Saturday, December 28, 2013

Christmas is Not Over; the Work of Christmas has Just Begun

President Barack Obama and his family were to have returned early from Hawaii to Washington for fiscal-cliff talks (they didn't; however, the constant wording that they were on “vacation” bewildered me. I mean, when families, (such as mine) came from the warm Southwest to frigid, snowy Iowa for Christmas, the place they grew up, they don’t tell their friends they are going “on vacation.” So why, every year, are the Obamas “on vacation” when they return to the place of Baracks’ birth for Christmas.

And yes, almost every year, someone feels his “vacation” needs to be “cut short” because of business. Not that the work of being president does not go with him wherever he goes, and not that most of us don’t go back to work shortly after our particular religious holiday, but there’s often a “crisis” that stops President Obama from having the rest he needs for the responsibilities he carries.

But he is portrayed as being “on vacation” rather than celebrating Christmas in a state where many consider he was not even born. And some of these same people declare there has been a war on Christmas for the past few years.

I wonder. . . . Who won the war this year? Or was there a war at all?  If so, perhaps it was not an assault from the outside, but apathy from the inside.  Perhaps we could measure the outcome by how quickly many (most of whom were not called back thousands of miles to handle a work crisis) “cut short” or literally threw away Christmas. We need to be clear, this is a pluralistic country.  For many, many people, Christmas is not a religious holiday and should not be imposed as a “decoration” or “consumer” requirement.  But for Christians, I noticed trash was piled up at the curb the next day when it was not even trash pick-up day. 

December 25 is the first of 12 days of Christmas, coming to a conclusion with Epiphany on January 6. Time to celebrate, remember, worship as well as live our daily lives. There were, of course, those whose main belief was conspicuous gift-giving consumption, or, rather, purchase- on-sale-competition and, on the 26th the Ritual of Return.

But at a deeper level, churches were full.  Families did re-unite.  I heard small children listen to the Christmas story and sing more verses of carols than they thought they knew, because they had been hearing them all their lives.  And I saw these same children knowledgeably select chickens, ducks, fruit tree seedlings, and health care kits from Unicef and Lutheran World Relief and ELCA  gift catalogs to give to children around the world, because, this, too, they had been doing each year since they were old enough to choose by pointing their little finger to a gift catalog picture and say, “duck.”

Christmas, I believe, was more than a vacation for the Obama family, and more than a vacation for many families. And while work calls many of us back, Christmas need not be over.  I want to go back to when President Obama lit the National Christmas tree December 6.

He said, “For 91 years, the National Christmas Tree has stood as a beacon of light and a promise during the holiday season.  During times of peace and prosperity, challenge and change, Americans have gathered around our national tree to kick off the holiday season and give thanks for everything that makes this time of year so magical -- spending time with friends and family, and spreading tidings of peace and goodwill here at home and around the world. . .

"Each Christmas, we celebrate the birth of a child who came into the world with only a stable’s roof to shelter Him.  But through a life of humility and the ultimate sacrifice, a life guided by faith and kindness towards others, Christ assumed a mighty voice, teaching us lessons of compassion and charity that have lasted more than two millennia.  He ministered to the poor. He embraced the outcast.  He healed the sick.  And in Him we see a living example of scripture that we ought to love others not only through our words, but also through our deeds.

"It’s a message both timeless and universal -- no matter what God you pray to, or if you pray to none at all -- we all have a responsibility to ourselves and to each other to make a difference that is real and lasting.  We are our brother’s keeper.  We are our sister’s keeper.

"And so in this season of generosity, let’s reach out to those who need help the most. . .”

And so it is back to work. That’s clear. And President Obama is very clear. He clearly states that he is a Christian. And just as clearly says that this is a nation where many diverse people hold many beliefs and sets of values. Each of us, as we carry out our work in daily life, have responsibilities to our brothers and sisters here and around the world, and especially to those who need help the most.  

It’s too soon to throw out the tree and those words.  There’s work to be done.

