Resolved: A New Year

IMG_0048There it is, sitting open on the dining room table. The 2018 planner, with its blank pages and silent promise that this may be the year when I finally … what? What is it that I hope will slip in and replace this sense of fragile, tentative expectation?

I wonder if it might be accountability.

New Year’s Day creates a moment for reflection on the patterns and habits that, over time, shape our lives into whatever they are. From the Earth’s point of view, it’s just another day, another twenty-four hour rotation. From the sun’s point of view, it’s the end of one earthly cosmic circuit and the beginning of a new one. Our planet’s steady wobble creates the periodic rhythm of seasons that help us track the course of each year, reminding us that we, too, will grow up, bear fruit, shed our leaves, and eventually rest with our ancestors in the ground.

Having firmly entered middle age, I’m newly aware that my life is not infinite. My time feels measured in ways both mysterious and urgent. I want to make something of myself, to use the time given to me wisely and powerfully, to make a difference, to leave something of value behind. I sense that there is another iteration of me lying just under the surface of my present life better equipped to meet the challenges of this broken and tragic world, and my blank planner is the outward and visible sign of an inward and invisible commitment to become that person.

This is the sentiment that gives rise to the ritual of making resolutions, and today is the day for doing just that. Yet, having lived through a few New Year’s Days already, we are all a bit suspicious and weary of resolutions. We remember too easily our stalled efforts and abandoned commitments. Perhaps we compensate by setting our sights just a little lower with each passing year, or by abandoning the ritual of making resolutions altogether. While that may be acceptable in a specific sense (we can surely make allowances for those who refuse to follow the crowd), what would it mean to live a life devoid of goals? What happens when we abandon any sense of agency to set and pursue a direction for our lives, our families and communities?

My suspicion is that the the sense of futility that haunts our efforts at reform is directly connected to the spirituality of individualism and the myth of willpower that props it up. As an undergraduate psychology major, I remember being surprised to discover that “willpower” was not a readily verifiable aspect of human personality. If willpower is measured by the ability to make significant changes in one’s life, then it runs counter to all the evidence that the single most important factor in making real and lasting change is the support of another human being to whom we make ourselves accountable. In one memorable study, a pool of heart attack survivors whose lives depended on their ability to make major changes to their diet and exercise regimens were split into two groups for observation. The first group was given clear information about the changes needed to improve health and prolong life. The second group was given the same information, and was also supported in identifying and recruiting another person to whom they would be accountable for making these changes. The results were dramatic. A year later, those who’d been given nothing but information had not made the necessary changes to their lives. Those who’d established relationships of accountability had made real gains toward recovering their health. Though willpower failed, relationships prevailed.

What does this teach us about what is needed in this present moment, in which it seems the whole world has suffered a heart attack? A moment in which the necessity of change is a matter of existential survival for the planet, and a test of moral credibility for institutions like the church that have for too long been silent about, and therefore complicit with, the unjust arrangements of power that have kept great swaths of humanity shackled in poverty and dependent upon untrustworthy actors. It teaches us that we need more than information. I believe it suggests that the time has come once again, as it does each and every morning, for us to make new resolutions — but now to make them together.

This is what I appreciate about community organizing. It begins with the assumption that we are all longing for change in our lives and in the life of the world around us. Furthermore, it does not blame us for failing to effect these changes on our own. Instead, it correctly diagnoses the issue — we lack the power to make these changes alone and, therefore, need one another. Where the spirituality of individualism with its myth of willpower blames and mocks us for what we fail to accomplish by ourselves, the spirituality of organizing assumes that we were always intended to arrive at God’s preferred future together. Therefore, it offers a process by which we can do so through deep investment in one another’s lives, solidarity with one another’s dreams, and collective action for the common good.

This is also why I find worship so nourishing. In worship I am reminded that my life is not my own, that we all belong to one another. I regularly name the ways that my life fails to conform to the image of God within me, and hear a word of forgiveness that frees me from self-hatred and useless guilt so that I can resume the work of building the beloved community of God here and now with other, similarly liberated people. Over and over again I am reminded that I exist as part of “a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people.” (1 Peter 2:9) All of us in this together.

