I hope he’s wrong.

NOTE: The full title of the film is “Birdman, or the Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance.” To use the full title in this post would have made it even longer.


Posted in Arts and Culture, Christian Living, Movies | Tagged , , , , , | 1 Comment

Death With Dignity? (The question of Physician Assisted Suicide)

“Agnes” had lived long enough. The disease ravaging her lungs had downsized her once vigorous lifestyle. She couldn’t spend her days “out visiting.” Her children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren had to come to her now.  Not too long ago, just getting out of bed was a victory.

Now, even turning over left her gasping for breath. She was confined to the bed. And not her own bed. She lay in a hospital bed sucking on an oxygen mask stuck to her face 24/7. She’d had enough.

One evening she made calls to the family and to her pastor. The pastor had been eating dinner with his family when his cell rang, but he came right away. There was finality in Agnes’s voice that couldn’t be put off.

When everyone had crammed into the small hospital room, Agnes asked the pastor to read her favorite Psalm. She inhaled the words of Psalm 139 about being knit together in her mother’s womb, about being fearfully and wonderfully made, about God’s promise to always be with her.

Then she asked the pastor to pray. He did his best.

It was after the prayer that Agnes started asking members of her family to remove the oxygen mask that was keeping her alive. No one would – or could – do it.

So she raised an unsteady hand to her face. She fumbled with the mask and the bands that held it in place. She shot an exasperated look at her clan. Then she yanked off the mask.

Agnes managed a prayer, a plea, perhaps a statement of defiance: “Thy . . . will . . . be . . . done.”

Then she closed her eyes.

Anyone in the room could have replaced the mask and prolonged her life.

No one did.

Twenty minutes or so later, Agnes breathed her last. She had died on her terms.

In my roles as pastor and blogger, I’ve been asked about what has been labeled “Death with Dignity” or “Physician Assisted Suicide.” Let me first admit that I have mixed feelings about this matter. I can’t help but think of Agnes’s last minutes, nor can I disregard the other folks I have been honored to accompany in their last moments or hours. Each time I have been present at the time of death has been a holy experience. Often that final encounter has been preceded with meetings and decisions about continuing treatment, signing DNR (Do Not Resuscitate) Orders and so on. Decisions around death are burdensome in no small part because of their finality . . . there is no changing one’s mind once life has ended.

Recent inquiries about the issue of assisted suicide were spurred by the publicity attending the death of Brittany Maynard. While I am willing to address the issue, I will be cautious as to the particular situation of Brittany Maynard. While much has been reported in the press and shared directly by Ms. Maynard and her family, it is impossible to know all the details of her situation. Although it is unlikely that her family would ever read this, it would be nothing but hurtful at this point to castigate decisions made out of love. (“Christians” have done enough of that already.)  I believe that in circumstances such as these most people truly do the best they can. It is not for me to judge Brittany Maynard or her loved ones, but rather to continue to pray for them as they grieve.

After all, is what Brittany Maynard ultimately decided really that different from what Agnes chose? Both had reached a point beyond which they felt they could not endure life any more. Both made a choice to end their lives sooner than they could have been extended.

Is what Brittany Maynard chose really that different from what we chose for my mother? Alzheimer’s and other ailments had completely incapacitated her. Treatment for anything but pain was ended, and extraordinary means of providing nourishment were withdrawn. My mother died of “natural causes,” but her life certainly could have been prolonged, such as it was.

In making pronouncements we must be careful to remember that these are weighty issues freighted with not just our fears and hopes about death but with what it means to be alive. We must be careful not to judge those who come to different conclusions as they watch a loved one suffer and lose their very identity . . . or who suffer themselves.

But I believe there is a distinction, however fine, between withholding treatment and actively causing death. There is a difference between Agnes removing the mask that was providing “extra” oxygen and suffocating someone. Ceasing extraordinary medical intervention for my mom is different than administering medications that cause death.

My conviction about that difference is rooted in my faith. I believe that we are, in the words of Psalm 139, “Fearfully and wonderfully made.” I believe that we are made “imago dei” – in the very image of God.

And I believe that every human being is therefore a sacred creation.  Deliberately ending a human life is contrary to God’s desire.

I want to live in a culture that values and celebrates life, and fear that allowing the taking of life always diminishes its value. I may be wrong, but I choose to err on the side of life whether the issue is assisted suicide or abortion or the death penalty or war.