Friday, December 6, 2013

A Letter to Malcolm in Prison on the death of Mandela

Dear Malcolm,
      I received your letter and wanted to respond now, after hearing of the passing of Nelson Mandela. You have been in prison so many years, Malcolm. You know I have kept your letters and the total fills many file folders.  And I know you have kept my letters, except for when you were moved to a different prison on a moment’s notice. Your words ring true, “Please don’t despair. We are linked in Spirit so at times words understood need not be spoken.”
     Yes, I see from the change of return address that you have been moved once again, and this time even further from your family, 4 ½ hours from home. “It seems like the closer I get to the door and the more good I try to do the worse things get for me.” Malcolm, I remind you of what you have done through the years while in prison. You counsel younger men coming in, you teach, help men with family problems and make sure they have what they need.  I rejoiced with you that in the past year you were able to become a leader in a program that helps men find new lives of peace and purpose once they leave prison. And, yes, I can just see you intervening on behalf of the young man to right the wrong done to him. I’m glad you were successful with the prison administration. I think they may have been fearful of you having that much influence and that may have resulted in your being transferred.
     I hear your words, Malcolm: “I am tired, Norma. I’m not about to quit, but I am tired.” Don’t quit, Malcolm. Even though I live so far away now, further than your family, I am encouraged by your words, “I still seek opportunities to do what I do and be who I am. I am able to teach some classes and assist men with getting their lives together.” Take courage, Malcolm.  Know that you are not alone, even though prison walls and distance separate us. You say that my words comfort you, Malcolm, but it is yours that strengthen me as you write, “My trust is in the God of Justice and grace and love and compassion and hope. It is because of this compassion that we are not consumed.”
     Nelson Mandela fought apartheid in South Africa and was imprisoned for it, coming out 27 years later to continue the struggle and then become president of his country.  He is said to have been the greatest leader of the second half of the 20th century. It would be easy to not see the man behind the icon. Those 27 years in prison took so much from him during the prime of his life.  You, more than I, Malcolm, know that.  The world watched as he came out of prison, not knowing what he would look like, not seeing even a picture, not knowing which direction he would turn and lead. And then we saw: towards “Truth and Reconciliation” which kept that country from being torn apart in violence and civil war as apartheid was ending.  And you, Malcolm, have participated in your own “truth and reconciliation” initiatives in prison, particularly a few years ago.
     President Obama described Mandela as, "one of the most influential, courageous and profoundly good human beings that any of us will share time with on this Earth. He no longer belongs to us; he belongs to the ages. Through his fierce dignity and unbending will to sacrifice his own freedom for the freedom of others, Madiba transformed South Africa and moved all of us. His journey from a prisoner to a president embodied the promise that human beings and countries can change for the better."
      Malcolm, we know that South Africa continues to face its own struggles and that the United States is not a post-racial society, not when with “The New Jim Crow” such a large percentage of black men are incarcerated. And the gap between rich and poor grows. Mandela worked to free and reconcile oppressed and oppressor. We aren’t there yet, are we Malcolm? But, here we are, over 40 years after our families, one white and one black, lived around the block from each other in Detroit. Nothing can separate us. You closed your letter with, “Give my love to the rest of the family. Take care of yourself and make sure you get some rest.”  I will. And, Malcolm, I received the picture your mom sent of you, Greg and her when they visited you last month.  I’m glad they could make it that far. You look good. The years in prison can’t take that away. Keep on keeping on. God’s strength.

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Who Is at the Front of the Room? “Higher” Education

Picture this scene at Wartburg Theological Seminary where I am blessed to teach.  Classes start early.  Alert, eager, engaged, we dig into studies together. Although I may sit at the front of the room, ten minutes into the hour, it’s not just my wisdom students copy down, but some new theological insight we discover together that none of us would have thought of on our own.  Next is chapel, followed by time in the refectory  to connect. One hears a buzz about global concerns, new student projects, meetings. By noon conversation has turned into action perhaps in the Dubuque community, perhaps in the broader church and world. 

Learning together, life together, all over the place.  Yes, students respect the faculty.  Likewise faculty respect students, their ideas, gifts and experiences.
Wartburg is a strong academic institution. And a strong learning community. The two go together. When any environment is merely hierarchical, assuming knowledge is inside only one person--the professor/teacher, pastor/priest-- teaching and learning are limited.
Appropriate teaching authority lies in setting the stage for people, the body of Christ Christians would say, to be learning around the Word of God together.

Only God is the Almighty One, so for me to “Lord it over” my students (Oh, did I say “my”?) is to confuse roles. That is not to say we professors abdicate our responsibility to teach, and to read, research, and publish. And there’s accountability, mutual accountability.  But students do not write a paper merely for the professor, rather, as adult learners, they study, read and write for their own growth and therefore learn in order to serve as ministerial leaders in the church and world.
Teaching and learning in community is extraordinarily challenging.  It’s much easier to deliver a lecture or preach a sermon while others remain quiet, “at our feet,” so to speak. But Jesus taught “on the way,” on the road, in the midst of people’s real lives, real needs. He interacted with them.

We are called to teach, believing the Holy Spirit resides in each person. That opens us to receive a student’s new insight, questions, comments, living examples. We learn from those whom others might discount.  We learn across gender, socio-economic, racial boundaries. 

No one student is at the head of the class. In fact, the shape of the class and learning itself changes. Amazing what we can learn together. This is higher education.

Saturday, October 19, 2013

Ways We Try to Justify Our Traditions: Sports and Beyond

The debate about whether the Washington Redskins should bow to pressure to change its name will continue as long as we as a nation fail to see the difference between trying to justify traditions and recognizing the real deep-seated problems which keep us all in bondage. The issue goes beyond the Washington team and beyond football; however it is something we can dare to address together.  Listen to recent conversation points about the Redskins’ name, hear echoes of other issues, and consider alternatives:

Ways we try to justify our actions and ourselves:

·         “The team is 8l years old. Why didn’t anyone object until now?” All sorts of objectionable behaviors remain through the years, becoming “time-honored” traditions. We need to understand the history of the United States which tried for decades to either assimilate or annihilate indigenous peoples. Severely oppressed groups lack power to object and when they do, their objections are rarely heard.

