Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Grace to You and Peace

Grace to you and Peace for Christmas and the New Year. As a gift and resource for you to use, I, together with editorial partners Christ deForest and Gloria Stubitsch, have prepared a yearlong journey through the Epistles. To access it,
click here.
This is a resource to be used individually, with a companion, or in a small group. The Epistles are divided over 365 days. Each unfolds just as one would open a new letter, beginning in January with Romans and concluding in December with Jude. This is not a bible history, commentary or collection of stories. The purpose is to reflectively engage the text and let the text engage you day by day. (If you miss a day, it is easy to go back and catch up.) The intent of the author is to not veer far from the text, but to prayerfully explore its core message. The Letters speak for themselves. NRSV is the primary version used, occasionally supplemented by other English versions with aid of the original Greek.

The content and form of the passage dictate how it appears on the page. Each devotion presents words from the text, questions for reflection on our life of faith today, and a prayer. Usually the questions follow the text; sometimes they are interspersed. The prayer often picks up words from the text. In the simplicity of form on the page, you are challenged to explore the complexity of life in the church and world. Our daily lives are not the same as those of the early Christians, but at the very core we live in sin and yearn for grace. We hope you will meet yourself in these scripture texts. Although the prayer is brief, your prayer time might be much longer. Likewise, meditation on the questions could lead to deep reflection, conversation with a spiritual partner or perhaps journaling. The devotions are written to be inclusive.

The challenges of the new year are great. May the power of Christ through his body, the church strengthen each of us to not only have conversations about the church's vocation in the public world, but to be proclaimers of grace agents of peace.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Make Ready for the Lord a People Prepared

I have not before on this blog published any of my sermons; however, the sermon I preached at Wartburg Seminary Chapel this past Thursday says what I would like to say to you at this particular time in Advent about the church's vocation in the public world. So, here it is:

Text:John 1:19-28

John confessed and did not deny it, but confessed, I am not the Messiah.

“I am not.”
I counsel people not to begin their introductions with “I am not” (“I am not an expert.” “I am not a pastor.” “I am not widely known.”), or even with “I am only...” (“I am only a housewife.” “I am only a layperson.” “I am only a student.”) Role clarity is important. In classes students often hear me say that. Who I am and who I am not. However, I encourage people to begin with “I am...” for the sake of clarity and ministry, “This is who I am and can be and will be for you in the name and service of Jesus the Christ.” “I am a student of God's Word.” “I am a caretaker of the family.” “I am a steward of the earth.”

Apology is not necessary; role clarity is imperative. John was clear, “I am not the Messiah.”
Earlier in verse 6, this fourth Gospel begins straightforwardly as well, “There was a man sent from God whose name was John.” Yes! And vs. 7: “He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him.”

Even in those early verses of introduction we read, “He was not the light, but he came to testify to the light. The true light which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world.”

And come it did, the Light, the Word which became flesh, the Messiah. And John had testified to him and cried out: This is the one. I told you. No one has ever seen God. The only Son has made God known.

Then, who are you?
I mean, we're not even John.
and John said, “I'm not Jesus”

Who are you, John?
I'm not the Messiah
What then? Are you Elijah?
I am not.
Are you the prophet? No.
They persisted. Who do you think you are? What do you say about yourself?
The priests and Levites needed an answer for the Pharisees who had sent them to ask.

Stop there just a minute.
We may be clear enough who we are. But others may not be, and other people, and people behind those other people, may doubt what we are up to, why we are saying we are serving in the name of Jesus the Christ.

When I came to Wartburg Seminary to teach many years ago, I had had years of experience in public ministry and thought I knew who I was as a professor of theology and ministry. But there had not been a woman professor here at Wartburg before. I had this inner image that I would walk into classroom 113 and people would see me as an imposter, a fraud. Not only not belonging, but with dismissible credentials. I was concerned that they wouldn't be able to even imagine I as a woman could preach and teach in the name of Jesus.

Even when we are clear, the questions of what we are doing and what we are doing in this place continue. We need not only be clear; we need to dare to be! “I am here as your professor.” “I am here as your diaconal minister.” What's that? “I am not a pastor” (“You don't even need to say that,” I tell diaconal ministry students.) It's not what you are not; Its' what you are! “I am a diaconal minister of the ELCA.” “I am an associate in ministry.” “I am a deaconess.” “I am the new pastor in town, here to serve in the name of Jesus Christ”. “I am a husband of your pastor.” “I am the wife of your pastor, not your assistant pastor.”

We worry about our credentials, how people will see us and our role. It is important to remember that our identity is not in our role; our identity is in Christ. But, and therefore, the deeper doubt is who we are making these claims about the Messiah. Who are you, claiming Jesus to be the light of the world, the one in whom people can believe?

In all four Gospel accounts we see John the Baptizer, “I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, Make straight the way of the Lord.”
Luke's words: “Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.”
Or,the translation I find full of ministry challenge: “Make ready for the Lord a people prepared.”

Make ready for the Lord. We prepared and preparing ones are commissioned to many ministries to and with and among people. Our teaching the faith, our proclaiming the Word, our serving, our leading in worship in the world, our talking about Jesus in words a stranger can understand, all make ready for Christ a people prepared to receive him, to worship him, to tell about him, to heal and hope and do outrageous things in the name of the Messiah.

But the questions continue for John (You're not Elijah; you're not a prophet.) and they will for us.
In my first call to serve in a congregation early on I went into a meeting and was asked, “What are you doing here?” (It was a large church.)

Challenges will come when you are on the streets, poking your head into prophetic witness. At just such a community meeting, Burton, my husband was told by the official city redevelopers, “Keep you preaching for Sunday.” But the people from the neighborhood said, “Don't you talk to Pastor Everist like that! He's speaking up for us.”

How and when have you, will you, be questioned? You will get into trouble! (John did, you recall) When you do get into trouble, make sure it's for the sake of the Gospel.

And why do we baptize?
Why do we continue to invite people into the church? Why do we pour passion into creating community in Christ's name, and working for a just society? “It's not going to help.” “It's not going to matter.” “ We're going to have to close the doors anyway.” “People will always be fighting.” Because the true light which enlightens everyone is coming into the world. The light shines in the darkness and the darkness did not overcome it. We are commissioned for baptizing ministries so that the world may trust God's promises.

And then at core there is the issue of authority: The Pharisees had sent priests and Levites from Jerusalem to ask these questions not because they were curious, nor interested in becoming followers, but because they questioned, doubted, his authority to be baptizing. In fact they were publicly challenging not only his credentials, but the very heart and core of this ministry of preparing for the Lord a people prepared to meet him. And so John said boldly, not “Well, I guess I really shouldn't,” or, “I'll be going now,” or to himself, “I'll just slip away quietly....” John said, “I baptize with water. Among you stands one whom you do not know, the one who is coming after me: I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandal.” John did not defend his own place or position or calling; he stood firm, said clearly, acted decisively in the name of the one whom he was not worthy to serve, but did serve.

I am not the Messiah: In the midst of your ministry, your ministries right now, in the kitchen, places where you work in the evenings, to your sick friend hundreds of miles away, when feeling helpless,the bad news is “I am not the saving Messiah.” And the good news is, “I am not the Messiah.” “The Messiah comes after me,” John said and we can add, the Messiah goes before me, is already with the one whose hand I cannot hold right now, healing, saving. I am not the Messiah; I am called to make people ready to receive the Messiah.

People will ask questions, wanting us to be less than we are, and more than we are. John and Peter, (remember?) already in chapter 3 of Acts: the man lame from birth lying at the gate of the temple gate asking for alms. “I have no silver or gold, but what I have I give you; in the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, stand up and walk.” There are many stories like that, including Jesus. Remember (Mark 10) when James and John came forward and said, “Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.” And Jesus said, “What is it you want me to do for you?” James and John: “Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.” But Jesus said, “You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?” and to all the disciples: “Whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all.”

People will want you to be for them what you dare not be. At such a time it is imperative you be clear about who you are and who you are not. “I want you to put in a good word for me.” “You go straighten them out.” “You take care of that for me.” Or, I need you to be my best friend, my lover, my excuse, my redeemer, my cover, my savior.

“I am not.” “I cannot be that for you” “I cannot play that role for you.” “I cannot give that to you.” “But, in the name of the God of unconditional love, you are loved beyond measure.” “In the name of Jesus the Christ, you are forgiven and freed from needing excuses.” “In community with all of your brothers and sisters in Christ, you will always be...” Pray for the words to say and service to give.

John was baptizing and we as a church are baptizing in the name of the one who himself was baptized, not because of his sin, but because of ours, baptized into his life of ministry, baptized into his death and resurrection, for us. We are being prepared once again. Make way. Make ready for the Lord a people prepared.

None of us is worthy, but we need not be insecure, nor lack boldness, nor persistence, nor courage to prepare for the Lord a people prepared
And all this took place in Bethany across the Jordan where John was baptizing.
Who are you then?
In whose name and in what places of encounter do you minister?

Saturday, November 6, 2010

I'm Not Afraid of Nancy Pelosi

With all of the attack ads of the recent election, no woman may have been more demonized than Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi. Now, I like Nancy Pelosi. And she doesn't scare me. In fact I find it interesting the things about Speaker Pelosi that do scare people.

