Thursday, December 24, 2009

At 7:15 EST on Christmas Eve Morning

At 7:15 on Christmas Eve the Health Bill was passed by the U.S. Senate 60-39. It's name includes patient protection and affordable health care. Much has been written and will be written about the contents and concessions. Much is yet to be done as the House and Senate bills are reconciled and integrated. Which provisions will prevail?

But as I watched the vote this morning, just concluded at 6:15 a.m. my time, I note some seemingly small things. Certainly it's understandable that quite a few senators left the floor immediately following their particular vote...airplane travel will be difficult given the weather right outside my own window here in Dubuque. (Yes, we are starting out on the road this morning, too, to head towards the congregation my husband is serving as interim half way across the state.) But notable was the fact that it was the losing side who mostly left the floor.

And I also noted with some consternation that it seemed hard to find a channel that kept focused on the vote all the way through. (The vote took only 15 minutes, hardly a lot of time.) Even C-Span announced a few votes in that we would need to turn to C-Span 2 to see the rest of the vote while they cut away to take calls from viewers. MSNBC was doing a pretty good job letting us actually see our Senate at work, but when the reporter covering the vote was asked to clarify what was happening (two senators were yet out of the room and the vote was being held for a moment to make sure everyone could vote), she acknowledged that she wasn't paying attention because she was doing an interview with the Today show which would air shortly.

[In the time it takes to write this, I note Sen. Al Franken from snowy Minnesota, is lingering 20 more minutes, taking time to cross the aisle and talk personally to many Republican senators. And 92-year-old Senator Bird is still there, in his wheel-chair.)

Can we not stay in the room? Can we not pay attention? Is our attention span so short? Are we so distracted, even when something, such as informing the public, is our direct responsibility? Just things to ponder as all of us are called to careful, thoughtful, collaborative deliberation in the communal decision making in our daily lives.

It's Christmas Eve. We pray for safe travel as we watch and wait. Where will we see the Christ Child coming this very day?

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Chronic Illness: Globally and Personally

Chronos is actual, specific time. Kairos refers to the timely moment, the “right” time. Chronologically I have been ill for 27 years this month. Chronologically the world has always been at war, somewhere. Chronologically the globe is warming. How much time, specifically, we “have left” is open to debate; however there is no doubt about the fact that the glaciers are melting at a faster and faster rate.

Was the speech President Obama gave in Oslo when he received the Nobel Peace Prize the right speech at the right time? It was a great speech. Great in spite of, perhaps because of, the challenge of the timing, right after he sent more forces to war. War is very much with us. He said, “The capacity of human beings to think up new ways to kill one another proved inexhaustible, as did our capacity to exempt from mercy those who look different or pray to a different God.” And so, in the midst of the chronic nature of war, he dared to live as a man seeking peace.

There are only a couple of days left of the 2009 United Nations Summit on climate change. “Will anything get done?” “What will have been accomplished?” “Will expediency cause such compromises that any action will be meaningless? “Will the nations that live in poverty be overlooked once again?” Long lines, protestors, entrenched super powers. And yet they gather. And we dare not be merely skeptical viewers; we must gather too. The earth is chronically ill. So what do we do? How do we live?

Twenty-seven years ago I was struck by a disease with a terribly misleading name, and with no known cause and no cure, Chronic Fatigue Immune Dysfunction Syndrome (CFS). I must deal with unrelenting exhaustion, weakness, depression, seizure-like episodes, triggered by sudden loud noises, with times of being unable to walk or speak. While many become bedridden, unable to work, with the aid of two wonderful doctors and supportive family and friends, colleagues and students, I have been able to life a fully productive life. Similar in a way to global warming, progress has been impeded by those who through the year have had doubts about how real the disease is since it could not be identified under a microscope, even though more than l million people in this country and millions more globally suffer from CFS.

This fall researchers have identified a strong connection between people with CFS and an infectious human retrovirus, xenotropic murine leukemia virus-related virus (XMRV). After so many years I have simply accepted that fact that I will need to live with this chronic illness the rest of my life. How do I receive the news that there could be a breakthrough, that things could change? Will research be too slow to make any difference?

On a much larger scale, we human beings have come to believe that war is inevitable. What would a world without war be like? And, in regard to climate change (also an unfortunate name that does not describe its devastating effects), people may assume there is nothing we can really do. Research will be too slow to make any difference.

The president’s poll numbers are down. Four years for a presidential term presents relentless chronological pressure to get something done quickly, lest “time run out.” President Obama knows this. And still he called the peoples of the world to vision, hard work and persistence in thinking about just war and the imperatives of a just peace. “Peace requires responsibility. Peace entails sacrifice.” He called for three ways to build such just and lasting peace: 1) We need to develop alternatives to violence that are tough enough to change behavior; 2) Peace is not just the absence of visible conflict; just peace is based upon inherent rights and dignity of every individual; and 3) Just peace includes not only civil and political right but economic security and opportunity.

Chronological time presses on. Sin is real. War is relentless. The earth is ill. Those of us who live with chronic illnesses grow weary. And one could say that all human beings are chronically ill, at best only temporarily able bodied.

So, in the midst of these realities, how do we hope? At the kairos moment Christ came and comes again. Christmas presents us again with realities and possibilities.

I cannot depend upon the identification of the human retrovirus XMRV to change my life, but perhaps, after all these years of no progress on CFS, maybe it will. Whether or not that will happen in my lifetime, CFS cannot hinder my commitment to live and serve. .
We cannot depend upon a U.S. president alone to solve the problems of war and make peace (our work being only to give him “grades.”) Working for a just peace is the responsibility of all of us. Obama’s speech in Oslo recognized the chronic human predicament, saying that human nature is not perfect and we do not live in an idealized world. And yet he said that if we lose faith, dismiss it as na├»ve, we lose our sense of possibility.

We cannot wait for countries to agree on one strategy to keep our earth from becoming fatally ill. The Copenhagen summit will end, but those attending and those of us watching are called to continue our commitment to live and to serve and to work towards global health. The kairos moment is here.

Chronically ill? Yes! A kairos time? In Christ, always.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Tithing is Big News

Christopher deForest posts this latest entry from his new location in the U.K:

Recently, a story broke here in Scotland about a 30-year-old Oxford academic, Toby Ord, who plans to donate $1.7 million to charity (to read the story, click here). He is not independently wealthy. As a scholar in the fields of ethics and philosophy his salary is not high, and he doesn’t anticipate big raises or bonuses. Nor does his pledge include contributions from his wife, his family, or any other source – merely from his own earnings.

So how does he plan to reach this extraordinary goal? Simply by giving 10% of his income every year until he retires.

Is that even possible? You’d think the numbers just couldn’t add up, but they do. And if one guy of modest means can give that much – what about two people? Five people? Ten? A hundred? A million?

That’s the whole idea behind a new grassroots movement called “Giving What You Can.” Maybe it’s premature to call it a “movement.” It only started three weeks ago, with the launch of their new website (click here). So far, they only have 23 “members” – that is, 23 people who have signed up to make the same pledge: to donate at least 10% of their lifetime earnings to organizations that are fighting extreme poverty in the developing world.

The group does not solicit or take donations directly; they merely invite you to take the pledge. And though they do endorse a few NGOs that they think are doing a great job, they leave it up to members to decide, on their own, where they give. All they ask is that the 10% goes towards aiding the poor or eradicating extreme poverty.

And how’s it all going, after three whole weeks? So far, a mere 23 individuals have pledged over $9.5 million dollars.

Unbelievable, isn’t it? The members also do something else that seems highly counter-cultural these days: they publicly post their names, right on the website. Not to boast, or to show off their moral superiority, but to make themselves accountable to each other and to the whole world. And to say, they believe they have a personal stake in the welfare of the whole human family, especially those who suffer most.

Again, let’s be clear: these aren’t wealthy philanthropists. These are at best middle-income academics. And half the listed members are students!

I am deeply humbled and inspired by what they’re doing. But one thing does give me pause. Scanning the list of members, not one claims to be clergy or faith-affiliated, nor are there any scholars or students of religion or theology.

I doubt there’s any deliberate exclusion. Rather, this may say something about the place of religion in society today – certainly in Europe, but increasingly in the U.S. as well. It seems, once again, that another creative and courageous secular group has taken what should be our message and mission, and they’ve run with it: a gracious invitation to reorient one’s life towards grateful generosity; towards simpler, more joyous living and giving. Once again, we religious folks are left in the dust, either because we’re seen as irrelevant, or out of touch, or ineffective – or because we’ve had our chance, and we’ve blown it.

Here’s another observation. Go to this link and read the stories in the press about this new group. The articles I’ve read all express a range of opinions, from doubt to shock to ridicule, not only that regular people could ever give this much – but also the very idea that anyone would consistently give 10%. What I find interesting is, never once does any journalist mention the historic religious practice of tithing – offering ten percent of your produce or income, either directly to those in need, or indirectly by way of church, synagogue or mosque.

Here’s my question: Has the whole world really forgotten what “tithing” is, and where this old concept comes from? Or have we religious folks so abused, misdirected, or marginalized the whole point of giving, that tithing has become a dirty word, or an onerous relic?