Science backs up what we intuit from our participation in worship as well. In his work on gratitude and self-control, Northeastern University professor David DeSteno has found that where individual strategies of change (let’s call them attempts at “willpower”) create body damaging side effects connected to the release of stress hormones, the intentional cultivation of gratitude in relationship to one another seems to generate higher levels of self-control while lowering blood pressure and reducing anxiety and depression. Our ability to act together may, in fact, be what saves our lives.

The lesson I take from these findings is this: that the sense of urgency I feel on this particular day of the year to do something new, something better, something effective, powerful and lasting will quickly dissipate unless I find a way to do it with others. This means the resolutions I make need to make space for the resolutions you may be making as well, which means we each need to hear one another’s stories of resolve. I need you to understand what I am trying to do with my “one wild and precious life” (to quote Mary Oliver), and I need to understand the same from you. These goals won’t make much sense unless we understand the paths that led each of us from our various pasts to this fresh moment in which, once again, everything is possible.

So let this be one of the handful of commitments we make today: to share our resolutions with each other, and then to ask the other,

“Why are you making this resolution?”

“What is at stake for you in this commitment?”

“What will happen if you fail to make this change?”

And, most importantly of all, “How can I help you keep this resolution?”

Happy New Year,

Pastor Erik Christensen

“Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. And all of us, with unveiled faces, seeing the glory of the Lord as though reflected in a mirror, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another; for this comes from the Lord, the Spirit.” (2 Cor. 3:17-18)


Sermon: Sunday, December 27, 2016: First Sunday after Christmas Day

Texts: 1 Samuel 2:18-20,26  +  Psalm 148  +  Colossians 3:12-17  +  Luke 2:41-52

image-full;size$500,334.ImageHandlerLet me tell you about a young man named Jesús.  Not the baby in the manger. Not the “reason for the season.” Jesús Velazquez, a high school student and youth activist here in Logan Square.

Jesús and his family came to Chicago when he was a toddler. Growing up, he struggled to stay motivated in school. As he moved into high school and the pressure to focus on the streets over his studies got more intense, he found an outlet for his frustration with Chicago’s public schools, which he describes as “under-funded and poorly resourced.” Through the citywide After School Matters program Jesús got involved with the Logan Square Neighborhood Association, where he met Liliana Díaz, a youth organizer. Finding his place in a community of young people organizing for positive change here in our neighborhood and across the city, Jesús began to flourish. Liliana describes his leadership like this, “he steps up to help make other young people see what he sees. It’s hard to talk to young people about programs that are organizing-based. He explains to them in ways that make them more relevant to our youth.”

Together with other young people, Jesús organized to reform harsh “zero-tolerance” disciplinary regulations to keep his classmates in school with restorative justice practices that prevent students from getting expelled and landing in the school-to-prison pipeline. He has worked on campaigns related to deferred action for childhood arrivals to the U.S. (known as DACA relief, a significant early step in the much-needed on-going process of immigration reform), and temporary visitors driver’s licenses for undocumented immigrants.

Through this work he has discovered a sense of his own power, and subsequently a passion for organizing. Selected to represent our neighborhood as one of only four youth at the citywide “Generation All” initiative to create a plan for high quality public education in every Chicago neighborhood, Jesús has now worked with teachers’ unions, educational non-profits, the Chicago Public School district, and the Mayor’s office. He has sat on local policy panels and spoken at national conferences. Both his peers and the adults who have the privilege of working with him describe him as “brilliant,” “articulate,” and “deep.”

And, he still struggles in the classroom.

What does wisdom look like?

The gospel of Luke tells the story of another Jesús, this one did have a manger in his past, a season for which he is the reason. A Palestinian Jew living under Roman occupation, he did not have a privileged upbringing. He did not enjoy the benefits of a formal education. But his family respected tradition and took him to Jerusalem each year to celebrate the Passover with relatives and other countrymen.

It’s the only story we get of his childhood, so we try to wring meaning out of every detail. For instance, given that it’s the only glimpse into Jesus’s childhood offered in the canonical books of the bible, why tell this one at all? What was the writer of Luke trying to signal to the earliest audience?