It goes way back to when she was elected Speaker, four years ago. My husband, Burton, and I were in Greece and watched on the computer in our motel in the evening when at midday in Washington Nancy Pelosi, the first woman to be elected to this office, surrounded herself with children, took the Speaker's gavel and said, "For the all of America's children the House will be in order." What a scary thing! All those children around. Then, and now once again, I hear a few men, whom I thought understood the goal of shared power between men and women, say that they saw this image as her exerting power over men, believing it appeared she was going to treat men like children. I didn't see that at all. I didn't even see a Mama Grizzly Bear in Nancy Pelosi.

In fact, members of the house have not either. Political analyists yesterday when she announced she would be seeking re-election as House Minority Leader, said the Democratic members of the House like her. In fact, they added, the Republicans do too. She works well with people, is courteous, gets things done, builds consensus,and does not bully. So why is she so scarey? They then went on to say all that she had accomplished. The House has functioned well, often accomplishing what the Senate could not. She has been one of the most effective speakers of the house in years. So why are people afriad?

Even before she was Speaker, she knew how to use power to build consensus tenaciously, graciously. And she knew how to do it from a minority leadership postion. And when she became Speaker, serving with a Republican president, Congress was able to pass legislation to raise the minium wage, make college more affordable, promote stem cell research, repeal subsidies for big oil, and initiate strong ethics reform, legislation that would take months for the Senate to pass, but which finally did with strong bipartisan support and was signed into law by President Bush. She was also a clear leader against the Iraq war. It is also simply a fact that under her wise political leadership she and a coalition going around the country were able to stop President Bush's plan to privatize Social Security, an act which would have been a disaster given the great recession which was to come.

So why has Nancy Pelosi been demonized? Why is she portrayed as so scary? Because she as a woman has been a powerful, effective leader. All the while, being respectful. No scandels in her personal life. She is a well-educated, dedicated woman of faith, deeply committed to her other roles as wife, mother and grandmother. But she has not been a woman about whom others have been able to use only the adjective of "grandmother." A supporter of others, she has not sought the spotlight, but when Sala Burton, a Congresswoman from California, gathered a circle of friends around her bedside to say she was very ill, she asked Nancy to run for her seat. And so Nancy did, at 47 years of age.

Quotes from her book on working together cooperative and building and re-building partnerships: "Burning bridges us unproductive." "There is no such thing as an eternal opponent." "Once you work with someone in a postive way you have sown the seeds for cooperation in the future." "You never draw a line in the sand, regardless of how irratated you are with yout opponent." "You have to leave an opening or a means for people to find their way back." "Never fight a fight as though its your last one." "Organize, don't antagonize."

Women with power are still feared. Some should be. Those who use it to dominate, kill, ridicule or for self-aggrandizement. But women who use power to build up and to create productive partnerships for the sake of justice and peace do not need to be feared. Many women of integrity also know that they do not have to leave the room when they no longer rule the room. Partnership is about more than that.

Nancy wrote about her life in her book, "Know Your Power: A Message to America's Daughters" (Doubelday, 2008): "I didn't set out to be Speaker of the House. But throughout my life, there were openeings, opportunitites, and choices that brought me to this time and place." Nancy, so it has been for women of your and my generation. Today is my birthday. One of my best birthday presents is your saying you will not leave, but continue to be willing to serve. We need your persistent voice. The House is still your place and this is still your time!

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Vocation in the Languages People Speak in Daily Life

The following is the conclusion of the pre-publication article for "Dialog" journal, the first half of which was the post immediately preceding this one.

Vocation in the Languages People Speak in Daily Life“We cannot keep from speaking about what we have seen and heard.”
So said Peter and John (Acts 4:20). God had used them to heal a lame man and they taught the amazed crowds about this God who gives life. For this they got into trouble, were taken into custody and questioned, and ordered not to speak or teach at all in the name of Jesus. But they would not be silent!

In the midst of our ministry in daily life, we are and will be called into question for the ministry we do, and called to give witness to the hope that lies within us. Sharing the faith needs to be done in the languages people speak all week long. Once in a while someone will simply be passing by the church on a Sunday morning and walk in. Once in a while the quoting of a random Bible passage will bring a person to faith. But only once in a while. Most of the time we will need to meet people where they are. In order to do this, we need to speak their languages, listen carefully to their needs and be able to speak of God’s great love in direct relation to their human need.

Peter and John were able to put into words the ministry they were doing and boldly say in whose name they were acting. They knew the Christ in whose name they ministered. We, too, need to know Christ well. If Christians do not understand the biblical and theological grounding of their faith, they may resort to using mere moralistic tidbits and biblical clichés. We need more than a cliché. Jesus walked where people walked. Not only did he often ask, “What do you want me to do for you?” He called self-righteousness and legalistic judgment for what it was: playing God, not ministry. Sharing Christ at the workplace is not effective evangelism when it is merely an assumption that everyone at the worksite or in the world should be “a Christian, just like me.” Likewise, simplistic religious slogans pass right by a person’s real need. We need to learn to share the faith in the languages of people’s daily lives that communicate to them clearly and effectively.

Ministry of the laity is not primarily about “letting a lay person preach,” but rather about lifting up the varieties of vocations the baptized people of God engage in all week long. This means giving attention all year long to equipping all Christians educationally for sharing the Gospel in words that connect to people where they are. To take it one step further, it is not a question of convincing people to teach and proclaim, but first of all seeing what it is people are already teaching and proclaiming in the daily conversations they are having all week long. What are they saying to their neighbors? Do people understand the faith under girding the decisions they are making? And are they making decisions that promote justice?

So often what we learn on Sunday is disconnected from what we talk about all week. Not that we want to disconnect, but we do not know how to put it together. But if we begin in the languages of daily life we know, we may be able to translate God’s word into the vernacular, into ordinary terms, images and vocabulary, so that we can be the evangelizing disciples of God. Many Christians feel more confident and willing to translate God’s love into action than into words. When people are equipped to speak in their natural languages, they become more skilled with words...and, like Peter and John, willing to speak of what they “have seen and heard.”

Education and Evangelism as a Translating Experiences
Educators know the importance of honoring diverse learning styles. People begin their learning most effectively when they can use their native tongue. When a person’s first language, and the culture surrounding it, is honored, people have a sense of self-worth that enhances their ability to learn more languages. Children especially have a marvelous ability to learn a second, or even a third language. English-only speakers in the United States are at a distinct disadvantage globally, and also in their own communities, in being able to communicate with and learn from people different from themselves. We honor the people we meet by respecting their language.

Even when people in a country or region speak one common language, they may disconnect the terms they use in their ministry in daily life from “Christian” terms. So, we need to willingly listen to and learn from someone speaking their “Monday language” not just their Sunday faith language. Are some farmers? What is the language of agriculture? Are some shop-keepers? What terms of business do they speak? Are some caregivers to families? What are the words they use? Do some people in our communities speak “computer”? Do some talk in terms of relationships? Do some use medical terms? By really wanting to know about the person’s life and their world views, and the “languages” in which they think and speak, we connect with them. Tim works in constructing houses. For him, the term “sheltering God” connected. Jon felt abandoned after his wife died suddenly. Knowing that Christ had said, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” on the cross, spoke to his reality. Maria was seeking a new community after she moved to a large city from her small town. Even the way people spoke about relationships was new. She felt both comforted and empowered by the Holy Spirit’s work on Pentecost.

Surely people need to learn about the stories, concepts and truths about God from the Scriptures, the language of the liturgy and the confessions of the church. Biblical illiteracy and ignorance about church history and theology undermines the life and mission of a congregation. Martin Luther was convinced that people should be able to read the Scriptures for themselves, and to worship and pray in the vernacular, the common language of the people. The importance of his translating the New Testament into the vernacular cannot be underestimated. How do we help people read the Scriptures and help them let the Scriptures “read them” in regard to the issues they face all week long? How can we help people translate the Bible and the theology of the church into phrases and concepts that prepare them to think, feel, relate, and make decisions in the languages they speak all week?

Once people are able to conceptualize the faith in the common parlance of family, work and other activities, they will be able to more naturally talk about God in those places. We need to develop a healthy rhythm of being the gathered people of God for worship and for education, and the scattered people of God for mission and ministry in daily life. In order to do that, both places need to be translating experiences. Our Christian education can help people learn the biblical and theological heritage of the faith and help them connect this faith to daily life. Likewise, education for evangelism includes helping Christians listen carefully to the languages the people they meet speak in their daily lives and understand the real needs of people. Once people know they have permission to use those languages and to make those connections, they will never again not make such connections; they will become more effective evangelizers in the broadest sense of that term. This does not mean trying to shape the global society into an image of one’s own country; that’s simply a new form of colonialism. This mean being able to share the love of Christ in a language of love people can understand. In giving people permission to speak and learn in the vernacular, we further equip them for their vocations in society.