·         “It’s only a name.” Names signify who we are. “I am somebody,” was the cry of the Civil Rights movement. And so a people refused to be recognized as Negroes, but named themselves Blacks and then African-Americans. And women chose “Ms.” Group after group has refused labels.  Making a woman a sex object, or a “colored person” a yard decoration, or one of the over 550 distinct Native American tribes a mascot, dehumanizes them. We are beginning to realize the pain and the lethal danger of name-calling and bullying. It’s never “only a name,” when one uses another’s name, image or body.  

·         “I am not a racist.” Racism, sexism, classism, heterosexism and all other “isms” are not simply a matter of saying one remark or even one name, but systemic issues with deep roots. We, our stereotypes, prejudices and fears, are all entwined. We need to continually root out the weeds that will crop up anew in every generation.  “I am not. . . .” is rampant self-justification. Far better to recognize our need to shed our fears and defenses and truly seek to understand one another. Only then will all be free of bondage.

·         “Most people are not offended.” No matter. In fact that attempt at justification ranks right up there with, “It’s all in fun,” or in terms of sexist remarks, “Can’t you take a joke?” Or, “Why do we have to be politically correct?” Whenever people give that self-justifying response, I quickly realize, “They just don’t get it.”  They don’t yet understand it is not a matter of trying to not offend someone. It’s not a matter of “being a (little) more sensitive.”  It is a matter of trying hard to understand the deep underlying issues so that we can all come to a higher level of respect for each other’s personhood, history and culture.

·         “We have permission of Native tribes.” People give “permission” for many reasons.  Perhaps because they are forced to, forced off their land, forced to give in for fear of losing their jobs or their homes, forced to let someone assault, abuse and control their bodies for fear of losing their lives.  I cannot speculate, and I cannot judge, but I can ask. “What does ‘giving permission’ really mean to everyone involved?”

·         “There are other awful ones, too. Some are worse.”  The essence of self-justification is finding someone who does something worse than I do.  Another response is, “Everybody does it.” Unfortunately, the practice of using names of Native Americans for team sports has been everywhere.  It’s hard to count them all.  Add to that the thousands of names and words from Native American tribes that have become names of towns and streets and rivers and parks. So, what is one to do? Think! Research! Remember! Discover! Ask! The number of teams that have changed their names and logos is a major start. And news sources that have decided to use, “Washington’s pro football team” instead of the “Redskins” is an example.  This can become, with courage, a movement, not just to be “sensitive,” but to be part of a new way of being Americans together.

·         “Native Americans are honored.”  Simply saying another is honored is to ignore how the other may actually feel. For decades we “honored” women by keeping them “happy,” at home, “on a pedestal,” “sheltered,” away from the public world where they could use all of their gifts. Likewise we kept “happy Negroes” as slaves. Hmm…  To honor is to repent from a shameful history of conquest of native peoples and their lands. To honor is to move from ignorance to knowledge of the people behind the names of streets and rivers and towns. To honor is to address grievances of ignored peoples. To honor is to hear and respect the great history, tradition, legacy and presence of native people who say, “We are Americans.”

Only one justifies: Jesus the Christ, in whom we have freedom to look deeply at the traditions which keep people in bondage, repent, and change.