I do strongly encourage you to check out the website for this new group. They offer a wealth of data that de-bunks many myths about giving, and really makes a case for the power of personal commitment and, yes, for tithing. They may not start with God, but they end up in the place God invites us all to be: daring to believe that we are called to love extravagantly, and to declare that belief through a very public and personal witness.

Let’s celebrate and endorse this new way, that’s really very old. A way that finds its source and its hope, for us and ultimately for the whole world, in the crucified and risen Christ. Whether that’s old or new, it’s still very Good News indeed.

Friday, November 27, 2009

Black Friday

Black Friday

The evolution of Thanksgiving Day and the day after:

The Pilgrims, befriended by native peoples feast together and give thanks.

Thanksgiving becomes a national holiday, a "high feast day" of our common American civil religion.

People of many religious traditions give thanks to God in diverse ways in a pluralistic culture.

Thanksgiving evolves into T-Day, Turkey-Day for feasting with family.

The feasting moves toward football and nap, except for those who do the dishes.

Thanksgiving Day merely the prelude to a higher holy day of Black Friday, initiating the season when retailers depend upon shoppers to move them into the black on the balance sheet.

Black Friday begins earlier and earlier, some stores open at 4:00 a.m.

The mission is to shop, buy, and participate in conspicuous consumption.

Although Black Friday is for the purpose of people buying gifts for others for the religious holidays to come, over 50%, perhaps as high as 73% of sales are for "self-gifting."

Two days are devoted to over-indulgance.

The economic crisis of 2008 causes people to re-assess the common American creed of "In debt we trust."

Stores needing to have a good Black Friday in 2009, provide a "convenience" for shoppers, many opening Thanksgiving Day afternoon.

Stores put out a list of safety guidelines to keep people from being hurt, or killed in the dangers of the day, including how to move toward a safe aisle, and to remain standing upright if a stampede begins,

Where do we go next?

For what and to whom do we give thanks?

A New York based StoryCorps, associated with National Public Radio suggests an alternative: a National Day of Listening, a time to listen to the stories of relatives and friends and to record them to share. To whom did you listen on November 27?

Thursday, November 19, 2009

What Type of Conflict Is It?

In the current conflict in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) concerning the ordination and call to pastoral ministry of gay and lesbian persons living in committed relationships---or in any conflict--discerning the nature of the conflict within a certain faith community is very important. Using the types of conflict described in my book "Church Conflict: From Contention to Collaboration" (Abingdon, 2004), here are some examples of what I mean:

Conflict may be Intrapersonal or Interpersonal. It may be over Issues/Beliefs or Facts/Truth or Values/Worth or Goals/Mission or Means/Ministry.

Intrapersonal: Each of us is a sexual being. Our own inner struggles, particularly in regard to the heterosexual/homosexual spectrum may well spill over in how we enter the conversation about the ELCA's churchwide decision in August.

Interpersonal: All conflict is interpersonal to some extent. How people on a church council interact with one another or with the pastor shapes the conflict. In fact,interpersonal conflict over past issues may well color the current conflict

Issues/Beliefs: Within a faith community, and certainly within the church body, the varieties of beliefs about biblical interpretation contribute signifanctly to the conflict. How do we interpret certain scriptural passages? How does Scripture interpret Scripture?

Facts/Truth What is "true" about the nature of homosexuality? Is it a "lifestyle" A trait with which we are born? What does science say? Sociology? Psychology? What facts and whose "truth" do we hold?

Values/Worth: How does one person or another value membership in a congregation, support of the synod and the churchwide body? Are certain people of greater worth than others? What is it worth to hold this congregation together? And what role does our money play? Why do we count on it to speak for us?

Goals/Mission: Within a given congregation, even with one mission statement, there are many missions. Is this conflict about goals? What are they? To include all? to preserve what has been? Even though not spoken, the implicit goals shape the nature of the approach to this conflict. Among the members and leaders may be a goal already reached before hand about leaving.

Means/Ministry: Even if a faith community holds a common mission, how they reach that goal has many paths. Do we include everyone in membership but limit leadership to heterosexual people? Do we "hold our congregation together" Some will try "money" means to attain their goals. What is the means for exercising "bound conscience"?

One could list many more variables. The point is that if one person is entering the conflict with intrapersonal conflict about his or her own sexuality, one will not get far by arguing bible history. Or, one group of people may be arguing facts while others are dealing with beliefs. Explaining the facts of the process by which decisions were made may not reach a person who is clinging to certain values about the congregation. And so on...

What is one to do? Certainly conflicts such as this cannot be neatly sorted out so that everyone is coming from the same place at the same time. But we can seek to listen and figuare out the types of conflict present. And, together, we can collaborate on how to proceed in a way which honors people thinking about the nature of the conflict quite differently. We can strive to create a safe environment in which respect is fostered and we address the conflict from these many different perspectives. And we can trust God's presence, work hard, and continue to lead and listen and listen and lead.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

It's just a little thing

As I was flying back from Tulsa a couple of weeks ago, I settled into my window seat when two men took their places in seats D and E. The man in the center seat said to me, "You'll behave, won't you?"

Well, how do you respond to that greeting? I could have said, "Yes, I usually do," or flipped back a quip. Or, I could have ignored him. After all, the flight would be only two hours long. But I chose to cut through the trivializing, if not ridiculing, remark which be inappropriate to give to a l0-year-old girl, much less a grown woman. So, I engaged him directly, as a grown man, obviously taking a flight with a friend and two young boys who had taken seats B and C across the aisle. They had been talking about football as they entered the plane, mentioning the Packers and the Vikings. I knew enough about the Brett Favre situation to understand why it would be an exciting, game, so I inquired about them taking the boys to the game. The man responded and we engaged in conversation back and forth for a minute or two. We had changed the power cycle and established an equal partnership, if just for that brief time.

A little thing. And yet this incident, as bizarre as it sounds, epitomizes the power cycle of how oppressor groups keep oppressed groups powerless through these stages: ignore; trivialize; ridicule; eliminate. In our book, "Transforming Leadership," Craig Nessan and I build on the work of Elizabeth Howell Verdesi in her book, "In but Still Out: Women in the Church." The power cycle is real, insidious, and so commonplace we may not notice it. In fact, I have experienced people, uncomfortable with my power of person or position, using the power cycle so often, that I sometimes don't notice it. (Or I simply internalize the oppression and acquiesce.) But understanding the power cycle helps us notice, not be put off guard, and frees us to choose how to respond.

The powerful keep people, by gender, race, age, ability, class, etc. outside their realm of power by first ignoring them. If that doesn't work, e.g. "I am somebody" the phrase of self and public recognition of African Americans in the 60's and 70's, the oppressor uses trivialization. This phenomenon is experienced all too frequently by women yet today. It this doesn't work; if the woman or other oppressed group does not go "one down," the next stage is ridicule. This might be experienced as outright bullying or through a "ridiculous" remark, e.g. the comment to me on the airplane. If a person or group submits, the powerful retain their power and all is well...for them. But if the ones ridiculed or harassed--I call it gender harassment or racial harassment, not necessarily sexual harassment--stand up for themselves and their rights and their position, the oppressors, with whatever power they have, may try to get rid of them. Guess which ones loses a job. Guess which one is put out play. Then the power cycle begins again with "ignore."

But at each stage there is also the potential for partnership. I prefer this to competition, partly because those with less power can rarely win competition within the power cycle. And also because I believe we are created for partnership in this world.

My simply refusing to be ridiculed and engaging the man cut through the ... well, one could say, "crap"...or one could simply say, stopped the progression of the power of cycle.

And so there we were. The two hours passed. When it was time to get ready to unfasten our seat belts and retrieve our luggage from under the seats and the overhead compartment, I engaged the man again, asking if he would help me lift my carry-on bag down. (As most of you know I live with a chronic illness, travel with the aid of a cane, and need help lifting things from overhead.) He seemed only to happy to do so (most people, men or women are), but did so by saying, "You're not going to hit me with your cane, are you?"

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Poverty Issues at G-20 Summit

The Rt. Rev. Benson K. Bagonza is an STM graduate of Wartburg Theological Seminary . Bishop Bagonza had had some training in law during his undergraduate studies in Tanzania.

