Luther’s Catechism – Ten Commandments

The Worship and Music Committee at my church asked me to write five short reflections on Luther’s Small Catechism for use in our Wednesday night Lenten services. I’m republishing those reflections here. Eventually I will publish a book with slightly expanded versions of these reflections to be used for congregational use (adult or Confirmation study) or anyone seeking to understand more about Luther’s Catechism.

Reflection 1 (read at Trinity Lutheran Church, Chelmsford, MA on Wednesday, March 8, 2017)


The Ten Commandments

  • You shall have no other gods. I the Lord your God am a jealous God, punishing children for the iniquity of parents, to the third and fourth generation of those who reject me, but showing steadfast love to the thousandth generation of those who love me and keep my commandments.
  • You shall not make wrongful use of the name of the Lord your God.
  • Remember the Sabbath day, and keep it holy.
  • Honor your father and your mother.
  • You shall not murder.
  • You shall not commit adultery.
  • You shall not steal.
  • You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.
  • You shall not covet your neighbor’s house.
  • You shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or male or female slave, or ox, or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor.

The Ten Commandments. It sounds so stern and implacable. It suggests a God who demands total obedience. Indeed, within the text God identifies himself* as a jealous God who punishes children for the iniquity of parents. Martin Luther said, “Anyone who knows the Ten Commandments perfectly knows the entire Scriptures. In all affairs and circumstances he can counsel, help, comfort, judge, and make decisions in both spiritual and temporal matters.” Comfort? Where’s the comfort in these Ten Commandments?

It helps to remember that the bible doesn’t call them the Ten Commandments. The Hebrew translates to “ten words” or “ten utterances.” Christians have traditionally called them the Decalogue, from the Greek deca—ten—and logoi—words. These ten words define what God intends for his chosen people.

You shall have no other gods. This prohibits idolatry. Idolatry can mean golden calves or magical objects. But Luther points out that anything to which your heart clings and entrusts itself is truly your god. And there’s only one God that is worthy of that trust. God is the one who gives us body, life, nourishment, health, peace, and all temporal and eternal blessings. Why would we need any other gods?

The second commandment prohibits wrongful use of God’s name. This goes well beyond mere cursing. It forbids appealing to God’s name to support falsehood of any kind. We see it today when people use God’s name to justify themselves or give their words more authority. God wants us to be led and sustained by his Word, because only his Word gives life and salvation.

Remember the Sabbath day, and keep it holy. The third commandment is not a prohibition of work. It’s a recognition that our human bodies need to rest and be refreshed, and it’s a reminder that our work is not our salvation. We keep the Sabbath holy by occupying ourselves with God’s Word, learning it and exercising it in our lives. This regular practice brings us closer to God, and enables us to better entrust our hearts to him.

Honor your father and your mother. Parents and others in authority are called to guide us according to God’s ways, and to honor them is to honor God.

The rest of the commandments concern how we are to treat our fellow human beings. They also tell us how we can expect to be treated by our fellow human beings.

The commandment not to murder also prohibits us from failing to do good to one’s neighbors, or willfully ignoring the opportunity to prevent or protect one’s neighbors from bodily harm or injury. Luther reminds us, “It will do you no good to plead that you did not contribute to his death by word or deed, for you have withheld your love from him and robbed him of the service by which his life might have been saved.” We are to do everything we can to ensure the wellbeing of others, and they are to do the same for us.

You shall not commit adultery. We are to be faithful in our relationships, and we can expect that same faithfulness from others.

You shall not steal. God wants his people to rest secure in the knowledge that our property will not be unjustly taken from us. More than that, we are obligated to protect our neighbors’ property and further their interests, just as they will do for us.

You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor. Our good reputations can be stolen just as easily as our worldly goods, and with less effort. All it takes is a word. But that word is not God’s Word, and it has no place among his people. We are to protect our neighbors’ reputations by not telling falsehoods or speculating aloud about one’s questionable deeds, and we can expect our neighbors to interpret everything we do in the best possible light.

The last two commandments prohibit coveting virtually everything that doesn’t already belong to us. Why? We’ve already been prohibited from stealing, so what’s wrong with a little coveting? Stealing is taking something unlawfully. Coveting leads to taking something lawfully. One could entice another person to abandon their relationships or leave their obligations unfulfilled, and would be blameless in the eyes of the law. One could easily take advantage of existing laws or systems to deprive others of their wants or needs, and be perfectly within their legal rights. But God does not want anyone to suffer loss in order to gratify someone else’s greed. God provides resources enough for everyone, and no one should be deprived.

That is the world God intends for his chosen people. Not one full of harsh and difficult directives—one full of trust and solidarity. It sounds like a nice place.

It’s not the world in which we live.

God doesn’t pay the rent, so we put our trust in money. We claim God’s approval for our actions when deep in our hearts we hope he’s not paying close attention. We choose to be entertained rather than immerse ourselves in God’s Word. We don’t always honor those in authority because sometimes they don’t deserve that honor, and when we ourselves are in authority we often fail to lead according to God’s will. We turn away from those in need and close our eyes to the resulting suffering and death. We convince ourselves that keeping quiet when the cashier makes a mistake in our favor is not really stealing. We don’t interpret others’ questionable deeds in the best possible light, and we take pleasure in sordid speculation. And the systems that benefit us to the detriment of others are so embedded in our society that it’s impossible not to take advantage of them.

The ten words tell us God’s will for our lives. And God does expect total obedience, for our own good. And we go against him and serve as our own masters. Every day.

But in Luther’s Small Catechism the Ten Commandments are the first words, not the last, and there’s a reason for that.

We’ll talk about that next week.



* To see my inclusive language policy, click here.

The Last Sermons of Prophets Jesus and Muhammad

This post was written by Stephanie Siam and was originally published at I am reposting it here with permission.

Before I begin the reprint, I’d like to make a few comments. First to my Christian friends, family, and followers who might be disturbed by the reference to Jesus as ‘Prophet’ in the title of this post. is written by Muslim women who seek to, among other things, teach non-Muslims more about Muslims and people who choose an Islamic life. While their faith is integral to their beings and they would love to encourage anyone to explore Islam for themselves, their posts are written to inform, not convert. They are also written, obviously and appropriately, from a Muslim point of view. I retained the original title of the post, and in Islam, Jesus is understood as a Prophet.