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

"Of Course!" Reflections on the Installation of Elizabeth Eaton

Presiding Minister Mark S. Hanson blesses newly installed ELCA Presiding Bishop Elizabeth A. Eaton.
Of course. People were gathering for “Holy Communion with the Installation of the Presiding Bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America,” Elizabeth A. Eaton, in Rockefeller Chapel, University of Chicago. Oct. 5, 2013, was a historic day but it felt more like a joyful, “Of course.”
As the magnificent organ swelled with Bach and Britten, hundreds came on line to watch the live video. A bagpiper played “St. Patrick’s Breastplate” while the ELCA Church Council, bishops, ecumenical and global partners processed. Paris Brown sang Dottie Rambo’s gospel favorite, “I Go to the Rock.”
The bells of the great chapel pealed. The time was now. Choirs, many singers from Augustana College, Rock Island, Ill., grand piano and drums, everyone sang, “Come, all you people, come … .” The Lutheran church is a global church.
Then still Presiding Bishop Mark Hanson welcomed those in the chapel and online in the name of Christ and said, “We have come together from many places to mark a new season of ministry in the life of this church … Let us enter this celebration confident that through the Holy Spirit, Christ is present with us now, as we pray that this servant may fulfill God’s purpose in her life and in her ministry among the whole people of God.”
Of course!
I have been invited to write this reflection in personal historical context. Many stories came together on this one day. I invite you to reflect on your own.
I heard those churchwide words of welcome and remembered my pastor saying one day in confirmation class when I as a youth was new to the Lutheran church, “Of course women cannot be pastors,” adding in a hushed tone, “They have babies.” But that same pastor helped me go to college.
Less than a decade after that first “of course,” while attending Concordia Seminary, St. Louis, one of two women among 800 men, I heard from my homiletics professor, “Of course you cannot preach. You are a woman. Your assignment will be an ‘inspirational address’.” But I did receive an “A” in the course (before The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod turned radically to the “right” theologically) and graduated with a Master of Arts in religion in 1964. I served in deaconess ministry in St. Louis, and then for over a dozen years with our family in inner city ministry in Detroit (I preached one day at Concordia College, Ann Arbor — while pregnant) and New Haven, Conn. The degree provided a Lutheran foundation for later pursuing a Masters of Divinity from Yale Divinity School, (and still later a Ph.D.) and an invitation to teach at Yale.
Meanwhile, in the early 1970s we were exiled from the The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod over issues of more open interpretation of Scripture and more inclusive mission and ministry. Although I served on the board of Seminex, I heard an implied “of course just some of us are free,” when told in regards to women’s ordination, “Can’t you wait a few more years?”
The American Lutheran Church and the Lutheran Church in America had begun ordaining women in 1970 and the Association of Evangelical Lutheran Churches would follow a few years later. Women kept responding to God’s call, even when churches through the ages said, “Can’t you wait a few more years, decades, centuries?”
There were all kinds of fears and barriers in the 1970s in reaction to women being ordained as pastors in Lutheran and other church bodies: “Jesus was a man; women cannot represent Jesus.” “If we ordain women, all the men will leave the church.” “What will happen to your children?” (They turned out fine, thank you.) “These women are Communists.”
Of course there were fears, but they were unfounded. Women did not want to take over the church or push out men. Women’s goal was inclusion and partnership, not hierarchical power.
On Oct. 5, 2013, with the welcoming words of Bishop Mark Hanson and the entire ELCA, with brass horns, a procession with candles and cross made its way up the center aisle to welcome Bishop Elizabeth Eaton at the door of the chapel. Red banner ribbons furled overhead. Signers were singing. Everyone proclaimed, “Christ is made the sure foundation.” I saw historian Martin Marty’s face in the crowd.
Vice President Rodney Sprang and Secretary John Sleasman of the Northeastern Ohio Synod of the ELCA said, “We bring before you the Reverend Elizabeth Eaton who has served among us faithfully as our bishop, chief pastor, and sister in Christ … we send her forth to serve as the presiding bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.” There were tears in my eyes.
In Thanksgiving for Baptism we were reminded as sisters and brothers, “God frees us from the bondage of sin, unites us together as one body, and calls us forth to new life and mission in the world.” To the Canticle of Praise, Elizabeth was led into the chapel as the assembly was sprinkled with baptismal waters by Presiding Minister Mark Hanson, Preacher Jessica Crist and Assisting Minister Yolanda Tanner, vice-president of the ELCA Delaware-Maryland Synod.
The First Lesson, Isaiah 42:5-9, was read by Rev. Chienyu Jade Li in Chinese: “I have given you as a covenant to the people … To bring out from the prison those who sit in darkness …”
The soloist led in chanting Psalm 121, “My help comes from the Lord.”
Of course, of course.
“The lord will watch over you … from this time forth forever more.”
The Second Lesson, 2 Corinthians 4:1-12 was read by Dina Tannous Vega in Arabic. “Since it is by God’s mercy that we are engaged in this ministry, we do not lose heart …”
In the Gospel procession and acclamation, “Halle, Halle, Hallelujah,” global women’s voices sang, “How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of the messenger who announces peace, who brings good news, who announces salvation.”
Of course, of course.
Conrad Selnick, an Episcopal priest and husband of Bishop Elizabeth Eaton, read the Gospel, Mark 4:1-9.
Of course. Ecumenical partner and marriage partner, he represented ecumenical and full communion guests and family of Bishop Eaton this day as he also served communion.
At my ordination in 1977 in the chapel of Yale Divinity School, a very ecumenical setting, my husband, Burton Everist, a pastor, preached. Various people from all three predecessor bodies of the ELCA had tried to stop or impede my ordination. Roger Fjeld of the American Lutheran Church prevailed and presided at the ordination rite.
Just a few years before, July 29, 1974, Burton and I had attended the service where 11 women were “irregularly” ordained priests in The Episcopal Church in the Church of the Advocate in Philadelphia, with 2,000 in attendance. The ordinations were considered “invalid,” but one of the four bishops who participated said the ordination event “stands as a prophetic witness on behalf of and for the oppressed.” The service was interrupted by those who stood in opposition.
One of those 11 women participated in solidarity at my ordination at Yale three years later.
Two years after that Wartburg Seminary called me as a professor, first among the three American Lutheran Church seminaries to take the risk of calling a woman. In 1979, although one by one women were becoming pastors, other people were still using the Bible to claim that women could not be teaching theologians over men and could not assume any headship role because Eve had tempted Adam into sin and, “It is clear in the Bible that women can never rule or lead.” And, “We cannot use ‘inclusive language’ because God is male.” Of course!