Articles of Faith
Beyond their languages of every day life, Christians who hold the same faith speak a common creed using the same words. The historic creeds, The Apostles’ and Nicene, are confessed together in Sunday worship.
The Apostles’ Creed Article 1: I believe in God the Father Almighty, Creator of Heaven and Earth
The God whom we confess creates not only “me,” but all that exists. Cultural beliefs focus on a God whose job, we presume, is to protect me, my family, my job, my church, my country. Rather, in this article a faith community, together with Christians around the globe and through the ages, confesses that they fear, love and trust in the Triune God above all things. Saying “I” we also say that this God is the Creator, the Protector, and the Provider of all. This is grounding for vocation in society.

The words people confess on Sunday need to ground their lives comprehensively all week long. How people translate the meaning, as well as their interpretations of these words, has significant consequences in the decisions they make in the arenas of their ministries in daily life. In every dimension of life, one needs to ask, “What is God creating here? How is God providing? Just whom is God protecting?”

The educating faith community will help people raise questions about this God who is almighty and the creator of all. Where do people stand on the issue of war and peace? Immigration? How do one’s Christian beliefs relate to capitalism? Consumerism? Globalization? Economic justice? The people among whom we minister, whom we lead to be disciples in the world, live inside all of those systems and both benefit from them and oppress others by them. The issues are large, the choices complex. How do you care about people suffering malaria, from hurricanes, from earthquakes near and half a world away? What does it really mean to believe in a creating, providing, protecting God?

Article 2: I believe in Jesus Christ, God’s only Son, our Lord. He was conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit and born of the Virgin Mary. He suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died and was buried. He descended into hell. On the third day he rose again. He ascended into heaven and is seated at the right hand of the Father. He will come again to judge the living and the dead.

Jesus Christ draws the faith community into the streets, where ordinary people live and work. So, too, our teaching and preaching is not confined to the classroom or the sanctuary. It needs to equip people for their roles and relationships in ministry opportunities on the streets, at their workplaces, at the medical center, wherever they go all week long. Who is this Jesus Christ in whose name we teach? Where did Christ walk? Or, maybe the question is, “Is there anywhere Christ did not walk?”

Incarnational ministry is a ministry of presence, “real” presence, an active presence that reaches out to engage people in their real-life ministry settings, whether dramatic or mundane. This calls for biblical and theological teaching that can help people translate the death and resurrection of Christ into liberating, life-giving ministry. It may begin with encounter on the streets which can lead to deeper engagement. In saying we believe that Christ was conceived by the Holy Spirit and born of Mary, we confess the power of the Spirit at work through human beings; we believe Christ was incarnate, put on flesh and lived among all kinds of people, proclaiming God’s reign and caring, healing, and calling for justice.

His death defeated oppressive forces of sin, Satan and death itself. We confess that the One who rose from the dead and ascended, is still incarnate. We might ask with Mary what in the world God is calling us to give birth to? What are the oppressive, death-delivering powers that need new life? And how is Christ present in the world today so that all might be united in God’s love forever? To believe in Jesus Christ is to fully encounter and engage the world and its people and to minister with the good news of Christ’s life-giving power in society.

Article 3: I believe in the Holy Spirit, the holy catholic Church, the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting.
What makes people holy? What does it mean to confess together that one believes in the Holy Spirit? The Holy Spirit brings individuals and whole communities to faith, and, after disillusionment, back to faith again and again. Ministry is rooted in the forgiveness of sins. Life everlasting is not just a ticket to heaven, but new life in Christ lived in community as the body of Christ now.

The Spirit transforms entire communities for ministries in daily life. And those ministries are diverse. The various callings of different people in a faith community may take them in opposite directions culturally, economically or politically. No matter. As the community gathers each time at the communion table, they are restored, strengthened and empowered to go forth to serve in the world as one body of Christ with many members. As they gather for rich, relative and relational Christian education, they are equipped to be the holy people who are not afraid to become involved in the dirt and grime of what may seem like “unholy” work.
On Pentecost, people from many nations came together. The disciples “were all together in one place” and were “filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues, as the Spirit gave them utterance.” The amazing message of Pentecost is that the people who had come to Jerusalem all heard in their own language what the disciples were saying. They were bewildered, amazed and wondering, but they heard! The Good News of the Spirit is that the Spirit enables us, too, to speak the Good News in languages in which people can hear about Jesus Christ. “We hear them telling in our own tongues the mighty works of God” (Acts 2:l1). By the Spirit, the Church, through its many and diverse people, can be empowered for vocations of peace and justice in society, locally and globally.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Kindle Books and Doing Theology in the Language of the Laity

Some readers of this blog will find it helpful to know that five of my recent books are now Kindle books. This is particularly helpful for international readers. You can find the list through Amazon Kindle:
"The Church as Learning Community"
"Transforming Leadership" (with Craig Nessan)
"Open the Doors and See All the People"
"Christian Education as Evangelism"
"The Difficult But Indispensable Church"

In addition, some of these are also available as electronic books through Barnes & Noble.

In this post I am going to share the first part of a forthcoming article for "Dialog" journal. I will post the remainder of the article in subsequent blogs.

The Church’s Vocation in Society through the Ministry of the Laity in the Languages of Their Daily Lives

The people of God are set apart in order to be sent back into the world. What does the gathered people of God need in order to carry out their vocations in society? How will they be the transformed, equipped, empowered people of God serving in the world through their ministries in daily life? How are their skills for ministry and leadership in the congregation being strengthened? And as we move beyond the church doors, do we know the ministries in daily life to which each other is being called? How will we walk with one another in those varied arenas, any and all of which are places for potential ministry and for working toward a more just and peaceable world? And what about the people whose lives the congregation members touch? What does daily transformation of the body of Christ mean in the lives of those people? How can we really make a difference in the world?

These questions are at the core of what it means to be church in the world. Actually, they reach to the core of the Gospel itself because when we begin in the midst of the human predicament, we realize that in order for the Good News of Jesus Christ to be real in people’s lives, it must speak to that specific human condition. The content of this article is based on material originally published in "Christian Education as Evangelism" (Fortress Press, 2007)and "Transforming Leadership"(Fortress Press, 2008) where I explore further these issues as they relate to Christian community and outreach.

To believe in the communion of saints is to believe that God is the Creator of the whole world, that Christ is and continues to be incarnate in that world, and to claim the Spirit’s power. As leaders walk with the laity, listen to and engage the theological questions people raise from being involved in the world, ministerial leadership becomes more interesting, more vital, more theologically challenging and alive. And ministry is multiplied.

Those who have been called to faith in Jesus Christ have been faithfully ministering in the world in each generation. Full recognition of this ministry and these ministers by the church is the issue. In that regard we have a transformation waiting to happen, an unfinished reformation and a community poised for mission.

Terms: A Variety of Images
A number of terms describe this radical reformation concept, the church’s vocation in society. Each term contains its own wisdom:

The Priesthood of all believers. By God’s grace through faith in Jesus Christ, the Spirit creates the priesthood we all share. Christ became the faithful high priest, not only to make a sacrifice for the people, but to become the sacrifice (Hebrews 2:17-18; 7:26-27; 9:14). Patriarchal hierarchies historically have reserved the bestowing and assurance of salvation to priests. Rather, all Christians are called to be a royal priesthood to “proclaim the mighty acts” of the one who called us out of darkness into light (1 Pet. 2: 5-9). The word is plural: “priesthood.” Within the priesthood of all believers some are called and ordained to Word and sacrament ministry and to Word and Service ministry.

Through faith Christians are transformed by the Spirit and called to pursue peace, to show hospitality to strangers, to remember those in prison (Hebrews 12 and 13). Because Jesus, our high priest died not on an altar, but “outside the city” (Heb. 13:12), the priesthood of all believers is called to go with him “outside the camp” (Heb. 13:13) and be willing to praise God, to do good and to share what we have (Heb. 13: 15-16). We need distinct offices and roles within the church but together as the priesthood of all believers we are transformed to be the church in the world, proclaiming the grace of God and living out ministry “outside the camp.”

Ministry of the baptized We do not baptize ourselves. By the power of the Spirit in water and word, we are liberated from sin and death through being joined together in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. “By water and the Word God delivers us from sin and death and raises us to new life in Jesus Christ” Christians often feel unclean. We need the washing clean of forgiveness and the refreshment of the daily remembrance of baptism, otherwise the sins and struggles of the day would overwhelm us.

How is our baptism linked to Christ’s baptism and what does that have to do with ministry? And, for that matter, why was Christ, who was not sinful, baptized? Mark’s Gospel dramatically begins with Jesus being baptized by John in the River Jordan. In Mark 10:38, Jesus asked his disciples, “Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?” Jesus was baptized into his ministry of servanthood, death and resurrection; Christian disciples are baptized into Christ. Jesus said, “…whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many” (Mark l0:43b-45). The congregation says to the newly baptized, “We welcome you into the body of Christ and into the mission we share: join us in giving thanks and praise to God and bearing God’s creative and redeeming word to wall the world.”

Laos in ministry All of us are part of the laos, the “people” of God. By virtue of Creation all peoples are God’s people; we need to take care that “people of God” language not sound exclusionary in a pluralistic world. Although we need to be clear on roles to which we have been called, it is not helpful to separate people in artificial or ultimate ways. We use the original Greek word “laos” because “lay” in the English carries the connotations of “not clergy” or in general, of someone who is not very knowledgable in a certain field. Such hierarchical distinctions can lead some pastors to simply delegating to laity work they themselves do not like to do. Just as worship is the “work of the people” so, too, ministry is the work of the laos.

