Courageous Thanks

In the 51st Psalm the psalmist writes, “O Lord, open my lips and my mouth with declare your praise.”

Martin Luther commented on this text: “By asking the Lord to open his lips, David showed how difficult it is to offer thanks to God.Talking about the Lord and thanking him publicly require an extreme amount of courage and strength, because the devil is constantly trying to stop us from doing this.Many things keep our lips shut: the fear of danger, the hope of gaining something, or even the advice of friends.”

Sad thing is he’s right. Most of our moms taught us to say thanks, but when it comes to thanking God we balk with fear. We need to summon up our courage. We are afraid we might look religious. We need to remember that thanks are words between friends. We fear being teased for  taking time for God. We best remember that God has given us the time to take in the first place.

What if it’s actually the reverse that works. What if we practice thanking God in the quiet of our bedtime prayers – then we give thanks to God in public – then we invite people to pray with us – and we thank God for our new circle of praying friends. Who knows, all that thanking of God could lead to thanking others, connecting us with others, building community.

I recently thanked a friend for being willing to help me out, even though the whole project fell apart and my friend took the heat for the crash. He texted me a thanks for my thanks. It had been an awkward time and he was happy I just said thank you. Before the day was out he called and thanked me again. I’m pretty sure we’re better friends. Thanks be to God.

I think I’ll do some more thanking. And the sentence I will use might be a bit risky: “I thank God for you.” Those who I name will learn three things quickly: I believe in a God of providence; I see them as a gift given to me; and I know it was God who gave them to me. Could lead to more community.

It’s Thanksgiving. Do the little exercise of the season. Ask everyone at the table to name what they are thankful for, out loud, with courage. As a group thank God for the gifts with the courage to admit God lives at you place. See if the community is strengthened. See if your bonds are stronger. Then thank God for that.

So spouse, kids, children in law, grandkids, I thank God for you. So coworkers in the Gospel, my synod staff, bishop friends, pastors of our synod, I thank God for you. So store clerk, woman at the bank counter, chiropractor and doctor, all you good people, I thank God for you. You are God’s gifts in my life.

Thanksgiving blessings.

SO MANY JESUSES

[This article appears in the La Crosse Area Synod’s Coulee Courier for December of 2017.]

 

WE JUST DON’T LIKE EVERY JESUS

You can see it most clearly when we are in the Holy Day Season. Christians tend to prefer some Jesuses over other Jesuses.

Most everyone likes the little baby Jesus.  What’s not to like about a little baby that doesn’t cry while lying asleep on the hay surrounded by loving parents, adoring shepherds, kneeling sheep, and one noisy drummer boy?  Because we treasure the infant we can love each little one in our family. Because the Magi brought precious gifts to their little Lord we can load up the stockings for our little ones. Because the child came to earth we know the child came for us.

Most everyone likes the forgiving Jesus. It’s good to know the story of one who loves us so much he will die for our sins. It’s good to trust the vision of one dying with outstretched arms to welcome us into God’s forgiveness.

We tend to like the carpenter who has prepared homes for us in heaven. It’s a comfort to picture our loved ones who have passed through death into the eternal care of our Lord. It’s hopeful to envision Jesus waiting at the heavenly gates to welcome us into that eternity when our time comes.

But we are not so sure about the “Follow me” Jesus. Sure it’s nice to be invited into the group. It’s good to know that Jesus want s us near. But following is more than walking the same road. When Jesus calls us to play follow the leader he calls us to walk his path AND Do. What. He. Does.

The Jesus who was born in a barn calls us to enter our neighbor’s barn, to shiver in their cold, to stare into their darkness, to be present with and for them no matter what. I do think it was convenient for Jesus to enter our world of joys AND sorrows, hopes AND doubts, life AND death. Following Jesus takes us out of convenience into work. Sometimes we like to let Jesus walk so far ahead of us that he goes out of sight.

The forgiving Jesus calls us to forgive – those who trespass against us, those who sap our strength and stress our patience, our enemies. We don’t want to go there. We would rather search for reasons to refuse our forgiveness. We would rather feel justified in our self-righteousness and confident of our condemnation. Instead we get “forgive.”

Even the Jesus of heaven gets to be a challenge. He gives us a vision. He tells us that those with him for eternity will include people from all tribes and types and races. In him we see diversity and welcome for all. Yet many of us would rather not welcome – we like our silos and long to let us be us and them be them. And we wouldn’t mind if they were way over there.

Of course there is only one Jesus. That One loves us all. That one calls us all to follow. That’s the promise and the challenge. As we look to the babe in the manger may we see the blessings for all.