But one young woman at the 1979 fall Warburg alumni convocation came up to me after I spoke and said, “I’ve been waiting years for you to come.” Her name was Andrea DeGroot Nesdahl. Now, 35 years later, I continue to teach at Wartburg Seminary. Challenges remain for us all to be the church God is calling us to be.
This October in Rockefeller Chapel at the University of Chicago, Jessica Crist, bishop of the ELCA Montana Synod, chair of the ELCA Conference of Bishops, preached. “A sower went out to sow.” She said this simple story could be modified, amplified, contextualized, but added that all were here today because someone sowed seeds. “Look at the plants that have grown.” She told the assembly that the impediments to success didn’t bother Jesus. She challenged, “You may be tired of rocky soil.” “You may be frustrated by thorns that accompany your every effort. What’s with it with those thorns? Why is there evil? Pain? Just keep on sowing. Does it seem birds keep eating seeds? Your words are twisted? Just keep on sowing. What matters is that we sow.”
And Crist added, that “We do not sow alone. We are part of a community. We are here to install, to sow in a wider field. Each is empowered. Each is sent. Go sow.”
The ELCA has come far since its beginning in 1988. Look at all the plants that have grown.
Representational principles adopted at the time, addressing representation of laity and people of color and whose first language was other than English, assured equal representation of women and men on boards and commissions and at synodical and churchwide assemblies. Beyond the more threatening token stage, overnight our ELCA gatherings looked, well, normal, just as God created us to be together.
But the Conference of Bishops began as an all-male group. I happened to be one of three teaching theologians to address the first Conference of Bishops meeting in 1988 and I told them it was not healthy, (perhaps I said “dangerous”) for the church and themselves that there were no women among them. I said other things, of course, about leadership as partnership, and about the liberation of men as well as women and about all the baptized being called out for vocation in the public world. At the time, there were worries that women might gain too much power. Whenever two of three of us sat together, almost always a man would come up and say, “We’ll have to break this up.” There were fears about “letting all ofthose people in” to change things and make decisions. But what was the fear? Inclusivity was not about breaking things, even “stained-glass ceilings,” but about new, healthy ways of being partners together. That’s why I was so pleased to see the September 2013 issue of The Lutheran magazine, with male and female bishops Mark Hanson and Elizabeth Eaton hand in hand.
Full partnership would come slowly, but it would come.
In the spring of 1992, Maria Jesper, minister in Hamburg, Germany, become the first woman elected a Lutheran bishop.
April Ulring Larson was installed Oct. 11, 1992, in La Crosse, Wis., as bishop of the La Crosse Area Synod of the ELCA. Andrea DeGroot-Nesdahl became the second woman elected an ELCA bishop, serving the South Dakota Synod.
Susan Johnson was elected the national bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada on Sept. 29, 2007, in Winnipeg. This past weekend she was among the global and ecumenical partners who came forth to lead in saying the Nicene Creed together and to lay on hands at the installation of the fourth bishop of the ELCA, Elizabeth Eaton: Lutheran churches of Canada, Nicaragua, Sweden, South Africa, the United Church of Christ, Moravian, Reformed, United Methodist, Episcopal, Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), the Church of Christ, Thailand, and The Lutheran World Federation.
“We believe in one holy, catholic and apostolic church …”
“Elizabeth Amy Eaton has been elected and called by the church, for installation into the office of presiding bishop.”
No objections voiced. No interruptions to the service. Nothing called irregular or invalid. No impediments. Historically speaking, this was much more than, “Of course.”
After biblical words from John, Matthew, Acts and 2nd Timothy, Elizabeth was asked, “To you is being given the care of the bishops, pastors, deaconesses, diaconal ministers and associates in ministry; the synods, congregations and other communities of this church. I ask you in the presence of God and of this assembly: Will you assume the office of presiding bishop?”
Elizabeth A. Easton responded: “I will, and I ask God to help me.”
More questions of her and then of us: “People of God, will you receive Elizabeth as a servant of God and a shepherd in the church of Jesus Christ?”
“We will.” The assembly joined in the Prayer of Thanksgiving to God: “By your Holy Spirit you sustain the church … Strengthen and sustain your bishop Elizabeth with patience and understanding … Pour out your grace that she may love and care for your people and teach the faith… .”
And after hearing, “The office of presiding bishop is now committed to you,” all were invited to extend their hands in blessing. People across the miles extended their hands too, some with tears in their eyes, seeing what few could have imagined not many years before but that which the Spirit had been guiding all along. Women had been there all along, from the time of the empty tomb, even if at first, their words were not believed.
The Prayers of Intercession were in many languages. It was clear we are a global church. Bishop Eaton was presented a cross: “Remember to rekindle the gift of God that is within you … .” Acclamation. Applause. Smiles! She shared the peace, “La paz de Cristo sea siempre con ustedes.”
And then, “Let us go now to the Banquet.”
Bishop Eaton and Assisting Minister Tanner were at the altar. We had always been so careful to not have two women at the altar together, but today it was just fine. Sure, most of the bishops are still men. But women and men served communion together today. Phyllis Anderson, the first and only ELCA woman seminary president represented them. There was Beth Lewis and Kalleb Miler and Karin Graddy and Carlos Pena, and more. The oldest and newest ELCA congregations were represented.
We need not be a danger to each other. “Taste and See, Taste and See That the Lord is Good” sang Larry Clark and Paris Brown.
After all had been fed, the assembly broke into “Blessed Assurance,” the old, old song with a new beat with clapping, and people swaying, even at the altar — not too much of course. “This is my story, this is my song.”
The Sending blessing was in Spanish, “The God of steadfastness and encouragement grant you to live in harmony with one another in accordance with Christ Jesus … .”
In just short of two hours, in full voice, the assembly went forth. God calls us out for vocation in the public world again. The recession was long, the Church Council, the bishops filing out from their pews two-by-two, many leaders together, not just one up front, to the music of the bagpipe’s “Highland Cathedral.” As newly installed ELCA Presiding Bishop Elizabeth Eaton left at the last, smiling, looking calm and confident, people waved. Applause. Full organ. “Now Thank We All Our God.” Of course!

