I have often heard people say, “I’m spiritual, but not religious.” Often, these are people I hang around with and with whom I share common spiritual sentiments. When questioned, these SBNR folk (spiritual but not religious) usually say something about the restriction of spiritual freedom. The word, “dogma” is often used. I am sympathetic with the desire for spiritual freedom. But, I find the Gospel to nurture spiritual freedom rather than repress it. I grieve that my friends heard a repressive Gospel somewhere. The reason a church might use fear to manipulate people lies at the heart of why the Gospel is liberating. The Gospel is liberating because it frees us from ourselves. Our will is captive to sin, but faith in Jesus Christ provides the way to freedom. Martin Luther captured these contrasting ideas in his two treatises, “The Bondage of the Will,” and “On the Freedom of a Christian.” Let me use the recent “Twilight” scandal for instance. Twilight star, Kristen Stewart, had an affair on her boyfriend, co-star Rob Pattinson, which will likely break up the relationship though she has expressed her regret and apology. Fans are upset. “How could she do such a thing?” they ask. Fans adore the couple and painfully expressed their sadness and anger over her fling. We crave the chaste, monogamous, committed relationship formerly portrayed by the couple because we are created with this expectation. But, because our will is in bondage to sin, it can’t be counted on to follow through with what’s best for us –unless we hand it over to our creator and move forward in life with a partnership with God. Within this partnership, the “restrictions” on our freedom take on the characteristic of being helpful, rather than harmful. In this light, the “dogma” of religion, in this case, the dogma of mutual, chaste, committed relationships. Sad to say, this dogma is so necessary that Kristen and Rob will probably not be able to put their relationship back together, but forgiveness is available from God, if not from Rob, and Kristen will hopefully move forward with a new understanding of the sanctity of marriage. This is the “good news” of Jesus Christ.
As I picked my donut off the tray and slid a cup of coffee into my hand, I felt nervous about how I was going to meet people. It was my first day at Bethlehem Lutheran Church and I had stayed for the fellowship time just so I could meet people. I had decided to actually join a church and Bethlehem was it. It hadn’t been too long before that I had first stepped into a church after a 5 year hiatus. And now I was actually joining this thriving Christian community in south Minneapolis. But everybody was busy greeting their friends and I was anxious about breaking the ice. Then up sidled Rudy. Rudy seemed like he didn’t belong in a church. He was obviously rough around the edges –he broke the ice with an off-color joke, one of many I was to hear in the weeks to come. “Hey, come on over guys! Meet the new guy!” “Sledge hammer” would describe Rudy’s welcoming style. The church is anything but perfect, but people like Rudy keep it honest. Unfortunately, I don’t have Rudy’s natural humility. I kept my distance for a long time -5 years. I tried atheism, agnosticism, Eastern religion, even yoga. All good, but all lacking. None touched on the personal God of Christianity. That God could love me as a person as if God were a person himself or herself was the most astounding thing to me. But, that only opened my heart to the recognition that God loves everybody like that. And so I stepped back into church. Previously, I had regarded what they did in church as cartoonish and the people as hypocrits. But, seeing the Church as the place where people who love God gather, no matter how cartoonish or imperfect it may be, changed that and I matured spiritually that day.
I have conducted many funerals in my tenure as a Pastor at St. Olaf. Sometimes there are unresolved issues. At one funeral, a woman came up to the podium to share some memories about her mother. She did not come up alone, but was accompanied by another woman. Everyone knew right away that the other woman was her lesbian partner. Many of us wondered, “What is she going to say? Will she have good memories to share or bitter ones? Was she accepted by her mother or rejected?” I was relieved when she launched into some humorous memories of her mother. Her mother obviously accepted her as a lesbian. Then she recounted how her mother had also accepted her partner, who had not been so fortunate with her own mother. After the funeral, I ran into this woman as she was leaving the church. “It’s been a long time since I’ve been in one of these,” she volunteered. “Do you mean a church,” I asked. “Yes,” she said. “We’re not welcome here.” “But, you are welcome here,” I said. “Just as God created you.” I added this last sentence to let her know that the welcome wasn’t contingent upon her changing her orientation. “Let me show you our newsletter,” I said. I showed her where it says “We welcome all people, including gay and lesbian people.” “We make this special mention because we are a “Reconciling in Christ” church. A Reconciling in Christ church makes a special welcome to gay and lesbian people to help overcome the rejection they have previously experienced in churches. And I want you to know something. Your mother was very much in support of this policy.” She looked stunned. “That figures,” she said. “I just didn’t realize what it meant.” I hope she and her partner find a Reconciling in Christ church where they live so they can have the benefits of a faith community as other Christians do.