I am not someone who blithely parrots the “party line,” but I believe my denomination’s (ELCA) “Social Message on End of Life Decisions” gets it just right. Here’s an excerpt:

The integrity of the physician-patient relationship is rooted in trust that physicians will act to preserve the life and health of the patient. Physicians and other health care professionals also have responsibility to relieve suffering. This responsibility includes the aggressive management of pain, even when it may result in an earlier death.

However, the deliberate action of a physician to take the life of a patient, even when this is the patient’s wish, is a different matter. As a church we affirm that deliberately destroying life created in the image of God is contrary to our Christian conscience. While this affirmation is clear, we also recognize that responsible health care professionals struggle to choose the lesser evil in ambiguous borderline situations—for example, when pain becomes so unmanageable that life is indistinguishable from torture.

We oppose the legalization of physician-assisted death, which would allow the private killing of one person by another. Public control and regulation of such actions would be extremely difficult, if not impossible. The potential for abuse, especially of people who are most vulnerable, would be substantially increased.

Beyond what might be called an “ethics of life” that resists physician assisted suicide, I worry most about that last sentence in the quoted material. As a Christian, I am called to care especially for the people Jesus seemed most concerned about, those who have been termed “the lost, the last, and the left out.” People who are disabled or diseased or otherwise disadvantaged would be most at risk of being adversely affected by society’s acceptance of physician assisted suicide. Medical care is expensive, especially end of life care; certainly there are those who would benefit from another’s premature exit from this life.. No matter how carefully statutes are constructed that legalized physician assisted suicide, vulnerable people will most certainly be pressured to make irrevocable decisions.

The irrevocability of the decision for suicide also gives me pause. I have met many folks who have desired to end their life, but who have received treatment and gone on to live fulfilling lives full of love given and received. Of course people will find a way to commit suicide whether it is assisted by a physician or not, but the last thing we need to do in a world where depression is an unfortunate reality for many is to make taking one’s own life easier or normalized.

Perhaps the best response for those of us concerned about “death with dignity” is to do what we can to make sure everyone has the opportunity for a “life with dignity.” It is also crucial that we support movements such as hospice that are attendant to suffering of both patients and loved ones, with a goal that every death is a “death with dignity” as much as is possible; but acknowledging that “dignity” does not mean total control (which is always an illusion anyway) but rather embraced by love and compassion.

Finally, as Christians it is important to meet those who disagree with us not with judgment but with grace. Let us remember that suicide is not the, or even an, unforgivable sin. It is crucial that we listen before we preach, if we are indeed called to preach at all. We must hear the agonized suffering of those who would desire physician assisted suicide, and pray them into the hands of the Great Physician who promises an eternity free from suffering and even death, where God will wipe every tear from our eyes.

NOTE: To protect privacy, not only was “Agnes’s” name changed but also some of the details of her story were altered.

Posted in Christian Living, Christianity, ELCA, End of Life, Lutheran Theology, Psalm 139 | Tagged , , , , | 2 Comments

Grace and Consequences

popewithmehmetOn May 13, 1981, Pope John Paul II entered St. Peter’s Square in the Vatican.   Mehmet Ali Ağca was waiting with a gun. Ağca pulled the trigger. Four bullets hit the pope, and he was rushed to the hospital where he eventually recovered from his wounds. Ağca was immediately taken into custody.

Just after Christmas in 1983, Pope John Paul II entered a cell in an Italian prison. He took Ağca’s hand in his own and looked his would-be assassin in the eye. Then the pope forgave the man that tried to kill him.  The pontiff later said, “What we talked about will have to remain a secret between him and me, I spoke to him as brother whom I have forgiven, and who has my complete trust.”

That’s an amazing story of grace. As I wrote in posts about grace last Thursday and Friday, grace is undeserved forgiveness. But I recount the story here not just because of the pope’s forgiveness, but because  Mehmet Ali Ağca remained in prison until 2010.

The pope forgave Mehmet Ali Ağca, but there are still consequences for Ağca’s actions.

We hesitate to extend grace, and even doubt that God might be graceful with “some people,” because we fear it is equivalent to letting someone off the hook for the consequences of their actions.

But that is not the case. Even though I know I am forgiven by God for everything I have done or will do, there will still be earthly consequences when I inevitably screw up. That is good for me – I need to learn from my missteps – and for those around me.

As a parent, when my children misbehaved I certainly forgave them. But there were consequences . . . how else would they learn?

When I share the grace I have received from God and forgive someone who does not deserve it and/or has not asked for it, that does not mean that I roll over and invite them to harm me again.

If another person betrays my trust by sharing a confidence, I will (hopefully) forgive them, but may not let them in on anything that I don’t want to be public knowledge.