Sunday, September 29, 2013

How Do We Turn Worry and Resignation Into Caring Enough to Change?

 So what’s there to worry about? The U.S. government may—or may not—shut down.  October 1 state exchanges for the Affordable Care Act open, but most Americans do not understand them. Scientists release a report with overwhelming evidence that human beings are causing Global Warming, but it’s a beautiful day outside.
When issues are immeasurably large and my daily life is what’s real to me, what do I dare worry, or care, about?

Friday afternoon my husband and I drove twenty minutes down the Mississippi River from Dubuque to Bellevue, enjoying the early fall beauty of the bluffs. After indulging in a dark chocolate ice cream cone we wandered up the main street. I noticed a woman sitting in a chair in the street—well, at the edge of the street. “What’s this about?” I wondered, until I spotted other people standing across the street. “There must be a parade coming,” I thought. I love parades! I asked the woman what time it would start. “Shortly,” she said.

We stayed. We joined in the Homecoming Parade, cheering on the Bellevue football team, the coaches in their lead car, the school board in theirs, the band, the king and queen. Then came the juniors’ and sophomores’ floats and even one carrying the middle school student council. We clapped even louder. Some moms, on their feet cheering, offered us their folding chairs. We became part of their community. Life was real and very local last Friday, even though we had been strangers an hour before.
Friday night The U.N. Security Council voted unanimously to secure and destroy Syria's chemical weapons stockpile.

President Barack Obama spoke by telephone with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, in what was the first communication between the leaders of the two countries since the Iranian Revolution in 1979. Afterwards Obama said, "Resolving this issue [Iran’s nuclear program] could serve as a major step forward in a new relationship between the United States and the Islamic Republic of Iran, one based on mutual interest and mutual respect."
That phone call took place Friday afternoon, about the time we were cheering on young people we didn’t know marching in a parade in Bellevue. We and they may have had more to cheer than any of us knew at that moment. Potential for the future, for all the world’s youth.

So what do we dare care about?
A week earlier my husband and I drove about twenty minutes north from Dubuque, this time into Wisconsin. We entered a store and commended the shop keeper for her “No guns allowed on the premises” sign on the door. I asked what reactions she had received and she replied that some people never noticed and some people laughed.  Laughed? Saddened, I reiterated my appreciation and told her of our fledgling Culture of Nonviolence Coalition in Dubuque. The next day in Dubuque I told a shop keeper about the sign and asked if she had considered one. She said, “It wouldn’t do any good. Gun laws won’t change in my lifetime.”

Resignation rather than daring to care and caring enough to change.  Government shut downs, global warming, mass shootings. This is the new normal. President Obama, speaking at the memorial after the Naval Yard mass shootings: “I fear there's a creeping resignation. That these tragedies are just somehow the way it is. That this is somehow the new normal.”

Both the cause and the result of resignation to the new normal is, “Just take care of yourself.” I expect the government to be there for me, until I personally am inconvenienced. I expected I could go about my daily life locally, safely, until one day I was not safe. Rather, what if I thought, “I need to care about the ongoing threat of government shut-downs and refusal to raise the debt ceiling for the sake of the rest of the people, including the world’s people.”? And, “I need to sign up for health care—and get a flu shot--for the sake of my neighbor.”
The disconnect between the personal and communal, between the local and global leaves us sitting in the street alone. We are the government. We are the human beings called to be stewards of the environment. In our lifetime, we can change things. We are actors in our own drama, participants in our neighbor’s parade.