WASHINGTON (ELCA) - The Rt. Rev. Benson K. Bagonza, bishop of the
Karagwe Diocese, Evangelical Lutheran Church in Tanzania (ELCT), shared
stories of impoverished people in Africa with more than 25 Christian,
Jewish and Muslim leaders in a meeting prior to the G-20 Summit in
"Tanzanians were among the poorest even before the present economic
crisis," Bagonza said. "Therefore this economic crisis was yet another
blow that has sent millions into a critical and vulnerable situation."
Organized by the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA),
Bread for the World, the Alliance to End Hunger and other organizations,
the religious leaders urged world leaders to fulfill their promises to
help people who have suffered from the global economic recession. The
Group of 20 (G-20) met Sept. 24-25 to discuss global economic issues.
"The recovery programs that they are undertaking need to mean
something to the people who live on the fringes, who live on the bottom
level of the economic ladder," Bagonza said. He explained that for
recovery programs to have meaning "the hungry people in Africa must get
food to eat and that the poor people get their basic needs met."
"The welfare of our people in our different [religious] traditions
is affected by what decisions are made (at the G-20)," he said. "At the
global level, I was very impressed to see our religious differences were
diminishing and we were forced to focus on the issues that threaten the
existence of humanity. (Those are) poverty, climate change, hopelessness
and powerlessness of human beings before a magnitude of forces that human
beings have created."
During his trip to the United States, Bagonza met with the staff of
U.S. Senators Robert Menendez, D-N.J., and Bob Corker, R-Tenn., as well
as U.S. Rep. Christopher Smith, R-N.J. Bagonza asked that the United
States "be more inclusive in its participatory process of reforming the
foreign aid policy of this country." U.S. foreign aid policies
should "reflect the wishes and aspirations of the people affected by the
bill," according to Bagonza.
The ELCA Washington Office and ELCA Global Mission brought Bagonza
to the United States to visit his diocese's companion synod, the ELCA
Northwestern Pennsylvania Synod, as well as speak to religious leaders
and members of Congress.
"We believe foreign policy issues can be advocated very effectively
through Bishop Bagonza's personal stories," said the Rev. Andrew
Genszler, director for advocacy in the ELCA Washington Office.
In the ELCT, Bagonza chairs a special office commissioned to do
advocacy. "The churches in Tanzania offer more than 40 percent of the
social services in the country. Therefore we feel that we should be
involved in advocacy," he said.
He cited three challenges facing the ELCT -- dependence on
international support, concern for the ministry among people in poverty
and the secularization of society. "We Africans, by our very nature, are
notoriously religious, but globalization is bringing things that we've
never seen that are shattering and frustrating our structure of families,
our harmony and our communities," he said.
Despite the challenges "my commitment to lead the church is
increasing every day, being ready to face whatever comes," Bagonza said.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Communal Blessing

Martha Lang, Episcopal deacon and M.Div. candidate, shared this with me after attending the churchwide assembly of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA)in Minneapolis last month. With her permission I share it with you:

I will admit that I did not wish to go to worship. I had listened to the debates all morning. Those of us hoping for change in the rostering policies of the ELCA were heartened by the outcome of the voting of the first two questions before the delegates. However, when the first request for the ending of debate on the third item, that most relevant in the life of our family was voted down, my heart descended toward my stomach. The assembly debated right up to the time of worship. As we wandered down the hallway of the assembly suddenly my soul was awash in the sadness, frustration, pain that had gathered there over the last six years. The voices of those who had participated in my partner’s research, “The Missing Project,” echoed in my heart and soul. “Thank you for asking to hear my story”; “Thank you for what you are doing – I had felt like I had disappeared to the ELCA”; “Thank you for finding me and caring” – on and on the voices floated in and through me. All of a sudden anger welled up in me as I thought – but this vote will do nothing for those already led to the door, or silently slipped off of the rosters – or dismissed through curt letter. “This won’t take away all of the years of severing, rejection, self-isolation, self-silencing and self-spiritual mutilation and make everything suddenly be ok” I thought. “I don’t want to go and worship – I just feel like I want to grieve in some corner somewhere – and hold those before God who have been so hurt.” But, I also realized that my partner/spouse Vicki really wanted to go to the worship, and, as I was here to accompany her in this journey, that I needed to be with her in the worship service.
Vicki proceeded toward some people who were already, somehow not noticing their good-sized white buttons announcing their affiliation with CORE (Coalition for Reform), those against ELCA changes in policy to include gay and lesbian people in committed relationships on the ministerial rosters. I groaned inwardly and followed her into the pew and went further into myself. She began a conversation with the gentleman seated next to her by saying that being present in the worship services had been a blessing because she served as a chaplain in a care center. There are time constraints due to needing to physically move much of the population into the chapel, and then back to their rooms (with needed assistance) before it is time to help them move to into the dining hall. So, Vicki shared that she was relishing the richness and depth of the worship experience.
Her neighbor asked her how her residents would receive any possible changes within the ELCA. Vicki shared with him that the care center was hoping for change, for it meant that the Board of Directors could offer her a call. She explained to him that they had voted unanimously early last fall to call her as chaplain, but due to the current policy could call her only as an interim, as her rostering status was “on-leave-from-call; not-available-for-call” due to our relationship. She told him that she had gone to her bishop three years ago when we made the decision to join our lives together through a covenant ceremony in the Episcopal Church which I served as deacon, and was placed in that status. She shared that she had been serving the same nursing home at the time, and had stepped down from the position so as not to cause any waves there, and to pursue a research interest for a year. So, when the same position had come available last winter, she applied for it and was hired on a temporary basis.
Vicki’s CORE neighbor received this quietly, nodding as she spoke. Worship started and no more was said until it came time for communion. As we were preparing to go forward to receive communion, her neighbor held his worship folder before her and pointed to something in it – it was the notice that healing stations were available throughout the worship space, and that pastors were there who would pray and anoint for healing if any had desire for such. He quietly asked Vicki if she would go with him for that. She quickly said, “Yes.” He leaned over and said “would your partner go too?” Vicki turned to me and repeated his question. I was stunned, and at many levels wanted to say “NO WAY” – but found myself saying “Yes, of course.”
We each went forward to receive communion and I led the way back toward one of the healing stations. Vicki and her neighbor followed. I started to go forward when he quietly said “Can we all three go together to receive?” Tears came to my mind. All of the years of hearing of myself and my reality spoken about in terms of “sin” and “sinner”, “abomination”, and my faith, understanding of self, and very salvation called into question repeatedly by those who were of the same understanding of those who were a part of CORE and every other group similar to them in my own denomination and others, arose from my heart to be presented for healing. Tears flooded my eyes as the three of us – Vicki and I on the outside and her/our neighbor in the middle, locked with arms around one-another went forward to receive the prayer and anointing.
The pastor looked at the three of us standing there as one – and yet three – all bending our heads for the prayer; Vicki with her prayer shawl which denoted one praying for change, our new-found brother-in-Christ with his CORE button on, and me – tears running down my face. The pastor sucked in his breath, centered himself and began to say the prayer printed on the sheet before him. He anointed each of us individually, but I know there was but one anointing that day – each of our hearts bound into one brought together through the love of God and collectively kneeling at the foot of the cross of Christ through the guiding of the Holy Spirit.
I was the last to be anointed – and as I looked up at the pastor I thought I saw tears in his eyes. Maybe it was just those of my own that I saw – but I believe his were there, too.. The three of us walked back toward our seats with our arms around one another. What had happened was mysterious, painful, healing, freeing… a myriad of things were experienced in that one holy moment. None of the three of us was left untouched, nor the same as we were before that service. Truly the Holy Spirit helped to strip each of us in different ways from hurt, and fear, and understandings that had previously been held within each.
Vicki and our new-found brother have talked twice since that service. We hold him in prayer – and he us. What happened that day was powerful and a testament to the power of the love of God who heals, reconciles, and binds us together in spite of our differences. We truly were at the foot of the cross, kneeling, and being knit together in a new way that only our God, through Jesus Christ in the power of the Holy Spirit can do. Thanks be to God.

Monday, September 7, 2009

Welcoming Home for Service Gay and Lesbian People Living in Committeed Same-gender Relationships

Much has been written already on the decision by the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, meeting in churchwide assembly in Minneapolis in August to open the rostered ministries of the church to gay and lesbian people living in committed same-gender relationships. I rejoice with the acceptance of and decisions relating to the new ELCA Social Statement on Human Sexuality.

My comments here are on the challenge to the church to welcome home those many, many gay and lesbian people--pastors and those on other rosters--who have had to leave their service in the church because they were forced to chose between such service and living in faithful, loving relationships. Others left before ordination or consecration. Some never entered seminary. This "welcome home" may not be as simple as some might think. There was pain and attempts to heal, to find a place, in other church bodies that did welcome their service. There were/are many who served, fearing for years that their relationships might be discovered. There are those who serve in places in the ELCA that had courage to accept their service even though they were open about their same-gender relationships. And, surely I am not mentioning all of the situations. All of the stories. We must listen to the stories.

I cannot say, "I know how you feel," because I don't, for I am heterosexual. I don't know the pain of that rejection and I don't know the mixture of feelings now that the vote has been passed. I do know that I cannot presume to know or presume that all will return quickly or easily.

I can relate here some of my own history which at least makes the point that words of welcome in resolutions are not all that is needed.

Years ago with my own deaconess community, women who married and had children were told they were no longer a deaconess. "You have now gone on to motherhood..."

Then, through much work, through the opening of eyes, through women gaining some control over their own destiny, the board changed the rules. Now such women were once again a deaconess. A simple resolution. Simple words.

At that time I was attending a class with Dr. Letty Russell at Yale Divinity School. I chose to do research on the women who received these words. What would they say? What would they think? How would they feel. And WHERE were they?

Finding the women was a challenging and incomplete task. But those to whom I wrote responded. Many were thankful. Many had been serving anyway. But I also received some haunting responses: "I don't know what the words mean." Now, of course, they knew what the words meant. They were simply words, "You are a deaconess." But many, including myself, had gotten on with their lives. They had built new identities, new relationships, and were serving in a variety of places, some beyond the Lutheran church.

We were invited back. And we invited more back. And more, and more. Each year at annual conference, a woman or two would come who had not been there for a few...or many...years. That is over thirty-five years ago now. Still, to this day, there will be a woman at annual conference who says, "I haven't been here for a long time, but now I'm back." We have women who are still being rediscovered, sought out, and loved back into community. Others we have not seen, and no doubt never will.
"Welcome home!" Those are good words. Important words. Challenging words...for us all. Resolutions passed. The work of loving acceptance begins.

