Blog

I NEVER THOUGHT I’D SEE A LYNCHING

I was a teenager during the Viet Nam Era. One night the evening news decided the American public needed to see the horrors of the war. There on our livingroom television a Viet Cong fighter was forced to kneel. A Vietnamese chief of police walked up to the man and shot him in the head. It was that stark. The image is still etched in my mind. It was one execution more than I ever needed to see.

And then I saw the news yesterday. A black man was arrested and cuffed. He was taken to the ground by police officers. One officer put his knee on the man’s neck. Three officers looked on. The man called out, “I can’t breath. I can’t breath.” Over. And over. In spite of the number of cell phones recording the scene, in spite of protests from civilians present, the knee stayed in place. The man stopped moving. An ambulance took him away. He died.

It was a lynching.

No, I didnt’t have to follow a mob to watch with the crowd. There it was on my tablet. And I watched. I couldn’t stop. I was crying by the end.

There was no rope thrown over a tree limb and pulled tight. But there was a knee. It took the air away.

There were no members of my community present – no one I knew, but they were Minnesotans. I’m usually very proud to be a Minnesotan where we Blue State Lutherans are proud of our liberal way of life, our support of the marginalized, our open minded, live-and-let-live regard toward our neighbors.

For the most part we are of Northern European heritage. We respect law and order. (Some of my favorite church members and youth group leaders are in law enforcement.) We are proper. We expect respect. It’s time to insist on it – in ourselves and in others.

For the most part we have Christian backgrounds. We regard people as children of God. We suppert the sanctity of life. We expect humane behavior. It’s time to challenge inhumane beliefs – in ourselves and in others.

And we are Northerners. While we know better, we like to believe race matters are Southern matters. It’s time to know it is us.

In less than ten minutes of video – which felt like an eternity – all of my expectations of Minneapolis right disappeared. I was more convicted than ever of my white privilege. I need to fix myself. And I must be more vocal.

This must stop.

Thank you, police department for firing the four officers. Thank you Minneapolis mayor for asking that charges be filed. Thank you FBI for investigating.

Now let’s go further and deeper. Let’s admit our responsibility in creating and allowing a world of privilege. Let’s admit our inability to call for right. Let’s figure out a way for us to all be community. It’s way beyond time to be about this seemingly impossible change. But it’s not to late to start.

I don’t want to see another lynching.

LUTHERANS, STAY THE COURSE

Yesterday the Wisconsin Supreme Court made a ruling about the authority of a nonelected government official. Because of their ruling the existing Safer at Home order was no longer enforcable. That discussion is about laws and good order – it is not the discussion on this page.

The Badger Bounce Back plan remains Wisconsin’s guide for encorporating our lives into the COVID-19 world. It provides a step by step process of reopening in light of progress made in fighting the disease. It is based on the federal plan. This proccess is supported by myself as the Bishop of the La Crosse Area Synod as well as the five other Wisconsin synod bishops who serve the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. And it is supported by the Wisconsin Council of Churches.

I am thankful the BBB enables us as Christians to live out our calling to love God and to love our neighbors.

For now, we keep our buildings closed to corporate worship. Unfortunately Lutheran services are filled with ways to spread a pandemic. Viruses are shared in warm hand shakes and hugs as we greet and pass the peace. The virus count increases as we spend extended time together in an enclosed space, singing loudly, and sharing bread and wine. For now, we won’t gather. We don’t know who caries the virus. We don’t know who is most at risk to exposure. We wait.

Fortunately, we know that Lutherans can worship anywhere. We open our Bibles at home, pray as we drift off to sleep at night, worship together online as our pastors become gifted televangelists.

Of course, we still collect offerings. Christians have a need to give. It is marvelous that many mail checks to church and engage in online giving. It is marvelous that we contribute to local groups serving those in special need. And it is inspiring to see God’s people offering themselves to distribute food, coordinate blood drives, make phone connections with those who live alone, and more and more and more – loving Jesus by loving our neighbors.

Now, as more and more people return to work, it is inspiring to see faithful people serve Jesus by protecting those around them. Masks are worn. Personal distancing is maintained. And in so doing, the neighbor is loved.

We miss worshipping together. But we stay the course. It’s how we serve. It’s how we care. It’s for our God and for our neighbor.

DOORS FAITHFULLY CLOSED

The Governors of Wisconsin and Minnesota have extended their Safer In Home orders. They are weathering protestors on their lawns demanding the states be reopened. They are listening to conservative members of their statehouses who want churches to be freed. And it will get worse.

We have to know our stay at home lives have made a difference. Our two states have so far avoided the spike and flattened the curve. And so we ask, “Isn’t it all better now?”

No, it is not. New cases of corona virus continue. More deaths from this pandemic continue. Doctors, immunologists and researchers tell us the virus is still a clear and present danger.