When you think about how many of the stories about Jesus as an adult focus on his conflict with priests and scribes and authorities of every sort, it’s kind of remarkable that the picture offered of his youth paints him in a rather studious, even dutiful light. One explanation that’s been offered suggests that the community for whom the Gospel of Luke is the intended audience is in conflict with other Jewish communities over the issue of traditions. By the time this gospel was written, the Temple had been destroyed and the early Christian church was actually part of a complex set of Jewish responses to that world-shattering event. While some forms of Judaism had been obliterated by the destruction of the Temple, other forms were finding new ways to reinterpret the faith. Pharisaic Judaism, an expression of Jewish religious identity that pre-dated the destruction of the Temple, had always emphasized the moral and ethical dimensions of Jewish life over Temple worship and sacrifices. With the temple now gone, Pharisaic Jews offered a way forward by keeping faith with the past through careful observance of the law and traditions.

Christianity, on the other hand, was a kind of messianic Judaism which responded to the destruction of the temple by asserting that with the arrival of the messiah, a new epoch had begun, an era marked by the end of divisions based on gender, rank, nationality or other social statuses. A time when the old concept of “chosen people” had been broken open to include all people.

These two approaches to Jewish life after the loss of the temple each had much to commend them, and they weren’t mutually exclusive. It was not only possible, but practical, to continue keeping the law and observing tradition while allowing innovations in religious identity to continue to emerge; inviting new, previously excluded people and communities into the fellowship. But, human nature being what it is, people quickly fell into camps that became antagonistic toward one another, driving the Pharisaic Jews and the messianic Jews (which was the emerging Christian community) further and further apart.

So this story of the young Jesus becomes a little bit more interesting. Here is the young messiah, the standard bearer for one side of the growing conflict, sitting among the teachers of Israel, the epitomes of Jewish teaching and wisdom, and what is he doing? He is listening to them and asking questions!

christ-doctors-temple-art-lds-710197-wallpaperWhen I was growing up in Des Moines, the congregation I belonged to had a huge reproduction of a painting by the 19th century German artist Heinrich Hofmann of the Boy Jesus in the Temple. There in the center is a young, very white, Jesus dressed in a white robe like the one Hannah would make for the boy-prophet Samuel each year. A soft nimbus of light surrounds his head as he looks directly, but kindly, into the eyes of a seated priest. Jesus points at the scriptures that sit open in the teacher’s lap, as if explaining them to him. All around him are the old Jewish men in the Temple, gazing at the boy Jesus in wonder.

The painting was placed at the bottom of the stairs that led from the Sunday School rooms to the sanctuary. I never really thought about it, but I supposed the intended effect was to communicate to us children that we were valuable, central even, and that we had something to teach the church. Or maybe it had nothing to do with that at all. Maybe it was just the only wall on which that painting fit, and the trustees had to do something with it after it was donated. Who knows? But it’s my sermon, so I can tell the story however I want.

In any case, I think the painting gets it wrong. As kindly as the boy Jesus in Hofmann’s painting seems to be looking into that old Jewish man’s eyes, there is a kind of confrontation taking place. The young messiah is showing the old teacher up. A challenge is being presented. A changing of the guard taking place.

But look at the text again, and see what it really says:

“After three days they found Jesus in the temple, sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions.” (Luke 2:46)

We know that the traditional posture for teaching was seated. So, the scripture describes Jesus as having taken the posture of a teacher — but also as a teacher among other teachers. Furthermore, he isn’t described as delivering an insightful lecture, or a rousing sermon, but as “listening to them and asking them questions.” He values what they know. He is open to learning from them and being changed in the process.

Speaking from personal experience I can tell you that good attention, the ability to listen well to another person, is a resource in short supply. As someone who’s been trained to offer a listening presence to others I have found it to be the case that, more often than not, if I start listening people will grab hold of that attention and begin to share some of their most personal stories, their most deeply held convictions, their most urgent questions, almost immediately.

I myself am hungry for good attention. So, as soon as people begin to share their stories with me what almost always happens is that I hear elements of their life that remind me of elements of my own life, and I want to break in and tell my own story. It’s very natural, but it’s not good listening. The real art to listening is the ability to notice that response rising up in you, the desire to tell your own story, to honor that desire and then to set your story aside so that you can continue to offer the gift of your attention to the other person. It sounds easy. It’s not. Again, most of us are so hungry for real attention, quality listening, that we will keep trying to take it wherever we can.

The unfortunate result is that we keep talking at each other instead of listening to each other, which leads to the kinds of polarized conversations we now see taking place on the national stage as candidates compete to get as much attention as possible, with very little listening to the voices and the needs of real people taking place.