Friday, August 21, 2009

Ministry in the Encounter

So, just what is the "public world" in which/about which we are to have conversations? We enter the public world whenever we go out our front door...or back door. Well, actually, even when we are still inside we are in the public world. Our actions need deliberation, conversation, as they impact society, such as the ELCA's Social Statement on education, particularly advocacy for public schools. Or, careful study on and public voice on health insurance reform. Or, our just-passed ELCA statement on human sexuality. We are always using our public voices.

Sometimes ministry is intentional; sometimes unintentional. I entered the public world, the world where I might encounter people who are strange to me and I to them, when I went for an early morning walk two days ago. I'm visiting my son, Mark, and his family in Phoenix. Yes, I know it's August, but a new baby, Aimee, had arrived, so, of course, I had to come.

Mark lives beside a golf course. Almost everyone in Phoenix lives near a golf course. That doesn't mean they have the finances to play there, but early morning, before the golfers come out, people can walk the golf cart path. I walk when the daylight is breaking, before the sun comes out.

On my walk I simply said hello to a worker passing by, one of many who daily groom the greens. No matter that I saw only one set of golfers out the day before (It's 110 degrees here.) Their work of service calls them to serve everyday.

I walked the path the next morning, having forgotten the brief encounter of the day before. But the same service worker approached. He stopped his service vehicle, and smiled and initiated a "hello." We connected, there in the public world. He would not have needed to do that. In fact, usually in our society we have clear, if unstated, boundaries of non-conversation between service people and those they serve, whether that be in hotels, or convention centers, or, perhaps in one's place of employment. So this second-day intentional encounter, reciprocal, is rare, especially when initiated by the service person. Now, granted, I was not a fee-paying golfer. There are layers of class lines in this "classless" society. But, still, it was remarkable and appreciated. There was genuine mutual appreciation; although only one or two words were exchanged, I experienced conversation in the public world, mutual ministry in that early dawn hour.

I had walked this direction, because the other would have brought me to the gates, the "no trespassing" signs. A few years ago one could walk by those houses, but not now; that neighborhood is now a gated community. No trespassing allowed, no public encounters with those unknown, or with those one refuses to notice, no conversation. Of whom or what are they afraid? And why? Really, why? Our call to ministry is a call to encounter, to conversation, and for us to create and help sustain trustworthy places for us all to meet, across the invisible but all-to-real barriers of class.

This morning, again at dawn--the sky was red--I walked. This time I climbed 1/4 the way up a mountain...a Phoenix mountain, not the Rockies. I had a wonderful view of the city. I watched Jack Rabbits and saw a family of Quail pass by, and caught a glimpse of some hummingbirds. Special! All special. But the most surprising was a third meeting. On my way back, once again the service man came by. Recognition. Encounter. He stopped; perhaps it was because there was trash nearby to pick up. Perhaps because we were, if not friends, then certainly welcome acquaintances. I said a full sentence this time; but further communication across language barriers would have been hard, and perhaps "uncalled for." But this encounter I won't forget. The sun came up. I could feel the intense heat of the day begin. No matter. The warmth of the ministry in encounter would set the course for my day.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

A Life of Love and Advocacy: Eunice Kennedy Shriver

"Eunice Kennedy Shriver," said the family this morning as they released the news of her death a few hours ago,"was the light of our lives, a mother, wife, grandmother, sister and aunt who taught us by example and with passion what it means to live a faith-driven life of love and service to other. For each of us, she often seemed to stop time itself -- to run another Special Olympics games, to visit us in our homes, to attend to her own mother, her sisters and brothers, and to sail, tell stories, and laugh and serve her friends. Her work transformed the lives of hundreds of millions of people across the globe, and they in turn are her living legacy."

Shriver is best known for her work with the Special Olympics and for helping establish the games 40 years ago. Unspired by her sister Rosemary who lived with with intellectual disability, Eunice began the Special Olympics which have brought tens of thousands of people with special needs into the public world. She consistently saw the value of every human being and believed they had talents to develop and gifts to cherish. She was an advocate. She ministered faithfully and boldly in the public world.

In two congregations I served years ago our educational ministry included those with intellectual disability. In one case we had special outreach to children. In another a lay woman urged us to start evening adult educational ministry with intellectually disabled adults. We did1 Every congregation has a calling to serve through educational ministry opportunities people with the whole range of intellectual abilities. In many cases this will be in regular classroom settings. However, it is very important that congregations discuss how they will minister, including what methods, materials and settings will be used. Letting this ministry be known, even just by word of mouth, says, "You are welcome. You are God's created, gifted people. You belong."

Monday, August 10, 2009

Two Reminders of Responsible Service

At 11:00 a.m. (Eastern Daylight Time) Saturday, August 8, 2009 Judge Sonya Sotomayor became the 111th justice of the U.S. Supreme Court. She pledged “to support and defend the Constitution of the United States… administer justice without respect to persons, and do equal right to the poor and to the rich….”

At 11: a.m. (Central Daylight Time) Saturday, August 8, 2009 the life of Rev. Dr. Raymond A. Martin was celebrated as Christians gathered at his funeral in Dubuque, Iowa. Ray had taught at Wartburg College, Waverly, Iowa, Gurukul Theological Seminary in Madras, India, and for many years at Wartburg Theological Seminary in Dubuque, Iowa. He was my colleague and friend. He was a faithful teacher of Scripture to many. He loved the Bible. He loved to teach.

So what do these two events have in common, besides the hour and day? They hold up for me the joy of leading a responsible, faithful life of service. Both people, who, of course, never met, and one might say, had little in common in terms of background, family or profession, simply worked hard. They prepared thoroughly. They cared about people, all kinds of people. Their dedication reminds us all of the value of lifetimes of diligent, hard work. Ray’s work is complete although his memory, his body of work, his students continue. Justice Sotomayor’s work, some would say, is just beginning. But, in reality her new position is a continuation of the all that she has been every day of her life. In that reality they have much in common. For that reality I give thanks.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

To Be a Trusted Leader

Walter Cronkite died at the age of 92. He left the air as host of the CBS evening news in 1981, but 28 years later he is still remembered for his sign off, "And that's the way it is..." He said that not in a way that assumed he was omniscient; far from it. He worked hard to seek the truth, to inform people and to present the truth without bias. He was hesitant to editorialize and did not see his podium as a center ring for entertainment or celebrity.

I noticed that the network and cable news accounts of his death had a singular theme. He saw this nation through complex times of the 1960's and 70's. He was the "most trusted person in America" because he was a man of integrity. People felt comforted,not because he offered solace--that is not a journalist's job. He offered people stability in unstable times, clarity in a time of uncertainty.

In an earlier post I discussed "credit" as having the root of "credo." "In debt we trust" has been exposed as a false belief system. This nation trusted Walter Cronkite. In terms of American civil religion, he has been noted as a combination of preacher and prophet. Actually I think he is also a role model for leadership. When a leader loses credibility, that leader has lost much. Soon the people think, "I can't trust anything they say anymore." It is not a matter of believing IN the leader (no omnipotence or omniscience), but believing what the leaders says and does. There is a congruence and consistency. With such a leader a people will have courage to face great difficulty.

Walter Cronkite's vocation was like that. There was a congruence between his work and his life. He did not have an "on-air" voice and a real voice (no pulpit tone). Leaders through their various vocations in the public world seek truth, seek to inform (and therefore empower) people, and provide a consistency that enables them to walk into the future, one day at a time.

P.S. I hope you heard, or will down-load, President Obama's speech before the NAACP last week. It was superb!

Monday, June 29, 2009

Robins in the Lilac Bush

The lilac bush in the front yard is overgrown, too tall, and too broad to blossom well. It needs pruning. But not today, not yet, because a family of robins has made their nest there.

We worried when the storm of two weeks ago shook everything with gusts of 60 mph. But, the nest was still intact. Inside, were three—could it be four?—young robins. Mom and Dad would scold if we came to close, but soon became accustomed to our simply being in the yard. Daily feedings! Hourly! We soon could see the feathering young heads just barely above the nest.

Now, so soon, they are leaving the nest. Baby robins are ready so much more quickly than their slow-growing human counterparts. Over the last two days, one by one, a youth, now ready to fly, with parents no longer feverously feeding, left the nest.

This morning only one remains, perched on the edge of the nest. But this one is hesitant. He stretches out his wings. He looks all directions. He stretches tall; but there he remains. His siblings fly close, role models for this big adventure of flight. Mom and Dad come back around, encouraging. But still, he hesitates. They all leave for awhile. Maybe he needs some time? Maybe he needs to do it by himself? But still he waits. The family returns, encouraging, urging. I find myself urging, too. And yet, I’m reluctant to see him go. The world is big beyond the lilac bush.

I’m reminded of Wartburg seminary graduates this time of year. They all leave…they need to leave. Many times I have sat by their sides as some had to wait long--too long--for call.

I’m reminded of our granddaughter Jennaya who this fall will head off for kindergarten in Mason City, Iowa. I’m reminded of her father Joel, a generation ago, as he set out on foot for the one-block walk to kindergarten at Welsh school in inner city New Haven, Ct. He boldly sang to himself (I don’t think he saw us watching), “Got my coat and got my hat, leave my worries on the doorstep…” He motioned with his hands, as if to toss all those little childhood cares on the doorstep, and off he went.

