Mystery Steward: A new column for a new season
I’ve admired and followed many columnists over my lifetime: Maureen Dowd, Judith Martin (aka Miss Manners) Leonard Pitts, Jr., Carolyn Hax (Tell Me About It), Mitch Albom, David Brooks, Erma Bombeck, Art Buchwald, Hunter S. Thompson, Roger Ebert…to name a few.
Columnists provide an interesting type of education: a reader poses a question and someone with knowledge and experience and an interest in that discipline answers the question both to the writer and to a wider audience who might also wonder the same thing. In addition, the best columnists often have a recognizable writing style and worldview that their readers find engaging, making their responses less like a debate and more of an owned-perspective with some credentials to support it.
I have a B.S. in Journalism from Eastern Michigan and a M.Div. (Masters of Divinity) from Trinity Lutheran Seminary. I was ordained in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) in 2003 and have been maintaining this BLOG since 2010. My interest in both divine mysteries and writing have been walking lock-step for at least 15 years.
When pastors are ordained in the ELCA, they are charged with four things, the last of which is:
1Think of us in this way, as servants of Christ and stewards of God’s mysteries. 2 Moreover, it is required of stewards that they be found trustworthy. –1st Corinthians 4:1-2
I find this to be both an intriguing and daunting challenge: to be charged with being a ‘steward of the mysteries of God’! Since stewardship is about how we care for something, I have often asked myself, “what mysteries must I care for?” and “how does one (exactly) care for a mystery?”
To celebrate this season of a new beginning in a new congregation, I’ve decided to start a column about church issues that, for many, constitute a mystery. I do not profess to be able to solve any mysteries; I do hope to shed more light on elements that make the topic puzzling. I’m naming this new column: Mystery Steward.
I invite your questions about God, the church, organized religion, Lutheranism, the ELCA, contemporary use of scripture, the Interfaith and Inter-religious movements…you get the idea. God / Mystery stuff. Thank you for reading. I look forward to your questions!
Please email your questions to Mysterysteward@gmail.com
June 1, 2017
Dear Mystery Steward,
I have accumulated old bibles and relic-like items from family and friends. I feel strange just tossing out these sacred pieces…and donating some of them feels disrespectful to my loved ones. Is there a right way to say goodbye to these once-loved items?
Don’t Wanna Be a Hoarder
You raise a good question. There are many good reasons that people want to dispose of bibles, rosaries, crosses, and numerous other man-made items that symbolize one’s faith and connection to our Creator. Bibles that contain a family tree that has changed in significant ways sometimes prolong grief rather than offering the comfort of God’s word.
The most important thing to ‘do’ with religious items one no longer wants, is to intentionally treat them with respect. That could mean recycling them to a prison ministry, library, or mission church. Or it could mean burying them. Some people even cremate them, though others find the act of burning any holy book to be disturbing.
I personally prefer to recycle or bury bibles and other religious items when they are no longer helpful in nurturing my faith. I’ve often thought that having a particular ritual on the grounds of the church to collectively commit these items to the earth might be helpful.
I imagine a gathering at which those who have something to bury could read a passage from their holy book, or tell a brief story about its origin and maybe why they are choosing to bury it now, before placing it in the burial space. Together we could offer prayers for the past when those religious items brought comfort and hope to their owners, and prayers that burying them will be acceptable in the eyes of the Lord. Such a rite might offer a new start to those who have been holding onto religious items that cease to bring them comfort and in some cases have prolonged pain.
Whether done in community or alone, burying holy items prayerfully could be a way of remembering that God continues making all things new and that it is not the actual bible that we worship, but God. It could be a way to forgive oneself for relationships that have ended that were tied to those items, and to live into the truth that God’s mercy is everlasting, and while God’s grace is described in holy writings, it cannot be confined to any book made with human hands.
May 1, 2017
Dear Mystery Steward.
My sister is very distressed that her adult children do not attend church and have not had their children baptized. Our parents did take us to Sunday School as young children. We were baptized as infants. We were confirmed in the Lutheran Church. Our mother always told me that it was her job to give us roots and wings. Once we were adults, left home, were married; she said then, it was no longer for her to tell us what to do. She had completed her task. She always led by example.
It is not my concern to worry about my nephews, but it appears to me that their spouses are offended by my sister’s habit of sending Bible passages with every communication. She is always making comments about her sons’ baptismal birthdays etc. It seems to repel their wives. I wonder if I can do anything to remind her that they are grown men now, and it is not helpful for her to stay on these subjects that offend them.
Thank you for your comments.
Dear Observant Aunt,
It is always a challenge to find the balance between speaking up and staying silent, especially when people of faith behave in ways that make us uncomfortable – in the name of the faith we share!
The simplest and most truthful answer is: you are not likely to change your sister no matter what you say because your sister enjoys what she is doing.