Second. I wanted to repost this because I was struck by the question of how Jesus and Muhammad would have responded to each other. Since they were historically separated by about six hundred years, I’d never really thought about it before. So much energy is spent on disagreeing about the true identity and purpose of Jesus and Muhammad and what their respective roles in salvation history are that we (Christians and Muslims both) often lose sight of the content of their respective messages. This post focuses on that content, which is an extremely helpful and useful undertaking.

Third. Many Americans are ignorant about the basic tenants of Islam, and that ignorance feeds the fear which leads to hate and violence. Most of the contributors to are American-born Muslim converts who were raised as Christians. They are uniquely qualified to instruct non-Muslims on what mainstream Islamic life is like in America. I strongly encourage all my readers to educate themselves about Islam, particularly how it’s practiced here, and I recommend as a good starting point for that.

My thanks to for allowing me to repost. You can read the original post here.


Is Earth flat? What happens when we sail past the horizon?

Did dinosaurs really exist? How did they become extinct?

Are there intelligent forms of life on other planets? Have they ever contacted us?

What happens after we die? Has anyone come close to experiencing it for real?

A cursory glance at a general encyclopedia shows humans have never fallen short of curiosity and wonder. Never satisfied with the present and tangible, we strive to answer questions every second of every day — even those that have been answered before!

And, no matter, what the subject of interrogation is at the moment, the one topic that always finds its way back into the spotlight of our inquisitiveness is religion. Believers and non-believers, alike, insist their truth is THE truth and all others must conform to THEIR interpretation.

Before we get too far ahead of ourselves, I’m not trying to drag back the dead horse and beat it all over again. This post is not going to question the truths of Islam — or any other religion, for that matter.

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There are a great many people who’ve made a significant impact throughout the History of Man: Socrates, Aristotle, the Virgin Mary, Amelia Earheart, Gandhi, MLK, Hitler — hey, not ALL impact is positive.

But I can almost guarantee that no matter which influential character of history you name in a mixed group of people, there are two individuals whose existence is incomparable to the rest: Essa (Jesus) and Muhammad, may God’s peace and blessings be upon both of them.

Their entrances into the History of Man marked greater change and evolution than any others, yet for difference reasons. On the one hand, we have Essa (pbuh), born to an unmarried virgin, whose actual existence is still, to this day, questioned by those determined to denounce his divinity. (Because we all know, if someone ISN’T equated to God, then he must have never existed at all . . .)

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On the other hand, we have Muhammad (pbuh), an illiterate orphan whose prophecy is questioned by those whose faith is based on Jesus being the actual son of God.

Let’s be honest, the greatest difference between Christians and Muslims is the definition of Jesus’ identity . . . the rest is sweating the small stuff . . .

To their respective followers, they are considered the greatest representatives of their times and beyond; timeless examples for all mankind.

Perhaps it is a bit ironic that I’m writing this post today, only a couple days before the annual celebration of Jesus’ birth — also known as Christmas. I assure you this was not a scheduled intention.

However, in my mind, I see it as a happy intersection. As a former Christian, and now proudly-Muslim convert, and American-born-and-bred Southerner, Christmas is not a foreign tradition to me.

While my understanding of the holiday has broadened, and my opinion of it overall changed, as I have grown as a human AND Muslim, it’s impossible to deny the positive influence it had on me for many years.

But, this post is not about whether we should or should not participate in Christmas, as former Christians. No, this post is about something that is preached about much more often during this time of year than at any other. And, it just so happens, this topic of sermons worldwide is also another similarity between two of the greatest men to walk the Earth.

Throughout their prophethoods, both Essa and Muhammad (pbuh) had a purpose. They were chosen and molded to share God’s Word and Commandments to all of the people during their respective times.

We know they did not live simultaneously. If they had, they would have no doubt been comrades, partners, associates — disciples or sahaba of each other — determined to work together to convey their most important message. They would not have been working against each other.

Unfortunately, modern day-Christians and Muslims have come to be doing just that. We’re at each others’ throats — insulting, harming, killing, hating each other because of the slightest of differences in belief.

The Qur’an tells us in Surah Yunus, Verse 99:

وَلَوْ شَاءَ رَبُّكَ لَآمَنَ مَن فِي الْأَرْضِ كُلُّهُمْ جَمِيعًا ۚ أَفَأَنتَ تُكْرِهُ النَّاسَ حَتَّىٰ يَكُونُوا مُؤْمِنِينَ

Sahih International

And had your Lord willed, those on earth would have believed – all of them entirely. Then, [O Muhammad], would you compel the people in order that they become believers?

Alas, we are as Allah’s made us. But this doesn’t mean we can’t coexist and work together to make this world what Allah has intended it to be.

And, how do we do this?


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The secret to interfaith harmony can be found in the final sermons (khutbah) of these magnanimous men. Though their teaching methods differed, their messages were undoubtedly the same.

Along with the ultimate commandment that God is One, and He alone should be worshiped, both messengers strove to reclaim the rights and value of those who’d been sidelined and dehumanized: the indigent, the women, the children, the old, the poor.

While there are various interpretations and considerations of which of his sermons is considered the actual “last” (the Sermon on the Mount, the Last Supper, his curse on Israel while hanging on the cross), there is a specific sermon — in Christian tradition — that Essa (pbuh) delivered to his disciples (sahaba). It is called the Farewell Discourse, and its components can be found expounded upon in many locations across the internet. (For brevity, I have linked the Wikipedia discussion.)

There, Essa (pbuh) breaks his message into four main parts, explaining:

  • My peace I give unto you
  • I am the vine, you the branches
  • If the world hates you
  • Farewell prayer

And, it is in this Final Prayer, recorded in John 17:26, that we find a most important reminder:

I made known unto them thy name, and will make it known; that the love with which thou loves me may be in them, and I in them.

Here Essa (pbuh) is saying he has done what Allah has asked him to do by conveying His Name, and he asks Allah to imbue his followers with love for one another equal to the love Allah has for His messenger.

The overall theme of the Farewell Discourse is the New Commandment that Essa places on the heads of his followers, which can be found in John 13:34:

A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another.

As Essa (pbuh) before him, Muhammad (pbuh) also used his final sermon to convey the importance of brotherhood (ummah, non-gender specific), equality and fulfilling responsibility to others.