I’m reminded of his younger brother, Kirk, when he years later needed to make a decision about which of two colleges to choose. It was the final day to make a choice and return his papers. He was hesitant. I said, “Take all the time you want… just make your decision within the next hour.” He went downstairs and came back within the hour…he had chosen. And he would be off. He now teaches at Austin College in Texas, encouraging others to “Come! You can do it…” and be in his dramatic arts department.

I’m reminded of our oldest son, Mark, when he had finished graduate school in Phoenix. He was home for Christmas wondering whether to go out to Washington D.C. where a friend had told him of prospects for a job, or whether to head back to Arizona. When I awoke the next morning, and he had the car packed. He would head east. After quite a few years there, he did head back to Phoenix and has worked there with American Express ever since.

Three sons in our nest, long flown. And yet at each stage of life, there are “leaving the nest challenges.” Ourselves included.

Other Lilac Bushes:
I trimmed a different large lilac bush last week. It took me about an hour to prune it, crawling underneath and through the branches, carefully making room for light and air to get through. I took out a lot of limbs. I admired its new beauty. Then the storm came through Thursday and took the large center limb right out. The center could not hold...was it the trimming that made it vulnerable? Or just the storm.

I had just transplanted yet another lilac bush. It had been close to the house, sheltered, but with not enough sunlight to blossom. The storm came through and pulled the whole thing right out of the ground. We had been thoroughly watering the new place for it to put down its roots easily, but with the wet earth there was no grounding for that strong wind.

Just storm stories I guess….

I did go out into the rain and put the latter lilac right back in the ground, weighting it down quickly with whatever I could find, a bag of potting soil...not enough...then a large rock on top of that. Will it hold? Will it wilt and die, or flower?

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Comments on Our Various Vocations in the Public World

Three seemingly unrelated comments:
President Obama is trying to take what may seem like a cautious public stance concerning the contested elections in Iran. Actually it's a strong, positive stance about America's role in the world. We are interdependent partners, not dictators of "democracy." (Of course, it's pragmatic, too, lest we be seen to be instigating the protests which would harm, not help the protestors)

Newt Gringrich at a recent Republican Party fundraiser (quoting Obama)warned against what he thought abhorant, that we might think of ourselves as citizens of the world. We are! We need to be. And, as Christians, because we have a Creating, Liberating and Empowering God, we need to see each of God's created ones in that light. Ours is not a "gospel" of "freeing the world" for our kind of democracy.

The President of France and our president had an interesting exchange with Obama when he was in France a couple of weeks ago. (There are so many other things to comment on in regard to his Obama's speech to the Muslim world, the 60th anniversary of D-Day, etc, but for now I comment on this small one.) France is a secular democracy; therefore government workers cannot wear apparel that marks their religion. (The controversy is what Muslim girls can wear in school) The U.S. is not a secular democracy. People of all faith traditions are encouraged to be influenced by their faith and to carry those ideas into the public world. We are called to help create a safe environment for us to be different together.

Well, perhaps the connection among those three comments above is quite apparent.
So let me add a couple more:
The shooting of a man in Wichita while he ushered at his Lutheran Church was tragic. He was carrying out his ministry in daily life...trusting women to know their--sometimes life-threatening--needs. How do we support people in our congregations as they carry out their ministries in daily life, carry their faith into the public world? In this one country, within a given congregation,in the world, we may have quite different viewpoints and vocations that carry us in very different directions. But we have a calling in the public world.

And we all have the responsibility to protect one another, and in the case of the killing in Wichita, to address the terrorist threat within our country in regard to anti-abortion advocates who turn violent.

I just returned from my ELCA Southeastern Iowa synod assembly. We dealt with many issues, including the issues of sexuality which will come before the churchwide assembly in August. People in my synod think, and think carefully. They had studied the issues and they voted--favorably toward the Social Statement. It was not a unanimous vote, but there was such a sense of wise calm. It was a trustworthy environment for us to be different together. (We also needed to talk about our churchwide vote and the recent Iowa Supreme Court ruling allowing gay marriages.)

All of us are called to have conversation together about our vocation in the public world, whether within the church, locally and globally, and as citizens locally and nationally and globally.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

A Sister of Sotomayor Speaks

Much is being written about Sonia Sotomayor's nomination for Supreme Court justice. I won't repeat all of that here. But some key phrases in the opposition's objections are all too familiar with what many of us women, particularly pioneers, and all of those who have suffered professionally because of racism and sexism have heard:
* "She doesn't understand" or "She would have to understand." I can't tell you how many times I heard that, the implication being that we could not understand the real (white male) world or the real issues. We would be too naive, uninformed, unintelligent, etc.
* There's the question of "temperament," which could refer to women's time of the month, their being too emotional, or too collaborative or not collabrotive enough. There was no right temperament for a woman to have. Too fat, too thin, too happy, too sad. A woman was never right for the position.
* "Angry woman" She an "angry racist." Do I need to comment on that one? All of us pioneer professional women were "angry" women or, "not showing our anger,"or...
* Closely connected is the issue of "empathy." Women are expected to be empathetic but it was and is often held against them if they are. They would no doubt make unfair decisions and show lack of objectivity.
* "Experience." Although Sotomayor's record is substantial, even amazing, "experience" for a woman was and is often suspect and not the "right kind."
* When you make a choice for diversity you are making a choice against competence. One again, that false dichotomy was said about me and about women whom I have over the years counseled. It is used way too often in matters of race. There was and still is an assumption that to choose a woman or a person of color is to downgrade the institution.
* She's brilliant. It's hard to debate that description of Sotomayor. But one commentator managed to find a problem with how smart she is. No doubt she lacks the vision of leadership because of her brilliant intellect.
* One former Republican candidate for president referred to her as "Maria." And blacks all "look alike." In this person's eyes so must Puerto Rican women. Never before, but after I was ordained and a "Rev." put before my name, I received way too much of my mail where the "Norma' has been changed to "Norman." It was not funny, nor accidental. It was thoughtless assumption that I must be male if there was a "Rev." by my name. Some people even made a point of "correcting" the address to make it right.

Now are these small things? Are they not the important issues? They are signals of the basic systemic racism and sexism that still exist. I'm deeply, deeply sad.

And I'm deeply pleased to call Sonia Sotomayor my sister.

Monday, May 18, 2009

The Zuma Era

Rev. Dt. Peter kjeseth, former professor at Wartburg Seminary, who has lived in Cape Town, South Africa for a number of years writes: []

Unless the world comes to an end first, or he is struck down by something like swine flu, Jacob Zuma will in early June become the 4th president of post-apartheid South
Africa. Who would have thought?

This prospect raises hopes for the almost 66% of voting South Africans who elected him and fears for the strong minority of South Africans who did NOT vote for him.
Experts and non experts alike are, of course, analyzing what happened in the election and warning us about what to expect ahead. I have tried to listen carefully. It is no exaggeration that what happens in South Africa is crucial for all of Africa. Let me give you my take on the matter.

There are a number of unassailable positives. The election was free and fair. TheIndependent Electoral Commission exercised its authority and had the whole thing under control from start to finish. This is not to be taken for granted.

The ANC did not lose its substantial majority. In the election, at least, the poor and the left, the Congress of South African Trade Unions(COSATU) and The South African Communist Party feel they have been heard.

The many smaller parties took a hit in this election, particularly the Inkata Freedom Party, once sovereign in KwaZulu-Natal. But here, too, a win seems possible. There is talk that for the 2011 elections we might see a more united, powerful configuration of opposition parties. This election provides a solid foundation that could reinvigorate Parliament. That is good news.

Even though many in South Africa won something in this election, the prospect of the Zuma era raises frightening questions and possibilities relating both to Zuma’s persona as a leader and to what it will take for him to carry through on his promises. And the cloud of corruption still hangs over his head. In the eight years that he has struggled with the possibility of trial and imprisonment, there is a complex trail of legal maneuvering, talk of political plots and intrigue and, just in time for the elections, the controversial decision of the National Prosecuting Authority to drop all corruption charges against him – on procedural grounds.

We face the frightening potential of populist rage and violence if Zuma does not meet the high hopes and long delayed expectations of the myriad poor who have danced at his election victory parties. Though the ANC which has ruled now for fifteen years cites statistics to prove that crime is being dealt with, the people of all classes who live here know better. In Masiphumelele, the township which is our non-identical twin, crime is endemic. Here in our middle class neighborhood crime has increased even in the last couple months. People are hungry and desperate. Crime bubbles up out of the rage of the population that has been denied and betrayed.

To succeed Zuma must reverse the ANC’s governing record of awarding loyalty before competence. Cronyism and a kind of cultural nepotism are deeply engrained – and denied –at every level of the ANC as a governing entity. If that is
not changed, nothing will change. Throw in the fact that the effects of the world economic meltdown are just beginning to hit South Africa with realforce and you know that the Zuma era will be a tough one.

The election (and its possible aftermath) sends strongly mixed signals. The Zuma era COULD be a new day if the real needs of the poor majority are given real priority in termsof economic justice and service delivery. I even have the sense that most people believe this and wish Zuma – and all of us – well, in spite of all the worries.So we keep vigil with hope and prayer as the Zuma era and the Obama era play out on opposite sides of the equator but in ways that touch each other profoundly.