THE FLIPPED SWITCH

People who spend time around me are pretty sure I’m a liberal. People who know me confirm it. They know I’ll talk the weather and family and religion and politics with anyone. I’ll do it with respect, share what I know, and learn a thing or twelve.

Folks also know I’m fairly intolerant of those who lack respect. Talking people down, labeling and demonizing are on my unacceptable list (although I catch myself committing these devilish practices way too often). I have no time for racist “humor,” stereotypes, and intolerance. (I’m kind of intolerant of intolerance – I know it’s hypocritical.)

On Christmas Eve of 2015 the La Crosse Tribune published my letter to the editor. I stated my thanks for the good Muslim neighbors we have in our community. I pledged to be a good neighbor in return. I promised that as Bishop I would lead the La Crosse Area Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America in being good, caring, loving neighbors to our Muslim friends. Since then I’ve been questioned, and I’ve been thanked, and people know where I stand. Folks were not surprised to see me at this month’s community rally proclaiming a welcome to refugees and care for the Muslims in our midst. I’m a good liberal.

But now, as of Valentine’s Day, our daughter is engaged to a really likable Muslim from Morocco. A switch has flipped in my brain. You are no longer talking about some Muslims, you are talking about my future son-in-law. Now it’s personal in a whole new way. It’s not just children of God, it’s family. And I love my family.

I SHOULDN’T DO THIS

The article to follow will be printed in the March edition of our synod’s Coulee Courier. That’s how I get it to the greatest number of members in our synod. However, some of you may find this helpful now. [As always, feel free to share, I consider this a public site.]

 

JESUS SAID, “FOLLOW ME.”

I am a Christian. The word defines me as a follower of Jesus. I seek to follow Jesus. I think it is fair for me to assume the same of our members who define themselves as Christians in the Lutheran tradition. We seek to follow Jesus. Isn’t it true? We seek to follow Jesus.

I am writing this message just a week and a half after the new administration was sworn in on Inauguration Day. I’d like to say my concern in this message will be over by the time you read this. But I doubt it. Followers of Jesus are having a hard time speaking and acting for Jesus right now. We are accused of being partisan. Granted the ways we seek to reach out to do good in this country – in this world – may differ from party to party, philosophy to philosophy, ideology to ideology. But we as Christians have got to agree that we want a better, more faithful, more loving world. We seek to follow the One of Goodness, the Center of our Faith, the Lord of Love. We have got to agree to seek the way of Jesus.

Jesus wants the hungry to be fed. Jesus wants the homeless to be sheltered. Jesus wants the poor to be lifted up from poverty. Jesus wants poverty to be eradicated. While the ways to accomplish this must be discussed, the truth about Jesus’ will is what it is. It is not Democratic. It is not Republican. It is not anarchist. It is not libertarian. It is not utopian. It is Christian.

Jesus wants the stranger welcomed. Jesus wants the sojourner treated as one of our own. We may vary in preferences for vetting and documentation. But followers of Jesus follow Christ’s direction to be including.

Jesus calls us to community. Jesus calls us to pool our resources and do the best for each other. Jesus directs us to share and care over amassing wealth for the sake of being wealthy. We may disagree on the best ways to be together and the most efficient ways to share, but we must share. That’s how we follow Jesus.

You have called me to be faithful to the Gospel. You have called me to remind you of what it means to be us. You have called me to proclaim Jesus’ call to the world. I seek to follow this Jesus. That’s what Christians do.

CHRISTIANS MARCH

Christians march. Yes they do.

As I checked in with Facebook last evening I realized I know alot of marchers. I saw photos from ten different cities. All from marchers. Mostly women. Some men. Many wearing crosses. Some with stoles. Some in clerics.

I don’t think most of them where marching to be rude, insulting, or disrespectful. I think as they practiced the right of free speech, they wanted to say something loudly and clearly to our new president and congress. They proclaimed that Christians want a great country, a country that is great because it exists for the best for all its citizens. They reminded the elected that our country is better because of its diversity. They proclaimed that we are women and men together celebrating our many colors, our many sexual orientations, our many accents, levels of education, and talents.

They also proclaimed a presence. Their collars, their stoles, their crosses, their stories for strangers of carpooling to the march as church members, all demonstrated Christ’s presence in the midst of hard politics. They showed Christ’s care for the poor and needy who are not able to speak for themselves. They were a visible announcement of Christ’s care for all the people of this country.

There were marchers who tried to deny that Donald Trump is the president of this country. There were some carrying signs full of insults, disrespect, and crude images. There were also many who noticed those who jeered at the marchers while waving crosses and flags shouting Go Home! and Shut up!  There were many marching who have given up on the church – believing, at the least, that the Living Word of the church is irrelevant in our complex, hurting world.