In Hosea, a child is named, “Not my people” to signal the unfaithfulness of the people of God: “you are not my people and I am not your God” (Hos. 1:9). And, yet, in the very next verses we hear God’s covenant faithfulness, “…in the place where it was said to them. ‘You are not my people,’ it shall be said to them, ‘Children of the living God’” (Hos. 1:10). That Hosea passage is recalled in First Peter,
You are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people, in order that you may proclaim the mighty acts of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light.
Once you were not a people,
But now you are God’s people:
Once you had not received mercy,
But now you have received mercy.
Through God’s mercy a redeemed people is called to live ministries of mercy.

Ministry of the Whole People of God The ministry of the Church in the world belongs to the whole people. Wholeness, however, is not a matter of health or perfection. Individual Christians are not totally capable or experienced, or well. Congregations may be broken in conflict. In the midst of this reality Christ imputes wholeness and salvation. It is a matter of believing that the church is whole even while it is broken.

The Body of Christ is not whole unless all are a part of using their gifts to serve in the world. In Ephesians 4 Paul urges the Ephesians saying, “I… beg you [plural] to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called” (v.1). This calls for humility, gentleness, patience and bearing with each other. That’s hard. Paul writes there is one body, one spirit, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God, and one “hope of your calling” (vs. 4-6). Then Paul describes the variety of gifts (vs. 11-13), just as he does in Roman 12 and 1 Corinthians 12. But note that the lists of gifts are not closed and the roles are not ranked. The purpose of the gifts of people is “to equip the saints for the work of ministry” (v. 12).

When the “whole” people of God are in pain, when the body is actually torn apart, Christ heals and grows the body: “Speaking the truth in love, we must grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and knit together by every ligament with which it is equipped, as each part is working properly, promotes the body’s growth in building itself up in love.”(vs. 15-16).

Ministry in Daily Life Each of us is called. Each of us has a daily life. Although our lives may be long or short, each person has a 24-hour day. Not everything we do is automatically ministry, but everything we do carries the potential for ministry. Einar Billing wrote in "Our Calling" (Augustana Press, 1958)that “Call” is an “everyday word, with a splendor of holy day about it, but its holy day splendor would disappear the moment it ceased to be a rather prosaic everyday word.” “Calling” also means Christians being called by grace to faith. “When it began to dawn on Luther that just as certainly as the call to God’s kingdom seeks to lift us infinitely above everything that our everyday duties by themselves could give us, just that certainly the call does not take us away from these duties, but more deeply into them, then work became calling...”

To Luther “call is primarily gift, and only in second or third place a duty.” Our roles and relationships in daily life are transformed in Christ; even though they seem mundane or problematic, in Christ’s cross we can now receive our work and each other not as burden but as gift. Calling for Luther was rooted in forgiveness of sins, the ultimate transformation. “In the degree that our life becomes a life of forgiveness of sins, to that degree we receive a calling.” “Life organized around the forgiveness of sins, that is Luther’s idea of the call.”

These reformation breakthroughs provided radical new possibilities for all people to serve in the church and to make significant vocational contributions to society. There was a break from reliance on authority in a person’s determining what to think and what to do in the world. People were able to read the Scriptures for themselves. But what more needs to happen? Freedom from is freedom for. It’s the “freedom for” that is left not fully realized. The power of the priesthood of all believers has, even these many years later, not fully been unleashed. Why?

Vocatio Rooted in the Forgiveness of Sins
If our calling (our vocatio) is rooted in the forgiveness of sins, what does that mean for the real ways people live? What does forgiveness mean? How are we freed for ministry? These are core questions for living out our new life together in the Spirit. Each of the baptized who are members together of the priesthood of all believers needs to hear the Gospel, God’s grace, in terms of their own specific situation. Theologian Letty Russell wrote in "Human Liberation in a Feminist Perspective: A Theology (Westminster, 1974)that Jesus did not say to the blind person, “You can walk,” nor to the person who could not walk, “You can see.” Christ met people on the road in the midst of their lives and asked, “What do you want me to do for you?” Jesus cared about people and also about the societal problems related to human need in the world in which they lived.

We who have been transformed by the power of the Spirit each meet Jesus in our own need, and in the midst of society’s need. If the human problem is brokenness, the good news is that Jesus makes us whole. If the human problem is alienation, the good news is God reconciles and restores relationships. If the human problem is guilt, the good news is that God through Jesus Christ forgives. If the human problem is being lost, the good news is that the Good Shepherd looks for and finds the lost. If the human problem is death, Jesus Christ has brought new life. If the human problem is judgment, the good news in Jesus Christ is unconditional acceptance. If the human problem is being overwhelmed by the stress and demands of daily life, Jesus invites the weary to come to him and to rest in the caring arms of God. If the human problem is bondage, the good news is that Jesus brings freedom.

The second part of what Russell said is not to be forgotten. If the human problem is hunger, the good news is that God feeds the hungry. God needs people working in society to carry out that gospel action of feeding the hungry. Likewise, if the human problem is injustice, God will need whole societies working together for justice for all.

Luther’s concept of ministry is linked with his definition of the church as the communion of saints. The naked and the hungry are our neighbors. Every Christian is a priest in the sense of servant; all of the baptized, including children, are called to minister to the neighbor. Martin Luther did not begin his reform of the church on the basis of pious leaders, but through a transformed concept of the church itself. Therefore not just priests, but the one who bakes bread or serves in civic government, or cleans a house is part of the priesthood and called to ministry in that very place of service.

Our neighbors are everywhere. Luther wrote about our “stations” and “vocations.” We today might think about “stations” as the whole range of roles and relationships of our daily lives and our “vocations” as our callings to ministry to the neighbor. We sit beside a “neighbor” at our work “station” or school desk. This neighbor is the person right here next to us and also people on the other side of the world. We may just sit there and do nothing to serve the neighbor, thereby missing our calling. But if we regard the other as one also made in the image of God, as one for whom Christ died, then, by the power of the Spirit, whatever the service we do, it is our ministry.

When we deeply believe that all of our ministries are rooted in the forgiveness of sins, then we will submit our roles and relationships to Christ in confession, knowing that through the cross and resurrection we are freed for powerful servanthood. Such ministries make a difference in people’s real lives. In order to do this daily we will need spiritual guidance and faithful conversation with a trusted brother or sister in the faith.

It is helpful to take some time to quietly make a list of our roles and relationships (stations), asking who is my neighbor there? Some may be ongoing, such as relationship of parent and child, but even those constantly change throughout the life cycle. There may be new roles: a different job, a new colleague, an invitation to a volunteer position in the community, a global challenge. What is the potential for ministry there? We will need the caring guidance of a friend in Christ to help us discern our calling. What are the challenges and barriers? What are our own dilemmas in that relationship?

Is there alienation in the family? Alienation need not be permanent. When our vocation is rooted in the forgiveness of sins, we know we live already reconciled in Christ with the potential for restored relationships. We are then freed to engage in the work of reconciliation, within ourselves and within our family. Is there guilt about the thousands who die of hunger each day? Poor people do not need our guilt. They need food and shelter. When our vocation is rooted in the forgiveness of sins, we are freed to minister to not only help poor people but to work for change in systems which keep people in bondage to poverty. We are freed in Christ for powerful serving ministry. How might we reflect on our other roles and relationships? Who might help us hear God’s Word of Law and Gospel? What are some of the challenges for a faith community as they seek to become empowered and equipped for their vocations in daily life?

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Doing Nothing Could Have Dangerous Consequences

“When good people sit by and do nothing.” We have heard it said. “Surely this ridiculous story about President Obama being a Muslim will blow over,” we say. But I'm not so convinced it will go away at the end of the news cycle.

We have seen the figures from the recent Time Magazine article and other news sources as well. A growing number of people in this country believe our president is not a Christian, but that he is a Muslim, or that they don't know. The growth in the latter number is as troubling as any, for it shows that people are neglecting to know, or that they are allowing themselves to be beguiled by those news sources which continue to plant the seed of doubt, innuendo, and blatant lies. And we do nothing. We say nothing. We let that belief that the president is the “other,” the “enemy of America” grow unchallenged.

Why should the religious beliefs of the president of the United States matter? On the one hand, we strongly hold that religious affiliation should not be a test for the presidency. We worked that through long and hard with the candidacy and election of John F. Kennedy. When Roman Catholics have been candidates for high office in subsequent elections it's barely mentioned. The country can learn. But when racial hatred and fear are at the bottom of the whispers, a people may refuse to learn.

And that, of course, is where the issue of the fabrication of Obama being a Muslim, or having the “seed” of Islam in him, connects with the issue of the building of the Mosque and community center in lower Manhattan. Much of the TV talk has been whether President Obama's twin statements two weeks ago, one restating the first amendment, that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof;” and, two, that he, as president was not going to express a view of a local municipality issue, would hurt him politically. I'm much more concerned whether the furor will hurt him physically or even mortally.