Nowhere in the Bible does it say that we must “Forgive and forget.” To forgive is to extend grace; to forget may be just plain stupid.

Amazingly, it is only GOD who forgives and forgets! (Hebrews 8:12, Isaiah 43:25). How an omniscient God forgets all the times I have fallen short is certainly a mystery, but it is truly a wonderful promise.

This is Domestic Violence Awareness Month, so let me close this brief discussion of the distinction between grace and pardon from consequences with a confession on behalf of the church that I serve. I don’t mean the particular congregation, but rather the church of Jesus Christ historically. For many years it was the practice – and unfortunately still is in in some places – that women who were abused were instructed to “forgive and forget” in the name of grace and to preserve the “sanctity of marriage.”

The church has been just plain wrong in those instances. It has confused the meaning of grace. Certainly, at some point and with God’s help women will hopefully be able to release themselves by forgiving their abusers.  But that does not mean that they should have to return to be hurt again and again. The “sanctity of marriage” was already violated by their abusers.

And grace, whether extended by God or by others, does not mean there are no earthly consequences.

Posted in Christian Living, Christianity, Lutheran, Lutheran Theology | Tagged , , , , | 2 Comments

Grace? I Object!

i-objectI have heard all the objections to grace.

I have spoken them myself.

The primary objections are these: It’s too easy! It’s not fair!

I hear them every time I teach or preach about grace. I heard some of them yesterday in response to my post, “Grace Has No ‘If.'”  The funny thing is that almost all the folks who get offended by God’s extravagant grace are folks who are already in the church.

We’ve got to keep out the undesirables, you know. At least until they clean themselves up. (Until they’re really sorry.)

Yeah, that sounds like Jesus . . . Jesus who hung out with tax collectors and prostitutes. Jesus who pronounced forgiveness before it was asked for – before folks even knew he had the authority to forgive. (See the story of the paralyzed guy brought to Jesus by his friends in Mark 2. The dude never speaks, much less asks for forgiveness.)

We want to impose our broken human concept of forgiveness onto God. But God won’t have it. God proclaims and exclaims GRACE through the cross.

You know, the cross where Jesus died for us “while we were still sinners” (Romans 5:8).

Good Christian folks are scandalized by grace. So we add conditions to God’s gift . . . we add “if’s” to God’s grace.

As if we have that authority!

The biggest if  . . . “You’ve got to ask for forgiveness or God won’t give it to you.”

If that’s the case, then all of us are going to hell.

There is no way that we can ask God’s forgiveness for every way we fall short.

For one thing, we sin so often we’re bound to forget some when we get around to asking for forgiveness.

Also,  because we’re human we are masters of rationalization. We’ll never ask for forgiveness for some things because we’ll never realize we were wrong to do – or not to do – them.

And then there’s the fact that we are bound to get some things wrong about what’s a sin and what isn’t. Different denominations disagree about the rules . . . if our salvation depends on finding the church that gets everything right, then we’re all in trouble because none does (including mine . . . I’m sure I’ll have some “aha” – and “oh crap” – moments in eternity).

I’m preaching about the Ten Commandments this Sunday. There are wildly different interpretations of what just those ten basic rules mean. Just take a look at “Don’t Murder.” Do I violate that one if I kill in self-defense? In war? What if I’m on the “wrong” side of a war? What about abortion? What about abortion in cases of rape or incest or fetal abnormality? Jesus said if you’re angry at someone you’ve broken that commandment. What if I’m angry for a “good” reason?

And on and on.  That’s just one commandment.

If my salvation depends on my asking forgiveness every time I sin, then I darn well better get exactly right what is and isn’t a sin. I never will. Not in this life.

Even if we do our best to ask for forgiveness – and mean it! – for every time for fall short, death will eventually get in the way.

Suppose I’m driving too fast one night and my car slams into a tree. My last word will probably not be a good one. I may even take the Lord’s name in vain.

I don’t believe my salvation is so tenuous that it is threatened by my final, unconfessed exclamation!

My salvation doesn’t depend on me. Thank God.

My salvation depends not on my imperfect faith but on God’s perfect faithfulness.

My salvation depends on God’s grace.

No “If’s” about it.

(Monday I’ll deal with some other objections to grace, including the one that we “Let someone off the hook” when we forgive them unconditionally. But grace is NOT the same as pardon . . . more on that Monday.)

Posted in Christian Living, Christianity, Faith, Lutheran, Lutheran Theology, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , | 4 Comments