Among the list of imparted wisdoms include some of the most important summaries in mankind’s history, including the following translated from Al-Jahiz in al-Bayan wa al-Tabyin:

All praise is Allah’s. We praise Him, seek His help, ask His forgiveness, and we repent unto Him. We seek refuge in Allah from the evils of our selves and our bad actions. Whomever Allah guides none can lead astray, and whomever He leads astray has no one to guide him. I testify that there is no god but Allah alone, without any partner, and I testify that Muhammad is his slave and messenger.

In addition, Muhammad (pbuh) also reminded his followers to:

  • treat each other fairly
  • take care of women
  • observe Ramadan

However, perhaps his most assuring and empowering statement is the oft-quoted:

The noblest of you in Allah’s sight is the most God fearing: Arab has no merit over non-Arab other than God fearing-ness.

Al-Jahiz in al-Bayan wa al-Tabyin

In the end, while both sermons focused on specific tenets that had been at the forefront of each messenger’s ministry, it is clear they both presented a similar message to those they were leaving behind:

God alone shall be worshiped; love each other; be kind to all; take care of those you are responsible for; promote justice.

Now it is up to us — Christians and Muslims and all — to unite and reclaim these simple guidelines to restore what has been lost in this growingly-chaotic, terror- and destruction-filled reality: Credit:

Words Matter More Than Ever

In March of this year I wrote a post called “Words Matter,” in which I recognized that ‘words matter’ has been a unifying theme on my blog for years. It’s even my tagline.

In that post I wrote, “Words matter. Words are often the bridge between our thoughts and our actions. And more often that not, words reveal that our thoughts and our actions don’t always link together the way we think they do. This is especially true in matters of religion and faith, and that’s been a common theme on this blog. It’s also true about politics and America’s national cultural identity. I tend to write more on those issues during election years, and this year’s rhetoric seems particularly needful of exploration. Sometimes our words reveal our thoughts and sometimes our words betray our thoughts, but either way, words matter.”

And then I stopped writing on politics. The change in my roster status triggered an emotionally-charged identity crisis, and I wrote a few posts on that. Then I stopped writing on this blog altogether. It hurt too much to write about ministry and religion. And politics? That was a train wreck I could barely stand to watch, and I couldn’t formulate a coherent thought about it beyond “WTF?! Just…no!

I wrote in March that words matter, and there were plenty of words this election season. Not just the usual empty promises, self-promotion, and exhaustive explanations about how the other candidate’s policies are bad for the country. We had all that, of course, but we also had direct insults, name calling, and even threats. The politicians threatened each other, and they threatened the nation with predictions of catastrophic consequences if they didn’t win. Those words mattered, and some of the rhetoric from our now-President-Elect emboldened many in this country to threaten entire segments of the population with hate, violence, and discrimination. Those words matter, too.

During the campaign there were other words, as well. Citizens expressed concerns about job insecurity and their industries disappearing. They expressed concerns about corporate money dominating politics. They expressed concerns about health care affordability. They expressed concerns about the quality and cost of education. They expressed concerns about national security. They expressed a lot of concerns about a lot of issues that impact them directly. The citizens of this country had a lot of words for the politicians who strove to represent them.

But no one listened.

Words are meant for consumption. The written word is meaningless unless it’s read. The spoken word is meaningless unless it’s heard. Neither of the major candidates listened to the people. They were both too busy trying to get their own words out there. Trump and Clinton were competing to be the candidate with the most words and the loudest words, because they both believed the winner of that contest would be the winner of the election.

They were right.

And the people lost, because our words didn’t matter to the ones who should have been listening.

Not that we’re innocent victims, either. Those on the left don’t listen to those on the right, and those on the right don’t listen to those on the left. We follow people and organizations that reinforce our own opinions on Facebook and Twitter, and we ‘like’ and ‘repost’ articles and memes that proclaim our values or protest the values we disagree with. But few of us bother to cast a vote for city, state, or federal representatives, leaving others to determine who will establish the policies that will affect us. Fewer of us communicate our beliefs and values to our elected representatives, choosing instead to vent on social media about how politicians are so out of touch with their constituents.

Words are meant for consumption, but they must be consumed by the people for whom they’re intended. The politicians on both sides have demonstrated that they would rather tell their constituents what they should value rather than represent the values their constituents actually hold. They won’t listen voluntarily. But we have the power to make them listen. Representative government only works when the citizenry holds its elected leaders accountable. If your representative isn’t listening to you, then vote them out and elect one who will. And if you can’t find someone you want to vote for, get involved in politics and encourage people you respect to run. Better yet, run yourself.

We have a participatory government, but in order for it to work, we must participate. We must educate ourselves beyond soundbites and tweets, and acquire an understanding of the issues and the candidates’ positions. We must make our words matter to those who are supposed to represent us. (If you don’t know who your representatives are or how to contact them, you can find out here.)

And we must listen. Listen to the frustration of those who feel that the country is changing beyond recognition and no longer has a place for them. Listen to those who live in genuine fear of violence because they’re part of a demographic that has been demonized or denigrated. Listen to those who believe they’re being ignored. Listen carefully, and be willing to change your opinion or approach if someone on the other side has a valid point. Not all points are valid, but you’ll never hear the ones that are unless you listen.

Your words matter, so get them out there. But take time also to consume the words of others, and consider them carefully. Listen to their arguments and concerns, and don’t dismiss someone because they’re democrat, republican, liberal, conservative, urban, rural, Christian, Muslim, atheist, educated, working class, millennial, boomer, Gen X, black, white, male, female, or any other category you dislike. We’re all people, and we all matter. If we can’t agree on that at least, then we’re beyond hope.

It’s a dangerous time in our country and our world, and we don’t have much room for ignorance or complacency. Your words matter more than ever. Get them out there.

How to Brush Your Teeth


The most recent lessons in our writing curriculum involved having the student read a short narrative explaining how to do something, then having them summarize the steps verbally back to me. This has proven to be a challenge, because my kids don’t see why it matters if you skip a step or list something out of order. And my kids don’t like to put effort into something they don’t find important or interesting.

I know, I know. It’s a super-unique problem to have and you must be wondering how I deal.