One small group of obstinate people cannot really shut down the government any old time they want to  if we claim in the words of the Declaration of Independence, that “WE hold these truths…” and really do mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor.”
Clearly, we care. The question is do we care enough. I think we do. I think those middle school student council members riding in the Homecoming parade do. How can we help them and all of us really be “we the people,” that no one can shut down?

Reflect on this Sunday's appointed texts: Psalm 146; 1 Timothy 6:6-19; Luke 16:19-31

Sunday, September 8, 2013

I Was There 25 Years Ago; The Challenges Ahead

Twenty-six years ago April 30, 1987, my husband Burton and I drove from Dubuque to Columbus Ohio, where we, together with 2000 other Lutherans from 3 church bodies attended the Constituting Convention of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America which would officially begin the following January 1, 1988.  I was teaching at Wartburg Seminary; Burton was pastor of Grace Lutheran in East Dubuque. Burton and I wanted to be at the beginning of the ELCA because we had been part of all three church bodies over the years. We were part of the American Lutheran Church. The ALC was strong in the upper Midwest. While living in New England, where the Lutheran Church in America was strong, I had served an LCA congregation. And each of us had entered Lutheran Churches as teenagers, hearing the Gospel, through Lutheran Church Missouri Synod congregations in Iowa and California.  A schism in that church body in the 1970’s produced the AELC, the third predecessor church body of the ELCA.
Preparation for the ELCA began in 1982. Many, many people would work together for years towards this new beginning. Over 11 years I would be part of four different tasks forces and commissions working on the New Lutheran Church. Today, 25 years later, we celebrate the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, a church body with 4 million members and 10,000 congregations.

 2 Cor. 5:17 is the anniversary passage So, if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed way; see, everything has become new!
A great verse. However, church-speaking, everything old has not passed away if it was in Christ and everything new is not new if it is not in Christ. When we came together we wanted to honor the past. At the constituting convention the presidents of the three churches poured water from three different vessels into the one font. All of the history, all of the baptisms, all of the people already one in Christ, were joined in this new way.  This made way for releasing what could have been a tight hold on old structures, the very places (headquarters) Minneapolis, St. Louis, Philadelphia towards a new place for churchwide (itself a new term) Chicago.  We live in a “Move forward” culture, but moving from continuity into change is difficult. When it is in Christ, however, the new is not for the sake of newness, but for the sake of mission, making way for those who not yet here.

It may be hard to imagine for some, or to remember, 25 years ago, most church conventions (what we called them then) were attended overwhelming by men. And the voices you heard most at the microphones were clergy. And rarely did one see a person of color.  But the new ELCA adopted representational principles. At assemblies and on boards, commissions, task forces, we would have equal numbers of women and men.  Lay and clergy voices would all be heard, and we would have people of color and whose first language was not English more represented.  We needed to see and hear and learn from one another in new ways.  And things changed overnight.  Huge. But you know what? People didn’t become fearful. The opposite happened. We moved beyond the “token” stage, which in terms of race and gender and class is often more fear-producing.  All of a sudden when we gathered, things now seemed “normal,” as though this is the way we were created to be, together in our differences, one body.  That inclusion has grown.  The challenge is to keep asking, “Who is not at the table? Who is not in our community?” 

In the Gospel text this anniversary Sunday, September 8, 2013, Luke 14:25-33, large crowds were traveling with Jesus and he turned and spoke to them.  Five challenging phrases.

1.   Whoever comes to me, must hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters and life itself to be my disciple. Wait a minute. Isn’t Christianity all about loving people? Especially one’s family? Well yes.  Christ is talking about the radical commitment of the call to discipleship. That fits with what we just said. We came together and come together not just as a family (In fact that term “family church” can sound exclusive) but from different histories and heritages with those who are different from “my family.” The verse preceding our anniversary verse from 2 Corinthians reads, “From now on we regard no one from a human point of view.”  We are connected to one another in Christ.  Not just Norwegians, Swedes, Danes, Germans; as our new presiding bishop, Elizabeth Eaton, said in a press interview recently, not just all  flavors of Jello, but now with Latinos, Asians, national Africans, as a church body there are now different foods at our potlucks. And during these 25 years we have established new ecumenical partnerships and inter-faith dialogs. In a world of ethnic and national strife, often violent, the problem is hating the other’s father, mother, wife, children, brothers, sisters and loving mine.  My family, My school My neighborhood, my nation. As disciples of Christ, we are called to care about land, water, good education and medical care, for all the world’s neighbors, in Martin Luther King’s words, the Beloved global Community.