The resurgence of distrust of Islam, and fear, and outright rage, including the manufactured stories of “terror babies” being born in the U.S., that they could return later to bomb us (a convenient tie in with the unsettled immigration issues), is more like the “Red Scare” of the 1950's when fear of communism stood in the way of global cooperation and peace and tore this country apart. Immediately after 9/11there was a moment of good will toward America, and compassion for suffering here. We squandered that. And we forgot to remember that Muslims died on 9/11. And for a while, a few months, even a couple of years, there was a time of learning. People in churches and synagogues reached out, inviting Muslim neighbors to talk at adult forums. We were beginning, finally, to be a learning community.

Where has that gone? It is more than forgetting to continue to learn. We are now in a full fledged time of the fostering of fear. And we do nothing.

This week, “Live from Lincoln Center” presented a rare new production of “South Pacific” with all of that wonderful music. The young stage director said he had never seen the show before. The script, written shortly after World War II, is about more than “Some Enchanted Evening” and “I'm Going to Wash that Man Right Out of My Hair”...but about fear of the other in human relationships. The words to “You've Got to Be Carefully Taught”.....racial hatred....were controversial when the show opened 60 years ago. And here they were being sung in Manhattan this week.

Across the country people gather to say, “We'd rather not have 'them' in 'our' neighborhood.” And we do nothing to attend such community meetings? To write letters to the editor? To talk about these issues in our own adult forums? To, yes, once again, set a safe learning environment for people of many faiths to gather and teach and learn from one another?

Troops return from Iraq and need to be warmly welcomed and supported, yes, supported, really supported as they re-enter their home environment. And we also need to talk, not only with them, but to talk to one another about what some people—not the ones who fought—mean when they say, “We won and we saved our freedom”? What, literally, “in the world” does that phrase mean? What, literally, in the world, are we doing?

“Congress shall make no law..” The establishment clause and the free exercise clause are two sides of our freedom of religion. For me to have this religious liberty means that my neighbor does too. “No one is free when others are oppressed,” reads the sign on my office door at the seminary. Is not this the goal? The Mayor and NY and the governor of Virginia recently made very clear that we cannot start drawing exceptions block by block to this wonderful heritage of the right to practice religion in a pluralistic nation. We are called to share this by consistently showing what religious liberty for all means. This is a way to become peacemakers in the world. That's how we deal with terror, and fear, externally and internally. Are we to do nothing, or are we called to be actively engaged as individuals and communities of faith in setting trustworthy environments for us to be different together?

Which brings us back to the president's religion. Yes, he is a Christian. And, yes, he is an African-American. We, you and I, “do nothing” when we become merely spectators and political pundits ourselves to who Barack Obama is. WE need to call for and create and engage in conversations about racism in this country. (Yes, this is the fifth anniversary of Katrina when this nation left tens of thousands of poor people and people of color without aid. What, if anything has changed since then?)

We can challenge individuals who make illogical and mistaken statements. When we recently did that, respectfully, the woman with whom my husband and I spoke was actually more ready than we might have thought to have the untruths about the president's place of birth that she had heard on talk radio corrected. WE need to create teaching and learning interfaith opportunities, where each of us can respectfully listen to what the “other” believes and put into words what we believe. We need to ask each other questions and grow. Such sharing of faith can be hard, but perhaps very interesting and not nearly as hard or as dangerous as what people are doing in public right now. (As I write this on August 26, the morning news reports a Muslim cab driver being stabbed in NYC.)

We are not “good people.” And, left to our own propensities to fear and hate, we never will be. But, by God's grace, mercy and unconditional love, we have been and are being and can be transformed into people of understanding and love in order to learn and to create new ways for us to be communities of caring action.

Monday, July 19, 2010

Communal Life in the Public World

This month marks the 20th anniversary of the ADA, the Americans with Disabilities Act. Our country owes much to Sen Tom Harken of Iowa and the late Sen. Ted Kennedy for their diligence in bringing to fruition a bill that has positively changed the fabric of American life in community. Accessibility! Opportunity. So much remains to be done, of course. But so much has changed that it's hard to realize it has been only twenty years since this bill was passed and signed. All people need to be part of our communal life in the public world.

This month marks the 50th anniversary of the novel To Kill a Mockingbird. Harper Lee's semi-autobiographical novel, set in the 1920's South, has sold over 30 million copies and at one time became required reading for ¾ of high school students in this land. Published in the early days of the Civil Rights movement, it awakened the consciousnesses of whites. The challenge, of course, goes on. Racism is not past, an historic “story” in one part of this nation. The challenge continues. All people need to be part of our communal life in the public world.

The summer of 2010 the recession continues. The numbers tell the story: joblessness, home foreclosures, stock market uncertainties. But there are other figures, too, such as a rise in emotional problems such as depression, and, sociologists note, the lessening of civic engagement. People have become less likely to be involved in community activity. While some may think people who are unemployed or underemployed have more time to be more involved, many actually become more isolated, being less involved in civic activities, community affairs, volunteer services, even attendance at church. They have less emotional energy to do so. It is not because they do not care, but because accompanying lack of productive work are questions of self worth and self-esteem. Here is a call for ministry, a call for affirmation of gifts, a call for all to be valued members of our communal life in the public world.

Earlier this month President Barack Obama's gave a stunning speech on Immigration. It was clear. It was comprehensive. The issues are complex; all need to be engaged in working toward just solutions. “We cannot forget that this process of immigration and eventual inclusion has often been painful. Each new wave of immigrants has generated fear and resentments towards newcomers, particularly in times of economic upheaval,” he said. Read his speech (to be found at various sites on-line). And talk about it, as well as ELCA Presiding Bishop Mark Hanson's recent communication on immigration. The challenge is for all of us as we find a way for people to be a part of our communal life in the public world.

All sorts of other things have been happening this July, some anniversaries, some today's news, and some the ongoing realities of daily life. For example, Detroit has no remaining chain grocery stores; people look to gas stations, “convenience” stores and fast food places for nutrition. Even availability of food is according to economic class. And yet, with nearly a third of Detroit consisting of vacant land, last year there were 557 registered family gardens, 263 community gardens and 55 school gardens. People are feeding one another. (See Sojourners July 2010.) All people need to be fed and nurtured in order to be healthy, respected, valued members of our communal life in the public world.

What has been happening in your world, or world, this July? What hinders and helps our call to communal vocation in the public world?

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

What Do We Believe This July 4?

As we approach July 4, one of the “holy” days of American civil religion, some random comments on where we are in this ever unfolding contemporary religious dimension to the American society:

As noted before in this blog, I deeply care about and am thankful for the United States of America and believe we should dedicate ourselves once again to vigorous participatory democracy. In order to do so as members of various faith communities in this pluralistic society, it is important to understand that as Robert Bellah wrote in his groundbreaking article in Daedalus in 1967, “while some have argued that Christianity is the national faith…few have realized that there actually exists alongside of and rather clearly differentiated from the churches an elaborate and well-instituted civil religion in America…[that]requires the same care in understanding that any other religion does”

I have been studying American civil religion (ACR) for well over 30 years now and have written extensively on the subject. But it keeps changing! It is not a dead religion. Lately I have wondered if we in the United States do not rather have an American corporate religion, as the power struggles between the U.S. government and BP would attest.

Each time I work with groups of people, whether students or congregational adult forums, I use a discovery method so that people are engaged in their own learning. We list the various elements of a religion listed around the room on chalk board or paper: Holy Days, Shrines, Holy Writ, Hymns, Symbols, Saints, Martyrs, Priests, Prophets, Rituals, Creeds, Gods. Participants fill in what they have seen in the world around them. ACR is indeed our “other faith” which shapes and forms what we believe every day. Over the years participants have suggested I add the categories of “Missions” and “Ecclesiology/Church”

Two weeks ago in Wartburg Seminary’s one-week intensive course, “The Church as Learning Community,” students, added some of their own ideas from summer of 2010 (By the way, the views in this post are my own. The class was a wonderful group of people with diverse views...I simply wanted to share some of their ideas and show you their picture!):
Mission: To spread our form of democracy
God: “happiness” (there are a lot of books, videos, etc out of happiness right now, perhaps because this is time of fear and uncertainty)
Creed: The Creed, “In Debt We Trust” has been shaken to the core
Ecclesiology/Church: Cell phones and Face Book
Shrines: Malls, banks, Arlington National Cemetery
Prophets: Sarah Palin (the list is usually all male) and Sarah Palin wannabes

Actually Sarah Palin was shown on the cover of Newsweek as “Saint Sarah” last week theorizing that the Christian right, long a group that confuses its brand of civil religion with its brand of Christianity, melding them together in a religious patriotism, is poised to become a women’s movement. By “feminist,” however, these women do not mean a movement of liberation and shared partnership of women and men working for global peace and justice, but a “kind of submissive, pretty, aw-shucks demeanor with a fiery power, a spiritual warfare.” (Newsweek, p.37)

Is there room for “Repentance” in American civil religion? Shame? Jonathan Kozol‘s recent book The Same of the Nation: The Restoration of Apartheid Schooling in America, chronicles the educational gap in educational opportunities among rich and poor, black and white. But repentance?

Shame? The misnaming and missing of bodies at the holy “shrine” of Arlington National has been called a shame.

