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FUNERALS: ALREADY & NOT YET

Early yesterday morning, a retired pastor in our synod passed through death into the eternal care of our God. He died in his sleep. His beloved wife of 54 years, discovered his death when she awoke for the morning. You know her instincts were ready to go: call 911, call the family, call the funeral home, call the pastor, make arrangements, embrace loved ones – family and friends alike, have the service surrounded by so many . . .

But wait – we are in the middle of a growing pandemic. An ugly virus is taking over our world. We can’t do what we know. A trusted seminary classmate and his spouse are allowed in the home to pray. Family members are called and encouraged to stay home; they pray in small groups around their breakfast tables. Arrangements are begun by conference call. A celebration of life is to be determined. Friends call and write, no one is encouraged to come to the door.

It’s our new normal. Hopefully it won’t last for long, because It. Is. Not. Right.

We are finding ways to grieve apart – separated by six feet, across back fences. over telephone lines, in the great social media community – so near but so far with friends and family who are visible yet untouchable. We are learning to grieve in expectation of remembrance rites weeks or months away. We are trusting the One who holds us together in the separations to keep us in one community, one family, one Body.

Long ago I served in a community where the local cemetery would not allow winter burials. (It’s a long story of mismanagements and graves that were not always exactly where the map said they were.) Unlike this moment, we did have the blessing of timely funerals. But things just were not complete without burials. When spring came and the ground softened, the graveside services were scheduled. As we will need to do with TBD celebrations of life, we tried to space burials over days. It gave families their own times. It gave pastors respite between grief sharings.

We are going to need to plan for respite.

As we gathered at the graves, new tears were shed – not the tears of raw grief, but weeping with the lived reality of aloneness. Funeral words were once again spoken and prayers were prayed. The Lord’s Prayer has a different sound when it brings people back together and acknowledges the now experienced parting. And – something different – almost always, when the words were done and hugs exhausted, family members would pick up shovels and start to fill the grave from the pile of “earth to earth.” It was a special ritual for a special time.

I wonder if we need to start thinking about the remembrance services to come once we can leave our homes again. What aspects of the process will be new and need to be shepherded? What new rituals will be needed in the new reality? What respite will we need for ourselves? What will the new order and timing require us to trust and proclaim?

I we nsure we will still need to proclaim this:

“I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither present nor future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, [nor Safer at Home declarations, nor pandemic], nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Romans 8:38-39)

Rest eternal grant him, Dear Lord.

IMMEDIACY

I love youth trips. I guess they make me feel young.

I love youth trips – except. When I’m driving youth and a new song comes on the speaker: “Skip it” I don’t like this one.” When the sun comes out from behind the clouds and just starts to warm us: “Turn on the air! I’m hot.” And on and on, a moment of discomfort and switch to comfort – immediately.

A gift of living in the affluence of the United States is the ability to grab immediate comfort. There is no need for patience. No one needs to learn “the long haul.” We want comfort, we get comfort.

It has affected our faith. We want comfort, relief, answers, cures. We pray. We hear/feel/see no immediate response. Our faith is shaken. We want the gift now, and, if we don’t get it now, there must be no God. I know this seems to be drastic hyperbole, but it is reality we’ve been a part of over and over again.

In 2005 I had the opportunity to live and teach in the highlands of Ethiopia. Daily I encountered people who did not know if they would eat that day. Regularly I met children who were orphaned due to AIDS, and the disease was not disappearing, on travels to the dry lands I met people who could not see a forthcoming end to drought. For the needs of the population there was rarely immediate relief.

Yet each Sunday I attended worship in overflowing church buildings. Songs and prayers and semons were offered for hours at a time. The faithful thanked God for holding them in God’s holy hands in spite of present hardships. They prayed for comfort and release. “How long, O Lord,” was not an uncommon prayer to a God they trusted to be present. And they returned Sunday after Sunday to do it over and over again – faithfully – in one of the fastest growing churches in the world.

Faith is different when instant comfort cannot be expected. Faith is fuller when it is recognized as a gift in the middle of a world with few gifts. Faith has depth when we’re in it for the long haul.

Fifteen years ago the Ethiopians taught me some lessons – lessons that are gifts in today’s new reality.

