Songs speak to me and I’ve come to see songs that define/interpret me are Let It Be by The Beatles, Simple Man by Lynyrd Skynyrd, 500 Miles by Peter, Paul and Mary, Forever by Stratovarius, and Imagine by The Beatles.
When it comes to my life—-I am a simple man full of imagination who waits for Love to come and make all things new as I let it (whatever it is) be.
I see neither need nor benefit in seeking to use government, religion, or any another system, to force others into adopting, obeying, suffering under the affliction/infliction of what I believe or think to be best, even if I perceive it is the highest and best good for all.
I do not have the answers for others, and barely know how to form the questions to seek answers of my own.
I seek to deny myself and I hope others take the same tact with regard to me. This rarely makes me popular. And I am totally okay with the lack of popularity. What I’m not okay with is the lack of love that comes my way from those who believe I ought to think, practice, become a carbon-copy of their theology, and live as they do in their corner o’ creation.
Out of this space I live and breathe, and I teach and preach, and daily minister as a pastor in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. (ELCA) The Christian denomination in which I serve is a “hodge podge” collection of people who can be milk-toast about certain things yet in the very same moment be passionately exuberant about other things. We range from stolid to vibrant, from banal to eclectic, traditional to progressive—-and until recently I would have been willing to say one of the most amazingly tolerant places in the Christian landscape.
As of late (the past 10 years or so) I have come to regularly wonder why those on the far sides of issues are so loudly crying out when things don’t suit them, kind of reminds me of how I get when people don’t please me—and there’s the problem—-looking to be pleased by others, perhaps even expecting it. Self-centrism.
Cryin’ out that the metaphoric milk is 2% rather than whole milk, cryin’ out that this one fits and that one doesn’t, bemoaning that we went too far on this, that, or the other, while simultaneously others in our denominational family cry out that we haven’t gone far enough on this, that, or the other. In all of this I think the whole of us keeps missing the overarching point—denial of self.
Right now in my denomination we discern our identity. I do not think we realize that the Holy Spirit has brought us to this discernment place. We are so passionately engaged in the specifics of our identity discussions that we’ve somehow missed that the Holy Spirit has truly brought us to holy ground. ELCA Lutherans of all theological stripes are called to discernment and in this discerning mix I am a “Traditionalist.”
The moment you read that word you probably went—“Oh, Sweet Jesus, a fundamentalist bible-thumper who believes…..,” and to that I’d say, “Hush, all of that is coming out of you, stop projecting your gunk on to me.” Let me flesh out what that means for me rather than have you paint your projections on to my wall. Allow me the gift to offer myself to you as I am, not as you paint me out to be.
And right there is where the breakdown in relationship with others in my denomination occurs–labeling and projecting–and it hurts. But—I know if others are labeling and projecting then I’m probably doing it, too, and probably doing it so naturally out of the depths of my identity to the end that I am blind to my own participation in the problem. This is the space where we pitch grace out the door in favor of shutting ourselves inside with liked-minded folk.
Yet—all the same—I am a “Traditionalist.” And because I am a “Traditionalist,” here’s where the struggle becomes very real for me.
In Luke 9:23, …[Jesus] said to them all, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me.” Jesus says this within the context of his impending death and in advance of his triumphant resurrection.
Self-denial is articulated by Jesus as the means by which one follows Jesus and by which we become followers conformed into a daily pattern of taking up our cross.
Here are the crosses that I perceive that I daily bear:
1) I often feel that I do not measure up—the toll paid out of me as a consequence of the alcoholic system in which I was raised.
2) I am afraid of claiming or celebrating my own successes—feel guilty for saying to myself, “Wow, you really did a good turn there.”
3) I constantly worry about my weight, yet do very little to address it through exercise, etc.
4) Although I eschew gossip, if not careful, I will get pulled into it through curiosity or boredom.
5) Apathy—because others in my home are not as gung-ho about order, I resentfully do as much as I do and feel incredibly angry if others don’t pitch in to help or get self-motivated and clean up after themselves.
6) I obsess about things written or typed. I revise blog posts, one up to 17 times. And when it comes to sermons, I spend 10-15 hours producing them, then daily revisit them to edit, re-write, toss and recreate.
7) And this list could just keep going……..and would include things like lusting after Sandra Bullock, being incredibly proud over certain smug things, not having the courage to address injustices, and selling myself short—or as some have told me—“dumbing yourself down to fit in certain groups.”
Those are some of the things I have to daily take up on my cross, as I deny myself both the poverty and luxury of letting the god-of-myself control me through my sinful: thoughts, deeds, words, feelings, behaviors, etc. Some days I do better at this than others. It all comes down to identity. Martin Luther calls this “daily returning to our baptism.”
Baptism—-that is where I gained my truest identity, perhaps you did, too—God’s own forever. End of story. All other identities are sub-ordinate–including identities like confessionalist, progressive, liberal, traditionalist. Oh yes, we can take our positions to be our identities rather than our Baptism. I can “pay the rent” to any and all identities other than Baptism but then I am abdicating baptismal identity for a subordinate identity other than my truest identity given in Baptism.
There’s where the challenge begins. Baptism was the vehicle that gave me a new identity yet try as I might to simply embrace that identity, my delight in sin compels me to invent, embrace, or have imposed upon me other identities. And as I try on these new identities, like a new pair of slacks, I cover up, deny, disfigure the only true identity I have—the one I received in Baptism. My attempts to take on these subordinate identities is called sin. If I want to be Sandra Bullock‘s sex toy—that is sin. If I opt to wallow in my insecurities rather than face them and grow—that is sin. If I tell stories, true or false, about others that blacken their character—-that is sin. If I take on resentments because others aren’t like me or won’t please me—that is sin. If I dumb myself down to fit into groups, to be affirmed by them—that is sin.