2.    Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple. Being a Christian is not about taking up the cross to lead a parade, or holding it higher than other religions. It is about bearing the crosses as they come.  In the past 25 years we have seen joys, but also more suffering than we could have imagined.  Picture some in your local congregation.  Remember. And also in the systemic injustices of society. In Christ, together,we carry one another in the midst of a suffering world.

     Being part of the ELCA means being able to help out in disaster relief way beyond what one congregation could do. Think over 25 years: Katrina, Haiti, the Malaria campaign. From the Suffering Christ comes the church of the resurrection.  We are rooted in the Gospel of Jesus Christ, his life, death, and resurrection,” said David Swartling, ELCA secretary, at our recent churchwide assembly in Pittsburgh.  “We are a church of the reformation. And the reformation is not only an historical event; it is an ongoing process…We are a church of reconciliation.  “Always being made new.”  Our anniversary verse follows with: “All this is from God who reconciled us to Godself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation. That is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to Godself…entrusting the message of reconciliation to us.  This is a new calling every single day.

3.Whoever does not estimate the cost.  Otherwise when he has laid a foundation and is not able to finish, all who see it will begin to ridicule him. This, of course, can have a very concrete meaning a congregations who may be in a building or remodeling process. But the challenge is deeper still. With the foundation on Christ, disciples dare, wisely, courageously, collaboratively to be the building ones. Since the ELCA began 25 years ago, 435 new congregations have officially organized. Today there are 330 new starts currently under development, including 56 new starts in 2012.  ELCA members kept their commitment that at least half of these new starts are in a “situation of deep poverty” or part of “one of our ethnic strategies.” Other group new starts are “Jesus and Justice Ministries.”  Can we finish?  Can we begin? The foundation is ready, Christ himself.


4.    Or what king, going out to wage war against another king, will not sit down first and consider whether he is able with ten thousand to oppose the one who comes against him with twenty thousand?  If he cannot, then while the other is still far away he sends a delegation and asks for the terms of peace. This is way too realistic an image. We live in the world, these very days, where our President and the Congress, and all citizens across the land must think about the cost of war and the cost of the use of chemical weapons. What is our call to discipleship? How do we as individuals, as faith communities, as a church body, study Scripture, and carefully learn about and discuss world events together. It was not easy to be disciples in the world 25 years ago or now. We, you and I, each congregation, this church body are called into the world of church and state issues, and as disciples in any situation, to be very wise, praying, and thinking Christians.


5.     So none of you can become my disciples if you do not give up all your possessions. OK. This text calls us to have a Giving-up Day? Not a Celebration? No--again, there’s more to it. Jesus description of discipleship, on his way to the cross, is about who and what possesses us. Therefore, to be in Christ, where everything is new, we are freed to no longer be in bondage to our possessions.  Alone we might say, “Just how much is enough, Lord?” Together in Christ we have been able to do more than any of us alone could have comprehended, imagined with our communal resources put to work in service and mission.  Celebrating means accepting challenges.

At the Churchwide Assembly the Spirit was alive in new challenges for this now young adult, 25-year old church. An increased number of young adult voting members pushed the challenge of a five-year campaign from $69 to $77 million with the addition of funds for formation of youth and young adult leadership and a stretch goal for disability ministries.

Celebrating means challenges.  ELCA adopted the Social Statement, “The Church and Criminal Justice: Hearing the Cries” by an overwhelming 882-25 vote.
The vote comes in the midst of recent national debate on racial inequities in the criminal justice system, racial profiling in stop and frisk policies, and mandatory maximum sentencing.

The assembly voted (828 to 40) to advocate for the adoption of comprehensive immigration reform legislation that supports an earned pathway to lawful permanent residency and eventual citizenship.

With a 834 to 41 vote, the assembly moved to encourage ELCA members, consistent with their bound consciences, to contact their elected officials and advocate for passage of legislation that promotes universal background checks, prevents gun trafficking and more.

The 2013 ELCA Churchwide Assembly approved nearly unanimously to continue the Book of Faith initiative which empowers its 4 million members for biblical engagement so that we become fluent in the first language of faith – the language of Scripture – to be renewed for lives of witness and service.

The ELCA has ordained 7,500 pastors since 1988, almost half of the active pastors on the clergy roster, and after the study of ministry, we now have hundreds of associates in ministry, deaconesses and diaconal ministers, many of whom studied at Wartburg Theological Seminary.

This weekend thousands of people in congregations across the ELCA will be engaged in service. God's work.  Our hands.
What a day. And tomorrow? Next week? Well, next Sunday, September 15, marks the 50th anniversary of the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, an act of racially motivated terrorism which killed four Sunday School girls. Our 25th anniversary Sunday stands during the 18 days between the 50th anniversary of the March of Washington for Jobs and Freedom and that 50th anniversary reaction. I end this blog in what might seem a strange place, but deliberately. While traveling with Christ, we are always in the middle of something, historically, and now.  We mark turning points, and we ask that Christ mark us for turning points toward a more just society, more caring communities, more bold discipleship. For this we are being made new.