Where are we this July 4th? Where are you? These are random thoughts, hardly comprehensive of all the news, all the beliefs, all the "holy" shrines and hymns. Do we believe in "Freedom" as an icon? Is it "my" own independence that I worship? But don't we really need to be interdependent? And surely our belief in the corporate world to take complete care of our needs, particularly the needs of the poor has been shaken. In fact globally, decisions are usually not made on the basis of what is good for the needs of most of the poor of the world, but what is good for the corporation.
So, where are our gods? What do we hold dear? What beliefs and creeds hold us? What holds us together as a nation? What holds our attention?

And, in the midst of it all, what do the radical creeds of a radical Gospel of cross and resurrection empower us to do as we seek to serve all people in God’s created and hurting world?

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

It's Not That I Don't Like Children's Sermons...

A friend recently asked what I might recommend on children's sermons from a theological perspective and how to engage children in worship more as opposed to the three minute stint up front.

I responded: First of all, I'm glad you are asking and not just making assumptions that: l) Of course we should have children’s sermons; 2) The goal is to have "our" cute kids in front of the church; or even 3) It's the only way to keep kids interested in going to church.

I would begin by asking about the nature of the worshipping community. And I would also ask, as I do in the book, The Ministry of Children's Education, "Who is the child?" and "Whose is the child?" The first question would move you to a conversation about God and the body of Christ and how all members, small and large, are active participants and not mere spectator or audience. (As you know, many adults "enjoy" the children's sermon because they like the amusement factor when a child answers an abstract question in a concrete way.)

Thinking positively, beginning with the nature of the worshipping community opens the doors wide to creatively thinking about the ways people of all ages and abilities can be involved in praying, praising, hearing and speaking the Word of God, and serving and being empowered for ministry in daily life. I have seen congregations--maybe your own--do that. Like the young girls who play chimes beautifully at Bethel Lutheran Church in Aurora, CO, here having fun on the sanctuary steps before the service. I have seen children and adults serving as ushers together. I heard the most clear and moving proclamation of the Word when a 12-year-old, with good preparation, read the lessons. I have worshipped from folders with colorful covers individually designed by the young children. I have seen a child in a wheel chair bring forth the bread for communion. I have been fed by my own sons at the altar on their confirmation day years ago.

And, coming from the other direction, I would love to talk with an education committee about how the pastor(s) can be engaged with children around the Bible at other times than on the altar steps on Sunday morning. I know, I know, they are busy. But, too busy to teach the children the Bible? "Let the little children come to me" and I'm too busy? Recently, on my way home from Colorado, I was with Pastor Randy Fett in Grand Island, Nebraska. He serves a 2000 member ELCA congregation. It was midweek and he spent the morning engaged with the texts for the upcoming Sunday, first with children from the day care center and pre-school.
He used not just the story from the Gospel, but also the Psalm. No story line there. But he and the children with their whole bodies lived out the praise of the Psalm. Later he and I met with some of the oldest members of the congregation and engaged the same texts. Or, more clearly, the texts engaged us. We carry the Word and the Word carries us. Here was the wisdom of the ages, the pain and joy, and the still unanswered questions, from the same text in the same church on the same morning. We are called to engage and be engaged by the scriptures by all the people all week along. That is the joyful challenge to which we as a congregation and its councils and committees are called.

Having broadened the question from both directions, I then come back to the more narrow subject. It's not that I was avoiding your question. I answer by not taking the beloved practice of children's sermons away from people, but by helping them experience that as only a small part of the potential of children's ministry, all ministry, in the church. Yes, I have seen children gathered around the pastor sharing the text for the day while the congregation listened on. It's not that I don't like children's sermons. I just don't like children's sermons done badly.

Here's where I come back to the "Who is the Child?" and "Whose is the Child?" questions and some rubrics I have for children's sermons.
1. They need to be grounded in the Word of God, not just lightly connected through some cute story. Here's where I find books on children's sermons can be counter-productive. I think it is difficult to prepare a children's sermon. One should spend a great deal of work on it. Too often it's just an afterthought. There are, of course, pastors who deeply care and carefully prepare.

2. Those who give children's sermons need to be and become theologically educated. That means pastors need ongoing growth theologically. And it certainly means that theologically trained leaders, pastors, diaconal ministers, deaconesses, associates in ministry, need to be working with any lay people who are preparing children's sermons. I believe this about ongoing theological education for and with those with teaching ministries in the congregation as well, of course.

3. The name: “Children's sermon” implies children don't listen to the "real" sermon. And there are those adults who proudly say "I got the most out of the children's sermon." "Children's time" assumes that's the only time the pastor or caring adults spend with children, or that being in front is the only place of worship. So, name? Maybe the problem with the name reveals the problem with the concept.

4. All of the above has been speaking to "Whose is the child?" Certainly the child is a person created by God, beloved by Christ and filled with the Spirit. The child does not belong to the parent. The child, all children, are children of the whole congregation. And seeing children as special enough to be seen and heard in church is very important. I do not mean to diminish that. Likewise the caring congregation needs always to be reaching out to children from the neighborhood and beyond. How does our comprehensive ministry of the Word do that? And how does the place of the child in Sunday worship do that?

5. "Who is the child" asks the very, very important developmental question. The fact that I have come to that last means it is not of least but of utmost importance. I think it would be great for those who work with education and worship to take time to learn more about child development, particularly about concrete reasoning and abstract concept. And, while you are at it, talk about the problems with asking, "Guess what I'm thinking" questions. This kind of adult education would be helpful for the whole range of ministry among children.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

The Risk of Love

Jon Larson, co-president of the senior class of Wartburg Seminary, 2010, gave a commencement response which included these words, ever more poignant, because he was in Haiti in January, surviving the earthquake in which his cousin, dear friend, and classmate, Ben, died.

Jon spoke of beginning a new journey, "a journey where we are equipped, guided and guarded by the Holy Spirit, but more than that, where we are now a part of each other. As we leave this place with our hearts full of all kinds of emotions, we also leave here with love for one another in our hearts. We are forever yoked together for strength in sharing the burdens and the accomplishments to come in the future. Even though we are not side by side, we can feel the love as we hold each other up in prayer, as we are a listening ear, and--if we are lucky--as we still feel the impression of a hug.

"We are bonded together and guided today by love. Love is oh so risky! We know this all too well. We are surrounded by individuals and communities who have risked much: those present in this room, those in our lives, and those absent. Love is indeed risky because in fully giving of ourselves in love we risk changing through the love of the other. Risking in love can be pain-full and can also be joy-filled, and it is everything in between. That is exactly what we are called to do: risk everything in love. We risk because we believe and proclaim that God has first loved us, giving us all we need, and Christ is our ultimate example of love.

"So we ask: "Will we risk? Will we love the people we are called to serve with all our being?" YES..we will, with the help of God." Brothers, and sisters, that is how we walk into the world."

Malcolm Ridgeway has been a friend of mine since the days when our families were neighbors in Detroit years ago. For the past eleven years he has been in prison and we have written many, many letters to one another: Living Epistles one might call them. Malcolm reminds me of the Apostle Paul because he carries on a ministry among the men as pastor, preacher, teacher, social worker, counselor and friend. A recent letter began:

"I pray that God's grace continues to abound in and through you. You hear God's call, 'Here I am Lord, send me.' We are fellow laborers in God's vineyard. I pray that God sends more laborers because the harvest is ripe."

In these years he has been moved around from Detroit, to a prison in rural Michigan, then to Muskegan, and now back to Detroit. He says, "I am once again in Detroit. I am overjoyed. If I have to be incarcerated, I'd much rather be here, close to family. I hate that they had to make that long drive to see me. I dearly miss the men I left in Muskegan. I developed some friendships that will last me a lifetime. It's like that every time I leave a prison. I'm like Joselph. Everywhere I go God's favor rests upn me and I meet people with whom I connect and in no time at all it's like we've known each other all our lives. But it was time to move on. Guys here leave and go home everyday, so there will be a lot of opportunities to put something on their minds as they head for the streets again. I give thanks to God for the people God has placed in my life. God is an awesome God."

Recently, after I had shared with Malcolm some of my own journeys away from Wartburg, he said, "I pray that God continues to open doors for you." To hear those words from a man in prison was amazing!

We are called, called together, to love, to risk, and to move on. Sometimes we have a say in where we are called. Sometimes we do not. Sometimes doors are open. Sometimes they are not. Sometimes they are locked. Sometimes we face life. Sometimes we face death. But God leads on the journey, on the risk of love.

To assist you in your journey of faith, I invite you to click on to "Grace and Peace to You: A Yearlong Devotional Journey Through the Epistles"

Saturday, May 1, 2010


How did my little 4-year-old legs climb all those stairs through the courtyards of Windsor Terrace apartments from Ingersoll to Grand Avenue? I remember my mother, my sister and I climbed up that steep hill home from the bus when we lived on Lincoln Court during the first few years of my life in Des Moines, Iowa. I climbed those many stairs again the last day of my journey home from Colorado and Nebraska. Why did I want to climb those stairs? The little bungalow is no longer there. The land is now part of Des Moines University. I guessed students now lived in Windsor Terrace.