Last week they presented me with those bored you’ve-got-to-be-kidding expressions when I tried to explain the importance of both following and giving instructions. So I gave them a new assignment. I told them they had to write down step-by-step instructions on how to brush your teeth, and I would follow them exactly. They were to use numbered instructions that didn’t have to be in complete sentences, and spelling didn’t matter. I emphasized that they had to list EVERYTHING involved; if they didn’t specifically tell me to do it, then I wouldn’t. I would also write instructions for them to follow. Whoever’s instructions resulted in the successful brushing of teeth would have a treat after supper that night. If all three of us wrote successful instructions, then all three of us would have a treat.

Minecraft Steve was finished in less than five minutes and went to have ‘recess’ in the playroom while Princess Playtime and I finished. He got nervous when he came upstairs twenty minutes later and found us both still writing. We had each used up the front and back of one piece of paper and were both on our second. He decided to take another look at his and expand it a bit. A few minutes later we were all finished. Minecraft Steve had about a page and a half of instructions. Princess Playtime had almost four, and I had six.

We all went into the bathroom where I stood in front of the sink, toothbrush and toothpaste on the counter next to the basin, and I told Minecraft Steve to read me his instructions.

We stalled when he told me to put my toothbrush under the faucet, and I held it vertically under the dry tap. He never told me to turn on the water or which part of the toothbrush to wet.

Minecraft Steve is a perfectionist who doesn’t take failure very well, and I decided to add a three-strike rule. I counted both omissions as a single strike, and was relieved that Princess Playtime, a.k.a the Queen of Fairness, didn’t notice.

He got his second strike when he failed to instruct me to remove the cap from the toothpaste.

He got his third strike when he told me to put my toothbrush in my mouth but didn’t specify where or what I was to do with it once it was there. I couldn’t give him any more passes, and I had to tell him that his instructions did not result in the successful brushing of my teeth.

I rinsed off my brush and reset so I could follow Princess Playtime’s instructions. She remembered to specify which part of the brush should go under the faucet, but she too forgot about turning on the water. Strike one. She also forgot about taking the cap off the toothpaste. Strike two. After that she gave fairly detailed instructions on which teeth to brush when, including that I should move the brush from side to side.

But she forgot to tell me to spit. Strike three.

Then it was their turn to follow my instructions. They both hoped that I would strike out as well.

I almost did.

I got through their first two strikes without a hitch, even specifying that they were to remove the toothpaste cap by twisting it. But then I noted that people don’t usually hold the toothpaste cap in their hand while brushing, so my first strike was not telling them to put the cap back down on the counter.

Several times they began to do something automatically before I instructed it, and I pointed that out whenever it happened. They had to follow my instructions exactly, and not do anything I didn’t specifically tell them to do.

When we were at the point where I instructed them to put the cap back on the toothpaste, Princess Playtime noticed that I neglected to tell them to twist it. I argued briefly that I had already told them how to operate the cap when they took it off, but she reminded me that I hadn’t specifically told them to twist it back on (using my own words against me), and I conceded. Strike two.

Fortunately I didn’t get a third strike, despite their careful observation, and they had to agree that I had written successful instructions.

Minecraft Steve grumped that it wasn’t fair because I had a big Mama-brain, and they didn’t.

We sat down to talk about the assignment. They were both pretty upset, and that’s when the teaching moment happened. Princess Playtime asked if I had expected them to write successful instructions, and I admitted that I hadn’t. Following instructions is hard, and writing them is even harder. I reminded Minecraft Steve that even with my big Mama-brain, I still got two strikes.

Then I told them they were getting treats after supper anyway. I’d made my point, and there was no reason to prolong the disappointment. I certainly wasn’t going to eat a treat in front of them, and they both would have squawked if I skipped it entirely. They’re pretty consistent with their sense of justice.

They argued with me a bit, saying they hadn’t earned the treats, but accepted my decision when I told them the treats had nothing to do with the assignment.

That day just happened to be a treat day.

Unfortunate Common Ground

When people voted for Trump, they didn’t do it because it was the best thing for America. They did it because they’ve got problems, and now they’ve made their problems everyone’s problems. They’re racists. They’re homophobes. They’re misogynists. And some, I assume, are good people.

This is the general tenor of the comments I’ve seen on Facebook. Not surprisingly, this offends people who did vote for Trump. I know some of them, and they are good people.

But they should be offended.

Because if being slandered with broad generalizations offends them, then maybe they can begin to understand what many Americans have experienced by their candidate and many of his supporters.

“When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best. They’re not sending you. They’re not sending you. They’re sending people that have lots of problems, and they’re bringing those problems with [sic] us. They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists. And some, I assume, are good people.” Donald Trump, June 16, 2015.

“I think Islam hates us.” He went on to talk about the “tremendous hatred” that partly defines the religion. March 10, 2016.

During the first presidential debate against Hillary Clinton, Trump stated that “African Americans and Hispanics are living in hell. You walk down the street and you get shot.” He went on to warn about “gangs roaming the streets.” While crime in the inner cities is certainly a problem, it’s a gross exaggeration to imply that inner city violence is the lived reality of all African Americans and Latinos. Yet that’s what Trump did with his sweeping generalization.

These are only a few examples. Donald Trump has consistently labeled and dismissed entire groups of people based on stereotypes. For the people who bear those labels, it’s insulting, demoralizing, and offensive.

Maybe now you know how it feels.

There is a disturbing lack of common ground in politics these days. It’s unfortunate that the shared experience of prejudice may be the only common ground we have to build upon, but if that’s the way it is, then let’s start there.

There are reasons why so many people voted for Trump, and some of them have nothing to do with racism, homophobia, or misogyny. Millions of people in this country have felt the way liberals feel now: that their representative government doesn’t represent them. They have spoken, and we need to listen. Assigning a hate-filled motive to everyone who voted for Trump is just another form of prejudice, and it’s not going to get us anywhere.

That said, some of Trump’s supporters were motivated–in part or in whole–by hate. That’s being borne out now, with numerous acts of violence and verbal abuse towards those groups Trump labeled, insulted, and dismissed during his campaign. This is the lived reality of millions of American’s now, and it’s just not right.

If you are one of those Trump supporters who is presumably “a good person,” then prove it by speaking out against these acts of violence, standing up to protect those who are being marginalized, and holding President-elect Trump accountable for his rhetoric. His words are not harmless. It’s not just “locker-room talk” when women are sexually harassed and assaulted by those who feel their new president gave them permission. It’s not just hyperbole when acts of violence are committed against minorities in the name of Trump’s declared policy positions. You can support his trade policies, his economic policies, and his plan to end corruption in Washington without endangering the lives of American citizens and residents who don’t happen to be Christians of northern European descent.