Sin is universal, communal, and pandemic. It makes the common cold look nearly extinct in the face of its broad rampancy.
All people are sinners. The baptized are both saint and sinner at once. That is the view I take—not a new notion, was kicking around in the days of John Hus and finely articulated by Martin Luther. But—St. Augustine was pumping out volumes that gave rise to this thought stream, may even be its first to put it out there into the universe aside from Saint Paul.
We are all sinners. Sin is sin—being drunk is no lesser a sin than murder.
Society creates graduations of sin making one seem the greater or the lesser. But—sin is simply sin. That lie you told the collection agent about when the bill was mailed out is every bit as sinful as the lie another told who cheated on their taxes. It’s all sin to God—any segregation and graduation of sin is done by humans seeking to feel better about themselves at the expense of others.
The opposite of denial of self is gratification of self. It is the total opposite of Luke 9:23.
Look at it this way. Why lie about the mailing out of a bill? To bless myself with the aversion of a late fee and ’cause it feels good to get one over on another, or to keep the cable channels from being turned off until the bill is paid ’cause that’s what entertains me. Why lie on income taxes? To bless myself with more money ’cause that’s what brings me security and ’cause I may feel that the money belongs to me and not to those who didn’t earn it. And when it comes to sexual sin—the reason we do it is because it feels good—so damned good.
Yet sexual sin is still sin. For a “Traditionalist”—any sex outside of a male-female marriage is sin. I believe that giving someone a blow job on grad week is every bit as sinful as sleeping with someone other than my wife. And that is because pleasure is being sought apart from the pattern that has been outlined in scripture. For this “Traditionalist” neither the Orthodox, nor the Roman side of Christianity, nor a huge chunk of Protestantism has erred in 2000 years of discernment on the matter.
Why? Because it comes down to self-denial. I believe that we have to take up our cross and that could mean a life of celibacy. That could mean a life of being in Alcoholics Anonymous. That could mean any one of a host of things that deny self. Denying self to point to Jesus is worth more than self-gratification. Currently I am on a diet and I am fight myself tooth and nail not to cheat, give-up, and pig-out—-but to make a life pattern of giving in, cheating, and going whole hog would take me into ugly health spaces. I think God desires better for me, better for us, in these regards.
And right now—I am fairly certain some readers have already gotten into their ugly space thinking I am mean or hardhearted. I am neither. I am simply offering the truth of where I am. And the beauty of this is that there are others who I love and who love me that see this totally , TOTALLY differently. And I don’t want to be Church without them; I am also hope they don’t want to be Church without me.
To this end—I am totally fine being in a denomination with others, many whom I dearly love, who do not share this “Traditionalist” view. I confess that I believe that it is only through denial of self that humans can model the risen Christ. The God who thought creation worth denying self and dying for is one whom we ought to esteem worthy of denying self and living for—and that means a great deal of self-denial. Others offer differing views on this take, and that is totally fine. Not everyone is a “Traditionalist.”
Part of my self-denial is not seeking to push this view on others and in return hoping that they have the grace not to push their views on to me. And here’s where grace comes into play—-must we be in agreement to love one another? I don’t think so.
Many of those dear to me have totally different takes on matters than me and when they allow me the grace to be loved by them where I am in my journey, it reinforces and inspires me to offer grace to love them where they are at in their journey—-unity in diversity. It really is possible. This is not about “a house divided.” This is about “a house redefined.”
Numerous colleagues and friends see sex within a committed framework as totally fine, worthy of celebration in both civil and religious contexts. I am simply not in that same space as a consequence of my theological understandings and misgivings. Those friends and colleagues are in their spaces as a consequence of their theological understandings and misgivings. We are all lovers of Jesus, faithfully discerning, and coming to different ends. It really does come down to interpretation of scriptures and traditions.
Yet there is hope to be had in this space. The Holy Spirit is bringing us to an unexplored country and we can see this as an adventure rather than John’s Apocalypse. We truly can. God is in this space doing something that we cannot see and may only weakly perceive.
So with my dear friends who celebrate marriage equality, I celebrate civil rights. I celebrate civil marriages to the skies, yet in the very same moment I can neither perform nor bless the same gender unions of those friends in a marriage rite of the Church. (would joyfully refer them out to another cleric with a different theological take than my own, even attend the wedding if desired) It all comes down to denial of self for me. And it is not about prejudice, it is about a theological perspective that I sift through daily, because I love (even crave) human approval so much that I want to be able to bless everything and everyone, and be blessed by everything and everyone.
This is a tough space in which to struggle. It is more painful than joyful most days.
So I hope those who are not of the “Traditionalist” understanding can celebrate that I am in a theological place that comes from an authentic understanding of baptismal identity. Note that I said, “an authentic,” rather than “the authentic.” My friends who are in other theological spaces will simply have to put up with me and love me where I am as I do the same in like and kind. If we judge one another rather than love one another then we have to own that our theological understanding has become more valuable to us than our love of others. And if this world is going to see Jesus—both his impending death and resurrection—making a difference in us—-that’s a space in ourselves that we all ought to deny before it takes root, seizes hold of us, and grows into something ugly.
This is how I see it, ’cause when it comes to my life—-I am a simple man full of imagination who waits for Love to come and make all things new as I let it (whatever it is) be.