Saturday, May 2, 2009

Bread for the World

Rev. David Beckmann, Lutheran pastor and president of Bread for the world, appeared on C-Span Saturday morning. Americans are a generous people. It's central to the belief systems of many faiths and an American civil relegion creed. This morning, however, many, many calls, Democrats, Republicans and Independents alike, challenged Beckmann with words such as, "In this economic recession we have so many suffering people, how can you dare to ask us to give to people in other countried?" One said, "We are supposed to help our neighbor, not people around the world."
In the midst of loss of jobs and homes and a general atmosphere of fear, even those of good faith, want to draw in, take care of "our own."
Beckmann, of course, pointed out that the U.S. gives only about1% in foreign aid, and a much small percentage of that to poor people around the world and that the U.S. gives a much smaller percentage than the U.K. or Germany or France. And, Beckmann reminded callers that helping poor people around the world and their nations be more stable and productive, actually will help the U.S. get out of this recession. And, of course, it has long been a scandel in the U.S. that we have so many hungry, homeless people. He stressed that we are called to do both, help here and abroad.
Worth noting is the phenomenon of fear redefining in the minds of people of faith who is our neighbor. What is our basic belief about the Creating, Providing God?
For more information about Bread for the World go to Also check into the legislation calling for reform in foreign aid so that our aid agencies, national and private, are more coordinated so that aid is more effective. The call to help one's neighbor is a call to care for those down the street and around the globe.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Community College Address

Last Thursday I was privileged to be honored by North Iowa Area Community Colleg in Mason City, Iowa, from which I graduated years ago, and to give the keynote address to this year’s “Pathways to Success” leaders. Here is what I said (adapted for this blog).

Success in the American culture is often defined as getting ahead. Ahead of the line, ahead of the pack. But life is a journey of shared responsibility and mutual accountability. “Success” is often due simply to being someone others could count on. “Plan the work and work the plan,” a supervisor once told me. And I say to students, “Ministry merely promised is not ministry.”

Preparing for the Lutheran World Federation Consultation in Germany, participants were to have posted their papers on the internet a month earlier for all to read. A couple of people in our seminar group sent their papers by e-mail only a day before the conference began, saying, “Sorry, but I was busy.” Rev. Dr. Fidon Mwombeki from Tanzania, our leader, said very caringly, “I’m sorry about your problems, but it is not fair to people to expect them to read your paper at the last minute. We cannot bear that burden for you.”

So, whatever one’s gifts, no matter how much talent, fulfilling our responsibilities of completing things on time and keeping our commitments is essential. We honor people by not keeping them waiting, whether the CEO, the secretary, the custodian or the dean.

But being people others can count on does not mean picking up their responsibilities, as the Tanzanian professor said. People may say to you, “Oh, you’re so good at that…I know you’ll take care of this (for me).” That does not help others develop their gifts. And we wear ourselves out. That’s unhealthy for them and for us. To be mutually accountable is to respect people with whom we live and work. It honors the relationship.

In relationships of mutual accountability we sustain, support and give birth to new ideas together. It’s mutual promise keeping.

Leaders need vision, but vision without care for the community is to limit oneself to one’s own ideas. I challenge you to be a leader who creates and helps maintain healthy communities of diverse people, divergent ideas, and common welfare. North Iowa Area Community College a welcoming place. It’s open to all. That’s one reason I cherish it.

Sometimes we are afraid to listen long enough to one another to discover how different we are. Or, we assume that if we are in communities where are people are just alike, we will have less conflict. I’ve taught courses, led workshops, written a book on “Church Conflict: From Contention to Collaboration.” And you know what? Churches that have all the same kind of people in them have just as much conflict as those with people of many cultural, racial, linguistic, or social-economic backgrounds. Why? Well, because human beings have this perpetual capacity to misunderstand one another, to bicker and back-bite, and to hurt, and to kill, each. In fact, it’s in the family, the caring congregation, the close friendship group that we can experience the most pain. For example “mere” domestic violence is real violence. People are hurt, deeply hurt. How do we create safe environments, in schools, at home, in the community, in the world, for us to be different together?

In this country, people now say “We’re beyond racism aren’t we?” Well no! Because of the human condition, we are racist, classist, sexist, homophobic. But we continue to work at these issues. The answer is not to barricade our neighborhoods, put restrictions on our schools, pass restrictive constitutional amendments, buy more guns. The shootings two weeks ago in New York, Pennsylvania, California--and, yes, we’ve had our share here in Iowa, too--testify to that.

I challenge you to be a leader who helps create healthy environments that build relationships, that welcome the stranger, that foster trust. Be an empowering leader.

I am proud of my degree from North Iowa Community College and proud of community colleges. My husband, Burton, teaches ethics, philosophy and religion at Northeast Iowa Community College.

Pathways to success. Where do we go now? Well, walk through doors that are open—maybe only a crack--and then open them wider for all to enter.

Because of the era of change in my adult lifetime, I did become some “firsts”: One of first women to study at a seminary. The first deaconess to be ordained a pastor. The first woman professor at a seminary of the American Lutheran Church. I was a pioneer. But I didn’t set out to be. It’s not that I had courage to push doors open (others had more vision than I), but if a door was open a crack, I walked through and then opened it wider. You see, if you’ve been an outsider and then become an insider, the temptation is to shut the door on others.

In changing to a more inclusive society, people become afraid. Afraid of the unknown. If we have women pastors, men will leave the church. (I heard that a lot.) It didn’t happen. Or, your children will suffer. Now grown, they tell me they didn’t.

By opening doors of opportunity to all, people become afraid, “Everything will change.” “The family will change” No! I don’t know how many times I heard, “How many more of you are there outside?” “If we let all those women in…” Or, all those Hispanics, or all those… fill in the blank. The token stage is the most frightening. Now that there are more equal numbers of women and men, a more truly multi-cultural society, people are not more, but less afraid.

Whatever doorways you walk through and then open wider for others to follow, you will become a role model. People are looking at you. That’s ok. Perhaps you will become a mentor. Do not bid others be just like you. But listen and help them discern their own gifts. In this present economic situation of fear of finding--or losing—a job, remember “Life is not meant to be a competitive sport.” Open some doors…for opportunities for others. You have power to do that.

Start something and keep at it. At a Mason City High school PTA meeting in 1916 some people asked the school board to start a junior college. It opened in September 1918 with 28 students and six instructors. Ninety years later: 3500 students. Amazing. Way more than that handful of people in 1916 could have imagined.

There are a lot more pathways now. For girls in my and my sister’s time it was mostly teacher, nurse, secretary. No girls’ athletics. Whatever your pathway, just start out and just keep walking.

Maybe you’ll even get into a little trouble along the way. You will get into trouble! When you do, make it for the right reason. In the mid 1960’s, in my call as a deaconess in St. Louis, a border state, Burton and I were deeply involved in the Civil Rights movement. After the Birmingham bombing in which four Sunday School children were killed, we marched. Some members of my congregation happened to see me on TV. Now that was a problem for them. “We like Norma,” they said, “It’s just that she likes Negroes.” Trouble! Well, I couldn’t even to the church council meting to defend myself because women weren’t allowed to attend. But, I kept my job, and Burton and I just kept on marching for justice.

Twelve years later, we were lived in New Haven, CT. where Burton was a pastor. I, a mother of three sons, stayed home with our children. Not uncommon. Burton took care of our children once a week so I could to the grocery store and do other shopping. One week, instead of shopping, I went up to Yale Divinity School and enrolled…. Three years later, after graduation I was invited to teach there. Well, there’s more to the story than that, but you get the idea. Just keep on walking.

I have lived with a chronic illness for over 25 years. Athletics may not have been a pathway open for me as a young woman, but I asked Burton for my 70th birthday present last fall to be that we walk the 26 miles around Lake Geneva in Wisconsin. And, on a beautiful fall weekend we did. So, whatever pathway you set out on…and maybe some you never figured on…just keep on walking!

I remember Journalism here at the community college and especially Marie Schalekamp, a mentor of mine who said that. She also helped me when I couldn’t have afforded a second year of college. She not only taught but wrote our text book on communication studies. When I published my first textbook, “The Church as Learning Community,” the dedication includes Marie Schalekamp.

My writing was facilitated by working on “The Troy Tribune,” now called Logos
One time, we were invited to an all state conference for college newspaper staff. As editor of the Troy Tribune, I sat on a panel between the editors of the newspapers of the University of Iowa and Iowa State. No matter the difference in size, and prestige I knew a community college student had something to say. So do you!

Writing is going public with your ideas. Editing books with multiple writer helps others have voice, maybe people who didn’t know they had something to say: women clergy, my own faculty, international teachers.

Just as important as books, was starting a neighborhood newsletter. Living in inner city Detroit, after the riots in 1967, there was much fear. Our son, Joel, was born a few weeks later. When he was but 2 weeks old, we went around the neighborhood getting to know one another in order to create community. We published a block newsletter. When the turbulence came again the next spring when Martin Lutheran King Jr. was assassinated, we knew each other and didn’t have to kill each other.

To this day, I write books, yes, but also a networking newsletter, now on the web, “The Persistent Voice,” addressing issues of gender and justice across the globe and working toward full partnership of women and men. (Google “The Persistent Voice) as well this blog.