Yet, church goers, spurred on by the “it’s better” news are getting antsy to bring their church families bak together on Sunday morning. And I am getting the question, “Will the bishop allow us to reopen our churches for worship? Or will he force us to keep things locked up?”

Well, first of all, in our Evangelical Lutheran Church in America polity the bishop cannot keep congregations out of their churches. But this bishop urges, with all the authority and influence he can muster, that our congregations follow the lead of our elected leaders. To not do so is foolish in the least and unfaithful at its worst.

Unfaithful?!?!?!

YES!!!!!

As followers of Jesus, guided by the Living Word of God, we heed the leadership of our government. Unless legal authority is demanding that we do something contrary to the will of God, we obey the law. (The Apostle Paul discusses this in a letter to the Romans.)

As followers of the Living Word, we listen to the people with the learning. It is a precept of our faith that wisdom is a gift of God. Wise and trained scientists who have spent their lives studying viral infections and pandemics speak with one voice in saying COVID19 is not conquored, it remains a threat. It would be foolish to ignore their wisdom because we “feel’ things are better and we “want” our “freedom” back. As Jesus people faithfully thank God for the wisdom, meant to protect us, that is now guiding our leaders as they aim us toward health.

As followers of Jesus, God’s embodied wisdom, we willingly limit our corporate worship for the sake of the least of these. Over and over again, Jesus holds up care for those in most need. Jesus now tells us to not put the vulnerable in need. We don’t know who might bring the virus to worship. We don’t know who might be exposed. And we don’t take the chance – the foolish risk. Instead, we follow Jesus, freely practicing our faith in ways that don’t need any church space. As Jesus did, we take time in scripture. As Jesus did, we set aside time to pray. As Jesus did, we tell the old, old story of God’s active love in the world. We share our Living Lord with our loved ones, our children, our friends on the phone, in loving notes, on social media. We faithfully touch others with God’s love at a time that we cannot physically touch others.

If this bishop could demand anything, I’d ask an end to foolish risks and selfish demands.

If this bishop could demand anything, I’d call for the faithful way. I’d call us to love the Lord our God, with all our hearts and minds and souls. I’d make sure we truly loved our neighbors as ourselves. For Jesus sake.

CLOSED CHURCH DOORS = PROCLAIMING THE RESURRECTION

This Sunday we celebrate Easter, the Resurrection of our Lord – with closed churches. Yet we follow the Jesus who came to bring life the Jesus who brings life.

I’m going to miss the big gathering, the brass, the lilies, my siblings in Christ joining to loudly sing one of my favorite hymns, Thine Is the Glory. I’m going to read the Facebook posts that say, “It just didn’t feel right.” And I’m going to love the posts that announce a living Jesus was seen on Easter – in virtual Easter parties, in reading the resurrection story to children, in looking at the meatloaf while seeing a ham dinner with all the trimmings and remembering the living God who provides and unites us – and, too, in a candle on a dining table as the only “friend” present, burning with the life of the present Christ. Celebrations will be small, yet our great, loving and living God will be present.

It is as it should be – this year.

We have to trust that a closed church this year proclaims our Living Lord is everywhere.

A closed church testifies to the huge needs of our world at this present moment. It allows us to focus beyond ourselves into poverty, loneliness, and disease. It makes us plan our action that will bring our living Lord into the hurt and woe.

A closed church proclaims Jesus loves the little children. Jesus does not lead little ones (or big ones or old ones) into danger. Jesus begs God’s people to avoid exposure because that’s how the Body of Christ does not expose others to a deadly virus.

A closed church proclaims Christians have other things to do in the middle of a pandemic: take extra time in quiet prayer, read The Story quietly and ponder its depths and know its life, call loved ones and lonely ones to bring God’s love near, to write checks to local groups and organizations serving the poorest and the neediest, to take a walk and see the Living Lord in budding trees and and greening grass.

A closed church proclaims that the center of God is not the splash of extravagance of one splendid hour. The center of God has left a quiet, empty tomb/sepulchre/sanctuary (2000 years ago) and stepped into a world beyond church builings in need of life. This year we proclaim a Christ who is present in ambulences, hospital wards, and semi truck morgues – in hoping and grieving hearts. Christ is present in both life today and life forever.

And a closed church today proclaims a God of abundance. We don’t trust in an overflowing Easter offering. We trust in Jesus who makes us generous to support our churches without an offering plate passing by. We don’t trust in a sunrise service for faith. We thank the One who will gather us in virtual communities online and in the mystery of a united body, an overwhelming, abundant communion of saints. We trust in our God who cannot stop giving that we might have life in the presence of the Everlating Living One.

I will miss the 2020 Easter gathering at our church. Oh, I. Will. Miss. It. But I will know my living Lord.

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:

+ + + + + + +

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.

+ + + + + + +

HOLY DAY BLESSINGS TO YOU ALL!