But marching Christians offered hope. Seeing people caring in the name of Christ opened doors for Jesus. There are marchers who today know it is possible, at least possible, that Jesus the Christ does care for them, for their passion, for those for whom they care.

And that is good.

Marching Christians proclaim Christs presence.

[For the sake of full disclosure, my spouse joined a group from our congregation and marched in St. Paul, my clergy colleague joined others from our synod and marched in Madison. I thank God for them and their proclamation.]

IN GOD’S HANDS?

“I’m just putting the new year in God’s hands. God will take care of it.” I’ve been hearing phrase since, “I’ll just put the Trump years in God’s hands. God will take care of it.”

Huh? What does it mean to put things in God’s hands? Can we do that while sitting back to watch what God will do? Some would say, “Yes, that’s faith.” I disagree.

Our Evangelical Lutheran Church is America has a catch phrase for times like these: “God’s Work – Our Hands” (and our feet and our mouths and our arms and our brains). Scripture is pretty clear – to get things done God uses people. God wants to bless God’s creatures. So God called Abraham to grow a blessed race bringing blessings to the nations. God wants people to live free. So God sent Moses to lead the Hebrew people out of bondage. God wants to reconcile humanity with God’s self. So God sent Jesus. And Jesus sent his followers. And so it goes.

God wants 2017 to be about life, abundant life. We put this hope in God’s hands and God sends us to live it into being. Scripture names Christ’s followers the body of Christ. How can we be Jesus’ body without acting out Jesus’ love?

So where do we start?

We know God wants the stranger to be welcomed. Do you have a neighbor you have yet to meet? Go next door and say hello. Are all your friends just like you? Have coffee with someone who thinks in other ways. Is your circle limited to those who all come from the same part of the world? Expend the effort to meet someone with skin of a different color, with a faith you do not know, of an age that ranges from yours.

We know God wants the blessed to be a blessing. What are you keeping to yourself that this world needs? Are you a person of means? One with a positive attitude? One who lives in hope? Can you feed a hungry one?  Can you encourage a discouraged one? Can you comfort a grieving one?

Do so!

Today, this month, this year is in God’s hands. Pray for God to keep it. And pray to be a follower – one part of Christ’s own body on this earth. God will work God’s wonders in these days with our hands and feet and hearts and brains.

Happy New Year

 

 

THE LONGEST NIGHT OF THE YEAR

“I’m so discouraged.” ‘Every appointment the president elect makes turns his presidency further into darkness.” “We will not survive four years of this.” “What are we going to do? How will we make it? Could it be any worse?”

These statements and many like them, spoken by pastors and friends, echo through my thoughts on this longest night of the year, in this present darkness. They haunt me. But not with worry. Rather a question of faith – hoping it’s not a crisis of faith.

Is our faith so fragile?

The morning after the election, a friend of mine posted a simple question: Now what do we do? Another friend responded quickly, We do what we always do. We preach the Gospel of Jesus and reach out to those in need.

Can it really be that simple?

It’s never been that simple. As long as I have been in the ministry I have been invited into the darkest of nights that people can imagine. I’ve been allowed to hold hands and pray through three years of a little child’s cancer and then invited to preach for her funeral. I’ve been trusted with the unanswerable questions of a young adult trying to survive his father’s suicide. My arms have been trusted to hold a weeping man as he watched his business go up in flames and saw only darkness. I’ve been allowed to be a trusted companion as a Lutheran Church in another country wrestled with divisiveness, with insults, accusations, mistrust, and finally schism.

Pastors have the honor of welcome into the darkest of nights. We know the frustration when we have no easy answers. We know the personal panic when we understand other’s rants of anger with God. We know the times we really would rather not walk into pain again and again and again. But we do it. A part of ministry for the long haul is reaching out to those in the deepest need, the darkest times. It is struggling to find a good Word from God for the worst of nights. And then it is preaching the Gospel to pain filled eyes and broken hearts.

The Gospel in the night is always the same, A light shines in the darkness and the darkness does not overcome it. In a dark night for God’s people a lantern burned in a stable revealing God’s presence in the Little One. In a cold night for outsiders, shepherds saw the glory of God’s angels lighting up their fields. For the withered, for the blind, for the bleeding, for the searching, for the dead – Jesus’ light broke through. In the dark, the light of God shines through.

Can you see it? Wait for it. Look for it. Spot a glimmer. Share the Good News.

PROPHETS NEEDED

It’s a common story among bishops. A bishop is contacted by congregants upset with their young pastor. It’s something about attitude, miscommunication, cross purposes. The bishop asks the pastor what’s going on. The  reply? I am just being prophetic. They can’t handle it.