Our pathways are long and interconnected. While a student here I remember going to Oklahoma for an international youth gathering. Before that I had not been out of the state of Iowa except to the Twin Cities and Chicago. Today we have many opportunities for global interchange. I’ve been privileged to lecture and learn in Namibia, shortly after their independence from apartheid; in Australia, as the country struggled saying “We’re sorry” to Aboriginal peoples and a church body continues to struggling with gender justice; in China, shortly after Tieneman Square, and across this country.

In order to have a participatory democracy we must have an educated citizenry. I’m proud of the Iowa Caucuses. I tell people Iowans know that have a special role in the path to selecting a president and take that responsibility seriously.

Community colleges play a central role in preparing an educated citizenry. Therefore, our pathway must be one that seeks justice for all, that serves others and loves people with a love that liberates rather than dominates,

President Obama in addressing an audience of mostly college students in Strausberg recently was criticized by some for seemingly apologizing for his nation. Actually he said to Europeans, “In recent years we have had honest disagreements over policy. But there’s something more that has crept into our relationship…instead of seeking partnership to meet common challenges, there have been times where America has shown arrogance and been dismissive, even derisive. But, in Europe there is an anti-Americanism that is at once casual but can also be insidious.”

I am pleased that the G-20 summit, with much work yet to do, made a common commitment to helping poor of countries suffering the most in this economic crisis. To quote U.K. Prime Minister Gordon Brown addressing the U.S. Congress, “Let us not forget the poorest; perhaps the greatest gift our generation could give the future is for every child in every country to have the chance to go to school.”

We are called to pathways of partnership, working towards healthy interdependence of liberating and life-giving care for the earth and justice for us all. President Obama said, “I hope you will consider ways you can serve, because the world has so many challenges right now. Get involved. Sometimes you will be criticized and fail and be disappointed, but you will have a great adventure and be able to look back and say I made a difference.”

In the United States we often begin a sentence, with “I’m been busy….” Not “I am…” or, “I Do…” But “I’ve been busy.” People in other global cultures find this curious. Now we are an industrious, creative, people. However…and I’m speaking to myself now as much as to anyone here…we also have the gift of rest. Whatever your faith tradition, there are holy days: Islam has Prayers and Fasting; for Christian and Jews the Hebrew Bible begins with the work of the Creator God and with Sabbath. God rested.

So, rest. You know how to do that!
Enjoy. You know how to do that!
And give thanks to God and for so many other partnerships in life.

Monday, April 13, 2009

Know the People

We can learn so much about people we meet in the public world if we go beyond our first observations of them--if we notice their presence at all--and simply seek to learn more about them in their context.

Last week I was at the grocery. It was Friday morning and I soon realized it was the time when people are in the aisles giving out samples of products. A woman was serving samples of potato salad near the front door. I then moved to the meat counter to buy some fish. Tilapia was on sale. I commented that this seemed to be the new popular fish. “Yes,” the meat man said, and then went on to say that Tilapia multiplies very quickly and the supply can be replenished in a very short time.(He was more specific…I wasn’t listening that carefully yet.) Then, sensing I was engaged, he went on to say he had gotten an e-mail that morning. (Did I know that meat counter men got email?) Their grocery chain wasn’t going to sell Orange Roughy after a certain upcoming date because over-fishing has decimated the world supply and, even with good management, it would take years to replenish this slow-growing fish.

We talked a couple of minutes more--not long. We both had other commitments, he at his counter and I at my own computer in my office. But he added that some say that Tilapia is an old species and perhaps could have been the fish that was given to Jesus that he used to feed the multitudes. Now, was the man being a biblical scholar, a theologian, or a meat man? I don’t know, but here in this man whose name I don’t know, was a person doing theology in his daily language. He was, without saying so, making a connection between Christ’s miracle of feeding the thousands, and his own obvious concern that there be enough fish on a sustainable basis to feed millions today. He was, in what I would call his ministry in daily life, actively involved in keeping informed and making decisions to be part of that sustainable feeding.

A little while later, while checking out, this “meat counter” man was bagging groceries. “Oh, I see you are here now,” I said. It was clear that he was an active, willing team player, helping out where needed, beyond status. And the woman was still by the door with her potato salad samples. I spoke to her, (almost asked for a second sample, as it was good) “Are you here every day?” “Oh, no,” she said, “just Fridays. The rest of the week I’m pretty busy this time of the year doing people’s taxes."
Ah… How we are called to see, really see the people……

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

The Value of Theology is in the Questions it Raises

Theologians, 120 of strong from 30 countries gathering for the "Global Consultion: Theology in the Life of Luthean Churches" in Augsburg, Germany, for six days heard papers, discussed, shared ideas and engaged in invigorating conversation.

The Rev. Dr. Karen Bloomquist, Director of Theology and Studies for Lutheran World Federation, who lead the event, said that theology is necessarily contextual. We cannot presume to speak as though we have universal theological categories that have the same meaning for all people. The value of theology is in the questions it raises. The challenge is to do theology in the midst of the global Lutheran communion.

Theology asks such questions as: "How might resurrected hope be embodied and enacted amid the emptiness, pathos and suffering in our world--for the sake of the healing of the world? How does God's libeating, reconciling work become incarnate in the many contexts in which Lutheran churches today seek to live out the Christian faith? How is what we confess reflected in how we worship, preach teach, pray, living together as communities of faith, and respond to the challenges we face in our world today?"

The Rev. Dr. Benson Bagonza, a bishop in the Lutheran Church in Tanzania outlined an African theology of sustainable development. He said that the church represents the biggest social movement in Tanzania and that it is rural oriented and politically positioned to affect change. He noted the issues of depending heaily on outside funding which can readually erode selfhood. He questioned the church's leaning heavily on alliance with the state, which in turn galvanizes colonial memories. He said that an African theology of sustainable development heeds the voices of ordinary people within Africa and outside African in the triple theological quest to indigenize, liberate and reconstructin a desire to preserve, promote, and enhance a just society where poverty and discrimination are being overcome.

I had known Benson when he was a student at Wartburg Seminary in the Theology, Development and Evangelism program. Karen and I have been friends for many years. To be together with them, and many others, old friends and new, was a banquet in itself. I shall share more in weeks to come.

Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Questions RE: "Populist Rage"

Peter L. Kjeseth is Professor Emeritus of New Testament at Wartburg Seminary, now living and teaching in South Africa. For three decades, he and his wife Solveig have fought for independence and justice alongside the Namibian people. Peter contributes this post on the upcoming South African elections, scheduled for April 22:

All elections are decisive, but some elections are more decisive than others. Few from either side of the political spectrum would question that the election of Barack Obama as 44th President of the United States was a landmark event and may perhaps usher in a radically new chapter in US – and world – history. We will see.

Many of the most thoughtful observers here in South Africa argue that the national election called for April 22 will be decisive for the ‘new South Africa’ and will play powerfully one way or another into Africa’s destiny and its place in the world’s scene.

This will be the fourth election in post-apartheid South Africa. Nelson Mandela, icon of the liberation struggle, won the presidency in the first free election. The next two elections gave the presidency to Thabo Mbeki, a lesser figure, but with impeccable family and struggle credentials in the African National Congress, a hard working, urbane man who looked – and spoke – like a national president and who guided the ship of state with an authoritarian hand. His AIDS denialism and his stubborn support of his Secretary of Health who shared his bizarre views cost him in the eyes of the world community as did his ‘quiet diplomacy’ in Zimbabwe which looked like spineless appeasement of the discredited struggle leader, Robert Mugabe. But it was generally agreed that South Africa’s economy under Mbeki had achieved remarkable health and stability and that the nation, far from becoming the radical socialist state envisioned in the Freedom Charter, had joined the convoy of the G8, if not in the forefront, at least as a respected tag-along into the sea of global capitalism where all boats were to be lifted but where a tsunami of collapse has now put even the big flagships in peril. It was his ‘success’ in playing the world economic game that proved Mbeki’s undoing here at home.

At the 52nd National Conference of the ANC held in Polokwane, 16 -20 December, 2007 Mbeki was effectively sidelined. A coalition of the left and populist anger at his attitude and fiscal policy undid him. Ultimately he was ‘recalled’ from the presidency by the ANC and replaced, again by the ANC without a new election, by Kgalema Motlanthe, a generally effective executive who serves as a kind of interim president. As a US citizen, used to endless presidential campaigns, I found it passing strange that a party could change the top position in government without consulting the general public. Even more puzzling, yes astounding, for me was the line up of forces and personalities that combined in Polokwane to bring about Mbeki’s political demise.

The victor in Polokwane was Jacob Zuma, a man of massive contradictions. Mbeki had sacked him as deputy president in 2005 when Zuma was found to have had an ‘essentially corrupt’ relationship with Shabir Shaik, his long-time business partner who has served a prison sentence. At the time of Shaik’s sentencing Zuma was not charged but since then the National Prosecuting Authority has been trying to bring him to trial. The media since then has reveled in the drama of Zuma claiming that he wants a chance to clear his name at the same time that he and his forces have moved legal mountains to prevent any trial from taking place.