For every Eugene, there’s an Ernie. Ernie was a frequent visitor at the home I shared with four other men prior to getting married. He was a thoughtful young man seeking answers for life’s questions. At times, we would engage in conversations about meaning and purpose in life. Ernie would often use me as a foil for his search for meaning. I wore my newly discovered Christianity on my sleeve and he liked to bring me into a debate on the existence of God. “I just can’t get myself to believe in God,” Ernie said. “In fact, the evidence I see makes me believe there is no God. When I read about children dying from natural disasters, it turns me away from believing in God. Then when I see Christians and others who believe in God add to these deaths in the name of their religion, I am totally turned off to the idea of God.”
I had recently finished reading Dostoevsky’s, Brothers Karamzov, in which the brother Ivan makes exactly this point, so I engaged Ernie in a spirited debate. If you have read the book, you will know that Dostoevsky counters Ivan’s skepticism with Alyosha’s, generous and loving spirit, which comes from his simple and unquestioning faith. But, to no avail. Ernie just wouldn’t have it. And so, I emerged from those discussions a wiser, but a sadder man, learning how hard it would be to transmit the joy, meaning, and purpose that I had found in my newly rediscovered faith.
So, when Eugene said, “I ain’t through sinning yet,” I felt a mixture of anger and pity -anger toward the powerful destructive forces that can overtake good people, and pity because I knew he was hurting. But, again, couldEugenehave been hanging on to the pain as some sort of consequence for the harm he felt he may have done to himself or someone else? Again, from what I know of God, that would not be necessary. It is God’s intention that we live happy and fulfilled lives and if we go off track, that we receive forgiveness and get back on track. Some time later,Eugenecame by the church and asked if he could paint the window trim. “I don’t want anything for it,” he said. “I figure I owe the church something for providing me something hopeful to look at.” He kept at it hard all day –he was a good painter, could even “jump” the ladder. And then he was gone –evicted along with his sister and her five kids. A few years later,Eugeneshowed up in church dressed to the nines with a pretty little girl next to him. “This is my granddaughter,” he said proudly. “I want her to grow up in the church, but I’m sorry it won’t be this church. We live too far away. I just came back to tell you I’m all through sinnin’ now. The Lord got me back.” What a powerful testimony to the teaching of the Church. Eugene knew the way back.
I realize an entry into this blog is long overdue. That is the nature of my work. I go long periods of time without much time to spare. I am not a workaholic. It’s just that the demands of ministry in an inner city setting can sometimes be quite high. I remember one time on a visit to a youth across the street from the church, I encountered an uncle who lived in the same household. I knew this man as an honest, hard working man. He was sitting in an armchair watching TV with a glass of water perched on the armrest. When he saw me, he quickly put the water glass on the floor out of my sight. He didn’t, however, remove the vodka bottle in time for me to not notice that. Suddenly, I had an opportunity to demonstrate to him our emphasis on grace in the Lutheran church. I wanted him to know that he would be welcome “as is.” He didn’t need to quit drinking prior to joining St. Olaf. He was acceptable just as he was. “Simul justus et peccator” –simultaneously saint and sinner. “I came to see your nephew,” I said, “but while I’m here, do you mind me asking if you belong to a church?” “No,” he answered politely. “Well then,” I said. “I invite you to come to St. Olaf. I think you’ll find the people very down to earth. You’ll probably know some of them from the neighborhood.” “Thank you for the invitation,” he replied. “But, I ain’t through sinning’ yet.” With that, he picked up the water glass and the vodka bottle and poured himself another drink.
In the Pastor’s Pen article in the January newsletter, there was an error: “median household income” should read “medium household worth.” Thank you, Cecilia for spotting the error. On one level, the error makes no difference. The income disparity between African-American families and Caucasian families is unjust. But, on another level, the correction makes the point that the median African-American household is always very close to significant financial calamity such as home foreclosure.