Why does one look for, long for, "home" when even the house no longer exists? I have been on the road for eight weeks now, spending March teaching in Sweden and during April lecturing, preaching and leading workshops in many congregations in Colorado and Nebraska. Long drives allow one to count and take stock. I figured I have lived 17 places during my lifetime. And then I counted that the various places I have stayed these past two months added up also to the number 17. I can see each one of them in my mind's eye. Each in their own way was "home" if for 15 years or for only a night or two.

I lived in only two different places until I was 11, when my father died. And then we moved around a bit. By the time I left "home" (meaning my mother's house) in Mason City, Iowa, after graduating from community college, there had been six. We had owned none of them, always renting a bungalow, duplex or apartment. And then there were the young adult years of Valparaiso University, my first call in St. Louis, graduate school and Burton's first call, back teaching in Valparaiso: five more. During Burton's many years of pastoral ministry we have lived in six homes, three of which were church parsonages, and three of which we owned ourselves. Does that add up to 17? I think so. Oh, I could very well add the apartment at Iliff School of Theology in Denver where I lived for six months during my Ph.D. residency. That was actually the only place I lived by myself. I think it's important to do so at sometime in one's life, to discover who one really is.

Are the houses and apartments where you have lived still there? Can you see them? Do you recall feelings of joy and loss, struggles and accomplishment while you lived there? Whom did you love? Who loved you? Who is no longer alive? Who shared your life for a brief time? A long time? Who sat at your table in those places you called home? What strangers did you welcome there? During these past two months we stayed in Swedish hotels with Scandinavian decor a school/retreat center, and in a l000 year old parsonage. (Burton traveled with me.)

In Colorado and Nebraska I stayed 8500 feet high in Vail where homes are measured in the millions and out in the country in a parsonage of a four-point parish in rural Western Nebraska. I, traveling alone, was privileged to visit Wartburg Seminary graduates I have taught 5, 15, 20 and 25 years ago. And I learned at their tables, the tables in their kitchens and the tables of the altars in their churches. In each place people are "at home" whether the congregation has 2000 members or 25. I can see each one in my mind's eye. I heard about joys and losses, struggles and accomplishments. I, the stranger, was welcomed and loved. I give thanks for Christ who welcomes us all to each of those tables and in whom we find our home. And, as I go home to my office at Wartburg Seminary, where so many people through the years continue to "find Norma" I give thanks for that home, and for Christ's call that leads me, and all of us on all kinds of journeys. I have learned much in these past eight weeks. And I also hear the voice of Pastor Randy Fett, as I completed my last speaking engagement, "Norma, continue to teach."

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

The Leadership of Collaboration

Yesterday it was a second page story and today it's on page 5 of the morning paper. And it didn't lead the evening news last night either. Why? Why is the fact that leaders of 47 nations gathering for two days in Washington, D.C. at the invitation of President Obama not headline news? And, for that matter why was the top headline, "Armstrong attacks Obama Space plans?" (I'm looking at "USA Today" the paper available in my motel in Denver)

A nuclear weapon killing hundreds of thousands would have caught our fickel attention. The question is more than the phenomenon of "If it bleeds it leads." The long, hard work of collaboration is not seen as strong leadership.

During the second afternoon of the two-day Nuclear Security Summit, I was sitting around a table with a church staff quietly planning collaboratively, and giving attention to the careful, courageous leadership necessary to work collaboratively.
A conflict ripping the congregation apart would have caught our attention.

Why is it that leading in a collaboratively style is seen as weak? Collaboration is desperately needed, both in congregations and in the global community. And it is possible and can be learned.

Page 9 of the morning paper reported a story describing how lawmakeres rarely work together today. "They merely find convenient allies, i.e. lobbyists--in order to get anything done."

In a competitive society, "attack" is strong. Listening is weak. In a dangerous world, or when things become dangerous within the church, secret meetings, taking sides, tear down reigns. What is needed is careful, open collaboration.

What is the leadership of collaboration? Do we recognize and respect it when we see it? No, it is not "anything goes." That's abdication. Nor is it taking control and keeping control at any cost. That's authoritarianism.

It's setting and maintaining a trustworthy environment. It's having each one speak themselves present. It's encouraging and uplifting the contributions of all at each stage of planning, gently modeling how to bring out a hesitant person's or a small nation's ideas while helping a more dominant one to relinquish the floor. Collaboration is hard work. It will take months or years. In this instant gratification world we want fast decisions and quick results. Co-labor is hard and needs to be sustained by ongoing mutual accountability.

That's what I saw going on around the table yesterday at Abiding Hope Lutheran Church in Littleton,Colorado. That's what I saw going on at the Nuclear Security Summit.

Saturday, April 3, 2010

King's Death an Easter Challenge

Martin Luther King Jr. died on April 4, 1968, at the age of 39. His was a Lenten death. This year April 4 begins the Easter season. We are challenged once again, 42 years later, to pick up the call to work for justice, particularly the unfinished business of calling out on behalf of people who are poor, to ask why does the United States incarcerate more citizens than any nation in the world, particularly people of color, and to carry out our vocation of seeking a just and peaceful world. These are resurrection challenges!

I write this the day between Good Friday and Easter Sunday, the Saturday when Christ lay in the tomb and disciples were confused and afraid. Walmart promises "Easter costs less at Walmart." What kind of an Easter dare they think they are selling?

This Saturday is a heavy day, and yet a day to prepare for the Easter season journey. "Why do you seek the living among the dead?" "Go, tell the disciples that he is going ahead of you to Galilee."

I, like most of us, am perplexed, unsure, confused. Where is Christ leading us? I, like most of us, live between Lent and Easter, and yet Christ calls us forth.

I am packing my bags this day to head out again, this time not overseas but to various speaking engagements in Colorado and Nebraska. So that you will know where I am:

April 4 (with Burton) Bergen, Rowland, Iowa
April 10 and 11 Bethel, Aurora, Colorado
April 13 and 14 Abiding Hope, Littleton, Colorado
April 17 and 18 Mount of the Holy Cross, Vail, Colorado
April 20 Our Savior's, Greeley, Colorado
April 23 Lodgepole, Chappell and Oshkosh, Nebraska
April 24 and 25 St. John, Alliance, Nebraska
April 28 St. Paul's Grand Island, Nebraska

I go because circumstances warrant such travel. I go because I have been invited. I need to remember that it is Christ who calls us forth to vocations in the public world because the work of justice is not done. This year we remember Martin Luther King's work on Easter Sunday....and every day thereafter. Blessings on the journey.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Punctuality and Pedagogs

We have been hosted so very graciously and well while teaching in Sweden. Particularly notable to me (since I love people being on time)is the impecable punctuality. Since we do not know Swedish and we are being met and handed off to the host at the next diocese or theological institution, we are totally in the hands of the Swedish people. We have a list, and then precisely at the appointed time the next host appears. Likewise I am using a variety of teaching styles throughout the day, interspersed with Fika (coffee breaks...a word they insisted I learn) I am continually surprised and appreciative when the group automatically returns to the room at the appointed time. Now this may seem insignicant, but it coincides with my commitment to mutual accountability. People in Iowa are punctual, too. I'm not comparing. I'm simply appreciative and saying punctuality assists learning community.

Our host in Stockholm is Rune Larsson, from whom I received the invitation to come to Sweden. One would have thought that I as a Lutheran would have been invited by the Lutherans. Rather, the connection is ecumenical. Rune, who is with the Covenant Church had read my book "The Church as Learning Community" which was published by a Methodist publisher (Abingdon). We became acquainted through the Religious Education Association, an international, interfaith professional organization. While in Sweden, of course, most of the participants are Lutheran, part of the Swedish Lutheran Church. So our assocations ecumenically often lead us full circle back to our own communion. On our first Sunday we worshipped with the central Covenant church in Stockholm, which was a wonderful experience, a vital church with mission outreach. In many ways it was very similar to Lutheran worship in the States. The Covenant Church in Sweden may have more in common with the ELCA than with the Swedish Covenant church in the United States.

Thinking about being the church, whether the "established" church in a country, or county, or being the one who is different leads to important questions about being a Christian in the world and in one's own daily life. Nineteen years ago we visited the Lutheran Church in Namibia, shortly after independence, the 20th anniversary of which Wartburg Seminary in Dubuque is celebrating at this time. The question the Namibians posed while we were there was, "How do we be the church when those in ruling power are no longer the enemy, but we can now be in official leadership?"

The Lutheran Church is no longer the officially established church of Sweden. So what is its role now? And what can we learn from the small churches in Sweden, the Covenant,the Baptist, and the even smaller Methodist church? While we are here they are meeting to take the next steps in joining together, along with choosing a name which may be something like "Community Church." What is our calling, our vocation, in the public world as various churches at various points in history?

Meanwhile, we hear news from the States that the Texas school board has passed a series of resolutions to change the curicuulum in Texas schools. This has implications for the entire country since many textbooks for public scools across the nation are published in Texas. The nation is now to be portrayed not as pluralistic but as Judeo
Christian. The nation will be described not so much as a democracy but as a republic with an emphases on capitalistic corporations shaping young people. The USA is to be seen as a exceptional nation in the world with an exceptionalist role to play. There are more resolutions. The role of the Civil Rights movement is to be downplayed.

Although in the USA there is no state church, what do these measures mean for teaching about the nation and about a certaian kind of Christianity's place in the nation?