But if you remain silent in the face of these atrocities, you lose the right to call yourself a good person. And if you defend or excuse these atrocities, then you need to own the labels we’re giving you, because you define yourself with your action or inaction.

I don’t want to start with prejudice being our common ground. I’d like to think better of us. But I don’t see a whole lot right now that gives me hope. So let’s start with prejudice. Let’s start by acknowledging it in all its forms, and let’s work to stop it.

We have to begin somewhere.

Homeschool or Public School?

This is not a screed about the evils of public school and the salvific qualities of home education. I believe that some children learn best in public or private schools and others learn best at home. It all depends on the child.

And this post is about my child.

My daughter, Princess Playtime, wants more than anything to go to school. She’s experienced a classroom environment at a homeschool co-op we’ve attended in the past, as well as in a Lego engineering program we enroll in whenever it’s offered. But it’s not enough for her. She wants to be in a classroom learning with other kids all the time. Sitting at the dining room table with her brother Minecraft Steve doesn’t quite cut it.

Princess Playtime is about to turn seven, but I’ve taught her to speak up and advocate for herself. She’s learned that lesson well, and we went twenty rounds the other day about her going to school. Her argument was convincing. She’s experienced homeschool, and now she wants to experience public school so she can make an informed decision. Those were her exact words.

And that’s the problem.

My daughter has the vocabulary of someone twice her age. She’s reading at the middle school level, and is acing the third grade math curriculum I’m using. Her grammar and writing skills are also well beyond her years. But because of when her birthday falls, our local district would insist on putting her in first grade.

I know this because I’ve called them. I know she’s not emotionally ready for third grade, but I thought maybe a second grade teacher would be able to accommodate her. But the school allows absolutely no exceptions to their policy on age entrance. Princess Playtime misses the cut-off for second grade by less than a week, but that’s enough to put her into a first grade class. If I had known this was going to be such a problem, I would have scheduled a C-section so she could have an October birthday.

I want her to know that she has a say in her education, so I was tempted to send her to school anyway. But at what cost?

On Monday night we went trick-or-treating with a neighborhood kid and his father. Neighborhood Boy goes to the public school my kids would go to, and he’s in the second grade class I was trying to get Princess Playtime into. His father told me Neighborhood Boy reads at the sixth grade level and has an understanding of math comparable to Princess Playtime’s. And he hates school because he’s bored stiff. There is no gifted and talented program in our district, and his teacher doesn’t have the resources to keep him challenged and engaged. Furthermore, with their new “Standards-Based Grading System,” students are graded according to how well they’re progressing towards end-of-year goals for that grade. The highest grade a child can receive is “M,” which means the child meets end-of-year goals. There is no mechanism in place for a teacher to note that a student exceeds that grade’s end-of-year goals other than writing a comment on the report card, but even if they take the time to do that, there are no resources available to help that student progress beyond their assigned grade.

My daughter would be a year behind Neighborhood Boy. Her end-of-year goals include learning to match letters to sounds, do addition and subtraction up to ten, and understand what the symbols +, -, and = mean. Earlier today she was reading Harry Potter, and she routinely adds and subtracts 3-digit numbers in her head. She’s also learning multiplication.

I want her to have a say in her education, but I can’t justify the lost time. I can’t justify the major shift in routine sending her to school would require for the rest of the family. I can’t justify her not seeing her father except on weekends, because with his work schedule he’d get up after she left for school, and get home after she went to bed. As homeschoolers, we can accommodate his schedule and still have family time.

It’s heartbreaking to see my daughter so disappointed. But while she does have a say in her education, I’m her parent, and ultimately it’s up to me to decide what’s best for her. And what’s best for her right now is to continue homeschooling. There is a charter school for grades 6-12 in our city that is academically rigorous enough to keep her engaged, and I’m willing to consider that for her when the time comes.

But for now, for better or worse, she’s stuck with me.

I’m Not That Mom

I tried to track down the original source of this meme and couldn’t. I copied it from this site instead.

This meme has been making its way around Facebook lately. I get what it’s trying to say. One of the great things about homeschooling is the ability to make a lesson out of anything, and to follow tangents down delightful rabbit holes rich with fascinating information. This meme celebrates one of the best parts of homeschooling.

And if this is the measure of a homeschooling family, then I’m a failure.

I had to change a lightbulb just the other day. I pulled the stand-lamp down to where I could reach it, unscrewed the burnt-out bulb, and threw it out. I went to the closet where we keep spare lightbulbs, found the one with the correct wattage, took it out of the box, and screwed it into the fixture. I never bothered to call my kids and make it into a learning experience. Honestly, that never even occurred to me, despite the fact that I’d seen this meme twice in the previous week.

I just changed the lightbulb while my kids were playing Monopoly in the other room.

We do follow tangents sometimes, and we’ve had some great discussions because of it, but most of the time my kids get bored when I try to do something like this meme describes. I can just imagine my daughter saying, “Mom, if we need to buy a lightbulb, then why are we in the library?” My son would respond with, “How long can we play on the iPads here?”

And that’s fine. That’s us. I’m not that mom. I don’t plan out dozens of unit studies integrating drama, art, music, math, history, and fiction and non-fiction literature. And my kids aren’t the kids who would be into all that. We’re more of the no-frills, just the facts, readin-ritin-rithmatic kind of homeschoolers. We spend a little time most mornings doing ‘together’ school, and they have a list of assignments they need to do independently each week. Other than that and a few regularly scheduled outings, we each do our own thing.

Sometimes my kids play Minecraft. Sometimes they play Monopoly. A few weeks ago when my son was sick and taking a nap, I asked my daughter what she was going to do. She answered, “I’m just going to lie down on my bed and daydream for a while.” (I was envious.) They plan puppet shows and concerts and have written a book with their babysitter. They’re incredibly curious and creative children who shut down the moment they sense I’m trying to turn something into a ‘learning experience.’ They don’t want school to interfere with their fun.