What you can do, however, is add balance to what your nephews and their families are hearing about faith, by demonstrating your own faith in positive ways that counter what they hear from others. It could be as simple as, “I appreciate the loving way in which you’re teaching your children to _____.” Or, “I really like this quote that is attributed to St. Francis of Assissi, ‘Preach the Gospel at all times, when necessary, use words.’ The story you told me about your interaction with so and so is exactly what I think St. Francis meant about preaching the Gospel without words. You model love so well!
If you do these kinds of things consistently, perhaps they will begin to associate compassion and grace with what it means to be a person of faith, instead of judgment. And that would be a good start to a new conversation with you, your sister, or whomever they choose.
Fortunately for all of us, we are not saved by what we do or don’t do, we are saved because of what Jesus has already done. Therefore, your sister can say things that cause all kinds of anxiety; but none of it changes the love that Jesus pours out to your nephews, their wives, you…or even your sister.
And that’s really good news!
January 1, 2017
Dear Mystery Steward,
How do people hold onto their faith in the face of unspeakable tragedy? When I think of the children in Aleppo, or when I hear of children senselessly murdered, I wonder how one continues to believe in God
–A Mom Who Wonders
Dear A Mom,
Ahh … THE question of Faith. Why DO bad things happen to good people? How DOES one continue to believe in a God of love in the face of evil, especially if it afflicts those we love including children the world over.
The short answer is: I don’t know how people hold onto faith in these situations.
A longer answer: I do know that many, many have been able to do so. I wonder if what we witness in these situations is related to these verses from Ephesians, Chapter 8:
8 For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God— 9 not the result of works, so that no one may boast.”
By that I mean, perhaps holding onto faith is a gift in itself. When I try to imagine what that looks like – what that feels like, I imagine faith as a living, breathing thing, that holds us. Specifically, I imagine God’s hands, bigger than this world, holding us, and perhaps they shake slightly, for God’s own heart is also broken when any of God’s children suffer. And so, within those mighty and gentle and yes, shaking, hands, we cannot help but hold on – to a finger perhaps. It is a mutual holding.
I say this not to offer some imaginary vision designed just to quiet your restless heart, but as a vision borne of things I’ve witnessed myself.
A woman at the graveside of her beloved son, who is one minute paralyzed by grief and the next, reaching to comfort her own mother who stands nearby. A couple who lost two children, within a year of one another, in tragic accidents, who continue to hold hands and walk slowly into church, even though they cry in every single service. Yet on the way out, tell how the Gospel lifted their souls and how they are encouraged and given strength for a time. A father who cries out to God on his knees in the middle of the hall in the NICU at Children’s hospital. Enraged, engulfed in pain at his loss, who gradually gathers strength to stand as his mother, in her wheelchair, rests her hands on his head and recites Psalm 23 by heart.
And then there are those I’ve read about: prisoners in concentration camps who could barely move, and yet were moved to pray; some moved to share their meager bread; many to bless it and thank God for it before consuming it dry.
So, to answer this big question is both beyond my ability and also beyond my ability to deny: faith it seems is a gift from God that is given to many, often in their darkest hour. And it is not something we necessarily hold onto; rather it seems to be something that holds onto us.
Send your questions about mysteries of faith to firstname.lastname@example.org
October 30, 2016
Dear Mystery Steward,
Why do some people dip their hand in the water at the baptismal font and make the sign of the cross on their forehead? I’ve thought about doing it myself, but I never do because I just don’t get why they do it.
–Wondering about water
Some denominations teach people to do what you describe as a way of remembering their baptism. In some churches, there is a small container near the entrance filled with holy water — water that has been blessed by a pastor or priest for this very purpose. In churches that do not have this sort of container, people often dip their fingers into the water at the baptismal font. Holy water in fact is something used by people of many religions beyond Christianity.
In the Lutheran Church, people might do this because they were raised in a tradition that encouraged it – Roman Catholic, for example. Or, they might do it because Martin Luther was big on saying “remember your baptism!” What he meant by this was, remember that Jesus died for you and that through him, your sins are forgiven. The reason he thought this was important (and I think it’s important too) is that it reminds us that we can risk starting over and trying to do better no matter how many times we fall short, because we live as people God has already chosen to forgive.
When people make the sign of the cross with water from either a font or from a container of holy water … or even from a lake, ocean, or mountain stream for that matter … they are choosing to remember their baptism. I like this ritual myself because I like physical reminders of holy things. A colleague of mine, Pastor Tim Jahn, wrote a great reggae refrain that can be sung between the verses of the hymn, Joyful, Joyful. It goes like this: “even when my conscience is torn, every morning I am reborn.” That is part of what I am thinking when I make the sign of the cross on my own forehead, after dipping my hand in the font. I say to myself, “in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit … let’s try this thing called life again!”
In regard to your desire to join those who like to walk into worship wet, I’d say – try it! See how it feels. You may decide to keep doing it, or not. The Good News is that whether one does or doesn’t remember their baptism in this particular way, we are all forgiven through Jesus, and every day we get a clean slate – a daily do-over. It’s like washing your face in the water of life. How it atually works?
Well, that’s a bit of a Mystery.