Then we have the highly publicized trial that did take place. An HIV positive young woman half his age charged Zuma with rape. He admitted having unprotected sex with the woman but claimed it was consensual. Besides, he took a precautionary shower after the encounter. He was acquitted. Outside the court during the trial, large and noisy crowds gathered to ‘show support’ for Zuma and to vilify the accuser. She received so many threats that she is said now to be in hiding overseas.

How could this man become the public face of Mandela’s ANC and the all but certain presidential candidate in the April 22 election?

Throughout the Mbeki years the forces of the left, COSATU (Congress of South African Trade Unions) and SACP (South African Communist Party) had felt increasingly sidelined though they were officially part of the governing coalition. Repeated public put downs by Mbeki were insulting, but the steadily increasing disparity between the rich and the poor, the threat of increased unemployment, plus general disenchantment with government’s delivery in health care, safety, and education brought anger and bold action. Populist rage fueled the Polokwane rebellion.

How wisely did this rage choose? It seems that Zuma has been able to sell himself as champion of the people, the one who could work to realize the socialist vision of the Freedom Charter. Yet in his campaigning he appears to want to be all things to all people, reassuring the nervous business community that there would be no radical economic change under his leadership. Or is the post-Polokwane ANC merely the fragile assembly of those who rejected Mbeki? It is likely that only the election will tell.

I am fascinated – and puzzled – by the phenomenon of ‘populist rage’ and the attempts of our analysts to deal with it. Twice in the last several weeks Frank Rich, the mercilessly analytic leader of the NYTimes Sunday columnists, has touched on populist rage. On Sunday Feb. 8, he named a “tsunami of populist rage coursing through America” as the cause of Tom Daschle’s flameout as candidate for Secretary of Health and Human Services in the Obama cabinet. The Obama team was caught off guard and had no recourse but to let the highly qualified Daschle go. He was seen, said Rich, as belonging to the “greedy bipartisan culture of entitlement and crony capitalism”. Then on March 1 Rich warned that Obama might be blindsided again if he does not find an explainable way of saving banks and other “corporate recipients of tax payers’ money”. Populist rage against corporate criminals is so great that it might undercut Obama’s total recovery package.

True or not, Rich’s warning about ‘populist rage’ rampant in the US also fits South Africa. It is as dangerous and unpredictable as it is powerful. Part of Zuma’s disturbing popularity roots in populist rage against the rich-get-richer-poor-get-poorer record of the Mbeki years, though there is an aces-wild cultural contributing factor that I do not understand. Populist rage, of different types and lineages, figures in the left swing in Latin America characterized by the careers of Chavez in Venezuela and Morales in Bolivia. It also could be named as the ground from which terrorisms of various stripes arise around the world. Yet it seems that it could be –and often is – the engine of healthy change.

Some people argue that populist rage, or at least strong discontent, stands behind the healthy growth of opposition in South Africa. Others feel that it will lead us into dangerous times.

How much will the results of the April 22 election teach us? How much will it help us answer our uneasy questions about ‘populist rage’?

Peter L. Kjeseth
March 2009
Fishhoek, South Africa

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Global Consultation in Augsburg

Two thousand years ago Augsburg was founded by the Romans. Ten years ago Augsburg was the site of the "Joint Declaration on Justification" between Lutherans and Roman Catholics. The events of the 16th century, however, make it most well-known among Lutherans and all Protestants worldwide.

Mr. Hermann Weber, mayor of Augsburg, greeted over 100 theologians from over 30 countries at the Rathaus (Town Hall) on the first evening of the March 25-31 Lutheran World Federation Global Consultation on "Theology in the Life of Lutheran Churches: Transformative Perspectives and Practices Today."

At the Rathau, which has been restored since the World War II bombings, we heard the mayor highlight the important dates:

1518 The momentous meeting between Luther and the papal legate at which Luther was told to renounce his teachings.

1530 The Imperial Diet meeting at which the Lutheran estates issued their fundamental statement of faith, the Augsburg Confession.

1537 The adoption of the first Protestant church order where separation of church and state was instituted.

1555 The Diet proclamation of the Peace of Augsburg, giving Lutherans and Roman Catholics a side-by-side relationship. For many years each public office in Augsburg was held by two people, one a Roman Catholic and one a Lutheran.

We could see evidence of this side-by-side relationship in the physical proximity of churches. We are staying at Haus St. Ulrich's. The Roman Catholic and Lutheran churches on this site are physically connected.

On Sunday we walked through the old town and saw the courtyard from which the people could hear the Augsburg Confession read for the first time, in the language of the people, so that all could understand.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Public Demonstration in Spain

On our way to the LWF conference in Germany, we had a stop-over in Madrid. We had been here only an hour or so, when, going out, we saw a church with doors open, and stopped in for the end of the service. There was standing room only. We stood with them.

Minutes later, approaching the Peurta de Sol, the center of Madrid, and said to be the center of Spain, we encountered a "Gran Manifestacion Contra el Fraude Hipotecario," hundreds of people very slowly walking and chanting, carrying signs against usury and the banks. The economic crisis is global and workers are speaking out. As they reached the center, they simply sat down on the pavement for a few minutes, and then proceeded on.

We felt a strong solidarity with the people, joining as we could on what we consider to be part of the church's vocation in the public world. Standing--and sitting--we can be part part of the conversation.

Friday, March 20, 2009

Global Consultation

I will be attending a Global Consultation of Lutheran World Federation: "Theology in the Life of Lutheran Churches," March 25-31 in Augsburg, Germany. I invite you to follow along by going the Lutheran World Federation web page on this event - click here to explore the Speakers, Presenters, and the Seminars, particularly Seminar IV "The Public Vocation of Church in Society" where you will find my paper among many others.

I also will be leading a plenary session utilizing a process to help the l00 participants from 30 countries engage in "Integrative Theological Formation." I will bring back things I have learned from what promises to be an exciting event and share them on this blog in weeks to come.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Where are the prophets?

So who are the prophets to American civil religion? American corporate religion? Unbridled captitalism? "In Cramer We trust," ad hype for CNBC's Mad Money, is a correlary to the belief, "In debt we trust." Jon Stewart on the Daily Show Thursday night (Mar.12)was not joking when he took Jim Cramer to task for failing to warn the American people of the coming global economic crisis.

So who are the public media prophets? Jon Stewart? Bill Moyers? Who? And what about the church's prophetic vocation in the public world? Whose are the prophetic voice? The persistent voices?

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Another View on American Civil Religion

Boardman (Barney) Kathan, Prospect, CT, is former General Secretary of the Religious Education Association, current REA archivist, and recent author of "A Church Set Upon a Hill: The Story of Prospect Congregational Church, United Church of Christ." Barney is a longtime friend with whom I have had many conversations over the years; he responds to recent postings on American civil religion.

Dear Norma,
You and I have had good conversations about American civil religion, going back many years, and I remember especially a fairly recent Religious Education Association annual meeting, when we talked after a group where you had presented a paper on the subject. At the time I had a problem with calling the Super Bowl a high holy day of American civil religion. You make a good point, however, in referring to it as part of "American corporate religion."

American civil religion, as I understand it, relates to the religious and biblical images and references in American history, as these people in a new world, beginning with the Puritans, saw themselves as a "light on a hill," an "errand in the wilderness," a new "promised land" and "chosen people;" in effect, as part of salvation history. This was not a "false god," unlike American corporate religion, consumerism, etc., but rather an attempt to interpret their experience in sacred terms. Properly understood, American civil religion was not a "presumption of entitlement to global dominance," but a creation of a model or ideal of liberty, equality and democracy. However flawed or imperfect, this model or ideal has been the guiding principle in American history, and we were fortunate to have Lincoln in the 19th century and Dr. King in the 20th century to recall us to that principle.

In our conversation a couple of years ago, I told the story of three persons I knew well and worked with: the mayor of our town whose only religion seems to be the American civil kind, who never attends church except for a patriotic occasion; a pastor who was so opposed to any display of American patriotism that he refused to allow the country's flag in the sanctuary and gave hardly a nod to the Fourth of July and Memorial Day; and my mother, who was a deeply religious evangelical Christian and at the same time was fervently dedicated to American civil religion. The point I am making is that ACR is not necessarily opposed to the "cross and resurrection." It is only when it becomes nationalism that it is a false god.

Sometime I need to share with you a lecture given on the Lincoln birthday bicentennial at the New Haven Historical Society by David Gelernter, a Yale professor of computer science and the author of a new book, Americanism: The Fourth Great Western Religion. He calls Americanism a "biblical religion" that is global in scope and fuels what he calls the "chivalry" of fighting against dictators in other parts of the world in order to spread democracy. I asked him how he would compare his concept with American civil religion, and he gave a long answer, essentially rejecting and dismissing the concept of ACR. I disagree with him in many ways.

As far as a "new revised standard version" of ACR, I agree with you that it is an evolving and complex concept. The inauguration of Obama as the 44th U.S. President as the culmination of a remarkable, successful two-year campaign holds out the promise that he might do for the American democratic faith in the 21st century what Lincoln and King did for the preceding centuries. Again, you were right to focus on the remarkable closing prayer by Joseph Lowery.

Best wishes, Barney
A story of my visiting Barney at First Congregational Church of Cheshire, CT, where he and I climbed into the church steeple, is included in my book, "Open the Doors and See All the People: Stories of Church Identity and Vocation" (Augsburg Fortress, 2005)