A lot of homeschooling philosophy focuses on erasing the line between learning and fun, but I’ve found that my kids prefer to categorize things in that way. I just don’t tell them that it all counts as education. Some things are part of ‘doing school.’ Other things are ‘fun.’ And still other things are ‘stuff we need to know,’ which is different from school. Changing a lightbulb is in this third category. If I’d been thinking, I would have called them in to watch me change the bulb so they could try and do it the next time one burned out. And later on, when we get to Thomas Edison in our history class, we’ll read a biography on his life and my kids will be excited to connect his invention with the lighbulb they changed.

But we’ll skip the skit and models. According to my kids, that sort of thing is just silly.

From Pastor Karen to Karen Goltz, Writer

My last post was the transcript of the last sermon I preached as an ELCA pastor. I ended that sermon stating that I didn’t know what my life would look like in three months. I didn’t plan on this, but it’s been just over three months since I preached/wrote that.

And this is the first time I’ve been on this blog since.

My life doesn’t look all that different than it did last spring. I’m still homeschooling my kids, I’m still working on my novel (editing and revising my first draft), and I’m still doing all the things I need to do as a stay-at-home wife and mother.

But things are different, too. I’m not a pastor anymore, and I’m still getting used to that fact. It hasn’t been easy.

The worst part is that the pastor of my home congregation retired just before I got dropped from the roster. The synod did not assign an interim and the congregation depends on pulpit supply for worship leadership. I’ve done a lot of pulpit supply there over the years, which I loved, and I was always well received by the other members. So it kills me to go there now and know that I can’t help out with worship leadership during this transition. Technically I can still preach–lay preachers have preached there before–but I would have to restrict myself to the pulpit and not preside at the altar. I’d be stripped of my clerical collar, my stole, and my title. I’d have to stand where I’ve stood many times before, only this time I’d have to stand there and pretend I’m not a pastor.

Maybe it’s pride, but I just can’t do that.

I haven’t worshiped at my home congregation very often in the last three months.

At first I was nervous about attending worship as a non-pastor. I was afraid I’d see the pulpit and the altar and be reminded that I can’t do that anymore. Fortunately I was traveling my first Sunday, which was a great excuse to not attend church. The next Sunday was the Day of Recollection at Glastonbury Abbey in Hingham, MA. I’m in the process of becoming an oblate there, so I had to attend that service.

It was the best place I could have been.

Glastonbury Abbey is a Benedictine community of monks, and they conducted a Catholic Mass. I’m not Catholic. I wasn’t reminded of my loss because I’ve never preached in that pulpit. I’ve never presided at that altar. And I was never going to. Some of the monks know of my career in ministry, but they’ve never related to me clergy-to-clergy. I’m in their oblate program. I’m a regular retreat guest. I’m the weird retreat guest who comes there not to rest, but to work. I’m the writer.

The monks know me as a writer.

If you’ve been following this blog for any length of time, you know that I’ve been trying to re-imagine myself as a writer. More than two years ago I published a post entitled Pick Up Your Pen and Write, in which I wrote about this very thing. In that post of August 26, 2014, I stated, “In the next year or two I’ll be removed from the roster and cease my pulpit supply. I’ll be writing until that happens, and I’ll continue writing after that happens.”

I did, and I am.

I used to be a pastor who wrote. Now I’m just a writer. Church is still difficult for me, and it’s going to be until the congregation calls a new pastor, but I’m attending again. And I’m continuing in the oblate program at Glastonbury Abbey, where I was never known as Pastor Karen.

Seventeen years is a long time to cultivate a pastoral identity, and it’s going to take more than three months to cultivate a new, non-pastoral identity. But Karen Goltz, Writer has been in the background all along, and I’m trying to give her a little more attention.

I don’t think it’ll be another three months before I post here again.

My Final Sermon as an ELCA Pastor

[This is what I preached this morning at Messiah Lutheran Church in Amherst, NH, where I’ve been covering a sabbatical throughout the month of June. I’m grateful to the people of Messiah for being so welcoming and accepting of me these past few weeks, and for bearing with me today as I broke down in the pulpit. I’m also grateful to the people of Trinity Lutheran Church in Chelmsford, MA, who trekked all the way up to New Hampshire to share this last Sunday with me.

Today’s texts were 1 Kings 19:15-16, 19-21; Psalm 16; Galatians 5:1, 13-25; and Luke 9:51-62.]

Several years ago, when we lived in New York State, my husband and I began to have a regular date night. Every week we ate at one of four or five different restaurants, then walked laps around the local mall until it closed, then sat in the café at Barnes and Noble until it closed. Every single week without exception. We believed we did it because there wasn’t much else to do in that part of New York State, and we couldn’t wait to get back to the Boston area where we’d have more options.

And eventually we did get back to the Boston area, and we did have more options. And now every date night, we eat at one of five or six different restaurants, walk laps around whichever one of three malls is closest to that evening’s restaurant of choice, and then sit in the café at whichever Barnes and Noble is closest to that mall.

Only now we have to change things up a bit, because all three Barnes and Nobles changed their hours to close an hour earlier, and we have no idea what we’re going to do now in that hour between the mall closing and the babysitter expecting us home.

See, I hate change. I like routine and predictability, and I go out of my way to cultivate those things in my life.

Unfortunately there’s a great deal in my life that’s beyond my control, and I have to deal with changes I don’t want and don’t like regardless of how I feel about them.

Seventeen years ago I worked in government finance at Hanscom Air Force base, until I ran afoul of some politics and ended up unexpectedly out of a job. Three days later I had a chance meeting with the Dean of Admissions at Boston University School of Theology, who, after talking with me for ten minutes, offered me a full merit scholarship plus a small stipend for attending their MDiv program. I certainly hadn’t been looking for that kind of change, I certainly didn’t want that kind of change, but there it was.

I guess I felt a little like Elisha must have felt in today’s first reading. Elisha’s just doing his work, minding his own business, when out of nowhere this prophet shows up, throws his mantle on him, and keeps walking, expecting Elisha to follow. Elisha does follow, asking for permission to go home and say farewell to his parents before his leaves. Elijah grants him that permission, perhaps realizing what he was demanding and saying—I like to think with a twinge of guilt—“What have I done to you?”