POWER TO ENDURE

“There are two kinds of power: there is the power to change things and there is the power to endure things that do not change. God gives both.” (Alvin Rogness, former President of Luther Seminary, St. Paul.)

My office is in La Crosse, Wisconsin. My home is in La Crescent, Minnesota. By the end of tomorrow both governors will have imposed stay at home restrictions to fight the spread of the present pandemic.

I want to resist. I want the power to visit with rostered leaders and synod lay members face to face. I want the power to pray in person with those in need. Truth be told, I want the power to end this whole expanding virus. But no one is giving me these powers.

I do have the power to endure this epidemic. I have the creativity and technology to work and pray and minister and proclaim from my home. I have the love that binds me to family across the country, to congregations across the bluffs, to our Loving God far beyond and close within. Now if I just had the peace and patience to live within the limits.

God, grant us peace. Grant us patience. But, still, grant us all ways to survive and ways to endure. Grant us creativity to help from our home. Give us the vision to care beyond our social distancing. Give us your presence to connect us all. Give us your ear to hear our prayers – and let our ears hear your response.

God, empower your servants to trust that our prayers connect, our care makes a difference, and your Spirit endures in us.

There is so much I would like to change and I ask the ability to contribute. There is so much I cannot change and I ask the power to endure.

Amen.

FEAR

It’s all about fear. Watching the news is all about fear. Talking about the world is all about fear. As Elmer Fudd would say, “Be vewie, vewie afwaid!”

This week’s news talks of thousands of US troops being sent to the Middle East along with B-52s. We made a preemptive strike in Iran because we have intelligence that says they were about to strike us. We killed a major military leader. Iranians have responded by bombing air bases. Our president claims to have chosen 52 sites in Iran to strike if they strike. He has now told the world that we have big, accurate and speedy missles with which we can strike. And it all goes to war, war, war. How can we not be afraid?

The broadcasts move on. Australia is ablaze. Over two dozen people and over 500,000,000 animals have died already. Puerto Rico has been struck with earthquakes. We are reminded that climate change is leading to an ever increasing number of disasters. How can we not be afraid?

Oh, and to compound the anxiety Nancy Pelosi is accused of playing games with the impeachment papers while Mitch McConnell is accused of manipulating the Senate trial process. And we should all be very afraid that we are taking our country down. Be very, very afraid.

As the fears of the imminent World War II loomed over the Western World, writer and philosopher Lewis Browne begins his book, This Believing World, [in non-inclusive language] with these words: “In the beginning there was fear; and fear was in the heart of man; and fear controlled man … At every turn it whelmed over him…All the days of man were gray with fear, because all his universe seemed charged with danger.” It’s a dismal picture which can only create anxiety and more fear. It takes today’s fears and aims toward the end of hope.

But, we are not hopeless. The story of the God I follow begins with different words: “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth…and God looked at all that was made and said, “It’s good.” The Creator watches over this world, blesses people to bless it, sends a savior to redeem it, and makes us co-creators to guide the goodness of this earth.

We are called to live goodness and to work goodness for the earth and the people of it. We are called to live peace and to work peace. We are called to love with a godly love and to work love into existence. As Christ’s people we answer the call and step out in the Holy Spirit to follow the one who says over and over and over – Fear Not.

As we continue to step into this new year ready doing the work to which we are called, I pray the words of an ancient litany, “From the crafts and assaults of the devil, from sudden and evil death, from pestilence and famine, from war and bloodshed, from sedition and rebellion, from lightening and tempest, from all calamity by fire and water: Good Lord, deliver us.” And I add an update from the late Alvin Rogness: “From exhaustion of energy, from pollution of air and water, from world hunger, from nuclear war: Good Lord, deliver us.”

When Rogness contemplates stepping into a new year, he writes, “As I look back and begin counting my blessing, and rest back in those arms that have cradled and carried me through the years, I have the courage to look forward with calm and confidence.”

Knowing we are carried in the arms of the Spirit we hear the call to fear and say we will not. We strive for love, for light and for life with calm and confidence.

March for Our Lives

Cameron Park, La Crosse, Wisconsin                    Saturday, March 24, 2018

 

I am ready for the letters, the calls, the emails, the text messages:

– Bishop, haven’t you heard of the separation of church and state?

– Bishop, stay in the pulpit. Stay out of the park.

– Bishop, you need to be serving Jesus.