All of us at each point in time need to continue to discern the church's vocation in the public world.

One more story about teaching and learning. We took a train to Gothenburg. Some (including ours) are still being cancelled because of snow on the tracks. We took a train an hour later (ah, the convenience of public transportation). We were greeted warmly by yet another host, Annika Broman. I sat in the front of a taxi while she and Burton got in the back. They were surprised when a taxi driver popped in the back seat with them. It seems he was the teacher for the new driver in the front. We were glad the teacher was there in the evening traffic. Interestingly, the next day when once again Annika took us by taxi, another man popped into the back seat with her and Burton. This time we discovered the learner was watching while the teacher was driving the cab. He new man told us clearly that before he could be at the stage of driving himself he has to observe his teacher. Annika and I were delighted at this one more example of informal teaching/learning communities all around us in which we daily partipate.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Candles and Cucumber Sandwiches

Just a few brief words about one person's impressions of our experience in Sweden (experience is always personal...and cannot be generalized.)

Not all Swedes are blonds
but I have never seen so many houses painted golden yellow. Against the bright blue sky, they remind one of their flag, and they brighten the long grey days.
Yes, most of the sports we see in our TV in our room are cross country on the snow
Children are well bundled and wear helmets outside our room to play on the hills because the snow is very icy. We watch our step.
Where to put the mounds of snow, one or two stories hight? Not in the sea, they say, so they are trucking it to the woods. One cannot count on it melting soon,

No sweets. Coffee breaks are cucumber sandwiches on dark bread with a little cheese. Hearty food and healthy.

Warm people who care for us well, tending us and handing us off to yet a new person as we go forth to speak and teach...and a new location. This afternoon it will be a train ride to Gothenberg.

There are candles on the table at every meal, including breakfast.
Lit candles to bring the light in a land yet filled with snow.
But, we here, like those at home in the United States, will celebrate the spring equinox together.


Saturday, March 13, 2010

Bicyles in the Snow

I write from Sweden. We--husband Burton and I--arrived at the Arlanda airport, half way between Stockholm and Uppsala last Monday evening. After our long winter of Iowa ice and snow, we had worried a blizzard might hinder our leaving Dubuque, but it was Sunday fog that caused the plane from Chicago to simply circle overhead and head back for Chicago without landing. Burton quickly rented a car and we, plus two other stranded passengers, took off, making our l0 p.m. flight from Ohare to London.

We were greeted by a taxi which took us to Uppsala. Sweden, too, had had one of the longest, coldest winters in decades. The piles of snow still a meter high everywhere do not stop people, particularly students at the university, from traveling on their bicycles. On Tuesday, guided by our host, Berne Persliden, we walked to the cathedral which he told us is the largest Lutheran cathedral in Scandinavia. Begun in the 12th century, it retains its original beauty. Our eyes rose to the magnificent height; I also noticed out of the corner of my eye as we went by the chapel behind the altar, a woman, dressed plainly, standing there. When the Reformation came to Sweden, the statue for the veneration of Mary had been removed from the chapel. The woman, so lifelike one had to look twice to see she was a statue, is “Mary returned.” In her eyes one can see all women.

I was invited to Sweden to lecture at four locations, primarily on my book, “The Church as Learning Community,” and also on lifelong faith formation, leadership and ministry in daily life. The first was Johannelunds teologiska hogskola in Uppsala. What a amazing joy Wednesday morning at 8:30 to see 170 students (half the seminary) come for the lectures, most studying to be Lutheran priests, and also those who will become diaconal ministers and educators. Their attentiveness all day (we ended at 3:30) for my four lectures, small group discussion in Swedish, and a panel of eight students interacting with me, they in Swedish and I in English, was most gratifying. We dealt with ecclesiology and various images of soteriology. Many said they had not thought before about everyone being a teacher and a learner. They were concerned about ordinary people being intimidated by teaching authority. They wanted to know more about “starting from the other direction,” where people are in their daily lives. I give thanks for them and for that full and wonderful day.

The next day was equally long and challenging when I gave four lectures to priests and educators of the diocese of Uppsala, just six blocks from our hotel. No, we didn’t ride bicycles; we walked. The church in Sweden, of course, had been a state church. My interest in issues of church and state led me to many questions about the Lutheran church now since disestablishment in 2000. Still most Swedes belong to the church, but membership does not translate into regular worship or regular lifelong learning. This day the lectures and conversation were different, but the gracious hospitality of Nina Carlsson Garloev and Bertil Murray and the receptiveness of the group to the topics was no less. They of course know English well, but still it is a challenge to listen all day in English and to stay engaged. I tried of course to speak clearly; I could see connection in their eyes when we dealt with issues of power and partnership and authority, working from the book by Craig Nessan and myself, “Transforming Leadership.” The topics from both books merge when we talk about “setting trustworthy environments for us to be different together.”

Karl-Eric Tysk, a priest and scholar whom I knew when he was a student of ours in a D.Min. program at the University of Dubuque, brought us north to Storvic and Kungsgarden where we have been staying for two nights in his rectory, a very large home built in medieval times and brought up to date in the l9th century. He has a pastorate of two parishes which combined have five churches and l0,000 members. Services are held in each church every other Sunday. Sweden, like Finland and Estonia, is today a very secular country; the church is important as part of the heritage.

We worshipped with some of the 35 staff at the beginning of their Friday work and I told them how the Wartburg community would be gathering for worship also on Friday morning. We attended a small village funeral where Karl-Eric spoke the Word with warmth and dignity to the family in attendance. He then drove us further on to visit a most beautiful part of Sweden with lakes and mountains. The snow itself is piled high like small mountains. But the bright sun promises that spring will come.

Today we go to Stockholm for more lectures at the central event for which we were invited. Burton, also, will give a lecture on the use of media. Later in the week we go to Gothenberg.

Monday, March 1, 2010

Chapel with Marilyn

“Lead me, guide me, along the way,” begins the well known hymn. Last Wednesday Marilyn Robinson, a second year Master of Divinity student here at Wartburg Seminary, and I were privileged to lead the Wartburg community in the Wednesday morning communion service. Faculty take turns preaching and presiding at worship and students assist in planning and leading daily chapel. Nothing was unusual in that regard.

I frequently quote theologian Letty Russell, a mentor of mine and many others from Yale Divinity School, when she wrote, that Jesus did not say to the blind person, “You can walk,” nor to the person who could not walk, “You can see.” Jesus met people in their need and also cared about societal problems related to those human needs.

Letty's words remind me that each of us is unique in our need and that our ministry to people should to be specific to their individual needs.

Chapel with Marilyn last week bore that out and took me one step further. Marilyn has problems with sight and I, because I live with the chronic illness CFS, have difficulty standing. So together, and with the guidance of sacristan Gloria Stubitsch, we had to figure out how to lead that day in a way that would honor Wartburg's liturgical tradition, and be possible for each of us. We talked. Because we would be seated in the chancel and the lectern and communion table are down on the floor in the midst of the people, we wondered how Marilyn would move down the steps. I could guide her, walking with my cane, but she suggested putting blue tape on the edge of each of the three stairs so she could see them better. And she would need large print for the first biblical text and the parts of the liturgy she would lead.

I need to sit as much as I can. I could stand with assistance of my cane while she held the large worship book. She would guide the people as to the appropriate times to sit and stand; I said “Just don't watch me. I quietly sit at those times and no one seems to notice if you are guiding them clearly.” Likewise I need a stool upon which to sit to preach and hand out the communion bread. I have done that for years and while I at first thought it would be a distraction to the community, I have discovered, here at Wartburg and other places I preach, that it actually communicates hospitality to those with a variety of disabilities.

So, we were moving along well in our planning, becoming partners. So much so, that soon I almost forgot whose need was which. “Oh yes, I don't need the large print for the Gospel lesson...that's your need.” And Marilyn found that she could easily see the stool I needed at the lectern. “I don't need to sit on the stool but it won't be in my way.” As our needs intermingled, our help for each other intertwined. Soon we were all laughing together!

The day of worship came. With prayer, careful planning and in partnership we were able to lead together. While some may have thought (and think!) that we would have needed others to lead in our stead, the service moved along with grace and dignity. The assisting minister usually prepares the table and pours the wine into the chalice, but I did that since Marilyn was not sure she could see well enough to pour well. I stood while at the altar, but raised one hand in blessing while simply holding on to the table with my other hand. Another team member, a communion assistant, moved my stool from the lectern to the place for distribution while people shared the peace. Marilyn and I took one another's arm, as needed, she to steady my body and I to guide where she could not see. I sang the Eucharistic liturgy and Marilyn, with her rich voice, led from memory the hymns (including also, “I Want Jesus to Walk with Me) from her African-American heritage.

One could say, “No one noticed,” these small measures and be accurate. No one seemed to think the service any different than usual. On the other hand, perhaps it is good if some did notice so that they might conclude, “All the people of God can participate in and take their role in leading worship.” Gloria said afterward, I had tears in my eyes as we sang together, “Lead me, guide me along the way.” I felt Letty's presence too. Christ meets each of us where we are and asks, “What do you want me to do for you?” and then calls us to follow him as servant leaders.