We don’t know anything about Elijah’s life before he became a prophet. We first meet him at the beginning of First Kings chapter seventeen, and there he’s already a prophet, telling Ahab some bad news and then running for his life. This sort of thing was normal for Elijah, but not for Elisha. Elisha was probably from a fairly wealthy family, considering he had twelve yoke of oxen to work with. Given what he was used to, it’s pretty remarkable that he didn’t hesitate to give it all up and serve Elijah, except to ask to say goodbye to all that was familiar to him. I can’t say I accepted my call as easily. I came up with a thousand reasons why I couldn’t possibly accept that scholarship and go into ministry, but God cut through every one of them and I ended up going anyway, pretty much against my will.

Over time I learned to accept all the changes that seminary and ministry brought. I learned to accept my new normal, and I acclimated to it. This was clearly what God wanted me to be doing, so I figured I may as well do it as best I could.

Except it never really worked out. My first call was a disaster, working with a senior pastor who neither liked nor respected me. (To be honest, the feeling was mutual.) I left after a little less than two years. After that I had a pretty good experience as a transitional pastor, which would have turned into a regular call were it not for the fact that I got engaged while serving there, and the geography just wouldn’t work out with my husband’s job. From there I had an excellent experience serving as interim pastor, and I was sorry when they called a new pastor because I really wanted to stay. But that’s not the way it works.

My next call—let’s just say that one went worse than my first. And I was convinced that I had been wrong. I wasn’t supposed to be in ministry after all.

Except I couldn’t leave. Even though I didn’t want to serve anymore, I kept getting asked to do pulpit supply, or cover sabbaticals or family leaves. I kept getting asked to be chaplain at various retreats at Calumet, and I kept getting positive feedback for what I was doing. And I thought, OK, maybe I have found my calling. Maybe I’m not cut out for sustained parish ministry, but I am called to do short-term respite ministry. There’s certainly a need for that kind of thing, and maybe I’m called to fulfill that need.

And over time—a long time—several years—I finally embraced that as my pastoral identity.

Except respite ministry is not a recognized call in the ELCA, and I’ve overstayed my welcome.

I got pulled into ministry against my will, and now I’m leaving ministry against my will. June 27th, 2010, was the last day of my last call. On June 27th, 2016, tomorrow, I will have exhausted the time I can remain on the roster without a call, and I will be removed. Beginning next Sunday, I will no longer be eligible to stand up here and do what I’m doing today.

I’m not preaching on Paul’s letter to the Galatians today because I stand convicted by it. I’m a little short on things like joy, peace, and patience right now, but I’ve got plenty of strife, anger, quarrels, and dissention. And I’m hesitant to preach on the gospel because I kind of feel for James and John. They wanted to call down fire from heaven to consume those who would not accept the ministry they’d abandoned everything to support. I get that. I really, really get that.

But God’s Word is there to convict, to instruct, and to console.

There were a couple of articles in the June 8th issue of The Christian Century that really helped bring things home for me. One of them was a reflection on today’s gospel lesson, and the author talked about how sometimes what we perceive as rejection is really a path being cleared to the purposed destination. She states, “There is wisdom in knowing when your mission in a place is over, when it’s time to move on.” She acknowledges that life circumstances can bring us out of focus and off our purpose, just as James and John forgot that Jesus had sent them out to preach the kingdom of God and heal the sick, not call down fire from heaven to consume villages. And we have to constantly ask ourselves, “Is our direction in line with God’s purpose for our lives, our assignment for these times? How can we recalibrate, get back on course? Where is God calling us to set our faces?”

I don’t have the answer to any of those questions right now, but there was another article in that issue that gives me a little help. That article was called, “Why I Left the Ordination Process.” The author wrote about her experience being called to the Episcopal priesthood, only to discover partway through the process that she actually wasn’t. At first she ignored her doubts and stubbornly doubled-down, but God made it clear to her that he was not calling her to set her face toward ordained ministry. While she was drawn to the mysteries priests proclaim and to the realities of priestly ministry, she knew that her husband hated the idea of being married to a priest, with all the moving and uncertainty that would entail. She knew that the hours and stress involved in her job as a lay minister were negatively impacting her health and her relationship with her children. She knew that some of the priests she encountered had been wonderful public leaders but were barely functioning in their private lives. She eventually realized that Jesus says, “Follow me,” not “Follow me into one specific overarching vocational destiny,” and she dropped out of the process.

I don’t know if I ignored such warnings during my process, or if I was just called to ministry for a time and now it’s time to move on to something else. I think it’s the latter. I hope it’s the latter. That’s what I’m going with, anyway. Because the thing about cultivating routine and predictability in your life is, the rest of the world doesn’t care about your routine and expectations. The world changes, whether we like it or not. The political process in this country has changed significantly in the past fifty years, to the point that the rules of engagement and public discourse have changed beyond recognition. The United Kingdom just voted to leave the European Union, and world politics and economies are changing in response, even though no one knows what this is going to look like or what they should be changing into. Every time we acclimate to what’s going on in our world and in our lives and set our course, something in our world and in our lives changes, and we have to recalibrate and get back on course.

After Jesus rebukes James and John, someone comes up to Jesus and tells him, “I will follow you wherever you go.” Jesus responds by saying, “Foxes have holes, and the birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.” I always thought that was a warning. But now I see it as a promise. Fox holes can be filled. Nests can be destroyed. Foxes and birds can be displaced. But the Son of Man is not dependent on worldly circumstances. No matter what changes in the world or in our lives, God in Christ will remain, inviting us into his grace and mercy. My life is not what it was ten years ago or seventeen years ago or thirty-five years ago. This country is not what it was fifty years ago or a hundred and fifty years ago or three hundred years ago. Jerusalem is not what it was five hundred years ago or a thousand years ago or two thousand years ago. But Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever. If we’re on the wrong path he’ll guide us to the right one, and he’ll guide us again when that path changes, because at some point, you can be sure it will change.

Everywhere I look I see problems. I don’t know what the world’s going to look like next year, and I don’t know what my life is going to look like in three months, and I don’t know how to respond to any of that. But there is one problem I can solve. I can figure out what my husband and I are going to do after the mall closes, now that Barnes and Noble is no longer an option.


Teaching Consent to Children

If you’re reading this blog then you spend some time online, which means you must know about the outrage over the “sentencing” of convicted rapist Brock Turner. Just to sum it up, Brock Turner was caught in the act of sexually assaulting an unconscious young woman behind a dumpster. At his trial, a jury of his peers convicted him of assault with intent to commit rape of an intoxicated woman, sexually penetrating an intoxicated person with a foreign object, and sexually penetrating an unconscious person with a foreign object, all three classified as felonies. The maximum possible sentence was fourteen years, and the prosecutor recommended six years. The judge sentenced Turner to just six months in prison, of which he will actually serve three.