 

My responses are ready.

–  I serve Jesus as a bishop in a church body that has chosen to be a public church, to speak for those in need, to protect the innocent. Today I speak for the innocents who are no longer safe in our schools.

– I am a member of a Conference of Bishops. We have condemned gun violence for the evil that it is.

– Along with 65 other Lutheran bishops, we have confessed that we have waited too long to publicly respond to all the young voices who cry for safety in our schools – Latino voices, African American voices, white voices, the voices of children belonging to the first nations of our land. We bishops have promised to support all the students who are tired of watching our children die in their schools, all the students who march for their lives, all the students who cry out for action to end gun violence in our country.

I know there are folks ready to dismiss me when I use inaccurate firearm terms to beg for action. But the four-ten shotgun I used to shoot roughed grouse did not prepare me for the language of AR15s. My thirty-ought-six deer rifle didn’t prepare me for assault rifles created for only one purpose – killing many, many people in a short amount of time. My hand gun practice qualifying me to work as a security guard didn’t prepare me for rapid fire armaments brought into our schools to kill. For this moment I am going to use one term and let it stand for all – assault rifles. No civilian needs to own an assault rifle. Our students are meant to live.

There are politicians who say what we really need is better mental health care. They are right. And I hope we will fund it. BUT I have worked in adolescent psychiatric care. I know health comes slowly. May the months and years ahead lead to healthy minds. In the meantime, no civilian needs to own an assault rifle. Our students are meant to live.

There are well meaning people who say what we really need is to walk “up” instead of walk “out.” We need to create more welcome for all students by all students. They are right. BUT I have spent my whole life in work designed to build community. It does not happen overnight. Let’s work for it. In the meantime, no civilian needs to own an assault rifle. Our students are meant to live.

There are those who say, “Keep the students in school. Keep them off the speaker’s platforms. What do they know? They are only kids.” Those who try to silence the youth are wrong. Our young people are the vulnerable ones. They have watched others their age die from senseless violence. They have a message we need to hear. AND, they are meant to live. No civilian needs to own an assault rifle.

As a Christian pastor I serve one who we call the Lord of Life and the Prince of Peace. In the names of the God I serve I call out for change. I call for legislation that protects our students. I beg for legislation that rids our gun cabinets of assault rifles, legislation that has us register our firearms, legislation that makes access to gun ownership rigorous enough to match the responsibility of possessing a gun. No civilian needs to own an assault rifle. Our students are meant to live.

Finally, as a pastor I pray for mutual responsibility, for community, for peace, and for life. Our students are meant to live.

 

A CHRISTMAS CHALLENGE, A CHRISTMAS GRACE

This blog is two “blogs” – both by Martin Luther. The first one, the challenge, is one I’d been thinking I was overdue to read again. I was wondering how I’d find it. So I’m reading my December 20, Luther devotion from “Faith Alone” [a daily word from Martin Luther, edited by James C. Galvin, Zondervan Press] and there it is – challenging as ever. The second, from the December 22 devotional, is pure Christmas grace.

So from Brother Martin:

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THE CHALLENGE

All of us should use the gospel to evaluate ourselves. How near or far are we from Christ? How are we doing in faith and love?  Many become inflamed with dreamy devotion when they hear about how impoverished Christ was when he was born. They grow furious at the people of Bethlehem and criticize their blindness and ingratitude. The think that if they had been there, they would have served the Lord and his mother. They wouldn’t have allowed them to be so miserable. But these people don’t even notice their own neighbors who are nearby and need their help. They ignore them and leave them as they are. Who on earth doesn’t have miserable, sick, blundering, or sinful people around them? Why don’t they show their love to these people? Why don’t they do for their neighbors what Christ did for them?

Don’t deceive yourself by thinking you would have treated Christ well when you don’t presently do anything for your neighbor. If you had been at Bethlehem, you would have paid just as little attention to him as everyone else did. You only want to serve him because you know who he is. Let’s say that he were to come, lie in the manger, and let you know that he is the one you know so much about. Of course you would want to do something to help. But before that, you wouldn’t have done anything.

Similarly, if you could see your neighbors now as they will be in the future, and if they were lying in front of you, then you certainly would take care of them. But because you only see them for what they are now, you ignore them. You fail to recognize Christ in your neighbors.