Which is why I find the story of Jesús Velazquez so exciting and inspiring. He is learning at a very young age the art of organizing, which is really the art of listening. With each conversation, with each one-on-one, he is collecting the stories of his classmates, his neighbors, his fellow citizens (and non-citizens). The more he listens, the better his questions get. The better his questions get, the more useful the stories he hears. So that even if he still struggles with math or science or whatever other subjects he find difficult, he is mastering the art of building community, which takes place one story at a time. He is acknowledged by the adults around him as wise beyond his years.

That is the kind of wisdom the world could use more of right now. The wisdom of listening. It’s the kind of wisdom we ourselves will need in the coming year, as we move further and further from the temple we have known out into our rapidly changing neighborhood. How will we balance respect for our history and traditions with the need to break open our boundaries even further, to welcome people and communities who’ve felt excluded from our fellowship? More importantly, how will we do this without creating competing camps, reinforcing old conflicts?

It will be by listening to each other. By honoring our own need to be heard, but balancing that with the decision to offer the gift of our attention to one another. If we can do that — as we practice doing that, we may discover, or remember, that all our stories have so many more points of connection that we’d imagined, and that our future will be found as we take our place in the circle of teaching and learning, opening ourselves to being changed by the process.



Sermon: Sunday, January 11, 2015: Baptism of the Lord

Texts: Genesis 1:1-5  +  Psalm 29  +  Acts 19:1-7  +  Mark 1:4-11

Hosea Williams of SCLC, left, and John Lewis of Student nonviolent Coordinating Connitte leading more than 500 people across Edmund Pettus Bridge (Selma) on March 7, 1965

Hosea Williams of SCLC, left, and John Lewis of Student nonviolent Coordinating Connitte leading more than 500 people across Edmund Pettus Bridge (Selma) on March 7, 1965

There’s a scene in the movie Selma, which opened this weekend, in which the Reverend Hosea Williams and a young John Lewis are leading a crowd of hundreds in crossing the Edmund Pettus bridge on what came to be known as “Bloody Sunday,” March 7, 1965. As the two civil rights leaders look ahead to the far side of the bridge they can see state troopers led by County Sheriff Jim Clark along with a mob of angry white people. Looking down at the Alabama River below them, Hosea Williams asks, “Do you know how to swim?” To which John Lewis replies, “There aren’t many swimming pools that allow blacks in my neighborhood.” The meaning behind their exchange is clear: the act of crossing these waters will put their lives in danger.

That’s what Christian baptism is, a passing through waters that puts your life in danger.

When the John the Baptist called the people out of the city walls, into the wilderness offering a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins (Mark 1:4), he wasn’t offering a wilderness retreat. It wasn’t a countryside getaway. It wasn’t a day trip with meals included. John led people out into the wilderness calling on them to repent and be forgiven. It was an invitation to leave the broken status quo behind.

Forgiveness was the business of the Temple, it was a part of the religious establishment’s franchise. It was a well-known and understood exchange of goods in return for priestly services. It was an allowed activity, a local concession made by Rome for people living under occupation. A lot of religion is like that, a perfectly acceptable bit of inoffensive ritual that threatens no one and changes nothing. What happened on the Edmund Pettus bridge was not an inoffensive bit of ritual. It threatened the power of Jim Crow laws that had bolstered a system of racial segregation that had kept Black people oppressed, stripped of their civil rights and denied any means of recourse and it changed the course of the nation.

tumblr_mja57gWewj1r2r773o1_r1_500On the day of that first march across the Edmund Pettus bridge, no one thought a few hundred Black people marching out under the Alabama sun could change much of anything. It was just street theater, and it could be dealt with. But when the nation turned on their televisions in 1965 and saw law enforcement charging on horseback into a crowd of non-violent protestors, beating Black men and women, young and old, with fists and clubs, the power of that bit of ritual, that street theater, became clear.

I know that for many people, Holy Baptism is a polite rite. An occasion for photographs and brunch. And I love those things, photographs and brunch, I love them a lot. But when I smile for the camera or share in the joyful repast after a child is baptized, what I am celebrating is another life dedicated to the God who is revealed in Jesus of Nazareth, who baptizes us with the Holy Spirit, which is the power of God unleashed upon the world for its liberation, reconciliation and restoration.