God knows this world needs prophets. God still calls people to be prophetic. But there is a difference between  God calling someone to be a prophet and us just choosing to tic people off. There’s a difference between preachers deciding they need to change the world from the pulpit and God pushing people forward to speak truth to power.

Almost every time I prepare a sermon, I get to make lots of choices about what to preach. I can choose from among four texts offered each Sunday by the Revised Common Lectionary (especially if the Gospel for the day seems too challenging). I can choose to switch to the Narrative Lectionary. I can choose to preach another text or theme if I think it will help my hearers with matters of the day.

But every once in a while, I have no choice. The Spirit lays something on my heart that must be preached – and She’s hard to fight. It’s something that I know will have members upset. I find myself preparing for the discussions that will follow before I even preach the sermon. I pray to be let off the hook. But the Spirit says, Preach it.

This is what happened to the First Testament prophets. God said, I have a message that you must preach. And you must preach it to the powerful. The prophet said, I don’t want to preach it. Get someone else. And God said, Preach. And the prophet preached. And the prophet was cast out – or imprisoned – or stoned – or…

Right now God is calling for prophets. The incoming administration threatens to wall off our neighbors, register Muslims, reduce the quality of public education, and seek advice from white supremacists. (And that’s for starters.) Already it is difficult to preach the basics challenges of Jesus without getting complaints from listeners. There are powerful people in our pews that don’t want to hear Jesus call to love our enemies, to teach wisdom, to welcome the stranger, to care for the poor.

It is becoming prophetic just to quote Jesus. We are called as preachers to quote Jesus. In fact this is a time when it is much more important to quote Jesus than to trust in our own creativity. It can be risky to simply tell the stories of a Savior who is alive and working in our world. It is a prophetic challenge in this time to preach the Gospel as it was given to us – without watering anything down.

Jesus is among us. Preach Jesus. And Jesus will be the prophet among us.

DON’T CARE WHAT JESUS SAID

It’s a common story. Common enough to have actually happened multiple times. The bishop is visiting a congregation in turmoil. During the conversation the bishop quotes scripture. The response: “We don’t care what Jesus said. We voted.”

Well, now we have voted. Our lives are shifting. Yet we remain a church called to follow Jesus. It may not be easy. It may bring criticism. And, frighteningly, we may be accused of partisanship. No matter, we are called to follow Jesus and to invite others to join us.

Jesus calls us with the challenge, “Do not fear.” When the world is dark, Jesus does not flee. Jesus, the light of the world, enters the darkness and the darkness cannot overcome it. As people of Jesus we live to dispel darkness. We share light and hope and promise.

The gospels promise that in the name of Jesus the Gentiles will hope. The Gentiles? Yes, those who are not us – the outsiders, those who believe differently, those who have been told, “You aren’t one of us.” Jesus came in love for all the children of God. Following Jesus, we meet and welcome the different. Following Jesus we sit to eat with them, we listen to hear their stories, and we share our stories with them.

Jesus challenges us to “go out at once into the streets…and bring in the poor.”  He never says choose the poor that are worthy of assistance. He never once tells us to throw them a token. Instead we are invited to invite. This challenge alone brings me embarrassment and shame.

Jesus tells us that when we welcome the stranger we welcome the Christ. And he goes on: Visit the sick. Visit the imprisoned. Feed the hungry. Give drink to the thirsty. Clothe the naked – in fact, if you have two coats, give one to those who have none. The challenges go on and on.

And I care what Jesus says.

 

 

WORSHIP – ALWAYS THE BEST

I have a confession to make. I skipped worship this morning. I’ve been travelling for Thanksgiving, but I could have worked a service in. I just didn’t want to be disappointed.

First, let me say that I know the center of worship is being present and letting God work. But I am also an administrator, and want the best for our our congregations; so, too often I find myself  assessing instead of worshiping. So…my reluctance.

I remember the conversations about “low Sundays” – those certain days that you can count on a lower attendance. It’s so easy to think all our congregations need is enough to get by and to save the effort for days with larger attendance. But it cannot be our mindset as pastors and worship planners.

It is an honor to be called to guide our congregations in their worship. Those who gather on Sunday, no matter how many, gather to worship our Living God to the fullest. This calls on us to plan the fullest of spirit for every worship. Wouldn’t it be great if every week those who missed worship heard they had missed something special, something important, something spirit filled, something inspiring?

Our God brings the fullness of God to each gathering of God’s people. I am so thankful when our leadership makes the connection.

As the psalmist cheered, “I was glad when they said unto me, let us go into the house of the Lord. ” (Psalm 122:1)