Blog2: Again, my name is Dale Hulme and I am the Pastor of St. Olaf Lutheran Church. In my first blog, I told the story of a woman who didn’t feel she a good enough person to attend church. Whether this was from a genuinely guilty conscience or a disdain for self-righteousness, I did not say. To this day, I am not sure where she was coming from. Nor does it matter for what I am trying to convey in these blogs. God loves her anyway. Can she love God back?
But, why love God? Why even acknowledge that God exists? I am not going to attempt to answer these questions theologically. Instead, let me use another story to address these questions. Some years back a friend, Tom, reported to me that he was getting divorced. His marriage had become stale and lackluster and since he was contemplating an affair, he felt he should get the divorce done so his new relationship would be not be encumbered with the trappings of adultery. Fair enough. Divorce in our state is “no fault.” So why did he tell me beforehand? I agonized over this and finally decided it wasn’t worth it to interfere with his decision. He would probably get divorced anyway. And so he did. After the divorce, he took up with another woman and had a successful relationship for several years. But, then, that relationship fell apart and he connected with another woman. Still no marriage. That woman contracted cancer. Suddenly the concept of relationship necessarily involved commitment. His conscience wouldn’t just let him walk away from this relationship. But, the awakening of conscience pricked feelings of guilt over abandoning his first wife. He couldn’t understand why he was feeling guilty because she had remarried and was enjoying the relationship. Sadly, Tom’s third relationship ended in death. He found himself in a crazy place -alone, ridden with guilt, and despondent with sadness. How had it all come to this? Up to this point, Tom had been in control of his feelings. “Should I pray to God,” Tom wondered. “No,” he concluded. “I’m not worthy of being answered after what I did to my wife.” And right there Tom decided to carry sadness with him for the rest of his life as a penance of sorts. But, the God I know would prefer to lift the sadness and have Tom restored to happiness. It would not be the shallow happiness that directed the actions of his former self, but a happiness forged in the journey of life that would direct him to make more compassionate life decisions in the future. I have prayed many times for God to help Tom revisit the decision not to seek his help, because the God I know would respond.
Peace… Pastor Dale
Hello. My name is Dale Hulme and it is my privilege to be the Pastor of St. Olaf Lutheran Church. I write a newsletter article every month and I understand that blogging will be similar, but with a potentially much larger and wider audience. With that in mind, I intend to use this blog as an opportunity to market what is called the “mainline Protestant church,” the category to which St. Olaf belongs. It is unfortunate that the views and values of the mainline Protestant church have been pushed out of sight during the past 40 years, because what passes for Christianity now in the public mind is, in my opinion, a skewed version of the faith. The major characteristic of the skewed-ness has to do with a rejection of science, in my view. These are churches which do not allow for a historical-critical study of the basic scriptures of the religion, and all kinds of aberrations develop as a result. However, I do not want this blog to be some sort of cerebral, academic thing. It will be stories from my experience which have shaped my life and faith. My entry-point story is of a woman I knew when we were young.
She was beautiful and successful. She was the envy of women and the desire of men. For some reason, she became interested in me. As flattering as this was, I had recently come through my own conversion to Christianity and I did not want to blow the next relationship I would enter into. It had to be the right one and that meant she had to share the faith. So, I asked her, “Are you a Christian?” “No,” she answered. “I am not.” “Well,” I thought. “Perhaps she could become one.” She was quite beautiful, after all. So, I asked her, “Would you come to church with me?”
“I’m not good enough,” she replied.
I was taken back by this response. At first I thought it was mock humility. “How can you say you are not good enough?” I asked. “You haven’t done any terrible thing, have you?” “I am not good enough. Maybe some day,” she replied.
Now, I knew that she was good enough in God’s eyes. I knew that God loves a repentant sinner, so whatever she was thinking wasn’t good enough about her would be no problem with God. God understands our rebelliousness and is eager to forgive. It was then that I realized what her hangup was. She was her own judge –and jury and executioner! And she was a much more severe judge than God ever would be. But, because she didn’t believe, she couldn’t see herself as God saw her – a child of God’s own making who was entirely worthy of forgiveness just as a loving parent forgives a child.
We parted ways after that day and this encounter was one that shaped my desire to become a Pastor one day. I would have liked to help her, but didn’t know how. Later, I had an encounter with another man which revealed to me why she was unable to believe, but that is a story for another blog. Until next time… Peace…. Pastor Dale