After Jesus had engaged the rulers of this world and defeated all the powers of death the Holy Spirit called women and men to continue that work, people like the apostle Paul, initially slow to recognize the Spirit’s movement for what it was, but zealous for the Lord after his conversion. As he traveled through Greece, Paul came upon a group of twelve disciples, like those first twelves disciples Jesus had called away from all they’d known to follow him. When he learned that they too were followers of Jesus, he asked them if they had received the Holy Spirit when they came to believe in Jesus. Their answer is heartbreaking. They said, “No, we have not even heard that there is a Holy Spirit.”

These twelve Greek disciples knew the name of Jesus, even called themselves his followers, were even baptized into John’s baptism, which is to say that they had experienced a renewal of their consciousness, had experienced a kind of epiphany, had come to know that the world as it is is not the world as God intends it to be, had accepted a call to leave the status quo behind. But it stopped there. They had begun their turning toward God, but they had not experienced the power that comes with baptism into God’s mission, the power that goes beyond withdrawing from this world to participating in its recreation. When Paul heard this he baptized them at once in the name of the Lord Jesus, and they began to speak in tongues and prophesy.

When I was a boy, I asked my dad about speaking in tongues and he told me that some Christians experience the Holy Spirit in ways that fill them with inspired divine speech which, when paired with someone who had been given the gift of interpretation, could result in a kind of divine testimony in the assembly. For many years that was the only image I had for speaking in tongues. Later in my life when I was called on, time and time again, to speak before teachers and bishops and to offer my own testimony about the movement of the Holy Spirit in my life calling me, anointing me, to bring good news to the poor, and freedom to those held captive by the closet, and liberation from the short-sightedness of institutional preservation at the expense of human dignity, I did not realize that I, too, was speaking in tongues. In those moments I did not have notes in my hands and I did not know what I would say, but as they were needed, words would flow from my mouth, the right words at the right time. And sometimes, when the Holy Spirit was moving in the hearts and minds of those to whom I was speaking, they could actually hear me, and a new understanding emerged. There was liberation, and reconciliation, and healing.

Now I know that I was speaking in tongues, which is to say that I was speaking the same English words in the same English sentences, but filled with the presence of the Holy Spirit which blows where and when it will. I remember on one occasion, after I’d finished giving my testimony, a man asked me, “so, do you imagine yourself as some kind of prophet?” and being the good, Midwestern Lutheran I was raised to be I said, “no, not at all. I’m just trying to be honest and stay true to the God who put me on this path.” As though that isn’t precisely what it means to speak in tongues and prophesy. To tell the truth in the face of a lie so pervasive it passes for reality.

It happens at least a hundred times a day. You see something, or you hear something, or you read something that you know is simply untrue. This last week it might have been something about Muslims in the wake of the tragic terrorist attacks on the French publication Charlie Hebdo and the hostage crises that followed. Maybe you read or overheard the violence of these attacks being blamed on Islam.

Or perhaps it was a news story reporting on the culture of sexual violence against women that exists on every campus in this country, but gets dismissed as an internal affair. Perhaps you heard excuses being made for the misbehavior of young men as if date rape was inevitable.

Or maybe it was a comment shared by coworkers, or on social media, about how we should’ve expected the work slowdown by New York police after the riots following the death of Eric Garner and the murders of two NYPD officers, Rafael Ramos and Wenjian Liu, as if to imply that we as a nation are not capable of both supporting our police officers and also holding them accountable for their conduct.

Finding the words to speak and the courage to say them in the face of a culture of silence and stasis is the work of the Holy Spirit, which blew over the chaotic waters at creation and brought something out of nothing. Finding the strength to not only withdraw from a world that breaks your heart, but to join together with others who share your pain, your grief, your experience and organize to change it is the work of the Holy Spirit, which enters at baptism and makes us members of one body, so much larger than any one of us could ever be on our own.

And the point isn’t that the Holy Spirit only acts through those who’ve been baptized, or won’t act until you’ve been baptized, or waits for you to decide to be baptized. The point is, the God who meets us in the waters of baptism is always at work in this beat up world of ours, but so often it’s hard to see. However, each time one of us comes to the water, we are making clear what the world tries so hard to conceal, which is the truth. That all are welcome and there is always enough. Each time one of us brings our precious child forward to these waters we are not only saying no to the death-dealing forces that are always reducing us to something anonymous, a number, a dollar, a bottom line; we are placing what is most valuable to us in service of a world that we still haven’t seen, that’s still being created, that is coming toward us from the future, that threatens to change everything. We are joining the movement.