THE GRACE

Faith is not believing that the [nativity] story that you are reading is true as written. That does nothing for anyone. Even unbelievers can believe that this Bible story about Jesus’ birth is true. Faith is not a natural work apart from God’s grace, as the Scripture clearly teaches. Rather, the right kind of faith, the kind that flows from grace and that God’s Word demands, is firmly believing that Christ was born for you. His birth is yours and occurred for your benefit.

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HOLY DAY BLESSINGS TO YOU ALL!

 

 

 

WWJP – What Would Jesus Post?

The first responsibility of a leader is to define reality.                                                                                                           Tod Bolsinger – Canoeing the Mountains.

Examine our Western World and your heart gets heavy – tax laws may change and make the world harder for the poor, old and inflammatory posts are retweeted adding to paranoia to “protect” our land, and every day another male in power and/or prestige is accused of sexual misconduct. It’s painful. And how we react is crucial.

Let’s just take the misconduct for this moment.

A friend of mine posted an important word reminding us all of Martin Luther’s wisdom explaining the commandment You shall not commit adultery: We are to fear and love God, so that we lead pure and descent lives in word and deed. ‘Nough said? Not really. This opens the door for us to model and teach the respect all of God’s people are called to give to all of God’s people. This is our opportunity to advocate for clear equal rights and respect for all sexual orientations and all committed relationships. This gives us the challenge to call people in power to task for abusing their power and privilege. It is a time for people, primarily men, to stop taking advantage – a time to give respect.

But there is another word from Luther’s explanation of the commandments. This time it’s You shall not bear false witness about your neighbor. Luther writes, We are to fear and love God, so that we do not tell lies about our neighbors, betray or slander them, or destroy their reputations. Instead we are to come to their defense, speak well of them, and interpret everything they do in the best possible light.

No, I am not advocating for letting people off. No, I do not want people to abuse with no fitting consequences. No, I am certainly not saying we should grant sainthood to a pedophilic person of power. I want the abuse to stop. And it won’t stop without being named and without consequences being applied.

What is hurting my heart these days is reading the words of Christians, primarily pastors, on social media: If there’s a man in power, you can expect sexual misconduct. –  I’m not surprised he’s charged, he’s always been sleazy. – I saw that one coming etc, etc, etc.

How self righteous can we be? The Lutherans among us live with a theology of simul iustus et peccator – at the same time justified and sinful. We are careful about blackening a whole person’s reputation and legacy over one dark aspect of their lives because we know our own darkness. And we are called to proclaim the Forgiving One’s love for even the most sinful of people. Our posts are public. Do we not want to proclaim this?

How judgmental can we be? Larger and larger portions of those around us are disgusted with Christians’ high and mighty judgments. So we give them the image of our non-surprise because we had already judged – because we are always judging others? Our posts are public. Do we want to portray ourselves as this?

How non-discriminating can we be? I really want people of power to stop taking advantage of others. I really, really, really want pedophiles to stop abusing. But I cannot say they all have the same amount of punishment due. I don’t want to take away the wrongness of any of it. And I don’t want to imply that the horrific behavior of pedophiles automatically has the same degree of wrongness/consequences as other abuses. Yet, so many Christians/pastors are calling for the same noose for all. Our posts are public. Is this what we want to convey?

Many people of faith are calling for a much improved level of civil discourse in this country. We cannot expect civil discussions in our gatherings over issues when we do not practice civil discourse in our public posts. Our posts are public. They are a part of our public civil discourse.

For the sake of our children, we must put an end to abusing children. For the sake of our children, we must put an end to all sexual abuse. For the sake of our children we must find and model a way to communicate as Jesus-followers.

I was thankful to find this post today:

“We humans contribute to the world’s gloom, like dark shadows on a dark landscape.…But now this man from Nazareth comes to us and invites us to mirror God’s image, and shows us how. He says: you too can become light, as God is light. What is all around you is not hell, but rather a world waiting to be filled with hope and faith. This world is your home as surely as the God who created and wrought it is love. You may not believe it, but you can love this world. It is a place of God. It has a purpose. Its beauty is not a delusion. You can lead a meaningful life in it.”                                              Jorg Zink -Doors to the Feast

Our world is dark, no question about it. Our world needs light. We can and must become light in the world and on our Facebook pages.

 

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.