I’m not going to write about how outrageously ridiculous and insensitive that sentence is–there are more than enough blogs that are doing that already, like this one by the Rev. Erin Wathen. What I am going to write has to do with something Rev. Wathen named in the title of her post: rape culture.

This verdict and sentencing has sparked a much needed national conversation on rape culture. The ways in which Brock Turner’s defenders have been trivializing the crime and blaming the victim for being drunk and vulnerable are examples of rape culture. Turner’s own father trivialized the assault in a letter he wrote to the judge by calling it “20 minutes of action” and claiming that his son had “never been violent to anyone including his actions on the night of January 17th, 2015.” His other name for the assault was to call it an “event.” The only mention of the victim was a brief statement at the beginning of his letter stating that “[Brock] is truly sorry for what occurred that night and for all the pain and suffering that it has caused for all of those involved and impacted by that night.”

That’s where I need to stop. I get that parents want to protect their children, but you don’t do it by disregarding the fact that your son was thrice convicted of sexual assault and equating it to casual sex (20 minutes of action–really? Really?). And you don’t do it by telling a woman who woke up on a hospital gurney with various abrasions on her body and dried blood and bandages on the backs of her hands and elbows that she hadn’t actually experienced any violence.

The sad thing is, parental protection aside, I suspect Turner’s father actually believes everything he wrote. And he raised Brock to believe it, which is part of the reason why this whole thing happened. Stripping a woman who drank herself to unconsciousness and violating her with your fingers is natural, right? What else is a healthy young man supposed to do? She wouldn’t have let herself get into that situation if she hadn’t wanted it, right? And Brock himself was a victim of the alcohol consumption and partying culture that permeates college campuses everywhere. He was drunk, too, so he shouldn’t be held responsible for a little misunderstanding between two people who drank too much, right?

This needs to stop, and parents need to stop telling their children that boys will be boys and good girls wait until marriage. That’s how rape culture begins. We need to teach our children to recognize the humanity of other people–all people, and not think of some people as objects for others’ use or entertainment. We need to teach them that the world isn’t there to serve their needs or make them feel good, and that other people have needs and feelings too. We need to teach them how to put themselves in another person’s place and think about how they would feel if someone were treating them like that.

And we need to teach them consent.

I have a son and a daughter. They’re both very young, and they don’t know about Brock Turner. They don’t know about rape. They know about sex, but only the basic mechanics of how it can make babies. They’re not aware of any other reasons why people would want to have sex, though I think my son is beginning to suspect that those people on TV really aren’t just hugging, which is what I’ve told him when he’s walked into the living room during a steamy scene in The Good Wife. At some point I’ll explain how sex isn’t just for making babies, how it also has pleasurable aspects, because that’s a part of it too and I don’t want them thinking that they can only trust their friends to tell them “the good stuff.” And I’ll talk to them about consent.

But that won’t be the first conversation we have about consent.

In fact, we’ve already talked about consent, though we haven’t used that word and it hasn’t been in relation to sex. See, my kids are typical siblings who get along great with each other except when they don’t, and I usually let them work it out on their own.

But if I hear one of them say ‘no’ or ‘stop,’ I listen carefully. And if it’s followed up by a second ‘no’ or ‘stop,’ I get involved. Ignoring the other person’s objections or attempts to leave a game that has gone sour is not allowed, and the offender gets a time-out. This goes for both my son and my daughter. When someone says ‘no,’ the answer is no. When someone says ‘stop,’ you stop. I’ve told them both that if the person you’re playing with isn’t having fun anymore, stop playing that game and do something else you will both enjoy.

This is all in relation to childish games, but you can see how it will translate into future, not-so-childish activities. And if, say, a 20 year old man is with a woman who is bleeding and motionless on the ground, he should be able to figure out that she’s probably not having fun, and he should stop playing.

Rape culture doesn’t happen in a vacuum, and consent isn’t only applicable to sex. Teach your children now how to recognize signs of resistance (this game is no fun, I’m not playing anymore), and teach them to consider how their actions impact other people. They’re never too young to learn that.

Also, we parents have to remember that our precious snowflakes actually can do wrong, they can make bad decisions, and those decisions will have consequences that they will have to face. No more protecting them from disappointment. No more making excuses for their behavior. Recognize that they are not perfect, and let them know that. It’s OK not to be perfect. Let them know that, too. And please let them know that they can’t always get what they want. A child who never hears ‘no’ from his parents is unlikely to understand what it means as an adult. A child who discovers that when his parents say ‘no’ all he has to do is keep pushing and that ‘no’ will turn into a ‘yes’ will apply that same behavior later in life, because it’s always worked before. When you say ‘no’ to your children, make it stick.

But ultimately, people make their own decisions. Brock Turner’s father, even if he did teach his son all these toxic things, isn’t responsible for the rape. Brock Turner chose to rape that young woman, and now he should have to face the consequences.

There is no formula that guarantees our kids will turn out right. It’s possible that Brock Turner’s parents actually taught him everything I’ve listed above, and their son still chose to rape. But it’s still a good place to start.

The victim made a mistake by drinking too much. There are consequences for that, too. But those consequences should have been a hangover and a headache. That’s it. And Brock made a mistake by drinking too much, but the alcohol was not responsible for his actions. The victim herself explained it well in her moving and eloquent statement to the court, which I strongly recommend you read in its entirety: “Alcohol is not an excuse. Is it a factor? Yes. But alcohol was not the one who stripped me, fingered me, had my head dragging against the ground, with me almost fully naked. Having too much to drink was an amateur mistake that I admit to, but it is not criminal. Everyone in this room has had a night where they have regretted drinking too much, or knows someone close to them who has had a night where they have regretted drinking too much. Regretting drinking is not the same as regretting sexual assault. We were both drunk, the difference is I did not take off your pants and underwear, touch you inappropriately, and run away. That’s the difference.”

Rape culture needs to end, and one thing that will contribute to that goal is teaching our children consent, respect, empathy, and humility. They’re really not to young to learn those lessons, and they will carry them for the rest of their lives.